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.


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,”
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.


28th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son…” Matt 22:2 There is nothing perhaps more universal in human societies than the celebration a marriage banquet with its great meal, entertainment and the great company of relatives and friends. Wedding banquets are enjoyed by virtually everyone in every culture. How interesting then that Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a great wedding banquet given by a King for His Son. So that is what Heaven is, a great wedding feast provided by God for His Son, Jesus. Great wedding banquets in this world are joyful and exhilarating, great food, great company, music, conversation, happiness. What, then, must that eternal wedding feast be like that constitutes the life of the Angels and Saints. It can’t be less joyful or less exhilarating, or less happy than the greatest earthly wedding feast. It has to be joy, happiness exhilaration raised to the nth degree, an experience we can only begin to imagine here on earth, assuming we have known the joy, happiness and exhilaration of such a feast here in earth. St. Paul describes this unparalleled joy and happiness of the Heavenly wedding banquet this way: “hat no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceive the things God has prepared for those.

Well, then, who are the main players in this eternal feast? The Father, of course, and then the Son who is the eternal bridegroom. But who is the Bride? We are, that is the Church is, the Church is the Bride of Christ, and in Heaven, the Church will consist only of the saints who have proven faithful to the Bridegroom here on earth. In a real sense there are no guests at this wedding feast, but only the Bride and Groom. But, there are countless persons present since the Bride is constituted by all the faithful who are judged worthy of the Bridegroom and His Kingdom.

Human Marriage was, from the beginning, intended by God to be a sign of this eternal union between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ and then in the union between Christ and His Church. That’s why Jesus made Christian marriage a true sacrament of grace, because all grace comes to this world from the union between Christ and His Church. Moreover, Genesis says that by virtue of marriage man and woman become one flesh. And that mystery reaches unheard of depths when Jesus becomes one flesh with the Church when she becomes His Bride through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

That mystery of the union between Christ and His Church, the mystery and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” [25:6] Moreover, this great banquet will not be limited to Israel, for Isaiah adds that On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide [this feast] for all peoples. But what is this eternal rich food and choice wine that will be given on the Mountain? Surely this food and wine are something spiritual, for Paul says in his Letter to the Romans (14:17) “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

And that fact brings us back to earth. For there is already a sacrificial banquet of the Church that is deeply spiritual in nature, providing the rich food of Christ’s body and the choicest wine of Christ’s blood. The Eucharist we celebrate, then, is in fact the beginning of the Eternal wedding feast of Heaven, and thus the Heavenly eternal wedding feast we have been looking at begins already here on earth and then reaches its fullness only in Heaven. There it will be unending, eternal, endless joy and happiness; no going back into the world. Here it is only beginning, a foretaste, a promise of what is to come, so long as we remain part of the feast here on earth.

The Church, then, with here Eucharistic banquet is not only the Bride of Christ but the new Zion, the new mountain of God from which and Eucharist is indeed the beginning of the great Heavenly banquet, offering to God and to man the richest food and wine which is the sacred body and blood of Jesus the Bridegroom.

Once you believe in this great work of God and live this truth at the banquet of the Eucharist, you begin to understand why for Paul nothing is really necessary for his happiness except Christ. Sure we need food and clothing because we are not spirits without bodies, but even these things are nothing in comparison to the blessing we have already received in Christ, nothing compared to our faith which enables us to receive Christ in our hearts, and in our very bodies through the Eucharist.

The only thing that we need fear is that we might grow bored by the banquet of the Eucharist, lose our interest in the Bread of Life and end up rejecting the invitation of the Father because our business or our leisure or our rest seems more important than the wedding feast . How many Catholics have done just that today, abandoned the Eucharist, then abandoned the Church which is the Bride of Christ?

We must not grow careless and allow ourselves to grow cold, to be lax and find ourselves unprepared to join the Heavenly banquet due to our care ­servants are late for the banquet and find themselves locked out. When I hear that parable I always think of how it might apply to people who are frequently careless about getting to Church on time. What does it say about their love for the Bridegroom when they show up late or leave early week after week – that it’s not out of love but just a sense of duty that they come at all, like attending a funeral or wedding of someone we don’t particularly care about, but feel a duty to go anyway. Is this the way we will show up at that final Heavenly banquet? Does not such carelessness eventually destroy one’s love for the Bridegroom and the Bride?

Nor must be become presumptuous like the man at the end of the parable who shows up, but is not dressed rightly for the banquet. Some Fathers interpreted this wedding garment, correctly I think, as the Baptismal grace which is symbolized by the white garment placed over the newly Baptized. One cannot even enter the Heavenly banquet without this Baptismal garment of grace, and it is presumptuous to think we can enter the eternal wedding feast without Grace. It is an insult to the King.

There is no greater privilege that we receive in this life than our ability to participate in the Holy Eucharist, not simply as a guest, but as part of the Bride, part of the Church. We should be doing this with great love and purity, and not simply out of a sense of duty, which it is of course. But love is the real power of the wedding feast of Jesus. Nothing is more important each week for our salvation than this Mass. It is truly a feast of love, and a feast of joy, at least for those who truly believe in the One who calls us and makes us his children, and His Church.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011: “Respect Life Sunday”

October 2, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

The first Sunday of October, has, for years,
been designated by the Catholic Bishops in America
as “Respect Life Sunday.”
So, as I have for the last 16 years,
today I will preach on the topic of respecting life:
specifically on the evil of abortion.

But I gotta tell you, part of me wonders: Why? What good does it do?
After all these years of 1000’s of priests, bishops and Popes,
proclaiming the Gospel of Life
so many Catholics still don’t understand
that abortion is destroying not only
the lives of millions of unborn babies, and their mothers,
but also mankind’s fundamental respect for all aspects human life.

Sometimes I feel a bit like those servants we read about in today’s Gospel:
“he sent his servants to the tenants ….
But … one they beat,
another they killed,
and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants….but they treated them in the same way.”

Now, it’s true, no one has stoned or killed me
or any other priest I know for preaching pro-life.
True: but they’ve done worse:
they continue to either support or to vote for those who support
the killing of the most innocent human beings in abortion.

Why don’t Catholics get it?
The last few years one particular reason seems to stand out.
It seems that sometimes we allow the term “pro-life” or “respect-life”
to have a mixed or ambiguous meaning
that winds up confusing Catholics
regarding the fundamental issues and priorities involved.

So let’s clarify something: what does it mean to “respect life”?

Now, as Christians, we are called to respect the life of all human beings
because each is created in the image of God,
and shares a unique dignity and life given by God himself.
But it doesn’t take a Christian or even a religious person to see this:
every rational human being should understand
that the life of every human being demands respect.

But how far do the demands of respect go?
Does respect for human life demand that if someone attacks me,
I can’t defend myself,
even if they’re trying to kill me?
What about if they’re trying to kill my children?

Does it mean countries can’t go to war for a grave reason,
even if their attacked or fight to liberate the oppressed?
Does it mean that we can never punish a criminal,
or deny immigration to an alien?
Going even further, does it mean you can’t provide for yourself or your family
before you provide for a stranger?

“Respect” is a big word, and respect for human life is very demanding.
But there are limitations.
Common sense, and the Church, teach us that there is
a certain hierarchy and order in human life, and so in the ways of respect.
For example:
we place duty to family ahead of duty to strangers,
we respect individual responsibility and free will,
and we recognize that some human choices don’t deserve respect
because they are contrary to human dignity.

Now, it can be very confusing to figure out all the various duties and demands
of respecting human life.
But to begin to do this we need to keep in mind the fundamentals
—the most basic and important principles
set the priority and order of everything that follows.

So what is the most fundamental demand of respecting human life?
It’s not to hard to figure out on our own, but again God helps us by commanding:
“thou shall not kill.”
If we look carefully at Scripture
we discover that this has pretty basic common sense meaning:
one can never ever intentionally and directly
kill an innocent human being.
This is the most fundamental principle of respecting human life.
And so it is absolute and without exception.

And as we sort of move away from situations
where this fundamental principle directly applies
we see that all the other demands of respect for life
come from it and relate back to it,
even as they become more subtle,
allowing for different non-absolute responses.

So, for example, the first step away might be the case of self-defense.
If someone is trying to kill you he is not innocent,
so the principle in it’s most absolute form does not apply.
You still have to respect the person’s non-innocent life,
but not at the cost of your own innocent life:
you can fight back, even taking his life to save yours.

Or take another step.
You’re driving at a normal speed
and suddenly someone rushes into the road and you hit him.
Respect for life requires you to try not to hit him
—but if it’s unavoidable,
if you unintentionally hit him, you have not failed to respect his life.

Walk way down that road now.
Say a man comes to you demanding money for food.
You know he’s healthy and employable, but he’s lazy and chosen not to work.
If you refuse his request for help do you fail to respect life?
He was not innocent, and you did not intend for him to starve.
So respect for his life did not require that you help him.
In fact, you could reasonably argue that respect required you to scold him,
to have more respect for himself: “go get a job.”
As St. Paul says elsewhere: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.”

The point is: we begin with the fundamental rule and that orders all the rest.
And the flipside of this is equally important:
if we don’t observe the fundamental rule,
none of the rest have any order or make any sense.

Elsewhere in Scripture Jesus talks about:
“a foolish man who built his house upon the sand;
the rain fell, and the floods came, and …that house, …fell.”
And in today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
The cornerstone of respecting human life
is the absolute right to life of innocent human beings.
Pull that cornerstone out, and like a house built on sand in a flood,
the whole house will fall.

If we don’t understand that duty to protect innocent human life,
what would make us think we’re required us to feed the hungry,
even when they truly cannot help themselves?
How do we know that one nation may not attack another without a just cause?
All of our high-minded ideals of justice and duty and respect
are nonsense, if not grounded in the most simple, basic and fundamental
principle of respect for innocent life.

And so we come to abortion, which is unarguably the killing of
the most innocent and defenseless of human beings.
And talk about abortion obviously has public and even political ramifications,
especially just one month before state elections,
and we get deeper into next year’s national elections.

Some people argue that there are more important issues at stake than abortion.
But what can be more important than the systematic promotion
of the abuse of most fundamental moral principle,
attacking the most fundamentally innocent?
1.4 million abortions a year, more than 50 million in 38 years,
and millions more to come?

Or they say that even if abortion is the most important single issue,
lots of other smaller issues combine to outweigh it.
Some people say they show their respect for life by working for
the end of the death penalty,
health care for the uninsured,
prosperity for the poor and middle classes,
and for the rights of immigrants.
Let’s set aside the fact that good people—even Good Catholics—
can disagree about each of these issues and others like them;
for example, the Church teaches that sometimes
the death penalty is allowed and even necessary.
But what sense do these lesser issues make
and how can we understand the right way to approach them,
if our understanding of them is not founded upon the issue:
absolute respect for the right to life of innocent human beings?
And how can we trust someone to promote and value these subsidiary issues,
when he rejects the cornerstone issue ?
It’s like putting up the windows or the doors of a house
before you lay the foundation
—they’ll either blow away in the wind
or some dishonest person will come and walk off with them.

For example, how can we trust a politician
with making the right decision about health care rights
—a decision that embodies a true respect for life—
when the politician can’t understand that a baby’s right to health care
exists only when it has life,
that health without life is literally meaningless.

Some argue that we need to fix our immigration policy:
some say we need to crack down and seal the borders,
others say we need to open the borders and end alleged discrimination.
Good Catholics can disagree with on this issue,
and question each other’s judgments,
but why would we think politicians
who enthusiastically embrace unquestionably unjust attacks
on the most defenseless and innocent members
of our own society—the unborn—
would avoid unjustly harming immigrants in the future?
It’s like voting for a member of the Klan
because he claims to support minority voting rights.

Some even argue that the current economic crisis requires us
to ignore abortion in order to fix our fiscal house
–and I agree that our fiscal problems are hugely important.
But how do you begin to count the cost of millions of aborted innocents?
How do you weigh on a scale
10’s of millions of babies against trillions of dollars of debt?
Would you take a trillion dollars to kill your neighbor’s child?
Sounds a bit like Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver
For betraying the perfectly innocent one.
“What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”

And in a certain sense, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1.4 million babies or only 1 baby:
anyone who’s moral system,
whose sense of respecting human life,
promotes and defends the death of even one innocent human life
in order to achieve some perceived good of many others
is a fool and a reprobate.
This logic is nothing new:
Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus to death, once said:
“it is better that one man should die for the people,
than the whole nation perish.”
One wonders if Caiaphas was in the group of “chief priests”
that Jesus was talking to in today’s Gospel.

Speaking of priests,
some of you may be tired of priests preaching about abortion.
Friends, frankly, I agree with you.
But remember how Jesus chastised the Jewish priests for their failures:
for rejecting the prophets—and him!
So as long as human life is so fundamentally disrespected by so many Catholics
that they fail to rise up with all other like-minded pro-life Americans,
and crush the plague of abortion in this country,
God himself will continue to send his servants, his priests,
and they must do their best to try to collect what is due Him:
respect for the truth, and respect for human life.

But priests are not the only servants he sends.
Each of you is also his servant.
So act like it, and go out into the world you live in
and proclaim the Gospel of Life.
Demand, with charity and clarity,
that human life be respected, especially in the most fundamental way:
respect for the life of the innocent and defenseless unborn.
And make that demand known wherever God sends you
—at home, at work, at school, at play,
and in the voting booth.

Friends, Christ is the cornerstone of our faith and of our life itself.
And he has taught us to recognize that common sense dictates
we must respect every human being
as having a unique dignity and life given by God himself.
And he has taught us that the cornerstone of that respect for life
is respect for the right to life of the most innocent and defenseless among us.
If we would not reject Christ the cornerstone,
let us not reject this cornerstone of respect for human life.

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011: Respect Life Sunday

Today, the First Sunday in October, is the Catholic Church’s Respect Life Sunday in our Country. In Catholic teaching, there is the strongest connection between our obligation to defend and promote the value of human life and the way we esteem the dignity of each and every human person. Pope Benedict XVI summarized this connection in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, (n. 15), citing Pope John Paul II: The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that “a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.” ( from Evangelium Vitae n. 101)

The dignity of the human person is a capital value for Christians and it should be a capital value for all mankind. John Paul II made this point in his great encyclical The Gospel of Life: He said, “The Gospel of life is not for believers alone: it is for everyone …Although faith provides special light and strength, this question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and which cares about the future of humanity. Life certainly has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone.”

What is at stake, then, in defending human life is the future of humanity, the value of each and every person’s life, and while faith strengthens our understanding of the value of life, the truth about man’s great dignity, nonetheless, the fact of this value can be grasped by the light of reason when anyone’s conscience seeks the truth and cares about mankind’s future.

We know that respect for life is a far reaching respect and embraces all the social and political issues that touch the value of human life, either denigrating or enhancing a society’s valuing of human life and dignity. Respect for life defends the young and the old who are weak or defenseless, the handicapped, the poverty stricken, the sick, the victims of violence, etc. Respect for Life tries to remedy whatever denies the value of human life and undercuts the dignity of the human person. All that is true, but the most basic value of all that undergirds all the rest of our rights is the right to life itself. Again John Paul II summarizes this hierarchy of value and human rights most clearly: “When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death-is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands, she ‘wants simply to promote a human State, a state which recognizes the defense of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty.'”

Many Catholics today will accept the position that respect for life has to be far reaching and not simply refer to the right to life of the unborn, and that is true, as the Pope affirms. But too many Catholics do not go far enough and recognize the truth that is enunciated here, that what underlies all the other rights that dignify the human person is the “unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person-from conception to natural death.” This unconditional right is one of the pillars which supports every civilized society. The truly human state is one that upholds the fundamental rights of the human person, above all the weakest members, and does so by enshrining the right to life as unconditional and the foundation of the other human rights.

One of the side effects of the long struggle the Church is engaged in by defending the right to life is the greater understanding she is promoting when it comes to the true dignity of the person, the incomparable value of every human life and the meaning of a truly human society and state. This same Pope once said, during a visit to this country, that the ultimate measure of the greatness of a country is the way it treats the most defenseless of its citizens. Mother Teresa often said the same thing, only she would say we are poor or rich in accord with the way treat the weakest brothers and sisters. What these two holy ones were telling us was that the future of our society, the future of our world ultimately depends on the respect for life itself.

Until they spoke, I did not understand a childhood experience of mine and what it was meant to teach me by God. I had a young cousin who was born with a terrible cancer that eventually left him both deaf and blind, but he was a very special and loving child for his loving parents. For me it was scary that a child could have this deadly disease and its terrible consequences. But his parents asked me to take Eddy for a ride and bicycle built for two, and again I was fearful – could he hang on, would I mess up and hurt him, would he even be able to enjoy it being blind and deaf? As we road and I got some confidence, I picked up speed and Eddy let out howls of joy at the wind and movement of the bike. And I began to understand his parents love.

He was a child of God, and truly an innocent due to his terrible handicaps which at the same time preserved his innocence, and he was able to enjoy that ride better than me. His parents were good Catholics and they saw him as a special gift because he was truly a loving child, much more than me, because he was not soiled by the normal self-centeredness that grows from sin even in childhood. He died when he was 13 and his parents were heart-broken just like all parents who lose a child. He was a child of God, with all the dignity of a child of God and more, because he was so innocent in life.

This is what the Church is trying to teach the world about man, that every person has such value because every person is made in the image and likeness of God, even the most severely handicapped. We see the outer man with all his wounds, but God sees the inner soul, and in this case, a soul that was beautiful since Baptism. The world is like that bicycle built for two, but it’s a bicycle built for billions, and those who can peddle need to defend those who can’t, those who can steer need to do so for those who can’t. That’s how we become, as Mother Teresa was so fond of saying, something beautiful for God, and that’s how we make a more human society.

I leave you with this wonderful insight of Pope John Paul at the end of The Gospel of Life:
To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good. It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop.

To be actively pro-life is to help renew society, to promote a more human society, to build a civilization of love where all are welcome at the table of life. You can be actively pro-life in many ways; you can start by voting for any party’s candidates who affirm an unconditional right to life of the innocent; by financially supporting the intermediary institutions that support life like Tepeyac Family Center here in Fairfax which gives medical support to women who want to bring their child to birth but lack the financial resources to get proper care; and above all by praying daily for the conversion of this country and its leaders, so we can renew our society by purifying the soul of America so tarnished by the moral blights of abortion and euthanasia. That’s true patriotism and will do more to save this country than anything else.

God Bless you.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also for those of others.

How did Jesus Christ redeem us, the human race, from our sins and save us from Eternal damnation? The Catechism teaches us the faith of the Church when it says that Jesus redeemed us by his self-sacrifice on the Cross. St. Paul describes that sacrifice as essentially an act of perfect obedience: “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is the sacrifice that redeemed the world by reversing the whole course of human history, reversing the disobedience of man from the beginning, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus that infinitely compensated for the Original Sin of the human race and for all man’s disobedience by which man alienates Himself from God. The external bloody immolation of Christ on the Cross is the final act of his perfect obedience to the will of the Father, who willed that He should not defend himself by His power as God, but should allow himself to be subjected to man’s cruelty and evil that knew no bounds, to suffer with the human race and for the human race, and conquer that evil by love alone.

It is not within our power to understand this decision of the Father, but we believe that it is part of the mystery of God’s love that surpasses all human comprehension. We do not understand God’s ways, and above all the way of love that led Jesus to the Cross for our sake. The mystery is present from the beginning for God created the universe and man not our of any necessity, but purely our of love. It is the same divine love that originated the creation, that guides everything in creation, and that redeemed creation by redeeming man in the supreme act of Jesus’ love on the Cross.

But that redemptive love is simultaneously an act of obedience which reverses the disobedience of our first parents and which infinitely satisfies Divine Justice for that Sin and for all the sins of man which are essentially acts of disobedience and failures to love God as we must. Man’s disobedience, his countless rejections of the divine law and the divine love that stands behind that law is now repaired, satisfied for, reversed in the glory of Christ’s perfect obedience which is the heart of the sacrifice of the Cross.

But how can we then continue that mystery of evil by our sins, by our disobedience and failure to love God sufficiently to obey him. We see how deep this rebelliousness is in man fright from the earliest years of our life when we disobey God in disobeying our parents, and who taught us to rebel? Who teaches your children to rebel against you? It is Original Sin that implants this spirit of rebellion in us from the beginning, and that spirit of rebellion grows if not checked by God’s grace, and we see this in the rebellion of youthful adolescence against authority, parental authority, other forms of human authority and even against God’s authority.

If Original Sin accounts for the spirit of disobedience in us, what was the root cause of the Original Sin itself, which will be the root of our sins as well? What, then, is the ultimate root of sin and the rebellion which we experience in our souls even after the grace of Baptism purifies us from sin and reestablishes our filial relationship with God? Again St. Paul teaches us the truth about this ultimate root; it is pride, the self-centeredness that leads us to rebel against authority including the authority of God. Listen for the truth about that ultimate root of sin found in the description of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, which reversed it, the self-immolation which began at His conception and ended on the Cross: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … He humbled Himself becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Pride was the root of man’s Original rebellion, and pride is thus at the root of every sin thereafter in the human heart: Satan’s I will not serve; Our I will not obey, just like the two sons in the Gospel. Even the one who eventually obeys says first I will not serve. The other says he will, but in his heart he refuses. That’s us. Our pride says no to God when God’s will is contrary to ours. Jesus showed us the way back from this pride to the love that always does the will of the Father. He emptied himself. We are so full of ourselves that we cannot love as we ought to. He humbled himself. We are anything but truly humble. We are creatures who act as if we are God, placing our will, our self above the will of God our Creator. Unless we learn to empty ourselves, to humble our selves, we will never really know how to love God as God loves us.

The way of love, God’s way of love can be seen in Jesus’ life and death: In Hebrews he says simply, I come to do your will, and in the Garden of Gethsemane He says, while sweating blood, thy will be done, not mine. Obedience is the path back to divine love, the path of humility, of self-emptying. Obedience is the creatures act of humility, the pre-condition of perfect love. Every time I deny my self, my self-will, to obey God’s Will, even in the smallest things, I grow in humility and in the power to love. There is no other way back for us sinners. Jesus has shown us the sacrificial way to the Father’s Love. There is no other way but His.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011

September 18, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.

What is the meaning of life and death?
Every culture, and every age seems to make its own attempt
to answer these questions.
In our time and our culture we find a lot of people seeing life in terms of
“quality of life” and “length of life.”
The huge swings in the stock market and the other bad economic news
we keep hearing reminds us how many of us
tend to see life all to often in terms of money and “success.”
But one of the great things about being Christian
is that we don’t have to worry about those things,
because we know the meaning of life and death
–as St. Paul tells us today in the second reading:
“To me, life is Christ, and death is gain.”

This beautiful passage of St. Paul puts the whole Christian perspective on
the meaning of life and death in a nutshell.
While the secular world approaches life looking for its meaning and purpose
in quality or longevity, or “success” or riches.
Christians look at life and see it as something which has meaning
only to the extent its lived as a life with Christ.
As God tells the Prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:
“my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”
The world looks at death and sees only the end of life
–perceiving it as either something to be feared and avoided,
or perhaps as a way out of a life that “lacks quality”
or has gone on “too long” or become unsuccessful
But Christians look at death and see the perfection of living life with Christ.

The fundamental truth of the Christian perspective is that life centers on Christ.
We are called to live with him to share in his divine life
every moment in this world.
And we believe that life isn’t meant to end with death
–its meant only to change, to be perfected by sharing in divine life forever.
Thus, St. Paul says: ” life is Christ, and death is gain.”

Life in this world isn’t bad or something to be despised.
Life in this world is good
–but only if its lived with the understanding that its ultimate purpose
is to allow us to grow closer in love to Christ
–realizing that this love is only perfected
when we are in perfect unity with Christ
in the world we enter after death.

This is what St. Paul means when he says:
“If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me…
necessary for your benefit.”
Life is only truly good, truly beautiful, truly “successful” and even truly “fun”
only when its lived in a manner
that’s fruitful for the Lord:
when it is lived in a way that brings about
the will and the love of the Lord in the world.
In short, when it produces, in us and those around us, “holiness.”

But when life in the flesh is over, perfection of this life, and of this holiness
comes for those who have been fruitful, or productive [for Christ]
–those who have labored to live a holy life.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord reminds us
that its not how long you work for holiness,
but the fact that you do in fact work for holiness
–work for Christ in your life and in the life of the world around you.
When we do this,
he will reward us with a full days wages
when our time on earth has ended.
Notice–a full days wages, where nothing is lacking in our reward,
where all our labor is brought to perfection, completeness,
and fullness in Christ.

So death is nothing to fear, if we have worked hard for the Lord in life.
And life is nothing to be avoided or despised or deliberately terminated
–it is to be lived and enjoyed in the context of working for holiness.

When I was a brand new priest, 15 years ago, part of my first assignment
was as part-time Catholic Chaplain at Alexandria Hospital.
So, several times a week,
I’d take communion,
and give the sacrament of anointing, hear confession, and pray
with the sick and the dying.
I quickly discovered, as any priest will tell you, that its in places like that,
in hospitals and nursing homes and in the homes of the homebound,
that you really see the meaning of life and death,
and Christian productivity yielding the fruit of holiness
and the rewards of eternal life.
In places like that, where people can’t even get out of bed
to go to the bathroom by themselves,
much less enjoy what most people consider a quality lifestyle.
There, where life is not fun by any human understanding.
Where money and worldly success has little use
in the face of loneliness, pain and looming eternity.
There the mystery of Christian life and death take on concrete shape.

There’s one woman I used to visited in the hospital
who in many ways personifies all this.
You may have heard me talk about her before,
because she was truly remarkable.
She was dying a very painful death from cancer.
She couldn’t get out of bed, she could barely move to drink water from a straw.
She had tubes running in and out of her body
—she was at the complete mercy of her caregivers.
And yet she knew that her life still had meaning and purpose.
She had followed the instruction of the Lord that we read in today’s first reading:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found.”
She sought him even by her sick bed—her death bed.
And finding him there she clung to him tightly,
and placed Jesus Christ right in the middle of her life,
accepting her circumstance and seeking ways every day
to fruitfully labor for the Lord
–to produce holiness in this world.

And she succeeded.
Everyday, she became more and more deeply aware
of her complete dependence on God and his grace,
and of his many gifts to her both in her past life
and even her life in the hospital
–especially the great gift of his consoling love.
And she saw her life as producing holiness in the lives of those around her
–like the nurse who began to pray with her every day,
and the other nurse who, after years away from the Church,
started to go to Mass again.
Or like the priests that came to bring her the sacraments
–who she instructed in the ways of Christian living and dying
as they saw her understanding her life of suffering
as fruitful labor to bring the holiness of Christ into this world.
She was not afraid to live—because she saw it as bringing her closer to Christ.
Nor was she afraid to die, because she has great faith and hope
that it would perfect her closeness to Christ.
She understood what St. Paul tells us today:
“Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
… I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.”

Many people are afraid to die–and they try all sorts of things
to avoid death or even thinking about death.
Many others are afraid to live
–at least live in a way that is difficult or painful
or a failure in the eyes of the world.
So they seek ways to end life
–either slowly in destructive habits, like drugs or alcohol
or sexual promiscuity or self-absorbed lifestyles,
–or quickly in self inflicted death.
We see it all around us
—maybe from time to time we ourselves,
in large ways or small,
fall into this way of thinking.
We succumb to the thinking and the ways of the world,
and forget that
“[God’s] thoughts are not [our] thoughts,
nor are [His] ways [our] ways.”

But for the Christian, this perspective is unacceptable
–because in the life in the flesh we live for Christ,
and in our life after death, we live with him forever.

Is Christ at the center of your understanding of life?
Are you afraid to live, knowing–as a Christian—
that living should be a life with Christ,
and maybe you have to change some things in your life to do that?
Are you afraid to die, knowing–as a Christian—
that perfect and eternal life awaits only those
who have worked for the Lord in this world,
and maybe that doesn’t very accurately describe
what you’ve been doing?

If you are afraid, don’t be.
It’s not too late to live for Christ and go to work for Him.
Because, as today’s Gospel reminds us,
whether we come to work for the Lord
at the dawn or the evening of the day,
as a child or as a senior citizen,
it’s never too late
—as long as the sun has not set on this earthly life of ours.

As we enter now into the mystery of the life and death of Christ,
this mystery of the Mass and Holy Eucharist,
let us pray, now and always,
that we may put aside our worldly ways of thinking and living
and begin to let God’s thoughts become our thoughts
and His ways become our ways.
So that the words of the apostle Paul may truly become our own:
“To me, life is Christ, and death is gain.”

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2011

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

The parable we just listened to in today’s Gospel has always been a diffi-cult one for Christians to grasp. It is difficult for us to understand because the way the owner of the vineyard pays his workers perhaps does not seem fair, by our standards of economic fairness. In order to better understand the teaching of the parable, we have to begin with the truth stated by Isaiah in the first reading, that God’s way of thinking and acting is not ours, that it is as far beyond our way of thinking as the distance between heaven and earth. Unless we keep that profound truth in mind, we will cut ourselves off from what Jesus is really trying to teach us in this parable or others.

So let us begin with the root of our problem in grasping the teaching of this parable: we get stuck immediately on what may seem a question of eco-nomic justice or injustice, the matter of paying everyone the same for differ-ent amounts of work. However, the parable is not about economics, but about salvation. The parable is really about the way God saves us and the way God rewards us for our efforts in the Kingdom of God.

The image of the vineyard can be found in various teachings of Jesus, and it is identified with the Kingdom of God, the Church, the place of salvation. The owner is God, and we are those looking for work, for salvation, found in the vineyard. The first thing to be grasped is that the Owner, God, has no ob-ligation to let any of us into His vineyard. So whether we are allowed into the vineyard early or late, young or old, the fact that we are there at all is a pure gift from the owner. That is the first Grace as theologians define it, the grace of justification whereby we are brought into the vineyard to work for its fruitfulness. It might be seen as the image of the Sacrament of Baptism, the pure gift of our generous God who brings us into His kingdom through merits of our own, but by his pure generosity. We enter to go to work, for the Kingdom, and whether our work (our lifelong work) is long – all day or half a day as in the parable – or brief, the final hour, the reward, the good that we will receive from the owner, will be great.

However, notice what the first good we receive really is – that first good is simply the opportunity to enter the Vineyard and go to work, and that gift, that good, salvation. is the same for all, whether they come early or late to the Vineyard. There is no greater or lesser good of salvation itself. What greater good can there be for us than to be in the Vineyard, in God’s King-dom, with God.

But then we see the second good which is simultaneously a gift and a re-ward, a gift because it follows upon the prior gift of salvation, our being brought into the vineyard, the Kingdom of God, and a reward because we work to earn it. And this is where the problem really gets difficult for under-standing the meaning of the parable. It seems that God gives everybody who works in the vineyard the same reward, the same goods, no matter how long they’ve worked. That is what strikes our way of thinking about fairness as something unfair. Why do the last guys who worked but an hour get as much as those who worked all day? This does not see fair, at first sight at least.

But let us look closer. Even in terms of justice, earthly justice, is there an-ything unjust that the owner has done in giving the last the same as the first. How can there be injustice when the owner gives the first workers what they agreed on, the just wage for a day’s work. He in fact says to those at noon “I will give you what is just.” So he is a just man. The workers do not dispute

this fact. So when he gives the later hired workers the same as the first, he is not committing an injustice on anyone. He is paying the first workers what they agreed to as a just wage. He is giving the others more than justice de-mands, he is giving them a gift of mercy that goes beyond justice. They needed a day’s wages to feed their families that day, like the first hired. So he gave them what justice demands, an hour’s pay, and what his mercy in-spires, the other hours’ wages as a gift to feed their families. The first work-ers grumble because they think the owner should give them more than a just wage, simply because he gives more than a just wage to the later hired work-ers. The owner sets them straight at the end: “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”

But again this is not a parable about economic justice. It has to do with God’s salvation, how Salvation takes place. We have already seen that eve-ryone is equally treated when it comes to the first grace, the grace of justifi-cation, for none us can earn that salvation. Salvation begins by our being transplanted from the world of sin and death to the new world of God’s Kingdom, the Vineyard in the parable. None of has a right to enter the King-dom, to be made one of God’s children. The grace of justification is the same for all of us, that free conversion from a child of this world to a child of God. It’s like getting pregnant, every woman is equally pregnant in the first mo-ment – none is just a little pregnant and none are more pregnant.

But the parable goes further. We are transferred by God’s Grace into the Vineyard to work, to work for the Kingdom of God and its growth. And for that work we will be rewarded. However, it’s never a reward based purely on some kind of human justice. We always get more than we deserve for our work, whether we come in first or last. God is generous with his goods just like the owner in the parable, but even more so. If we are humble enough to follow Jesus’ teaching here, then we will get closer to the mystery of God’s generosity truth by reflecting in faith upon this parable.

Two truths come into play here. First God is never unjust because God’s mercy always goes beyond, gives more than justice alone would demand. So if God gave more reward to the last workers than the first, that is due to his mercy and generosity. After all God has given far more grace to Mary right from the first moment of her conception; he not only gave her the grace of adoption, but God also gave her tremendous endowments of further graces along with the grace of adoption, and this before she ever did any work in the vineyard. Jesus taught us that God always gives us more than we de-serve, much more, and in Mary’s case even more than the highest angels. Are we envious because God was more generous to Mary than to us?

But there is a second truth that can come into play here that is more along the lines of justice. In the Kingdom, it’s not simply the hours we work that are rewarded, but the intensity of our work, the devotion and love that moti-vates it. Martyrs who may have entered the Church, the Kingdom, the vi-neyard, just briefly before their martyrdom surely merit a greater reward than those who enter the Kingdom as infants but live lives that are barely commit-ted to the Kingdom, what Jesus calls tepid or lukewarm Christian lives, but nonetheless Christian lives. They live and die Christians, but is their reward in Heaven, the degree of their happiness, their blessedness to be that of the Martyrs?

The Christian life can be perfected, lived to the greatest intensity in a brief time. Child saints and the martyr who dies for Christ scarcely after Baptism are examples. But we have examples in this world also. Soldiers, who might have served only briefly, but who sacrificed their lives by a heroic deed are examples of this truth. They lived more perfectly what it means not simply to be a great soldier, but a great man, as Jesus taught when he said that no greater love than that one lays down one’s life for one’s friends. That is why we honor such soldiers as heroes, as the kind of people that allow us to see what man is really capable of when motivated by love, what can be at his best.

So too in the parable, the last workers might have come first because they worked with greater love, greater intensity, greater generosity. And the own-er will not be outdone in generosity. That offers great hope to those who find the Kingdom later in life, who begin their work day late in life. The life of a child of God is not measured ultimately by its duration, but by its intensity of faith, hope, love, of all the virtues of God’s only Son.

So whether a man is given that supreme grace of adoption by God early or late, whether he is the first Adam or the last man on this earth, it is all in the end a matter of our being the beneficiary of God’s grace, and of course the way we make use of the gifts that God has poured out on us to help us work for the Kingdom with all our heart, mind and strength. The key to avoiding being envious of the generosity of God toward others, then, is to keep our at-tention fixed not on what God does for others, but on God, and on what true marvels he has done for each of us. In relation to salvation, we are all beg-gars really, because nothing we can do can earn that first and greatest of all goods which is communion with our God and undeserved membership in his household. Moreover, everything else we do is based on that gift, including whatever merits we may acquire in God’s service. As St. Augustine once wrote, in the end, everything is grace.

Praised be Jesus Christ.