Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Spiritual and Liturgical Meaning of Christ the King

First of all, what is the liturgical significance of this feast?  In other words, what does it mean for our worship?  Essentially, the feast of Christ the king is final Sunday feast of the Catholic liturgical year in ordinary time.  You are not going to see Fr. Frank and I wear ordinary green for quite awhile.  Now, we turn our minds and hearts to Advent, the preparation for Christ’s birth, and then not long afterwards we turn toward the penitential preparation of Lent and the celebration of Christ’s Ressurection.  Why is this important?  Well, let me ask you a question — how would you feel if it were one single season of the year all the time?  You might imagine that you might enjoy a nice season like early Fall constantly (that’s my favorite), but I guarantee you that you would eventually get tired of it.  As changing beings in motions, we thrive on change and motion.  And the Church knows this, so she changes her times and seasons to match our changing hearts.  But it is also fitting that we try to concentrate on different aspects of our Lord and Savior’s life and teaching, and so that is what we do.  The Feast of Christ the King is a great example of this.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the innermost meaning of the entire Old Testament is summed up in the expression of the Kingdom of God.  In the Gospel of Matthew alone, the notion of the Kingdom of Heaven or of God is mentioned 47 times – It is a major key of understanding the whole of Jesus’s message.

For those of you who like a little history and background, the Feast of Christ the King was officially instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925.  It is a direct Catholic response to the rise of secularism and nationalism.  You have to remember that the devastation of World War I is in everyone’s mind at the time that this feast was instituted.  Mussolini had just seized power in Italy.  By 1920, European countries had lost control of almost 90% of the earth’s surface.  Stalin had seized control of the Soviet Union from Lenin, and many of these leaders were executing Christians (and everyone else) and essentially declaring their independence from God.  To state it simply, Pope Pius XI wanted to remind the Church and the world, with the institution of the Feast of Christ the King, exactly who was the true leader of nations.

What I would like to do is to essentially allow Pope Pius XI to speak for himself first.  What did he think this feast was about.  Since he instituted it, I think he knows the meaning of it far better than I do.  I will present this to you and then make some comments on what this might mean for our spiritual lives.

This is what Pope Pius XI wrote in the original encyclical Quas Primas in 1924, the letter which officially instituted the Feast of Christ the King.  It appropriately and precisely matches the readings we heard today:

This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things…and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”  (Quas Primas, #15)

The Church wants to make it clear that Jesus is not a political figure.  Again, his kingdom is not of this world.  Those are his own words.  Though things like elections are important, we make a grave mistake to make politics our God.  Trust me, I know.  I have a master’s degree in politics.  For years, I paid more attention to politics than my Faith and my soul suffered for it, and so did the church.

Y’all, what if it were true that what happened in politics didn’t really matter near as much as us going to mass, confession, praying, reading Scripture, doing acts of penance, fasting, aiding our brothers and sisters and attempting to live in peace and harmony with others?  WHAT A RADICAL IDEA.  What if those activities actually released angelic power and moved hearts and minds in ways that would awe us and drive us to our knees in tears if we could actually see it happening?  What if it were true that a Catholic with a pure heart and a rosary in her hand had more real power in this universe than most senators?  What Pius XI is trying to say is that this is precisely the case.

This does not mean that Jesus Christ does not exercise power over the nations, and I am not telling you that politics is unimportant.  Do not misunderstand me and do not misunderstand Pope Pius.  Pius says “it would be a grave error to say that Christ has no authority in civil affairs.”  But the way he exercises that authority is through his church, through the establishment of a kingdom of love in the hearts of those who accept him.  He does not earthly nations like a president or prime minister.  It may be a simplistic image, but imagine the difference between the principal of a high school and a young man filled with the Holy Spirit.  The principal makes direct decisions over the school, but the young man goes around forming clubs, prayer groups, influencing opinion, changing hearts, teaching the lost.  Jesus goes through our world much more like that young man than as a principal.  But at the end of time, in heaven, he becomes the principal and EVERYBODY gets called to the office!  Pope Pius reminds us that Jesus exercises legislative, executive and judicial power over the universe.  Legislative, because he has given us laws to obey; executive, because he still directs his Providential care over the earth; and judicial, because he will finally judge every man, woman and angel, whether they were kings of the earth or simple children.  The final word is his.  The buck stops with him.  That makes him King.

I feel compelled to read to y’all an excerpt from The Boy Who Met Jesus.  It is about an African boy who had a number of conversations directly with Jesus Christ, particularly about the end of the world.  The book is written by Imaculee’, the woman who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and who recently spoke at Pope John Paul.  She believes in these messages to this boy with all her heart, and they are approved by the Catholic Church.

If I walk among men, I will not do so with great fanfare or boasting.  I will quietly heal the sick, return sight to the blind, and open the ears of the deaf.  I will feed nations without seeking praise; I will pass through the world unnoticed and pay heed to those who are faithful to me.  Pray to me and confide in me, and I will find you wherever you are — if you are on a mountaintop, I will seek you out; if you are under a bridge, I will find you.  Call to me for strength and courage when the dark days come, and I will give you strength.  There will be many false miracles, but don’t believe them, as they will not come from God at the End of Days.  Any miracles that originate with me will be miracles of the heart.”  (The Boy Who Met Jesus, 142)

What a beautiful word!  What a summons back to what is truly real.  This is not about what happens on CNN or Fox, people.  It’s about what happens in the heart.  It’s about what happens in prayer, and in your struggle to see Jesus Christ the King in your own heart and in the hearts of those sitting next to you.

Pope Pius well recognizes that political leaders should recognize the authority of Jesus Christ, and if they do so, then their citizens will enjoy lasting peace and tranquility because they will be in harmony with the laws of the King of the Universe.  But that being said, we must recognize that the true kingdom is that of the heart and the spirit and not of politics and economics.  But as Catholic Christians, we should be mindful of how we are working towards this noble goal.  We should pick up our weapons of prayer, fasting, sacraments and kindness BEFORE those of political protest, letter-writing, news-watching and voting.

I have a question for you:  Are you a Catholic American or an American Catholic?  It’s always the noun that’s more important, because that is what you are.  Adjectives merely describe, but nouns define our very being.  As for me, I am an American Catholic.

One final thing:  this is perhaps a hard thing to take.  Establishing God’s kingdom in our hearts means that they will often be broken and they will often hurt.  But what are we told in Scripture?  “The Lord is close to the broken hearted.  Those whose spirits are crushed, he will save (Psalm 34:18).  And we are also told that those who have suffered with him will also reigned with him (2 Tim. 2:12).  My friends, those who lived like him will live WITH him forever.  This is something that we should never, ever forget.  Better a broken heart than a hard one.  And if you feel like you have no heart left, than ask Jesus to give you his, for this is precisely what can happen when you take Holy Eucharist.  For it is in such an exchange that his kingdom will be established on this earth, one heart at a time.

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“Just Words??” or “Does My Prayer Really Matter?”

There is one phrase that I absolutely hate.  It is the phrase “Just (i.e., ‘simply’) words.”  When we use it, we are generally being sarcastic.  But are “just words” really ever “just words”?

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Consider the following statements:

I will love you forever.”

You are worthless.”

I do.” – (Imagine a bride and groom saying it!)

You are beautiful.”

(A general):  “Drop the bomb on my command.”

Your sins are forgiven.”

Words like these can make or break human spirits, be the difference between life and death, or possibly even the salvation of someone’s soul.  “Just words” indeed!

In today’s Gospel, we are told that the leaders of the Jewish people could not openly attack Jesus because the people were “hanging on his every word.”  The Greek word used in this context is exekremato which literally means “to hang on.”  It is the only time that this verb is used in the New Testament, so it must be important.  Jesus was being saved by his words for a time because the people were nourished by them.  But Jesus was also condemned by his words.  The following chapter records several instances when the scribes and Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in his words:  “So they watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor (Luke 20:20).”  He was finally condemned for his words that he would destroy the temple in three days (Mark 14:58), and also because he called God his Father (John 5:18).

Are “just words” ever “just words”?  “Just words” both saved and condemned Jesus Christ!  But it goes much deeper than that, my friends.

When God created the universe, all that he had to do was SPEAK and things came into being:  “Let there be light.  And there was light.”  This kind of power through speaking continues in New Testament.  All Jesus has to do is speak, and things change.  He says, “Regain thy sight,” and the blind see.  He simply mumbles, “Come out of him,” and demons are cast out powerless and screaming:  “He cast out demons with a WORD….” (Matt. 8:16).  He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven them.  Even the words of the centurion testify to this when he tells the Lord not to even come into his home, but remain miles away:  “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the WORD and my servant shall be healed” (Matt 8:8).

JESUS HIMSELF IS CALLED THE “WORD” OF GOD (John 1:1, 14)  AND IF HE IS IN OUR HEARTS, HOW CAN OUR WORDS EVER BE “JUST WORDS”?

You might think that is fine for God, but it doesn’t hold true for us.  You should understand by looking at the “words” in my introduction (and through common sense) that our words have power indeed.  But how much power?  What if it were true that God gave his words to us?  We already know that his words have an effect.  So it stands to reason that if we had his words, we could be sure that prayer is not “just words.”  Did God not give Peter and his successors the power to forgive sins:  “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them.  If you hold them bound, they are bound (John 20:23).”  These are “just words.”  But they apparently have real power—so maybe they are not “just words.”  And they have power because they are not man’s words, but God’s.  When Jesus commanded us, “Do this in memory of me,” is it “just words”?  It seems that Jesus gives us his words to make God himself present in the appearance of bread and wine.  That’s exactly what sacraments and blessings are – they are God’s gift of his words to human beings, so that human beings might attain the very life of God.

And this doesn’t only go for the prayers of priests.  This can be true for all prayers said with the right intention.  James 5 explicitly reports the following:  “The prayer of the righteous man has power indeed.”  Our words indeed have power, because they are not our words alone.  God himself has promised to give us his own words – Romans 8, one of the most authoritative chapters of the New Testament outside of the Gospel, reports, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  Have you ever really thought about this?  The fact that whenever you pray, the Holy Spirit himself is praying with you?  The same Holy Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of time, the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead?  Have you ever really considered the power for good that you might wield if you believed this more strongly, and that maybe “just words” are not “just words” after all, but the very life of God?

In Sirach, God promises that he is not deaf to the orphan and the widow, and that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal” (Sirach 35:21).  When Jesus compares the prayer of the tax collector and the Pharisees, he tells us that the tax collector went home “justified.”  In other words, the Lord heard his prayer (just words?) and accepted it.  In James 5, God tells us, “The prayer of the righteous man has power indeed.”  In Rev. 8:4, we are told that the prayers of the saints rise like incense to the throne of God and that he takes them very, very seriously.  This is good news.  This is good news indeed.  God hears prayers that are “just words.”

But what are we afraid of when it comes to prayer, my friends?

In today’s reading, St. John is told by an angel that he is supposed to swallow a scroll that will be “sweet in the mouth but sour in the stomach”  (Rev 10:8-9)  Recall that for John, the meaning of the scroll is the mission that he is supposed to be carrying out.  In the following verse, he is clearly told that he must “prophesy against peoples, nations, tongues and kings”—not an easy thing.  Whenever we hear the word of God in prayer or experience his presence anywhere at all, it is sweet.  Even if God is correcting us, there is a sweetness to his words and presence that cannot be denied.  The soul longs for it.  We were made for it.  We were made by it.  But what he is asking us to do can often “sour the stomach.”  Think about Jesus’s Transfiguration on the mountain.  When he spoke to His Father, Moses and Elijah, it was likely sweet beyond imagining (even though they were speaking to him of his coming crucifixion).  But when Jesus had to come down the mountain and actually carry out the mission, those sweet words that he had to swallow turned sour in the stomach—he had to drink the bitter cup of suffering (Matt. 20:22) that always turns the stomach sour.  A Christian’s prayer life is often an alternating exchange of sweet and sour “meals.”  Is it any wonder why Heaven is called a “wedding feast” (Rev 19:6-9)?  Is it any wonder that our God became bread for our nourishment?  Here is the danger, though:  that because we fear the sour, we will not even go to him in prayer to experience the sweet.  If we make that choice, we doom ourselves to spiritual starvation.

And then we wonder why we lack love, faith, hope, peace and joy.

Have you ever thought that God is simply waiting to see if we will give him and one another a precious gift of time – a gift of prayer – to counteract and nullify all the horrible words, lies and curses that rise from our hearts every day like a swarm of insects?  I guarantee you that right now evil people are spending time figuring out how to lie, cheat and steal with their words.  They are a zealous bunch.  It’s not “just words” for them.  I wonder if good people will spend as much time in blessing as evil people spend in cursing?  Or maybe good people are just lazy.  Or maybe we’ve just lost our faith?  We will wait in line to get what we need, and often think it’s a waste of time.  We will wait in traffic to get what we need, and often think that’s a waste of time.  But will we dare to pray to get what we need, even if we understand that it isn’t a waste of time?

One thing that we often forget is that Jesus himself prayed.  Doesn’t it seem odd to you that God would pray to himself, even though one is in the person of the Son and another in the person of the Father?  And yet, Jesus seemed to find this necessary.  The being who had the closest possible relationship to God the Father saw it necessary to spend entire nights in prayer, and not only this, but to do it often.  How much more might we who are more distant need to bridge the abyss between God and us with a few simple words from time to time?

Even if it were difficult to accept that prayer fails to change God’s mind, there is another good reason to pray – and that’s the fact that prayer will certainly change our minds; and more than our minds, but our hearts.  And that alone might mean the difference between eternal happiness and its alternative.  Just words, indeed.  Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who later became a celebrated psychotherapist once wrote:   “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”  Of all creatures, man is capable of raising his voice to God in prayer.  This is our special gift, our special mission.  But what is truly human in us and what is truly Godlike in us begs us to lift our voices in praise to our Creator and Redeemer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And if THAT is a waste of time, then it seems that everything else is as well.

So let us get to the business of prayer.  Because it seems that “just words,” especially when given to God and by God, aren’t “just words” after all.

Fr. Basil Burns

November 23, 2012

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November 23, 2012 · 6:37 pm

Feeling Scrupulous? Put on Your White Robe and Shut up!

Are you afraid of going to hell?  Are you concerned that despite having confessed past sins, they are still haunting your conscience?  You may be having problems with scrupulosity.  If you were to simply consult the dictionary concerning scrupulosity, you would see it defined as “exacting; careful or rigorous” – or something similar.  Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  We can be scrupulous about trying to do God’s will or living a moral life, which might mean simply that we are very careful and exacting about doing something that is very important.  No problem, right?

 WRONG.

Catholics are both blessed and cursed with a sense of the gravity of their sinfulness.  We believe in Purgatory, so it is part of our spirituality that fasting and praying both for our sake and for others can affect the nature of the afterlife.  We have confession, which implies that we should present ourselves to a priest and be discerning about what we confess.  We have a sense about the difference between mortal and venial sin, so it follows that sometimes we worry about the difference between the two and whether we are guilty of one or the other.  Protestants tend to not be plagued with any of these worries.  They are not plagued with them because they usually don’t find that these worries are legitimate.  But since we as Catholics know that they are legitimate, we can’t escape so easily.  (This is not the place to prove that all these are legitimate concerns.)

It is good to be discerning about these very important dimensions of our relationship with God, but bad to allow discernment to transform into scrupulosity, which can be defined as an unhealthy or superstitious anxiety about the state of our soul.  That is how we might define it.  Why?

When we take concern about doing God’s will and transform it into obsession about doing that will, we take the Christian adventure of joy and freedom and fall back into an oppressive slavery.  St. Paul actually says in Galatians, “It was for freedom that you were set free (Galatians 5:1).”   In other words, Jesus set us free so that we could be free.  Huh?  It may sound circular, but we need to take the word of God seriously.  Jesus did not break the chains of sin and death so that we could bind ourselves up again with chains of scrupulosity about our sin.

Did you know that one of the primary names for Satan in Holy Scripture is the Accuser?  Revelation 12:10 refers to the fact that “The accuser of our brethren has been cast out, who night and day accused them before God.”  In the Book of Job, Satan appears to God as an accuser who delights in discovering that good people do bad things.  For many reasons, the voice of the Accuser can be very strong in our spiritual lives.  We may have had overly-demanding parents or we may have been largely ignored, so we strive (too much) for the perfectionism of being noticed.  No matter what the reason is, the voice of the accuser can be an insidious and destructive poison in the spiritual life.  It is a good thing to sin, feel appropriate guilt and remorse, and then repent of that sin.  It is a bad thing to wallow in self-pity and blame for being human enough to sin.  Guilt is an appropriate emotion telling us that something that we have DONE is bad.  Shame is an inappropriate emotion that tells us that what we ARE is something bad.  Christ came to acquit, not to condemn.  So when you hear the voice of the Accuser, you are playing right into the hands of the enemy.  When it comes to the spiritual life, Satan often becomes a vicious prosecuting attorney and we too easily shrink back from our own defense.  We forget that Mary, the angels and Christ Himself desire to act as attorneys for the DEFENSE.  But will we let them?

There is a fundamental difference between someone standing in front of you encouraging you forward, and someone behind you beating you forward.  Guess for yourselves which one of these is God and which one is Satan.

There is often a strange psychology I have observed both before and after we commit a sin.  Before we sin, it seems that sometimes God stands as accuser and enemy and Satan stands as friend.  Before we sin, it is God who says, “Don’t do that.  You may regret it,” and it is Satan who says, “Go ahead!  It will be fine!  It will feel good!”  Then after we sin, they strangely trade places.  After we sin, it is Satan who stands as our accuser saying, “I can’t believe you did that.  You are a terrible person.”  And it is God who says, “It will be o.k.  Repent and turn to me.”  Do we really want to listen to a voice that kicks us when we are down?  Do you really think that voice is God’s?

Being overly scrupulous can often mask a kind of secret pride.  We may think to ourselves that perhaps other people are forgiven for their sins, but that God will not forgive me.  First of all, who are you that you are somehow resistant to God’s forgiving and healing grace?  Are you really that awful?  Is your soul made of some kind of spiritual Teflon?  Hardly.  When it comes to basic sinfulness, you are no different than your brothers and sisters around the world.  Think about it this way.  If Jesus says that someone is innocent, do you think you have the right to say that she is guilty?  I would hope not.  Well, in confession Jesus declares you innocent.  You no longer have the right to proclaim yourself guilty.  The Letter to the Romans 8 tells us that no one can condemn us if Jesus is the one who acquits—that includes YOU about even YOUR OWN sinfulness!

In the Book of Revelation, we see the saints have donned robes washed white in the Blood of the Lamb.  For some of us, we need to just shut up, stop complaining, and put on the robe.  It doesn’t belong to us by right.  We didn’t make it.  We don’t deserve it.  But it is ours if it is given to us by the God who holds everything in the palm of his hand.

Finally, take a look at a crucifix the next time you are feeling horrible about your sinfulness.  He was nailed there so that you wouldn’t go through the trouble to nail yourself there.  Don’t insult Him or His sacrifice.  Take your white robe, kiss your sin goodbye, and shut up.

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A Morning and Evening Examen

I have used the following morning and evening examinations of conscience with great spiritual fruit for a number of years.  I thought that I would type them up and make them generally available!

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***ON RETIRING AT NIGHT

EXAMEN your day:

  1.  Was I selfish?
  2. Was I dishonest?
  3. Was I full of resentment?
  4. Was I full of fear?
  5. Am I guilty of any other deadly sins, such as anger, lust, greed, jealousy, gluttony or sloth?
  6. Do I owe someone an apology?
  7. Have I kept something from someone that should be discussed?
  8. Was I kind and loving toward all?
  9. Did I think of helping others?

BEWARE of self-pity, morbid reflection, remorse and worry.  You cannot afford it.  It will only set you up to both feel and act even worse.

PRAY:  Once we identify these faults, we humbly ask God to remove them.  Here is a good prayer:  “But who can detect his own failings?  Wash away my hidden faults.  And from pride [or name whatever sin] preserve your servant, never let it by my master.  So shall I be above reproach, free from grave sin.  May the words of my mouth always find favor, and the whispering of my heart, in your presence, Yahweh, my rock, my redeemer.”  (Psalm 19:12-14)

AFTER MAKING THIS REVIEW, ask God’s forgiveness and inquire into what corrective measures should be taken.

***ON WAKING IN THE MORNING

PRAY:

  1. Ask God to free you from self-seeking, dishonest motives or those that stem from fear, resentment and self-pity.  Ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Pull out your day-planner and discuss the day with God.  It is one of the best prayers you can do.
  3. We no longer decide our fate – we relax, take it easy, and wait for an intuition or inspiration to fill us.
  4. We ask that God continue to show us through the day what the next step should be and the will and the means to carry that out.  We ask especially that God free us from self-will.

I must decide that I will cease fighting anything and anyone – including God and myself.  This combat only drains me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and decreases my usefulness to others.  All that I have is a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of my spiritual condition.

Based on monastic spiritual principles and the Big Book of AA.

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Christians Post Election — What Do We Do Now?

O.K.  I find that I’m a bit stuck in yesterday — yesterday being the day after the election, or the first day we had to really grapple with the fact that the candidate who supports abortion, homosexuality, socialism, and constitutional crime actually won the election.  I am not going to harp on everything that this might mean for the country because you are already hearing that from other sources.  I sat for awhile and prayed with the readings yesterday as I normally do.  But yesterday I prayed longer.  And I really felt that the Lord was speaking to me through them and perhaps even speaking to you through me.  That is my hope, anyway.  I am so stuck in yesterday that this morning I decided to preach on the readings from yesterday (November 8,  2012):  http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/110712.cfm    I have only done that a few times in my 11 years as a priest, but the message I felt on my heart was so strong that I thought it was justified.

Let me preface this with a larger statement about how and why Obama was elected, and what “God’s will” has to do with it.  There is no doubt that God could have stopped it from happening.  He is all-powerful and all-knowing.  But what we cannot forget is that whole “free will thing.”  I will summarize this in a few sentences, but realize that it is a vastly complex theological question:  in the short term, man’s will can thwart God’s will because we are free.  In the end, we can never thwart his long-term will.  If a drunk man slams into a family of six with his car and kills all of them, this is not necessarily God’s will.  That man had a free choice not to do something very, very stupid with his freedom.  The only thing that is absolutely certain is that even if something bad happens, God can and will turn it into something good if he has the cooperation of his Faithful Ones.  As St. Paul tells us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).”

So what does this have to do with the election?  Was it God’s will that Obama was elected?  My friends, I cannot answer that question.  I am not privy to the great plan.  It may or may not have been his will.  What I want to make sure we understand is that we do not take the attitude that it was certainly his will, and then become discouraged over it.  Men and women make bad decisions every day.  And when millions of men and women who do not know or love God get together, they can make tremendously bad decisions.  If you look at a major portion of the history of Israel in the Old Testament, what do you see happening?  Israel turns away from God so God sends them many kindly prophets to turn them from their evil way.  But Israel is hard-headed, and will not listen to the kindly prophets.  And when many kindly prophets are not heeded, God sends a prophet with a bit of an attitude problem.  When a country fails to heed God’s warnings, the Old Testament pattern teaches us that God will send them a horrible king to rule and oppress them or a foreign army to attack and destroy them so that they will finally turn their hearts to him again.  Perhaps every nation gets the leaders that it deserves — this is a hard saying, but it may be more true than we would like it to be.  Is that what is happening now to our country?  Is God allowing our decisions to play out to their logical conclusion, and allowing those decisions to “punish” us?  Again, I cannot say for sure.  But it is worth praying and thinking about.

A NOTE ON PUNISHING:  I think it is perhaps wrong to say that God is “punishing” us for largely abandoning Him as a country.  I think that God is more like a father who repeatedly tells a young child not to touch a hot surface ‘lest she be burned, and eventually he allows the child to be burned in order to teach her a lesson.  When God allows us to feel the consequences of our own actions, it is different than the way we generally view “punishment.”  He doesn’t let her be burned THEN beat her for it afterwards — THAT would be punishment.

So what do we do?  An exhortation from St. Paul seemed particularly poignant:  

For God is the one who, for his good purpose,
works in you both to desire and to work.
Do everything without grumbling or questioning,
that you may be blameless and innocent,
children of God without blemish
in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,
among whom you shine like lights in the world….”  (Phil 2:13-14)

Isn’t that a beautiful exhortation for what we should be about as a Christian people in a “perverse generation”?  We are tempted to lose hope.  We are tempted to complain, question, and blame.  I am just as tempted to discouragement and judgment as anyone else.  But that is not what we are called to.  We are called to be lights in a dark world, which means to continue to spread the joy of God’s love, His peace and His justice.  These are given to us as gifts through prayer and the sacraments — they don’t belong to us.  And because they don’t belong to us, we need to take extra care that they are used they way they should be used.  Y’all, it just makes sense: if there is a group of people going through the world destroying, breaking hearts, and being selfish, then there should be another group that follows behind them bringing order, mending hearts, and being self-less.

“Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first 
sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops
?”

The interesting note about the tower is that in the ancient world, a man who owned a vineyard would often construct a tower in the middle of it in order to watch for thieves who would try to harvest it at night.  You had to police your own property in the ancient world.  And Jesus compares this to being his disciple.  We need to spend a great deal of planning, effort and vigilance so that thieves will not come and steal what makes us a Christian:  our faith, love, hope, joy, peace and prayer. 

Jesus also compares being his disciple to being attacked by an overwhelmingly superior force.  Aren’t you excited?  Two very radical images:  1) being Jesus’s disciple is like protecting your soul from thieves and 2) engaging in combat with a superior army.  Yay, right?   So if you are feeling this way, then perhaps you are feeling exactly what you are supposed to be feeling.  The writer, C.S. Lewis, often compared the true Christian life with being a small force behind enemy lines.  It doesn’t matter if we are outnumbered and outgunned.  What matters is that we are faithful and that we do not allow the cynical, faithless, complaining world to turn us into cynical, faithless complaining people.  Otherwise, what good are we?  Will we allow the demons to succeed?  Will we allow our vineyard to be robbed; our swords and shields taken away by Satan? 

Would you like a good image from history about how God can turn around the situation of a nation in ten short years?  The worst Christian persecution in Roman history was during the reign of Diocletian.  About ten short years later, Constantine came along and declared the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed tolerance for the Christian faith.  In another generation, Christianity was the official religion of the empire where there was once rampant paganism.

Want another example?  After the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego, 8 million Aztecs converted to Catholicism in a span of 7 years, beginning with 1531.

The symbol for our faith is not a smiley face, it’s a cross.  Christian life is hard.  But it is not without consolation, not without meaning, and not without a reward that is so brilliant that it is inconceivable to the human mind.  So don’t let the world or its fallen master get you down.  Be a “light amidst a crooked and perverse generation.”  That’s what our Baptism called us to be, and by God—with the strength that He supplies—that is what we’ll be!

Fr. Basil

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Election Day, Whether You Like it Or Not…

There is no need for me to tell you about the election.  I think that for those who are concerned with the failing economy, unthinkable debt, America’s sliding into socialism, the attack on religious freedom, abortion on demand, the homosexual agenda, and blatant disregard for the Constitution, the choice is fairly clear.  But neither of our alternatives are very exciting.  For the first time in American history, neither of the candidates are true Christians.  In a country largely founded by Christians who wanted freedom of worship, we find freedom of worship attacked, with neither of its prospective leaders personally concerned with Christianity in the slightest (Obama is a-religious, and Mormons are not true Christians, no matter how much they may try to convince you that they are — do some research….)

As many of you know, I was once heavily involved in politics.  I have a masters degree in politics, and worked for lobbying firms and political campaigns all through college; but my conversion changed all that.  When my blood starts boiling about politics, I try to stop and remind myself of my fundamental insight, and that insight is the following:  I always wanted to be in the middle of the battle when it came to world events and the “meaning of it all.”  But when I had my conversion, I came to the realization that the real battle was the spiritual one, not the political one.  ALL WE SEE IN THE POLITICAL ARENA ARE THE EFFECTS OF THE SPIRITUAL BATTLE.  Imagine that the spiritual battle is like a nuclear war between God and Satan.  The real bombs are going off through prayer, acts of kindness, fasting, singing, and the strengthening of Church and families (or the opposites of all these, if you are on the “other guy’s” team).  What we see in the political arena is the just fallout of those soul-transforming explosions.

It’s happening all around us, but what can we do?  It is prophesied that towards the ends of days, the love of men will grow cold (matt 24:12), nation will rise against nation (Luke 21:10), and disasters will occur all over the globe.  And listen to St. Paul writing his final words to Timothy:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid [lawful] marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Tim 4:1-3)

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.   As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.  (2 Tim 4:3-5)

Today’s reading is that beautiful hymn of Phillipians that tells us that Jesus himself did not hold on to the privileges of his divinity, but poured himself out for us so that he might serve others through love and save those whom he could.  When we get too wrapped up in concerns with the earthly kingdom, The Gospel reminds us that only one kingdom lasts, and that’s God’s.  And he will see it filled.  We were invited to the table, but will we go to the table to be sustained, or will we look elsewhere for answers?

So let the election happen — there’s nothing we can do about it.  There are spiritual events that are occurring all around us, striking our souls like unseen hurricanes.  And you can’t really do anything about a hurricane.  Or can you?  We actually can prepare for a hurricane.  And I think that God is asking us to prepare ourselves for these great spiritual events as well.  In a spiritual hurricane as well as a physical one, we gather in those whom we love, we pray, we show kindness to those who are lost and suffering, and we remember what is truly important in this life; and we also remember that there is another life coming after this one, and that next one is going to be a bit longer than this one, if memory serves me correctly.  This life is just a dress rehearsal.

What can we do to “fulfill our ministry,” as Paul tells Timothy?  How can we pour ourselves out in our little corner of the world to establish the Kingdom of God, one brick at a time?  In the words of the well-known “Serenity Prayer,” “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

So take comfort, my friends, from some of the most consoling words that Jesus ever spoke:

Do not be afraid, little flock for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”  (Luke 12:32) “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

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The Commandments of Love — Homily Nov. 4, 2012

Let me ask you a simple question.  If a very intelligent man with a reputation as one of the greatest teachers on the face of the earth made a statement like, “I am about to tell you what I think is the secret of life,” most of us would perk our ears up and take notice, right?  Well, in today’s gospel, the very Son of God–the man who will decide whether or not you will go to heaven–tells us what the two greatest commandments in the Old Testament are.  Today, the Lord gives us the two well-known commandments of love.  I wonder how much we have really thought about these, or considered what they mean?

As the first commandment, Jesus responds with the same thing that Moses tells the people in Deuteronomy, which you heard in the first reading:  Hear, O Israel!  The Lord our God is Lord alone!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Entire books have been written on what this means.  Let us glance over it briefly and say that the first commandment is for us to marshall all of our thoughts, our intentions, our actions, our feelings, hopes and dreams and direct them to the Lord our God.  Pretty radical, isn’t it?  The FIRST OBSERVATION that I would like to make is that when Jesus is asked what the absolutely primary commandment is, he answers with the maximum rather than the minimum.  Many of us try to look for the easiest way out — when I was growing up, I often would try to do the fewest chores possible before my mother got angry, or the littlest homework possible to make a decent grade.  That is what we call the “bare minimum.”  The lowest common denominator.  Jesus immediately ramps up the requirements for us to be a true follower of God.  He’s got to have it all, and have it to the maximum.

Then, Jesus responds with another addition that he was not asked for by the young man who asked him a question.  Jesus adds a commandment.  All the scribe asked him was what was the greatest commandment?  He didn’t ask Jesus, “What are the two greatest commandments?”  But apparently Jesus thought it was important to add a second one.

Jesus says, “The second commandment is like the first.  Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus specifically says that the second commandment is like the first one.  But what does loving your neighbor have to do with loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?  The reason Jesus adds this second commandment is to combat those people who think that holiness is all about prayer to a God who is in Heaven while ignoring the suffering and need of their brothers and sisters who are right there with them on our dirty earth.   Think about it this way.

We are commanded to love God above all things.

But all men and women are made in the image and likeness of God.

Therefore, you cannot say you love God unless you also love the men and

           women who are made in his image and likeness.

That’s just pure logic, people.  Unavoidable, unassailable, and real.  THE SECOND OBSERVATION IS THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE IN GOD’S JUDGMENT TO LOVE HIM WITHOUT ALSO LOVING OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS.

THE THIRD OBSERVATION IS THIS:  When Jesus answers what the two greatest commandments are, he answers with commandments already found in the Old Testament.  Isn’t that interesting?  For those of you who think that the God of the Old Testament is angry and vengeful and the God of the New Testament is all about being a nice guy, you can put that in your pipe and smoke it.  These commandments about the outpouring of love are already present in that so-called “angry Old Testament.”

THE FOURTH OBSERVATION IS THIS:  When Jesus answers the scribe about the greatest commandment, he does not answer with one of the Ten commandments.  Did you notice that?  I mean, Jesus is a good Jew, but he glances right over Ten Commandments of Moses.  But like I said, both of the commandments that he gives are found in the Old Testament.  Jesus gives us Two Commandments that make all the other commandments obsolete.  Think about it this way.  If you are raising a child or teaching a class, which child or class really need the set of rules — the good one or the bad one?  If you have a model child who naturally loves God and his brothers and sisters, that child does not need a set of rules.  The set of rules is meant for the unruly ones, not the ones who already have the rule of love in their hearts.  That is why Jesus does not answer with one of the Ten Commandments.  He is trying to get to the Heart of the Law, and the Heart of the Law is that outpouring of love that makes all other laws unnecessary, because you do what you are supposed to do without being asked.

But let’s pause here.  There is another observation that I would like to make that should be obvious, but because it is obvious it can sometimes be missed — the FIFTH OBSERVATION is that both of the commandments depend on LOVE.  Isn’t that something?  But what is love that we might understand what Jesus is asking us to do?  That is also a massive question.  I have written a 400 page textbook on the meaning of love in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, but I will spare you the several hundred hours that it would take to explain all of it so that you will not stone me where I stand.  Let us suffice it to say that love is a striving after something that we consider good.  The million dollar question is, “What do you consider good that you are striving after it?”  The commandments that Jesus gives us are about priorities.  God must have first priority, and after that, serving your neighbor must have second priority, and the two should be joined together.  Success is good, but does striving after that have priority over these first two?  Relationships are good, but does striving after that have priority over these first two?  There are a million things that we can strive after that are good, but when we make striving after a lesser good more important than striving after a greater good, then we actually do something evil and wrong.  Surprise!  We should consider today what those things are.

The other aspect of love that should be considered is that there are essentially only two ways we can love something.  We can love something because we NEED something or we can love something because we have something to GIVE.  C.S. Lewis calls these, unsurprisingly, gift-loves and need-loves.  If I really want a relationship, for example, I can love that relationship because I have a hole in my heart and I want to desperately shove that person in that hole in order to make myself complete (which is a need-love), or I can love that relationship because I love the other person so much that I want to give myself to them as a gift.  We love either because we need or we love because we give — one or the other, and often both of them simultaneously.  What are most of your loves?  Are they need-loves or gift-loves?  Because I guarantee you that the kind of love God calls us to is gift-love — that unselfish love that thinks of the good of the other before the good of the self.

The final observation that I would like to make is that these two are not the only commandments of love that Jesus gave us.  As I mentioned, both of these commandments are from the Old Testament.  But if that was all we needed, then we wouldn’t need the New Testament, would we?  So what do we learn in the New Testament that we don’t know in the old?

On the night Jesus was betrayed he said, “I give you a new commandment — love one another as I have loved you.”  Should we be surprised that this new commandment is all about love, just like the other two?  Jesus is in full continuity with fulfilling the Old Testament.  But we do see something new here.  I will try to illustrate this by asking you a question.  If I, Fr. Basil Burns, told you to “love one another as I have loved you,” what would you have to know in order to fulfill that commandment?  You would first have to know who I am and how I have loved.  AND SO MY SIXTH OBSERVATION IS THIS:  FULFILLING JESUS’S COMMAND DEPENDS COMPLETELY UPON YOU KNOWING WHO JESUS IS AND WHAT HE HAS DONE.  If you do not know that, then the commandment is essentially worthless to you, isn’t it?  It’s just words without meaning.  That is why we must through study, prayer and action learn as much as we can about Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, because if we do not know him, then we cannot fulfill his command to love as he has loved.

My friends, love is essentially about what you reach out to in your need and what you give yourself to when you have an abundance to give.  What do you need?  What do you give yourself to?  Because in answering those questions, you also answer who and what you love.  Will those loves get you to heaven?

C.S. Lewis once wrote the following:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

Love is anything but safe, my friends.  But it is the training ground for heaven, and it is a command of our God.  May we learn to love well.  But, like dancing or singing or any other art, we can only learn it well by actually taking the risk to go out and do it.  And it is in taking those risks that we will finally win our salvation.

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