5th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.
– I Cor. 9:16

What is the value of one soul? We can easily discover what the value of most material things is, but how do we come to understand the true or objective value of a single soul? The seller and buyer basically determine the value of material things through negotiation, whether it’s the value of a house, or a car, or a lamp or most any other material thing, there is some kind of market value or price. An artist sets his value for the work of art, but the collector has a role as well. But there really is no “market value” when it comes to souls, so how do we learn their value?

The true value of every single human soul can only be found in one place, in the heart and mind of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of every single human soul. Jesus purchased every single created soul, but He purchased them not for his own ownership, but to restore their dignity and freedom to the same persons they belong to by natural right, but in fact were “enslaved / possessed” by another master because of sin. The value of each and every soul is beyond human determination, beyond any value system proper to this world. For we see that the creator of this universe valued each and every soul, individually, with the infinite measure of his love, and he was determined to pay the ultimate price to redeem each soul and every soul, the price of his own life, a life infinitely valuable to the one true measure of anything’s worth, the Father who is the origin of all that exists. That was the true measure of the soul’s worth and nothing else.

So the true measure of anyone’s soul, of my soul, your soul, is God’s creative love, and that love poured out in the Incarnate Son who gave his life, as St. Paul says, for me: “ I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20). Christ died for all, to redeem all, but not simply as a collectivity, but for each of us, to redeem my soul to be mine again, and your soul to be yours once more, and so on. And Christian faith has always believed that if only one soul were in need of redemption, He would have paid the same price as he paid for all, his life, indivisible and of infinite value to the Father because of who Jesus is, his only-beloved Son.

This truth about the objective, God-determined value of every single soul, and that means of every single person as the subject of the soul, is what drove St. Paul and the other Apostles to spend himself preaching the Gospel: he says, “I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible … to save at least some.” So valuable is a single soul that Paul will spend his very life, in imitation of Jesus, to save even one soul. He hopes to same many, but that is going to be determined by God’s grace interacting with human freedom. Paul’s task is to bring the Gospel to men so that have an opening to that interaction with God in a human way, concretely, in the world of man.

Likewise, the value of one soul, and every soul, explains why Jesus does not allow the crowds to turn his mission into that of a miracle worker or earthly ruler. His purpose has to do with the salvation of souls which begins with the preaching of the Gospel: “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” (Mk 1:38) Jesus has come to raise dead souls to life, to heal wounded souls, to be the redeemer of man, which begins with redemption of the souls of men by his preaching and is accomplished by his death and resurrection. Healing man’s body is a great mercy, but it does not compare with the healing of man’s soul. The spiritual soul has a value that cannot be measured in any way; the body is of great value itself, but is of transcendent value only when united with a free soul enlivened by God’s life.

We can learn two great truths for our lives from all this. First, we can learn that the spiritual order of things is always of a higher and more transcendent value than the material order of things. Secondly, we can learn the value that God has placed on each of us by redeeming our souls, and ultimately our bodies as well, since we will not be resurrected souls in His final Kingdom, but resurrected men. Thus, if we learn to value ourselves as God does, and by God’s measuring stick, why he values us so much, surely we will never doubt our true personal worth, and we will never decide to live as if we were only material creatures with no destiny beyond this world. By God’s Grace, we will struggle to always live what we are: God’s children, purchased at such a great price.

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

Some years ago a parishioner wrote to me about a Christian sect which had started up back in 1916 in England which had chosen the name Liberal Catholic Church. There is an American branch and in its literature it is said to be growing, but they seem to have only 14 small parishes in the whole country. This new schismatic sect describes itself as an open church that invites everyone to receive its sacraments regardless of their beliefs: This is quoted directly from their own literature:

The Liberal Catholic Church came into being in order that people who insist upon complete freedom of belief in their search for truth could have free access to the traditional Catholic Sacraments without having to give even lip service to creeds or dogmas to which they could, not honestly and wholeheartedly subscribe.

The parishioner wryly commented that she thought this was a religion tailor made for the me generation and folks who wanted to feel good about themselves without any obligations, even to God. Of course these new religious movements are anything but new – scepticism is a religion as old as western civilization. Religious scepticism can be found in ancient Greece, and its modern offspring is found in the Modernist religious notions of a century ago.

But religions without dogma seem a bit disingenuous when they say you don’t even have to “pay lip service” to any creeds to be a member or to receive their sacraments. I wonder how well received a member would be who started spouting beliefs like the Klan, say a belief that Jews were less than human, or that homosexuals were worse than animals. I mean how do you remain “open” and exclude people with those beliefs. Such an open attitude can only be sustained if we believe that truth is what each person thinks it is; so how do you exclude any belief from your open Church? It’s a problem.

Perhaps they would say that you don’t have to believe anything, but you can’t believe things that are opposed to what the leadership expresses in its own statement of doctrine, which is very brief, and which is not binding on anyone, and thus they avoid the term creed. In their statement of the leaders’ beliefs, number 6 states simply “Man has ethical duties to himself and to others” and then quotes the two-fold commandment of love. That’s it; that’s their ethical content in a sentence. The rest is left up to you.

So what does love of neighbor really entail? That’s up to each member to decide. So, if one decides that love of neighbor means having relations with the Bishop’s wife, what’s wrong with that? Or if love of neighbor means not wanting people to suffer, what’s wrong with killing a neighbor who is suffering, or is making me suffer? How far does one have to go down this line of reasoning to discover that in the real world love of neighbor cannot exist in any group without certain moral doctrines or convictions being held in common, and that the principle that this religion’s members can believe whatever they choose is simply an appeal to the anti-authoritarian attitude of so many people today when it comes to religion. Every religion, even this non-dogmatic, open sect, will in the end have some bottom line when it comes to required beliefs, a kind of basic orthodoxy demanded of all, for without some commonly held beliefs life in common is impossible, and authentic love an illusion.

Moreover, I don’t see how Jesus could possibly be at home in this religion which claims his name and authority for getting rid of any requirement of dogmatic belief. This new Catholicism even claims that Jesus never thought other religions had false doctrines, he was an “open” teacher, and one of its leaders’ stated beliefs is that in the end every man will be saved, because from the beginning every man has had the divine spark in him. Man is God without Jesus and God is not really man in Jesus, who’s just the best exemplar of the divine spark in every man.

But the real Jesus whom we heard in today’s Gospel was no relativist when it came to truth or doctrine. He was, as the people then said, a teacher who spoke with true, and we might add absolute, authority when it came to his message. Search the Gospels -you will look in vain for a Jesus who in any way qualifies his teachings by expressions like, “or so it seems to me” or “but that’s just my opinion” or “you may see it another way.” There are simply no such qualifications to be found. Jesus says simply this is the way it is. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, he even corrects the religion of Israel, his own inherited religious tradition: “You have heard it said,” such and such … ” but I tell you….”

There is no room for maneuvering here. You either believe Him or you don’t, follow him or walk away. Love Him, or end up despising Him.

What other great figure in religion said things like Jesus did with such absolute authority? That is what astounds the people who heard him then – he speaks with a real authority, and does not equivocate like the scribes of Israel, and that is what troubles the sceptics today. Note how the people of his own day first describe his preaching: “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” But we must ask, whose authority? God’s absolute authority, for only God can claim such absoluteness. That’s who the people recognized behind this new teaching, and they were “astounded!”

Just think about it, who but Jesus ever called himself the Truth? Who ever claimed that his teachings were Truth itself, and would, if they were followed with true faith, set the believer free, free from sin and free from falsehoods that enslave? These claims did not sit well with many then, and they do not sit well with anyone who thinks that truth does not matter when it comes to religious practice.

Now Jesus does proclaim a doctrine of universal love as the basis of true religion. And certainly Jesus loved all mankind and died even for those who would not believe him, as well as those who would. But the love that Jesus taught, lived and commanded us to live, is not a love which denies the importance of truth. For if that were possible, it would have denied the importance of his own person and mission -for Jesus, recall, claimed to be the Truth. Man cannot love his neighbor, in the way that God loves, and in the way that Jesus commands us to love, without also loving Truth. Without the love of truth, “love” of neighbor becomes very uncertain, and can lead to the death camp as surely as hate can lead to the killing fields. Without the love of truth to complement and support the love of neighbor, the lover can become as much of a threat to the beloved as someone who hates that person.

In reality, Jesus taught a whole world of truths concerning the origin, nature, destiny and value of every human person, and it is this universe of truth about my neighbor that makes possible loving every neighbor as Jesus commanded, even the enemy, or the one who hates us. Jesus and his doctrine remains that rock for us always, for He is indeed the way, the truth and the life for man. He is the answer to man’s deepest questions, in this age, and every other age. But those who have never heard his message need to glimpse its absolute truth, its divine authority, and they can do so perhaps only in the way we base our lives upon its absoluteness. Indeed, the crowds today, blinded by such deep scepticism, will not likely see the real truth of His teaching unless we believers live it ourselves, in all its absolute demands, and thus bear witness to its divine authority. That is real love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus taught it and lived it, and we must do the same today.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

January 22, 2012
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

Today, is the 39th anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court’s decision
in Roe v. Wade, establishing the right to abortion in our country.
To me, that day seems to be the most terrible day in American History,
as since then over 3000 innocent Americans have been killed every day
by abortions,
over 1.3 million a year, for a total of over 50 million dead since 1973.

But even as horrible as that death toll is,
we can’t forget that Roe v. Wade had other consequences as well
—consequences that slowly but surely have been eating away
at the moral and legal fiber of our nation and culture.

Of course, we cannot forget the consequence of
abortion’s devastating effect on women.
Especially the women who have been lied to and told,
“it’s okay, it’s just a formless clump of cells.”
But deep inside they know, or come to know as years pass,
the truth of what they’ve done.
These are the 2nd victims of abortion, but they are ignored and ridiculed
for expressing their pain and feelings of guilt.
We must not forget them, and we must do everything we can to help them heal,
and to make sure that the evil of abortion
will not continue to plague future generations of women.

But the consequences of Roe/Wade go beyond even that.
Because the Court’s decision to establish a constitutional right to abortion
has been like a virus injected into the body politic
slowly destroying every other constitutional right,
and the freedom that is the life’s blood of our great nation.

You see, there can not be any human rights
if human beings don’t have a right to life.
If you’re not alive, you have no rights at all.
What good is the right to vote, or freedom of speech
if someone else has the right to kill you before you can vote or speak?

This is why, in 1776 when Virginian Thomas Jefferson
wrote the Declaration of Independence
the only rights he felt it necessary to list were the most fundamental:
“the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
—with the right to life being first.

Now, some point out that 15 Years later,
when fellow Virginian James Madison spearheaded
the ratification of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution,
it made no mention of a specific right to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness.
But that was because those rights were so well established already
—in so many places, including the Declaration of Independence—
that they were presumed as the foundation of the Bill of Rights.
Does anyone honestly think the founders changed their minds
between 1776 and 1791?
“Well, we need to protect the right to a speedy trial,
but forget the right to not to be killed.”

Now, some of you may be saying, Father,
this is supposed to be a Catholic homily, not in a U.S. government lesson.
True enough.
So let’s focus on Catholic moral teaching.
And that is this:
no government on earth has the right to deny
the fundamental human right to life.
And if they do deny the right to life,
they deny every other human right that flows from being alive.

Hmmm…
It seems that sometimes Catholic morals and government laws overlap.
And necessarily so.

“Careful Father, remember the separation of Church and state.”
Okay, let’s remember the separation of Church and state.
And let’s begin by considering what Pope Benedict said in Rome
just this past Thursday
to a group of American bishops, including Bishop Loverde:
“The legitimate separation of Church and State
cannot be taken to mean
that the Church must be silent on certain issues….”
Now, when most of us think of the separation between church and state
most of us think of the Bill of Rights.
So I guess I have to go back to the constitution again.
Here’s what it says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Notice, it does not say anything about
the church, or priests, keeping out of the affairs of the state;
it’s not about protecting the government from the church,
but protecting the individual’s right
to belong to the religion he or she chooses
and to practice that religion freely
—it’s a protection of the individual and religion from the government.

Most people never notice, that among all the rights listed in the Constitution,
this right to freely choose and practice our religion
is THE VERY FIRST RIGHT mentioned,
in the very first words of the very First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
And this no accident.
In 1776, just a few months before Jefferson wrote
the U.S. Declaration of Independence,
George Mason and James Madison
wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
And while Mason was its primary author,
Madison’s contribution was the article on freedom of religion,
which Mason put as the very last right in the long list.
But 11 years later when Madison proposed the U.S. Bill of Rights in 1791,
he deliberately moved it from last to first.

And rightly so.
Because the freedom of religion is essential to the freedom of thought,
the freedom to decide for oneself what one believes
to be true, right and good.
How can we defend any rights if we don’t have that right.
And how can we defend any rights as being given to us from God himself,
as the Declaration of Independence states,
unless we have a right to believe in God as we sees fit.

But as I said earlier, without the right to life,
there are no other rights, no liberties.
So that when someone embraces a theory of man and society
that rejects the right to life,
that system of thought makes all other rights and liberties
not fundamental, natural or God-given,
but simply invented by political expediency and political power.
And when those in power find that the exercise of a certain right or freedom
is not politically expedient to their political agenda,
they will dismiss that “freedom” or “right,”
just as quickly as they dismiss the right of an innocent unborn baby to live.

All this brings us to something that happened on just 2 days ago,
as the news reported that our president,
who has notoriously rejected the right to life of unborn babies,
called Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan,
Archbishop of New York
and President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,
to give him some very bad news.
That is, that federal regulations related to his new health care plan
will definitely require the Catholic Church in America
to pay for health care insurance, for the vast majority of its employees,
that will cover contraception – including drugs that cause abortion –
and sterilization.
A few Catholic entities like parishes, the bishop’s curia,
and maybe Catholic elementary and high schools
will be exempt.
But not Catholic colleges, or hospitals,
and not Catholic Charities,
or virtually any other Catholic group or institution.

Any Catholic knows, and any politician who’s breathing knows,
that this law is repugnant to the moral teachings of Catholicism.
And yet the president will attempt—attempt—to force us to comply,
and so has directly and willfully
dismissed our constitutional and human right to freedom of religion.

And this just a week after the Supreme Court unanimously held
that the first amendment broadly prohibits the government
from interfering in the hiring practices of churches.
The court ruled:
“The present case….concerns government interference
with an internal church decision
that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

I’m no lawyer, and this regulation isn’t about hiring anyone,
but who in their right mind would argue
that hospitals and colleges and assisting the poor
are not part of “the mission of the church itself”?

Apparently the president and his administration would.

Of course the administration will deny this.
They’ll say, as they have over and over again, that they completely support
the “freedom to worship.”
But the thing is, as Pope Benedict told the Bishops on Thursday,
we can’t allow governments to
“reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship…”
“Worship” is not what the 1st amendment is about
—worship is going to Mass,
and the administration doesn’t have a problem with that:
“just go pray and leave us alone.”
But exercise of religion is actually practicing the tenets,
putting faith into action.
In other words, the work of Catholic hospitals, charities etc.
—the very organizations the administration is attacking.

Is this intended as a direct assault on the Catholic Church?
Was it aimed to punish the Bishops and faithful Catholics
for their opposition to abortion
—especially as it comes out just 2 days before
the anniversary of Roe v Wade?
Or is it retribution for our defiance of the administration’s relentless promotion
of the gay agenda and sexual promiscuity?
You may disagree, but at the very least it looks awfully suspicious.

In any case, just as they tossed out the most fundamental right to life,
now they have thrown out the first right that flows from it.
And if they can so easily cast aside
the first right recognized in the First Amendment,
what will keep them from ignoring the rest of the rights
listed in the First Amendment.
You know, little things like:
“freedom of speech,
“[freedom] of the press,”
“the right …[to] peaceably …assemble,”
“and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

And if they can make Catholics pay for contraception and abortifacient pills,
what else can they make us pay for?
Direct surgical abortions?
Can they make priests officiate at gay marriages
—or prohibit us from doing any weddings
if we refuse to do “gay weddings”?
You might think it’s a stretch,
but according the reasoning of the Supreme Court,
the constitutional right to contraception
was the basis for both the right to abortion
and the right to sodomy.
Once you ignore the natural rights of man,
and replace them with their opposites,
then anything is possible.

And this new regulation is living proof.

I know some of you may be very angry with me right now,
but I cannot be silence.
As Pope Benedict, again, just this last Thursday, told us:
“…[I]t is imperative
that the entire Catholic community in the United States
come to realize the grave threats
to the Church’s public moral witness
presented by a radical secularism
which finds increasing expression in the political …spheres…
Of particular concern are …attempts being made
to limit …the freedom of religion.….
[and] to deny the right of conscientious objection…”

I am also sure that some of you aren’t agree with me, but at the government.
But at the same time you may feel helpless.

But you can’t think that way.
Because there are many ways we can effect change:
we can exercise our first amendment rights
of free speech to tell to our neighbors
the truth about what’s going on.
And tomorrow, 10s, even 100s of thousands
will gather on the Mall in Washington at the March for Life,
exercising our 1st amendment rights to
“peaceably …assemble, and to petition the Government
for a redress of grievances.”
And in November we can exercise our right to vote
to elect congressmen and senators and a president
who will defend our God given rights.

We can never give up hope.
In today’s first reading we read how even
the depraved ancient city of Nineveh
repented and reformed when confronted by the prophet Jonah.
And as Jesus says elsewhere: “but you have one greater that Jonah here.”

We do have one greater than Jonah: we have Jesus himself.
And by the grace of Jesus Christ our country can change.
And like the apostles Peter, Andrew, John, and James,
Jesus calls out to us today to help him bring that change about.
He says “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
He calls us to join him as he casts his net to draw all hearts and minds
from the dark confusion of the sea of lies,
into the light of His truth.

This week, as we remember Roe/Wade and that dark day exactly 39 years ago
let us also remember that by the grace of Jesus Christ,
oppression and lies can be overcome by truth and faith.
And let us freely accept the call of our Catholic religion,
boldly defending the unborn and their mothers,
and the freedom to worship the God who gives us
the right to life,
and all the other wonderful rights that flow from it.

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

Sermon on Religious Freedom

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
-Jonah 3: 10

Today’s first reading from the Book of Jonah concerning the conversion of Nineveh is especially appropriate on this Sunday, January 22, which is the 39th anniversary of an event that radically transformed this country, the decision of the Supreme Court that for the first time legalized the killing of the unborn in this country as a whole. Like Nineveh, which was judged by God to be a wicked city, our society has taken the path of evil in the sight of God, and we too are in desperate need of conversion. As with Jonah, the prophetic voice of the church has been enlisted by God to preach an unpopular message, that the killing must stop and the country must undergo of a deep conversion of heart and soul. But the response of American society has not yet been the positive response that Jonah received from that ancient pagan nation, who undertook penance for their sins and actually turned from their evil ways. But hopefully we are making some progress, as the polls tell us that more and more Americans are turning against abortion to one degree or another.

Unfortunately, this is not true for the powers that be, and the Catholic Church is facing a most determined adversary in the US government officials who do the work of the abortion/birth control industry, with the latest assault coming from the Department of Health and Human Services. Friday HHS has formally issued a new regulation that directly attacks the religious liberty of religious institutions and individuals. This new threat was addressed at the US Bishops’ annual meeting last November, and they issued a strong condemnation of the then proposed regulations, now confirmed regulations, connected with what has been called Obama-care, regulations that would force religious institutions to provide health insurance that gives free coverage for benefits opposed to Catholic teaching on the natural law. HHS has now notified the Church, on this weekend of her protest against abortion, surely no accident in that intimidating timing, that many if not most of her religious institutions must fund insurance plans for their employees that cover sterilization procedures, birth control pills, and morning-after pills that can act as an abortifacient. Planned Parenthood and the whole pro-abortion family planning world is in jubilation. Their dream to force the Catholic Church to fund birth control is now in place, and there is no reason by the logic of this rule why they will not take the next step and force her to fund abortions.

While the new regulations do have a religious exemption clause, it is written so deliberately narrow that it would not cover most Catholic institutions, like Catholic hospitals, universities, high schools and grade schools, Catholic Charities, etc. The logic of the HHS regulation is that because these kinds of institutions serve a broader purpose than simply religious instruction or worship, and because they serve a broader public than Catholics alone, they will not qualify for the exemption. Indeed, The pro-abortion / pro birth control lobbies, like NOW, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood and others, as well as the drug companies that make billions on birth control, are already pressuring the government to allow no exceptions whatsoever.

The Catholic Church cannot yield to this violation of her own institutional religious liberty and to the violation of the consciences of her faithful, those millions of Catholics who still remain faithful to her dogmatic and moral teachings. Thus, the most serious confrontation between church and state in the history of this country is about to unfold. Archbishop Dolan, President of the Bishops Conference, yesterday, in obvious dismay at this in-your-face announcement just before the March For Life on Monday, warned that “The Obama administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand.”

The bishops were generally in favor of a national health care bill until the bill was passed without a key amendment guaranteeing the religious liberty of the Church’s institutions. Since passage, which they opposed due to the lack of that freedom amendment, have been in favor simply of amending the bill as it stands to provide that exemption. Now the most pro-abortion administration in our history has responded with this in-your-face radical regulation that denies the broad exemption and would thus force the Church to provide coverage, as of this coming August, for these immoral procedures for most of her employees. And who can doubt that coverage of abortion procedures will not be far behind if the administration gets away with this attack on religious liberty?

We Catholics have been peaceful opponents of the laws that have enabled the destruction of 50 million human lives over these 39 years, according to the pro-abortion lobby’s own data. We have been peaceful opponents even when we have seen our taxes used by our government to promote abortion in our foreign aid programs, something that has grown under Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State. Now another governmental department would take away our religious freedom and freedom of conscience to advance the most radical increase of government intrusion into the affairs of religious institutions ever.

Birth control pills and sterilizations, were never, until now, considered a matter of health care, anymore than purely cosmetic operations. Yet some insurance plans are already arbitrarily designating the former as such under the pressure from the government and organizations like Planned Parenthood. And now the present government, much to the delight of the most radical anti-population and pro-abortion groups, and to be sure the drug companies who make billions from the sale of these prescription pills, is flouting the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty by these new regulations forcing Catholic institutions to violate their moral principles, drop their insurance plans or go out of business.

Surely this will end up in the courts, and we have reason, I think, I hope that it will be overturned. But the struggle will not end there. This is a determined enemy, hostile to the Catholic Church’s moral teaching, and they will if possible change the Court itself to force this on the Church. That is when the confrontation would reach its utmost and you may well see bishops and priests and laity going to prison in a country that has prided itself on its religious tolerance and religious liberty. But these foes have no tolerance, especially for the Catholic Church and her moral teaching, and they will not readily end their assaults on her liberty, until they are forced to do so.

Thus, Catholics who value their religious liberty must get involved and pray and take action in our various ways and capacities to overturn this unprecedented anti-religious regulation, certainly an immediate and hopefully an achievable goal. Likewise, we must work even harder to convert our country to recognize the humanity of the unborn child before it’s too late, and the country becomes hopelessly divided as it was in the days of slavery. Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, cried out Jonah to the ancient pagans of Nineveh. We hopefully have more time than that, but one thing is certain, if this country is not eventually turned around regarding the protection of innocent human life in the womb, it simply will not survive as we have known it. You cannot forever flout the God of Love and Life. For He is also the God of Justice.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

January 15, 2012
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

Well, Christmas and Advent are over.
For most of you it means things like
putting away the decorations,
and going back to being grumpy.
But to priests it has a particularly unique meaning:
it means that when we stand up here on Sundays
we see a whole lot fewer people sitting in front of us,
at least until Easter.

And so I’d like to take a moment to consider the question:
why is it that so many Catholics don’t come to Mass every Sunday?

If you ask the Christmas & Easter Catholics,
this question you get a lot of different answers.

Some will tell you they don’t come
because the Bible doesn’t say we have to go to Mass on Sunday.
And it’s true: the 3rd commandment only says: “Keep holy the Sabbath Day.”
Can’t we keep Sunday holy some other way than going to Mass?
maybe by praying at home,
or even by going to an Evangelical Church instead?

It’s true, the requirement to go to Catholic Mass on Sunday isn’t in the Bible.
But let me tell you what is in the Bible:
today we read:
“Jesus…said:
“You are Simon the son of John;
you will be called Cephas”
– which is translated Peter.”
Jesus Called Simon “Peter” which means “Rock
and he told him
“and on this rock I will build my church, and ….
and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”
And Peter, or rather his successors, the Popes,
have for centuries bound us to going to Mass on Sundays.
It’s not a commandment,
but it is what we call a “precept of the Church”
And it is a mortal sin to disobey it.

Still, some would say,
but why does the Church make me come to Mass every Sunday,

Well there’s lot’s of reasons.
One reason is that we need to “keep the Sabbath Holy.”
Unfortunately, if we didn’t go to Mass, most of us
wouldn’t do anything at all to keep it holy.
By requiring we go to Mass the Church causes us
to center the whole day around God,
—even though it’s only one hour
it effects all of our plans for the rest of the day.

But more importantly,
by coming together to celebrate the same Mass
celebrated by 100’s of millions of Catholics all over the world.
we remind ourselves and the world
that there is one Christ, one faith one baptism, one Church
and that this oneness, this unity, must stay with us week in and week out,
in everything aspect of our lives.

Some offer other excuses for not coming to Mass every Sunday.
They say, but I just don’t enjoy going to Mass.
To them I quote the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:
“What are you looking for?”
What is it that you’re expecting to find at Mass?
Some want to be entertained with lively music or beautiful Gregorian chant,
or by a erudite or funny priest.
Some want the priest to tell them how great they are,
or to make them feel good;
or they want their fellow parishioners to be particularly welcoming,
or even to be of a certain color, or a ethnicity.
And when they don’t get what they’re looking for
they become like Samuel in today’s first reading:
they fall asleep “in the temple of the LORD.”

But when Jesus asks Andrew and John: “What are you looking for?”
all they say is
“Teacher, where are you staying?”
They’re don’t have a set of demands or expectations,
all they want is to be with the “teacher”
so he can teach them what he has to teach them.

So the Gospel continues:
“[Jesus] said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw where Jesus was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.”

You shouldn’t come here today to be entertained,
but because Jesus is here.
Yes, I know, Jesus is God, so in a certain sense he’s everywhere.
But ever since Solomon built the great Temple in Jerusalem
God has made it clear that his temple was a special place of his presence
a place he wanted his people to come to,
away from all distractions,
just to be with him, in his house.
Because he knew that wherever we go there are all sorts of things to
distract us from recognizing his presence.
And Jesus also knew this, and repeatedly went to the Temple
to be with his Father
—even though He was never really not with the father
wherever he was.
Remember how the Gospels tell us
“he was filled with zeal for his Father’s house”
as He drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip?

And we come here and to other Catholic Churches on Sunday
because Jesus is here, like he is no where else.
He’s here in His People gathered as his Body, as St Paul tells us today.
And He’s here especially in His Word proclaimed in the Gospels
and in the preaching of the priest.
And so you come here listen to him, as Andrew and John did.
You come here to the temple, like Samuel when he finally wakes up, to say:
“Speak, [Lord,] your servant is listening.”

Sometimes people tell me,
but Father, the homilies are too complicated or too long
or simply useless and boring.
But in all the rambling of your priests is it not possible
to recognize something of the echo of the voice of God.

And even if you can’t hear Jesus in what I say,
or in the assembly of the Churcn
hear him in his own words in the Gospel, as it says:
“He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”
So they went and saw ….and …stayed with him.

Hear him calling you to come to see him and to stay with him here.
Because here, and only here, do we see him truly present in the Eucharist.
“This is my body” Jesus said at the last Supper.
His body is in the tabernacle, right now.
And the bread on the altar will soon truly become his body.
Here and only here at Holy Mass can we truly say
–as the Gospel begins today, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
as he offers himself as the Lamb of sacrifice for our sins.
“‘Come and see’….So they went and saw.”

Finally, if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a 1000 times:
Father, I just don’t get anything out of Mass.
Let’s think about that: I don’t GET ANYTHING out of Mass.
Again, I have to ask: “What are you looking for?”
Because you see, it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.
And it’s not about what the priest or choir or the congregation give us,
but what we give to Jesus
and what he gives to us.

In a few minutes I’ll say to you:
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God”
and you’ll respond: “it is right and just.”
This is what we come here to do:
to give God thanks!
We drag our lazy bodies out of bed or off the couch,
and sit and stand and kneel and bow and sing and pray out loud
in order, as St. Paul says, to: “glorify God in your body.”
And we come, as the psalm says today,
to sing “a new song…a hymn to our God”;
to “announce his justice in the vast assembly…”
And it is “right and just” to do so.

But that’s not all we come to give.
I’ll also say to you:
“Lift up your hearts to the Lord”
and you’ll respond: “We lift them up to the Lord.”
Have you ever stopped to think about what you’re saying here.
A lot of people think this is simply an expression of joy
—our hearts are lifted up.
But that’s not at all what we mean.

In the Old Testament, the highest form of worship
was the ritual sacrifice of an animal or grain.
But these sacrifices were primarily symbolic
of the sacrifice of the person:
you gave the life of the animal to God
to symbolize that you were giving your own life
completely and totally to God.

Unfortunately, over time people started just going through the motions:
offering the animal or bread as if that would placate God.
But God rebuked them in the psalms:
“Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”
And even as He continued to require ritual sacrifices
he taught Israel that he wanted their sacrifices to mean something
—he wanted them to give themselves,
to love him with all their hearts!
So we read in today’s psalm :
“Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
…and your law is within my heart!”

So today our sacrifice of bread and wine,
is meaningless if it doesn’t truly represents a gift of ourselves to God,
unless we lift up not bread and wine
but “Lift up our hearts to the Lord.”
And we lift up our hearts not by simply saying so
but by uniting ourselves, and conforming our hearts,
to Christ and his teaching, and to his Church.

Still, the gift of ourselves is very small thing,
and not very much to offer God
in thanks for the many gifts he has given us.
And so Jesus, in his infinite love for us,
takes our tiny gift and unites it to his own.
He perfects our thanksgiving by joining it with his thanksgiving,
and transforms our symbolic gifts of bread and wine
into the sacrifice the Lamb of God,
his very own body and blood in the Eucharist.
And then he unites us to himself as gives himself to us in Holy Communion.

This is amazing!
Where else could you find anything like this?
How could we think even the most entertaining choir,
the most welcoming congregation,
or even the most moving preacher could even touch this?
Much less, praying at home, or, God forbid, going to a soccer game?

I realize I’m sort of preaching to the choir today,
and I hope I haven’t put you all to sleep like Samuel (in the Temple).
But I also hope that in something I’ve said today
you’ve heard an echo of the voice of God calling out to you.
And as you leave here today I pray
that just as Andrew went to Peter
you will go to your own brothers and sister
and bring them back with you next Sunday
to this holy temple
to stay with the Lord for an hour or so,
to be united with His Church,
to listen His word,
and to lift up their very hearts to Him,
and to be transformed by the grace of the Most Holy Sacrifice Mass.

Ask them: “What are you looking for?”
And promise them: “Come, and you will see.”

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?

In 1954 a science fiction story appeared in a series of installments in Collier’s Magazine, a prominent U.S. magazine. It was called the Body Snatchers, and its plot was quite simple. A species of intelligent creatures from outer space begins to invade the earth in the form of seeds that produce and then inhabit perfect duplicates of the bodies of human beings who are then reduced to dust. The book was popular enough to be adapted for the movies and was reproduced 4 times over the years. Indeed, this plot of the human body serving as the nesting place for aliens has had many different versions in science fiction, and it is curious as to why this theme is so popular among a good many people.

Hopefully, this plot has been successful because it horrifies people, a successful form of fiction for centuries, and especially popular since the movie version of Mary Shelly’s horror novel Frankenstein. The very idea of the human body being an incubator for some alien life form is horrifying to any normal human being, as is cannibalism or a terrible mutilation of the human body. But why are these things so horrifying to normal people today? The answer surely has to be found in the influence of the revealed truth about man which over centuries eliminated horrors like cannibalism and mutilating form of punishment.

Respect for the human body as such was not the norm in pre-Christian societies anywhere in this world. Cannibalism was practiced in many places on this earth among our ancestors, and torture and desecration of the bodies of enemies were normal occurrences in war. If American immigrants were horrified by the scalping perpetrated by Native Americans, it was only because their own cultural evolution had removed such horrors from their past, and it was Christianity that caused that evolution by transforming their barbaric ancestral practices by inculcating in their souls the truth that man, the whole man, was made in the image and likeness of God.

The implications of that great revealed truth about man, that he is the image of God, took a great deal of time to transform those ancient cultural barbarities when it came to the body. It did not instantly transform the religious culture of Israel who first received that great truth about man. All we need recall is the action of David, who was truly a man after God’s heart, who beheaded Goliath as a war trophy, and who mutilated the enemies he killed to bring their foreskins to King Saul as a wedding offering for his daughter.

But the teaching of Jesus regarding the body, as we see in the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, at last brings out the full implications of the meaning of man, body and soul, as the image of God. The body, just like the soul, is sacred, precisely as an effect of the salvation accomplished by Jesus. The Christian believer clearly affirms the sacredness of the human flesh of Jesus, the flesh offered up for our salvation on the Cross, the flesh raised from the dead so we could enjoy a new form of life, rooted in and made possible by that risen humanity of the Lord Jesus.

Paul on this basis teaches us: Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with
him. If by virtue of Baptism, our bodies become true members of Christ, grafted onto his humanity, then our bodies must indeed become sacred because they share in the holiness of His risen flesh. Then Paul explains this more fully:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price.

In the first passage Paul teaches us that because we are members of Christ [by Baptism], we also become one Spirit with him. But to make sure that we correctly understand what it means to become one Spirit with Him, He adds that the spirit is the Holy Spirit, and thus our bodies like our souls becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. He means that quite literally, and thus is the ultimate dignity of our bodies established. God, from whom we receive the Holy Spirit, has determined that the human body is forever to be His temple. Thus we must no longer view the body as our own, in the sense that it is something we can do with whatever we choose. It is, by Baptism, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and thus must be treated as such and honored by our actions, just like the Temple in Jerusalem.

However, the Spirit taking possession of our bodies is not to be thought of like the aliens taking possession of the bodies in that fictional account. First, the deed is accomplished only if we wish it, unlike the “invasion” in the horror story. Secondly, by this possession the Spirit does not steal our bodies or destroy them or degrade them in any way, but rather the Spirit perfects them unimaginably and makes them live forever as God’s holy temple. It is all a matter of freedom and utterly transcendent perfection. And finally, the One who takes possession is no alien to us; for our divine guest is ultimately our creator, the one who sustains our existence, and the One who redeemed us. Thus He is truly, as St. Augustine says, closer to us than we are to ourselves since God is the wellspring and foundation of our very being.

Sadly, even centuries after this revelation, there still have been instances of things like bodily mutilation and bodily torture practiced, or at least tolerated, by some Christians. Hopefully that is something now overcome by a more accurate understanding of the implications of the doctrine that the baptized body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and member of Christ’s mystical body, and not simply by the Geneva Conventions!

But lest we to readily condemn our Christian ancestors, we must note that the desecration that what Paul focuses on here is not that kind of horror, but on what he calls immorality in the body. The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. Paul here and elsewhere is talking about the reduction of the body to an instrument of immoral pleasure in sins of the flesh. The Christian must not fornicate or commit adultery or commit any sin of the flesh not simply because it is against the natural, moral law, the 6th commandment, but more importantly because the body is not longer simply ours, to do with as we wish, but is now truly the Lord’s and the temple of His Spirit! Indeed its true dignity will grow precisely by doing what Paul concludes this passage with as a command: Therefore glorify God in your body. Indeed, we must all keep our bodies holy because they are in fact, by Baptism, holy temples of God. And likewise we must honor the body of every person, even the unbaptized. For their bodies, though not yet temples of God, are nonetheless already marked out for holiness because being God’s temple is their true destination just like ours, whether they reach it soon or later, or not at all. God created all of us for this great and noble destiny, to be His dwelling place forever, and we must work diligently to keep that dwelling place holy here and now, until at last it comes to perfection as God’s Temple in Heaven, in the resurrection of the blessed.

Epiphany 2012

January 8, 2012
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “the showing.”
And so today’s Feast of he Epiphany celebrates that day when
the Lord Jesus was manifested, or shown,
not just to his family or his people Israel,
but to the whole world, symbolized by the arrival of the magi from the East.

Of course what was “shown” or “revealed” was not just a tiny baby,
but the Creator of the Universe, God himself, made flesh in this tiny baby.
But while the birth of Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God,
it’s not the first time God has revealed himself to the world.
For 1700 years before that God had been speaking to Jewish prophets,
and going back even further we see how God spoke to Noah,
and of course to Adam and Eve.
But even before all that, before a word was spoken,
God revealed himself in an even more basic way:
through the wonder of his creation.

As far back as we can tell man has been looking to creation
to understand what it has to tell us.
In fact, the magi in today’s Gospel probably spent quite a bit of time
dedicated to that very effort.
There’s been a lot of speculating about who these men were.
Some have said that since they were obviously rich
and were greeted with great deference by King Herod,
they themselves must have been kings.
That may very well be true, or not,
but one thing that seems certain is that they were essentially
scholars, learned in many subjects,
—the word “magi” refers to this, as does the term “wise men”.
In particular, they were clearly knowledgeable of astronomy,
—so they were able to not only spot the unusual “star”
that had arisen in the sky toward their west,
but to identify it as a completely unusual phenomenon.

That same fascination with nature and understanding it’s order continues today.
We spend billions of dollars every year for wise men—scientists—
to study the stars and the earth, and the whole creation around us.
At the same time we see a growing non-scientific appreciation of nature,
of its simple and yet majestic beauty and wonder.
And in all this interest a common theme seems to emerge:
an appreciation for the order of things in nature:
that there is a way things ought to be in nature.

We see this in the formulas and laws of scientists,
but also in the way non-scientists speak about the environment.
For example, we hear people talk about preserving “pristine forests”,
and protecting “delicate eco-systems.”

And as they recognize that there is an order in nature,
some also recognize that even the slightest disturbance in that order,
is a potential problem, either short term or long term,
And so many have come to see
the order written in nature as being inherently good,
and conversely that anything “unnatural” is somehow potentially bad.

What a great new insight.
Except it’s exactly what the Catholic Church has been teaching for 2 millennia.

The only surprising piece of news in all this is that for many
this appreciation for the nature of the world around us
ceases when it comes to 2 very important players in all this:
God and man.

It’s amazing to me that seeing the order, the logic and the beauty
of the environment
so many people cannot see that something, or someone, made it this way:
that all this is not simply “the environment” but “creation,”
which is laid out with an immeasurable genius by a Creator.
Even so, billions of people throughout the world and history
have made this connection.
And not just the uneducated or unscientific.
Take the words of Albert Einstein in the middle of the last century:
“The more I study science the more I believe in God.”
Or more recently, take the writings of Francis Collins,
currently Director of the National Institutes of Health,
and the former head of the Human Genome Project,
who wrote a book just a few years ago called “The Language of God”
all about how his study of DNA led him to belief in the Creator God.

But even if you can’t see God in his creation,
why is it that so many can’t at least see man as part of “nature”?
Why is it that so many don’t recognize
that man is also created to be a certain way?

Now, certainly everyone recognizes that man’s body works a certain way
—that’s what medical science is all about.
But more and more that information is used to manipulate the body
rather than to simply help the body do what it’s naturally supposed to do.
The more outrageous examples of this are things like sex-change operations,
or efforts to manipulate genes to make a sort of super race.
But a more common example would be the use of the contraceptive pill
—which is designed to prevent a woman’s body from doing
what a normal healthy female body naturally does.

But even more important, it’s clear that man is created to live a certain way,
in interpersonal social relationships.
Why is it that so many can recognize the need to protect “delicate eco-systems”,
but they look at man, study him,
physiologically, psychologically, and historically,
and can’t see that he is designed to function in certain normal healthy way,
and that any deviation from that causes a disruption the
“delicate eco-system” of human society.

Why, for example, can’t they see that man is created to love?
History and medical science prove
that human society is healthiest and happiest
when man lives in love with his neighbor.
And why can’t we see that some things people call “love” are
are not love at all, but rather are unhealthy because they’re not natural
—it’s not the way we are designed.

Nowhere is the social nature of man so clearly seen as the life of
marriage, family and sexuality.
Again, why can’t we look at the body and see it was made for,
or naturally ordered to,
certain kinds of acts of sexual expression,
and that acts outside of or contrary to this natural order
are clearly unnatural, and even physically unhealthy?

Why can’t we look at the way family life has been lived for all of recorded time
and see a certain natural form of family life
—and that anything else is less than desirable for human beings
and sometimes disastrous.
Why is it we can’t see that man’s nature leads him to live in a stable family,
of one husband and wife, open to the birth of children.

Why is that when we are so concerned how 1 degree of temperature change
might create global catastrophe,
but don’t think huge fundamental changes in the structure of families
will have an effect on society at large?

As Pope Benedict once stated:
“The tropical forests are deserving, yes, of our protection,
but man merits no less than the creature…”
“[We] ought to safeguard not only the earth, water, and air
as gifts of creation….
[We] ought also to protect man against the destruction of himself.
What is necessary is a kind of ecology of man,
understood in the correct sense.”

“Ecology of man”: it’s a theme you hear him come back to over and over again,
in one way or another.

Benedict went all to say:
“When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being
as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected,
it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic.
It is a question here of faith in the Creator
and of listening to the language of creation….”

Now let’s return to our magi from the east.
The thing is, they didn’t just study creation,
they also studied what other peoples had to say about the Creator.
In particular they were well versed in the Jewish Scriptures,
including the prophesy of Balaam
that one day God would send a great king to Israel
and that a star would be associated with his birth:
“A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel….
and Jacob shall overcome his foes.”
And so the magi asked Herod: ““Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”

Today, we can read many things in nature about the truth about man.
But as much as we learn, it’s hard, really impossible,
to know everything about man by observing nature alone.
But one thing nature does clearly tells us is
that man longs to communicate with his Creator:
belief in and prayer to the Creator is a common theme
throughout human history.
And this is what the magi did 2000 years ago, with sacred Scripture.

Unfortunately, today there are those among us who fancy themselves
“wiser men” than the rest of us
and try to manipulate and twist the clear words of Scripture
to convince others to support unnatural lifestyles.
For example, I remember a couple of years ago, right before Christmas,
the cover story of Newsweek Magazine.
was all about basically trying to argue
that the Bible supports homosexuality and homosexual marriage.
This is a lot like Herod in today’s Gospel,
who called in the scribes and Pharisees—the Jewish scholars—
to find out where Scripture prophesied the infant king would be born,
but then ignored the fact that the scripture said
Herod was supposed to worship the child,
and instead used the prophesy to try to kill him.
In much the same way people nowadays, like that Newsweek writer,
try to take some of the words of Scripture, ignoring the inconvenient ones,
and then twisting them in order to
put to death what they actually revealed.

This reminds us of something else: as I mentioned before, according to some,
the magi might have actually been kings.
If that is accurate, look at the contrast in the kings we find in today’s Gospel:
the kings from the east discover the Holy Family
by following nature and the Scriptures, and when they come to them:
“They prostrated themselves and did him homage…”
King Herod, on the other hand, plots to kill him.

Today many modern kings—and so called wise-men—have the same choice:
to humbly but rationally follow nature and Scripture to the Creator
and to a true understanding of man and the family,
or to ignore nature and nature’s Creator
and impose self-serving ideologies and policies
that spell the death of man and family.
To quote Pope Benedict again:
“It is a question here of faith in the Creator
and of listening to the language of creation,
the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man.”

Some say, but Father, look at all the messed up families and marriages,
is that your idea of nature?
No, it’s not.
The problem in these families is not nature, it’s going contrary to nature,
especially man’s nature to love:
to love God, spouse and children, our neighbor.
Most unhappy families are unhappy because of lack of true love
—not love that is self-centered
or warped beyond all truly human recognition,
but love that is truly human, unselfish and self-giving.

Which is, in the end, at the heart of the meaning of the Epiphany.
God loves us and has given us the wonderful gift of
coming to us to tell us about himself, and us, as the Baby Jesus.
In that Baby we see the pure love that man is naturally created for:
out of unselfish love for man,
God the Son strips himself of his heavenly glory
to be born in a dirty manger and die on a Cross.
Truly wise men learn from this and imitate this love:
like the magi who recognized the gift he gave them,
humbly bowed before him
and gave all they had to him in return.

In a few moments our Lord will come to us in the Eucharist,
just as surely as he came to those Magi in a stable 2000 years ago.
Like the magi, let us prostrate ourselves before him
and give him all the love we have.
And let us beg him to give us and our world the grace
to rediscover the simple truths
that nature reveals to us about God our Creator,
and “the ecology of man.”
And that the truth he revealed in Bethlehem and in his Scripture and his Church,
may lead us not only to understand God and man more completely,
but also to live and love as He created us to.

Christmas 2011

Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

It was cold, rainy and muddy day in the winter of 1914,
when German and Allied forces faced each other
in the trenches of Belgium and France.
But as midnight approached, and the snow began to fall,
the Allied soldiers heard a strange but familiar sound
—the enemy soldiers were singing Stille Nacht: Silent Night.
Soon reports were widespread of German and Allied soldiers
coming out of their trenches to exchange Christmas greetings.
The spontaneous and unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 had begun.

What is it about this day that has this kind of effect on Christians
—even nominal, marginal or merely cultural Christians?
Why do wars pause?
Why are estranged families reconciled?
Why do strangers greet each other with warmth and good cheer?
More amazing still:
why are drivers kind to each other as they leave the church parking lot?

It is surely a day like no other day of the year.

And it’s been that way since that very first Christmas day, 2011 years ago.
A day that was so radically unlike any previous day
that it astonished even the angels in heaven.
The angels had seen so many amazing and wondrous things
almighty God had done.
They saw Him create the world out of nothing, and man in his very own image.

They had, literally, seen it all.
Still, they had seen nothing like this.

Majesty became humility.
Omnipotence became vulnerability.
Eternity entered time.
The Creator became a creature.
God became a baby boy.

How could this be, the angels asked?
And yet they knew the answer, and told us:
“nothing is impossible for God.”

And so, completely stunned, but with irrepressible joy,
they spontaneously broke into a jubilant song of praise to God,
As St. Luke tells us:
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host …
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to people of good will.”

They were completely overwhelmed to see how far
the love of God would go to give his love
to sinful man.

For the angels knew man well.
They had seen how in the beginning Adam and Eve
had thrown away their unique friendship with God,
and how mankind had suffered from that loss ever since.
How, created in God’s image, man yearned and longed
to love and to be loved completely and perfectly.
And yet the angels also saw how men, in their weakness,
would be continually
confounded by God’s vastness and omnipotence;
confused by his incomprehensible wisdom;
and intimidated by his seemingly impossible call
to love him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
In short, the angels knew
that as much as man longed for God’s love,
man could never find the way to vanquish his fear of God.

But God had always known the way.
And he had told it to the angels,
but even they couldn’t completely understood it.
But now—now they understood it, because they saw it.

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
“God chose a new way.
He became a child… dependent and weak, in need of our love.
Now – this God …says to us
– ‘you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.’ ”

Amazing.
And so the angels proclaim to the shepherds:
“Do not be afraid…”
They say:
“For today …a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”

Think about that: God has been “born,” become a baby, “for you.”
Not because it pleased him, or would add to his glory.
But simply “for you.”

Christmas is about God coming to us for us,
so that nothing would keep us from sharing in his love.
How often do we think about God as if he were so far away from us.
That he’s so much greater than us, he has no time for us.
And so we excuse ourselves from making time for him.
But at the first Christmas he said, in effect:
“Look at me—I have stripped myself of the glory of heaven,
I made myself weak, so that you could know me and love me.
So that I could to enter into a personal relationship of true love with you.”

Sometimes people say that Catholicism fails to emphasize this critical truth,
of Christ’s invitation to have a personal relationship with him.
Some say we emphasize God’s power and majesty too much,
especially in our rituals, like the Mass,
at the cost of obscuring the importance
of having a personal relationship with Him.

Friends, I don’t know about you, but I have never, in all my life,
felt that way about the Catholic faith.
Because the Church sees God and man as the angels do—just as they truly are.

The truth is that God is Almighty,
and majestically sits on His throne in heaven
while angels adore him and sing his praise,
and not only did he create this vastly complex universal
but continuously sustains it and orders it according to His will.
And the truth is we are merely lowly, sinful creatures.
And yet, the truth is also that
that all-powerful God, came into the world as a tiny baby,
all so he could be our brother, our friend, our most intimate companion.

We can never forget this dichotomy.
If we do, we reduce this tremendous gift to almost nothing
—just another guy who wants to hang out.
So what?

But that is not Christ, and that is not Christmas.
And that is not what makes
enemy armies lay down their guns,
or feuding families lay aside bitterness,
or sinners lay aside their sins.
Yet all this can happen when like the angels,
we see the whole picture:
He is a baby, so we can’t help but love him,
but he his God so we can’t help but adore and praise him
for his incredible generosity.

And where do we see this more wonderfully than at Holy Mass?
Where do we encounter more profoundly his invitation
to enter a personal relationship with the eternal God?
It is no mere coincidence that we call this day “Christmas,” or “Christ-Mass.”

We begin Mass by recognizing our sins
—humbling ourselves before God has he humbled himself before us.
We then join in the very song of the angels on Christmas morning,
stunned with wonder at God’s offer of reconciliation and friendship:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to people of good will.”

Then, like the shepherds listening to the proclamation of the angels,
we listen attentively to the readers and priest as they,
“bring [us] good news of a great joy.”

Then we all stand and profess our faith.
We begin by acknowledging,
“I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all things…”
But then we add:
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God,
…[who] came down from heaven…and became man.”
Christmas!

Then we go on to the offertory.
Like the three kings offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh,
we offer our gifts of bread and wine.
And this is where things start to get truly wonderful.
Because these gifts are meant to symbolize us
—they represent us giving ourselves to God.
That’s why we say “lift up your hearts to the Lord”
—meaning give your very heart to him, give your very self in love!
Friends, how can the Mass not be about a personal relationship with Christ,
if it’s about giving ourselves to him—person to person?

And then we pause to remember, yet again, that the angels are here,
and that the one we worship is not merely a baby,
but also the God of heaven and earth,
as we sing the song of the angels from Isaiah:
“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
And we sing: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Who is that, but the Babe in the manger?

And then, we enter into the most incredible part of the Mass,
where God the Son himself, once again,
comes down to earth to be with us, in the flesh!
Once again, he humbles himself to hide his glory,
this time not in the appearance of a Baby,
but a simple piece of bread.
All so that we can approach him not in fear of his majesty, but in love.

But how can God come to us as bread?
How can God come to us a baby?
As the angels remind us, “nothing is impossible for God.”
And just as surely as the angels testified that the
“the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God,”
Christ himself testified about the bread: “this is my body.”

And then we approach Our Lord in the sanctuary,
just as the shepherds and kings once approached Him in the manger,
and “fell down and worshiped him.”
Then, just as Mary tenderly received her Divine Baby
into her arms,
we receive our Lord onto our tongue or onto our hands.

And here the mystery of Christmas,
of God coming to us in the flesh to enter a personal relationship with us,
is manifest in a most profound way,
as he gives himself to us and we give ourselves to him
in our Holy Communion with the Body of Christ.

My friends, the mystery of the Eucharist and Holy Communion,
is nothing less than a renewal and strengthening
of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
And that is the heart of Christ-Mass:
Almighty God the Son once again comes to us saying:
“‘you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.”

Today is an incredible day.
But the thing is, as wonderful as this day is, every day can be this way.
Because Christmas is not simply about that one day 2011 years ago,
and it’s not even just about December 25th each year.
It’s about Almighty God’s tremendous love for us,
and his determination to let nothing hinder us from accepting his invitation
to enter into a deep personal relationship of love,
as his friend, his brother or sister.
And that invitation and friendship is renewed daily, constantly,
in the life of his family, his Church,
in so many ways,
most especially in this great gift we celebrate here today—the Eucharist.

Today is a day like no other day.
Warriors lay down their arms,
families set aside differences,
strangers cheerfully exchange acts of kindness.
And even angels are astonished by
the Almighty and Glorious Creator of the universe
who humbles himself to become one of his own creatures.
All so that he can beg man not to run from him in fear,
but to run to him in love.

“Do not be afraid…For today …a savior has been born for you
who is Christ and Lord.”

Christmas 2011

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad
tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation,
and saying to Zion, “Your God is King!”

Christmas is the truth that most confounds the human mind. God has become man, God has become a man-child, weak and defenseless as every human infant, while still remaining the almighty God who holds this universe in existence from beginning to end. What could be a greater wonder, a greater mystery to dazzle the human mind and soul than the truth we believe, that God, the Creator of the universe, which he infinitely surpasses in being and power, was conceived and born into this world as a tiny member of our human family, an infinitesimal creature compared to His infinite Being, and yet truly being both at the same time, one person, two natures?

The human mind boggles before this mystery; how can it be, is it not really simply another fantasy created by man’s poetic mind? And the answer of faith is immediate and without hesitation – this really has happened, the greatest has become the least, the King has become the pauper, God has become a man, and what may appear to some to be the greatest of fairy tales is in fact the greatest of truths, a mysterious truth that we will never fully understood till the end of time, and yet will ever fill believing hearts with wonder and joy, because it all happened, and it happened for us.

The human mind alone is really not equipped to deal with such a truth.

Grasp this great mystery. We can’t see why God should do such a thing because we would never think of it. We would not choose to become a piece of dust even for the greatest purpose, and so we wonder how could the infinite God possibly become something infinitely smaller than himself, for whatever reason?

The answer of the saints is quite simple. We mere mortals at least know something about love and the way mere mortals will sacrifice themselves for love, will lower themselves greatly for the sake of the beloved. But John’s Gospel tells us that God not only loves, but that God is Love. And as one novelist put it so succinctly, Love does such things. Love alone can help us begin to understand the deeds of love, and the Incarnation of God is the deed of Love beyond all others in our regard. God did this, became one of us, because He is Love, and He loves us so much that He did this infinite deed of love, for us.

Only faith and love then can open our eyes to accept the truth of this birth of God as man. Since the Middle Ages Christians became found of placing in their Christmas cribs the Ox and the Donkey which Isaiah mentioned in his very first chapter: The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

The Fathers of the Church interpreted the phrase “my people do not would be joined with the Jews in the new People of God, like the ox and donkey. Neither Jew nor gentile, without the light of faith can embrace the truth about this child. But with faith, supported by love, their eyes are opened, and they become like the Ox and the donkey who miraculously seem to recognize their very creator in the crib they keep warm with their breath. Thus the ox and donkey in the traditional Christmas crib set are portrayed with eyes that are human and can see and recognize the one before them as their creator. These dumb creatures represent the two peoples who are transformed into adorers of the mystery which they see no longer with the empty eyes of animals but the human eyes which can see things in a whole others sense.

Man without faith, Jew of Gentile, is like the ox and the donkey, unable to recognize the child, and merely able to keep the crib warm with their animal breath, dumb creatures used by God merely to keep his child warm. Man without faith cannot see what is before his very eyes. He is like the dumb animal until faith enlightens his eyes, and his heart responds with love. Without these gifts man stands mute and stubborn before this mystery; with these gifts man is transformed and gazes upon this mystery with reverence, wonder and love. Like the Mother, Mary, the believer treasures these things in his or her heart, and bows before the mystery of God’s love which has gone to such lengths to rescue us from Satan’s power, as another Christmas Hymn

There is the full context of the mystery, God lowered himself to virtual nothingness to save sinners who were doomed to be slaves of Satan’s power because they had all gone astray, and then Love leapt down from heaven and rescued His creatures when they were all but lost. That is the great mystery before which Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi, and finally we ourselves must simply bow down. And if we bow down, then we arise new men, with a new vision of our human dignity and value. We learn our true value, our individual and collective worth, only in the mystery in which God lowered himself to be one with us, one for us, one of us, a true son of man.

What practical consequences this faith or lack of faith has for the world. Because God chose to take on our nature completely, he chose to become a helpless, defenseless babe, and thereby sanctified man’s life from the first moment in the womb. He was a child whom the world did not want. He was unexpected, inconvenient, unplanned by man, and the world reacted differently toward that child depending upon the presence of faith or its absence in the hearts of individuals. There was no room for him at the inn, and that inn represents the world at large today. There is little place for Christ today, and it is nowhere more evident than in the deadly rejection of millions of children who are unwanted, unexpected, unplanned. Men today are so often like the Ox and donkey who cannot recognize the face of God in the defenseless child in the womb, even though God was once just such a child. His mother, unlike the world, welcomed Him, even though He was most unexpected and certainly inconvenient because He brought her much suffering along with untold joy.

Openness to the child as a gift from God, one who bears the image of God from the first moment, just as Jesus actually was God from his first human moment, is a consequence of the great mystery of Christmas. Once God has become a human child in the womb, all human life becomes sacred. Moreover, this faith in the poverty of God is the basis of Christian charity toward the poor. Even today, Christians are the most charitable segment of the world’s population and by a substantial margin. Any society that is widely populated with truly believing Christians will have a greater concern for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed. A world without Christ, and without his believers, is an impoverished, darker and much sadder world. He is the truth about man and the only hope for truly peaceful and joyful world. Christian faith and charity are the medicine that heals the deepest wounds of our humanity. May God give you a deeper faith and charity this Christmas, so that you can carry these into the world. It fill you with the joy of those who first celebrated Christ’s coming at Bethlehem so long ago, and yet always so near to the eyes of simple faith.

4th Sunday of Advent 2011

What is the one thing that is absolutely necessary for us to celebrate Christmas with the same ecstatic joy the enveloped the angels and the shepherds in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, when the good news of Jesus’ birth was first announced to the world? The one thing we absolutely need is given to us in the Gospel today as our final preparation for Christmas. The one indispensable thing we need to celebrate Christmas with unspeakable joy is faith, the faith manifested to us by the Virgin-Mother herself, whose deep faith enabled her to receive the Word of God so totally that He not only dwelled fully in her soul, but took flesh in her womb as well.

It is the faith of the Virgin that is presented to us as the key to our Christmas celebration, our Christmas joy, for only if we approach Christmas imitating Mary’s faith, will we be able to experience the coming of Christ into our hearts as she experienced the coming of Christ into her womb, filled with wonder and a joy which is indescribable to anyone who does not share that same faith. Without faith like Mary’s, Christmas becomes, at best, a sentimental holiday for families to get together, at worst a crass, materialistic, spending binge that makes merchants happier than those whose celebration is reduced to helping to spark the recovery of our economy.

We know what faith in Christmas means in terms of content; that we truly believe, as Mary did, that the child conceived in her womb and marvelously born on Christmas day is not simply another human child, even though he shares our human nature completely. No, true faith recognizes this child as Emmanuel, God with us, God made man, sharing our human destiny even to the point of lowering himself to become a weak and defenseless child, just as we all were one day. Jesus is the fulfillment of all human hope expressed by Isaiah in the first reading today: The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. . . . I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Jesus is himself the house established by God, the temple of God’s glory, a house in which all nations are to be gathered together and come to know the Salvation of our God.

Yes, true Christian faith rejoices not only in the fact of God’s appearance in human form, but in the astounding truth that He has come into this world for us, pro nobis, for us, and for our salvation. Indeed our faith tells us what this salvation really entails, that God has become man, has lowered himself to share our humanity so that he might raise us up to share his Divinity, His divine Life forever. Just as he has become our human brother in the Incarnation, so he enables us to become His divine brothers and sisters forever.

This is what authentic Christian faith believes about Christmas, and it is a body of truth that overwhelms our minds and hearts if we truly believe it with all our mind and heart as Mary did. But how many Christians believe these things, without reservations of any sort, with the simplicity of a child of God, the simplicity of Mary who said without any reservation, “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary shows us the full meaning of faith, the perfection of faith, the complete surrender of her mind and heart, which means her total life, to the word of God. Only when our faith is imitating hers, only when it is moving toward a total faith, only then can we hold these truths in such a way that they give us the experience of the joy she felt when she conceived and then bore God’s son.

Notice the elements of the Gospel and how they teach us about faith. First, Mary is confused when she hears God’s word from the Angel, she does not understand it, and she is troubled simply by His greeting -full of grace ­and wondered what this meant. Mary is not unlike us in this at least, for she too is at first dazed by God’s word, and finds herself confused as to what it means. But unlike us, at least at times, she does not close herself off to this word, does not reject the message simply because she does not fully comprehend it, and so the angel expands his message. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.”

As to these words, Mary understands what he is telling her, that she is to be the mother of the Chosen One, and she does not hesitate to believe. Mary does not question that it will happen, as the Angel says – she accepts its unconditional truth, that God intends her to a mother -but now she simply asks how she can fulfill this vocation since she has evidently vowed herself to virginity, even in her marriage: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Her unconditional surrender of her mind and whole person is made clear by the fact that she is not struck deaf for her question “how” like Zachary was for his questioning. Zachary’s “how” had been a skeptical question, a real doubt that it could happen to himself and Elizabeth in their old age. But Mary’s “how” is simply a request for guidance as to how she can accomplish this, whether she will have to surrender her vow of virginity?

The Angel then clarifies this matter of how, that she will not be required to surrender her vowed virginity, pledged to God, but will be overshadowed by the power of the Spirit who will bring about this miraculous conception with no cooperation of man. The clarification made, Mary immediately responds with total faith, the total surrender of her whole person, body and soul to God’s will: “May it be done to me according to your word.” The beauty of the message is completed by the beauty of her faith.

The wording of this full surrender of Mary in faith is akin to and the imitation of Jesus’ own words on the Cross, “Into your hands, Father I entrust my spirit.” Mary’s“May it be done to me” is the total surrender of her will, which means concretely the total surrender of her very life into the hands of the Father. For Mary these words literally put her life in the Father’s hands, for if a Jewish wife were found with child before she lived with her husband, the law said she could be stoned as an adulteress. Mary could hardly prove her innocence, there were no precedents of a virginal conception, but she nonetheless entrusts herself completely into the hands of the Lord God, whatever may happen to her as a result of her yes to this child.

That is what perfect faith entails; nothing less will satisfy the full interior demands of the act of faith itself: total surrender. Faith in us means imitating the surrender of ourselves into the Father’s hands, in imitation of the act by which we were redeemed, the “into your hands Father: of Jesus Our Redeemer. Mary’s faith was perfect because her surrender was the most perfect imitation of her son’s.

Our redemption then actually began with Mary’s act of faith, her surrender of faith, and it was fully accomplished by Jesus sacrifice, his free surrender on the Cross, and that redemption is effected in us by our free surrender to the Father in faith and baptism. Christian faith will understand all this, and that is why Christian faith is the absolutely necessary source of the true Christmas spirit, the unrivaled Christmas Joy. The more perfect the faith, the greater the joy.

During this final week of Advent, our final preparation for Christmas, let us sincerely ask our Mother Mary, the woman of faith, how to say yes to God this Christmas as completely as possible for each of us, so that we may know proportionately to our faith God’s joy, know it together with her, the joy of the Christmas that never ends, the Eternal Christmas, where Jesus is eternally begotten from the Father, as his holy ones marvel at his human birth which brought us salvation, Amen.