Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost 2019

 

Beloved in Christ, 

     Over the past few Sundays, the epistle readings have placed before us St Paul encouraging us to enter more deeply into an authentic spiritual, interior life.  Most particularly he has urged us on to works of the spirit as opposed to those of the flesh.  Today’s reading continues in the same vein.

     Incarcerated because of his preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he sends a warning from his prison cell to the faithful at Ephesus, and indeed, to the church everywhere across time and space.  “Walk worthy of the vocation to which you have been called.” 

That vocation is, before all else rooted in the fullness of its internal source and sustenance: Jesus Christ, incarnate in the order of material creation, born for the life of the world.  It is Jesus Christ, model and fountain of all grace who is both the inspiration, and perhaps more importantly, the means for the true realization for which we have been given life at all.

     St. Paul warns us to maintain a behavior which is worthy of our calling.  Above all it is the interior assimilation of the supernatural gifts of faith, hope, and charity, cause and effect of all other virtues, chief among which is that of humility. From the divine life which faith plants within us arises all the rest of the virtues by which we live as Christians in our daily contact with the world around us. Among these, as Paul names are those of mildness and patience – the support of others by the charity by which Christ lives in us and, through our good works, is extended towards others.  Our calling nurtures a spirit of unity from which springs the peace of God, in truth that elusive harmony of life and conscience which escapes the grasp of every purely human effort and understanding. To behave “according to our calling,” is, therefore, no vague sentiment put to us by Paul, but a moral imperative for our faith to operative and true.

Charity, so essential to the Christian vocation is what moves us in our love of God to a generosity of spirit towards others. On the one hand it bids us avoid criticism and condemnation; it directs us be silent when tempted to speak ill of others, ridicule, humiliate them by remarks or personal judgments. It avoids involving ourselves in the sovereign affairs of others. Such critical behavior, which passes as we all know too well as typical of human conduct, is in fact the bad fruit of fallen nature, compounded by habits of personal sin. In truth, as Paul says, true charity results in the bond of peace which prevails among those of genuine good will. 

In the same vein Paul also bids us to live according to our hope. There is so much in the world around us, or rather, the disintegrating social order in which we all live – there is so much which gives positive proof that we are assuredly not the source of our happiness or salvation, that we should rely the more readily upon the hope which God gives us, as our faith professes. In confessing supernatural hope with our lips, we need to bring forth its fruits by a  daily behavior that is in line with what we say.

In today’s Gospel account, the Pharisees were, as was so often the case, seeking to draw the Lord into a trap of their own devising. So they asked Him which was the greatest of the commandments? In a penetrating response Jesus responds by saying the greatest commandment was to love God – which they claimed they did – but added that there was a second just like the first, a commandment which the Pharisees certainly did not practice: the love of neighbor.  Why is this second commandment like the first? It is because, in the practical order of human conduct, this second commandment of loving one’s neighbor is the reflection in our common life with others in the world in which we live is the means by which we concretely show forth our love of God Who lives beyond our touch our material existence.

This relationship between God and our neighbor is a sign of the Incarnational love of the divine Trinity.  When you gaze into a mirror and see the reflection your face, that image can not exist without you, since you and it are, in a manner of speaking, the same thing.  Jesus says that if we claim to love God there is a natural consequence: that we must recognize the presence of Himself in others as well as in ourselves. We must love both if we say we love God, for loving God requires our loving what He loves, and loving ourselves and neighbor arising from our being made in the image of the source of all love. When, in fact we do not fulfill this second commandment, neither do we fulfill the first.  And this point is made when Jesus says, “Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.”

The practice of our Christian faith is not, then, simply an intellectual confession of doctrine we believe: it is, rather, an economy of grace by which we live more rightly ordered towards God and neighbor according to its principles. It is the incarnation, the living out in the activities of our present world what God teaches us we must do. It is characterized by what Paul calls, elsewhere, a caritas non ficta: a true love: for God, and for neighbor for the love of God; a supernatural, self-dying, self sacrificing love which is non ficta: not put on, but truly operative, and driven by true motives. This charity is infused in us at Baptism, augmented by grace, aided and nurtured by Christian conduct, and eventually become more and more deeply established in the habits of our faith and daily life.

 Beloved the motivation for loving one another, then, is firstly rooted in God and, secondly, in our recognition that we are all made in His image. If this be so, we must see in one another – despite the veil of sin which obscures that image in us all – we must see in one another Christ Himself.  For He, our Head, continues to live, following upon His ascension into glory. He continues to live in this present world in the “flesh” of His Body the Church.  And the Church is comprised of its members, the whole of humanity. And why is that?It is because everyone without except is either a member of the Church formally, or stands in relation to it as a potential subject of so doing.  Thus we are bid by faith to love one and all, even our enemies – and all this Christ has done and shown us to do by His divine example.

It is through this love we bear for others that we most surely show we love God with our “whole heart, soul, mind and strength.” And reason demonstrates that the contrary is also true: if we do not love one another, not only will the bond of peace be absent – as was the case with the Pharisees – we reveal, in fact, that we do not really love God either.  And if this be the case then we can not truly enter the Kingdom of God – even were we to possess faith sufficient to move mountains.

“Brethren, walk worthy of the vocation in which you are called.” It is a very great consolation to know that all Scripture – the great collection of words spoken by the one Word which is Christ – finds its exegesis through its interior harmony.  Elswhere Christ says, “God requireth not the death of a sinner, but that he be converted and live.”  And, “I have come, that you might have life in abundance.”  God knows the assimilation to ourselves of grace and true conversion is a lifelong process. Let us never be discouraged because we have not adequately lived up to this vocation to which we are called.  Rather, let us come again and again to this throne of grace which is always ready to pardon, with humility, generosity of spirit, and patient in our struggles.  It is by showing Him hearts which are seeking to truly love Him: that our love for Him is for the possession of Him, that we are pleasing to Him.  To such hearts He grants an increase of grace, and the strength needed for persevering in the world in which we are living. 

This is what is truly meant by living in the spirit.  By so doing it will bring when God will, to a share in the vision of Him in the glory of that world which is yet to come.   

 

 

Sermon for the feast of St. Michael 2019

 

Dearly Beloved,

 

In the Hebrew language the name Michael means Who is like God? and calls to mind, on this feast especially, the long Judeo-Christian tradition of the battle in heaven between the “prince of the heavenly host” – Michael – and the devil.  This terrible conflict began with Lucifer’s rebellion after the moment of his creation and continues down through time and space, a conflict in which men’s very souls are at stake.

Our eternal destinies are the subject of this cosmic battle between the wicked intent of Satan and the irresistible goodness of Almighty God.  Primary in this struggle is the power of Christ allied with that of His Church, aided by the intercession and protection of all the angels and saints of heaven.  But we are the subjects of this cosmic battle and we are called to actively participate in the struggle by virtue of our free wills and the moral choices that an earthly life brings to bear upon all of mankind.

            Most Catholics do not realize the primary importance of the liturgy in the formulation of authentic Christian faith and practice.  Yet it is Catholic worship – more fundamentally than the teaching instruments of the hierarchy – that forms in us what we believe as Catholic Christians.  It is in the liturgy that we first meet Christ, the Word Incarnate, in the pages of Holy Scripture.  It is through the experience of her worship that the Church brought into being most of what she later codified in theological formulae and Conciliar statements of belief.  Long before there were creeds, for example, there was the worship of which the creeds later became expressive.

Most of what we believe regarding the patronage of Michael and his defense of the Church and souls comes neither from Scripture nor official teaching but the Judeo-Christian traditions concerning this warrior archangel and the prayers and actions embedded in the historical rites of the western Catholic liturgy which concern him.

            For this reason I wish to draw our attention to one of the primary roles of Michael as  expressed in the text of today’s Alleluia verse:

            Sancte Michael, defende nos in proelio: ut non pereamus in tremendo judicio – Saint Michael the Archangel defend us in the battle so that we may not perish in the day of great judgment.

            When a Christian dies the requiem liturgy prays that God’s standard-bearer, Michael, may lead him into paradise. For this reason, Christian iconography often represents Michael as bearing the scales of divine justice in which souls are weighed on the great day of judgment.

            The “end” of our Christian life is the love and service of God, and the battle over which Satan and Michael are engaged happens to be none other than the moral acts of the human person.  And though the members of the priesthood have an instrumental role to play in promoting Christian revelation and the life of grace even they – and they especially precisely because they are priests – are not exempt from the terrible trials and moral consequences that life and its divergent temptations brings upon all men.

            Are we not all familiar with the account from Matthew’s gospel in which Our Lord asks us to “consider the lilies of the field”?  “They labor not nor do they spin, yet not even Solomon in his splendor was clothed as one of these…Be not solicitous therefore saying what shall we eat or what shall we wear? … Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you…”

            The ultimate reason for our life is not the petty distractions and conflicts that the devil and his henchmen seek to induce into our hearts as central or important.  Our seeking the Kingdom of God first, above all, and in all, is the one thing that must prevail before every other concern – it is the one thing that must inform our every other action.  For this seeking is nothing else than charity begun: it is the Kingdom of God already come upon us, a foretaste of the reality of God’s own life in the glory of heaven.

            In today’s Mass we commemorate Michael by reminding ourselves of his role in our salvation.  What must this quest be, before all else, in seeking the Kingdom of God and His justice?  It is a reflection of that cosmic battle waged in our own bodies and souls so explicitly described by Saint Paul in his Letter to the Galations:

 

(Read Gal. 5, 16-24.  Cf. Epistle appointed to Pent. XIV)

 

Our appeal to Michael ut non pereamus in judicio terriblile – that we not perish on the terrible day of judgment is a cry to him for help so that we might truly pass from fleshly behavior to a Christian life which is truly spiritual - in its motivations and in its fruits.

Beloved, I assure you that this battle is real and our religion is the armament with which it must be carried out.  Paul encourages us with urgency to make a definitive choice: walk according to the spirit and not according to the flesh, or the one fights against the other in a battle that seeks the extinction of the opposing force.  As Christians we must necessarily choose the Spirit and its fruits; we must necessarily turn from a fleshly conduct with its crop of human destruction.

            This conversion, then, is a radical call to action in the daily life of the true Christian.  Our religion is an illusion if we busy ourselves with endless projects, activities and concerns while failing in the central necessity of truly seeking God before all else.

            Ut non pereamus in judicio – lest we perish in the day of great judgment we must judge ourselves, not others, as to the effect of our conduct, as to the results of our actions together as Catholics.  What then are the fruits of the spirit, those effects of grace lived, of God’s mercies received and made present in us and towards those whom we touch?  They will be charity, joy, peace patience benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continence and chastity.  These fruits, in their visible, discernible presence, are the measure of the authenticity of our Christian religious practice and its effect in the world around us.  These must mark the priest, especially, in his conduct with his brothers and those to whom he ministers. 

By way of direct contrast, the works of the flesh, unhappily litanized by Paul, yield fruits of destruction: enmity, contention, wrath, quarrels, dissensions, divisions, envies, murders and things of a similar nature.  They are not evidence of true religious practice: they are evidence of its absence, no matter how noble the other intentions may have been around which the devil has insinuated these fruits instead.  Paul quite clearly says that “they who do such things shall not obtain the kingdom of heaven”.  In this regard, such fruits among priests are particularly ruinous against an authentic ministration of the Paschal Mystery.

            Therefore, Beloved, it is precisely from such negative works that we call upon Michael to defend us, for it is precisely this struggle against ourselves, our wicked tendencies, our abusive treatment of others that makes up the battle in which we seek his help.  Ours, as Christians, is, instead, the duty of an unfeigned charity by which we love one another with the love with which Christ hath first loved us.

            Beloved, we find ourselves pulled in various directions for various reasons, involved in all sorts of incessant activities – even illusions about our activities being a service to God.  But what is the use of building a house wherein there dwells no real family?  What use is a priestly service claimed to the glory of God but wherein the fruits of the flesh – division, contention, envy – are more apparent than not? 

            On this feast and in this temple built to God’s honor and glory, today, we turn to Michael to pray, indeed, that he save us in the battle so that we may not perish on the great day of judgment.  Let us pray and act in such a way that we may be perceived as seeking first the Kingdom of God and His justice…for it is by its fruit that a tree is made known.  Christianity without charity, actions bereft of a Christian soul, are delusions – they are works of the evil one, no matter what the magnitude of attendant works.

            Let us, therefore, on this feast give ourselves anew and without hesitation to the Divine Master in a service that shows forth an undivided heart.  Let us break with pride, sin and works of darkness.  Instead, let us sincerely seek God and His Kingdom in everything we think, say and do.  Then we will experience the richness and sublime harmony which is the Paschal Mystery lived:  this, Beloved, is our daily bread, our clothing, our reward…this is the Kingdom of God already come upon us in this life here and now.

            By true conversion to God and recourse to His Church our hearts will be pacified and our daily concerns will find their true perspective in the light of eternity; charity towards others will be nurtured and we will come to that peace of God which passeth all understanding.      

            Primum quaerite regnum Dei – Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice, and all the rest will be given unto you.  If we embrace this conversion and seek what is essential first and in all that we do, then we will see, with Saint Paul, that we will affect acts, not according to the flesh, but those of the spirit.  By a firm and constant decision to follow God as He truly has commanded, His grace will bear in us the fruits of charity, joy, peace, patience, modesty and holy purity.

 Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the wicked spirits who wander throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Saint Michael, protect us – lest we perish in the terrible day of judgment.

 

 

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2019

 

Beloved in Christ, today is the 14th Sunday after Pentecost and the Mass liturgy presents us with a profound teaching in its lessons and prayers.

          In his letter to the Galatians St. Paul encourages the faithful with urgency to make a definitive choice in their lives: “Walk according to the spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh conspires against the sprit, and the spirit against the flesh.”  The confession of our faith asserts upon us a moral imperative that we reduce this principle to act in our daily lives.  In a word, St. Paul tells us to seek before all else the things of God.  At the same time he would have us turn our hearts from an inordinate pursuit of the things of this world; that we should not exhaust ourselves on striving after things which are temporal, thus temporary – things that will disappear with the passing of time, things that have no enduring value for eternity.

Our preoccupation – perhaps we would do better here to admit, rather, our enduring obsession – with the pursuit of what this world holds out to us often draws us towards those acts which Paul calls “works of the flesh.”  These actions give birth to bad fruit.  Paul is speaking, certainly, not merely about fleshly impurity or marital infidelity, but that broad range of behavior which wars against the spirit: the malicious practice of bad conduct towards others: hatred and enmity; detraction of character; quarrelling, dissension, jealousy, envy. These are very often motivated by our inordinate desire for material things or achievement. A principal effect of such conduct is the bad fruit produced by disordering our lives towards such things: the disturbance and spiritual impoverishment which this engenders in the soul.  No level of material wealth or prosperity, no achievement in business, finance, or worldly affairs – which so often comes at the price of our bad treatment of others – will ever yield beatitude: that supernatural happiness which derives from possessing the peace of God.

Is it not true that we find ourselves pulled constantly between the insistence of our passions and our weakened wills; and are we not driven by worries even in the light of good counsel given by right reason itself?  Yet, at the same time faith commands us always to avoid sin, while seeking the moral and spiritual good of a life centered on a genuine search for God and the eternal happiness which He alone can give.

So why, then, do we hesitate? Why can we not act with conviction on the promises of Christ?  And why does can’t we make that definitive choice urged on us by St. Paul?

The reason, of course, is because we are wounded in our very nature, a human nature fallen through original sin and the more deeply inflicted by our own history of personal sins.  This is a reality which we do live every day, and one which, alas, we live without any hesitation at all.

Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord speaks to us of the divided heart: “No man can serve two masters.” That is, no one can love God and at the same time pursue a life occupied in a disordered way with temporal things.  And these are nearly all the things which our present society holds out – in a particularly deceptive manner – as means for achieving happiness.  It is simply impossible to love God with an undivided heart – what monasticism has known for almost 2,000 years as purity of heart – while having an inordinate attachment to things.  And such things can masquerade – with our fullest consent – under a huge variety of deceptive covers.  Such as “that is my business” or “what I’m doing is not so bad” or, a great modern favorite, “on that point I disagree with the Catholic Church.”  Let us make no mistake about it: any practice, position, idea or opinion where God is not allowed His fullest do-minion as Lord and Master is the playing field for moral evil.  The true Christian lives a reflected life: and the eye of self-examination must necessarily be rooted in complete docility to Christ and His teaching, both of which are mediated to us by the Catholic Church.

We all live this interior dynamic of the Chris-tian struggle. What, then, should we do since we have to live in response to the true concerns of daily life here and now, and pass through the span of years God gives us to live? And yet through-out all that He also requires that we do so seeking Him first, and above all.

The answer is drawn from faith itself, and is well expressed in the opening collect of today’s Mass, “We beseech You, O Lord, keep Your Church by Your constant mercy; and because without You human nature can only fail, may we, by Your help, be always led away from evil and directed towards that which is salutary.”

Beloved, we must live, profoundly and with actuality, this providential mercy of God for which we have prayed: it is none other than the very impulse of Christ’s divine economy for our salvation, and the purpose and mission of the Church. God is infinitely more conscious of our weaknesses than we are. He knows our needs before they have arisen.  This is exactly why He sent His Son into this world.  It was not to merely give Himself glory by the Jesus’ fulfillment of the Father’s will: the real glory comes from the fruit of that obedience: that in coming and dying for us, He has made it possible that, with our willing cooperation, God can save us from ourselves: save us from our slavery to disordered passions, slavery to sin and, above all from bearing the eternal death and condemnation of sins’ consequence.

We must therefore, on the practical level, turn to God with conviction, with true humility, and lean completely on the divine goodness of His providential mercy. In effect Jesus asks us today, “Is your life your food?  Or your clothing?  Look around you at the splendor of nature itself. What excessive goodness flows from God who loves you so.  So give yourself to Him with a confident and total abandonment of heart and will. He will give you all that you really need: for when His kingdom is allowed into your heart, it is there, in the depth of your very being, that He will work by the love of His grace. This, in its turn, will give you all that you need: all that is necessary so you may work – and, yes, suffer – according to His wisdom, to the end that you may come to possess Him forever in glory.  This does not mean that we are to sit down and do nothing, nor give despairingly in the face of grave difficulties.  Rather pos-session of the kingdom within gives us the divine impetus to persevere, knowing that nothing takes place without God’s knowledge and will, and that even what is most arduous and painful, works unto salvation and happiness, when borne with a supernatural spirit and understood in the light of God and eternity.

Beloved, our faith is the one lasting treasure we have come to possess in this passing world.  Let us give ourselves, therefore, without hesitation, to the God Whom faith adores. Let us break with sin – that fabric of worldly conduct which injures our union with God.  In its place, let us seek God in all that we do.  Then, the sublime harmony which is the fullness of the Paschal mystery lived with sincerity, will become for us, truly, our daily bread: our clothing: our reward: all in true foretaste – even in the present world – and a pledge for unending happiness in the world to come.  By a true conversion to God, the pos-session of Him by with hearts which are pure and undivided, our lives will, finally, be rendered peaceful, our daily concerns will find their true perspective in eternity, and charity towards others be nurtured.  In that we will come to the peace of God which passes all understanding:

Primum quaerite regnum Dei.  Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all the rest will be given unto you.  In this way we will, according to the mind of Paul, carry out acts, not of the flesh, but of the spirit.  By our firm and constant decision to seek God, His grace will truly bear in us fruits of charity, joy, peace, patience, modesty and purity.

“Without You, O Lord, the frailty of human nature can only fail.  May You guide us ever towards the things of heaven . . . ”

 

 

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2019

 

Dearly Beloved,

In the month of September, in the first two weeks, the Church has her clergy read the book of Job, the difficult and lengthy account of the providence of God, diabolic activity, and the tremendous sufferings and restoration of a holy man.  In today’s Gospel, we have a similar account, though much briefer, of the great sorrows of a woman and her salvation in Christ.  Both Job and the unnamed widow give us much to think about, especially in relation to one of the greatest evils which we must face in this fallen world: the death of children.

Among the many evils that Job suffers, the greatest is the deaths of all his children in a windstorm which destroys the house of his eldest son.  Though it is clear that Job’s sufferings move from those most exterior to him to those most interior, ending with his own body, any parent who has lost a child would say that they would rather have their own body destroyed rather than lose a child.  In this way, Job’s sufferings do not culminate in his skin disease, but they had already reached their climax in emotional intensity in the deaths of his ten children.  In his commentary on Job, Thomas Aquinas poignantly adds that Job’s suffering over his children was even greater because he did not know the disposition of their souls at death: they died while feasting, and so perhaps their hearts were not in the right place when they expired.

In regards to the widow of Naim, we know very little.  What we do know is that her husband was dead, and she had only one son, meaning that in him rested all her hopes for life on earth.  Women did not have the right to inherit in Jewish culture, and so whatever her husband had possessed would pass to the nearest male heir, who could take her in and care for her, or if he was an unjust or greedy man, he could repudiate her and put her on the street.  With the death of her son, the widow’s very life was at stake.  But for the widow, as with Job, the central heartbreak was not over her future, but over his.  If she was a good Jew, she may have believed in the afterlife, perhaps only in Sheol.  Either way, her son was dead, the one whom she had carried in her womb and nurtured at her breast, and now she had to live without him.

Both the book of Job and the widow of Naim should provoke in us questions regarding God’s providence.  Why does He allow the death of children?  Why does He allow their sudden or unexpected death?  How much of both evils is a punishment for sin?  These are questions with which we must wrestle our entire lives, so I cannot do them justice, but at least I can provide some parameters for how we should, as Catholics, consider these questions.

First of all, is sudden or unexpected death a punishment for sins, either for the person who dies or for the persons whom they leave behind?  The answer is twofold: first, we can always accept adversity as penance for our sins, and since our sins are so many, there is always something to atone for.  On the other hand, however, such a death is not a sign of punishment, either for the one who dies or the family: we know of many saints who died sudden deaths and yet were most certainly holy and pleasing to God. 

For example, Isaac Jogues, who had suffered so much to spread the Gospel in present day Quebec and Ontario, was tortured mercilessly, and even returned to North America after escaping to France, died by way of a tomahawk as he went for a walk one morning.  He had no time to prepare for his death, and to his enemies, his death surely seemed a punishment.  Yet he was righteous in God’s sight.  Another example is St. John Berchmans.  He had joined the Jesuits at a very young age and had lived a very upright life, yet he suddenly died of a fever at age 22 just as he was to start his third year of priestly studies.  As the book of Wisdom says, “the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them.  In the sight of the foolish they seemed to die: and their departure was taken for misery: but they are in peace.”

As far as those left behind, God does not use one person against another, as if He would destroy a life to punish someone else.  And we must remember that the end does not justify the means, either in human morality, nor in God’s providence.  It is true that, as Aquinas says, “It would not please God that someone should suffer from adversity unless He wished some good to come to him from it.”  But it is also true that the child who dies has a purpose with the Lord, and is not merely a pawn in His eternal plan; the child also has a destiny willed by God.

The story of Job also offers a very useful lesson in this regard: the bulk of the book is taken up with a debate between Job and his friends—they insist that his misfortune must has been the result of his sins; Job insists he did nothing to warrant such evil.  As Aquinas points out, Job and his friends agreed on one point, that “not only nature but also human affairs are subject to divine providence”; but they disagreed on another point: “they thought that man is rewarded for the good which he does with temporal prosperity by God and is punished for the evil which he does with temporal adversity by God, as though temporal goods are the rewards for virtues and temporal evils are the proper punishments of sins.”  This was not the case before Christ’s coming, and it is most certainly not the case in the time of Christ.  Our deeds, both good and evil, are rewarded and punished with eternal rewards and punishments.   That is why all prosperity and adversity can be considered as neutral; it does not reflect upon either our moral goodness or our wickedness.  What does reflect our inner state is how we react to bad circumstances—either with bitterness and rejection of divine love, or with greater faith, hope and charity.

Why does God allow the death of children?  In the case of baptized children who die, or of baptized adolescents and adults whose innocence resembles that of children, there are three principal reasons.  The first is negative: the child may have fallen away later in life, had not God taken him or her now.  There are surely many of us here who were innocent in our youth and turned bad in our adolescence or young adulthood; had we died at that time, we may have gone to hell.  So there are some children who are saved by dying when they have yet to commit a sin.  Again, the book of Wisdom instructs us, “There was one who pleased God and was loved by him, and while living among sinners he was taken up.  He was caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul.  For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.”

A second, positive reason is that the world is not worthy of them.  Though we ought not think on it very often or for very much time when we do, our world is unspeakably corrupt: it is perverse, unjust, deceitful, selfish, disgusting.  There are some souls that are so pure that they should not spend much time in this world, not because they would be tainted by it, but because the world is not worthy to, even for a moment, benefit from the person’s holiness.  And where does a child’s holiness come from?  From the grace of God, who has chosen that child to be sanctified in a special way from all eternity.

A third, positive reason is for the sake of those left on earth.  A child who dies after baptism but before reaching the age of reason is most certainly in heaven; and many children and adolescents who reach the age of reason retain their innocence by divine grace, and so we have good reason to believe they too enjoy the beatific vision.  This being the case, they die so that they may lead their families and friends to heaven.  They do so by creating in us a longing to see them again, and to strive to grow in holiness so as to merit heaven and to dwell with them forever.  They also do so by praying for us, by being present in our lives in a way in which they could never be had they remained on earth.  We think of persuasion as being the most powerful means of bringing someone to heaven; but the power of prayer and of grace is far more powerful.  And the soul that sees God knows all that pleases Him and precisely what to ask to procure the salvation of his or her family.  To have a child in heaven is not a sign of divine disfavor; it is actually a sign of His blessing and love: He does, in fact, love the child as the parent does, only more, and sees all the beauty of soul which He Himself has caused to be, and He takes that to Himself.  But not only that—He has made the child’s death a cause of blessing for the family, and a more intimate connection between them than could have been possible on earth.

A special case for consideration is unborn babies.  Despite the doctrinal confusion of the past many decades, and the rash and unhelpful speculations of some, the Church still teaches that unbaptized children go to limbo, a place of natural happiness, where they delight in God’s truth, goodness and beauty.  If limbo is indeed the eternal destination of unbaptized children, and not just a temporary one, the Lord is still present to them, though it may seem cruel to us.  There are different ways in which human beings can praise God: some by the mind, and some by the mind and by grace.  Though they do not know Christ as we know Him, as God made man, they do know Him as the Word of God, through whom the world was made.  Just are there are different grades of beauty in the natural world, so there will be in the afterlife: different degrees of holiness and different intensities of union with the Lord.  We ought not wish away the beauty of the butterfly because we feel that each flying thing should be a songbird.  Each is pleasing to God and adds to the beauty of the world to come.

Despite all of this reasoning, or perhaps because of it, we may still ask, where is Christ?  If He brought the widow’s son back to life, why did He not do so for the one we loved?  The answer is that He has done so; He has raised the baptized child to new life in heaven; He has called the unbaptized child to rejoice in His natural goodness always.  Before the coming of Christ, there was no hope in the afterlife, there was only despair.  Even the Jews considered Sheol to be a place of sadness and disappointment.  But if we truly believe that the life to come is better than this life, then it is fitting that Jesus sometimes calls souls to that life before their earthly life is complete or mature.  Yes, He could work miracles and restore the dead to earthly life, but He does far better in welcoming them into eternal life. 

On this fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, then, let us grapple with these difficult truths and circumstances.  Let us ask Job and the widow of Naim to pray for us, that we may know the goodness and beauty of the will of God and that we may accept, however hard it may be, with trust and gratitude.  And let us pray especially for those who have suffered the death of a child, and for those mothers who have suffered miscarriages.  May the Lord console them all, until the time when all shall be clear and we shall fully rejoice in the providence of God, in the world to come, in the New Jerusalem.

 

 

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2019

 

In today’s Gospel reading St. Luke speaks of the encounter between Jesus and the ten lepers.  They were standing at the edge of the crowd and seeing the Lord cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  In point of fact their appeal to the Christ is that constant prayer of the Church which expresses confidence in God’s mercy and forgiveness.  In the Gospel the lepers are cured of their physical illness.  The great St. Augustine makes a point of saying that the verb used is “cleansed,” and image of our own cleansing from the disease of sin, particularly mortal sin which brings spiritual death to our souls.

     We, as sinners, are like the lepers.  In the past lepers were cut off from all human society.  In a similar way, sin has cut us off from the di-vine life of God. Due to the sin of our first par-ents all humanity is separated from God, cut off from the spiritual health which God provides to the soul by its union with sanctifying grace.

     But like the lepers in today’s Gospel, we too place all our hope and trust in Our Redeemer’s love and gratuitous mercy.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  By the sacrament of Baptism we are cleansed of the guilt of Original Sin; by the sacrament of penance we are restored to divine life by the healing of our personal sins.  Today, along with the Church, we pray in the holy lit-urgy, “Almighty God, increase in us the virtues of faith, hope and charity, so that we might mer-it what You have promised.”  And all that God has promised is in view of the end that we might come to life eternal with Him.    

     Beloved, it is also true that we can not achieve eternal life except through our willing obedience to God’s commandments; except through our following His divine will in the full fabric of our daily lives.  But this is only the bare minimum.  Can that be enough?

     Jesus said to the ten lepers, “Go, show your-selves to the priests.”  Through obedience to Him the ten went away and were cured.  All of them.  Yet among the ten, how many returned to thank Him for what had been done?  One.  Only one came back to express gratitude for the ex-traordinary miracle He had performed in behalf of them all.

     Most beloved in Christ, how many times have we received the supernatural healing of sacramental absolution?  And how many time have we received particular graces in answer to our prayer, our needs, our hopes? Indeed, we need to also ask how often have we benefited from such acts of divine mercy without fully acknowledging their value or their divine origin? 

It is true that we must do at least the mini-mum to be saved: pray, avoid sin, perform good works. But an authentic Christian life is not characterized by an attitude of doing what is absolutely the minimum.  It is a rich life offered to us by God, even in the time of our sojourn here below. But such a life can only be devel-oped with our willing cooperation.

     In today’s Gospel we are reminded of the necessity of thanking God for all the blessings we have received.  Not only merely acknowledg-ing our dependence on Him for our very life and salvation, but also recognizing before Him the healing and nourishment which He communi-cates so often to our souls: the forgiveness of our sins, an impossibility without the intervene-tion of Jesus’ life giving sacrifice on the cross, and that gift of grace by which our charity is increased and union with God is deepened.

     When only one of the lepers returned to Je-sus, Our Lord asked him, “Were there not ten of you who were cured?”  All those ten had been cured just as all of us are cured: that is to say, cleansed and reborn by the sacraments of faith.  But only one of those lepers came back to thank Jesus, and it was to him alone that the Lord said, “Get up and go for your faith has healed you.”  Jesus says the same to each one of us as well: many are pardoned, many are healed.  But who will, in fact, be saved?  This question needs the deepest consideration of each of us, daily, moment by moment  . . . for is only those who return to God with humility and gratitude who will be saved.  Those who lead lives truly or-dered towards God with hearts’ submission characterized by an open recognition of His goodness and grace. 

     Let us, Beloved, each and every one, remem-ber to give thanks to God – often and with fervor – for all His acts of love and healing.  This is part of virtue’s duty, and the Christian life is ordered towards carrying out acts of virtue for our good and God’s glory.  Let us make sure that we remain among those who live to the ful-lest the commandments of Christ’s faith, and not be found among those who deceive them-selves by observing a “faith” correct in outward forms but devoid of spiritual depth and true Christian humility.

     “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. Increase our faith, hope and charity, that we may merit the heavenly bliss which You have promised.”  And to that cry we must add, “Holy Mary, Mo-ther of God, help us to keep your Son’s com-mandments and to persevere in His obedience until the very moment our eyes are closed in death.”  For in so doing, we may hope to come to the vision of God in the glory of His angels and saints, to be filled with a joy without measure – even unto the ages of ages.

 

 

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