Ash-Wednesday Homily

These days everyone demands “transparency.” Transparency in decision-making; transparency in government; “transparent” accounting. And why not? Honest people tend not to have something to hide.

But in the gospel at Holy Mass, the Lord tells us to keep secrets—namely, our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent. “Transparency” makes a nice buzzword. But we have to face the facts about the obscurity in which we find ourselves.

Pope Francis ashesAfter all, we frequent church precisely to acknowledge that what we cannot see exceeds in greatness what we can see. We walk by faith–faith in divine mysteries.

At the font, when each of us received the sacrament of Baptism, everyone there saw the ritual. But only from heaven could they see the whole thing: the cleansing of the soul by Christ’s Precious Blood and the supernatural unification with His Body.

And what could be less “transparent” than the Mass? The angels see Jesus, risen from the dead, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. But we do not see Him with our eyes. This Catholicism thing is a pretty daggone obscure business.

Even more: Can I claim to be transparent to myself? Sure, I want the government to operate in a transparent manner. But do I operate in a transparent manner? I hardly understand the inner workings of my own appetites and desires. It takes a lot of work even to achieve enough clarity with myself to see how big a sinner I am.

But it’s not hopeless. All this obscurity is not meant to last forever.

The mysteries of our faith promise resurrection. Lord Jesus rose from the dead. In His risen Body, He possesses utter human transparency: Himself, body and soul, irradiated with divine light.

We believe in this. And we hope that we, too, will rise and share in that brilliant human transparency.

In the meantime, we struggle in obscurity. We pray in secret, fast in secret, and give alms in secret. Our Father above sees what is hidden. And He will repay our obscure sacrifices with the glory of His perfectly clear light.

Worrying, Conscience, Obedience

dont-worry-be-happy-bobby-mcferrin-cd-cover-artYour heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field, even though they neither sow nor reap nor toil nor spin. Are you not more important than they? So do not worry. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. (see Matthew 6:26-32)

Comforting. Almost enough to make you sing ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy,’ by Bobby McFerrin. But the Lord had a little more to say.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Do not worry about tomorrow. Today has plenty of evil.

So maybe our song should be: “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh. Landlord said your rent is late; he might have to litigate. Don’t worry. But avoid evil.”

Anyone know the phrase contemptus mundi? Anyone know Latin? I think we could translate it: contempt for the world’s business.

Let’s start with this: Human beings seek happiness. That’s what we do. Squirrels seek nuts; dogs seek squirrels; human beings seek happiness. We would be just fine if we knew clearly what will make us happy. But we don’t.

Some people seek happiness in a full belly or a heady buzz. Some seek happiness in the esteem and honor of men. Some try to get happy by piling up money. Some want to become little Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.

crispy_bacon_1But none of it really satisfies. No one ever gets anywhere near real wisdom without realizing: This world and its business cannot, in and of itself, make me happy. I won’t truly find happiness–peaceful happiness–until I get to heaven. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”

Now, there’s a bit of a debate swirling around the upper echelons of the Church these days. The subject is: how the Church should interact with someone’s conscience.

I guess we could paint two cariciatures, depicting the extremes. On the one end, mindless Catholic lemmings who obey their priests like robots. I get up and say, “No meat on Fridays during Lent!” Then everyone marches home mechanically, takes the bacon out of the fridge, and drops it into the garbage, like a factory machine with a robotic arm.

On the other end of the spectrum: Priests never challenging anyone about anything. They just talk like Obi Wan Kenobi, saying, “Well, sure the sixth commandment officially says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But what does your heart tell you? Stretch out with your feelings, Luke! Put on the blast helmet, and do whatever you want!”

Lord Jesus started by saying: “Repent, and believe the Good News.” God is God. Righteous and holy and wonderful. He will provide. Today you will confront plenty of evil. Recognize and renounce your own evil, and your heavenly Father will guide you through, and He will lead you to the higher goal.

I guess the easy thing to say would be: When it comes to exercising our consciences, we need to come down right smack in the middle of the spectrum between blind obedience and unchecked license. But I don’t believe that.

Luke on approachYes, of course, the Lord communicates directly with every individual soul, in the inner sanctuary called the conscience. Yes, He has put each of us into our own hands by giving us the power to think and act freely. Yes, only the particular individual knows enough about his or her own situation to make a prudent judgment about how to act.

But what kind of priest would start with anything other than what Jesus started with? Repent! We sinful human beings must first question ourselves, doubt ourselves. We must give the benefit of the doubt not to our own opinions, but to the Word of God. In order truly to attain freedom, we have to renounce our own self-justifying opinions and obey the Ten Commandments and the laws of the Church.

It’s not that God doesn’t love us with fatherly kindness. He wants nothing more than to share His friendship with us. He wants us to flower and flourish like the freeborn children of heaven He made us to be. He wants us to be a holy rule unto ourselves, with Him guiding us sweetly, by His interior promptings, toward heavenly bliss.

But if we imagine that this friendship of ours with God can begin with anything other than us repenting of our sins and going to confession, then we live in a dream world. If I think I’m smarter than Holy Mother Church and her ancient teachings, I’m kidding myself. If I feel that being God’s friend is easy, I’m friends with a god other than the real God.

Contemptus mundi. And contemptus sui. Contempt of myself. Not that I hate myself and want to destroy myself. But that I recognize: I have a very profound problem. I desperately want happiness. And I’m desperately ignorant regarding how.

Our heavenly Father knows how to guide us to real happiness and freedom. And He does it by giving us clear commandments to obey.

Death on the Sixth Commandment

We read at Holy Mass: A man shall cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…No human being must separate what God has joined. (Mark 10:7-9)

Such ringing clarity about marriage comes as a wonderful antidote to news reports about transgender bathrooms. Economic and social revolutionaries can and do find inspirations in the words of Christ. But sexual revolutionaries run into a brick wall. Because Jesus of Nazareth was death on the sixth commandment.

marriage_sacramentBetter to pluck out your eye than look at a woman lustfully. Better to cut off your hand than use it to sin. Lord Jesus revealed that when God spoke from Mount Sinai condemning adultery, He condemned every sexual thing—except the one, honest act that makes marriage marriage, through a lifetime of fidelity.

Now, we would be fools to think ill of sex. Our churches would be empty without it. The Lord’s severity hardly proceeded from fussy prudishness on His part. He was celibate, but no prude. To the contrary, when He spoke about sex, He evoked the Garden of Eden, where the original divine command resounded: Be fruitful and multiply!

But when it comes to the union of man and woman as one flesh, the holiness of Christ utterly prohibits anything cheap, anything fleeting or libidinously selfish. He chose us for ecstasy and communion that lasts forever; He offered His celibate body on the cross to consummate our everlasting marriage with God. There’s no room at the foot of His cross for anything other than chastity.

Doesn’t mean He won’t forgive our falls. He knows what Adam’s sin has done to our human powers of self-control. When we succumb to temptation, He picks us up and gives us a fresh start, helping us to pursue again the serenity of perfect sexual honesty. Christ never gets tired of pardoning us weak sinners when we repent.

But the idea that any fruitless, short-term sexuality could peacefully co-exist with the holiness of Christ? His own words utterly anathematize this. Following Jesus means believing wholeheartedly that sex is only for marriage, and marriage is for life.

Chair-of-Peter Homily

Mount Kilimanjaro

Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter: “You are the Christ.”

An old saw in the Catholic world has it, “The Church is not a democracy.” Indeed, a King rules: our Lord Jesus, the Christ, enthroned in heaven. St. Peter declared it on the first Pentecost: “Jesus is exalted at the right hand of God.” (Acts 2:33)

Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. True enough, when it comes to running affairs pertaining to this world: democracy seems like the best choice from a bad lot.

But Holy Mother Church cannot operate as a democracy, because She exists solely to love and serve Her heavenly King. The Church cannot operate as a democracy for the same reason that creation itself, the cosmos, cannot operate as a democracy. The Creator rules creation, and the Creator rules the new creation–the Church of the Christ.

Copy work for the Telfair Museum of Arts and Sciences
From Moneterrey Square, Savannah, by West Fraser

We need a shepherd. I mean, our souls.

Democracy may offer the greatest prospect for a nation’s prosperity in this world. But if we try to worship democracy as something sacred, we will wind up with a handful of dust.

If we worship the “sacred democratic nation,” the politicians will just wind up looking at each other uncomfortably and asking themselves, “Are these people bowing down? Yeesh! We’re not the worst bounders in the world, but we are egomaniacs who love the sound of our own voices. These people are worshiping a dirty business.”

St. Peter declared the bedrock of all truth, “Jesus is the Christ.” With that declaration, the Lord established the Chair from which Peter and his successors govern the pilgrim Church on earth.

Here’s an analogy. If we can honestly bring ourselves to believe that all the atoms in the universe democratically organized themselves into things like Niagara Falls, or Adele’s vocal chords, or Mt. Kilimanjaro; if we think that the oceans, and the planets, and the sun and moon, arrived at their state of harmonious motion through consensus among themselves—then we can say that religion ought to involve democracy.

But, since the idea that the Hudson River found its course by taking a poll; or that Shakespeare got his genius through a fair election in Stratford upon Avon; or that the city of Savannah, Georgia, has such beautiful trees in its squares because the voters elected them—since these ideas are patently absurd, let’s just rejoice in the fact that the hierarchical organization of our Church makes the same amount of sense as the beautiful, hierarchical organization of the universe.

Giving and Getting It All

The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise. That they are vain. (I Corinthians 3:20)

The wise of the world. Like Oprah Winfrey or Mark Twain. Like Socrates. Like the framers of the US Constitution–Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Co. Like the entrepreneurial geniuses–Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk. Or the gray eminences of Hollywood–Samuel Jackson, Shirley MacLaine, Denzel Washington, or Meryl Streep. Even the the sage of the ultimate mystery, NCAA bracketologist John Lunardi.

joe-lunardi[Click HERE to read in Spanish.]

All their thoughts–about who will get into the tournament, or about how to make money, or write a book, or please an audience, or govern a country–all of those human brainwaves: completely vain, saith the Scriptures.

Let’s go a step farther. Who’s the wisest Christian who ever lived? Gotta be St. Thomas Aquinas, right?

Near the end of his life, someone asked him about all his voluminous writings of wisdom. He said, “It’s all straw.”

Something transcends it all. By comparison with its wisdom, the deepest thoughts of men mean nothing. And that something is Christ crucified.

St. Paul went on to write: “So let no one boast of human beings, for everything belongs to you…the world, or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

Wow. But how to understand this? How do we understand St. Paul telling us that everything–as in: the whole cosmos–belongs to us? To try to understand, let’s work our way down, in order to work our way up. We have to let the commands of Christ humble us utterly, so that His sacrifice can utterly exalt us.

In the gospel at Sunday Mass we hear Jesus tell us: “Offer your left cheeck to the one who strkes your right. Love your enemy. Pray for the one who persecutes you. Do all of this to live as children of your heavenly Father, Who makes His sun rise on everyone, and Who loves everyone perfectly.”

Mark TwainNow, Who must this man be, Jesus, to issue such commands? No human being ever made the sun rise, or prevented its rising. No human being has ever known better than God when it should rain, or when it should stop raining.

When Jesus speaks, we hear the voice of the One Who owns and operates everything. He knows every human mind, and He knows that not one of them contains enough knowledge to judge a human soul. If I think so-and-so is my enemy, I may have my human reasons for thinking that. But it could be that God gave me so-and-so as a friend. What I know for sure is that God made so-and-so to be His, God’s, friend.

The doctrine of Christ utterly humbles us. Because Christ’s wisdom is not human wisdom. It is divine wisdom. Jesus is something other than a wise sage, something completely different from an “expert.” Jesus is a man with God’s Mind in His Head. God owns and operates the cosmos, whole and entire. And everything that God owns and operates, Christ owns and operates. And everyone that God loves, Jesus loves. And that’s everyone.

Now, does everything that Christ owns and operates belong also to us? Including His universal love?

Lord Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross not just for those who love Him, but also for those who hate Him. They took His cloak, His tunic, and His sandals. They beat and battered Him. They scourged Him and spat on Him, and yet He peacefully offered more. He opened His Hands and relaxed His Feet for the nails. And, as the hammer fell, He loved the very men who pounded the spikes into His flesh. He gave everything and held nothing back for Himself. He gave His very life’s breath to His enemies.

An utter fool, the Uncreated Divine Wisdom. An utter fool for love, His Blood dripping to the ground below, as He said, “Father, forgive them,” about the men who at that moment mocked Him and spat with contempt on His wounded ankles.

But the Fool for Love reigns. Even hanging on His Cross, Christ our God owned and operated everything, with His infinite divine power and knowledge. And at that moment, He handed it all to us. The cosmos. And His infinite Love.

For free. For nothing. As a gift.

He made this gift to both those who love Him and those who hate Him. God gave to sinners the gift of His loving friendship. All things work to the benefit of the friends of God, by His power and grace. Not because we are good, or wise, or cute–but because He is generous: We have it all.

Morning Run in Charleston

West Fraser paints Charleston and environs with a native son’s love

(from the “On-A-Little-Vacation” file…)

The sun rose high over Colonial Lake through the crisp, semi-tropical-winter air, dappling the reflecting-pool waters. Orange light warmed the bricks and stones of Broad Street. Beyond the austere statue of William Moultrie in the Battery’s White Point Garden, James Island saluted from across the Ashley River.

The Gibbes Museum of Art has a gallery of 18th-century Charleston portraits and furniture. The wall placard refers to “the abhorrent economic system” that built this stylish little peninsular metropolis. On the cobblestones around the 250-year-old Customs House, your blood runs cold imagining manacled men and women bought and sold on this spot.

In the distance, Fort Sumter reigns, like a ghost king, over this whole little watery realm. Yes, the 2005 Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River asserts the 21st century, jutting a pair of concrete tire-jack colossi into the sky. And on the suburban bank of the river, the USS Yorktown evokes the 20th century.

But, in my mind, Charleston belongs to Mary Chesnut and the 19th century. Here’s a selection from her diary, April 12, 1861:

Anderson will not capitulate…I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting…I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene…


Light in R-Rated

I hesitate to get into this. But it’s time to acknowledge a true leader. I know these debates can get quite emotional. I for one have seen a lot of hate spewed in recent days–about a man who is a constant winner and overachiever. He’s out there proving his haters wrong time after time. Some people get jealous of such a consistent winner. Throw in a beautiful foreign model for a wife, and people hate him even more. Maybe you didn’t want him in the role he has today, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.

Like it or not, Tom Brady is in the Superbowl again.*

Stations of the CrossBefore the game, though, let’s turn inward. Who calls him- or herself a disciple of Christ?

Therefore we must listen carefully.

Last week He taught us where we can find true blessedness. Christ’s Beatitudes describe a kind of happiness that lies hidden from the world’s eyes. Poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure-hearted, longing for justice and truth–there we find the invisible happiness of inner communion with God.

Today at Holy Mass we hear the Lord command us to let a light shine that will move people to glorify God. “You are the light of the world,” He tells us.

In a month, Lent will arrive, and we will celebrate the Stations of the Cross on Fridays, as we customarily do. We have lovely, evocative stations at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke. We can use them outside of Lent, too, of course. A unique light shone from Christ throughout His pilgrim life. But when we imagine His bitter Passion and crucifixion, we see that light at its purest.

Theologians debate the question of whether Jesus had the virtue of faith during His earthly life. St. Thomas Aquinas says No, because Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of His conception in the Virgin’s womb. In His mind, Lord Jesus always beheld the glory of God. What we believe, and hope to see, Jesus always saw interiorly and knew.

In the end, I think the debate on the the question of Jesus’ faith doesn’t serve much of a purpose, because the essential fact for us is: The strength and serenity that Jesus possessed during His Passion. We have faith–we have faith precisely in that inner source, the life of the soul of Christ, which gave Him the love by which He offered Himself to the Father, for us, on the cross. We believe that the inner source of Christ’s perfect life is God. The source of Jesus’ strength and serenity during the Passion is the God in which we Christians believe. Feel me?

As we gaze at the fourteen Stations, we see light. An intense paradox draws us into the true meaning of our lives: These bas-relief sculptures depict a hideously dark sequence of events. If we didn’t hold the Christian faith, we wouldn’t want our children exposed to these images. When Mel Gibson made his Passion movie, people complained about the violence. But Good Friday–the real, original day–it was an R-rated movie. If they gave a rating to our Stations of the Cross, it would have to be R.

Tom BradyBut we see light. At Mass at St. Andrew’s, we find ourselves in a shiny, sparkling, gaudy building–and right in the center, with every architectural line converging on it–is the rendition of a crucified man. And to us, this is the brightest light of all, the shiniest part of the beautiful building. This is our God. His light, altogether invisible to every eye but the eye of faith–His light shines brighter than any other light. The Passion, darker than any Hollywood horror movie–and yet we see the Light of the World shining.

And that makes us the light of the world. It’s good to be nice, but being nice doesn’t make anyone the light of the world. It’s good to be smart, but being smart doesn’t make anyone the light of the world. When does our light shine before others and make them glorify our heavenly Father? When they see within us the same light that shone within Jesus on Good Friday.

The world needs our Christian interior life. We need a Christian interior life. How did Jesus give heaven to the human race? By living from the deep secret within Himself, His secret divine union with the Father.

Which means that we need to wall-off a sancutary in our souls. We need an inner tabernacle that no e-mail, no facebook, no Superbowl, no President, no news media can touch. We need to cultivate the interior life. The world needs us to cultivate the Christian interior life.

How? How about at least fifteen minutes of absolute silence per day? If we wonder, What do we need to survive life in the USA in 2017? let’s listen to this. St. Francis de Sales said, “I pray an hour a day, except when I’m really busy. Then I pray two hours a day.” Or Martin Luther: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours praying.”

What’s Christian meditation? It’s as easy as walking quietly from one Station of the Cross to the next. Or just trying to pay attention at Mass. Or opening up the New Testament and starting to read from Matthew 1:1.

Our light will shine. When we let the light of Christ crucified shine inside us. Through daily silent prayer.


* Thank you, David “Dutch” Massingham, for this joke.

Groundhog Day with No Variables


Our Lady and St. Joseph took the Lord to the Temple on the fortieth day after His birth. They fulfilled an ancient law. “You shall redeem your firstborn by offering sacrifice to the Lord, because He slew the firstborn of the Egyptians to liberate you from slavery.”

The Passover. The angel of death passed over the households marked by the blood of the sacrificial lamb. The holy nation marched to freedom. Simeon saw the Lamb, God made man, ready to shed His Blood for His people. So the old man declared our Christian faith: “My own eyes have seen the light of salvation! Peace!”

Whom has God Almighty liberated from slavery? On whose heart has He daubed His own most-precious Blood? Upon whose faces has the undying Light shone?

candlemas…What is Candlemas all about? Why do we light the same little tapers we use only today and at the Easter Vigil? Why does the Easter candlelight fill our temple today?

We are the people. God Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth, master of times and seasons, governor of history—He has made Himself our kind Father. In the covenant consecrated by the blood shed on the cross, the Precious Blood of our Mass.

Frickin’ Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. But we set no store by such frivolous superstitions. Shadow/no shadow does not concern us.

For us, in our temple, February 2nd has no variables. Light wins. God is light, and His light wins. We are the People God has chosen to be His own. Not because we were good. He has chosen to form His people from the great mass of sinners.

We will march to freedom, because Jesus Christ is our God. In this world we will have troubles. But we rejoice because He has overcome the sin of the world.

Amoris Laetitia on Grandparents

amoris-laetitia-coverIn his letter to us about family love, Holy Father urges nice long talks with grandma and grandpa…

The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, “Then was then, now is now,” is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth: “Recall the former days” (Heb 10:32). Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country. A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future…

Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness, and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. (Amoris Laetitia 193)