Honest to God (homily – Nov. 20, 2016)

Today the Church celebrates the last Sunday of Ordinary Time. Though New Years is still a little ways away, we are celebrating the new liturgical year next Sunday with the first Sunday of Advent. This Sunday marks the last Sunday of ordinary time and even has a special solemnity assigned to it: the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

The Church has in mind for us to not only look at the end of the year, but also the end of all time, and the end of our lives. Keeping in mind all the mysteries we have celebrated over the liturgical year – Christ’s birth, life, passion, death and resurrection – we consider His return in glory Likewise keeping in mind the entirety of our lives, we consider that day when we will be called to meet Him face to face as king.

Some years ago I was in Mexico and had the chance to visit several old convents and monasteries that, though out of use, were preserved as monuments for both visiting and prayer. While I was there, I noticed something I had never seen before – over the doors leading out of the convent there were etched a skull and crossbones. Up to that point, my experience with that particular symbol was limited to pirate ships….not something generally associated with religious life!

It turns out that the skull and crossbones is attached to a phrase: memento mori (“remember death’). This isn’t meant to be a depressing or scary thing, but rather a reminder that any day could be the day God calls us home. Those walking through those doors were being given a visual reminder to be ready, to live such that death wouldn’t catch them off guard.

This is the sentiment the Church hopes to elicit for us as we celebrate today’s solemnity. …..how’s that going for you?

This week I came across a blog post that relayed a story of a priest. The blogger was talking about how this priest was praying in the chapel. Now we know what that is supposed to look – that our prayers should be edifying, they should be respectful, they should be holy – that we return the gifts and love we have been given to the Lord.

So this priest goes into the chapel, knowing that this is the way he is expected to pray. But however he is doing, whatever is happening in his life, it’s not true for him. We don’t know the particulars of his story, except to say that he can’t do it. So he says what’s on his heart.

“Jesus, I don’t love you.”

And this becomes his prayer. Every day he goes into the chapel and says what’s on his heart: “Jesus, I don’t love you”. He does this for a year and a half….until one day he comes to the chapel and realizes that it wasn’t true anymore. He could present himself honestly and be accepted honestly, and God worked through it with him.1

This is how we get ready for the day when we stand before the Lord: presenting ourselves to Him and saying “this is where I’m at”. Maybe today you’re doing great and where you’re at is total readiness to surrender to God. Perhaps you’re distracted and can’t wait for this homily to be done so you can finally have that bacon that is waiting for you at home. Maybe you came in and the burden of the last week and the coming week are weighing you down mightily. Where ever you are at this moment, the Lord wants to hear about it right now.

It’s telling that on this Sunday, we would hear the Gospel of Jesus on the Cross, the last moments before His death. Almost the entirety of the Gospel focuses on those who are jeering, mocking, and insulting Him – rulers, soldiers, even one of those crucified alongside Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”

Did you ever notice how throughout the Gospels, Christ never rebukes anyone – anyone! – for speaking to Him disrespectfully? Of all the people who could say ‘you can’t talk to me like that’, Jesus has the most legitimate claim to indignation. And yet, He always receives what is given to Him, even mockery. Jesus wants us to be authentic, to give ourselves as we are.

I wonder what would have happened if the rulers, the soldiers, and that man on the cross had made a habit of coming to Jesus regularly with their disbelief and mockery. What would that have looked like? What healing and conversion might have come about from being accepted even in the apparently ugly honest of doubt and jeers?

We see Christ’s response to that kind of frank honest in that one thief on the other side, who rebukes the mocking thief and makes that key plea of remembrance. His amazing response is what we are left with at the end of the Gospel: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

How many of us desire to hear those very words, to be affirmed by Christ Himself, clearly chosen to be with Him in heaven?

How do we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ the King? We start by doing it right here and now: to be before the Lord in church, in the car, at work, at home, wherever and say ‘Lord this is me, this is how I am right now. ….will you accept me as I am?’

We are looking to mock or jeer or insult the Lord, but sometimes we have harsh things to say. And may we not be afraid to say even those things to Jesus, because He wants to hear everything we have to say. This is the only way we will be healed and converted: if we invite Christ into every part of who we are.

Today we celebrate the kingship of Christ at the end of this liturgical year. And thank God, we start over again – practice makes perfect and we’ve got practice aplenty with our liturgical cycle! May we end this year and begin the next with total honesty to God. Praising the good, presenting the bad, but giving it all to Him.

May we make ourselves constantly honest with the Lord, and presenting ourselves to Him every day. Then, when the day comes that we stand before Jesus, it will be like every day because we’ve been doing it our entire lives – and there we might here those same words: ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.


  1. This was actually a story told twice, originally by Joseph Prever at www.stevegershom.com and slightly more recently by Simcha Fisher at www.simchafisher.com. Both posts are excellent – and the blogs are worth visiting on a regular basis!

Sodom & Gomorrah, ‘Our Father’ and mercy (homily – July 24, 2016)

Thanks to the generosity of many generous donors, my seminary has a pilgrimage program for seminarians in their third year. So about ten years ago when I was in my third year, I was able to spend about two and a half months in the Holy Land – a month in Bethlehem, a month in Jerusalem and about two weeks in Nazareth.

Among many neat places was the Dead Sea. The salt content of the Dead Sea is so high that it is toxic to all life. There is so much salt that the floor of the sea is covered in rocks of salt, the size of your fist. Our guide warned us that staying in the water overlong wasn’t advisable, and that we should be especially cautious of getting the water in our eyes. Too much and our vision could be damaged – to the point of blindness even.

Happy swimming!

But swim we did, because there is another, neat thing about the Dead Sea: buoyancy! You practically can’t drown, as even a person with the lowest possible body fat will float with ease. I have a picture of one of my classmates sitting in the water, feet up, with a newspaper in his hands looking for all the world as if he was in a recliner.

Though interesting, these are just details. See, the most significant thing about the Dead Sea is it’s location: it is the site of Sodom and Gomorrah.

If you know a bit about the history of warfare, you might have heard about a particularly thorough method of wiping out one’s enemies. After conquering their soldiers, after burning their villages and farms to the ground, armies would then salt the earth. In this way, they made even their enemy’s land useless: nothing would grow for quite some time after.

This is what has happened at the Dead Sea, and for thousands of years!

Knowing that this is the site of Sodom & Gomorrah, it seems wise to find out what prompted God to deal out such a serious and lasting statement. What were the actions that cried out to God for a response?

If you were to continue to read Genesis past the passage of our reading today, you’d quickly see the nature of the sins – they’re sexual sins. When Abraham and his companions (later revealed to be angels) arrive in Sodom, the entire town accosts them. That’s not hyperbole, by the way: the Scriptures are careful to highlight that every townsman was guilty.

These are the sins that still exist today. So often we dance around sexual sin, so let’s take a moment to name some of the more prevalent sexual sins in the world:

  • pornography
  • masturbation
  • fornication
  • adultery
  • contraception
  • sodomy

These are the sins of Sodom & Gomorrah, and the sins of our time. And they cry out from earth to God for a response.

What is God’s response? We know how Abraham thought God was going to respond – with a blind vengeance that would strike down both innocent & guilty.

There’s a real temptation in that presumption, one that we’ve seen played out over & over. People have heard this story and come to the conclusion that they are empowered, sent forth even, to go out and strike down, to condemn, to vilify anyone who has been part of, anyone who has participated, anyone who has even been tempted by sexual sin.

I know that there are people in our parishes, perhaps who sat next to us at Mass today, who struggle with sexual sins, for whom the sins named above or other sins are an ongoing battle, who are enmeshed in temptation, in a relationship outside of marriage, in a lifestyle that on one hand is clearly sinful and yet on the other hand seems inescapable.

To you first I want to speak. Because it is an undeniable fact that many within the Body of Christ, perhaps even in positions of authority, have made you to feel condemned, have told you that you are not welcome, that you are ‘other’. To you I want to say – on behalf of the Church, on behalf of Her clergy, and on behalf of Her members: I am sorry. For every time that you have been made to feel less than fully welcomed  and at home here in this community, I apologize. This is not the message God has for you, or for anyone.

 

So what is to be our response to grave sin – to the sins that call out for a response? We can look to today’s Gospel, at this moment of Christ’s disciples petition Him to teach them how to pray. And so He teaches them the ‘Our Father’.

Take a moment to consider just those first two words: “Our Father”. How could God bestow His fatherhood on us? We, who are guilty of so many sins – grave sins, no less? The betrayal of misusing God’s gifts, of perverting the treasures He has entrusted to us – these deserve castigation and punishment.

This is the goodness of God on display. In the face of terrible, grave, awful sin – sin that calls from the earth to the heavens for a response from the Creator, His response is ‘I choose you to be my beloved child. I choose to adopt you.’

How do we reconcile this assertion, implicit in the ‘Our Father’, with the reality of Sodom & Gomorrah, with the salted, ruined earth that even when covered in the Dead Sea still now stands lifeless?

I suggest two things for our consideration. The first is this: grave sin doesn’t just destroy our earthly lives – though we can see that it does indeed do that as we observe the rampant depression, suicide rates and ruined families that sexual sin leaves in its wake. But more than that, grave sin destroys souls. God, seeing that grave sin was eating away at the very essence of His beloved children, takes away their earthly lives so that their eternal souls might be saved.

But that isn’t the end! Because we must also consider the prayer that we pray with every rosary – the Apostles Creed. Recall the part where we talk about Christ descending into Hell. We believe that! We truly believe that Christ went into the depths of that inferno, and offered to all who had preceded the Word becoming flesh the chance for salvation.

Those same townsmen who attempted to molest Abraham’s companions, who were destroyed by God, we also chosen as His adopted sons.

This is the response of the Lord. This is what we assert, affirm and celebrate each time we pray the ‘Our Father’.

I’d like to offer three invitations. The first is directed especially to anyone steeped in grave sin, especially sexual sin. To anyone who has wondered if they’re lovable, to anyone who has questioned if God would really forgive the terrible things of their past. To  you especially, I invite you to come to confession.

People at my parishes know that this is my favorite invitation to make, and that I make it often. As a priest it is a special privilege and a particular joy to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. But even before I was a priest, I was – am –  a sinner. I too know what it is like to question God’s love for me, to carry the secret shame and sorrow of grave sin, and live in a shadow of doubt. Because of confession, I also know the great joy and peace of having those doubts – along with my sins! – washed away. This gift is available to us all.

The second is to those who are living in an irregular situation, in a relationship that is contrary to God’s call. To you I want to extend the invitation to come talk to a priest. Find a priest, your pastor, the parochial vicar, the priest you’ve heard good things about – any priest! – but find one and go speak with him about how the Church can help you, can support you, can assist in making the irregular regular.

And finally to all, the invitation is to pray. Whatever your situation is – whether you’re struggling with sexual sin, whether you’ve never been tempted or you find yourself no longer tempted – the invitation to prayer is universal. Pray that we overcome the temptation and the scandal of divisions against each other. Pray that we may never make anyone ‘other’, that we may never say ‘You aren’t welcome here’ to another person. Pray that those suffering in our very midst may never doubt that God’s love and our love is available to them.

May we reflect the Father’s adoption of us as His by claiming each other as our brothers & sisters. God does hear the cry of the poor, and as we call upon Him as our Father, may we support each other in receiving & rejoicing in His mercy.

Mass, ad orientem

On the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) this year, I decided to celebrate all the Sunday Masses ad orientem. We’ve done this once before at my parishes, on the Solemnity of All Souls. It was very well-received at the time, but there were only about 100 folks as All Souls landed on a weekday last year.

Before all of the Sunday Masses, I offered a brief explanation. The short version is that this is the way Vatican II envisioned and the Roman Missal yet presumes Mass will be celebrated. The Latin of this orientation means ‘to the east’ and in this turning together we all face the direction of the rising sun and offer our worship of the Risen Son. At the end of the explanation, I encouraged the congregation to take note of how the Mass was different, particularly during the Eucharistic prayer. How did this re-orientation change their prayer?

As a priest, I can summarize the change with one word: focus.

At Mass celebrated versus populum – facing the people – there is a nigh-unavoidable and ever-present element of showmanship. The priests facial expressions, posture, where he’s looking and of course, what he’s doing are all on display. For me, I’m always aware and trying to keep these from becoming distractions to the prayer of the Mass…..which is no small distraction to my own prayer. This is most apparent during the preparation of the altar and during the liturgy of the Eucharist.

At this Mass facing with the congregation towards the East, that pressure disappeared. I can’t overstate what a grand relief that was! It’s like a backache that you’ve forgotten you had – it’s absence is a joyful relief. Rather than simply presenting it for everyone else’s prayer, I suddenly found that I was praying the Mass with them. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that – and all of this was just as I was making my offertory prayers!

The preface of the Mass is where ad orientem really starts to set itself apart as something special. The priest greets the congregation with ‘The Lord be with you’, exhorts them to ‘Lift up your hearts’ and then invites them to prayer with ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God’. And then he turns towards the East and begins giving thanks with them to God. ‘It is truly right and just…..’

That turning towards God makes such a difference. With our words we have just said that we’re here to praise and thank God. With that one bodily turn, our actions reflect our words – the priest isn’t talking to the congregation, but rather he presents their worship to God!

And at the conclusion of the preface, we all join together glorifying God’s holiness before taking a knee in preparation for the Eucharistic prayer. Again, all facing together towards the Lord.

In the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), there is an optional conclusion to each segment of the prayer. The priest draws his hands together and closes that section with the words ‘Through Christ our Lord. Amen.’ Naturally, the congregation joins in the ‘Amen’ each time. What was interesting to notice during Mass ad orientem was how folks had to more deliberately participate. Since we were facing the altar together, they couldn’t see my hands come together – they had to actively listen.

To the modern Catholic, ‘listening’ may seem counter to ‘active’. This has much to do with the attitude of stage performance that has weaseled its way into our liturgies, particularly in the music and the readings. Mass Ad orientem uses that simple turn to instill a genuine participation that is fuller due because it must be actively, consciously pursued.

I’m reminded of the Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo, whose first verse concludes ‘Præstet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui’ – Faith supplies for our defects, where our senses fail. Perhaps faith even grows when our senses are deprived!

The elevation of the Sacred Species is dramatically different as well. Since we’re all looking together, I couldn’t get away with just lifting the Precious Body and chalice of the Precious Blood a few inches above the altar. I had to extend my arms completely up, and as my body assumed the visible posture of offering I was struck by the enormity of what I was doing.

It all fell into place as I was standing before the tabernacle in the shadow of the crucifix; I was offering the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to God on behalf of all gathered. It is amazing what can be driven home by the physicality of what you’re doing.

Another stand-out aspect is the necessity of turning around to address the congregation after the Eucharistic prayer at the sign of peace. In having to turn to begin that dialogue (‘the peace of the Lord be with you….let us offer each other….’), there is a clear division between prayer set aside as worship and a brief moment for fraternity. 

Finally, there was the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Re-joining into a common orientation helped focus us again on the Eucharist….which made for a noticeably more reverent conclusion to the sign of peace! When the Agnus Dei concluded, I turned around with the host held over the chalice – and as I said the words ‘Behold the Lamb of God….’, it was a meaningful invitation. What was unseen just a moment before was now held up to be reverenced. Behold, in deed as well as word.

These and other details all drove home the greatest gift of Mass ad orientem – renewed focus on Christ. Though available to us in Mass versus populum, this focus is intrinsic in Mass ad orientem. Our bodies are re-oriented in such a way that we can’t help but be directed towards the Lord.

It is no wonder the Church is calling us to return to celebrations facing East! As I can attest, it’s well worth the effort.

Corpus Christi homily (May 29, 2016)

Holy Thursday, Last Supper (Isaac Jogues Missal)
The Last Supper

Happy Feast of Corpus Christi! Today is the celebration of the mystery of the Body & Blood of Christ.

Today’s celebration has a special place in my heart, as it is the anniversary of the first Mass I celebrated after my ordination – or as a friend coined the phrase my ‘liturgical anniversary’.

The feast of Corpus Christi is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Mass. In short: why do we come and celebrate Mass?

A quick answer might simply be ‘because I have to’! Sometimes our default motivation comes from the various shades of pressure, guilt or outside expectation to come to Mass. We may also be driven by our desire for fellowship, prayer, song and inspiration.

Though these are valuable aspects of our celebration, they’re not exclusive to the Mass, right? I mean, we could find fellowship at a BBQ, prayer at a football game, songs in our shower and inspiration from the bookshelf.

At its core, our celebration is about offering sacrifice.

The idea of sacrifice, reasonably, makes us uncomfortable. It calls to mind thoughts of having to give up or lose something, that we’ll be called upon to give our ‘pound of flesh’ as the saying goes.

…. sacrifice implies debt, something we owe to someone else. …. sacrifice is necessary because of sin. We often avoid the language and reality of sacrifice because we want to avoid the reality of sin – that I am a sinner, that you are a sinner, that we all are sinners.

“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

Do you remember this line? It is from the Exultet – the chant offered at the beginning of the Easter vigil Mass.

“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

With this one line, after having recounted much of the faults and failings of mankind, we are reminded of God’s great mercy, of His wondrous love for us – incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Yet we can not truly know our Redeemer without acknowledging that we need one.
Tomorrow we celebrate Memorial Day weekend. We honor those who have willingly sacrificed their lives in defense of our lives and freedom. We show our appreciation with a feast, often with a barbeque of some sort, music, fraternity and maybe even a patriotic song or reading.

At some point in the celebration, drinks are passed around – age appropriate, of course! – as someone calls for silence. Particular names of the fallen are shared, and then we raise our glasses in honor of them, and of their comrades. It is a fitting memorial to the brave men and women who offered so much out of love of our country.

In the Usus Antiquior or the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, there was a psalm that the priest quoted before receiving communion – a tradition received from the practice of our Jewish forbearers:

“How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

Sound familiar? We won’t just do that tomorrow for our soldiers – we’ll do that in a few minutes here at this altar. ‘Do this in memory of Me’, He told us. And so we do, at every Mass.

We can’t possibly repay the debt we owe for the forgiveness of our sins – that cost is ever beyond our means. But we have been given a gift that we can worthily offer in our thanksgiving – the gift of Christ Himself, the gift of His perfect self-sacrifice on our behalf: His Body – broken on the battlefield of sin – and His Blood – shed for sin’s forgiveness.

If you find yourself not entirely understanding the Mass and the Eucharist, you’re in good company! It’s all a bit heady, and a lot to take in. Thankfully, complete understanding isn’t necessary to join in the celebration – by God’s grace that may come later. What is necessary, what is vital, is that we enter into this mystery, that we take this cup of salvation, that we offer it to the Lord in thanksgiving and that we receive it with gratitude. May it transform us, so that the sacrifice Jesus made for our us may not be in vain.

Blessed

So, it seems I have a blog – which implies an intention to, you know, write. Which is in fact the case, as I have been mulling a post titled ‘In defense of sarcasm’. While this seemed a fitting introduction to the informal spirit of this blog, a title and informal spirit aren’t sufficient to merit clicking the ‘publish’ button. So I’ll leave that to percolate for a little while longer.

This last week has been strangely blessed. It started with the funeral Mass for Father Victor Cloquet, a priest of the archdiocese of Seattle and one connected to one of my previous and one of my current parishes. So I drove up to Saint Joseph in Tacoma for the celebration. The whole affair was a mix of different graces. Fraternity with my brother priests of the archdiocese & Saint Joseph‘s pastor – Father Michael Stinson (who graciously hosted us in his rectory). The sacrifice of the Mass offered for one of the gentlest priests I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Reminiscing with former parishioners and catching up with seminarians.

Because I’m assigned to the wild, wonderful but remote hinterland of Lewis county, I took the afternoon to run errands in the big city. Highlights included a visit to Vercillo’s Catholic Book & Gift store, Lowes and the local cigar shop (appropriately named ‘The Tinder Box‘).

The latter was important, as I passed the evening with two dear friends who had recently returned from a 30-day trip walking the Camino. Stories were shared, cigars smoked, jokes told, beers enjoyed and generally much fraternity into the wee hours of the night.

Fortunately, Tuesday is my day off – which allowed for a late start to a lazy day.

At the end of the week, I drove to Everett to visit another set of dear friends and their four daughters – the eldest of whom is my goddaughter. It was the first we’ve seen each other in almost a year because, well, life and things. Their parents are trying to avoid publishing their lives online, so you’ll have to take my word when I tell you that these little girls are the very definition of cute. And my how they’ve grown! But not so much that they wouldn’t let their godfather read them a bedtime story on the living room floor.

Back at the parishes this weekend, we had another round of new communicants as we celebrated First Holy Communion at Saint Yves in Mossyrock. The pastor, being a shmuck, forgot that today’s Mass was bi-lingual and had not prepared himself to preach in both English and Spanish.2 Thankfully, God provided – though the congregation pitched in when a stray word eluded translation!

Finally, today marked the resumption of our Hackmaster campaign.2 Several of our members had been out of the country, our hosts on the Camino in Spain and another in Japan. While we goofed around in-game, we were actually doing a lot of catch-up in real life. Of course, that didn’t preclude the usual table-top shenanigans – featuring bad puns, Diggy Diggy Hole references, discussing which Doctor is in fact the best (10th or 12th?) and sharing in copious amounts of rich & tasty food.

The first reading in the Office of Readings from Friday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time had this timely bit:

This is a vanity that occurs on earth: There are those who are just but are treated as though they had done evil, and those who are wicked but are treated as though they had done justly. This, too, I say is vanity.

Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.

Somewhere in the rich history of the Church, someone wise observed that every sorrow is accompanied by graces from God and every blessing is a strengthening against future sorrows3. This week certainly fits that bill! God is good.

(Edited for grammar a couple times – 2016/05/23)