Sunday, February 26, 2012

Covenant - Our Father's Wont Forget Us

Homily from the 1st Sunday of Lent - Year B

Click here to buy this book.
The following is from the beginning of Scott Hahn’s book, “A Father Who Keeps His Promises.”  It is a true story.
"Everybody felt it; a moment of eerie silence, a low rumble and then the ground began to shake.  Buildings swayed and buckled, the collapsed like houses of cards.  Less than four minutes later, over thirty thousand were dead from a magnitude 8.2 earthquake that rocked and nearly flattened Armenia in 1989.

In the muddled chaos, a distressed father bolted through the winding streets leading to the school where his son had gone earlier that morning.  The man couldn’t stop thinking about the promise he’d given his son many times: “No matter what happens, Armand, I’ll always be there.”

He reached the site where the school had been, but saw only a piles of rubble.  He just stood there at first, fighting back tears, and then took off, stumbling over debris, toward the east corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been.  With nothing but his bare hands, he started to dig.

He was desperately pulling up bricks and pieces of wall-plaster, while others stood by watching in forlorn disbelief.  He heard someone growl, “Forget it, mister.  They’re all dead.”  He looked up flustered and replied, “You can grumble, or you can help me lift these bricks.”  Only a few pitched in, and most of them gave up once their muscles began to ache.  But the man couldn’t stop thinking about his son.

He kept digging and digging - for hours... twelve hours... eighteen hours... twenty-four hours... thirty-six hours...  Finally, into the thirty-eighth hour, he heard a muffled groan from under a piece of wallboard.  He seized the board, pulled it back and cried, “ARMAND!”  From the darkness came a slight shaking voice, “Papa...!?”

Other weak voices began calling out, as the young survivors stirred beneath the still uncleared rubble.  Gasps and shouts of bewildered relief came from the few onlookers and parents who remained.  They found fourteen of the thirty-three students still alive.

When Armand finally emerged, he tried to help dig, until all his surviving classmates were out.  Everybody standing there heard him as he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn’t forget us.”

We have a Father in Heaven who always keeps His promises.  In today’s first reading, we hear the Bible’s codeword for His promises: “covenant.”

Throughout history, our Father has made promises through covenants with his people.  A covenant is the greatest and most sacred kind of promise someone can make.  We’re all familiar with another kind of promise called a “contract.”  A contract is what two people agree to for the exchange of rights and/or goods.  For example, when you buy a car, you enter into a contract with a salesperson in which you agree to pay “X” amount of dollars in exchange for the car, title, and keys.

A covenant is much more than the exchange of goods; it’s an exchange of the persons themselves.  For example, marriage is a covenant.  Marriage is a contract, yes.  Husbands and wives exchange certain rights such as the right to give each other children.  But husbands and wives also exchange themselves with one another.  They hand over their lives to one another.  They pledge their love to one another.

In biblical times, two people entering into a covenant with one another would signify this pledge by slaughtering an animal into two halves.  Then the two covenant partners would walk hand-in-hand in between to two two halves as if to say, “May I wind up like this animal if I break this covenant.”  Likewise, throughout the history of our salvation, our Father in Heaven establishes covenants with his beloved sons and daughters.

And each time He establishes a new covenant, He brings more an more of His children into His family.  The first covenant was made with Adam and Eve the first couple.  We heard about the second covenant in today’s first reading in which God extends His covenant promise to a family: Noah, his wife and his children.  God made his third covenant with Abraham extending his promise to a tribe of people.  The fourth covenant was made with Moses and was given to a nation.  The fifth covenant was made with David and was extended to a kingdom.

As you might expect, time and time again, God’s children broke the covenant.  And time and time again, God renewed the covenant.  Because He is a Father who does not forget us.

When mankind disobeyed God and rejected His promise, the ground upon which their lives stood, shook and rumbled.  In the midst of sin, our world sways and buckles and comes crashing down upon us like a house of cards... like an earthquake that seems to swallow us alive.  And still our Father comes to our rescue.  He comes down to our fallen world through His Son, Jesus Christ.  Through whom, He establishes the sixth and final covenant, offered universally to all people by calling them into His Church.

In each covenant, God gives us a sign of His promise.  In the Liturgy of the Word, we just heard how God gave Noah and his family the sign of the rainbow.  In the Liturgy of the Eucharist we are about to celebrate, we will hear Jesus Himself tell us the sign His Father’s covenant renewal.  In the sixth and final covenant, God gives us the sign of the blood of His own Son.  “The Blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

This is how much the Father loves us: He always keeps His promises.  He always comes to our rescue.

This Lent, and, in fact at every Eucharist, you and I have the opportunity to receive the gratuitous gift of the Father’s covenant renewal with us.  This Lent, Christ takes us by the hand, and walks with us, not between two halves of a sacrificed animal, but through the sacrifice of Himself.  We will walk with him through his agony in the garden, his scourging at the pillar, his crowning with thorns, his carrying of the cross, his crucifixion and death.  So that we may emerge from the earthquake and rubble of our sin by His resurrection.
“See, I told you my Father wouldn’t forget us.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Intercessory Prayer

Homily from the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

This weekend 22 men from our parish and beyond are taking part in our Christ Renews His Parish weekend.  Helping them are 20 men on the leadership team who are serving as witnesses, table leaders, spiritual directors, coordinators, liturgists and sacristans.  And working behind these scenes are many more women and men who are cooking food and serving at table.  Not that cooking and cleaning is “woman’s work.”  The men will take their turn cooking and cleaning at the Women’s Christ Renews weekend next month.
There’s another group of people hard at work throughout the weekend.  The people “next door” in the chapel.  You see, while the men are on their Christ Renews weekend in the Spiritual Center, there are people who come to the chapel next door, and offer intercessory prayer for them all weekend long.
Many prayers are petitions.  That’s when you or I pray to God and tell Him what you or I need.  A typical petition goes something like, “God, help me with “X.”
However, intercessory prayer is when we shift the attention away from our own needs and focus them on the needs of another.  A typical intercessory prayer goes something like, “God, help them with “X.”
Today’s Gospel shows the beauty, power and necessity of intercession.  It’s a fantastic scene.  The paralytic is helpless on his mat, unable to move by his own power.  So he must rely on the power, the intercession, of others.
Four others carry him on his mat to Jesus.  And it’s beautiful isn’t it, how these four will do anything to get the paralytic to Jesus.  The house is so crowded, they can’t get in.  So they climb to the roof, break a hole in it and lower the paralytic in.
Then we hear the most amazing verse.  The Scripture says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’”  When Jesus sees their faith.
What an amazing gift we can offer to one another.  To offer Jesus acts of faith for the salvation of others.
Lent begins this Wednesday.  Offer up your prayer, your fasting, your almsgiving, all your acts of faith for one another.  Offer up your daily sufferings for a friend or family member or fellow parishoner who is seriously ill in body, mind or spirit.  We make spiritual offerings and intercede for one another all the time, don’t we?  I mean, how many times have you asked someone or has someone asked of you, “Pray for me”?  It’s nearly an everyday occurrence isn’t it?  “Pray for me.”  “I’ll pray for you.”  “You’re in my prayers.”
We intercede for each other within the Mass.  After our Profession of Faith, we intercede for a great many people in the Prayers of the Faithful as we pray for the Church, our nation, the sick and suffering, and for anyone in need.  I ask for your prayers when I place the bread and wine on the altar.  “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”  We also offer intercessory prayers for others during the Eucharistic Prayer as we pray for the “pilgrim Church on earth,” for God’s “servant Benedict our Pope and Kevin our Bishop, the Order of Bishops, all the clergy and the entire people [God] has gained for [His] own.”
And not only do we ask our friends here on earth to pray for us, we also ask our friends in Heaven, the Saints, to intercede for us as well.  An entire section of the Eucharistic Prayer is our asking the intercession of “all the Saints, on whose constant intercession in [God’s] presence we rely for unfailing help.”
And sometimes we get everyone working together, our earthly and heavenly friends together.  In the “Confiteor”, the “I confess” we say, “Therefore I ask Blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
I’ve been asked an innumerable amount of times by our Christian brothers and sisters who are not Catholic, “Why do you pray to Mary?”  And it’s a good question that deserves a good answer.  Well, to be accurate, we don’t pray to Mary per se.  Rather, we’re asking Mary to pray with us, to pray for us, to intercede for us.  After all, if I can ask you my sinful friends here on earth to pray for me to the Lord, our God, why can’t I ask the sinless Virgin Mary to pray for me too.  Plus, she’s right there, she’s in Heaven with God.  Mary and the Saints are the best prayer partners we’ll ever have.
When St. Peter’s tomb, located under the altar at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, was excavated in the 1940’s, archaeologists discovered an inscription, along with many others, which read, “Peter, pray for the holy Christian men buried near your tomb.”

Which proves purgatory by the way, “Peter, pray for the holy Christian men buried near your tomb.”  If someone’s dead, buried and in Heaven they have no need of our prayers.  If someone’s dead, buried and in Hell, our prayers will do them no good.  The first Christians prayed for the dead so they would complete their journey to Heaven.
The early Saints and the Church Fathers spoke of offering intercessory prayer and sacrifice for the dead frequently.  In the year 216, Tertullian testified, “A woman, after the death of her husband... prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection.”  In the year 392, St. John Chrysostom said, “Let us help and commemorate [the dead].  If Job’s sons were purified by their fathers’ sacrifice [Job 1:5], why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation.
I remember one time, a group of us were praying.  And at the end of our prayer one of the seminarians said, “Lord, we offer you these our prayers for the soul that has been in purgatory the longest.”  I hope someone prays for me that way.  What a great gift Jesus gives us huh?  Jesus gives us spiritual and even sometimes bodily healing, because of someone else’s faith offered on our behalf.
So, like the first Christians, we offer Eucharistic celebrations, the Mass, for our beloved dead as an offering on their behalf.  In the Eucharistic Prayer we ask God to “give kind admittance to [His] our departed brothers and sisters and to all who were pleasing to [Him] at their passing from the life.”
We offer intercessory prayer for the living and the dead. And we ask for intercessory prayer from our friends here on earth as well as our friends in Heaven.  Trusting in Jesus’ promise: that in seeing their faith and our faith, He will say to those for whom these prayers are offered: “Child, your sins are forgiven... Rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Role Reversal

Homily from the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest who was a prisoner of the Nazis in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.  One night, a prisoner escaped.  When the Nazi guards learned of this, they decided that 10 other prisoners would be executed as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking of escaping.  And they started to count off those who would die.  1... 2... 3...

One of the men they counted off, Franciszek Gajowniczek, (Fran-she-sheck  Guy-yov-nee-check) began to weep bitterly.  He cried out, “My wife!  My children!” knowing he would never see them again.  Hearing this, Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to take his place.  Fr. Kolbe gave his life so that Franciszek Gajowniczek would live.  He did live.  He survived the war.  He saw his wife again.  And in 1992, he was a guest of Blessed Pope John Paul II at the canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe at St. Peter’s in Rome.

Franciszek and the Franciscan traded places.  Their roles were reversed.  In our readings today, we hear of two other men following suit.

In the first reading we hear of the horrible plight of lepers.  Not only did they suffer from a terrible disease that would cause the skin to ulcerate, resulting in oozing sores, disfigurement, loss of limbs and occasional blindness; they were also ostracized, cut off from the community.  The Law of Moses stated that they had to “dwell apart, making [their] abode outside the camp.”  Which meant not only that they were deprived of contact with other humans in a village community, they were also deprived of contact with the divine as they could not enter the community of worship such as the temple or a synagogue.

However, Jesus trades places with the leper.  Their roles are reversed.  Jesus did the unthinkable - “Moved with pity” the Gospel states, “he stretched out his hand, [and] touched him.”

Then we hear, that word of this quickly spreads making it “impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.”  It was the case that anyone who came into contact with a leper was also considered unclean.  Now whether Jesus was unable to enter the town for this reason or if was because his fame was so great that he was mobbed whenever he approached a town, the Gospel doesn’t specify.  However, either way, the Gospel shows us the love Christ has for humanity in his willingness to reach out and touch and heal the leper.  And in doing so, the leper returned to the worshipping community, while Jesus “remained outside in deserted places.”

Jesus trades places with the leper.  Their roles are reversed.

But before Jesus leaves for the deserted places outside the community, he reinserts the newly cured leper into the worshipping the community.  “Go, show yourself to the priest,” Jesus says, “and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed.”  The leper is able to rejoin the worshipping community and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.
What did this sacrifice consist of?  It’s given in the Law of Moses.  In the 14th chapter of Leviticus, we read that if someone has been cleansed of leprosy, two live birds should be obtained for him.  The first bird is slaughtered.  The second bird is then dipped in the blood of the first, slaughtered bird and set free.  One bird dies while another lives.  Much as St. Maximilian Kolbe did for Franciszek Gajowniczek.  Just as Jesus does for us.

Jesus trades places with us.  Our roles are reversed.

He gives his life so we might live.  He takes on our sin so we might be freed from sin’s grasp.  St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “He who did not know sin, became sin, so we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor 5:21)

Christ did this from His Cross.  And He does this in this Mass.  His one sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented on this altar.  The Lamb of God gives his life for us.  And like the second bird, we are, in a sense, dipped in His Blood, are we not, through this Eucharist.  Dipped in His blood so we might be set free.

And in addition to being saved by the Blood of His Cross, Jesus knew we would require ongoing maintenance as it were.  So, on the day of His resurrection, He shared His authority to forgive sins with the Apostles.  “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them...’” (Jn 20:22-23)

This gift of Jesus, the Sacrament of Healing, comes through the Apostles to you and I to this day.  As you know, Lent is just around the corner.  Ash Wednesday is only a week away from this Wednesday.  I want to urge each of us to receive this healing gift of Christ through Confession.  We hear Confessions every Wednesday at 4:30 and every Saturday morning at 8:30.  And our Parish Lenten Penance Service is March 26th - a Monday night.  Before you go to bed tonight, go to your calendar, and circle either a Wednesday, a Saturday, or March 26th sometime between now and Easter, which is April 8th this year.  Circle one of those dates as the day you will come to Jesus and ask for His healing grace in confession.  And if you can't make one of those dates, know that you can always call a priest here at St. Vincent's and make an appointment to go to Confession.

Every single one of us, myself included, has a leprous side.  Those blemishes or blotches of sin.  Those wounds which need healing.  Jesus desperately wants to heal us of our wounds.  Like the leper, we have to approach Him and ask to be made clean.  And Jesus will respond to us just as he did the leper.  He will be moved with pity, he will stretch out his hand, he will touch us, and he will say, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”  He will restore us to our former selves and reintegrate us into the worshipping community.  He will take our sin upon Himself.

He will trade places with us.  Our roles will be reversed.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Pray 60"

Homily from the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

It goes without saying that today is a big day for football fans as the Super Bowl is getting ready to kick off.  And what’s just as fun as the game itself are the commercials.  The Super Bowl may be the only television event where the vast majority of viewers wait for the commercials to end before getting up to go to the fridge.

Over the last couple of years the NFL has been airing a commercial campaign on television and radio promoting a program called “Play 60.”  “Play 60” is a public awareness campaign designed to fight child obesity by encouraging kids to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity everyday.

It’s a great idea. I know I’m carrying around more than my fair share of extra weight.  I need to take better care of myself physically and those commercials remind me of it everyday when I hear them on ESPN Radio as I’m getting ready each morning.  I identify well with Blessed Pope John XXIII when he said, “They say the body is a temple. Mine is a major basilica!”

We have to take care of the temple of our bodies.  We also have to take care of the temple of our souls. We need to be just as attentive, if not more so, to our spiritual health as our physical health.  Today’s Gospel talks about how dedicated Jesus himself is to his own spiritual health.  We hear how Jesus rises very early before dawn and goes off to a deserted place, where he prays.  Of course, Jesus set aside time every single day to enter into a good, deep conversation with his Father in prayer.  You’ll often hear in the Gospels that Jesus spends the entire night in prayer with the Father.

I’d like to suggest we follow Jesus’ example.  Now I’m not suggesting spending the entire night in prayer.  However, I’d like to suggest a practice my spiritual director insisted I adopt as a seminarian and a priest: the Holy Hour. 

My spiritual director told me he wanted me to spend an hour each day in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.  I guess you could call it “Pray 60.”  I was free to pray in any way I wanted during that time.  I might spend it doing Lectio Divina reflecting on a passage from Scripture, praying the Rosary, or simply just being there in the presence of the Lord without necessarily saying a word just sitting with Christ. Most often it was a combination of all these and more.

What do you think of making a Holy Hour?  Now I’m not suggesting you necessarily do it everyday (although some of you might be able to or do so already.)  Not many of you live a vocation that allows for an hour of prayer every day.  Many of you have families and careers that require so much of your time.  So a daily Holy Hour may not be realistic for your spiritual diet.  However, one Holy Hour a week might be exactly what you need.  Or maybe one every two weeks. Or one a month.

The Holy Hour was an integral part of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s spiritual diet.  He said that the only time Jesus ever asked the disciples for something was the night of his agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus asked Peter, James and John: “Could you not watch one hour with me?”  Jesus asks not for an hour of activity, but an hour of companionship.

One time, during an exhausting day, Fulton Sheen fell asleep as soon as his Holy Hour began and woke up exactly at the end of one hour.  He looked up to the Lord and asked, “Have I made my Holy Hour?”  And he said he thought he heard God’s angel say, “Well, that’s the way the Apostles made their first Holy Hour in the Garden, but don’t do it again.”

The Holy Hour is of superb value, Sheen says, because it takes some time to catch fire in prayer.  Ever kneel or sit down to pray and you spend about five or ten minutes there and nothing seems to happen?  Perhaps that’s because we need time to shake distractions and collect one’s self.

How should you make your Holy Hour? What should you do during that time?  Well, the possibilities are limitless and what you do is ultimately up to you and the Holy Spirit.  Maybe you’ll want to spend 20 minutes of it reflecting on the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday? Wouldn’t that enrich your Sunday worship?  Maybe you’ll want to spend 20 minutes of it praying the Rosary.  Maybe you’ll want to spend 20 minutes of it just resting in silence in the presence of Jesus not worrying about saying anything. Just be there with Christ.

Come. Spend a Holy Hour this week in the Blessed Sacrament chapel. It’s open until 9PM.  Come ‘Pray 60.”