My son Caleb insists on calling me “dad.” He used to call me “daddy,” but recently it’s just “dad.” I knew there would come a day when he was too cool to call me “daddy.” I had hoped it would come much later than 2 years old.
Don’t misunderstand me, being called “dad” is the greatest privilege of my life.
And the privilege goes beyond the title. This morning I was trimming my mustache over the sink. Caleb stood there and watched my every move. “Ow, dad. Hurts your face?” “No, Caleb, daddy’s not hurt.” Of course, I decided not to leave hair in the sink. My son was watching and I didn’t want him to think it was ok to leave a mess for someone else. He does the same with Mom. I’m constantly amazed at how much of her I see in him, both in appearance and manner. He watches everything we do, listens to everything we say, and copies it. By the way, I never realized how much we must say “no” and “mine.”
I only say this half joking. I know it’s natural for a toddler to claim everything as “mine” and reply to every request or command with “no.” But I also recognize that some of my own bad habits are already being passed to him. It puts pressure on me (in a good way) to better myself and be worthy of the title “dad.” If the universal call to holiness weren’t enough of a reason to be a better version of me, the fact that my son is watching and learning certainly is. I hope the Mom and Dad he sees love God with their whole being and love their neighbor as themselves. I hope he sees Dad and Mom loving and honoring each other in word and deed. I hope he sees us owning up to mistakes and seeking forgiveness when needed. Most especially, I pray that it could never be said of us, “Do what Mom and Dad say but not what they do.”
The readings this weekend talk about spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. There are many people who lead us to Jesus. Our mother and father may have been the first, but many others followed: grandparents, godparents, priests, deacons, religious, parents of friends, religious education teachers, peers etc. None of these people are perfect. The hope is that we see past imperfection to the truth being offered to us. But we shouldn’t count on that. Being a spiritual leader comes with responsibility. I can’t expect Caleb to listen to my words when my actions don’t correspond. And I can’t expect anyone to whom I’m a spiritual father to heed my words and not my deeds.
The reality is that there will be times when I don’t follow my own advice. Jesus and Saint Paul give us a way to remedy this. To be true leaders we must be servants. Our actions must be guided by love, gentleness, and humility.
The revolution is called the Theology of the Body. It is a gift and legacy given to the Church and the world by Saint John Paul the Great. Centuries from now people will look back on it as a turning point in our understanding of what it means to be human, a unity of body and soul. The Theology of the Body (TOB) is a large body of theology. As Pope, John Paul laid it out over the course of 129 lectures spanning five years. We use TOB as a framework to teach 6-12 graders about sexuality, chastity, vocation, what it means to be created male and female and, above all, what it means to be made in the image of God.
It’s more than a glorified “abstinence talk.” TOB is an anthropology that gives us keys to approaching some of life’s biggest questions. What is the meaning of life? Why are we made the way we are? What were we made for? Where do evil and suffering come from? What is the ultimate end of all this? The short answer is this: we are made in the image of God, which means we are made in the image of Love. We are made by Love, in the image of Love, and our purpose is to love and be loved. Jesus showed us what love is by His suffering and death. He showed us that love isn’t a cozy feeling. His heart wasn’t warmed by the thought of His passion, but filled with sorrow even to the point of death. His love for the Father meant obedience to His Will.
We were created to love—to make a gift of self. Saint Maximilian Kolbe has two incredible quotations on the nature of love. “Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving. Without sacrifice, there is no love.” The second is even simpler and sums up what it means to love quite plainly: “The cross is the school of love.” Everything we need to know about how we are to love, we can find in contemplating the cross. On the cross, Jesus was poured out completely for the sake of the same people who put him there, including you and me (Philippians 2:5-8). His sacrifice was freely given and required nothing from us (John 10:17-18, Romans 5:8). The ultimate act of love is given for us and will not be withdrawn or canceled (Revelation 21:3). And the cross is more than an act to inspire us—it brought us salvation (1 Peter 2:24) and defeated death in the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).
Jesus gave us the Greatest Commandment in two parts. First, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the example of what this love looks like is the cross. It is obedience to the will of God. It is sacrificial love given totally, freely, without condition or an expiration date, and desiring the good of the other for their own sake. It isn’t always emotionally rewarding and it is often the last thing we feel like doing. This kind of love isn’t hard; it’s impossible, without God.
That is why love is called a theological virtue. It comes from God. The unambiguous instruction to love God and love your neighbor is an opportunity to participate in the love of Christ. He shares with us His divine nature, which is love, and we return it by our love for Him and others. This cycle of self-gift, which begins for us here on Earth, is Heaven. It is the end for which we were made and it is nothing short of revolutionary.
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Hypocrite is one of those words that many people use and use incorrectly. Jesus was the first person to use it as a criticism. In modern use, it has come to describe a person whose actions don’t match their stated beliefs. An obese cardiologist? Hypocrite! Someone who claims to love the environment but drives a gas guzzler? Hypocrite! Family values politicians who are unfaithful to their spouse? Hypocrites! When actions don’t match words we all get upset—and rightfully so. We all want a world where we can take people at face value. What we commonly call hypocrisy undermines trust. But I think we commonly misidentify this disparity between word and deed.
If we are honest, each of us is in some way guilty of what we say differing from what we do. We might tell our kids to put down the phone or tablet while engrossed in our own device. Or we urge others to drive more carefully while we drive with distractions. We know what is best for us and do something less. We opt for the extra donut over the apple (or butter coffee), the nap over the brisk walk, impatience over the kind word, or one more episode on Netflix over prayer and scripture. But this doesn’t make us hypocrites in the sense that Jesus used the word. These examples and many more are really instances of concupiscence and weakness as a result of the Fall.
In Jesus’ time, “hypocrite” was the Greek word for a stage actor who wore a mask. When Jesus called someone a hypocrite he was implying that they were playing a role, wearing a mask. Hypocrites were people more concerned with their image than anything else. Their aim was not to be righteous but to appear righteous and gain the praise of the world. In this Sunday’s Gospel, it is the idea of image that really stands out.
The hypocrites come to Jesus with a trick question. They approach him with false praise for his teaching and wisdom, even laying it on thick. Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus disappoints them with a better answer than they could have expected. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If the gold coins are Caesar’s because they bear his image, then how do I know what belongs to God? What bears His image? We learned what bears God’s image in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. We do. We belong to God.
To repay to God what belongs to God we have to give Him our whole self. Repaying God means giving him glory and honor. It means giving Him our time, talent and treasure. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted a debate that would end in Jesus saying something they could use to condemn him. What they got instead was a simple and clear teaching—take off your masks. Stop pretending to be something you are not. Remember that the only image that matters is not the one you craft for public approval, but the Imago Dei—the image of God. We are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. While our ideals and actions might not always agree, we can begin to shine by removing our masks and letting the world see Whose image and inscription we bear.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading challenges every one of us to come to a deeper appreciation of the generosity of our God. It seems like a universal reaction to complain when we have been deprived of something we think is owed to us. This sense of dissatisfaction with unfair circumstances can fuel the changes that make a more just world. But sometimes, this sense of dissatisfaction is misplaced and can even make the world less just, less merciful.
Imagine winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping that it’s not two million. Or receiving a miraculous cure of a terminal illness and complaining that it didn’t also cure a less serious condition. I remember going on pilgrimage to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000. It was hot the day we celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II. A local beverage company handed out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water—for free. Someone in my group complained that it wasn’t cold water. Complaints like these fuel bitterness and envy.
Think about the complaint of the “early shift” laborers in the vineyard. They worked the whole day. I’m sure that working the whole day gave them the benefit of establishing a rhythm. Not only were they working longer, but they were likely more effective and efficient workers because of it.
Then come the “late shifters.” I bet they showed up, with an hour or two to go, and had no idea what they were doing. They likely caused more harm than good by messing up the efficient technique of the veterans. Some of them might have even voiced ideas on how to improve the system as if they knew what they were talking about! And in the end, they got the same pay. The injustice of it all.
We may have a tendency to view our fellow vineyard workers in the same light. “They’re not as committed as I am,” we might say. Or, “They don’t give as much time, talent and treasure.” Or even, “They’re not as morally good as I am!” Yet all are given the same work of evangelizing and offered the same reward of eternal life.
The reality is that none of us deserves the opportunity to labor, nor do we deserve the generous reward. In reading this parable, we shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to identify whether we are early or latecomers. That might lead to comparison. Love doesn’t compare, it doesn’t weigh benefits, and it doesn’t hold back. This parable is an opportunity to stand back and marvel at the generosity of our God, who desires that all be saved and gives us each a role to play in His Divine plan.
The response to Jesus’ love is to look within and ask, “Lord, how can I give more?”
Saint Paul talks about his dilemma in the second reading. He desires an end to his labor in the vineyard, that he might live with Christ forever. But he also has a strong yearning to continue his mission of evangelizing, sharing the love of Jesus and the message of salvation with anyone who will listen. Keep in mind that Saint Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Philippians. His mind was not focused on receiving fair treatment, but on Jesus. For him, and for us, every soul brought to the vineyard and given a reward is a reason to celebrate with joy the undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional love of Jesus Christ.
This Sunday we will hear one of those challenging passages that are hard to interpret at first. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman approaches the disciples and asks that her daughter be healed. The disciples want Jesus to get rid of her. He tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman comes to Jesus, worships Him and asks for help. His reply is shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She accepts that she is a dog, and asks for scraps from the master’s table. It then appears that Jesus has a “come to Jesus” moment where he recognizes the greatness of her faith and heals her daughter.
Some Catholic commentaries explain that Jesus was a product of the time and place he inhabited. He held the tendencies that most people of his time held. As a woman, especially a Canaanite woman, this mother was on the bottom rung of society. They say her persistence helped Jesus “evolve” and see His saving mission in a broader sense. I reject this interpretation for a few reasons. First, if Jesus were so anti-gentile, what was he doing in Tyre and Sidon? Second, at this point there are already examples in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus heals both women and gentiles, so the interpretation doesn’t fit the context.
But the larger problem with this interpretation is this: it means that either bigotry and ethnic/racial prejudice aren’t sins, which they clearly are. Or, the alternative, which is even worse, it means Jesus wasn’t the spotless lamb, like us in all things but sin, and therefore died for his own sin, not ours. Our Catholic faith holds that Jesus was sinless, and affirms that racism is a sin so there has to be a better way of reading this passage. There is, fortunately, a third alternative. Jesus is being ironic. He’s using a specific irony called sarcasm.
Jesus uses irony throughout the Gospels. Every time he responds to the Pharisees starting with the words, “Have you not read…” he’s using subtle irony. Of course the Pharisees have read what Jesus is about to tell them. The Pharisees had poured over the scriptures countless times and could recite every word from memory. He also makes use of sarcastic forms of irony.
At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” (Lk 13:31-33)
Not only does he call Herod a fox (actually a vixen, Jesus uses the feminine form) but he then basically tells the Pharisees, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to die now and rob you of the chance to kill me in Jerusalem.”
The idea that Jesus used sarcasm at times might be unsettling to some. It’s a form of irony that is usually reserved to express contempt or scorn. And that is exactly how Jesus uses it in this story. He pours contempt and scorn on the ethnic and racial supremacy of His time, of all time. His target audience was not the Canaanite woman, but his disciples, then and now. I don’t think Jesus would have spoken this way if He didn’t see the woman’s heart and know that she could grasp the subtlety. Her wit and humility gave Jesus the space to teach a valuable lesson. But the lesson on bigotry isn’t the real gem here.
The Canaanite woman is the treasure buried in this reading. The worst part about wrongly interpreting this story is that you might miss out on her. For her, Jesus was a mere rumor, but she persisted in faith. He was a Jew, the enemy of her people, but she persisted in faith. The disciples, among them the Apostles who were the first bishops, told her to get away. She persisted in faith. Her faith was greater than the obstacles and in the end she was rewarded. Her reward was not to be exalted as an example while the disciples were humbled. The true reward wasn’t even the healing of her daughter. Her reward was the one we all should seek—Jesus Himself.
This weekend groups of teens and adults will be returning home from Beyond Sunday Missions in Mexico, ME and CAMPS (Christ as My Personal Savior) in Pittsfield, MA. Two weeks ago, another dozen teens and adults joined thousands at the Steubenville East Conference in Lowell, MA. Close to 30 members of our parish community joined in these experiences with thousands of other Catholics for one purpose: to encounter Jesus Christ.
For many years now experiences like these have been integral to the formation of teens and adults into disciples of Jesus Christ at our parish. It is important for every Catholic to step back from mundane life occasionally to reach out and be touched by the Living God. We call these conferences, retreats, bible camp, missions etc. But they are all really Transfiguration experiences.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, John, and James up a mountain to reveal His glory to them. The events leading up to this are important. Six days before this, the twelve were gathered with Jesus and he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” It was a question not only for them but for us too. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” He didn’t grasp the full meaning of this declaration, confirmed immediately after by Peter’s attempt to convince Jesus to evade his arrest, passion, and death in Jerusalem. But Peter stepped out in faith anyway.
And so, six days later, Jesus called Peter, along with James and John, to journey up a mountain, because he had something to show them. There on Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed His Glory and left no doubt in the minds of the three disciples as to who He was and is.
To encounter Jesus and be left with no doubt about who He is.
That is why we invest so much time and money on experiences like Steubenville, Beyond Sunday Mission and CAMPS. That is why we urge so many young people to step out in faith and get on the bus, or get in the van and go. I wrote a few weeks ago on the Parable of the Sower. One of the types of soil was rocky soil, where crops spring up at once and wither because they have no root. I said that sometimes when people return home from a profound retreat experience they can be like that rocky soil—on fire for Christ for a while, but not when troubles come. I did not mean that as a criticism of powerful spiritual experiences. I think these experiences are critical to developing as a disciple, and they remain with someone for years. Saint Peter recalled the events of the Transfiguration decades later in this week’s second reading.
I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m a product of the “small” acts that build faith. The informal catechesis of my parents tilled the soil of my heart. The mountain of little things served to amplify those huge Transfiguration moments. I’ve probably been to Mass a couple thousand times in my life, Reconciliation maybe a hundred times. Despite all that, I still remember the first time experiencing a God who was both bigger than I could possibly imagine and closer than I could ever dream. I was singing a song at CAMPS in 1995 called “Where Justice Rolls Down” surrounded by friends from my parish and a couple hundred other campers. In that moment, singing at the top of my lungs with arms raised heavenward, I had no doubt who Jesus Christ was and is. That sort of thing changes you like the first Transfiguration changed Peter, John, and James.
No, it’s not an either/or thing. Like so much of Catholicism, it’s both/and. That Transfiguration experience 22 years ago set a fire that still burns today, but it wouldn’t still be burning without all the little things that prepared me for it and sustained me afterward. Even when it looked like my faith would wither and die (and there were times when it did look that way) the roots had gone too deep for that to happen.
So, I’ll just ask you for two things. First, will you pray for deep roots for all those who have come home from a Transfiguration experience this summer? Pray that they now have the courage to persevere in doing the little things that sustain the fire they received. Second, if you’ve never had a Transfiguration experience, or if it has been a long time since you have, would you prayerfully consider setting aside time for one this year?
Patience is not necessarily tolerance. Tolerance is not necessarily love. I tolerate all sorts of things for different reasons. I tolerate snow because there’s nothing I can do about it (except maybe move to Arizona, but then I’d have a lot more tolerating to do). I tolerate traffic and long lines for the same reason. Because I’m powerless over those things. I tolerate uninformed opinions because I’ve learned that uninformed opinions aren’t uninformed by accident. We all have a tendency to start with conclusions and ignore evidence to the contrary. Besides that, who wants to argue constantly? I mean besides me. Tolerance is often necessary for the sake of peace and getting along. But tolerance is misguided when it is divorced from a much deeper and fuller virtue: Prudence.
Prudence is a virtue that gives us the ability to recognize what is to be pursued and what should be avoided. In the Catholic sense, prudence allows us to discern what is good and what is evil—we should pursue the good and be fiercely intolerant of evil. And there’s more to prudence than simply knowing what is good and what is evil. Prudence also advises the course we need to take in pursuit of good and avoidance of evil. We can’t do evil in pursuit of good, and we shouldn’t take actions which generate evil in pursuit of good. Even if the goal is good, we cannot cause suffering greater than the good to achieve the goal. It might be easier to see this in a concrete example.
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to own and operate an alpaca farm. And anyone who knows anything about alpaca husbandry understands that the greatest threat to a successful farm is alpaca thieves. My farm will come equipped with high voltage fences strong enough to kill any potential thief on the spot. Of course, the fence could also harm alpacas and innocent human beings, but it’s worth it because I have the good and noble goal of preventing alpaca pilfering.
It sounds goofy (I mean the defense system and not my lifelong dream), but it’s not so over-the-top. Consider actions like the War on Drugs. Think about how much suffering and violence came from the imprudent pursuit of a good and noble goal. We do it in our own lives too. Look at the absolute breakdown in civil discourse over issues of faith, morals, and politics. How many friendships have broken due to disagreement? How many families hold a grudging peace at best and, at worst, outright division over similar disagreements? But are we supposed to then simply say, “You have your opinion, I have mine. Let’s agree to disagree since there’s no way of knowing who’s right?” Well, no. There’s another way.
Jesus presents the other way in a parable. A farmer sowed wheat, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds. When both begin to grow the servants suggest pulling the weeds. But the farmer prudently tells them not to, because that would kill the wheat as well. Wait until the harvest and then have the harvesters pull the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn. Jesus goes on the explain the meaning, which He doesn’t always do. Whenever He explains the meaning I think the parable must be particularly important. The field is the world, this life. The wheat are the children of His Kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one—Satan. The harvesters are the angels, sent by Christ at the end of time to separate wheat from weed. What does this mean practically speaking? Separating people into two camps, good and evil, isn’t our job. Being children of the Kingdom is our job.
What does being children of the Kingdom mean in light of this Sunday’s readings? First, we have to understand that the weeds don’t represent evil people. There are no evil people. Thoughts, actions, attitudes, beliefs, biases, words—all of these can be evil. But a human person, made in the image of God, cannot. They can be under the influence of evil forces, but that makes them victims of the enemy, not the enemy themselves.
Second, make sure you are wheat. Be prudent. Before you decide whose actions are good and whose are evil, make sure you yourself know the difference and live it in your own life. I’ve been a weed at times, and I’ve been wheat at others. By grace, through prayer, scripture, and, above all, the Sacraments, I work with Christ to be wheat.
Third, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that patience and prudence (seen as tolerance) are a tacit acceptance of evil. If we love others as we should, we would be as intolerant of evil within them as we would cancer within them. We wouldn’t want a little cancer, but would want every trace of it eradicated. The same goes for evil. But it is unwise and imprudent to take an unmerciful approach and wield truth like a sledgehammer. This hinders love.
Finally, do we just sit around and disparage the weeds around us, waiting for the end of the age when we will finally be separated? No, that’s not loving, not prudent, and it’s very weed-like. We hope for conversion and show how to be children of the Kingdom by our joyful example. Above all, we pray. Nature cannot change weeds into wheat, but grace can. For nothing is impossible with God.
“Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
The Gospel reading this Sunday is the parable of the sower (note the name, I’ll come back to that). I’ve used this passage to open retreats with teens for many years. The message I add to the parable isn’t exactly mind blowing: listen to the explanation of the parable and consider which of the four types of soil represents you.
These are generally Confirmation retreats so I assume they have heard the Word the parable refers to—that God loves them, made them for life with Him, and that we reject His love by disobedience and sin, but He sent His Son Jesus to set us free from sin and give us hope of eternal life by his Death and Resurrection. Then we examine the four types of soil.
There’s path soil. The devil snatches the seed up before it can even grow. This represents a hardened heart, much like the hard-packed soil of a dirt road. Hearts harden for so many reasons but these reasons all tend to have something in common with the road: they’ve been walked on, run over, trampled. And it’s often done by people who don’t know they’re doing it, sometimes by “church” people. The scar tissue of life’s wounds builds up and the seed cannot penetrate. They become cynical about God’s goodness and even His existence.
There’s shallow rocky soil. Crops sprout up quickly but have no root so they wither. This person isn’t shallow, but their faith might be. The reason for the shallowness can be found in a confusion between faith and feelings. When persevering in faith feels good, faith seems strong. But when the positive feelings dry up (as they do) there is nothing of substance left to feed the growing faith. I see this in people who come home from a retreat, conference, mission, or bible camp on fire for Jesus, but the fire is partially the result of an emotional roller coaster. The first speedbump—an argument at home, a friend who questions or mocks, or a personal setback—derails the whole thing.
Then there’s thorny weedy soil. The first two were dark, so I have fun with this one. You can do this too. I tell them think of everything obligation they have. Raise your hand and keep it up if you go to school. Raise the other hand and keep it up if you have a job. If both hands are up raise a leg if you have commitments to family, friends, sports, arts, academic clubs, social media, hobbies, etc. The list goes on and on until every one of them has two arms up, two legs up, is bobbing their head and shimmying in their seat. Then I ask, how do you look doing that? In a hundred times doing this exercise there are two answers I always get. First, they say foolish. Second, like a puppet. The simple message is that the things in life that are supposed to be enjoyed shouldn’t make you look like a foolish puppet—they shouldn’t control you. They have heard the Word and desire to accept it and live it out, but honestly believe they just don’t have the time or energy. Faith goes on the back burner and promptly begins to die. In the very least it bears no fruit.
Finally, there’s good soil which has been tilled, cleared of rocks, and weeded. It’s not soil that was never trampled, was never shallow and never had thorns or weeds. It represents the one who cooperates with the sower to allow rocks to be removed and make room for genuine faith. With the sower they make sure that their trampled heart, though scarred, remains open by hope. And in genuine love they put weeds and thorns in their proper place. Rather than loving things and using people, they love God, love others, love themselves, and use things.
This is absolutely true. Each of us has the responsibility to cooperate with grace in perfecting our hearts to receive the Good News with joy so we can bear fruit.
But that’s not what this parable is about.
Jesus refers to this parable by name, and He doesn’t call it the Parable of the Four Types of Soil. He calls it the Parable of the Sower. It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.
The seed is the word of God and Christ is the sower. I’m not a farmer, but I know that seed is valuable. After all, the farmer could have eaten it, or sold it. He certainly wouldn’t toss it anywhere, especially in places he knows it won’t grow. I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell us that He’s a careless farmer. The Parable of the Sower is about God’s desire that everyone be saved. His love for us is abundant and lavish—even reckless. It is a gift we cannot earn. We all have those times when faith is shallow, or forgotten, or even shut out by a hardened heart. Jesus is still there.
Speak, O Lord, as we come to You To receive the food of Your Holy Word. Take Your truth, plant it deep in us; Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, That the light of Christ might be seen today In our acts of love and our deeds of faith. Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us All Your purposes for Your glory.
Teach us, Lord, full obedience, Holy reverence, true humility; Test our thoughts and our attitudes In the radiance of Your purity. Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see Your majestic love and authority. Words of pow’r that can never fail— Let their truth prevail over unbelief.
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds; Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us— Truths unchanged from the dawn of time That will echo down through eternity. And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises, And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us. Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built And the earth is filled with Your glory.
Last week Jesus consoled us and commanded that we have no fear. Not even a fear of death. He wasn’t talking about an emotion. We have very little immediate control over our emotional response to things, especially things we don’t often encounter like our lives being threatened. The word He used still exists in English—phobia. When we say someone has a phobia we almost always mean that their internal fear or anxiety translates into action which is disproportionate to the thing they fear.
Being creeped out by seeing a spider in your bathroom isn’t arachnophobia, but burning down your house and moving to another continent is. Sometimes when I talk to people I have this internal conversation critic who seems to think every word out of my mouth is The Dumbest Thing Ever Said, but I wouldn’t dare minimize the suffering of someone with actual social anxiety by calling mine a phobia. It’s just an annoying worry with little power over me—anyone who knows me knows I keep on talking anyway. No, the fear Jesus forbids is of the sort that dictates our behavior—a fear that can make us choose to do and be less when Christ invites us to greatness.
For us, discipleship doesn’t carry fear of death (for now). Instead we suffer from a spiritual FOMO. FOMO means fear of missing out. It’s a word coined in 2004 that immediately became overused and annoying. But it is a real phenomenon. Some people think social media is to blame. We see posts of our friends and family at the Best Party Ever or the Best Concert Ever and we get a sense of anxiety over our loss for doing something less important like going to work or taking care of family. It makes people fail to see the good things right in front them while they worry about the other things they could be doing. For some people, it results in a failure to commit to doing anything at all because what if it’s the wrong thing? For most, it means a nagging feeling that there’s always something better than the present moment.
FOMO is nothing new though and it’s much older than Facebook or Instagram. Spiritual fear of missing out goes all the way back to the Fall. The serpent convinced Eve that God was holding out on her and Adam. God had promised paradise, but what if he was holding out? They feared, they disobeyed, and the rest is history. Come to think of it, maybe FOMO isn’t that much older than social media. I can’t help but notice the logo on my phone: an apple with a bite out of it.
When we fear that life in Christ isn’t the greatest good, that it will make us miss out on something better (what could be better?) we become less. Saint Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” We fall short of the Glory of God if we give power to fear of missing out on comfort, or a chance to shore up our ego, or to achieve acceptance and worldly success, or any number of lesser things. We fail to be fully alive.
This is the point of the first part of Sunday’s Gospel. It sounds harsh, I know. On the one hand, I think Jesus is saying to love him more than even our own family to drive home the point that He is the greatest good. If we’re supposed to love Jesus more than we love our own mom then you better believe we’re supposed love Him more than we love Sunday sports, political ideology or money. Loving Jesus more than our parents, more than our children, and more than our own lives doesn’t convey their unimportance, but it demonstrates Jesus’ absolute importance. It’s not a command to not love mother and father, sons and daughters, and ourselves, but an opportunity to love them more by loving Him more. In other words, if, as disciples of Jesus, the upper limit of our capacity to love is measured by how much we love Christ, then seeking to know and love Him more can only mean we will love others more, especially mom and dad, the kids, and ourselves.
There’s no denying the difficulty of taking up our cross daily to follow him, even in a nation where free exercise of religion is supposed to be unrestricted. When we should be more engaged in prayer, or doing spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, or fulfilling our Sunday obligation to attend Mass, it is all too easy to let spiritual FOMO slip in. The Catholic life, the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ, is not easy, it is not popular, and sometimes the temptation to be less than our calling is overwhelming.
Maybe that’s the rationale for the second half of Sunday’s Gospel. We are commanded to show hospitality, especially to fellow disciples, especially the little ones (maybe they’re little because the weight of their cross has crushed them). They, like you, are walking a hard road. They too struggle with fear of missing out—a nagging feeling that might not be a true doubt in God’s goodness but still represents a persistent anxiety that this isn’t the right path. We need to help carry each other’s crosses. That could take the form of a note of encouragement, a warm greeting at Mass or on the street, prayer for our fellow disciples, fellowship and time spent together simply being present to and loving each other–there are countless examples. None of us can carry our cross alone, so I’ll end by taking my own advice:
Please know that I am constantly in awe of the sacrifices you make to be fellow disciples. Your sincere love for Jesus and His people encourages me. Sunday is my favorite day of the week not just because I get to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, but also because I share it in communion with you. There’s no place I’d rather be than in His presence and I am blessed to be there with a family of which you are part. The Body of Christ truly is beautiful and I have genuine affection for each of you. I hope that your example of faith inspires people Monday to Saturday as much as it inspires me on Sunday.
This Friday (June 23) is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. The following was initially written for Divine Mercy Sunday but is completely appropriate for the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is a devotion that recalls Jesus’ immense love for each person. He became man and entered into every aspect of our reality except sin. He suffered disappointment and loss, betrayal and abandonment, and endured emotional, mental, spiritual and physical anguish to break through the walls of self-exile we had put up to separate us from His love.
Because of the Incarnation the Sacred Heart is a human heart. God’s love crosses a bridge to really, truly be with us. Crossing that divide is what makes Divine Love Divine Mercy. Saint Thomas Aquinas said mercy is, “the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II. 30.1) Compassion means “to suffer with.” Divine Mercy saw our misery and was driven to climb down into the deepest darkness of a fallen world to suffer with us and draw us to His Sacred Heart.
“God’s mercy is like water, it always flows to the lowest place.”
–Father Michael Gaitley
I know this is true, because I have experienced it firsthand.
In the fall of 2012 I enrolled in a monthly theology certificate class offered by The Theological Institute for the New Evangelization. It was more like a monthly retreat than a class. I do not mean to downplay the scholastic rigor of the course. Indeed, I was taught a great deal about my Catholic faith and, more important, I discovered how little I knew. But the context of the learning was deeply spiritual and directed all learning not just to the head, but to the heart as well. Those eight Saturdays were like an oasis in a desert.
At that point in my life I had been in a spiritual and emotional desert. My wife and I lost our first-born son Ronan in 2006 and as much as I’d like to claim that I handled the loss with strength and dignity, I must be honest and admit that my coping was anything but strong or dignified. I was in a pit, in the desert, and in my blindness and deafness I remained mostly unaware of my own pitiful plight. I apologize, but I’m opting to spare you the details regarding the nature of the hole (holes) I had dug. As much as I’d like to write a Saint Augustine style Confession, I’m afraid I lack the courage. Besides that, I think we all know to some degree what it looks like to deal with pain in all the wrong ways.
It was in this context that I sat one Saturday morning listening to Dr. David Franks open the class with a meditation on a scriptural passage. I don’t recall which, though I think it might have been from Hebrews. During the reflection, he made the point that we were getting better all the time—that if we honestly reflected on where we are now compared to the past we would see that we were improving every day. He said it so earnestly and with so much love. And it made me furious to hear these words. Not furious at him, no. Dr. Franks was and is one of the many instruments God used to call me to life again. And I wasn’t furious at Jesus either, because I desperately wanted what Dr. Franks said to be true and even in darkness I knew Jesus was the only way it could be. I wasn’t even upset at myself because, let’s face it, if there is one person I am always good at understanding, bearing patiently, and forgiving, it’s me. All I know is that I was sitting there, trying to contemplate words that should have been a consolation, yet I was festering with rage. How could I be getting better? Doesn’t he know how wretched I am? I couldn’t understand my reaction and it took quite some time to understand why.
The “why” was fear.
Because mercy is like water.
Let me explain. God’s mercy, like water, seeks out the lowest place. His Love for every human person draws Him to those most in need of His mercy. Mercy is what Love looks like when it meets our brokenness. It flows to the lowest point, cleanses, soothes, refreshes, and heals. Jesus’ mercy, poured out for all from His pierced side, flows infinitely. It is not a mere trickle moistening the wall of the pit but an immense ocean. When we first encounter His mercy it consoles. But as the waters rise, He desires that we be swept up in them. His mercy is not there to make the pit comfortable, but to draw us out of it to new life, abundant life—to freedom.
But that first moment when the deluge of Divine Mercy causes our feet to lose contact with the bottom is frightening. I fought it with anger (among other things) because I did not know where the tide would take me and I didn’t care to find out. God’s timing, however, is perfect. Around the time of hearing Dr. Franks’ words, I also came to understand true devotion to the Blessed Mother. Nothing quiets fear and anger quite like the love of a mother. By the intercession and guidance of the Mother of Mercy, I could let go and trust in the mercy of Jesus. It didn’t matter so much what I had done or how wretched I wrongly believed I was (with apologies to “Amazing Grace,” no human being is a wretch). Mercy, not me, was doing the work of making me better day by day—of lifting me out of the pit. Divine Mercy does that for each of us.
The world needs mercy now more than ever. I pray that you will be like Dr. David Franks, and bring mercy to those who need it. And I pray that you will have no fear of letting the infinite ocean of Jesus’ mercy take you wherever it might.
Jesus, I trust in you.
Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step
You were with us
Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone Never once did You leave us on our own You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Kneeling on this battle ground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone Never once did You leave us on our own You are faithful, God, You are faithful You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Carried by Your constant grace
Held within Your perfect peace
Never once, no, we never walk alone
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Every step we are breathing in Your grace
Evermore we’ll be breathing out Your praise
You are faithful, God, You are faithful