Monday, July 29, 2019

Philip and Angie: Wedding Homily

On Saturday, I officiated at the wedding of Angie Scandale and Philip O'Reilly. The celebration would have been memorable for the music alone - the choir consisted of Philip's past and present students from St. Andrew's High School, where he teaches music, along with members of the choir of St. Andrew's Cathedral.

But for me, there was something even more beautiful than the exquisite music. I have known the groom since he was three years old and shared the life of his family just before I entered the seminary. In the O'Reilly's dining room I announced my decision to study for the priesthood to my parents, with an adoring Philip on my knee. 

My mother said that made things rather more difficult for her! But no one could say I was unaware of the costs of sacrificing a family of my own. At the same time, sharing in Philip's progress through life has been one of the experiences of fatherhood that has ensured my deep satisfaction as a priest. 

More than thirty-years ago, I took Philip by the hand and walked with him down the hall on his first day of preschool. Since his Dad was a teacher, he was otherwise engaged that morning, so I got to accompany Bernadette.

I cried then—and I will probably cry now—as Philip takes Angie’s hand and walks with her into a future full of hope and joy.

I’ve often wondered what the teacher thought as a sobbing man handed Philip—who was crying louder than I was—and headed back down the hall. Something along the lines of “we are sure going to have problems with that father!”

What she couldn’t have known was that Philip’s first day of school was my last day in Victoria. I left later that morning for the seminary in Rome.

During the three years I spent in Victoria, this Cathedral church was where I began my journey to the priesthood; this afternoon the same sacred space is where Angie and Philip begin their journey to married life.

Can you blame me for being a bit emotional?

But Angie and Philip, you’ve chosen Scripture readings for this celebration that make it easy enough for me to preach today, despite my strong feelings. Like the tapestry that hangs on the O’Reilly’s dining room wall, these texts beautifully weave together the strands of human and divine love.

First, you chose a passage from the Song of Songs. While Jews and Christians alike have found deep spiritual themes in this ancient book, it is first and foremost a series of love poems—some from a man to a woman, some—like the one we heard today—from a woman to a man.

It’s good that we celebrate the human dimension of your love for each other. That alone is something to celebrate.

But you two are mature and wise enough to know that the breathless romance of the Song of Songs needs to be rooted in more than the exhilaration and passion of love. So you chose St. Paul’s famous chapter on love—a concrete, even tough, definition of what you two are freely embracing today.

If I can give you one simple piece of advice today, it’s this: keep a copy of St. Paul’s words handy, and read it to each other every time you find yourselves fighting. Now that I think of it, when I get home, I’m going to laminate two copies and send them to you!

And there’s one more ingredient you need to add to the romance of the Song of Songs and the practical wisdom of St. Paul, to ensure a truly blessed life together. To complete the recipe, I want to recycle part of a very clever sermon I gave at a wedding about six years ago.

The sermon was very clever because Philip helped me write it!

I was celebrating the marriage of our parish organist, and I wanted to make a key point using music. So, I called Philip the music teacher.

What I did was simple—I struck middle C on the piano. It wasn’t a grand piano like we have here, but the note rang out clearly enough.

Then I played E together with the C, creating the first harmonic in a series, Philip expertly informed me: Combining the two notes, each with its own musical identity, produced something one note alone cannot—an obvious musical conclusion obviously related to our first reading, where the beauty of love between two people is so evident.

But Philip sent me back to the keyboard to add G to the first two notes. Even I knew that was a chord, but he told me that for music students it was a triad.

If the harmony of C and E can represent what happens when a man and woman are united in marriage, what lesson can we draw from the chord produced by adding G?

Well, G quite easily might stand for God. Our faith tells us that marriage is not only a natural, original good, but a supernatural one as well.

Jesus elevated the marriage of Christians to a new level. The union of man and woman is no longer just part of God’s plan, but part of God’s work. The couple unite themselves as one flesh, but by no merely human power they are joined together by God himself.

Jesus says this explicitly in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. But Philip and Angie, you’ve chosen words from the Gospel of John where Jesus takes us even deeper into the mystery of human and divine love.

The Lord says that love isn’t just something to which he invites you; love is his own command. And while love is certainly all those things St. Paul says—patient, kind, enduring and the rest—at its deepest level it is sacrificial.

By choosing this Gospel for your wedding Mass, you commit to a total gift of self, imitating Christ who loved us so much that he gave himself up for us (cf. Ephesians 5:25).

There’s both a modern song and a jazz standard that wouldn’t fit with the beautiful and meaningful music you’ve chosen for this wedding. But the title “All of Me” describes just what you are offering each other when you offer to love as the Lord has loved you.

Dear Angie and Philip, may you spend your lives together in complete harmony with each other, and in perfect harmony with God’s plan for your earthly happiness and eternal salvation.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Suffering (16.C)

Today’s readings offered two subjects for my homily. On one, I’m an expert. About the other, I know almost nothing.

I’m an expert on hospitality—both receiving and showing hospitality are very important to me. And Father Jeff made me feel proud last Sunday when he suggested in his homily on the Good Samaritan that the welcome he’s been shown in our parish has helped to bind up his own wounds.

I’m proud of our reputation as a hospitable community, which we show in many ways including the meals we serve to our young people and Alpha guests, the efforts we make to welcome newcomers, and even the way the rectory is used by CCO missionaries, visiting priests, and other travelers.

So a homily on hospitality would be a slam-dunk today, given the story of Abraham and Sarah in our first reading, and that of Martha and Mary in the Gospel.

Suffering, which St. Paul talks about in the first verse of today’s second reading, is a much tougher subject. And as I’ve said, I don’t know much about it, since I’ve suffered very little in my life.

Two possible topics for our time together this morning. An easy one, and a hard one. Which do you think I chose?

I decided to tackle suffering. In the first place, it’s more central to the Christian life even than hospitality. Suffering is connected to key aspects of our faith, to understanding Christ himself. At the same time, it’s a human reality that few of us escape entirely, even if some folks seem to carry much more than their share.

In other words, it’s something we really need to talk more about.

There’s no Christian teaching misunderstood more often than suffering. Simple sayings like “God never gives you more than you can handle” just cause confusion. Even when we know better, we can think “God must be punishing me” or “if God really loved me this wouldn’t be happening.”

We were blessed in recent memory to witness the physical sufferings of St. John Paul,
and the mental sufferings of St. Teresa of Calcutta.

An un-canonized saint, Billy Graham, also died after a long and painful illness. And all three bore the painful sufferings of public attacks and violent criticism.

It’s an error to think that these great figures don’t feel pain like ordinary people. Billy Graham said “In my own life, the pressures at times, mentally, physically, and spiritually have become so great that I felt like lying down in the cemetery to see how I fit.”

“When asked how he felt about his Parkinson’s disease and if he considered God responsible for it,” Dr. Graham replied “I don’t know. He allows it. And he allows it for a purpose that I may not know. I think that [for] everything that comes to our lives, if we are true believers, God has a purpose and a plan.” *

That reply from the famous Protestant preacher squares completely not only with Scripture but also with Catholic theology. You’ve many times heard me quote Romans 8:28, my favorite verse in the Bible, where St. Paul teaches “that all things work together for those who love God.”

I may be no expert on suffering, but St. Paul certainly was. On a Catholic website, I found an entire catalogue of his sufferings, both the ones he wrote about and the many recounted by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. He has personal credibility when he talks about suffering, something I can’t claim.

A lot of what St. Paul says about suffering is easy enough to accept. He told the Corinthians “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities” for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). That makes sense—the suffering Christian has to depend on God’s strength rather than his or her own resources.

He also talks several times about being joyful when afflicted, which points us to the power of a positive attitude and a spirit of acceptance. In fact, Paul is so convinced that Christians can find joy in all things that he repeats himself and says it twice: rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

And when the Apostle writes “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us” (Roman 8:18) he’s saying something we understand quite easily. All earthly suffering is temporary; heavenly glory is eternal.

Today, St. Paul takes our understanding of suffering to the next level: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

That one sentence ruined my plan for a short homily!

In the first place, Paul introduces the idea that our suffering can help others, even the whole Church. But in the second, he confuses us because he seems to suggest that Christ’s sufferings weren’t enough, which we know they were.

That first point is one of those things we don’t have much trouble with. As children, we were told “offer it up” when something unpleasant happened; as adults, we’ve heard of holy people fasting for their children or friends in time of difficulty. Following the example of Christ, we instinctively know we can turn our pain into prayer for others.

But the second point, that he is completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, is puzzling. “Paul seems to imply that the atoning sacrifice of Christ was somehow incomplete.” Again, we know that’s not true, as Paul already made clear a few verses earlier: God has completed his rescue of us and our salvation has fully been accomplished in Christ.

So what can he mean? Scholars explain that the Greek words used by Paul are complex. “What is lacking,” for instance, can be translated “what remains to be completed.” And Christ’s afflictions “can mean the afflictions that inevitably accompany the mission” of any disciple. Our sufferings, commentators suggest, are Christ’s sufferings. In union with him, we carry on his work of redeeming the world. (Dennis Hamm, SJ, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 185).

Paul’s basic teaching—that God uses our suffering for good, that suffering can protect us from pride and self-reliance, that accepting suffering (as Jesus did) makes it much easier to bear, and that heaven is an ultimate answer to even the greatest of sufferings—is part of our Catholic DNA. But today he takes us further into the mystery of Christ, whom the prophet Isaiah called “a man of suffering,” “despised and rejected by others.”

When our suffering is united with Christ’s, two things happen. As I’ve already said, we share in his work of redemption. But we also lighten our burden, because the Lord invited us to take on his yoke—to join him—and promised that we would find rest.

Rest is another name for peace, and that is what God promises to those who suffer. Not an end to suffering, but peace in the midst of it.

Jesus says to the suffering person: “Come to me.” When the TV interviewer David Frost asked Billy Graham how Christians should get ready for hard times, Dr. Graham replied “The most important thing we can do is to grow in our relationship to Christ. If we have not learned to pray in our everyday lives, we will find it difficult to know God’s peace and strength through prayer when hard times come.”

“If we have not learned to trust God’s Word when times are easy, we will not trust his Word when we face difficulties.”

Some of you are suffering right now. All of us will suffer sooner or later. So I want to end by suggesting we become more intentional about our suffering, by learning more about how God works through it and in it.

One way, of course, is by spending some time with the Scriptures. Google “Bible texts on suffering” and you will have a prayer program for the rest of the summer, if not for the rest of the year.

The parish gift shop is actually a great resource for those who would like to learn more about how to deal with or prepare for suffering. For one thing, it’s selling booklets that help you memorize Bible verses—a very helpful thing. To quote Billy Graham one last time, “The Scriptures speak to us in those moments when we look to the Lord for sustenance and strength.”

And the gift shop has a number of books about peace, one of God’s answers to suffering. Just about everyone has heard me talk about Father Jacques Philippe’s modern classic, Searching for and Maintaining Peace. But he continues his basic theme in his other books, including Interior Freedom.

I’ve preached before about acceptance and detachment as remedies for suffering, but recently I read a book called Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us by Father  Wilfred Stinissen. Abandonment takes acceptance up a notch, and this little book can be specially helpful to those whose suffering is particularly hard.

One last word: let’s not only think about how to use and bear our own suffering. We should pray for one another: reminding us that we are the body of Christ, St. Paul writes “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). 

All quotes from Dr. Billy Graham are from Lewis A. Drummond, The Evangelist: The Worldwide Impact of Billy Graham, which has a chapter devoted to “Billy Graham and Suffering.”