Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rejoice! Here is Your Instruction Booklet

I'm preparing to celebrate Mass this evening at the Newman Center for the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.  Here's part of what I'll say:

In the first reading (Nehemiah 8:2-10) the people of Israel weep as they hear the Law of God proclaimed.  Why?  One reason is that they have just returned to the Promised Land from exile. They weep for joy to be back in their homeland where God's Law can be read publicly.  But they also weep with sorrow, realizing that the reason for the disasters that befell them were the result of not following the Law they are hearing proclaimed.  They and their ancestors had forgotten God and His Law.  And God honored their choice to follow a different path which ended in disaster. 

The reality is that God made humanity with a plan.  To follow that plan leads to happiness; to reject that plan leads to unhappiness.  It's as simple as that. 

Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that God's commandments were not something that were imposed on us from above, but rather were built right into our nature.  They are the instruction booklet that comes with every human being at birth. 

Thus Ezra, in the first reading, tells the people to rejoice because they have found the instructions that had been lost and they will now know what to do. 

Even then, the temptation to think we know better than God is always there.  We want to change nature and create our own law.  We want to ignore reality, the way God created the world, and be our own gods.  In a recent meeting in the Vatican Pope Benedict called this "technological Prometheanism" and said: "This is a radical denial of the nature of the creature and child in man, which ends in tragic loneliness." 

Jesus came as the obedient Son of the Father who, as Paul wrote, "did not deem equality with God something to be grasped" (Philippians 2:6). This is good news.  Jesus comes as the Living Law of God who not only invites us to follow Him to eternal happiness but also empowers us to follow Him. How?  Through the Eucharist we celebrate. Jesus gives Himself to us.  In union with Him we now have the ability to follow the Law of God, the path that leads to happiness. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Wedding Feast

I'm giving a parish mission at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Odessa, Texas. The focus is on the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the parish bought two cases of my book A Heart on Fire: Rediscovering Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These copies were available after all the Masses and after my first talk last night and I'm happy to report that the parish sold all but 6 of the books.  As always, I preached at all the Masses this weekend and here is a summary of my homily:
This is my first time in West Texas and I always like to get a "feel" for new places so as I was getting ready for Mass on Saturday evening I asked the ushers what professional football team the people of Odessa support.  I was thinking it would be the Houston Texans but I found out it was the Dallas Cowboys.  That caused a little concern because I was born and raised in Wisconsin and my Green Bay Packers have somewhat of a rivalry with the Cowboys.  But this year we can both commiserate. Neither of our teams will be in the Super Bowl. 

Though our teams won't be playing, I suspect most of you will still be watching. Are you getting your menu of appetizers ready?  How about the list of people that you'll be inviting to your Super Bowl party?  Now, here's a question: if you could, if it were possible, would you invite Jesus? 

I imagine some of you are thinking: "Jesus? Well, I don't know. I have to be honest: I'm sort of afraid of Him. You know, most pictures of Him don't show Him laughing or smiling, and the Gospel stories don't really show that either.  I don't know if it be much fun having Jesus at my Super Bowl party."

And then maybe some of you are thinking: "Wait a minute!  Remember what Jesus did at Cana?!"

Isn't it interesting that the first miracle of Jesus that we find in John's Gospel is not a healing but water being changed into wine.  In today's Gospel (John 2:1-11) this is called the first of Jesus' "signs."  A sign points to something and the miraculous signs of Jesus point to His divine power, to His glory.  Jesus chose to show His divine power for the first time, according to John, by providing something that would bring pleasure and joy to a party.

The marriage celebrations at the time of Jesus were long affairs. Because travel was dangerous and expensive, instead of going away on a honeymoon, the newly married couple stayed home with their family and friends for a week long celebration. They were treated like royalty and were even given crowns to wear. The women would have been at work behind the scenes preparing the food for the couple and their guests. So it's no surprise that Mary became aware of the fact that the celebration was running out of wine.  She goes to Jesus to make him aware.

Jesus' response to her is curious.  He calls her "Woman."  At first this may seem derogatory, but in the context of faith, it's a reminder of how in the book of Genesis Adam referred to Eve as the "woman" for she had come forth from her man.  We recall that Eve, as "Woman," is representative of all women.  In John's Gospel, Jesus refered to His mother as "Woman" in one other place.  As He hung dying on the cross, He saw His mother Mary and His closest friend John standing there.  He told Mary, "Woman, behold your son," referring not to Himself but to John.  He gave Mary into the care of this apostle and in telling him, "Behold your mother," we hear Jesus giving us Mary to be our mother. 

The reason Jesus gave for not immediately sharing Mary's concern about the lack of wine is that His "hour has not yet come."  By this He meant not only the hour or time for Him to reveal His power to work miracles, but the hour of His suffering, death, and resurrection.  This was His "hour," the hour when He triumphed over sin and death.  And by working a miracle that would capture people's attention, Jesus would set in motion the events that would ultimately lead to that "hour."  So it seems Jesus hesitates.

But Jesus is the Sinless Son of God who is also the Son of Mary.  He is obedient to the commandments and follows what has traditionally been called the 4th Commandment--"Honor your father and your mother."  He honors His mother by responding to her hint.  He obeys her wish that He do something to help the newly married couple about to be embarrassed.

This is why we Catholics honor Mary.  We imitate Jesus who honored and obeyed His mother.  We know that as she interceded for the couple at Cana, she will also intercede for us with her Son.  We can confidently approach her with our needs and then hear her tell us "Do whatever he tells you." 

And so, after Mary's intercession, Jesus works His first sign or miracle.  He changes water into wine.

In a few minutes an even greater miracle will take place on this altar.  Water will not become wine but wine will become the Precious Blood of Jesus. Bread will become His Body. Why? Why does the Lord do this through those words of His that the priest will pronounce over the bread and wine? 

The answer can be found in our first reading (Isaiah 62:1-5).  The prophet writes: "The Lord delights in you."  When you delight in another you want to be around them, you want to be with them.  The Lord delights in us and wants to be here with us.  But even more: when you truly and deeply love another, you don't just want to be around them.  You want to be one with them.  Again, in the words of Isaiah: "As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you."  Our "Builder" is our Creator, our God.  God wants not only to be with us but to be one with us.  We are made for union with God and that union begins here and now when the Lord comes to us in Holy Communion.  "Com--union."  A union with.

The Eucharist is the beginning of the Heavenly Wedding Feast.  It's the beginning of the celebration which will reach it's finale, its culmination, in heaven when, in the words of St. Paul, God will be all in all (Ephesians 1:10).  Now that will be one super party that will make our earthly parties seem like nothing.    

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The first reading at Mass today has one of my favorite passages from the Letter to the Hebrews. It's from the last verse of chapter 2 and goes like this: "Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested."  Another translation uses the word "tempted" instead of "tested."  It's consoling to know that Jesus was tempted by the devil.  Though we know that from the Gospel stories of His temptations in the desert, we tend to think that Jesus could not have been tempted the way we are.  Yet, a couple chapters later in Hebrews we read: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (4:15).  In other words, Jesus was tempted "in every way" that we are but did not sin.

The temptations we experience are certainly related to "concupiscence" (a tendency toward sin), one of the effects of Original Sin that remains after Baptism.  But the fact that Jesus, the Sinless One and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was tempted shows us that temptation involves more than our inherent tendency toward sin.  What else is involved?

First, we, like Jesus, have enemies who tempt us to get off track, to follow our self-will rather than the will of God.  Today's Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) shows Jesus doing battle with these enemies, driving demons away from people.  In our daily lives we face temptations that come from demons and we must engage them in battle, praying and fasting them away from us.

Secondly, temptations enabled Jesus to be in a position to "sympathize with our weaknesses."  Because He suffered temptation, He was able to be compassionate, to "suffer with" those who are being similarly tempted.

Thirdly, this battle with temptations makes us stronger.  Another verse from Hebrews says that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered" (5:8).  In other words, He grew in the virtue of obedience by exercising it during those times when He was tempted to do His own will rather than the will of the Father. The climax of that painful testing was in a Garden called Gethsemane where He prayed for the cup of His Passion to pass Him by but in the end chose to fulfill the will of the Father perfectly by drinking that bitter cup on the cross. 

More and more I've come to see temptations in this light--as opportunities to grow in particular virtues.  Virtues are like spiritual muscles and just as physical muscles need to be exercised lest they atrophy so too the virtues.  These spiritual muscles will only grow through the exercise that goes with fighting temptations. 

It's a good idea at the end of the day to review the temptations of the day.  What were the opposite virtues in which God was calling you to grow by allowing you to experience those temptations?  Were you impatient?  Then clearly you were given the opportunity to exercise and grow in the virtue of patience.  Were you anxious or worried?  God was giving you the opportunity to exercise faith and trust.  Were you despairing? You were called to practice hope. Were you tempted by lustful thoughts, desiring sexual pleasure for yourself and seeing others as objects for that pleasure rather than as persons made in the image of God? You were being called to grow in a pure heart and the virtue of chastity.  Did resentful thoughts come you way? God wanted you to grow in forgiveness so that you might have a merciful heart like His. 

Looking back on the temptations of the day and seeing them as opportunities to grow in virtues is a good thing to include in the daily examination of conscience or examen or evening review.  It's also a way to exercise your eyes.  Eyes?  Yes, the eyes of faith.  During this Year of Faith it would be a good idea to see all reality--the situation of the wider world and the events of your own day--in light of faith.  That means seeing the enemy who is active in our world and in our lives and seeing the opportunities that are being given to grow in a virtuous life.