Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Prv 9:1-6; Eph 5:15-20; Jn 6:51-58]

"God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: … no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other" (CCC 340). That is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis quotes it in his recent encyclical Laudato si'. "All of us," he says, "are linked by unseen bonds." Together we "form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion that fills us with a sacred, affectionate, and humble respect." As a result, "'we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement'"(LS 89; EG 215).

These texts from the magisterium of the Church are the fruits of trying to understand the will of God; they are responses to Paul's exhortation, "watch carefully how you live, making the most of the opportunity." An opportunity missed is an opportunity lost.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis uniquely quotes a Muslim poet, a Sufi mystic:
"There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. [If you pay attention, you can] capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted…"(LS 233n159).
So, then, we hear in maybe a new way Jesus's words, "I am the living bread … for the life of the world," literally, bread for the cosmos, for the life of the universe, the bread that enlivens with beauty all that is. "For Christians," says Pope Francis, "all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive
transformation" (LS 235).

Our first reading presents to us Christ in the person of Lady Wisdom. She is at one and the same time architect, carpenter, stone mason, butcher, hostess, and cook. In fact, she is the Creator of the Cosmos of which she herself is the beauty, intelligence, order, and life. She invites all the simple, "come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed," my flesh given for the life of the world.

"It is in the Eucharist," says Pope Francis, "that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. … In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life" (LS 236).

From our first reading, "Forsake foolishness, advance in the way of understanding," and from our second, "do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand." These are urgent calls to the People of God to discern the time, to make "the most of the opportunity." There is an undoubtable critical need for everyone, individuals and families, communities and nations, to do honest discernment and take very practical steps to care for the creation … for its sake, for God's, and for the sake of future generations of creatures. But the understanding Christians need even more today is that as human beings we are defined by a beginning and a destiny, by our creation by Lady Wisdom on the one end, and, on the other, by the mystery we celebrated yesterday, the Assumption of Mary that prefigures ours.

As Saint Paul puts it, "we are not our own." When we deny one end or the other, our creation or our destiny, we must necessarily decide the terms of our fulfillment on own and maneuver for our satisfaction now, whatever the cost. We let popular vote, or the slim majority of a committee of nine, empty nature of its creative contingency and so deprive ourselves the surprises of providence. We determine who can live and when we can die and make achieving a comfortable gender identity our aim and glory. We exalt strength, so we leave no room for compassion, we deny sin, so leave no room for forgiveness, we insist on self-determination, so leave no room for mercy and for grace.

Some Christians believe in the Prosperity Gospel, and many read the Gospel as a handbook for self-improvement, and so preempt the abundant life the New Testament promises, the inexhaustible treasures that are the gift God makes of himself, the promises that surpass every human desire, in the words of our opening prayer.

Catholics see and experience the world differently from most folks. For us, in the words of a Catholic poet, who himself is just repeating what Isaiah had said and what we will sing in the Sanctus, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God," a grandeur God shares with us, but that is always, too, just beyond our grasp. It is this sacramental and contemplative reading of the world and of history that makes Catholicism a stumbling block for many.

Much of this homily has been quotations from Pope Francis. I had not planned that, but then found that he had already said what I was moved to say, and said it better and with authority besides. I may as well let Francis have the final word, too, this day after Our Lady's Assumption:
"Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty. … She now understands the meaning of all things. Hence, we can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom" (LS 241).

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer. 38:4-10, Heb 12:1-4, Lk 12:49-53 ]

Before Mass today Br. Kevin asked me if I had any mother-in-law jokes to tell. I only remember one told by Fr. Ansgar: “The height of ambiguous feelings is when a man sees his mother-in-law driving off a cliff in his new Cadillac.” The message of today's Gospel is much more serious: Divisions!

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, tells a story about his twenty years in Washington, D.C., working with poor refugees from Central America. Soon after he arrived at the Spanish Catholic Center, a poor campesino came to him for help. The man broke down, weeping with such anguish that he could not speak. He handed a letter to Fr. O'Malley. It was from the man's wife back in El Salvador. She took her husband to task for having abandoned her and their six children, leaving them in poverty to slowly starve. When his weeping subsided the man said he came to Washington D.C., like so many others, because of the war raging in his country. It was impossible to support his family under such conditions. He shared a room with several other immigrants in similar circumstances. He washed dishes in two restaurants, he ate leftover food on the plates he cleaned in order to save money, he walked to work to avoid paying for transportation. For six months he had been mailing his savings to her, but she hadn't received a single letter from him. In anguish and great confusion the man said, “Each week I put all the money I have in an envelope and drop it into that blue mailbox on the corner.” Fr. O'Malley looked out the window and saw the blue mailbox. The problem was, it wasn't a mailbox at all, but a fancy trash bin.1

That encounter brought home to him the great division between those who have so much, and those who have so little, who suffer tears, humiliations and poverty in a struggle for survival. But when Christ comes to divide the faithful from the unfaithful, who will be weeping then? Will it be those who can't distinguish between a fancy trash bin and a mailbox? Or, will it be those who refuse to distinguish between a tumor and a little child in the womb: like some of our Supreme Court Justices and Presidents, some doctors and their patients? Or, will there be no division? Will hell be closed, and become heaven?

The English author and painter, William Blake, wrote a poem titled, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” In it he challenges our traditional views of good and evil by trying to depolarize these biblical and ethical opposites, uniting them rather than dividing them, making evil good. In rebuttal, C.S. Lewis writes, “This belief I take to be a disastrous error. We are not living in a world where all roads gradually draw closer until they become one; rather, we live in a world where every road forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork we must make a decision.”2 In a short story by C. S. Lewis titled, “The Great Divorce” he writes that we are already making earth part of heaven or part of hell by our choices here and now. At the end of our journey there is no marriage between them because Jesus came to establish a final division, an eternal separation of good from evil

We live at a time and in a world where what is morally wrong is defended as good, where during the first nine months of a child's life, a baby can be chemically burned, stabbed, cut apart, crushed, and thrown away, as if this was something good and a personal right. In the last twenty-five years a billion children have been aborted around the world.3 How should we respond? The Jewish author, Elie Wiesel, writing about the Holocaust, cries out in all of his books about the horrendous crime his people suffered in World War Two. We also must pray and cry out against the enormous evil of our times. Because to spare the good and slay the wicked, the prophet Ezekiel heard the Lord say, “Go through the city … and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it. Pass through the city and cut them down … But touch no one with the sign [on their foreheads.]”4

C. S. Lewis writes, “I do not think that all those who choose wrong roads will perish; but their rescue consists in returning to the right road. If we desire heaven we shall not be able to hold on to even the smallest part of hell.” Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian who was beheaded because he was a conscientious objector during World War II, not only opposed Germany's unjust war but also its two million abortions per year.5 Many tried to persuade Franz to accept alternative military service in order to avoid the death penalty. But he had a frightening vision one night that gave him courage to persevere in crying out and standing against the evils of his time. He writes, “All of a sudden I saw a beautiful shining railroad train that circled around a mountain. Streams of people rushed toward the train and could not be held back. I would rather not say how many did not get on the train. Then I heard a voice say to me: 'This train is going to hell.'7” I believe God has shown me most clearly … how I must answer the question: should I live as a National Socialist or as a Catholic.”8

Jesus came to divide good from evil. Like Blessed Franz Jagerstatter may we have the grace to stand up for what is right, and to pray with sighs and groans from the depths of our hearts for an end to abortion and for the conversion of those who participate in taking the life of a child in the womb. The blood of a billion abortions in one generation must not be poured out again. Yet, every minute of every day another eighty children die this way. The Catholic Catechism urges us to pray for them.9 May they have the grace of a baptism of desire through the prayers of the Church, and may we and their repentant parents not be separated from them in the life to come.

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Prov 9:1-6; Eph 5:15-20; Jn 6:51-58 ]

Saints have many things to teach us about loving God. Who was it that said, “I love Jesus so much that even if he did not love me, I would still love him”? Was it St. Therese of Lisieux, the young Carmelite nun who, when she discovered the meaning of her contemplative vocation, cried out with joy, “At last I have found my calling, my calling is love”? Or, was it St. Francis de Sales who wrote a five hundred page treatise On Loving God because, he said, “We cannot live without love”? Or, was it St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop who said, “We were born to love, we live to love, and we will die to love still more”? Or, was it St. Teresa of Avila, a mystic and teacher of the ways of prayer who had such overwhelming experiences of God's love she sometimes felt intoxicated with love? Or, was it St. Bernard of Clairvaux who writes, “The measure of our love for God should be without measure?”1 It was none of these. The one who said, “I love Jesus so much that even if he did not love me, I would still love him,” was a five year old girl living in Madison, WI, named Maddie Wall. One day she was enjoying breakfast with her grandmother after Mass on Sunday. In her longing to receive holy communion for the first time her heart overflowed with that profound expression of love. How can anyone so young experience such a love for Christ? Where did her hunger for the Eucharist come from? It came from the love put into her heart by Baptism.

Theologian, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, describes Baptism as a desire for the Eucharist.2 In Baptism we become tabernacles where God dwells. When the Father enters our hearts he draws us to love his Son just as He does, fulfilling the desire Jesus expressed at the Last Supper, “May the love with which you loved me be in them and I in them,” (Jn 17:26). That is how we, and a five year old girl responding to the movement of God in her heart, can experience such a love and hunger for Christ.

The Cure of Ars, St. John Vianney, describes a fervent interior life that embraces God as “an ocean of love in which the soul is plunged and is, as it were, drowned in love.” He taught that, “Just as a mother holds her child's face in her hands to cover it with kisses, so God holds those who love him.” Christ, like a mother feeding her newborn infant at her breast, wants to nourish us with his own body and blood. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” (Is 66:13).

Thomas Merton writes, “When we receive the Sacred Host it is not only because we ourselves have a desire to receive Him, but also and above all because Christ, in this Sacrament, desires to give himself to us.”3 St. Ambrose expresses it this way: “Have you come to the altar? It is the Lord Jesus that calls you … saying, 'Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.'”4 Our hunger for Christ in the Eucharist comes from God dwelling in our hearts, drawing us to Christ with a love that persecution and torture cannot overcome.

An early American Jesuit martyr, St. Jean de Brebeuf, suffered excruciating pain inflicted by Iroquois Indians. Remembering how he had baptized their sick and consoled the dying with promises of heaven, they tied him to a post and baptized him by pouring scalding water over his head. Then, mocking the Eucharist, they cut strips of flesh from his arms and ate them before his eyes. Yet he did not say a single word against them. Instead, he prayed that they might have the gift of faith. His suffering lasted four hours. After he died the Iroquois Indians were so filled with admiration of his bravery that they cut out his heart and drank his blood hoping to imbibe his tremendous courage.5 But it is not from drinking the blood of martyrs that such courage comes. It comes from Christ dwelling in our hearts.

The gift of Christ goes beyond all that nature can offer. By the outpouring of his blood on the cross he washed away our sins. By the gift of his risen body and blood in the Eucharist Christ nourishes us with divine life. He is the Living Bread who wants to be our daily food and drink, to fill us with himself, with eternal life. And he loves us so much that even if we do not love him, he will still love us.

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 56:1, 6-7; Rom 112:13-15, 29-32; Mt. 15:21-28]

In the sacristy, while vesting for Mass, the abbot came up to me and said, “You know, St. Augustine never preached beyond five minutes.” Well, taking a hint, and wanting to be a good monk, I’m cutting out about a third of this homily and I promise it won’t go beyond a half hour.

The topic this morning is aggressive perseverance! It’s like the college girl who said to her boyfriend: “Tell me, Joe, do you think I’m too aggressive? I want a straight answer, and I want it now.” In today’s Gospel Jesus encounters a pushy, pesky Canaanite mother who wanted a favorable answer right now. When we’re in trouble that’s the kind of person we need on our side.

Reuters news service reported a true story about just such a mother in Vancouver, Canada. Her child was in deep trouble, trapped at the bottom of a storm sewer after accidentally falling into it on a sunny day at the city park. She grabbed the first person passing by for help, and he just happened to be a police officer. But he rudely shook her off and continued on his way without saying a single word. Feeling her aggression kick into high gear, she followed him and hollered and began tugging on his clothes. The officer looked down at her, tugging at his leg with her mouth locked on the cuff of his trousers. He was about to give her a gentle kick when she let loose and headed for the storm sewer. Now you should know that this mother was one of the many ducks that feed in the park. The officer followed her to the iron grate, and looking down he saw a young duckling struggling to jump up the concrete wall. He lifted the grate and gently scooped the little chick out of the drain setting her down safe and sound. Thanks to an aggressive and very persistent mother, the two ducks waddled off with their desires fulfilled.

The harsh conduct of Jesus toward the Canaanite mother was no better than the way that officer first treated the mother duck. Why was Jesus so mean, so chauvinistic, so racist, so cold and downright insulting? One summer, when I was a student in Jerusalem, I experienced some of the cultural differences of people in the Middle East that helped me understand what Jesus was doing with the Canaanite woman. It happened when I and another student were shopping among the jam packed store fronts on a narrow cobblestone street in the Arab section of the Old City. My companion wanted to buy a used brief case that he saw in one of the shops. He asked what it cost, but the price was way too high, So we left. When we were a short distance away, the shopkeeper called us back, offering a lower price. My friend said, “No, it’s still too high.” They haggled some more. Finally, they agreed on a price that was 70% lower. After paying for the used brief case, my friend said loud enough for the shopkeeper to overhear, “I bet he paid less than half what I gave him.” The man replied, “I did not! I found it on the street.” Haggling is normal human conduct in the Middle East. The shopkeeper wants to make the sale, but the culture expects him to overprice his goods so the customer can argue for a better deal and go away pleased, and his fellow shopkeepers can admire him for his skill in making a profitable exchange.

The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman also had its cultural protocol. Jesus wants to heal the child, but unattended women were not permitted to speak with men in public, especially with strangers across racial barriers and national boundaries. This is the only time in the gospels that a woman openly begs Jesus for a healing, and she’s a foreigner as well. Watch how astutely she manages her aggressive persistence without alienating her potential benefactor. She approaches Jesus, not discreetly but shouting loudly for attention. That should have defeated her purpose then and there, but she addresses Jesus as, “Lord, Son of David.” Her faith and respect redeems her audacity. But Jesus, as custom requires, ignores her. So she begins hounding the apostles like those obnoxious wild dogs that roam the streets seeking food. Her persistence demands a response. Jesus, knowing she is a foreigner from a people who are among the traditional enemies of Israel, replies that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

Now, with the strength of a mother’s love, she enhances her persistence with humility by kneeling in front of Jesus and pleading, “Lord, help me.” He wants to help her and her child, but she is a pagan from a people who worship Baal, the kind of idolatry that is so contrary to the people of God. Jesus says, “It is not right to throw children’s food to the dogs.” His words are not as harsh as they sound to us, for he did not use the word for wild dogs, but the word for little dogs, meaning affectionate, lovable, household pets. This haggling back and forth now reaches its astonishing climax. In her aggressive persistence graced with deep humility, she identifies herself as wanting to be in his household, even the least of all, a little household puppy: “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” She’s saying that he is the Master, whose power is so great that even a little scrap of it will provide the healing and nourishment she begs for her daughter; and she is a little disciple with a big heart and a strong will. She wanted a straight answer — she wanted it now—and she received it, not only for herself, but as an example for all of us who want a place in the household of God. Jesus is delighted with her response and cries out: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” The desires of mother and daughter are fulfilled, and those of Jesus, too. Her confident perseverance in faith, her aggressive persistence, wins Jesus’ highest praise. Hers was not little faith, like that of the apostles, but great faith. She is not the least in the Kingdom after all!

A father was trying to instill a spirit of persistence in his high school son. He said, “The people you remember are those who never give up. Thomas Edison tried thousands of filaments for the light bulb before he found the right one. He taught us that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Eli Whitney persisted and invented the cotton gin. Madame Marie Curie kept at her work and was awarded two Nobel Prizes, in physics and chemistry. And remember Maurus McPringle.” His son asked, “Who is Maurus McPringle?” His father replied, “See! You don’t remember him. That’s because he gave up and never accomplished anything.” May we have the spirit of the Canaanite woman who inspired our senior monk, Br. Peter, to say as he was dying, “Never give up!”