Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Power of Example

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C
Genesis 15.5-12, 17-18 Psalm 27 Philippians 3.17-4.1 Luke 9.28b-36

As baptized Christians, you and I are the most tangible and effective witnesses to the presence of Christ in our world. By living our faith, we can help bring peace, hope, joy and love to a world of suffering and pain. We can be the voice of truth in a world of doubt, the arms of compassion to a world in need. We can lead people to heaven by leading people to Christ. But we can also drive people away from God. We can make others suspicious of organized religion because of our hypocrisy. We can cause doubt and despair because of our failure to love. We can turn people off to Christ by the selfishness and greed of the lives we lead. Simply by the way we go about our daily lives, we can lead people to Christ or away from him. That is the power of human influence.

The story is told of a man many years ago who was in a long line at an airport, waiting for a shuttle to get to the terminal. Standing in front of this man was the late Cardinal Terence Cooke, archbishop of New York. One of the airport attendants came up to Cardinal Cooke and whispered to him that he could take him to the front of the line. Cardinal Cooke responded, “That’s very thoughtful of you and I appreciate it, but I can wait my turn.” That simple act of humility was noticed by the man standing behind the Cardinal in line, and it moved him so much that he began going to church, and eventually became Catholic himself.* Such a simple witness that can lead someone to Christ.

St. Paul knew the power of this witness. He urged the Philippians to imitate him and others who conduct themselves according to the model given us by Christ. He knew that the example of Christians most often is what would lead others to Christ. But, at the same time, the opposite is also true. People who call themselves Christian but occupy their minds with earthly things can lead people away from Christ. Professed Christians who are rude, haughty, greedy, and mean-spirited do damage not just to themselves but to the people around them. The worst kind of Christian is one who is Christian in name only but not in action. Of course no Christians are perfect – we’re far from it – but in humility we are called to do the best we can to be an effective witness to the presence of Christ in our world. If our friends or family members know that we go to Mass every weekend but also witness our constantly judgmental attitudes, then we have work to do in living as Christians. If our co-workers who have no professed faith have to put up with the anger and verbal abuse of a professed Christian, then it’s not likely that we will lead them to Christ. But if the people around us can witness our kindness, our love, our generosity, and our joy, then perhaps they, too, will want to know the God who is the source of all those blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, of course, it is Christ alone who saves us, it is Christ alone who draws people to him, it is Christ alone who leads anyone to heaven. But the simple fact of our human nature is that we often look to the people around us for an example to follow. In our Lenten journey, we strive to put aside all those things that distract us or the people around us from being able to follow Christ. And along the way we ask ourselves: what kind of a Christian example do we give?

*Story told by Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Priests of the Third Millenium and Called to Be Holy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fasting and Waiting

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year C
Deuteronomy 26.4-10 Psalm 91 Romans 10.8-13 Luke 4.1-13

In an interesting quirk of the calendar, the season of Lent this year corresponds to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. And I think the one event can teach us about the other. Part of what seems to draw people to events like the Olympics are the stories behind the athletes. Especially in recent years, news coverage of the Olympic Games has focused more and more on the athletes’ personal lives, their struggles, their journeys, their triumphs and their failures. In many of these personal stories, there is an element of waiting. We hear about snowboarders who must wait for their sport to gain recognition and acclaim. We hear about skiers who must wait for an injury to heal before being able to reach for their dream. We hear about ice skaters who must wait four more years for another chance to prove themselves after a disappointing performance at the last winter games. And we hear about bobsledders and lugers who must wait for years to hone a championship technique in a difficult and dangerous sport. The stories of the trials and challenges and waiting of these Olympians is often what makes us most interested in the athletes as people, and not just as medal-winners. And it is here that the Olympic Games meets in a curious way the Christian observance of Lent.

Because, in a way, Lent too is about waiting. During these 40 days, we wait for Easter … we wait to celebrate the resurrection … some members of our community wait to be baptized or to join the full communion of our Catholic faith. But on an even deeper level, the waiting of Lent is seen best of all in the practice of fasting. Before he began his public ministry, Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert. And so our Christian tradition has long made our 40-day Lenten journey a time of fasting. But what is fasting all about? Why do we fast from desserts or soft drinks or computer games or television? For the most part, the things we fast from are things that we typically enjoy. It’s pointless to give up chocolate if we don’t like chocolate and never eat it anyway. But it’s also pointless to give up Facebook if we spend the time that we would have been on Facebook instead texting people or on e-mail. We fast in order to create an emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that turns us away from ourselves and toward God. We fast in order to wait. We rid our lives of some earthly experience so that we can fill it with things that come from God. We fast from something that makes us happy now – temporarily – in order to wait for something that will make us happy forever. We fast from the things of earth in order to wait in joyful hope for the things of heaven.

That’s the wisdom that Jesus knew that the devil didn’t. The devil tried to tempt Jesus with things that would make him happy now – bread to eat, power over the kingdoms of earth, security from failure. But Jesus knew that none of those things bring true happiness – they bring passing pleasure, yes, but not true joy. Jesus knew that we can glimpse true joy here on earth, in serving and loving others to the best of our ability. We can glimpse true joy among family and friends and a community of faith. But for complete, endless joy, we must wait. We must wait until we are able to hand everything over to God. We must wait until all pride and selfishness has been removed from our hearts. We must wait for the time when we can say to our Lord – everything I have is yours. Fasting reminds us that we need to wait – that earthly pleasures will not bring us true joy. Because our hearts will only be completely filled in the glory of heaven.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Snow Lay on the Ground

Homily for Ash Wednesday, Year C
Joel 2.12-18 Psalm 51 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.2 Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18

Needless to say, we’ve had a lot of snow around here in recent days. Snow makes such a beautiful, clean blanket as it covers the world with its pure, white flakes. There is nothing quite like a snow-covered landscape – at least, until the snow gets dirty, and the pure, white mounds are mixed with salt and sand and dirt and earth and become more gray than white. As beautiful as snow can be by itself, so too can it turn ugly and unsightly the more we drive and walk and plow it away. But such is the way of life.

On this Ash Wednesday, we gather as a people to publicly recognize the dirt and grime that has built up on our souls. We are dust, we are sinners, we are far from perfect. The cross of ashes that is placed on our foreheads today reminds us of that. But underneath, we know that there is a glimmer of hope – there is a spark of the divine, the image of God himself that has been imprinted within each of us. The good news of the season of Lent is that we don’t have to stay dirty; we can wipe away the grime and find once more the pure light of God that has been given to us. The process of conversion is lifelong – it is not confined to these 40 days each year. But we focus on that conversion in a particular way as we move through the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent. During these next 40 days, we make a concerted effort to turn away from ourselves and to turn toward God. During these next 40 days, we try to recover the grace of baptism that has been given to us. During these next 40 days, we strive more and more to recognize Christ in each person we encounter and honor the Spirit that lives in them.

Once it gets dirty, it is virtually impossible to restore snow to its original, clean, pure-white state. But for us, that transformation is possible. Through the water of baptism, we first became children of God. Now, as we journey toward the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter, as we move forward on the path of Lenten conversion, the grace of God can rid us of everything that has darkened our souls over time. And once our sinfulness has been cleansed and wiped away, then we recover once again the purity of our baptismal identity.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

St. Paul on Twitter

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Isaiah 6.1-2a, 3-8 Psalm 138 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 Luke 5.1-11

St. Paul would be right at place in a headline-news world. With newspapers going out of fashion and in-depth investigative journalism on the decline, we find ourselves more and more focused on the headlines, the news bytes, the quick quotes that can summarize everything we need to know in just a few words. You might even say that St. Paul would be a natural on Twitter – one of the latest technological crazes, where you can use no more than 140 characters to say what you want to say. St. Paul would be a natural. Take today’s second reading, for example. St. Paul gives us a quick summary of our belief in Jesus. Put simply, Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to many. Only 123 characters – and that is pretty much all you need to know. The Twitter version of the gospel – only it wasn’t written by a 21st-century social networker; it was written by St. Paul himself.

Of course there is much more to the story, there is much more to know about why Christ needed to die for us, what his resurrection accomplished, and how he commissioned his disciples to preach the gospel during his appearances to them. The 73 books of the Bible are a good place to start. But there’s even more than that – we have 2,000 years worth of reflections and teachings on the Word of God. Even with all this material to reflect on, not to mention our own personal prayer and relationship with God, some good, brief, summaries of our faith can help us figure out what is most important in our lives and in our Church. And so, from today’s readings, I offer some Christian headlines – some gospel tweets – some short summaries of what is most important in our relationship with God:

From the prophet Isaiah: The earth is filled with the glory of God!
From St. Paul: All the good that I do is accomplished through the grace of God.
From St. Peter: Master, I trust in you.
From Jesus Christ: Do not be afraid.

Really, what else do we need? In these few short phrases we have a lifetime of material for reflection and personal growth in the Christian life. And sometimes, the fewer words we speak, the better.