That We May Be Gods

The mercy of God exceeds our religious imagination. For we conceive of religion as moral behavior, deeds of justice, setting right things that are wrong, and doing what should be done. And we think religion is about empathy and compassion for others, conquering our wrong-headed desires, treating others fairly, and not shoving aside the little guys. And we are certain that religion means loving the unlovable, helping the hurting, honoring the honorable, and imitating those who stand up for the right principles.

All of that is good. And all of that is found in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, and His other ethical teachings. There is nothing wrong with this view of religion—this understanding of the Christian religion. Except that it does not go far enough. It does not take in the fullness of God’s mercy. It’s limited to forgiveness, kindness, and fair-mindedness—to deeds we wish God to do to us, and that we should do to others.

In God’s imagination, in the image that He has for us, the ethical teachings of Jesus is merely the tip of why He came into the world; why He deigned to become one of us. For Our Lord is ultimately not our role model. He becomes what we are so that we might become what He is. The Son of God wishes to make us sons of God.

And so the only-begotten Son of God took upon Him our nature and became human so that we humans might become gods.

To be sure, not the uncreated God through whom all things were made. For He cannot deny that He made us.

Rather, we are made to be gods so that we might sit with God in heavenly places. So that we might converse with God, banquet with God, judge with God, live as gods.

In this scheme, the angels are servants—ministers who minister to us for God. And everything else—the animals, plants, rocks, dirt, stars and moons, and all other created things—these are the ambiance in the dining room which is God’s heaven. And we sit there with God—eating the food He supplies us, enjoying each other’s company, reveling in speaking with God, marveling at the beauty with which He’s surrounded us.

But how do we get to be gods?

Certainly not by imitation. That’s both silly and unreasonable. For who can be something just by acting in the right way? When can doing fundamentally change being?

And we can’t be gods simply by willing it. For our wills are too weak. And even if they are strengthened by tests, we will never be able to match wits with God.

So how do we get to be gods?

We get to be gods by consuming God. By taking God into the innards of who we are: into our bodies, so that God’s divine nature meshes with ours; into our hearts, so that God’s love transforms our misdirected loves; and into our souls, so that we might have God’s mind, His will, and therefore desire precisely what He desires.

Us becoming gods begins not with us. And it’s not about God snapping His fingers, like some wizard or magician.

Us becomes gods begins with God taking a body from us—taking into Himself the fullness of our weakness and vulnerability, the fullness of our propensity to sin, the fullness of everything that limits us from being gods. In His Son, God becomes the worst and the incompleteness that we are and offers and sacrifices it wholly, totally, completely, entirely to His Father on the altar of the cross in order to transform it in His Body.

And when He has accomplished this mission, when “It is finished,” He then uses the blood that was the price, the blood that poured from His side—He uses that blood to cleanse and purify us so that we are ready and prepped to consume God. And then flesh that was laid, dead, in the tomb, and then raised and glorified when He walked from the tomb—that flesh He feeds into us.

That Body and Blood, which was capable of carrying and containing every human—that Body and Blood Our Lord Jesus, by His Spirit, then feeds into us in order to transform us, in order to make us more human than we thought we could be. But above all, He feeds us His flesh and blood so that we might become gods.

Gods we are, because we partake of God. Gods we are, because the Son of God as fed into our bodies our own bodies transfigured in His body. And gods we are, because the Spirit of God has used the flesh of God to transform our minds into the mind of Christ.

Now this is our salvation. Not just that we do right by God, but first that we receive Him who did right by God, who gives us the right to be called ‘children of God’ because God’s blood courses through our veins, God’s flesh is knit to our flesh, and God’s desires are working in our minds.

And so we are gods. Because God actually, truly lives in us—in the innards of who we are.

This is what Our Lord Jesus means by the word “Life.” To live is to be the gods God made us to be. And ‘those eat My flesh and drink My blood’ have My life in them—My Life which is God’s life, which now lets us be called, and be really, in truth and in love, sons of God, and therefore gods.

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Raising Our Human Nature

An Ascension Day Homily

It sounds like the angels are rebuking the disciples. As if they’re saying, “Stop staring. He’ll return. Stop standing there with your mouth open. This is not the end. And stop gazing. Don’t you see what’s really happening?”

In truth, great and unspeakable joy filled the disciples when they saw Jesus ascend. They had spent forty days with Him in His resurrected body. They had learned much. And so they knew that, when He ascended, Our Lord was taking human nature—our human nature adhered to His—raising it above the dignity of all celestial beings, beyond the heights of Archangels, without any limit of ascent until He reached the right hand of the Father.

There, our human nature sits in heavenly places. And there it shares in the Father’s glory; there, where God and humanity are united in Christ Jesus.

So the disciples were not afflicted with sadness. They were speechless in wonder and awe, amazed for joy, filled with great joy as they saw what Our Lord did for them in His ascension.

You see, our Blessed Lord Jesus does not ascend for His sake—so that He can finally escape this miserable existence; or to show His triumph.

Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven so that what is His can be yours. He ascends so that what He lived and overcame and won in His body, can be planted and resident and lived out in your body. Christ ascends so that the fullness of His deity can live in the fullness of your humanity. Christ Jesus ascends so that your corrupted and dying human nature, can be fully transformed and transfigured by His divinized human nature. And Jesus ascends so that He can truly live His Life in you and through you; and so that you might live to the Father in Him.

Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven so that what is His can be yours

Christ living in you and you in Him—that’s hard for us to believe because it doesn’t fit our lived experience. When we were baptized into Christ, when we receive His body and blood into our flesh and blood, when we hear and celebrate Our Lord’s ascension—we don’t feel differently or act differently. Nothing seems to have changed—in us, in our life, in our world.

But Our Lord’s ascension is not about your experience or how you see or what things look like. How self-centered! Our Lord’s ascension requires faith in Him—that He has paid the debt of Adam; that He has destroyed death by His death; and that He has already, in His body, raised our human nature to the Father’s right hand so that we can fully, perfectly, and completely share in His divine nature.

And it takes faith to believe the Lord’s enduring promise—a promise tied only to the Truth that He is: that He persistently draws and entices us more and more fully into Himself so that we might know and participate in the communal relationship between God and humanity in Christ.

This promise has not degraded or eroded. It has remained as firm and sure as it was when Our Lord first spoke it.

St. Paul says: When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” And what is the chief among the gifts He gave? The Promise of the Father. That Promise is the Holy Spirit. And that Promise was kept not just on the day of Pentecost, but at every Mass, and in every Sacrament.

Every time the Gospel is proclaimed, every time the Eucharist is offered and served, every time our bodies are anointed, every time life in God is depicted in Holy Matrimony, every time the Absolution is spoken individually, privately, deliberately, decidedly into your ears: there is the Holy Spirit bringing to your remembrance and planting deeply within your heart and soul the Life Our Lord is and gives. And that is the Promise and Comfort of the Father—not that you are calm and settled simply for a moment, not that you immediately feel better, but that He renews your life and hope in God.

Everything else is going from bad to worse. Heresies seem more numerous and more inventive now than ever before. Behavior and morality seems more degenerate and degrading now than ever before. Faith in God seems more detached and impersonal than ever before. And the reality of the Church seems more unreal and invisible now than ever before.

Yet Our Lord’s Promise—that Holy Spirit by which He gives His saving gifts—that remains sure and true. And regardless of how things look or feel, the Spirit offers the Father’s sturdy and unflinching love to us in Christ Jesus.

Whether we stand with the faithful to receive Christ’s gifts; whether we will listen and believe; whether set aside our earthly cares and self-serving desires—that’s on us. But the Spirit of God does not back away.

We might remain stubborn, wanting to live for our pleasures. And we might insist that God come to us on our terms. And we might even try to mold Jesus’ words to fit our twisted ideas. But the Spirit will not abandon us, nor withdraw God’s mercy from us.

He remains the true and faithful Promise of the Father that Our Lord gives. He will urge us to live like this matters, but He will not force us to love Him. He will offer to transform our ungodly energy, but He will not make us receive the Lord’s gracious gifts.

To breathe our poisoned air—that is why Our Blessed Lord descended into our lower parts. And to resuscitate and renew and reinvigorate us by His perfect and Holy Breath—that is why Jesus ascends.

With Our Lord’s ascension, all things are made new again. With Our Lord’s ascension, even the lonely and single are grafted into a family—the family of the Church. With Our Lord’s ascension, even our bodies which cause us so much trouble can be transfigured as His was. And with Our Lord’s ascension, even our minds and souls which are liable to sin can be converted and renewed.

And so Our Lord Jesus ascends, not to leave us to work out our own life. Rather, Christ Our Lord ascends so that all that you might become all that He is. He ascends so that, by His Spirit, He may descend into each one of us—into our hopes and aspirations, into our cells and corpuscles, into our muscles and joints, into our skin and bones, into our flesh and blood. Christ Our Lord ascends all so that He might live and move and have His being in you. Christ Our Lord ascends all so that God might truly and really live and dwell in you.

And Our Lord Jesus ascends so that we might ascend, in our bodies, with Him and stand with Him in heavenly places; so that the entirety of our human nature, body and soul, might enter the kingdom of heaven; so that we might, in our bodies, actually stand, converse, and communion intimately with our Father.

To this Lord Jesus, who sent the Promise of the Father so that we might live in Him, belongs all glory, honor and worship.

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Holy Week in the Western Tradition

A Brief Synopsis

Holy Week consists of two parts: the first four days, beginning with Palm Sunday; and the Triduum Sacrum (“holy three days”), which celebrate with particular solemnity Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

During the first half, the words of St Thomas should fill our hearts and minds: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (Jn 11.16) Through the liturgical rites, we follow Our Lord and, in heart and mind, follow Him by participating in His sufferings and death. Yet our focus is not to pity Our Lord, nor effect a somber mood. Rather, we participate by being immersed in His self-sacrifice, understanding that we must also put to death the deeds of the flesh, so that we might rejoice fully and full-throatedly as we are raised and glorified in Him.

During the second half of Holy Week, the Eucharistic liturgy, together with the Divine Offices (most especially the three Tenebrae services), draw us into more profound participation while, at the same time, inculcating in us the depth of joy that is located in Our Lord’s Passion. During these days, the words “Behold how He love[s] [them]” (Jn 11.36) should capture our meditations.

Briefly, these days may be summarized as follows.


PALM SUNDAY

Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week, when we remember Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately after Lauds, the blessing and distribution of the palms take place. Each person receives a palm, and the clergy lead the faithful in procession around the Church, while joyful chants are sung culminating in the hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” 

When the worshippers return, the Mass commences. During the Mass, the faithful hear the First of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the fulfillment of the promised King Messiah. “Christ our King, intercede for us!”


HOLY MONDAY

At the Mass, we will hear of Our Lord’s preparation for burial by the Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While she anoints Him with fragrant oil, we also are reminded of Judas’ betrayal and, more sadly, his impending impenitence. May the Lord’s Spirit soften our hearts to be more like Mary!


HOLY TUESDAY

During the Mass, the Second of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Mark, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the Suffering Servant, who willingly and freely bares the weakness, brokenness, and sin of all humanity. “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world!”


HOLY WEDNESDAY

During the Mass, the Third of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Luke, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the merciful Physician who readily sacrifices Himself to heal our souls. Nowhere is this more poignantly presented than in the exchange between Christ and Dismas (the “good” thief on the cross). Lord, grant us this same mercy!

Following Vespers, the first of three Tenebrae services is prayed. Tenebrae is a service of prayer conducted in near-darkness. This service includes a candle ceremony, where candles are extinguished at the end of each psalm and the Benedictus. The central feature of this service is the mystical application of the Lamentations of Jeremiah to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and a glorious explanation of the Psalm 54 (55) by St Augustine.


HOLY THURSDAY

The Institution of the Mystical Supper is the focus for the Holy Thursday Mass. The Gloria in Excelsis is restored with joyful bells, and the Readings recall the events when Our Lord gathered with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion. We hear that Our Lord loves us to the end, and calls us to love one another in the same way. In an interesting juxtaposition from Holy Monday’s Gospel, we see Our Lord washing the feet which will carry the Gospel throughout the world. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the Gospel of peace!” (In imitation of Our Lord sending His apostles, in both Eastern and Western Rite cathedrals the Bishop, as the icon of Christ surrounded by his disciples, enacts the mandatum by washing the feet of thirteen males.)

After all have received Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is processed to the Altar of Repose where it remains for adoration until the Pre-sanctified Liturgy on Good Friday.

After Mass, toward the end of Vespers, the Altar is stripped while Our Lord’s prayer on the cross (Psalm 21 [22]) is solemnly chanted. Following Vespers, the second Tenebrae service is prayed. Once again, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are mystically applied to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and St Augustine instructs us on Psalm 63 (64).


GOOD FRIDAY

Our Lord’s Death on the Cross is commemorated with the Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday. The service is moving in its starkness and consists of four parts: hearing the Lord’s Word, the Solemn Prayers for all persons, the Veneration of the Holy Cross with its “reproaches” (improperia), and the reception of Holy Communion from the Pre-Sanctified. During the first part, the faithful hear the fourth Passion Narrative from the Gospel according to St. John. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord ascending His throne in glory as the triumphant King, as the sign declares.

Following the Liturgy, the third Tenebrae service is prayed. The ceremony is nearly identical to the previous two Tenebrae services. After completing the Lamentations of Jeremiah, St Augustine reminds us of the significance of Our Lord’s two natures as they relate to His Passion.


PASCHAL VIGIL

The Western rite knows two celebrations of Our Lord’s Resurrection. The first and most ancient is the Great Vigil which, in the first seven centuries, was kept throughout the night and climaxed with the celebration of Holy Communion at dawn on Easter Day. In the past 13 centuries, the Great Vigil has been assigned, in both Eastern and Western churches, to Holy Saturday afternoon or morning. (In recent decades, not a few Western churches have begun celebrating the Paschal Vigil later in the afternoon or evening, while also retaining the Easter Sunday Mass.) 

During the Paschal Vigil, worshippers gather quietly in the entrance for the blessing of fire. Then the Deacon leads the faithful into the Nave. While the worshippers are taking their places, the ancient Easter hymn of praise (Praeconium) is sung and the candles of the faithful and throughout the church are lit. Following this candlelight ceremony, Old Testament prophecies are read. This Service of Readings is followed by the blessing of the Baptismal font. The Litany of the Saints leads the faithful to a joy-filled celebration of Holy Mass. The service concludes with an abbreviated form of Vespers.


EASTER SUNDAY

The Resurrexi Mass (“Mass of the Resurrection”) is the chief celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection. It commences with the blessing of the faithful with the holy water that was blessed at the Great Vigil. Then the Mass proceeds, with the Gloria in Excelsis sung once more with great joy! While the usual order of the Divine Liturgy is maintained, it is augmented with the acclamation of “alleluia” numerous times, and with the beautiful Easter sequence (Victimae paschali laudes) as well as many familiar Easter Scripture readings and hymns. In addition, flowers once more decorate our altars, and joy pervades our hearts and minds as we proclaim, “Christ is risen: He is risen indeed, alleluia!”

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Making Use of Lent

However hard this past year has been, it has been necessary for our health and the health of others. We have sacrificed much: our movements, our usual interactions, our normal routine, and sometimes even those healthy release valves (groups, therapists, gyms, etc.). As a parish, we’ve done all we can to adapt, and you are to be commended for your patience, understanding and care. Additionally, I’ve seen several instances of individual best practices and person-to-person compassion—all of which is laudatory.

If we’re honest—myself included—some­times our worst self has bled through: by giving into fears or anxieties, by being less civil and well-mannered, by thinking the worst of others or leaders, and by letting our convenience overtake concern for others.

When we see these latter thoughts and behaviors arise in us, we should (again, in honest self-reflection) ask how well we’ve maintained our spiritual health. For example, have we spent more time complaining than praying; more time searching for stories that confirm our conclusions than searching the Scriptures; more time distrusting others than building up our faith in God; and more time sinking into ourselves than strengthening our relationship with Our Father.

For myself, it has been easier not to ‘redeem the time.’ Perhaps for you, like for me, it has been easy not to be more diligent and earnest in prayer; or not to using extra time to read the Scriptures or other spiritual treasures. Instead, it’s been too easy to set aside prayers entirely or pray only minimally, because it’s hard to focus or because something else seems more interesting.

Lent is the time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

When this happens (even apart from pandemics), we develop spiritually unhealthy habits: griping and judging, fearfulness and despondency, apathy and indifference, meanness and pride, overindulgence and licentiousness. I don’t wish to suggest that these unhealthy habits are primary, or that they overrule the well-doing that I’ve seen. However, times of stress certainly requires us to be more on guard, and helps us focus on behaviors we might have missed or dismissed as unusual.

Lent is the time to work on developing healthy habits. It is time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

In brief, Lent gives us the opportunity to ‘redeem the time’ (Eph 5.16) by encouraging us to draw closer to Our Lord, and to focus on what matters most. In this way, Lent is a great gift—as perhaps this pandemic has been or can still be.

There is no greater time to make use of this gift of Lent than now, as we begin to see the relaxation of some of the previous restrictions. Immediately, our thoughts will turn to getting back to “normal.” But is the old normal something we really want? Wouldn’t it be better to use this Lent (and the lessons from the pandemic) to establish a spiritual ‘new normal’?

Lent generally—and this Lent in particular—gives us time to stretch our spiritual muscles; to cultivate the garden of our souls; and to strengthen our hope. It gives us time to pick up our prayers, and to establish spiritual best practices, to set in place a routine that strengthens our spiritual well-being.

In brief, if we let it, this Lent can help us do what St Paul urges: ‘redeem the time.’

To do that, we need more than resolutions and promises. We need to look carefully at the gifts Our Lord has given us—even in these hard days. We need to take to heart the gift of His Body—both in the Sacrament and in the Church; His Body gathered as well as His Body sacrificed and distributed.

There we will see, I’m convinced, the hope that has truly sustained us, the life that has truly nourished us, even when we devalued it or cast is aside. For the Lord’s Body contains within itself all sweetness, all goodness, and all generosity. That we have made it through these days, then, means that He has seen us through. That our worst fears have not occurred means that Christ, in His Body, has protected and guarded us. And that we will be able to embrace each other means that His embrace has not failed us.

So let’s neither look back with regret for how we should have used the time better; nor forward in a fantasy of what one day we might do. Let’s instead live for now, focused on Our Lord’s presence in the present. And in doing so, let’s return with hearts full of gratitude, and with the desire to be as diligent about our spiritual health as we’ve been about keeping physically safe.

May God be gracious and merciful to us all.

-Fr John

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Jesus in the Wilderness

A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4.1-11

Jesus goes into the wilderness looking for Adam. For the wilderness is where the Lord God sent Adam and Eve. In fact, the Lord God drove the man out of the garden into the wilderness. And so, it fits that St Mark says that the Spirit likewise drives Jesus into the wilderness.

Into the desert, then, goes our Savior. To face our demons. To live with our disordered loves and desires. To confront our pride and our need to control. To starve our shameless, wanton, and unrestrained appetites.

Jesus is not virtue signaling when He goes into the wilderness. Neither is He play-acting or going through the motions. Christ is truly tempted. He actually fasts and gets hungry. He really prays for assistance. Psalm 91—that long chant you just heard, pleading that God be our defense, that the angels minister to us, that God needs to be trusted, and that He is our only Hope and Deliverance—that prayer first forms on Jesus’ lips, flows out of His Sacred Heart, and sounds from His parched throat long before we repeat it.

The Lord’s temptation is very real, but He is not doing this for His sake. Although He truly suffers, Jesus is not processing His own fears or doubts. After all, Our Lord Jesus is the beloved Son, upon whom the Spirit alights and in whom the Father is well-pleased. And with that baptism—as with every baptism—the Spirit affirms the Father’s love and strengthens His limitless grace.

So, Jesus is in the wilderness, not to show what He can do, but to gain us. To reclaim us. To begin the work of th­e transfiguration of our bodies, and the renovation of our souls, and the reconfiguration of our life in God. So that we can also live as the beloved sons of God, upon whom the Spirit alights and in whom the Father is equally well-pleased.

When Jesus goes into the wilderness, then, He is searching for Adam. And for us. Like the Good Shepherd searching for the lost sheep. For you’ve both heard and known deep down that “all we like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his own way.”

Adam lost his way by eating, by giving into what he thought was good and pleasing and a smart move. Christ Jesus fasts in the wilderness so that he might regain by fasting what Adam lost by eating; so that He might not simply show what restraint looks like, but by His restraint and victory over Satan, actually win back Adam—and us.

Our Lord does this willingly. Even though the Spirit drives and leads Jesus into the wilderness, the Son of God does not resist. He aligns His will with the Father’s will—even to His demise. So, Christ chooses to fast. He chooses to be tempted.

[Our Lord] made us one with him when he chose to be tempted by Satan. Certainly, Christ was tempted by the devil. But in Christ, you were also tempted. For Christ received his flesh from your nature, but by his own power gained salvation for you; he suffered death in your nature, but by his own power gained glory for you; therefore, he suffered temptation in your nature, but by his own power gained victory for you. If in Christ we have been tempted, then in Him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to think of his victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. (St Augustine)

Our Lord could have easily avoided the devil, or swatted him away like the vexing dung-fly that he is, or even destroyed him with a word, a look, a thought. But then, where would be your victory? And how would that benefit you?

Instead, Christ goes into the wilderness. And not just that arid place beyond the Jordan River, where thirst threatens, and death is close. Christ enters the desert of our souls. For our very body is, in a sense, a desert when we pine for any food, but do not hunger and thirst for righteousness; when we overindulge, without caring about those who have little or nothing; when we make sure that we get ours, even at the expense of someone else.

Christ enters the desert of our body and, if we let Him—if we don’t fight back with self-gratification, but if we instead join in by following Our Lord in self-denial—then Our Lord overcomes in us all the devices and willfulness of our own demons. And then we can be settled and calmed since Our Lord can cleanse our heart, purify our mind, and make our very being a suitable temple and tabernacle for God.

That is the victory Christ gains. That is our hope. And because of His triumph over Satan, we no longer need, each day, to give into our desires afraid that, somehow, we’re missing out. Neither need we be anxious about what we shall eat or wear, or how we shall live. As we fast, Christ gains our victory by His fasting. As we deny ourselves, He defeats our devils. As we align our wills with His, He hands over to us the fullness of His victory—the victory He first won by a battle of wits and words, and then by His death and resurrection.

Our hope, then, is that we begin to see heaven within ourselves; that is to say, that we think nothing of our desires, and look beyond our inner struggles and heartaches, and see only that the Lord of the heavenly Kingdom is also the author of our earthly resurrection—because He located and embraced and loved us back to Him when He entered the wilderness for us.

To this Lord Jesus Christ, our hope, our life, our victory, and our salvation, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

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The Ashes

An Ash Wednesday Homily

The ashes which I have applied to your foreheads are not a sacrament. They are a sacramental. Sacramentals are sacred signs that resemble the sacraments and point us toward the mystery of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

As an example, holy water points to Holy Baptism, and is a constant remembrance that “we are buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

The ashes also are remind us both of Christ’s death, and our burial into His death. They point us to the grace of Our Lord that lets us live now, in the midst of death; and then also later, after we are buried.

Above all else, the ashes remind us of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What a grim way to begin the holy season of Lent—with a mark on our foreheads that says we will die; that our bodies will become ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Why not begin with something hopeful, something more upbeat, something that points us not to the grave, but to the kingdom of heaven?

Because the only pathway to heaven, the only way of escape, is through the grave. In the Lord’s time, and in the manner He determines.

That is our way of salvation. Not the path we have chosen, but the one Our Lord has designated. In fact, the path He Himself blazed. For you know that Our Lord Jesus did not randomly go to the cross; and that His journey was not willy-nilly, determined by fate or circumstances. Rather, in all things pertaining to our salvation, Our Lord was in full control. With His Father in the Spirit, Jesus deliberately chose to defeat death and the devil, and restore our life by His passion, suffering and death.

Take to heart Our Lord’s own words: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

When Our Lord says, “Follow me,” He bids us to walk in the way He walked. To move into full and abundant life by going through suffering and death. As St Paul reminds his protégé, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

The ashes are a sign of Our Lord’s path.

The ashes are also placed on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent to declare that putting to death the deeds of the flesh is how this way of salvation looks.

We are to rend our hearts, and not our garments. Which means, we are to practice contrition, amendment of life, and true repentance not just with our lips, but with all that we are and all that we have. Self-denial is to be the way we live every day. Tending to others before ourselves; not living it up; focusing not on bodily comforts, but on spiritual things; and living, in all ways, as Christ did—humbly, mercifully, soberly: that is how we walk with Our Lord, how we follow Him from the grave into His heavenly kingdom.

That path is not a path of self-indulgence, forgetting Our Lord, and ignoring those whom He loves. That path begins by disciplining our intake, disciplining our time for prayer, and disciplining our spending so we can help more and more. Then we not conforming ourselves to this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The ashes are a visible mark that point to the grace of life that grows in us the more we put to death the urge to gratify and please and feed our own appetites. And the ashes help us see that this world and its promises are empty. Therefore, we should zero in on our true treasure. For you heard Jesus say that we should not lay up treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The three disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—those three disciplines that we begin today; that we will strive to maintain throughout these next forty days—these disciplines should mark how our life is lived from this point forward, every day that we draw breath. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving should mark who we are, just as surely as the ashes mark our foreheads. And as we chafe under those three disciplines, let them remind us that life in Christ intensifies the more we deny ourselves.

The remembrance of death in the ashes points to the treasure of our life in Christ. In the same way, the practice of self-denial points our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls forward to the joys that exceed this life’s promises.

May Our Lord, by His grace, strengthen us during this holy Lent to live a life of repentance from this day forward, pressing forward in the pathway through life that He has set for us. To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

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The Other Guy

Matthew 20.1-16

The parable that Jesus tells is not about the other guy. It’s about you. But like the laborers in the story, we are too often focused on the other guy: the time she put in, the work he did, the amount they were paid. And we do that—we focus on the other guy—to compare them with me to make sure I’m being treated fairly, and not missing out, and not over working or spinning my wheels.

We do that a lot. Focus on the other guy. And we do that to deflect and ignore. To deflect what we know is right. And to ignore an authentic, sincere deep dive into our own heart and soul. We promise a firm intention to amend. But then we look at the other guy, and compare ourselves to her or him to make sure we’re ahead or, worse yet, not doing too much.

And this may be why we avoid Private Confession. Or why, when we do go, we mouth the words to amend but don’t do the necessary hard work to get there. Because we’re looking at the other guy, and saying: “He goes to confession but is not acting better.” “She doesn’t seem to be worse off by skipping that Sacrament.”

But it’s not about the other guy. The parable is about you: that you’re doing the back-breaking work of digging out the weeds that are choking your life in God, that you’re nurturing the virtues while cutting out the vices, that you’re eager to amend by making amends, that you’re productive at producing the fruit of good works for others, and that you’re single-minded in working toward the end of the day.

St Paul helps us see this when he gives us another metaphor. The Christian life is a race. A race that you run, not by looking over your shoulder, not by seeing how the other guy is doing—but a race where you run to receive the prize, the reward. And to do that, you need to master your urges, and make sacrifices to be in shape, to be fit, not just to run but also to finish. Looking at the other guy’s workouts, trying to match what you do to what he’s doing—that will make you lose focus.

And that was the downfall of the children of Israel. After they were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; after they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink—after the were fed by God and communed with Him—then they lost focus. Their focus was no longer about getting to the Promised Land. Their focus was on the other guy—what the Egyptians had, how the guy next to them was misbehaving, how scary the Canaanites might be, and what the golden calf could do for them.

The parable is about you. And most specifically, it is about what the Lord gives you. Not what He’s giving the other guy. But what He is giving you. He brought you into His family. He showed you what was good for your salvation. He offered you His kindness. He promised a share of His wealth. He focused on you.

The parable is about you. Most specifically, it is about what the Lord gives you. Not what He’s giving the other guy.

So our concentration, our attention, our aim, our focus should be on Our Lord and His gifts. Not the other guy. But on what Our Lord is doing, giving, and holding out. For you.

Our ambition should be single-minded: to make use of and live up to the grace that the Lord gives us.

For the mercy and kindness, the love and grace of Our Lord—that’s the overarching point of the parable. That the Lord gives you what is His. That He is good to you. That He lavishly offers, presents, and confers on you something you not only don’t deserve, but something you have no chance of getting without Him reaching out to you and welcoming you and setting you at His side.

The mercy and kindness, the love and grace of Our Lord—you miss that and devalue it if you’re fixed on the other guy, and wanting to make sure you’re getting yours.

Our Lord’s mercy follows no straight line. The moment He sees a way open for forgiveness, for dispensing grace, for administering His healing, He does not hesitate. And He does the unexpected—on purpose, for your sake, even at the risk of upsetting what we think fairness should look like. For His justice does not fit our ideas of justice. And His mercy exceeds our expectations.

So, Our Father benevolently, abundantly, and undeservedly gives you His best for you. He offers you exactly what is good for you, what fits you, what helps your life now and your life to come. You can call it your wage or reward or prize. In either case, it’s suited specifically for you. It’s the compassion from Him that you need to actually make good on your promise to amend; and your desire to finish well; and your longing to be who He designed you to be—one of His own, intimately partaking of His divine nature.

For Our Lord’s focus is not on the other guy. He looks you and me in the eye—He sees each one of us without looking at the other guy—and says plainly and determinedly, “Given and shed for you; for the remission of your sins; so that you may have life in and through Me.”

Let us run this Lent, then, not focusing on the other guy, wondering whether he’s getting more or better or further. And let’s certainly not wonder about what kind of deal God is giving us. Instead, let us this Lent lay aside every earthly care, and every sin which clings so closely, so that each one might run with resolve and single-mindedness the race that is set before him, looking at Jesus, who is author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him turned neither left nor right, but endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, ready to embrace us and give us more than we either desire or deserve. To whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

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Releasing Savory Faith

Homily for Epiphany VI

These days our faith is tried. I’m not talking, specifically, about these days when we are together enduring a pandemic; or these days when we need to worship outdoors; or these days when we need to confront our own subtle prejudices; or these days when we feel as if we cannot give voice to the morality that is inseparable from the Christ we love.

These days when our faith is tried are the days since Our Lord’s crucifixion; the days since His Ascension; the days since the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire.

For while the devil certainly takes advantage of pandemics and unrest and church-distancing, that’s not his end game. His end game is to separate us from the intimate union, the bond of love, and the confidence and hope that we were given in Baptism, that is fed into us in the Eucharist, and that warms us every time we hear Our Lord’s absolution. The devil conspires with our basest desires and is cheered on by those whose god is their feelings. He conspires with them to make us wonder, and question, and think that God is distant or uninvolved or focused on others. And that God’s justice is hardly just.

The devil’s end game is to drive a wedge between us and Our Lord by driving a wedge between you and me; and by getting me to think that my prayers are nothing; and by getting us to be anxious about everything except skipping Mass and losing faith.

The devil’s end game is to drive a wedge between us and Our Lord by getting us to be anxious about everything except skipping Mass and losing faith.

That is how our faith is tried these days. And why we need to rejoice—yes, be glad about—and make use of today’s aggravations. For the things we find so irksome—pandemics, unrest, politics, meanness, being silenced and feeling hemmed in—these things truly do bruise and try us. And they work hard to crush us. But a mustard seed is not really true to itself, a mustard seed really doesn’t awaken, a mustard seed doesn’t show its true value—until it is bruised and crushed.

Today, Our Lord compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. And are we not citizens in that kingdom—a kingdom founded by the one who was bruised for our iniquities; crushed for our transgressions; and buried because we hid from Him? And yet, that all released a life full of vitality, and a vigorous mercy that we wish to live toward others. Like the mustard seed which, when planted, grows sturdy branches and brings forth many seeds, so our battered, hard-pressed, buried Lord arises to grow the holy Church made strong and true by His love.

In another place Our Lord compares faith to a mustard seed. Once again, the vigor of our faith relies not on our determination, but on the Lord planted and buried within us. For, like the mustard seed, Christ is planted in us and then comes alive, producing in us greater confidence, hope, and love.

The vitality of Christ growing the kingdom of His love in you and me is released when we are squeezed, compressed, and bruised by the many disordered desires within, and the many pressures from without.

This vitality—of Christ growing the kingdom of His love in you and me—this is released when we are squeezed and compressed and bruised by the many disordered desires within, and the many pressures from without. For faith and is a living force, strong and sure, when we are left with nothing else but God’s love for us. So, if we let it, if we can keep our orientation, if we don’t lose hope but hold to Christ, then we can see that these stresses and forces release a greater, more excellent faith.

Many times, our faith can seem simple and innocuous. Perhaps it feels even vague and indefinable. But when our faith is bruised by its enemies, when it is pushed to a breaking point, then faith can come alive—if we only let it. Then it proves its value and power—if we don’t hide it in a cupboard or toss it out on hard-hearted cement or bury it in sugary sentimentality.

The things that test our faith—the doubts and fears, the desire to give up or to give into our worst self—these things can actually release the sweet aroma of our life in God.

The things that test our faith—the doubts and fears, the desire to give up or to give into our worst self—these things can actually release the sweet aroma of our life in God. Very much like the incense we use at Mass. In the canister, in the plastic box, the incense is inert. But when it is placed on a burning coal, then its full fragrance, both spicy and sweet, disperses throughout the room and wafts even quite a ways outdoors. And that scent sticks to us, announcing that we’ve been to Mass because we smell as Christ did when He arose from the tomb.

Holy Valentine, whom we commemorate today, shows us what the robust energy and aroma in the mustard seed looks like when it is released because of hardship. For when the executioner came, and he bowed his neck, and was decapitated in malice—then Love Himself was diffused to the ends of the world so that, to this day, we connect St Valentine with love: the love that ultimately must emanate from God: for God is love.

Like many martyrs—and even like us in these days—Holy Valentine was “hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—carrying in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our bodies.” And by his martyric death, by his willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ, by his desire to let his hope in God outweigh the threats of others—St Valentine shows us that “that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”

The mustard seed reveals the transcendent power of God. For which of us would have ever considered, on our own, that such a tiny object could both be a tree housing birds and add savory energy to our food? Yet in that seed is hidden a truth that has existed since before time—namely, that when we are pushed yet remain strong to Our Lord’s love, then we begin to become the humans we were designed to be.

May our Father grant us such strength and courage; by the prayers of Holy Valentine and of all the saints.

14 February 2021

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The Long View

Candlemas Homily
Luke 2.22-32

Wise and aged Anna had a long view of all the events, rumors, conspiracies, and politics that swirled around her. It’s not that she was unaware or unconcerned. She simply did not let them control her. She refused to let everything out there define her values and her faith. And she would not let anything determine her outlook, except what she heard and sang and meditated on in the church’s liturgy. This woman, who had been a widow for 84 years, had a long view. Her focus was on her life in God.

Let our heart’s deepest desire be to develop and nurture the long view that we see in Simeon and Anna.

The old man Simeon also had a long view. Like Anna, he was too enwrapped and attentive in prayer to be anxious about worldly affairs. Not that he was uncaring or callous. But he left all in the hands of our heavenly Father, who knows better than all women and men how things should and will play out.

More than that, old Simeon with Anna believed that their prayers were more important than any worldly strategies. They were firmly convinced that fervent, heartfelt, and faithful attendance to God and His holy Word would bring about the consolation of Israel and the furtherance both of salvation and of intimate union between God and the world. Their long view, then, was not limited to humanity. Their long view aimed at the restoration of every created thing. Not fairness and rights, but creation’s recreation and renovation—that is what Simeon was justly and devoutly awaiting; what he desired with his prayers; and what he hoped to see when he looked into the face of the Lord’s Christ.

I’m inspired that the gift of seeing God in infant flesh is granted to a woman and a man who, from their youth, mastered their lust and other enervating passions. These two, who mastered and disciplined the needs that chase away our long view—they are the first, after Mary and Joseph, to hold God Himself in their arms. Among other things, this means that Our Lord truly desires our undivided focus. And that He will expand the fullness of the grace He is, within the hearts and minds, the bodies and souls, of those who can deny what everything else declaims to be so necessary, so important, so human.

Our humanity is found solely within this holy Child. Our true identity is inseparable from this son of the Virgin. Our longings are gratified and blossom to their utmost as we behold, and hold, and fix the attention of every hope on this One by whom the thoughts of many hearts are revealed.

Here, then, is what Simeon and Anna see: the One who gives hope to the hopeless, life to the lifeless, love to the unloved, and enduring friendship to the lonely.

This Boy Jesus is truly the light who enlightens our darkened minds. Minds made gloomy, dismal, and pessimistic by the anger that swirls around us; the doubts in us about how the world will go; and the urgings to live life to the fullest. These distractions from the life well lived in Christ—these chase us into the shadows, and away from the warming effects of Christ’s love.

Life can be lived confidently and fearlessly only in the light of Christ; when we embrace God’s wise commandments; and when we hold God’s loving-kindness tightly so that our hearts beat quicker and glow again, as they did when we first emerged from the baptismal font.

Life can be lived confidently and fearlessly only in the light of Christ; when we embrace God’s wise commandments; and when we hold God’s loving-kindness tightly so that our hearts beat quicker and glow again, as they did when we first emerged from the baptismal font. Then, and again now, the Sun of Righteousness illumines not only the darkness we need to shake, but also thaws and melts our fears so that we can pursue our the Father who is truly merciful.

Through this warming and brilliant love, Christ is the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles.’ He helps our diverse people see that His love matters most, and that His mercy exceeds both our tendency to judge and our limited ideas of who is in the right. And He lights your way—so that you can see God in the midst of turmoil; and so that others may glorify Him when they see your good works and hear your edifying speech. For in the light which Our Lord is, we are drawn into His long view—to love us in a way that strengthens who we truly are, and allows us to be Him to others.

Because Simeon & Anna have a long view, they hunger and thirst only for righteousness; and they know that things heavenly amplify things earthly. This is why they voice their desire to rest in peace on that day, in that moment. For when they saw the 40-day old Christ, they glimpsed heaven and saw the face of God. And with that, they saw the purpose and conclusion of their earthly prayers and all their good works.

As we witness Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the incarnate God, as we hear of others who have been graced with similar contact with God, we may wonder why we are not given a comparable experience—a tangible meeting with God that gives us true perspective, that chases away our worries, that lets us taste and feel our hope, that rivets our attention. For won’t our disquiet dissipate, and our faith come alive if we, too, get to see and hold God?

Yet we have something greater than these saints from time past. While they hugged the Christ Child to their chest, we receive Him our very being—knitted to our flesh and coursing through our veins. Their hearts figuratively embraced Him. Our hearts may literally encase Him. And in doing so we get to be—what does St Paul say—members of his body:of his flesh and of his bones.

In the Eucharist, we go beyond a visual encounter with God. Our intimacy with God in Christ soaks into our bones, and settles into the marrow of our soul. And from deep within begins our redemption, our salvation, our renewal, and our union with God.

For life in God to mature and intensify, for it to become anything close to what Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, and other saints had—we must not let the cares and occupations of this life overwhelm us. Instead, let our heart’s deepest desire be to develop and nurture the long view that we see in Simeon and Anna.

That begins as we take in our blessed Jesus in Holy Communion. As we take Him up, let us bless God and say, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

Through the prayers of his saints, ancient and modern, may God grant us such faith, hope, and love; to whom belongs all glory: world without end.

7 February 2021

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When the Good Do Nothing

Matthew 8.1-13
Epiphany IV

Jesus’ words to the disciples seem rather harsh. They’ve just had a harrowing experience, their life has been in jeopardy, they’ve tried to manage things without bothering Jesus. And He calls them, “men of little faith.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if some took offense at these words. For “little faith” doesn’t sound kind or nice. It sounds like they failed.

If they failed, it was because they were trying to shoulder too much. Because they saw another man instead of their Savior. Because they were so wrapped up in their fear, in their anxiety, that they forgot that God Himself was actually in the boat with them.

The disciples were so wrapped up in their anxiety that they forgot that God Himself was actually in the boat with them.

Our anxiety level ramps up when we feel we’ve lost control. And we can’t see what will happen next. And things are not going as they should or as we expect. And those in charge are losing their heads. And nothing we do seems to work. And we know who to blame when things go wrong. And we’re sure there’s nothing left to do except leave; or yell; or hide; or get ready for the worst.

The breaking point is when we feel threatened: our life, our way of living, our view of the world; our understanding of God.

What can calm us and dial down our anxiety, fears, and tension is remembering that God is in the boat with us. And He always gets His way; His will is done even when it doesn’t look like it; and, most of all, Our Lord arranges everything—even the worst, the uncomfortable, and the storms—all of this He arranges, in some way, for our salvation. And what do you know: He never consults us, asking our thoughts about what to do or how things should go. Our Lord simply knows best and does best.

That’s what the disciples in today’s Gospel forgot. The gentle, scenic boat ride across the lake that they planned—that fell apart and caused great anxiety when a storm arose. They focused on the waves, the wind, the storm. Like so many of us, they were anxious about what they could not at all control. And they forgot that the Lord was with them, that He wasn’t ignoring them, and that He would deliver them. And when they finally remembered the Lord, they did not calm down or pray to Him or trust that He knew what was going on. Instead, they frantically yelled at Him, certain that He was deliberately uncaring.

Notice what the disciples say: “Save us, because we are dying!” What a contradiction. On the one hand, they believe that only Christ can save them. On the other hand, they are sure that they will die. It’s as if they are using more extreme words in order to get His attention. Because He isn’t acting quickly enough. But instead, they are showing the weakness of their faith; that they’re not really sure that He will save them from death.

What should they have said? “Lord, Thou rulest the raging of the sea; thou stillest the waves thereof when they arise. Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Then shall my night be turned to day. Indeed, my darkness is not darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day. Therefore, I should fear no evil. For thou, Lord, holdest me in the hollow of thy hand, and will deliver us from every evil past, present, and to come.”

Easy words to think. Hard words to say, especially when we’re imprisoned in our anxiety. But necessary words to pray, if we wish Our Lord Jesus truly to calm, establish, strengthen, and settle us.

The holy fathers consistently teach that this storm on the lake is a true metaphor for all the things that make us anxious. Rarely are we anxious because things go as we think and in the way we plan. Most often we’re anxious about things we can’t control—events half a continent away; things we see on social media; breathless news reports; algorithms designed to incite our passions; and people who irritate or are mean-spirited. When that is our focus, we can’t see what is right in front of us: the persons who love us, the kindness given to us, the daily things that we have that we take for granted.

When we’re anxious and afraid, we are convinced the Lord has forgotten us or left us to shoulder the worst. So easily do we forget God. So easily do we think He’s part of the problem by not taking action. So easily do we believe that evil men are triumphing because the Good One is doing nothing.

So easily do we believe that evil men are triumphing because the Good One is doing nothing.

Our Lord is good even when He looks like He’s doing nothing. For even asleep Our Lord works for our good. And urges us to look beyond what frightens to see what is real. And what is real? Consider these words from our holy father John Chrysostom:

What are we to fear? Death? To live is Christ, and to die is gain. Should I fear exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord.’ What about the confiscation of what I have? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it.

I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.

For Our Lord has placed in us a hope that exceeds our fears, an expectation that dissipates our worries, an aspiration for the life to come which surpasses everything, good and bad, that we experience in this life. He places into our mouths His own flesh and blood, which has already taken down the worst we could know; and which converts the evil we endure into a love and kindness that sustains us. But above all, like the scared disciples in the boat and by their prayers, may we learn to know that Our Lord is always present, never absent; and that He will never leave us nor forsake us. To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

31 January 2021

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