Holy Co-operation!

God is holy. By definition.

The apse wall of Otranto Cathedral holds the skulls of 800 martyrs
What is holy?


What is God?


He is holy.

He is infinitely, terrifyingly holy.

He is won-derfully, magni-ficently holy.

We Christians aspire to holiness. We desire the holiness of God. We want to share in His glory. We want to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy.

Are we presumptuous? After all, how can we be holy—we who subsist on the flesh of dead animals, and sometimes produce bad smells and bad words, and spend a lot of time thinking about ice cream and professional sports and a lot of other things that don’t exactly pertain to holiness? How can we hope to be holy?

Continue reading “Holy Co-operation!”

It’s not Just a Religion, It’s an Adventure

…Let me say this, my blizzard-jockey friends: When the Washington springtime comes this year, it will be the sweetest ever…

Simon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him.

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:8-11)

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

These were St. Peter’s words when he recognized the awesome holiness of Christ. Peter was afraid. He knew he was not worthy to be in the presence of God. After all, he was a rough and humble working man.

Continue reading “It’s not Just a Religion, It’s an Adventure”

The Spiritually Mediocre and the Wisdom of the Church

Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh

Studying the old Mass reminded me of something that the novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote around 1970. When the Mass was changed, he wrote some letters to the Cardinal Archbishop of London lamenting the novelities.

Waugh objected to the intense insistence on “building community spirit” in the 1970’s Church. He did not like the idea that you had to “participate actively” at the Holy Mass–showing up on time, singing along, shaking hands, etc. His point was: We are not all up to this. We are not all up to sitting in the front of the church. Some of us tend to slip in the back after the singing has already started, and we are not about to fuss with a hymnbook and “join in.” This is our Church, too. There has to be room in the Church of God for the people who sit in the back. The Church shows Her greatest wisdom by knowing how to deal with spiritual mediocrity.

The saints are obviously the ideal. We would all like to be holier; we all can be holier; may it please God that we will all be holier before too long. But in the meantime, the old-time Catholic religion knows how to deal with us. The Church is patient and kind enough never to give up on anyone. She is always there. She gently urges–without shouting and without making impossible demands. She whispers: Go to Confession, show up for Mass, start over.

Four Homilies on the Reasons for the Incarnation of the Son of God




Here are four homilies based on paragraphs 456-460 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:


First Homily

          Why did God become man?  There are four fundamental reasons why God freely chose to unite Himself with our human nature personally in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  In our first reading, we heard the prophet declare, “From Zion shall go forth instruction.”

          We human beings need instruction from God.  We need Him to teach us about Himself.  God is the ultimate mystery.  His works show us that He exists and that He is all-powerful, but He Himself transcends all that He has made.  He is infinitely greater than all of creation.  No matter how hard we try, we cannot conceive of Him, imagine Him, or figure Him out.  Our minds are too small to hold Him.

          Yet it is crucial for us to be able to know God.  Our true happiness depends on our having a relationship with Him.  Nothing is more important than being at peace with our Creator.  With the deepest possible longing, we desire to live in friendship with the Almighty, to please Him by our prayers and actions and way of life.  We are inherently religious creatures.  Having a relationship requires mutual knowledge:  you cannot be friends with someone you don’t know.  We must, therefore, know something about the One Who transcends all human knowledge.

          Now, doesn’t this seem to put us in some kind of Catch-22?  We have to know God to be happy, but the true God is utterly beyond us.

Without instruction from God Himself, we human beings can fall into dangerous traps when it comes to religion.  One is to make things up about God, and then worship the false god that human imagination has produced.   Another is to live in fear and dread of the unknown God, despairing of ever really knowing Him and assuming the worst.  God is infinitely powerful—maybe He is tyrannical and vindictive?  Maybe he is mean?  Countless people labor under this irrational fear.

          Still other people live in a kind of suspended state because they have decided that it is impossible to know God and therefore there is no point in bothering with Him.  Better just to live in this world only.  This might seem  pleasant enough for a while, but every day the clock ticks closer to the end of our earthly journey.  No one really wants to face death and judgment as an agnostic.

          There are many human ways to try and deal with the unfathomableness of Almighty God, and none of them is right.  We simply cannot make up a good religion all by ourselves.

          Our inability to know God on our own helps us to see why God became man.  The first fundamental reason why God became man is: to instruct us about Himself, to enlighten our ignorance and save us from the wretchedness of paganism or agnosticism.  Only God truly knows God, so only God Himself has the authority to teach us about Himself.

          What, then, has Christ the divine man taught us about the unfathomable mystery of God?  He has shown us something that seems almost too good to be true:  The unfathomable mystery is that the all-powerful, all-just Creator is a kind and provident Father.  The Lord Jesus has revealed the love of the Father.  God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that we might not be condemned, but might have eternal life.

          In other words, the instruction God has given us by becoming man is to show us His love.  The awesome power that made heaven and earth is the power of kind and generous fatherly love.  The comprehensive intelligence that guides and governs all things, that laid down all the laws of nature and guide everything on its course—this intelligence is the mind of our gentle, merciful heavenly Father.

Because we are Christians, we take these things for granted.  But as we mediate on the Incarnation to prepare for Christmas, let us recall with new wonder this gift that we have been given:  God became man to make Himself known to us.  The incarnate Son came and taught us this wonderful fact:  God is love.

          Because God has instructed us, enlightened our ignorant minds—because of the Incarnation, in other words—when we greet the day each morning, we do not greet a dark and foreboding menace lurking above us, nor do we greet a lame fairy tale out of our own fantasies, nor do we greet an aloof and impenetrable absentee landlord.  Rather, we greet our Father Who art in Heaven.  We greet the One Who loves us and made us to be His children and enjoy His friendship forever.

          He came to us, He became one of us, to teach us this.  Blessed may He be for doing so!  We could never have discovered this on our own.  So this divine instruction would seem like it was reason enough for God to become man, but in fact there are three more reasons.  But I am not going to keep you here all night.  I will save the other reasons for the next three Sundays.


Second Homily

          Why did God become man?  God became man for four fundamental reasons.  He came to show us the love of the Father, to give us a model of holiness, to unite our human nature with the divine nature, and to reconcile mankind with God.

          Let us reflect a little on this reconciliation which God has brought about by becoming man.

          The human race as a whole stood in need of reconciliation with God.  We are all of us our own individuals, of course, but not in such a way that we can be separated from humanity considered as a whole as a race of sinners.

          God made us for friendship with Him, for happiness and peace.  He set us up originally with everything we could possibly need to be who we are meant to be.  Out of kindness, He laid down a law for us, so that we could honor Him by obeying it.

          We attain true fulfillment by obeying God, so it was indeed kind for Him to make a law for us.  We, too, do a kindness for lower creatures when we govern them.  For instance, we do plants a kindness by cultivating well-ordered gardens and farms, rather than just letting things grow wild.  Just an analogy, but it gives us an idea of what God has done for us by laying down His law.

          We know, though, that our First Parents did not obey the law that God laid down.  They were tempted by the great Liar, and they succumbed.  This cost us the friendship of God.  Every generation of our race has been born as strangers to the Creator, in a state of sin.

          It is impossible for us to imagine exactly what life would be like if the Fall had never happened, if we were born in the Garden of Eden and lived in perfect harmony with God.  We cannot adequately imagine such a life, but we do know this much:  The fallen human race has wronged our kind and loving Creator, and we do not have what it takes to make it up with Him.

          Even if every human being on earth got down on our knees right now, beat our breasts together and wept, and cried out in every language of the world, “Lord, we are sorry for disobeying you,” it would not be enough to make things right.  The debt of our guilt is infinite, because we have offended a Friend of infinite dignity.  He originally gave us His friendship as a gift, a gift infinitely more precious than anything we possess.  We could never have earned His friendship.  Now that we have lost it, we do not have anything precious enough with which to try to buy it back.

Now, God could forgive us unilaterally, of course, without a just act of atonement on our part; He can do whatever He chooses.  But in fact, the plan He has enacted is much more wonderful than that.

          God Himself chose to become a member of the human race so that our reconciliation with Him could be brought about by our actually paying off our debt.  Only a sacrifice made with infinite, divine love could atone for the sin of mankind and make things right again.  Obviously, only God could offer such a sacrifice.  So God became man to offer Himself as our sacrifice.

          On the Cross, mankind offered God the sacrifice of infinite love.  The infinite love of God filled the Sacred Heart of the Lord Jesus as He acted with perfect human obedience to the will of the Father.  This obedience, the obedience of the new Adam, the divine man, has truly and justly reconciled us with God.  The infinite debt we owed is paid in full.  The human race is restored to God’s friendship:  we are redeemed.  Christ has put us at peace with the Creator.

          The holy sacrifice of the Mass is this perfect, reconciling sacrifice.  The fact that Christ is fully human and fully divine, that what He did on the Cross He did as God and as man—this helps us to understand how the Mass can be the sacrifice of Calvary hill.

          If the Lord had died on the Cross only as a man, then His sacrifice would have ended right there, and it would not have changed anything; we would still owe God an infinite debt.  But Jesus of Nazareth offered in sacrifice to the Father the infinite love of the eternal Word.  The love of the only begotten Son for the Father has always been and always will be.  By becoming man, the Word worshiped the Father and obeyed Him as a man with the infinite divine love.

          Therefore, when we do what the Lord Jesus commanded us to do, when we offer bread and wine on the altar with His own words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,”  He becomes present by His Almighty power and He Himself is our sacrifice.  He offered His body and blood to the Father on the Cross; we offer His body and blood to the Father on the altar.  It is the same gift, the same offering, the same sacrifice—and it has the same effect:  the reconciliation of God and man.  It is not a repetition of something that started and finished in the past.  Rather, the Mass is the power of God drawing us into His eternal triune love.


Third Homily

          Today the prophet promises us that “those whom the Lord has ransomed will enter Zion singing.”  The People of God will enter Zion singing.

          The third reason God became man was to be our model of holiness.  We human beings needed a role model, so God became man to who us how to live.  If we are going to enter Zion singing, our song will be our holy lives.  In the Psalms, King David promised that he would sing to God on the ten-stringed harp.  The ten-stringed harp is a symbol for the Ten Commandments.  We sing to God by living in accordance with His law.

          Among all the creatures God has made, we human beings have a unique kind of holiness; we act in accord with God’s law in a way that is all our own.  Other creatures are holy by spontaneously being what they are made to be:  Poinsettias are holy by being vibrantly colorful—red or pink or white and green.  Fish are holy by swimming.  Chickens are holy by laying eggs.  And, above us, angels are holy by gazing upon God and praising Him in heaven.  We human beings, meanwhile, are holy by being moral.  We attain holiness by using the freedom of choice God has given us.

          Sounds simple enough, but, in fact, most of us are at one point or another rather overwhelmed by the freedom we possess.  When a person comes of age and realizes that he is in control of his own actions, it can be a breathtaking, frightening realization.  It is almost too much to handle.  For a lot of people, in fact, it is too much.  Many people reject their freedom and live as if someone else were in charge of their lives.  But, of course, that itself is a choice.

          I remember, when I was about 17, I marveled to myself:  ‘Wouldn’t you know it, it actually is up to me to decide what kind of person I am going to be.  There are plenty of people trying to help me to be good, and there are plenty who want to lead me down strange paths in the other direction, but the ultimate decision is mine and mine alone.  I have to choose to live the right way, and then stick by my choice, even when it is difficult.

          To make the choice is what it means to be a human being, as opposed to being a squirrel or a caterpillar or a holly bush.  Animals and plants can neither be moral nor immoral, because they do not have free will.  But we do.  We can be moral or immoral.  We can be praised or blamed for what we do.  And in the end we can wind up either in heaven or in the other place.

          Looking back on myself as a cheeky teenager, I can see now that when I realized that I could make up my own mind and be my own man, I had the greatest possible advantage.  I had the precise advantage that God had given us all by becoming man.  By the time I was 17 years old, I had, thank God, a clearly formed portrait of Jesus Christ in my mind.  I had been in church every Sunday of my life, thanks to my God-fearing parents.  I was familiar with the gospels.  I knew Christ; I knew what He is like, how he behaved, how He treated people.

          I knew that I wanted to be like Him.  I did not do a such a good job of imitating Him—still don’t—but there has never been any question in my mind that He is the ideal, the perfect role model.  How could anyone who knows Jesus Christ not want to be like Him?.

          Our human freedom is the most powerful device we possess, powerful enough to be overwhelming.  Christ teaches us how to use it.  If you buy a new t.v., you get an owner’s manual to teach you how to use it.  Jesus Christ is the owner’s manual for life itself.

          To love with perfect purity, without holding anything back; to stake everything on what is beautiful, good, and true; to fear nothing in this world, because our heavenly Father will always provide; to know that our destiny is to be with God in glory:  This is the style of living that our perfect role model has shown us.  Poor in spirit, meek, mourning the sins of the world, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful, pure-hearted, peaceable, and brave in the face of evil—the Beatitudes give us the portrait of Christ and the portrait of how we too should live.

          Of course, we need the help of Christ’s grace to have nay hope of imitating Him.  Our ideal is altogether beyond the powers of our sinful human nature.  But He provides the grace.  He won our holiness for us on the Cross, and He gives it to us through the sacraments of the Church.

          And He gives us each other; He unites us perfectly by showing us the way.  Under the Old Covenant, the people were never perfectly united, partly because their code of conduct was a written law, which was open to various interpretations.  To this day there are different approaches to Judaism based on different schools of interpretation of the Torah.  In the New and eternal Covenant, however, our code of conduct is a Person.  We are perfectly united by holding Him as our ideal, and we help each other to be like Him.   Christ has shown us all how to live.  Let us not take this gift for granted this Christmas, but rather focus our minds on it anew and thank the good Lord for it.


Fourth Homily

          Why did God become man?  Today we come to the fourth and final reason.  Let us hear again how St. Paul explained his message:  “The Gospel is about God’s Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power, according to the spirit of holiness.”

          The Gospel is about Christ, true God and true man—one Person with two natures, divine and human.  The fourth reason for the Incarnation is the one that makes all the other reasons possible:  God became man to unite His divine nature with our human nature.

          Now, Jews and Muslims say that it is impossible for God and man to be united in one Person, that it is impossible for Christ to be who we say He is.  So let us consider:  How is it possible?  Maybe you weren’t looking for a philosophy lesson this evening/morning, but let’s try to figure this out.  First, we have to clarify, What exactly are we taking about here when we refer to these two ‘natures’?  On the one hand:  human nature.  Hopefully we have some idea of what this is.  We have first-hand experience of it.  In a nutshell, human nature is:  Being a rational animal, a material being capable of thought and free choice.  That is our nature.

On the other hand, we have the divine nature.  We do NOT know what this is; we have no first-hand experience of it.  We only know what it is not.  It is not like us; it is not like any created thing.

So at this point we might be afraid that the Jews and Muslims have us in a bind here, but in fact they do not.  It is because God’s nature is infinitely above us that the Incarnation is in fact possible.  If the Incarnation were a matter of uniting the natures of two different creatures, then the Jews and Muslims would have us dead to rights.  It is impossible to unite a dog and an escalator into a single creature.  It is impossible to unite cherry pie and ocean water, or granite and a poem.  There are some creatures that you actually can unite with each other, but you wind up with something else altogether, like when you put a horse and a donkey together and get a mule.

The Incarnation, however, is unlike these combinations, because God is not a creature.  All creatures are limited; a creature can only be what it is and nothing else.  The Creator, on the other hand, is unlimited.  Therefore, He is free to unite our human nature with Himself, and by doing so He changes neither Himself nor humanity.

Jesus Christ is the ineffable mystery of this breathtaking divine humility.  It is not like the horse and the donkey; Christ is no mulish mixture of divinity and humanity.  The Jews and Muslims are right to insist that divinity and humanity cannot be mixed.  But they can be united, without either being destroyed.  And they have been united without being destroyed:  it’s called Jesus Christ.

Now, God did not bring about this union for His own sake.  He did it for us.  God became man in Christ, so that we human beings could become holy in Christ.  The Incarnation is God’s establishment of friendly relations with us.  Before the Incarnation, there was a kind of Iron Curtain of absolute difference between us and God.  No friendship, no commerce; only separation.  But now, there in an open door:  communication, friendship, a shared destiny.  Christ is the door; He is the communication, the Mediator.

This mysterious union of God and man in Christ is the foundation and cause of all human holiness.  We human beings are interesting creatures, but we have no holiness of our own.  Holiness is an attribute of God.  All our holiness comes from the divine holiness, which has touched our nature in Christ.  This holiness reaches each of us individual human beings through the seven sacraments of the Church.  Holy Baptism establishes us in Christ’s grace, and the other sacraments increase it.  This grace is the holiness of Jesus Christ in us, the union of God and man in the Incarnation, making its way to us.

But it does not end with the sacraments.  The sacraments are a means to an end.  They are realities of faith which guide us through this pilgrim life.  But the ultimate goal of the union of the divine and human natures is not that we should believe but that we should see.  The Incarnation is not ultimately for us to share in sacramental grace amidst trials and difficulties but for us to share in heavenly glory in a state of consummate happiness and peace.

So, while we are on earth, we can know the four fundamental reasons for the Incarnation, and we do well to meditate on them.  But they give us only a flickering glimpse into God’s mind.  When we reach the eternal Christmas Day, when we behold the glory of the One Who humbled Himself to share in our human nature, then we will see the whole truth, and it will fill us with unutterable delight.