The Sacred liturgy of Palm Sunday begins in worldly acclaim and ends in human defeat. It is the only Mass with two proper gospels: the first describes a glory and triumph; the second describes abasement and ruin. Christ’s approval rating is 100% on Sunday; by Thursday almost everyone is calling for his bloody execution.
In his Passion, Christ paid no attention to judgment of this world. His eyes were fixed on His Father and the Divine Will. We who participate in this Palm Sunday Mass must follow him, both in triumph and in disgrace. We must follow him in life, and follow him in death. Nothing matters in this life beyond following Him. With Our Lady and St. John, we summon the courage and stamina to walk behind him, step by step through this Holy Week, armed with prayer and penance and charity.
This morning you will notice I’ve taken the liberty to strew our white marble altar with pink flowers—camelias from the tree in front of Loyola Hall. For today is Laetare Sunday, the one Sunday in Lent on which instrumental music is permitted and flowers may adorn the altar. Your priests and your altars bear rose vesture today, signifying the joy proper to those who can see Easter on the horizon. The Mass Collect today articulates our hope: “with prompt devotion and eager faith may we hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come.”
The Father’s Prodigal Love
On Laetare Sunday, Holy Mother Church spreads the feast of Christ’s greatest parable before us, that of the so-called Prodigal Son. Its vast panorama portrays three characters: the younger son, the older son, and the Father. It is the parable of the Prodigal Father, Rich in Mercy. So Blessed John Paul II named his second encyclical, Dives inMisericordia, on God the Father, which often refers to this parable. It never fails to console him who reads it prayerfully. More than any other, the parable of the Prodigal Son convinces us of God’s tender and undying love for his sons and daughters.
Let us weep: I have lost my son
First, consider the younger son: “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” In a shocking act of non-negotiable, in-your-face self-centeredness, he demands from his father half of the family business in cash so that he can waste it in a distant land—perhaps Las Vegas or Miami. We might miss the outrage in his words—“I can’t wait for you to die, old man: give me your money now”—but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ hearers, who held their fathers in great reverence. The son leaves his father’s home for a “distant country,” which as Fr. Barron points out renders the Greek choran makran, which may be translated “vast region.” The lost son enters the empty lands of his own self-absorption, the vast barren regions where demons abide. He is truly the Lost Son.
Let us rejoice: I have found my son
Eventually, the Lost Son hits bottom, returns to his senses, and resolves to turn back to his father’s house. “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him.” The Father scans the horizon day after day, longing for his son, but refusing to force him. He detects only a glimmer in his son, a small speck on a distant horizon, slowly moving closer. He does not wait, but tucks up his noble robes and runs, not walks, but runs to his son. And all is forgiven. The Father does not even wait for his son to finish his confession: your sins do not matter now. All that matters is that I have you back, safe and sound. You have returned to me.
God is always watching us, waiting for our next move. Thoughtlessly, we fear he watches our every move in order to condemn, waiting with baited breath to accuse us. But this image is not Scriptural. Jesus, in his greatest parable, portrays a Father, rich in mercy, relenting in punishment, always ready to forgive. In the Bible, it is Satan who accuses. The Son and the Holy Spirit defend, not accuse, against Satan’s accusations. “I have come not to condemn, but to save what was lost.”
So the Lord says to Joshua in our First Reading, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you;” So St. Paul says in our Second Reading, you are a “new creation: God has reconciled us to himself through Christ,… not counting our trespasses against us.” The ring, the finest robe, the fattened calf—all this is ours, if we return to our Father’s house. We can only do that through the grace of Christ.Therefore, Paul concludes, “we implore you: be reconciled to God.”
Three more weeks of Lent
Three more weeks of Lent, and the great liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, open up before us. There is no more propitious time in the year to be reconciled to God. Change bad habits, make a good confession, return to the Word and the Sacraments with your whole hearts, in fasting, weeping, and praying. Return to your father’s house. He will not refuse you. He will run to greet you, with open arms, for my Son, he says, “was lost, and is found. He was dead, and has come back to life again.”
How is your Lent Coming?
We enter the third week of Lent. It’s about now that we might begin to slow down, so let me encourage you to maintain your speed, even to throttle up gradually as we approach Easter. If you haven’t committed your resolutions to paper, write them out. Read what you have written early (before breakfast) and often. Next week is Laetare Sunday, and we want to have something to rejoice about. We want to have felt the surge of heart during those quick daily visits to the chapel, the intensity of praying the stations lean with hunger, the joy of giving ourselves to others. So let’s make this next week a good one
Jesus was casting out a demon that was gagging a man’s speech. Imagine the possessed man struggling to speak—gagging, drooling, choking, convulsing. Jesus liberates the man’s speech, and no one could deny Christ’s power. Most rejoiced in it, but some, rather than admit that Jesus was Messiah, attributed his power to Satan. They charge Jesus with collaborating Beelzebul, the Philistine Lord of the Flies. So Jesus states the obvious: how can Satan be divided against himself? But beyond this contradiction, Jesus declares his power greater than that of Satan. “When a strong man fully armed (Satan) guards his palace (a soul given over to him), his goods are secure. But when a stronger man assails and overcomes him, he claims those goods. Jesus is that stronger man, who has assailed the devil in the possessed man, and claimed that man’s soul for his own. Even if people do not want to recognize it, Jesus has conquered and from now on no one can adopt a position of neutrality. “He who is not with me is against me.”
Two Ways: for me or against me
There are only two positions a man can take: for Christ, or against Christ. If you do not gather with him, you scatter. We can have no truck with the world, the flesh, or the devil; we cannot be friends with both God and Mammon. And so St. Paul excoriates Christians who try to have it both ways. “Immorality (the Latin is fornicatio) or any impurity must not even be mentioned among you.” Friends, we are men of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. How often do we not only mention impurity but imbibe it in movies and TV programs, in books, magazines, and websites, in conversations and discussions? Most TAC students do their work-study or exercise with earphones in. If any of us are listening to dirty music, base music, evil music, then now is the time to purge this impurity. It is hard to avoid the impurity of our age, but not impossible. No obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, Paul says. In place of these banalities: thanksgiving. Live as children of the light, he says, because if you don’t, you live as children of darkness, subjects of the Lord of the Flies.
Purifying the Filth
The Conclave to elect a new pope will begin soon. The filth of the world, in the words of our Pope-emeritus Benedict, runs through the Church. It seems to me that the next pope must not only defend the Church against the secularism battering her from the outside. He must reform and purify her from the inside. It is not enough for bishops today to simply maintain the faith—every bishop today must be a reforming bishop. It is not enough to be a good priest today—priests must roll up their sleeves and purify filth from the Church, beginning with our own souls. It is not enough for laypeople to be good Catholics—you must be saints. We must all refuse to touch, or look at, or speak of, the world’s filth. Our Lady will show us the way. “Blessed is the womb that bore you,” cried a lady in the crowd. “Blessed rather,” Jesus pointed out, “Blessed she who has heard the word of God and kept it.” Our Lady replied to the angel, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” and never renounced that vow. She will help us keep our vows, because she is the Immaculata, the all-pure one. She will help us to keep a good and holy Lent.
Seeing Beyond the Veil
Jesus climbs Mount Tabor to pray, and while he was praying, He is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. These three glimpse Christ’s true nature in order to be prepared for the scandal of the Crucifixion. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice resounds from within the cloud. This is my Son, blazing forth the radiance of a billion stars.
Our story begins with Father Abraham, though, in the First Reading from Genesis 15. The Lord God directs Abram’s eyes to the night sky: “Count the stars, if you can.” Let’s turn our attention to the night sky for a moment too. On a clear night here at Thomas Aquinas College, you can see hundreds of stars and a few planets, and perhaps the smoky edges of our own galaxy. If you know where to look, you might see the dull smudge of the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years distant (that’s 10,000 million trillion miles—the Lord owns a lot of real estate). Astrophysicists estimate the Milky Way contains 300 to 400 billion stars. Andromeda has over one trillion stars, each with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of planets and exoplanets. Both galaxies belong to the Local Group of about 50 galaxies, which belongs to a cluster, which makes up filament patterns of superclusters. We can see, with Father Abraham and a little help from the Hubble telescope, at least 100 billion galaxies in the night sky. Hubble took a picture of the night sky the size of your thumb held at arm’s length and found 10,000 galaxies in that small dark spot. If every star were a grain of sand, the box to contain all the observable stars in the universe would have to be two miles high and two miles wide and stretch from New York to Atlanta.
Why did the Lord God ask Father Abraham to look up into the night sky? To show him how many children he would have? Not really: God wanted Abram to glimpse some inkling of his glory. It is I who made all these stars, and I keep them perfectly tuned every day. I and no other, but it is I who am talking with you now. I love you, and I will send my son to die for you. I make a covenant with you and your children, a covenant of love. Father Abraham could hardly believe it. He was transformed by the realization of God’s providence.
I can’t go further without mentioning St. Paul’s affection for the flock entrusted to him in the second reading. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord.” See how God’s servant Paul radiates God’s tender affection for us too.
Now back to the Transfiguration. After six days, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a steep mountain. While he was praying, his face blazed like the sun and his clothes shone white as light. He spoke with the glorified figures of Moses and Elijah, the greatest men of the Old Testament, representing the Law and the Prophets. Jesus reveals himself in complete majesty, he who commands the sun, Creator of the stars of night. His brightness manifests a quality of glorified bodies, “who will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43). No wonder St. Peter wants to stay on that mountain—he has been granted the beatific vision. It is a transformative experience, meant to strengthen the Apostles’ faith. But faith comes more through hearing than through seeing. And so the Father’s voice commands them to “Listen” to his beloved Son. The Father has said all He need and can say, and all we need to hear, in his Son. But how many are listening?
Some have not seen what we have seen, because they refuse to listen and refuse to believe. They do not see anything beautiful in the Holy Mass or in the Church. They do not see the Father’s providential love in the waters of the sea or the lilies of the field or the stars of the night sky. They do not see the image of God in the human person, and so they destroy people—even babies—without a thought, because they have not listened. The Father’s voice begs us, commands us: Listen! In this Year of Faith, let us make certain that we are listening to God’s beloved Son as He speaks through the Church. Having heard His voice and seen His face, may we manifest the radiant and beautiful face of God to every other person by loving them with Christian affection. May Our Lady, the Star of the New Evangelization, show us how to see Christ in others, and to magnify his glory among them.
It’s Ash Wednesday. I sit at my computer with ashes on my head between Masses. I got up this morning a bit earlier than usual to pray before Mass, but thought I’d just rev up my computer to see if there was any further news on the Pope’s resignation. The computer was a little slow (eg, it took an entire 90 seconds to log on) and I looked at my breviary sitting forlornly on the table. I turned the computer off, and picked up the breviary.
Then I realized what I needed to add to my Lenten program: fasting from the internet. How many times a day do I check my email? Ten times? Fifteen times? How many times a day do I check news sites—all good, Catholic ones, mind you—and blogs? Five times? Seven times? I compared time on the internet with time spent on things that really matter, such as calling Mom, spiritual reading, preparing homilies, etc. The “Really Matter” categories came up pretty spotty. Solution? Fast from internet, and spend more time on Things That Really Matter. I think I can do it…. I’ll log on only once a day, to read and answer emails, and taste the news rather than gorge on them. I won’t post this blog until my once-a-day log on, I give you, dear reader, permission to read this blog less often, at least during this most holy season of Lent.
We are in the pre-Lenten time of the year. Already the altar and priest are clad in purple; already we forgo the alleluia. Ash Wednesday is only ten days away. Please make your Lenten resolutions now, write them down, and prepare to enter Lent running. We must run toward Easter, toward Heaven, with all we have.
An Angel of Satan to beat me
St. Paul had reason to boast, and he had reason to complain. He labored, and he suffered for the Gospel to an extraordinary degree: scourged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, clinging to a piece of wood in the open sea for a day and a night. No man has ever equaled St. Paul in spreading the Gospel. His greatest experience was mystical—an out-of-body experience of the third heaven, hearing “verba arcana,” unutterable words. Because of the “abundance of revelations,” that he might not extol himself, a “thorn in the flesh” was given him. He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a passing toothache, but a chronic and painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a weakness in his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But the Lord did not heal him. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his weaknesses, for the love of Christ. He said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
Bad anthropology and greedy pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to promote the fantasy of human life without pain. With enough technology or psychology, we are told, we can eliminate any kind of suffering. But St. Paul tells us, from personal experience, that God’s grace, not medication or psychotherapy, makes suffering bearable, even joyful. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. We should take Advil, or undergo surgery, or see a counselor, when we need to. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we can’t bear any suffering, then we miss life’s deepest joys. Many beautiful things come only through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control.
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our damning illusions of self-reliance. We learn to trust God, in our flesh, when we suffer. With St. Paul, we say “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” It is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult peacefully, to smile on even the worst days. But we can rejoice in our sufferings, if we know that … God’s grace is enough. Lent is the time to embrace unavoidable sufferings, and to load on even extra sacrifices, for the love of God. We cannot love Him very much if we do not suffer for him. We cannot contain our own pride unless we discipline our bodies. “Gladly will I boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell within me.”
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness. She was a nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men who drove the political machinery around her. She gave herself up to God, heedless of the shame, and found herself in Him. She found that He can be trusted. Let us pray to Holy Mary to help us sacrifice everything for the surpassing joy of knowing God, our Savior.
I’ve been reading a bit of Wendell Berry recently. His small Kentucky farm reminds me of the small Pennsylvania farms of my boyhood. Berry is one of America’s more perceptive observers - he sees clearly why our economy, and our culture, is faltering. He wrote these words in 1979:
“The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth - you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much. The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity.” Thirty years later, we still are consuming and wasting five or six times the amount that we need or deserve. But now, perhaps, we get the feeling that it is running out. Our children and grandchildren will pay the price of our profligacy.
America was founded on the economically sustainable and humanly satisfying culture of the family farm. Small farms and large families made America a nation of honest citizens who practiced thrift, exercised strength of character, and cultivated a respect for other people, animals and the land God had given them. The virtues of hard work and frugality developed in Americans the strength to save the world from both fascism and communism in the century just past. But these virtues of the Great Generation have become “old fashioned.” We have become a nation of large, industrial farms (more akin to factories or mining operations) and small, fruitless families (more akin to personal interest groups). Our cars, our houses and our vacations now consume twice as many resources for half as many people. An America like this will not long maintain her wealth or moral stature. We sense that something is wrong. But rather than give up our wasteful lifestyles, we justify them by talking about “saving the planet.” Movie stars make grand speeches, but they maintain several gigantic homes for their one or two children.
Homily: "If you die with me, you will rise with me"
Lent: dust to dust
How is your lent going? We are five days into this most holy season, a retreat time of purity, sacrifice, and joy. I am preaching all of Fr. Peter’s English Masses this weekend to introduce myself as your Lenten Mission director, and to encourage you to attend the mission, which will be at 7pm Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the coming week.
I hope many of you were able to kick off Lent with a good Ash Wednesday. At my parish of St. Joseph’s in Modesto, the crowds were immense. In my 12 years as pastor, I’ve never seen crowds that big or lines so long. Everyone was there: rich and poor, Mexicans and Anglos, teens and seniors, even democrats and republicans. It reminded me of Ash Wednesdays in New York City, where I attended seminary. We would spend all day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, giving out ashes. Everyone came for ashes: the cabbies and the power brokers, office gals in smart business suits wearing their running shoes for the trot over from Broadway, news anchors and opera stars from Times Square, street cleaners and Wall Street financiers, homeless folk and Park Avenue elite. All were shoulder to shoulder in line, patiently waiting to get a smudge of ashes under the great gothic arches of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This is the day when princes and paupers alike confess the universal truth: I am not perfect, I will die someday, and I need God’s help.
It’s ironic, really. As religion is more than ever ridiculed, as God is increasingly mocked in public life—even as our government seeks to shut down religion in America, the crowds at Mass are bigger than ever. Why is this? Because we know that sin is killing us: our marriages, our families, our culture. Deep down we know this, and we seek refuge in the simple truth of Ash Wednesday: “If you die with me, you will rise with me.”
In the first reading, a flood wipes out the whole mess. Only Noah and his family are saved from death in those raging waters. The Flood was not God’s punishment for sin, but the consequences of our sin. And yet, even so, God said never again. How would he save us from our own sin? By sending his own son, the Savior. And in today’s Gospel, this savior enters the wilderness of our sin and its consequences, a zone of death, to fight for us. It is a wilderness full of beasts and angels, the best and the worst of our human race. It is planet earth, laid waste by broken families, violent streets, blasphemous language, drugs and alcohol, infidelities and brutality of every sort, but also graced with the lives of saints like John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Jesus goes into the desert to rescue the beasts and make them into angels.
Noah’s built an ark, under God’s direction: a mighty ship that would save his family from the dark waters. The ark is a life raft, prefiguring the Church herself. Anyone inside this Ark, the Church, is safe, but anyone outside will drown. Jesus is the captain of this Ark, and the Ark is Our Lady. She is the great Ark of the Covenant who bears Christ within her. She guides us to Christ, and He guides us to the Father.
Our Parish Mission next week will focus on Our Lady, Ark of the Covenant, and Jesus, the divine presence in that Ark. He is always within her. The closer we draw to Mary, the closer we draw to Jesus inside of her. There is no authentic devotion or life in Christ that ignores or disowns his mother, Mary.
I have been giving retreats to Mother Teresa’s sisters around the world for most of my priesthood. My three talks will be from those I give to the sisters, adapted for the parish. The first will tells the story of Mother Teresa’s life and her significance in the 20th Century. We will discover her devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Holy Rosary. The second will be the first two mysteries of the rosary, the Annunciation and the Visitation. And the third talk will be on the Great Sign of Revelation 12: the Ark of the Covenant, which shows us the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I will tell some stories from my work with her in 1997 and my friends’ experiences with her. We will show a little bit of her life on a video.
I hope you can come. It will be each evening at 7pm. I will preach in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and do benediction at the end. There is wonderful grace in simply coming to a mission, because it is God’s will that we do this during Lent. Confessions will follow each talk. Each evening is self-contained, so even if you can’t make all three, I encourage you to come to one or two. But for those who make all three, I will grant a plenary indulgence.
Let us pray to Our Lady now in the words of Mother Teresa:
Mary, Mother of Jesus, give me your heart,
so beautiful, so pure, so immaculate,
so full of love and humility,
that I may be able to receive Jesus in the Bread of Life,
love Him as you loved Him,
and serve Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.