Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who You Are

Homily, 24th Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

A friend of mine told me that he had dinner with a friend a few weeks ago, and that his friend brought along her roommate, a young woman who had recently graduated from college with a degree in nursing. Well, during the course of the evening, they talked, and it seemed that the young woman was very depressed. Apparently, her father had been telling her her whole life that she was overweight, and the men she knew in college were only interested in comparing her to the women they saw in the movies. And this was tearing her apart.

So he did what any good Southern gentleman and Christian would do, he told her not to let others judge her by her looks, that indeed she was very pretty. He praised her desire to be a nurse, because it was a beautiful thing to want to give of yourself in service to others, and he told her that no one had the right to treat her as an object, to harass her about her weight, or to hold her to impossible standards.

And you know what? It was the first time she had ever heard it. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us, with all the images we see in the media, but no one had ever told her those things before. My friend tells me that she lit up and went home seemingly renewed, just from his simple words of kindness. And reflecting on the experience, he wrote this to me: “why is it that I am so much more concerned with what’s happening in the life of this girl, a stranger to me, than I am concerned with my career or in getting what I want? [He goes on:] I know the answer: it’s Jesus, and the effect of putting Him above everything else. What’s happening in the life of this suffering stranger is, I’m surprised to say, of paramount importance to me.”

As he realized, it is of paramount importance that we know who Jesus is, Who do you say that I am?” Because if we do not know who he is, then we do not know ourselves, and we cannot know each other. Pope John Paul likes to quote the Second Vatican Council and say this: Jesus Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” [for all quotes, cf. Redemptor hominis 8, Gaudium et spes 22]

Well, let’s take a look at what Jesus Christ reveals to us about ourselves and each other. The first thing that He reveals to us is our dignity as human persons. The catechism speaks of human dignity in this way: (CCC 357) “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of the human person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession, and of freely giving himself and entering into a communion with other persons.”

Because of this great dignity, we have certain rights, which are inherent to our very nature as human persons created in God’s image and likeness: the right to life, work, truth, and self-determination. No one has the right to treat you as an object, to be used or abused for mere economic gain or selfish gratification, because God has made you “a little less than the angels” (Heb. 2:7) And no one has the right to judge you by your sex, skin color, weight, nationality, or abilities and disabilities, because when God looks at you, He sees His creation, and all of his works are good (Gen. 1:31).

In other words, no one has the right to treat as anything other than what you are: a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a member of the Body of Christ. And it is in Jesus Christ, the God-man, that we know this is true... He who is the Son of God became one of us! The Vatican Council would say this about his role: “human nature as He assumed it ... has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect... For by His Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every human person. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”

And that is the next important thing that Jesus Christ reveals about us: we are sinners. Perhaps like the young woman my friend met, we are sometimes “more sinned against than sinning”, but nevertheless, we are sinful and weak, and we cannot save ourselves.

Yes, we are created in God’s image and likeness, but our very nature has been wounded by sin, and we need to be healed from that sin. And that can only happen through Jesus Christ, for only he, being sinless, could pay the price for our sins, only He could fulfill the prophecy of Isiah, "I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard."

Again, the Vatican Council would say, “[Jesus] restores [in us] the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward.” And because we have received such a great gift, Redemption from our sins, then we now have certain obligations, certain duties: to respect life, to seek God's will and live our vocations, to seek the truth, to respect others, free of anger, fear, prejudice, or discrimination - avoiding those things incompatible with God’s design of the human heart (CCC 1935).

The final thing which Jesus wishes reveals to us is that if we follow in his steps, we will discover the true meaning of love. When Peter answered Jesus’ question and said, “[You are] the Messiah of God”, he had perhaps only a vague idea of what that meant, because Jesus felt the need to explain further, “The Son of Man must first endure many sufferings, be rejected..., and be put to death, and then be raised up on the third day.”

There are a lot of ideas out there today about what love is, most of them false, some of them partially true, but there is only one way in which you can truly come to know that fullness of love, and that is in knowing Jesus Christ. True love is a total gift of self, and Jesus Christ showed us the way by giving Himself completely for our sake on the Cross, and “no one has greater love than this...” (John 15:13)

The Vatican Council would say with St. Paul, “The Son of God ‘loved me and gave Himself up for me’ (Gal. 2:20). By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.”

Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” My friend denied what the world had to say to the young woman he met. He helped her, in some small way, to discover her true self, and he was only able to do so because he knew Jesus Christ. Only by denying our selves and looking to Him will we truly discover our selves.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Signs of Sacred Things

Homily, 23rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

Over the years, I’ve been asked “why” about the faith many times. Why do we fast on Fridays during Lent? Why do we have to confess our sins to a priest? Why do we have to go to church every Sunday? Why do we stand and kneel and sit and make the sign of the cross and genuflect?

You can look at today’s Gospel and ask the same type of question: when he cured the man who was deaf and dumb, why did Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, spit and touch the man’s tongue, look up to heaven, emit a groan, and then say “Ephphatha”? Why did he use all these external actions, which, by themselves, seemingly have no meaning? Why didn’t he just do what he did for the Centurion (Matthew 8:8-13) who said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”? Remember how Jesus said to him, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour his servant was healed, even though Jesus never saw or touched the man.

Well, the answer is very simple: Although it is the words of Jesus, his divine will and power, that worked the cure of the man who was deaf and dumb, Jesus wished to use visible, material objects and actions in a way that expressed a more profound, inner meaning. In other words, he was preparing us for the sacraments, which he would institute and give to his church. St. Augustine defined a sacrament as “the visible form of invisible grace” or as “a sign of a sacred thing.” Jesus knew that after he died and rose again, he would be returning to his heavenly Father, but he wanted to remain with us in external, tangible ways. And he does this through the sacraments, as St. Leo said, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his sacraments.”

Now there are various levels of sacraments, and many meanings to the word. At the first level are what we call “sacramentals”, which are lesser than what we know as the seven sacraments. Sacramentals are “Sacred signs, whether an object or an action, by which spiritual effects are signified and obtained by the intercession of the Church.” Sacramental objects would include things like holy water, scapulars, medals, rosaries. Sacramental actions would include blessings and exorcisms, the sign of the Cross and genuflecting.

Now what’s the difference between Sacramentals and sacraments? First, Christ instituted the sacraments directly, whereas the Church, with Christ’s authority, institutes and can change sacramentals. But they also differ in the manner of imparting grace, the manner in which they are effective. A sacrament imparts grace in virtue of the rite (the action) itself, while the grace of the sacramentals depends on the dispositions of the recipient and the intercession of the Church.

So, if you bless yourself with Holy Water and make the sign of the Cross without faith or without being well disposed, then you are simply getting your finger wet and touching your forehead, heart, and shoulders. If you get anything out of it, it will only be because someone else is praying for you. But if you do it with faith, then you are reminding yourself of your baptism, when you were baptized into Christ’s death on the Cross, and you are asking God to bless you, which he does. If you genuflect in the presence of the tabernacle without faith or without being well disposed, then you are simply touching your knee to the ground. But if you do it with faith, then you are performing an act of adoration, latria, the highest form of worship, acknowledging that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, and that he is your Lord and God.

Now the seven sacraments are greater and more important than sacramentals. These sacraments are, as we all learned in CCD: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. They are greater because they were instituted by Christ himself and were entrusted to his Church so that we might share in his divine life. When celebrated worthily in faith, they confer the grace they signify. In other words, they are efficacious because it is Christ himself who is at work in the sacraments. Jesus is continuing his saving mission on earth, by allowing us to unite ourselves to his Passion and Death and the promise of the Resurrection, and he does this through his sacraments.

Now, having faith and being well-disposed to receive the sacraments is important, helping you to more fruitfully receive them, the but the sacraments work, ex opere operato, “by the very fact of the actions being performed… From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and the Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.” Just as Christ worked the miracle with the deaf and dumb man, so he works now through the signs and symbols of the sacraments of the Church.

That is why sacraments can be received unworthily. In Baptism, through the sign of pouring the water, we really were cleansed of both original sin and personal sin, and we wear a white garment to signify this new purity, but if we fall back into sin and don’t rely on God’s grace to help avoid temptation, then we, in a sense, soil that white garment and need to be cleansed again. In Confession, we confess our sins to Christ through the sign of his priest, and we are truly forgiven by the priest with the authority of Christ, but we can dishonor that sacrament by not going or not taking it seriously. In Confirmation, the bishop anoints our forehead with sacred oil and lays hands on us, and we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we can ignore those gifts by living a worldly life instead using those gifts to build up God’s kingdom on earth. In Marriage, we join hands and exchange rings as a sign of union, pronouncing vows before Christ and his Church, and then God truly creates an indissoluble bond that man cannot break, but we can dishonor that bond by not living the promises of marriage: permanency, fidelity, and fruitfulness in love and life. In the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the body and blood of our Lord are given us under the signs of bread and wine, but if we lack faith, are not well disposed, or are in a state of sin, then we still receive Jesus in communion, only we may have offended him and prevented him from working in your soul, by our lack of faith, lack of preparation, or lack of repentance.

The Church itself is an effective sign of God’s work and presence in the world, and you can not substitute for it. In that sense, the Church is a type of sacrament, which Christ instituted. Vatican II called the Church the “universal sacrament of salvation... The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament – a sign and instrument – of communion with God and of unity among all men.” So, the Church’s first purpose is to be an instrument that unites individual people with God, and it is also a sign of that unity. But also, because the Church is Catholic, universal, it unites all peoples, from every nation, race, and language. It is a sacrament of the unity of the human race and it is Christ who works in his Church to unite all peoples to himself and to each other.

That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ, and that’s why it’s important to not only be a Catholic, but to be a practicing Catholic. By being a Catholic, you belong to the Body of Christ, which is God’s desire for the whole human race. By being a practicing Catholic, you help build up the Body of Christ. The sacraments of the Church are meant to nourish our spiritual life. And just as you can harm your physical health by not eating, so also you can harm your spiritual life by not partaking of the sacraments. And that’s why the greatest of the sacraments is the Eucharist, (John 6:51), “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” It is our viaticum, our food for the journey.

And that’s the final purpose of all the sacraments: to allow us to share in the very life of God on this earth, so that we might one day share it with him for all eternity in heaven.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

No Man Can Live Without Delight

Homily 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 2012
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton, GA

When I was in the seminary, one of our professors, who was teaching us moral theology, came to class one day with a yo-yo. He took the yo-yo, held it in front of him, and started swinging it back and forth, like a pendulum. And then he called one of us up to do the same. So one of my classmates dutifully got up and started swinging the yo-yo like a pendulum. We thought this was a mildly entertaining diversion, a good way to waste class time, but then our professor asked my classmate to stop, which he did. Then he told him to close his eyes, and to visualize the yo-yo swinging like he had just been doing, to just think about it without actually swinging the yo-yo. We all laughed until our classmate actually tried it. He sat there with his eyes closed, held the yo-yo out, and then concentrated. And before you knew it, the yo-yo was swinging back and forth. We were about to laugh, but the professor told us to keep quiet, and then he asked him, “Are you thinking about swinging the yo-yo?” “Yes.” “Is the yo-yo swinging?” “Of course not.” And that’s when he told him to open his eyes, and he was surprised to see the yo-yo swinging back and forth like a pendulum.

The point of the exercise was real simple: thoughts are, in a very real sense, actions, or, at the least, what sets action into motion. Ideas have consequences, and sometimes it’s hard to stop those consequences once our thoughts set them into motion.

And this is a theme which Jesus preaches about frequently. Today, he says, “Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: (and then he lists a series of evils) All these evils come from within and render a man impure.” And he would teach this again in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not kill;' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “You have heard that it was said, 'Do not take a false oath,’… But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.'”

Of course, nowadays, many of the evils Jesus speaks of as things which render a man impure are actually exalted as virtues. I guarantee you, you can go home tonight, on a Sunday evening during Labor Day weekend, and in less than an hour flipping through the channels on the television you will see everything which Jesus spoke of: “acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, an obtuse spirit.”

Now, in history and even the Bible, many of the great works of art and literature and music contain themes of lust, violence, or wickedness. But these are works of art because, as Walker Percy said (Signposts, p.365), they accurately portray “the way things are, the way people are… the truth about the human condition.” Great works of art portray sin, yes, but they also portray the consequences of sin, and they do so in a way that is not prurient or lewd, designed only to excite the senses instead of stimulating the intellect or moving the heart. And that’s what is happening in America today: these “wicked designs” are not only entertainment; they have become glorified as virtuous. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar per year industry, violence in the movies glorifies the violence that we see on the nightly news, advertisements appeal to our sensuality, greed and materialism, and much of what we see is simply arrogant and blasphemous.

Why has this happened? Well, I believe it is simply because we have lost our sense of true joy, true spirituality. St. Thomas Aquinas says (II-II.35.4.2), “No man can live without delight. This is why a man deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures.”

We have killed spiritual joy in America today and that is why we have gone over to these “wicked designs”, or carnal pleasures.

So, how do we remedy this situation? Very simply, start within. And the readings today give us plenty of suggestions. The psalm says, “He who walks blamelessly and does justice, who thinks the truth in his heart and slanders not with his tongue.” St. James says, “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you. Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves... Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world." And Moses says, “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live.” Hear the word of God, let it take root in you, and act on it. Let it transform you from within. Only then will you have life, true spiritual life, true spiritual joy.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” If your heart is pure – free from lust and sensuality, violence and anger, greed and materialism, pride and arrogance – then you will be able to see God, not only in the future life that he promises, but also here and now. You will be able to see him in the community, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” You will be able to see him in the poor and the suffering, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” You will be able to see him in the sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist and Confession, as St. Ambrose said, “You have shown Yourself to me, O Christ, face to face. I meet You in Your sacraments.” And one day, if you prepare your hearts now, you will be able to see him face to face, when he leads us to the promised land, the kingdom of heaven, which he promises to those who love him and keep his commandments.