Who Has Heard Such Things?

Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord
Midnight Mass Homily

Something strange has happened.

A virgin gives birth yet retains her virginity.
A mother bears a child before she is in labor.
A woman delivers a son but suffers no birth pangs.
A child is born, but no blood is shed.
A son begins his life yet has no earthly father.

Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?

God, who has no beginning, is born of a human mother.
Him, whom the whole cosmos cannot contain, comes forth from his mother’s womb.
The Word through whom all things were made make Himself one of His own creatures.

God becomes one of us.
To suffer our pains
To be tempted like we are
To experience our sorrows
To feel our hurts
To endure our weakness
To die our death.

He takes on our every weakness, He is vulnerable like we are
In order to exchange our death for His life
In order to swap our sickness for His healing
In order to trade our apathy for His love.

So, the holy child is born—something strange indeed.
The Son of God is human—remarkable, earth-shattering, and strange.

And this is all for you. For your good.
To relieve you in your distress
To comfort you in your anxiety
To aid you in your hardship
To console you in your fear
To gladden you in your misery
To encourage you in your time of need
To forgive your secret sins; and
To save you from yourself and everything that threatens you.

For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, the grace of God—God Himself—in flesh like yours, like mine.

The grace that is God appears as a child to rescue us from ourselves by being the rescue we don’t even think we need.

This God of all grace settles down and lives not just among us, but in skin and bones like ours, so that He might both experience what we go through and, even better, bring us closer, into a most intimate union, with Himself and His Father in the Holy Spirit.

And so the God of all grace—the Ideal Man, the Human we were designed to be—He is born to invite you to sit with Him in heavenly places.

Imagine that—
material beings sitting in the immaterial heaven
souls encased in flesh sitting with, and above, the bodiless spirits
lives that can choose to love now being chosen to reside in Love Himself.

Christ is born so that you can share in His eternal glory.
Christ is born so that you may live as God.

For even though we die, because of His birth we get to be sons of the Most Highest
Born as He was—by an act of love and grace
Born as He was—by the will of the Father
Born as He was—into life everlasting.

And so, Christ is born, in order to restore, establish, perfect, strengthen and settle you.
And Christ is born, so that you might live for higher things
For the blessed hope
To see, with your eyes, God Himself
And to live in a love that exceeds your imagination

And so, God is born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem us who are slaves to the law of sin and death.

This is a strange thing indeed.

And it is a miracle greater than medicines, or even resuscitation from the dead, or anything else that we think is so great.

This is the miracle of God breaking into our world,
Not to break us, but to restore us
Not to punish us, but to shower us with His kindness
Not to threaten us or guilt us, but to love us into Himself.

Rejoice, then. For Christ is born!
Not just then, but also now.
Not just for them, but for you.
Not just in that place, but here on this altar, so that He might be born also in your heart.

So let us all rejoice with the angels, glorifying God.
For God has done what we could never have thought to do.

And with the birth of His Son, He has bent the laws of nature to our advantage.

Rejoice then, all who have been justified freely by grace.
It is the birthday of the just one!
Rejoice, all who were weak and sick.
It is the birthday of the Savior, the Healer!
Rejoice, all who are captive to their own ungodly desires.
It is the birthday of the Redeemer who makes your way of escape!
Rejoice, all who are enslaved to fear and anxiety.
It is he birthday of the One who comforts and settles you!
Rejoice, all who are freed from sin and fear.
It is the birthday of the One who set you free!
Rejoice, all who are weighed down.
It is the birthday of the One who bears and carries and takes away your burdens.
Rejoice, all who are confused about your place in life.
It is the birthday of the Beloved Son who invites you to live in and through Him!
Rejoice, all who feel worthless and unloved.
It is the birthday of the One who, in baptism, sets you as the Beloved of the Father who takes pleasure in you as you are.
Rejoice, all who suffer in hardship or distress.
It is the birthday of the One who born to relieve and revive you!
Rejoice, every Christian.
It is the birthday of Christ!

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Waiting for the Savior

A homily for the First Sunday in Advent

Luke 21.25-33

We are waiting for the Savior. These words from St Paul to the Philippians perfectly fit the Advent mood the Church wishes to inculcate in us. So these are words we should do more than simply hear and then nod our heads. We are waiting for the Savior should be a motto to live by, a simple sentence that shapes every decision, every desire.

We are waiting for our Savior, Christ Jesus. So let us wait not down hearted, not in dread. And certainly not nonchalantly, unconcerned, with detachment, without forethought, and not as an agreeable thought that never affects our daily routine. But we get to wait with uplifted hearts, uplifted heads, with eager expectation, with joyful anticipation. And with the excitement, the confidence, the belief that our Lord is coming, and that his advent will usher us into a better world.

So, let us wait with hope, believing that our Lord’s arrival will bring us good things. That is what hope is: believing that good things await us in the life to come.

Our weakness, and so our challenge, is that we don’t really wait. At least not for the Lord. And not for his imminent return or arrival. Most days it’s the furthest thing from our mind, a barely noticed twinge in our hearts. And when the Lord’s advent comes into our minds, when someone or some event reminds us of this possibility, then as quickly as it enters, we push the thought out. Why? On the one hand, we’d rather not be reminded of our mortality, that our days are numbered and will end. On the other hand, we don’t want to face the truth that we’re living our life in the wrong direction – head down, focused by the things that break, fade, mold; and diverted from the things that truly matter most.

And so, we impatiently seek happiness in the affairs of this present life. Instead of looking up, setting our eyes on Jesus, we make every effort to snatch the prizes this world offers: prizes that really do us no lasting good. We gladly receive the goods this life offers while rarely acknowledging and thanking the Giver. We do not truly look for the good and perfect gift that comes from the Father of lights, but instead we think we’ve stumbled upon the good life because of what our hands have worked for and our minds have done.

Blessed are the women and men who take no notice of the spurious and empty foolishness that this world falsely promises. Blessed are those who are able to live beyond the things that distract, beyond the misspent desires, beyond the misdirected loves. These are blessed because they know it is better to become humble with the meek than to share in the vain promises of the proud, the greedy, and the powerful.

Those are truly blessed who say not just with their lips but deeply within themselves, “The Lord is my portion so I will wait for him. The Lord is good to everyone that trusts in him and longs for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good to sit quietly readying the soul to greet the Lord.”

The first step in waiting for the Lord is to deny yourself, to deny your flesh by fasting and prayer. There are other steps. But this first step of fasting coupled with prayer cannot be skipped or done halfheartedly if you truly wish to await the Lord’s advent. For this first step gives you the strength and courage to lift up your head above all the things in this life.

Lift up your head means, live not for the peace and contentment this world can never give. To lift up your head means to live for the best life, the life in God, where everything we have is a gift—not something we have to dwell on, or strive for. But all is a gift given to always directs our heart and mind and whole being in thanksgiving towards God.

We are waiting, St Paul says, because our citizenship is not here but in heaven. We are waiting because we believe that this life is a prelude that trains and sets our way for the life to come. And so, we wait with the confidence that our abiding place is in heaven, from where our Savior will come in order to bring us into himself. And then we will be able to say with Isaiah: “Behold, this is our God; We have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the Lord; We have waited for Him; We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

That was the hope of the Old Testament church. They waited with joy and gladness for the salvation that the Christ child would come to bring. Certainly they wavered, oftentimes they got lost. But when they leaned into the Lord’s promises, they were eager for his advent. His first advent. In the manger. In our flesh. On our earth.

His second advent will not be all that different. In our flesh, on our earth, our Lord will come to let us see and understand fully and without hesitation what he has already accomplished in his first advent. He will come not so much to complete, but to help us see what has always been. He will come to give the fullness of the gifts he has already given, a fullness that we have if only we believe. Rare saints have been blessed with seeing this Lord’s coming, saints like John the Evangelist when he saw what the Lord’s coming looks like, and described it in the book of the Revelation. The record of John’s vision is this: everything we think that matters here and now will fall away and be displaced with the unending glorious Mass where nothing can harm or threaten or frighten.

When will this day occur? When you and I, individually, have been given a time for true repentance. For that is what the Lord awaits. He waits, he delays—not to toy with us, not to build character within us, but so that we might be truly ready when he comes. Time for true repentance for many of us, for myself especially, takes a long time. For true repentance is not about feeling guilty or constantly apologizing. True repentance is living in gratitude for the Lord coming into this place, this church, where his kingdom comes, so that we together might receive his flesh and blood in order to give courage and faith to our weakened body and soul.

So, the day of the Lord’s second advent begins with the reception of his body – the body he assumed from us in his first advent, in the manger, in Bethlehem.

Waiting for Christ, then, begins here at the altar. Where we practice for heaven. Where we learn to lay aside all earthly cares—all tweets and buzzes and notifications and messages and ring tones—that force our head down. The more we can disengage, the more we will be living toward the end, and for the end—in the time of true repentance, with heads and hearts uplifted.

May Christ our true God, by his Holy Spirit, grant us time, and the godly desire to desire his advent. To whom, by the prayers of the saints, belongs all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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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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Making Use of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God be gracious and merciful to us all.

-Fr John

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Jesus in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ashes

An Ash Wednesday Homily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Other Guy

Matthew 20.1-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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