Saturday, April 23, 2022

Easter 2


When Jesus rises from the dead
he does not rise 
in a body smooth and whole,
but a body wounded, 
a body dehumanized by torture, 
a body that bears the marks of human hatred.
The resurrection, of course, restores that body to life—
indeed, it transforms and glorifies that body,
giving it a life that shares in God’s own eternity—
but it does not erase the marks of outrage.
It does not erase the wounds inflicted
by the religious leaders who rejected him,
by the crowd that cried “crucify him, crucify him,”
by Pontius Pilate whose cowardice condemned him,
by the Roman soldiers who drove the nails into his flesh,
by the disciples who abandoned him and fled in fear.

The resurrection does not erase those marks of betrayal
because it is only by his wounds that we know
that it is truly Jesus who appears before us.
It is by his wounds that we know
that the one who once was dead
is now the one who lives,
that he who was crucified in time
is alive forever, 
the first and the last.

The wounds, however, do not simply attest 
to the fact of the resurrection;
rather they show us 
what the resurrection means for us.
They show that the resurrection is not simply
a miracle that God works 
in order to rescue Jesus from death,
but is the great saving act of God
by which we are rescued;
the wounds show us that the resurrection
is not just good news for Jesus
but for us as well—
we who are flawed and frail,
sinful and sorrowful,
mortal and mournful.

In the resurrection, 
Jesus does not “put the past behind him”
but rather offers up that past 
at the altar of God’s eternal temple.
Jesus does not abandon the sad story of the passion,
but brings with him into risen glory
all that he suffered in his mortal life,
which he live for us and for our salvation:
the wounds not erased, but redeemed;
the betrayals not forgotten, but forgiven;
the malice not ignored, but met with mercy.
The risen Jesus retains his wounds 
for they are the sign of his great love for us:
“No one has greater love than this, 
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

And in doing this,
Jesus sets the pattern for our own risen life.
It is a longstanding Christian belief
that even in God’s kingdom 
the martyrs will retain 
the marks of their martyrdom,
by which they bore witness to Jesus Christ.
St. Augustine writes,
“this will not be a deformity, 
but a badge of honor, 
and the beauty of their virtue—
a beauty which is in the body, 
but not of the body— 
will shine forth in it” (Civ. Dei 22.19). 
The wounds of the martyrs are not erased
but glorified and transformed,
for their scars bear witness to their love.

And so too for all of us:
everything we have suffered 
for the sake of love—
whether physically or spiritually—
will be taken up in glory,
healed but not erased.
Because it is the things we have suffered for love 
that have made us who we are.
The struggles of marriage and parenthood,
the rejections we endure for our commitment to truth,
the sacrifices we make to aid those who have less,
the betrayals and malice that we forgive,
the illnesses we endure trusting in God’s goodness—
all of these, embraced out of love of God,
become the glorious wounds of our witness,
the beauty of the virtue that God pours into us
over the course of a lifetime lived in faith.
The scars borne by our bodies and souls
are the letters with which 
the stories of our lives have been written,
and those stories are not forgotten in eternity
but are remembered and raised up and transformed 
in ways that we can only begin to imagine.

The good news of Easter is not 
that past suffering is simply left behind.
The body that is tortured on the cross
is the same body that emerges from the tomb
still bearing the marks of torment.
We remember in every Eucharist
the suffering Christ endured for love of us
even as we receive the living Christ in communion.
We ourselves, who have been raised with Christ in baptism,
daily experience the pain to which love leaves us vulnerable.
But Easter places the story of our suffering
within the larger story of Jesus’ triumph over death
and the mercy that he shows to all who suffer,
and in doing so the scars we bear 
are transformed, not erased.
It is this hope of transformation that sustains us
even as the story of our lives continue to be written:
sometimes in sorrow,
sometimes in joy,
but at all times enclosed 
in the merciful love
of Jesus Christ, 
wounded and risen.

 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Holy Thursday


The students to whom I teach Dante's Divine Comedy
are often surprised that in the lowest depth of Hell
Dante places, not those who committed sexual sins
(which is what they expect from someone 
who lived in the prudish Middle Ages),
nor those who committed crimes of violence
(which is who most of them think deserve
the most serious punishment),
but rather those guilty of betrayal.
For Dante, betrayal is the act that ends you up 
in the deepest, coldest circle of Hell
because it is springs, not simply from 
a failure of reason to properly direct our desires,
the ways that sins of lust and violence do,
but from an abuse of the love and trust
that others bear toward us.
You can only betray someone who trusts you,
and to betray such trust is to exploit
the most precious gift one person can give to another.
It is the action that makes us most unlike God,
for God is eternally faithful in love toward us,
and asks for nothing but faithful love in return.
And because it makes us most unlike God
it places us at the farthest distance from God.

We all know the experience of betrayal
because we live in a world marked by betrayal.
In the Biblical story of humanity’s fall
we find not only the disobeying of God’s command
not to eat from the tree in the garden
but also a primal act of betrayal:
“it is her fault; she made me do it.”
We all know betrayal,
and we know it from both sides:
we have had our trust betrayed
but we have also betrayed the trust of others.
Perhaps it is a seemingly trivial betrayal—
a small promise made but not kept—
or perhaps it is a life-shattering breach of trust:
a deceptive co-worker,
a devious friend,
a disloyal spouse.

And the betrayal that pervades our world operates
not just on an interpersonal level
but on an institutional level.
Many today feel betrayed by our government,
by our educational and medical establishments,
by our Church.
Some, faced with crushing disappointments in life,
may even feel betrayed by God
We feel that there were 
promises made
that were not kept,
hopes held out 
that were not fulfilled,
trust engendered
that was not deserved.
We may be tempted to adopt the view 
that trust is for suckers,
and the only way to avoid betrayal
is to hold yourself back 
from trusting anyone or anything,
to protect yourself by sealing up your heart.

Tonight puts us into the middle
of the story of history’s greatest betrayal:
the betrayal of the God who took flesh
for us and for our salvation,
and whom we handed over 
to suffering and death.
In every celebration of the Eucharist
we recall this night with these words:
“For on the night he was betrayed…”
Jesus is betrayed by Judas with a kiss,
for thirty pieces of silver.
Jesus is betrayed by Peter and the other disciples,
who had said that they would die with him,
but then flee and hide and deny that they knew him.
Jesus is betrayed by religious and political authorities,
who claim to rule in the name of piety and justice,
but show themselves instead to be ruled by fear
and by the desire for domination.
Jesus is betrayed by the crowd,
which had rapturously greeted him 
as he entered Jerusalem,
only to call for his crucifixion a few days later.
It seemed to some, even, 
that he has been betrayed by God:
“He trusts in God; 
let God deliver him now, if he wants to” (Mt 27:43).

In this midst of this scene of betrayal, however,
Jesus does not hold himself back from trust,
but rather leans into it,
knowing that the one whom he calls Father
remains faithful in his promises.
He does not protect himself by sealing up his heart
but opens his heart to us in love
so that water and blood might flow forth—
the water that washes our sins away,
the blood that becomes our food and drink.
For on the night he is betrayed,
the night he is handed over by a friend
and abandoned by his followers,
he takes bread and wine 
and, giving thanks, hands himself over to us
in an act of loving self-abandonment:
“This is my body that is for you….
this…is the new covenant in my blood.” 
He offers his own blood as the sign of covenant,
the sign of promise in which we can trust, 
even in the midst of betrayal.
In the night that lies at the center
of the long, sad history of human betrayals,
Jesus shows us that betrayal must be answered with love.
He is not telling us to turn a blind eye to betrayal,
to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t happen.
Jesus knows Judas will betray him,
and lets him know that he knows.
But still he washes his feet,
for he also knows that if betrayals make us bitter
it is we who are defeated, not our betrayers.
The only way to defeat betrayal
is through the reconciling power of love—
not our paltry human love,
which falters so in the face of betrayal,
but the love that pour itself out
into our hearts to wash away our bitterness,
the fullness of charity and life
that becomes our food and drink 
in this banquet of Christ’s love. 

In this night that he is betrayed,
Jesus hands himself over to us
so that the power of divine love
that carried him from betrayal 
through the cross
to the resurrection
might come to dwell in us as well.
Even in the midst of betrayal he invites us,
come to the feast of love.

 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Lent 5


We are told that the woman 
was brought to Jesus as a test.
The dilemma is whether or not to stone her,
which was commanded in the Law of Moses
as the penalty for adultery,
but which violated the Roman ban
on the Jews carrying out death sentences,
a privilege they reserved for themselves.
If Jesus said to stone the woman,
he would be speaking contrary to Roman law,
but if he said not to stone her
he would be speaking contrary to the Law of Moses.
So it is a test, a trap, a trick
designed either to discredit Jesus 
in the eyes of his fellow Jews
by showing his disregard for Jewish Law,
or to mark him out in the eyes of the Romans
as one who flouted the laws of Rome.

But what of the woman?
To those who bring her before Jesus
she is merely a means to test Jesus,
a tool they can use to trap and trick him.
They do not care about the terror on her face.
They do not care about her public humiliation.
They do not even care how Jesus decides her fate,
for whichever way he decides 
they will have caught him in their trap.
She is simply a pawn to be sacrificed
in the game they are playing.
It is as if they do not see her.

But Jesus sees her.
He sees her fear and her shame.
He sees the deep pain of the wound
that sin has inflicted on her soul.
He sees her accusers as well.
He sees that they seek to trap him
because they too are afraid,
afraid of Jesus and the threat he poses
to their all-too-complacent picture
of themselves as people of virtue,
people with whom God must be well-pleased.
He sees that they too bear the wound
that sin has inflicted on their souls.

Some say that when Jesus bends down
to write in the sand
he is writing the sins of the woman’s accusers.
But perhaps he is simply pausing
to create a space in which they can begin 
to examine their own consciences,
a pause in the frenzy of accusation
for a moment of self-awareness.
And when the accusers persist,
Jesus says “Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her,”
and then resumes his writing,
letting them realize to their shame that they
have been caught in their own trap.
He keeps his eyes on his writing,
giving them a chance to drift away
unseen by the one who has already 
seen into their hearts.

St. Augustine paints a striking picture 
of that moment when the crowd has melted away
and the woman is left standing before Jesus.
He writes, “The two of them alone remained: 
mercy with misery” (On the Gospel of John 33.5).
Augustine is playing on the connection between
the Latin word for misery—miseria
and the Latin word for mercy—misericordia,
which combines the word miseria
with the word cordia, which means “heart.”
To have mercy on someone, 
to have misericordia,
is to take that person’s misery 
into one’s own heart,
to know within oneself another’s suffering
and to act accordingly.
To have mercy on someone, 
we must see them,
see the beloved creature of God
whom fear and shame afflicts.
Jesus sees the woman for who she is,
both her glory as God’s creature
and her sinful, shameful misery,
and in his heart that misery 
is washed away in a flood of mercy.
“Go, and sin no more.”
The voice of God speaks:
“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!”

In this holy season of Lent
the Church asks us to prepare 
to celebrate the Pascal Mystery
through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
We usually think of almsgiving 
in terms of monetary giving and material support.
But our word “alms” 
comes from the Greek word eleemosyne,
which in turn comes from the word eleos,
which means “mercy,”
as in the phrase Kyrie eleison—“Lord have mercy.”
The call to give alms in Lent
is at its root a call to plunge into the heart of mercy.

It is a call to seek mercy for ourselves 
through the sacrament of penance,
in which we allow Christ to see us 
as he saw the woman caught in adultery: 
God’s beloved creature afflicted by misery.
But it is above all a call 
to open our own hearts to the misery of others—
the misery of human suffering
that our material support can alleviate,
but also the misery of sinners, 
especially those who have sinned against us.
These are the alms we often find most difficult to give:
the alms of forgiveness to those who have hurt us,
the alms of seeing enemies as God’s beloved children,
burdened with fear and shame;
the alms of opening our hearts to them in mercy,
so that the mercy we have received from God
might flow forth from us into the world,
like “water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland.”

The days of Lent are growing short,
but it is never too late to seek mercy—
to receive mercy and to give mercy
so that misery and mercy might meet.
May God who is rich in mercy
have mercy on us all.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Lent 3


The season of Lent is offered to us 
as a time of self-examination.
But why would we need to examine ourselves?
Normally when we speak of examining things
we are trying to find out something that is 
somehow obscure or hidden from us.
Doctors examine patients 
to see if there might not be ailments
that are not immediately apparent.
Teachers subject their students to examinations
to find out what knowledge they have 
hidden away in their heads.
Juries are invited to examine evidence 
to uncover the truth of what has occurred.
So why should we need to examine ourselves?
Can I be obscure to myself,
hidden from myself?

The fact that the Church calls us 
to self-examination during the season of Lent
suggests that this may actually be the case.
It suggests that we may have a way of hiding from ourselves,
deceiving ourselves about the state of our own souls,
convincing ourselves to ignore certain truths about who we are.
Jesus himself suggests as much in today’s Gospel,
saying that if we find ourselves thinking
that those who suffer tragic misfortune
must have been great sinners,
and a lack of tragic misfortune in our lives
must be a sign of our virtue,
we are fooling ourselves.
Jesus breaks through such self-deception,
saying, “I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”
Paul makes a similar point 
in his letter to the Corinthians.
After he recounts the unfaithfulness 
of the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus,
he warns his readers not to grow too smug 
about their standing before God;
the unfaithfulness of their ancestors in faith
should rather stand as a warning to them:
“whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”

We human beings, it seems, 
have a propensity for self-deception.
Saint Catherine of Siena said that this is why 
we must make self-knowledge 
the foundation of our spiritual lives;
we must dwell, as she put it, 
in the house of self-knowledge.
But how do enter into 
this house of self-knowledge?
How do we examine ourselves 
so as to overcome 
our propensity to self-deceive?
Is self-examination simply a matter 
of cataloging our sins and failings,
of minutely poring over all 
that we have done wrong?
I don’t think so,
for we are not only more miserable
than we will admit to ourselves,
we are also far greater 
than we are willing to recognize.

Saint Catherine says that we 
cannot come truly to know ourselves
without knowing God.
And what we must know 
about ourselves and about God
is that God is, as he declares to Moses,
“I am who am”—the One who is—
and we, in contrast, are the ones who are not.
What Catherine means by this 
is that it is God’s very nature to exist,
and that everything else in the universe
has been created by God from nothing.
So while God is the One who is,
we are beings who have been drawn by God
out of nothingness into existence, 
in an act of unimaginable love.
When Catherine says 
that we must know that we are not,
she is saying that we must know that we exist
only because God has loved us into existence,
and we must also know that 
when we turn away from God
we begin to disappear back into nothingness.
To dwell in the house of self-knowledge
we must both acknowledge ourselves 
as artifacts of divine love,
and understand how catastrophic it is for us 
to turn away from that love
to a fruitless love of ourselves. 

During Lent we should ponder 
this double truth about ourselves,
the grandeur and misery of our condition.
We should hear Jesus’ words, 
“if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”
not as a threat of divine punishment,
but as an invitation to let grace turn us back
to the God who has loved us 
out of nothingness into existence.
We should hear St. Paul’s words,
“whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall,”
not as an exhortation to anxiety and fear
but as an invitation to us, who are not,
to plant our feet more firmly
on the solid rock of the One who is.
Our recognition of our own poverty
should make us only marvel more
at the richness of God’s grace
that has been bestowed upon us.

Our Lenten self-examination,
if it can pierce our self-deception,
should lead us to sincere sorrow 
for our sins and failings,
but also to a deep gratitude to God
for our creation and redemption
and our hope of eternal glory.
We begin Lent as the fruitless fig tree,
having done little with the time bestowed on us,
but given by grace one more season to turn 
from the sterile self-love that pulls us into nothingness
back to the embrace of the God who loves us.
And within that embrace we can become
like the thorn bush from which God spoke to Moses,
ablaze but not consumed by the fire of the One who is,
beacons that draw others into the embrace of God.

In this Lenten season,
may we come to know ourselves
as we come to know the One who is,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Lent 1


There is nothing like starting Lent 
with a little metaphysics.
For those of you whose philosophy may be a tad rusty,
“metaphysics” is the study of existence itself:
asking what it means for something to exist
and what different sorts of existence there might be.
I think it is good to begin Lent with a little metaphysics
not simply as an act of penance,
though it might be that for some,
but because we begin Lent with the story
of Jesus in the wilderness, 
tempted by the evil one,
and we are ourselves are invited,
as we prayed on Ash Wednesday,
to “take up battle against spiritual evils.”
So it is good to ask what sort of existence evil has.

St. Augustine famously spoke of evil as privatio boni,
an absence or lack of a goodness that should be present.
He wrote, “In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds 
mean nothing but the absence of health….
Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul
are nothing but privations of natural good” (Enchiridion ch. 11).
Evil is like a wound in existence,
a kind of nothingness that afflicts things;
it is a thing’s existing in a diminished way.
To some, the claim that evil exists 
only as an absence, a lack of a goodness,
might make it sound as if evil were somehow unreal,
which flies in the face of our experience of evil.
But, as the theologian Herbert McCabe noted,
the fact that the hole in your sock exists
only as a lack of sock where there should be sock
in no way suggests that the hole in your sock is unreal.
And likewise, the characterization of evil
as a lack of goodness where there should be goodness
in no way suggests that evil is unreal.

But even if we find this metaphysical account of evil convincing, 
there remains the question of how any of this helps us
to “take up battle against spiritual evils” in this season of Lent.
Are their practical implications to all this metaphysics?
I would argue that there are at least two.

First, we can be tempted 
to think that some people or things are purely evil, 
possessed of no goodness at all.
But, in fact, you can’t have all hole and no sock.
If the hole in my sock were to expand
to the point where there were no sock
there would be, funny enough, 
no longer any hole either.
Likewise with evil;
if it exists as a flaw within goodness,
then it needs some goodness within which to exist.
There is, in this sense, no such thing as “pure evil,” 
but only “wounded goodness.”
The things by which we are tempted
tempt us because they are good;
temptation is not the desiring of evil,
but desiring some good in the wrong way:
desiring too much food,
desiring the wrong sexual partner,
desiring success at the cost of others.
Food and sex and success are all good things,
but we can desire them in the wrong way.
And desire itself is a good thing:
we desire because we are alive
and that is certainly a good thing.
After forty days of fasting, Jesus is hungry,
and his hunger is good,
a sign that his body is functioning properly.
But desire can become twisted, misdirected;
it can become the occasion for temptation.
If there were such a thing as pure evil,
we could resist it quite easily;
but temptation grows from the fact
that evil is always lodged in good
in ways that are difficult to untangle.

Second, we can be tempted to think
that we can overcome evil simply by eliminating
the people and things we judge to be evil.
But if you have a hole in your sock,
you can’t get rid of it 
by cutting it out with a pair of scissors;
you end up only making the hole larger.
The hole must be repaired, reknitted, restored.
Likewise, you can’t eliminate evil from the world
simply by eliminating all the evil people.
Since evil only exists
as entangled with good,
our attempts to eliminate evil often result
in our inflicting further damage on the good.
This is one reason why the Church 
has come to reject the use of the death penalty,
seeing that it does not remedy evil
but only implicates us in it.
Just as you can only eliminate a hole in your sock
by knitting the sock back together,
so too you can only eliminate evil
by restoring the good it is afflicting.
As St. Augustine says, the only way 
to truly destroy your enemies
is to make them into your friends.
It is love that brings about this repair,
and we call this repair “conversion.”

Of course, in a world at war
all this may be a hard pill to swallow.
Can we really see someone like Vladimir Putin
not as pure evil but as wounded good?
Can we really believe that the evil 
being perpetrated in Ukraine
can be healed by love?
Wouldn’t it be easier, 
as some have suggested,
simply to take Mr. Putin out?
It is hard not to think so.
But the narrow way of the Gospel
that Jesus calls us to walk
is an invitation to mercy and forgiveness;
it calls us to see evil as damage
and to pray for the conversion of our enemies
even as we pray for healing for their victims.
Above all, the Gospel calls us to see 
the wounded good in ourselves,
to see ourselves as those in need of repair,
those in need of conversion.
And in this Lenten season Christ invites us 
to seek through God’s power
that which seems impossible for us
but which faith tells us is possible for God.

Let us pray that, in the weeks ahead,
God would turn us from the nothingness of evil,
back to himself, the source of all goodness,
to let grace repair the evil in our own hearts
so that we, in turn, can bring his healing to our world.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Words in Time

The following are the remarks I made at Corpus Christi Catholic Church at the launch of my homily collection How Beautiful the World Could Be (Eerdmans 2022).

Often at book signings, authors will do readings from their books. In this case, this would involve subjecting you to a sermon. You’ll be glad to know that I will spare you that. But I do want to speak for a few minutes about what preachers try to do when they preach, or at least what this preacher tries to do. In particular, I want to think about how preaching is situated within particular times and places, yet strives to make present in those times and places an enduring—one might even say eternal—word. 

Mary Jane O’Brien, a long-time and much-beloved parishioner at Corpus Christi who died in 2016, once said to me, after I had given a homily that quoted some Church Father, “you are able to find those old guys saying the most interesting things.” And Mary Jane was not someone inclined to think that old guys had very much interesting to say. So it is in honor of Mary Jane that I would like to begin my remarks with St. Augustine. 

In book nine of his Confessions, Augustine tells of being in the port city of Ostia with his mother Monica, not too many months after his conversion and baptism. They are preparing to leave Italy and return to their home province of North Africa, which for Augustine meant leaving behind his secular ambitions, which he had come to see as built on shifting sands, and seeking what God desired for him on the periphery of the Empire. They are standing looking out a window, engaged in conversation about what the life of the saints in heaven must be like, a life freed from the transitoriness of time. Augustine says, “our minds attempted in some degree to reflect on so great a reality” (9.10.23), and as they spoke, he says, “our minds were lifted up by an ardent affection toward eternal being itself…. And while we talked and panted after it, we touched it in some small degree by a moment of total concentration of the heart. And we sighed…as we returned to the noise of our human speech where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending.”  He concludes, “But what is to be compared with your word, Lord of our lives? It dwells in you without growing old and gives renewal to all things” (9.10.24).

I think of preaching as an attempt to take that word that never grows old and gives renewal to all things, that word that we at best touch in some small degree in our most exalted moments, and render it in the noise of our human speech, where a sentence has both a beginning and an end. Augustine had a keen sense of how paradoxical our attempts are to speak of the eternal God in words that only exist as moments in the flux of time. As he says near the outset of Confessions: “What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you” (1.4.4). It is this paradox that accompanies all attempts to speak about God, but perhaps preaching most of all. For preaching is theology—God-talk—at its most ephemeral. Even when we try to make our words memorable, so that they live on in our hearers’ hearts after their sound has faded in the air, even the most memorable words will someday be forgotten. Even if, like me, you write them out, because you don’t trust yourself to speak without a script, they are often addressed to such highly specific times and places that their relevance would seem to pass away, carried on the tide of time. This ephemeral quality is not, of course, accidental, for preaching demands that we address our own particular moment, moments that come hurtling toward us from the future and quickly fade into the past, even as we seek to honor the timeless word. But I do wonder if such ephemeral theology merits printing and binding into a book.

When I was persuaded by Maureen to attempt a book of homilies, I was keenly aware of this question. So I was tempted to pick out homilies from the past fifteen years that were more “universal” in their content: homilies that could have been preached anywhere, at any time, and, in theory, to any congregation. Of course, having read Augustine a few times, I was pretty sure that no homily—indeed, no human act of speech—ever attains that sort of universality. But I also found that the less my homilies were tied to particular moments, particular people, particular places, the less “bite” they had, the less interesting they were. I found myself rereading the most generic ones, those that did not in any way reflect their time and place of origin, and thinking, “meh.” The less-generic ones seemed to draw some sort of energy from the particularities of their origin, an energy that may be noisy by comparison with the stillness of the timeless divine word, but noisy in the way that Jesus, the Word made flesh, is noisy: proclaiming, promising, denouncing, consoling. So I decided to lean into particularity.

In a sense, this book is a gamble that my reaction as an author will also be the reaction of my readers, that they too will feel in these homilies a hint of the energy unleashed by the timeless word taking flesh in time. Which is to say that the homilies in this collection are by design artifacts from particular places and moments: the homily I gave at my father in law’s funeral in Pittsburgh that required the negotiating of some complex family dynamics; the homily I gave at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on the Sunday after the January 6 attack on the Capitol that led, after Mass, to what I will euphemistically call a spirited discussion; and the homilies I gave at my dining room table and streamed over Facebook in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. But most of these homilies are homilies I gave in this place, listened to (if perhaps no longer remembered) by some of you sitting here today. I dedicated this book to the people of Corpus Christi because it draws much of its energy from their lives.

A few familiar names appear, such as Mary Hurson and Theo Kostic in the homily I gave at their baptism, but far more individuals are present in these homilies than those that are explicitly named. Because many of you were on my mind and in my heart as I wrote these homilies. I would often be thinking of what specific people were going through—their joys and sorrows, hopes and anxieties—and even if their names were never spoken, they shaped what I had to say. Some question raised at an RCIA session, some conversation at the church door, some struggle that was shared with me in private: all of those are in here, unspoken and yet somehow, I hope, speaking through my words. 

But it was not simply individuals who shaped this book. It was a community, the parish of Corpus Christi, a community shaped by certain practices. Some of these are practices that are universal to Catholics and Christians: listening together to God’s Word, initiating new members into Christ’s body, being nourished together at the Lord’s table. But some are practices that are particular, if not unique, to Corpus Christi. The practice of people expecting, even demanding, that homilies address the concrete realities of life, an expectation and demand that people are not afraid to articulate (I am forever grateful to Gerri Gray for telling me repeatedly that I need to give people something to do in my homilies). The practice of celebrating the liturgy in a way that underscores the full, conscious, and active participation of the whole assembly, which provided the context of worship in which my homilies were preached. The practice of welcoming those on the margins of the Church, which meant preaching to a congregation with a lot—a lot—of questions about the teachings of the Church, and a disinclination to simply accept them without argument. The practice of sharing our lives with each other outside of the liturgy, of providing me an opportunity to glimpse the richness and complexity of the lives of those who listened to me. 

This place is called Corpus Christi, the body of Christ. Its very name is a reminder that the Word takes flesh in particular times and places. For my first twelve years as a deacon, it was the body in which I tried to let the Word take flesh through my own noisy, time-bound words. To whatever degree I succeeded, the credit belongs to the Spirit who is at work in you, and, as in all things, to God belongs the glory. Thank you.

 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time


“Love those who love you.”
“Do good to those who do good to you.”
“Lend money to those from whom 
you expect repayment.”
This all sounds like pretty good advice.
In fact, it sounds pretty much like the way
that we ordinarily expect the world to work,
and in the context of our world 
it seems a recipe for success.

But what if there is something 
deeply, tragically wrong with our world?
And what if this deep, tragic wrongness
is something so pervasive 
that we have become blind to it,
that we have come to see it
not as wrong but as normal?
It seems normal to us that the world is divided
into loved ones and enemies, friends and foes.
It seems normal that doing good should be reserved 
for those on the friend side of the line.
It seems normal that you should never give
without expecting to get something in return.

But what if the world’s division 
into friends and foes, us and them,
is not the way that the world has to be?
What if the system of scarcity, which makes us fear
that if we cannot balance giving and getting
we will not have what we need to survive,
is something different from 
how God intends the world to run?
What if a life of conflict and striving 
is not what we were made for?

We Christians have a word 
for the wrongness of the world:
we call it “sin.”
And we Christians have a term 
for how this wrongness came about:
we call it “the fall.”
And we Christian have a name
for God’s way 
of revealing and healing this wrongness:
we call it “Jesus Christ.”

On some level, of course, 
we already know the wrongness of the world.
We feel it in our restlessness,
our sense that the conflict and striving
that pervades our lives
chips away at our joy,
our sense that we were made for something else,
something we glimpse in those rare moments
when enemies are reconciled
or anonymous acts of kindness are done.
But the wrongness of the world,
and the possibility for it being set right,
is revealed in its fullness 
in the appearing among us of Jesus, 
God’s Word made flesh.

The capacity of his teachings
to simultaneously shock and attract us
shows both how skewed our vision has become
and how we retain within us a hope 
that things might be otherwise.
His command that we turn the other cheek
seems both a recipe for getting beaten up,
and a hint that perhaps we do not need
to be ruled by reactionary retaliation.
His command that we give to those who ask
seems both a guarantee that we will end up penniless,
and a promise of God’s unfailing care for us.
His command to stop judging people
seems both to ensure that bad people 
will get away with stuff,
and to express the hope that perhaps 
God will show mercy to us as well.

Jesus does not simply preach these things.
He lives them out:
giving generously of his divine healing power
to those who can give him nothing in return,
trusting entirely in the generosity of God,
calling out to his Father to forgive his crucifiers.
He is the wrongness of our world set right,
the end of conflict and striving,
and in his resurrection he shows that even death,
our greatest and most relentless enemy,
is overcome by the power of divine love.

This is what Paul means 
when he speaks of Jesus as “the last Adam.”
We have a legacy of conflict, striving, and death,
inherited it from our first human ancestors,
symbolized by Adam, that creature of dust 
who turned from the God who gave him life.
But Jesus Christ is the new Adam,
the one who turns us back to God,
the one from whom we inherit 
peace in place of conflict,
trust in place of striving,
life in place of death.
Just as we have borne the image of the first Adam
in our blind repetition of the world’s wrongness,
now we are called to bear the image of Jesus Christ.

The constant message that our world bombards us with
is that mercy and forbearance have no place,
that you just need to grab all you can get,
and the winner is the one with the most stuff when they die.
Russian soldiers are massed on the border of Ukraine.
We have averaged a murder a day so far this year in Baltimore.
Our national politics have become extraordinarily ugly
and these ugly politics reproduce themselves within our Church.
And in the midst of a world gone so wrong,
we, by the grace of God, have been given the priceless gift
of bearing the image of Jesus Christ, the last Adam,
of being witnesses to God’s kingdom
by loving our enemies,
by doing good to those who hate us,
by giving to those who can give us nothing in return.
It seems at times an impossible, even foolish, way to live,
but it is the path Jesus himself walked,
and we can do all things through Christ 
who strengthens us to bear his image.
So we pray that God would give us that strength
and we pray that God would have mercy on us all.

 

Saturday, February 5, 2022

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time


I’ve been thinking about celebrities.
I don’t simply mean that I’ve been thinking about 
Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s spat
over whether their child can have a TikTok account,
or what a Non-Fungible Token is 
and why both Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon
paid hundreds of thousands of dollars
for the right to claim exclusive ownership
of a digital image of a bored ape.
In addition to thinking about these things,
I’ve been thinking about why
I have been thinking about these things,
why I let these strangers take up space in my head,
even as I grouchily denounce 
the vapidness and decadence of celebrity culture.
Why do their lives matter to me?

Though the advent of mass media
has certainly increased our access 
to information on celebrities,
the phenomenon of celebrity 
has been with us for millennia.
The lives of the powerful and famous—
whether athletes and popstars today
or kings and queens in the past—
exert a strange fascination for us:
their triumphs and trials,
their marriages and divorces,
their fashions and fetishes
matter to us because they
seem to offer a window 
into a world that we crave,
a world in which life is more colorful,
developments are more dramatic,
choices are fraught with immense significance.
The fact of their celebrity seems to suggest
that they have lives that matter 
in a way that ours don’t,
and theses lives show that human life 
can be more than it is.
And even if our own lives remain 
rather drab and dull and ordinary,
they can gain just a bit 
of color and drama and significance
by our vicarious sharing in the world 
of these glittering, fascinating beings.

But our fascination with celebrities
cannot, of course, really give our lives 
the color, drama, and significance that we yearn for,
because the glitter of celebrity is a kind of optical illusion 
that tricks us into thinking 
that their struggles have a meaning that ours don’t,
that their achievements are somehow immune
to the flow of time that bears all our works away.
But this is false;
the world will one day forget the names
of Kanye and Kim and Paris and Jimmy.
The life we crave for ourselves,
a life that matters,
whose significance is recognized
and whose deeds can endure beyond the veil of death,
cannot be found in our fascination with the famous.
Where then can it be found?

Well, because we’re all sitting together in a church
I suspect you know what I am going to say.

When Jesus steps into the boat of Simon Peter and his friends
and says to them, “put out into deep water,”
he is not simply giving them navigational instructions.
He is inviting them to live lives that matter, 
lives that plunge into the depths of the mystery 
that lies at the heart of human existence.
The fish that fill their nets to the point of breaking,
become a sign of the abundant life to which he calls them,
a life that can be found only in venturing out into the deep,
a life that is something more: 
something brighter and bolder
and soaked with significance,
a life that matters.
This, of course, terrifies them, 
so Peter says, 
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
I am a man who might look with fascination
on the lives of the great and the glorious,
but who could never live such a life himself.
But Jesus doesn’t care about any of their excuses;
he calls them to join him anyway.
And they leave their nets and their boats 
and follow him into the deep.

Isaiah, praying in the temple, looked into that deep,
as if looking through a window into the life of heaven itself,
where God is eternally enthroned in majesty
and the six-winged seraphs cry out “Holy, holy, holy,”
making the temple shake and fill with smoke.
These angelic creatures, whose name means “to burn,”
live lives that shine with a light given them by God,
a light that God desires to give to us as well.
Isaiah, like Peter, is shaken 
by the abyss that opens before him,
and seeks to use his sinfulness as an excuse,
as if to say, “Who am I?
How could my life matter?”
But again God will have none of it.
In his poem “The Prophet,” 
the poet Alexander Pushkin
captures the dizzying transformation
that God brings about in Isaiah:
“And with his sword he cleaved my breast
Removed my shaking heart,
And then he seized a blazing coal,
And placed it in my gaping breast.
Corpse-like I lay upon the sand
And then God’s voice called out to me:
‘Arise, O Prophet, watch and hark,
Fulfill all my commands:
Go forth now over land and sea,
And with your word ignite men’s hearts.’”

Isaiah, Simon Peter and his friends, and we as well,
are invited to live lives that matter,
for in Baptism we have had 
a blazing coal placed in our breast
and have been sent to ignite human hearts,
to show by word and example
that God is calling all of us out of the shallows—
out of lives that are drab, dull, and ordinary— 
and into the deep waters of the mystery of God.

We may be tempted to say, like Isaiah and Peter,
“Who am I?
How could my life matter?”
But through God’s grace we are what we are,
and what we are is something extraordinary.
In Jesus the realm of God has come to dwell among us, 
and we, who have been incorporated into his body,
bear in our hearts a blazing coal,
so that we shine with a light far exceeding
the superficial glittering of celebrity;
we shine with a light that is nothing less 
than the fire of the Spirit.

So let us live lives that matter:
let us set out with Christ into the deep,
let us join him on the way,
let us burn with angelic light,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


“Do not be saddened this day,
for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”
Ezra and Nehemiah speak these words to the Israelites
who have returned to Jerusalem 
after seventy years of exile in Babylon.
Their long-desired return to their homeland
has proved to be not all that they had hoped for:
their society has been shattered by war;
their religious institutions are in shambles.
As they hear the Law of Moses read to them by Ezra,
they are overwhelmed with how far they have fallen
and how distant their daily lives have become
from all that was promised and demanded by God’s covenant.
And so they weep.

I kind of know how they feel.
We have not spent the past seventy years in exile,
but we have spent nearly two years in the grips of a pandemic
that has not only killed over 850,000 people in our country,
but has disrupted daily life and frayed our social fabric,
and has made many of us fearful of the very things
that give joy and color to life: 
travel, concerts, movie-going,
meals shared with family and friends,
and, perhaps most of all, gathering to worship.
Even when we do these things, as many of us do,
we are haunted by a nagging fear 
that perhaps we are being irresponsible,
perhaps we might get infected 
or, even worse,
infect some vulnerable person.
This nagging fear, this colorless grind,
this sorrowful shrinking of life’s horizon
slowly saddens and exhausts us.

But the words spoken to the Israelites
are spoken today to us as well:
“Do not be saddened this day,
for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”
These words are not focused on some day in the future
when outward circumstances will have changed enough
to make joy once again possible.
For the Israelites, it is that very day,
in the midst of their sad circumstances,
on which they are told to rejoice.
Because, even amid their sad circumstances,
God is still God.
God’s word of promise to them stands firm
despite what they see in the world around them.
To believe what you cannot see
is what we call faith;
and so the invitation to let 
rejoicing in the Lord be their strength
is an invitation to faith.

This same invitation is issued by Jesus 
in today’s Gospel reading.
In the synagogue he reads the words of Isaiah,
which speak of “a year acceptable to the Lord”:
the time of glad tidings to the poor,
the time of recovery of sight to the blind,
the time of setting the oppressed free,
the time in which the sorrow that drains 
all the color and joy from life will be banished.
And then, rolling up the scroll, Jesus says:
“Today this Scripture passage 
is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus not only announces 
the drawing near of God’s kingdom,
but offers an invitation to faith,
an invitation to his listeners 
to believe in that kingdom
that their eyes cannot yet see,
an invitation to let rejoicing in the Lord
be their strength.

Jesus not only makes this invitation to others,
but he lives it out himself.
For the strength that sustains Jesus throughout his ministry—
in the face of opposition and misunderstanding,
betrayal and the cross—
is not grim determination, but joy,
the joy of one for whom 
the promises of God are already fulfilled,
one whose mind is saturated with the vision of God.
The Letter to the Hebrews, 
calling Jesus “the leader and perfecter of faith,”
says that he endured the cross and despised its shame,
“for the sake of the joy that lay before him” (Heb. 12:12).
Jesus went to the cross 
not simply out of a sense to duty to his mission
but because rejoicing in the Lord was his strength.

And so, what of us?
Our Scriptures today invite us to look beyond
the narrowed horizon that the past two years
have imposed on our vision,
to not resign ourselves to lives drained of color and joy.
Our Scriptures invite us 
to let rejoicing in the Lord be our strength,
to let the promise of a year acceptable to the Lord
be fulfilled this day in our hearing.
This is not, however, an invitation 
to fantasy and shallow optimism;
it is not an invitation to ignore 
the real challenges we continue to face
or naively believe that we are about 
to turn the corner on the pandemic.
If life has taught me anything
it is that even when we do turn the corner,
as we surely will,
around that corner there will be another pandemic,
or a war or an economic crisis 
or some personal tragedy
or some scandal in the Church.
If life has taught me anything
it is that in our fallen world 
there is always something
that can drain life of joy and color.

This is why our Scriptures bid us 
to rejoice in faith this very day,
why they invite us to see in faith
God’s promise fulfilled on this very day.
Even in our days of sorrow we find strength in rejoicing
for our faith tells us that what we see is not all there is.
It is through the eyes of faith 
that we can see beyond the narrow horizon of now
to the reign of God already becoming present among us;
it is through the eyes of faith 
that small acts of kindness,
small acts of resistance,
small acts of hope
can manifest the time acceptable to the Lord;
it is through the eyes of faith 
that God’s light streams into our souls,
making all that seemed colorless 
to shine with divine glory.

Let us pray that God 
would grant us eyes of faith this very day,
so that rejoicing in the Lord might be our strength,
and God may have mercy on us all.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Baptism of the Lord


Why are you here?
On a cold winter’s day it is hard to imagine
that you could not have found some excuse 
to stay home rather than drag yourself to church. 
Yet here you are.
What brought you here?
Was it long ingrained habit;
going to church is simply what you do?
Was it fear of committing a mortal sin,
or perhaps a sense of obligation?
Was it perhaps an unnamed and unnamable yearning
to take part in some activity that breaks the spiraling cycle 
of labor and leisure that slowly works its way toward death?

Obviously I can’t ask anyone why they are not here
since…well…they’re not here.
But surveys of those who identify as Catholic 
do give us some idea of what people say
when asked why they no longer go to Mass. 
One survey of young adult Catholics, ages 18-35,
reports that 44% mention the sex abuse scandals,
42% mention the Church’s teachings on human sexuality,
and 33% mention the role of women in the Church.
None of this is particularly surprising,
since these are areas either of notable failure
on the part of Church leaders,
or where Church teachings are most at odds
with contemporary American culture.
And, alas, the number of those who are not here
seems to be growing.

But here’s the thing: 
I suspect that some of you might also feel 
difficulties within yourself 
concerning some Church teachings,
and I suspect almost all of you experience 
disappointment and disgust at the misdeeds
of some among the clergy.
And yet here you are.
Whatever difficulties or disappointments
we may feel with regard to the Church,
something has brought us here.
Maybe it was habit or fear or unnamable yearning,
but I believe that ultimately what has brought us here 
must be some good news 
that we have found here and nowhere else,
some glad tidings that can overcome,
or at least balalnce, 
our disillusionment and doubts
and even our lethargy.

What could that good news be?
Saint Paul proclaims in his letter to Titus:
“The grace of God has appeared, saving all…
The kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy.”
Notice what Paul is saying:
While we might like to think that God loves us 
because of some loveable quality that we possess
or because of some good deed we have done,
the truth is that God loves us
because of a quality that God possesses,
that quality that we call “mercy,”
and because of the great deed God has done,
taking flesh and dwelling among us 
in Jesus the Christ,
so that we might become 
“heirs in hope of eternal life.”

This is the good news,
the glad tidings that we have been celebrating 
in this Christmas season:
God is neither some far-off dictator
issuing our marching orders,
nor some vague gaseous presence
filling the leftover empty spaces of our lives,
but God is one who has become what we are
so that we might become what he is:
partakers of God’s own eternal happiness.
This is the good news that is at the heart
of the story of Jesus’ baptism.
Jesus comes, John the Baptist says,
to baptize us, “with the Holy Spirit and fire,”
to let his love burn away 
all that is frail,
all that is false.
He enters the river Jordan
to sanctify the waters of the earth
so that we might find in them, as St. Paul says,
“the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,”
so that heaven might be opened to us
and we might hear spoken to us
what Jesus heard spoken to him:
“you are my beloved… with you I am well pleased.”
And all this not because of anything we’ve done,
but simply because of who God is.

And if all of this is not true…
well then who could blame you 
for thinking your time is better spent
staying in your nice warm house.
But if this is true,
then everything changes.
If “the grace of God has appeared, saving all,”
if heaven is opened and the Spirit has descended,
if we are in fact God’s beloved,
then we have been remade,
and the world has been remade,
and nothing is the same.
Our disappointments and disillusion,
our doubts and difficulties
do not magically vanish,
but we can live with them,
we can grapple with them, 
with the glad tidings ringing in our ears:
heaven is open,
the Spirit is poured out,
God is with us,
we are beloved.

Why are we here?
We are here, not to be or do something
that will deserve God’s love,
but simply to let God love us,
to let that love have its way with us,
to let that love transform us.
We are here because love bids us welcome,
and who are we to refuse?