Saturday, November 26, 2011

Firm to the End

Homily, 1st Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

While our culture has already begun the “Christmas season” with shopping, shopping, Christmas music, shopping, shopping, Christmas decorations and food, the Church celebrates Advent, a time of expectation and hope. We are awaiting the celebration of the birth of our Savior, and so we prepare ourselves accordingly. I suppose this attitude of expectation is present in our secular celebrations of Christmas, as we know, our children are anxiously awaiting that morning they can open their presents. But as adults, we should channel that same enthusiasm into celebrating Christ's first coming as a child in Bethlehem, and waiting in joyful hope for his Second Coming in glory.

The catechism says this about Advent, “when the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present the ancient expectation of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming.” (CCC 524) We pray with Isaiah in the first reading, “Return for the sake of your servants... the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down...”

The glory of his first coming should remind us that God is true to his promises. The entire history of Israel was a preparation for the coming of the Messiah, announced by all the prophets. And the Father fulfilled his word by sending his only Son on that Christmas day. And if he was true to his promises then, he will be true to ones he has made, for he will come again in glory at the end of time.

As St. Cryril put it, “His first coming was hidden, in a stable in a small town outside Jerusalem. His future coming will be for all to see as he comes with the Heavenly Jerusalem. At his first coming, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, at his second, he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In his first coming, he endured his Passion, despite its shame, enduring the mockery and humiliation by the soldiers; in the second, he will come in glory, escorted by an army of angels.” (Office of Readings, 1st Sunday of Advent)

When he came the first time, he sought to teach us his way of love by gentle persuasion, so that we would freely choose him; but when he comes again, the time for learning and choosing and growing will be complete.

Our Lord says in today's Gospel, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come... May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'”

Saint Augustine comments on this passage, wondering if the Lord's Second Coming is something to be feared: “'My brethren, the appointed time is short... But I wish you to be without anxiety' [as Saint Paul says]. He who is without anxiety waits without fear until his Lord comes. For what sort of love of Christ is it to fear his coming? Brothers, do we not have to blush for shame? We love him, yet we fear his coming. Are we really certain that we love him? Or do we love our sins more? Therefore let us hate our sins and love him who will exact punishment for them. He will come whether we wish it or not. Do not think that because he is not coming just now, he will not come at all. He will come, you know not when; and provided he finds you prepared, your ignorance of the time of his coming will not be held against you.” (OOR, 33rd Sunday)

That's why Isaiah prays, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”

So, if we are to be prepared for his second coming, we must invite him into our lives today. Perhaps some of us will live to see that glorious day, but all of us, without doubt will meet him face to face in the silence of death, and that meeting is something we should prepare for every day. And how do we do this? Well that’s why in Advent we where purple: because it has a penitential character. If we are to prepare for the coming of our Lord, the traditional way is to do penance, and Scripture offers three ways, which Jesus himself taught in the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

By prayer, we get to know the Lord so that when we meet him, he won’t be a stranger, but someone we long to see face to face. By fasting, we imitate our Lord Passion, by voluntarily making acts of sacrifice and self-denial. To show that our hope is in heaven, not in things of this earth. And by almsgiving, we give of ourselves for the sake of others in reparation for sin, for as Scripture says, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Early in my priesthood, one of my mom's best friends died... I celebrated her funeral fifteen years ago today right before Thanksgiving. She was diagnosed with cancer before my father was, and the two of them struggled with it together for a long time. Well, on a Saturday night after the joy of a wedding, I had a chance to visit her and her family a few hours before she died. We all gathered around and prayed together, laughed a bit and cried a bit. And then the husband says to me: “Paul, remind me to give you a present that Ann bought for your new niece.” And I was amazed, for here she was, struggling with cancer for over two years, and in the final days of her life, all she could think of was giving of herself to others. And she lived her whole life that way: they used to say of her, “You can’t out-nice her.”

One of the oncology nurses at the hospital, who has certainly seen a lot of people die, remarked that she had rarely seen so much love around a woman, that she must have been a remarkable person. And she summed it up very simply by saying, “people die like they live.” And my friend died surrounded by the love she had so freely given all those years.

My friend was prepared because she was prepared every day. By living the Gospel command to be watchful and ready, to prepare through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, she was prepared when her final moment came. What have you done today to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Have you prayed? Have you made acts of sacrifice and self-denial? Have you given of yourselves to others? Have you made a good confession?

If we trust in the Lord and live in joyful hope of his Coming in Glory, then that day, whether it be at the end of time or at the moment of death, will be a time of rejoicing. For, as Saint Paul says, “God is faithful... He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Faith Demands Works

Homily, Christ the King, A 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

I once read a reminiscence written by a prominent theologian who taught at a major university. She was traveling across country to give a lecture, and it was an exhausting trip, as she had to change trains a couple times and found it difficult to eat while traveling. As she walked through one terminal, her fatigue and hunger overcame her, and she fainted at the foot of a staircase. Nearby, there was a small group of homeless men. One of them left the group and came over and helped her. He helped her up and gently sat her down on the stair. He then went off for a moment, returned with a cup of water, and stood their anxiously as she drank it up. Then he went off again, got a porter from the train she was headed to, and then helped pile her bags on the carrier. As she was leaving with the porter, she weakly tried to thank him, but he waved off her thanks with the simple words, “Oh, you’d have done the same for me!”

That day, she learned a lesson no book could have taught her: that faith is seen in works, and God is made manifest in his people, especially the most needy in our midst. She never imagined that she would be the needy one and that the least among us would be the servant.

During the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500's, a familiar term regarding salvation was “sola fide,” Latin for “by faith alone.” The reformers, at that time, accused the Catholic Church of departing from the “simple purity of the Gospel” of Jesus Christ. They stated it was faith alone, without works of any kind, that brought a believer to eternal life. They defined this faith as “the confidence of man, associated with the certainty of salvation, because the merciful Father will forgive sins because of Christ's sake.” Martin Luther appealed to passages from Saint Paul to justify his claim. In Romans 3:28, Saint Paul says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” And in Galatians 2:16, he reiterates, “We may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law.”

All Christians will be able to agree on the following two truths: salvation is by grace alone, as Saint Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and salvation is through Christ alone, as Saint Peter says in Acts, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). On these key points we agree with our Protestant friends.

But what about works, does faith alone save, do works play no role in our salvation? Is faith nothing more than believing and trusting? Is this enough to be saved?

Well, Saint James was apparently responding to this concern very early in the history of the Church. Perhaps even then, some had put too much emphasis in Saint Paul's words. So Saint James says very clearly, (James 2:14-17) “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Another way to look at it: We are justified by faith. Our faith is justified by works. You can't have one without the other. In fact, Saint James says emphatically, (James 2:24,26), “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone... For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Jesus as well would say that there would be people who would claim to know him, but “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21). Here, Jesus clearly links salvation with doing God's will. And he explains further in today's parable of the Last Judgment.

The King will say to those on his right, the Just, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

The Righteous will protest, “Lord, when did we see you...” And the King makes it clear that loving God means loving neighbor, especially the most needy, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The consequence of this is that some will be separated from him, on his left, the wicked, and will be condemned. Why? For not serving him in the needy, as Saint John Chrysostom says: “No one has ever been condemned for not decorating the church for Christmas. But hell awaits those who despise the needy, who are a temple more valuable than any church.”

As the King will say, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels... 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Another way to look at it: we are saved by faith, we are judged by works. Saint James would put it this way (James 2:18): “Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”

Last summer, ‎Archbishop Charles Chaput was interviewed about his new assignment in Philadelphia. He was asked about serving the needy, as Christ demands in today's Gospel, and he could not have put it more succinctly, “We can't preach the Gospel and not live it. If we don't love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we're going to go to Hell.”

And this love is a demanding love, after all, it is modeled by Christ on the Cross. The love asks sacrifices of us, loving till it hurts. A good example of this is something that was reported in Chattanooga last summer, in the Times Free Press. [Original story here. Follow up here.]

They told the story of Mary C., a homeless woman who appeared beyond help, “a mentally retarded, epileptic and partially paralyzed woman who spent months homeless on the streets of Chattanooga late last year and the first half of 2011 until she was taken in by Nancy R., a retired organizational psychologist.” When she first saw her, “the woman was slumped, face down on a Market Street park bench. Her arms hung limp, and a filthy, stainless steel walker stood beside her. Plastic bags, stuffed with urine-soaked clothing and blankets, bulged on the sidewalk.” Many thought Mary was a drunk, prone to angry outbursts, and she “had been turned away from nearly every social service help system Chattanooga has to offer.”

But Nancy thought to herself that the woman might be someone's mother, so she stopped to help her. No one had taken the time to get to know Mary, about how as an infant her father threw her on the floor, giving rise to her retardation and epilepsy. She was abused, abandoned, institutionalized, eventually ending up on the streets of Chattanooga, where she suffered robberies, beatings, even rapes.

Over a couple of months, Nancy got to know her, listened to her stories, and believed her. She also began to advocate for her. Mary had an IQ of 51, and even Nancy, with a doctorate, found it difficult to work the maze of requirements and paperwork demanded by various social service agencies. At one point it was so difficult that Mary cried out in despair, “I'm not fit to live. I'm a burden to everyone.”

But they persisted and made it through the dark times. Eventually, Nancy helped Mary reunite with her sisters after 20 years, helped her get the mental health services she needed, and just this past October, helped her get a home, working with another advocacy group for the disabled.

Nancy's motivation for doing so much to help and abandoned homeless woman? “I just wanted a happy ending,” she said. And so does God, in my opinion.

Christ is present in the needy amongst us, often in, as Mother Teresa would say, “in a most distressing disguise”, and our faith demands works.