Do you ever sin and think “I’ll just confess it tomorrow?”

louis ix

Solemnity of St. Louis IX, King of France

Today we are celebrating the Solemnity of St. Louis, who is the patron saint of our beautiful city. King Louis IX, among other accomplishments, brought the crown of thorns to France where he built one of the most gorgeous chapels ever created called the Sainte Chapelle in order to house the relic. When Pierre Laclede first landed here on the west side of the Mississippi and founded a trading post, he dedicated it to St. Louis, for whom he had a particular devotion.

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Sainte Chapelle – see what I mean?

Louis wanted his kingdom to continue to be governed with justice and charity after his death, so he wrote his son a letter giving him advice. He begins with perhaps the best advice a father could ever give to a son. He writes, “My dear son, in the first place I teach you that you must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your strength; unless you do so you cannot be saved. You must guard yourself from everything that you know is displeasing to God, that is to say, from all mortal sin. You must be ready to undergo every kind of martyrdom rather than commit one mortal sin.”

If you were given a choice, to come suddenly to the end of your earthly life or to commit a single mortal sin and live on, which would you choose? I have to admit, I’d be sorely tempted to go ahead and sin, because I know full well that the confessional is always available, that God always forgives. Louis would not be happy with that answer, though! For one thing, it pridefully presumes mercy on God’s part, taking advantage of his promises and care for us. Second, it completely misunderstands the relationship of the human soul to its destiny. The human being is made for one purpose, to know and love God. When we align ourselves with that purpose we truly live, when we depart from it we slip into a sort of degraded version of life and eventually into eternal death. Louis is quite clear, if you must give your life up in order to avoid a mortal sin, by all means give it up! Why? Because a mortal sin causes the death of the soul, it removes us from the love of God, and we find that we have abandoned the very source of our being. The body will be resurrected, and preserving the soul for that day is far more important than trying to save the body here and now.

Again, that’s a tall order.

I suppose the real question is – How does the love of God change a person?

The very first piece of advice Louis offers is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” This is also the first and most important command of God to the Israelites, and the summary of all the law that Our Lord provides. This divine virtue is at the heart of the human soul.

The Church teaches that love is a virtue, meaning that it is an act of the will. We choose to love, and our choice to do so is connected intimately with our personhood. In the natural world, we are able to love, sometimes very well. But because it’s an act of the will, the choice to do so is often imperfect or wavering, it takes a certain amount of willpower that we lack. Most of us feel this lack and worry it, which because it also concerns the human soul causes a crisis of identity – we forget why we were created and that our happiness lies in resting in God’s love. My theology teacher in seminary tells a story about years ago when he was an atheist and his wife was expecting their first child. He was riding home with her on the subway, looking at her, and suddenly realized that he didn’t have enough love within himself to love his son the way his son truly deserved to be loved. So who would love him? There must be some other, perfect love out there – that love is God.

That love is God. His grace completes our incompleteness and perfects us where we fall short. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit infuses into us the ability to love not only according to our natural capacity but also in a supernatural capacity. With God’s help, we are able to love to an infinite degree. We are given the strength to love those around us, even when we don’t want to, to forgive, to overlook faults, and even make sacrifices on behalf of others.

How does the love of God change a person?

To have God’s love imprinted onto your heart is a soul-shaping event. Pope Benedict XVI says, “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This is true religion, an encounter with Christ, and once you have met him you are never the same.

St. Peter sees it in a flash of insight. This is the Son of the living God. From that moment on his life is turned upside down. St. Louis saw it, and he was so upended that he came to consider death a better option than to betray even for a moment that love which had made its home within him. Religion is an encounter with Christ, to have his love buried deeply within you, to feel the living pulse of all Creation, so that the old person passes away and you are re-made from the inside out. Suddenly, we live for heaven and not for earth. The only choice is to seek what is above and scorn what is below, and the miracle of it all is that God places that love which we strive to attain within our very hearts.

O Lord, your love is eternal.

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Why does Our Lord treat this woman so poorly?

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Year A Ordinary 20

When I was in seminary at Yale, we had a class called Difficult Texts of the Bible. In it, we would look at some of the really hard to understand parts of the Bible, like St. Paul talking about women being silent in Church, or the one about women being obedient to their husbands in marriage. Those aren’t the hills I want to die on today, so moving on quickly, the point is that often these texts have meanings that make a lot of sense once we really understand the context and culture of the time period during which they were written. Today in our Gospel we encounter one of these difficult texts, in which Our Lord seems to compare this Canaanite woman to a dog. We recoil at it, and it seems out of character for Jesus to be so harsh.

For me, there are two ways in which this interaction is off-putting. First, in the way Our Lord speaks to the woman, and second, as I though about it I realized that the way she responds with such docility also bothers me. I kind of want her to fight back, to get offended. I mean, imagine if this happened today. There would be a twitter campaign to hashtag Our Lord into a guilty apology (#notmysavior). There would be a protest at his next speaking event with clever signs and profanity. She would be on television talking about her grievances. We are almost trained in our society to always show pride, always get what’s ours even if we have to fight for it, and to never, ever allow anyone to question our life choices. This Canaanite woman, though, she does the unexpected and quietly absorbs the rejection of her request for her daughter to be healed. She humbles herself and she tries again.

In fact, she tries three times before her request is granted. Third time’s a charm. I would have given up after the first time, then I would’ve posted a cathartic rant on my facebook page to get sympathy. But here’s the thing, I would have left Jesus empty-handed. The Woman gets what she wants. Out of love for her daughter, she is willing to confront any challenge, even one as difficult as practicing humility. That’s the difference – humility.

Everything around us encourages us to be proud. I’m my own person, I’m an adult and I do what I want. My life is my own and no one is allowed to judge. Here we are, being schooled by a pagan woman, essentially not a believer, and yet she has the humility that many of us lack. St. Gregory, pointing out how great she is, writes, “The Canaanite woman…sprang up from the valleys like a sacred lily, exhaling with her words the fragrance of the divine Spirit from her mouth.” Her request is granted, and indeed she gets way more than she bargains for, because the healing of her daughter isn’t actually the best gift that Our Lord gives to her that day.

The key to understanding this is the fact that she makes exactly three attempts of faith and the conversation revolves around a meal. It is at another meal, the Last Supper, where Jesus himself would later be betrayed and led into captivity, and it was three times that his friend Peter would refuse to identify with him. Knowing this, we can see that Jesus is offering a precious gift – the opportunity to join him in his impending humiliation. This is the sort of gift that a person might be tempted to give back, but Our Lord bestows it to help her resolve her nascent faith and discover from the depths of her soul a quality that she perhaps never knew she had. He saw in her soul a mirror of his own. Although separate, the one reflects the other, and the woman, although a limited, finite human being, is like a shard of glass reflecting the infinite mystery of her origin. A sinner and a pagan, she has nevertheless been created to find her way to God and live with him forever. She, like every single human being, was created to be saved. In order to grasp it, she had only to be given the opportunity to reach out in faith.

So, why is it that we recoil at the way she is treated and responds in turn? Speaking for myself, it’s because of pride. Our Lord is offering the greatest gift, to join him at the center of everything, to see that our lives are offerings to be poured out, that on our own we are humble and limited but with him we are like blood that is drawn into the very heart of the Body of Christ, into the womb of the Church, and so into eternity itself. But the first step is to acknowledge how weak we are, that our lives pass by unexpectedly quickly and we are powerless to stop the flow of time, that we are every minute approaching our own deaths, and in that recognition of the grave there is not slavery but freedom, because it means every passing moment is united with the sacrifice of love, every moment is an emptying of self. We are not God, we are not eternal, and when we come to his banquet table we do so trusting not in our own righteousness but in his manifold and great mercies. The theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar wonders about the way in which we sense that our lives are melting away behind us and yet remain confused about where it all ends. He says, “You sense Time and yet have not sensed his Heart? You feel the stream of grace which rushes into you, warm and red, and yet have not felt how you are loved?” Once you feel that, once you have encountered Christ, held him in his Eucharistic form on your tongue, glimpsed your unity with his Sacred Heart, you will be comforted to know that try as we might to abandon ourselves for him, even if all we can do is come to Jesus desperate for healing and beg for help, we are already accepted and loved.

O Lord, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table, but thou art the same Lord who property is always to have mercy. May we evermore dwell in you and you in us.

How is Mary like the Ark of the Covenant?

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Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

When St. John has a vision of the heavens, he sees the Ark of the Covenant. By this, he means the sacred tabernacle that the Israelites constructed to mediate the presence of God in their midst. The Ark was holy, and only the priests could touch it (anyone else who touched it would die). The Israelites protected it with their lives. On top of the Ark were two guardian angels with wings outstretched and facing each other, much like the design we see on our own tabernacle (tabernacle, by the way, is a word meaning “tent,” which is a synonym for “home.” When God tabernacles with us, he makes his home with us). Nothing was more precious than the Ark, it would precede the nation into battle and was the place of atonement where the blood of sacrificial offerings was sprinkled to cover over the sins of the people. It was covered in gold and within it was a jar of manna much like the host we reserve for Eucharistic Adoration, along with Aaron’s miraculous staff and the stone tablets of the Covenant that Moses wrote. The Scriptures say that when the Ark was completed and finally placed in its resting place in the Temple, the presence of God overshadowed the Ark. At one point, the Ark of the Covenant was left by King David in the hill country outside of Jerusalem for three months until he felt worthy to retrieve it.

What does this have to do with the Blessed Virgin Mary?

St. Luke records that Mary, too, goes into the hill country for exactly three months. Before that, when the Angel Gabriel first visits her at the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit overshadows her and she becomes literally full of the presence of God as Christ takes his place in her womb. The Scriptures are divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all of these books written by different authors about 1,000 years tell the exact same story. They tell of how God came to rescue us, how he makes his home with us and will never, ever leave us alone. First he gives the Israelites the Ark in what we now call the Old Covenant, and finally, when the time is right he gives to us an Ark of the New Covenant. He gives us the Blessed Virgin. She is the Ark, she is blameless and pure, kept holy as a fitting resting place for God.

That’s not all, because Our Lord gives us Mary as our spiritual mother meaning that she is the Church, and within the Church the presence of God is manifested. If you’ve ever wondered why our ceiling looks like the interior of a ship, it’s because this is the Ark of the Covenant. The Church is Our Lady, and Jesus is tabernacled here as if in her womb. It is through our Mother Mary that we call Jesus our brother, and it is through her mediation that he is present to us on the altar.

So her Assumption is not a random miracle, and it is totally fitting with what we know about her. She is holy and pure, her death, in fact, has no relation to sin but is only related to love. She laid down her earthly life in order to be close to her Son in Heaven and to show the unbroken connection between the Church here on earth with the saints in heaven. It is after her death that she is Assumed, Body and Soul, into heaven. This is a bit different than you and me, who after death will have to wait until the end of time for our bodies and souls to be reunited. But what isn’t different is that such a miracle will happen for us eventually. Mary is our glimpse of the future.

Her entire life, the way in which she is intimately preserved for God’s purposes, her bond with Jesus, the way in which her heart is pierced by love, and her Assumption to heaven – all of this is the sign of things to come for you and me.

This is why we love her so much, because she is so intimately connected with her Son and she is the pattern by which we will make our way to Heaven. St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose middle name was Mary and was martyred on the vigil of the Assumption, encourages us, “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.” Today as we celebrate the Blessed Virgin’s victory over Satan and her glorious Assumption into heaven, may she intercede for us and may our love grow ever stronger for her who is our Mother the Church, the Ark of the Covenant and resting place for all who seek the presence of God in our hearts.

Do you really want to hear from God? (I mean, really?)

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Year A Ordinary 19

We all say we want to hear God speaking to us, to know his plan for our life, to know the next step or get his guidance on a big decision. But what if God tells you something you don’t want to hear? Something sacrificial? What if he wants you to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, or take on a new challenge that seems impossible, or go to confession and get to work eliminating one of your vices?

When I was in high school, I kind of knew that God wanted me to be a pastor. So I watched my pastor to see what it was like – and it terrified me! Here’s the thing about pastors, they aren’t allowed to show negative emotions ever, or say too much, and they have to absorb lots of complaints. They have to come up with amazing, heartwarming homilies, and never have a bad day. They grieve with people at funerals, and hold the hand of those who are dying. To seventeen year-old me, who just wanted to watch sports on tv and date girls, it seemed really, really undesirable to actually become a pastor.

I can tell you right now, even years later, I wasn’t sure I could be a priest. I had matured and was going to school to study the Bible, and still I tried to ignore God. It isn’t so much that I said “No,” it’s more that I refused to really truly listen to him at all, because I knew that if I did I would have to do what he told me. It’s funny, I still have moments of anxiety about being a priest. I’m just a guy, and I’m supposed to be profound, and hold the Crucified Lord in my hands at Mass, and be a living symbol of this whole glorious, ancient Body of Christ, but the anxiety is like a tiny pebble awash in a sea of God’s love. I may be tossed around in the breakers a bit, but I’m right where I should be. It’s the same with you, whatever vocation God has given you, that is where your happiness lies. It may not be comfortable to follow God’s will for your life, but it is your path to greatness.

It can be so hard to see that.

The prophet Elijah took shelter in a cave, which reminds me of this famous allegory that the philosopher Plato writes about. He describes people who live in a cave, and they’re chained up facing the wall. Behind them a fire burns and they can see shadows flickering on the wall by its light. These shadows are their reality, and it is only through being freed and going outside to see real shapes, colors, and forms that they are able to understand that the shadows were only a pale allegory for real life. The cave is limiting, but it is comfortable, and many would prefer to remain there. But to do so, we would miss so much! Elijah must step out of the cave and seek God’s voice. You and I must step out in faith and hear God speaking to us.

Do we really want to see him? To hear his voice? It can be an awe-inspiring, unsettling experience. Elijah finally hears God speak and his reaction is to hide his face in his cloak. To retreat to the threshold of the cave. We might infer that he is frightened and hesitant. His life was never an easy one, and God’s plans for him took him way out of his comfort zone. But the knowledge of his vocation, which he sought out and then pursued with zeal – it brought him to sainthood.

Our Lord goes up a mountain by himself to hear from his Father. Peter steps out onto the water to draw near Jesus. St. Paul hears the Holy Spirit speaking in his heart and it brings him anguish. These are all steps of faith, and none were easy.

St. Teresia Benedicta, whose feast we celebrated this past week, teaches that to know God, we must quiet ourselves and empathize with him. What she means by empathy is not so much to understand that he felt pain for us, but to really, truly share that pain with him, to live the death of Christ in our hearts and allow it unfold within us. Only in this way, do we come to truly participate in his life. This is why in the Mass, Our Lord comes to us in his fullness, both in his crucified and risen humanity and in his divinity. We carry about the Crucified Lord within us. Know what it is that God is giving you, how much of himself he is pouring out for your sake, and know your dignity and your calling.

When Jesus beckons you and asks of you something that might seem as difficult as walking on water, will you have faith? Will you hear his gentle command to come to him and follow?

His promise for those who take those steps isn’t necessarily for a pain-free life. He doesn’t promise wealth or health. Rather, he promises the opportunity to suffer with him, to join your life to his death. It’s a supremely challenging destiny, but it is the only one by which we will join him in his new life, the only way we will be saved.

In the silence of the Mass, in your quiet prayer moments, ask yourself how God is calling you onward. Don’t be afraid, because the foundation of the world is God’s love, and his only desire is to call you ever more deeply into that abiding reality.

Why pray for the dead?

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This homily was for the Epiphany Men’s Club and Ladies Guild Memorial Mass this past week but I thought it might be of wider interest…

Today we are here to pray for the dead, for those members of the Men’s Club and Ladies Guild who have gone before us but deserve to be remembered. In the remembering, we don’t merely reminisce, we actually help participate in their sanctification and progress towards Heaven.

Why would we pray for the dead? The simple answer is that the dead do not simply disappear, because we know that for a human being death is not the end, for we’ve all been graced with an eternal soul, and all who have died in a state of grace will find ourselves in the afterlife either preparing to meet God (if you’re like me and have some sins to work off) or immediately ascending into glory and beholding his face (if you’re a saint). At the end of time we will all be reunited with our bodies in glory. We will all be saints.

When we die in the faith, we enter into a realm that is related to God, and that means that those who have gone before are still related to us. We are still in communion with them. This is such a beautiful teaching of the Church. It isn’t escapist or a religious platitude, as if we pretend everyone is in heaven automatically so you can ignore death or pretend it isn’t an evil, sad catastrophe (God does not like death – which is why he died in our place to give us new life). Our prayers for the dead are for their benefit as they struggle and work towards the purification of their souls in purgatory. God promises that those who enter purgatory are assured of eternal happiness, but they must do the work to make ready. And this is where you and I can assist them with our prayers. In return, the saints pray for us. No one is left alone. No one is left behind. This is the Body of Christ in action.

With death, life is not ended but changed, so we maintain our connection with our loved ones through prayer, which is why it is so inspiring that we are here tonight praying. It is particularly effective to offer a Mass intention for the dead. At each Mass, the priest offers his intention (it’s the one I say out-loud during the Eucharistic prayer), but that doesn’t keep everyone else from bringing an intention. That of the priest is special because at each Mass he is united in a special way with the sacrificial death of Christ, so when he presents his intention it is as if Christ himself is bringing it to the ear of the Heavenly Father. But your intentions are important, too, and you can imagine yourself placing them on the altar along with the bread and wine. Imagine them drifting up to heaven like incense.

Tonight, we pray for all the members of the Men’s Club and Ladies Guild who have gone before us. Keep praying for them. Keep interceding with God for the dead. I assure you that the dead are praying for you.

Ultimately, all the souls we pray for, and indeed one day after we’re dead and our children pray for us, all of the dead in purgatory will be gathered up in our blessed Mother Mary’s mantle and presented to God and the heavenly hosts. This is our sure hope.

Mother Mother, may we follow you one day to the side of Christ.