The Day of Judgment
This first stage of Advent, from Dec 1-16, prepares us not for Christmas but for Jesus’ Second Coming and his Final Judgment. The readings and the prayers say nothing about a baby in Bethlehem; they speak rather of justice will be meted out to the wicked and mercy to the righteous. We’re not talking sleigh bells and Christmas trees but apocalyptic judgment and a world remade in the image of God. The prayer over the gifts, for example: “O Lord, since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue…” And the Preface: “We watch for that day to inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.” The first reading: “Not by appearance shall he judge: he shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked.” And the Gospel: “Repent, …you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Even now the ax lies at the root.” Trees that bear no fruit will be cut down and thrown into fire.
Certainly everyone fears judgment. Even in our “enlightened” and “liberated” society, or perhaps especially among people that ignore the existence of a Divine Authority, people sense that man’s injustice cannot go on forever. But if God is not my judge, then no one is my judge. So people avoid judgment in cases of obvious wrongdoing—they hire lawyers to contest simple traffic tickets and insist on their innocence in cases of even grave crime. You just need the right lawyer—remember the OJ Simpson case, or the many corporate fraud cases such as Enron and Worldcom. “I did nothing wrong” insisted President Clinton in the Monica Lewinski affair. You will hear people say “I left the Church because it is so judgmental.” “No one can impose their morality on me.” We all pretend that somehow we will escape judgment, and many go so far as to pretend that God and natural law do not even exist. But as one of my seminary professors said, “you can’t break the natural law; you can only break against the natural law.”
The Winnowing Fan
Advent, like Lent, is a season to prepare for the coming of Christ by confessing, and submitting to, his divine judgment. That judgment is fearsome, for it submits itself to no human appeal. That judgment is also our only hope, for it decisively corrects human error. There will come a day, the last of human history, when God will right this tilting ship. There will come a time when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb, and the child will play by the cobra’s den—when children will play next to buildings that were once abortion clinics. There will come a day when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.” That day will surely come, for God has promised it, and his promises are sure. But it will come only after the judgment, because divine mercy comes to us only through divine justice. Is Jesus a meek and mild baby in the lap of his maiden mother, Mary, or is Jesus a terrifying Judge coming on the clouds with fearsome power? He is both: for the faithful, Christ’s judgment is mercy; for the unfaithful, his judgment is swift and terrible justice.
We will all be threshed
“All Judea and the whole region” were rushing to John the Baptist by the River as they “acknowledged their sins.” God’s judgment is a threshing, a separation: he will separate wheat from chaff. The chaff he will burn and the wheat he will gather to himself, into his barn (heaven). John asserts that “His winnowing fan is in his hand….” A winnowing fan was a pitchfork that a farmer used to toss the mixture of wheat and chaff into the air, so that the wind could blow away the chaff while the heavier grain would fall to earth. It is said that a friend is one who separates wheat from chaff in the one he loves. And yet this separation, while a necessary dynamic of friendship painfully shakes us up.
God threshes every man, shaking out our sins like a man shakes out a dirty rug. He is doing that already, for purgatory begins now, in this life. Let God thresh and winnow you. “Take what he gives, and give what he takes, with a big smile,” in the words of Mother Teresa. A saint is simply one who submits herself to the threshing judgment of God, who does not resist when she is tossed about by divine providence, who allows herself to be purified of her chaff. Trust the Lord’s threshing of your life, for He knows what he is about.
The Immaculate Conception
Today is the patronal feast of our Nation, the Immaculate Conception, although we will celebrate it tomorrow so as not to displace a Sunday. Our Lady is the only daughter of men that did not need to be threshed, because she had no sin. And yet God did thresh her: he led her through trial, sorrow, confusion, and darkness. Like Jesus, she experienced the full weight of sin’s consequences, even though herself without sin. If even she patiently underwent this threshing, cannot we also patiently accept God’s disciplines in our lives? With her, we gladly offer difficulties, aches and pains, perplexities, weaknesses, and darkness. We allow God to winnow us, so that we may be gathered into his heaven with the Immaculata and all the saints, for he is the judge, the just judge, living and reigning forever and ever. Amen.
Advent looks forward, not backward
We have entered the Season of Advent and most of us are thinking of Christmas; in fact, I began my Christmas cards yesterday. But Advent is not about Christmas, at least in the Extraordinary Form readings; it’s about Christ’s Second Coming. The Epistle today clearly warns us to prepare ourselves, and the Gospel foretells a terrifying end of the world. The next three Sundays of Advent are less apocalyptic but no less focused on the Second Coming. They say nothing about the birth of the baby Jesus, nor do we hear any Messianic prophecies, as in the Ordinary Form readings. Advent, at least in the Extraordinary Form, is meant to focus us on the Second Coming of Christ, not his First Coming. What if Christ were to return to earth during this “Holiday Season.” Would we be ready for him? Would the world, which has removed the very name of Christ from Christmas, be ready for him? Here he comes, and there we are, waiting in line at Macy’s, or fuming with road rage on the way to the mall. If Christ knocked on your door an hour before your big Christmas party, would you let him in? “Honey, tell whoever it is to come back next week—I’ve got so much to do before the guests arrive!” I’m not forbidding Christmas parties, but let’s try to keep Advent in focus. Our priority during Advent, and Christmas, is not social fun, but prayer and Christian love and almsgiving, some measure of penance. Our Christmas parties and shopping and tinsel are fine, if we keep them within the authentic purpose of the liturgical season. The coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the guiding purpose of Advent.
People will die of fright
On the First Sunday of Advent, as I said, we hear of confusion and terror: the sea and the waves will roar; the powers of the heavens will be shaken. “Nations will be in dismay; people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming.” It is for these days that we must prepare, because they will surely come. At His First Coming, God came as a darling baby on the lap of his childlike mother Mary. At His Second Coming, Christ will come on the clouds with power and great glory, his authority fully manifest. “When these things begin to pass, look up, because your redemption is at hand.” We are preparing for our redemption, for we are not yet redeemed—it is “at hand,” it is near, but not yet here. God’s judgment on our lives, His sentence on our time, has yet to come. Everyone in this church today (especially me) could end up in hell, and it would be an unspeakable tragedy if even one of us were eternally damned. Advent calls us to keep this danger in mind during our Christmas parties and shopping adventures, but also to keep in mind the proximity of our redemption. Now is the time to prepare for judgment; now is the time to hope for redemption.
How do we keep a good Advent? Many Americans begin the “Christmas Season” with the new civic holiday we call “Black Friday.” The very name indicates a culture that was once Christian but has become the negative image of what it once was. Children of the light, St. Paul says, “throw off works of darkness.” If we’ve thrown Christ out of Christmas, then indeed it is a “Black Friday.” Do we prepare for Christ by eating and drinking? Again, St. Paul: “not in orgies and drunkenness, rather, make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Folks, we are supposed to lose weight in this season, at least before December 25. But we do live in a time that ignores and despises the Word of God. Yet everything but the Word of God will burn in the universal fires at the end of human history.
There is a true Advent, and there is a false Advent. The false is the negative image of the true. The true Advent has gradually been turned upside down, and we don’t often stop to think about it. Christians are to practice deeper prayer, charity, and mortification in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Funny thing is, we mostly do just the opposite. We pray less and we eat more. We waste more money at Christmas on more banalities, precisely at the time the Church urges us to simplify, to spend less time and money on distractions. Let’s try to refocus, to direct that time and money this time of year on the things that last: on deeper prayer, on sacrificial and heartfelt charity. Advent is a time to remember the neediest, to give gifts without expecting a return.
In the end, Advent prepares us for our own death, and the death of our world as we know it. Deep down, we long for the death of all that is imperfect and sinful, so that we can enter into a new and perfect life. Death is hard, and more than anyone, we need our Blessed Mother at the hour of our death. Our mother brings us to birth, and God has ordained that she be with us at the hour of our death. If Advent points us to the end of all things and the beginning of a new Kingdom, then Our Lady must be a large part of Advent and Christmas. And indeed she is, on almost every Christmas card and still (Deo Gratias) on US Postal stamps. Even as we shop and have parties and write cards, let us bring Jesus and Mary to every Advent activity—a decade of the rosary or the Angelus and some real Christmas carols at every Christmas party—so that we will be prepared to meet Christ when he returns to earth.
Jesus teaching in the temple
Seven Brothers and One Mother: The Resurrection of the Body
As we come to the end of the Liturgical Year, Holy Mother Church gently directs our attention to our own end. Our first reading takes us to the famous Seven Maccabees of the Jewish persecutions from 167-160 BC. The Syrian Greeks under Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to force the children of Israel to deny the living God. Seven brothers refused to blaspheme. They were tortured and executed in front of their mother. The third does not wait for them to cut off his hands: he holds them out and declares: “I received these from God, and I hope He will restore them in the next life.” A good meditation on death is to look at your hand and reflect that someday that warm and rosy hand will be nothing but a dried-up bone. And yet, God will restore that shriveled bone someday. Many mock our belief that these bodies of ours, after decomposition in the grave, will be raised up faster, stronger, more beautiful than before. The Greeks taught that men become ghosts after death, mere shadows, joyless because they are bodiless. The Jews, however, believed in a bodily existence after death, either a shining glorified body in heaven, or a putrid horrifying body in hell. But not all Jews believed in the resurrection of the body.
Seven Brothers and One Bride: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb
The Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, mock Jesus in today’s gospel. They were upper class, wealthy and well educated, a kind of “liberal” Jewish denomination compared to the “conservative” Pharisees. Like today’s cultural elites, they sought bodily health, social position, and political power as ends in themselves. In their wealth, they belittled the spiritual aspirations of the poor and ridiculed life after death. Jesus describes them as short-sighted, because this life, as good as it is, cannot satisfy us for long. To be happy on earth, we must set our sights on a further horizon, on the life of the world to come.
A few years ago I bought an “LG” flat screen TV for the rectory. Do you know what LG stands for? It stands for “Life is Good.” And life is good, but life is more than a flat screen TV. I looked up the biggest baddest TV I could find on the internet—it was a 100” Laser HD TV with octaphonic sound (retails at $9000). Guess who makes it? You guessed it—Life is Good (LG). The Sadducees, like most wealthy elites, were relatively satisfied with their giant screen TVs, so to speak, and could not see beyond them. Jesus tells them to expect more than the flatness of this life, to expect the glorification of this beautiful but imperfect body in another life.
The Sadducees tell another story of seven brothers who died one by one, but these brothers had all married the same woman one after the other before dying. The Sadducees smile condescendingly at Jesus: “So, in heaven, if there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be—remember, all seven married her!” Jesus sighs. You are quite mistaken, he tells them. You can’t see any further than your flat screen TVs. There’s another world coming, compared to which this world is hell. Look to that world. Because if you don’t, you will end up in real hell.
Interestingly, the Sadducees speak of marriage. For the Sadducees, as for the social elites of today, marriage is about two things: sex and social position. These are good things, but even the greatest goods of marriage (spousal love and procreating children) will not be needed in heaven. Espousal to the eternal God—and the perfect harmony among the saints—will infinitely surpass any joy on earth. Just beholding the face of God (the “beatific vision”) satisfies every human longing. Do you think we will need flat screen TVs in heaven?
The Month of the Dead; the Month of the Living
November is the month of the dead: All Saints Day and All Souls Day urge us to cast off our fear of death and vigorously expect a life of glory beyond the grave. A few years ago my bishop ordered all us priests to write our last will and testaments, to draw up end-of-life healthcare directives, and to plan our own funerals. We all put it off—who wants to plan your own funeral at age 35? But I finally got it done just before the deadline. What a joy I felt as I dropped that envelope in the mail—I was packed and ready to go. Just say the word, Lord, and I’m on my way!
Life is good down here, but it’s only a shadow of what awaits us up there. Those who lie in Santa Paula cemetery with crosses over their graves—they are the living, and we are the ghosts, stumbling blindly through this Vale of Tears and disappointments.
Holy Mary, Pray for us at the Hour of our Death
We do well to turn to Our Lady, Our Mother, at the end of our lives: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” There’s a beautiful third verse to the Hail Holy Queen:
And when our life’s breath leaves us, O Maria!
Show us thy son Christ Jesus, O Maria!
Our Lady stands ready to receive us at our last breath. Accompanied by angels and saints, she will bring us to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to the eternal and perfect community that awaits each one who lives his life on earth in preparation for the life of the world to come.
The Feast of Christ the King
Today Holy Mother Church celebrates In Festo Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Regis: Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 to help correct the world’s tilt toward the chaos of secularism. The Great War (which ended in November 1918) made terrifyingly evident that universal devastation is the price we must pay for casting God out of public life. A few years after this war, and foreseeing the next global war to come, Pius XI wrote the encyclical Quas primas: “These manifold evils in the world are due to the fact that the majority of men have thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; [with] no place either in private affairs or in politics: as long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Savior, there will be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.” Before Christ, the world knew no peace, but on a certain year in human history, the Son of God became incarnate and established his Kingdom. It is at this moment we enter today’s Gospel reading. Jesus Christ faces Pilate. The Roman king of Judea stands in judgment over the eternal King of heaven.
A King faces the King
Pilate was not a bad king, as earthly rulers go. He had nothing against God—he just didn’t know him. He was only trying to keep order in the best way he knew. He was like most political officials in our day—non-Christian, with no recourse to a higher moral authority—for our social order has lapsed into its primitive, non-Christian state. Like Pilate, Christ has nothing to do with our decision-making, and we are trying to maintain peace without God.
Pilate asks Jesus: who are you? Are you a king? Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question: “Do you say this on your own?” In other words, do you really want to know who I am, and what it means to be a king? Pilate becomes a little frustrated with these deeper questions, which seem like riddles to his crudely political mind: “Do I look like a Jew to you?” he flings back at Jesus. “How am I supposed to know about your weird religion? Just tell me who you are and what you’ve done to cause a riot in my district.”
Pilate Doesn’t Get It
Then Jesus gives Pilate, and all humanity, the answer we have been longing to hear: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Every worldly political order will fail to the degree that it refuses to have reference beyond the world. We can’t keep order by ourselves. What do you think will happen if you put three children in a room by themselves for five hours? They need an adult to keep from hurting each other. We “adults” need a Father greater than any earthly father. Deep down, we all know this, and we know that the answer to our political conflicts is not found in this world.
Jesus continues: “I came to testify to the truth.” Every politically mature person asks whether an earthly ruler ever be completely honest. And Jesus answers that question: No, he can’t. The world is ruined; it is lost to original sin. Only the ruler who is beyond this world can bring peace and order. Only God bears the fullness of truth, and the only way to rule this world is to refer beyond it. Pilate doesn’t get it, and, with all due respect, Barak Obama doesn’t get it. Few rulers have ever understood this; most politicians who call themselves “Catholic” don’t get it, and I’m not sure how much we get it either. It is enormously difficult for anyone in our society, soaked as we are in secularism, to grasp how empty, how frail, how vain is any attempt at a peaceful order divorced from God’s laws.
Are We Taking Earthly Politics Too Seriously?
Many good Catholics complain to me that they struggle with despair over our country. American leadership, and world politics, becomes more anti-Christian, more irrational and chaotic, more dishonest, every day. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we can’t do anything about it.
But remember this: Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world. So why do we expect order, peace, and honest politics from this world? The world as we know it is passing away. Our hopes are not in this world, but in Jesus Christ, the Lord of a Kingdom not of this world. If we are discouraged by earthly politics, we probably think too much of them. If you never miss the evening news, whether it’s Fox or CNN or NPR, but you do miss your evening family rosary, you are bound to be depressed. But don’t you know that the rosary is far more real than the news? Turn the TV and computer off, and pray the rosary together, and you will gain courage and hope.
Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to remind us how transitory are this world’s rule. The Lord Jesus Christ reigns over heaven and earth; nothing and nobody can topple him. We put our hope in him, we commit our allegiance to him. With our Lady, we work to bring about his Kingdom in this world, but with our heart set on the Kingdom that is not of this world.
The Prince of Peace
Jesus is the Prince of Peace, as the prophet Isaiah named him. “Peace I leave with you; peace is my farewell gift to you” Jesus said just before his Passion.
In the United States a Basketball star has named himself “Meta World Peace.” I suppose he took that name in hopes of promoting “world peace.” But, like many rich and famous people, and many of the rest of us, he lives his life mostly as if God did not exist. And therefore his dream of “world peace” is simply illusory: there is no real peace outside of God’s will.
Not as the World gives Peace do I give Peace
So Jesus, the Prince of Peace, declares in today’s Gospel that he has come, not to establish peace, but to bring division (“the sword,” in another translation). He means that he has not come to establish “world peace,” the peace of this world, for he says clearly in another place, “in the world you will have no peace.” And again, as he gives his farewell gift of peace, he says “not as the world gives it do I give you peace.”
When we shake each other’s hands in the Mass and say “peace be with you,” we are not to give worldly peace. In fact, the priest specifically says “the peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all,” not simply “peace be with you.” The ungainly exercise that we see on most Sundays at the “kiss of peace”—people flashing “peace signs” at each other with big grins, chatting noisily in worldly greetings, slapping each other on the back with a loud “peace, Joey!”—this is not what the Holy Spirit has in mind for the sacred liturgy. This kind of glad-handing is less the peace of Christ and more the banal “peace” of this world, more proper to Wal-Mart than the Holy Mass.
Not Peace but the Sword
True peace comes with the growing conviction that God exists and that he loves mankind. Jesus has come to set a fire on the earth, the fire of Divine Love. He burns in anguish to accomplish that baptism of fire, which he will indeed accomplish on the Cross: he will win the peace through a violent death, surrendering to His Father’s will: “It is accomplished.” True peace is accomplished often, in our disordered world, by accepting unavoidable violence with God’s grace. Jeremiah suffers violence in the First Reading because he obeys God rather than men; he speaks the truth that the princes do not want to hear. They throw him into a cistern, and even though he is rescued, Jeremiah will eventually die a martyr’s death for following God. In the second reading, we are told to run the race, to “cast off any encumbrance of sin” that slows us down, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, pushing through fire and water if necessary to reach the “perfector of our faith.” True peace, true joy, is running toward Jesus, letting nothing and nobody slow us down.
Know Jesus, Know Peace
Yes, Jesus has come to bring peace, but his peace is often purchased at the cost of division. His peace is a conflagration of love, the violence of God’s passion for man. It is quite different from the “world peace” that so many imagine can be attained apart from God’s law. No government has been able to attain “world peace,” and yet every true Christian, even though besieged by adversity and violence, has Christ’s peace in their hearts and homes. The bumper sticker says it quite concisely: “Know Jesus, Know Peace; No Jesus, No Peace.”
The Lord’s Prayer
Blessed John Paul II wrote these words to the Church as she embarked on the Third Millennium: “Dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine "schools" of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed … in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly "falls in love".” Thomas Aquinas College, no less than any other Christian community, must be a genuine school of prayer. In our classes we read Aristotle and St. Thomas, Euclid and Shakespeare, but always with our final end in mind: union with the Triune God through authentic prayer. This school is indeed a school of prayer, with its chapel at the head and center of campus, and the curriculum truly culminating in the one thing necessary: knowledge of God.
There is no more authentic prayer than the Lord’s Prayer, given us today in the Gospel. The disciples watched Jesus praying one day, and they realized that up to that moment, they had never really prayed. When he returns from his prayer, they implore him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And so the Lord gives us his own prayer to his Heavenly Father: “Our Father, who art in heaven….” We pray it six times in each rosary, and to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion at every Mass. The Catechism calls this prayer the “the summary of the whole Gospel,” the “fundamental Christian prayer.” In the words of St. Augustine: “Run through all the words of the holy prayers in Scripture, and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.” If we learned no other prayer in all our Christian lives, if even we taught our children no other prayer but this one, if a pagan in missionary lands discovered only this prayer, it would be enough. It is the only formal prayer that all Christians can agree on.
Bargaining with God
Let us realize what prayer is: when we pray, we do not talk to God so much as he talks to us. As Fr. Barron observed in his Sunday homily this week, we do not pray to change God’s mind; we pray to change our mind—to align our minds and wills with His. Consider Abraham in the first reading. It seems like he is bargaining with God, which is what many attempt to do in prayer. Deftly but respectfully, our Father in Faith negotiates God down from fifty to ten: “if I find ten good men in Sodom, I will not destroy the city.” (As it turned out, God only found four just people in Sodom, and he gave them a free pass out before he destroyed the city.)
Is Abraham negotiating with God? He is certainly persevering in petitionary prayer to save his kinsmen. But what Abraham actually does is persevere in prayer until his understanding aligns with God’s will. The city must be destroyed, even if good men will suffer, because sin has consequences. (Our own cities too are suffering destruction from sexual perversions, as the breakdown of family and social order result from promiscuity.) Abraham comes to understand this, but he also comes to understand how God wills the salvation of every soul. In prayer, Abraham comes to know and love the mind and will of God. We too learn to know God’s will only in and through disciplined, regular prayer. If we have a problem in our life, or with God’s will for us, only in prayer can we find peace. We may need to spend many hours before the tabernacle to learn to love God’s will, but learn to love Him we will, if we persevere in prayer.
With Jesus, Surrender to the Father
The Lord’s Prayer expresses this “Abrahamic faith” perfectly. First of all, Jesus instructs us to address God both as “Our Father” (immanent) and “in heaven” (transcendent). God is my father, understanding my fragility, but God is also the eternal and omnipotent El Shaddai, ruling the cosmos in perfect justice. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that His kingdom come, not ours—His will, not ours. We pray that we can come to love His will, in every circumstance. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I join the Son of God in surrendering my will, my intellect, all that I have and possess, to my Father in Heaven, who alone can bring me to heaven.
So, with Jesus in prayer before his Father, with Our Lady “keeping all these things in the silence of her heart,” let us also put aside distractions and keep silence, listening for God’s still voice. In every time of prayer, following the Church’s own liturgy, let us pray the Our Father, not to change God’s mind, but to change our mind, that it may conform to the mind of God.
Today’s Gospel, the Good Samaritan—how we love to hear this story! We generally avoid people, trying not to make eye contact—on the street, in the subway, on the freeway, in the grocery store. But here is a story of one man who made eye contact with a stranger. He stopped what he was doing and looked at him as his brother. He loved his neighbor as himself.
The whole question revolves around the word “neighbor.” In the Gospel, a lawyer honestly questions Jesus—he really wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies: you know what to do—love God and love your neighbor. The lawyer cannot resist a bit of legal quibbling: “and who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Question: “Who is my neighbor?” Answer: Every man is my neighbor. The word “neighbor,” after all, comes from the German “Nachbar,” which simply means the “nearby” one—your neighbor is anyone nearby. Treat every man, every woman, every child with mercy, and you will go to heaven. If the lawyer were looking for a loophole, Jesus does not afford him that satisfaction. Every man is my brother.
Every man is Jesus
In fact, every man is Jesus. So said Mother Teresa. It was the first thing I ever heard her say, and I realized immediately only a saint sees Jesus in every person. So the Samaritan finds a man beat up and bloody, and he knows that God is lying in the gutter. The Samaritan treats the wounded man with mercy, and so God treats the Samaritan with mercy. That’s how we get to heaven. Indeed, God is invisible to those who do not show mercy. As St. Paul says in the second reading: Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God. And Mother Teresa adds: the poor man is the image of the invisible Jesus. Jesus comes to us in every person we see every day, and he reveals the face of God to us in them.
“You have only to carry it out”
Moses tells the Israelites in the first reading: If only you would keep the commandments of God! You would increase and prosper and find true joy. And the command of God is not mysterious or remote: it is in your hearts already; you have only to carry it out. You can be a saint. I can be a saint. We can all go to heaven, and live in peace and joy here on earth. We have only to carry out the command of God already in our hearts. That command is so simple: love God, and love your neighbor.
Today you will leave Mass and see many people. Some will irritate you. Some will insult you. Some will weary you. Each one of them is Jesus. He walks the earth disguised as troublesome people, to teach us how to love. Love isn’t a feeling; it is a decision, and only this decision to love brings us true joy. Make the effort to love the people you don’t want to love. Practice charity again and again until you get it right. Take a deep breath and exercise patience. Force yourself to think of others even when your own head is hurting. Anticipate the other person’s needs and serve him, even when he doesn’t deserve it. Forgive that person who disrespects you.
Love hurts, at least in the beginning. Mercy costs us, sometimes a great deal. Mother Teresa was talking to a group of American professionals one time. “Smile at each other,” she said. “Smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other—it doesn’t matter who it is—and that will help you to grow in greater love for each other.” One of the men (perhaps a lawyer) asked her, “Mother, are you married?” She responded: “Yes, I am, and sometimes Jesus asks a great deal of me, and it is hard to smile at him.” But she kept on smiling, and that is why she went to heaven. We can do the same, if we put our minds to it.
Sacred Heart of Jesus by
José María Ibarrarán y Ponce, 1896
The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Today we celebrate the external feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is properly celebrated on the Friday after the Sunday after Corpus Christi. The Church often celebrates beloved feasts more than once—we just can’t get enough of them! For example, we celebrate the Christmas and Easter Masses for eight days in succession, and the Church often permits us to celebrate a weekday feast again on the following Sunday. Such is the case today. Fr. Hildebrand did celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart with all solemnity last Friday at the 5:20pm Mass, and they even kept the kitchen open 15 minutes longer so we could get some dinner afterwards. We really appreciated that kindness from the kitchen staff—the thoughtfulness of the heart of Jesus. As Mother Teresa was wont to say: “thoughtfulness is the beginning of great sanctity.” On the Feast of the Sacred Heart, we call to mind how our Lord thinks about us all the time; for example, in his thoughtfulness Jesus inspired the kitchen staff to keep the food lines open for us.
Blood and Water
The graces we receive daily from God’s thoughtfulness, however, come at a price, as we are reminded in the Gospel today. There is no love without suffering; no love without sacrifice. Jesus had been crucified, and his body hung lifeless from the Cross. A soldier thrust for his heart to make sure he was dead, and the lance drew a great flow of blood and water from his open side. St. John assures us that he saw this himself. Why would blood and water flow in abundance from a corpse? First, because Jesus, though dead, lives forever, and his heart never ceases to beat, his blood never ceases to flow for the people he loves. Second, the Church is born from Christ’s wounded heart as the sacraments of water and blood—Baptism and the Holy Eucharist—pour out upon the world. He will cleanse us with the grace-filled water flowing from his open side, and he will feed us with the blood flowing from his open heart. Christ’s heart is open to all men and women. It is never closed. St. Paul will often say, “open your hearts to me.” We open our hearts by enthroning the Sacred Heart in our lives. Families and individuals who have enthroned Christ the King in their homes have hearts like unto his, open hearts.
They will look upon Him whom they have pierced
One of the kindest, most open-hearted prelates I have met is Raymond Cardinal Burke. Twelve priests had dinner with him at his rectory when he was Archbishop of St. Louis. He sat at the center of the table, showing kindness to every one of us. It was really like the Last Supper with Jesus. I met him again in Turin, in May 2010. The Shroud of Turin was exposed for a month during the Year for Priests and I was in the city for five days hearing confessions and visiting the Shroud myself. A few of us priests came to the early Mass on Sunday in front of the Shroud, and we found Cardinal Burke in the sacristy. He greeted us warmly, and then at Mass preached on the Sacred Heart (he has a deep devotion, and has spread that devotion to the Sacred Heart in his dioceses). I will never forget listening to his heartfelt witness to the love of Christ, to the blood of Christ, and seeing just 20 feet behind him the blood stains on the Shroud. “They will look upon him whom they have thrust through” (transfixerunt in Latin). Every Catholic church is to have an image of Christ crucified, Christ thrust through, Christ’s open heart, pouring out the sacraments of redemption upon the world. We long to look upon him whom we have thrust through. Let us renew our love for Christ by praying before the Crucifix—by placing a crucifix prominently in every room of our houses, and by enthroning the Sacred Heart in our homes. Deepening our love for him, we learn to love each other. Those who turn daily to the Sacred Heart of Jesus have opened hearts for one another.
We live in a time of cultural decline. As those around us deny truth and mock goodness, and are tempted to close our hearts and hole up in protected Catholic enclaves. Certainly we must protect our children and our culture, but we must keep our hearts open to others, imitating Jesus. He opened his heart, knowing that men would misunderstand him, abuse him, and pierce him. We Christians, we Catholics, choose to become warmer, more charitable, more thoughtful, even as the world around us is growing colder, less caring, less reasonable, and more violent. We can do this only by devoting ourselves to Christ’s Sacred Heart, open and bleeding for the life of the world.
Easter’s Grand Finale
“Cum complerentur dies Pentecostes….” So begin our Scriptures today, fifty days after the Resurrection: when were completed the days of Pentecost…, bringing the Church’s longest liturgical season to a spectacular conclusion. We extinguish the Paschal candle at the end of Mass, singing the double Alleluia after the dismissal one more time, recalling the Alleluias of the Easter Octave seven weeks ago. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, 1,980 years old today, born at that first Pentecost and renewed each year on this feast. Perhaps we should have a birthday cake for Holy Mother Church with 1,980 candles on it.
Two Stories of Pentecost
Scripture gives us two accounts of this birth of the Church. Our First reading, from Acts 2, gives us the more familiar story, truly spectacular. On the 50th day after the resurrection, the apostles were praying around Our Lady when a blast like a strong driving wind—a howling, whistling sound—came from the sky, filling the building, rocking its foundations. Sheets of fire appeared in the air, descending on each of them, and they began to speak in different tongues. But, marvelously, the people could understand these strange languages—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians, Romans, Lybians, and Arabs. Babel was reversed! From many languages, one word, which all peoples could understand: Jesus Christ is Lord! The Church was born, and it was born Catholic, a universal Church, a Church for all nations, as it is very much so even unto our time. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, Mass is said every Sunday in 49 different languages. And what did these Parthians and Medes and Egyptians hear, in their own language? The “Mighty Acts of God.” If only we could speak of the mighty acts of God to the non-believers of our time in a language they could understand! We can indeed, but only through the Holy Spirit. Let us never cease praying to him for the gift of tongues.
The Second Story of the Holy Spirit’s coming is found in our Gospel, from John 20. Not 50 days after the resurrection, but the very evening of that same day, Jesus walks through the walls of the apostles’ hideout. He bestows upon them the fruits of the Spirit, Love, peace and joy: “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, “and the disciples rejoiced.” He breathed on them, and then sent them out to bring peace and joy to others. How? By hearing confessions. The first task he gives them, immediately after imparting the Holy Spirit, is this: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…”
Life in the Spirit
And so the Holy Spirit brings the Church into existence, and continues, infallibly, the work of Christ on earth. It is for us to live spiritual lives, as St. Paul says in the second reading. Those in the flesh cannot please God. They cannot even please themselves. Joy and peace will elude whoever lives a merely carnal life, apart from the Holy Spirit. “We are not debtors to the flesh,” Paul insists. If you live according to the flesh, you will die. Yet most of us do live a good deal of our lives in the flesh. Consider: what do you think of when you get up in the morning? Breakfast, of course. What do you think of after breakfast? How long until lunch, of course. Other tyrannies of the flesh, more nefarious, besiege us too. If we live “according to them,” life is not worth living. “We will die” in the words of Paul—we are already dead. We must continually insist on our spiritual lives, our prayer lives, and discipline the body with penances and mortifications. Only a son who works hard and sacrifices himself can call God “Abba, Father.”
Our Lady, Spouse of the Holy Spirit
In this month of May, we turn to Our Lady, spouse of the Holy Spirit. No human being knows the Third Person of God better than she, who submitted her body and soul to him at the Annunciation. As she brings us to her Son, so she brings us to her Spouse. When we pray “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” we pray to her who is full of the Holy Spirit. Please, Blessed Mother, bring us to the Holy Spirit, that our lives may be spiritual, pure and beautiful, like yours.
We Catholics celebrate Easter for fifty days, and we are still swimming in the bright seas of glory streaming from our resurrected Lord. I’ll bet most of us still have some Easter candy around—a chocolate bunny yet perches atop the printer in my office. Why, then, does Holy Mother Church give us readings today that sound more proper to Lent than Easter? St. Peter reminds us that we are “foreigners and pilgrims” in this world, and that the world “wages war against the soul.” Jesus tells his confused disciples that he will soon leave them, and that they will weep while the world rejoices. I think the Church gives us such sober readings on the Third Sunday of Easter to remind us that the joy of Easter streams from Our Lord’s wounds— glorious wounds—but wounds nonetheless. We must not forget the price of our redemption, nor that we are not in heaven yet.
Foreigners and pilgrims
The world, of course, does not believe in Christ or in his resurrection. It tolerates Easter for one day a year, and then only as a holiday of marshmallow bunnies and chocolate eggs. It is in this faithless world that we pass 70 or 80 years as “foreigners.” We must not forget our status as “pilgrims,” making an often difficult and dangerous journey to our true homeland. I am reminded of Bilbo Baggins, who muttered to his nephew that “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door….” And while we are on that journey, we smile, we sing, we enjoy the good gifts God gives us along the way, but we keep moving. We keep one eye always on the road ahead: we don’t know what may come at us to “wage war” against our souls, and the souls of our children.
And so how to comport ourselves as we travel? St. Peter advises us to keep ourselves clean and upright, for it is only by doing good that we might silence the ignorance of foolish people. Perhaps never more than now has godless ignorance become so widespread. The absurdity of post-Christians using Christian language, such as “human rights,” to promote precisely the violation of human rights, can discourage any pilgrim. The very concept of human rights did not exist before Christianity, and that concept is used now to kill an entire class of human beings (as in a woman’s “right to choose”). When the whole world seems to be losing its mind, stupidly following really evil men who call right wrong and wrong right, who promote manifestly irrational laws, and who blame the violent consequences on Christians—then we realize to what degree we are strangers in this world. We scarcely speak the same language as our own friends and family. We see what they cannot see, and they consider us deluded and fanatical.
We cannot convince most people of the absurdity, nor prevent much of the damage from pervasive ignorance of the Natural Laws. But we can, and we must, do good in the brief time given us this side of the grave. A Christian must never forget his dignity, and the supreme law of charity. “Give honor to all,” St. Peter counsels us. “Respect the king (for Americans, that means President Obama). Slaves should be subject to their masters, and not only to the nice ones. We are slaves, in a way, to the political powers and social trends that overwhelm us. The world is against us, but this should not unduly sadden or disturb us. We are only here in transit, after all, like changing planes at an airport. We know whence we come, and wither we go.
You will weep, Jesus assures us; you will grieve but your grief will become joy. “I am leaving you,” he told his disciples. The world will defeat him; Jesus will hand himself over to this world’s power, but only in order to defeat evil by good. “I will see you again,” he declares, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away.”
My dear people, we must resist the temptation to let this old world get to us. We must not become despondent, even if marriage and family life collapses, and God is mocked all around us, and even, God forbid, those dearest to us lose their faith. We must still do good, and maintain our composure, and radiate goodwill to everyone, because we have been given a joy that no one can take from us. We can only hope to overcome some evil by patient goodness, and we cannot expect much from this world anyway. We must take the long view, the Christian view, the supernatural view, and think always in light of eternity. I think God has permitted us to live in a period of decline, so we do what we can to save souls and please God’s divine majesty.
We turn, always, to Our Lady. She patiently, and calmly, accepted her Son’s crucifixion. Somehow, she knew, he would overcome evil by good, and she would do it with him. It was hard for her, no doubt, but she didn’t lose her peace, even at Calvary. Let us apply ourselves to the same: imitating her faith, and calling upon her intercession, that we may faithfully follow her Son to our true homeland.