Homily From the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year A

Whoops!  It looks like with all the craziness of Lent, I forgot to post this one.  Here you go!


When I was in high school, I took a theater course one semester, and I remember at one point receiving the script of a play called Terra Nova to study.  Just looking at a script from an academic standpoint is kind of boring though.  There’s a description of the setting and props, then “name, colon, dialogue” and on and on.  It’s pretty lifeless.  But I remember then having the opportunity a few years later to see Terra Nova at the Repertory Theater, and it came to life.  It’s one thing to read the lines, but another to see the emotion of the characters and to grow and connect with them.  I think the same is true with the Gospel.  We read the readings every week as a parish, and some of them multiple times a year, so it becomes ordinary to us.  But really, we’re invited to enter into it; to put ourselves into the place of the biblical characters.  That’s a Jesuit style of reading the Scripture, and now that we have a Jesuit pope, well, I guess that means it’s a good thing!

St. John is incredibly brilliant in the efforts he makes to help the Gospel come alive for us.  Every little detail is important.  For example, Lazarus and Bethany are just names and places, but it’s also true that in Hebrew, “Lazarus” means “God helps” and “Bethany” means “House of the Afflicted.”  Well that’s all of us!  All of us are afflicted and need God’s help.  We all live in Bethany with our own kinds of afflictions, and all of us are Lazarus, seeking the help of God.  We’re meant to connect in some way with the dead man and his family, who we’re told Jesus loved and cared for very much.

The Raising of LazarusBy Rembrandt
The Raising of Lazarus
By Rembrandt

It’s interesting that when Jesus hears about his friend, he doesn’t rush, but waits two whole days!  Does that make sense?  Was he not able to catch a flight?  Did he want to catch just one more episode of The Big Bang Theory and get hooked on it?  Why would the only man who can do anything about this problem delay?  Isn’t that a question we find ourselves asking sometimes?  Why does God make us wait?  Why doesn’t he just deal with our pain?  C’mon Jesus, I’m Lazarus and I’m in Bethany!  Let’s go!  But Jesus gives the answer that the Son of Man will be glorified through the illness and death in Lazaurs.  Now this might seem strange, but that’s one truth that we find throughout the Bible – when God is glorified, he gives life.  Whether it’s the glorious word of God creating the universe, the glorious pillar of fire giving new life to the People of Israel in Egypt, or the greatest mystery that we’ll soon celebrate on Easter, when God is glorified, he gives new life to his people.  That’s why St. Irenaues of the Early Church wrote that “The Glory of God is man fully alive.”  The only thing more powerful than death is the divine love with which Jesus loves us.

There’s a really interesting detail that sneaks into our Gospel here.  The Gospel points out that when Jesus arrived, he spoke to Martha, who then called Mary, her sister.  The Gospel points out that Mary gets up and goes to Martha, and that all these Jewish women with her got up and followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep.  In Jesus’ time, every funeral would have this group of official mourners who would represent the community.  They were hired to wail and weep and play flutes and sing “Amazing Grace” and whatnot.  So when Mary gets up, they think she’s going to the tomb to weep and mourn.  But she doesn’t – she goes to Christ.  Don’t miss this detail.  Everything in her system was telling her to go to the tomb, to weep her heart out.  How true is that for us when we experience the pain of loss?  It could be the death of a relative like Martha and Mary, but it could be the loss of other things: some illness that causes the loss of independence or physical ability, the loss of a job and the dignity that goes with it, the loss of a friend or family member who turns their back on you.  How much do we want to turn back to that loss and simply remain there, emotionally or spiritually dead?  But where does Mary go?  Not to death, but to Christ.

The Raising of LazarusBy Alessandro Magnasco
The Raising of Lazarus
By Alessandro Magnasco

This is followed by what I believe is one of the most gut-wrenchingly moving scenes of the Bible – Jesus weeps.  We know that Jesus is God.  We know that he’s all-powerful and all-knowing – but he’s not a distant God.  We see many emotions in Jesus throughout Scripture – intense suffering, anger, exultation, and even a little partying at the Wedding Feast at Cana.  But only here in the shortest line of the New Testament do we see Jesus weep.  Jesus is experiencing the awful sense of finality that we all feel when we recognize loss.  It’s a terribly real experience of our humanity that we will one day be separated from the ones we love.  We’ve been talking about that this whole homily – being the Lazarus in Bethany, the one in need of God in the house of the afflicted, being the Martha and Mary struggling to understand and cope with suffering and loss, that experience of waiting for God to come and do something, anything, to make that loss go away.  Well, now we see Jesus enter into that real human experience, weeping with the grief that we all feel.  Christ weeps when we weep.  He stays with us in the Eucharist even when everyone else has abandoned us.  We may be tempted to be angry with God or feel abandoned by him, but we need only think of this, the shortest line in the New Testament – “Jesus wept.”  When God permits us to suffer, he isn’t abandoning us, but weeping with us, bearing with us his saving Cross.  St. Therese of Lisieux, one of my favorite saints, put it this way: “The greatest honor God can do a soul is not to give it much, but to ask much of it.”

Brothers and sisters, let us turn now to the one who gives new life to the seeming finality of death.  Let us answer him as he calls us forth from the tombs of our sinfulness and self-loathing and loneliness.  Let us allow him to remove the sin and attachment to loss that binds us and prevents us from coming to him.  Let us be satisfied by the Eucharist with which he now feeds us, and follow him to the conclusion of Lent as his disciples.

Homily From Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion


A few years back, the seminarians, including myself, had the fantastic opportunity to go to Cologne, Germany for the 2006 World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI.  It was an amazing experience that I remember very fondly to this day, but one of the most exciting experiences was at the gathering for seminarians at a parish in the city with the Holy Father himself.  As he was even still approaching, we seminarians erupted in cheering, with everyone wanting to get a picture of him or touch his hand or get a short blessing from him.  All of us were so excited to be there in fact, that we all pushed each other out of the way.  So trust me, if you thought seminarians and priests just sat around and prayed all day, that’s very, very far from the truth.  It’s interesting to me, however, that as he retired, Pope Benedict was surrounded by negative reports and attitudes: that he didn’t do enough, that he didn’t go in the right direction, that he had a failed papacy.  If you had polled those people in Cologne, Pope Benedict would have been the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen with red shoes – a rock star.  And only a few years later, people would turn on him.  This experience came to mind as I was praying about the readings for today, trying to get some idea of what it must have been like to be there.  Everyone was waving their palm branches and shouting praises to Jesus and singing “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  They recognized, perhaps, just how great Jesus was: that he was in the royal line of David, the heir to the holy throne in Jerusalem that had been taken over by some Roman sympathizers.  He was God’s chosen, and everyone just wanted to be close to him and have some contact with him!

And then, just a few days later, they had changed their minds.  The “Hosanna’s” had turned into “Crucify him, crucify him!”  Instead of people reaching out to touch him and receive a blessing from him, there were mobs content with throwing stones, mud, spit, and insults at him.  For them, Jesus was causing trouble, and they wanted him out of there in the most permanent way possible – crucifixion.  They hated what he was, they hated what he stood for, and they just wanted to get rid of him.  Now sure, some people might have just been caught up in the terrible circumstances, but rather than walking away, they just sulked around in the background.  But instead of picking up his toys and leaving as most celebrities might do when confronted with this hatred, Jesus just sat there and took it all.  Not simply to get it over with, but to fulfill the Father’s will, and to show just how much he loved us.

Crucifixion Scene from the San Zeno AltarpieceBy Andrea Mantegna
Crucifixion Scene from the San Zeno Altarpiece
By Andrea Mantegna

Now this might sound sad to us, but we have to realize that we’re very much part of this story.  Today in the Mass, WE were the ones who sang “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  We were the ones who waved our palm branches, and who want to be close to him here at Mass.  But we were the ones who condemned Jesus also, right?  We read those lines in the Passion narrative, all of us!  We are perpetrators of both of these attitudes, not just here one day out of the year on Palm Sunday, but every day of our lives.  Sometimes we rejoice in the things that God gives us and cry out, “Hosanna!”  This could happen to us when someone does something kind for us in the workplace, or we accomplish something incredible, or we have a great experience in prayer, or when you realize the Cardinals opening day is just 7 short days away!  We give thanks for those things and count them as blessings.  But sometimes, when things don’t go our way, when we’re faced with a tough decision or tough reality, or when those blessings are a little harder to notice, we turn our backs on Christ rather than follow him, and cry out instead, “Crucify him!”  This could be anything, from sneering or exchanging some not-so-friendly gestures with someone who cut us off on the road, to openly expressing discontent or even anger at the Church for one of her teachings.  Really, in these circumstances, when we’d like to condemn Christ, it’s really us that should be condemned.  But thankfully, the story of Holy Week doesn’t end with the crucifixion.  We know in faith that Christ rose on that third day after his crucifixion so that all of us, whether we glorified or condemned him, could be given eternal life.  So now, the challenge to us is to look at our own actions in our lives.  Perhaps, as a daily practice, we might ask ourselves before we go to sleep, “What are the ways in which I glorify the Lord for his blessings to me, and how did I turn my back on Christ and condemn him today?”  If we’re more aware of those ways in which we condemn Jesus, we can more easily ask him for the graces we need to follow him and to look for those hidden blessings he gives us.

So as we approach Jesus in the Eucharist today, fully aware of those times when we have condemned rather than glorified him, may we come to see the beauty of the gift of his mercy, won for us by his death on the Cross and given to us once again here in his Body and Blood.  And then, having received him, let us commit ourselves all the more each day to glorify him, saying, “Hosanna, to the Son of David!”