Homily From the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

For the second time in my life, at least since I am old enough to appreciate it, I am not going to school at this time of year.  Let me tell you, it’s pretty awesome.  I’m excited, yes, that I don’t have to go to school, and every evening that I realize I don’t have to do homework helps me appreciate that more and more.  But I’m also excited at what sort of opportunities the year brings.  It gives me a unique opportunity to teach and share about my faith, and in all sorts of ways.  Last year, I had an opportunity to take some of the little kids on a tour of the church (pre-K, K, 2nd grade, I don’t remember).  I’m not going to lie, that is a tough thing to do.  They have an attention span of just about as far as I could throw my Volkswagen.  But I took them to the sacristy, and showed them the bread and wine that we use for Mass, and I explained that while it’s bread and wine now, it turns into the body and blood of Jesus.  And what did they say?  “Ewwww!  Gross!”  How do you explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to a 4 year old?  Honestly, how do you explain the real presence of Christ to a 20 or 40 or 60 year old?

Those children thought I meant that we’d be eating Jesus’ body parts – his arms and legs, his fingers, his hair, all that.  And honestly, it seems silly, but it’s an excellent question.  If this is truly the body and blood of Jesus, does that make us cannibals?  This isn’t just a question for Kindergartners either!  Some fundamental Protestants charge us with the same thing.  And for that matter, the Romans as well.  They actually arrested Christians in the Early Church on the charge of defiling corpses or of cannibalism – because of a misinterpretation of the Eucharist.  And they weren’t even the first ones – the people in the Gospel today were confused as well!

Honestly, it’s a struggle to explain this truth of our Catholic faith to others.  When talking to Kindergartners, you try to simplify things down to what they can understand.  The natural inclination would be to say, “No, it’s not his real body and blood, it’s just a symbol!”  But was Jesus using a symbol?  Was he speaking in metaphors?  Let’s take a look-see.

First, look at the reaction of these people – they are completely outraged!  They just cannot fathom what Jesus is trying to explain to them.  Have we ever seen this before?  When Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” were people outraged?  “How can this man claim to be a plant!!!”  No, of course not.  Something is different here.  When these people get upset, Jesus doesn’t backtrack, but in fact, digs in even more.  Before, he was using the Greek word phago, which means simply “to eat.”  But after they get upset, and after they’re asking for some clarification, he doesn’t try to explain it away, but even intensifies the word, using the word trogo, which is much more graphic, and literally means “to munch on” or “to gnaw on” like a dog gnawing on the bone.  He is trying to say, “Look, people, listen to what I’m saying.  You don’t have life within you unless you believe me!”  He is serious about this.

Ok, now in case some people are freaking out and reconsidering this whole Catholic thing, let me just say now, you’re not cannibals.  I promise you that you’re not walking in the footsteps of the Donner party when you’re waltzing up the Communion line.  It is true, Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said that it was his flesh and blood.  As Catholics, we believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine are truly transformed.  But not into arms and legs and fingers and hair, but into the whole body, blood, soul, and divinity.  The whole Christ, the totum Christi, the total Christ, is contained in that tiny host.  Even if you don’t receive from the chalice, you’re receiving the blood of Christ.  And even if you were to receive one of the low-gluten hosts, you’re still receiving the whole body of Christ.  Cannibals eat what is dead, but as Catholics, we eat what is alive.  Christ rose gloriously and triumphantly, so what we’re eating isn’t the bleeding and bruised body of Jesus, but his glorious, risen, and spiritual body. Our reception of Christ doesn’t hurt or kill him.  Rather, he shares himself with us, inviting us to more than just a picnic, but to a spiritual communion with him.   This isn’t anything less real, but it’s beyond what a normal Kindergartner or Pre-schooler, or any one of us can see without faith and trust.

Obviously, it’s a difficult task to explain all that to Kindergartners and little children.  What it all comes down to is trust.  So I asked the kids that I was teaching, “Do you trust me?  I hold the door open for you in the morning, I have Mass for you during the week.  I am there to support you and talk with you and laugh with you.  I may play jokes, but I would never hurt you.  Do you trust me, and do you trust that what I’m telling you is true?”  And they did.  Children are wonderful examples for us, and really, I think we’re asked the same question today.  Just like those people in the Gospel, our hearts might be welling up with questions, doubts, and confusion.  But instead of backtracking, and watering it down for us, Jesus holds his ground, and he asks each of us, “Do you trust me?”  This is a man who is saying that he has the bread of life.  He promises eternal life.  He always wants to listen to us, support us, and hurt with us.  This is a man who was willing to be beaten and killed for what he wanted to give us.  He would never hurt us.  Do we trust him?  When we have those doubts – Is the Eucharist really God?  Is he even there at all? – that’s when we need to continue to feed our faith with the Bread of Life.  And our doubts will starve themselves to death.

As we continue reflecting this week on Jesus as the Bread of Life, let us ask ourselves that one question: “Do we trust him?”  May we have the grace to listen to his words, and may we entrust our hearts to him, confident that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life, and will be raised up forever with him on the last day.

Homily From the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

I’ve never really been much of a puzzle person, but probably most of us have had the experience of putting a puzzle together.  One of the most entertaining parts of the puzzle is when you’re finding the little connections in the middle of the puzzle, fitting a few pieces together.  But as any puzzle enthusiast knows, the goal should always ultimately be the completion of the entire puzzle.  Those little moments of success are nice, but it’s the final completion that is most important.

When we think of happiness, our tendency is to think about happiness in this life: the nice job, the beautiful house, the fast car.  But when Jesus is talking about happiness, he’s thinking of something much, much bigger than that.  He understands that in this fallen world, and in our fallen human nature, we can only experience partial happiness.  Now I don’t mean for this to be a downer for you this morning, but there will always be suffering, adversity, and evil in our lives.  Jesus never promised that believing in him meant that earth would turn into heaven.  But he did promise, as the Gospel reminds us today, that believing in him will put us on the path to increasing happiness in this life and total fulfillment in the life to come.  It’s not a choice of one or the other.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to find happiness on earth – the nice job, the beautiful house, the fast car – those things are all good.  But if you listen closely to the prayers at every Mass, about 80% of the time, they’re talking about having some happiness here, but reminding us that it’s only a foretaste of the fullness that we’ll find in heaven.

That’s Jesus’ agenda.  That’s what he wants to bring to us and have us set our hearts on – the bigger picture, the eternal perspective.  “Eternal life,” “living forever,” “raised on the last day,” – these are all the key phrases that he uses in the Gospel.  That’s why he came, and it’s the goal of all his sufferings and efforts.  He never wants us to let that goal drift into the background, with us focusing only on the here and now.  Even good things and good works in the church like social justice and acts of charity need to have that connection to the ultimate goal of happiness in heaven.

People often get religious around crises, but real faith, real friendship with Christ isn’t a temporary fix or a self-help psychological practice that makes us more chipper.  He’s offering us something much more than being chipper, thank goodness.  Christianity isn’t that, and it’s not a list of do’s and don’ts.  Christianity is God’s active desire to lead each of us to the fullness of life that we all yearn for, both in this life and in the next.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of this.  Jesus always wants to give us more, but he doesn’t force it on us.  If we’re going to receive the wisdom and interior joy that comes from living that bigger picture, we have to practice mortification and self-denial.  People sometimes think this is a throwback to times before Vatican II or to old ideas.  But think about it this way: If you’ve got a cup of vinegar, you have to empty it out and clean it before you can fill it with honey.  If the vinegar is only partially gone, or if the cup isn’t cleaned out, it’s going to spoil the taste of the honey.  In the same way, if our hearts are filled with just the desires for earthly happiness, there’s no room for desiring friendship with Christ.  We have to clean ourselves out in order to truly get the taste for that sweetness and fulfillment that God offers us.

Self-denial and mortification are in the little things.  Try to give something up on Fridays like desert or soda.  If you can avoid it, it’s always a good and fruitful practice not to eat meat on Fridays.  This isn’t just a Lent thing.  Lent is merely a time when we put a special focus on self-denial, but the Church is always assuming that we’re trying to live like that all the time.  If we follow Christ – obeying the commandments, following the teachings of the Church, praying – then he will lead us down the path to everlasting fulfillment.  That path is paved with crosses, and it might cause us to leave behind the temporary satisfactions that we find attractive, but these are just more invitations to us to take up that cross, follow him, and embrace the eternal life and happiness that he prepares for us.

 

Just as a side note, I have to admit that I heavily used some resources from epriest.com this time.  I put my own stuff in it as well, but they definitely deserve some credit.  Thank you, Internet!

Homily From the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

When I was younger, my family had a dog named Holly.  This dog was always hungry.  One thing you have to know is that shortly after we got her, we signed her up for obedience school – in the Chesterfield Valley in 1993!  So needless to say, the flood kind of worked against her.  She was always begging.  First, she would put her head on your leg, just to try to melt your heart into giving her something to eat from the table, and when that didn’t work, she would nudge you with her nose to get the point across.  She loved food from the table, although she hardly ever got any.  Sometimes, to get her to eat her dog food, we would put some table scraps amidst the pellets.  But my dog was picky – she would just eat around the dog food!  She got to be very selective about her eating.  But one thing is for sure – she was always hungry, always wanting more.

What about us?  Are we hungry people?  In the Gospel today, Jesus is speaking about the Bread of Life.  Now, most of the time, when we talk about this, we tend to focus on the “bread” portion of what Jesus is saying.  Food is a good analogy, and an easy one for people to understand.  But it’s not just simple bread that Jesus is giving, it’s the Bread of “Life”.  So I want to focus on the “Life” portion of that, because it’s just as important.

What does this mean?  It’s not a physical life that Jesus is giving us here.  You can read all these stories about what foods make you live longer – like chamomile (apparently part of the daisy family?).  Who knew?  But people receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Life her at Mass every Sunday, and yet people continue to die every day.  The life that Jesus is speaking about here is our spiritual life.  But don’t think that it’s any less real.  This life was given to us at baptism – a very real and concrete event in our lives.  It’s a life that’s sometimes hidden, but which is much bigger and more important than we realize.  It’s the kind of life that remains even after the earthly life goes away.  Bodily life needs food – like chamomile, apparently – to nourish it, and in turn, so does our spiritual life.

But the Bread that Jesus gives us comes with a huge challenge.  With earthly bread, the biggest challenge we receive is how much we have to exercise in order to keep those cupcakes off the waistline.  The Bread of Life, on the other hand, comes with a commitment to a new life.  When we receive Communion, we become like little tabernacles of the Holy Spirit.  And so when we receive that Bread of Life, we’re bound by the presence within us to live that Divine Life in a way that gives evidence to the world that it’s there.  St. Paul talks about this in the second reading today: “Put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self.”  This isn’t an option.  It’s not just a Sundays thing.  It’s not just a sometimes affair.  When we receive the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, we are bound to Christ.

Sometimes that’s hard to settle with, and hard to take on.  Some people in the world would tell us that we take this too seriously.  They’d say that the most important thing in life is to feel like a “good person,” regardless of whether the decisions we make jive with the Divine Life that we’ve taken upon ourselves in receiving the Bread of Life.  In this kind of life, it isn’t based on faith or on what God or the Church calls us to, but what is quick and easy, what is pleasurable, what is comfortable for us.

So in a sense, there’s a part of us that isn’t hungry for the Bread of Life.  It’s the part that longs for the passing pleasure of the fleshpots in Egypt like the Israelites in the first reading, even though we know that the price of that pleasure is the life of slavery.  It’s the part of us that sees the Life that God calls us to as too challenging, too rigorous, too difficult.  It’s the part of us that goes to Mass on Sunday morning, but then thinks it’s perfectly fine to get drunk on Friday evening, or trash talk a coworker on Monday afternoon, or actively support political or social stances that are contrary to our faith Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday.  It’s that part of us that is hungry, yes, but which doesn’t want to be fed with the Bread of Life.  Perhaps that part is in all of us.  And to be honest, that’s kind of scary.  It’s scary that within ourselves, there’s just a little part of us that when presented with the Bread of Life, the food which Jesus himself promises will bring us eternal joy and happiness, that wants to turn it away, and say, “Nope, that’s ok.  I’m fine.”

That’s one part in our lives.  But hopefully the larger and more dominant part of our lives is that part that hungers and thirsts, that longs, that pines after that bread that will last forever.  It’s that part of us that’s kind of like my dog – it can never get enough.  It’s that part of us that has experienced other foods and other nourishment and still wants more.  It’s that part of us that wants to hold the Life of God within our hearts like living tabernacles – waking with it in the morning, sharing our joys and sufferings with it throughout the day, and resting in it again at the end of it all.  It’s that part of us that, despite our limitations and our sinfulness wants to give the life that Christ demands of us everything we’ve got.  It’s that part of us that cries out with Jesus’ followers in the Gospel, “Lord, give us this bread always!”

And the greatest thing about this is that he does.  And the more we open our hearts to receiving from him, the more we seek to understand this Divine Life, and the more we live our lives in conformity with it, the more that the part of us that longs for fulfillment and that hungers for something more will be satisfied.