Sunday, February 24, 2008

Forecasting Water

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A
There has been much to-do recently about the ability of weather forecasters to accurately predict the weather. It’s true that weather forecasting is as much art as it is science, and it is always better to err on the side of caution. Sometimes, the forecast is right on – especially when it’s simple, say a forecast calling for mostly cloudy skies. Other times, a predicted winter storm with 8 inches of snow and ice on top of that turns into only a dusting of snow with no ice – or even nothing at all, because at the last minute, the storm went in an unexpected direction. But one thing is certain – we do not control when and how water comes from the sky.

But this water can change lives. Water turned to ice on the roads or sidewalks can easily cause accidents; water channeled through the power of a hurricane or a tsunami can wipe whole towns off the map. On the other hand, a drink of water can be life-giving to someone wandering in a desert, like Moses and the Israelites in today’s reading from Exodus. A conversation around a well certainly changed the life of a Samaritan woman in today’s gospel. And a simple pouring of water on the heads of seven people at this year’s Easter Vigil will change their lives forever through the sacrament of baptism. After an encounter with water, some people’s lives are never the same.

Which brings us back to the weather. Being washed in the waters of baptism is the most important thing that will ever happen in the life of a Christian. Once we are baptized, we are children of God, now and forever. But no one can predict what will happen to that baptized Christian – no one can predict how well that baptism will be received and lived out. For some, baptism becomes the beginning of a lifelong journey with the God who gives us water, a lifelong journey to satisfy our thirst for holiness and truth. But for others, the water of baptism dries up so quickly that the promise of new life, the forecast of holiness, fizzles out or goes in a completely different direction, sometimes for a short time, sometimes for much longer. As much as we try, we cannot predict the future of baptismal holiness. But there is one guaranteed forecast when it comes to the waters of baptism: the living water that Christ offers us will never run dry, no matter how often we move away, the water that Christ gives us will always be there. How do you live out your baptism?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

St. Patrick vs. Holy Week

The complexities and intricacies of the liturgical calendar are making national news these days. A little less than a month before St. Patrick's Day, the national media (including an article on are covering the rare occurance of March 17 falling during Holy Week, which happens this year for the first time since 1940. The problem? According to the official Church table of liturgical celebrations, the days of Holy Week take precedence over anything else, including any saints whose feast day happens to fall in that week. Therefore, since St. Patrick's Day is also Monday of Holy Week, Holy Week takes precedence and St. Patrick's Day is not officially celebrated in most places this year. There are a few exceptions for areas that have a particular devotion to St. Patrick - in Ireland, the bishops petitioned the Vatican that St. Patrick's Day be allowed to be celebrated on the Saturday before Holy Week, March 15. A few individual bishops here in the United States have also moved liturgical celebrations of St. Patrick's Day because of great local devotion to the Irish saint. But for most of us, including here in Indiana, there will not be a church celebration of St. Patrick this year.

Of course, that doesn't mean that secular celebrations of St. Patrick will disappear - I'm sure there will be plenty of Irish celebrations regardless of what the liturgical calendar says. There are some bishops, however, who successfully petitioned local organizers of St. Patrick's Day festivities to move their celebrations out of Holy Week, out of respect for the solemnity of that week - Savannah, Georgia, is one example. The heart of the issue, however, is the question of the connection between a liturgical feast honoring an Irish bishop and a secular celebration of all things green. Do people celebrate St. Patrick's Day because of the saint, or because they are Irish (or want to be), or because it is an excuse for a party and a parade, or some combination? My guess is that most people won't even know that there will not be a liturgical celebration of St. Patrick this year.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Fear of God

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A
On this Second Sunday of Lent, I have a question for you. Last week, as we heard the gospel of the temptation of Jesus, I challenged us all to think of what would make us happy. Today, a different question: what are you afraid of? Think about it for a moment. What are you afraid of?

In his great children’s tale, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis describes the lion Aslan as a creature who can instill both great love and great fear. When the children in the story first meet Aslan, Lewis says: “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now.” The great lion, a symbol of Christ, was the image of perfect love, but at the same time was capable of instilling fear – as any lion could. Love and fear, in this particular story at least, can exist at the same time.

And then look at today’s gospel. Jesus is on the mountain with three of his disciples, and Moses and Elijah appear with him. The disciples are so excited and awed that they want to build tents, but soon a cloud appears, and a voice from heaven saying that this is God’s beloved Son – and what happens? The disciples fall on the ground and try to hide because they are afraid. They are probably as close to God at that moment as anyone since Moses and Elijah, they are caught up in the midst of God’s glory, and yet they are afraid. And it seems they are afraid of God.

Fear of God has long been considered a gift – one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit – and yet most of us Christians would have a hard time understanding why we should fear God. Love casts our fear, as the First Letter of John says; love seems to be the opposite of fear, and God is love. So how can we fear the God we are called to love? Dr. Paul Thigpen, a well-known Catholic writer and speaker, suggests that there are three reasons why we can, and should, both love and fear God at the same time. First, we fear God because he is the creator and we are mere creatures. Imagine standing next to Niagara Falls or at the rim of the Grand Canyon. These natural wonders can instill great awe and wonder, but also a hint of fear, because they are so much bigger and more powerful than we are. That same sense of awe and wonder is magnified when we place ourselves next to God – the one who created everything that ever has been and ever will be – and we realize that we are just specks of dust in the whole scheme of creation. To fear God the Creator is to become humble; it reminds us that we are not in charge: God is. We have limits; God does not. The fear of God leads us to humility.

The second way Dr. Thigpen suggests that we fear God is because he is holy, and we are not; God is perfect, and we are sinners. We are afraid of the pain we will feel when God’s holiness takes over and our sinfulness is burned away. It is much more comfortable to wallow in the pleasures and comforts of this world, but to strip away our selfishness, pride, greed, and anger is a painful process. We fear God because he is holy, and we are not; but more importantly, we’re afraid because we want to be holy, and we know that it won’t be an easy process.

Finally, Dr. Thigpen suggests that we fear God because he is a God of justice. We know that we are guilty of sin, and if we’re established on the Christian path, we know that we are in need of conversion. God’s justice challenges us to be better people, but we know that God is capable of punishing us if we do not do as he asks. St. Catherine of Siena observed that the fear of God often starts like the fear that servants have of their masters: the fear of punishment. But as our relationship with God grows and develops, the fear of God becomes more like the fear of friends, fear that something will come between us and break our relationship apart.

Fear of God is an important part of our Christian life. But remember back to what happened in today’s gospel after the disciples shrank down in fear: Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” As they stood, they looked up and saw Jesus. Perfect love casts out fear; God’s presence can take away our fear, but a certain type of fear, the fear of God, helps us remember that God is God and we are not. What are you afraid of?

See the article “Loving God, Fearing God” by Dr. Paul Thigpen. Dr. Thigpen will be speaking at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church on Saturday, April 19, 2008.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Snow Days and Fasting

Today is the second day in a row of no school here in our parish and throughout most of our community because of winter weather. Even though we got nowhere near the 6-8 inches of snow predicted, there was enough ice to make the roads slick.

Having these snow days at the beginning of the season of Lent has me thinking - really, there is a good connection between snow and Lent, or more precisely, between snow days and fasting. Typically, the practice of fasting (which is one of the three traditional practices of Lent, along with prayer and almsgiving) is thought of as not doing something (like not eating) or giving up something (like chocolate). Likewise, snow days are most often thought of in the negative - not having school or scheduled meetings. However, as Isaiah 58 reminds us, the type of fasting that pleases God is one that takes our negatives and turns them into positives; e.g., taking the free time gained from giving up television and using it to visit shut-ins or study Scripture. Likewise, the best use of a snow day can be one that takes a negative and turns it into a positive; e.g., using the time of cancelled school or meetings in order to catch up on other tasks or to give more attention to our spiritual practices.

As a priest, I have always loved snow days because they give me a break from the hustle-and-bustle activity of parish life in order to get caught up on the busy-work that always seems to pile up. This week has been no exception; my to-do list is quickly shrinking, and I have been able to make good progress on a variety of tasks and projects. Now, I am certainly looking forward to the return of school and parish activities, but in the meantime, we have to try to make the best out of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Happy Here or Happy Hereafter?

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A
Note: This Sunday's homily was preached extemporaneously away from the ambo, without a text. However, the text below was what I wrote in preparation for the homily. It does not follow exactly what was preached, which was slightly different at each mass, but is the general outline that was used. Also, at the end of this post is a link to an article in the National Catholic Register that inspired this homily.

Last Sunday, before the Super Bowl game, the television network and the NFL presented a reading of the foundational document of our country, the Declaration of Independence. Millions of viewers watched as famous pro football players and coaches read the well known words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Happiness. We all want to be happy – it is the basis of what makes this country great; it seems to be our greatest longing. But it begs the question, what will make us happy? What will make you happy? Maybe it’s a good meal – a nice, juicy steak; or a bowl of perfectly ripe strawberries with homemade shortcake and freshly-whipped cream. Maybe good food will make us happy. Or maybe it’s fame – admiration, compliments on a job well done, even the celebrity lifestyle, where every wish is your command. Maybe fame will make us happy. Or, better yet, power – that has to be the key. We will truly be happy when we have power; when people listen to what we say, when we have influence and authority. Then we will really be happy. At least that’s what the devil wants us to think.

The devil tempts us the same way he tempted Jesus in the desert – he tempts us with food, just as he challenged Jesus to turn stones into loaves of bread. He tempts us with fame, just as he challenged Jesus to call the angels to him like groupies, just because he can. And he tempts us with power, just as he offered all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, in exchange for the small act of devil worship. We are tempted, just like Jesus, to pursue happiness above all things – happiness here and now.

But this is where it really gets tricky. It’s true that we all want to be happy – and it’s also true that God wants us to be happy, and even more, the devil also wants us to be happy. But the devil wants us to be happy here, while God wants us to be happy hereafter. The devil wants to trap us with gluttony, pride, and greed – to make our lives on this earth complete bliss by turning our focus inward toward ourselves. And that’s when the tempter wins – when we become so focused on becoming happy here that we are looking only at our own happiness and not the happiness of others. To be happy hereafter, we have to live not just on bread, but on the word of God; to be happy hereafter, we have to trust in the Lord; to be happy hereafter, we must worship and serve God alone.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those really are good goals. But is it happiness here, or happiness hereafter?

The Tale of 2 Churches, by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Cross of Ashes

Homily for Ash Wednesday, Year A
It is easy to remember the ashes that are at the heart of this first day of Lent. From our calling of this day Ash Wednesday to the public sign that is placed on our forehead, the ashes remind us that we are dust – that our lives are fragile – and they are a sign of penitence. But just as important as the ashes at the beginning of our Lenten journey is the shape these ashes make on our foreheads – the shape of a cross. Today we are marked with the cross of Christ.

The purpose of Lent is twofold: Lent is a final preparation for those who are to be baptized at Easter, and it is an annual opportunity for all Christians to recommit to their baptismal faith. These forty days are filled with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in order to help us strip away everything in our lives that obscures the fact that we are baptized people, marked with the sign of the cross. Lent is a journey to the cross, a cross that is black with death on Good Friday, but also a cross that is empty because of new life on Easter Sunday. Lent begins with a cross of ashes to remind us where this journey is going, but also to challenge us to live up to the new life we have been given because of the cross.

Sometimes, though, the ashes on our foreheads end up looking more like a smudge than a cross. Perhaps it is better this way, because our lives more often look like smudged examples of Christ than the perfect image of the Son of God. But even underneath our dirt and grime, there is still a cross, the one cross of Christ, through which we have been saved. Underneath our pride, and ignorance, and jealousy and whatever other sin we carry is the grace of baptism. Today, we begin a journey to the cross: from a cross of ashes, to a cross of wood, to the cross of everlasting life.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Lenten Practice for the Super Bowl

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
There are some times when you just have to be honest with yourself, and for me, today is one of those times. No matter how much I may want to preach on the glorious example of the Beatitudes we just heard in Matthew’s gospel; no matter how important it is that Lent is only a few days away, with its call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – most people’s minds are elsewhere. Let’s face it – today is Super Bowl Sunday, and there are far more Americans focused on this one professional football game – or the commercials that accompany the broadcast – than there are people longing for a theological exposition on the poor in spirit. There are times when you have to take an honest assessment of the world around you. The Super Bowl is far more exciting and anticipated than a 40-day period of fast and sacrifice.

Now, call me foolish, but I think there’s a connection – a good connection between the Super Bowl and today’s readings, and the coming season of Lent. Think about it this way. Really, today’s gospel is something like a pep talk before the big game of life. Jesus is talking to his first followers at the beginning of his ministry and giving them the nine things they need to know in order to be victorious in following him. In order to win the crown of eternal life, here’s what you need to know – be poor in spirit, meek, and merciful; seek peace and righteousness; and even when people hate you because of who you are, persevere in the struggle. And in case you don’t know how to do those things, just look at Jesus – the winning coach – and see how his life puts these Beatitudes into practice. That’s all you need to know – now go out and win the kingdom.

That all sounds good, but I imagine that many of us hear these Beatitudes and think, “well, that’s good for Jesus, but I don’t know how to be that kind of person.” And that’s where Lent comes in. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Lent is a time for strength-training, conditioning and practice in the Christian life. These upcoming 40 days are an opportunity to set aside those things that distract us and focus on getting our souls in shape for the kingdom we are trying to win. Here in our parish, we have many opportunities to get in spiritual shape during the days of Lent. After mass, be sure to pick up a copy of the Magnificat Lenten Companion to help guide your prayer, and also an Operation Rice Bowl container to collect spare change and other donations to be given to Catholic Relief Services. Beginning this Friday, and each Friday in Lent, we will pray the Stations of the Cross together as a community, and Reconciliation will be available as well. On Sundays, we will pray Vespers, or Evening Prayer, as a community. And on Tuesdays, join us for Soup and Soul Food.

All of these parish events, and the wider prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of this season have as their primary goal helping us to focus on our relationship with Christ, and when we develop that relationship, we will be well on our way to victory. And what kind of victory are we looking for? Jesus is clear on that point in today’s gospel: If you live like him, then you can “rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” Now for some, the Lombardi trophy that goes to the Super Bowl champions is reward enough. But as for me, I’ll take heaven.

Friday, February 1, 2008

New President-Rector

I just received word that Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, has been named the next President-Rector of Saint Meinrad School of Theology, where I attended seminary. He succeeds Fr. Mark O'Keefe, OSB, who has been President-Rector since 1996 and recently announced that he would be stepping down from the post at the end of this academic year. Fr. Denis will begin his duties on June 1, 2008. Archabbot Justin DuVall, OSB, made the appointment after a recommendation from the school's Board of Trustees.

For most of my time at Saint Meinrad, Fr. Denis was in Belgium studying at the Catholic University of Louvain. While I never had the opportunity to learn from him in the classroom, I have heard that he is an excellent professor. I know he is an excellent scholar - at the conclusion of his studies in Belgium, he received not one, but two doctorate degrees! He is also a faithful priest and monk and brings a great spirituality to the school. I have known Fr. Denis through the years, and the experience that most stands out in my mind is the time he spent with a group of us seminarians while we were in Rome in January 2003. Fr. Denis was also in Rome at the time with a group of seminarians from Belgium, and he spent a couple days as our tour guide (he was supposed to be with us as a tour guide for two weeks, but other travels and opportunities limited that to two days). He gave a very energetic and exciting tour of Rome - you might call him a living travel book - and gave us a good introduction to the city.

One of the great assets Fr. Denis will bring to his role as President-Rector is that he has experience in parish ministry as well as seminary education. He was ordained a priest in 1993 for the Diocese of Memphis and spent his first four years as a priest in diocesan ministry, before entering the monastery at Saint Meinrad in 1997. Since then, he has ministered in a variety of settings in school administration, in addition to teaching systematic theology. Blessings to Fr. Denis as he prepares to take on this new leadership position!