Friday, October 20, 2017

In Defence of Catholic Schools


On account of some hostilities towards Catholic schools that have become increasingly evident, I offer the following reply:

            1.  Schools and universities are inventions of the Catholic Church.  Today’s educational institutions began with bishops’ households and grew into monastic and cathedral schools and ultimately into universities.  Moreover, the curriculum of the seven liberal arts was invented by a Christian monk, Cassiodorus, to be used in the schools; academic degrees originally carried the weight of papal authority (and in many cases still do).  For Catholics to be deprived of our schools would effectively be to be deprived of our intellectual property.

            2.  That having been said, the Church cannot be expected to make use of its intellectual property for contrary purposes.  The Church established schools to foster learning and virtue by way of the seven liberal arts; the history of the twentieth century suffices to show that secularist schools inevitably devolve to socio-political indoctrination and the diminishing of liberal education.  The Church cannot be party to such a distortion of the school’s purpose.

            3.  Catholicity teaches that the human person possesses infinite and inalienable worth and dignity on account of having been created in God’s image and likeness, a doctrine not shared by non-believers.  Thus, Catholic schools are, by dogmatic necessity, ‘safe places’ for even sexual minorities.  It seems that secularists assert human dignity upon the force of changeable law or common sentiment.  Forgive me, but I fail to see how the assertion of human dignity upon insufficient grounds can make secular schools safe places for everyone.

            4.  The religious component of taxpayer-funded education can be, understandably, unsettling.  I would propose that, upon closer inspection, the issue isn’t so much about ‘religion’ as it is about ‘belief.’  For example, how many of us hold certain beliefs without having arrived at them by way of rigorous examination?  I would propose that what Christians are accused of doing in terms of ‘religion’ is exactly what our accusers do in holding to certain ethical, political, or social beliefs.  This strikes me as a probable case of the pot calling the kettle black.

            5.  On the topic of paying taxes, let us not forget that Catholics, too, are taxpaying citizens and, account of our citizenship, our voices are equal to others.  We do not dispute the right of people to divert their taxes to secular schools and to send their children there.  We simply ask to be afforded the same right as those who choose and pay to send their children to non-Catholic schools.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why the "New" Missal Excels



Since 2006, I have been directing the Mark Seven Bible Institute at Camp Mark Seven in Old Forge, New York.  It is, to my knowledge, the only Bible study camp for Deaf adults; our mission to meet a need that seems to be omnipresent:  To expose Deaf Catholics to the beautiful landscape that is the Scriptures.  This year our topic will be "Introduction to Biblical Doctrine," in which we will flesh out the venerable axiom "Scripture is the soul of sacred theology."
     One of my enduring frustrations, as a Bible catechist, is dealing with participants who do not 'get' my repeated admonition to not use certain Bible translations--such as the Living Bible, the Everyday Bible, or (God forbid) the English Version for the Deaf.  It is only with ambivalence that I will tolerate Today's English Version or the Contemporary English Version.
     The reason?  Let's compare a Biblical text between the Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation that is paradigmatic of the problem--
God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them (Rom 1:5, NLT).
On the other hand, the Revised Standard Version has--
...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.
Not only is "grace" substituted with "privilege" but that crucial description, "obedience of faith," is over-simplified (I'm trying to be charitable) to merely "to tell...what God has done for them."  Grace, in the mind of St Paul, is the free and unmerited favour of God, a notion that is completely lost by substituting it with the world "privilege," which, against grace, implies 'special treatment.'  But grace is anything but special treatment.
     The "obedience of faith" which St Paul wrote of here is repeated at the end of his epistle, at Romans  1:26; the NLT has "believe and obey him," which is slightly better than what was found at 1:5.  But the expression "obedience of faith" is to be understood such that "obedience" is possessed by the act of faith (which is why we find a similar expression in Acts 6:7, "...and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
     I could multiply examples here, but I will not.  Suffice it to say, though, that as someone trained in exegesis, such loose translations--however well-intentioned--serves to do more harm than good.  At the level of sacred theology, moreover, it would seem to be heedless of St Paul's command that we "f]ollow the pattern of sound words."
     As a catechist, my job is to echo the Church's Tradition--as that is what we mean by catechesis--it comes from the Greek noun κατήχησις; it is derived from κατά and ἦχος, which suggests a kind of passing down an echo.  The implication here is that, in the ministry of catechesis, the Church's Tradition is echoed across generations, which in turn suggests, of course, a preservation of what was already heard.  Hence St Paul's expression "pattern of sound words," as an echo repeated must imitate an echo heard, otherwise we risk losing the original message.
     This is why I find, for catechetical purposes, a formal-equivalency translation of the Bible serves the handing-on of the Church's Tradition better than a dynamic-equivalency one.  Words such as "grace" are too important to be substituted with another.
     Where am I going with this?
     As a catechist, I was overjoyed to have received the first news that the English translation of the Roman Missal was being worked on, because we know that the sacred liturgy is, according to Pope Pius XI, "the most important organ of the ordinary magisterium of the Church."  In other words, as the ancient axiom goes, as we pray, so we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).  With the new Mass translation, which came out roughly a year before my priestly ordination, I found a resource far, far more excellent for the ministry of not merely catechesis but liturgical catechesis.  Previously, I had been embarrassed by many of the Eucharistic Prefaces' bland translation of the editio typica of the Latin texts and, on many occasions, had to re-translate the texts myself or peruse another's.  For how was I supposed to undertake liturgical catechesis when liturgical translations failed to echo the Church's teaching clearly?  More than that, what was I supposed to tell those who attended catechesis but "the translation you see here will not be heard at Mass"?  (Cf.  Defending the New Missal, by Revd Dr Peter Stravinskas.)
     In other words, the previous "Sacramentary" was in fact an obstacle to liturgical catechesis on account of its bland rendering of rich doctrine in Latin into something resembling Good News for Modern Man.  The new translation of the Roman Missal, I have happily discovered, by reason of its many unusual sentence-structures and word-patterns, lend themselves to a better impression on the minds of hearers.  For example, in combating a de facto Pelagianism among the laity, the wonderful expression from Preface I of the Saints, "in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts" has been useful.  The older translation had "for their glory is the crowning of your gifts"--no mention of "merit" at all, which in turn is a key feature in Catholic soteriology.
     I would suggest, furthermore, that the dismal state of the laity's knowledge of the Catholic faith English-speaking countries owes, in part, to the previous translation of the Missal (to say nothing of the common complaint of the laity that religious instruction was a tiny feature of priestly ministry in the 1980s and 1990s, but I digress).  The new translation has remedied this considerably.
     Of course the collecta of the Mass are often difficult to follow, but that is the fault of two things:  First, modern English does not appropriate well subordinating clauses.  Second, as someone once observed, "In 100 years we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to remedial English in college."  It is no secret that the prospect of contemporary education is a dismal one, and it is for no reason that many private schools have been established according to a 'classical' curriculum precisely in reaction an "educational philosophy" (pardon my misuse of the word "philosophy") that seeks to assuage the ignorant rather than to challenge them.
     The complaint that the Roman collecta are difficult to follow and therefore need to be re-translated is tantamount to the English-speaking Church succumbing to poor education by allowing poorer translations of the prayers.  Rather, as the champion of authentic education (which the Church needs to reclaim), by setting the standard higher than the banal English of our finest newspapers, the liturgy can have the happy side-effect of demanding a more involved listening to higher diction (after all, we are speaking to God, not sending an email).
     Admittedly, translating the collecta into American Sign Language is difficult, as ASL rarely makes use of subordinating clauses.  I, more than others, might have greater reason to complain about the structure of the collecta in English, but instead of looking for something easier, I have decided to do something more difficult:  To go to Ealing Abbey in London where I'll study a bit of Latin with the express purpose of translating portions of the Roman Missal directly from Latin into ASL--not for greater ease, but for greater accuracy.
     I have, of course, read of other complaints about the "New" Mass translations and, frankly, have found them wanting.  The concerns found therein, to my mind, are only quaternary to the liturgy's fundamental purpose of  authentic worship and catechizing soundly.  We must measure up to the sacred liturgy, not the other way around as if the liturgy should accommodate us.  The sabbath was made for man, yes, but the temple was made for God.
     That being said, I have been very happy with the work of the Vox Clara committee, and I hope that we not only retain this translation, but that priests would also live up to their primary task of the munera docendi, which includes both preaching and teaching (cf Presbyterorum ordinis, no. 4; CIC c. 528).  We priests are not sacramental functionaries or Eucharistic vending-machines; we are ordained especially to preach and to teach, and nothing precludes teaching the more difficult translational texts of the Roman Missal from the priest's broader ministry of the Word.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Four Martyrs of the Nativity Octave



Why does the Roman Liturgy commemorate martyrs immediately after Christmas Day?
     On the second, third, fourth, and fifth day of the Christmas Octave (that is, eight consecutive days of Christmas mornings), the Roman Liturgy commemorates the following martyrs:  St Stephen the Proto-Martyr (26 December), St John the Apostle and Evangelist (27 December), the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem (28 December), and St Thomas Becket (29 December). 
     These feasts began to be placed in close proximity to Christmas as early as the fourth century, when we know St Stephen was already commemorated the day after Christmas. St Thomas Becket's feast is the most recent, having been established in 1173.  So why do we commemorate these martyrs so soon after the merriment of Christmas morning? —for the very simple reason that Christian merriment is given only to those who will accept the costliness of following Jesus.
     Each of these four martyrs represent four different ‘paradigms’ of martyrdom.  St Stephen the Deacon, proclaimed Jesus and stirred the ire of an resistant audience and was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60).  Thus St Stephen was a martyr in will and in deed.
     St John the Apostle and Evangelist is the only Apostle who did not die of martyrdom—though he was tortured by the Emperor Domitian reputedly by being boiled in oil—but survived.  Afterward, he was exiled on Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Apoc 1:9).  Since St John was tortured for his faith in Jesus, he is also technically called a confessor, but it stands that he was a martyr in will but not in deed.
     The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were slaughtered by wicked Herod the Great in his paranoid attempt to retain his throne, as he was fearful that Jesus—the long-foretold King of Israel—would usurp his rule.  In attempt to eliminate the threat of the Christ Child, Herod ordered all male children aged two and under to be killed, hoping to kill baby Jesus as well (Mt 2:16-18).  Thus, the Holy Innocents were martyrs in deed but not in will, since they were too young to understand for Whom they were giving their lives.
     With the Archbishop St Thomas Becket (also known as St Thomas of Canterbury), the Primate of All England, we end the four martyrs’ commemoration the same way we began:  he was a martyr both in deed and in will, with one slight variation:  He died for the liberty of Christ’s Church.  Since the Church is the “fullness of Christ” (Eph 1:23) and is, indeed, the Body of Christ Himself (Rom 12:5; cf Acts 9:4-5), he is rightly recognized as a martyr for Jesus, even if in a roundabout way.
     Again, we have a right to our merriment at the birth of Jesus only if we are willing to give to Him everything.  St Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, therefore…by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1; see also Lk 9:62).  Most of us, like St John, will suffer taunts and ridicule on account of our following of Jesus, perhaps even to the point of temporal loss; a few of us may even lose our lives, either for Christ as did St Stephen, or for the sake of His Church, as did St Thomas Becket.  And daily, thousands of children lose their lives to abortion as did the Holy Innocents.  In a similar way, ISIS has killed hundreds of infant Christians since seizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
     Following Jesus is costly, because He wants followers, not fans.  Are you a follower or just a fan?  Will you give to Jesus everything, He Who alone can give us eternal life?

     Nota bene:  On Wednesday, 28 December, Corpus Christi Parish will present Becket, perhaps the best film adaptation of St Thomas Becket's martyrdom.  It will be worthwhile viewing since his circumstances are not too different from our own today here in Canada.  Also, our February convocation of the House of Ephesus will have for its topic “The Grace of Martyrdom.”

Verbum caro hic factum est.



The following homily was preached at the Christmas Eucharistic celebration 'Missa in dies,' the Gospel proclamation being taken from the Prologue of St John's Gospel.
     Perhaps you’re wondering what might be ‘Christmasy’ about the Gospel we’ve just read—or you may be wondering why on earth we read this when there seems to be no mention of the Birth of Jesus.
In case you missed it, the story of the birth of Jesus was given to us in a very tight nutshell:  “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us” [Jn 1:14].  Et Verbum caro factum est—this, along with the Resurrection—is one of the two central Mysteries of the Christian faith:  that the Eternal Word, the Son, in time became a member of the human race.  He Whom the heavens cannot contained was enfleshed in Jesus.  In fact, in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, there is an altar on the spot where the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed to have stood when the Eternal Word was conceived within her; the altar is inscribed with the words Verbum caro hic factum est:  “Here the Word became flesh.”
Hence does the same St John later write:  “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—the Life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you… [1 Jn 1:1-3].  So, it’s not just the birth of Jesus we honour; it is the birth of the Child who is also God; it is the birth of ‘Infinity dwindled to infancy’.
     And for what end did God the Son become the son of Mary?  The opening prayer already told us—“that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  That is to say, God became humanized in order that humanity may be divinized:  The Incarnation—that is, the enfleshment of God the Son—is exactly the reverse of our destiny, and our destiny, the goal of the Christian life, is nothing less than union with God.  Our first pope, St Peter, wrote of the Christian’s goal to “become partakers of the divine nature” [2 Pt 1:4].
     In a sense, then, the birth of the Christ-Child is also the birth of Christ-children, of Christians, you and me, because in the “one Lord Jesus Christ”—as we will say in the Creed—the infinite gap between humanity and God has been bridged, and what Adam forfeited in Eden is restored to us:   Life.  As Jesus says elsewhere, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly” [Jn 10:10].
     All of human history has been leading up to the advent of Jesus.  St Paul wrote, “In the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a Woman” [Gal 4:4].  We know, of course, that much-beloved verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” [Jn 3:16].  How has the Father given us the Son?  Ultimately, on the Cross, where His Body, was crucified; towards this, the Father gave us the Son through the Virgin Mary who furnished the Son with our flesh and blood to be crucified; towards this, the Father gave us the Son by way of anticipation when the worlds were created—including you and me—so as to have an audience and a stage where the drama of the Incarnate Word would take place.  Why?  The Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, also asked this question, “Whether it was necessary for the restoration of the human race that the Word of God should become incarnate?”—he answered that it was necessary “with regard to [our] full participation [in] the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ's humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: ‘God was made man, that man might be made God.'"
     Jesus has been given to us, and He is still being given to us; shall we return this gracious favour by giving ourselves to Him, too?  We give ourselves to Jesus in faith, “Jesus, I believe in You.”  Faith, in a poetic sense, is the opposite, but not the contrary, of the Incarnation, since it enables us “to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”
     Those words will be repeated when I prepare this altar for the Holy Sacrifice; when I prepare the chalice, water will be poured into the wine and I will say, “By this mingling of water and wine, may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  And, just as the Holy Spirit caused the Virgin to conceive the Incarnate Word within her, so too will the Holy Spirit bring about the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus on this altar, this same Jesus of Whom we sing in our carols, this very same Jesus we will receive in Holy Communion:
     “Clothed in flesh the Godhead see / hail th’ Incarnate Deity”;
     “Jesus to thee be all glory given; Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing”;
     “O that birth forever blessed, when the Virgin, full of grace / By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race / And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!”
Indeed, on this Altar, again, Verbum caro hic factum est.  By sharing in the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, may we also share in His Sublime Divinity.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"You lead me to Ars,
and I'll lead you to heaven!"


This weekend, in place of a homily, I preached a sermon on the document Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons and Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia published by the Bishops of Alberta and the North-West Territories.  Given the many requests for copies of my sermon, I have decided to post it here.


There’s a famous story about St Jean Vianney when he was sent to the city of Ars to be its parish priest.  On the way, he got lost:  He came upon a small boy who was playing, so he asked the boy for help getting to Ars. The boy said,  “Yes, Father, I’ll take you to Ars.”  St JeanVianney replied with his famous words, “You lead me to Ars, and I’ll lead you to heaven.”
            Salus animarum suprema lex.  “The salvation of souls is the supreme law [of the Church.]”  The Church’s entire mission is oriented towards your salvation and mine; whenever the Church says “Yes” to something, it is in order to procure our salvation, and whenever the Church says “No” to other things, it is in order to avoid jeopardising our salvation.
            If you followed the news on Friday, you will remember that the Church, by way of the Bishops of Alberta and the North-West Territories, said “No” to offering the Sacraments and even a funeral Mass to those who have decided to commit self-murder, which the government sugar-coats by calling it “medical aid in dying.”
            Let’s put this into perspective, because perspective is just what you aren’t going to get from CBC or Global TV or the Edmonton Journal.
            Remember the story of Jesus being challenged about paying taxes to Caesar [cf Mt  22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26]?  What did He say?  “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.”  Now, if payment of taxes were due to Caesar because Roman coins bore his image, our next question becomes:  What bears God’s image such that it is due to God?  The answer:  Our souls, because we were created in God’s image and likeness, and just as payment was due to Caesar because coins had his stamp on it, so too do our souls belong to God because they bear God’s stamp upon them.  St Paul wrote, “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die we die to the Lord; so when, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” [Rom 14:7].  The Apostle further emphasizes this by writing that, “You are not your own: you were bought with a price” [1 Cor 6:19].
            But, in order to attain salvation, we must remain in the state of sanctifying grace.  What does that mean?  To be “in grace” is to be “in friendship with God.”  When we sin, our friendship with God is impaired; when we sin gravely, we have unfriended God; if we die while still unfriended with God, he respects our choice of excluding ourselves from everlasting happiness in the next life.  To die without grace in our souls is the most terrible thing we can do, because we have opted to forfeit heaven for something earthly.  The sacraments are always given efficaciously, but they are not always received fruitfully; it is for this reason that the Last Rites cannot be administered to someone who has decided to break the Fifth Commandment by committing self-murder.  To do otherwise would be to commit sacrilege.
            Let’s pause for a moment.  No doubt some of you are shocked by what I’m saying.  Perhaps, even, you’re saying, “That’s hurtful!” or “That does not respect the feelings of the patient who wants assisted suicide.”  But look what you’re really saying:  You’re saying that feelings are more important than the soul.  Look more closely:  Many people have forgotten that they have souls worth saving, so they go for the next-best thing:  Feelings worth assuaging.  Many people have exchanged the salvation of souls for the assuaging of feelings.
            But who, I ask you, in his right mind, would rather save his feelings in this life, only to lose his soul in the next?  Wouldn’t you rather prioritise the salvation of your soul, despite all pains and sufferings?  It is the height of insanity to escape temporal sufferings in this life, only to have everlasting sufferings in the next.  Again, St Paul has something to say:  “I consider that  the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” [Rom 8:18].
            Life is difficult, I know.  I had spinal meningitis, which I would not trade the world for because it left me with the blessing of being Deaf so that I can proclaim the Gospel in sign language.  I once had depression, and wanted life to be over with because my sadness seemed unbearable, but looking back, I would not trade that for all the world either, because it’s made me sensitive to those of you who may be suffering.  And I know that the minutes of pain seem like hours, and I know that years of pain seem like an eternity.  But I ask you to consider Jesus, whose life on earth had one simple purpose:  To go to the Cross.  God the Son became the Son of Mary precisely so that he would have a Body in order to bear our death [Heb 10:5], and to tell us on Easter:  I know what it’s like, but Life is become victorious.
            But consider another option open to Jesus.  When Satan tempted Him the wilderness [Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13], he offered Jesus a following if he survived jumping off the Temple, the whole world if Jesus would worship him, relief from hunger if Jesus would use His Divinity for his own pleasure.  What Satan was doing, in fact, was trying to get Jesus to bypass the Cross.  But, no.  Jesus went to the Cross anyway—and for what?  To show God’s solidarity with suffering humanity, and in the Person of Jesus Crucified, to merit for us eternal life in heaven.
            God made us for one simple reason:  Happiness.  But so many people have substituted happiness for pleasure, and in so doing, have given priority to feelings over their souls and to seek relief from pain in this life only to find it again, everlastingly, in the next.  Thomas Merton said, “We were not made for pleasure; we were made for joy,” and that joy is found only in the company of Jesus, and only after we’ve endured the brunt of the world [cf Acts 14:22].
            Did you know that the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross left something to be desired?  Yes—he left an opening for us.  During his imprisonment in Rome and awaiting his execution because of his faithfulness to Jesus, St Paul wrote:  “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” [Col 1:24].  I have yet to come across a suffering saint who died unhappily.  I have yet to come across a tortured martyr who died grief-stricken.  Why? Because suffering is only transitory, and Jesus gives us the strength to bear it, while anticipating an eternity of beatitude, provided we remain faithful to God, despite everything:  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” [Apoc 21:4].
            The Church desires nothing less than the salvation of all her children, indeed, the salvation of all peoples.  That’s why she always has, to use the epitaph of Robert Frost, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

            The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.  Lead us to your pain and your suffering, and we will lead you to heaven.

"You lead me to Ars,
and I'll lead you to heaven!"


This weekend, in place of a homily, I preached a sermon on the document Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons and Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.  Given the many requests for copies of my sermon, I have decided to post it here.


There’s a famous story about St Jean Vianney when he was sent to the city of Ars to be its parish priest.  On the way, he got lost:  He came upon a small boy who was playing, so he asked the boy for help getting to Ars. The boy said,  “Yes, Father, I’ll take you to Ars.”  St JeanVianney replied with his famous words, “You lead me to Ars, and I’ll lead you to heaven.”
            Salus animarum suprema lex.  “The salvation of souls is the supreme law [of the Church.]”  The Church’s entire mission is oriented towards your salvation and mine; whenever the Church says “Yes” to something, it is in order to procure our salvation, and whenever the Church says “No” to other things, it is in order to avoid jeopardising our salvation.
            If you followed the news on Friday, you will remember that the Church, in the persons of the Bishops of Alberta and the North-West Territories, said “No” to offering the Sacraments and even a funeral Mass to those who have decided to commit self-murder, which the government sugar-coats by calling it “medical aid in dying.”
            Let’s put this into perspective, because perspective is just what you aren’t going to get from CBC or Global TV or the Edmonton Journal.
            Remember the story of Jesus being challenged about paying taxes to Caesar [cf Mt  22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26]?  What did He say?  “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.”  Now, if payment of taxes were due to Caesar because Roman coins bore his image, our next question becomes:  What bears God’s image such that it is due to God?  The answer:  Our souls, because we were created in God’s image and likeness, and just as payment was due to Caesar because coins had his stamp on it, so too do our souls belong to God because they bear God’s stamp upon them.  St Paul wrote, “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die we die to the Lord; so when, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” [Rom 14:7].  The Apostle further emphasizes this by writing that, “You are not your own: you were bought with a price” [1 Cor 6:19].
            But, in order to attain salvation, we must remain in the state of sanctifying grace.  What does that mean?  To be “in grace” is to be “in friendship with God.”  When we sin, our friendship with God is impaired; when we sin gravely, we have unfriended God; if we die while still unfriended with God, he respects our choice of excluding ourselves from everlasting happiness in the next life.  To die without grace in our souls is the most terrible thing we can do, because we have opted to forfeit heaven for something earthly.  The sacraments are always given efficaciously, but they are not always received fruitfully; it is for this reason that the Last Rites cannot be administered to someone who has decided to break the Fifth Commandment by committing self-murder.  To do otherwise would be to commit sacrilege.
            Let’s pause for a moment.  No doubt some of you are shocked by what I’m saying.  Perhaps, even, you’re saying, “That’s hurtful!” or “That does not respect the feelings of the patient who wants assisted suicide.”  But look what you’re really saying:  You’re saying that feelings are more important than the soul.  Look more closely:  Many people have forgotten that they have souls worth saving, so they go for the next-best thing:  Feelings worth assuaging.  Many people have exchanged the salvation of souls for the assuaging of feelings.
            But who, I ask you, in his right mind, would rather save his feelings in this life, only to lose his soul in the next?  Wouldn’t you rather prioritise the salvation of your soul, despite all pains and sufferings?  It is the height of insanity to escape temporal sufferings in this life, only to have everlasting sufferings in the next.  Again, St Paul has something to say:  “I consider that  the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” [Rom 8:18].
            Life is difficult, I know.  I had spinal meningitis, which I would not trade the world for because it left me with the blessing of being Deaf so that I can proclaim the Gospel in sign language.  I once had depression, and wanted life to be over with because my sadness seemed unbearable, but looking back, I would not trade that for all the world either, because it’s made me sensitive to those of you who may be suffering.  And I know that the minutes of pain seem like hours, and I know that years of pain seem like an eternity.  But I ask you to consider Jesus, whose life on earth had one simple purpose:  To go to the Cross.  God the Son became the Son of Mary precisely so that he would have a Body in order to bear our death [Heb 10:5], and to tell us on Easter:  I know what it’s like, but Life is become victorious.
            But consider another option open to Jesus.  When Satan tempted Him the wilderness [Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13], he offered Jesus a following if he survived jumping off the Temple, the whole world if Jesus would worship him, relief from hunger if Jesus would use His Divinity for his own pleasure.  What Satan was doing, in fact, was trying to get Jesus to bypass the Cross.  But, no.  Jesus went to the Cross anyway—and for what?  To show God’s solidarity with suffering humanity, and in the Person of Jesus Crucified, to merit for us eternal life in heaven.
            God made us for one simple reason:  Happiness.  But so many people have substituted happiness for pleasure, and in so doing, have given priority to feelings over their souls and to seek relief from pain in this life only to find it again, everlastingly, in the next.  Thomas Merton said, “We were not made for pleasure; we were made for joy,” and that joy is found only in the company of Jesus, and only after we’ve endured the brunt of the world [cf Acts 14:22].
            Did you know that the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross left something to be desired?  Yes—he left an opening for us.  During his imprisonment in Rome and awaiting his execution because of his faithfulness to Jesus, St Paul wrote:  “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” [Col 1:24].  I have yet to come across a suffering saint who died unhappily.  I have yet to come across a tortured martyr who died grief-stricken.  Why? Because suffering is only transitory, and Jesus gives us the strength to bear it, while anticipating an eternity of beatitude, provided we remain faithful to God, despite everything:  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” [Apoc 21:4].
            The Church desires nothing less than the salvation of all her children, indeed, the salvation of all peoples.  That’s why she always has, to use the epitaph of Robert Frost, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

            The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.  Lead us to your pain and your suffering, and we will lead you to heaven.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Linus van Pelt Christmas

The following is the homily I preached at both my parishes of Corpus Christi and St Mark's Community of the Deaf at the 'Mass at Night' of the Lord's Nativity.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special broadcast.  I’m sure most of you have seen it; I bought the DVD earlier this week because, as a kid, I never understood the dialogue—closed captioning was not available to me until I was in high school.  (When I finally got my closed-captioned decoder, all of my dreams were captioned for a week!)
     There is one scene in the play—the high point, really—that ought to catch our attention.  We all know of Linus, the boy with his ever-present security blanket.  In the Peanuts series and especially in the Christmas special, Linus is berated for always having his ‘blankie’ with him, and refuses to let go of it.
     At one point when Charlie Brown says he does not understand the true meaning of Christmas, Linus takes centre-stage at the play they are rehearsing and recites Luke 2:8-16 from memory.  It’s the same gospel we just heard.  “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear…”  The whole time, Linus is holding his blankie.  But then, he does the unthinkable.  He continued, “…And the angel said to them, fear not…”  At that moment when Linus said “fear not,” he lets go of the blanket, and continued the story, which we all know so well.

 

     You see, we each have our own proverbial ‘security blankets’—they can be anything.  Our reputation.  Our position at work.  Money.  Being scared of dying.  These are not bad things.  But when they become our security blankets, we prop up an alternative to Jesus.  A counterfeit messiah.  But our counterfeit messiahs arise from our fears, fears that Jesus was born to relieve.  “Fear not!”  This is the most frequent saying found in the Bible—“Fear not!” or “Be not afraid!”  It is found more than 300 times in all of the divine Scriptures.  The Lord is insistent that we take heart in his care for us and to abandon our fears.
     Linus got the message right:  “Fear not!”  The moment he said that, he lets go.  The same invitation goes to us tonight:  “Fear not.”  Our fears drive us into a futile attempt at self-salvation, or self-redemption.  But the angel that spoke to the shepherds address us as well:  “Fear not; for behold, I bring you Good News of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour.  He is Christ the Lord.”
     Tonight is when we come to bear in mind, in the severest way possible, that there is only one Messiah, and it’s none of us.  “Come thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.”  In another carol we also sing:  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
     At the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, we remember that Charlie Brown goes in search of the perfect Christmas tree—and finds only one real evergreen in a commercial lot full of aluminum and artificial trees.  But when he goes to decorate it, it still doesn’t go well.  He walks away, and the rest of the neighbour kids decide to try to dress the tree, beginning with Linus.  What does he do?   He takes his blanket and wraps it at the base of the tree, thus enabling it to stand upright.  And that is what the Lord wants to do with all of our hopes and fears, and with all of our shortcomings:  the Lord desires to transform them into something beautiful.  Just as the Eternal Word was transformed into a helpless infant, also does He want to transform us from helpless creatures into his children of his mercy and redemption.


     But in order to do that, we must rediscover how to embrace Christ the Lord, who embraced us the night He was born.  Merry Christmas.