If you remember, last year we briefly discussed St. Januarius’ martyrdom during the persecution of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Naples—which means “New Town”—was actually an old city by then, in AD 305.
When they beheaded the bishop Januarius, a Christian woman preserved some of the blood in a vial. The church of Naples preserves that vial to this day, in the cathedral. The blood miraculously liquefies on the anniversary of Januarius’ martyrdom. Almost every year.
Not that we Christians would ever fall into superstitions about things like this… But it is true that in the years when St. Januarius’ blood failed to liquefy miraculously, some bad things happened.
Like the year when the blood failed to liquefy, and World War II started. Or three years later, when it failed to liquefy, and the Nazis occupied Italy. Or a few decades later, when the blood failed to liquefy, and Naples suffered an outbreak of cholera. Or a few years later, when the miracle didn’t happen, and there was an earthquake.
So I guess it shows that my heart partially remains in Italy: the first thing I did when I awoke this morning was to check the internet to make sure that St. Januarius blood liquefied in Naples, on schedule.
One debtor owed 250 days’ wages, the other 50. Their creditor forgave both debts. Result: The one who owed more loved the merciful creditor more. You forgave me 250 days’ wages! Thank you! vs. You forgave me fifty days’ wages. Thank you.
The parable helps us understand what happened in the house. When the sinful woman entered, Simon compared himself with her like this: righteous vs. unrighteous. I’m righteous; she’s not. But the Son of God compares the two quite differently. All of fallen mankind is running some debt with the Lord. Maybe the woman’s debt exceeded the Pharisee’s by a factor of five. But any debt at all will land you in the bad place.
In other words: Nothing could be more pointless than me thinking of myself as more righteous than so-and-so. Maybe I am more righteous than so-and-so. But that doesn’t mean that I am righteous enough. What I have in common with so-and-so outweighs any difference between us. We both sinners.
So now we have the meaning of the parable. But let’s consider this: The parable has a clear sequence. First, debt. Next, forgiveness of the debt. Then, as a result of the forgiveness, love. Debt. Forgiveness. Grateful love. A clear sequence. But, in the Lord’s interaction with the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s house, the sequence is different. It’s debt, love, then forgiveness.
She walked into the house a notorious sinner. Maybe a repentant sinner, but apparently an as-yet-unforgiven sinner. She sought Christ with love. Why? Not because He had forgiven her already. He hadn’t forgiven her yet.
Maybe she just wanted to lavish herself upon the beautiful, righteous One. Christ’s magnificence as a person—His kindness, patience, gentleness, tender chastity—He makes sin look like what it is: sad. So maybe the woman lavished Him with love simply for walking into the world and giving her hope for a better life.
She definitely loved Him. Lord Jesus Himself said it, as he spoke to Simon: “You never gave me water for my feet. But she bathed them with her tears. You never gave me a welcoming kiss, like even we men give each other in this Middle-Eastern culture. But she has not ceased kissing my feet, and she has anointed them, cracked and calloused as they are, with sweet, soothing ointment.”
The sinful woman loved Christ, and wept because He is so beautiful, and her life had been so ugly. She loved Him. So He forgave all her sins.
See what I am saying about the sequence? The difference between the sequence of the parable, and the sequence of the events in Simon’s house—the difference is notable. We picture the forgiven debtors in the parable jumping up with love, after their creditor tore up their IOU’s. But the woman loved Christ first. Then He forgave her sins.
Did Lord Jesus get confused? Did He lose focus, and tell a parable that wasn’t exactly on-point? Don’t think so. To the contrary: I think He is trying to help us get focused and on-point.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has given us a jubilee year of mercy. He has opened all the Church’s doors of mercy, so that we can gaze inside, so to speak, and contemplate the great divine mystery. When we contemplate the triune God, love moves us, and penance, and self-esteem.
Jesus has revealed the face of the Father. God loves. God loves me. God is on my side. God has a plan to get me to heaven. He has a plan for me to become my true self. The power that governs all things: He’s a loving, kind, patient father, who only wants His children to be happy.
This is reality. Love rules reality. Reality, as we know it—the whole universe—exists because of the divine love. The very fact that we exist at all is because of Divine Mercy. And one Person—Jesus Christ—stands at the center of everything.
When we behold this truth, we see our sins for what they are: pointless self-destruction. We see our egotism for what it is: preposterous self-delusion. We see our self-centered anxiety for what it is: pride. When we behold the bottomless graciousness of God, we repent of all our shallow, chicken-scratch smallness. And we just love Him, because He is so awesome. We go to confession, and it’s like our sins never happened. And of course that makes us love Him even more.
The Lord’s gaze upon us has no “sequence”: it’s just merciful love. He gazes at us with merciful love, always.
This divine gaze offers us renewal, a change, and a fresh start, at the very same time that it offers acceptance and esteem. When we look back at Him with love, we feel repentance; we feel contrition; and we feel supreme confidence, all at once.
St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “The proof of the resurrection we learn not so much from the words as from the works of our Savior.”
The Lord Jesus did, of course, speak about the resurrection of the body. “I am the resurrection and the life.” “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” “It is my Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up.”
But it wasn’t all talk. As St. Gregory put it, Jesus’ works prove the resurrection. He raised the dead. Like the man we read about at Sunday Mass, in the town called Nain. And the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official. And also, in John 11, Christ raised… His friend… Kinda rhymes with Nazareth…
Now, why? Why did Jesus raise the dead during His public ministry?
Because He loves the human race. Because He hates death. Because He came to nullify the annihilation of death. He came to turn death into the door to everlasting life.
Christ raised certain individuals from the dead during His pilgrim life, as we read in the gospels. Then, as we also read, when Jesus died, the netherworld shook, and a number of dead people rose in Jerusalem. Then, Christ Himself rose from the dead, never to die again.
All of this indicates the ultimate destiny of every human individual. We will all rise on the last day. The blessed will enjoy everlasting happiness; the wicked will suffer permanent condemnation.
We Catholics do various things to signify, or celebrate, or call to mind, or exercise our faith in the resurrection. Like, at the Easter Vigil, we light the Paschal Candle. And we say we believe in the resurrection whenever we recite the Creed. And we celebrate Mass.
The Mass inherently involves faith in the resurrection. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, the Mass would hardly make sense. But, since He did indeed rise, Christ revives our faith in the resurrection by the very act of feeding us with His resurrected Body and Blood.
A week and a half ago, a certain famous person gave a speech in Vietnam. Part of the speech touched on “universal human rights.” He did not mention the right to life of the innocent and defenseless unborn. But he did extoll the importance of religious freedom. In his speech, President Obama said to the Vietnamese government and people, “freedom of religion allows people to fully express the love and compassion that are at the heart of all great religions.”
Now, even speaking about “all great religions” certainly exceeds my pay-grade. I hardly consider myself qualified to speak about one great religion.
But I can say this without any hesitation whatsoever: If Christianity involves love and compassion—which, of course, it does—if our religion moves us to love others and act with compassion, there is an underlying reason for this. A crucial underlying fact.
After all, love and compassion don’t exactly grow on trees, so to speak. What does seem to grow on trees? Greed, vanity, shallowness, and the tendency to flimflam and b.s. one’s way through life. Sin, in other words, grows on trees.
So: If we have any love and compassion, there’s a reason. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
None of the Apostles became Christians—nor the early martyrs, nor the heroic Vietnamese, for that matter, who have suffered in order to bear witness to Christ—none of these people thought to themselves: “Let me become a Christian, let me become a Catholic, because that way I will be able to express the love and compassion that are at the heart of all great religions!”
No. The martyrs and heroes have stared death squarely in the face, with the sacred name of Jesus on their lips, because: He rose from the dead.
The resurrection means that a loving and compassionate divine Heart beats in heaven. The same Heart that loved the widow of Nain and raised her son from the dead, out of compassion for her. Jesus’ resurrection means that loving and compassionating win out, over hating and crushing, in the end.
One of the great half-truths of modern life is: Religion involves ideals. Fundamentally, religion has to do with ideals for us to strive for. Therefore, the ceremonies and specifics don’t matter that much.
Now, of course we need our ideals to strive for. But let me just speak as what I am—a Catholic priest: our religion fundamentally has to do with facts. Not ideals. God became a man and conquered Satan. He died at the hands of us sinners. Then He rose again.
High ideals are great. But any ideal that doesn’t fundamentally have to do with Jesus Christ—what good is it? You can have it; I’m not interested.
The triune God Almighty rules over life and death; over heaven and hell; over past, present, and future. Jesus has revealed that God Himself loves, with compassion. He loves us, has compassion on us, in our sin-soaked mortal misery.
There was a sinful woman in the city who learned that He was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37-38)
“If this man were a prophet, he would know what sort of person is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
Touching the Body of Christ, with contrite love.
The Apostles saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. St. Paul got to see Him, even after the Ascension, because the Lord gave Paul a unique vision. They all saw a body they could touch. St. Thomas, we know, touched the Lord. And we cannot doubt that others did, too, even though He said to Mary Magdalen, “Do not hold onto me.” We cannot doubt that the Lord embraced His mother when He saw her on Easter Sunday. Nor can we doubt that St. Peter touched His risen Master, that the penitent fisherman bathed his Master’s shoulder with tears.
Long story short, sinners have touched Jesus all along—that is why He became man. His Incarnation is, in fact, the most intimate act of touching ever. God touching us, in the most interior center of our human nature, by Himself becoming one of us–the Almighty divine Person Who had hands and feet that could be pierced by nails.
So the gospel reading for today’s Holy Mass has to be our fundamental guide regarding how we dispose ourselves with respect to the Blessed Sacrament.
1. With total faith. Chances are, the weeping woman may not have had the word ‘Incarnation’ on her lips. But she knew with the eyes of faith that her all, her salvation, the love worth living and dying for, sat right here, at the table.
2. With contrition. Simon the Pharisee’s murmurings ring with unfathomable irony: ‘She’s a sinner, so if he were godly, he wouldn’t let her touch him.’ Au contraire, mon frère. He’s not just godly, He’s God. And He came to have mercy on sinners. He has made it abundantly clear that there is only one category of people He wants touching His Body, namely the contrite sinners who weep for joy, because we have found our Savior.
3. With hope. Complete, total, blind, and unbounded hope. The woman had no idea what exactly she hoped for. She simply knew that this man, whose Body sat right here, would make everything okay and more than okay.
“We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.”Luke 7:32
Two kinds of perpetual dissatisfaction: Holy unhappiness and un-holy unhappiness.
Life can be long and hard. Not all food tastes good. Not everyone who sings sings well. Some drivers evidence no concern for the fact that I am in a hurry. Not everyone knows or cares when it’s my birthday. Sometimes it rains when I’m supposed to go on a picnic.
Nonetheless: Every day I get to gaze upon the wonder of God’s creation. God gives me daily bread and, for today, keeps me out of a lonely, dusty grave. Interesting people and attractive opportunities beckon from just around the corner.
Un-holy unhappiness comes from not wanting to bother to lift up my eyes to everything the good God is trying to give me. Then all I can do is feel sorry for myself and spend my mental energy criticando la gente, even though I have a wooden beam in both of my own eyes.
All that said, the Lord proclaims that those who mourn are blessed, that those who weep now will laugh in the kingdom of God. Those who mourn and weep because this world is not God. And it is nowhere near what it should be, because of the sins of mankind. And I am nowhere near what I should be, because of my sins. Who could really be happy in this cloudy world, even if he or she owned everything–but did not have God?
I mean, like I was trying to say on Sunday: Sure, a guy can enjoy oneself kicking back and watching the Washington Redskins whip up on the poor Jacksonville Jaguars. A guy can enjoy seeing my man Kirk Cousins finally get his chance to show the world that he is the superior quarterback. Sure.
But it isn’t perfect; it isn’t heaven; it isn’t the be-all and end-all.
The only real be-all and end-all dwells on the other side of a veil. Only the power of Jesus Christ can penetrate the veil. None of us will really be satisfied until He catapults us through it, by His unimaginable spiritual power.
May God preserve us from un-holy unhappiness by stoking within us the fires of raging dissatisfaction with anything less than God.
The Lord Jesus worked a lot of miracles. By the time He raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, Christ had performed exorcisms, cured lepers and paralytics, and, of course, the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee.
But He had worked these miracles in and around the city of Capernaum, a good distance from where He grew up. The people of His hometown of Nazareth likely had not heard about these miracles, or, if they had, they were not inclined to believe that the young man they knew could actually be the Messiah. After all, He looked like them, had a beard like all the men did, wore the same tunic, robe, and sandals. He ate the same food, drank the same wine at weddings. Sure, He had a serenity and prayerfulness that certainly impressed you. But–a divine man with dusty feet? Come on.
The little town of Nain, however, sat just across the valley from Nazareth. If you climbed the tallest hill in Nazareth, you could see Nain in the distance.
So when the widow’s son got up from his funeral pallet, the townspeople of Nazareth had all certainly heard about it by sundown. They now had to confront this question: Is Jesus the Messiah? Is He the Son of God, come to save us from sin and death? Is He God made man, revealing the loving face of the heavenly Father and giving us hope for the Kingdom of God?
Well… Is He??
The Roman emperors did not make things easy on Christians during the 200’s. The Emperors kept going back and forth about whether or not you could practice the Christian faith without fines or imprisonment. Years, decades passed when you could go about your business and live openly as a Christian, and no one would bother you about it.
Then something bad would happen in Rome, and the emperor would blame the Christians–since we Christians do not offer pagan sacrifices, like the kind the Romans believed you had to offer to propitiate the gods.
So then the Christians of the Roman Empire faced a choice, not unlike the Nazerenes had faced two hundred years earlier. Is Jesus the Christ or isn’t He? Has He conquered death? Does He reign supreme in heaven? And if He does, can I betray Him?
Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian and countless other martyrs in Italy and North Africa knew the truth about Christ and chose to die rather than betray Him.
Now, chances are pretty good that, at least for today, we won’t have to choose whether or not to remain faithful to Christ in the face of certain death. But every day we face situations where we have to answer the question about who Jesus is and act in a way that reflects what we believe. May the martyrs give us grace and courage to be faithful.
[…And here is last week’s school-Mass homily, dear reader, which I neglected to publish:]
Five hundred years ago, European people began to move here to America, and also to Africa. Of course, they met the people who already lived here, and in Africa. Some of the Europeans began to say, these natives are so backwards that they don’t count as human beings. It’s okay for us to enslave them.
A bishop in Spain named Bartolome de las Casas said, ‘Oh, no! What we need to do is to try to teach these fellow human beings about Jesus Christ, the gospel, and the sacraments.’ The Pope backed up this position and decreed that the idea that the native peoples don’t count as human beings–this idea comes straight from the…Devil.
Unfortunately, a lot of rich traders did not listen to Bishop de las Casas or the pope. But one person who did listen was a young Catalonian Spaniard named Peter Claver.
He came to America to become a priest for the Africans who were being brought here as slaves. He called himself the ‘slave of the Africans,’ the slave of the slaves.
St. Peter Claver made picture books to teach the Africans about Jesus. Then he learned their language. He organized people to meet the over-crowded slave ships coming in from Africa and bring food and medicine to the people. St. Peter taught them how to participate in the Mass and how to go to Confession. After doing this tirelessly for decades, after baptizing more than 300,000 African people, St. Peter Claver died on September 8, exactly 360 years ago.
In the gospel we read about how power emanated from Christ. It still does–the power of true love and respect for our fellow man. Let’s draw close to the Lord like St. Peter Claver did, so that we can live with true compassion.
So the event became the talk of the entire surrounding region. They heard about it in the Lord’s hometown of Nazareth, on the other side of the valley. They heard about it down south in Jerusalem. And John the Baptist, languishing in prison—even he heard about it.
What in the name of holy Moses is going on here? The carpenter is going from town to town, and now he has raised a young man from the dead!
We might think that people would respond to such news with joy. Certainly, many people did. “God has visited His people!” they shouted. And they danced for joy, maybe like Jacoby Jones in the endzone.
But not everyone reacted that way. Surprisingly enough. A lot of people who had known Jesus since He was a boy thought to themselves: “This man has gotten too big for his britches!” A lot of other preachers and religious charlatans gnashed their teeth with jealousy. And people who don’t like surprises—no matter how wonderful the surprise is—they did not like it.
In the beginning, the Lord had said to His people: Two paths stand before you. One leads to life, one to death. Choose life, then! said the Lord. Before many of you young uns were even born, Bl. Pope John Paul II said to us and to the world, The Gospel of Christ is the Gospel of Life!
Everyone must face the choice. Do I choose in favor of Jesus Christ, Who came to give life? Or do I choose in favor of breaking life down? Hurting myself, hurting others. Do I have faith that life is a gift that leads to eternal happiness? Or do I doubt the power of God?
We read that, when they saw Christ raise the dead man, “fear seized them all.”
If it isn’t scary–if it isn’t bigger than me, and awesome, truly awesome—if I don’t see that it demands my all, my love, my self-sacrifice—if it isn’t wonderfully scary, then it isn’t life. It isn’t the power of God. Fear seized them all because they realized: This life thing is bigger than I ever thought it was. God is real. And that is scary.
To believe in the life-giving power of the crucified Christ is not easy. It was much easier for people to scoff and try to dismiss it. Much easier to stick with smaller potatoes, like keeping my belly full and looking cool to my friends.
But let’s make a choice to step out into the scary territory of true life. Let’s follow the path of obeying God, following Christ, choosing love, kindness, and truth. God has visited His people. And there’s an endzone we can get to, where we will dance for joy forever.
Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more? (Luke 7:41-42)
We gather that, upon arriving at the Pharisee’s house, the Lord received only the bare minimum of polite welcome.
Herein we discover Lesson #1: The lowest pit of hell holds all the people who have received the divine Messiah with curt politeness. Better to spit on His feet than to treat Him merely as a marginally respectable intrusion into my precious life. The better course of action is, of course, to bathe His feet with kisses and tears of repentance for all my sins.
Returning to the episode: The Lord proceeded to say to the nervous Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” To which the Pharisee responded, “Tell me, teacher.”
Lesson #2: There is hope for this Pharisee yet. He listened.
I may be nervous. I may be judgmental. I may be a gossiping snob who hides behind icy good manners. But if I am prepared to listen to the words of Jesus Christ, then there is still hope for me.
Then the Lord proceeded to tell a very short parable, which only makes sense one way. It only makes sense if: 1. We are all sinners, and I am the worst. 2. Jesus is God, Who is prepared to forgive any sin. 3. The best way to respond to all this is to bathe the feet of Christ with my kisses and tears of joy in His goodness.
Simon managed to deduce the meaning of the Lord’s parable. Quite frankly, the meaning of the parable is perfectly obvious. Another lesson: Confessing our sins and receiving God’s pardon does not require rocket science. Few things can be accomplished more easily. All it takes is a priest, an act of contrition, and a firm purpose of amendment.
The Lord Jesus concluded the episode by telling the woman with the sweet-smelling oil that her faith had saved her. Have peace, your faith has saved you.
What did the woman believe, exactly? She believed that the loving Heart of Jesus is the loving Heart of Almighty God, the loving Heart of the One just Judge, Who can and does forgive sins.