Sunday, August 13, 2017
Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest. In gratitude for my vocation, I offered Mass in our little rectory chapel. I was getting things set up when I noticed that the sanctuary candle was getting pretty low. As I reached the Offertory of the Mass, it appeared that the candle had gone out. Making a mental note to replace it when I’d finished, I noticed the red glass beginning to glow again: the flame had returned, and was now rather bright. Then it shrank down again to almost nothing. This pattern of rise and fall continued through the rest of Mass, until the candle finally burned out for good as I said a few prayers of thanksgiving afterward.
I don’t believe that what I witnessed was anything miraculous—in fact, I’m quite sure it was entirely due to natural causes. But I’m also quite sure it was meant as a message: a metaphor for my life and ministry as a priest these last seventeen years. It’s certainly had its ups and downs: times when the light of Christ has burned brightly, seen by me and through me; times when the light’s been dim, and fears arise that it’s going out…but (praise God!) it never does.
This came together for me with this Sunday’s gospel story of Peter walking with Jesus on the water. The stories about St. Peter are quite comforting not only to us priests, but to all followers of Jesus, because he’s so much like the rest of us. (You could say we’re all in the same boat.) One of the Lord’s first priests and our first Pope had many shining moments where he clearly “gets it,” but also times when he falls—even falls hard. And yet Jesus, though he must correct him, never gives up on Peter—and likewise, Peter never gives up on Jesus.
Did you notice in our gospel reading what precisely caused Peter to slip beneath the water? It was “when he saw how strong the wind was….” If Peter’s eyes were on the storm, if he was looking at the waves, what couldn’t he see? Peter had stopped looking at Jesus. It’s only when he takes his eyes off of the Lord that things start to fall apart. Isn’t that always the case? I know it is for me! When Jesus is no longer the very center of my attention, when I get distracted or discouraged or doubting—whether due to a challenging situation that I must face or my own weakness and sin—that’s when the flame burns low, that’s when I start going under. But experience has also taught me that when I do keep Jesus in sight, when he remains at the heart of who I am and whatever I’m doing, then no gust of wind can blow out the fire, no swell of the waves drag me down.
My home church in Plattsburgh, where I celebrated my first Mass seventeen years ago today, is named for St. Peter. And in the sanctuary, right next to the altar, is a larger than life mural of the scene from this Sunday’s gospel. Peter is half submerged, wild-eyed and windswept, with his boat rocking behind him. His muscular arms are reaching up for help: his own strength cannot save him now. And walking toward him is Jesus—cool as a cucumber, with peace in his eyes and not a hair out of place. (Have you ever noticed that? How, regardless of what he’s doing, Jesus is always pictured with perfect hair?)
Maybe as I offered my first Mass I should have paid a bit more attention to the painting over my left shoulder. But at least I can now recognize what the Lord is saying through that piece of art, placed so close to the altar and the tabernacle. At Mass I, as a priest, experience something so similar to Peter on the sea: something far beyond the abilities of my human nature takes place only because of divine grace as, in my hands, bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ. Is that not the meaning of the red sanctuary candle? That God is here with us, and remains with us always? And through all the circumstances of life? Its light repeats to us the words of Jesus: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” When times get tough, we—like Peter—say to ourselves, “I can’t do this!” But if we’re listening carefully through the wind and the waves, we can hear Jesus whispering, “You’re absolutely right: you cannot do this…by yourself, anyway. But I can do it. And together, we will do it.” Even if he doesn’t calm the raging storm, Jesus remains right there to walk us straight through, unharmed.
And so I ask you to pray for me, and to pray for all priests, that we will remain faithful: that we’ll rise a whole lot more than we fall. And pray, too, for vocations to the priesthood, that the People of God will never be left wanting for the Eucharist, which is the real presence of God in our midst: the strong Savior who is always ready to quiet our fears, to rekindle our faith, and to lift us up.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Transfiguration of the Lord
We had our annual parish picnic on the first Friday of July, and it was followed—as we hold on the first Friday of every month—by “Hearts on Fire”: a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration with praise and worship music. A couple from the parish brought with them their two young grandsons—I’m going to guess about 7- and 9-years-old. The boys ate heartily and ran around with the other kids, playing games in the yard between the raindrops.
I was then quite pleasantly surprised to then see these grandparents bringing the boys in for the holy hour. Now, I would have guessed (and the grandparents may have hoped) that, with full stomachs at the end of an active evening, the boys would have sat still for about 10 minutes and then, in the half-lit church, fallen fast asleep. But that was not at all the case. Instead, those boys remained wide-awake through the entire hour, and they took it all in: staring at the gleaming gold of the monstrance and the flickering of the candles; following every move of the servers and the flowing robes of the priest; smelling the incense and watching its smoke gently rise; listening to the voices, keyboard, and guitar that made such sweet music in praise of the Lord.
When it was over, the grandmother asked the boys what they thought. The younger of the two said, “It made me want to cry.” Surprised, she asked why he had said that. His response: “Because it was so beautiful.”
The ancient philosophers identified truth, goodness, and beauty as three essential attributes of being—three timeless, transcendental properties that are part of the very nature of things and reflect their divine origin. The Christian tradition easily recognized that these correspond to the natural desires of man as God made him: with a mind that seeks after truth, and a heart that delights in goodness, and a soul that wonders at beauty. Even more, we followers of Jesus recognize God himself as the One who is Truth and Goodness and Beauty itself, making the presence of these properties in creation as the fingerprints of the Creator.
Beauty, then, is so much more than a matter of personal taste, more than “in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.” Beauty reveals the inner radiance of a thing, and attracts us to it.
Beauty is not, however, at the top of our list in this utilitarian age. We most prize things that are useful, practical, efficient, and valuable—in the sense of monetary value, that is. Beauty is none of those. In fact, when we try to put a price on beauty, it only serves to cheapen it.
One could easily say that this Sunday’s feast of the Lord’s transfiguration is a feast of beauty. Jesus takes three of his Apostles to the top of a mountain—a place to which one hikes, not because it’s convenient, but because of the view; it’s a place of great natural beauty. And there, Jesus’ own inner radiance—his divine nature—comes shining through: a vision that those who witnessed it struggle to describe in terms of light and glory. A luminous cloud envelops the scene, and the majestic voice of the Father is heard. Peter, James, and John are surrounded by previously unimaginable splendor. Overcome by the beauty of it all, it’s Peter who says, “It’s so good, Lord, that we are here!” If he’d had a Smartphone, this is when he’d have made a short video to post on YouTube, or maybe taken a selfie with a glowing Jesus behind him. Not having the technology in hand, Peter proposed to set up three tents that he might capture and preserve this most beautiful moment.
We don’t have much trouble recognizing the essential place of truth in the Christian faith. One quickly recognizes the teaching of the Jesus as amazingly reasonable, and the great wisdom behind the accumulated teaching of the Church. Likewise, the place of goodness is pretty clear. How else could one describe the deeds of this man who healed the sick, forgave the sinner, showed compassion to the outcast, and spoke on behalf of the vulnerable—and whose disciples continue to do the same—besides eminently “good”? But we must resist the temptation to reduce the faith to a body of true knowledge to be studied or to a motivation for doing good deeds.
Beauty is also essential to our Christian faith—particularly, it is essential to Christian worship. There’s a great temptation these days to streamline the liturgy or cut corners when building churches. “Can’t we use the short form? Do we have to sing all the verses? Are stained glass and marble really necessary?” But Christian worship, by its nature, is not at all practical or efficient. In fact, the hour spent at Sunday Mass is likely the most “useless” of the entire week. What do you have to show for it? (Other than the bulletin you leave in the car, of course!) It produces nothing. In the eyes of the world, it is a waste of time—but its very wastefulness is what makes it a sacrifice of praise.
And that’s precisely where beauty fits in. It, too, is useless…but also of the highest value. And that’s why the sacred vessels on our altars don’t look like the dishes on our kitchen tables. That’s why the music at Mass doesn’t sound like the music you hear in your car or on your iPod. That’s why the words spoken here don’t sound like the words spoken on the street. That’s why liturgical vestments don’t look like the clothes we wear everyday. The articles and actions of the Mass should be marked by an uncommon beauty. Now, beauty doesn’t require that things be fancy or expensive; often, the most beautiful things are also rather simple. But beauty does require a certain nobility and order. Beauty is fitting to everything we do and everything we use for worship because—like truth, like goodness—it is one of the radiant fingerprints of God.
This is true not only of worship, but in the beauty we encounter in nature and the arts. In the sounds of music, whether in a great symphony hall or down at the country fair; in the bright hues of a sunset, or the brushstrokes of a painting; in the graceful lines of a classic car, or the familiar lines of your beloved’s face—all real beauty is a ray from the face of Jesus Christ that can and should provoke wonder in us.
The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live….” Elsewhere, he took it even further by writing, “Beauty will save the world.”
So be on the lookout for beauty, and work to spread it around, aware that it’s a glimmer here and now of the beautiful face we hope to behold for all eternity. Allow beauty to stir your soul—and maybe even bring a tear to your eye.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
If you were painting a picture of the first of the three parables we just heard—of the treasure buried in the field—what would you paint? A field, of course. Probably a treasure chest. Someone holding a shovel. And that person’s face would have to include a great big smile.
I saw a most unusual painting a few days ago depicting this Gospel parable. The only person in the scene is clearly Jesus: white robe, sandals, golden halo, bearded and longhaired. (Who else could it be?) Jesus is out in a field—but not one used for growing crops. The carefully manicured grass and neat rows of tombstones tell us that this is a cemetery. In the background are a few trees and the steeple of a nearby church. Jesus is standing at the end of a grave, reaching down with both hands, and pulling a coffin right out of the ground. And beneath this very striking depiction are painted the words from the parable, “For joy He went and sold all that He had and bought that field.”
What is the artist trying to tell us? That we are the Lord’s treasure.
We’ve been hearing a lot of parables from Jesus lately. And we have a habit, when interpreting parables, to give ourselves the lead role, don’t we? And so we often consider this parable of the treasure buried in the field to be one about the need to be “all in” for Jesus, about the level of commitment to which the Gospel calls us, about the high price we ought to be willing to pay for our faith in the Lord—all true points. The scriptures tell us that this is a parable about the kingdom…but our usual thinking makes it a kingdom that we build, not God—a kingdom of human achievement, rather than the kingdom of heaven.
This painting turns the tables—and, I believe, puts things into the proper perspective. The kingdom is a matter of God’s grace, not human merit—a gift from the Lord, not something we can accomplish. In Jesus, we see the high price God is willing to pay for us—and not when we’re at our best, either, but when we’re dead: dead in the grave, dead in our sins. Jesus pays for us with his life, with his most precious Blood—far surpassing heaps of silver and gold. (The artist’s description of his work points out that our English words “casket” and “coffin” originally described boxes in which people kept their valuables, and that we use the word “vault” both for the place we entomb a body and the room where our money is kept at the bank.)
You are God’s treasure. For you, he was willing to pay the highest price.
Since God is clearly the main actor here, does that give us a purely passive role, as if we should just sit idly by while the Lord does all the work? Of course not. (The third parable we heard—of the separating of the fish in the dragnet—makes that abundantly clear!) But our commitment to God—to keep his commands—is to be founded on God’s commitment to us…and not the other way around. We are to base our priorities on his. Our love for Jesus only makes sense in the light of his all-surpassing love for us.
Take some time this week to ponder this incredible mystery—while you’re lingering over those first sips of coffee, while you’re driving to or from work, while you’re sitting on the porch or by the lake at the end of the day. Let it really sink in that you are precious to God, that you are Jesus’ treasure. When we take that mystery to heart, when we live each day out of that faith, it changes absolutely everything!
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field.” And you are that treasure! For you, Jesus has willingly paid the highest price!
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Most of you know, I grew up on a dairy farm just north of Plattsburgh. I’ve always counted that upbringing as a great asset to my priesthood. So many of the parables Jesus uses to teach us come from an agricultural background, and that early life experience has often helped me be more effective in preaching the gospel.
But this week, what I counted as a blessing suddenly seems rather bittersweet.
Some of you already know that, on Tuesday night, there was a major fire on my family’s farm. The dairy barn burned to the ground, and about 60 head of cattle were killed.
My dad bought his first few cows when he was only 19 years old, and has been milking in that same barn ever since. That was exactly 50 years ago this past spring, and we were making plans to celebrate this big anniversary of the farm that had provided our family with a good way to make a living, and an even better way of life. Dad had to watch the fire wipe out so much of his past—all that time and energy he’d invested over 50 years. But my baby brother, Todd, took over the operation a few years ago, with plans that this barn would help to provide for another generation. On Tuesday night, Todd had to watch so many of his hopes and dreams for the future go up in smoke. These have been pretty tough days for our family.
It’s with all of that on my heart and mind that it now falls to me to preach on another farming parable of Jesus: that of the weeds growing among the wheat.
Jesus himself has given us a thorough explanation of the symbolism of this parable, so there’s no need for me to repeat it to you now. But this reality of wheat and weeds, of good people and bad, living and growing side-by-side in the Kingdom, is certainly one my family has experienced in recent days.
We’ve come across a few bad weeds, unfortunately, like the guy who insinuated that my brother might have started the fire, since farming is tough these days it would be a quick way to liquidate the business; or the opportunists who said they were there to "help" with the paperwork, but were only looking for a way to profit from our loss; or the anonymous woman who left a message on my parents’ answering machine, charging that that we’d been cruel to our cows.
But—praise God!—there’s been a lot more wheat that we’ve seen: like the other farmers from across the area—some of whom arrived on the scene even before my father and brother did—to help get the livestock and the equipment out of the burning barn, and who have been helping in many ways every since; like the countless firefighters and other emergency personnel—nearly all of them volunteers—who came from as far away as northern Vermont, southern Québec, Chateauguay, and Burke, putting themselves at risk to knock down the flames; like the many friends and even some complete strangers who have been stopping by with food and drink, offers of assistance, or just to give us a hug. North Country neighbors are amazing! A whole lot of good wheat grows around here.
Yet I think we can take this parable of Jesus to a deeper level still. Not only do we find a mix of wheat and weeds among the members of the human race; we also find it in each of our own lives. Is not every life—your life and mine—a combination of experiences that warm your heart and those that break it? Of causes for sorrow and causes for joy? Within every person’s life we find both, all tangled up together.
It’s one thing, of course, to recognize these realities. But how do we make some sense of them?
In the very first line of our first reading this Sunday, we hear King Solomon say to the Lord, “There is no god besides you who have the care of all…” The notion that there’s one God who’s looking after everything and everybody doesn’t strike us modern Christians as anything all that remarkable. We take it for granted.
But at the time he said them, Solomon’s words wouldn’t have been so obvious to folks. In fact, they would have been rather revolutionary. You see, in the ancient world, every people and nation had its own gods. The Egyptians had their gods, and so did the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Persians… And these gods were believed to only look out for their own people—and even after only specific affairs, such as the weather, or crops, or war.
Say you needed some rain…maybe not the best example this summer… Say you needed some sun, and you prayed fervently to the sun god, but the sun didn’t shine. Say your nation prayed to its god in a time of distress, but your enemies triumphed while your own people languished. Where did that leave people in their relationship with these so-called gods?
But the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is different—very different. He is the one, true God. He chose a particular people, but only as a means to bless all the nations. The Lord made and maintains the whole of creation, not just some corner of it. He has the care of all—even those who do not know him, even those who refuse to put their faith in him.
And yet we sometimes still think and act as if he were our own personal god, don’t we? Like when we see the wicked prosper? Or when bad things happen to good people? How am I supposed to believe in a God who doesn’t seem more concerned about what I do and what I want and what I need?
And yet the God of all takes the risk of allowing wheat and weeds to live and grow together.
As Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, our heavenly Father makes the same sun rise on both the bad and the good, and the same rain fall on both the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45). There’s a chance that the children of the evil one will choke out or rub off on the children of the Kingdom—but God takes it, because it means there’s also always the chance that some destructive weeds will yet become fruitful wheat, that some sinners might yet become saints.
We are called to have that hope.
As a kid, I can recall a coffee mug in my grandparent’s house with a scripture quote on it—one which puzzled me then, and which I’m admittedly still trying to understand. It’s from the Book of Job—when Job, incidentally, has just lost all of his livestock and, more sadly, all of his children: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall go back again; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Jb 1:21). Even in his distress, Job understood that it is never God’s will to see us hurting. While God does not cause our anguish, he does allow it, but only because he can see what we cannot: the potential for some greater good to come of it. Yes, there’s a chance that allowing us to experience not only happiness but also great hardship will cause some to turn away from him—but God willingly takes that risk, because it also means there’s the chance that our suffering will cause us to put even greater trust in him.
We are called to have that faith.
And so, here we all are: wheat and weeds, the righteous and the wicked, in good times and bad, all mixed together in the field that is the Kingdom, awaiting the great day of harvest when we will be gathered into God’s everlasting barns. May we always have the faith, have the hope, have the aid of the Spirit in our weakness to be able to pray, “Blessed be the one God and Father of all, the Lord who is so forgiving and so good, the Savior who is willing to take chance after chance on me!”
Friday, July 21, 2017
Many, many thanks to all of you who have reached out to me and to my family during these last few days, following the devastating fire Tuesday night on our family’s dairy farm. I wish there were time for me to reach out to each of you individually, but the outpouring of support we’ve received has been absolutely tremendous. In these days ahead, with their mix of heartache at the loss, joy in the many memories, and uncertainty about the future, we will continue to rely on your prayers.
With deep gratitude,
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
First, a cute story. As she prepares to begin a new lesson, a teacher realizes that she can’t take for granted that her students understand the necessary vocabulary. So she asks her class, “Can someone please define the words ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy’?” The question is met with complete silence. She repeats, “Is anyone able to explain these two words?” Again, nothing. So she turns to her prize student and asks, “Bobby, can you tell your classmates the meaning of ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy’?” Bobby shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know…and I don’t care.”
Now, a true story. The father of a young priest was recently ordained a permanent deacon. Father and son, deacon and priest, were exchanging ideas about preaching. (I must interject that my own father frequently wants to give me advice about my homilies…but that’s a different subject altogether.) The priest shared with his dad the sobering insight, “When you get up to preach, don’t presume that they care.”
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.
This Sunday, Jesus tells us the parable of the sower. Jesus is the Sower; in fact, Jesus is also the Seed: the Word of God come in human flesh. He doesn’t exactly get a very good return on his investment: only one quarter of the seed he sows survives to produce any fruit. The difference isn’t in the seed that’s sown (all of it is of the very highest quality); it’s in the condition of the soil. Whether or not the ground is ready to receive it makes all the difference in the world for the seed. Many will see and hear, but not all will understand.
For nearly all of her history, the Church has carried on this work of sowing the seeds of the Word and has done so by combating ignorance. In the face of many false notions, she has taught her doctrine with clarity and depth—helping people to come to know the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. The Church could do this when she could suppose that people wanted to know the truth: when one could rightly suppose that men and women—regardless of their language, race, and culture—were seeking answers to spiritual questions.
But nowadays, things are quite a bit different. What we’re up against isn’t only ignorance, but apathy. What we’re up against is sluggishness. What we’re up against is boredom. The Church keeps asserting answers…when people are no longer asking the questions. The Church can teach about the true nature of God…but what does it matter when God is whoever you decide him to be, or has been basically rendered unnecessary? The Church can announce the Good News of salvation and forgiveness….but what does it matter when sin is only how you define it? The Church can point out sure steps on the way to heaven…but what does it matter if you figure that everybody gets to heaven, or you’re not even sure you want to go there yourself? It’s like trying to sell dental floss to someone with no teeth: no matter how fine its quality or reasonable the price, they’re still not buying.
This isn’t to say that doctrine is irrelevant. Far from it! The truth is always pertinent. We still have the answers—which have not and cannot change. But you can’t help people to know if you first can’t get them to care. The soil must be ready to receive the seed.
How can we meet this challenge? If we want others to see that faith matters, then we must make sure it matters to us. We must begin by turning over the soil in our own hearts: removing the stubborn rocks, tearing out the choking thorns. Few people are converted by arguments and lectures, but many are won over by a compelling real life example. You and I—day in and day out, not only when we’re here at Mass—must live and act in such a way that our lives wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever if we weren’t disciples of Jesus Christ and members of the Catholic Church. What difference does faith really make if we’re simply like everybody else? The best way to convince others to care is to be sure we passionately care ourselves.
Jesus is still sowing good seed in abundance. Let’s make ready the soil to receive it. Let’s help our friends and neighbors to rediscover the questions. Let’s show them how just much Jesus and his Word really matter.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
I recently paid a visit to a dying man—something we priests do more often than most. As I sat by his bedside, he told me a few things about his family. In particular, I remember what he told me about his grandmother. His grandmother, as he recalled, had lived to the ripe old age of 105. And do you know to what she attributed her impressive longevity? Every night, while her supper was cooking, she’d pour herself a small glass of wine, sit down in her easy chair in the living room, reading the paper and watching the news.
He told me she gave all the credit for her more than a century of life to that daily glass of wine. I told him that I think she was onto something…but it didn’t come out of the bottle. She had found a healthy, regular way to rest. The man lying before was evidence of what happens when you don’t. He shared how he’d continued to work fulltime for three years after being diagnosed with the disease that’s now taking his life, at an age almost 50 years younger than this grandmother.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
We don’t rest very well, do we? It’s oftentimes exhausting just to hear what people are doing with their weekend, their vacation, or their retirement. As a matter of fact, it seems like people are busier these days when they’re off the job than when they’re on it.
We’ve forgotten how to rest. And I think, in large part, that’s because we’ve forgotten the right relationship between work and rest. Actually, more often than not, we’ve got it precisely backwards.
Why should we rest? Even if we’d never say it, most of us act as if we rest in order to be able to work. If Sunday is a day of rest, that’s because we need to recharge our batteries: to recuperate from the last week of work, and to store up some energy to start the next one fresh.
But that way of thinking makes rest the servant of work—puts the sabbath at the service of the weekdays—right? And yet, for us Christians, our sabbath—Sunday—is the first day of the week, not the last. It's supposed to hold pride of place. We’re not meant to rest in order to get right back to work; we’re meant to work in order that we might be able to really and truly rest.
In the end, we were made for rest, weren’t we? When a loved one dies, we don’t pray that they might now enjoy eternal work. The earth is a field in which we must labor; heaven is a playground. As St. Paul reminds us, instead of the needs and desires of our human flesh, it’s the life of the Spirit that ought to hold sway; if we get those in reverse, we’re headed toward death, not life.
When God commands us to keep the Lord’s Day holy as a day of rest, it’s not intended to be a burdensome obligation. God made the sabbath for the sake of life: not as some sort of break in our living, but as its high point. Sabbath rest doesn’t mean doing absolutely nothing; it means reserving the day to do the most important things: not as a day to earn a living, but as a day that gives meaning to the rest of life. The beauty of art and music, stirring conversation and authentic worship—these are not born out of heavy labor, but find their inspiration in moments of rest and ease, of leisure and contemplation. Work is indeed a great good, but our toil is in vain if it leaves us no time to play and no time to pray (two things that are more closely related that you thought).
Notice the context of Jesus’ words on rest this Sunday. They’re found in the second half of our gospel reading. In the first half, we’re privileged to catch Jesus in prayer—praying out loud to his Father so that we might hear. Jesus calls us to himself, to enter into his rest, as a way of inviting us into his relationship with God the Father. Of course, our weekly sabbath is to be a time of physical refreshment. But it’s also meant to be a day of spiritual renewal, giving us time to work on relationships: to deepen our intimacy with God and with one another—most especially, with family.
What are some practical ways you can do this? Go to Mass, of course…but also discuss what you took away from it. Visit a sick relative or neighbor. Do a favorite hobby, and share it with somebody else. Go outside and play with the kids (and I don’t mean watching or coaching them in one those overblown organized sports that’s more work than it is play; those are killing families…and they’re killing childhood). Cook and eat a nice meal together. Read a good book—or even the Good Book. Take a nap. Unplug from email and social media; instead, be social with the people right there in front of you. But if you at all can, do avoid going shopping: you might find it relaxing, yet it probably doesn’t feel that way to those who have to wait on you.
What are the consequences of our forgetfulness concerning holy rest? The eighteenth-century French philosopher, Voltaire—certainly no friend of the Catholic Church—once astutely noted, “If you want to kill Christianity, you must abolish Sunday.” It should be no surprise, then, that as our Sundays have been increasingly filled with other pursuits, looking more and more like any other day, our churches have been getting emptier and emptier. When we grow forgetful of how to rest and how to rest in God, soon enough we become forgetful of God, too.
One last story. When I was in the seminary in Rome, most of us seminarians went to the same barber, whose shop was conveniently located along the route we’d walk to the university for classes. One day around noon, I stopped in for a trim. I was the last customer he’d take before having a break for lunch and his daily siesta. (Italians are much better at resting than we are. Come to think of it, they’re also much better at making wine than we are…so maybe there is a connection after all!)
While I was in the chair, a mother and her young son came to the door, hoping to sneak in for a haircut, too. The barber told her they’d have to come back in the afternoon. The irritated mother told him she’d make it worth his while…and implied they might never come back to his barbershop if he didn’t oblige. He turned them away, nonetheless. After a few more snips with his scissors, he looked at me in the mirror and shared with me a lesson I hope never to forget: “I don’t live to work. I work to live.”
He then silently finished giving me my haircut, and we both left for lunch.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Don’t live to work. Work to live. And rest to live. This Sunday and every Sunday, be sure to rest in Jesus.
Saturday, July 8, 2017
In a providential turn of events, Wednesday-Thursday of this week allowed Fr. Scott and I to head out into the woods together for an overnight. Hot on the heels of the 4th of July, and therefore expecting a few extra folks to also be out enjoying the Adirondacks, we wanted to go somewhere we could be reasonably assured of study shelter--so we headed back to the shore of Long Lake, which has a rather high concentration of lean-tos. We found what we were looking for on Rodney Point: an empty lean-to, in the midst of a great open campsite, previously unseen by either one of us. Further evidence that God was smiling on this venture: the bugs weren't nearly as bad as they'd been back in June (notwithstanding that my ankles do look like twin pincushions), and the predicted rain showers never came.
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. After a couple of drinks, the priest gets hungry and orders himself a ham sandwich. “Wow, this ham is really, really good!” the priest says, licking his lips. “I know it’s against your religion and all, rabbi, but—friend to friend—I’ve got to tell you: this is so tasty. What harm could it do? When are you finally going to break down and give it a try?” Without missing a beat, the rabbi answered, “Maybe I’ll have some at your wedding…”
What would you guess is the question a priest gets asked most often? Now, I’ve not done a scientific study of the matter, but near the top of the list—coming from Catholics and non-Catholics alike—is most certainly, “Why can’t priests get married?” (Interestingly, I very rarely get asked the follow up, “Would you want to get married if you could?”…but that’s a discussion for another day.) So let’s take a few minutes to consider that question and explore consecrated celibacy.
Jesus says quite strikingly in the gospel this Sunday that whosoever loves family more than him is not worthy of him. That’s in line with other sayings of the Lord in the gospels: that those who have left behind parents and wives and children and property for the sake of his name will receive a hundredfold in the life to come (Mt.19:29); that there are some who are called to willingly forgo marriage and family for the sake of the kingdom (Mt. 19:12). That at least a few of his followers would be consecrated celibates is clearly, then, part of Jesus’ vision for the Church. And—most serious historians now agree—that the Church’s priests in particular should be celibate is a discipline which goes all the way back to the time of the Apostles. Now, while the celibacy of priests is a discipline and not a doctrine—meaning that it could, theoretically, change—the question remains: Should it change? We can’t answer until we know why it’s there in the first place.
I find that, when folks bring up the topic of priestly celibacy, they generally take one of two approaches. The first is, “How sad! What a pity that you can never have a family of your own. You must be terribly lonely! Boohoo for you.” Can I let you in on something? I’m not lonely…because I’m in a fantastic relationship. I have been for years! It’s with Jesus Christ. I can’t even begin to imagine a more faithful or loving companion. And, like any relationship, this one takes an investment of time and my undivided attention. Husbands and wives are consecrated, by the Sacrament of Matrimony, to an intense intimacy with each other that, with one another and through one another, they might grow closer to Jesus. But consecrated celibates—priests and religious, monks and nuns—are consecrated to an intense intimacy with Jesus himself.
Now, just as the intimate love of Marriage isn’t closed in on itself, but must be open to children and the needs of others, so it also is with celibacy: the celibate’s intimate relationship with Jesus is one into which he or she longs to invite others. As a priest, my relationship with Christ is for you and your sake. In recent months, I’ve rather incredibly come into contact with three couples that have been married more than 70 years. Certainly, after that long together, one can understandably think, “My life doesn’t make sense without you.” So it is, too, with priestly celibacy. My life doesn’t make sense without my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And my life doesn’t make sense without you, his Church, either. But if I’m going to be able to welcome you into this intimacy Jesus has offered me, then I need you to be a little intimate with me.
If people don’t welcome us into their lives and into their families and into their homes—all of which are becoming increasingly rare these days—then we don’t have the opportunity to welcome you into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Invite us in by asking us to talk and pray about your struggles. Approach us to hear your confessions. If you’re worried that priests are lonely, do something about it by inviting us to your house—whether for a special occasion, or a simple meal, or even just for a glass of cold water. What Jesus said to his Apostles holds true for those of us who follow in their footsteps: “Whoever receives you, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me.”
While some folks say, “Poor you without a family!” there are certainly others who say, “No family? Lucky you!” In this age of prolonged adolescence, there are many who would see a priest’s celibacy as attractive. It’s a bachelor’s life, right? No strings attached! Your time and your money are your own to use as you please. Footloose and fancy free! Unfortunately, sometimes we priests take this approach ourselves—seeing our toys, our vacations, our freedom, as perks to compensate for the things we do without.
Similarly, in this age also populated by so many workaholics, we can look at celibacy as a matter not just for fun, but for function. If you aren’t responsible for a wife and kids, then you’ve got more time for work in the parish. And we priests can easily fall into this trap, too. (In fact, when I’ve been asked about celibacy in the past, I’ve often reminded people that they’d get less work out of married priests—since they’d need adequate time to be good husbands and fathers—but we’d cost more—since we’d need to provide for our families. That usually changes the subject…) We mustn’t think on a purely practical level about something meant to be expressly spiritual.
Celibacy is meant to make priests more available—not to meet the workload of a parish and the demands of parishioners, but to follow the will of God. As Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life, will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” As you see in the tabloid headlines in the checkout aisle: people who seek happiness by only pursuing their own interests will never be fulfilled. True happiness is only found by giving oneself to God—whether directly, or through the service of others. A priest’s celibacy is not about keeping his life for himself; as in Marriage, it’s about giving it completely away: first and foremost, to Christ, and then to his Body and Bride, the Church.
Celibacy is frequently viewed as a sacrifice that simply must be accepted as part of the priesthood package. To a point, that’s true. But I don’t know that it’s any greater a sacrifice than so many others make. I look at my siblings who are parents. They have no life! They work long hours to provide for their kids and, after work, run around crazy taking them to this and that. Mothers and fathers make great sacrifices. As do husbands and wives. I think again of those three couples married 70+ years, and the sacrifice they make standing by a spouse in sickness, old age, and death.
Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy to be my disciple.” These days, we identify as “crosses” our life’s regular burdens and little inconveniences. Stuck in traffic? Such a cross! Sniffling with a cold? Offer it up! But when Jesus first spoke those words, the cross mean something far more drastic, for right before their eyes his hearers could see the cruelest form of execution the Romans were able to cook up—meant to maximize both pain and humiliation. Jesus is calling on his disciples to be willing to give up everything—possessions, career, reputation, wife and kids…even life itself, if necessary—in order to faithfully follow him. Does Jesus ask all of this of everyone? No. But he does ask it of some, and he does ask something of everybody.
The radical nature of consecrated celibacy is meant to be a sign which points beyond itself—to something for which we were all made. The gospel commands of Christ—to hate father and mother, to forsake wife and children, to go and sell all you have—are we to take them seriously? Of course. But are they meant for a select few? Yes… because if they weren’t, the Church would have died out long ago. But in another sense, these commands are meant not only for ordained priests and vowed religious, but for all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ultimately, many of the things that consume our time and attention in this world don’t really matter that much. It’s not that such things are bad; in fact, most of them are very good. But those who go without them entirely are a living reminder that something even better awaits us—something so, so much better! Marriage and family are great goods in this life, but beyond this life there is another, far greater life. We need to keep Jesus and his kingdom, we need to keep heaven, constantly in our sights. Priestly celibacy is meant to help us all do that.
Let’s not define consecrated celibacy by what it’s not—that it’s nothing more than not getting married. That would be like defining being a Jew by not eating bacon. It sells the matter awfully short. Rather, let’s see celibacy for what it truly is: like Marriage, a gift, a grace, a calling from God into a particular intimacy with him.
All that’s to say: don’t wait around for an invitation to the ham dinner after my wedding! But know that we, your priests, would love an invitation to share a ham sandwich with you. Together, let us grow closer to Jesus.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
A little girl was attending a wedding for the first time. When the organ blared and everybody stood up, she looked down the aisle toward the church doors and saw the bride in her beautiful gown. With a big smile she turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, why is the bride dressed all in white?” Not wanting to give a full explanation, her mother replied, “Because white is the color of happiness, and this is the happiest day of her life.” The little girl then looked in the opposite direction and saw the groom standing tall in his tuxedo. Which is when, with as serious face, she asked her mother, “Then why, Mommy, is the groom dressed all in black?”
“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.” Those are some of the first words of Jesus’ message to us in this Sunday’s gospel. In the original language, they would have called to mind some of the traditional attire worn at a wedding. When Jesus speaks of things being “revealed” and “made known,” he’s using the same vocabulary that was used to describe a groom lifting the wedding veil to reveal the beauty of his bride. In Greek, the word is apokalyptein, from which we get our English word, apocalypse. Now, jokes like the one I just told depend on the notion that many men view their wedding day as if it were the “end of the world”—a catastrophic finale to their days of fun. But I have no doubt Jesus is hoping that we’ll look to the end of days much more like a joyful bride, in happy anticipation of sharing a life with the one you love.
Listen again—and carefully—to those words of Jesus: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.” Jesus doesn’t say that some things will be exposed, or even that most things will be laid bare. In the end, nothing at all will remain secret, everything will be brought out in the open. Everything! (And an already quiet church just got perfectly silent.) That’s quite a sobering thought, isn’t it? Little wonder that in this brief passage Jesus tells us three times to not be afraid!
Shouldn’t the thought of meeting God and spending eternity with him have us rejoicing? So why does this thought have us quaking in our boots? Because we’ve tried to hide some things. Because we’ve kept secrets. Because our outside and our inside don’t exactly match right up as they should.
For some of us, we’ve got it all together on the outside. We get to church most every Sunday and have received the sacraments. We’ve got a crucifix on the wall and a rosary on the rearview mirror. To all outward appearances, we’re pretty good Catholics. The secret is, however, that we’re not who we appear to be. Have I cultivated a personal and intimate relationship with Christ? Is he truly the center of my life, or just another part of it? Have I given him full control? Does he get the final say? Or do I hold back—for fear of what he might ask me to do, or fear of what he might ask me not to do? Jesus will ask nothing of us that is not for our good. He who has his eye on the tiny sparrow will not neglect to care for us in our need—in fact, to secure for us the fullness of life. He even has counted the hairs on our head! (Admittedly, that’s a greater accomplishment in some case than in others.) Do not be afraid to take your faith to heart! You can keep no secrets from the Lord.
For some others, we’ve got it all together on the inside. Our prayer is frequent, sincere, and intense. We don’t really take issue with anything the Church teaches. As far as the Catholic faith goes, we’re all in. But we keep it all to ourselves. It’s our secret. Religion is really a private matter, isn’t it? You don’t want to stand out from the crowd, do you? What would the neighbors think? But Jesus is clear: if we truly believe all that he has whispered to us, then we must be ready to proclaim it from the housetops. Those who have acknowledged Christ before the world are the ones Christ will acknowledge before his Father. Do not be afraid to share your faith with others! You must not keep the Lord a secret.
“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be made known.” That’s only a frightening thought if we have something to hide—from the eyes of God or the eyes of our neighbors. Live your life in such a way that you can look ahead to its end, not with dread but with happiness. You are a member of the Church: the bride of Christ. When her great beauty is ultimately unveiled, be sure you’re wearing the appropriate color. Do not be afraid! Dress all in white.