Monthly Archives: March 2014

Homily – Sunday Lent III A


Ex 17:3-7
Ps 95   R/O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!
Rom 5:1-2, 5-8
Jn 4:5-42

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a fascinating encounter; it’s rich in theology and deep in meaning. In fact, we could easily spend hours talking about this story, line by line, verse by verse, drinking the Truth and Life that gushes forth from it. But, even though it is Lent, I’m going to spare you that penance today and focus on only one dimension of the text.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, by Pietro Negri (1679)

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, by Pietro Negri (1679)

Notice that when Jesus confronts the woman at the well with her sins, He does just that: He confronts her. There’s no judgement on His part, there’s no condemnation; Jesus merely calls her attention to her sins (and the fact that He knows them), and He challenges her to repentance and conversion: If you knew the gift of God…(Jn 4:10) And if we really did know the gift of God, how could we ever choose to sin?

My brothers and sister, Jesus continues to challenge us to conversion today, and He does this explicitly through His Church. When the Church speaks out on issues of morality — abortion, euthanasia, Marriage, homosexual activity, contraception, premarital sex, poverty, gambling, and so on —, she does so not out of condemnation, but out of her prophetic duty to proclaim the Word of God and to call people to conversion. The sense of guilt someone might feel when hearing the Church’s message of truth doesn’t come from a ‘condemnation by the Church’; imitating her Lord, she merely calls attention to sin and challenges the sinner to repent.

Guilt? Well, guilt comes from within! We experience guilt when we’re judged, not by others, but by our own conscience. And our conscience is capable of judging us like this because we’re created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), and His law is written on our hearts: I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts, prophesied Jeremiah (Jer 31:33). This is confirmed by St. Paul when he writes about the pagans in his letter to the Romans: …what the Law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them (Rom 2:15).

As any criminal psychologist will tell you, it’s not the court that makes a criminal feel remorse or guilt. Feelings of guilt and remorse must come from within a person; they can’t be imposed from without. It’s the same with sin. When we commit sin, it’s our conscience and our heart that condemn us. And when the final judgement comes, God won’t so much condemn us as ratify the judgement our conscience has made against us. If we’ve failed to listen to our conscience, if we’ve failed to properly educate and strengthen it, then we’ll be liable to the judgement of our conscience, which will speak out against us for not having listened, for not having obeyed, for not having formed it according to the truth. In short, if we’re condemned, it’ll be because we condemned ourselves.

But as the Psalm today says: O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!  My brothers and sisters, may we not harden our hearts when God calls attention to our sins; may we not harden our hearts when the Church calls attention to our sins; may we not harden our hearts when our conscience calls attention to our sins. Instead, may we turn back to God, asking Him for forgiveness, for healing, for the grace of repentance and conversion.

You see, this is the beauty of our God, that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live (Ez 33:11). God wants us to turn back to Him: in His love for us, He is merciful and wants to save us, but we must repent of our sins and change our ways for conversion to take root. This is the invitation Jesus makes to the Samaritan woman in our Gospel today. And notice how when He named her sins, Jesus didn’t do it to condemn her, but to call her to repentance, …and that’s precisely what she did! Confronted with her sins, laid bare in front of her by this stranger, she chose to seek forgiveness. That’s because before talking to her about her sins, Jesus loved her; and made her thirsty for His love (cf. Jn 4:10-15). Filled with the joy and excitement of having encountered Christ and His forgiveness, she immediately begins to evangelise, sharing this message of hope, this Good News about the love and mercy of God: Come and see…! (Jn 4:29)

Confronted with her sins, the Samaritan woman, instead of getting angry and trying to silence the voice calling her to repentance, chose to listen and drink of the water being offered her, so as to benefit from the eternal life that gushes forth from it. She listened to the voice of God calling her back, and because of that, she came to [know] the Gift of God, and grew in faith and in holiness.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus’ mission is to call sinners back to the Father, and this is made most visible on the Cross, as St. Paul says in the second reading: God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Again, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live (Ez 33:11). God and the Church call attention to our sins not to condemn us, but to educate us so that we might repent, turn back to God, and live.

And so, when the Church’s teachings confront us with our own sins or errors and we feel guilty, it’s important for us to remember that the Church isn’t condemning us, and that she isn’t the source of our guilt. Rather, we need to follow the example of the woman at the well, and recognise God’s call to conversion and accept the life-giving water that He’s offering. O that today [we] would listen to the voice of the Lord. [Let us] not harden [our] hearts (Ps 95:7c-8a), but rather embrace God’s mercy and forgiveness, confessing our sins and turning back to Him with all our hearts, because only in Christ can we ever be at peace with God (cf. Rom 5:1); only in Christ ca we ever be at peace with ourselves. Amen.

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Homily – Sunday Lent II A


Gen 12:1-4
Ps 33   R/. Let your love be upon us, Lord, even as we hope in you.
2 Tim 1:8-10
Mt 17:1-9


Throughout his Gospel, Matthew is careful to show how Jesus is the fulfilment of all the promises God made to Israel, and he often finds himself paralleling his presentation of Jesus with the person of Moses, the great prophet: Both were close to God; both met with God on a mountain; both gave the people a Law from the mountainside; both freed God’s people from slavery; and both were physically illuminated by their encounter with God.

But, Matthew is also very careful to show how Jesus is so much more than Moses, and that in fact, Moses was actually prefiguring of Jesus. (You’ll remember how several weeks ago, Dcn. Ken and I both spoke about how this is called ‘typology’). Well, Matthew makes it a point to show us how Moses was a type of Jesus.

As Pope Benedict XVI noted in his first book Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus is the real Moses, the real great prophet sent by God to free His people from slavery (sin) and to bring them into the real Promised Land (heaven). Nowhere is this more evident than at the Transfiguration!

As the Pope Emeritus noted, Moses would glow after his encounters with God, but he needed to veil his face until it faded so as not to scare the people. Well, Jesus, too, ‘veiled His divine glory’ from the people when He became man. But when He unveils it at the Transfiguration, we notice that Jesus’ illumination isn’t reflective like it was for Moses. You see, Moses’ glow was a reflection of God’s glory ‘bouncing off’ of him, if you will; it was God’s light reflected on his face.

But Jesus’ glow, as we hear in the Gospel, came from an interior light. Jesus didn’t shine because He was in the presence of God, as Moses did; rather Jesus was radiating from within Himself; He was shining with His own light!

That’s because the Transfiguration isn’t just another encounter that Jesus had with the Father. Rather, it’s a moment when Jesus reveals His divine glory to three Apostles, to His ‘inner circle’. And in case that wasn’t obvious enough for them, the revelation was supported by the presence of Moses and Elijah, and witnessed by the voice of the Father: This is my Son, the beloved… listen to Him (Mt 17:5b).

Image

Transfiguration of the Lord, by Fra. Angelico (d. 1455)

Jesus’ divinity was revealed in the presence of the Law and the Prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah. That’s to say, that the Law and the Prophets testify to the divine nature of Jesus and to His messianic mission. We’ll see theme again on the road to Emmaus when the risen Jesus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, explains to the two disciples the things about himself in all the scriptures (Lk 24:27).

Now, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Transfiguration takes place immediately after Jesus makes a prediction of His suffering and death, and invites His disciples to follow Him by carrying their own cross. So the Transfiguration, then, also needs to be understood in connection with the Cross.

In this context, Jesus’ divine glory is revealed in order to sustain the Apostles through the dark hour that’s about to come. Though it was probably confusing for them at the moment, it would, in due time, help them to make sense of the events.

And so the Church offers us the reading of the Transfiguration on this second Sunday of Lent to remind us of Christ’s glorious and divine nature, so that we too aren’t lost in the midst of darkness and suffering, but that instead that we might keep our eyes fixed on the vision of Christ in His glory, and our hearts fixed on the hope of the resurrection to come.

And the Church also does this to help us on our Lenten journey of prayer. Just as the three Apostles witnessed Christ’s divinity while in prayer with Him, so too we’re invited and encouraged to pray with the Lord and encounter for ourselves His divinity, allowing His glory to penetrate our being and illumine our hearts. This is at the heart of the baptismal symbols of the white garment and the candle. Through the cleansing Sacrament of Baptism, we’re freed from our sins and are made resplendent with Christ, and called to live always in that light (cf. Rite of Baptism, no. ).

And the Church also calls us to turn to Scripture, recognising in the witness of the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) the many signs that point us to Jesus as the one, true Lord, who has come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in [Him] should not remain in the darkness (Jn 12:46).

As we continue our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, may we be brought closer to Jesus Christ, and be transformed by the power of His grace, so as to become reflections of His love and mercy. Amen.

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15 March 2014 · 12:55

Homily – Sunday Lent I A


Gen 2:7-9, 16-18, 25; 3:1-7
Ps 51   R/. Have mercy, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Rm 5:12-19
Mt 4:1-11

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

In the beginning, when God created man and woman, He created them to be in communion with Himself, and as we hear from the second creation account in Genesis, we notice that Adam and Eve walked with the Lord and talked with Him in the Garden; they lived in His presence, they lived in His peace. And they were able to do that because they were created in His image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-27). This image and likeness, this imago Dei (image of God), is what gave them the capacity to be in a personal relationship with God, and what differentiated them from all the other creatures created by God.

Sadly, the imago Dei was distorted by sin when the serpent seduced Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. By being led into disobedience  — which, in this context, I think, is quite severe since they were only given one commandment: not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17) —, by being led into disobedience, Adam and Eve turned away from God because they turned away from His will; they turned away from His Word.

Now this isn’t some parental punishment for breaking the house rules!  As if God said, ‘If you don’t obey my rules, you’re out!’. By disobeying the Word of God, by turning away from His commandment, Adam and Eve turned away from God Himself, because God identifies Himself with His Word; His Word is an extension of Himself.

It isn’t like our words, which we formulate in our heads (hopefully!) and then speak with our mouths, releasing them to give joy, sadness or hurt. Once our words have been spoken, they’re no longer present, and they fade away. At best, our words create a memory; at worst, a wound; either way, they’re gone.

But God’s Word is alive and active, says the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:12); it’s a creative Word, the Word from which the universe was created. The Bible begins by saying:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…
God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’  And it was so.
And God said, …  ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…  And it was so.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…  And it was so
(Gen 1:1-26).

And again in the Psalms: By His word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all the stars (Ps 33:6).

God’s Word is alive and active (Heb 4:12): it doesn’t fade away like ours, rather it lives and it brings into being, and because it lives in God, it’s eternal like Him — Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away, says Jesus (Mt 24:35). And St. Peter said, ‘[T]he word of the Lord endures for ever’, and that living and abiding word of God … is the good news that was announced to you (see 1 Pt 1:23-25).

So what is this good news that was announced to us?  St. John tells us: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands (I Jn 1:1).

And what was from the beginning?  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. […]  And the Word became flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:1-3, 14).

Jesus, Jesus is the Word of God (!), the eternal and creative Word made flesh. What we’ve come to call the written Word of God, Scripture, is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Scripture is the Word of God made known to humanity, which reveals to us the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the actions of the Trinity. God reveals Himself to us through His Word, and He transmits Himself to us through His Word.

That’s why to reject the Word of God is to reject God Himself, because, for God there is no distinction between Himself and His Word, they are One: The Father and I are one, said Jesus (Jn 10:30). But that’s what Adam and Eve did in the Garden: when they turned away from God’s one commandment, when they turned away from His Word, they turned away from Him.

But notice how Jesus, while being tempted in the desert, responded to the devil by quoting Scripture. As the second reading tells us, we received the free gift of salvation through the obedience of Jesus. And Jesus came to reconcile us to the Father, to restore in us the imago Dei that Adam and Eve had distorted. By the obedience of Christ we are saved!

Jesus restores us to obedience, through Himself, by being obedient to the Word of God; this is why He quotes Scripture to turn the devil away. Three times the devil tries to lure Him into sin, and he even tries to use Scripture against Jesus: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written… (Mt 4:6). But Jesus was able to avoid this manipulation because He knew the Word of God in His heart: He understood the Word of God, because He Himself is the Word of God.

My brothers and sisters, we too, need to come to know the Word of God in our hearts, because the Word of God leads us to the Father, teaches us Truth, feeds our soul, and strengthens us against temptation.

Because the Word of God reveals God to us, and because we’re created in His image and likeness and given the command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48; cf. Lev 20:7), we necessarily need to come to know who God is, and how we’re to imitate Him. This way, Jesus will abide in us, and we will be one with Him, and through Him, one with the Father and the Spirit (cf. Jn 17:21).

Just as Jesus, the Word made flesh is the Bread of Life in the Eucharist, so too, is Scripture, the Word of God, food for us. May we feast on this food, and come to meet and know the God who loves us, the God who saves us, the God who calls us to imitate Him, the God who calls us to be one with Him. And may our meditation upon the creative Word of God recreate us in His image and likeness. Amen.

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Homily – Ash Wednesday


Joel 2:12-18
Ps 51   R/. Have mercy, O Lord, for we have sinned. 
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

 

My brothers and sisters, the Christian life is all about imitating Christ, and Lent is about taking the time to see where we’re at in that journey of becoming like Christ.

Ash-WednesdayWe begin Lent today with a spirit of penance and repentance because we recognise that we don’t always live like Christ; because we recognise that sometimes we don’t even try to imitate Him; and because we recognise that at times we even choose to turn away from Him, preferring instead the glamour of sin.

This is the reality of our human weakness: we are attacked everyday by various temptations — some of which we even create ourselves —, and too often we simply give-in to them without a fight. And so, as we embark on this annual journey of Lent, this journey of conversion, we do so by acknowledging our sinfulness, by acknowledging our love for God, and by acknowledging our need for His grace to persevere in faithful discipleship and to grow in holiness.

Today, we put on ashes as a sign of this repentance, and as a sign of our desire for conversion. Taken from the ancient Jewish custom, the placing of ashes on our heads is an act of publically acknowledging our sinfulness, and of humbling ourselves in the sight of God, remembering that we are little more than ashes, for from dust we were created and to dust we shall return (cf. Gen 3:19).

It’s also a means of calling upon God’s goodness. If we look at all the times in the Old Testament when people put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance and conversion, it’s almost always accompanied by prayers calling for God’s mercy.[1]  And so, the imposition of ashes also signifies turning our hearts back to God and asking for His mercy.

These two dimensions — humble repentance and prayer for mercy — are at the heart of the entire Lenten season, and so we see in this symbolic act of ashes the meaning of this holy Season: repentance and conversion; and it opens us up to the triple practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which are characteristic of Lent.

Prayer deepens our relationship with God, helps us to recognise our sinfulness and our need for Him, and strengthens us to better live the Christian life.

Fasting helps us to make room for God by shedding the things we don’t really need, the things that tend to distract us from God, and it helps us to discipline our bodies and desires so that we’re better able to resist temptation. By saying ‘no’ to good things we learn to better say ‘no’ to evil. Fasting also helps us to identify with the poor who often go hungry on a daily basis.

Almsgiving helps us to be detached from our material possessions so as to share the gifts we’ve received with those in need.

Together, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are intended to bring us closer to God and to make us stronger in faith and in love. As such, then, they’re more than just ‘something we do during Lent;’ they’re really at the very heart of the Christian life. The Church simply highlights these three weapons during Lent in the hope that our renewed efforts in these areas will continue beyond the 40 days, bearing fruit throughout the whole year, indeed throughout our whole life.

When training for an upcoming season, athletes prepare themselves by renewing their commitment to fitness and by increasing their efforts to train their bodies for the stamina and strength required for their sport.

Lent is like a spiritual ‘spring training’: it’s a time we take to renew our commitment to the spiritual life and to increase our efforts to be holy through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But just like the athlete who needs to keep a healthy lifestyle throughout the year so as to be ready for training and competition, so, too, do we need to sustain throughout the year the progress we make during Lent, each year building upon the last.

But the penance we do during Lent, and the discipline of discipleship we build through it, isn’t for its own sake; it’s not meant to make us into sad Christians, depressed by our sins and weighed down by our penance. The Christian life isn’t some endless cycle of Lent, of ‘training for competition’, of just fighting temptation! Though that’s certainly a part of it, the Christian life goes far beyond that, because it always looks beyond the fight against evil to Christ’s victory on the Cross.

And so, just as Lent already points us beyond penance toward the joy of Easter, the joy of the Resurrection, so, too, does the Christian life point beyond the struggle against sin toward eternal life in the Kingdom. You see, the Christian life is intended to prepare us for Heaven, to help us become holy so that we might be ready to share in the blessed joy of eternal union with God. Lent is merely the warm-up exercise that helps us to better and more properly live the life of holiness to which we’ve been called by virtue of our Baptism.

The placing of ashes on our heads today is an external sign of our commitment to this renewal of faith, a physical sign on our bodies that represents the internal, spiritual reality that’s taking place in our souls. And so, with these ashes, we humbly turn our hearts back to God and ask Him to fill us with His grace, to strengthen us against temptation, to make us holy. Amen.

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Lenten Message

Lent is a time the Church sets aside each year for us to evaluate the state of our life, of our relationship with Christ, and the direction in which we’re going. It’s a time during which we’re called to go out into the desert to be with God, as did the people of Israel with Moses (the book of Exodus), a time during which we’re called to follow Jesus into the solitude of the desert in order to do battle against temptation (Lk 4:1-12; Mt 4:1-11).

christ tempted by satan

Christ being tempted. (Bl. Fra Angelico?)

To help us in this mission of spiritual warfare, the Church gives us three particular weapons: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The effectiveness of these ancient practices is rooted in their very nature as being directed toward someone other than ‘me’.

Prayer binds us to God. It helps us recognise our sins and our need for God; it deepens our relationship with Jesus, and strengthens us to better live like Him. It’s the foundation of the other two weapons.

Fasting helps us to make room for God by letting go of the things we don’t really need, things that distract us from God. It teaches us discipline and helps us to control our bodies and desires so that we can better resist temptation. It teaches us to make sacrifices for the sake of love, and helps us to identify with the poor who are often hungry on a daily basis.

Almsgiving helps us to let go of our material possessions so that we might provide for the needs of others. In Lent, the idea is that the money we save by fasting is then given to feed the poor. It also keeps us from making fasting a miserly and selfish act.

These are the basic spiritual tools of the Christian life; we simply highlight them during Lent to help us better practice them throughout the year. Together, they bring us closer to God and increase our love for Him and neighbour. Done intentionally with joy and authenticity, they strengthen our faith. They also point us to a proper understanding of ‘penance’.

As I wrote in Part XVII of my series on Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, penance isn’t a form of punishment; rather it’s “an act of love offered to increase our desire to avoid sin, to strengthen repentance, and to make reparation for sins”. Penance is meant to bring us closer to God by increasing our capacity to love, and refocusing our attention and efforts on following God.

In this way, then, Lent also reminds us of our Baptism, the starting point of our Journey toward God, and points us toward the Resurrection of Christ, the guarantee of our own resurrection to come.

And so, this time of prayer and penance which is Lent, is also a time of preparation and joyful expectation: preparation for the Easter mysteries celebrated in the Sacred Paschal Triduum; expectation of the glory that awaits us in Christ Jesus.

May we, then, embrace this time of renewal: with all of God’s people, may we enter into the desert of Lent to encounter God and His superabundant love for us, and recommit ourselves to following His way. A blessed and holy Lent to each of you!

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Vatican Council II – Revisiting its Documents: Sacrosanctum Concilium Part XIX

This is a multi-part series honouring the Vatican Council II by reviewing its documents.  We continue with a review of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Part XIX: Chapter IV: The Divine Office

Before we can discuss what the Council Fathers said about the Divine Office, I think it would be useful to first discuss what the Divine Office is, since it’s not a Liturgy we often talk about.

Together with Mass, the Divine Office forms the Church’s official public worship; only these two can be properly called Liturgy (with a capital ‘L’); any other liturgical prayer else is rooted in one or the other. Also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Breviary, it is a liturgical prayer of the Church rooted in Scripture, particularly the Psalms. It’s composed of five to seven ‘Offices’ or ‘Hours’ that are linked to different times of the day: Office of Readings or Matins (early morning); Lauds (morning); Terce (mid-morning); Sexte (midday) and None (mid-afternoon); Vespers (evening); and Compline (night). Monastic and contemplative religious communities say the full seven Offices, while diocesan clergy and ‘active’ religious communities usually only pray five Offices.

While clergy and religious are bound by their promises and vows to pray these Offices, the Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the whole Church, and lay people are also encouraged to pray this Liturgy, even if only in part. While it’s properly celebrated publicly or ‘in common’ (with other people) and in song, it can be prayed individually, but always in communion with the whole Church and the Communion of Saints. Some of you may remember that each Nothing More Beautiful session began with the praying of Vespers.

This ancient liturgical prayer is rooted in the Jewish practice of singing the Psalms, in St. Paul’s command to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17), and in the Church’s desire to constantly remember God’s presence and grace in our daily lives. It is “a kind of necessary complement to the fullness of divine worship that is contained in the eucharistic sacrifice, by means of which that worship might overflow to reach all the hours of the day” (Pope Paul VI, Laudis canticum, Apostolic Constitution promulgating the revised Divine Office, 1970).

For their part, the Council Fathers described the Office as the “hymn … sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven” by which Christ the High Priest “attaches to Himself the entire community of mankind” and unites them to Himself “in singing His divine song of praise” to the Father (no. 83). In this way the Church is “ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the entire world”. And “when this wonderful song of praise is correctly celebrated … it is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom” (no. 83).

More information on the history and development of the Divine Office, as well as instructions on how to pray it, can be found on EWTN. And the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, which has a beautiful overview of the purpose and importance of prayer, can be found in the Catholic Liturgical Library. (To be continued…)

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