Why Celebrate Mary?

Bernadine, an Italian priest and holy man, reminds us that Holy Church is entirely indebted to the Blessed Virgin Mary; because through her we have been judged worthy to receive Christ.

This means, first of all, that Mary is not a minor character in the story of Christ. In her womb, our Lord knits our human nature to His divine nature. From her, He receives all the tenderness that the best of humanity can lavish upon God. By her, He sees what we can truly be if we only give ourselves utterly and completely to the Lord’s will, trusting that He truly wants the best for us—even when Life is threatened, even when Life suffers, even when Life looks defeated, even when Life Himself dies. Mary still says, “Let it be to me according to thy Word”—confident that her Son and His Father have everything necessary in hand.

So, Mary is an integral part of Christ’s story—of Christ Himself. Without her, He has no humanity. And without her, we have nothing holy, nothing pure, nothing worthy to offer the Father as a token—a small but necessary token—of repairing the evil we endure and the evil we participate in.

Holy Church is entirely indebted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. We are in her debt, because when the Father chose her, among all women; when He blessed her to be His Son’s Mother; when He determined that, of the billions, she was the one—this Holy Mother did not resist, or lose heart, or go her own way, or waver. She said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” And in living that, she taught Son to do the same.

Mary is vital to Christ’s life. And so vital to our life in Christ. Not just because she is His mother, but also as His human role model; and a model for us as well. And not just because she nursed Him, but also because she shaped His human character—and shapes our life in Christ.

Yet who shaped Mary? Certainly, her parents, Joachim and Anna. Their faith is legendary, and worth our attention. For like their ancestors before them—like Sarah and Rebecca, like Hannah and Rachel—the parents of the Virgin Mary trusted in God even when all looked lost.

So, Mary’s generation, her ancestors whom you heard recounted in the Gospel reading—these generations are also worthy of our admiration. Sometimes despite their sin and lack of faith. Sometimes because of their courage and faith when it was most needed. Abraham, David, Bathsheba, and Ruth—just to name a few—they are also judged worthy by God because of Mary’s holy and humble assent.

And with them, we are judged worthy. A people worthy of reclamation. A creation worthy of restoration. A society of men and women worthy of being incorporated in Christ. A humanity worthy of being divinized, able to sit with Christ Jesus in heavenly places.

Who knew, then, that when Adam gave that snarky reply; when the first man tried to blame both God and Eve in one sentence; when he refused to own up to his role as protector and tried to fob everything off on the so-called ‘weakness of women’—who knew that his words were prophetic. For what did Adam say? “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.

This statement intended for accusation, now in Mary points to our salvation. And her holiness. And our debt to her. For, blessed above all women, Mary is the woman whom God has given to be with us. She gives us the fruit of the Tree of Life. For blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. And from her hand we get to taste and see that the Lord is good. From her and through her and with her, we partake of the same God who grew in her womb, and nursed at her breasts. From her we learn to carry Christ in our hearts by faith. And from her, to whom the Son of God Himself was subject and obedient—from her we learn true faith and obedience, and above all true humanity.

Since we owe her so much, it is fitting, then, that we celebrate the birthday of Our Lady, the Queen of heaven—the woman who delivers Joy to the whole world. And the best celebration is not merely to speak of her, but even more so to imitate her now by ascribing all glory, honor, and worship to her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ: who is adored and glorified with His Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost: ever one God, world without end.

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The Fear in Pride

St Luke 18.9-14

Pride often masks fear. The fear that I won’t be seen. The fear that I won’t be loved. Loved for who I say I am. Loved for the good I present to you. So, pride masks the fear that I won’t be loved on my terms.

This kind of pride is an arrogance which quickly descends into hell because it degenerates into wrath and envy. And then feeds all the other passions: lust, greed, overindulgence, and despair. Pride is the mother of all of these ungodly desires; and it is toxic—both for the proud person and for those it influences.

You see this pride in the Pharisee. Not in every Pharisee, but certainly in the Pharisee Jesus draws. The Pharisee who goes into the temple to pray. For this Pharisee is not content to show God his goodness. The man needs to judge and tear down another in order to build himself up. And as he does this, the Pharisee shows that he truly envies the publican. For just as Cain intuited that his offering was no offering, so this Pharisee intuits that his prayer is no real prayer—so he has to brag rather than pray.

So blind is the Pharisee that he cannot see himself. So hateful that he loves only himself. So envious that he resents humility and despises repentance.

Repentance and humility are not about being beaten down. They’re not about refusing to look up or be glad. Eeyore is not the model of humility. For “humility is not thinking less of yourself; humility is thinking of yourself less.”

Repentance and humility begin with fear. But not the fear that’s afraid of getting lost, the fear that fears not being seen, the fear of being mistreated, the fear that fuels being offended.

Repentance and humility begin with the fear of being loved by God. Because we know we are undeserving of His kindness. It is not the fear of the weak and timid, but the trembling of those who are truly loved—who are attracted and drawn in and warmed by Love’s love.

This kind of fear is not afraid. Because this godly fear arises not from a bad conscience, which we want to hide. Rather, this godly fear arises from a true faith, which says that the Lord’s mercies are too wonderful; we cannot reach them; they can only be given.

The Lord’s mercy is too wonderful to understand, too bright to behold. And His mercy requires a deep-cleaning which is both painful and necessary. A deep-cleaning that I must do by saying aloud the truth about myself.

Now confessing my truth requires that I admit that my truth is not the truth. Confessing my truth requires that I not excuse or explain away or dismiss with “becauses” and “reasons” for why I have done what I’ve done. Confessing my truth requires that I own the sins the Lord identifies—not the ones I think don’t apply anymore because I’m convinced they are from another time, or don’t fit my science. Confessing my truth requires that I admit not that I’ve been human, but that I’ve become less human by giving into the things—the words and the deeds—that everyone else says are okay.

Ultimately, confessing who I am is both laying myself bare, and then asking for the courage to amend. Not just do better, but change. From the inside. To transform what I prefer, how I think, what I’m sure I know. And to discard my chosen identity for the identity the Lord supplies. For the Lord speaks His love to me, not so that I love me better but so that His love radiates through me. And the Lord wants to feed me with His Body and Blood, not so that I can digest Him but so that He consumes me.

In that word of absolution spoken by the priest individually to me, to you; in that food placed into my mouth and yours at this holy altar—there “we gain the strength we need to approach Our Lord and enjoy Him. We do not find it, however, until we embrace the mediator between God and men—the man Christ Jesus. He calls and says, ‘I am your Way, your Truth, your Life.’ And He offers the food which we lack the strength to eat; the food which He mingled with our flesh” so that we might then have courage and the drive to lay bare who we truly are, knowing that He had already laid Himself out for us.

The publican wanted this. Courage brought him into the temple to pray. Courage that was rooted in the hope, the promise, the truth that “there is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?”

So, the publican goes into the temple to pray. Because he was not afraid, even as he stood trembling in fear. The fear that he knew himself too well. The fear that he might not live up to his promises. And the fear that the Lord’s kindness was too wonderful, nearly incredible, approaching impossible.

Yet the publican prayed. Unafraid of the Pharisee’s judgment. Unafraid of what others would say. Unafraid of the priest hearing his confession. Unafraid, because the Lord’s mercy blinded him to everything he saw, and drowned out what others said, and calmed every anxiety he felt.

And this is true humility. Humbling yourself before the Lord God, casting every care and every fear and every bit of yourself on Him. Locating your burdens in the burden of His cross. And then seeing your true self in His mercy, in His absolution, in His statement that says, “You are mine. I have called you by your name. You are my beloved One. I am well pleased.”

The publican goes home justified, not because he had the right attitude but because he refused to let pride mask his fear—a pride that would have kept him away from confession. Instead, he feared the Lord but was not afraid. And so, he got what his heart desired: God, being merciful to him, the sinner.

May God, through His Son in the Holy Spirit, be merciful to us and bless us. To whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

Acknowledgements: CS Lewis; St Augustine; Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Now A Woman Ascends

Enoch. Perhaps Moses. Definitely Elijah.

These men anticipate the ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They precede Him by letting us think that it is possible for visible, material, created humans to sit in the realm of God’s invisible, immaterial, uncreated kingdom. These prophets point to our salvation. That it is more than forgiveness, more than hope after the grave. Our salvation is an unending and joyous relationship with our Lord God, in His home, where angels truly serve us, and the saints and blessed dead return to us, and we to them.

Certainly, Jesus’ ascension is the climax foreshadowed by these prophets. Certainly, Our Lord’s bodily assumption into heaven is the ultimate destination which these men were uniquely blessed to anticipate—just as they were uniquely blessed to walk and talk with our Father and radiate His divine light.

Only by anticipation, only with a hope of things to come, only by pointing forward, only in what faith trusted would be—could these men ascend.

Yet now a woman ascends. She does not prefigure, but fully realizes. She does not anticipate the Lord’s ascension, but participates in every note, every aspect, every detail—in the fullness of what He has already accomplished for the salvation of all. So, this woman ascends not to point forward in hope. In her ascension she declares what has already been; and what is true and firmly established.

It is most fitting that a woman—and this particular woman—is the first to ascend after Christ. For Mary offered herself fully to God, and submitted her hopes and dreams to His will. Her identity was no longer her own but forever tied to her Son. For His sake, to give Him her flesh, Mary refused the fruit of pleasure and knowing, and instead desired nothing but the fruit from the Tree of Life who took His flesh from her flesh. This godly, immaculate, holy and pure woman contained in her womb Him whom the world cannot contain. And so it is most fitting that she first tastes the fully ripened fruit of His saving work; and that she is the first to join Him in His throne room.

When Mary ascended, the angels rejoiced. And they glorified and praised and adored Christ her Son. For she shows them that Christ expended His energy and worked His healing not for Himself, but for all humanity—which is now typified by His Holy Mother. For I must repeat myself: our salvation is more than forgiveness, more than hope after the grave. Our salvation is an unending and joyous relationship with our Lord God, in His home. To show us that this is true and real and authentic and possible, Mary is taken up into heaven.

Our queen has gone up before us. She has gone before and has been caught up in glory, so that we may follow her as children follow their mother. Borrowing words from King Solomon, we cry out, “‘Draw us after you, let us make haste’ and follow in your wake as we yearn for what you have, and Him whom you deliver to us.” This holy Mother is even now pleading our cause to her Son. That’s why she ascends! She now stands before Him, praying that her Son be who He truly is—and that we begin to see and believe that He is the mercy, the compassion, and the grace of God in human flesh. So, she transacts the business of our salvation since we are not nearly holy or righteous as she is.

Mary enters the realms of heaven—like those ancient men. She enters to show that earth can now be joined to heaven; that the lowest person can sit with God; that her prayer to be exalted by humility has been answered. For the woman despised by her own kin, nearly disowned by her own spouse, almost closeted by so many Christians—she is now exalted and literally lifted up to be what she always was: the best of all humanity.

Consider this: Mary is the best offering humanity can give to the Lord God. She is the only creature that our God found worthy to join Himself to. She is the first from whom God takes the matter, which lets God inhabit our bodies. And now, this holy and perfect woman gains greater dignity, and the highest rank, because she suppressed her desires and gave herself wholly to God.

As we have heard, only one thing is needful when Christ enters the world; when He enters to be with us; when He enters into our flesh; when He enters the stillness of our heart. Only one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

What is that one thing? To quit what we find so necessary, to lay aside every earthly care, to stop being anxious and stressed about so many things—and, instead, to locate our life, our identity, our desires, our being in Christ, who sits now beside us, who even now wishes us simply to hear and retain and take to heart what He gives.

The blessed Virgin Mary chose that good part. And not only is it not taken away from her; it is enlarged and increased. And, in return, she is magnified and venerated and admired and revered.

That’s not what she sought. That’s not why she said, “Let it be to me according to thy word.” But her humility is honored and rewarded in a most splendid manner: by the Son calling His Mother to Himself in the same trail that He blazed—resurrected after three days, and then ascended with a chorus of angels.

Mary’s humility summons us to cast all our cares upon Christ, because he cares for us. Mary’s humility urges us to imitate her by zeroing in only on the one thing needful.

The Holy Mother rooted herself in what her Son gave, in the inheritance of faith and love that He provides. And now she abides the full assembly of the Saints.

May this woman, who is blessed above all men; this woman, who has gave her all for mankind; this woman, who is now honored above all angels and men—may she continue to intercede for us to her Son so that we might, even now, live in her humility in order to attain the heights to which she draws us; even to her Son Jesus Christ, who with His Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is glorified in all the Saints.

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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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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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