Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Mystery of the Prodigal Son

XXIV Sunday Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish 
Austin, TX

The Lord has a great deal to say today, so I will say very little. Three very familiar and memorable passages, Luke’s chapter 15, the chapter on Mercy and forgiveness. These parables, the parable of the prodigal son in particular, all have great morals to their stories. Yet the mysteries that they contain are not often spoken of. Now, by the word ‘mystery’ I do not mean ‘unknown’ or ‘hidden,’ like a ‘mystery novel.’ Much less do I mean something we cannot know—‘I guess it's a mystery.’ Rather the word ‘mystery’ here means the invisible reality of salvation, Christ Himself, signified and communicated in visible signs called the sacraments (Cf. ccc. 774). 

Take for instance when St. Paul speaks of marriage as a great mystery (Cf. Eph 5:32). It is not as if he does not know what marriage is. No, for he says “I am speaking about Christ and His Church.” Paul is speaking of the profound mystery that is the relationship between Christ and His Church signified by the relationship between husband and wife in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Likewise with the Eucharist, bread and wine are those visible sings, sacraments, which signify and communicate the deeper mystery of Christ’s body and blood. Our Gospel today contains several of these mysteries which lie just beyond the parables.

The prodigal son does something quite extraordinary. After examining the situation, he resolves to return to his father, confess his fault, and hope that he is taken back if only as a hired worker: “father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you” (Lk 15:21). The father forgives the son and restores him to his proper place, clothing him with the finest robe (Lk 15:22). Is this not a beautiful image, a striking symbol of the sacrament of confession, the mystery of forgiveness? We examen our consciences, confess our sins, and receive the forgiveness of the Father. There we are recognized as sons and daughters of God the Father and clothed again with the purity of our baptismal garment. Yet there is more. The father’s house to which the son returns is another image or sign of the deeper mystery in which we return through confession to the Church, the house of God. This becomes more clear when we consider the pigs he left behind, pigs which are considered in the Jewish world to be unclean and not to be consumed. Thus, only those who are not following God’s commandments, pagans, raise them or are associated with them. Thus the son is leaving behind his life away from God and returning home through the confession of his faults to the father. Again a great sign of the mystery of reconciliation with God through the sacrament of confession. 

Yet the signs and symbols do not stop there. The father calls for the slaying of the fattened calf and to celebrate with a feast (Lk 15: 23). What do we receive other than the sacrifice of the father, the celebration of the feast that is the Eucharist. Yes, indeed, the story of the Prodigal Son is a great sign, a symbol of an even deeper mystery which is our return to the Father through the sacraments of the Church.   

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Voting with Wisdom

XXIII Sunday in Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish 
Austin, TX

After having offered a sacrifice to the Lord on the altar in Gibeon, the Lord came to King Solomon in a dream at night and said, “Whatever you ask I shall give you” (1 Kings 3:5-11). Whatever you ask, anything at all. Yet not for riches nor military prowess nor expertise in foreign policy nor mastery of economics nor knowledge of science nor technological advancement did King Solomon ask, but rather for Wisdom. King Solomon knew how timid were the deliberations of mortal minds, how unsure our plans are. How even what is within our grasp, the earthly things of science, are only achieved with great difficulty. And if these things are laborious, how much more so are those things of God. King Solomon understood that the only way to make good decisions in line with the counsel of God, decisions according to what the Lord intends, decisions that will please Him, is to pray for wisdom and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And so as we over hear King Solomon’s prayer for Wisdom, he asks, “give your servant, therefore, a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9).   

Wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that we received at our Confirmation, the seventh and greatest of them all. Wisdom brings about right order; it sets things right. As King Solomon’s prayer for Wisdom concludes, “And thus the paths of those on earth were set right” (Wis 9:18). Thus, in the Tradition Wisdom is associated with the peacemakers in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:9), for where there is right order there is peace and tranquility. Yet, order requires decisions, good decisions. Order requires us to judge rightly and put things in their proper place. And so Wisdom helps make right decisions, distinguishing and placing things in right order. Again as King Solomon asked, “give your servant…a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). Wisdom, then, is the perfect gift for the king or those who rule over peoples, since it helps them to decide what is needed in order establish right order and, therefore, peace for their people. Yet it is also desirable for those who have to decide who will rule over them—us, the people, who have to vote for our rulers and leaders. And what a decision we have before us. 

So how do we vote with Wisdom? How do we make a wise decision? How do we vote wisely, that is, in a way that is pleasing to the Lord? First of all we need, as King Solomon asked, to have “a listening heart” (Cf. 1 Kings 3:9). We have to do our research, reading articles and watching speeches, listening to experts from all sides and to the candidates themselves. As the Bishop’s have said, “It is important for all citizens ‘to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest’ (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 33)” (Faithful Citizenship, 41). Such a “listening heart” means we will have to block out simple and superficial talk on the subject; Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and the Late Show a wise vote will not make. Again as the Bishops have said, “they should consider candidates’ integrity, philosophy, and performance” (Faithful Citizenship, 41). An examination of the candidates’ on this level will require us to consider more than positions or policies on certain issues, but the candidates deeper values and belief systems, influences and mentors, their goals and motivations, experience and history, passions and interests. 

Furthermore, a “listening heart” looks into candidates at every level of the election. There are not only two candidates running for one office in this election. Do you know who is running for your district? Indeed, a “listening heart” requires us to take it all in, not a single issue, a single policy, office, candidate, or agenda; We must listen to it all. 

The second thing a wise vote requires is “to judge.” An odd concept, yes, but after taking all the information in through that “listening heart,” we must compare and contrast, ask critical questions, and formulate opinions—judge. Here our faith provides the backdrop. As the Bishops have said, “Catholic voters should use the framework of Catholic social teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues affecting human life and dignity as well as the issues of justice and peace” (Faithful Citizenship, 41). This framework consists in the four principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity. Now, this framework is not just another set of policies or an agenda. The Church is not a political party and as such does not have a platform. Rather because of our relationship to Jesus Christ and His Spirit who dwells within us, we follow our consciences informed by the teachings of His Church. Ultimately, we will judge wisely with our “listening heart” if we vote according to our conscience upon which is written the Law of God.     

If we do these two things, have a “listening heart” and judge according to our conscience, then we will be well on our way to the third part of voting with Wisdom and that is “to distinguish what is good and evil.” Here we must admit that not all issues and policies are created equal. As the Bishop’s say clearly, “In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions” (Faithful Citizenship, 37). Such intrinsically evil acts are “abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior” (Faithful Citizenship, 34). These things are intrinsically evil because there exist no mitigating circumstances, no situation in which such an action can be right. Here the Catholic voter in order to vote wisely needs to distinguish which policies and candidates support or put forward such evil acts and which do not. And so I ask you to pray for the gift of Wisdom, both for those running for office and for the voters who will elect them, that we might have a listening heart, judge rightly, and distinguish well between good and evil. Then, and only then, will we truly make a wise decision.  

Humility

XXII Sunday in Ordinary Time—C
St. Martin de Porres Parish
Austin, TX

So you have dreams. You want to go places. You’ve set your goals. Now your out to achieve them. Meet the right people. Hang out with the right crowd. Have good references. Hope you get the easy teachers. Spiffy up your resume. Bump up the GPA. Schedule that interview. Make your college visits. Rehearse your answers. Pray the SAT is good enough. Got to look good. Got to get it right. You sit down to make a good impression and in walks Jesus. Humility. A lesson for both the student and the dean, the boss and employee, the guest and the host. Take the lowest place and invite the poor and the lowly, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11). But Jesus how in the world do you expect us to make it out there? It’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world out there. How do you expect us to be humble in this way and actually get anywhere in life? Yes, contrary to the common sense wisdom of the world, humility is strength, for humility recognizes before both God and man the truth about who we are, what we can accomplish, and the goodness in others. Humility dares to say ‘I need help’ and to seek it out. 
When we see something great, something really worth doing, there arises in us a deep desire for excellence, to live up to our talents and abilities and to achieve something exceptional, no matter what stands in our way. Simone Biles’ or Katie Ledecky’s desire to win a gold medal. Steve Job’s wanting to personalize the computer. Msgr. Georges Lamaitre seeking to explain the origins of the universe as a Big Bang. Here we need the virtue of magnanimity which gives us the hope we need to overcome the difficulties or obstacles which may otherwise discourage us. In these instances, humility seems out of the question, yet it is all too necessary to achieve these things. Humility tempers the mind in its search for excellence; humility moderates our desire for great things (Cf. Summa q. 161). In other words, humility helps us see who we truly are and what we are actually capable of, not reaching beyond ourselves and our capabilities. As Sirach says, “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not” (Sir 3:21). Or as the Psalmist echoes, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (Ps 131:1). Both magnanimity and humility are needed in order for us to foster the kind of hopeful energy and calculated discipline we need to achieve our goals.   
As such, humility requires—and this is where the challenge lies—us to subject ourselves, follow, be obedient to both God and men. Whether it is a trainer, a boss, or a friend, after being honest with ourselves about what we can actually accomplish, humility demands that we recognize the good in another and rely on them to get us there. Is this not the worse thing in sports, a player who is uncoachable or a coach who won’t listen to his assistants? A student who won’t go to the tutor or a teacher who doesn’t reach out to colleagues? A young employee who won’t be mentored or an executive who doesn’t listen to those on the ground?
We must learn as the Scriptures tell us to rely in humility on the wisdom of others. Sirach continues saying, “The mind of the wise appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise” (Sir 3:29).  
Indeed, this realization that ‘I cannot do it myself’ and that ‘I need help’ is the first step for anyone trying to over come an addiction whether it be to a substance or the improper use of the internet. They are the first two steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 
2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Another vivid image is that of Dante’s Divine Comedy. As Dante is touring Mt. Purgatory, the first terrace is populated by the Prideful, who are carrying massive rocks on their backs which bend them downward. Would you know that all they have to do is drop the rock and continue up the mountain to heaven. But they won’t do it, not yet at least, because they think they can do it. How long will they be there? Until in humility the realize that they cannot carry the rock themselves. 

Indeed, pride seeks to isolate us, to move us further and further away from others who could help us achieve our goals or climb out of a mess. Scripture reveals the very same. Sirach continues, “A stubborn heart will fare badly in the end…A stubborn heart will have many a hurt…When the proud are afflicted, there is no cure” (Sir 3:26-28). Looking back to Dante, while the prideful carry these huge rocks by themselves in Purgatory, in Hell they are up to their necks in ice, frozen in isolation, as far from the heat and warmth of God as possible.


Yet, how we still love stories or movies about the young rebel who refuses the wisdom of his superiors in favor of his unorthodox and maverick ways, a true genius who in the end proves himself by overcoming the establishment. But if we’re honest with ourselves how many of these are there in real life? And we must admit that the success of such an individual is still contingent on their honest and humble self-knowledge that they can in fact do it. And how many of these types would still recognize the contributions of so many in their lives? 

And if this is true for worldly success here and now, how much more is it true for the achievement of eternal life. In hope, we must set our sights on heaven, we must run the race towards that crown which will not perish. Yet in humility, we must realize that we are sinners. As Pope Francis has famously said, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio? I am a sinner.” Then, we must recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Only God can, for he made us, we belong to him. That exultation Jesus speaks of and we desire is not something we can produce ourselves; it is not something within our power. This exultation is the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. And there is only one who has conquered death and sin. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11).   

Fire, Baptism, and Division

XX Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
San Jose Parish 
Austin, TX

Today Jesus seems to be a bit off, unsettled, even upset or angry. Indeed, he seems to be suggesting division and strife in families and communities. It is hard to see in Jesus's words today the God of love, forgiveness, and mercy we know so well. Yet Jesus is revealing the love of our heavenly Father, for a good father always tells his children what is to come, what struggles or difficulties they will face, at least as best he knows them. Jesus is preparing us for the trials we will face due to our radical transformation through baptism.

Jesus speaks first of a fire, which He says He has come to cast upon the earth, and how He wishes it were already burning (Lk 12:49). Jesus is not speaking here of a physical fire. In the Old Testament, fire often indicated the presence of God. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the Lord God went before them as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night, indicating the way before them (Cf. Ex 13:21-22). Eventually the Lord as a pillar of cloud descended upon the meeting tent and filled it with His glory, and “throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Ex 40:38). As a reminder of God’s presence, Moses and Aaron placed lamp stands before the ark of the covenant, the iconic candelabras, which would remain in place even into the new Temple Solomon would build. 

In the New Testament fire continues to represent the abiding presence of God’s spirit most notably at Pentecost, when as if tongues of fire the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in the upper room (Cf. Acts 2:3). This fire, then, that Jesus is speaking of is the Holy Spirit Himself, the presence of God, which He came to give to all. It is a spirit of love and passion for God. It is the Spirit of God dwelling within us, which purifies us and transforms us into children of God the Father. And how He wished it were already burning in our hearts!

Then, abruptly Jesus speaks of a baptism. Seeing as how we are deep into the Gospel of Luke, we may ask, ‘what baptism?’ since back in chapter 3 vv. 21-22 Jesus was already baptized by John the Baptist. Here the first reading is helpful. Jeremiah, after presenting the Word of the Lord which called for the surrender of the people, is taken captive and in a sense buried in a cistern, a water tank. Later he is retrieved, saved by the King before he dies of starvation. This watery tomb is no accident. There is a long tradition of people in the Old Testament being cast off into deep dark damp places. There is Joseph who is cast into a well by his brothers, Moses and the people who pass through the Red Sea, and most famously Jonah who spends three days in the belly of a whale. All of these burials in tombs of water are symbols, figures of baptism in which we are buried with Christ in the water and raised with Him to new life. Jesus is talking about that baptism which is His passion, death, and resurrection; He is foretelling His burial and resurrection from that tomb now made of stone. 

So we have fire, that is, the Holy Spirit, and a baptism, which is the death and resurrection of Christ. And these are not disconnected, for in baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, that fire, which is that new breathe of life by which we are resurrected as children of God. Indeed, John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel says, “I baptized you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16). Jesus, therefore, is connecting in a very profound way the fire of the Holy Spirit and the death and resurrection He will soon undergo, all of which we receive and enter into by baptism. St. Paul could not have put it any better when he said to the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5). This is our radical transformation: unity with the Risen Christ by the fire of the Holy Spirit in baptism. 

And so what now to make of that division? I mean, doesn’t Christ give peace to His disciples?—“my peace I give you, my peace I leave you.” Yes, He does. But be attentive to when and to how. Christ grants peace to His disciples after the resurrection, and as a preparation for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit as of tongues of fire would descend upon them. Meaning, Christ established peace amongst His disciples after and during their radical transformation to Him by the fire of Holy Spirit in baptism. As a consequence, and think of what is going on around them, there is great division. The Pharisee, the Sadducees, the Romans, everyone is fighting and fighting them; there is immense division and strife swirling around them. This is the consequence of transformation, that is, a unity with the Risen Christ by fire of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. To put it simply, belief in the resurrection makes you different. 

When we think of division, familial division in our own lives we often bring to mind the decisions our loved one’s make, decisions that are contrary to the gospel, decisions that often break up the family, pitting parent against child, husband against wife, and sister against brother. We could just go along with them. Change our views just to accommodate them. But we cannot. These divisions are a consequence of belief in the resurrection, they are a consequence of being radically transformed by water and fire, baptism and the Holy Spirit. And how we wish it were so for our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. This does not mean we should shun or distance ourselves from our loved one’s on account of these divisions. Quite the contrary. We should love them to the very end. Think again of the disciples, even Christ Himself. They continued to engage and to speak with those who had not yet accepted the teachings of the gospel. They relied on that inner peace given them by Christ and the Holy Spirit in their hearts and continued to love those who persecuted them, saying “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). They forgave them constantly and prayed for their conversion unceasingly. And we must do the same. 

A final look into this gospel reveals our greatest consolation, that is, the love of the Father speaking through Jesus. As I mentioned at the outset, Christ is preparing His disciples for the trials ahead, His passion and death, and subsequent resurrection. He does this frankly by telling them what lies ahead. Here He doesn’t sugar coat it or veil His language. He speaks in simple terms. There will be division. Some will believe in the resurrection and some will not, maybe even those closest to you. Here is the Father’s love. For a good father always tells His children what lies ahead. He prepares his children for the road and doesn’t leave them without his good council and sound advice, if even the kids don’t want to hear it. He does this with the hope that one day when life hits hard they will remember, that voice like a recorder will sound in their head, and they will heed his wisdom. Indeed, how comforting amidst crisis situations is the realization that ‘oh, he said this would happen.’ Here Christ is speaking the voice of the Father who loves His children very much, such that one day when strife and division come, even amidst the family, His children may stay strong without surprise.