Imitating Death: Good Friday Homily

What we offered Our Lord, and what He graciously took from us, was the consequence of the contagion of sin. We offered a body capable of death, a body incapable of resisting disease, a body riddled with mortality. And He decidedly embraced our gift.

  • We offered death when we determined that our fears are greater than our hope.
  • We offered death when we asserted that our choices are greater than our sacrifices.
  • We offered death when we insisted that our values are greater than Truth, and our morals are better than the life of others.

What we offered to our Lord was nothing sustainable, nothing healthy; and everything that led to the grave. And that is what Our Lord lovingly took from us and knit to His divine nature.

He did this not to give us a way to escape viruses, but to help us live with them and live through them. He took our death, not to lessen the evil but to transform hell to heaven. He took our mortality, not to make living easier but to make Life—the Life that He so deeply wishes to live in us, the Life that He is—to make this authentic life accessible and abundant.

Our response should be gratitude. Not to demand better or more. Not to accuse Him of torturing us. Not to complain about why He’s letting this thing go on.

Our response should be gratitude. A gratitude that is not simply looking for a silver lining, or trying to make the best of things, or learning some lesson.

Genuine gratitude begins within the heart. And then works its way out through the hands and mouth.

Heart-felt gratitude recognizes that we have a right to nothing from Our Lord. Because what we’ve offered Him is death. So heart-felt gratitude acknowledges that all that Our Lord does and doesn’t do, all that He gives and withholds, all that He arranges and permits—all of this is for our good so that we reach out to Him, so that we yearn for Him.

All Our Lord does and permits is about more than you and me. It’s about us—all humanity, and even more, all creation.

Gratitude begins within the heart, within the soul. But if it stops in the mind or in the heart—then gratitude dies. If our gratitude is only a sincere, ‘Thank you,’ then it fades as it leaves our lips.

True gratitude for all that Our Lord has done; true gratitude for Him taking our death-loaded gift—true gratitude is imitating and putting into practice toward others what He has done for us.

Imitating the sacrifice. That’s what the Psalmist points us to. To give thanks to the Lord, I will take the cup of salvation—which is inseparable from the cup of suffering. For salvation comes through suffering. To taste salvation is the drink down suffering. As Our Lord did.

I will receive this saving cup, embrace this salvific cup, drink down this salutary cup—drink it down to the dregs for the sake of another. That’s Our Lord’s way. And we give thanks when we imitate Him by making His way our way.

What this looks like was described by one of our bishops during a plague many years ago. While others were intent on self-protection, self-preservation, and avoiding the sick at all costs, this saintly bishop reports that:

Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. (St Dionysius of Alexandria)

Like these passion-bearers before us, we become Christ-like when we live without fear, not because we think that the news reports are overblown, or the fears of others unreasonable, or the threat not real. We imitate Christ by relentlessly and unselfishly helping those in need. We imitate not by hoarding our goods and wallowing in our anxiety, but by emptying our pantries and offering whatever compassion we can. We imitate Christ by heeding the rules, yet for the sake of others; and by not letting this present evil paralyze our ability to support.

The death of Our Lord is our death. He dies our death to free us, both from our future death and from our present dread and apprehension.

And in His suffering and death, we see our way of life. How we can live without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him and for others, all the days of our life.

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Loving to the End: Holy Thursday Homily

To love someone to the end is to do whatever you must for their good, their well-being, their health, their safety, their care. It means sacrificing your ideas of what is silly, what is right, what is helpful.

The ‘someone’ we are to love to the end is not the person we choose, or the person we wish to care about, or the person we think is worth the effort. The ‘someone’ is ‘anyone.’ And every person—the stranger, the ignorable, the person we can’t stand, and the person whose views we find disagreeable, even repulsive.

This is not negotiable. Neither is the truth that we are to sacrifice our best, our stuff, even our life for their benefit.

This is not negotiable, because it was not negotiable for Our Lord Jesus Christ. The ‘someone’ He loved to the end was each person—including weak-willed Peter, and conniving Judas, and the abusive soldiers, and the people who clamored for His death. He put His life on the line for each and every one so that they might have a chance at repentance, amendment, and transformation.

If we are authentic about following in the footsteps of Christ; if we are real about not just identifying as Christian, but being ‘Christian’ in life and deed; if that’s our ultimate goal, and not just a nice idea: then sacrificial loving for whomever is not negotiable.

Perhaps this pestilence has helped both to enliven what it means to sacrifice, and truly to see the other for whom we sacrifice. And if it has, then by this experience we are deepening our participation in Christ Jesus when He “knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father” and then determined, with stubborn determination, to love all unto the end.

Our Lord’s love to the end is certainly realized in His sacrifice on the cross. It’s the price He pays to ransom and redeem us. St Peter tells us that “not with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” we are redeemed from aimless conduct, from living a life that doesn’t lead upward or forward, but sideways and inward.

Yet Jesus’ sacrifice is more than just His death on the cross. He lays down His life. Which means that He lays out for us His flesh and blood to be the food that is actually able to see us through death and the fear of death. The bread changed into His flesh and the wine changed into His blood—that’s His greatest gift for us. And it’s how He loves us not just with the end of His life, or even to the end of our life—but, more so, to the goal and purpose of life and living.

Let’s try that again. The Eucharist feeds the ability to set aside all fear of another, all fear of how this will end, and all fear of what death can do. And, in that way, the Eucharist effects a transformation that is more than changed behavior. It can renovate how we see purpose, how we see others, and how we approach the scary and the frightening.

So the Eucharist is not about uplifting us spiritually, or connecting us symbolically. The Eucharist is aimed at helping us get past our fears, and more deeply into the Christ Jesus who has already undone the things that undo us; who has already overwhelmed the things that overwhelm; who has already defeated the fears that paralyze.

Christ’s holy body and blood take us past these things, fueling our desire to be in our living what we hope for in our minds.

Perhaps this pandemic has had the strange benefit of helping us see how much of our life in God depends on the Holy Eucharist. How much our life as Christians is both supporting each other, and more so living from Christ’s strength.

I know that, for most, it is truly hard being deprived of Holy Communion. It feels not good, even unfair. Yet I pray that it has increased our hunger and thirst for Our Lord’s Body and Blood. That this deprivation has helped us realize how much we actually should rely, not just on each other, but on Our Lord. And that we rely on Jesus, not as an idea of hope or a comfortable part of our life, but that we rely on His flesh and blood to move us away from a life that just goes along, to a live that truly lives for the end.

Too often, we don’t see the importance, the help, the necessity, the benefit until we are deprived. And sometimes we don’t really get the sacrifice, the ‘loving us to the end,’ until our routine is shaken.

We will gather again. The deprivation will end. Our Lord will see to that, in His time and for His purpose. And perhaps He has permitted, or even arranged this difficult season, so that we might long for each other by yearning for His sacrifice by which He continues to love us through now to the end.

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Tears of Repentance: Holy Wednesday Homily

When we see people suffer, when we contemplate the scale of misery and grief, it seems right to feel sorry for them: to pity their circumstances, and the trauma that we’re observing. For tears of lament are often the only compassion we can offer from a distance; and the best way we have to express our empathy.

Why, then, does Our Lord speak so roughly to the women who are doing what is so natural? Why does He rebuke them for their tears? And why does He tell them to turn inward, to weep for themselves and for their children?

Our Lord is not unmindful of grief. He wept when He saw Lazarus’ tomb. He wept when He foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem. But now, at this time, He calls not for tears of pity or lament, not even for tears of compassion, but for tears of repentance.

Tears of repentance. That is what Our Lord asks for.

Yet, at this time, why must we repent?

  • Certainly, because of our lack of care and concern.
  • Because we have been more anxious and less prayerful.
  • Because we are not using this long Lent to our greatest spiritual advantage.
  • Because we are focusing more on the pandemic and less on Our Lord’s mercy.
  • And, perhaps, because we are using this unsettling time as an excuse to set aside our Lenten fast, our Lenten devotion, and our Lenten sacrifice of self.

Repentance is authentic and real when it is practiced even when, especially when, our routine is thrown off. Repentance is authentic and real when it asks more of us, and requires greater sacrifice. And repentance is authentic and real when what we refuse to deal with confronts us.

That is what Our Lord foresees when he looks at the weeping women. He sees that, soon, they will face a crisis. A crisis much greater than any we feel now. A crisis that will require greater sacrifice, and to confront what they ultimately pin their hopes to.

Our Lord foresees, not just because He knows all. He foresees, because He is suffering through all present and future sufferings as He treads with the cross to Golgotha. And so His words are not words of pride. He’s not saying that their weeping is pointless because He is manly and can do this and so doesn’t need their pity. Rather, Our Lord says, “Weep not for me,” because He knows that genuine, authentic, real tears of contrition will help them and us, much more than feeling sorry for His trauma, His suffering, His impending death.

Tears of compassion express our empathy. But tears of repentance cleanse the soul. They guide us to look beyond, to look for hope. Most of all, tears of repentance help us to commit to the change, the amendment, the transformation of our life so that we can attain greater things. Not just getting past this pandemic, but getting closer to our heavenly goal.

Afterall, that’s why Jesus is on the road of suffering. That’s why the women meet Him and weep for Him in the first place. He’s not suffering for a cause, or going to death to prove a point. He’s there to renew their reason for being, to restore their life in God, and to transform them into persons well suited for His heavenly kingdom.

He’s doing His part. It’s the greatest part, and the greatest sacrifice. And instead of sympathy and lament, He simply asks us to offer tears of authentic and real repentance.

Those tears are good. But they must also be converted into acts of sacrifice.

  • Sacrificing our self-pity by reaching out to others. Sacrificing our pride by doing what is best for others.
  • Sacrificing our anxiety by putting unwavering trust in Our Lord.
  • Sacrificing our desires by offering more prayers.
  • And even sacrificing our life, when needed, by willingly drawing near to minister to another.

Tears of repentance. Which then turn to deeds of love. Which in turn focus our hearts and minds where they are designed to be—on following Our Lord in the way of the Cross. That’s Our Lord’s gentle and tender word to the women, and to us now and when we are enabled to gather again.

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Forsaking Our Lord: Holy Tuesday Homily

“They forsook him and fled.” That is by far the most devastating sentence in the story of Our Lord’s Passion. It means that He was left lonely, bereft of the support of His closest friends. Even if they could do nothing, they were not standing beside Him, or standing up for Him, or offering any aid.

We also hear Jesus say, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me.” But that cry comes not from misery or complaint, but out of mercy; not from lack of help by God, but from their agreed upon determination that He needs to die in order to restore all creation. (St Leo) And so the Father forsaking His Son is not the same as what the disciples did. They fled in fear. The Father withdraws His help and abandons His Son into the hands of violent men so that He might be their Savior—the Savior and salvation of those who hate Him, abuse Him, kill Him.

Never do we hear, “Mother, why have you left Me.” Because the Holy Mother does not forsake or leave her Son. She is there, every step of the way. It seems as if she can’t do much, as if she doesn’t do much. But her presence, even from a distance, gives Our Lord strength to carry His burden, strength to face the ostracization, the abandonment, the rejection by His own.

The example of the Blessed Virgin teaches us how to support and reach out to those in need, even during this pandemic. And the non-example of the disciples also teaches us, if in a opposite manner.

Judas’ betrayal helps us see that we don’t always know the larger plan, and so should not take matters into our own hands when things aren’t going the way we think they should. St Peter’s denial helps us when our bravado is too quick to say that we’ll be there. And the fleeing of the disciples helps us see that we ought not let people alone, that we ought to reach out to them in their need. Even if we feel helpless, even if distance keeps us from being close, we can still reach out to the isolated, listen to the frustrated, talk things through with the anxious, and offer whatever material assistance we can in whatever way is best.

But does Jesus really need someone else to stand beside Him, to comfort Him, to support Him? He is the Son of God, the One who raised the dead, and who is able to call down a legion of angels. So why does Our Lord need help? And St Paul tells us that every person should “prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every one shall bear his own burden.” (Gal 6.4-5) So why don’t we just take care of ourselves, and let others deal with their own issues?

That’s the thinking of the disciples whose fears overwhelm, who are too afraid to expose themselves to another, who have forgotten the words Our Lord prayed in the garden: ‘not what I want, not what I think is best, but Thy will be done.’

The disciples leaving Jesus to fend for Himself is wondrously contrasted with the example of St Simon of Cyrene. They choose to flee; he is compelled to stay. They will not help; he bears another’s burden, and so fulfills the law of Christ.

In His humanity—in the weak, vulnerable nature that He assumed for our salvation; in the mortal body that He graciously chose to knit to His divine nature, so that we could partake of and commune in His Godhead—in our flesh, as one of us, Our Lord needs someone to step forward and carry His cross.

And in this time, He needs us not only to take up our own cross, but also to assist another—the neighbor, the friend, the relative, the enemy.

For a moment, Jesus is the enemy to St Simon of Cyrene. For St Simon is forced to do what he hates, what he wants to flee from. St Simon is compelled to leave behind his two sons in order to help, support, and assist a stranger, one who is clearly not welcome.

Yet, in short order, the compulsory task becomes a privilege and a joy. Because St Simon did not flee into himself. He stood with Jesus; or, to say it better, Jesus stood with Him, extending His love and embracing Simon with the Lord’s own strength.

And drawing on the Lord’s strengthening mercy, Simon proceeds to carry the Lord’s cross. He walks with the Lord, carrying the weight, up the hill, to the place of death.

This saintly man reveals how Our Lord’s suffering can strengthen us; how His Passion can move us outside of ourselves; how it gives us a willingness and a merciful spirit for the good of another. This saintly man demonstrates how bearing with another is actually helping to carry the Lord’s cross; by which we are saved since His cross contains nothing to fear, nothing to flee from—but every hope and strength, both in these days and in the days to come.

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The Aroma of Life: Holy Monday Homily

Like the perfume of the incense which clings to our clothing and to our hair, the sweet-smelling savor of the costly ointment from Mary filled the whole room.

Certainly, that ointment had been purchased in order to chase away the stench of death as Lazarus lay dying. Certainly, Mary and her sister Martha were going to use that costly perfume to anoint Lazarus’ dead body. However, Christ had raised Lazarus from the dead. And so, the cologne sat on a shelf, waiting for the opportune time.

That time came when Christ entered the room. In order to cover the stink of her own sins, Mary lavishly poured this expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. And then she let the pleasant scent soak into her hair. It was an act of repentance. It was an attempt to chase away the disgusting odor of deadly pride, lust, wrath, greed, apathy, gluttony, and envy.

It was also Mary’s way of connecting her life to Christ’s life. She wanted the fragrance of His kindness and humility, the sweet-savor of His love, the refreshing scent of His mercy and forgiveness, to cover her, head to toe. And so “Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

Without denying Mary’s act or intention, Jesus, as He often does, turned the image. The perfume which permeated the room now became the smell of defiance. Against death. And against the fear of death.

“Let her alone,” Jesus says to the betrayer who will rush Jesus to death while also taking death into his own hands. “Let her alone. She has kept this [perfume] for the day of My burial. She is anointing me as if I were dead. This perfume, which was for her dying brother, is now announcing my impending burial.”

Most likely, there’s another bottle of costly perfume on the shelf. For one bottle will not do when a person has died. Like the first, this second bottle will not be used for Lazarus. He doesn’t need it since he has been raised. Instead, this second bottle will travel with Mary, and the other Mary, when they go to the tomb early in the morning intending to perfume Christ’s deceased body. But that second bottle will never be used for its intended purpose. Instead, it will remain as perpetual reminder that the stench of death, and the stink of despair, and the reek of fear, no longer need to be chased away or covered over.

In these unsettling days, Mary’s act, and her perfume, and the unopened bottle that sits on her shelf—these are constant reminders that our fears and anxieties, our apprehension about dying or causing death, need never get the best of us. And the shudder that we feel deep in our bones when we hear the words ‘pestilence,’ ‘pandemic,’ or ‘virus,’ or ‘plague’—that feeling is also diffused by the sweet smelling savor of Our Lord’s perfumed body.

Fear and the fear of death, like an unpleasant odor, can stick to us and emanate from our bodies into the nostrils of those around us. But, like Mary, we can use the fragrance of our hope, the perfume of our kindness, the cologne of our confidence, and the aroma of our love to diffuse and scatter and chase away this stench—from ourselves and from those around us. And we can, with our care for others, let the Life that Christ draws us to, and lives for us and through us and in us—let that life permeate every place, every person; most especially the lonely, the isolated, the fearful, the vulnerable, and those who enveloped in fear.

As Mary has shown us, the aroma we give off begins with an act of repentance; and setting aside our pride and inwardness; and then bathing ourselves in fearlessness, with the surety that, no matter how these next weeks go, Christ’s resurrection has overwhelmed the stench of all death.

And then we can be what St Paul says we are: the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved, and the aroma of life leading to life. For, as Mary has shown us, “God always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.” (2 Cor 2.14-16)

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Tough But Not Unbearable: Palm Sunday Homily

This Holy Week is tough, but it is not unbearable.

It is tough because we are not in our usual Holy Week routine: coming to the church, focused on Our Lord’s Passion, participating in the unique liturgies, and building toward Easter. All in the way to which we are so accustomed (perhaps too accustomed?).

It is tough. But this Holy Week will not be unbearable. At least, not if we keep in mind what Holy Week is really all about. It is about Christ bearing our sins to death on the cross, so that we don’t bear that burden. This light, momentary burden that we bear is simply part of “the sufferings of this present time [which] are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Rom 8.18) And, compared to what happened in other places at other times (during plagues or gulags or lion arenas), this “burden is [truly] light.” (Mt 11.30)

That our Holy Week burden is light is not to make light of it. It is more than a mere inconvenience to be deprived of celebrating together the holiest days in the year. But as Christ the Lamb took on the sins of the world, so now, for a little while, we are asked to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6.2) by sacrificing our time together to keep others safe. Let us remember that the holy disciples had to endure those unimaginably excruciating days and hours when they believed Life had died and death had won. In a similar way, we now, for a little while, need to “endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (2 Tim 2.3) But let us never forget that those “who endure to the end shall be saved.” (Mt 10.22)

Again, this year’s tougher than usual Holy Week is, as St Paul says, “our light affliction, which is but for a moment.” But this momentary affliction is, even now as we live through it, “working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (1 Cor 4.17) Unless, of course, we’re not letting it work in us. Unless we’re so caught up in our fears and anxieties, so caught up in how this hurts me, that we’re not seeing the others who are co-sufferers or, most importantly, the others who are suffering because we have been selfish.

And now we’re back to Our Lord. He did not consider what He was missing out on. He did not pray for Himself. He did not do what He did so that He would be safe. Instead, everything He bore, everything He endured, everything He suffered was for another; for us; for me, and for you.

Consider this when you’re sitting at home, following safe practices. And think of what Our Lord endured when you think these rules are too silly, or too much, or too unbearable. “Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus” who thought nothing of Himself, who made humility and humiliation His weapons, who was obedient to every plan, every directive from His Father: who did all these things, even to His own harm, in order to protect just one. And another. And more. And all.

The longest trial, the toughest times, the weeks and months of being denied family and friends and church and Eucharist—have we forgotten how it ends? How it always ends. Holy Week always culminates in Easter. The “it is finished” is always met with “He is risen.” Whether it’s last year’s Holy Week, or this one that is harder, stranger, sadder.

We will not be deprived of each other forever. We will gather again, and receive the Bread of Life. Not this week, but soon, by the prayers of the Saints and the grace of Our Lord.

And while we wait, we can continue to be the Body of Christ. To each other: by our prayers, by our phone calls, by sacrificing what we think is best, by our little mercies. We can, even now, learn from the disciples—not by fleeing into ourselves as they did, but by doing as they should have.

  • By helping to bear another’s burden, as did St Simon of Cyrene.
  • By providing whatever refreshment we can, as did St Veronica.
  • By standing with the lonely, as did the Holy Mother.
  • And by supporting the grieving, as did St John.

Too often we’re so caught up in ourselves—our own anxiety, complaints, frustrations and grumbling—that we don’t see the other who needs us. Too often we’re trying to learn from this that the lesson is to continue living as Christ and His Saints did.

And too often we’re so caught up in today that we forget tomorrow’s joy: The time, which is not that far away, when “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain [because] the former things are passed away.”

The former things passing away—that includes this pandemic. As well as all the other things that frighten or weigh heavily. Or, to be most specific, the death of the killing things, and the death of death itself. These are the things that not only will pass away, but that also really should have no hold on us. For the passing away things pass away because they are within Our Lord who bore in His body to death on the cross, so that we might live in the newness of life.

Beginning now, even while we are apart, let us live this newness of life, this new normal. Let us now, during this tough Holy Week, be willing

  • to sacrifice our needs for the needs of our neighbor,
  • to embrace a greater sense of responsibility for our wider community,
  • to develop a deepened feeling of gratitude for our many blessings
  • to have a heightened concern for the elderly and vulnerable, and an increased respect for our those around us who give so much.

Then you will see: the joy will begin to build, as it has every Holy Week. And it may even build to a greater height of rejoicing and song than we’ve ever experienced.

Through the prayers of His Holy Mother and of all the Saints, may Our Lord Jesus grant us both the strength to endure and the joy that comes through such endurance; to whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, world without end.

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Hiding Jesus? A Passion Sunday homily

Our Lord Jesus seems to be hiding, especially during these perplexing days. It feels like He is not hearing our prayers or coming quickly to our aid. Rather He is letting this pandemic continue, and not ending the sickness, the suffering, the death. So it appears as if He is uncaring, as if He is letting the innocent suffer and die through no fault of their own.

These same feelings and anxieties came into the minds of Jesus’ incredulous detractors, and Mary and Martha, and even his own disciples. They thought that His delay in coming to Lazarus’ aid was callous, uncaring, and heartless; that He just let Lazarus die to prove a point. For when the sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, behold he whom you love is sick,” He did not rush off to heal Lazarus. Instead, Our Lord arrived after Lazarus had died. And so many questioned Jesus: “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”

And could not this loving, kind Jesus, who speaks truth to power back in the day—can He not sweep away this virus, and end this pestilence?

Of course, He can. But perhaps we’re not even approaching the Lord. Perhaps we’re so caught up in making sure others wear masks and keep their distance and follow the rules; perhaps we’re so wrapped up in our fears; perhaps we’re so caught up in looking out that we’re not looking up; and so our prayers are half-hearted. Even more likely, perhaps we don’t see any spiritual connection with this virus; perhaps we’re so materialistic and scientific minded that we don’t see how this is a prayer thing at all, but only see it as something we can fix with the right technique, the right government response, and the right vaccine. And so our prayers only beg God to keep us and others safe, instead of saying what we should always say: “Lord, have mercy.”

“Lord have mercy” because we are unable to help ourselves.
“Lord have mercy” because our frailty and vulnerability is showing.
“Lord have mercy” because we don’t have all the answers.
“Lord have mercy” because, in some way, we might have done this to ourselves.

Those are hard words to hear. For immediately they bring into our mind that God is unfair, unkind, and not nice. But what they should bring to mind is that Our Lord God, in His love which is as hard to understand as it is mysterious—this Lord God is drawing us to Him—if we only will be drawn. He draws near to us, and invites us to draw near to Him.

God drawing near—that is the subtext in today’s Gospel. On the surface, it is a rabbinical argument, a theological disputation, about whether Jesus is God; and whether the Father is on His side. But the larger, more important point, is missed—both by the disputants and by us; namely, that Jesus is standing there. That He’s talking with them. That He’s not backing down—but He’s also not walking away. That, in this frustrating quarrel, He is drawing near to them; and allowing His critics and cynics and enemies to draw near to Him. And His aim is not to push them away, but to win them over to His love.

Back to the story of Lazarus: that’s precisely why Jesus delayed and waited until after His beloved friend died. For this, He says, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Have you considered that? That this sickness is not about a body count; not about fixing blame; not about being prepared; not about who cares and who is callous? Rather, it is so that we might look beyond ourselves; that we might spend more time drawing near to God; that we might spend less time spinning our wheels, and more time with our relationships—especially our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Perhaps this pestilence, like all pestilences, is permitted so that we might see that, in the midst of our helplessness, Our Lord Jesus is the Help of the helpless and the Hope of the hopeless. And so perhaps this should be our prayer: “Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.”

The disputants who are challenging Jesus in today’s Gospel miss what is so plain in the light of day: namely, that they are not listening, but blaming; and that they are not drawing near but are fixated on their own fixes. And so Jesus persistently, yet gently and clearly, keeps pointing out that His Father is their long-term help; and that His mercy is not only available but is really all that they need.

And then He hides. For the Gospel reading ends with these words: “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” But Our Lord hides not out of fear, or to distance Himself, or to turn away from those who refused to hear Him. Jesus hides because it is time for Him to step back, so that those who love Him might step forward. It is time for them to seek Him while He may be found.

We hide our crosses and icons and statues to remind us that, too often, we are like those who clashed with Jesus in today’s Gospel. Too often we are so caught up in our fears and anxieties, and in making sure that everyone plays by the rules, that we lose sight of Our Lord, and the unending mercy that He constantly extends to us.

Yet hiding Jesus, as we cover the icons and crosses, means that we now get to spend more time seeking Him and His righteousness. That we get to spend more time with perfect love Himself who knows no fear. And that we get to spend more time drawing near to Him, so that He may draw closer to us.

To this Lord Jesus Christ, our one true Reliance and Help, together with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Kindly Penance: A Homily for Lent IV

Several weeks ago when we followed Jesus out into the wilderness, we thought we knew where he was leading us. For we had followed this route many times before, year after year. But perhaps it became too familiar. Perhaps we took for granted that He would lead us in the same way as before. Or perhaps we had simply become complacent.

But this year, the way is different. This year, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, the route is more challenging than usual, and a little more difficult.

That should not surprise us. For every year during Lent, in our morning prayers, we sing these words:

Spare not, we pray, to send us here
Some penance kindly but severe.

A “penance kindly but severe.”

Kindly. And yet also a severity suited to us, to what we can bear. For while we chafe at not being with each other, we can still reach out to each other—and we should! And while we are exasperated about being deprived of our usual comforts, we are not denied of our basic needs. And while we may long to receive Holy Communion, we will not be deprived of the Eucharist for this year.

Unlike our brothers and sisters before us, we are not being tortured for our beliefs. We are not isolated or quarantined in a camp or arena or gulag for the crime of being Christian and gathering as Church.

This year’s penance is tough, but not brutal. Inconvenient, but not debilitating. Full of anxiety and frustration, but not filled with unending agony.

So it is kindly. Yet also severe enough, so that we do not take for granted our Easter joy, our gathering as community, our built-in need not just to chat but to talk face to face, and most of all not just to see but to be—with each other.

The severity is just hard enough so that our appetites might be re-adjusted—so that we may itch less for momentary diversions, and long much more for the one thing needful, the thing that truly makes for our enduring peace. So that we truly hunger and thirst for the Righteous One, as He gives Himself into our bodies in the Eucharist; and thereby hunger and thirst to be righteous, and just, in our dealings with others.

In this Lent, we are more and more like the multitude in today’s Gospel. They also follow Jesus into the wilderness. They follow because they trust He will not lead them astray. They follow because long to receive whatever He chooses to give.

They were without food in the wilderness. Not by their choice, but because Our Lord leads them there. Yet they were sustained by being with Our Lord, being hearing His teaching, by receiving His grace.

No doubt, Our Lord is letting us live through this time in order to give us the opportunity to find our true shelter in Him. And to acknowledge that, on the big things, we are not in control. That we need to turn our eyes, our minds, and our hearts not inward but outward and upward, knowing that, in the end, all we have and all we are comes from His gracious hand.

This crowd of more than 5000 show us how to live this kindly penance. Their appetites are whetted by their hunger; and ours by this uncommon means of penance. Yet they teach us to live in hope; to live knowing that Our Lord, as He always does, will come through.

As Pascha approached for these folks, as their hearts and minds were more and more attuned to the coming feast, Our Lord determined to feed them. And with more than enough. But it’s not about food. It’s about the bread. The Bread from Heaven, the Living Bread, which is Our Lord.

  • Who does not disappoint us in our hope.
  • Who satisfies our longing.
  • Who renews our life.
  • Who increases our joy.

That happens, most clearly, in the Holy Eucharist. But our hope, our life, and our joy is also fed, especially during these strange days, when we immerse ourselves more and more in prayer. When we draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. When we, in earnest prayer, draw near to God so that He may draw near to us.

Drawing near to God, and God drawing near to us: that is what must feed us now.

Not next Sunday, perhaps not this Easter, but soon this kindly penance will lift. And if we use this time rightly, if we take advantage of this long Lent, then we will relish the prayer we sing each morning:

Soon will that day, thy day, appear
And all things with its brightness cheer:
We will rejoice in it, as we
Return thereby to grace and thee.

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Incarnation & Disease

Our present situation is part of why God became man.

The primary reason, of course, is so that we might have communion with God, so that we might live in a close intimate relationship with God, so that we might behold God as he is, in the same way that he knows us as we are. He knows us as we are because God became man; which means that he took into Himself all that we are in our humanity, without sin. Even the result of sin—our vulnerability, our contingency, our need to be healed, our death—every weakness that we have in our mortal condition; all of this God in Christ took into Himself. And he did this so that we might know him and behold him as he is in his heavenly kingdom.

That is the primary reason God became man. That is the primary reason we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord; the day when God was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and so became incarnate.

The secondary reason is our present situation. Not just our situation where we are deprived of the goods that we are so used to, the goods that we take advantage of, the goods we take for granted. Our present situation is more dire than that.

Our present situation is that we take God for granted—the Good that he is; the Good from which all good things find their source; the Good that we falsely believe is our right; the Good that we too often take for granted.

In order to rescue us from our present situation—not simply the Coronavirus, or the threat of death, or the loss of economic security, or the shaking of our sure footing—more importantly, to rescue us from the deprivation of our life in God—that is also why God became man. Why He was conceived in the womb of the virgin. Why He was incarnate.

God saw that we were slowly killing ourselves; and that we were scared to death, and therefore moving not toward Him as our Life, but away from Him in irrational fear. He saw that we were threatened—and worse yet, that our very existence, our Life in Him, was threatened. The very things that He had made good, we now in absurd fear turned against ourselves. The very things that He gave us to sustain life, we now handed over to death.

Seeing all this, seeing that we were mindlessly digging our own hell—God determined to have mercy on us. He pitied us as a father pities His misguided children, and so He stepped in. But when He stepped in, Our Lord did not force us to turn back to Him. He did not erase our ability to turn away from Him. But by becoming one of us, one with us, Christ Jesus made our way of escape, and gave us the strength to escape with Him and in Him. And He does this by taking as His own a body, a physicality, a materialness, that is foreign to His nature. And by granting that body the capability of communing with God and in God—that is His incarnation. And that is what we celebrate.

So, as many of the church fathers say today with certainty, today is the celebration of the beginning of our salvation. For Our Lord’s suffering and death and resurrection, His experience of our common condition with viruses and deprivation and death—that is possible, that is truly real, only because God assumes and takes into Himself all that makes us who we are.

And thus, taking from us our greatest weaknesses, receiving from us the capability to die, and putting all of this to death in Himself, Our Lord Jesus offered our human nature, cured and purged, to His Father because He was in love with all humans.

Let us not take for granted this great gift. Let us not, in our present situation, get so caught up in fear and anxiety that we lose sight of the greater good from our good God. And the greater good is this—that while we may, for a while, endure a ‘penance kindly, but severe;’ although we may, for a while, be deprived of our usual life—all of this our kindly Lord knows, and assumed, so that He might bring us back to Him; more so, so that He might give us greater and worthier gifts.

To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and forever, world without end.

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Sheltering-in-Place during Lent: A Homily

I am sure it doesn’t feel like it, but sheltering ourselves in place can really help us—not  just physically, by avoiding or spreading the virus. Best of all, sheltering can help us spiritually, with our Lenten discipline. For, really, what is Lent about? It’s about cleaning our spiritual house by increasing our prayers, by working on self-control, and by living less inside ourselves and more outward toward others. When we are safe-at-home, we can do that: by spending less time on our self-serving passions, and by spending more time in prayer and in reaching out to others.

Cleaning our spiritual house: that’s what today’s Gospel describes. For Jesus doesn’t simply heal a man. He casts out a devil. And when the devil is cast out, the man is healed. Or, to say it another way, Our Lord re-calibrates the man and cleans out the spiritual clutter the devil brings, so that this man may now live more fully focused on and devoted to the Lord.

And if we use these weeks wisely, if we use them as a Lenten exercise, Our Blessed Lord can help us achieve the same: re-calibration with a more focused, more devoted life in Him.

To do that, we need to see these days not as a nuisance but as a blessing; not as something that keeps us away from our normal routine, but as hours and days and weeks that allow us to pull closer to Christ. Not as minutes and hours and days that need to be filled, but as more time for prayer, more time for spiritual reading, more time for developing good habits, and more time to live outside ourselves.

But there are two dangers. The first is that we’ll agree with the sentiment but fritter away the time. And that will happen if we see this as a vacation. Or if we get wrapped up in our fears and anxieties. Or if we wonder why others aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. When we do that, we’re wasting our time on things that do not edify or strength us spiritually.

Let us, instead, spend our energy on reading the Scriptures, on praying with our family, and on making ourselves available, as much as our situation allows.

The second danger is that we’ll actually see these days as a great blessing, we’ll actually immerse ourselves more and more in prayer for others, we’ll actually grow closer in our relationship with the Lord—and then we’ll go back to business-as-usual once the crisis passes.

That’s the greater danger. And it’s the danger Our Lord warns us about in today’s Gospel. For He tells us, in effect, that Lenten house cleaning should be done not for its own sake, but to make more room in our daily routine for our Lord. For when we do Lent just because it’s Lent, then we’ve actually made things worse. For then it’s one step forward during Lent, and two steps back after Easter.

One response to this danger is to say to ourselves, “So, why even bother beginning? Why do Lent at all if there’s the possibility that we’ll backslide? And why make meaningful, spiritual use of our sheltering time if I already know that I won’t keep it up when life gets back to normal?”

The better response, however, is to establish a new normal: where more prayer becomes the new norm; where living for the end becomes our new way of living.

When we do that—when Lent becomes our way of life—then Christ, the Stronger Man, not only overthrows the strong devil; Christ Jesus also then moves in and makes His home in us. Which is what we should want. And what we should aim for, especially now as we have the time, the blessing of time not spent on the freeways, the blessing of time to say more prayers and live more in love with our Father.

These sheltering days—they really can be a blessing if we use them wisely, in prayer and attentiveness to Our Lord, to those who suffer, for those who are first-responders, and in supplication for our city, state, nation, and all humanity.

Through the prayers of the Holy Mother of God, and of all the saints, may our Father have mercy on us and, by His grace, lead us in these days closer to Him; who lives and reigns with His Son, our Hope and Salvation, together with His all-Holy and Life-Giving Spirit; now and for ever, world without end.

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