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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Treasure Within (4th Sunday of Lent, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

One of the destinations during my recent pilgrimage to Italy was the great city of Florence. Florence is one of the world’s cultural gems and the home of the powerful Medici family for hundreds of years. Even today, it is still one of the premier places to see fine art, eat good food, and buy the best clothing and jewelry. One of its most famous sons was  the incredible Michelangelo Buonarroti and some of his best work is displayed in the Florence Academia of fine arts. One of the many artistic gifts Michelangelo had was the ability to visualize his sculptures within a block of marble. For him, creating a masterpiece was just releasing the figure trapped within. There are a handful of unfinished statues in the museum and you can almost feel the figures struggling to escape their stone prison. Just down the hallway is his renowned sculpture of King David as a young man. This 17 foot, 11,000 pound image of the great Jewish king took two years to craft and is amazing to behold. The features are unbelievably lifelike, with muscles, veins, and other details so finely carved you begin to forget he was working with stone and not something soft like clay. Even 500 years later, this great statue holds your attention and impresses from every angle.

The seemingly supernatural vision of Michelangelo to look at a piece of stone and see a masterpiece within is just a hint of God’s ability as he looks at us. Today’s readings tell us stories of God seeing something in people that everyone else misses. The ignored and dismissed become the glorified as they are handpicked by the divine artist and their lives sculpted into something great. 

In the first reading, the Lord sends the prophet Samuel to anoint the next King of Israel. He heads over the house of Jesse, as the Lord directs him, and gets out his flask of oil. The oldest son walks over and Samuel thinks to himself, well, this will be easy, here is the next king. But God cautions him not to judge by appearance but to wait for the Lord to look into the heart. The eldest son is dismissed and the next one follows, one after the other until seven sons pass by Samuel, yet none are chosen. Finally, the baby, the Fr. Boehm of the bunch, the most unlikely to be the next king, strolls in, and immediately (we can almost hear the excitement in God’s voice) the Lord tells Samuel to anoint him so the Holy Spirit can rush down upon him from that day forward. We know how this story played out; God worked on David over the course of his life and he became a magnificent king, an unstoppable warrior, a holy ruler who brought peace, prosperity and holiness to the Chosen people. God saw something great in this simple shepherd boy and drew it out, little by little, like the Divine Artist he is.

Something similar is at work in gospel. Jesus is passing by a man born blind and the prevailing wisdom at the time suggested that his affliction was due to some sin committed by him or his parents. Once again, God sees into the heart and knows there is something special in this man. His physical blindness does not mean he is spiritually corrupt. To walk past him, to assume his blindness is because of sin would be to ignore a masterpiece in the making, a figure  who is stuck in stone, trying to escape the prison of suffering and rejection. Jesus knows this man’s true potential and heals his blindness. Not only that, but once he regains his sight, he becomes a teacher to the religious authorities who thought they had nothing to learn. The irony is that the person who once was blind ends up seeing who Jesus really is: the Savior and Lord. Meanwhile, the Pharisees remain completely blind in their hearts and only see Jesus as an enemy and imposter.

Far too often, our fallen human nature judges other people and writes them off. Even though it is impossible for any of us to look into a person’s heart, we often draw damaging, hurtful conclusions from someone’s decisions, actions, words, income, or status in society and perpetuate the blindness displayed in the gospel. This is one of the wounds of Original Sin.

Thankfully, not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” When Jesus looks at you and me and every person who has ever lived, he does not see a failure, a weakling, or a disappointment. He envisions a potential masterpiece; as Catholics, we also call them saints, friends of God. Most of the time, we see far less potential in ourselves than God does. Our hopes and plans for ourselves and the people we love will always fall short of what God wants to do for us. His dream for us is always so much more refined, rewarding, and joyful than we would ever dare imagine. 

As the Divine Artist, Jesus wants the artistic freedom to sculpt us according to what he sees hidden behind the block of sin, weakness, and fear. He won’t come at us with a jackhammer or a stick of dynamite; he waits for our permission. If we let him, he will work on us like Michelangelo did on his sculptures, personally, lovingly, one little chisel mark at a time until all the rough edges are smoothed out and every little detail is highlighted for all to marvel at. The degree we have faith and allow God to sculpt us will be the extent of our glory and happiness in the life to come. The more we cooperate with his grace, the quicker the process. The more we fight and resist, the longer and more painful it will be. Because he is so kind and merciful, as long as we die in the state of grace, Jesus will continue to perfect us after death in purgatory so we can eventually live with him in heaven.

Let us thank God for taking such a personal interest in each and every one of us. Let’s pray to be healed of our spiritual blindness that causes us to judge others and write them off. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for that Divine Gift of seeing the masterpiece within each and every human person, to appreciate the potential greatness and holiness of everyone we encounter, no matter how hidden or trapped it might be!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

To listen to this homily, click here.

Almost fifteen years ago ( I cannot believe it was that long ago!!), in the summer of 2002, the Holy Father traveled to Toronto, Canada for World Youth Day. There was a great deal of excitement among North American Catholics for this opportunity to see the great (now St.) John Paul II so close to home. Many people drove, others flew, but a number of priests and seminarians from St. Louis, including me, decided to go by a different way; --- we rode bicycles. And during the 13 days that it took to travel from St. Louis to Toronto, we all experienced a number of things like sunburn, soreness, hunger, weariness, and a general feeling of discomfort in posterior region from sitting on a bike seat for hours at a time. We also enjoyed incredible sights, camaraderie, inspiring examples of faith and kindness from the people who hosted us and general sense of how good people are and how beautiful our country really is. 

But the overwhelmingly universal experience we had during that 1000 mile bike ride was thirst. We were drinking water all the time: while we were riding, during our breaks, while we prayed, and even hours after we had finished riding. I just remember experiencing a deep, persistent thirst-----a thirst that took hours and gallons of water to quench.  

This experience of thirst is what our gospel is all about; man’s thirst for God, God’s thirst for us, and the living water of God’s grace that he wants to give us to satisfy all of our desires. 

First, let’s take a look at the woman at the well. She is quite a character with a checkered past; according to the social norms of the day, there is no reason Jesus should have been talking to her. This is for two reasons: first of all, she is a Samaritan. Samaritans were scorned by the Jewish people and Jews were not allowed to eat or drink with them. Even the use of their dishes was forbidden because that would make the Jewish person “unclean.” The woman knows this and that is why she is so surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. The second reason that Jesus should not have been chatting with this woman is the fact that she appears at the well around noon. In the ancient world, women would go to the well early in the morning to get the water, while the sun was low in the sky and before the heat of the day was at full strength. Those who went at noon would likely be people who made their living in the night, people who were known to be public sinners.

But these reasons didn’t stop Jesus from talking with her. He knew the Samaritan woman was thirsty. And he knew that each and every day, she endured the shame of drawing water from the well late in the day in an effort to alleviate her thirst. But her thirst was much more than a bodily desire for water. This woman had been married five times and the man she was with now was not her husband!! She was clearly searching for some---thing, some---one that she was unable to find in her husbands. Day after day she would come to the well, parched in body and spirit and draw water. And day after day she would return, still thirsting. She had spent her life looking for love, compassion, attention and salvation but still was not satisfied.

Then Jesus comes and asks her for a drink. Jesus intrigues her with his offer of living water. The woman wants her thirst to go away and seeks to understand his offer. When he tells her that his water will take away her thirst forever, she says, ‘sir, give me this water so I will not have to come back here again and draw water.’ As the conversation continues, Jesus makes it clear that the water he is speaking of is spiritual. And slowly but surely the woman comes to believe in him. 

But the Samaritan woman was not the only thirsty one here. Christ is also thirsting; thirsty to share the good news of the Gospel with those he meets. In addition to his physical need for water, Jesus is thirsty for souls. He wants all to experience his saving grace and he longs to give living water to those who would believe in him. Jesus gently draws the woman at the well to the living water of eternal life. He satisfies her thirsty heart with the saving grace that comes from the well of his most sacred heart. And once she has received this gift from Jesus, she goes and shares it with the people of her town, who drink it up eagerly.

We aren’t so different from the Samaritan woman at the well. And while we may not have not been married five or six times, we are all thirsting in our hearts for love, acceptance, and fulfillment. Like the woman in the gospel, we can try to satisfy this longing in ways apart from God himself. How often do we return to the wells of this world day after day in an attempt to satisfy our thirsty hearts? How often we believe that if we can just buy this one thing, get that one promotion, or achieve a higher status, then we can be happy, our lives finally complete. Perhaps it is our career,-- saving money,-- experiencing pleasure, -- acquiring material possessions, or keeping ourselves constantly busy. Whatever the case, all of these ultimately fail to satisfy us; and inevitably we find ourselves wanting more. 

Jesus offers us the same living water that he gave to the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel. Christ’s love is the only thing that can ultimately satisfy our hearts. He wants to take away our spiritual thirsting with his grace; his grace which never fails, never goes away. But we have to believe and we have to be willing to leave our sins behind. 

As we continue to journey through this Lenten season, let us ask Jesus to give us the living water of the gospel. Let us allow him to satisfy the thirst in our hearts by spending time in prayer, going to confession, and doing good things for others. After he has filled our hearts with these good things, let's not be stingy in sharing those blessing with others. Finally, as we prepare to approach this altar and receive the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ here in the Eucharist let us remember that we are coming face to face with Jesus himself, the source of this wonderful and eternal living water. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mountain Top Experiences - 2nd Sunday of Lent (Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

No doubt, many of us, have heard the term “mountain top experience.” Even if we’ve never heard that specific phrase, hopefully the experience resonates in our heart. A mountain top experience is a moment when we experience the euphoria of being in the midst of divine greatness, coming face to face with the grandeur and overwhelming might of the Almighty. Any of you who have climbed a mountain peak after hours of hiking, watched a sunset near the ocean’s edge, or been awe-struck at the beauty of nature, know what I am talking about. We also have these moments in meaningful events like running a race after months of training, graduating after years of studying, or perhaps most profoundly, watching the birth of our children into the world. In all these cases, whatever the specifics may be, we are swept away by the extraordinary; transformed by this moment which we happily return to in our heart many times throughout our lives. Mountain top moments, by their very nature are special; they don’t happen every day but just a few of them can sustain us for a lifetime.

Throughout the Bible, when God wants to teach his people something important, he tells them to go up, to get away, to come closer so they can experience a taste of his greatness. Abraham, Moses, Elijah and Noah all encountered God on the heights. In the gospel, Peter, James, and John are just continuing a long tradition! This moment on the mountain, which we call the Transfiguration of Jesus, holds some clues about how God wants to speak to us and why he will be waiting for us to join him at different points of our life on the holy heights. Rather than just reflect on this incredible story as a neat thing Jesus did for three of his apostles, let’s pray about how it might be a pattern that applies to us and our relationship with the Lord.

Jesus invites his friends to come with him and pray. Taking time to pray is a regular part of Jesus’ life and if he made it a daily priority, so should we. It is often in the rhythm of routine prayer that the Lord invites us to come closer to be inspired by his glory. What then, is significant about the mountain? When you climb one, you need to leave everything behind except the essentials. No one wants to be lugging anything more than what is needed; it is hard enough to get ourselves to the top. Even today, going to a mountain is a break from the normal, the cell phone probably won’t work, you are not going to get mail and you are forced to live in the present. It’s not something we do accidentally, we have to put our mind to it. A journey to the top of the mountain with God requires personal sacrifice, patience, and perseverance. Most importantly, it demands a sort of interior hunger to do something more; we can’t just be content. Strictly speaking, it is never necessary to climb a mountain but it is always deeply satisfying.

Mountains, by their nature, thin the crowd. It’s easy to admire one from a distance but to actually go up one, well, that is enjoyed only by the dedicated. Sadly many people will never experience this moment because they are too practical, set in their ways, or feel too“busy” to step out. I am sure the apostles had some of these thoughts rolling around in their minds as they journeyed with Jesus on the narrow, winding path that led to one of Jesus’ favorite outlooks. They were probably wondering if it would be better to stay down below where everyone else was so they could keep teaching, healing, and spreading the Good News. There is a time and a place for these practical thoughts. There is also a time and place to rest with God and let him lead us to his favorite spot for prayer.

When they arrived at the peak of the mountain, how different everything must have looked?! A new view greeted them and their hearts were prepared to see the gift Jesus shared with them. He revealed a hint of his divine glory and the apostles were overwhelmed with awe and holy fear because they were face to face with God. Matthew says a "bright cloud overshadowed them." They were unable to see the surroundings and were at the Lord's mercy. They lost their point of reference and God said out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." We have to give God complete control of our lives. That is what we have to do day in and day out as best we can; this is how we “listen to him.”

At the end of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John have a new perspective. When the cloud lifts and God’s voice fades away, what remains, who remains is Jesus and him alone. They have been changed by this experience and it will get them through the terrible moments of the Passion and Death of Christ. This glimpse of divine glory will help them look past the pain and doubt they are experiencing. Our journey up the mountain of prayer also gives us a different outlook. We can glimpse a bigger picture, more than we could ever see on the level ground that comes from living for the things of this world. A mountain top experience changes us because we see God’s glory and sense a tiny piece of what he has in store for all those who listen to him.

One final note. The apostles want to stay on the mountain for a long time. Peter offers to build three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. When we experience a spiritual high, we often want the same thing; we don’t want it to end. But we are not meant to stay on the peak forever, at least not in this life. Our mountain top experiences are real, they are holy, but they cannot be permanent until we get to heaven. Until that time, they serve to keep us moving towards God, they keep that spiritual hunger alive so we don’t get complacent, lazy, or self-satisfied. They also encourage us when things get tough and monotonous so we never forget that something much better is waiting for us in the next life. 

So, if you have had a mountain top moment in your life, cherish it and allow God to bring you back to it so you can be inspired. If you haven’t yet or its been a long time, have faith, spend time with the Lord each day so he can invite you to go with him the next time he goes up the mountain. He still reveals his glory to those with open hearts and he never gets tired of encouraging his friends to catch a glimpse of the heavenly transformation we were made to experience. May Jesus count us among his trusted friends, the blessed ones who share that mountain top experience with him!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Golden Rules for Fighting Temptation (1st Sunday of Lent)

To listen to this homily, click here.

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is always the Temptation of Christ in the Desert. This year, we have St. Matthew's version and while there might be some differences between the gospels, they all agree that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert. It is from these forty days of fasting that the liturgical season of Lent came about. If you take out the Sundays, which even in Lent are a celebration of the Resurrection, Lent is forty days long and imitates Jesus' time in the desert. 

It could be difficult to know what to make of Christ's temptation since most of us wouldn't think the offers the Devil places before Jesus are very tempting. Jesus, being completely unique, needed to have his own tailor-made set of temptations. The kinds of things which would tempt us wouldn't tempt Jesus and the kinds of things that might be thought to tempt Jesus definitely wouldn't interest us. 

I say ‘the things that might be thought to tempt Jesus' very deliberately because I don't really think that Jesus is susceptible to temptation. When you read the accounts in the Gospels it doesn't sound as though he was interested in anything the Devil was offering. The things Jesus was presented with sound more like challenges or taunts. 

We know, of course, that the Devil was a loser from the very start. How is it even possible that the Son of God could be tempted by any created thing? He had perfect communion with the Creator, settling for anything less would be unthinkable! Maybe the best way of looking at his trial is to regard it as a sort of spiritual work-out that Jesus went through. It was a period of time at the beginning of his public ministry during which he stretched his spiritual muscles before entering three years of healing and teaching. 

In the desert, Jesus engages in a kind of spiritual joust with the Evil One. They are fencing using scripture rather than swords; each one quoting from the Word of God in alternate challenge and counter-challenge. Something very similar happens every day in our soul, whether we realize it or not. It can be a life-saver to reflect on how to deal with temptation as we begin Lent. This is the time of year when we make worthy resolutions which we are quickly tempted to back out of. Lent is always a time during which we struggle with temptation. We might think the temptations we experience are fairly low-grade such as being tempted to eat sweets, drink alcohol or whatever we decided to give up. 

However, the lessons we learn about resisting little temptations are not so different from those we need to deal with much greater temptation such as sexual sin, theft, gossip, or other deadly sins. 

The first golden rule in resisting temptation is to pray. If we think we can overcome temptation and sin by sheer willpower or heroic discipline, we have already fallen into the trap of pride and self-reliance. It’s humbling to me how often my first response to temptation is to call on my own power and strength. Only in God can we be victorious and experience life-changing conversion! One of the very best prayers in time of trial is the Our Father, especially the line which says, ‘lead us not in to temptation.' Say this prayer slowly and really mean it. You will be surprised at the effect it has. 

The second golden rule is to do our best to avoid situations where temptation will be waiting for us. Obviously this won’t always be possible because some circumstances are beyond our control. It is a sign of true humility and self-awareness to know what things tempt us and to respect our weakness enough to stay away from those situations. 

So, if you are trying to give up sweets, don't have them laying around the house. The same goes for more serious things. If you are tempted to visit inappropriate sites on the internet then don't put your computer in the bedroom but in the living room. If you access the internet in an environment where other people are around, you are far less likely to visit sites you shouldn't. When an occasion of sin presents itself the key word is to flee. Along with prayer, this is the best way to deal with temptation from the very beginning. 

The third golden rule of resisting temptation is to make a decision to reject it —— but this is much more difficult. At this stage we are face-to-face with the cause of our temptation and what now begins is a battle of wills. Once we are at this point, the best way to deal with it is to make a decision. It sounds simple but a decision here means something firm and decisive, an absolute decision you might call it. 

Most people have made many decisions during their lives, often in the form of a rule such as ‘I will never tell a lie'. Decisions such as these are good because they keep us safe. The important thing in making a decision is to wait until you are in a calm, prayerful frame of mind and then decide what rule you want to make. And time matters; if you can keep a resolution for a week then you are much more likely to be able to keep it for a month and then a year, and even much longer. 

Never underestimate the power of a decision. ‘I will never tell a lie,’ ‘I will never take something that is not mine,' and ‘I will never speak badly of another person,' these are all examples of rules we make which help keep us on the straight and narrow. 

Remember these three things: praying, fleeing, and deciding. Make these golden rules part of your life and be confident they will help you become spiritually strong and fit during these 40 days of lent. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Our Hearts are Restless Until They Rest in You (8th Sunday, Cycle A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

One of my favorite stories was written about 16-hundred years ago in a little town of North Africa. In that book, a young man is brutally honest in telling us about his search for the meaning of life. He was the Charlie Sheen of the Roman Empire. At first he looked for happiness in the pleasures of drinking, eating and bodily pleasures of every sort. When these left his soul feeling empty, he began to pursue oriental philosophies. He thought those teachings seemed more sophisticated than the Bible he had listened to growing up. But something about those philosophies did not ring true to him, so he decided he would spend his life making money - and making a name for himself. At a certain point - it was like a divine intervention - he experienced a conversion. He wound up dedicating himself totally to God. The young man's name was Augustine - and after St. Paul he is considered the Church's greatest theologian. St. Augustine summed up his quest for life’s meaning in these famous and haunting words of his confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." 

All of us can probably identify with his experience and his search for fulfillment. Our hearts are also restless - and nothing in this world can give us enduring peace. Today's Psalm says "Only in God is my soul at rest..." In the Gospel Jesus tells us how to find peace in God. 

Jesus lays it on the line. "No man can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.You cannot serve God and mammon." Well, what the heck is mammon? The word mammon comes from a Hebrew root that means "to entrust." It referred to material, worldly things, things that money can buy, like today we speak about credit, trust funds and bonds. Mammon came to represent those things in which a man places his trust." It became a substitute for God, an idol, a false God. 
What are the false gods in our lives? What are the things in life that if you had them -- you would feel like your life would be complete....that you would be happy? Is it a new car? a nicer home? A better job? A raise?

Is it a cute, popular boyfriend or girlfriend? Winning a state championship? A later curfew? A friend who doesn’t hurt you or talk about you behind your back? A social media account or a better cell phone?

Is it more time?More space? Less weight? More hair? Nicer clothes? 

In today's Gospel Jesus identifies one of the sure signs of clinging to a false god: worry. A person devoted to an idol becomes consumed with worry. Our hearts are filled with fear as we wonder what will happen if I lose the thing that gives my life meaning? What happens if I lose my job? Don’t get that promotion? If my child doesn’t make the team? If my boyfriend/girlfriend dumps me? If I am suddenly no longer popular or if my parents take away that one thing I love?

I have talked to people who know that something is ruining their lives - but they cannot stand the thought of living without it, whether that be someone or some thing that is slowly destroying them and their families and friendships. Whatever the specifics are, the general rule is always the same: their obsession, their mammon and the worry of what to do without it have become false gods. 

Jesus invites us to turn from idols and to trust in God. God is the one thing, the one thing that not only will make us happy, but will bring us peace. We know this. We’ve known about this for two-thousand years. No self-help book about happiness has been reprinted as many times, in as many languages, for as many years as the Bible. So why do we keep turning away? Why do we keep looking for happiness elsewhere when the answer, the only answer, is right here, within feet of us every day.

Christ knew that we would have a hard time letting go of the various mammon in our lives. He knew we would struggle to place our full trust in the hands of our Heavenly Father. That is why he reminds us in today’s gospel to “Look at the birds in the sky; who do not sow or reap, who gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? To drive the point home he continues: Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?”

The next time you feel alone, or helpless, or you’re worrying about something or chasing something you think will make you happy, take a moment and pray. Thank God for all the gifts he has given you. Talk to Him about what’s on your heart, and ask Him for his guidance. Let go of the earthly things and riches which demand our allegiance and let your heart rest in God alone. He changed the life of St. Augustine. If you ask God, He’ll change your life, too.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why do you Keep the Law? (6th Sunday in OT)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Our readings this weekend focus on divine law, the commandments given to us by God as he gradually reveals Himself and his plan of salvation for the world. In these readings, we are not just given a laundry list of things to do or not do. The first reading connects following God’s commandments to preserving our lives. It’s a choice each of us has to make; God won’t force us to follow his commands. God’s laws can be mysterious at times but each and every one of them is holy and purposeful. Together they form a way of life and a roadmap to happiness in heaven. Ignoring or breaking these divine laws will affect our relationship with God in some way.

For many of us, as Americans, we have a different view of law. In our culture, law is restrictive, in some ways we might think of them as limits to my personal freedom. Generally speaking our feelings on laws, at least those that are man-made, would be the fewer the better. There is something in our human nature that wants to find that fine line of getting around the law without breaking it. Or doing what the law requires but nothing more.

We see this literal approach to the law in little children. Growing up, I dreaded Ash Wednesday and Good Friday because they were fast days, meaning you could only have one full meal. Since I hated being hungry and was a glutton, I tried to interpret the law to my advantage. The law of fasting is that you can have one regular meal and two small meals, which combined, do not equal the regular meal. I argued that I could eat 5 sandwiches for lunch on a regular day (which I could). Therefore, on days of fasting, my little meals could be equal to 2 sandwiches each with a massive meal at the end of the day. Perhaps this did not technically break the laws on fasting but it certainly violated the spirit of the law which was to help me enter into a sense of sacrifice in solidarity with Christ on the cross.

When is comes to laws and commandments given by God, they are so much more than simple rules, hoops to jump through, or a checklist. They are part of a relationship. Maybe when we were young, we saw only rules and simply obeyed them to stay out of trouble or confession. Hopefully, as we grow older they become part of who we are and we follow them, not out of fear of punishment but because we love God. We want to preserve and protect that relationship with the Lord. To live the commandments this way requires faith and trust!

Jesus tells us that he is not here to get rid of the law but to fulfill it. He expands and deepens the commandments because he is establishing a deeper, more intimate friendship with the Father. This new friendship requires a heart that is even more pure and sensitive to the will of God. These expanded laws help us to have such a heart if we embrace them with love.
Those of you who are parents know exactly what God is hoping for! When your kids are young, they are mostly motivated by the fear of getting in trouble, losing privileges  or some other punishment. Many times, these sort of reminders or threats are the only thing that gets a child to clean his room, do her homework, or apologize to a sibling. Hopefully, as children get older, they begin to do what mom and dad ask, not out of fear but love. As they mature, rules are kept out of respect for the parents’ authority and wisdom. Even when a child may not agree with a command, the mature one obeys it as a sign of love and appreciation for everything the parents have done for him. There might even be the humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that mom and dad are asking me to do this because they know something I don’t. Keeping the law or commandment is only part of the equation; the motivation behind the obedience reveals where a child is in their relationship with their parents.

Which leads us to ask, “where are we in our practice of the commandments in relation to God our Father?” Are we tiptoeing around the letter of the law, trying to do the least possible without breaking the rules? Are we keeping the commandments only to stay out of trouble with God or avoid punishment for our sins? If we could get away with ignoring the commandments of the Lord, would we? I think, to some extent, all of us could answer yes to one or more of these questions. Most of us have some work to do before we can honestly say we are keeping God’s laws out of love rather than fear or obligation. 

Thankfully, we have some things working to our advantage! We have a God who loves us perfectly, 24/7, for all eternity. He does not have bad days nor does he lose his temper or become passive aggressive. His laws are always for our own good and any commandment he has given will help us in some way to live in peace with each other and grow in love for him. He is infinitely patient with us and will always forgive our failures and shortcomings; all we have to do is ask, especially in the sacrament of confession. 

The commandments of God and the laws of the Church are so much more than rules. Every one of them, no matter how small or mysterious, serves to protect us and draw us closer to God. They are the road leading to everlasting life, perfect love, and unshakeable peace. Imagine how much happiness it brings God when we keep his commandments out of love rather than fear or obligation! When we trust in his law for the world, even when it might not make complete sense or part of us disagrees! 

Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord, the psalmist says. May we be among the blessed of God’s children keeping his commandments with love and faith!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Salt of the Earth (5th Sunday of OT)

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A few years ago, I came across an odd but intriguing book titled, Salt: A World History. At first glance, it didn’t seem like a very interesting read, but as I progressed through the 500-page work, I was amazed at how central this humble mineral was to human history. For example, did you know that we have a whole host of common words that come from salt? The word “salad” originally described a dish of raw vegetables flavored with a salty brine dressing enjoyed by the Romans. Salary was a term originally describing an allowance given to Roman soldiers to buy salt. Sometimes their payment was salt itself, with which they could trade for other goods. Perhaps many of you have heard the phrase, “he is worth his salt.” Other common words derived from this essential mineral are sauce, salami, sausage and saline. One other nugget for you: Buffalo, New York has its name because of the large natural deposits of salt that were found near the surface in that region. Massive herds of buffalo would swarm the area to satisfy their need for this essential mineral and settlers who observed this phenomenon decided to name the region after these salt-craving beasts.

We might not think too much about salt because it is so abundant and cheap. In fact, we might think of salt as a bad thing because there is too much in our modern diet and it can cause health problems. But this is a modern issue. Throughout human history, salt has been a source of life, riches, and power. It is used to preserve food, flavor meals, cure meats, treat ailments, and even make our roads safer. For most of human history, salt was precious, extremely valuable, and something to be desired. Every animal needs it and many wars have been fought, trying to secure this commodity.

Perhaps this brief background helps us then appreciate a little more, what Jesus is saying in the gospel when he tells his apostles, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

That little salt shaker, present today in every home, was unknown in the Middle East at the time of Christ. Only the very wealthy could afford pure salt. Ordinary people had a "salt bag." The salt with all its impurities was placed in the bag, and then used in soup or other liquids for flavoring. Eventually all the salt was gone, leaving only impurities. This is what is meant in the gospel when our Lord asks, "what if the salt loses its flavor?"

As people consecrated to God by baptism, we are meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Notice that Christ does not say that “one day you will be the salt of the earth”, no he says you ARE. Right now, where you are, no excuses. He can say this because he is willing and ready to replenish us at any time through prayer and the sacraments. With this in mind, it is time to ask: Do we really act like the salt of the earth? As apostles, are our lives having the same effect in our world? Are we a source of life to those around us? Do we provide the irreplaceable flavor of the gospel to others? Do our thoughts, words, and actions serve to heal and preserve and save from spoils of sin and sadness? Have we lived our faith so well that we are seen as a precious commodity, a resource essential to the life and well-being of others? Or, have we lost our flavor? Have we run empty in the practice of our faith, becoming like that salt bag, full of impurities and other undesirable elements? 
Dr. Eleanore Stump, a theologian at St. Louis University offers an insight into the images of salt and light that Christ calls us to be. Salt and light share a funny characteristic. Each of them is discernible by our senses; we taste salt, and we see light, but neither of them is meant to be center of attention. Nobody makes salt for dinner. We put salt on the chicken, but the chicken is the dinner. The chicken tastes better if we salt it; and enjoying the chicken, not the salt, is what we are after. Light is like this, too. We turn on a light not in order to look at the light, but in order to look at other things by means of the light.

So if a Christian is the light of the world, he is enabling the world to see something other than himself. A Christian is to let his light shine in such a way that the people of the world glorify God. The worldly people couldn’t glorify God if God were in darkness for them. So a Christian’s life is to shine in such a way that what the people of the world see is the Lord. The image of salt works in the same way. If a Christian is the salt of the earth, he makes something else appeal to the taste of the people of the earth. The earthly people will savor the goodness of God when Christians are the salt of the earth.

The source of all true and lasting joy and blessing is Christ. That is easy to believe but difficult to live consistently. We turn most readily in thanks to God when things go well, when the spouse and family are happy, when everybody is healthy. But when the inevitable disappointments, tragedies, betrayals, and depressions come, do we go back to the source of spiritual light and salt by faithfully attending Sunday Mass, by staying faithful to daily prayer? Life here will sometimes lose its flavor, and someday will end. But the glorious and eternal truth is that we are salt in Christ, with Him our lives will never lose their flavor. May we enjoy this Divine Salt in our own lives and share it freely as a strength and sustenance now and forever.