Monday, October 21, 2013

O Clemens, O Pia, O Dulcis Virgo Maria

Homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Parish (Union Street and Rosa Road)
16th of October, 2011

Rev. Michael Taylor

And the angel said to Mary:
“Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.” [1]

            So, there comes a time when you’re working on your homily, and you realize that something has happened in the world that completely throws all your hard work out the world. This week, it was the  news that his Holiness Pope Francis was going to consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and that his Excellency, Bishop Hubbard would be consecrating the Diocese of Albany to Mary in solidarity with Pope Francis. So, I thought, if both our Pope and our Bishop is doing something, maybe we should spend some time talking about our Blessed Mother. I think it’s important for us to reflect on this because I know it was the hardest thing for me in my journey to become Catholic and I know it’s one of the first things many Protestants ask Catholics: “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” [Spoiler: we don’t].
            As I just mentioned, Mary was incredibly difficult for me. I couldn’t understand why Catholics felt so passionately about her. It goes above just an idea. There seemed to be this devotion that I couldn’t understand. I’ve told the following story many times before, so I apologize if you’ve already heard it but it was a pivotal moment in my understanding Mary. When I was in the process of looking at the faith, a friend of mine who was helping me through the process asked me, “Look, Michael, does anything the Church actually teaches about Mary take away from the glory of Christ Jesus?” To which I said, “well, no.” “Then don’t worry about it. You’ll understand Mary when she’s ready for you to understand her.” So I set it off to the side. It’s not that I didn’t believe them. I just set them off to the side to wait for that moment to occur.
That moment of understanding came when I was in seminary. I  was in my first year of theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Chicago. Now, the patroness of the seminary was the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. That meant there was all night Eucharistic Adoration the preceding night, for which seminarians would sign up for various time slots throughout the night. Being new, I thought I’d sign up for 2-3 in the morning, because it seemed like a really holy thing to do. The verdict is out on that. Anywho, it was at that moment in the chapel that I had my epiphany. Now, to take a step back, my own mother had died on December 7th, 2000. And on that cold December night in 2007, it clicked. It was as if Jesus said to me, “Listen, Michael, I know that the loss of your mother is going to be very hard on you, so I’m going to give you December 7th to remember her. But on the next day, I’m going to give you my own mother, and she’s going to help finish the work your mother began with you.” I felt like I was John standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus said, Behold your mother.[2] You see, it really is that simple. I could quote to you from the Church Fathers, and the theologians and the saints, but at the heart of all their writings, at the heart of every Catholic is the undeniable and unshakable belief that Mary really is our mother. And who doesn’t love their mom? This isn’t high theology. She’s mom and we are here beloved children.
Let’s take a step back now. Why do we ask for her intercessions? To understand that, let’s take a further step back and look at why we ask the saints for their prayers anyways. Why don’t we just go to Jesus directly? The first part to understand is the use of the phrase, “pray to Saint ‘so-in-so.’” We tend to only use the word today when we’re speaking about talking to God. It comes to us from the Latin, precari, and originally just meant, “to ask.” So you’d hear, “Pray tell” or “I pray sir, let us pass.” So, when we say “we pray to the saints” we are literally just asking the saints to pray for us. Now, why do we do this? Well we ask one another here on earth to pray for us all the time. If we believe that we are one Church, and that the saints in heaven are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as we are, and in fact even more so, since they stand before God himself, why wouldn’t we want them to pray for us? In fact, it goes back to that familial bond we have with Mary, only the saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. That’s why our Churches have pictures, statues and stand glass windows of the saints. If you went to someone’s house, they’d have pictures of family members. Well, when you come to the House of God, you have pictures of the children of God, and no House of God would be complete without a picture of Mom.
Which brings us back to the idea of consecrating ourselves to Mary. Now first, let’s look at how Mary prays on our behalf. Look back to the wedding at Cana. Mary is the one who becomes aware of the problem. She’s the one who brings it to Jesus’ attention. Now he says, more or less, “Why should we care?” Notice what she does. She doesn’t beg him to do something, she doesn’t guilt him, and she doesn’t say, “Jesus, I’m your mother and I’m telling you to do something!” Rather, she turns to the servants and says, Whatever he says, do.[3] Isn’t that the heart of being a disciple of Christ? Whatever he says, do? And that’s how it works. She brings our concerns, our anxieties, our hopes and dreams to her son, and she presents these problems as if they were her own.
One last thing to consider about the consecration is how we appear before God. When I was a little kid (well to be honest, even now), I had not one shred of artistic talent. So I would bring home something that only with great charity could be called “modern art” and I’d go show it to my dad. Now he would have just gotten done with work and would be trying to catch the evening news before dinner, stretched out on the couch. So he’d look over, smile, say “that’s nice,” and go back to watching the news. But I learned. If I went to my mom and said, “Mom, look what I did! Do you think we should show Dad?” She would walk in with me, and she would say, “James…look what Michael did in school. Isn’t it great?” That was my dad’s clue that it was important. I see the mothers nodding like, “yes, yes this is the way the world works.” Mary does the same thing for us. She brushes off our awkward attempts at prayer, brings them before Jesus, and says, “Jesus, look what your brothers and sisters brought you. Aren’t they great?” To which Jesus looks at, smiles and says, “Yeah mom…they’re pretty great.” Pray to our Blessed Mother if you haven’t done so in a while. Pray a rosary. Pray an angelus. Pray a Memorare. If you don’t know them, Google them. Every mom loves to hear from her children.

[1] Luke 1.30 [Douay Rheims Translation. Most verses will come from Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition (RSV-CE) unless otherwise noted, as above.]
[2] John 19.27
[3] John 2.5

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Spiritual Warfare (III of IV)

Talk given on Tuesday, October 8th, 2013 at Saint Ambrose in Latham, NY
[The following segments are not meant to be an all encompassing presentation on spiritual warfare, but rather, they are simple reflections from my own understanding and encounter with spiritual warfare. The first lesson was "Know the Way of God." The second was "The devil will attack you by attacking the ones you love." Today's is "The trial comes when we are strong." The fourth will be "The Good Fight."

Third Lesson: The Trial comes when we are strong.
Key Text: Matthew 4.1-11

The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down; for it is written,
'He will give his angels charge of you.'" ( Mt 4.6)
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
And calls himself a child of the Lord…
Let us test him with insult and torture,
That we may find out how gentle he is,
And make trial of his forebearance.[1]
Often, the one who is faithful in living out the faith will find themselves subject to a test that would seem to be beneath a mature follower of Christ to endure. They will say, “I should not be tempted by this! I pray daily! I go to mass when I ought to go. I love God and I love my neighbor. Why am I attracted to a sin such as this?” To this I point out, it is written, my son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.[2] Note that Jesus was tempted at the end of forty days of prayer and fasting. Theoretically, after such an intimate time of prayer with the Father, it should be harder for us to stumble and fall. Yet this is when the devil will always delight to attack us. Think of it and it will make sense. Remember that the devil has no need to cause us to stumble if we are far from God. Indeed, he will seek to make life pleasant so that the sinner does not think to himself that there is greater meaning to life. Yet for the one close to Christ, if a fall is gained by the devil, then he has accomplished two things. The first is that the fall is all the more disheartening for the faithful because they know more than most the significance of the fall. The second is that those who look at the faithful and see their shame will think, “If Christ cannot help this person, what hope is there for me?” This is why the Psalmist prays, let not those who seek thee be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek thee be brought dishonor through me.[3] First, let us remember the virtue of humility. At the beginning, I wrote how we must always remember and confess that we are sinners. In doing so, people will be forgiving when we stumble, because we have never put on false masks. It is why Paul always made his confession, saying, this saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.[4]

Pictured Above: The foremost of sinners. 

As regards the three temptations of Christ, we can see certain pearls of wisdom woven throughout the text. The first comes in noting how Christ responds to temptation. He is the Word of God Incarnate. He could have refuted the devil with his own words, and they would have been authoritative, as they are indeed throughout the entirety of the gospels. Yet Jesus chooses to use scripture to defend against the snares of the devil. This is significant for two reasons. The first is that they are worthy of trust in the realm of spiritual warfare, as the Apostle affirms when he said, all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.[5] This is important for us because we need to understand that temptation comes usually when our mind is not clear (for if any of us understood the horror of sin, we would never choose it). Sin has the effect of weakening of the will and the darkening of the intellect. If we have something that is objectively beyond us (Scripture and the Church’s teachings), then in those moments of weakness, we will have something to reach out to, to pull us out of the storm. The light of the lighthouse is not useful because it is within the ship. It is useful because it is on the shore, giving the ship a fixed point by which to navigate the shore amidst the storm. Our Lord sets the example for us by using scripture to defeat the devil.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. (Jn 1.5)

The second thing we can from our Lord’s response is how to use scripture. Note that the devil at one point tries to use scripture to tempt our Lord, saying, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ [6] Jesus’ response shows us how scripture is properly used, you shall not tempt the Lord your God.[7] The two greatest commandments are You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.[8] This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.[9] On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.[10] People will try to use any means necessary to try and get out of what is proper to them. You can find any verse of scripture or any code of canon law to justify something that you want to do, taking it out of its proper context. One must remember that any reading of scripture must be read in light of the two greatest commandments. The devil failed in his quoting of scripture, because to if a man were to do what was tempted, it would not have been out of love of God, but rather a love of self and a desire to see if God loved the self as much as they loved themselves.
There is something worth mentioning as we reflect upon the temptation of Christ Jesus. We must remember that Christ has already conquered the world. We are assured of victory as long as we remain in Christ, and Christ desperately wants us to remain in his love. It is for this reason that the blessed Paul was able to write with confidence, No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.[11] We are not driven out into the desert to fail. Remember it was the spirit that lead Jesus out into the dessert. Rather, we are given to times of trial so that we are made stronger in our spiritual journey. As it is written: In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test as he did our forefathers. Remember what he did with Abraham,[12] and how he tested Isaac, and what happened to Jacob in Mesopotamia in Syria,[13] while he was keeping the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother. For he has not tried us with fire, as he did them, to search their hearts, nor has he taken revenge upon us; but the Lord scourges those who draw near to him, in order to admonish them.[14]

"I will put this [them] into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They shall call on my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, 'They are my people';
and they will say, 'The LORD is my God." (Zech 13.9)

[1] Wisdom 2.12-13, 19
[2] Sirach 2.1
[3] Psalm 69(68).6
[4] I Timothy 1.15-16
[5] II Timothy 3.16-17
[6] Matthew 4.6; cf. Psalm 91.11-12
[7] Matthew 4.7; cf. Deuteronomy 6.16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”
[8] cf. Deuteronomy 6.4-7
[9] cf. Leviticus 19.18
[10] Matthew 22.37-40
[11] I Corinthians 10.13
[12] cf. Genesis 22.1-14
[13] cf. Genesis 29.1-31
[14] Judith 8.25-27; cf. Hebrews 12.5-11: 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Spiritual Warfare (II of IV)

Talk given on Tuesday, October 8th, 2013 at Saint Ambrose in Latham, NY

[The following segments are not meant to be an all encompassing presentation on spiritual warfare, but rather, they are simple reflections from my own contemplations and understanding with spiritual warfare. The first lesson was "Know the Way of God." Today's is "The devil will attack you by attacking the ones you love." The third will be "The trial comes when we are strong." The fourth lesson will be "The Good Fight."]

Second Lesson: The devil will attack you by attacking the ones you love.
Key Text: Tobit 3.1-10; 8.1-8

Job by Léon Bonnat (1833-1922)

The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth,
And from walking up and down on it.”
And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant, Job,
that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man,
who fears God and turns away from evil?”
Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought?
Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has on every side?
Thou hast blessed the work of his hands,
And his possessions have increased in the land.
But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has,
and he will curse thee to thy face.” [1]

            It can be said that while one can suffer themselves without much existential angst, to see a loved one suffer, or to see the innocent in pain can quickly lead to a crisis of faith. A person will undergo years of chemo for cancer and be as solid as a rock and yet if a tragedy strikes their child, they will lose faith. First, it must be noted that especially among the Christian faithful, an attack against a brother or sister is as if the attack were against our very selves. As Saint Paul writes, if one member suffers, all suffer together.[2]
When one looks at the story of Tobias and Sarah, we find a young woman who has been afflicted by demonic for years. Each of her seven husbands was killed the wedding night by the demon Admodeus. Of note are the reactions of her family. Do we resign ourselves to the evil of the world, as the father seems to have done? For when Tobias asks Raguel to marry Sarah, the father responds, eat, drink and be merry [3] and on the night of the marriage, Raguel goes out to dig a grave for Tobias,[4] assured that he is dead. Do we grow despondent as Sarah does, even if it is understandable?[5] Do we begin to move in the right direction of the mother, Edna, who at least points towards hope in the Lord, saying, “Be brave, my child; the Lord of heaven and earth grant you joy in place of this sorrow of yours. Be brave, my child. [6] Or do we respond in prayer, as Tobias does?

Sarah and Tobias at prayer.
The question becomes why does evil happen in the world? What are we to do in the face of such attacks against the ones whom we love? It is a question that belongs to our faith, because our faith affirms the goodness of creation.[7] Indeed it is written, God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.[8] Yet clearly we suffer death and clearly creation has been altered into such a form that it can just easily take life rather then to sustain it. As the Apostle writes, for creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of him who subjected it.[9] So we must first realize that through sin, death has entered into the world, and that what might seem to be a matter of spiritual warfare in the failures and sufferings in this life can in truth just be the consequences of a fallen world. As to this, we must always remember that our mind is the mind that conceived of creation or understood the possible consequences that man having free will would have. As the Prophet noted, who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? [10]
            That being said, the devil attacks us through our fear of mortality. That we will be willing to do anything we can to avoid suffering and to avoid death. In doing so, we can become despondent that following God’s path is worthwhile or we can become hedonistic, assuming that we have only this life. There  is a relationship between these two reactions, as the psalmist notes:

But as for me, my feet almost stumbled,
My steps had well nigh slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pangs;
Their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as other men are;
they are not stricken like other men.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore the people turn and praise them;
and find no fault in them.
And they say, "How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?"
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken,
and chastened every morning.
If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end. (Psalm 73.2-17)

            In this we find the two reactions resolved in the appeal to faith and remembering the end for which we have been made. Christ has already conquered death. What else is there to fear? What can happen to us in this life that will take us away from that goal? As it is written for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.[11] We thus cannot allow the devil to undermine our spiritual progress by being despondent or in living out a hedonistic existence. Nothing outside of us can harm us, as again the Apostle affirms, I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[12]

Saint Michael the Archangel pwning Satan

            Thus we be ready to defend ourselves against the assaults of the devil when we see evil occurring in the world. It is a warfare to be sure. I go back to the idea of the reaction that we have to seeing others suffer. The first is to examine what it is that we are doing in our own lives. The examination of conscience is one of the surest defenses that the Christian has against the snares of the devil. So often times we will embark upon an action without stopping to discern if it is God’s will for us in our lives. Consider the words Tobias prays on his wedding night with Sarah. First, he mentions that marriage is of God’s plan saying, Thou madest Adam and gavest Eve his wife as a helper and support. From them, the race of mankind has sprung. Thou didst say, “It is not good that man should be alone; let us make a helper for himself.” [13] When one finds themselves or someone they love under attack, consider first, is the way I am living in accordance to the will of God? As Saint Josemaria Escriva explained, “examine yourself; slowly, courageously. Is it not true that your bad humor and your gloominess, both without cause-without apparent cause- are due to your lack of determination in breaking the subtle but real snares laid for you- cunningly and attractively- by your concupiscence?” [14] This leads to the second thing to take notice of in Tobias’ prayer.
            Tobias ends his prayer with, “And now Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity.[15] Many times we can be engaged in an action that is objectively right, but our wrong intention has caused it to become subjectively bad. How many times did our Lord read the intentions of the hearts of those around him, and called them to repentance? For Christ did say to the Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.[16] One can follow the rules to the letter and be doing it for all the wrong reasons. We must always ask ourselves, will this action bring me closer to God? Are these thoughts Christ like? Are these words I’m about to speak edifying and helpful in the journey of faith? If we are not trying to follow Christ, we become as distant sinners.  Many people stumble in this area. They go through the motions, but their hearts are far from God. Because they are far, they find themselves at the mercy of the devil and his attacks. They are blinded by their own certainty. As it is written, they reasoned, but they were lead astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls; for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.[17]

Remember, man, that thou art dust,
and to dust ye shall return. (Gen 3.19)
The grass withers and the flower fades,
but the word of God abides forever. (I Pt 1.24)
In everything you do, remember your end, and you will never sin (Sir 7.36)

[1] Job 1.7-11
[2] I Corinthians 12.26
[3] Tobit 7.9
[4] cf. Tobit 8.9-10
[5] cf. Tobit 7.17
[6] Tobit 7.18
[7] cf. Genesis 1.31: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
[8] Wisdom 1.13-14
[9] Romans 8.20
[10] Isaiah 40.13-14; cf. Romans 11.33-35
[11] Philippians 1.21
[12] Romans 8.38-39
[13] Tobit 8.6-7; cf. Genesis 2.18-25
[14] Saint Josemaria Escriva. The Way. Ch. 8 “Examination of Conscience.” §235
[15] Tobit 8.7
[16] Luke 16.15
[17] Wisdom 2.21-23