2nd Sunday of Advent 2011

The figure of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel makes it clear once again that the Advent Season is a preparation for the coming of Christ, and not only at Christmas, and most importantly for His coming in glory at the end of time, but also His coming to us here and now, in our daily life, and most especially in each and every Mass we celebrate. St. John the Baptist, after all, was not the herald of Christ at his birth – that was reserved for His angels. John was, rather, the herald of Christ’s coming into the public life and His mission. He was privileged to be the one who would prepare the way for Jesus into the hearts of his first disciples. He is recalled here on the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year to remind us that Advent has these three dimensions, a recalling and celebration of Christ’s first coming, a looking forward to His glorious Secon Coming when he will judge mankind and establish His Kingdom in power, and finally the present dimension, a confession of our faith that Christ is constantly coming into our world in word and Sacrament to bring us to salvation.
Christians with authentic faith approach Christmas very differently then from others who do not have this same deep faith in the meaning of Advent as a preparation for His coming into our world. We are not only recalling the first coming and its joyful message, but also stirring up our desire for Him to come and set our world free at last free from sin and suffering and death, and transformed into a glorious part of His Kingdom. Believing Christians know that their liturgical celebration of His Birth is given depth by its meaning as the beginning of salvation, the beginning of His coming brought about in Him.

Our faith tells us that Jesus’ birth is really the birth of the Son of God, as a member of our human family, the new head, of a new humanity which will spring from Him by the sacrament of rebirth that we call Baptism. Just as Christ took on a second life, a new existence, by virtue of his human birth, so by that birth he enabled all of us to take on a new life, a new existence by virtue of another form of birth, the birth of Baptism. Christ became part of our world by his coming into our world by human birth, and in turn, He enables us to become part of His world by our being drawn into His world by a divine birth in Baptism.

Thus hearing the message of John, who spent his life preaching and baptizing with water, as a foretelling of the greater Baptism Jesus would institute, by water and the Holy Spirit, is a most meaningful way to celebrate Advent and prepare ourselves for Christmas. John’s message about baptism immediately directs our attention to the deepest spiritual meaning of the event of Christ’s birth, it’s reference to our own rebirth to salvation. That faith connection between His birth and our rebirth to salvation is necessary to direct our attention to the proper preparation to meet Christ at His second coming, and equally important how we must prepare ourselves here and now to meet Christ as he comes into our lives in word and sacrament, above all in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, our Holy Mass.

After all, John’s whole life was dedicated to this one goal, to help others prepare

they could receive and accept the Lord Jesus, and John’s own way of life was the best example of how one does that, how one is made ready to receive the Lord God properly, which is to say, receive the Lord God when he comes us to in the mystery of the Eucharist and the other sacraments.

I think we would agree that John’s way of life was truly counter-cultural even in his society. Why did John live such an austere life? Why was he living in the desert ­a strange place for a herald to live if he wants to reach people? Why was his life-style so austere? The truth is that these practices of St. John point to the great mystery of man’s true and humble condition in relation to God, and not just because of man’s sin, but simply because of God’s Infinite Holiness and man’s nothingness in comparison to that holiness of God.
Of course sin is always a barrier to welcoming God, and welcoming God’s word. God will not abide where evil resides, so we must repent for our sins as John demanded if we are to make straight the way of God into our souls. But John’s own life of austerity cannot so easily be explained as doing penance for sin. There is no doubt about John’s great holiness; the people then recognized it, and even tended to think he himself might be the Messiah, something John had to firmly deny. At any rate, John is without a doubt the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets, and his holiness is unquestionable. So why the austere life style?

If this was not simply a matter of his doing penance for his sins, what good was prophet, which is first of all to receive God’s word Himself, so that in turn he can communicate that same word to others. The prophets understood that to be prepared to hear the Word of God when it came to them, they had to clear away the noise of the world -hence many lived in solitude. They had to detach their hearts from material goods that can often suffocate the voice of God within us. So John lived a simple and austere life which showed in his clothing and food, something we may well do for penance for our sins, but something the prophet must do regardless, if he hopes to hear the Word of God, to be ready to receive it when God choose to send it.

In that wilderness John learned how infinitely different was the holiness of God and His word from any mere human words or human perfection. Even were John without sin, he was still a bit of dust in relation to the One who was speaking to Him in the wilderness. At the same time John knew the danger of his own ego being a barrier to his mission. John was very holy, but he was still a child of Adam, and the human ego, the pretentious “I” of man, which can even set itself up as a rival to God, remains always a real threat to man’s salvation and his openness to God’s word. No matter how holy a man can become, the monster of egoism lurks deep in his soul, and it can always be roused by Satan to challenge God.

John’s temptation would come from those who loved him and admired him most ­they would be tempted to think he was the chosen one, and in turn they would tempt him to think this way. So John has above all to humble himself, for the greater the and cleared away every hint of self-sufficiency, every possible barrier of human pride. He did this for one purpose: to hear God’s word when God would choose to speak it; and to welcome God’s Word in person and point Him out to others, when God would choose to send Him. John’s task was to be ready to hear, to welcome, to direct others to the One who was being sent. He knew he was himself so much less than the One whom he heralds, that he is unworthy to even untie his sandal strap. he had learned this truth in the austerity of his life, in the desert, and it was his own preparation to welcome Christ when at last He appeared.

The lesson for us seems obvious. If we are to prepare ourselves to receive Christ at Christmas, in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, at the Second coming, we must follow the example of John and clear away the clutter from our daily lives, simplify our existence so we can tame our own self centered ego and thus be able to recognize and welcome Christ in our daily life and direct others to Christ as well.

We are not called to a literal, slavish imitation of John’s life, to live in the physical desert wear camel hair clothes, but to a spiritual imitation of his profoundly self-denying life-style. We must be counter-cultural like John, for our society is filled with noise, with materialism, with human pride, and it is not an environment in which we can easily hear the Word of God, let alone welcome it. We must find solitude in our life, we must find silence, we must strip our souls of attachments that clutter our lives so that we can no longer hear our God speaking to us in the depths of our being.

Finally, more than John, we must do penance for our sins. We must open our ears to hear God, and open our hearts to receive Him when he comes, in the gentleness of the Holy Eucharist, in the quietness of the interior motions of His Grace in our hearts, in the soft but powerful words of love he speaks to us in the Scriptures and in our hearts. That is the deeper meaning of Advent: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His Paths, and your soul will know the glory of his coming.

Amen.

1st Sunday of Advent 2011

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.

For how many centuries were the people of Israel waiting for the Lord to come and rescue them, his chosen people: “Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage”! And then, when he did in fact come, most of the people of Israel were not ready, they did not recognize him, though he was their bridegroom and eternal lover. They were not ready and they missed his coming, and some so firmly rejected him that they conspired for his death. How tragic was that blindness.

You see they were looking for a glorious figure, a Messiah so utterly unlike the true Messiah, Jesus Christ. They wanted to have a Messiah whose coming would shake the mountains and would be accompanied by the great deeds of the past when God split the red sea and tumbled the walls of Jericho. They were not ready for a Messiah who would be born in a stable, grow up in obscurity and nothing of the royal trappings that would make his mission clear for all. They were not ready, and they missed their invitation to the banquet of life.

They were not ready, and so they were found wanting, not in the condition that Isaiah prayed they would be found: “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful.” The vast majority were not found “doing right” nor being “mindful of His ways,” and only a small remnant was found ready to welcome him because they were the little ones, faithful to his ways which they had learnt from his own holy word.

In today’s Gospel we once again hear Jesus exhorting us, like Isaiah, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” The time He speaks of is the time of His return to judge the living and the dead, to separate the sheep from the goats, to establish His kingdom in glory, and hand over everything to His Father. The early Christians longed for and prayed that this day of the Lord would come soon, in their lifetimes so they would see the triumph of Christ and His kingdom over the enemies of God. They prayed, Come Lord Jesus, the final words of the final book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of St. John, Come Lord Jesus!

Why do we not pray those same words with the same fervor today? Is it perhaps because we are not ready to meet the Lord in our present spiritual condition? But that’s dangerous because he could come anytime to be our judge, not simply at the end of time, but at our death as well. But if we watch and pray and struggle to be ready for the second coming and the final judgment, that is the surest guarantee that we will be ready for his immediate judgment upon our death. Long for his second coming and you will be ready whenever He comes.

Or even if we are not totally unprepared in that radical sense, perhaps we do not yearn for, prayer with fervor for, His second coming perhaps because we have become too materialistic, so tied to this world and its worldly attractions that we no longer have a proper sense for evaluating the Spiritual Kingdom and its infinitely greater value and happiness than this world can ever offer us? Should we not desire the end to all evil and all suffering and all death; should we not desire the eternal triumph of good over evil, where only good will envelope us and envelope the world transformed by His glory? But all this can only happen by His power, by his return in glory to judge, to transform, to glorify, to finally separate the good from the evil. Longing for his coming means longing for all that and more, for God as our Happiness.

Or, thirdly, perhaps we do not pray and yearn with fervor for His coming because we are just afraid that we will not be strong enough to survive the trials and tribulation that will accompany his Parousia, His return in Glory. But why should we be fearful if we are on guard, staying awake, living righteously, seeking forgiveness, making amends?

Moreover, in the 2nd reading, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, promises us the powerful protection of the Father, “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God Himself will keep us firm to the end, irreproachable on that Day of Judgment. Indeed, St. Paul expanded on this idea in His Letter to the Romans “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”

This is the faith of Christians, that God who has not even spared His Beloved Son, so much does he desire our salvation, will not abandon us. Since He has redeemed us in His Son, will He not by that same grace keep us firm to the end, if only we remain faithful to Him? If we do our part, if we do our best to live the new life He has given us, do our best to avoid sin and to live a virtuous life, do our best to repent when we fail and turn to Him for forgiveness and mercy, He surely will not abandon us at the end, anymore than He abandoned Jesus who died for us and was raised for us.

Advent recalls the long desire of the Israelites for the coming of the Messiah. Christmas recalls the joy in the hearts of God’s faithful ones when he at last came into this world. But that first coming was not to end in joy for all. So Advent is also pointing us beyond the confines of this world, beyond the limits of time and human history to that much greater and more wonderful, triumphant return of the Lord of History and Eternity. What joy even the thought of that glorious coming brought into the lives of his faithful down through the ages, the faithful dead form ages past, and what even greater joy will it bring to those who will be the faithful living at that moment. It should also fill us with joy today, and that is why the Church through the ages cries out with one voice in her liturgy and Scriptures, Come Lord Jesus! Bring your promises to fulfillment and glorify your Church and the whole of creation with her.

Amen.

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

Just when people are saying, “Peace and security, ” then sudden disaster comes upon them, 1 Thes. 5:3

As the Church.s liturgical year draws to a close, the liturgy annually di-rects out attention to the world to come, to the so-called last things, death, judgment, the reward of Heaven or the punishment of Hell. Today many people living in this post-Christian world don.t pay much attention to these last things, either because they no longer believe there is another world – so these last things are meaningless to them – or because even if some do believe in a world to come, they no longer worry about a divine judgment, since it has become com-mon opinion today that most all go to heaven and almost no one goes to Hell.

This religious idea that there is no divine judgment or that most everyone goes to heaven certainly makes life more comfortable – it.s comforting to think we will never have to render a true account of our lives; so no matter what we do here in this world, God will not demand a strict accounting of justice from us, and simply give us a pass into heaven. And that’s exactly the way even many Christians do think today. So we have unbelievers who live however they want because they don’t believe in the world to come, and we have many Christians who live however they want because in the end they really don.t believe that God will demand a strict account in justice.

All of this, of course, is wishful thinking of the worst sort. It certainly leaves our world subject to the awful moral environment and cruelty we see in-creasing in our society. Do we really think that the horrible things we hear about daily in the news are unrelated to the loss of faith in God who is a just judge, and who will render to every man according to his deeds? Overthrowing God and religion may seem enlightened to growing numbers of people today, but with what sanction do they propose to replace a belief in divine justice so as to prevent moral chaos from engulfing us? Will more police and more prisons do the job that belief in God.s judgment once did? We are already spending fantas-tic amounts of tax money to secure our cities, and more prisons, more police are demanded, and with what result? There will always be crime even where belief in God.s justice is widespread, that.s true, but once that belief is gone, a belief that held most people in check from engaging in criminal behavior, should we be surprised that such criminal behavior becomes a temptation to more and more people?

Whether one believes in God or doesn.t believe in God cannot settle the question of God’s existence; and whether or not one believes that following death he or she will have to render a strict account of his or her life does not re-ally affect the truth of the final judgment. However it does affect the way we approach this life. If we see people escape justice in this world for terrible crimes, and we believe in divine justice, then we are less likely to turn to a de-sire for vengeance; we can leave the person in God.s hands. But if we don.t be-lieve in the justice of the next world, we are perhaps more likely to desire ven-geance for injustices, especially if the injustice was done to ourselves. People who don’t believe in a justice beyond this world understandably feel extreme anger that Adolf Hitler escaped true justice in this world, and his victims may well feel cheated that he somehow escaped the punishment he truly deserved.

And if we see that injustice is frequently unpunished in this world and that the unjust often grow rich while we perhaps remain struggling, there is the add-ed temptation to get involved in evil ourselves, especially if we have lost our faith in divine justice. Why try to be good if evil is often rewarded in this world, and good is unrewarded, and neither good deeds or evil deeds are subject to any justice or reward beyond this world?

But people who truly believe in the final judgment, and in divine justice, know that every single act of evil and injustice in this world, large or small, will ultimately be paid for, if not in this world, then in the world to come. God.s truth is that nobody gets away with anything when it comes to temporal justice. Even those who repent of their sins in this life, and are spared the eternal pu-nishment due to their sins by the merits of Jesus Christ, must still make satisfac-tion for their sins to satisfy the demands of temporal justice. This is God.s re-vealed truth that we believe as Catholics, that every sin we commit must be temporally satisfied for, either in this life through our suffering, voluntarily ac-cepted, or through doing penance voluntarily undertaken; or we believe that this satisfaction of temporal justice will take place in the world to come by suffering the temporal punishment due to our sins. This is substance of the Catholic belief in Purgatory, that upholds the truth of divine justice – that while Christ satisfied for the eternal punishment due to our sins by divine justice, nonetheless, there is a temporal punishment also due to our sins that we must satisfy, either in this life, or in Purgatory in the life to come. So, no evil act escapes the judgment of God and the demands of justice. No one gets away with anything forever.

It’s truly amazing how Christians can ignore the clear teaching of Jesus and of the whole New Testament regarding the truth of divine judgment and jus-tice, and the reality of heaven and hell. Belief in these realities gives men a rea-listic vision of divine justice against which to set the course of their lives. If we believe that justice is truly required for all of our evil acts, just as a positive re-ward will be granted for all our good acts, we come to understand that our life is short and the challenge is great to find the narrow way that leads to heaven and avoid the broad way that leads to Hell. We learn to leave vengeance for crimes to the state, and to leave unpunished crimes and the punishment due to them to the Lord in the next world. Our focus will then be on our sins and not our neigh-bor.s sins. Our whole value system will be different than that of the world.

The Church does a great service by each year by recalling to our attention this realistic vision of life, the big picture, and its termination in judgment. As Paul says “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and so-ber.” You bet. Because at the end of time we are assured that just “When people are saying, „Peace and security,. then sudden disaster comes upon them, so to those who leave this world with a sense a peace and security based upon nothing but wishful thinking, will find sudden disaster has come upon them.” They will meet the Judge who will demand an accounting of every single act in their lives, and if they have not repented, they will hear those awful words of Jesus: I never knew you, depart from me you evildoers.

Rather what we surely hope to hear at that final judgment are the glorious words of Jesus that we heard in today.s Gospel, “Well done, my good and faith-ful servant … come, share your master’s joy.” That positive judgment is the joy-ful side of belief in divine judgment and in eternal life for the just. We truly be-lieve that even if our good deeds go unrewarded in this life, all our good deeds will surely be rewarded in the life to come, and much more richly than they could ever be rewarded in this world. This belief strengthens our determination not to cave in and adopt the sinful and unjust ways that often tempt us precisely because evil so often goes unpunished and is so often a source of material well being in this world, while good seems to go so often unrewarded. That.s a very powerful temptation and it becomes almost irresistible if we lose our faith that evil and good are ultimately rewarded or punished only in the world to come.

For true followers of Christ, all that is finally desired here in this life is the strength to remain committed to doing the good and being faithful right to then end, and the grace to repent when we fail to do so. Then surely we believe that we will hear those glorious words: “Well done, my good and faithful servant, …Come, share your master’s joy!” What a joy that will be for us, and how infinitely compensating for all the evil we suffered and good we did in this life. That is our true hope, and hopefully that is the faith that guides our life in this world and leads us to eternal happiness in the next.

Amen.

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011

November 6, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

In the way the Church counts time, November is the last month of the year,
and the Church.s new year begins with Advent.
And as we come to the end of the year, we consider the end of our time on earth,
in particular we consider the “Last Things”:
death, judgment, heaven and hell.
So we began the month of November with All Saints. Day,
remembering all those who have died and gone to heaven.
And then the next day we celebrated All Souls. Day,
remembering all those who have died and are purgatory.

But both of these days also call us to look at ourselves,
and ask the questions:
am I ready to die?
have I prepared to be judged by Christ?
have I prepared myself for heaven…or for hell?

This theme continues throughout this month
and so today the gospel focuses us on preparing for the end, or death.
Think about these 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins.
Jesus tells us:
“The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.”

In other words, both had their lamps filled with oil,
but the wise brought extra oil, preparing for the worst
—in case the bridegroom arrived late.
They looked not at just the short-term,
but also at the long-term effects of burning their lamps.
They were planning ahead, taking care of the now, but with eyes on the future.
But the foolish virgins were not thinking ahead, but focused on the short-term.
And so when the bridegroom came and they weren.t prepared,
he locked the door and said to them:
“Amen… I do not know you.”

This reminds us that we all need to be prepared, looking to the future
and not just being concerned with problems that will soon pass away.
Now, some of you might say, “but Father, Jesus also tells us:
„do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself…”
But actually this makes my point.
Because in that passage Jesus is telling his disciples
not to worry about material goods…
“what you are to wear,” or “what you are to eat…”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven….”
He makes the point, as he so often does,
that we must be morally and spiritually prepared for God.s judgment,
when the time comes for each of us.

So how do we prepare for judgment?
First of all, you begin by learning about God,
by reading the Scriptures, the Catechism, and other good Catholic books.
And then you add prayer,
talking with and listening to God.
And then we have the sacraments,
especially confession and the Eucharist, fonts of grace.
All this brings you close to God and strengthens your friendship with Him,
so that you can always resist sin and be prepared for heaven.

And that leads us to the final way to prepare:
we must avoid sin and live the righteous life Jesus calls us to.
Remember the rich young man asked Jesus
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus responded without hesitation: “Keep the Commandments.”

All these—learning, prayer, grace, and righteous living—
prepare us for the final judgment
—they are the oil in our lamps when the bridegroom comes.

But sometimes we have a hard time seeing the importance of all this preparation,
usually because we tend, like the foolish virgins,
to focus on the short-term, rather than the long-term.
We think praying or reading a holy book is a good idea,
but we.ll do it later;
right now we.d rather watch TV, or play a game, or make some money.
Short-term thinking, so often dominated by our passions
like fear, greed, envy or lust,
doesn.t prepare us for the long-term “problem” of judgment.

On the other hand, sometimes,
we do recognize the long-term “problem” of God.s judgment,
but we think we.ll have time between now and then to straighten up,
to pray and read more, and to repent sin.
But there are a couple of problems with that.

First of all, today.s parable says:
“Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.”
We.ve lived for 20 or 50 or 80 years and we haven.t died yet,
so we start to think it will be another 20 or 50 or 80 years before we do die.
Like the foolish virgins, we.ve been lulled to sleep.
But then one day we.ll wake up from this foolish dream and—surprise!:
“Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

The second problem with thinking we can deal with long-term problems later
is that by ignoring them today they can get worse as time goes on.

For example, a new husband knows marriage must be based on mutual trust,
but early on he discovers that telling little lies
can save him a lot of troubles with his wife.
After awhile, though, big lies become even more handy than little lies,
and soon the wife loses all trust in him,
and their marriage falls apart altogether.
Focusing on the short-term problems,
can often make the long-term problems into long-term disasters.

I could go on and on with examples of this.
But there.s one very important example I.d like to focus on now,
something coming up this week.
That is this Tuesday.s elections of our state and local leaders.

A recent poll tells us that when Americans were asked
what the most important problem facing the country today is,
first on the list, at 57%, was the “economy and jobs”1,
1 CBS News Poll. Oct. 19-24, 2011. N=1,650 adults nationwide. Margin of error ± 3. http://www.pollingreport.com/prioriti.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/17/us/politics/20110917_poll_results.html?ref=publicopinion

while second on the list,
but with only 5% saying it was most important,
was the budget deficit and national debt.
Now, without being political here, isn.t it interesting
that the immediate fears about the economy
so completely overshadow the long-term problem of the national debt
—57 to 5%?

I think we can all agree it is an extremely bad idea
to vote based strictly on short-term problems
while ignoring long-term problems,
—especially when they might eventually be much more devastating.

But that.s exactly what we tend to do.
At the moment, Americans seem to be focused
on short-term economic problems.
Some are driven by envy, some by greed.
But most are driven by fear,
fear of economic hardship and job losses,
of losing life savings, or retirement funds.

With all those passions in play,
is it any wonder folks can.t see the forest for the trees
—can.t see long-term catastrophes for the short-term problems in the way.

Unfortunately, this maxim seems to apply particularly
with regard to 2 other huge problems facing our country
that didn.t even make it to 1% in the poll:
the problems of abortion and same-sex marriage.

Folks tend to see abortion and same-sex marriage as long-term problems.
In the case of abortion, for example, they think,
“we.ve been making slow but steady progress for 40 years,
but it.s going to take years more to change hearts, minds and laws….
So right now let.s take care of the economy and deal with abortion later.”

But we can.t afford this kind of thinking.

Because for one thing, it.s driven by our passions, not logic.
How can a society based on fear, greed, and envy,
much less lust, hatred and laziness,
ever survive?

For another thing, it ignores the fact
that what we see as merely long-term problems
actually include real and important short-term problems.

For example, some look at abortion and see a long-term problem
that may take years to solve.
But it.s estimated that 1 to 1.4 million unborn babies
will be aborted this year alone:
that is real and terrible short-term problem.
Think about it: what would we do if terrorists threatened
to explode a nuclear bomb killing a million Americans?
Would we say, “well the War on Terrorism is a long drawn out process,
but the economy—that.s today.s problem?”
I don.t think so.
We.d drop everything else
and focus on protecting the lives of those million Americans?

But beyond that,
this kind of thinking focusing on the short-term and ignoring the long term,
ignores the fact that if we don.t address the long-term problem right now
it will only become worse…in the long-term.
Part of our problem here is we don.t see what terrible long-term consequences
that abortion and same-sex marriage will have for our society.
We see the short-term problem and think this is as bad as it gets.

But that.s not how it works.
The 40 years of waiting to end abortion
have seen some progress in changing hearts and minds,
but in the meantime
it has also fostered a growing basic disrespect for human life
throughout our society.
We see this as the creation of human life is reduced
to manufacturing an embryo in a Petri-dish as if it were a commodity,
and then we treat it like a commodity
by freezing “it” or using “it” in medical experiments.
And we see it in the way women are treated as objects,
especially in the rise in pornography, rape and abuse.
And we see it in a rise in human trafficking, drug use, suicide, and euthanasia.

The same can be said for same-sex marriage.
After decades of compromising in the name of tolerance
somehow we.ve moved from tolerance of same-sex attraction
to forced acceptance
to mandatory approval—even of “gay marriage.”
Not to mention the ostracizing of traditional Christians as “bigots.”
This is where focusing on the short-term and ignoring the long-term has led us:
where will it lead us in the even longer term?

What are the long-term effects of saying marriage is whatever you want it to be?
Even now we see movements pushing to legitimize polygamy, incest, bestiality,
and even pedophilia.
And if the government can completely redefine what marriage is,
they can completely redefine what parenting is, and the rights of parents.
15 years ago people called me crazy when I warned them
same sex marriage was on its way.
Where will we be 15 years from now?

All this because we ignored the long-term
in favor of focusing on short-term.

But there.s an even greater problem with this wrong notion
short-term vs. long-term.
The ultimate long-term problem is… our death, and God.s judgment.

You may think it.s okay to take care of the economy today,
and worry about abortion and marriage tomorrow.
But God doesn.t think so.
It.s really very simple.
Remember Jesus tells the rich young that “to inherit eternal life”
he must, “keep the Commandments.”
And when the rich man says, “which [ones]” Jesus immediately responds:
“You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery…”
Without these 2 basic rules about respecting life and marriage-and-family,
what other rules make any sense?
And so as Pope Benedict wrote in 2007:
“…respect for human life…from conception to natural death,
[and] the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman…
These values are not negotiable.”

And as our own Bishop Loverde wrote last week, with the bishop of Richmond
“protecting life …should be our highest consideration when we vote.
…the fundamental right to life, … outweighs other matters.”

Because of this, it is almost never morally acceptable to vote for or support
a candidate who is not clearly pro-life and pro-tradition marriage,
when there is a viable pro-life and pro-marriage alternative candidate.

Now I say “almost,” because there might be a case someday,
where, for example, some pro-life candidate comes out in favor of
unprovoked nuclear war….
Maybe that would be the exception.
But there.s nothing remotely like that in this election.

Unfortunately, sometimes it.s hard to figure out
who the pro-life/pro-marriage candidates are.
So if you need help, I suggest you go to the website of
the Virginia Catholic Conference where there.s lots of information
— the address in today.s bulletin insert,
and there.s a link on the parish website.

I.d like to be more directly helpful in this regard,
but I.m pretty restricted by IRS rules and diocesan policies.
But let me say this:
according to their party platforms,
the Virginia Democrat party,
is officially supportive
of both abortion and “gay marriage.”
while the Virginia Republican party
is officially pro-life and pro-traditional marriage.
And, according to the information on the Virginia Catholic Conference website
the Republican and Democrat candidates
for senator and delegate
in the districts within our parish boundaries,
all seem to support their own party’s positions
on abortion and marriage.
I have neither endorsed, nor rejected any candidate.

In this month of November, the Church calls us to think about our lives,
and to think about our deaths.
Are we ready for the final judgment, that can come at any time for any of us?
If we are prepared, we have nothing to fear
as the Lord Jesus will welcome us with joy
into the perfect happiness of heaven.
But if we are not prepared,
if we.ve gotten all caught up in the passions of here and now,
and lost sight of the important long term problems we must face…
Well, then, we should change.
Lest we become like the fools
who stand outside the locked door of heaven crying:
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
While the Lord says to us in reply: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

All Saints Day 2011

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.

Today is the Solemn Feast of All Saints, on which day the Church praises God by honoring all the saints in Heaven, that “great multitude, which “no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” who have achieved their life’s goal, the beatitude of seeing God in the Kingdom of Heaven, the goal Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel on the Beatitudes. Throughout the liturgical year, the Church honors her exemplary saints, canonized for our admiration and imitation so that we can make our way to Heaven with their assistance.

However, today the Church enlarges our vision so that we focus on “the great multitude” marked with the seal of God, holding their palms of victory and wearing their white robes of holiness, all the saints in His Kingdom. This great feast of All Saints is established to stir up our admiration of this great communion of saints, and to kindle our hope to one day be among their number. At times the great saints we honor throughout the year, the virgins and martyrs, the confessors and others marked by great sanctity already in this world, may seem too elevated for us to hope to be like them. But today the Church holds up all the saints, those who we may see as more like us in their weaknesses and failings. We gain hope when we confess that these ordinary human beings like ourselves clung to God, received his Grace, and struggled against their weakness and failures and at last won though by God’s mercy and grace to become glorious members of that great body that prostrates themselves before God and cry our eternally, “Blessing and glory, wisdom
and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Is that not, objectively, life’s goal for every child of God, reborn by Baptism, to be among that Heavenly Communion of Saints and enjoy God forever and ever? But is that goal also subjectively my personal goal? Is that my true goal in life, your true goal in life, or are we too caught up in, or distracted by the world and its goods to truly have Heaven as our life’s goal?

Perhaps many can identify at times with those now famous words from William Wordsworth’s Sonnet:
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Of course, Wordsworth was not just a Romanticist who was caught up in the love of nature; he knew that the divine beauty was to be discovered in nature by the sensitive soul. He is quite insightful in saying that “getting and spending” lays waste our powers of seeing in nature what is ours in terms of its own grandeur and beauty. But as a Christian, he knows that the damage is far worse, for not only do we lose our capacity to see the glory of God in nature, but more importantly we lose our desire to see the infinitely greater glory of the God in Christ, who created nature and whose beauty is only dimly reflected in the great beauty of the natural world. The worldly Christian might change that third verse to “Little we see in God that is ours!” And that is why we do not set our life’s goal in the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh truly, as Wordsworth concludes “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

The saints in heaven, all the saints, from the greatest to the least, definitely at some point in their lives made heaven’s glory, the vision of God, their life’s quest. It may not have been in a dramatic moment of conversion as we see in the lives of certain saints, but there had to be a turning toward God that was reflected in the practical way they lived in this world. Thus there are markers that at least we should be able to note in ourselves as to whether our life’s goal is to be among the Communion of Saints or something less, a sordid boon, as Wordsworth puts it.

Today we should ask ourselves this question, what does God see in me as my goal of my life, what does my life reveal to God, if not to me about the true nature of my goal in life? Does God see me taking aim at heaven, or does he see me living primarily for this world, that is, that the world is too much with me to give God much more than lip service?

How many Catholics today, for instance, see skipping Mass on Sunday and holydays as a minor issue, as if the worship of God is less important than some earthly business, like sleep, or Golf, or a picnic, or whatever. Can a person with this attitude honestly believe that his or her life’s goal is truly Heaven, that God and God’s Kingdom is first in his or her life? Objectively, we are already a member of the Communion of Saints, and the heavenly Saints join with us in every act of worship, especially the Mass. They pray for us and we pray to them. How could we say that Heaven is our true goal, if we ignore the company of Heaven here on earth?

Or then there is the matter of confession. If a person is willing to live in serious sin for months or years, because confession would mean having to change one’s life, what does that say about the person’s ultimate goal in life?

Or if I rarely pray but spend countless hours on sports and other forms of entertainment, what does that say about my purpose in life? Do I think Heaven is just another form of entertainment and God is the one who is to entertain me? And so on.

But sooner or later, hopefully, we are jolted into seeing that life is more than eating and drinking, entertainment, the pursuit of wealth, whatever, and that jolt is often some form of suffering. Indeed, some people are telling pollsters that the economic problems of our nation has had at least one good result in their lives; it made them rethink what life is really all about, what really counts for happiness, what is really worth pursing as the goal of life.
You and I have been made God’s children by our Baptism. We are already, as John says in today’s second reading, children of God, who hope to be with God and with the Heavenly saints forever. Any other goal but seeing God one day face to face is unworthy of a true child of God. In heaven, our victory song will be eternal and it will be based upon the fact that we have “survived [the test] the time of great distress; have washed .. [our] robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” And so even now, here on earth we should do today, on All Saints Day, as Jesus commands, “Rejoice and be glad…!” And why should we rejoice? “For your reward will be great in heaven.” That is our true hope, to be among the heavenly saints and to sing forever the words we heard tonight from the Book of Revelation: Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

There has never been a greater denunciation of all forms of mere externalism in religion than the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. What do I mean by externalism? It is that approach to religion where words are bold but deeds are few, where one proclaims to others a heavy duty before God, and then find a way around that duty for oneself. Where religious office and authority and practices are used to gain public attention (for instance the exaggerated outward dress of certain pharisees) or public acclaim and human respect (places of honor at public functions), titles of adulation (in this case the formal title rabbi or father). Jesus did not condemn the Jewish forms of religious dress as such, but He condemned wearing these things just for show, like the leaders who wore huge ornaments that could not help but make them stand out in a crowd. Jesus did not condemn the use of the title Rabbi or father as such, but rather the desire for this title just to gain prominence and status, that is for the same reason that his enemies sought the first places at banquets and in the synagogues, personal vanity and social ambition.

Thus religion itself, even the true religion revealed by God, could be deformed, manipulated into a means of self-glorification, pride and ambition for public honors. There will always be a temptation to abuse true religion, to use religion for unworthy purposes, and to use the external elements of religion for these purposes while having no interior religious devotion to God.

The result of all this causes scandal, and it leads some people to suggest that there is something wrong in itself with religious authority and the externals of religion, in themselves. It is suggested by some that all religious authority corrupts just like political power, and that pure religion has to do away with authority. Religious purists would suggest that religion must do away with all external elements and become a pure interior worship of God. This may even have it’s appeal to us at times when we see the abuse of religion, but there are two huge problems; first such a religion in the end is inhuman, and secondly, such a religion has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, that is it is anti-Christian plain and simple.

That it has nothing to do with Jesus is clear even from today’s Gospel. Jesus in no way suggest there is not to be a religious authority. Indeed he shocks us perhaps by stating point blank that the authority of the Pharisees is both legitimate and from God. He says that ins spite of their vanity and pride, they are to be obeyed when they speak as the successors of Moses. Moses had received his authority from God, and they inheited it from Moses, just as Jesus’ apostles and their successors will receive their authority from Him by ordination. Thus Jesus says that the Scribes and Pharisees, in spite of their personal shortcomings, are to be obeyed when that are proclaiming the law of Moses, that is, when they are acting simply as the faithful custodians of the Mosaic law. He himself
obeyed this law and the legitimate traditions of his people procliamed by the Scribes and Pharisees: he went up for the feast at Jerusalem, he sent persons he cured to the temple priests to make the prescribed offering, he paid the temple tax, he attended the Synagogue, etc.

Nor does Jesus ever attack the external forms of religion as such. He criticizes the abuse of the temple by money-changers, but not the external sacrifices as such. Jesus Himself uses external rituals in some his miracles. He subjects himself to severe fasts, 40 days in the desert. He celebrates the passover meal in which he institutes the Eucharist. He institutes other sacraments which are outward signs, external rituals. It is just nonsense to see in the Jesus of the Gospels a revolutionary who rejects either religious authority as such or external elements of religion as such.

What Jesus rejects is the divorce of these external signs from the interior attitudes and devotion they are meant to express in a wonderfully human way, and he condemns even more so the degrading of these sacred elements by using them for purposes which are the opposite of religious devotion, for the kinds of base purposes he condemns in today’s Gospel.

But this attempt to purify religion of authority and external ritual is not only anti-Christian, it is anti-human. Such a pure religion may be suitable to angels, but not to creatures of flesh and blood. Man needs to express the interior movements of his mind and heart externally, especially when it comes to love. How long does love last between married couples when all the external signs of love disappear? How secure would children be of their parents love if their parents never gave them a kiss or hug? Men are not angels, pure spirits. We use signs, words, actions to express what we think, what we desire, what we love. Jesus became a man to show us God’s love in his every wors and action, because we needed these external expressions of divine love. Religion without external expression is not Christian, not even human.

The great Cardinal Newman said this about such a purely interior or spiritual religion: There is no such thing as abstract religion. When persons attempt to worship in, what they call, a more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshiping at all. The religion of Jesus Christ is no such abstract, purely spiritual worship of the Father. He did not take flesh in order to reject the body when it came to worship of the Father. What he did was purify human ritual of ritualism, the tendency to cut ritual off from its roots in the soul of man, as if external ritual could be true worship of God without being an expression of the interior of man.

Indeed, Jesus brought religious ritual to its perfection by giving it its absolutely perfect content. The Mass He instituted expresses and actually realizes the deepest interior act of human worship, the perfect obedience of Christ in his act of self-sacrifice on the Cross, and at the same time His resurrection which perfectly glorifies God whose power raises man to life.

Jesus is the one High Priest who offers the perfect sacrifice in every Mass.

Thus, the Christian ritual of the Mass is the fulfillment of all other religious acts of worship. Likewise, Jesus alone is truly Rabbi, the teacher, because His word is absolute truth, fuflilling every other word of truth. And His Father alone is Father in the ultimate religious meaning of that word, because He alone is the origin of everything. All others can be called by these names opr exercise these roles only in a secondary and purely subordinate way. Our roles are always the roles simply of servants; God alone is the Master, Rabbi, Father of us all. That belief is what keeps us humble before God and man, and holds out promise that one day we will be exalted with Jesus Our Lord.

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Next to the commandment to love of God above all things, there stands the commandment to love one’s neighbor as we love our very self. God takes this second commandment very seriously, as we can see from the first reading today. The commandment to love God entails the obligation to love our neighbor, to love our neighbor as our self, and that love in the concrete sense requires, at the very least, that I do no evil to my neighbor, but also, beyond that, to do good when my neighbor is in need.

In the first reading from Exodus, we see how seriously God takes the obligation to love our neighbor when God warns His chosen people that his wrath will flare up against those who do wrong to widows, orphans, and even aliens, My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword. Pretty serious stuff, but the language is meant to be shocking to indicate God’s seriousness behind the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Moreover, the text chooses the most vulnerable neighbors as examples, the widow and the orphan who are so dependent on the good will of others, and the alien who is often without rights and subject to exploitation because he is not part of the clan, the tribe, or the country.

We see the same kind of serious condemnations in the great prophets and the minor prophets like Amos who rails against the social injustices in the land of Israel in his day. Amos warns of God’s anger at his people for tolerating such evils in their midst. God warns again and again that the measure of repentance is willingness to undo the wrongs done to one’s neighbor.

Moreover, we see in the Gospels that the way we treat our neighbor, especially the most vulnerable, is going to be part of our final judgment, and we learn that it will be a fearful judgment for those would sin against the obligation to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus, in the account of the final judgment in St. Matthews gospel, warns us that we will be judged not only in terms of our relationship and obligations to God, but also in accordance with the way we treated our neighbor, the way we treated the hungry, the naked, those oppressed and in prison, who are our neighbors regardless of the fact that they may not be our immediate neighbors or companions. In short, in the eyes of God it is not sufficient that we ourselves do not commit evils against our neighbor, but we are required to do good for our neighbor, and especially for those who are most in need and within the scope of our help. And when we cannot personally bring about their relief, at the very least we must not tolerate it and must do all that we can to remove such evils from our society.

Certainly charity begins at home, and without love and compassion toward those closest to us, our family, our immediate neighbors, we will hardly be likely to care about those who are our neighbors at a distance and who are suffering injustice and neglect.

For instance, an immediate example I think of from past history of our country would be the plight of the slaves in our country. Surely it was not sufficient to fulfill the law of love that a Christian refused to have slaves. Would not the law of love have required Christians without slaves to at least try to extend help to those slaves who were suffering from sickness, from the lack of the necessities of life, and from other forms of extreme hardship? But beyond that, even if we could do little to alleviate their suffering because of the constraints of a slave society, would not Christians be bound by the law of love and by a sense of justice to have done everything they could to overturn that institution by unflagging moral opposition and by whatever legal means were available within the parameters of peace and justice.

And of course the same thing is true today. Does not the law of love require that we strive to overcome whatever is gravely unjust in our society? We cannot remove all injustices, even the smallest, simply by good example and the rule of law. But surely we have an obligation to do what we reasonably can by our personal charity to alleviate the misery of our immediate neighbors, and as many of our more remote neighbors in our country and in the world at large, as is reasonably possible.

But beyond our direct charity, the law of love also requires that we also do what we can to change the laws and the social prejudices that make this injustice possible in the first place. This requires first of all a moral opposition to try to change the hearts of legislators, and those who support them, who are behind the legalization of such injustices. Again it’s not enough that we simply bear witness to our immediate neighbors, our co-workers who support injustice to the weak and vulnerable. We have a right and a duty to do what we can, as peaceful citizens, to change the law that supports such grave injustices. Slavery was eradicated not only by moral opposition, but, unfortunately, by a terrible war costing hundreds of thousands of lives. We cannot take that path again, but we must use our power as citizens to fight another kind of war, a peaceful and unflagging struggle to guarantee the most basic human rights to all. That struggle is not optional for those who truly love their neighbor, who truly desire the most basic human goods for all their neighbors.

So, the question then becomes, who is my neighbor? You remember the parable of the Good Samaritan where that question is raised when Jesus insists that love of God must include love of neighbor. For Jesus, my neighbor ultimately is every man, but our duty towards our neighbors begins especially with those whom we have some power to help. We cannot help everyone, at least materially. For instance, we cannot take care of all the needs of the world’s poor by ourselves. We can provide some assistance, but we cannot by ourselves solve the serious problems that underlie these injustices. We have no power to change the laws or the legislators in other countries where injustice toward the poor is often endemic to that society and its political, social and legal institutions. We can pray for them and do what we can to alleviate the material suffering which is immense. But beyond these things we can do little.

But in our own society, we can and must do a lot more. We should not be shirking our personal involvement and expect the government alone to solve these problems. The government is often part of the problem, especially when its laws are making these social evils possible. We have the right and duty to try to change those institutions that support grave evils. We must also try to change the attitudes of society that support such grave evils, by our moral opposition and willingness to dialogue with anyone who is seeking the truth. We must help people to recognize, for instance, that the unborn child is truly our neighbor. Beyond that, we can and must use our political influence and rights to overturn laws that support such grave injustice.

Love your neighbor as your self does not mean simply wishing our victimized neighbors well. It means first of all supporting them in their immediate needs. It also means defending the basic human rights, above all the right to life, especially of the weak and powerless by using all the peaceful and just means at our disposal to change the attitudes of our neighbors who support these immoral laws, and over time by changing the laws themselves.

We all love this country, and as true patriots we must come to see that the very future of our country depends upon the restoration of the social, political and legal institutions that support human life and dignity in all their grandeur, as a gift from God. This effort to love the least of our brethren by the support of our charity and justice will bear witness that we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Feast of Christ the King 2011

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne… Then the King will say to those at his right hand…

What are we to make of the declaration in today’s Gospel that Jesus is the King who will one day return to earth with his legions of angels, take his seat upon a royal throne and pass judgement on the whole human race. Does not much of this strike the modern mind as weird, impossible to believe, fantasy from a long past age. Have we not gone beyond these kinds of beliefs in our modern world?

And yet, the Church continues to proclaim this Gospel today as the final truth about this world and human history, as she did 2000 years ago, without a flinch, without blushing or apologizing in any way. Why? It’s simple. Because she believes that Jesus Christ is truly God, God made man, and so she trusts his word absolutely.

These are the facts that our Gospel declares. There is a God, and there will be a final judgement, and Jesus will be the judge of every man and woman. He will be our judge because He is the Universal King, and the true King is always the ultimate judge of his subjects. Jesus is the King of the universe by divine right, because He is God and because He is God made man.

We Americans don’t have much sympathy with such notions of an absolute ruler, a king by divine right; indeed our nation after all was born from a rebellion against a kind of absolute monarch. Kings in this world tend to be absolute in ways that free men and women no longer will tolerate.

Nonetheless, Jesus Himself claimed to be a king before Pontius Pilate, when He was forced under oath to answer Pilate’s question whether or not he was a king. And then he makes a startling reply, I am. And then he quickly qualifies his answer, but my kingdom is not of this world. The two parts of this reply are most mysterious, and their meaning is the key to our understanding of Jesus as King and Judge, and the basis of our hope in relation to that final determination of our own destiny.

First, Jesus is truly a king, in fact He is the only king who is King by his very nature. He did not become King by war or inheritance, but He was born a King. The gift of gold made by the Magi at his birth along with their prostration before his crib honored his kingship. It was custom in ancient times to prostrate oneself before a king, and gold was a traditional gift made to a king. But Jesus’ Kingship was not the usual earthly kingship, as he informed Pilate, but something much greater in terms of its authority – it was universal – and its purpose – it was spiritual.

Today’s Gospel focuses on these two aspects of His kingship, that it is universal and that it spiritual. The final act of His kingship will be to judge all men, and that judgement will determine the final destiny of each and every person, some rewarded with the blessedness of heaven and others condemned to the punishments of hell. There will be no appeal from this final judgement, because it will be based simply upon the truth and justice, either we have served and obeyed God in our life, and likewise served our neighbor, especially the poor, as Christ’s images, or we have not.

However, there is another aspect of his kingship that can offer comfort. He is not a harsh ruler whose yoke is heavy. His commandments are impossible to fulfill. For Jesus is a most unusual kind of King in that he is a king who acts like a Shepherd more than a king. Isaiah speaks about this in today’s first reading I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.

While Jesus truly is a king, He is a king who while earth never sought anything for himself, but sought everything for the least of his brethren. He wore no purple garments, and his throne ended up being the Cross, and he did it all that he might give everyone a share in his Kingship. And Jesus promises us nothing less than sharing His kingship and glory, if only we imitate his obedience to the Father, and His style of kingship in caring for the least of his brethren, his little ones, as he did when He walked this earth.

Surely that is what the Gospel is pointing to today when it speaks about the last judgement. We will certainly be judged according to the way we live our lives, as his subjects obeying his laws, shaping our conscience by His word, etc. In all that we have reason to be concerned, for we know our frailty and God’s holy justice.

So today the scriptures gives us a clue as to how we can also look forward to his mercy in that judgement, simply by imitating his own manner of kingship, by the way we take care of the least of his brethren. He himself strengthens us with the Eucharist to do just that: and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice. And He also has mercy on us already in this world when we fail to do His will, as he binds up our wounds in the Sacrament of Confession. His Sacred Heart is the great symbol of His boundless love and mercy, just as His kingship is the reminder of his role as the just judge who will determine our fate forever.

That is our great hope as Christians. It is not presumption on our part to believe that we can stand fast before his judgement, so long as we take advantage of the heavenly food and the divine mercy he constantly extends to us in this world as the Shepherd of our souls, and then we in turn honor Him by imitating his kingship in the care of the least of his brethren. The wise Christian is the one who honors Christ as King by submitting to His word and honors Christ’s Sacred Heart as Shepherd, by showing His mercy to others. If we follow Him, cling to him, imitate His Mercy, we will not be lost, for he will always find us close to his little ones, and he will carry us home on his shoulders, and let us one day hear those glorious words, Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Glorious Lord, we honor you today and every day as our King, and we do so by serving your little ones and by entrusting our souls to your Most Sacred Heart.

Amen.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011

October 16, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,
and to God what belongs to God.”
As many times as we’ve heard this text,
perhaps its never been more apropos than today,
as we approach state elections in just 3 weeks away,
and as next years national elections are the topic of daily headlines.
Some try to use this text to tell the Church to mind it’s own business
and keep its nose out of public debate, especially out of elections
Others, however, use it to defend the Church’s involvement in politics.
So what is the meaning of the dichotomy between Caesar and God
that Christ lays out?

Like anything in the word of God, like God himself,
this text has multiple layers and multiple facets.
First, Jesus is talking about relationship between the Church and the state.
Historically, the Old Testament reveals that in the case of Israel
God intended there to be no real distinction.
When God established Israel as a great nation
he made Moses it’s absolute ruler, as well as prophet and priest:
a true theocracy.
And it would continue as a theocracy for 700 years
until Israel was conquered and ruled for another 700 years
by a series of foreign pagan kings.

Which brings us to today’s Gospel.
Here we see 2 groups who were deeply involved
in the political struggles of Israel.
The Herodians who were the “pro-Caesar” Jews
and had no interest at all in a return to a religious monarchy
And the Pharisees, devout Jews who longed for the coming of the Messiah
who would reestablishing the Jewish religious state.
And into their midst walks Jesus, who seems to be the messiah,
which is why the Herodians feared him.
But he’s not the kind of messiah the Pharisees were hoping for,
which is why they feared him.

And so they joined forces to force Jesus to take sides,
so that one or the other can have him arrested and executed.

But he does not take sides.
He simply says:
“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,
and to God what belongs to God.”

He’s is not terribly concerned about the state or creating an earthly kingdom,
but about the conversion of individual hearts and lives.
So in this short and pithy saying he rejects both
the wall of separation
and the religious monarchy.

But he also means something more.
Remember what he says later to Pontius Pilate:
“You would have no power over me
unless it had been given you from above.”
Or what St. Paul’s writes 20 years:
“there is no authority except from God
…Therefore he who resists the authorities
resists what God has appointed.”
And then remember the words from today’s 1st reading from Isaiah,
as God says to Cyrus the Persian,
one of the foreign pagan king who ruled over Israel:
“For the sake ….of Israel…
I have called you by your name, giving you a title,
though you knew me not.”
But then he adds: “I am the LORD and there is no other.”

Now we see more clearly what Jesus meant:
civil authorities have their own proper authority,
but in the end that and all legitimate authority comes from God.

Now, some people today might say that teaching is un-American.
But to me it seems to echo in the words of our nation’s founding document:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident,
that all Men ….are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights…
That to secure these Rights,
Governments are instituted among Men.”

Here the founder’s base our nation’s whole existence on God—the Creator—
and hold that our government exists only
to protect what God has given to man.
This seems to be very close to what Jesus told the Herodians.

Now, it is true that over the centuries the Church has often
become more involved in secular government than Christ
would seem to have preferred:
after the first 300 years of the state persecuting the Church,
we began to see various levels of blurring of the lines
between Church and state
—on the part of both the Church and the state.
In it’s defense we can say, truthfully, that the Church’s efforts
were often well intentioned.
Still, we have to admit that many of the motives of some Churchmen
were not so pure, nor were the results always happy.
And we also see that the more closely the church directly involved itself
with the state or in grasping secular power as it’s own,
the more likely it was to be involved in calamities.

Eventually people rejected the interweaving of the state and religion.
And this rejection came most radically
in the form of 2 great 18th century revolutions.

In one of these revolutions—the French Revolution—
the revolutionaries tried to eradicate the Church altogether,
killing or exiling 10’s of 1000’s of Frenchmen
who simply wanted to practice their Catholic faith.
In the end this was not a separation of Church and state
but merely a new example of the old problem:
a new state persecuting the Church.

But the other revolution was very different.
That was the American revolution.
It did not seek to banish God or Christ, or Christians or Churches
from it’s shores.
In fact the founding fathers saw religion
not only as a fundament human right,
but also as essential to the success of the American experiment.
They believed that the only way America could have
a moral and just government was if it had a moral and just people.
And they believed that religion was essential for this to happen.
As George Washington himself wrote in his Farewell Address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,
religion and morality are indispensable supports….”
And he flatly rejected the idea that
“Morality can be maintained without religion.”

And here we come back to Jesus’ teaching about Caesar and God.
Yes, the government has a legitimate autonomy from the Church.
But no government can ever usurp God’s authority,
whether by suppressing the rights God has given to the people,
or by redefining good as evil, or truth and lies.

Granted, Churchmen have sometimes failed to recognize
the legitimate authority of the secular governments,
and so many times had to hang their heads in shame.
But when Churchmen have simply stuck
to teaching the justice and morality passed on to us by Christ
–of reminding Caesar exactly what it is that belongs to God–
they have fulfilled their God-given mission
and advanced the good of all mankind.

Of course, some today continue to vehemently disagree
even with this limited form of “interference” by the Church.
They say if religious people follow their Churches’
moral teaching when they vote
then Churches will wind up controlling the state.
And they ask, how can there be religious freedom
if we impose one denomination’s morals on the whole society?

The thing is, some basic moral principles transcend denominational teaching
—they are not merely the teaching of “the Church” but
part of what philosophers call the “Natural Law,”
or what the Declaration of Independence calls
“the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
These are moral principles that are so basic that any rational human being
should figure them out all on their own
without a priest or minister teaching them.
For example, any rational thinking person can figure out
that it’s wrong to rape or to intentionally kill innocent people.

Unfortunately, though, all to often we don’t think rationally
—we let our passions, like hatred or greed, lead us in our actions.
And sometimes we just don’t have time to sit and think things through,
as if we were all professional philosophers.
So it’s important for someone—like the Church–to call us to task,
to think,
and to obey “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—the Natural Law.

Because without that
governments will inevitably enact laws
that are contrary to both human reason
and the good that our creator intended:
all we will have is codified injustice.
For example, they might enact and enforce laws
that deny the natural God-given
right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”;
or the God-given freedom of religion or speech.
Clearly, no merely “Human Law” can be “good” or just or even binding
if it contravenes “Natural Law.”

And so we see a 2nd facet of Christ’s saying today:
we must obey Caesar only as long as
Caesar is consistent with the truth that God imprints
in the hearts and reason of all men, religious or not.
Even if man needs to be reminded of these truths
through the efforts of the Catholic Church,
or amateur philosophers like the founders of our great nation.

But how do we apply Christ’s teaching about Caesar and God in 2011?
In today’s Gospel the Herodians come to Jesus with flattering words:
“we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion.”
But Jesus does not respond so sweetly.
Instead he calls them what they are: “hypocrites,”
because
they don’t really want the truth from Jesus;
and they don’t really want him to “teach” them “the way of God”;
and while they call themselves “Jews”
they have chosen to render to Caesar
what belongs to God alone.

Today millions of Catholics do the same thing.
For 38 years Human Law has established a false right to kill unborn babies.
And for 38 years Catholics have gone to the polls and voted for candidates
who defend, support and encourage this abomination.

Like the Herodians 2000 years ago, these so called “Catholics”
choose opinion over truth.
They know the Church teaches infallibly that
abortion is always a grave moral evil.
And they know that the popes have made it clear
that unlike any other issue today,
except same-sex marriage,
abortion is non-negotiable in the political realm.
But even give all that, millions of Catholics still give more credit
to public opinion polls, or to the opinion of the media or a political party,
than to the truth taught by the Church.
They say “I know the Church teaches abortion is wrong…But I think ….”
They can think what ever they want, but they can’t say “I’m a good Catholic”
if they reject Catholic teaching.
A person who does that is called, like the Herodians, a hypocrite.

But it’s not just the teaching of the Church that condemns abortion
—it’s the Natural Law itself.
Every rational human being should know that
there is absolutely no principle more fundamental in the Natural Law
than the absolute right to life of the innocent.
What good is a right to health insurance or economic security or anything else
if there is no right to life?
Any candidate who says he stands for justice
but then refuses to protect this most foundational right
that candidate, like the Herodians,
has given Caesar authority over the things of God
and, like them, is nothing less than a hypocrite.

And, frankly, a Catholic who supports or votes for that candidate
is an even worse hypocrite.
Because while Jesus calls the Herodians “hypocrites” once in today’s Gospel,
in the very next chapter of Matthew Christ turns on the Pharisees
and calls them hypocrites 6 times.
They’re worse than the Herodians
because they should know better than to play games with God’s law.
Catholics who support pro-abortion politicians should also know better.
And they should listen to the warning Christ reserves for Pharisees:
“”Woe to you, …Pharisees, hypocrites!
…You serpents, you brood of vipers,
how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”

Finally, some say,
“Father, I understand all that…but with the economy the way it is….
I have to vote for a candidate who will fix things.”
I am very sympathetic to the pain, confusion and fear
the economy is causing people.
But remember, in today’s Gospel,
what does Jesus have in his hand that he says belongs to Caesar?
A Roman coin: money.
This reveals a 3rd facet of this text:
Jesus doesn’t care a whole lot about money
—it’s part of the world, not part of God.

Who was it that gave you all you have
—the money and the skills and the breaks to have it all?
Was it Caesar, or was it God?
Try as it might, can the government Caesar stop stock market crashes?
It can’t even balance its own books,
how can we expect it to really “fix” all of our economic problems?
And at night is it Caesar you pray to
or do you pray to God
to bring us back from the precipice?
Remember what Jesus says elsewhere:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap
…Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’
….But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,
and all these things shall be yours as well.”

In the coming days, weeks and months, we face some very important decisions.
But when you make those decisions, ask yourself:
when the day of judgment comes
what will you say to Christ, the true king of the world?
Will you have to explain why you joined the other bad Catholics
who were willing to render unto Caesar what really belonged to God;
who were more concerned with Human Laws, personal opinions,
parties ideology, or even their bank accounts,
than with the most simple and fundament demands of justice?
What will you say to Christ?
And what will Christ say to you?
Let us pray that it will not be those 2 terrible words
he once spoke to the Herodians and Pharisee’s:
“you hypocrite.”

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Mt. 22:21

Even the enemies of Jesus were forced at times to recognize His personal integrity, the combination of His intelligence, personal dignity and steadfast will. We see the recognition of his integrity in today’s Gospel where the flattery which introduces the question which is meant to trap Jesus, has to be based upon a commonly recognized truth to be effective. Clearly everyone knew that Jesus was not the kind of man who adapted his teaching in accordance with peoples views of him, that he was “not concerned with anyone’s opinion,” and that he did “not regard a person’s status” when responding to a question. His interest was not in pleasing and winning favor, but simply in the truth of the matter at hand.

At the same time, we see the crowds delight at the quickness of his mind and his wit, the way he could easily silence his enemies when they were trying to trap him. In this case, his enemies wanted to force him to reply to a question in such a way that he would either alienate the people who resented the taxes levied by the Romans, some people even to the point of rebellion, or he would place himself in direct conflict with the political power represented by the Herodians who would quickly report any such treason to their Roman masters. In either case, Jesus would be out of the way, either losing the loyalty of the Jewish people who followed him, or possibly losing his freedom or even his life at the hands of the political power of Rome.

Jesus immediately reveals the duplicity of his interrogators; they are hypocrites, and at least on three levels. Their question is not sincere; they themselves pay the tax, and they do not give to God what they pretend to give, the glory due His name.

Jesus’ reply is stunning in its simplicity and its power. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. The currency with which taxes are paid belongs to Caesar, and those who use this currency for their economic well-being, and this includes virtually every one in this Roman occupied territory, are simply giving back to Caesar what belongs to him. Taxes are not free will offerings, and even the currency with which they are paid belongs to the authority that created that means of exchange.

But it is the second part of the answer which is so devastating to his enemies, and, given the full context of his teaching, they could not possibly miss the point he was making. He called them hypocrites mainly because although they made a show of giving back to God what belongs to God, in fact they did nothing of the sort. They were more than willing to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s, even though they detested Caesar privately, but they were not willing to give to God what was God’s, and they proved it again and again, by their unremitting hostility to the prophets, to John the Baptist, and finally to Jesus himself. They claim to give to God what is God’s and they claim to love God, but in truth their actions betrayed their words, for they would not give to God the glory that was His due, and the culmination of this refusal was the refusal to believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God.

The same drama plays itself out in every age. Men are only too quick to give to Caesar not only what belongs to Caesar but even what belongs to God. In our day, people are quick to give to the state powers which belong only to God; the power to dissolve marriages in civil courts; the power to kill the child in the womb, the power to kill the aged in their beds, the power to tamper with the sources of life in an effort to completely control and freely change human nature itself through an unbridled technology. All these powers are usurped by the state that claims that it has the right to displace God in the exercise of his absolute dominion over life and death, and citizens around the globe are quite willing to give to this new Caesar what belongs to God, without any hesitation.

On the other hand, people today are very resistant to give to God what belongs to God, and not just the authority over life and death in the kinds of issues I just mentioned, but so many people in our society refuse to give to God even the fundamental thing that all human beings owe to God – the worship and glory due to the creator and end of every creature. Even to suggest that mankind individually and collectively owes worship to God is seen by many to be an affront to human dignity.

This refusal to worship God in Spirit and Truth is the final proof that the true crisis of the modern world, at least in the West, is a crisis of faith, and no longer simply a crisis of belief in Jesus Christ but a crisis of belief in God, in the God who is the creator and final end of the whole universe. Like the enemies of Jesus in today’s Gospel, there are high percentages of people today in this country who claim to love God, but they reveal the hypocrisy underlying such claims when they refuse to see the worship of God as a duty, as a commandment grounded on the very relationship of a rational creature to its creator, as a part of the natural law even before it’s a part of the law of Christ.

Of course there is perhaps a lot of ignorance behind this shallow religiosity, for most men no longer understand the central meaning of divine worship. Such an understanding has to begin from the very words of Jesus, “give to God what is God’s.” But what is it that man owes to God? The answer is simple, everything, our existence, our life, our intelligence, freedom, and hope. What then must man offer to God? The answer seems obvious again, everything. Caesar cannot demand that we give him everything, nor anything that contradicts our human dignity and human life. But to God we owe everything, our whole being, and if we are to attain our final purpose our true and only happiness as creatures made in the image and likeness of the one who created us, then we must return everything to God, so that God in turn can complete the gift he made in the moment of our creation.

St. Augustine spoke of this gift that we make to God in divine worship and that God makes to us from the beginning of our creation to its perfection in Him. Divine worship always entails a sacrifice, the rendering of something holy to God, for the praise of God, and for the perfection and happiness of man. In primitive religions this sacrifice was always something external to man, that in one way or another was blessed and then offered to God. This was true even in the Old Testament, but through revelation its true meaning was revealed through the prophets. The sacrifices of the temple were meant to symbolize the interior gift of the person united to God via the covenant. In the prophets we learn that God’s people is to be holy because God is holy, and the ritual washings of the priests, and the rituals surrounding the blessing of the victims, was meant to indicate that what God wanted in sacrifice was the pure heart, the love of his people, which was only being symbolized by the external offerings.

Finally, symbol and reality as related to sacrifice come together in the sacrifice of Jesus. There we see the perfect offering, the reasonable and perfect worship of God, where Jesus gives back everything to the Father, and where the external rite and the internal offering, or self-oblation are perfectly one. The body and blood of Jesus are not mere signs, but they are part of the sacrifice of the whole victim being offered by the high priest of humanity to the Father and creator of the universe. St. Augustine spoke of this in the 10th book of the city of God. Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God. Jesus is the perfect man because he is the perfect sacrifice, the perfect offering of himself in the world back to its creator.

Next, Augustine appeals to Paul who teaches us how we are part of that sacrifice offered by Christ, how our body and our soul, our works of mercy and other good works all become part of that great sacrifice offered by Christ once and for all on Calvary, and then renewed perpetually on our altars. It is here on the altar of the new covenant, of the Eucharistic sacrifice, that we become part of that sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary, perpetually on our altars and eternally in heaven. The Eucharist is what Paul calls our own “reasonable Service,” which is “the true sacrifice of ourselves.” But this offering, in order to be a true sacrifice, must at the same time be whole, a holy sacrifice, and that is why it can only take place within the sacrifice of Christ being perpetually renewed on our altars. Only In Christ, through Him, and with Him – the words that conclude the Eucharistic prayer – can we offer a truly holy sacrifice which includes our whole self, our works, our sufferings, our mercy. In spite of all the imperfections that are part of our daily lives and our persons, in Christ there is nothing but holiness being offered back to God.

Finally, St. Augustine pulls all this teaching together in his vision of the universal sacrifice of the church made in and through Christ:
It follows that the whole redeemed city, that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints, is offered to God as our sacrifice through the great High Priest.
This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God.

When we read these words of St. Augustine, what more is there to say about this marvelous conjunction of sign and reality, Christ and the church, heaven and earth. In the Eucharist, at last, man can truly give back to God what is God’s, the goodness and holiness of creation hidden here beneath the humble signs of bread and wine. It is the sacrifice of the Lord of creation offered back to the Father, the Origin of everything, deep calling out to deep, and we too are caught up in this great hymn of endless glory rendered to our God.

Amen.