Homilette for Monday, March 2, 2009

Monday of the First Week in Lent

(Matthew 25:31-46)

The word alms is derived from the Greek word elenmosyne, which means mercy. The Lenten exhortation to give alms, then, should be regarded as no more than redoubling our efforts to fulfill Christ’s call for mercy made in the gospel today.

The works of mercy have been extended and enumerated in the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. Naming these, of course, does not substitute for practicing them. Knowledge is not virtue. However, identifying these practices may remind us to perform them when opportunities arise. The seven corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort the afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead.

Mercy is hardly limited to these acts. To name just a couple other works of mercy we might say to listen to the reminiscences of the elderly and to support international development agencies. Again, there is little if any virtue in naming such acts. Goodness comes from performing them.

Homilette for Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday after Ash Wednesday

(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 9:14-15)

Muslims are apt to ridicule the Catholic way of fasting. “What is so hard about not eating between meals,” they might ask, “when you can eat three times a day?” They see their fast of not eating or drinking at all during daylight hours as much more demanding. But we might query Muslims about the severity of their practice as they often binge throughout the night during their month of fasting.

God calls into question the fasts of both Catholics and Muslims as He chastises Israel in the reading from Isaiah today. His critique is that not that fasting has no value but that it must be accompanied by a change of heart. Indeed, fasting can facilitate conversion by palpably reminding us of those in extreme need. Not eating sweets should make us think of refugees in Africa whose daily bread is bitterness. Abstaining from meat should conjure images of poorly educated people in our own country whose lives lack substance. Then we must pray for the needy, give of our sufficiency to assist them, and advocate for changes in public policy that will safeguard their human dignity.

Homilette for Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 9:22-25)

“Choose life.” We have all seen bumper stickers and tee-shirts with this anti-abortion slogan. No doubt, people who feel burdened by an unexpected pregnancy find the message ironic. To them life is being liberated from the responsibility of child-bearing so that they may pursue other concerns. Life, then, is a simple word with different meanings to different people.

In the reading from Deuteronomy today, Moses exhorts the Israelites to “choose life.” He has in mind God’s law that extends the well-being of both individual and community. Following the road of righteousness, both present and future generations will thrive. Descendants will cherish the memory of forebears who taught them the law and so, in a sense, keep their ancestors in existence. More importantly, the law will secure the bonds that hold the people together

Jesus radicalizes Moses’ message. As we hear in the gospel, he says that life is the outcome of his way of self-surrender. This may involve even a renunciation of biological life. However, it promises more than immortalization in the minds and hearts of descendants. It looks toward a transcendent, personal existence with God in eternity.

Homilette for Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

(Joel 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6; 6-18)

In a few minutes a minister will rub ashes on our foreheads. While doing this, he (or she) will repeat one of two formulas: “Remember...that you are dust and to dust will return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” It is humbling to realize that we come from dust and chilling to see how little dust we return to. The so-called cremains of a human corpse that has been cremated fill only a mid-sized baggie!

Indeed, we are headed for destruction. Nothing will save us from death. But death does not necessarily mean that we will not be heard from again. We may rise from the dead to walk in a freedom unlike anything we will have ever known. The apostles testified with their lives that this is exactly what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. Further, they said that it will happen to us if we commit ourselves to him.

We try to do so every day of our lives. But for forty days each year we redouble our efforts. Lent is an annual retreat where we walk closely with Jesus, especially in the way of his cross. We take pains to care for others, to pray, and to fast -- not for fame but for true righteousness. We make every effort to turn away from our sins and be faithful to Jesus’ gospel.

Homilette for Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 2:1-11; Mark 9:30-37)

The inelegant name “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras) is derived from the ancient custom of households consuming all remaining fatty foods before Lent begins. Lent was a time of severe penance when Christians did not eat meat or desserts made with animal fat. Like most good practices, Mardi Gras has often been corrupted. Today it is sometimes celebrated in the spirit of orgy rather than as a dutiful, albeit cheery, preparation for a devout fast.

The gospel today indicates a similar distortion of values. Jesus has confided in his disciples that the Son of Man will suffer and then experience glory. They, however, refuse to probe what this might mean preferring, instead, to dwell on fatuous concerns of self-importance. Their obtuseness might be as comical as a Three Stooges routine except for the fact that they have witnessed different indications that Jesus himself is the one who is about to undergo the ordeal. Thus, their denseness becomes a sad commentary on human nature.

If we wish, we might eat an extra piece of meat or drink a glass of wine today. But let us do so with an eye on tomorrow. During Lent we should take stock of our sinfulness. We will strive to understand how our selfishness has impeded us from appreciating both the price and the benefit of our redemption.

Homilette for Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 1:1-10; Mark 9:14-29)

We sometimes think of faith as acceptance of Church teaching. In the old “Act of Faith” we proclaimed, “O my God, I believe that thou art one God in three divine persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” This understanding of faith is valid and necessary. But first and foremost, faith is a relationship with God. It is placing our hand in His (so to speak) or, for Christians at least, in that of His Son, Jesus Christ.

In the gospel today the father of the boy with a demon expresses the quality of faith that most of us share. “I do believe,” he tells Jesus, “help my unbelief!” Like that desperate man, we have an incipient relationship with Jesus. But it is not strong because we have not nurtured it with prayer. Somehow we must increase the quality and quantity of our prayer life.

Formal prayers give us a place to start. The rosary requires significant time and now offers more mysteries to contemplate. Grace before meals is minimal but does remind everyone that God provides our daily sustenance. Done in public, it also gives witness to our love for God. Most of all, we need to participate in the Eucharist as often and as devoutly as possible. We also might converse with God like the Jewish milkman, Teyve, in Fiddler on the Roof. Riding alone in a car, we can turn off the radio for a few minutes to thank God for blessings received, repeat our love for Him, and – most of all -- request His help with whatever worries us. Doing so, we move our faith to maturity.

Homilette for Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 11:1-9; Mark 8:34-9:1)

Not only athletes but quite regular men and women look to artificial sources for self-enhancement. After all, if steroids could turn an average hitter into superstar, might they not make any body everyone’s desire or envy by adding proportion? The reading from Genesis today teaches us that the use of technology to boost oneself is really almost as old as the human species itself.

The inhabitants of Babel live not long after Noah who was the first born human after the death of Adam. God told Noah and his sons to “multiply and fill the earth.” Yet some of his descendants come together to build the city of Babel! By their own admission their purpose is egotistical. They want “to make a name for themselves” by means of technology -- molding bricks and hardening them with fire. They seem to think that they might rival God by constructing a tower so high that it reaches heaven. The idea is ludicrous, of course. God has to go down to stop the folly before the people destroy themselves.

What Genesis is critiquing is not the desire of humans to improve themselves but the hubris or pride that drives them to attempt bypassing God in their efforts to win the adulation of others. People want to become idols – to be considered gods among their peers. God is not jealous. He knows quite well that whatever humans make of and by themselves, they will never be more than blind cockroaches in comparison to Him. But God wants His noblest creatures to do better than that. He confuses their languages and resends them throughout the world to open their eyes as it were. God wants us to respect and admire the richness of different individuals and cultures so that we might turn back to him in awe and gratitude.

Homilette for Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 9:1-13; Mark 8:27-33)

Remember the campaign question, “Where’s the beef?” It did more than inquire into political benefits. It hinted at the human craving for meat. We see this predilection for the flesh of animals in the first reading today.

Noah has just emerged from the ark with representatives of all animal species. They have journeyed together for at least forty days and more likely a year. They have shared a common diet which certainly did not contain any meat. Then Noah, without being asked, sacrifices some meat to God. No doubt, he thinks that since humans have a taste for meat, God would savor it as well. God then makes a concession to humankind. Because of their liking, humans may eat the flesh of animals as long as they respect their life blood.

Also, God demands that human society execute murderers. As much as abolitionists might like to overlook the command, the imperative is clear. “If anyone sheds the blood of man,” God says, “by man shall his blood be shed...” Then how can the Church teach that capital punishment is no longer to be practiced? A few considerations are in order about Pope John Paul II’s 1995 appeal to end the death penalty. First, he never claimed that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, only that that governments which are able to remove murderers from society without executing them should do so. Second, he allowed for governments which cannot safely put away murderers to execute them. Third, he proclaimed the need to stop killing criminals as urgent today to counter the culture of death that has become so prevalent with mobsters and abortionists getting away with murder. We might say that the pope is asking God to make a concession as He did in allowing humans to eat meat. As early humans were likely to have rebelled if they were not allowed to eat meat, so too will members of our society continue killing one another gratuitously if we do not provide cogent example of not killing anyone.

Homilette for Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 8:6-13.202-22; Mark 8:22-26)

“I see,” said the blind man. He is only being ironic. He does not claim to have sight as we usually think of it. But he may have insight – the ability to see the truth of things. Insight is the kind of vision which the blind man of today’s gospel ends with.

Jesus first gives the blind man physical sight to distinguish shapes and colors. But he is challenged to discern the nature of things. People to him are walking trees. Then Jesus tries again, and the man sees clearly. Most of all, his newly gained sight enables him to recognize Jesus as the long awaited one of Israel who is to bring shalom, the fullness of peace, to the land.

In the contemporary world thoroughly given to the awe of science and technology, we are challenged to identify Jesus. We may claim him as our “Lord and God,” but what do these terms mean if we spend our lives in pursuit of fortune or adventure? Mark’s gospel calls us to unrelenting recognition of Jesus as the source, end, and sustaining force of our lives.

Homilette for Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 5:5-8.7:1-5.10; Mark 8:14-21)

On top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, stone statues of the twelve apostles look over the world that they have struggled to win for Christ. Each member of the band appears so magnificent in wisdom and power that we are challenged to reconcile these figures with the fumbling characters we meet in the gospel today.

The twelve have twice witnessed Jesus distribute a thousand times more bread than they had at hand. Yet they worry about having enough food in the boat when they have one loaf – that is, the Lord himself! Like most people, they cannot get over the human condition of scarcity. They cannot see that in Christ’s company they have more than enough.

Put a bit of yeast in a little dough and in a short time you find a full loaf of bread. Yeast or leaven puffs up making something appear more massive than it is. “The leaven of the Pharisees” and “the leaven of Herod” puff up their carriers to the extent that they cannot recognize God’s messengers. The Pharisees think that they are defending God as they demand signs on the spot from Jesus, even after he has repeatedly given witness to his divine commission. In decapitating John, Herod pretends to have authority over innocent life. Jesus warns his disciples against both kinds of arrogance. They and we are neither to worry about what is lacking nor to think of our own virtue as sufficient. Rather, they and we must trust in Jesus.

Homilette for Monday, February 16, 2009

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 4:1-15.25; Mark 8:11-13)

The story of Cain and Abel has been noted as an anthropological explanation of the enmity between farmers and herders. We can also see it as a model for sibling rivalry. Although we may expect brothers and sisters to be the best of friends, they often compete with one another. The reasons are obvious. Each desires his or her parents’ utmost attention but is often forced into the back seat. Perhaps the last-born child receives inordinate affection because the parents are tired of disciplining. Or perhaps the eldest through constant parental prodding becomes an overachiever whose accomplishments the second cannot match.

In the fourth preface for weekday masses, the priest prays that God has no need of our sacrifice. Indeed, God does not ask sacrifices from Cain and Abel. Responding to an instinctual impulse, the elder brother makes his harvest offering. Possibly out of imitation, Abel serves up a lamb. The text does not explain why Cain’s gift is rejected, but it is not hard to imagine a reason. Too often sacrifices to God are half-hearted. For example, many make feeble attempts during Lent to refrain from sweets. Also, as the standard critique of Friday abstinence held, some people give up steak only to dine on lobster!

Cain reacts to God’s preference of Abel’s sacrifice by murdering him. It is no impetuous act but methodically arranged to indicate the depth of the elder brother’s hatred. As the Lord takes notice of the act, we discover what God really expects of us. Our sacrifices are not important; we must strive harder to live in peace with all our brothers and sisters.

Homilette for Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 3:1-8; Mark 7:31-37)

Although the serpent is frequently looked on as the devil, Genesis never says it. It is an intelligent creature with a gift also for smooth talking. It might be considered a person’s divided mind which poses contrary arguments to the positions he or she holds in conscience. As we learn growing up, these contrary ideas often make us our worst enemies.

In the garden the serpent tempts the woman not with lies but with distorted truth. “Did God really tell you not to eat of any of the trees in the garden?” it asks. There was something in God’s command about not eating fruit but the prohibition was hardly universal; indeed, it was limited to one tree. Humans often exaggerate the extent of prohibitions. The Church’s Lenten penance, for example, does not require fasting everyday but on two days and abstaining from meat on eight. The woman herself begins to play the devil’s game. She says that God told them not to touch the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as well as not to eat it. Both she and the devil make God appear as opposed to human welfare. On the other hand, they paint a picture in which humans have to oppose God’s will in order to attain it.

It has been said that Genesis is true not because it reveals what happened at the beginning of history but because it shows what happens everyday. Like the woman and her partner, we can easily talk ourselves into sins like gossiping and stealing and sometimes into truly abominable acts like abortion and betrayal. For our own welfare as well as the benefit of others, we need to make every effort to form our consciences well and then to heed carefully what they tell us to do.

Homilette for Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 2:18-25; Mark 7:24-30)

Today’s first reading is part of the second creation account in Genesis. In the first account God creates man and woman at the same instant. No distinction, except perhaps that the man is mentioned first, is made between the two. Both are said to be created in the image of God. In the second account the man is created first from dust. After him, God creates all the other animals in an attempt to find a suitable partner for the man. As a final effort, God creates the woman from a rib taken from the man’s side.

Some feminists have objected to this second creation account as sexist. They point out that because the man is created first, he enjoys a priority of status. More offensive still is the way the woman is created -- from a single bone taken from the man’s side as if she were just a subsidiary being. However, strong counterarguments can be made. First, the woman is at least created from another human being where man’s material component is dirt. Second, the woman is presumably made a complete form whereas the man, having a rib removed, is left incomplete. Third, the man gives his partner a certain priority as he names her “woman” (in Hebrew “’ishah”) before he names himself (‘ish; the difference between 'adam and ‘ish is the difference between generic "man" and male). Indeed, he can name himself only because the woman stands before him as someone both similar and different.

Women have been called “the second sex.” From the viewpoint of Genesis’ second creation account this term accurately indicates the chronological appearance of women in history. It does not, however, indicate any moral or existential priority. In Genesis’ eyes, women and men are equal in dignity and are made to assist one another. Together they might appreciate the rest of God’s creation better. Together they might walk humbly before their Creator in peace.

Homilette for Wednesday, February 11, 2009

(Optional) Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes

(Genesis 4b-9.15-17; Mark 7:14-23)

Genesis says much of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that is situated in the middle of the garden but little about the tree of life. The fruit of the tree of knowledge will become the downfall of Adam and Eve. Genesis does not say if the two ever eat of the tree of life; however, after their sin, it emphasizes that God banishes them from the garden so that they would not eat the fruit of the blessed tree.

The prophet Ezekiel speaks of trees growing along the side of the river flowing from Temple as life-giving. They bear fruit and sprout leaves that are medicinal. The Book of Revelation echoes Ezekiel in mentioning the “tree of life” growing on either side of the river flowing from the New Jerusalem. Its fruit is abundant and its leaves serve as medicine. For centuries this tree has been identified as the cross of Christ, the instrument of untold spiritual and physical blessings.

Today the Church remembers our Lady of Lourdes. The site of her appearances one hundred and fifty years ago has attracted sick and infirm people throughout the world. They come begging Mary’s intercession on their behalf. Many of these seekers have received their desired cures. We cannot prove the efficacy of Christ’s cross to heal the sick, but we believe it. For this reason churches around the world invite the sick today to receive the Sacrament of Anointing. Beyond that, we trust in the same cross as the conveyer of salvation to all Christ’s followers.

Homilette for Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Memorial of St. Scholastica, virgin

(Genesis 1:20-2:4a; Mark 7:1-3)

It does not seem pretentious to say that humans are superior to the rest of creation. We merely have to open our computers to see how far humans have surpassed other creatures. Yet the primacy of humans is often questioned today. Groups as well as individuals believe that we humans are only links in an evolutionary chain not that far removed from our cousin chimpanzees. Further, they say that any claim of superiority on humans’ part is “speciesism” -- the vaulting of one species over others.

The Book of Genesis, on the other hand, has no difficulty in placing humans at the pinnacle of creation. They are the last of God’s creatures – the place of highest honors. Furthermore, Genesis says that humans are created in God’s own image. This is no mean distinction when one considers the awesomeness of God in Genesis’ eyes. Yet even Genesis has its reservations about the human species. Astute observers have noted that unlike the case of other animals, Genesis does not say that God declares humans “good” after making them. We can add that creation in God’s image is far from putting humans on the same pedestal as God. Later in the Old Testament the prophets will mock the gods of Israel’s neighbors as mere images.

Genesis intends that humans see themselves in process. Certainly our beginning is fortuitous, but the end is still in doubt. We may use our God-like talents for good or for ill. When we recognize our minuteness in comparison to God, thank Him for the privilege he has bestowed upon us, and strive to live in conformity to His generosity, we will come out all right. Presuming that we are already gods by belittling one another and trampling the rest of creation, we will bring about disaster.

Homilette for Monday, February 9, 2009

Monday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 1:1-19; Mark 5:53-56)

There is nothing new about global warming. In its billions of years the earth has warmed and cooled many times over. For this reason there are petroleum deposits made from a once vigorous vegetable life under the now frozen tundra of Alaska. What is new is the hand humans have played in the current warming trend. Most scientists are convinced that by burning fossil fuels humans are raising the earth’s temperature. They also tell us that the situation may be stabilized if humans throughout the world and especially in the United States reduce fossil fuel consumption in a decisive way.

The story of creation in Genesis today reiterates how God created everything good. After He makes light, Genesis says, “God saw how good the light was.” After He separates the land from the sea, Genesis repeats, “God saw how good it was.” And so also, after God created plants and trees and after He created the heavenly lights, He calls them good. In the next chapters Genesis will show how these elements turn against humans because of their sinfulness. God will use floods and draughts, earthquakes and hurricanes to punish humans for their folly, according to Genesis.

We might dismiss Genesis and say that it is childish to believe that earthquakes and storms are punishments from God. We might pretentiously say that God loves humans and does not punish them. Or we might take the vision Genesis offers to heart. This last alternative should move us to heed the call of scientists to curtail use of fossil fuel. If we do not do so, the link between our overconsumption and nature’s rebellion, as Genesis indicates, may become tragically apparent.

Homilette for Friday, February 6, 2009

Memorial of Saints Paul Miki, martyr, and his companions, martyrs

(Hebrews 13:1-8; Mark 6:14-29)

Despite a relatively small number of adherents, Japanese Catholicism has a glorious history. St. Francis Xavier was one of the pioneer missionaries to the land in the middle of the sixteenth century. For a while the shoguns tolerated the thriving religion, but a minor incident triggered a major persecution at the end of the century. When Spanish missionaries trying to save a shipwrecked compatriot sea captain made what was no more than an idle threat about a Spanish invasion, the reigning shogun clamped down. He had Paul Miki, a talented native Jesuit preacher, along with twenty-five mostly Japanese other Catholics, martyred on a cross. Christianity went underground for more than two centuries. When Japan opened its doors to the world again in the nineteenth century, over two hundred thousand Catholics were practicing their faith clandestinely.

Japanese Catholics heeded the reading that we hear in the first reading today. They remembered their leaders who spoke the word of God and imitated their faith. Although only about one half of one percent of Japan is Catholic, there have been several prominent Japanese Catholics. Shusaku Endo, who died in 1996, was one of the finest contemporary novelists exploring spiritual themes. Taro Aso, the current Prime Minister of Japan, is also a Catholic.

Homilette for Thursday, February 5, 2009

Memorial of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr

(Hebrews 12:18-19.21-24; Mark 6:7-13)

In workshops on preaching the late Ken Untener, bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, used to say that the homily should last no more than four minutes. Untener reasoned that mass in a Catholic church has much that speaks to the people besides the homily. The readings themselves are usually self-evident. The stained glass windows tell their stories. The hymns relate a message. And the prayers convey much meaning.

The Letter to the Hebrews today refers to the Christian liturgical assembly – what we call the mass. Like Bishop Untener’s description of mass in a Catholic church, it speaks of a setting of peace and light. It is where we meet Christ in a unique way. The mass differs dramatically from the Hebrew assembly in the desert. That was a terrifying experience because God had to soften and shape an unruly lot so that they may live more like His people.

Still, sometimes we grow weary of the mass and feel tempted to skip it for a Sunday. If the irregularity becomes a norm, we would be making a mistake worse than riding in a car with faulty brakes. It is not that everyone in church is a saint, but we come here to be reminded that sainthood is our destiny. Even more importantly, here we listen to the Word of God and receive the nourishment of Christ’s body so that we may act as we are destined to become.

Homilette for Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 12:4-7.11-12; Mark 6:1-6)

A famous caricature has often appeared on the cover of The New Yorker magazine. It shows a divinely sophisticated man wearing a top hat and overcoat. Through a monocle the dandy is inspecting a common butterfly apparently marveling, “What a curious little creature!”

The people of Nazareth look at Jesus with the same incredulity in the gospel today. They treat him as a curiosity -- an insect of various stripes. For these people Jesus is only the son of Mary and the brother of Jimmy and Joe. They marvel at how he ever learned all that he teaches and betray no sense that he may be a prophet from God.

Even today many people view Jesus as if he were a butterfly. They say that he was a good man, but stop there. They either dismiss his marvelous deeds or bracket them as having no significance for their lives. Similarly they may admire but are reluctant to follow his wisdom. Those with such an attitude will have difficulty realizing the eternal life that Jesus promises.

Homilette for Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 12:1-4; Mark 5:21-43)

The eminent psychologist Carl Rogers purportedly gave the banal but nevertheless insightful statistic, “One out of every one of us is hurting.” No one escapes suffering. Not only the poor and the sick need care. Conquerors of nations are sometimes insecure men. And utterly beautiful women can worry if they are attractive.

Because pain pollutes the world like jet fuel the atmosphere of an airport, crowds besiege Jesus in the gospel today. Could he heal a sick child? Could he stop the chronic hemorrhaging of an impoverished woman? No doubt he has a hundred similar requests as he steps across the sand. What would we add if we were there? Could he lift my depression? Could he heal my aunt’s cancer?

Jesus generally takes note of our faith and grants our requests. At some point, however, he will have us stretch our faith into eternity. Someday we will succumb to our suffering and die. Then we will await his voice, “Little girl, arise” or “Little boy, arise.” And just like the twelve-year-old in the gospel, we will arise to a new world. We will be finally freed from all hurt because Jesus will be fully present to us.