To Decrease

Homily for the final Sunday Vespers at my original parish (1o.5 years of Vespers).
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In today’s Gospel St. John the Baptist reveals to us a great attribute of a Christian, one that enables us and ennobles us. Humility.  As he spots Jesus walking towards him on the beach he points to him and says: ‘‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. ‘He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’’[1] He effectively directs those who follow him to follow the Lord.  He removes himself from fame and importance because he knows the truth and it is the truth that is most important.

His ministry was extremely popular and most effective. He was able to bring many to the river for ritual purification and by doing so, prepared them for the advent of the Lord; prepared the soil of their souls so they could accept the truth.  His ministry is now fulfilled, and that was ok with him.  He had done what needed to be done, what God had prepared him for, which was: ‘to go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,[2] This was his calling from birth, his vocation was this and only this, no more no less – and that was ok to him.  When the time had come he resolutely decreased so the Lord could increase.

This is the way of our calling as well; we are given talents and time to affect our surroundings as the Lord desires. Ours is not to win the battle of salvation but participate in it and to move forward in the journey. Ours is to use what is given us and point to who is most important: the way, the truth and the light – Jesus. This doesn’t make us unimportant, it doesn’t reduce us; rather it shows how integral we are to the Lord’s plan and to each other.

Brothers and sisters, our greatest act in life is to listen to God, allow Him to guide us along the journey, a journey that only He knows the path. Our response to His love is to trust completely. He might move us from the comfortable to the uncomfortable but He will move with us. He might need to change how we participate with Him, allowing someone else to fill our place; but His grace will always be with us. Our part in His plan is to participate within Him, within Him. So, in all the things He calls us to, let’s remember St. John the Baptist’s words and make them our own. ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.[3]

I would like to close this homily and my part in our Sunday Vespers with words from John Henry Cardinal Newman.

God has created
me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me which He
has not committed to another.
I have my mission;
I never may know it in this life,
but I shall be told it in the next.
I have a part in a great work;
I am a link in a chain,
a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught. [4]

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[1] JN 1:29b-30
[2] LK 1:76-77
[3] JN 3:30
[4] John Henry Cardinal Newman, Meditations & Devotions Part III

Serviam

Before the creation of this world, in heaven there was an angel whose name meant ‘light-bearer’. This angel took the freedom that God offered and chose a lesser path. His proclamation rang throughout the heavenly hosts and echoed to all of God’s creation. It echoes throughout the history of creation down to this day. ‘Non servium’ declared Lucifer – ‘I will not serve!’ God created out of love; gave His creation freewill to love Him back; but some of His creation chose to not love back thus poisoning creation with self-pride. History now is a record of this fall and our attempt to regain what was lost.

Adam and Eve shows us the effects of this. Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel’s journey through the desert; all of the Old Testament is a record of the effects of this fall; and of God’s continual interaction and constant care of His creation whom He still loves.

Since the fall of Adam and Eve mankind has tried to climb back to the heights of God; to regain what they had lost. This prideful attitude has always been doomed to failure – the Tower of Babel, the pride of the Kings, the pride of the Sanhedrin are just a few examples.

But God has always showed us the way to His heart – to regain what John Milton called paradise lost. It is how He works, it is what love is built on – the humble way. We hear God through Isaiah tell us what attitude we need in the Suffering Servant Songs. We are told by St. Paul in letter to the Philippians exactly how God works and expects us to work:

‘So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name…’ (Phil 2:1-9)

But how are we to model ourselves after God, how do we live the life of humble service – of humility? Look to Mary, the model of humility (along with her husband St. Joseph) she is the guide, she is the icon of a life in God. Let’s follow her lead – her fiat to the Archangel, her hastening to Elizabeth to help, her submission to her Son’s journey; her constant interaction with her Son’s brothers and sisters – us. Let’s make our own her words to Elizabeth:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’ (Lk 1:46-49)

Humility is not glamorous, at least as society knows the word. Humility is not powerful, at least as the world knows the word. But we are not of this world – we are of God. His is the only way to eternal life; eternal life that we as members of the His Mystical Body are called to proclaim. Though society doesn’t strive for this type of glamor and power their souls thirst and hunger for it. By quiet and humble acceptance of God’s will Mary brought to a hostile world their Savior; by quiet and humble means the Savior brought the proclamation of joy and eternal life; by quiet and humble means Mary continues to bring His message to her Son’s family.

If this works for God it must be our method, our marching orders. By quiet and humble means we can be the new ‘light-bearers’. St. Michael the Archangel was the one who replied to Lucifer’s proclamation; let’s take up his response and make it our own – ‘Serviam’ – I will serve.

Lessons From A Sword

Today’s first reading from the Book of Jonah[1] shows Jonah entering Nineveh and heralding a warning from God – repent or be doomed.  Jonah had finally stopped fighting against God’s plan for him; he went into a pagan city with only the truth and trust in God.  It started me wondering more about how that happens.  It also happens that today, January 25th, when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – another example of absolute trust in God and tireless proclamation of Truth.

Cardinal Ratzinger, back in the 1980s wrote a small reflection[2] for the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.  In it he used the sword (which St. Paul traditionally holds in artwork) as his reflective vehicle. At one point he wrote: ‘suffering and truth belong together.[3] This comment came about as Cardinal Ratzinger explained the sword as representing truth, God’s truth; and the sword as suffering, martyrdom (and humility).

Sword as Truth
In the letter to Hebrews the author writes an oft quoted and very powerful line ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[4]  God’s word, His truth is that powerful.  His truth, if we allow it to enter our hearts and minds, will reveal to us things we never knew and some we never want to know.  This sword reveals us to ourselves; it opens us, but not as a weapon in the hands of a conqueror, but rather as a scalpel in the hands of a healer.  God’s truth is our salvation and healing.  God’s truth, His Word, is Christ.

Sword as Suffering and Humility
But the sword also symbolizes suffering (indeed martyrdom), and humility.  St. Paul’s apostolic journeys, are full of suffering. At one point in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he gives us a summary of sorts: ‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.[5]

He listed these sufferings not to brag (St. Paul never brags about himself); but in this case, to make the Corinthians aware of what it means to be a true witness to God; as opposed to the imposters who were in Corinth.  The sufferings he endured weren’t endured because of any message of his own; he endured these sufferings for the Truth, for the Word, for Jesus Christ.  St. Paul allowed himself to be a servant, a ‘slave’ in his words, to the truth – Christ his master.  He knows that God’s Word will set us free – it is the only way and so as a humble servant he endures for God. St. Paul says it so much better: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.[6]

Our part – embracing the sword
So brothers and sisters, St. Paul stands in many images and statues with a sword – not as symbol of power that the world would recognize but, among other things, as a symbol of how to live our lives.  As witnesses to the good news of God’s salvific plan we know that God has revealed to us the truth that will set us free, words that will bring us salvation, the Word in Christ Jesus.  But words that people don’t want to hear – because they reveal too much for their comfort. As bearers of this good news, and because of this news, we know that we will meet with sufferings.  But, as servants of this Word, we need to endure these sufferings for God and the sake of the people who are inflicting these sufferings.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Christ proclaim the good news and invite others to do the same. ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.[7] He tells some fishermen and He is telling us now.

St. Paul’s actions in Christ’s name shows us the way of our ministry: humble bravery in living and proclaiming the Truth tirelessly. St. Paul pray for us as we continue your ministry as witnesses to the Truth.  May we embrace the sword as Christ embraces us – with love.

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[1] Jon 3:1-5; 10
[2] The Warrior and the Sufferer Reflection on the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul  – ‘Images of Hope, Feast Day Reflections’ by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 1997
[3] ibid
[4] Heb 4:12 (RSV)
[5] 2 Cor 11:24-27 (RSV)
[6] Gal 2:20 (RSV)
[7] Mk 1:17 (RSV)

Rejoice!

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near.[1]

This beautiful line from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is today’s Introit and gives this 3rd Sunday of Advent its name.  The full introit is:
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.[2]

We rejoice that Lord is near as we look ahead to the 25th of December, less than two weeks from now.  With the birth of our Lord we can take strength from He who made us. With His gift of coming among us we see Him and know Him better. We can take on His attributes of gentleness and patience; we can live within His love. We can attain the desire of our hearts. The celebration of the nativity of Lord is getting so very near – we can hardly keep within our skins, as the saying goes.

But for us, this evening, we can repeat: ‘Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.’with an even more immediate focus.  We can rejoice that in a few minutes we can meet the Lord and reconcile with Him.  We can take part in His gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – we can turn towards Him and embrace Him in humility as He once again embraces us in loving welcome.  No worries should cloud our hearts and minds, He will embrace us!  Our Lord is waiting; His presence is among us and He desires our embrace.

St. Paul, in today’s Second reading tells us:
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.[3]

All we need to do, each of us, to make this hope, this prayer of St. Paul happen, is to return to Christ tonight – allow our Lord to give us His gift of mercy, forgiveness, healing.  Push away any uneasiness about this meeting. It is not a meeting of punishment; it is one of thanksgiving – ours for His gift to us – His for our homecoming.

Let’s not miss this opportunity, this special and beautiful moment of embrace with Christ.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: Dominus enim prope est.[4]

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[1,4] Philippians 4:4
[2] Philippians 4:4-6
[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Who do you say that I am?

Almost 2000 years ago Jesus gave us our life’s mission.  As He was ready to ascend to heaven he told the apostles, and us, to ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.[1]  We have been given an apostolate, at that point we became apostles.

Every Catholic has the same apostolate.  We might have different ministries – the two are not the same.  Bishops, priests and deacons are Ordinary Ministers. Lay faithful can participate in ministries of all kinds: Pastoral Care, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Liturgical Ministers and on and on.  By the way, the Eucharistic Minister at this Mass is the priest.  But regardless of our ministries we are all, everyone in the Catholic Church, apostles.  We are called in our varying ways to go and put to actions Christ’s great commission.

But to be effective in our apostolate we need to live what we are preaching.  Our understanding, though not total, needs to be deep-felt and earnest.  If we are to proclaim Christ’s message we need be aware of the most important aspect of His message. This is where Christ’s great question to us in today’s Gospel is important. ‘But who do you say that I am?[2]

Brothers and sisters, Christ asks each of us ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Christ wants to know who we understand Him to be.  Not platitudes or rote memorized answers we have learned from Holy Mother Church. Our answer to His questions is the answer deep within our heart, how do we truly understand Christ in lives.  What is deep within us determines how affective we will be in our apostolate.  If He isn’t the most important friend in our lives then our message will be weak, stale and unbelievable.  If Christ isn’t the central focus our lives then our vision that we give to those around will be cloudy, murky and unconvincing.  Faith isn’t a cultural affectation it is a way of life.

But we need help, our understanding of who Christ is comes first from God Himself.  God gives us lessons, and knowledge about Himself and His plan for us.  Contrary to the common understanding of today’ Gospel Christ’s first question isn’t ‘Who do the people believe I am’  it is “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?[3]  Christ is asking His apostles what do people expect the Messiah to be.  And then after He hears some answers (off the mark of course) He then pushes the disciples to find the answer in their hearts that He is the messiah.  St Peter’s profound answer is given to him from God the Father – God is teaching us.

God is always there, waiting to help us with wisdom and knowledge we just need to connect with Him and allow His omnipotence to work within us.  We need to live the life of faith to be able to gain the insight from God to allow us to live the apostolic life we were meant for.  To do this we need to pray as well as submit to those learned and wise people of faith to show us the path. When, in humility we offer ourselves; our intellect and soul, to God’s divine plan we, deep down come to understand who Christ is to us and to the world.

With this desire for true understanding and this trusting submission to God’s plan we can be as profound as St. Peter’s answer.  It is my hope that when someone comes up to us and asks ‘Who do say that Christ is?’ Our answer will be obvious to them from our lives, He is my reason for life and for living; and our very beings will echo what St. Paul wrote to the Romans ‘For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.[4]

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[1] Mt 28:19-20
[2] Mt 16:13-20
[3] Ibid
[4] Rom 11:36

Seek

As followers of the Lord a constant activity in our lives can be summed up in one word – seek.  Today’s readings[1] bring this out with clarity.

Seek the Lord
It is paramount, indeed vital that as disciples we constantly seek the Lord. The first reading from 1st Kings gives us a great lesson by showing us how the prophet Elijah sought the Lord.  Elijah, who has known the power of God in his life still seeks Him. God gives His prophet a lesson in where to find Him.  Though the Lord can and does work any way He wants, He desires us to find him in a tiny whispering sound.  He desires us to come to Him in the most intimate moments where our whole attention is focused on our dialog with Him.  He desires our total attention, our total intensity so that we can feel in our hearts what He is telling us.

Seek a time and place
But to be able to come to this intimate and intense encounter, to hear the whispering sound, we need to withdraw ourselves from the chaos of our lives.  We need to find a mountain of solitude as Jesus does so many times in scripture including the Gospel today.  We need to give ourselves time to hear God whisper; to follow Christ’s teaching when in Matthew tells us ‘But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.[2]

The noise of our daily life, both external and internal, makes it almost impossible to listen to God.  If we look back in our lives to those special encounters; those most intimate, intense and relished encounters with family and friends; we will find most of them being one on one, private, where the world seemed to be missing, pushed to the fringes of our awareness – the only thing that was real was the other person.  So too with our relationship with Christ – He desires nothing less and He gives us nothing less.

Seek those who the Lord seeks.
However, Christ always comes down from the mountain. What is important for us and our relationship with Christ is also important for others as well.  It is also important for us in our ability to bring others to Christ. For bringing others to Christ is what we are to do, it should be who we are.  And what works for God, works for us. Indeed, it is the only thing that will work. To be convincing to others that our message is real we come to them like a whisper as well.  We don’t brandish our faith like fire or earthquakes in big and showy demonstrations for this will only amuse or annoy and will disappear with time.  No, by the quiet actions of our lives we give power to our message. By this whisper of faith, our living our beliefs, we bring Christ to those who need Him.

Last night I turned on EWTN and happened on the marvelous movie of the life of St. Dominic made by the Dominican Province of the Philippines in 2011. Titled ‘Dominic: Light of the Church’ it was moving lesson for each of us on how we should seek those God seeks.  It showed the power of Bishop Diego d’Azevado’s and St. Dominic’s method of humility and quiet proclamation of the faith by living their faith among those they were evangelizing. Truth was preached and faith was lived.  This is our methodology to introduce those around to us our most intimate friend.

As the movie showed and as we well know this apostolic calling is not easy, it is filled with dangers of all kinds: ridicule, ostracization, and maybe even physical.  But in addition it is fraught with our weakness and we are bound to falter, to fail at times.  We will fall. But in our hearts we should know that Christ will always be there, that God is constantly whispering to us.  And like He did to St. Peter in today’s Gospel He will always be there to immediately stretch out His hand and catch us.

St. Dominic Pray for us.

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[1] 1 Kgs 19:9A, 11-13A /  Rom 9:1-5 / Mt 14:22-33
[2] Matthew 6:6

Heart or Mind – Solomon’s Choice

Last night I was watching a show about the technology created during and for World War One which enabled mankind to kill each other in the greatest acts of butchery mankind had ever known up till then. As I was watching this documentary I couldn’t help but think of our first reading today and realized that there are two paths mankind can take in regards to enlightenment: intelligence or wisdom – or put another way: mind or heart.

Mankind, with the inception of the ‘so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’ has seen great scientific and other advances that amaze and impress us with our intellectual greatness; and in doing so has moved us further away from God, from wisdom. This success lead mankind to rely on themselves, on their intelligence, as the answer to everything. Humanity’s great hope of holding in their own hands the answers to everything and the control of their own destiny has proved time and time again a false hope. Pope Benedict XVI, during a meeting with the Diocesan Clergy of Aosta, said: ‘there is growing evidence that a closed rationalism, which thinks that human beings can rebuild the world better on their own, is not true. On the contrary, without the restraint of the true God, human beings destroy themselves.[1] Mankind’s intellectual abilities has brought about enormous advances and, as the documentary the other night showed, horrendous abominations. Because a society built on the mind, the intellect, alone has no appreciation for anything other than advancement for advancement’s sake – it lacks a moral compass. The twentieth century is the ultimate example of what happens when mankind decides on mind over heart.

King Solomon, on the other hand, shows humanity what is truly important. ‘Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.[2] His request points to two great attributes of leadership and, for that matter, any position.

  1. Humility – Solomon asks God that he be able to understand God’s people. Solomon holds no false idea of his greatness – He knows that God is ruler of all and that He is just a servant to both God and God’s people.
  2. Heart over mind – In Old Testament times the heart was viewed as more than an organ; it was the very center of the soul – where the Holy Spirit dwells and where God meets man and where man can be whole and entire. This is where wisdom resides since wisdom is God’s ability to see and judge things as they really are. Solomon wants understanding/wisdom more than intelligence – to understand those God loves is how he can best serve them.  He isn’t impressed by his capabilities to be the best, the smartest – he just wants to be a good and wise steward.

It is this wisdom that affects mankind’s intellectual ability.  With wisdom – mankind’s intellect is capable of God inspired goodness.  The sciences and technology are servants of the people. Without wisdom (understanding) man’s intellect is capable of God condemned atrocities. Again, intelligence alone has no moral compass. The reason that wisdom does have a moral compass is because wisdom, as Catholics see it, comes from, as Pope Francis reflected on, ‘intimacy with God, from the intimate relationship we have with God…And when we have this relationship, the Holy Spirit endows us with this gift…and the Holy Spirit transfigures our heart and enables it to perceive[3] as God does.

This decision is more far-reaching that just our personal decisions about ourselves.  Do we choose those as friends, as elected officials, as role models that espouse mind or heart, intellect or wisdom?  If careful choices were made at the turn of twentieth century maybe there wouldn’t have been that documentary I just watched. If careful decisions were made throughout history think what could have been. Well eternity starts now, history starts afresh right now – let’s make history.

 

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[1] L’Osservatore Romano 7/25/2005
[2] 1 Kings 3:9
[3] L’Osservatore Romano 4/11/2014 (English edition, general audience)