Sunday, January 31, 2010

Corinthian and Christian Love

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

There’s not much left of the ancient city of Corinth today. There are the ruins of a temple to Apollo, with only seven of the original 40 columns of the temple remaining. You can walk through the ancient marketplace and see the rough stone ruins of storefronts, much like the one where St. Paul ran his tent-making business while he lived in the city. You can see the Bema, or speaker’s platform, where Paul was cleared of criminal charges by the Roman authorities. And high above the city, you can see the hill of the Acrocorinth, the acropolis of the city. In ancient times, a large temple stood on this hill dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. There’s not much left of this temple today – just a few ruined foundations. But the stories from the ancient world survive. Stories that name this temple as one of the most important and well-known temples ever built to the goddess of love. Stories that tell of the abnormally high number of prostitutes who lived around this temple and in the city of Corinth itself. Stories that declare Corinth to be one of the most notorious cities in the ancient world for its corruption and depravity. To call someone a Corinthian in ancient times was to recognize that person’s public immorality. St. Paul had difficult work to do to make the Corinthians Christian. And it is against this backdrop that we read and can understand his letters to the Church in Corinth.

The kind of love that came from the Temple of Aphrodite was a self-centered love – a love that used other people personal gratification. It’s almost a natural human tendency to want first of all what will make me happy – to focus all of our desires and decisions and what is best for me, what I want, what I like. This was the kind of love that was known in Corinth. But the love that comes from Jesus, the love that was preached by Paul, is not self-centered. Christian love does not seek its own interests but is willing to sacrifice itself for the good of others. Christian love uses patience and kindness to serve the needs of other people, while also recognizing that love impels others to serve our own needs. Christian love respects each person as a child of God and directs all of our words, actions, and decisions not to inflate our own egos or push our own agendas but to honor the presence of God in the people around us. And most importantly, Christian love is universal; it calls us to love all people, without favorites – not just our family or close friends, but each person we encounter. We don’t have to like everyone or become their best friend, but as Christians we are called to love everyone with patience, kindness, respect, humility, graciousness, and truth.

So what does this mean for us? Christian love means that we think about other people before we think about ourselves – whether that means sharing our resources with people in need, or respecting other people on the road when we are driving. Christian love means that we do not gossip about other people or spread rumors; we do not talk behind people’s backs or tear down their reputations. Christian love means that we do not ignore people when we encounter them or develop an exclusive circle that leaves out people we don’t like. Christian love means that we do not let arguments and disagreements lead to 20 or 30 years of not talking to someone who used to be a close friend. Christian love means that we are always looking out for others and offering a helping hand whenever we can. Christian love means that we do not judge other people, but instead recognize Christ in them. It’s not easy to do, and none of us are perfect at exercising Christian love. But that imperfection cannot make us complacent or unwilling to try. Even the people of Corinth seemed willing to learn a new kind of love, a love that had been absent from their city for many centuries. If we call ourselves Christian, then we must make a best effort to live the kind of love that St. Paul taught the Corinthians – a love that is not about me, but about God; a love that recognizes and serves Christ in the people around us. We have a choice. We can be like the Corinthians, or we can be like Christ. What way do you choose?

The ruins of Ancient Corinth with the Acrocorinth in the background

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Works of Mercy

Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Nehemiah 8.2-4a, 8-10 Psalm 19 1 Corinthians 12.12-30 Luke 1.-4, 4.14-21

Many of us have been amazed this week to hear the stories of miracles coming from earthquake-ravaged Haiti. As recently as yesterday, 11 days after the quake, people have been pulled alive from the rubble – survivors against all odds. There is no earthly, human reason these people should be alive after being stuck in the midst of fallen buildings with no food or water for so long. But they are. With over 100,000 dead, even these few stories of survival are something of a miracle, a glimmer of light in a country facing unprecedented darkness and devastation.

I imagine that part of what has drawn the people of the world to care so much about the well-being of the people in Haiti is because the poverty of that country, in many ways, hinders their ability to help themselves. It’s not that we want to be seen as the saviors or almighty rescuers; it’s not that we want to be put in the spotlight because of the good that we can do. We want to do something because we know we have a responsibility, we know that our wealth and comfort and security puts us in a position to be able to bring food and shelter and hope to a people greatly in need. We are drawn to help the people of Haiti because we can, and because we must. Like Christ himself, we are called to “bring glad tidings to the lowly … to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4.18). And that call is not limited to one group of people or one particular time. Whether it is the suffering people of Haiti, or the unjustly imprisoned; whether it is the victims of crime and war, or the unborn threatened by abortion – those of us who have been anointed by the Spirit and sent in the name of Christ are called to stand up, to speak out, to do whatever we can to bring the poor out of poverty, to bring an end to violence both domestic and abroad, and to end the senseless killing of human life through abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

To pray is a good thing – all good work must start with prayer. To give money to religious and humanitarian agencies that support human beings who are suffering or at risk is a good thing. To be confident in our own belief in the value and dignity of human life is a good thing. But if that’s all we do – not much more than pray, pay, and obey – if that’s all we do, then we’re missing something. To really bring glad tidings to the poor and liberty to captives, we must take the next step. Some people are called to volunteer with crisis counseling centers, helping young women who see abortion as the only choice to understand that there are other options; others are called to serve meals at a local soup kitchen. Some are called to work on Christian retreats in prisons, others are called to visit with and console the sick or the dying. Our Catholic tradition has called these actions the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy – the Corporal Works of Mercy: to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and imprisoned and to bury the dead – and the Spiritual Works of Mercy: to counsel the doubtful and instruct the ignorant, to admonish the sinner and comfort the sorrowful, to forgive injuries and bear wrongs patiently, and to pray for the living and the dead. These are the actions that most unite us to the Body of Christ and help make Christ present in the world. Because if one part of the Body of Christ suffers, then all the parts suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12.26). In ways both great and small, we can help ease the suffering, we can help ease the pain, we can help the people of our city and the people of the world find hope in the presence of Christ. God can work miracles even in our very midst. And through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the light will scatter the darkness – now and always.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Exercising our Baptismal Responsibility

Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Isaiah 62.1-5 Psalm 96 1 Corinthians 12.4-11 John 2.1-11

There are certain responsibilities that come with our baptism. It’s true that the most important and lasting effects of baptism are not things that we can do, but what God gives to us – cleansing from original sin, incorporation into the Church, adoption as a son or daughter of God. But with those gifts, we are also given responsibilities. As baptized children of God, we are called to develop a relationship with him, to spend time in prayer and worship getting to know our heavenly father. As baptized children of God, we are called to recognize Christ in all our brother and sisters, and to treat them with the same love, respect, and compassion that we would show to Christ himself. As baptized children of God, we are called to turn away from evil and sin day by day and develop the habits that help us lead a moral life, one in which other people can see Christ in us. Each of us are called to exercise our baptism in different ways, using the specific spiritual gifts we have been given. Some of the baptized have done better in fulfilling these responsibilities than others. But regardless of who we are or what our past actions have been like, this is our call – to live as God’s children and to lead other people to Christ. And in these days, we are being called to exercise our baptismal responsibilities.

With millions of people in Haiti suffering from this week’s earthquakes, the stories of devastation from that country are almost unbelievable and unbearable. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with the effects of the earthquake devastating an already struggling country. The news reports are sometimes difficult to watch, and even the relief efforts seem to be encountering difficulties. There are some people have said that the earthquake was God’s response to evil present in the world. Others have said that it gives evidence that God does not exist – how could a loving God let disasters like this happen? As Christians, we believe that God does not and cannot cause suffering – but rather, he is with us in the suffering, feeling our pain and giving us comfort and peace. Natural disasters are just that – natural, not divinely inspired. The hand of God is found not in the destruction, but in the response. And that is where we are called to help, to exercise our baptismal responsibilities to recognize and care for Christ in the people of Haiti.

The question everyone asks is “how?” How can we help? First, of course, we must pray. The power of prayer cannot be overlooked. We pray for the people of Haiti, we pray for the organizations, governments, and individuals who at this very moment are bringing comfort and aid to the survivors of the earthquake. And we pray for the dead, that they come in peace to the kingdom of heaven. But we can do more. An online group has been formed encouraging Catholics to Fast for Haiti – to fast from one or more meals in the coming weeks and to donate the money that we save to the relief efforts. And for those of us many miles from the center of the earthquake, the promise of financial support can accompany our prayers across those miles to show in a very real way our solidarity with a portion of the people of God who are suffering terribly. Next weekend, we will take up a second collection to support the efforts of Catholic Relief Services in Haiti. Catholic Relief Services is the official international aid agency of the Catholic Church in the United States, and they have been working in Haiti for over 50 years. They already have several hundred staff members in Haiti and have pledged over $30 million worth of relief aid. Archbishop Daniel has asked that a portion of the collection taken in parishes of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis be directed specifically toward the rebuilding of the cathedral and seminaries in Haiti, all of which were destroyed this week.

The people of Haiti need our help. But it’s not just them, and it’s not just now. As Christians, we are called to recognize Christ in all people all around the world all the time and to do whatever we can so that all people can live a life worthy of who they are – children of God. Right now, our attention is directed to this small, poor Caribbean country. I am sure that we will rise to the occasion and provide the prayers and the assistance that we can. But there is a world of suffering, a world of hurt, from our own homes and families to the villages of Africa and Asia and everywhere in between. We cannot be silent; we cannot sit by and worry only about ourselves. Until all people can recognize Christ in us and we can recognize Christ in them, there is more work to be done. That work is our baptismal responsibility.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Through the waters of this font ...

Homily for the Blessing of New Baptismal Font
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Year C

** Note: This weekend, Deacon Patrick Gallagher preached at two of our weekend Masses. At the third Mass, our new Baptismal Font was blessed. Below is the brief homily I preached for the blessing of the font. Following the homily is the prayer of Blessing of a Baptismal Font from the Book of Blessings. **

In the introduction to the order for blessing a new baptismal font, the Church tells us that the baptismal font “is rightly considered to be one of the most important parts of a church” (Book of Blessings 1080). That’s quite a statement! What makes a baptismal font so important? It is important because it is through the waters of the font that infants, children, and adults first encounter the sacramental grace of God. It is through the waters of the font that we first receive forgiveness of sins. It is through the waters of the font that we become in name and fact children of God. It is through the waters of the font that we become members of the Body of Christ. It is through the waters of the font that we become Christians. And it is through the waters of the font that the gates of heaven are opened for us. Because in baptism, we join ourselves to the paschal mystery of Christ. We die to our old selves of sin and rise, filled with the Holy Spirit, to new life in Christ. The grace of God is poured out on us, and after the moment of baptism, we are never the same again. A journey is begun as we go forth from these waters, a journey in which, if we so choose, we can follow Christ, learning to live temperately, justly, and devoutly, as St. Paul says to Titus; it is a journey of hope that can lead us to eternal paradise. Often, along the way, we get lost or confused or even walk backwards. But the grace of baptism, the grace that begins in the waters of the font, is an assurance that we can always get back on track, we can always start moving in the right direction, and we can always once again become “heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3.7). What a grace it is for us as a parish to be able to bless this new font, for in its waters, countless infants, children, and adults for years to come will encounter the saving grace of Christ and be offered the gift we all long for – the glory of heaven.

Lord God, Creator of the world and Father of all who are born into it,
It is right that we should give you praise
For allowing us to open this saving font through the liturgy of your Church.
Here the door is reopened to the life of the spirit
And the gateway to the Church is swung wide
To those against whom the gates of paradise were shut.
This pool is opened and in it the newness of its pure waters
Will again make clean and spotless
those who were stained by the old ways of sin.
A new torrent is released
Whose gushing waters sweep away sin and bring new virtue to life.
A stream of living water, coming from Christ’s side, now flows
And those who drink this water will be brought to eternal life.
Over this font the lamp of faith spreads the holy light
That banishes darkness from the mind
And fills those who are reborn here with heavenly gifts.
Those who profess their faith at this font
Are plunged beneath the waters and joined to Christ’s death,
So that they may rise with him to newness of life.

Lord, we ask you to send the life-giving presence of your Spirit upon this font,
Placed here as the source of new life for your people.
The power of the Spirit made the Virgin Mary the mother of your Son;
Send forth the power of the same Spirit, so that your Church may present you with countless new sons and daughters and bring forth new citizens of heaven.

Grant, O Lord, that the people who are reborn from this font
May fulfill in their actions what they pledge by their faith
And show by their lives what they begin by the power of your grace.
Let the people of different nations and conditions
Who come forth as one from these waters of rebirth
Show by their love that they are brothers and sisters
And by their concord that they are citizens of the one kingdom.
Make them into true sons and daughters who reflect their Father’s goodness,
Disciples who are faithful to the teaching of their one Master,
Temples in whom the voice of the Spirit resounds.
Grant that they may be witnesses to the Gospel, doers of the works of holiness.
Enable them to fill with the Spirit of Christ the earthly city where they live,
Until they are welcomed home in the heavenly Jerusalem.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Gifts Full of Meaning

Homily for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Year C
Isaiah 60.1-6 Psalm 72 Ephesians 3.2-3a, 5-6 Matthew 2.1-12

**Note: This weekend and next, we are blessing three new objects in our church, one at each Mass: new doors, an ambry, and a baptismal font. The final paragraph of this weekend’s homily was different for each of the three weekend Masses according to the object being blessed at that Mass.**

Today, I imagine, the gifts would be very different. Not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but perhaps something a little more practical. Like an iPhone, so the new parents could communicate with their distant relatives and post pictures of their new baby on Facebook. And maybe a gift card to a bookstore, so they could read up on the prophecies that this child is going to fulfill. And, finally, perhaps some blankets and clothes for the newborn, anything that would help him stay warm in the cold of the night. Good gifts, practical gifts, things Mary and Joseph could really use. But, of course, that isn’t what happened – these new parents didn’t even get the first-century equivalent of these twenty-first century practicalities. Instead, they received three very un-useful gifts – what on earth are Mary and Joseph going to do with gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

Now, of course, they could use the gold to buy things they need – but every indication that we have in scripture is that the Holy Family remained somewhat poor, or at least only modestly well-off. It seems they didn’t buy extravagant things with their gold, and they didn’t sell the other two gifts for the sums of money that they were worth. But the scene of the Epiphany, the gifts of the magi, are not meant to be practical – and Mary and Joseph know this. The gifts they received are symbolic of who this child will become. Gold – because this child is the King of Kings, the ruler of all the earth. Frankincense – which was used in sacrifices at the Temple – because this child is the High Priest and will offer himself as a sacrifice for all humanity. And myrrh – which was used to anoint the dead – because this child was born to die; his suffering and death would be the most important event of his life, at least until his resurrection. The gifts of the magi were not practical – but they were meaningful. They told in themselves who this child was and the life he was born to live.

(5:30 pm Mass – Blessing of the Doors) At the beginning of Mass this evening, we blessed the new doors of our church. These doors are very practical – they keep the wind and cold outside while keeping the warmth of the heat inside. But they are also meaningful. These doors remind us of Christ, who is the gate and door through whom we enter the church and through whom we encounter God. We enter through these doors to hear the word of God and to celebrate the sacraments – the space inside these doors is set aside as a place to meet God, to be nourished by Christ, and to go forth in the Spirit to spread the gospel in the world. Yes, the doors are practical. But they are also meaningful. Through them, we gather together as members of the Body of Christ.

(9:00 am Mass – Blessing of the Ambry) In just a few moments, we will bless the new ambry in our baptismal font, the place where the Holy Oils are stored. This ambry has a practical purpose – to store the three oils that are used in the sacraments of the church – the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick, and the Sacred Chrism. These oils are used to anoint people as the prepare for baptism, in the sacraments of confirmation, in the anointing of the sick, at the ordination of priests and bishops, and at the dedication of a church. But the ambry also has a deeper meaning. These oils are blessed each year at the Chrism Mass by the bishop. Being able to see the oils each time we gather in this parish church can remind us of our connection to the wider church, through the Archbishop of Indianapolis and all bishops throughout the world. But they also remind us that Christ offers us healing, strengthening, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments of the Church. Yes, the ambry is practical. But it is also meaningful. Through the Holy Oils kept in this ambry, we are united with the church beyond our doors and to Christ, the source of all our blessings.

(11:00 am Mass – Preparation for Blessing of the Baptismal Font) Next weekend at this Mass, we will bless the new baptismal font in our church. This new font is very practical – it provides a place for the baptism of both infants and adults. But it is also meaningful. The cross shape of the font reminds us that, when we are baptized, we die to our old self and rise as a child of God, a transformation made possible by the cross of Christ. The water in the font is flowing, reminding us of the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized. The position of the font completes a perfect triangle with the altar and the ambo, and it is made from the same marble as these other items. Those connections are important. It is through the words of Scripture proclaimed at this ambo that we encounter Christ and hear his command to be baptized, then through the waters of the font, we are led to the high point of our Christian life, the Eucharist, which we receive from the altar. Yes, the baptismal font is practical. But it is also meaningful. Through the waters of this font, we join ourselves to the death and resurrection of Christ and are led by the Word of God to the table of the Eucharist.