Homily From the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year C

christ_the_king_2The other day while working on my homily, I ran across an interesting article concerning some strange and funny facts about famous kings.  For example, King Mongkut of Siam offered to give the United States elephants for transportation purposes.  Could you imagine if instead of Metrolink, you could just rent an elephant???  It might be more efficient too.  Obviously, a confused Abraham Lincoln refused the king’s offer.  King George I of England spoke five languages, which is impressive: German, French, Italian, Dutch, and a little Latin.  You might note – he didn’t speak English!  What?  Who would really want to be ruled by these guys?  You would want a king to be successful, intelligent, and wise – that’s our idea of a good king!

It’s interesting that today, as we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, we are transported back to the pivotal moment of human history – Christ on Calvary.  Today is the day when the whole Church celebrates Christ’s universal Kingship, and this story of Jesus on the Cross is his coronation day.  Now of course, we all know what happens, but imagine if you didn’t.  If I’m looking at this scene from that position, I’m thinking that a king is supposed to be strong, successful, victorious, and all those things we just said.  So why are we staring at this dying, helpless man as he is hanging on a Cross?  If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would want this guy for a king.

So how can a sign of utter defeat become a sign of the King’s everlasting victory?  John Paul II called this the “Paradox of Christ’s Kingship.”  It really is a paradox – it doesn’t seem to make sense in an earthly way.  In 2001, he spoke to the crowds in one of his Angelus addresses, saying, “If it is assessed according to the criteria of this world, Jesus’ kingship can appear ‘paradoxical’. Indeed, the power he exercises does not fit into earthly logic. On the contrary, his is the power of love and service that requires the gratuitous gift of self and the consistent witness to the truth.”

He’s right!  The Kingdom of Christ isn’t about strength or success or victory, at least not in the normal human sense.  We see this very clearly in our readings.  In our first reading from the Second Book of Samuel, we hear that David was king not so that he could dominate, but so that he could “shepherd God’s people, Israel.”  Back to the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Luke, we see that Christ the King doesn’t rule by selfishness and greed, but by sacrifice.  He doesn’t rule by bringing in his heavenly hordes to destroy the evildoers who put him there, as he could have.  He didn’t rule by sending this terrible wretch of a man hanging next to him away, but by mercy and forgiveness.  And so he said to that man, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.  Today, you will be with me in my kingdom.”

The thief, usually referred to as St. Dismas, gets it.  He realized that there is more to the human story than we see, experience, or understand here.  Jesus, in his example of selfless sacrifice, held a key to a Kingdom much greater than the earth would ever know.  He realized that the Kingdom began on earth through faith, hope, obedience, and love, and that it would only truly reach its fullness in heaven.  St. Dismas understood this.  And so he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  He surrendered himself, and all the terrible things of his past, to the authority and reign of Christ the King.

I think we are called to do the same, to allow Jesus to be our King.  That is so difficult to do!  It’s easy to allow other things to conquer and dominate our lives.  These other things can begin to dictate what we do and how we do it, how we treat others and ourselves, how we look at God.  We can easily allow convenience to be our king.  Maybe ambition and success can become our ruler.  Or maybe it’s on the other side of the spectrum – self-loathing and unworthiness begin to rule us. 

But today’s feast is about allowing Christ to have dominion over our hearts.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the greatest preachers of the Church, who lived in the 12th century, spoke on this same topic in one of his homilies.  And because he’s a lot better preacher than I am, I’m going to just read that paragraph to you!

And now, Lord Jesus, come and remove the stumbling blocks within the kingdom, which is my soul, so that you who ought to may reign in it. Greed comes along and claims its throne in me; arrogance would dominate me; pride would be my king. Comfort and pleasure say: We shall reign! Ambition, detraction, envy, anger fight within me for supremacy, and seem to have me entirely in their power. 

But I resist insofar as I can; I struggle against them insofar as I receive your help. I protest that Jesus is my Lord. I keep myself for him since I acknowledge his rights over me. To me he is God, to me he is the Lord, and I declare: I will have no king but the Lord Jesus! Come then, Lord, rout them by your power and you will reign in me, for you are my king and my God.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn St. Peter’s Square in Rome, there is a massive Egyptian obelisk that stands in the center of the plaza.  Now I don’t know if you’re that familiar with geography, but Egypt is a long way from Rome.  It’s somewhat strange to see the obelisk standing there.  Actually, it was erected about 2400 BC as a monument to the Egyptian Pharaoh.  After Rome had conquered Egypt, the Emperor Caligula brought the obelisk to Rome as a trophy, a symbol of their superiority over Egypt.  It was placed in the Circus of Nero, where it presided over brutal gladiatorial games and Christian executions.  Eventually, it was toppled by the barbarians, and it became buried under dirt and ivy.  But eventually, the Church overtook the Roman Empire, and it baptized the barbarian tribes, and persisted through the Dark Ages until a new Christian culture emerged and flourished.  And when St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt and expanded, the obelisk was once again raised from the dust to stand in the square, where it is today.  The difference is that now it is topped with a bronze cross, and within that cross is another small fragment of the True Cross, the Cross on which Christ was crucified for us, and the place where he ascended to his throne.  There was an interesting inscription written on the obelisk – two actually.  The first faces out to the rest of the world and it reads, “Ecce Crux Domini!  Behold the cross of the Lord!  Let his enemies flee!  The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered!”  On the other side, facing the basilica, the inscription reads, “Christus vincit!  Christus regnat!  Christus imperat!  Christ conquers!  Christ rules!  Christ reigns!”  That ancient obelisk is no longer a trophy of Rome conquering Egypt, and it no longer stands as a reminder of the destruction of barbarian hordes.  Now it stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square, a place usually filled with people praying and worshipping God and listening to the words of the successor of Peter.  It stands as if to say, “Now, this stands for another conqueror.  Now, Christ has conquered our hearts!

Brothers and sisters, let us allow our hearts to be ruled by this loving and merciful Lord.  Christ the King has conquered indeed, and his Kingdom will last forever.

Homily From the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

"Christ in Judgment" Mosaic from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C.
“Christ in Judgment”
Mosaic from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception,
Washington D.C.

When will the end of the world happen?  This is a question that people have been trying to answer for a long, long, time.  The Romans thought it would be 634 BC, based on a number that 12 eagles had revealed to their legendary founder, Romulus.  Hippolytus of Rome said it would be 500 AD based on some formula he derived from the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.  Pope Sylvester II said it would be 1000 AD at the close of the millennium – riots occurred, and people flocked to Jerusalem.  Martin Luther said no later than 1600.  Billy Graham said the 1950’s.  Everyone thought the Y2K bug would crash computers and cause catastrophes that would destroy civilization as we know it.  Some people interpreted the Mayans as saying it would be Dec. 21, 2012.  Then Warren Jeffs said Dec. 23, 2012…and when that didn’t happen, he said Dec. 31, 2012.  Norse mythology, Sir Isaac Newton, and Orthodox Judaism say that it’s still coming.  So when will the end of the world be?  That’s the big question.

It’s the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, and so the Church is coming to the end of our liturgical year as well.  Next weekend is the Solemnity of Christ the King, which finishes off the Sundays in the season of Ordinary Time, and then it’s on to the new liturgical year with Advent.  And so the next two weeks, the Church is using this end of the year theme to mirror a greater mystery – the end of history.

This sort of thing can be interesting to us.  Movies are made about catastrophes and natural disasters and the end of the world.  We usually think about angels and judgment and all the things that come with it.  The big question is the same one that it was in Jesus’ time: when will the end come?

Today, Jesus gives us a few signs, saying that there will be wars and famine.  The Book of Revelation says there will be an Anti-Christ.  The Book of Malachi that we had for our first reading says that it will be a day blazing like an oven.  All of these are signs of the end times.  But here’s the thing: we have already had wars and famines for the past 2000 years.  There always seem to be people in every generation who blatantly stand out as “anti-Christ”, whether it be Hitler, Stalin, or whoever.  And of course, every single summer in St. Louis feels like a blazing oven.

What I would suggest is that we’re missing the point if we are seeking a sign or a date for the end times.  The second coming of Jesus, the end of the world, transcends the logic of human history.  We don’t know when, how, or why Jesus will come.  We can’t figure out a date, nor should we.  The point is that it will come, and is coming, and we are called to prepare.  We don’t prepare by building bomb shelters or stocking up on bread and milk, but in hopeful anticipation.  Sometimes in theological terms, we use the Greek word Parousia to describe the end times.  But this word more literally means the welcoming or grand arrival of an important guest.  That’s how we are called to approach the end – with hope and welcoming of the coming of Christ.

"Yeah, Henry Josey, just enjoy a nice nap on the sidelines..."
“Yeah, Henry Josey, just enjoy a nice nap on the sidelines…”

With the recent success of Mizzou football, it has me all fired up about the coming bowl games, and really, I think it’s a nice analogy for our lesson today.  There is some tendency in our culture to avoid thinking of the last things – the great truths like death and judgment.  We are simply told to enjoy ourselves while we can and don’t worry about the bigger picture.  But really, that view of the end is completely backwards!  It would be like telling Henry Josey or James Franklin to just enjoy their time sitting on the sidelines of the football game.  Enjoy some Gatorade, stretch out, and relax, right?  No way!  That doesn’t make sense to these players!

A good football player enjoys the game by playing hard and doing his best to win.  He knows that the 4th quarter is right around the corner, the clock is ticking, and the time will soon run out on the clock.  And when it does, he makes his way back to the locker room – bruised, sweaty, and exhausted – and he wants three things.  First, he wants a shower, obviously.  But he also wants to know that he won the game, and that he pushed himself as hard as possible to play his part in that win.

The lesson of the Gospel is that our lives are similar.  Yes, they will come to an end some day.  The clock is ticking, and the 4th quarter is on the way.  But there is also a big difference.  A football player can give his all and still lose.  He can be satisfied with his performance, but still disappointed with the outcome.  But as Christians, we play to win.  If we as Christians give our all in the time we have, spending our lives fighting to be more like Christ each day – in spite of hardships, sufferings, persecutions, opposition, and enemies – then victory is assured, and satisfaction is assured.

Today as we gather for this Mass, we, like the Church, are mindful that the end times will come.  But we come to the Eucharist striving to give our all – to prepare, to hope, and to imitate the love of Christ each day.  As we receive the Eucharist, the foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, let us receive what we need to be holy in this life, and to live with God forever in the next.  Amen.

Homily From the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Father, did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?”  I get some pretty interesting questions sometimes.  And a lot of times, the questions can come with a lot of connotations.  This question is simple, but there’s actually a lot going on within it.  Here’s another one: “If God is all-powerful, can he create a rock so big that he can’t move it?”  The first question was good, but this one, not so much.  It comes with an element of doubt and a little mockery, not unlike the question that Jesus tries to answer today.

So another day, another argument between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his time.  Probably most of us are familiar with the Pharisees, the ones that Jesus is usually arguing with in he Gospels.  Today, he’s arguing with the Sadducees, another religious group, but the thing is, these guys didn’t believe in the resurrection.  They took the YOLO (You Only Live Once) thing to the extreme!

The Sadducees were a lot less strict than the Pharisees, religiously speaking.  They believed in the Torah and the Law, but they also collaborated with the Romans, which made them pretty wealthy and influential in government matters.  This frequent contact with the Roman society may have seemed like a good thing at the time, but it slowly affected their faith as well by contaminating it and distorting their concept of God.

They are arguing with Jesus about heaven – which they don’t believe in, by the way – and they show that they have a very different idea of God.  Just a hint: if you’re going to argue about heaven, don’t do it with the Son of God.  He’s been there!  The Sadducees are totally missing the point.  They are trying to think about heaven in earthly terms, applying their human restrictions to God.

Now these pithy arguments of the Sadducees might seem as silly as that question about whether God can create a rock so big he can’t lift it.  We might think that we have very little in common with the Sadducees, but in reality, we are very much like them.  Like the Sadducees, we live in a world that is full of non-Christian influences that can contaminate our faith.  It may not seem like a big deal, but it can start to divert our focus to be only on the things here and now.  That’s why so many Catholics in recent years have become “cafeteria Catholics”.  It’s so easy to accept the Church teachings that fit into today’s popular culture.  Things like serving the poor and being non-judgmental are great examples of this.  Recently, there was a photo going around the Internet of Pope Francis embracing a man afflicted with tumors.  All these things are good, but they are easy to agree with!  It’s so much more challenging to accept the teachings of the Church that go against the popular culture, especially in the area of sexual morality.

See, when we start to pick and choose like this, we make the same mistake that the Sadducees made.  We aren’t letting God be God.  We are putting him in a nice, controllable box, cutting him down to our size.  When we do that, we miss out on the greater things that God wants to give us, and the only things that can satisfy our deepest longings.

There was an interesting story that I heard recently that I think fits into this topic perfectly.  The story goes that there were some Christians who were walking together on a barren plateau on their way to heaven.  They were all carrying their crosses, just as Christ commanded, and were all bowed down under the weight of the crosses.  It was fairly uncomfortable for them.  One of the Christians stopped, laid down his cross, and dropped to his knees in prayer.  “Lord, I want to follow you,” he prayed, “but this cross is just too heavy right now.”  He heard no answer, so he took out a saw (which he was so conveniently carrying, I guess), and cut off about a foot of his cross.  So he continued on his journey with his customized, ergonomic cross, and it was still very uncomfortable, so he prayed again, “Lord, you know what’s in my heart, right?  You know I love you, but I am just not strong enough to carry this cross.  It is too big for me.”  Again, he heard nothing, so he took out the saw and cut two more feet off the cross.  Eventually, he and his companions came to a huge chasm.  There was a great abyss that was separating the plateau they were travelling on with the other side, where the road to heaven continued.  He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to jump across, so he looked around to see what the other Christians were doing.  He noticed that they were laying their crosses over the chasm like little bridges, and walking across them to the other side.  Smiling, he followed suit and laid his cross down – only to find that it was three feet too short!  By cutting his cross down to what he was comfortable with, or what he thought was more manageable, he had inadvertently cut himself off from God, like the Sadducees.

Probably as you’re sitting here today, you’re noticing that there are some people you know who aren’t with us today at Mass, possibly because some have fallen into the trap the Sadducees fell into – cutting God down to their size.  For some people, they think their relationship with God is just fine.  They aren’t axe murderers or suicide bombers, so that’s pretty good, right?  Maybe some people, and some of us here too, have become content to pick and choose from the all-you-can-eat buffet of Catholic teachings, not really making a commitment, but enjoying a few morsels of wisdom and joy here and there.  It’s easy to forget that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and that God has so much more to give us – like eternal life!

St. Ignatius of Antioch was the first to call the Church a “Catholic” Church, meaning that the Church is universal.  Yes, it means that the Church is worldwide.  Yes, it means that the Church is all-embracing of people from all nations and cultures.  But more challengingly, it means that the Church embraces everything that God asks of us universally, not just the parts that are popular with our culture or that are comfortable for us.

So what do we do to help ourselves, as well as those who aren’t here with us today?  First, we have to pray for them.  I don’t mean thinking about them once in a while or keeping them in mind, I mean actually taking the time to pray for them.  It should matter to us that this church is usually three times as full on Christmas Eve than it is today.  It means that some people may have been seduced into putting their friendship with God in second place.  This is not an opportunity for us to judge them or think less of them as individuals.  They are children of God, just as all of us are, and so we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Because of that relationship, we really should pray for God to bring them home.

Secondly, we should try to understand better the Church’s teachings, especially the tough ones that we have trouble understanding or agreeing with.  There is a wonderful website called “Catholic Answers” that strives to address issues that we might have with some of the teachings of the Church.  You’ll find them at catholic.com (original, I know).  The better that we understand these things, the better we will be able to help others understand them, and stir ourselves and them out of our Sadducee-ish slumber.

Finally, we can invite them.  I can usually see all your faces as you sit in the pews, and I can read it on your face at times when things get boring.  Yes, Mass can appear to be boring, especially if you’re coming alone.  That’s some of the reason why I think a lot of people don’t come.  But I’ve also noticed that some families that come every week make a social event out of Mass as well by sitting together, talking afterward, and enjoying each others’ company.  Maybe you can reach out to someone you know who doesn’t go to Mass, inviting them to sit with you if it makes them more comfortable.  The start of Advent is only a few weeks away, so now is a great time to help them start fresh.

God has so much in store for us, just as he did for the apostles, and just as he did for even the Sadducees.  But to really receive the fruit of it, we have to be open and willing to embrace all of it, even when it becomes a challenge.  As we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord today, let us answer that challenge by living heroic lives dedicated to God, and in so doing, share life with him forever in Heaven.

Homily From the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

2501-f4f1eOne thing that I remember from my grade school days at St. Joseph parish in Manchester was a mural that we had in one of our stairwells portraying the Gospel passage that we read today, about Jesus and Zacchaeus.  I haven’t seen too many paintings or depictions of this story, so that’s the image that sticks with me.  It’s not really much of a painting like the Mona Lisa or anything, and to me, Zacchaeus kind of looked like a hobbit or something.  But one thing that it did portray was one thing that is central to this story: the love in Jesus’ eyes.  Most explanations of the story that I used to hear as a child focused more on the fact that Zacchaeus was short more than anything, but he’s really not the point.  Not that I want to belittle Zacchaeus, but really, the story is about Jesus.

In the Gospel today, we hear that Zacchaeus was a tax collector and a wealthy man.  We wasn’t really the greatest role model, because he was rich for a reason, and tax collecting wasn’t really the highest paying job in the world.  He was a wealthy man because he had cheated other people!  He really was half the man that Jesus was.  But he hears about this Jesus, and wants to learn a little more, so he climbs a tree.  But it turns out that Jesus actually seeks him out, calling to him and telling him that he needs to stay at his house.  Basically, he was inviting himself over.  That’s a tall order, but how does Zacchaeus respond?  He could have simply said, “No thanks,” or he could have been insulted that Jesus would be so presumptuous.

Now I want to go back to the tree thing for a second – why was Zacchaeus sitting up there looking awkward in a sycamore tree in the first place?  The gospels say that it was because he was too short, but I really don’t buy that.  I’m not doubting the inerrancy of Scripture or anything, but anyone who has ever done anything with children in crowds knows that little people can always find a way to push through.  A kid going toward something he wants doesn’t care if he’s little – he just squeezes his way through.

So why was he in the tree?  I think it was because he was scared.  He knew that he had issues.  He knew that he was dishonest and greedy and selfish, and that he had done wrong, even to some of the people that were in the crowd with him!  When we do something that is wrong, or when we’re feeling guilty, the last thing that we do is tell our mothers or let everyone know.  The first reaction to guilt is to hide ourselves.  So I think Zacchaeus was scared, guilty, and he hid himself.

But how does he respond when Jesus turns to him and says, “Zacchaeus, get down from there.  I have to go to your home!”  He opens his heart to Jesus’ invitation, and came down quickly to welcome him.  He wasn’t concerned at that point what others would think, or what his reputation would be.  He welcomed Jesus in and allowed his heart to be transformed.

Now here’s something that really caught my attention.  Jesus told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house.”  Now that makes it sound like a visit – he’s coming over, they’re going to eat some lasagna, maybe play some Scrabble afterwards, and he’s going home.  But in Greek, the language the Gospel was written in, it’s pretty clear that Jesus has something else in mind.  The word more accurately means “to abide.”  Abide.  Now that’s more than just staying.  It’s a lasting, intimate relationship.  It is staying with someone or remaining with someone, yes, but it finds its roots in love for that person.  Jesus wanted to abide in Zacchaeus, and he wants to abide in us as well.

It took a lot for Zacchaeus to go from hiding in a tree to receiving Jesus to abide in his home.  Now I don’t know what kinds of trees in which you find yourself hiding from Jesus as he passes by.  It could be drinking excessively or dependently, it could be gossiping about coworkers or classmates, it could be criticizing or bullying people on Facebook, it could be pornography.  There are so many trees that we hide ourselves in, and I don’t know which is yours.  But Christ wants to abide in you, to make you a living tabernacle.  How many of us, when we hear those words, would turn away because we think that if Jesus really knew what kind of person we are, or how guilty we are, he wouldn’t want to abide there?  He calls to you, asking you not to waste your life sitting in the tree of your own sinfulness, and welcome him.

He wants to be with us, even when we’re weak, even when we’re in the dark places, feeling like we’re about to commit those sins again.  He is there, contemplating the scene and trying to show us love and mercy.  That is a love that he has shown even from the foundations of the world, even from the moment of our conception.  That’s pure love, and it’s a love that we have trouble understanding because we usually don’t know how to show it to others.  It’s a kind of love that only God can show.  Jesus chose to abide in Zacchaeus, not because he was rich or perfect, or because he had a nice house or anything, but because he needed the Lord.  We need to remember this fact: we aren’t loved because we are good, we are good because we are loved.

The Lord yearns to dwell in our hearts, but first we must come down out of the tree of our sinfulness and welcome him.  Do we truly wish to see Jesus, or are we afraid of how he might transform us?  As we receive the Lord today, aware of our faults and failings, let us open the doors of our hearts and invite the Lord to abide within us.  And then, just as Zacchaeus was transformed by Christ’s love, let us allow ourselves to be changed to be fitting tabernacles, dwelling places of the Lord.  Amen.

Saints of the Roman Canon: Sts. John and Paul

"The Martyrdom of Saints John and Paul (recto)" by Guercino
“The Martyrdom of Saints John and Paul (recto)” by Guercino

The two saints for today are Sts. John and Paul – not the apostles, but two men of the same names who were martyred in Christ’s service.  John and Paul were “soldier martyrs”, a particular group of individuals who were honored in the early Church.  Other famous examples of these soldier martyrs are guys like St. George, St. Theodore, and St. Julius the Veteran.  This group of martyrs inspired devotion because of their ability to put their faith in Christ first above their orders, their emperor, and even their lives.

The lives of Sts. John and Paul are based in legends, but what is certain is that they were martyred.  The two of them were soldiers under the Emperor Constantine, who was so impressed by their service to the Empire and their devotion to God that he made them special bodyguards to his daughter, Constantia.  After their service, and through the emperor’s generosity, they retired to a house on the Caelian Hill in Rome.

After a while, Emperor Julian (aka Julian the Apostate) came along around 362, and recalled them to serve as his aides.  They refused his request because Julian had rejected his faith – which he had willingly been baptized into – in favor of the Roman gods (hence, “the Apostate”).  Julian was a little upset, as you might imagine, and gave them 10 days to reconsider, or he would charge them with impiety and execute them.  John and Paul spent those 10 days to distribute their possessions to the poor, and Julian sent one of his captains to their home and beheaded them there.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, built on the home of the martyrs
Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio,
built on the home of the martyrs

Speaking of that house on the Caelian Hill, the Christian community continued to offer Masses there every year on the anniversary of their martyrdom, until in 398, 36 years after their death, a senator named Pammachius built a church on the site.  The church has been restored again and again after being damaged (Visigoths, earthquakes, and Normans, oh my!), but it is the same church and one of the 25 original tituli, which you might remember from last week was one of the original parishes in Rome.  Original frescoes depicting the martyrdom of John and Paul can still be seen, and the tombs of the two martyrs are there as well.

We’ll get a glimpse into the lives of two other martyrs next week, this time brothers!

A note on the homilies…

I apologize for not posting my homilies up as quickly of late.  I recently switched to a new method of note-taking and homily-delivery that is not quite as convenient for posting them on this blog, and with the weekly schedule, it’s not leaving me as much time to type them out.  I think it’s helping me as a homilist, but not so much on the electronic side of my ministry!  Oh well.  Priorities, you know?  Anyway, I am trying to make sure they find their way onto the blog, but there might be a little delay.  Thanks!