Sunday, January 14, 2018

Homily: The Body is not for Immorality

Two weeks ago, on the feast of the Holy Family, we discussed marriage and family life, and some of the wonderful blessings that God bestows on the world through his gift of human sexuality. Today, St. Paul reminds us that along with that gift comes a responsibility to use it well.

"The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord," he says. Elsewhere in the same chapter he writes: "neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate [molles], nor those who lie with men [ἀρσενοκοῖται / masculorum concubitores], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God."

The New Testament proposes an incredibly high standard for sexual morality, and relates it to whether or not one will enter the kingdom of Heaven. And what St. Paul says here is not even as provocative as what Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew when he taught that anyone who even looks at another person with lust is guilty of the sin of adultery: "Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Seeing that God wants us to live this way, we would be right to ask the question: WHY?

The Church's answer to this question is that God calls us to live the moral life for the sake of our own happiness; and for the purpose of human flourishing, of becoming greater than we presently are. Departing from the Church's teaching on the moral law makes people sad, angry, and bitter.

Fifty years ago, in 1968, Pope Paul VI predicted that society would become sad, angry, and bitter as a result of the abandonment of the moral law, beginning with the world's embrace of a contraceptive mentality. In his prophetic encyclical Humanae vitae, he wrote:

"Responsible individuals will quickly see the truth of the Church's teaching if they consider what consequences will follow from the methods of contraception and the reasons given for the use of contraception. They should first consider how easy it will be [for many] to justify behavior leading to marital infidelity or to a gradual weakening in the discipline of morals. [...] Indeed, it is to be feared that husbands who become accustomed to contraceptive practices will lose respect for their wives. They may come to disregard their wife's psychological and physical equilibrium and use their wives as instruments for serving their own desires."

"As instruments for serving their own desires." Pope Paul VI predicted that if people treated God's gift of sexuality not as a means for bringing new life into the world, but merely as a way to find pleasure, men would treat women, certainly not as equals, and sometimes not even as people, but simply as "instruments for serving their own desires."

And boy, have the chickens come home to roost on that one. Our country has recently begun to have a long-overdue conversation about how wrong it is for anyone to treat another person as an "instrument for serving their own desires." At the Golden Globes last week, Oprah made a grand speech about the #MeToo movement, and everyone has banded together to proclaim that is always, absolutely necessary that each person in a relationship must give their CONSENT to what passes between them; they must CHOOSE any behavior in which they might engage. This contains a wonderful underlying assumption: YOU CAN CHOOSE! You need not make decisions based solely on what you feel! You can choose whether to follow your base instincts, OR—if you see that a choice would not make you happy, or see that it would hurt another person, or that it would be contrary to God's law—you can choose to rise above your passions and make your choice according to the rational consideration of whether it is the right thing to do or not.

Now, Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae was speaking specifically about contraception, but his basic message applies broadly. One of the things I love about the Catholic moral system is its internal consistency. Everything has reference to everything else, and nothing is arbitrary.

One element of a moral system with internal consistency is that it all stands or falls together. Humanae vitae says that "each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain ordered towards (per se destinatus) the transmission of life." That is the teaching of the Church: human sexuality must always be aimed at bringing about new life. That is why every method of contraception, or anything that would frustrate the sexual act from being able to generate new life, is a sin. That is why pornography and masturbation are both sins. That is why the Church can not recognize a "marriage" between two people of the same sex: because their love for each other can not, in that way, culminate in an act that generates new life.

(If I can be allowed to insert a side-bar here about homosexuality: I've met gay Catholics pretty much everywhere I've been, and I have to say that I number some of my gay Catholic friends among the most faithful Catholics that I know. The rest of us are constantly encouraged by the Church in our vocations, either the discernment and living out of marriage, or the life of celibacy in priesthood or consecrated life. But those who have courageously chosen to embrace celibacy because of their homosexuality have frequently encountered from their fellow Catholics and from their priests either outright hatred, or, at best, a well-meaning but weak-hearted refusal to really have an honest conversation about how their particular circumstances can be shepherded by the teachings of the Church to foster their growth in holiness and their more perfect following of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And yet despite this lack of encouragement, they remain loyal to the Scriptures and to the Church. I know of few examples more inspiring than theirs.)

When Pope John Paul II came to America in 1995, he challenged us with this question:

"Can the Biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from [the] debate [about morals]? Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content? [...] Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."

And this is the question: WHAT OUGHT WE TO DO?

Should I act selfishly? Or should I find some source of meaning or purpose outside of myself, greater than myself?

When Saint Paul says that those who engage in various kinds of immorality "will not inherit the kingdom of God," some people ask, "Would God really send someone to Hell" for x, or y, or z? I say, that's God's business. Let Him worry about whom He will command be delivered from eternal damnation. It doesn't do a lot of good to wonder about, or even particularly to worry about, the eternal salvation of anyone else, because the only person whose eternal salvation you can directly affect is your own.

And so again, many people then ask the question, "Would God really send me to Hell” for this or that or the other thing? But I think that's the wrong way of approaching the issue.

Living the moral life as proposed by the Church is difficult. Sometimes extremely difficult. It requires courage, and virtue, and a willingness to suffer. But it's worth it.

In the Gospels, in that same chapter where Jesus teaches about even lust being adultery, He says that "Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven." If someone wants to adopt the attitude: "Could I make it to Heaven without fully committing to Christ's teachings?"—if you want to settle for less, I can't stop you. But as for me, I want to be numbered among the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven! Or even if I fail, which I probably will, I want to be able to look God in the face when I die and be able to tell Him that I tried. That, to me, is what the moral life is about. Christ proposes to us, through the Church, a way of living that is incredibly difficult, and radical, and which will probably cause some of our family and friends to look down on us as someone who's living in a way that is unhealthy and just downright weird.

But those who follow Christ, God will make great. So aim high!

My dear people, let us journey together to Heaven.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Homily for Christ the King (Ordinary Form)

Today we celebrate Christ the King. Although the idea that Christ is our king is present in the Scriptures, this is not an ancient observance. This feast was only instituted in 1925. Centuries before, America and France had cast aside their Kings by violent revolution. In those days the Kaiser of Germany lived in exile, and Russia had just killed their entire royal family. In an era when men refused to be ruled by Kings, the Church reaffirmed her ancient language for the relationship we have with Christ. She did so because nothing short of the word “King” can capture what it means to say that Christ is in a position of authority over us.

Christ is the absolute Monarch of the whole earth, and we are his subjects. This means we are not free to do whatever we please with our lives, but must follow the commands of our sovereign. We must be willing to swallow our pride and submit to his law. And he explains to us clearly in the Gospel the nature of the laws that He demands we must obey:

  • We are to give food to the hungry
  • Drink to the thirsty
  • We are to welcome the stranger
  • Clothe the naked
  • Care for the ill,
  • And visit those in prison.

When He says, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me,” Christ reminds us of how He manifested his Kingship in the world: He was born into poverty, suffered hunger and thirst, lived for years in exile from his home country, was stripped of his garments, and was wrongfully put to death. That was Christ’s idea of how to show that He was the great King.

Being King, for Christ, never meant asserting his rights, but instead meant being willing to suffer for the sake of his people. This gives us some insight, I think, into how we should live in imitation of our Lord.

The Church in ancient Rome, believing with all her heart in the Kingship of Christ, did not attempt to assert before Caesar the rights of Christians to freedom of worship. Rather than taking the course of political activism, the earliest generations of Christians proclaimed one thing only: Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. They proclaimed Him with their upright moral lives, with their unsparingly generous service to the poor, and by their willingness to die rather than compromise even one article of their faith. And the effect of the witness of the martyrs was that the entire Roman Empire abandoned the false gods worshiped by their fathers, and adhered to the true faith.

Imitating our Lord, Who served in humility and died in obscurity, the early Christians changed the world. And the way they thought about Christ as their King guided their actions.

There is a fourth century legend (Life of St. Martin, XXIV) about St. Martin of Tours in which the Devil attempts to trick the saint by presenting himself disguised as Christ the King. Satan, whom Saint Paul tells us sometimes “disguises himself as an angel of light,” appears to Saint Martin surrounded by a brilliant purple light, clothed in a royal robe, and with a crown of precious stones and gold upon his head; even his shoes were inlaid with gold. With excitement and rejoicing in his voice, he stands by the side of Martin as he prays in his cell and says, "Acknowledge, Martin, who it is that you behold. I am Christ; and being just about to return to earth, I wished to manifest myself to you first." The saint, who was dazzled by this appearance, preserved a long silence. ... The Devil then repeated, "Martin, why do you hesitate to believe, when you see? I am Christ." Then Martin replied as follows: "The Lord Jesus did not predict that he would come clothed in purple, and with a glittering crown upon his head. I will not believe that Christ has come, unless he appears with that appearance and form in which he suffered, and openly displaying the marks of his wounds upon the cross." On hearing these words, the devil vanished like smoke.

When St. Martin thought of Christ crowned with many crowns, he imagined the first and greatest of Christ’s crowns to be the crown of thorns. Martin knew that Christ’s majesty was the prize of his suffering, and so would not believe that it was Christ unless he saw the nail marks in his hands. As we sang in our opening hymn, “Rich wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified!” For the early Christians, the suffering we undergo in this life is the means by which we attain Heaven, where earthly suffering will be transformed into something beautiful.

This way of thinking about Christ’s kingship produced many saints. And the saints learned to think about Christ the King in this way by observing how Christ treated power and authority in the Gospels.

Our Lord was tempted by Satan in the desert with worldly power: “The devil led him into a high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; And he said to him: To You will I give all this power, and the glory of them; for to me they are delivered, and to whom I will, I give them. If you therefore will adore before me, all shall be yours. And Jesus answering said to him: It is written: You shall adore the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” He declined to lay claim to the worldly authority that ought rightly to have been his.

Our Lord was asked by Pontius Pilate quite directly, “You are then a King?” His words ought to ring in our ears, not only on this Feast of Christ the King, but every day of our lives: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, my followers would certainly have fought that I might not be delivered to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

How did Our Lord assert his Kingship? By living in a way that led all men to the conviction that He was one who “taught with authority,” and whose words were Truth.

How did Our Lord assert his Kingship? By eschewing all secular power, lest anyone say that He attained his kingdom from a bargain with the Devil.

How did Our Lord assert his Kingship? By being willing to suffer and die for the Truth He had preached, rather than hold back even a single word of that Truth.

Let us follow his example.

Let us prove Christ’s love for the poor by serving our needy neighbor as if he were our King.

Let us prove the truth of the words Jesus spoke by living as if our kingdom were not of this world.

Let us prove the superiority of that kingdom by choosing to suffer for our faith rather than battle for our rights.

Let us prove the veracity of our faith by proclaiming at all times the Truth we have been taught by Christ, even if by sharing this Truth the world condemns us to a shameful death.

If we, like our Lord and like his glorious martyrs, are willing even to hazard our lives in order to proclaim to truth of the Kingdom which is not of this world, then by our sufferings we shall give the world such a proof of that Kingdom that men shall once again stand in awe of the faith of Christians, lay aside their false idols, and follow Jesus.

Thy Kingdom Come.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Sermon for 2017 Red Mass

The annual Red Mass for those in the legal profession was celebrated on Michaelmas, 2017. This is the sermon I gave on that occasion.

"War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon."
Words from the Book of the Apocalypse of the Apostle John

I am honored to have been invited by His Excellency to preach to the members Saint Thomas More Lawyers’ Guild. I hope that these thoughts derived from the Canon Law tradition will be of at least some small benefit to you who labor in the field of civil law.

We read in the Book of Revelation that the Archangels whose feast we celebrate today were the victors of the great celestial contest. For the devil and his angels, “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” Satan was thrown down to earth, and his angels with him.

And so instead of war in Heaven, war has broken out on earth. That war sometimes manifests itself in physical violence, but it is most fundamentally a war fought within the human heart. The ancient serpent, who once whispered temptation into Eve’s ear in the garden of Paradise, is not content to ruin man one by one. Rather, we are told that the Devil has “deceived the whole world,” and with each passing year his great deception becomes manifest more and more in the laws of our society.

In the third century, the great theologian and Church father Origen proposed a Christian resistance to this evil: “Suppose,” he says, “that a man were living among the Scythians, whose laws are contrary to the divine law, and was compelled to live among them ... such a man for the sake of the true law, though illegal among the Scythians, would rightly form associations with like-minded people contrary to the laws of the Scythians.” (Contra Celsum, Book 1, Chapter 1.)

You are such an association: A group of like-minded persons, guided by Catholic principles, who are willing to stand up against the false and degenerate statutes that mock true justice. And it is God who teaches us what is just. For example, the fourteenth century jurist Johannes Monachus pointed out that when the Lord God wished to punish the first man for the first sin, He did so by means of a fair trial. God, who knows all things, asked Adam: “Where are you? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Genesis demonstrates that the accused must always be given a citation and an opportunity to defend himself. Johannes summarized this lesson by coining the phrase, “innocens nisi probetur nocens,” “innocent until proven guilty.” We who serve the law must always follow the example of God Himself, Who affords man his rights even when he has done nothing to deserve them.

Saint John Paul II, addressing the International Union of Catholic Jurists on November 24th, 2000, articulated our vocation in this way: "The possibility of giving his or her due not only to a relative, a friend, a citizen or fellow believer, but also to every human being, simply because he is a person, simply because justice requires it, [this] is the honor of law and of jurists. If there is an expression of the unity of the human race and of equality between all human beings, this expression is rightly given by the law, which [excludes] no one."

It is our particular duty that we who uphold the law should always insist upon the rights of everyone, without exception: no matter what they may have been accused of, no matter whether they are rich or poor, no matter their country of origin, no matter whether they have already been born or not. If we live out the principles of justice, which we see enacted in Holy Scripture, we trust that one day the Lord will call us home to sing his praises in the sight of the angels.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sermon for a Wedding

Christ the Lord has raised marriage, between the baptized, to the dignity of a Sacrament. In the Sacraments, simple things are used to make us holy. Consider the manner in which He has given you grace through the other Sacraments:

In Baptism, Christ used water to plunge you into his death, that you might be reborn as a child of God.

In Confirmation, Christ used oil mixed with aromatic spices to fill you with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In the Eucharist, Christ takes simple bread and wine, and through the power of his word, makes them into his Body and Blood, that you might receive the most profound spiritual nourishment.

But in Marriage, Christ will sanctify you, not by means of some of the common things of everyday life—water, olive oil, bread—but rather, in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, Christ will sanctify you by means of day-to-day life itself!

God has given you in this Sacrament a means of growing in holiness that is not limited to the time you spend within the four walls of this church. But this growth in holiness is, to be sure, neither easy nor simple; and the happiness which the Church professes to be a part of marriage is a prize to be won, not a gift received at the altar-rail. It will require constant attention to the needs of your spouse, and one day, God willing, to those of your children.

This highlights the difference between how the world sees Marriage and how the Church sees marriage. Our society, I think, misunderstands the … genre of Marriage. For the world, Marriage is a fairy tale, the story of living “happily ever after.” But for the Christian, Marriage is the story of a martyrdom. This wedding is the beginning of your life together, a life you now live not for yourself, but for your spouse, and for your children. Each day will give you ample opportunities to choose those things which please your spouse, rather than your own selfish desires. And thus, Christ has given you a thousand little ways to mortify your members which are upon the earth, so that when Christ who is your life shall appear, you may also appear with him in glory.

I said that the world misunderstands Matrimony when it images Marriage as living “happily ever after”. But perhaps I ought rather to have said this: The Church recognizes only one truly happy ending. Your married life is meant to prepare you for Heaven; and to create a home in which children can discover the faith from within a loving family; and, through your example of loving and mutual self-sacrifice, to provide a witness and an encouragement to the family and friends who have gathered around you today. In all these things, take as your constant example the perfect marriage, that between Christ and his Church, marked on his side by unfailing self-giving love, and on the side of the Church by repentant faithfulness.

In the Nuptial Blessing given at this Mass we will pray that you may “see your children's children to the third and fourth generation, and enjoy the long life that will fulfill your desires.” I know that this is not simply my prayer for you, but the prayer of each and every person here present. You are greatly loved. May the fondness and affection we all have for you be a source of strength in times of difficulty, that, upheld by God's grace through the many tribulations of this present life, you may come one day to the everlasting joys of Heaven.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lord I am not worthy

Someone recently asked me about the origin of the "Domine non sum dignus" prayer at Mass. Clearly it's based on the prayer of the centurion, "Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum : sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur puer meus." ("Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof: but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed." Matthew 8:8.) But when did it enter the liturgy?

Proclus of Constantinople (patriarch 434-446) preaches about this passage with a reference to our being unworthy for the Lord to enter "under the roof of our souls", but it does not become a liturgical prayer until much later. Amalarius of Metz (died c. 850) references this Gospel passage in reference to Communion, but seemingly without a connection to any established liturgical prayer. The writings of Pope Innocent III (De missarum mysteriis, PL 217.773 - 916, here 883) suggest that this prayer was still unknown in Rome in the early 13th century. In the north of France, however, Anselm of Laon (d. 1117) testified that the faithful said this prayer while approaching the Sacrament: “Domine non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum." According to the two-volume edition of Jungmann's The Mass of the Roman Rite: its origins and development, the earliest known version of this prayer (much longer than the single sentence) is from the Sacramentary of Saint-Thierry, which dates to about 975 (vol. 2, pp. 355ff). So this is a late first-millenium gallican prayer. Lots of versions of this prayer exist in the West starting in France in the 10th century, but the final version we know today appears in a 12th or 13th century Sacramentary from lower Italy, and though it was lacking in the Missal of Trent, it was included in the Rituale Romanum of 1614.

I found a lot of good historical background on this question in "Non sum dignus/digna: pressing out the female voice" by Barry M. Craig.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

“If you choose you can keep the commandments.”
If you choose, you CAN keep the commandments!

Some people think that it is impossible to keep the commandments, but the Bible disagrees with this view of the world:

If you choose, you can keep the commandments, all of them.

The third commandment, keep holy the Lord's day: “Oh,” someone might say, “it's so difficult to come to Mass each and every weekend! Let alone the Holy Days of Obligation. I'm so busy! There are so many other activities scheduled over the weekends!”

“If you choose you can keep the commandments.”

The sixth commandment, Thou shalt not commit adultery: “But I don't feel that I love my spouse any longer. Instead, I have fallen in love with someone new. How can I not follow my heart?”

“If you choose you can keep the commandments.”

The seventh commandment, Thou shalt not steal: “I want to stop, but I steal because I'm addicted to drugs,” or, “to gambling. Is it really possible for me to overcome this habit of sin in my life?”

“If you choose you can keep the commandments.” You really can, with God's help. This is what He promises by teaching us in this passage of Scripture that we can keep the commandments.

Recently I was speaking with some first-graders about the fourth commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother. About how important it is to listen to mom and dad, to do what they ask without complaining, and even to do things without being asked: like how if you know that mom and dad would want you to pick up your toys when you're done playing with them, how much it shows your love for them if you do it even before they ask you to. As we were finishing our discussion of honor thy father and mother, one of the girls in the class asked, “Is there a commandment about brothers and sisters?”

Without missing a beat, one of the little boys said: “Yeah: Thou shalt not kill!”

That little boy was on to something. God's commandments really do give us guidance for the whole of life. And this is what Jesus teaches us in today's Gospel:

“You have heard that it was said [...], You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

What many took to be a prohibition only against murder, Jesus teaches to be a prohibition even against harboring resentment and anger in our hearts.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [… And] I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What many took to be a prohibition against being unfaithful in marriage, Jesus teaches to be something much broader: not only is marrying a divorced person—unless that first 'marriage' has been ruled 'unlawful' or invalid by a Church Tribunal—not only is marrying a divorced person a state of public and permanent adultery, but what is more, this commandment touches on a whole range of moral teachings: not only is the Christian forbidden from committing adultery, but the Christian is also forbidden from giving in to lust and self-pleasure, from viewing pornography, from using contraception, from having sex outside of marriage, and so on.

And whatever other commandment there may be, Jesus says to us, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments […] will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” “I tell you,” He says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were known for fastidiously observing even the smallest details of the law, and Jesus says that if we want to enter Heaven, we have to be more righteous than they were!, because we have to allow God's law to shape not only our actions and decisions but even our thoughts and our desires.

Is it possible to live this way?
It is possible to live this way?

If you choose you can keep the commandments.”

If we thought that Jesus was going to make things easier for us, easier than the Ten Commandments and the law God gave in the Old Testament, tonight we heard Jesus say: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law […] I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law.” Jesus really does expect us to keep the whole moral law as proposed and taught by the Church. But He knows our human weakness, and so He has given us the Sacraments. He teaches us in tonight's Gospel a beautiful lesson about the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

“If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

When Christ speaks of the 'gift you bring to the altar,' He is speaking about not just the bread and wine that become his Body and Blood, and still less about the money that you put in the basket when it comes around, but He's speaking about the gift of your heart. When you come to Mass, when the bread and wine are placed on the altar, can you put your heart on the altar? Can you give your whole heart to God? Because this is what it means to keep the commandments. And if there's anything that divides your heart—if you have given a part of your heart to resentment or to lust or to selfish desires rather than to God—“Go first,” Christ says, “and be reconciled.” If we have failed to keep the commandments, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is there for us. Indeed, even if we've failed in a truly spectacular way, committed a mortal sin: that is reason to “leave your gift there at the altar,” to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until we have followed Christ's command to “go first and be reconciled [...], and then come and offer your gift,”—but yes, even if we've failed in some particularly humiliating fashion, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The moral law seems difficult to keep, and “God's wisdom” in this is sometimes “mysterious and hidden,” but the Scriptures teach us that
“If you choose you can keep the commandments, [and] they will save you.”

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord, offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims: he made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness, in the sight of the Israelites.”
—Offertory of today's Mass
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Last week a professor at Bellarmine University in Kentucky published a provocative essay on “Thomas Merton and Liturgical Reform.” Merton, you may recall, was a Trappist monk whom Pope Francis held up last year as one of four "great Americans" alongside Dorothy Day, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Merton died in the late 1960s, so in his last years he witnessed a revolution in the way that Catholics render homage to God. Writing to a Carthusian acquaintance just five days after the Second Vatican Council published its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Merton wrote:
"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful [but] which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve: a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones."

It's a striking phrase: “Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand.” My purpose this morning is not to expound upon the evils of “silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date” liturgy: I think that for the most part I would be preaching to the choir on that subject. Rather, I want to say that Merton's warning about the liturgy applies to all aspects of our spiritual lives. We all stand in danger of throwing away things that are excellent because we do not understand them. Of the many things we stand in danger of throwing away, I will mention three:

  • Silence,
  • Scripture, and
  • The Sanctification of the Hours of the Day.

If there is one excellent thing, above all others, that has been thrown away in our modern age for lack of understanding, it is silence. One of the reasons I love this Mass is that there is so much time for silent prayer. Although there may be noise—singing, a crying child, the ringing of bells—there is always an environment conducive to an interior silence. Silence, whether kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament or sitting in some other tranquil place away from distractions, is something commended to us by the lives of all the saints as a way to draw close to God. In the second chapter of the prophet Habbukuk we read: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” 

One reason our society hates this stillness and silence because it is not productive, because there is nothing to “show” for time spent in this way. But as Pope Benedict said during his apostolic visit to the United States in 2008: “Time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side.” Although time spent in silence before God does not usually produce immediately obvious effects in our life, it makes us into reservoirs of God's grace; and if silence is for us a habit we will often find ourselves saying something unexpectedly profound as we spontaneously share the fruit of our contemplation with others.

A second aspect of the spiritual life too often ignored in our day is the importance Holy Scripture. The Scriptures are an excellent and most important way in which we come to know God. St. Jerome said that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (Commentariorum in Isaiam libri, Prol.: PL 24, 17.) Saint Basil the Great wrote, “What is the distinctive mark of the faithful? Conforming their lives with complete certainty to the meaning of the words of Scripture, not daring to remove or add a single thing.” (Moralia, Regula LXXX, XXII: PG 31, 867.)

Sometimes, however, our lack of comprehension discourages us from reading the Bible. But we are not alone in this feeling! In fact, even the Bible itself says this about the Bible! In St. Peter's second epistle, speaking of the letters of St. Paul, he says: “There are some things in them hard to understand” (3:16). But although there are many things in the Bible we may not understand at first, if we allow the clean sea breeze of the Scripture to continually blow through our minds it will clear away the stagnant air of our worldly thoughts, and gradually all our reflections, our very way of thinking, will be filled with the scent, with the sweetness of Scripture. [For this image I am indebted to C. S. Lewis.]

This is, for me, difficult to illustrate. I might take as an example the verses from the 24th chapter of the Book of Exodus which serve as the Offertory Verse of today's Mass: “Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord, offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims: he made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness.” If we are inclined to throw away that which we do not understand, these words might pass in one ear and out the other, for there is much in them that may seem strange to us: “Why did God command animal sacrifice? What does it mean to consecrate an altar? Why were these sacrifices done in the evening?” While it is important to answer such questions, it is not always important to answer each of them immediately. One of the great advantages I have enjoyed in the Christian life is that I started reading the Bible, book-by-book I mean, in seventh grade, before I was old enough to let this constant stream of abstract questions distract me from the central concepts that were being communicated by the text. Gradually, the ideas I gleaned from the Bible formed the way I thought about God. This reading and re-reading of the Scripture laid the foundation for my subsequent conversion to Catholicism: 

“Moses consecrated an altar to the Lord,”
just as our worship of the Lord happens in sacred places set apart from the rest of our neighborhoods, on altars consecrated by a bishop;
“offering upon it holocausts, and sacrificing victims,” which offering was a prefigurement, a foreshadowing, of the perfect offering made once for all by Christ on the Cross, the offering which we re-present to the Father sacramentally on this altar each Sunday;
Moses “made an evening sacrifice to the Lord God for an odor of sweetness;” just as the Lord desires that we should pray to Him at certain times throughout the day.

This brings me to my final point, the third spiritual practice we stand in danger of throwing away when we do not understand its value: the sanctification of the hours of the day. Throughout the Scriptures, we see that God's people render Him homage at fixed times. The morning and evening sacrifices of the levitical priesthood as we have just seen in Exodus; the Apostles Peter and John “going up to the temple at” what the third chapter of the book of Acts calls “the hour of prayer, the ninth hour,” or what we call 3pm, the hour at which Our Lord died on the Cross; in the Psalms we read, “Seven times a day I have given praise to thee”.

Sometimes we do not understand how much our human nature thrives on regularity, rhythms, and habits. For this reason, the Scripture and many of the saints exhort us to punctuate the day with planned, regular moments of prayer: to rise at a fixed time and make the first word of each day a prayer: “Serviam!”, “I will serve!”; to pray the Angelus at mid-day; to offer thanks to God in the evening after the close of the day's labors; to pray before bed, beginning at a very young age with the prayers we recite with our parents, and as we grow older transitioning to an examination of conscience in which we review the actions of the day and ask God's forgiveness for our shortcomings.

In monastic life, “the best and safest” of all vocations (St. Teresa of Avila, Life, 3, 5), religious follow a fixed and unvarying schedule of prayer each day, one which revolves primarily around the recitation of the Psalms. The more we imitate that ideal, the more we share in the fruit of that way of life.

I fear that these brief explanations can do little to help us understand the excellence of these spiritual practices, which means that we may still face the great danger of throwing them away. But although my words have fallen short of their task, I ask that you would take these things to heart all the same: Daily silent prayer, daily reading of the Scriptures, and daily prayers of all kinds recited at fixed hours of the day. If these elements are present in our lives, God will do great things through us.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached at St. Thomas the Apostle church in Irondequoit, New York on 18 September, 2016.

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