Ladylike Humanity

"The Singing Butler" by Jack Vettriano
“The Singing Butler” by Jack Vettriano

Perhaps we might ask: Why does the Church make us read the account of the virginal conception of Christ on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of His mother? After all, our children get confused enough about this. December 8 is the day when our Lady was conceived in the womb of St. Anne. But at Holy Mass we read about the day, approximately fifteen years later, when our Lord was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Guess what? There’s a good reason.

Our Lady did not bear original sin. She did not have the self-destructive tendency that began, for the rest of us, in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempted our First Parents into disobedience of God’s law by telling them that they would become like gods.

Fundamental rule of life: God is God, and we are not. God, with infinite wisdom, has planned all of history. We have not done that. He guides everything toward the good, even bringing good out of evil. We do not do that. God has a mind that can exercise absolute sovereign control over all things. We do not.

Now, I am about to get myself in trouble with both the gentlemen and the ladies. I am going to throw both women’s lib and machismo right out the window at the same time.

The true nature of our race, in relation to our Creator: essentially feminine. Who is “The Man?” God. We are the lady. Our peace, our fulfillment lies in submitting to Him, accepting that He has the plan. On our own, we cannot conceive how our lives will work out. He can. On the great dance floor of life, God leads.

fra-ang-annuncOriginal sin involves the delusion that we are “The Man.” Forgetting that an infinitely stronger and wiser Power actually governs the world. Original sin involves forgetting how to be ladylike with respect to God. All the Lord asks of us is a sincere Yes. A sincere: I will follow. He takes care of the rest. But we delude ourselves into thinking that we can lead.

This is precisely what did not happen when the Archangel Gabriel came to visit the Blessed Virgin. The angel proposed something altogether wonderful, something our Lady never could have imagined.

If original sin had deluded her, she would have said, ‘No, thanks. I have other plans.’ She would have said: ‘I want to suit myself.’ She would have said what we human beings weighed-down by original sin tend to say: ‘Wait, I’m in charge here!’

But she said none of these things. She said what becomes us, as ladylike human beings, when The Man asserts Himself. She said Yes. So be it. I will co-operate.

God makes everything out of nothing. We can’t even conceive of that. When we receive what He has made with grateful love, however–like the Virgin received the angel’s message—when we say Yes, Lord; we will follow where You lead—when we do that, we share in the immaculate Yes. And the dance of life comes off beautifully.

Guilty but not Condemned

the_passion_of_the_christ

We have reached the time of year when we study with singular focus the holy death of Jesus Christ.

Of old, these opening weeks of spring meant focusing on the death of the Passover Lamb, whose blood marked the homes of the chosen ones. The people of the Passover marched across the bed of the sea, to freedom. Then, the water swallowed up their enemies, to the glory of God.

That was the annual rite in the days of the Old Covenant. But we hear the prophet exhort us, in the name of God: Remember not these old exploits of mine. Don’t dwell on what I did for your ancient fathers. After all, I will do great things for you! I make a way through the desert for you to walk, and the very jackals and ostriches will chant like a choir as you pass down the highway I have laid down, to the Promised Land.

The highway opens before us. It invites us, beckons us, with beautifully obscure clarity, with shimmering darkness, with enticing terror. Because the highway to heaven is the cruel and agonizing death of Christ.

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Fraternal Correction

People who love each other correct each other. “Honey, you are driving too fast.” “Baby, I know you can do better than a B minus.” “Come on, man. Play some defense!”

A Christian cultivates kind manners and bites his tongue rather than utter a harsh word. But someone who never corrects anyone about anything is either a coward or—worse—just doesn’t care.

Every case of fraternal correction has two points-of-view: the one who corrects and the one who stands corrected. Let’s start by considering the correcting point-of-view.

For correction to prove effective, it must proceed from truth and from justice. When the Lord Jesus gave instructions regarding fraternal correction, He outlined three steps. The three steps are intimately connected with each other. But, when things go well, everything gets settled at the first step.

Step One involves private discussion. A teenage girl pulls her sister aside at school and says, “Listen, I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of your friends. But you are wearing my shirt, and you never asked me if you could. You should have asked me.”

Quiet. Private. A beautiful example of kind, loving fraternal correction. Assuming the accusation is true.

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Which Garden to Weed

In everyone, the weeds of sin will be mixed with the good wheat of the gospel until the end of time. The Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation, but still on the way to holiness. (Catechism 827)

The parable of the wheat and the tares ends with shimmering drama: The bundled weeds burn; the sifted wheat fills the barn with the restful smell of harvest-time. In the end, Christ, the truly just Judge, will forever separate good from evil.

The parable also injects drama into our virtual, interweb gathering. Some of us, dear reader, are good guys, but some of us are bad.

We do not, however, wear jerseys to identify which team each of us is on. We can’t. Because all of us are on both teams.

Beautiful baptized Christians, raise your hands. Sinners, raise your hands.

This would seem an opportune moment to try and expostulate the doctrines of original sin, Christ’s satisfaction for sin, the effects of baptism, and the quest for holiness. Got a couple hours? Just kidding.

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More of Holy Father’s Message…

We can detect…a permanent temptation within man: to situate the origin of evil in an exterior cause. Many modern ideologies deep down have this presupposition: since injustice comes “from outside,” in order for justice to reign, it is sufficient to remove the exterior causes…

This way of thinking – Jesus warns – is…shortsighted. Injustice, the fruit of evil, does not have exclusively external roots; its origin lies in the human heart, where the seeds are found of a mysterious cooperation with evil.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51,7).

Indeed, man is weakened by an intense influence, which wounds his capacity to enter into communion with the other. By nature, he is open to sharing freely, but he finds in his being a strange force of gravity that makes him turn in and affirm himself above and against others: this is egoism, the result of original sin.

Adam and Eve, seduced by Satan’s lie, snatching the mysterious fruit against the divine command, replaced the logic of trusting in Love with that of suspicion and competition; the logic of receiving and trustfully expecting from the Other with anxiously seizing and doing on one’s own (cf. Gn 3, 1-6), experiencing, as a consequence, a sense of disquiet and uncertainty. How can man free himself from this selfish influence and open himself to love?

…Conversion to Christ, believing in the Gospel, ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one’s own need – the need of others and God, the need of His forgiveness and His friendship. So we understand how faith is altogether different from a natural, good-feeling, obvious fact: humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me from “what is mine,” to give me gratuitously “what is His.”

May we all humble ourselves, and accept the salvation won for us by so generous and sweet a Savior!

Immaculate Conception Homily

Pope Benedict at the Spanish Steps in Rome for a prayer to the Immaculate Virgin on December 8
Pope Benedict at the Spanish Steps in Rome for a prayer to the Immaculate Virgin on December 8

Here is your humble preacher’s homily for today’s Solemnity…

The Solemnity of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception takes us back to the Garden of Eden. It takes us back to the life our First Parents had before they sinned.

sistine-appleThat life is deep in the misty past now; it is like a dream. It is hard for us now even to imagine how fresh and lovely everything was in the garden. Nothing had grown old; nothing had withered. Everything was vigorous and full of life. Everything was full of promise and possibility.

God originally made the world to be like that. He created us in innocence. We could have lived that way forever—without any deceit or betrayal, without any hurt or meanness, without selfishness or hardness of heart.

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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.

 

Nine Summer Homilies on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans

At the conclusion of the first season of the Pauline Year being kept for the 2,000th anniversary of his birth, I offer you my first observance in honor of the Holy Apostle…

 

First Homily

This summer, our second readings at Mass will be taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

St. Paul is of course one of the greatest saints of all time.  He had been an enemy of the faith, but then the Lord called him, and He became a zealous Apostle.  He spent his life, everything he had, for Christ and the Gospel.  In the end, St. Paul offered the witness of his blood and died a martyr’s death.

We know that our holy Roman Catholic Church is built on the rock of Peter, the chief of the Apostles and Vicar of Christ, whose blood shed on Vatican hill consecrated the Holy, Apostolic See of Rome.  But St. Peter himself would want us to acknowledge that our faith and our Church rests also on the foundation laid by his brother Apostle, St. Paul.  Together, Sts. Peter and Paul are the patrons of our Mother Church, the Church of Rome.

We do not know the exact date of St. Paul’s birth in Tarsus in what is now Turkey.  But as best we can determine, we are now within a year of St. Paul’s two thousandth birthday.  To celebrate this, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has declared that the next year will be kept in honor of St. Paul.  Beginning on St. Paul’s feast day, which he shares with St. Peter on June 29, the Catholic Church will observe a Pauline Year.

Now, what does this mean for us?  First and foremost it means that we should all seriously consider going on pilgrimage to visit St. Paul’s tomb to honor him and pray for his heavenly intercession.  This is something that Christian people have done since the first centuries of the Church, to go on pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul.  St. Paul’s tomb is in the second-biggest church in Rome.  Hopefully you are already aware of the fact that I have conveniently arranged for a parish pilgrimage so that we can make these visits.  We will go in November.

If you cannot go on pilgrimage to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul, then another excellent way to honor the Holy Apostle would be to spend time studying his writings.

Of the fourteen letters of St. Paul preserved in the New Testament, his letter to the Christians in Rome is the longest and certainly the most important.  He wrote it during the winter of 58 A.D. while he was in Corinth in Greece.  Paul had been a missionary preacher for twenty years; he had traveled throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire teaching people about Christ.  Now he wanted to move his operation to the west.  His plan was to go back to Jerusalem in the spring, and then sail from there to the capital of the world, Rome.  From Rome, he intended to begin evangelizing Spain.

By the year 58, St. Peter had been in Rome for some time.  Rome already had a large and stable community of Christians.  St. Paul knew this, so he wrote to them to introduce himself and explain his message, so that when he arrived they would embrace him in faith and Christian brotherhood.

St. Paul also likely intended his letter to the Roman Christians to be the definitive summary of his teaching.  Of all his letters, this one is uniquely calm and systematic.  The Apostle knew that the Lord had given him a crucial insight into the mystery of Christ, and he knew also that it was his duty to express this insight as best he could, for the benefit not only of his brother Christians now living, but for succeeding generations.

Our readings of Romans at Mass begin today in the latter part of the third chapter.  The Apostle has just finished outlining how all of the human race stood under condemnation for sin, both Jews and non-Jews.  The Roman church that St. Paul was writing to was made up of both Jewish converts to Christianity and pagan converts.  In other words, Christianity had brought together people who otherwise would not associate with each other.

St. Paul is pointing out that the communion of Jew and non-Jew in the Church is based on the fact that all people are sinners.  Everyone, all the children of Adam, rely totally on the free gift of salvation given to us by God in Christ.  With this letter, St. Paul is clarifying the overall shape of history for us, and showing us our place in it:  There was a time before the Redemption wrought by Christ on the cross, and that was a time of sin.  Now that Christ has come we live in the time of grace.

Our access to that grace begins with faith.  There is no human righteousness which does not begin with believing in Jesus Christ our Savior.  We cannot redeem ourselves; we cannot save ourselves.  Our salvation begins by believing in the free gift of redemption that God has given us.

 

Second Homily

In the opening passage of Romans, St. Paul announced his theme:  faith.  He wrote:  “The Gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who has faith…for in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed through faith…”  He went on to quote the prophet Habakkuk:  “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”  And in last Sunday’s reading from Romans, we heard:  “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith in Christ Jesus for all who believe…God justifies him who has faith in Jesus.”  And another verse:  “God will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.”

St. Paul’s reference to the circumcised and the uncircumcised shows that the Apostle was considering the role of both Jew and non-Jew in God’s plan of God of salvation.  Starting with Abraham, the fore-father of the nation of Israel, God had commanded that His Chosen people be circumcised as a sign of His holy covenant with them.  The Church in Rome, to which St. Paul was writing, was made up of converts both from Judaism and from paganism, circumcised and uncircumcised.

St. Paul’s message to both groups is this:  Without Christ, everyone stands condemned for sin before God.  Non-Jews are condemned by the natural moral law, the law of upright living which any reflective person can know.  The natural law is the Ten Commandments written invisibly on the human heart.  At the same time, Jews are condemned by the explicit divine law revealed on Mt. Sinai.  The Jewish nation does indeed have a unique covenant with God, but, while God has been unswervingly faithful, the Chosen people have not lived up to their side of the Covenant.  In other words, Jews may be circumcised in the flesh, but not in the heart; they are not truly obedient to the divine command.

In our reading today, St. Paul explores the origin of the Covenant between God and Israel.  In spite of the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees tended to emphasize circumcision and the law of Moses, the covenant did not in fact originate with either of these.  As the book of Genesis recounts, the divine covenant began when God called Abraham to leave his home and come to the Holy Land.  God promised Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed in his offspring, even though both Abraham and his wife Sarah were too old to have children.  The divine covenant began when Abraham believed the Lord’s promise, even though, from the human point-of-view, it seemed impossible to fulfill.  St. Paul is making the point that the covenant has always been a covenant of faith.  The Old Testament itself teaches that the ritual of circumcision was meant to be merely an outward sign of inward faith.

You and I, then, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, have St. Paul to thank, therefore, for teaching us to call Abraham our “father in faith.”  Abraham was righteous because he believed God and trusted Him.  God’s promise to Abraham was perfectly fulfilled in Abraham’s descendent, Jesus of Nazareth.  God has made known his goodness, mercy, and love by sending His Son.  All of us who believe in Christ, therefore, are true children of Abraham, because we share Abraham’s faith.  All who believe in Christ are united with God in the divine covenant which first began when Abraham believed God.

 

Third Homily

In the verses we heard from the fifth chapter of Romans, St. Paul refers to “the wrath,” the wrath of God.

St. Paul may have been moved to write the letter in the first place because he suspected that the early Christians in Rome did not fully appreciate the grace which they received through Holy Baptism and the other sacraments of the Church.  We may very well be in same boat, not fully grasping what Christ has done for us —so St. Paul’s teaching will be illuminating for us, too.  This/yesterday morning, seven new priests were ordained for our Archdiocese.  St. Paul’s teaching will help us to understand precisely why.

In earlier parts of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Apostle had already mentioned the wrath of God numerous times.  Although his letter was meant to be an act of Christian fellowship and love with the Christians in Rome, St. Paul certainly did NOT kiss up to his audience; he did not go easy on them and tickle their ears.  He did not try to give them ‘warm fuzzies.’  Quite the contrary.

At the beginning of the letter, St. Paul had pointed out that Judgment Day is coming:  “God will render to every man according to his works…the day will come when God judges the secrets of men.”  What will happen then?  St. Paul writes: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men.”  Why will the ungodly be punished?  “They did not honor the Lord as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.”

 Sobering.  Especially since this sounds frighteningly familiar.  Who will escape condemnation?  St. Paul insists that everyone is liable to condemnation by God’s law, because the Law convicts the entire human race of sin.  Even those who accept the truth about God do not faithfully follow His Law.  God is perfectly righteous, and we are not—this is one of the fundamental facts of our existence.  So the inevitable day of judgment would be a day of wrath for all of us—were it not for the salvation which God in His mercy has brought about by sending His only Son into the world.

And when did Christ come?  It happened “while we were yet helpless,” St. Paul writes.  We human beings may be clever and industrious; we may be able to get someone to the moon; we may be able make little computers you can carry in your pocket to send e-mails to Katmandu; but when it comes to being righteous before Almighty God, we are utterly helpless, because we cannot atone for our own sins.

We will hear the Apostle explain it in our reading from Romans next week:  From the Fall of Adam and Eve onwards, the human race has been helpless to please God and attain His friendship.  God originally bestowed His love and grace on us; all our First Parents had to do was accept reality and obey God.  But they were seduced into pride, and their senseless minds were darkened.

This left us all helpless, deprived of divine goodness and bereft of any hope of glory.  This is St. Paul’s fundamental point in this letter, and it is a point we must constantly call to mind.  When God sent His Son to die for us, it was an act of pure Fatherly love.  He had nothing to gain by doing it.  Christ’s mission of salvation came as a pure, unmerited gift.  None of us have earned God’s forgiveness; none of us have earned reconciliation and friendship with Him.  But God has poured out His love anyway, because that is the way He is.  He is infinite mercy and infinite love.

For THIS reason, we can rejoice and live without fearing the wrath of God.  We can look forward to Judgment Day; we can even pray that it would come soon.  For THIS reason—because Jesus Christ graciously has redeemed us by His Precious Blood.  We please God by believing this.  He rose from the dead; He will raise us up also.  Bodily death is the universal punishment for original sin, but the bodily death of God’s faithful ones does not leave us in oblivion.  Rather, we look for the eternal life won for us by Christ’s perfect sacrifice.  This is what we believe, and by believing it, we are delivered from the wrath to come.

St. Paul’s words to the Romans remind us that our Christian faith obliges us to acknowledge our sins.  It makes no sense to say we believe in the divine Savior Jesus Christ if we do not simultaneously admit that we need to be saved.  When we frankly confess our sins, the Lord forgives us through the ministry of priests, our condemnation is lifted, and we are restored to God’s friendship.  Priests are friends of God, hopefully—but God is the kind of friend who wants His friends to make more friends for Him.  So, above all, a priest is a man through whom anyone can become God’s friend, no matter what, since God’s friendship is a pure gift.

As we heard St. Paul put it, our faith in the Redemption won for us by Christ leads us to rejoice, positively to glory in God—even to boast in Him, as the Lectionary translation has it.  We glory and revel and boast in our wonderful Savior.  Without Him we are nothing, but with Him and in Him we are children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of heaven.  Blessed be Jesus Christ the Lord!  Blessed be the Holy, Righteous, and Merciful One!

 

Fourth Homily

Our reading from the sixth chapter of Romans lays out the fundamental Christian doctrines of original sin and Redemption.

When God originally created us, He blessed us in two distinct ways.  Adam and Eve first of all received human nature.  They were a unique creation, made up of both matter and spirit.  Adam and Eve were different from all other creatures, set between animals and angels.

          This wonderful, unique human nature, however, is not the only thing that God gave to Adam and Eve when He created them.  God also blessed them with His friendship.  Friendship with God is called grace; Adam and Eve were created in a special state of grace.  This grace added to their humanity, but it did not change them into something other than human beings.  Among other countless other gifts, God gave Adam and Eve the special grace of immortal blessedness.  We do not know exactly what human history would have been like if Adam and Eve had not sinned, but we can certainly say this much:  No one ever would have died, children would be conceived without lust and born without pain, and our pilgrimage to heaven would not be a difficult struggle like it is now.

          Adam and Eve’s disobedience, however, meant that they lost God’s  grace.  The original sin wounded our human nature itself.  All of our ancestors, therefore, have still obviously passed human nature down to us through procreation, the same human nature that God originally created, but we receive it without the original addition of God’s grace.  Therefore, we are born mortal, ignorant of God, and inclined to evil.  This is called the state of original sin.  Original sin is not a sin anyone of us commits now; rather, it is the state that human nature is in, as a result of the actual sin committed by Adam and Eve.

          Do not get me wrong, though:  Because we are born in the state or original sin, we inevitably do commit actual sins once we grow up a little bit and become responsible for our own actions.  And the sentence of death which originally condemned Adam and Eve has condemned us all as well.  Only God’s friendship—His grace—confers the hope for eternal happiness.  He gave this friendship as a gift to our First Parents, and they freely refused it.  He does not owe the human race His grace.  When it comes, it comes as a pure gift.

          Original sin, therefore, does not simply refer to the bad example given to us by our First Parents.  Surely, they did give us bad example by disobeying the one simple commandment God gave them.  But if original sin meant just bad example, then we might imagine that we could break out of the cycle of evil by our own efforts, by just acting differently.  We would just have to avoid following Adam and Eve’s bad example.

But original sin is in fact something much deeper than this, something much thornier, mysterious, and intractable.  Original sin means that Adam’s sin has ‘overflowed’ into the entirety of human nature.  Human nature itself is in a state of sin, and there is no earthly escape.  The only remedy is a new Adam, a new human nature, a new state of humanity.

          So, when St. Paul refers to the “first man,” Adam, in the passage we just heard from Romans, he intends to convey all of this.  He intends to remind us that the human race needed a new founder.  The human race needed a new Adam who could establish our nature in righteousness and justice again, like when it was new, and then hand this redeemed humanity on with pure and perfect love to the whole race.  In other words, the human race needed a new father who was a true friend of God.

          This is the background for St. Paul’s message.  The message is this:  The human race needed nothing less than a new Adam, and this is exactly what God in His infinite grace and mercy has given us.  Christ is not just a good teacher and a good example; He is not just a prophet and a righteous Jew; He is not even just a perfectly innocent man who was unjustly killed and then rose from the dead.  Christ is all of these things and something much more:  Christ is God Who took human nature to Himself in order to re-found the human race.

So, yes it is true that we still must struggle with evil because the effects of Adam’s Fall have not been completely removed from our nature.  But it is all the more true that this same human nature of ours can now be healed, renewed, and glorified by the grace of Christ.  Christ has restored our race to God’s friendship.  The sin of Adam still touches us through our birth in the flesh, but the grace of Christ touches us with infinitely more power through our re-birth in the Church.

 

Fifth Homily

Of course we venerate St. Paul as one of the greatest saints of all time.  But we have to acknowledge that his writing is not always crystal clear.  St. Peter referred to this, when he wrote in one of his letters, “Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you…there are some things in [his letters that are] hard to understand.”

          Our reading from Romans this evening/morning is no exception.  But let’s not be discouraged; let us try to put the passage in context.  The passage we heard a few moments ago is a part of St. Paul’s explanation of Holy Baptism.

          In an earlier chapter of the letter, St. Paul explained that Baptism is death, death with Christ.  Baptism brings the line of human corruption, degradation, and loss to an end, so that life and growth and holiness can begin.  As the Lord Jesus put it when speaking with Nicodemus, to be baptized means to be re-born, not into a new body, but into the eternal life of God.  In other words, the sacrament of Holy Baptism puts us into the state of grace.  It sets us on the road to heaven, and it includes the promise of all the graces we will need to get there.  Baptism is a once-and-for-all gift, but if we fall out of the state of grace by sinning, we can come back to the original power of the Baptismal waters by making a good Confession to a priest.

          In considering the effects of Holy Baptism, St. Paul goes on to tell us this evening/this morning:  “You are not in the flesh.  On the contrary, you are in the spirit.”

          Now, we might be inclined to say to St. Paul, “Dear teacher and master, we of course believe everything you tell us.  But it seems to us that we actually are in the flesh.  For instance, if we pinch our forearms real hard, it does hurt.  Also, we get hungry and need to eat, and we get tired and need to sleep.  We need clothes and a roof over our heads, too.”

          Honest points.  We can imagine that the Apostle would reply,  “My children, I grant your point.  My question for you is:  Why?  When you eat, drink, sleep, clothe yourselves—when you do all that is necessary to survive—why do you do it?  Why do you strive after the things you strive after?  What is your goal?  If your goal is anything less than God, then what good are all your efforts?  What good is living in this world without the hope of eternal life?

          The words of the Apostle remind us of the true horizon of our life.  Christ came into the world to show us this true horizon.  Perhaps the horizon appears to be far off in the distance.  We human beings are plodding pilgrims on earth, and we move forward one little step at a time.  But we cannot so much as take one sure step in the right direction if we haven’t first glimpsed the horizon and set our sights on it.  Bodily survival is NOT the horizon; life in this world is not the horizon; nothing having to do with the flesh is the horizon.  Heaven is the horizon of our life.

          “We are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh,” continues St. Paul.  We human beings are above all material things in the hierarchy of creation.  We occupy the place between the world and the angels and God.  We owe this world nothing.  We owe everything—our immortal souls, our perishable bodies, all the means of survival, everything we have—we owe it all to God.

          God gives us everything that He gives us because of His love.  Because of His infinite love, He set everything up so that we could proceed through our pilgrim lives on earth and then come home to Him in glory.  Our First Parents turned away from Him by sinning, but He sent His Son to set things right again.

          What fools we would be if we spurned, neglected, or ignored God’s gifts!  Why would we live for anything other than God?  God alone is infinitely good; nothing in this world is.  God alone give us true and lasting happiness and peace; nothing in this world does.

St. Paul tells us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”  This means never putting anything we want, or like, or think we need, before God.  May we be willing to lose it all—to suffer injury and insult, to look like fools and naifs in the eyes of worldly men, even be killed, if that is what we have to do to be true to Jesus Christ our Lord and God.  Let the worldly people call us fools if they want to.  We know that we would be fools if we did not live for God.

Sixth Homily

We just heard St. Paul declare that, “All creation—and we ourselves—are groaning in labor pains.”

The Lord Jesus spoke of the travail of childbirth on Holy Thursday night, before He went to the Garden of Gethsemane.  He told His disciples:  “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.  When a woman is in travail, she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world.  So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice.”

Of course there is only one particular group of us that can really appreciate the full force of the comparison here, but I think all of us can understand what the Lord was trying to tell His disciples.

St. Paul, on the other hand, extends the analogy of childbirth to all of creation—not just to the disciples who lived through the death of their Master on the Cross.  St. Paul applies the analogy to us, too.  This is harder to understand.  To try to grasp what the Apostle is teaching us, let us recall a few things from earlier passages in his letter to the Romans.

First, let’s remember that St. Paul began the letter by pointing out that all of mankind has been estranged from God by sin.  After recalling the reality of original sin, St. Paul went on to declare:  Where sin abounded, grace has abounded all the more.  We were powerless to save ourselves; we were doomed to perpetual pain and loss, so God became one of us and set things right.  What we could not do for ourselves, Christ did for us on the Cross.  Christ’s obedience to the will of the Father has overcome the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

Then there is another step in the fulfillment of our salvation.  The perfect justice of the Son of God must reach each of us individually.  This happens when we receive the sacraments with faith.  Hence, the Apostle treats the sacrament of Holy Baptism at length in his letter.

St. Paul’s words about creation groaning in labor pains help us to reckon with the following fact:  Our Lord, having paid the price for our sins and having won heaven for us, could have established the Church in such a way that, upon our being baptized into Him, we would just go straight to heaven.  He can do anything; He could have done that—but He did not.  He has left us to make our pilgrim way through life by faith, struggling to avoid good and evil.

God always does things in the best possible way, but that doesn’t mean it is easy for us to understand.  The sacraments do indeed bathe us in Christ’s grace, but we still have to struggle with our inclination to evil.  Sometimes we might wonder to ourselves:  If the grace of these sacraments is so wonderful, then why is it still so hard for me to fight temptation and do the right thing?  Why do I still sin, and have to go running to Confession and confess the same things over and over again for years?

Now, before we get too discouraged, let’s recognize that we do make slow progress if we stay close to Christ, especially in the Confessional.  But there is no question that it is a ceaseless battle requiring a lot of effort.  Why do I have to undergo this struggle?

St. Paul wrote to the Romans to clarify the answer to this question.  The central theme of the letter, as we have seen, is faith.  We are saved by faith.  Christ has taught us to believe, to believe in a great destiny for ourselves, the eternal friendship of Almighty God.  We are made for greatness; we are made for holiness; we are made for divine glory—and we attain all these things by faith, because faith alone lifts us up to God’s level.  We persevere through all trials, we advance toward the goal, we triumph over sin and death—all of this we do by faith.

Our faith is proven by adversity.  If it were easy to be holy; if it were easy to get to heaven; if we could see God’s whole plan right now, or see the invisible grace of the sacraments of the Church, or see the saints and angels pulling for us and reaching out to help us—if we could see all these things, then we wouldn’t have to dig deep to believe.  But it is precisely by believing from the bottom of our hearts that we become the true friends of God that we are meant to become.  The harder it is to believe in Christ at any given moment, the closer we actually are to Him, because we are reaching out to Him Himself, and not just to His gifts.

Every Easter Eve, we rejoice in this mysterious truth:  It is better that our First Parents fell, and sin entered the world, leaving us with the hard battle we face to get to heaven.  It is better this way, because this is precisely the situation that brought our beloved Savior Jesus Christ into the world.  It is better that we have to follow Christ up Calvary Hill, through the dark night of faith, through the bitter travails of eternal life’s agonizing birthpangs, because this rough strife—and nothing else—will bring us to the glory prepared for us.

 

SeventhHomily

In our readings from Romans the past few weeks, we have been hearing passages from St. Paul’s treatise on the effects of the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Baptism unites us with Christ’s death, but we usually do not die in the body immediately.  What we die to is sin:  we die to our corrupt and disordered inclinations so that we can live Christ’s immortal life.  In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul put it this way:  “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”

Through Baptism–or by a good Confession, when we fall into sin after Baptism–the Blessed Trinity dwells within us.  The indwelling Trinity inspires us, guides us, helps us, uses us for the good of others, and moves us gradually toward our final goal, which is eternal blessedness with Him.

The indwelling of God in the Christian soul means that our pilgrim life here on earth is primarily interior and only secondarily exterior.  We are most interested in what is invisible to us now, the mysteries of faith.  Everything visible is important enough, but it is secondary.  God is first.

Our reading from Romans this evening/morning picks up right where we left off last week.  As we recall, in last week’s reading, St. Paul described our experience of persevering with hope through trials and tribulations.  He compared our spiritual struggle to the travails of a woman in childbirth.  Doing God’s will, becoming holy, and getting to heaven is not easy.  We often feel as though we are flailing around in the dark, unsure of God’s plan, beset by temptation and human weakness.

We need, therefore, to pray constantly.  We rely totally on the help of God and His saints.  We need to lift our hearts and minds up to heaven and ask for the help we need.  God made us to do this.  We were made to pray.  It is natural for us to ask God to give us what we desire.  The trick is being prepared to accept what the Lord gives.  We do not know everything about what is best for us, so we do not always pray for what we really need.

At the heart of our life of prayer is the mysterious fact that God has foreseen all events and knows perfectly everything that will happen until the end of time.  Keeping this in mind puts our prayers in their proper perspective.  We do not pray in order to change God’s mind, or to bargain with Him, placate Him, or manipulate Him.  It is impious even to fantasize that we could deal with God as if he were a human being with particular interests who is open to some kind of negotiation with us.

We do not pray for God’s sake at all; we pray for our sake.  Our requests draw us close to the One Who is our salvation and our true happiness; they unite our minds and hearts with God’s unchanging truth and His infinite love.

St. Paul teaches us that, because we are baptized, the Holy Spirit prays within us, interceding, asking the Father to give us truly good gifts.  When we ask God for something in particular, then, it is either the Holy Spirit praying within us, or it is not.  If it isn’t, we are asking for something superfluous, and we should be neither surprised nor scandalized if we don’t get it.  We are always free to ask for whatever we want, but we can only count on getting what we ask for when we pray in the Holy Spirit.

St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully teaches us the four conditions necessary to be certain that we are praying in the Spirit.  I can count on my prayers being answered if:  1) I pray with complete submission to God’s authority; 2) I pray for myself; 3) I ask for things necessary for our salvation; and 4) I persevere in prayer no matter how long it takes.

These criteria are actually pretty obvious.  God will of course never answer our prayers if we ask to be allowed to commit sins.  He may answer our prayers for other people, but He may not.  Every individual soul must freely turn to God in order to be saved, and my prayers cannot force someone else to turn to God.  God gives us everything we need to get to heaven, including our daily bread, but He never promised us any luxuries on earth.  And of course God answers worthy prayers at the best possible time, which may not be right now.

The ultimate guide for our personal prayer is the prayer of the Church Herself.  The best way to learn how to pray in the Spirit is to use a Missal or missalette to pray the entire Holy Mass along with the priest.  The prayers the priest says during Mass are not personal prayers; rather, the priest speaks on behalf of the entire Church.  The heart of our Mother the Church is opened and revealed to us in these prayers, especially the prayers that immediately precede and immediately follow the consecration.  We should always make these prayers our own, at every Mass.

If we want what the Church wants and ask God for what the Church asks God for, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is interceding within us.  Our prayers then will certainly be answered.

 

Eighth Homily

The last few verses of the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans include some of the most consoling sentences in the entire Bible.  Many devoted Bible readers have found their all-time favorite verses somewhere between Romans 8:28 and Romans 8:38.  Our second readings at Holy Mass today and next Sunday are taken from these beloved verses.

Our reading today began:  “Brothers and sisters:  we know that all things work for the good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

This is a supremely consoling statement.  To establish more firmly our own conviction of its truth, let’s confront a couple of questions.

“We know that all things work for the good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

Question 1:  We “know” this.  How do we know it?

Question 2:  “…who are called according to His purpose.”  What is God’s purpose?

First let us freely acknowledge that Romans 8:28 is NOT self-evident.  There are a lot of people out there who disagree and say that they do NOT know that all things work for the good.  Many of our brothers and sisters in this world look around at the way things work, and they despair.  They see nothing but selfishness, or the law of the jungle, or the slow arc of inevitable death.  Some people have the sense that the higher powers calling the shots are unfriendly, or even malicious.  And there are also the poor souls who think there is really nothing except atoms—no angels, no truth, no love, no honor, no glory.

So our being able to perceive the sweet hand of divine Providence is a great gift.  The Holy Spirit enables us to know that all things are working for our good.  To know what Romans 8:28 says we know is the Spirit’s gift of knowledge.  One of the seven gifts, knowledge is our interior perception that God is in charge of everything, that there is a reason behind everything.

As our Holy Father Pope Benedict has frequently pointed-out, this is one of the distinguishing marks of true religion, the doctrine that God is reasonable, rather than arbitrary.  Right now our minds are not quite up to understanding all of God’s reasons for doing or permitting all the things that He does or permits, so we need to abandon ourselves in faith sometimes.  But when everything is said and done, we will understand it all, because God’s entire plan is perfectly reasonable, as we will see, please God, when His mind is fully revealed to us in heaven.

The Lord wills good; He permits evil.  His plan is so magnificent, and His power is so awesome, that He brings greater good out of the evil which He allows.  In outlining God’s over-arching plan of salvation, St. Paul pointed out earlier in his letter to the Romans that God brings good out of evil:  From the evil of Satan’s temptation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the whole history of human sin, God has brought about the infinitely greater good of the mission of His Son to the earth.  Jesus Christ—who suffered and died unjustly, then rose again—Jesus is the best possible thing that ever could have happened.  His goodness trumps all the evil that has ever been or ever will be; His goodness overcomes it all, and turns all evil into an opportunity for holiness, because it unites us with the Savior who suffered for our salvation.

So now we can answer our first question easily enough:  We KNOW what Romans 8:28 says we know because God became man, lived for us as a man, died for us as a man, rose again and ascended into heaven as a man, and He pours His Spirit out from heaven into our hearts to give us interior knowledge of Himself.

Now, to answer the second question:  What is God’s purpose in guiding everything as He does?  The answer is simple and obvious on one level and impossible to fathom on another.  We know from the Lord Jesus that God’s purpose in everything is that we would share the divine glory forever.  Simple enough.

On the other hand, though, we do not yet see what this glorious destiny of ours is.  The prospect of seeing God and being like Him is so utterly beyond our capacities to feature that for now our destiny must remain an interior mystery of faith.  So again, the Holy Spirit comes to our aid with a special gift.

The Lord pours divine wisdom into our souls so that we can savor the sweetness of heaven a little bit, even before we get there.  The sweetness we savor is nothing other than the sweetness of true love.  God’s purpose is to love, and to love us above all.  The Holy Spirit lifts us up towards God so that we can have a little share in the divine point-of-view even now.

This wisdom even allows us to savor God’s sweetness in the midst of severe trials and tribulations, in the face of the evils God allows us to endure so that we might grow in holiness and conformity to Christ.  Our pilgrimage is not easy, and we have to fight hard in order to attain the victory over sin.  But through it all, by virtue of the Spirit’s gifts, we know that all things are working together for our good, even and especially the crosses we have to carry as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.

 

Ninth Homily

“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Almighty God united Himself with our human nature in the unique Person Who is both God and man, Jesus Christ.  He established His Church, His mystical body, so that all mankind could share in this union.  Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are spiritually united with Christ, because the Holy Spirit of Christ dwells within us.

We rely on the grace of God in our souls, because we have powerful enemies to contend with.  In Romans 8:38, St. Paul used a couple of words in a way we might not be familiar with.  He referred to “principalities” and “powers.”  These words refer to two particular types of spirits.

When God created the heavens and the earth, he made three basic kinds of creatures:  Some are made out of matter, so they are visible to us now.  Some creatures are purely spiritual, so they are invisible to us now.  And of course there is one creature that is both material and spiritual, partly visible and partly invisible—namely us, mankind.

There is a hierarchy of the purely spiritual creatures.  In this hierarchy, principalities and powers are two of the grades.

Obviously, the good principalities and the good powers, along with all the good angels—all of them are constantly working to help us get to heaven.  But Satan seduced many other spiritual beings to come with him to hell.  So the bad principalities and the bad powers, along with all the other demons—all of them are trying to get us to lose heart, to give up on God, to abandon our pilgrimage of faith for the sake of self-indulgence or worldliness.

C.S. Lewis wrote a very illuminating book about the stratagems of the demons, called The Screwtape Letters.  As he illustrates in the book, one of their favorite tricks is to lure us into state of mental vagueness about the most important things.  The teaching of St. Paul about the state of grace, on the other hand, comes to our aid by clarifying matters.

What it comes down to is this:  I am either in a state of grace, or I am not.  Nothing is more important than being in a state of grace.  Therefore, we all must carefully examine our consciences, and do so regularly.  Have I broken the commandments?  Have I done something seriously wrong or omitted something important?  Have I missed Sunday Mass without a good reason, or lied, or committed adultery, or coveted–dissatisfied with what God has given me?

If I have, then I should assume that I am not in the state of grace.  My soul is in danger, and I must seek a remedy immediately.  If I have never been baptized, then baptism is the remedy.  If I am already baptized, then I should confess all the sins I can remember to a priest, say I am sorry for them, and resolve, with the help of God, not to repeat them.

On the other hand, if I have received the sacraments, and I examine my conscience carefully, and I do not discover any serious sins that I haven’t already confessed, then I can be confident that I am in the state of grace.  This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go to Confession regularly anyway, because it is good to confess venial sins, too.  But if my conscience is truly clear of grave sin, then I have nothing whatsoever to fear.  Once I have the grace of God, the only thing that can cause me to lose that grace is me.  Our own free choices as human beings can come between us and God.  Nothing else can—absolutely nothing.  If God is for me, who can be against me?

This is what St. Paul is trying to teach us:  Someone in a state of grace has nothing to fear FROM ANYTHING.  Nothing to fear from the Devil and his minions, nothing to fear from the economy, from the terrorists, from sickness, old age, food poisoning, bad drivers, identity theft, computer viruses, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes…You name it.  It can’t hurt me, because it cannot take God away from me.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean that we should abandon ourselves to wanton recklessness.  It is right to protect our interests prudently in this world, to stand up for our rights when we can, to be wise as serpents while at the same time being innocent as doves.  St. Paul is not urging us to self-destruction.  Good, holy fear of calamity can keep us out of unnecessary trouble.

But St. Paul’s point is that even when we do exercise prudent vigilance, even when we are careful and reasonable and good, we still at times face adversities that we cannot prevent.  Those are the times to remind ourselves of what St. Paul has expressed for us.  There is only one power in the whole universe, including all the awesomely powerful spiritual beings—only one power that can separate me from the love of God, and that is my own free will.  If my conscience is right, if I am in a state of grace, then I am truly invincible.