Homily for Sunday, February 5, 2017Published:
Two weeks ago, we had the gospel describing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and at the time we heard very dramatic language. Jesus’ coming was nothing less than a great light breaking upon a land that before had been in perpetual gloom. It shone upon a people who had been accustomed to living and walking in darkness, and it was utterly captivating. In Jesus, people could see that they were meant for far more than just a humdrum existence, that there was far more to life than just surviving and moving through another day, that God’s plans for them were life not death, that each of them has the potential to receive the glory of being a child of God. And He showed them what that looked like. As the gospel of John says, what came to be through Jesus was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
What is this darkness? It is a darkness of not knowing how to live in a way that produces enduring joy, and instead pursuing transient pleasures, that only end in emptiness and pain. It is a darkness of not knowing how to be fed by God, and so eating food that is unsatisfying and unnourishing. It is a darkness marked by anguish and distress, and all the human sufferings of the heart. Ultimately such darkness is caused by humanity’s turning away from God, and looking at other things instead. As St. Augustine famously said, our hearts are restless, until they rest in you, O God. Now it is true, human beings are also very capable of causing anguish and distress to each other. But the person in this case has first turned away from God, as a necessary precondition. And then he or she is simply spreading the darkness that is within them to others, in the same way that we can spread the light that is within us to others. And so, it leads to the same conclusion: ultimately the cause of spiritual darkness is a human being’s turning away from God. How often it is that human beings fall into darkness. As in the time of Jesus, so it happens today as well.
And thus we have today’s readings. They are our marching orders as followers of Christ, the great Light of the human race. The problem before us is that when people fall into darkness, it is often the case that they cannot find the light on their own. Someone has to show them the light. Someone has to bring them the light. In God’s plan, that someone is us. Jesus came first and showed us how to do it, and now He asks us to do the same.
What does a human being that bears the light of Christ within them look like? What is it that we are supposed to be like? That is the teaching of our first reading today and of many other scriptures. The person who bears the light of God within them does not seek to take advantage of others or to use others for selfish purposes, which is the complete opposite of love. This person opposes and does not tolerate oppression, the cruel and unjust treatment of others. This person does not engage in false accusation and lies about others. This person does not engage in malicious speech: gossip and detraction about others, either for ridiculing amusement or revenge. This person acknowledges God before others, and is not ashamed of identifying themselves as a follower of Christ. This person speaks with wisdom, not foolishness. This person, in engaging with other people, leaves them better off for having had the encounter, imparting goodness, peace, and joy to others, and in some cases even healing. This person is charitable and generous with people around them, especially those in any need, because ultimately this person is a child of their Father in heaven, and is therefore filled with the love that comes from their Heavenly Father.
So, when we leave this church, and go out among the world, engaging all of the people whom we encounter, family, friends, and strangers, do we shine? Perhaps one danger is that we simply extinguish ourselves when we leave here, and blend in with others, even those who live in darkness. After all, it can be difficult to stick out and draw attention to oneself. In certain circles, it might even make one unpopular. And the fear of rejection is a very real fear. And so people do cover themselves with a bushel basket, and pretend to be as unlit as all of the people around them. To those who would do that Jesus says: your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. For they are depending on you to see the light. If they do not see it in you, they may not see it at all.
But another possibility is that we are not actually fully lit yet, perhaps we are burning only dimly. Apart from Christ, the world can be a cold place, and if we separate ourselves from Christ, we can indeed become dim or even extinguished. To be a true light in the world, we must become light itself. Jesus said, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a great fire of love in the heart of Christ. It is the true source of His light. If we are to be lights, we must spend time close to the fire that is Christ. The flame of his heart will melt our hearts, even if they be of ice or stone, and they too will ignite. There is nothing that can resist the force of His love. The more time we spend in spiritual reading, in thinking about God, in talking to God, in helping God in our neighbors, the more time we will be spending close to the fire of Christ’s love, and the more blazing we will be. If we are fully ablaze, we will be like the saints, who are nothing less than direct extensions of Christ’s love present in the world. Their impact in the world is like that of sparks passing through stubble. Everything they touch catches on fire. That is nothing less than the impact that each of us can have, is called to have on the people around us.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus today tells us that we are to be the light of the world. As in the days of Christ, there are many people today who walk in darkness. Will we do our part to shine and show them a different way? Or will we leave them in the darkness? The choice is ours.
Homily for Sunday, January 15, 2017Published:
Brother Gregory Marshall, O.S.B.
January 15, 2017
We have, Brother Gregory, at last arrived at the day of your solemn profession, when you wish to make the words of our Holy Father Benedict at the conclusion of the Prologue to his Rule once and for all your own: “Never serving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” By happy coincidence you are making your profession on the day we commemorate the first two disciples of St. Benedict, whose names are known to us, Sts. Maur and Placid. May they, and all other who have gone before us on this way, be your examples, your intercessors and your companions.
You have, of course, reached this day only with the help of many others. First of all, we – and you especially – owe an inestimable debt of gratitude to your family whom we are happy to have with us today, and especially to your mother and father. Our community is most grateful to you, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall and Joseph. We have your son and brother, Andrew, as our Brother Gregory first and foremost of all because of you; and we have reason to suspect that at times you were called upon to exercise significant amounts of patience and love. We owe likewise a significant debt of gratitude to Father Bill, who brought you into communion with the Catholic Church and who has, likewise with great skill and patience, encouraged you on your way and has come to celebrate with you and with our community today. It may, of course, a case of “seeing is believing” on his part. Special thanks are likewise due to Father Elias and Brother Tobiah, who have been entrusted with the important responsibility of forming you and others in our monastic way of life, and thanks are due as well to our monks in formation, who through you and for you have come to a more profound appreciation of these aforementioned words of St. Benedict: “We shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ.”
By happy coincidence again, the readings from Sacred Scripture assigned by the church to this Sunday prove uniquely apt for this celebration. As we learn through our cultivation of lectio divina, we are not to return continually only to those passages which are our favorites, which perhaps comfort rather than challenge us. Instead, we are to be open to the Word of God as it is addressed to us in its fullness, for our instruction and correction.
The response for the Psalm today is especially fitting for the occasion: Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will. You have indeed come to this day when you wish to bind yourself irrevocably to do God’s will. It has not been an easy journey, and has taken many turns and involved many flights from that will. But something has continued to draw you: to Baptism, to communion with the Catholic Church. Jim Day brought you one day, now a good number of years ago, to Belmont Abbey, and here you continued to return – and to run away. But four years ago you returned for one final time and, at last, with the help of many brothers, faced the pain and fear that comes with not running. And now we have arrived at this day.
But days of arrival are also days of new departures. For this day is only a beginning. For the words: I come to do your will, so noble and beauty are yet terrible, for God’s will demands a response that St. Benedict tells us must be neither “cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness.” These words I come to do your will are indeed attractive to us, and we are generally willing to give something to them – but they demand we give all, and that terrifies us. You have spent a good part of your life running from that prospect of giving all, as have we all at various points in our lives, finding a variety of escapes in order to forget and not listen. But the inevitable unhappiness and total misery that brings make it unavoidably clear that it is only by letting go at last to those last things we want to hold onto for ourselves and giving in totally to God’s will that we will find any lasting happiness and peace. And so you have arrived at today, and the difficult path of a lifetime of conversion is set to begin. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will. Truly making these words your own will demand far more sacrifice and difficulty that you have yet experienced. For God’s will demands our entire self without reservation, so that we may be reformed entirely anew in the image of the one who created us. You will learn the dire import of the Lord’s words: From one to whom much has been entrusted, much will be required. You will continually have to learn and relearn the sacrifice and discipline and patience that authentic love requires. We, your confreres, will give you infinite opportunities to do so.
You are, in the Apostle’s words to us today, called to be holy. And this is not just for yourself. It is for the salvation of the world. The words of the prophet, addressed once long ago to the People of Israel are directed today to you and to each of us here: I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Everyone baptized in Christ is sent to make God’s salvation known. You are committing yourself to the prayer, life and work of this abbey which, for one hundred and forty years has been building up the church in North Carolina, for monastic life, as any Christian life, must be evangelical. The monastery evangelizes by the witness of its very existence and life. By its very existence the monastery challenges the larger church community and the greater human community with its message that the Lord is God and Him alone are we to serve, and challenges people to consider the meaning and purpose of their life and their ordering of priorities. Through a life dedicated totally to seeking God in prayer, and by forming a community of men of the most varied ages, backgrounds, temperaments, personalities and weaknesses held in unity by the grace of Jesus Christ, the monastery strives to live the Great Commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind…you shall love your neighbor as yourself. By fidelity to the vows you are about to profess and by ceaselessly striving for holiness of life, you are to bring the light of God’s salvation to others, to us, your confreres, first; and then with us, to all who come.
Finally, the words of John the Baptist in today’s gospel sum up for us succinctly the entire meaning and purpose of our monastic life: Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God. The entire way of life Our Holy Father Benedict has outlined for us in his Rule is centered on Jesus Christ, the Savior who takes away the sin of the world and brings us back to his Father in the power of the Spirit. At the very beginning of his Rule, Saint Benedict challenges us to return to Him from whom we have departed through the sloth of disobedience by taking up the “strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” In that obedience, he instructs us to imitate the Lord, “of whom the Apostle says: He became obedient even to death,” and urges us to “conform to the saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. He challenges us to see Jesus Christ in those who are vulnerable, needy and weak; that is, in the guests who present themselves, especially the poor and pilgrims, in the sick, in the abbot. According to his Rule, We are to be so perfected in humility by the grace of Jesus Christ that we “will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear”, so that the virtue we once labored to acquire with difficulty we “will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.” His final words in his Rule to us, his sons, are: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
And so, if you are willing to entrust your life from this day forward without reservation or holding back to the boundless love and mercy of Jesus Christ, he will by his grace save you from your self-absorption and give you his own strength to obey what he commands, so that conformed by Christ and through Christ to the image of Christ, the Father will come to share with you that fullness of eternal life and love which he has always shared with His beloved Son from all eternity. If, therefore, trusting in the grace of Jesus Christ alone, you are willing to commit your life from now until your death to monastic life in this community according to the Rule of our blessed Father Benedict, I ask you to come forward and state your intention before God and His saints, and His holy people gathered here.
Homily for November 13, 2016Published:
In today’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the city of Jerusalem, and the disciples are impressed by the magnificence of the Temple there. Of course, the original Jewish Temple had been built by King Solomon and destroyed at the conquest by the Babylonians. The Temple being referred to in today’s gospel is the second Temple, built by King Herod the Great, in the first century before Christ. Temples come and go. According to the historian Josephus, Herod desired to perpetuate his name with great construction projects. In some ways it makes sense. After all, leaving behind permanent monuments to one’s existence seems like a good way to ensure one’s legacy. Of his many projects, Herod’s masterpiece was the Temple of Jerusalem. And elsewhere, in John’s gospel, it is mentioned in passing that the Temple had been under construction for forty-six years. It was truly a magnificent structure, a marvel of engineering in its time. Tacitus, another historian, speaks of the immense opulence of the temple. Among its treasures, there was a golden table, given by Pompey, and several golden vines of exquisite workmanship and immense size. As the disciples note today, the Temple was also adorned with costly stones and the many gifts people had brought to it in thanksgiving for divine favors that they had received. It was probably awe-inspiring, and likely not a few of the disciples thought it would last forever.
It is appropriate then, that Jesus uses this opportunity to give a lesson about the end of things. Jesus said, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” It is an important truth to keep in mind; all created things come to an end. There is a famous poem by Percy Shelley called Ozymandias. It goes as follows:
I met a traveler from an antique land, Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand, half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
There is an appointed time for everything: buildings, cities, nations, peoples. They each have their beginning, but they also each have their end. And as Jesus says, eventually even the earth will pass away. In the end, the only thing that is timeless and enduring is God. Whatever God does will endure forever. And the word of God will not pass away.
Of course, the end of things applies to us as well. The Bible reminds us often of our mortality as human beings. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. The dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Fittingly, Jesus’s words about the destruction of the Temple, could be applied to us as well. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For those who are young, and in excellent health, they might even think of their bodies in the way people spoke of the Temple in Jerusalem: strong, magnificent, well adorned, and inspiring admiration. And yet the days will come when not a cell will be a left upon a cell in your body, that will not be separated. For the young, such a reality seems very far away. But life is uncertain, and we know not the day or the hour when it will end.
Why would God ask us to think about these things? Assuredly, the intent is not to be morbid or depressing. Rather, I think one purpose is to encourage us toward a freedom of spirit. The danger for human beings is to believe that anything on Earth lasts forever, and then overly to rely on it, to become dependent on it. Even great temples and nations are built and destroyed in their time. If we are too attached to something that is not permanent, eventually it will result in us being affected by anxiety and fear that we will lose it, and depression if we do lose it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about people and things. We should strive for and love good things and good people, as the Lord has given them to us. But everything in its proper context. If we love and depend on God first, then we have an anchor of stability in our lives, if and when we lose other things. Then we will have the ability to say with Job, the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
And there is also an agility of spirit and purpose to which we are called by God. The transience of all things will become more and more real for us, as we age. We may lose longtime friends and companions, either from distance or by death. We may lose material possessions. We may lose abilities, opportunities, and good health that were once available to us. But through all of these changes, we are called to understand that in every new circumstance of life in which we find ourselves, there is God. In every circumstance of life in which we find ourselves, we have our tasks and work to do alongside God, those good things that we are capable of doing. In life, there is no dead end. There is no point where we have nothing else to do. If we can no longer do what we once did, what is God calling us to do now? The challenge for us is that of continuing discernment. And the call of God to do new and different things is a continual blessing for us. Ultimately, working with God is life-giving for us and for others. The tragedy is not if we have something to do; we are happier and more fulfilled when we can make a contribution. No, the true tragedy is if we are unwilling to do something different, and refuse God’s invitation. So, are we agile enough in our spirit to respond to God if He calls us to do something new and different?
In this Eucharist, we pray for the grace to count our days aright, to know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart. And, may we be free to love and serve God in all of the changing circumstances of our life. Amen.
Homily for August 28, 2016Published:
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time “C”
I suspect we all spend a good amount of time and energy wondering what others think about us – our friends, supervisors, teachers, coaches, neighbors – and try to present ourselves in the best way possible so that these people think well of us. There is a whole advertising and fashion industry built on convincing us that, if we wear the right clothes, drive the right cars, etc. people automatically will think well of us. We do, of course, live in a culture which thrives on the superficial. We are even treated to the rather bizarre spectacle in these days of candidates for political office seeking to convince the voters that they have the experience and wisdom to safeguard our government and society by seeking endorsement by popular celebrities in the fields of entertainment and sports who have no recognizable expertise in the weighty issues facing us, and whose lifestyle often cautions against entrusting anything of value to them.
In the midst of all this, do I ever stop to take account of what God thinks about me? In the end, that is, of course, the only opinion that will matter. And God sees the heart. No amount of superficialities will ever blind God’s penetrating gaze.
This is the challenge presented to us, I believe, by the emphasis on humility in the instruction given us by the Word of God today. It is a virtue largely absent from consideration in the culture. And yet, next Sunday, September 4, thousands of people will be in Rome to celebrate the elevation by Pope Francis of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to the number of the saints -a woman who arrested the world’s attention by her simplicity and humility.
So, do we ever consider the virtue of humility? Certainly our first reading today recommends it and promises that, through humility, we will be loved and will find favor with God. St. Benedict, in his Rule, takes up humility in what is by far his longest chapter, giving twelve steps or signs that one is acquiring the virtue of humility. When all is said in done, I believe that true humility means that we see ourselves as God sees us. Since God can never be deceived and is Truth itself, to see ourselves as God sees us means that we have a true and accurate knowledge of ourselves, and thus can live truthfully, and thus can find peace.
St. Benedict’s first step of humility is that we keep the fear of God always before our eyes, and he tells us that to do that we have to keep our thoughts in order and struggle against our self-will. If we wish to develop this virtue, we have to be mindful, in the first place, of two things: we are creatures, and we are redeemed sinners. We are therefore entitled to nothing, but have received everything freely from God’s love and mercy. The minute we start to think that God owes us something, or that we can go ahead and chose what we want without concern whether it is what God wants, we set ourselves up for emptiness, unhappiness and disappointment. But we tend to do that all the time because, well, everyone else is doing it; or, since we allege it is not nearly as bad as what others are doing, God should let us get away with it. After all, no one got hurt – physically.
Thus one important component of humility is our recognition of our limitations and weaknesses. We all have them, and will have them for a lifetime. There are two challenges which arise from our weaknesses. On the one hand, we can ignore our weaknesses and fail to take seriously their amazing ability insidiously and surreptitiously to take control of our actions so that, almost without knowing it, our life becomes controlled by our vices. On the other, we can be overwhelmed by them and begin to think that we are hopelessly bad people and so give up on the quest for goodness. Authentic humility acknowledges that we have weaknesses, that we have sinned, yet also confesses that God loves sinners and has never stopped loving me. As the Apostle says: God proves His love for us in this; that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Thus true humility can give me the courage to acknowledge my sins and vices and not let them control my life; and true humility can keep me from losing heart, because it keeps me confident of God’s never-ending love and forgiveness for me, a sinner.
So humility has something to do with acknowledging our weakness. But to stop there would be to have an incomplete, a distorted understanding of humility. Too often we find people thinking that humility has something to do with self-abasement, with deflecting praise, with pretend that we are not really as good as we know we are. That is not true humility.
Someone who is truly humble can easily acknowledge gifts; can admit calmly that he or she does some things very well, perhaps better than most people; that he or she is talented. If the person has the virtue of humility, he will also acknowledge that all these gifts and talents are gifts from God. By acknowledging them and developing them, he is not being proud, but is giving praise and thanks to the giver of the gift. These gifts and talents do not make us a better human being than others, but they do give us a responsibility to use these gifts for others.
This is why I believe true humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us, in other words, to see ourselves truthfully, as we really are, and to live in accord with that truth. A truly humble person is centered and integrated, and is so aware of both his faults and his talents, that he does not need to depend on the often shallow and passing approval of others – like the people seeking the first place in today’s gospel. Rather, we can acknowledge, that, as we have just heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, by God’s grace and baptism we have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven… Let us, then, in all humility, live this truth.
Let me conclude with the final verses of St. Benedict’s chapter seven, on humility, for he outlines for us a beautiful vision of the perfection of humility which God can, and wishes, to work in each one of us: “Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear. Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vices and sins.”
Homily for August 15, 2016Published:
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
We join the whole church today in celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. It is fitting that we gather here at this abbey, dedicated to the Mother of God, the Help of Christians. Falling as it does each year in the midst of preparations for the beginning of a new school year, this feast is likewise a fitting opportunity to seek the intercession of the Mother of God for the work we are about to enter into together.
One thing we should not do is think that we are somehow benefitting the Blessed Mother by our celebration, as though somehow we could contribute to her happiness, add to her blessedness or confer some honor or benefit. For she, having entered into the radiant joy of that eternal life to come and, truly full of grace, the very life of God who is life, cannot receive any increase to the fullness of life and love she has received as first among the redeemed. Rather, our celebration can increase our joy, as we see the fulfillment of what we, too, hope one day to receive. For we, like Mary, have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. She, who of all human beings was most closely united with her Son in his passion and death, is also the one most closely united with him in his resurrection, so that, having passed through death, she is the first to share fully in the resurrection of the dead. For if we profess with the divinely inspired Scriptures that God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ…raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-6), and believe that in Jesus Christ’s created human body, in which he ascended into heaven, we see the anticipation of the resurrection of our own body, what we are celebrating in the Blessed Virgin Mary is simply the fulfillment of our faith. Indeed, today’s feast is the celebration of those truths we hold and profess in faith.
In the first place, we are invited simply to marvel at this revelation of God, the Most Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is living, creative love. Mary’s dignity as Mother of God, and her assumption body and soul into heaven, are signs of God’s free and sovereign choice in love. Today’s celebration, therefore, is a reminder to us of the free gift of life and of eternal life given to us, through no merit or deserving of our own. We too, like Mary, have received the pledge of eternal life; a pledge guaranteed to us by God’s grace. We have only to accept it and hold fast to it. So often we lose our focus and see only the trials and difficulties facing us. We are invited today to join in Mary’s song of praise: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… for He who is mighty has done great things for me. We are invited today to contemplate and to return thanks for our many and abundant blessings, especially the gift of eternal life, which itself alone outweighs whatever trials and difficulties come our way.
Our celebration today is a profession of faith in the very heart of the good news, the gospel, namely that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, as we were reminded in our second reading. This is not some detached intellectual assertion, but takes concrete form in the celebration of the life of Blessed Mary, body and soul, in heaven. In Mary, the first of those saved by Christ, the resurrection of Jesus Christ shines forth in the restoration of the beauty of creation from the death and destruction of sin. For the Lord’s resurrection, realized now in his mother, reveals to us the meaning of our own life. In the face of the so many things which would try to convince us of the meaninglessness of our existence, of the lack of any real purpose to life, our celebration reminds us that we have a destiny beyond the short space of time of this life. The celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a concrete expression of the profession we will shortly make in making in the Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” In Mary, that which we profess has become a reality. However, in the midst of our busy lives, in the weakness of our sinfulness, we can all too easily lose a right perspective on things. We become caught up in the immediacy of demands which may not really be all that important. Time and time again, we are tempted to chose short-lived gratifications, and we thus forfeit lasting joys. We are invited today to consider our life in the perspective of that life which is to come, to examine our priorities and, if necessary, to set them again in proper order. We are given the opportunity to look at our life and see whether we are living in a manner worthy of the call we have received to be disciples of Jesus, whether we are doing our best to fulfill the vocation which is ours at this time.
Finally, our celebration today is an encouragement to us not to lose heart in our struggle to live our faith with integrity. In our first reading, from the Book of Revelation, the woman clothed with the sun, about to give birth, represents both the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the church. The sign of the great red dragon with the seven heads and ten horns, waiting to devour the child the woman is about the bear, presents for us in vivid imagery the continual and deadly struggle in which we must engage with the power of evil. As the Scripture warns us: Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens (Eph. 6:12). We know only too well the reality of the struggle, realized in our constant battle with temptation and sin. Furthermore, in the world in which we live, evil, always deceitful, can seem to have the upper hand, to prevail over goodness, justice, truth and love. The vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, assumed into heaven and made radiant with the glory of divine life, reminds us of the Apostle’s words: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are a nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us (Rom. 8:18). Her surpassing dignity as the Mother of God led her to stand at the foot of the cross and witness the barbaric execution of her only Son. Even after the indescribable joy of her Son’s resurrection, the Lord withdrew in his Ascension, and Mary had patiently to endure the trials and challenges of the first spread of the gospel, until at the time of his choosing, her Son called her to share in his triumph over the final enemy, death. Our celebration today strengthens us in our own struggles, and, in the face of the evil at work in the world, encourages us not to lose heart. Mary knew that He who is mighty had looked upon the lowliness of His handmaid. Trusting in His might, and not in her own weakness, she trusted that the Lord’s word to her would be fulfilled. Through her prayer and example may we be likewise trust.
Let us, therefore, rejoice in the blessings this feast prepares for us: the invitation to acknowledge our many blessings and to return thanks; the vision of that everlasting life and joy in store for all the redeemed, in light of which we can order our priorities aright; the encouragement to remain steadfast in trial, trusting in the power of our Savior and Lord. May the Mother of God and Help of Christians intercede unceasingly for this abbey and college, dedicated to her, and help us make of this new school year a fitting offering of praise to our good God.
Homily for August 14, 2016Published:
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In the readings today, it seems that we are being asked to think about persecution and division. Jeremiah faithfully conveys God’s message to the people of God, but some of them did not like the message, so they unjustly punished and imprisoned him. In the gospel, Jesus bluntly says that he has not come to establish peace on the earth, but rather that divisions will arise because of Him. These divisions will occur even within families, the unit of society within which one ironically might expect to find the greatest unity. Elsewhere in this same gospel of Luke, Jesus goes even further. He said, You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. And indeed, one who does not have a sword, should sell his cloak and buy one.
At the same time, Jesus has elsewhere also repeatedly expressed and conveyed peace to his disciples: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, peace be with you. How do we reconcile these statements? It certainly seems to be the case that the peace which Christ brings and gives to his followers is not “peace on the earth” and of the earth, but a different type of peace. He even says as much. He says, not as the world gives peace, do I give it to you. What is the difference? Jesus’ peace seems to be an interior peace. With Jesus’ peace, our hearts will not be troubled or afraid, and we will not be worried or anxious about many things. Jesus’ peace is also connected to our knowledge of where He is and what He has promised He will do. It is based therefore on faith in Jesus and hope of what is to come. Thus, when Jesus conveyed His peace to the disciples, He also said, “I am going away and I will come back to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father.” Since the peace that Jesus gives us comes from within, it can remain with us even when things around us do not go so well. Thus, it is not uncommon for holy men and women to express great happiness and peace in the midst of terrible external sufferings. In contrast, the world’s peace seems to be an external peace. It might be expressed by the proposition that if everything around human beings and in society is good, then human beings will be at peace with each other. However, reality does not seem to be so simple. When we attempt to base our peace solely on how things are around us, then we immediately face the problem of how unstable things are. Despite our best efforts, economies can crash, personal health can fail, accidents and disasters can destroy and kill; and we come to realize that we don’t have ultimate control over the things around us. Moreover, we are also taught, that from within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts: unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, and all the others. What cleanses and removes these from the heart is the grace of God and relationship with God, and not simply affluence or prosperity in society. And it is from all of these realizations that people can make statements such as: In a society where God is marginalized or forgotten, there will be no peace between people. And where Christ is not, there can be no peace. Where human beings reject God and no longer turn to Him in their hearts, there will arise all of the evils that have occurred in humanity through its history, because God in His love for us ultimately respects our free will either to accept or reject Him, and will not force us to follow Him. And since from the beginning, there have been those who reject God, hence there have been and continue to be divisions.
So, we recognize that Christ extends His peace to us, while also promising us that we will experience division with at least some other people, and even persecution. But perhaps more important than recognizing this reality, however, is knowing how to respond to it, and to this end, I offer a few reminders and suggestions. First is the admonition, do not return evil for evil, but conquer evil with good. Our response to division, opposition, and persecution, must not be evil in kind. This refusal on the part of Christians, to sink to the level and behavior of those who mistreat us, is one of the greatest witnesses to the world that we can give. And if we don’t, then we may lose our witness to Christ altogether. After all, if we love only those who love us, what good is there in that? Do not unbelievers do just as much? How are we then any different from them? But as we are told, be like your heavenly Father, who sends His blessings on the good and the bad. We ought to forgive those who persecute us. Pray for them. Greet them warmly. Be kind and generous to them, and not neglect them. Do we believe that good is greater than evil? Let us put this belief to the test and see if we cannot conquer evil with good, and thereby transform an enemy into a brother or sister in Christ.
Second, we need spiritually to equip ourselves for the battle, proverbially to sell our cloak and buy a sword. The sword of the Spirit, which we need to have, is the word of God. It is with the word of God that Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil, and with which Jesus also so often responded to his other accusers and persecutors. So, the more familiar we are with the word of God, the better we will be in this struggle, and it is incumbent upon us to continue to read, to study, and to learn the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, and never to stop doing so. There is always more for us to know, and the more we learn, the more we know about Christ. And let us not neglect our defense either. Our shied is our faith, our helmet is salvation, and our breastplate is righteousness. We should make sure that we are not persecuted for doing wrong, but rather, if we are persecuted, let it be for the sake of Christ. For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering for the sake of God, that is a grace.
Finally, we need to act with perseverance. When our actions do not yield immediate results, or at least results soon enough for our liking, we are often faced with the temptation to become discouraged and give up our efforts. In contrast, Jesus has taught us that it is necessary for us to pray always, without becoming weary. What can help us in this effort to not become weary is to remind ourselves what Christ endured, and to think about what has been promised to us. As our second reading today said, “Consider how Jesus endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” “For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” Where the head has gone before us, so we also hold fast in hope that we will follow.
In this Eucharist today, may we receive the grace more and more to seek our peace from Christ and not from the world, so that we may remain at peace even in the face of opposition and persecution. And may God allow us by his grace, increasingly to conquer evil with good, for the glory of His name. Amen.
Homily for August 7, 2016Published:
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time “C”
The message of the gospel today is urgent: Be prepared for the master’s return, for he will come at a time and a moment you least expect. Those found ready will enjoy the master’s favor, those not prepared will suffer the consequences.
But this message is actually one full of hope as it seeks to draw our attention back to the true priorities in life. Our problem is not so much that we are egregious sinners, but that, even with the best of intentions, our priorities can slip into the wrong order, almost without our being aware of it. Not only does each of us have so many things calling for our time and attention, but the culture is powerfully seductive, yet in so many ways absolutely opposed to the message of the gospel. The problem for us, and about which the Lord is warning us, is that living with the wrong priorities, even with good intention, inevitably brings bad consequences.
So the Lord reminds us that he is going to return. In a few minutes, we are going to say that we believe that when we recite the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” But do we really believe that? It is not that we do not have some concept of heaven as a good and desirable place, but that it seems so far away as to be almost unreal in comparison with the things which occupy our attention here and now. We are comfortable saying that we believe heaven exists, but what does that have to do with me?
Yet we know, all of us, only too well how fragile life is. There is no guarantee that you or I will live beyond today, though each of us is absolutely convinced that we will. But what will happen to you and to me if our life comes to an end today, tomorrow, this coming week? How confidently will we be able to stand before the Lord? What treasures have we stored up in that heavenly kingdom, where moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves do not break in and steal?
It is possible that the image of “storing up treasure” is a difficult one, suggesting that we are making some sort of heavenly deposit, disconnected from our life. But we are called to be transformed. The treasure we are to store up is our virtue and the goodness of our life. The best preparation for the master’s return, the best way to store up unfailing treasure is simply to be faithful to the calling, the vocation, each of us has received. Are the choices I make, the way I spend my time and resources, turning me into the man or woman I want to be, or are they at best wasting time, at worst dragging me in a direction further and further from what I ought to be?
Do I ever have time for prayer, to ask for guidance or to give thanks? Is God so present in my life through Mass and the sacraments that, when he does come, I will not be meeting a stranger? We are, after all, usually somewhat uncomfortable with total strangers.
Do I realize that the people in my life, my spouse, my children, my confreres, parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, are more important than the things I have or want? Do I ever take responsibility for what effect my actions may have on my friends – for good or for ill?
Am I willing to set aside my own carefully laid plans when suddenly and unexpectedly someone needs my time or assistance? Is charitable giving part of the way I regularly plan my spending?
In short, if I ask God whether He is well pleased with my life, will the answer be,”Yes”?
The urgency of today’s gospel is a reminder of God’s love, which is a very difficult thing for us to trust. But only if we have faith in God’s love and power can we ever keep our priorities straight. That is why the Lord asked us to celebrate this Eucharist in his memory until he comes again. For in this celebration, we have present the sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross in trusting obedience to his Father – something which seemed like utter disaster and defeat; and we have likewise the presence of the same Son of God, risen glorious from the dead, victor over the ultimate enemy, death.
And so, this week, keep in mind what would happen if we were to die in the course of the week. Do we have any treasure stored up?
Most of all, let us ponder whether we truly trust God’s love. Do not fear, little flock. It has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom. It is up to us to decide whether we wish to accept this gift. But if we have the kingdom, what else could we ever want?
Homily for July 24, 2016Published:
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time “C”, Sunday, July 24, 2016
Ps. 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
The Word of God today reveals God in a marvelous way, and we must be careful not to let this pass unnoticed. The Gospel tells us that, together with Jesus, we are privileged to call God “Father”; that we are to know, love and trust our Father just as Jesus does.
Jesus assures us of this by something at one and the same time familiar and extraordinary. He tells us, in the first place: What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? Anyone who is a parent can understand these words immediately. You know how profound is your love for your children, how deeply you wish you could provide every good thing for them. All of us, in fact, whether parents or not, can think of people we love and for whom we would willingly sacrifice and to whom we willingly would give good things. Yet we also know that sometime we sin against our children and against one another, even as we strive to give good things. Nevertheless, in spite of that sinfulness, we still strive to love others. This is the ordinary part of Jesus’ message, which we can understand from our own experience.
What is so extraordinary is what follows: If you, then who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? If we can acknowledge that, in spite of our sinfulness and limitations, we try to be good to those whom we love, how infinitely more does the goodness of God, who has no sin and who is boundless love, exceed our efforts at goodness?
There is yet more. God is not promising to give us simply good things. God is promising to give us His very self: How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? God will give us His own Spirit, His own life and love. Thus are will we be able truthfully to call God “Father” together with Jesus, because God has shared His life with us. Do we ever stop to contemplate this awesome gift?
I suggest there are at least two questions we might wish to ponder in the light of the Gospel’s teaching today:
The first question is whether we trust God’s love and great power, as Jesus has revealed it to us today? Our second reading from the Letter to the Colossians reminds us of God’s greatest act of love in the crucifixion of His own Son for our salvation, which we make present today in this Eucharist: Even when you were dead in transgressions… he brought you to life along with [Christ], having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.
If we do trust God’s love, revealed most starkly in the fact that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, can we discern in the sufferings and evils of this life God’s invitation to us as His true sons and daughters to be conformed yet more closely to the mystery of His Son’s dying and rising? At the beginning of the Prologue to his Rule, St. Benedict tells us, paraphrasing St. Paul, “We will by patience share in the sufferings of Christ so as to deserve also to share in his glory.” Do we regard these as merely nice words, and thus find ourselves thrown into confusion by the evil so evident in the world, or do we remain steadfast in faith, confident that God has already revealed His final judgment in the glory of the Lord’s resurrection – the same Lord we are about to welcome present in this Eucharist?
The second question we ought to ponder is whether we pray, and, if we do, whether our prayer is an expression of our love for God and our trust in God’s love and great power.
It is clear that Jesus instructs us to pray: Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. He uses the example of the man going to a friend to ask for the three loaves to encourage us to persistence in our prayer.
“But”, we may object, “we have asked and not received.” It is difficult for us to trust Jesus’ words because we think we have asked and have not received. Can it possibly be that our prayers seem to go without the answer we want because they are too small; that we ask for far less than God wants to give?
So often our prayer seems to be a list of precise instructions as to what God is supposed to do. We seem to feel that we have to pray hard in order to change God’s mind so that He will be benevolent. But is not prayer supposed to change us, and not God? In the wonderful account in today’s first reading of Abraham’s intercession for the citizens of Sodom is it God who changes, or is it Abraham who comes to the realization that indeed the Judge of the World acts with justice and that God will not destroy the innocent with the guilty?
St. Augustine provides a beautiful teaching on prayer when he responds to a Roman matron by the name of Proba. She had written to St. Augustine to ask why we should pray when God already knows what we need. St. Augustine responded: “Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that Our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.” What God wants to give us is indeed great. Jesus tells us today that it is nothing less than the Holy Spirit. But do we, who have been baptized and confirmed, ever call upon the Holy Spirit to come to us? St. Paul teaches us: We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groaning. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
Since we have been taught today by Jesus of God’s great love, let us trust God and simply ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that our prayer will be in accord with God’s will, as Jesus’ prayer always was. Then, by God’s own life in us, we will be able to remain steadfast through the trials and disappointments of this life by the power of the Spirit, which will lead us in the end to what God wants to give us most of all: Eternal life with Himself in the glory and endless joy of God’s presence.
Homily for August 15, 2015Published:
This celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the principal ways we profess our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For if this faith of ours is to be something more than an intellectual concept, and idea which we can understand at least partially; if it is to become our guiding hope and the conviction which directs all our choices and actions, we must continually celebrate it anew and intentionally bring it to bear on our daily lives.
For if we believe that all creation has been renewed by the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord, then it is fitting that we celebrate this renewal in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin who, first of all creatures, has been taken up into that new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of her Son. This is nothing other than the fulfillment of the plan God formed in the beginning of creation, when, as we are told, God looked at everything he had made and found it very good. So infinitely creative is the love which God is, and so sovereign God’s power and authority, that not even our sinfulness was able to thwart his plan to share his life with those creatures made in his divine image. Instead, uniting himself for all times with our human nature in the person of his Son, born of the Virgin Mary, the Father has established our humanity eternally with Himself, as the Letter to the Ephesians tells us: But God, who is rich in mercy…brought us to life in Christ…raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus. And as the Apostle has instructed us today, writing to the Christians in Rome: so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order. What more proper order could there be than that the Son of God should unite her first of all with his immortal divine nature, from whom he had united inseparably to himself our created mortal nature for the salvation of all humankind? And so we celebrate today that the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit from the beginning of her existence, having passed through death, was taken as the first fully to share in the new creation won for all the redeemed.
We can say with truth that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven because of her dignity as the Mother of God. But if that is simply the case, what is there for us in this celebration, for the Son of God can have only one mother. If this role has been filled by Mary, the rest of us are excluded, and her assumption, wondrous for her, is only to be admired by us. But in another sense, we can say that it was not because Mary was the Mother of God that she was assumed into heaven. The dignity of Mary as Mother of God is a revelation of the sovereign freedom of God and the totally free gift of God’s grace by which alone we are saved. God, in the inscrutable design of his infinite wisdom, chose Mary out of all creatures to be the mother of his Son. The glory of her Assumption, however, is not due solely to this divine choice, for she could have refused. She could have said no. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the result of her complete obedience and total acceptance of the unique vocation given to her by God; a vocation she lived until the day of her death in total and unwavering fidelity. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she was conformed so completely to the image of her Son that she now shares fully in his glorified life as a partaker by adoption of his divine nature.
If this is the case, then today’s celebration is instructive and encouraging for us, who, with Mary, are fellow disciples of Jesus. For the unique vocation given to each of us is no less a free gift of God’s grace than was that call given when in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. As Mary was given her vocation by God’s free choice, so too has each of us received a call by God’s free choice at this time, in this place, under these circumstances. Like Mary, we are free to accept, or to reject, this vocation. We, too, have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in our baptism and confirmation, and thus empowered, should we choose to accept, to live with fidelity the call we have received. Just as Mary’s vocation led her finally to the cross of her Son, so too, by that same Son’s instruction, must we, if we are faithful, take up the cross each day and follow him. Like Mary, we, too, are called each in our own way to bring Christ to birth, in our lives, and in the lives of others to whom we bear faithful witness. And just as the image of the woman about the give birth in today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation was applied first to the church and then to Mary, so too for us, seeking to give birth to Christ in ourselves and others, there is the great dragon seeking to devour the Christ before he can save us and others.
Ultimately, the key to today’s celebration is found in Elizabeth’s words in today’s Gospel: Blessed are you who believed that the Lord’s word spoken to you would be fulfilled. Blessed are you who believed – who trusted. Too often, in hindsight, we can romanticize the life of the Blessed Virgin, and convince ourselves that it must have been easy for her. Yet hers was a hard life. She was poor and was subject to the hard, laborious work of the other poor women of her time. Far from being Queen of Heaven, her vocation was seen by others – and quite likely by herself – as being the wife of Joseph and the mother of her son: something quite ordinary. How she was to fulfill her unique vocation as mother of the Son of God was not revealed to her in one grand, all-embracing vision. Rather, like we, she had prayerfully to discern, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, how she was to be faithful in the given and often confusing circumstances of the moment. But she believed, she trusted, and thus she is truly blessed among women.
If, as Pope Benedict wrote in his beautiful encyclical letter, Spe salvi, that hope is a bringing of future realities into the present, then this beautiful feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the feast of our hope. For the glory we celebrate is given to her as the first of those who believed in her Son, and the first of all the redeemed. But it is therefore a glory held out to us, too. We salute in this celebration of Mary’s assumption, as though from afar and in anticipation, our own glorious inheritance if we, like she, can but believe that the Lord’s word to us will be fulfilled. Mary now enjoys for all eternity the perfect fulfillment of all God’s promises to her. As we adore God and honor her assumption, let us pray that she, our patroness, the Help of Christians, will help us too, by her prayers and example, to believe that the Lord’s word to us will be fulfilled so that we, too, may together with her and all God’s holy ones, reign on high with Jesus Christ Our Lord, to whom be honor and glory, praise and thanksgiving forever and ever. Amen.