Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's not where you start...

Long before Shirley MacLaine had become a New Age icon and an unexpected star on Downton Abbey, I took my mother to see her perform at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Almost forty years later, I still remember one song from her show. The lyric went “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

St. Paul didn’t have much in common with Shirley MacLaine, but he would have approved of that line. In our second reading today, the Apostle looks back on his life with satisfaction, and looks ahead to eternal life with hope and thanksgiving.

His words are far more famous than any Broadway song: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Wouldn’t we all love to make those words our own?

Today’s Gospel says we can, even if we can’t compare ourselves to St. Paul. Jesus tells us what it takes to win the race: nothing more or less than a humble prayer for God’s mercy. The tax collector—a classic sinner in any story—wins the fight after losing many rounds to sin.

Even for Paul, victory is a gift. It’s the Lord who gave him strength; it is the Lord who rescued him from every evil; it is the Lord who saves.

Three months or so I met a lovely woman who was away from the Church for some 60 years. She had decided after all that time to return to the practice of the faith of her upbringing. She came to the rectory for coffee and confession, and we discovered that my great-aunt had been her principal at a convent school, where my father’s sister was also a boarder.

She came back to church with visible joy, and the parish welcomed her warmly, thanks to a generous parishioner who drove her to Mass on Sundays.

When her ride arrived last Sunday, she failed to answer the doorbell. Barbara Reynolds had finished the race, and kept the faith. This week I will be celebrating her funeral.

This story has meaning for those of every age, because the Lord wants to save us here and now; he offers us the strength and peace that comes from faith at every moment of our lives; we only need to accept it.

I’m very glad that today we'll also hear the faith journey of a young person as part or Year of Faith series of parishioner's testimonies. Even if it’s not where you start but where you finish, Chris Ufford will tell us something about the beauty and joy of youthful faith, and the blessings that come when a young athlete runs the race with real conviction.

Today, whether young or old or in-between, let’s ask ourselves: are we keeping the faith—are we in training for eternal life?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Coming Clean (Thanksgiving Weekend, Sunday 28.C)

The title of this blog post is not the title of the homily that follows, even if it does bring to mind the "cleansing" or healing of the ten lepers in today's Gospel.

I'm coming clean about the source of my homily this Sunday. It is almost entirely paraphrased or quoted from someone else. When I read the commentary on today's readings from Father Mariano Perrón from Madrid, I liked his thoughts so much that I decided I couldn't improve on them. So all I really did was change the style of his comments to suit the spoken word.

(Needless to say, I'm responsible for the revised content--and hope that Father Perrón will forgive me the liberty I have taken!)

But I am not telling you this only for honesty's sake! The reason I was looking at Father Perrón's words in the first place is that I get his reflections every week by e-mail as part of a free Lectio Divina resource provided by the American Bible Society. Every Tuesday the ABS e-mails me the Lectio for the coming Sunday and even sends a reminder on Thursday.

Although the ABS is a largely Protestant organization, this resource follows the Lectionary Catholics use. (The text of the Gospel provided is from the Good News Translation, which the ABS publishes.) By chance, I was in Manhattan in 2010 when the Society launched this initiative with a presentation to the priests of the Archdiocese of New York.

I don't know anything about Father Perrón, but I've found his commentaries very challenging and fresh. They can either be used for the stated purpose of Lectio Divina (if you don't know what that is, click here or here or here) or just to prepare for Sunday Mass (or writing homilies!).

Subscribing is easy: there is a box on the website.

And now for the homily....

The first reading this morning is not our first meeting with Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He appeared in the Sunday Gospel last February, when Jesus mentioned him in his homily at the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).

On that occasion, Naaman was a sign of God’s universal mercy, which was not limited to the people of Israel but embraced Gentiles as well.

And lepers aren’t new to our Sunday readings, either. Last year, one of the first signs performed by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (4:40-43) was the healing of a leper, which showed that his presence meant liberation from legal impurity and social and religious isolation.

Nor are Samaritans unfamiliar to us. We heard the parable of the Good Samaritan back in July, where one of these foreigners was a sign of mercy and a model of compassion (Luke 10:25-37).

Today we meet a man who is both a Samaritan and a leper. This is a very bad combination in Israel. He is both officially unclean and outside. But like Naaman and the Good Samaritan, he has a lot to teach us.

The basic message, of course, is plain and simple: gratitude is the attitude God expects from anyone who has received a gift from Him. And what better time to hear that message than Thanksgiving weekend? The timing of these readings is a very happy coincidence.

However, the Gospel always offers more than a basic message if we spend a bit of time looking. Notice that Jesus is on “his way to Jerusalem.” We know what that means: Jesus is on his way to the place of his suffering, death and resurrection. By his parables and formal teaching and signs he intends to show who and what he is.

And notice where he meets the group of lepers: as he goes through the region between Samaria and Galilee. They are in “no man’s land,” rejected by the inhabitants of both territories. It’s that, as well as their physical illness, that moves Jesus to mercy.

The leper is more than grateful: he is a model of faith and understanding. He “gets it.” When he sees that he is healed, he understands what happened, and returns “praising God.” This is what the shepherds did when they saw the baby Jesus at Bethlehem (Luke 2:20).

Though ten lepers were healed but only the Samaritan is able to understand and respond in faith and gratitude. That is why Jesus tells him: “Your faith has made you well.”

For Naaman, too, his physical healing implied something more than just gratitude. From that moment on, he will not offer sacrifices “to any god except the Lord” and the loads of earth he takes with him are a sign of his allegiance to the God of Israel.

The Samaritan leper and the Syrian commander are standout examples of faith and thanksgiving, and they might make us feel weak and ungrateful by comparison. But our second reading shows that even if we are disloyal, forgetful and unfaithful, Jesus will never turn away from us or forget his promises. We can reject him; He cannot reject us. And that is a very good reason to be thankful.

How do we begin to receive the healing God wants for us? (Which most often is inner healing—the physical healings of the Bible are usually signs, not simply manifestations of God’s love.) The first step is to recognize and admit our sicknesses, addictions and shortcomings. All too often we ignore the roots of our problems or pretend they do not exist.

Naaman knew what the matter was. He knew his disease was incurable, but as soon as he heard there was a healing prophet in a foreign land, he started packing for the journey.

The ten lepers in today’s Gospel had more than one problem. They were both sick and discriminated against. But they were ready to shout for help, asking for a sign of mercy and compassion from Jesus.

Do we share their awareness about our own innermost “disease”? Do we approach the Lord with such boldness and confidence? When compared with the Samaritan, are we conscious of the gifts we constantly receive from the Lord? Or do we take for granted all the generous blessings that have been poured upon us in our lives? How often do we praise and say “thank you” to the Lord?

For the Samaritan leper, healing meant more than being born again to normal life; he was born again to faith in Jesus. He was a new man in every respect. Some of us may have experienced the kind of healing that left us feeling like a new creature—perhaps it was healing from a serious illness, or an addiction, or a deep crisis. But all of us have 1001 reasons to be thankful to the Lord, who has given us this life and promised that we will live and reign with him in the next.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fan the Flames of Faith (27.C)

Have you ever tried to build a fire with wood that wasn’t quite dry? It’s tough going. You pile on the kindling, but fifteen minutes later all you’ve got is smoldering logs.

But with a fireplace bellows—or good lungs, if you’re making a campfire—you can blow on those logs until all at once they catch fire and the flames leap up.

The same is true when the blazing fire you’d built has burned down to embers. Fan those embers and you’ve got a real fire again.

This is the image St. Paul is using in our second reading when he reminds Timothy to “rekindle” the gift of God he already has. Fan it into a flame, the Apostle says. You already have what you need to be a Christian leader, but your gifts have burned down into glowing coals when they should be Pentecostal tongues of fire.

In today’s Gospel, the Apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, because they want Jesus to do the work, which is fair enough because He hasn’t yet sent them the Holy Spirit. But from the day of Pentecost onwards, Paul’s words to Timothy are the answer to that prayer: rekindle what you have already received, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course it’s not just the apostles who pray “increase our faith.” Which one of us doesn’t feel that our faith falls short sometimes? Who doesn’t envy the person in the next pew who seems so much more prayerful than we are?

So St. Paul speaks to us, too. Or maybe he asks us a question. What have you done to fan into a flame the gifts of God you received in baptism and confirmation?

This is a very concrete question for every one of us. And we can make it more concrete still by asking ourselves some questions. If you are a man, what did you do yesterday? Because if you missed the Man Alive! conference, you missed a mighty wind of God’s Spirit that would have rekindled the faith of a weary soul.

If you are a woman, do you have the archdiocesan women’s conference on your calendar for next month?

Did you pray yesterday? Have you gone to confession recently? Did you do any spiritual reading in the past week, or check out a good Catholic blog?

Were you one of those who came to the first night of our course on prayer and contemplation on Wednesday? Fr. Elton Fernandes sure rekindled for me much I already knew but need to practice.

Did you find time last week to do some act of love that didn’t come easy? Did you do some small penance on Friday?

The Alpha course that begins tomorrow night is a way to share the Gospel with someone who may not know Christ. Sharing our faith is definitely a great way to rekindle it. But even an active Catholic will find that the course can revive the power of the central truths he or she already believes.

On Thursday night, St. Stephen's Parish in Lynn Valley begins the Life in the Spirit Seminar. The eight-week seminar is a sure path to revitalized faith in Jesus Christ and a personal experience of the Holy Spirit’s power.

In all these ways we invite the Spirit himself to send gusts of grace to inflame our hearts and to awaken the gifts we have already received in baptism and confirmation.

For my own sake as well as for yours, I am glad that the readings today offer such a practical challenge: because the Christian who is not on fire is something of a contradiction. In the Book of Revelation (3:15) the Lord laments those who are “lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold.” And in the Gospels, St. John the Baptist promises that Jesus will come to baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Yes, we do pray that the Lord will increase our faith. But he wants us to use the gifts we have—by discovering them, developing them, and displaying them.

If there’s one thing I hope for as the end of the Year of Faith approaches, it’s that my faith and yours will burn brighter—hotter—than it did at the beginning. I pray that the gifts of power and love and self-discipline that we already have will be guarded as a treasure but also invested in daily life.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Daily "Audit": A Wedding Homily for Accountants!

Some folks think I must have given up blogging (or preaching). Not so, but I've been both away and very busy on my return. Wasn't sure how I'd find the time to write a homily for the wedding of a wonderful young couple today, since I was out at our wildly-successful diocesan men's conference for the first part of the day.  Happily, the profound Ignatian spirituality course that Father Elton Fernandes, S.J.of St. Mark's College launched at the parish this week gave me the inspiration for a slightly unusual wedding homily.

The "examen" (the popular name for St. Ignatius's examination of conscience in n. 43 of his Spiritual Exercises) deserves a deeper treatment than I could give it here.  You might like to look at one of the websites that treat this spiritual treasure: there's helpful information here and here and here. Even better, you can read The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin S.J., which has a good chapter on it, or a whole short book, The Examen Prayer by Timothy M. Gallagher. O.M.V.

I'm very well qualified to be marrying a pair of accountants, since I come from a long line of them.
My grandfather was a chartered accountant. My father was a chartered accountant. And so were my uncle, great-uncle and cousin.

On the other hand, I haven’t balanced a checkbook since I was twelve. And even then I was overdrawn.

Qualified or not, I found myself thinking about the accounting profession as I prepared some thoughts for this happy day. In fact, I could hardly avoid it, since this morning’s scripture reading in my prayer book was the passage where the Apostle Paul talks like someone keeping a ledger:

“When I was at Thessalonica,” he wrote to the Philippians, “you sent something for my needs… It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, my concern is for the ever-growing balance in your account.

Herewith is my receipt, which says that I have been fully paid and more.”

But my thoughts for aspiring  C.A.s didn’t run in the direction of finances; today I want to talk about auditing.

What’s an audit? Of course you know the technical meaning, but the word’s often used outside your profession not only for the scrutiny of accounts but for any thorough check or examination of something. So today I want to propose something to you both: why not plan to audit yourselves each day?

Such an audit—usually known by other names, such as an examination of conscience—has a long history in the Christian tradition. By regularly taking stock of our relationship with God and with others, we nip problems in the bud—and, just as important—we learn to recognize the good things we might otherwise take for granted.

One of the best teachers of this subject is St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order to which Pope Francis belongs. Ignatius proposed a practical way of taking a look at how our day had gone.

The saint suggested we begin with thanks to God for the blessings we received before moving on to the events of the day and our response to them—where we’d done well and where we hadn’t. The prayerful exercise ends by asking God’s forgiveness for our faults.

Over the centuries, wise men and women have adapted St. Ignatius method to suit different temperaments and times. This week a young Jesuit taught a class in the parish where he offered a version that’s ultra-simple and more focused on the positive than the negative.

At the end of each day, we ask ourselves “Where did I receive the most love today?” And then “Where did I give the most love today?”

Wouldn’t that kind of audit produce a report well worth thinking about? Wouldn’t a daily tally of good things done and received strengthen the marriage of any couple, accountants or not?

But of course good accountants need to work with what are called Generally Accepted Auditing Standards so their evaluation is objective and accurate.

Keely and Kyle, the readings you have chosen for this Wedding Mass are an excellent standard with which to examine each day of your married lives. The first reading, from the Book of Genesis, presents God’s basic plan for creation and society—married life, man and woman created for each other.

The second reading sets a high standard—a standard of love—and offers numerous criteria against which you can judge your progress in married love, indeed your progress in loving your children and everyone else you meet in the course of our day.

And, finally, the Gospel we’ve just heard ties the Old Testament reading directly to the New Covenant of Christ. Jesus quotes the Book of Genesis, making the original plan of creation an intimate part of the new creation He has inaugurated.

Kyle and Keely, I pray that you will live each day according to the glorious vision of married love these Scriptures reveal—and may you do so with courage, conviction, and the daily adjustments needed to persevere.

God bless you both!