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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