Saturday, November 22, 2014

Solemnity of Christ the King

On my daily commute a few weeks ago, I passed by Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on New York Avenue in the District. From my comfortable car as I sipped my coffee, I saw in the church doorway a rough-looking homeless man who had obviously spent the night there. And to my shame, I have to confess that my first thought was: “Thank God I don’t have to deal with that.”

Today’s gospel reminds me, as it reminds all of us, that we do have to deal with that- or with “them,” to be more precise. As we heard, Christ our King calls us to serve him by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, and welcoming the stranger. Our tradition refers to these as the “Corporal Acts of Mercy.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that there can be no real relationship with him if we neglect the poor and ignore the needy. Unfortunately, we don’t always take our Lord’s words seriously enough. As the well known priest has written: “I am astonished when I see so many sincere Christians afraid or disinclined to find Jesus) where he teaches he can be found, namely, among the poor.”

If we don’t avoid the poor and needy outright, we can sometimes avoid our responsibility to help them by “spiritualizing” our response. What I mean by this is expressed by a well-known anonymous passage. It says, “I was hungry, and you formed a humanities groups to discuss my hunger. I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless, and you spoke to me of the spiritual shelter of God’s love. I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God. But I am still very hungry and lonely and cold.”

We hear things like this, and we probably feel a little bit guilty. We think of all the people we aren’t helping, and we feel frustrated. The needs are so great, and we don’t even know these people. Just what does Jesus expect us to do?
Jesus expects us to begin at home. You and I learn to love one another and to meet each other’s needs from our families. The expression “Charity begins at home” is true. We will not have the compassion and generosity we need to serve the poor and the needy unless we first learn and practice those virtues in the community of our relatives and friends.

Possibly we grew up in families in which members served one another and the community. Hopefully, we have learned to be servants from them. However, it is very possible that we did not, especially since we live in such a selfish culture. The first sentence of a very popular book is: “It’s not about you.” The author says this because our culture so often tells us: It is about you! Our culture breeds selfishness. And selfish people aren’t inclined to serve the needs of others.

This selfishness can be reinforced by some of the choices families make today. Because their kids are so over-scheduled with sports, clubs, and other activities, their parents feel guilty about giving them chores. The effect of this, however, is that kids don’t learn to serve the needs of the family by helping around the house. All of their activities are about their development, their advancement, and their amusement, and not about the common good. And they become selfish. So if you have children at home, I strongly encourage you to give them age-appropriate chores.

Another simple thing families can do to teach and create an atmosphere of service can be done around the dinner table. Each family member, one at a time, thanks the other family members for the ways they had served them or met their needs that day. For example: “I’m grateful to Charlie for helping me pick up my toys. I’m grateful to mommy for helping me with my homework. I’m grateful to Dad for taking me to Cub Scouts. I’m grateful to Winnie for having been so cooperative when it was time to leave the playground.” Doing this reinforces the idea that family members should cooperate with each other, help each other, and serve one another. We did this in my family after having been introduced to it at a family retreat, and it was a real blessing to us.

I would encourage you to think today about your families and friends in light of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Hopefully they’re adequately fed and clothed. If they are, then those needs have been met. But there are so many other needs. Needs that maybe we don’t recognize. Needs that maybe we’ve been ignoring. For instance: Do they need to be nourished by our presence? Are they starving for our affection? Do they hunger for our forgiveness? Have we stripped them naked by our insults and negativity? Do they need to be clothed with our encouragement and affirmation? Have they become strangers to us? Do we need to welcome them back into our lives? Do they feel imprisoned by dehumanizing jobs or the overwhelming demands of family life? Do we need to visit them with our help, understanding, and compassion? And when they’re sick, how do we respond? Is it an inconvenience to us? Do we get annoyed? Or do we heal them with our attention and loving care?

These are just some of the needs of those we love. And when we learn to serve them by meeting these needs, we’ll come to find ourselves far more willing and open to serve the needs of others, as Christ has commanded us to do. Instead of saying, “Thank God I don’t have to deal with that” maybe we’ll say “Thank God I can!”

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Friday, November 21, 2014

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

There’s a lot of talk these days about how kids are "over-scheduled" with too many activities: sports, music and dance lessons, clubs, Scouts, and all sorts of other extra-curricular activities. This can be stressful and detrimental to both children and their families. Nevertheless, many parents overschedule their kids because they want, above all else, for their children to be successful. And in doing so, they mirror the top ambition of a great majority of our fellow citizens.

This is why I think that today’s memorial of the Presentation of Mary is so important. We recall the tradition that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, presented their young daughter to God in the great Jerusalem Temple, and dedicated her to his service forever. They didn’t dedicate her to the pursuit of success. They dedicated her to the Lord.

The story of Mary’s Presentation reminds all of us that our lives should be dedicated, not to the pursuit of worldly success, but to the service of God. This is not to say that success is necessarily a bad thing. But it is to say that life is, above all else, about learning to love God and building his kingdom in the process. Some famous words of Mother Teresa sum it up well. "God has not called us to be successful," she said, "He has called us to be faithful."

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ordinary 33 Thursday

“Jesus Wept” is the name of a statue near where the Oklahoma City federal building stood before it was bombed, and over two hundred people inside were killed. It reminds us that our Lord weeps over the senseless loss of innocent life, and that he weeps too for the anger and hatred which causes it.

This statue was obviously inspired by today’s gospel. As we heard, Jesus wept over the coming destruction of Jerusalem and for all the innocent people who would suffer and die. But we’re also told that he wept for another reason. Jesus wept because the people of Jerusalem were blind to what makes for peace. The implication here is that if they did know what makes for peace, things might have turned out very differently. And what does make for peace? Working toward reconciliation; seeking and striving for forgiveness.

You and I are sometimes blind to what makes for peace. When we’re at odds with someone or have been hurt by them, we don’t always seek reconciliation and forgiveness. Instead, we get stuck in bitterness, anger, and self-pity. We “demonize” the other person or persons, which only makes matters worse.

As Christians, however, we are to be peacemakers. It’s up to us to take the initiative in forgiveness; we need to take the first step toward reconciliation. We might protest this and say: “That’s not fair! Especially after what was done to me!” And we would be right, because forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t fair at all.

But think of it this way: God doesn’t treat us with fairness, either? Instead, he treats us with mercy. That’s even better! That’s what makes for peace! And that’s how our weeping Lord calls us to treat others

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ordinary 33 Wednesday

We Americans have been loaned a lot of money through credit cards, mortgages, student loans, home equity lines of credit, and so on. How we manage this money determines our credit rating, which determines if we qualify to be loaned more!

As Christians, each one of us has been given a loan from the Lord, and he will give us a credit rating, in a manner of speaking. He heard this in today’s gospel parable. A noblemen went away and he entrusted his servants with gold- some more, some less, but all of it gold, and therefore valuable and precious. When he returned, he demanded an accounting from his servants. Those who had used their loaned gold well were entrusted with more, and those who used it poorly had their gold taken away.

This parable reminds us that God has entrusted to us many valuable and precious things: gifts, talents, opportunities, time, energy, relationships, and resources. These things are on loan to us. They aren’t for us to keep, and they’re not for us to use only on ourselves. Instead, we’re called to use them wisely in God’s service. And we’ll be judged on how well we do.

Today’s gospel invites us to do a spiritual "credit check", so to speak, by asking ourselves: What’s my credit score when it comes to my stewardship of what God’s loaned to me? Would we qualify for more? Or are we a bad risk? The challenge is for all of us to be better stewards today, in preparation for Jesus’ return tomorrow.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

A California university recently introduced a new publication entitled “The Journal of Mundane Behavior.” It features scholarly articles that study the ordinary and routine things that people do. Recent issues have explored the significance of shaving, running errands, the table arrangement and background noise of a neighborhood cafĂ©, and the making of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sociologist who created this journal did so because he was concerned that his professional colleagues virtually ignored the study of the everyday behavior that fills most people’s lives.

The same might be said of many people’s attitudes about the practice of religion. They give much attention to what they think are the “big issues’, while they write off the seemingly small, trivial, and routine things as being insignificant or unimportant. Jesus, however, suggests otherwise. In today’s gospel parable, servants were praised and blessed precisely because they had been faithful in “small matters.” In other words, Jesus stresses that when it comes to our journey of faith, it’s the little things that can mean a lot. Small, unnoticed acts of faith, kindness, service and generosity, and fidelity to our daily routines and duties, are essential for our spiritual growth and are important in the eyes of our Lord. Yet this is a truth that is tempting to forget, immersed as we are in a culture which esteems public recognition and the grand gesture.

Sometimes we’re tempted to think that since God is so “big,” so to speak, and we are so insignificant in comparison, God can’t really be bothered to pay attention to many of the things we do. This was the case with David, a young social worker who served at a homeless shelter in San Francisco. As a Roman Catholic, he was deeply committed to the social justice teachings of the church, and he was quite generous, at some cost to himself, in helping the poor. However, he attended Mass only occasionally, had basically no private prayer life, and he openly flaunted the church’s teachings on sex and marriage.

One day he asked a priest: “Do you really think that God (cares) whether you say your prayers, whether you hold a grudge against someone who’s hurt you, and whether you share a bed with someone you aren’t married to? We Christians are always so hung up on these little private things that we neglect the big picture- the fact that half the world goes to bed hungry every night and nobody cares.”

The priest responded that while God does care very deeply about the “big picture,” he also cares about our private prayer, our private grudges, and our private morals. These things make a big difference for God because they make a big difference for us- they reflect who we are as individuals and the state of our relationship with God. Doing these things shapes our character, and they can show God how much we love him. And whether or not we do them always involves a choice between virtue and vice. (1)

For other people, it’s not a question of God not wanting to be bothered with little things, it’s that they themselves can’t be bothered- often because they think that they’re just too busy. One Christian author recalls how he was annoyed when a friend, temporarily without a car, asked him for a ride so he could do a few essential errands. He agreed to do it, but inwardly he grumbled, because he had some things that he himself had wanted to do. However, as he ran out the door, he grabbed a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prominent German Christian who was executed by the Nazis during the final hours of World War II.

He picked up his friend, and through each errand he fretted and fumed about the loss of his precious time. Finally, while waiting at a supermarket, he picked up the book by Bonhoeffer, and read these words: “The service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, assistance in trifling, external matters. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time is usually taking his own importance too seriously.” (2)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right. We often avoid doing “small things” because we think that we’re just too important. Yet the example of Jesus tells us otherwise. As Rick Warren says in The Purpose Driven Life, “Jesus specialized in menial tasks that everyone else tried to avoid: washing feet, helping children, fixing breakfast, and serving lepers. Nothing was beneath him, because he came to serve. It wasn’t in spite of his greatness that he did these things, but because of it, and he expects us to follow his example.” 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan recalls how as a teenager he was thrilled to go on afternoon rounds with his pastor. This priest was a monsignor- a highly respected man with a great deal of responsibility. When they stopped at a nursing home to see an elderly parishioner, they discovered her lying on the floor in a pool of her own urine. Yet without missing a beat the priest took off his coat, grabbed a mop, cleaned up the mess, dressed the woman in some clean clothes, kissed her on the head, and gave her a little bottle of lotion as a Christmas present. To this day, Archbishop Dolan continues to be inspired by this example of humble love. (3)

And indeed it is love that Jesus calls us to when he tells us to be faithful in small matters. True love doesn’t ask if something we need to do is important or not. True love simply does it. Because no act is too small in the service of God. As St. Francis de Sales once wrote, “Great opportunities to serve God rarely present themselves, little ones are frequent. And you will profit greatly in God’s sight by doing all these things, because God wants you to do them.”   

(1) From Ronald Rolheiser's The Holy Longing
(2) From A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

(3) From Priests for the Third Millennium by Cardinal Timothy Dolan

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ordinary 32 Friday

Have you ever known anyone hopelessly stuck in the past? People like this are typically unhappy people, filled with resentment, regret, loneliness, and an unhealthy nostalgia for the way things used to be. That’s why our Lord wants us to live in the present moment- the now- and work toward a future that’s full of hope.

We can see this in today’s gospel. In speaking of the future "coming of the Son of man," Jesus insisted that we "must not return to what was left behind." Then he concluded, "Remember the wife of Lot."

Remember her? When Sodom was being destroyed, God insisted that she move on and not look back. But she did look back, and turned into a pillar of salt. God wants us to keep moving forward too, and not look back in nostalgia or regret, because if we do, we’ll get stuck in a place that God doesn’t want us to be. Just like that pillar of salt.

Salt, of course, is a preservative- it’s meant to keep things just the way they are. Which is fine for food, but not for human beings. Jesus said: "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it." In other words, life doesn’t stand still. Time marches on. And so must we.

With regard to the past, we need to grieve whatever we may have lost, give thanks for everything that was good, and then we need to let it all go, that we may live the life that Jesus is calling us to live today. Indeed, Jesus wants us to live- forever! That’s why he doesn’t want us looking backwards in bitterness. Instead, he wants us to move forward- in faith.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ordinary 32 Wednesday

A friend of mine recently experienced some real tragedy. First, his brother died from cancer. Then, six weeks after that, both of his parents died in a terrible car accident as they were on their way to visit their son’s new grave. When my friend arrived in Buffalo before the funeral, a freak snowstorm paralyzed the city. His car broke down while there, and he contracted a bad case of poison ivy to boot. In an attempt at humor, he said, “Job has nothing on me!”

Nevertheless, my friend said that the overwhelming feeling amongst his family was one of gratitude. They were grateful for the wonderful rich life their parents had enjoyed; for the outpouring of concern and sympathy they received; for the good professional assistance of police officers, attorneys, and insurance agents; and for the love they share as family. This isn’t to say that they aren’t sad, because they are. But they’re grateful at the same time.

Not everyone, however, would have found gratitude in these circumstances. Consider today’s gospel. Ten lepers were healed by Jesus, but only one returned to give thanks; only one was grateful. Why was this person different? He viewed life’s events through the lens of faith. “Stand up and go,” said Jesus; “your faith has saved you.”

Today’s gospel challenges us to be grateful people- regardless of what life may throw at us. Because we’re people of faith, we can find good where others find only evil; we can see the hand of God’s providence where others see only cruel fate; we can discover a silver lining while others can’t see beyond the clouds; we can hope while others despair; we can be grateful when others are simply bitter. All because we have faith that nothing can ever separate us from the goodness and love of God. And we can always be grateful for that.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ordinary 32 Tuesday

When at a hockey game with our sons, a fellow dad bought me a beer (for seven bucks!). When he handed it to me, I tried to insist on paying for it, as I honestly felt kind of guilty accepting it from him. But the other dad, for his part, was equally insistent that I accept it as a gift from a friend.

On later reflection, I realized that I had bought into the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” mentality that if someone does something nice for us, we need to pay them back. Or if we do something nice for someone else, we expect something in return. In practice, this means that when it comes to our relationships with other people, there are no free gifts of love or sacrifice. Only down payments. Or repayments. Either the other person is in debt to us, or we are in debt to them.

Unfortunately, this is a relationship killing mentality, both in relationships between people, and in our relationship God. This is what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. He explains that we don’t serve God with the expectation that he’ll repay us or that we’ll be entitled to something in return. The truth is that God doesn’t need anything from us anyway. But the good news is that he’s happy to give us everything we need, not because he has to, but because he wants to- as his free gift.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )