Palm Sunday 2022: Humility

Today’s homily is for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, April 10, 2022, and the readings can be found by clicking here.

St. Augustine said, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is still humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” My brothers and sisters, today we begin Holy Week and witness not only the humility of God, but if we look carefully, also its fruit. 

I’m going to offer a confession that, sadly, may not come as a surprise to some. Here it is, I like to be liked. I like to be appreciated. I like to have nice things said about me behind my back, but even more right to my face. Some of you may even know that I enjoy being the center of attention and am quite comfortable being center stage, and while none of these things are wrong in and of themselves, they can become stumbling blocks to salvation. You see, if we desire praise and applause more that humility and sacrifice; if we desire power and influence more than humble service; if we desire honor and privilege more than the crown of thorns and the cross, we will seek only comfort and refuse to pursue the very life of holiness that is required to enter into eternity with God. And that causes me to be more than a little concerned for myself and others. 

My motto is often, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re this darn good!” Or “The good Lord broke the mold when he made me!” That’s the feeling Jesus had today as he entered Jerusalem. The people praised him! They worshiped him! They got on their knees and yelled “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” And no doubt Jesus was like, “Finally, the respect I deserve!” And who could blame him? So often our Lord was rejected and ridiculed, but his day had finally–Jerusalem’s king had arrived. I just know that Jesus and his apostles loved it…but they didn’t love it more than the Cross.

No sooner was Jesus welcomed as the King was he stripped of his dignity, stripped of his clothing, mocked by soldiers and rulers, and even criminals. He was spat upon, and beaten, and falsely accused. And in spite of all of this, Jesus humbly loved, showed mercy, and forgave others–because that’s what God does. And this is the key for you and I–Jesus never forgot who he was. Jesus never acted out of character. God is love, and when they exalt you as king you love them, and when they ridicule you love them, and when out of ignorance they insult you and beat you and hurt you, well…you love them. So many times I find myself willing to love, forgive, and show mercy when I am in a position of power, when I’m at the top of my game, but God living in me is truly revealed when I am able to love when I am beaten, when I lose, when I am in the dirt. That’s the mark of a true Christian. That’s the criteria for entering heaven.  

In the verse before the Gospel we heard, “Christ became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That’s our example of humility; being willing to obey God’s law of love, mercy, and forgiveness–even to the point of humiliation, suffering, and death to self. We can desire to be center stage. We can hope that all speak well of us both to our face and when we are not around. We can hope others are pleased with us at all times, but we cannot desire these things more than heaven, lest we begin to compromise. If we desire praise and power more than humility, mercy, forgiveness, and love–then the things that we desire the most become our master, and we cannot serve two masters. 

As we begin holy week, we are offered two very different pictures of how the world receives us; one of applause and fanfare, one of scorn and derision. Our call is to humbly follow God, regardless of how others feel about it. We love, period. In good times and bad. I know you love in good times, but do we love in the bad times? Do we humbly embrace our cross when it appears? Or do we kick rocks, become bitter and angry, and become unkind?

The fruit of this brief earthly humility is not without reward, “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” God’s desire is to exalt us, but it must begin with accepting our humanity, humility, and often humiliation for the love of God. It means loving God more than anything this world has to offer. The fruit of which is nothing short of eternal life with God…our exaltation, our reward. As St. Elizabeth Seton said, “The gate of heaven is very low; only the humble can enter it.”

4th S. Lent: Communion

Today’s homily is for the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 27, 2022, and the readings can be found by clicking here.

Today’s readings tightly link the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation. Together they are both an efficacious sign of communion. In the Eucharist we enjoy the Father’s generosity as we receive the bread from heaven, as our Lord said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (JN 6:47-51) What a beautiful meal the Lord has prepared for us–but first, we must be reconciled with him. 

The Catechism reads, “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in the Eucharist must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.” (1415) Of course, all sin is wrongdoing, but not all sin breaks communion with the Lord and with our neighbor. 1JN makes it quite clear that some sin causes death to the love between neighbor and God, and for that degree of sin a different response is required. “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” (5:16-17) The word that we use for that less-than-deadly sin, is venial, which has its roots in Late Latin, venialis, meaning “pardonable.”

For deadly sin (a.k.a. mortal sin), which is not “venial” we lean on St. Paul’s teaching to the community of believers in Corinth. He says, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2COR 5:18-20) To be clear, priests do not in themselves forgive sins and reconcile believers, but rather it is God who reconciles us to himself, God forgives sins, and God appeals through his ministers both for us to be reconciled, and to give us the message of reconciliation. 

In the Gospel today, one of the man’s two sons left for a distant land. He was separated from his home and his father’s love. There was indeed restoration, celebration, and feasting that awaited him in his father’s house, but to enjoy the father’s favor and the feast, he had to first return home! He was not in communion with his father, quite the contrary, he was in a distant land, that promised life, and happiness, and every good thing–which is always the promise the devil makes us if we would just leave the Father’s house. But the devil and sin has not, cannot, nor ever will bring life and happiness because Satan does not possess those things to give! He promises but he cannot produce what he does not possess, which to every man’s despair is plainly revealed just as soon as the money runs out, and we find ourselves in a wretched, pitiable state, living in a way that is far beneath our dignity. And that is when we “come to our senses,” when we finally hear the call to conversion and humbly begin the journey home. We leave rich and proud, we return poor and broken. 

We cannot even imagine a full embrace by the father–we’ve gone too far, we’ve asked too much, and we’d be content only with being treated as nothing more than a servant. But to our great surprise, our Father has been waiting for our return all along! We confess our wrongdoing, he wraps his loving arms around us, places sandals on our tattered and bruised feet, clothing over our bony shoulders, a ring upon our finger, and not once mentions the wrong we have done. We recall Isaiah, “Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool.” (1:18) The loving Father is just glad we have returned, that we are safe, that we have returned home. And for those who return, a feast awaits. 

So, although there may be no assurance of salvation, there is always assurance that the Father’s grace conquers sin and death, removes all guilt, and restores us to right-relationship with God and neighbor. There is always assurance that the Lord bids us come home and welcomes us and sits us down at the Table of the Lord where we receive Communion because we are indeed back in communion. Little wonder Reconciliation must precede Eucharist. The feast awaits, but we must come home–we must be in communion to receive it in truth.

3rd S. Lent: …And Justice

Today’s homily is for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022, and the readings can be found by clicking here.

It’s hard to miss the contrast between the Responsorial Psalm, “The Lord is kind and merciful,” and St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.”…so much for kind and merciful! I believe the key to understanding is in the verse before the Gospel, “repent, says the Lord; the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(MT 4:17) Many people today like to lean on the love and mercy of God; they remind themselves and others that the Lord is kind and merciful, but are quick to forget that the Lord is also just. God’s justice demands accountability; it demands that he give everyone what is rightfully due to them: honor to whom honor is due and punishment to whom punishment is due.

The traditional word to describe the sin of leaning on God’s mercy, and denying God’s justice is “presumption.” The Baltimore Catechism explained it like this, “Presumption is the rash expectation of salvation without making proper use of the necessary means of obtaining it.” It’s a lot like the notion of “Once saved always saved,” as understood that regardless of what I do after baptism, I will always be saved. Clearly today’s readings contradict such a position. Repentance is what’s required! Time and time again, we lean not simply upon the kindness of God, but on the mercy of God for those who humbly fall to their knees and seek forgiveness time and time again. As Jesus says, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” And if you’re anything like me, repentance is a daily need!

When speaking to the Church, St. Paul even speaks of God’s generosity in providing the Church an example! God warns us, says St. Paul. “These things happened as an example for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did.” There is a clear comparison between those who perished in the desert, and the Church. St. Paul says, “All of them passed through the sea and were baptized, at spiritual food, and drank spiritual drink that was Christ,” a clear reference to the early Church’s baptism and Eucharistic gatherings…yet they were struck down as an example and a warning. St. Paul warns them, “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”

The Second Vatican Council courageously affirmed those words when they wrote of the Church, “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity…All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be more severely judged.” (LG14) Yikes! Sounds harsh…but really it’s the truth of God’s justice.

The Catechism reads that there are two kinds of presumption. On the one hand, we presume in our own capacity, thinking we can save ourselves without help from God (lots of that going around today), and the second is that we presume upon God’s mighty power and mercy in the hopes of obtaining forgiveness without conversion, and glory without merit. (2092) Indications of the sin of the presumption would be putting off confession–especially in instances of grave sin, putting off amending our life and repenting for sin, being indifferent about the number of times we fall into temptation and break resolutions, thinking we can avoid sin without its near occasion, and by relying too much on ourselves and our strength and holiness while at the same time neglecting the wisdom of the the Church, the warning of Scripture, and failing to nourish our relationship with God through prayer, service, and sacrifice.

As we journey through this third Sunday of Lent, we celebrate that the Lord is kind and merciful, full of gentleness and compassion, but we remember also that the Lord is just, and requires conversion of heart and mind, repentance from sin, and a constant renewal of our resolve to follow him in the way of love and service. The lesson of the fig tree is a reminder that there is still time–cultivate virtue, avoid vice, and bear fruit…or be cut down.