Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hail, Kecharitomene! (Immaculate Conception homily)

In what way does this depict the Immaculate Conception? See note below!

There is frequently confusion about what we are celebrating today. 
I am determined to correct this mistake every chance I get.

Pop quiz: whose conception – whose beginning of life – 
are we commemorating today? 
If you answer, “Jesus,” I’m sorry, that’s wrong.
Rather, it’s Mary’s conception; 
it’s Mary who is conceived immaculately, or, without sin.

We mark Jesus’ conception on March 25, 
nine months before Christmas.
Today we recall when Mary was conceived 
in the womb of her mother, Ann. 
Mary’s birthday comes nine months later, September 8.

So, again, the Immaculate Conception is about how Mary began her life. 

The mistake is understandable, 
in part because the Gospel reading 
talks mostly about Jesus being conceived. 
Even so, this Gospel reading is still the right one, 
because it is the place where the Bible 
most clearly points to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. 

First, we have a single, powerful word, in the original Greek: 
kecharitomene. This is the word we translate, “full of grace.”
Biblical scholars like to point out that kecharitomene
is a very unusual word – unique, in fact; 
it appears nowhere else in the Bible 
or even in secular literature of the period. 
That’s because it’s an unusual construction of the Greek verb 
meaning “to grace” or “to favor.”

Let’s notice a couple of things. First, it’s a greeting. 
This isn’t a statement about Mary; 
it’s the name Heaven gives to Mary; it’s who God says she is. 
And it isn’t something she did, but rather, something God did in her. 

So here’s the thing: “full of grace” is true, as far as it goes; 
but it doesn’t actually go far enough. 

Here’s a more literal sense of what the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary:
Hail, You who have been, and now are, 
perfectly, completely, and uniquely graced.
Get that? Mary was, and remains, 
perfectly, completely, and uniquely graced by God.

So here’s why that means Mary was untouched by sin, 
even from her first moment of existence:
Because if she had ever been touched by sin, even for a moment, 
it would not be true that she was “perfectly and completely” graced. For that to be true, she had to be completely free from sin, 
and completely full of grace, as full as full can be!

Then there is another detail in this passage that confirms this. 
Later, Gabriel says, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” 

This is an unusual phrase, used only a few times in Scripture, 
as  when the Glory of God overshadowed the tent of meeting, 
which was where God’s People gathered to worship the Lord. 
Let me quote a part of that:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting,
and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Moses could not enter the tent of meeting,
because the cloud settled down upon it
and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:24-25)

Now, that primarily refers to Jesus being conceived in Mary, 
which, again, we commemorate on March 25. 
But here’s the thing. The tent of meeting, 
before it was filled with God’s Glory, 
was already perfectly prepared. 

In the chapters before this happened, 
God describes in great detail exactly 
how the tent of meeting was to be built 
by the artisans and craftsmen of Israel. 
Remember, Moses was up on the mountain for 40 days and this is why – 
God described everything in exact detail. It had to be perfect. 

So what Gabriel’s words mean is that Mary is that tabernacle, 
first made perfect by the Divine Craftsman, 
in preparation for being “overshadowed by the Most High.”

Here’s a beautiful quote by Blessed John Duns Scotus, 
who played a major role in understanding 
Mary’s conception without sin. He asked:

"Would the God of justice and mercy grant the first Eve, 
who He foreknew would betray Him, a greater glory in her creation 
than He would give the second Eve, 
who He foreknew would be His handmaid forever?"

And, of course, the answer is no!

St. John Chrysostom wrote a hymn about Mary; here are a few lines:

Hail, Kecharitomene, unreaped land of heavenly grain.  
Hail, Kecharitomene, virgin mother, true and unfailing vine.  
…faultless one carrying the immutable divinity.  
…habitation of holy fire. 
…golden urn, containing heavenly manna.  
…spiritual sea who holds Christ, the heavenly pearl.  
Hail, Kecharitomene, pillar of cloud containing God, 
and guiding Israel in the wilderness.

Yes, it can be a little confusing today, but it can’t be helped, 
because Mary’s creation, as the Immaculate Mother, 
is all about her Son. 
She was lovingly created, without any stain, 
in anticipation of the day she would give her loving consent 
to be the Mother of the Messiah.

Today is like a little Christmas.
Today, Mary begins her life, filled with light.
On Christmas, that light dawns into the world.

How does the image above depict the Immaculate Conception? I learned this when I was preparing a presentation for the people of Immaculata Church, in Cincinnati, about the lovely art that graces that church. This image is meant to show Mary's soul, at the instant of its creation.

From the cutting-room floor, some notes I didn't include in my homily, for the sake of brevity:

Contrast between first and second Adam:

1st Adam retreats from evil; 2nd Adam goes into battle against evil in the desert, and again in the garden.

1st Adam says nothing when enemy lies and seduces; 2nd Adam is always silencing demons.

1st Adam shrinks from fear of harm; 2nd Adam accepts the cup of suffering.

1st Adam lets his bride be ruined, and follows her; 2nd Adam sacrifices himself for his bride, and thus purifies her.

This doctrine and this feast is a powerful answer to all who demean women, or who think Christianity demeans women. It is not God, but sinful Adam, who demeans the woman. Notice how, when God confronts Adam about his failure, he doesn’t own up to it, but rather blames God and the woman for the catastrophe.

God puts a woman at the center of the drama of salvation, first in Eve; finally in Mary.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

What is hope? Where is our hope anchored? (Sunday homily)

In the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Roman Church, 
he said that the Scriptures were written for us 
“that we might have hope.”

What is hope?

Elsewhere in this same letter, Saint Paul explained that 
The gaze of hope is fixed on that which lies ahead--
it isn’t something you already have.
That’s why it’s true to say that in heaven, there is no hope!

Sounds strange to say, doesn’t it?
But it’s true: if we make it to heaven, and we have the fullness of life,
the enjoyment of God’s love and beauty and truth--
if we have all that, then at that point, what would we hope for? 
Heaven is the hope!

So: hope looks forward.

But then the question comes to mind:
just what do we fix our hope on?
Is it really true that heaven is what we are hoping for?

I think a lot of folks around us set their hopes a lot lower.
A few years ago, I saw a survey about the British people,
that something like a quarter of them say,
well, there might be a God,
but they don’t think they can know anything about God for sure.

I didn’t find a survey for the U.S.,
But lots of people here think the same thing, don’t they?

So what that means is that if we have
some hope of good after this life,
it ends up being pretty vague.

So let me ask you – is that really hope? 

In the meantime, what we see around us,
what we can obtain here, all that is pretty definite.
So that’s what a lot of people focus on.

Let me give some examples of how we do that.

When we look at what’s on TV, or in the movies, 
or in whatever else we turn to for entertainment: 
how much is about what heaven is like – 
versus, what your next meal, or your next vacation looks like?

How much of our time do we spend with reading or entertainment 
that turns our gaze to what ultimately matters?
How much of our time is about the ephemeral and not the eternal?

Hope is an anchor we cast forward. 
Where have we anchored our hope:
In our job? Our own abilities and plans? 
In political candidates and causes?

Without realizing it, we fix our hopes here, in this world..
We set our sights on finding happiness here.
And the more we do that, do you realize what that means?
We’re people without hope--
because, as Saint Paul said, hope is what we look forward to;
but if we have everything we think we want,
there’s nothing left to hope for.

Pope Francis, in the letter he wrote a few years ago,
called the “Joy of the Gospel,”
talks about the “great danger in today’s world,
pervaded as it is by consumerism,”
which leads to “the desolation and anguish
of a complacent yet covetous heart…

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up
in its own interests and concerns,”
he writes--and with the “pursuit of frivolous pleasures,”
there is no longer “room for others,” for doing good;
and in fact, God’s voice is no longer heard.

This is where celibacy, in Christianity, is unique.
In other religions, it’s about denial.
In Buddhism, the goal is the negation of all desire.
But not in Christianity!

For us, celibacy is about the resurrection.
It’s about expectation--and hope!

If you’re on your way to a great dinner,
You don’t stop and eat on the way.

And therefore, when people see that you passed up
a really splendid, extraordinary dinner,
then that means
what you’re waiting for must be truly awesome!

That’s what it means for a brother, a sister and a priest 
who passes up marriage and family; 
it’s a sign that they’ve cast their anchor all the way to heaven.
Which reminds each of us to do the same in our own lives.

And, speaking of our religious sisters, 
remember them in the second collection next week; 
this is for their retirement fund, which needs bolstering. 

It isn’t for the parish – we have needs too, 
as I explained two weeks ago. 

It isn’t for priests of the archdiocese, 
it isn’t for my retirement; but rather, 
for those sisters and brothers 
who gave everything away to serve Christ. 
Many here were taught by nuns, 
including in Russia School at one time!
This is a way we can repay them.

But to return to the theme of hope, 
I want to say something about eternity.
It’s hard to know what eternal life might be like; 
it’s hard to visualize. 
But let me offer a theory: if we aren’t looking for something,
it’s a lot less likely that we’ll find it. 
Do you think that’s true? 
If we aren’t looking for something, we are far less likely to see it.

If someone told you there was a mineral, a rock, 
in the ground, around here, 
that’s very valuable – it’s needed for computers and medical research – 
and if you could find just small quantities of it, 
you would make a really big profit. 
And if you decided to go into that business, 
what would be the first thing you’d do?

Wouldn’t your first step be to find out 
what that mineral looked like?
In fact, wouldn’t you try to find out 
everything you could about it?

Well, there’s a place called heaven, 
and there’s a Savior named Jesus, 
whose our only sure way to get there. 
So our first step is kind of obvious, isn’t it?

Friday, December 02, 2016

Rorate Mass in Russia

An ancient tradition was revived in Russia, Ohio, this morning, at Saint Remy Church. I offered a Rorate Mass, although it was in the Ordinary Form, rather than the usus antiquor.

What is a Rorate Mass? Here's a nice explanation (pictures at the link):

The Rorate Caeli Mass is a traditional Advent devotion wherein the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Advent is offered just before dawn. In many instances families and individuals travel an hour or more, rising and arriving very early for this stunningly beautiful Mass. The interplay of light and darkness speak to the meaning of Advent and the coming of the Light of the world.

The Mass takes its title, Rorate Caeli, from the first words of the Introit, which are from Isaiah 45:8:

Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant justum, aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem.”

“Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened and bud forth a Saviour.”

The Rorate Mass is lit only by candlelight. Because it is a votive Mass in Mary’s honor, white vestments are worn instead of Advent violet. In the dimly lit setting, priests and faithful prepare to honor the Light of the world, Who is soon to be born, and offer praise to God for the gift of Our Lady. As the Mass proceeds and sunrise approaches, the church becomes progressively brighter, illumined by the sun as our Faith is illumined by Christ.

We didn't need to have Mass at a special time; Mass on first Friday, during the school year, is always at 7 am, so I figured that would work. It was certainly before dawn. I told people ahead of time, of course, and I kept a few lights on in church before Mass. It would have been even nicer to have everyone enter church without lights, but that's a bit impractical.

We did use the proper chants, in English, which you can find here; our music director sang them beautifully, despite a nagging cold. I'm told the altar was lovely, light only with candles; it was striking to see everyone's faces, lit only by candlelight. I'm sorry I didn't think to ask someone to take a photo.

While this was a votive Mass for our Lady, I elected to use the readings of the day; they fit very well.
I pondered using incense, and maybe we'll do that next year; as well as trying it at the high altar (i.e., ad orientem).

Were you there? What did you think?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fulfilled in your presence (Sunday homily)

In the first reading we hear a prophecy of Isaiah: 
all nations shall stream toward “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” 
And perhaps you’re wondering to what that refers.

Well, let’s figure it out.

It refers to the “Lord’s House” – that means the temple. 
And that Temple was built on Mount Zion; 
which is also where the city of Jerusalem is.
It was also on that mountain – in the city of Jerusalem –
that Jesus gathered with his Apostles on the night before he died. 
It was there that he completed his “Mass” 
with his suffering and death on the Cross.

So if you’re wondering how that prophecy is to be fulfilled: 
the answer is in the Holy Mass – what we are doing right now!

Isaiah said that the Word of the Lord would go forth from Zion – 
and it did, especially after the Day of Pentecost;
And that all the nations would stream to the Lord’s House –
And that, too, has happened; the Holy Mass 
is offered throughout the world, 
in every language and nation and tongue, 
even in places where it is extremely dangerous to worship Christ.

So it is wonderful to consider that this passage has been, 
and is being, fulfilled, even as we gather here for Holy Mass!

 Now, the emphasis in the Gospel is on watchfulness 
for the coming of Jesus.
But let’s not misunderstand that. 
Many people talk about Jesus’ coming, 
as if he’s now absent from the world. 
They’ll say, “he’s coming back – as if, he’s not here.
But Jesus IS here, and has been, 
ever since he was conceived in the womb of Mary!

When we talk about Jesus’ coming again, 
it might be better to think of it as his coming in full; 
his complete coming.
Pope Benedict made this point one time, 
when he explained that Jesus is constantly “coming” into the world, 
and what we will witness at the end of time 
is the completion of  his coming 

Jesus “comes” every time we mention his name – 
which is why it’s a praiseworthy custom 
to bow our heads at the name of Jesus.
Jesus “comes” when his people gather to pray; remember what he said: 
“wherever two or three gather in my name, 
there am I in the midst of you.”

Jesus “comes” when we proclaim the Gospel – 
which is why we stand for that reading, while sitting for the others.

Jesus “comes” whenever someone is baptized, 
someone receives absolution in confession, and in all the sacraments.
And, of course, he “comes” in such a wonderful way 
when the Holy Mass is offered, 
and he himself makes present his sacrifice at the altar.
So, realize, that what the Gospel promises 
is likewise fulfilled right here, before your eyes!

Yes, there is a complete fulfillment yet ahead, 
and we don’t know when that will happen.
But there is a way that you and I can live, 
so that we need not worry about it.

Every day we live, eager to speak his name, 
eager to see him, eager to hear him speak to us.
If you’re looking at the materials on prayer on, 
you heard Dr. Tim Gray talk about prayer as a conversation with God, 
who speaks to us in the Scriptures.

We don’t have to wait to hear Jesus or to see him.
He’s here, speaking to us, giving himself to us.
Seek him in confession. Seek him in Scripture. Seek him in silence.
Seek him in the Holy Mass.
Then, there will never be an hour we are not ready.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

'We have here no lasting city...' (Sunday homily)

I was reading an article this weekend by Father James Schall, commenting on the election last week. His summary of his own article was, "We have here no lasting city." That is also a good summary of today's Gospel.

Why did Jesus say about the Temple, "there will not be one stone left on another"? To scare people? No; rather, to make the same point as Father Schall: in this world, we have no lasting city.

For the people listening to Jesus, the destruction of the Temple was a horrible thought -- the end of the world. And when it happened 40 years later, it was pretty horrible. Scholars debate whether the rest of what Christ said in this passage was about events then, or at the end of time, but we needn't worry about that. The answer is both. Christians today are facing the same persecution as the early Church, which this Gospel describes well.

Now, this time last week, I think a lot of us were dreading this election. We had a pretty strong turnout for Monday night's prayer vigil, to pray for the nation and the election. And I know many think the results are the answer to our prayers. They may well be, but only time will tell. You and I have high hopes for President-elect Trump, but we had better keep praying hard. If the Gospel has one clear point, it is that what seems so solid is not solid at all.

Only one thing is truly solid, and that is Christ himself!

Now, I want to call your attention to the first reading. Did you notice the two ways it talks about fire? For the "proud" and "evil doers," it is fire that punishes; it "consumes" them. What does that sound like? It sounds like hell to me.

But for those who fear God's Name? It is a sun of righteousness with "healing rays." Healing? What does that sound like? Sounds like purgatory to me.

Yet it is the same fire; the fire of God's truth and love.

Think about that. God is the same. God is good to all. His mercy is readily available, even at the last moment, as with St. Dismas, the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus. Yet, on the other side was another thief, who did not seek mercy. What was different? Same Jesus; same mercy; same peril for the two thieves.

Beware the sin of presumption! People think, "Oh, I can sin now, God will forgive me later." But that assumes something: that you will ask later. The reason the fire consumes the evil doers is that they were proud; they refused to ask.

The same fire that heals those open to God, will torment those whose hearts are closed.

This is a good time to remind you of our prayer project for Advent. Deepening our prayer is how we root ourselves in the one thing that is solid, Jesus Christ. The cards are in the pews, with how to sign up; it's free, no obligation, you can view the material online. This weekend will be the last time the cards are in the pews. Even if you don't want to join a group, we'd be grateful if you filled out the card, because that way we know people are taking advantage of this. This program costs money -- not a lot, but something -- and we want to know that it's worthwhile.

To circle back to where we began: in this world, we have no lasting city. But we do have a lasting hope: Jesus Christ! may he be praised, now and forever, amen!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reacting to Trump

When I turned on the TV Tuesday evening, my plan was as follows:

- If Secretary Clinton is winning, watch Fox;
- If Donald Trump is winning, watch MSNBC.

That way, I figured, I would avoid any gloating, and perhaps indulge in a little schadenfreude (not too much). Well, as you can guess, I started with Brett Baier, and ended up listening to Rachel Maddow's gasps and groans. 

As my readers know, I wasn't for either of them; I wanted them both to lose. Not impossible, but admittedly, unlikely. So on Wednesday, I told folks I got half of what I wanted. I'm not celebrating Mr. Trump's win, but I am unabashedly celebrating Secretary Clinton's loss.

Apart from the profound problems with Mr. Trump, which remain (and will manifest themselves before long, I suspect), there was a lot for conservative and prolife folks to celebrate in Tuesday's results, in the races for Congress and state offices. I am elated by the success of the pro-Right to Work candidate for governor in Missouri, making it likely to become the 27th Right to Work state; and developments in Kentucky and New Hampshire move them closer to being numbers 28 and 29 in the next few years.

It's not all good news for conservatives and pro lifers, however. The success of the GOP makes it more likely that many of them will fail to learn the right lessons, just as Mr. Trump's success may well be attributed to the wrong things. A lot of folks are either celebrating, or dreading, the sudden uncorking of right wing policies and laws. Brace for disappointment. I'm not saying nothing will happen, but I am saying it won't be what you expect. On pro life, for example, it's going to be a lot harder than you may think. The right move is the Life at Conception Act, which would declare unborn children persons under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and thereby overturn Roe v. Wade. Mr. Trump, along with lots of GOP Representatives and Senators, said they favor it. But it will be a tough fight just to get it on the floor. Similarly for lots of other things conservatives would expect and liberals loathe.

Meanwhile, I'm just soaking in all the reactions from folks on the left, including many people close to me. While I admit I indulged in some schadenfreude (look it up!) in watching or reading the news coverage, I don't wish to take any pleasure in any actual suffering; so with Facebook friends, who really are describing their feelings in the bleakest terms, I am not gloating or taunting. After all, I partly agree with them. But, given my desire for them both to lose, I'd already come to terms with my disappointment weeks ago.

These are my reactions to the weeping and gnashing of teeth on the left:

- This is what losing in the cultural war feels like. You haven't experienced much of it, so you're not used to it.

- Obama led to Trump; just as Bush led to Obama. You might do well to reflect deeply on that.

- Is limiting the power of the federal government, and of the presidency, sounding good to you? Great, welcome to the club!

- You're kidding yourself in a big way if you just want to explain all this as a sudden surge of racism, sexism, "homophobia" and hate, etc. It may make you feel better, but it doesn't match the facts.

- If you're wondering how, HOW people could vote for Trump, just entertain, as a thought-experiment, that it wasn't because they are haters or stupid; and if you like, keep your assumption that Trump is horrible-terrible. Now, with these new assumptions, can you figure out what the decision of so many to vote for Trump says? Hint: if you face the devil and the deep blue sea, what do you do?