Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Eyes of Jesus

Homily Third Sunday of Lent A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

I once visited a man in the hospital who asked me, “Father, have you ever looked Jesus in the eyes?” Years ago, when he was teaching Sunday school, he saw a young girl with a handicap at church who apparently lived at a local nursing home. Well, after church, she was leaving with a man from the nursing home and since she seemed to be about the age of the kids he was teaching, he asked the man if she could stay for his class, and he happily agreed. So, the young girl had a delightful hour with her peers and was spared having to go back to the nursing home. Well, as he was helping her leave the church by literally carrying her to the car, she looked at him straight in the eyes and said, “Thank you.” But he didn’t see her eyes, he said he saw the most magnificent beautiful eyes you have ever seen, the eyes of Jesus. And he knew it was Jesus speaking to him through that young girl. It was as if the whole world stopped, and it was simply he and Jesus alone, and he went away from that experience forever changed.

In today’s Gospel, we see something similar happen. The Samaritan woman at the well has a personal encounter with Christ, just two of them, for the disciples were away, and it changes her life. So we can imagine what it was like for her as Jesus looked into her eyes. He does several things for her.

He looks her in the eyes and invites her to come to him and serve him. He invites her with a simple request, “Give me a drink.” He invites her to show a simple act of charity to a man wearied with his journey, to think not of herself, but to first give of herself.

He looks her in the eyes and challenges her with the truth about herself. “Go, call your husband, and come here.” He knew that she had had five husbands and was currently living with a man who was not her husband, yet he did not condemn her. Instead he gave her the opportunity to look at herself and admit the truth. She was a sinner, and acknowledging that is the first step to conversion.

He looks her in the eyes and teaches her how to truly worship God. Through the life-giving waters of baptism, we are made sons and daughters of the Father in heaven; by the Holy Spirit poured out into our hearts, we can worship him in spirit and in truth; and through the Church Jesus founded, we can worship together in all parts of the world.

He looks her in the eyes and reveals himself as the Messiah, “I who speak to you am he.” “I am the one who can save you.” He was the one who was coming to show us all things, the one who was coming to save us from our sins. She discovered that he was the Christ, the Savior of the world, who had come to seek out those who were lost, and who had come to seek even here, an outcast among outcasts. No one escapes his notice, for all of his children are precious in his eyes.

For the woman at the well, she was transformed from that moment on. She goes out to share the great joy she has discovered. She went into the city to tell her people who she had met, “Come and see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” She shares her newfound faith and invites others to experience it as well.

So, when Jesus looks us in the eyes, how can we do anything but respond?

He invites us to serve him in so many ways. He invites us to stop looking at ourselves and our own needs and turn to others to give and to serve.

He invites us to acknowledge the truth about ourselves. Acknowledge that we are sinners, in need of mercy, in need of guidance on the right path, and in need of a Savior. We do this especially through an examination of conscience followed by a good confession, which all Catholics should take advantage of, especially during Lent.

He invites us to true worship. in spirit and in truth, especially at the Mass and through our daily prayers and devotions. We also worship by seeking out and acting on the Lord’s will in our lives, by following the teaching of the Church, and by seeing Christ in others, even those who may be outcasts. Worship is like coming to the well for a drink, but if we fail to drink of that water, to nourish ourselves with worship daily, then we will be like a tree planted in the desert, parched and dry, scorched by the sun, withering away and dying. But when we drink of the water that Jesus gives, we will need never fear thirst.

He invites us to turn to him to save us and transform us. Most importantly, we need to get to know him as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. For an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with a real person – like the woman at the well, who discovered her Lord and Savior sitting beside a well one day. He is the source of our life, the living water that will lead us to eternal life. And once we know that, we need to make him known to those around us, for he is not only our Savior, but indeed the Savior of the whole world.

A priest friend of mine tells a story that I like: A fellow dies and goes to heaven, and there he meets our Lord who says “Welcome, my son, would you like to see the place I have prepared for you?” And so he shows him around and they see all the wonders of heaven – like Scripture says, the streets paved with gold, and so on. After a while, the fellow gets kind of curious because he sees no other people and he says, “Lord, where are all the other people. I see just you and I.” And our Lord looks him in the eyes and says, “My son, it was the same way on earth – just you and I.” The moral being that in with every person you meet, you have the opportunity to look Jesus in the eyes, to serve him, and to love him. And if we can do that now, then we will have begun our life in heaven.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Come down, Peter!

Homily, 2nd Sunday of Lent Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

At the end of his book, “The Problem of Pain”, C.S. Lewis talks about heaven. He says, “We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky,’ and of being told that we are trying to ‘escape’ from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced. Again, we are afraid that heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. [A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love of poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk.] Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object.”

On the mountain that day, our Lord gave his apostles a glimpse of heaven, a foretaste of the glory to come. He was transfigured before their eyes, and Peter, James and John were able to glimpse his divinity and hear it confirmed by the Father, “This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests.”

No wonder Peter wanted to stay! A week earlier, he had made his famous confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And now the voice of the Father in heaven had confirmed that truth. (CCC 555) And before Peter’s eyes was the goal we all seek, the object that the love planted in our hearts seeks to enjoy. And that goal was Jesus Christ in all his glory, and just as Peter desired to stay and rest with him on the mountain that day, we desire to be united with him in heaven for all eternity.

Now what will heaven be like? The catechism describes heaven as “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” It is “perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity - a communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed.” (CCC 1024) To be in heaven is “to be with Christ”, to live in Christ, and to find your own true identity in him. (CCC 1025) St. Thomas says something interesting about heaven. In heaven, he says, “the blessed will be given more than they ever wanted or hoped for.” (Catechesis on the Creed - ST) Even if we see our human desires as vast and great, in fact, they are not great enough, and indeed they are nothing when compared to the infinite God. Like St. Paul said, “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and it has not even entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him”.

No wonder Peter wanted to stay! He knew his goal, he saw a glimpse of it, and he wanted to enjoy it right then and there. But he still did not know what it would take to reach that goal. For on that day “Jesus was transfigured before their eyes. His face became as dazzling as the sun, his clothes as radiant as light.” But just a few weeks later, that same face would be streaked with blood, for his sacred head would be pierced with a crown of thorns. Those same clothes would be stripped from him and soldiers would cast lots to steal them as they drove nails into his hands and feet to hang him on the Cross.

There is one path to glory, one path to heaven, and that is through the Cross of Calvary. Jesus freely chose that Cross, which means that none of us can avoid that, as St. Paul would tell Timothy, “Bear your share of the hardship which the Gospel entails.” Tradition holds that Jesus revealed himself on that day to give his apostles courage for the coming trial, and indeed Peter would remember it his whole life. But Peter still had to learn the meaning of the Cross.

St. Augustine would write about the Transfiguration and tell Peter, “Come down, Peter: you desired to rest on the mountain; come down, preach the word, be persistent in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and teaching. (2 Tim 4:2) ... The glory [you see] has been reserved for you, Peter, but for after death. For now, Jesus says to you, ‘Go down to toil on earth; to serve on earth, to be scorned and crucified on earth. [I am the] Life who goes down to be killed; [I am the] Bread who goes down to suffer hunger; [I am] the Way goes down to be exhausted on his journey; [I am the] Fountain who goes down to suffer thirst; and you refuse to suffer? Seek not your own. Have charity, preach the truth; then you shall come to eternity, where you will find your rest.’” (NPNF1, v6, p348 - CCC 556)

Some may say, like C.S. Lewis pointed out, that our hope for heaven is a mere “pie in the sky” dream, or a “cleverly concocted myth.” But that is not the case. Heaven is a reality, proven by the testimony of eyewitnesses, which is altogether reliable, and proven by Jesus’ resurrection, which is altogether irrefutable. And our striving towards heaven calls us not to complacency, but action; not to an escape, but to an embrace of the trials of this life; not to indifference to the problems of the world, but to a duty to make the world a better place.

Pope Paul VI would say this, “Haven’t we frequently felt the temptation to let Christianity be comfortable, devoid of sacrifice, of having to conform to the easy-going and worldly ways of others? But that is not how Our Lord meant it to be. Christian life cannot dispense with the Cross since it has no meaning without the hard, pressing weight of duty. If we were to attempt to remove the cross from our lives, we would be creating illusions for ourselves and weakening the Faith, since we would have transformed Sacred Tradition into a soft and complacent style of life.” (iCwG, v7, p72)

St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, understood this well and would say, “Oh my God, I prefer to die loving you than to live a single instant without loving you... I love you my divine Savior, because you were crucified for us... because you have me crucified for you.”

The prophet Isaiah said, “Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow.” And on the Mount of the Transfiguration, we saw what that meant. For Jesus was seen there, dazzling like the sun, radiant as light - white as snow. And if we are to join him one day in glory, then we must join him on the Cross. For it is only there that our sins are forgiven, only there that we will pass onto glory, only there that we will possess the object of all our love, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Homily, 1st Sunday of Lent Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

Back in 1991, I was living at home for a few months before I entered the seminary. And I remember very vividly Good Friday of that year. I was at St. Jude’s participating in their beautiful Adoration of the Cross service. And during those three hours, from noon till 3pm, a violent thunder storm swept through town. As you can imagine, it added a little extra dramatic atmosphere to the service. Well, the storm ended, and when I got home, something was missing. Outside our second story kitchen window, we could see a big beautiful oak tree. It was special to us because a raccoon had made his nest there, right in view of the window, and he used to sit there and watch us eat our dinner and we’d watch him eat his dinner, and we grew fond of him over the years. Well, when I got home after the storm that day, the tree was gone - looking out the window, I just saw empty sky, no tree. So I went outside, went around the house, and sure enough, the tree had been blown over by the wind and slid down a hill into the pond. And when I looked at the base, I found out why: termites. The inside of the tree was completely rotted out and eaten up by these termites, and we were lucky the tree didn’t fall on the kitchen. Here this big, healthy looking, strong tree was rotting away on the inside all those years, being eaten by seemingly insignificant little bugs, so much so that when the winds blew and the storms came, the tree couldn’t stand.

Well, as I sat out on the back porch looking at the fallen tree, I couldn’t help but reflect on what this meant spiritually. How appropriate that this happened on Good Friday, during Lent, because Lent is a time that we, as Christians, need to be aware of the termites that eat us up on the inside, those little everyday temptations and sins that we don’t think too much about, but that if we don’t take care of, may cause us to fall when the winds blow and the storms come.

In today’s Gospel, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. The devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, “All these I will bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me.”

Well, commenting on this passage, Ronald Knox said, “the devil is not going to offer you and me all the kingdoms of the world. He knows his market, and he offers, like a good salesman, just as much as he thinks his customer will take. [He thinks that most of us could be had for much less than the whole world. And he doesn’t] propose his conditions to us so openly; his offer comes to us wrapped up in all sorts of plausible shapes.” In other words, the devil will tempt us with whatever it takes us to fall, but unfortunately, for most of us, that’s not very much. And we make it even easier for him by not avoiding the small temptations of everyday life, by letting the termites slowly eat away at us.

St. Francis de Sales, in his book, “Introduction to the Devout Life”, talks about resisting these small temptations. He says, “It is easy enough to avoid murder, but how difficult it is to avoid anger over little things. It is easy enough to avoid adultery, but how difficult it is to guard our glances, to refrain from lustful thoughts, or to avoid flirting. It is easy enough to avoid stealing our neighbor’s belongings, but how difficult it is to not desire them. It is easy enough not to lie in front of a judge, but how difficult it is not to lie in our idle conversations behind our neighbor’s back.” (IV.8, p.287-8) These are the types of temptations that lead to small sins that slowly eat away at us, so that when the larger storms of temptation come, we fall quickly because we have no strength or resistance built up.

Well, where do these temptations come from? In the Our Father, we pray, “lead us not into temptation”, and we’ve all heard the expression, that “God never allows us to be tempted beyond our strength.” From these common expressions, you might come to believe that God is the one doing the tempting, as if he were an adversary.

But God is not the one who tempts us to sin. Perhaps we say “lead us not into temptation” in reference to today’s Gospel where Jesus was “led into the desert” where it was the devil who tempted him. But St. James would say, “No one experiencing temptation should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.” God doesn’t cause but permits temptation so that we might grow in virtue, and he provides us with the strength to overcome it. As St. Augustine commented (OOR 1st Lent), “We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial.”

The real sources of temptation are found in the traditional threefold formulation: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world tempts us with passing pleasures that do not last or completely satisfy, the flesh tempts us with disordered passions, and the devil tempts us with pride and a belief in our own self-sufficiency.

And while all those things are true, we have to be careful about looking at it in this way. If we see the world, the flesh, and the devil as the source of sin, we are looking outside of the true source of sin, which is in the misuse of our free will. We saw this in the story of Adam and Eve, who were given freedom to choose among the many goods God had placed in the Garden of Eden, but instead chose that which was forbidden. We are indeed influenced by all these external factors, but it is our own free will that consents to the sin. St. James (1:15) said, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”

No matter the source of the temptation, the true responsibility lies within, with our own choices. While the devil will only tempt us with the bare minimum he needs to seduce us, God, on the other hand, will provide whatever grace we need to over come sin, as the Lord said to St. Paul (1 Cor. 12:9), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” When we see sin in the world today, many people like to dismiss it by saying, “oh, he’s only human.” When I hear that, I think, how sad, because being a wounded sinner subject to fall is not what being fully human means. Whereas to be truly human means to live in God’s friendship and obey his commandments. The prevalence of sin in the world today attests not only to our human weakness, but most especially to the allure of sin, and to our lack of reliance on God’s grace.

If we do rely on God’s help by turning to the means he provides, namely Confession, which cleanses and renews us, and the Eucharist, which gives us strength for our daily journey, then we can overcome the little temptations that we are constantly fighting, those termites which gnaw at us continually.

I like to look at it this way, when faced with a temptation, don’t use the world or the devil as an excuse, something which is outside of yourself, beyond your control. Don’t even let your own “human weakness” be an excuse. Don’t attribute it to anyone but yourself. Look to your own freedom, turn from your sins, and ask God to help you. Have mercy on yourself when you fall, but never give up the fight and always look to God with trust and confidence for strength. That way, when you do overcome sin, you will grow in virtue, never giving the devil his due or taking credit for yourself, instead giving all the glory to God. And St. Augustine gave some simple advice on how to do this: “If like Christ we have been tempted, in him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to see his victory? See yourself as tempted in him, and see yourself as victorious in him.”

Remember what St. Paul said, (1 Cor. 10:12-13) “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dust to Dust

Homily - Ash Wednesday
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.

“Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those are the words spoken when you receive your ashes today, and that is the reason we are here as we begin the season of Lent. That ashes remind us of one simple fact: without God, we are nothing. No matter what we do in this life – seeking fame, happiness, wealth, power, or long life – no matter what we do, in the end, we will return to dust. As Jesus once said, (Matthew 16:26), “ What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”

But worse yet, not only are we nothing without God, we have offended Him by our sins. As King David prayed in the Psalm, “For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: ‘Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.’”

Well, is there any hope? Yes, there is, in Jesus Christ, as St. Paul said, “For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God.” And because of this great gift, our salvation offered to us through Jesus’ offering himself on the Cross, St. Paul implores us, “Be reconciled to God! We beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Don’t look at the Cross and let its significance pass you by, don’t let this season of Lent pass without reconciling yourself to God, without turning from your sins and allowing the Lord to create you anew.

The Lord says through the prophet Joel: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”

Repentance begins within, rending our hearts not our garments. And that’s what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, when he taught about the three traditional forms of penance: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. We give alms, not for any worldly gain or tax write-off, or to receive the praise of men for how generous we are; we give alms for the sake of the Father in Heaven who sees in secret and will repay us. We pray not so that others may see our piety or how close we are to the Lord, but because we are children of a loving Father, who knows everything we need and wants to hear our prayers. We fast and wear ashes during Lent, not so that others may see it, but so that we will acknowledge to the Lord that all that is good comes from him and that we may mortify our desires for things of this world and set our sights on heaven alone.

As Lent begins, pray Psalm 51, and pray it often: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness, in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.” “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

If we turn to the Lord in this way, he will answer our prayer, have mercy on us, cleanse us from our sins, and create us anew. For without him, we are nothing, but as Jesus says, With God, all things are possible.