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Posted By on Jan 14, 2018

(2nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year B) At the beginning of Chapter 3 of the first book of Samuel, from which the 1st reading for today was drawn,[i] we read the words ‘The Word of God was rare in the land in those days.’ Samuel of course is going to grow up to be one of the great prophets of Israel. It is he who will anoint Saul as the first king of Israel, and then later the great king David as well. But in those days the Word of God was rare in the land… I was reminded of the call of that other great prophet, Elijah, in the first book of Kings, just a few generations later. He was sitting in front of the cave waiting for the Lord to pass by, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the firestorm, nor in the thundering wind, but the Lord was in the still small breeze or, some translations say, in the sound of sheer silence. The Word of the Lord doesn’t always come on billboards and banners, earthquakes and firestorms, with loudspeakers and spotlights. The Word of God comes out of the sheer silence. Maybe we could say it doesn’t always come from above like a trumpet blast; sometimes it comes from within. One wonders if the Word of the Lord really was rare in the land in those days, or was it that there were so few with the purity of heart or the presence of mind (which may be the same thing) to really hear it, to catch the sound of the still small voice, coming out of the sheer silence. But Samuel, we are led to believe, has such a pure heart, such presence of mind. This is a beautiful image of him, sleeping right next to the Ark of the Covenant, where the Word was stored, like a monk keeping vigil. His teacher Eli doesn’t even hear it (again, maybe because the voice is coming from within?), but he understands that Samuel has the gift, has the presence of mind, the purity of heart, to hear the subtle and quiet voice of the Lord. And so in our day and age and for us, it may seem as if the Word of the Lord is rare in our days, maybe even rarer in our land, but it is not rare in our hearts. St. Paul says The Word is near us on our lips and in our hearts.[ii] It just takes a rare purity of heart, clarity of mind to hear it, and maybe we don’t have that. It all depends...

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(for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and the World Day of Peace) We in the Catholic Church actually celebrate two different things on New Year’s Day, besides the secular holiday. One of them is liturgical––the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God; and the other one is not necessarily liturgical––the World Day of Peace. Since one of the most common titles we give to Mary is the Queen of Peace, I don’t think she minds sharing. As you know, the pope always issues a message on the World Day of Peace, and I am going to draw my own remarks today from that, because it’s a message that I think oftentimes gets ignored, but one that is ever more important. In a day and age of such political upheaval and polarization, I am relying on the Holy Father and the bishops of the Church to keep calling us back to the highest common denominator, and show us how to be and who to be in our society. Another reason that Mary and this year’s Message for the World Day of Peace go together is because the message this year deals with migrants and refugees, entitled: “Migrants and Refugees: Men and Women in Search of Peace.” There is a strong connection between Our Lady and migrants and refugees. Beginning in 2016 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops named the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a day of solidarity with immigrants and refugees. The Church has also been celebrating the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on August 15th, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, since 1914. And of course during the Christmas season we remember Mary journeying to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to Jesus, and then fleeing into Egypt to escape persecution, as many refugees do in our own time. Given all the indicators of the international situation, it seems as if migrations are going to continue to play a major part in our future across the planet. I love Francis’ response to that. “Some consider this a threat,” he says. “I, however, invite you to gaze upon this with trust, as an opportunity to build peace.” Pope’s have a lofty perspective: they do not speak for a country; they speak as the Vicar of Christ. And they do not speak only to Catholics or Christians; they are speaking to all people of good will throughout the world, whom they know will be listening. This isn’t just about our border walls and travel bans; there is a huge migration crisis going on around the world, in the Mideast, in North Africa and...

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the holy family: blood and water


Posted By on Dec 31, 2017

As I was preparing my homily for this feast, the old phrase “Blood is thicker than water” kept coming to my mind, but in a negative way. I assume the saying means that our family ties, at least with our blood relations, are the strongest ones––but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I say this in no way to denigrate the nuclear family, but if you think about it, the marriage bond, the very heart of the nuclear family, isn’t a bond of blood; it’s a bond of choice, an act of the will. Think of Joseph: he wasn’t blood related to either Mary or Jesus! I was reading an article in the New York Times recently that was recounting what a common phenomenon it actually is for people to be estranged from a member of their family, even a parent, even sometimes estranged from their entire family. I realized at one point that my own life and interests had grown so vastly different from my own family that if I was going to have a relationship with them as an adult, I was going to have to choose it, and cultivate it. Is blood really thicker than water? The water symbolizes Baptism to me, but first of all the “baptism of desire,” if I may misuse that phrase. The strongest relationships may be the ones we desire, the ones we choose, the ones we will. Baptism, of course, is also a symbol of the spiritual life, and I have found that by now my friends and companions in the spiritual life, who I easily refer to as brothers and sisters, know me as well as or even better than my parents or my sisters. Not only do they know what kind of snacks I like, they know when I’m tense and need a break, they know what topics really set me on fire and where my deepest sadness comes from. In this way, the water––the water of spiritual initiation––is a mighty strong bond, thicker even than blood. Even Jesus would say the same thing; once when he was told that his mother and brothers were waiting for him outside, he said, ‘Whoever hears the Word of God and keeps it is brother, sister, mother to me.’ There’s a sub-theme to the story of the Presentation in the Temple that we hear this year for the Feast of the Holy Family that is easy to overlook, and that is its Eucharistic aspect. All throughout the infancy narratives, Saint Luke does a marvelous job of weaving together themes and allusions from the Hebrew Scriptures. And in this scene with Simeon...

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For about the past 12,000 years, since the Ice Age, the Earth has been in the geological era that scientists call the Holocene. I’m not sure you’ve noticed but it’s been a relatively stable period with remarkably stable temperature range. It’s within this period that all of human civilization developed and spread across the planet, especially in the past five thousand years. With the growth of civilizations, however, humanity has actually wound up shaping the environment more than we have been shaped by it. In fact, some anthropologists and geologists believe we human beings have altered the environment to such a degree that by some time in the 1950s we had entered a whole “new epoch in the geological time scale,”[i] a new era, a new age. The International Geological Congress was held in Cape Town, South Africa in 2016. And during that meeting a working group of geologists voted to recommend an official recognition of this new epoch, and they adopted a term that a Nobel laureate named Paul Crutzen had come up with: the Anthropocene Era. You will recognize the Greek root anthropos––which means “of or related to the human beings.” What we mean by “Anthropocene” is that at this point in the history of the universe our very choices as human beings and our actions based on those choices are affecting the course of evolution! As a matter of fact, the force of natural selection (or evolution) has in some sense been superseded by human choice. Through our decisions and our actions based on those decisions, we human beings are changing the very trajectory of evolution in a way that no other species possibly could. Whether we know it or not, we are deciding which pathways of evolution will be shut off forever, and which can flourish. I have mostly heard this described as a bad thing because of all the problems that stem from our ever growing population of now over 7.5 billion souls: industrial and other development that leads to increased resource use especially the overuse of fossil fuels, and leaves behind toxic chemicals and plastic wastes, as well as a reduction of wild lands and the killing off of wildlife in the world by half, to the point of what is being called the Sixth Extinction, that could result in 75 per cent of species going extinct by the end of the century. This is obviously the negative aspect of the Anthropocene, and the consequent need for conversion that Pope Francis addressed in his now famous encyclical Laudato Sì. Some folks on the other hand, like so many young people I meet who...

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the child and the refining fire


Posted By on Dec 23, 2017

We hear this beautiful tender story of the birth of John the Baptist today, the last day of Advent, from the Gospel of Luke (1:57-66), but first we hear a powerful reading from the prophet Malachi (3:1-4, 23-24) that is a sort of warning about what John the Baptist is going to be like later in life. He is going to be like a refining fire and a fuller’s soap, cleansing the children of Levi! Remember, John makes the people go outside of the Promised Land to the other side of the River Jordan to be baptized and then re-enter, purified, ready to receive the New Covenant. We have seen in the last few days not only how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies, but also how John the Baptist is. Luke does such a wonderful job of weaving images from the Hebrew prophets into his infancy narrative. The things we heard about Samson the other day from the book of Judges (13:2-7, 23-24), for example, and in the reading from Malachi today––‘He will drink neither wine nor strong drink,’ and ‘in the Spirit and power of Elijah’––were repeated by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah concerning his son about to be born. Even Hannah’s song of praise yesterday, which is pretty much an exact replica of Psalm 112, is not only a foreshadowing of Mary’s Magnificat; it is in response to the story of Hannah giving birth to Samuel (1 Sam 1:24-28), who is also sort of a foreshadowing of John the Baptizer. Then Luke presents all these parallels: John is announced, Jesus is announced; John is born, Jesus is born; Mary sings, Zechariah sings. And the people are amazed at John’s birth and ask the awed question: “What will this child turn out to be?” And later the shepherds are amazed. Luke is at pains to present Jesus and John as parallels. And there is another parallel too: I’ve heard it said that the wood of the cradle becomes the wood of the cross. John the Baptist is born, it seems, for glory. Indeed the hand of the Lord is upon him. But it’s a terrible thing sometimes for the hand of the Lord to be upon you! Like Jesus’ own kenosis, John’s real glory is going to be that he points away from himself. His real glory was that he decreased so that Christ would increase. His real glory was that he knew he was not the one, but only preparing the way for the one. Even up to the macabre story of his own beheading and being offered up on a tray, his self-offering is presented...

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saint cecelia: music and martyrdom


Posted By on Nov 22, 2017

I know it sounds quite close to a heresy, but I don’t like Rome very much, especially all the overblown triumphalistic architecture and overwrought sculpture and art. But there is one little place, one church, that I really loved. It’s at the Abbey of Saint Cecelia in Trastevere, still inhabited by a community of Benedictine nuns. It was built on the site that is by tradition where Cecelia’s family home was. And one of the most remarkable understated statues I saw anywhere in Italy is there, sculpted in 1600 by the sculptor Maderno. In the account of her martyrdom it is said that the executioner struck her neck three times, but she continued to live for three days yet, preaching the gospel! This simple white marble statue has her lying on her right side on the ground, with her head turned in the opposite direction and three axe strokes on her neck. Her grave had been opened in 1599 and her body was found to be incorrupt, with some congealed blood still on the neck. Apparently the sculptor was present at that disinterment because on the ground in front of the statue is a marble slab on which the sculptor himself has etched a testimony that this is exactly how he saw the body in the tomb. I wanted to see the statue because St. Cecilia is the patroness of music (and also of poetry). The reason she is the patroness of music is because during her wedding ceremony, at which she told her husband she had taken a vow of virginity and had an angel protecting her, she was said––it’s told both ways––either to have sung to in God her heart or to have heard celestial music in her heart. She is often represented in art with an organ or organ-pipes in her hand. I have a story to tell about myself. Though the Monastic Catalogus records our vows according to simple vows, the anniversary I always remember is the day I made my solemn vows, which was on this day in 1997, the feast of Saint Cecelia. Even as a junior monk I was already in charge of the liturgy, including choosing all the readings for Vigils and the other Liturgies of the Hours. Well, since it was going to be the day of my solemn vows I was trying to subtly orchestrate just about every single detail of the liturgy. I remembered that there was a beautiful reading by Saint Augustine in the Roman Rite Office of Readings about singing the psalms. And I thought that I could sneak that in as the second reading at...

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