Recent Homilies and Reflections

September 16, 2018 A Question Answered Homily: Brothers and sisters, In April of 1999 a tragedy unfolded at Columbine, a high school in the state of Colorado. Two heavily armed students, both members of the graduating class, entered the school and began shooting. Their intent was to kill as many students as possible.  Twelve students and one teacher were killed in the massacre. Many more were seriously injured. Inexplicably, one of the killers interrupted his shooting spree by asking a badly frightened student, a young girl, a pointed question. “Do you believe in God?” he asked. “Indeed I do”, she gamely replied. Her life ended moments later. First the question asked, then the profession of faith, and lastly, the courageous witness.  The student was an Evangelical Christian. She learned that the cost of discipleship was a martyr’s death. For us who are Disciples of Christ, the lesson of her death is quite simple, even stark. No one ought to be afraid of professing faith in Jesus, even at the cost of one’s life.

Jesus very often asks questions. His very first words in John’s gospel are in the form of a question. “What are you looking for?” Early in Mark’s gospel, Jesus, after healing a paralytic on a mat, asks the disgruntled Pharisees a question, “Why are you thinking such evil things in your hearts?” (Mk.2:8)  In today’s gospel, also from Mark, Jesus asks two questions for which he expects answers. “Who do people say that I am?”(Mk.8:27) and “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk.8:29)

We are called upon to give answers. And there is no more important question to be answered that the one asked by Jesus: Who do you say that I am? Who is Jesus? Is he merely a prophet, one of God’s messengers? Is he just a great teacher like Socrates? Is he a fraud, an imposter? Or is he the Christ, the Eternal Word and Son of the heavenly Father? At the end of the day, we must give an explanation of why we are disciples of the crucified and Risen Christ.

Peter’s confession of faith is unexpected and is an earth shattering revelation. “You are the Christ!” Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, the very one to bring deliverance to the people of Israel. A closely guarded secret has been revealed. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father”. (Mt.16:17)  But Peter and the other disciples do not yet understand the true nature of Jesus’ mission. Jesus makes no pretense about being a military or political figure. He is no warrior king. Jesus speaks of suffering, rejection and death.

A couple of years ago, the popular news magazine show, Sixty Minutes, featured a fascinating segment on the life of Coptic Christians in Egypt, an ancient community dating back to the earliest days of the Church. The reporter could not fail to notice the tattoo of a simple cross on the forehand of each and every young person he encountered. He asked the pastor the reason for such an unusual practice. The pastor replied that the cross must always remind the young members of his flock that they are a small minority in a Moslem state and, more importantly, that at some point in their faith journey they may be called upon to surrender their life for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His teaching must inspire them to greatness. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. (Mk.8:34)

Nowadays, there is reluctance on the part of many Catholics to publicly acknowledge and witness to their faith in Christ. Religious belief is now considered a private matter. We may not wish to upset others who do not share our faith. Such timidity is one reason why our culture has lost its Christian vision and has now enthusiastically embraced a secular, anti-Christian world view.

We must “get behind” (Mk. 8:33) Jesus and follow where he chooses to lead us.  That can be most challenging, but, in the end, very rewarding.

Amen!

 

September 9, 2018 Spiritual Deafness Homily: A well-known Japanese inspired illustration of three monkeys is likely familiar to you. The monkeys are depicted in a crouched position and they each suffer from a crippling disability. The first monkey has his ears covered (deafness), the second monkey has his eyes covered (blindness) and the third monkey has his mouth covered (dumbness). The picture is accompanied by a caption, which reads, “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.” How do scholars in the West interpret the picture? In their view, the monkeys represent all those who look the other way and pretend ignorance in the face of grave injustice and wicked conduct. Their disabilities are of their own making, a spiritual rather than a physical ailment.

In the on-going saga of the sex abuse scandal, we are now painfully aware of how much damage has been done to victims and the Church Herself because of the willful blindness, deafness and silence of our shepherds. In addition, one might add another scandal that has left our nation with a serious, if not mortal, wound: her woeful response to the dismemberment of thousands of pre-born children in so-called family planning clinics in many of our municipalities. The scourge of abortion is making us a nation of deaf and dumb citizens.  Are we blind to what is occurring? Do we choose to be silent? And, lest we forget the refugees who seek a safe haven after being driven from their homes and country? Can we hear their pleas for help? Have we closed our eyes? Do we choose to be silent?

At the center of today’s gospel (Mk.7:31-37) is a small but important word… a word that, in its deepest sense, sums up Christ’s whole message and all his work. The word is “Ephphatha”, which means “be opened”. To be deprived of hearing the word of God is an unspeakable tragedy!

In the district of the Decapolis (Mk.7:31), populated mostly by Gentiles, Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and dumb. Surely, it is not without significance that those who are considered ritually unclean, the reviled Gentiles, bring the tormented man to Jesus for healing. Their faith in our Lord’s healing power is admirable and is evidence of an incipient faith.  The deaf man, curiously unnamed, represents all those whose hearing is impaired and who are, as a consequence, mute. In Sacred Scripture, deafness is more than a physical disability. It represents a hardness of hearing, a most serious ailment of the spiritual order. Jesus gladly opens the man’s ears. He enables him to truly hear, perhaps for the first time. And by responding to a sick man in need, he prepares him to be one of his own disciples, a privilege unlike any other.

A spiritually deaf person is someone who cannot hear God or speak to Him in prayer. For us to believe, God must first open our hearts so that we can listen to his Word, and profit from his wisdom. Spiritually, the secular person of today lives in a silent world.

Jesus, in the words of the Evangelist Mark, “Has done all things well.” (Mk.7:37) In his person, He fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared”. By his miracles of restoring hearing to the deaf and speech to the afflicted man, Jesus makes known to his listeners that He is the long awaited Messiah. Rest assured His healing miracles are an integral part of His divine mission.

At one time or another, many human beings are afflicted with a temporary, or even worse, seemingly permanent deafness. No one of us can claim to have not been hearing impaired at one time or another! But there is one, and only one, who has never experienced the stigma of deafness for even a moment. It is the Lord Himself. The Old Testament psalmist cries, “I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal, for He turned his ear to me in the day that I called Him”. (Ps.116) The psalmist reminds us that He always hears us!

Do we see ourselves in the deaf and dumb man in need of healing? Have we ever asked Jesus to take us away from the crowd and heal us of our spiritual deafness and dumbness? Have we ever rejected a friend whose only desire is to bring us to Jesus for healing?

Amen!

 

September 2, 2018 The Pure of Heart Homily: Many years ago, my dear father, now eighty nine years old, was a member of a poker group that met on most Friday nights. One of his closest friends, a sitting judge, was a participant. On one occasion, the good judge made for himself a ham sandwich on a day, Friday, designated by the church law as a day of fast and abstinence from meat. Fish on Friday was then the norm. My father pointed out his transgression. “Why are you eating meat on a Friday? The judge replied, “Ig, do you know what the difference between me and you is? I was educated by the Jesuits, and they could always find a loophole in any Church law! Here is a classic case of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

Anyone who has ever seen the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” is aware of the importance of “the tradition of the elders” (Mk.7:5) in Jewish life. Sacred tradition preserves the identity as the Chosen People and distinguishes them from all the other nations. Indeed, the opening number of the musical is” Tradition” and is sung by. The main character of the play, a Jewish dairyman named Tevye. The words of the memorable song are worth repeating.

“How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition. We have a tradition for everything. How to eat, how to sleep, how to work, even how to wear our clothing. How did the traditions get started? I don’t know. This shows our constant devotion to God. Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do”

In today’s gospel taken from Mark’s seventh chapter, Jesus enters into a spirited debate with his adversaries, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were scholars well versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. In Jesus’ day, they numbered about six thousand in a Jewish population of close to one million people. Nevertheless, in view of their modest numbers, they wielded an enormous influence on their Jewish brethren in interpreting the Law and giving counsel on how they should conduct their daily life.  Their issues with Jesus concerned the ritual of the washing of hands and the eating of so-called “unclean” food.

In the Law of Moses only the priests had a solemn obligation to purify their hands. The washing of hands was not a matter of personal hygiene but of ritual purity, ceremonial cleanness. Just one example may suffice here. Under the tutelage of the Pharisees, many Jews, wishing to imitate priestly holiness, purify their hands before morning prayer.   Recall the wedding feast at Cana where six stone water jars were used for purification. (Jn.2:6) A too rigorous or legalistic interpretation of the law only serves to undermine its purpose. A biblical scholar, William Barclay writes of a rabbi once imprisoned by the Romans. The scrupulous man used the water given to him for hand washing and not for drinking. In the end, he nearly died of thirst. He was determined to observe the Jewish custom of cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst.

In his remarks concerning so-called unclean food, Jesus is not giving his listeners a lesson in human anatomy. The “hardness of heart” is not a medical issue, but a spiritual one. It is a disease of the soul. In the words of Jesus, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person, but the things that come from within are what defile”. (Mk.7:15) Defilement comes from within people. In biblical thought, the heart is where evil actions and intentions have their beginning. Only the “heart” can hear the Word of God.

At the end of the day, the dispute between Jesus and those who challenge him is not about the authority of the Torah but over the application and interpretation of the Law. Jesus is the living embodiment of the Torah, the Eternal Word made flesh. There can be no greater guide for a holy, righteous life than the Son of Man. And those who faithfully imitate his example, especially the saints, are worthy of a place in the heavenly kingdom.

Attitudes of the heart like love, service and compassion are much more important than external rituals. After all, Jesus dined with sinners, who were considered “unclean” by the Pharisees. He gladly accepted the hospitality of outcasts who did not observe the ritual of hand washing.  Let Jesus be our guide!

Amen!

 

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