Fr. Bryan Howard
2nd Sunday of Lent – Year C – 17 March 2018
What does it mean to be human? Are humans merely biological robots, the product of mere chance, programmed by the forces of evolution and without any real freedom? Or are we meant for more? Are we meant to realize that we were created to the image and likeness of God, adoptive children of God through baptism into Jesus Christ, the Son of God? We were destined for the freedom of the children of God, not to sell ourselves back into slavery to sin.
When the Lord called Abraham to travel from his home in Ur to a new land, He promised to give Abraham and his descendants the land that he would show him, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that his descendant would be a blessing to all the nations, and in today’s reading God seals those promises with an oath, thus forming a covenant with Abraham. God has Abraham bring him certain animals, clean animals that would make suitable sacrifices, and cut them in half and lay them out on the ground in two rows. Notice that it was nighttime at the beginning of the reading, as Abraham can see the stars, and he keeps vigil there all day until the next night. Then, God appears to Abraham as a fire pot and a flaming torch, the fire representing the presence of God, and passes through the animals, thus forming a covenant. By having His presence pass through the animals, the Lord is vowing to keep His promises to Abraham, or else let what happened to those animals happen to Him, thus sealing His promise with His very life.
Unfortunately, a part of God’s promise is left out of the reading. God told Abraham, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” This promise is about the Exodus, when God delivered the descendants from slavery in Egypt and led them into the promised land and made them His own chosen people.
There’s a worse slavery that God wanted to save us from, and it’s not physical and political slavery but moral and spiritual. In our second reading, St. Paul writes, “For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their "shame." Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” Slaves are taken by force or bought and sold, but it’s against their will. When we sin we willingly enslave ourselves to forces that are beneath us. We think that these things will make us happy, and in the short term we may even be right, but our experience speaks for itself. We know that every time we sin it leads to more misery than happiness and that, in the long run, holiness is the only path to true and lasting happiness, but we keep doing what we know is wrong over and over, and usually in the same ways. What we need is a new Exodus and a new covenant.
On Mt. Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration, Jesus begins to prepare His disciples for the new Exodus. He gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His glory to strengthen their faith, knowing that their faith will be tested by His crucifixion and death. Then it says, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Moses and Elijah represent the two parts of the Old Testament, the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, Elijah, and they’re talking to Jesus about His crucifixion, but they call it “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Through His crucifixion Jesus will accomplish a new exodus and free His people from slavery to sin and death.
So that’s the new exodus, but I also mentioned a new covenant. Did you know that another word for covenant is testament? We call the part of the Bible that talks about Jesus the New Testament, of course, but the phrase New Testament, or new covenant, only appears once in the New Testament, and it’s not talking about the Bible. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes the chalice filled with wine and, giving it to His disciples, tells them, “Take this and drink of it. This is the chalice of the New Covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in commemoration of me.” In the Bible, the term New Covenant refers the crucifixion of Jesus and to the Mass, in which we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Through the Eucharist we are united to Jesus Christ and become children of God, which was God’s plan for us all along. We are not just restored to the grace that we lost through sin but lifted up to an even higher place. In one of his Christmas homilies Pope St. Leo the Great put it this way, “Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom.
Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.”
Why do we use water to bless ourselves when we enter Church and to sprinkle in our homes, cars, places of business, etc.? We know that we need to use water for baptisms, but how did the Church start using separate, blessed holy water for these other things? After all, in the earliest times of the Church baptisms took place in rivers, streams, and lakes, so they didn’t have baptismal fonts full of holy water in their churches. In fact, since Christianity was illegal, they didn’t even have churches in most places.
The Church probably used holy water from the earliest days since water was used in Jewish homes for purification, and the earliest Christians were mostly Jews. However, the earliest recorded use of holy water is from the fourth century. It’s a blessing of water to protect from disease, evil spirits, and all maladies. As soon as Christianity was legalized, churches began keeping the water from baptisms for people to use throughout the year. In the seventh century we begin to have records of churches keeping water at the entrance of the Church for people to bless themselves with or to take home with them.
Today, we use holy water for basically the same reasons. We bless ourselves, our homes, and our religious articles with holy water to ask God to purify them, to protect them from demonic influence, and to bestow His grace on them. When we bless ourselves with holy water whenever we enter Church, we’re doing at least two things. First, we’re reminding ourselves of our baptism, through which we first entered the Church and became children of God. Second, we’re asking God to purify us of sin and fill us with His grace. We recognize that we’re entering a holy place and ask God to make us worthy to enter his house.
Holy Water is a sacramental, not a sacrament. Sacraments, like baptism, work in and of themselves because of the power that God has given them. Sacramentals require the faith of the person using them to have an effect. If we just bless ourselves with holy water without really thinking about it, but just because that’s what we always do, then it’s not having much of an effect. So, every time you enter a Church and bless yourself with the holy water, ask God to stir up the graces of baptism in your soul, to forgive your sins, and to fill you with His lifegiving grace.
You should check out the website, www.newadvent.org, because they offer a lot of resources, some of which you might find useful and enlightening. They host an online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia, which I’ve been using since I was in seminary to research things and still use sometimes to help prepare homilies and talks. The best part, to me, is that the version they have isn’t the newest publication, but the 1917 version. Although it obviously doesn’t have articles on anything that’s happened since then, like the Second Vatican Council, it does show that the actual teachings of the Catholic Church stay the same even if the culture around her changes. The truth is the truth.
New Advent also offers links to articles from popular Catholic blogs, like Fr. Z and Msgr. Charles Pope, the Summa Theologiaeof St. Thomas Aquinas, biographies and writings of over 60 of the Church Fathers along with other anonymous writings from the early Church, and a library of Church documents from the 19thand 20thcenturies. Finally, they have the Knox Versionof the Bible, which was translated in the 1930s and ‘40s by Catholic priest Msgr. Ronald Knox. It is a very accurate and particularly beautiful translation of the Bible.
We live in a time when, through the internet, we have access to more Catholic resources than regular Catholics have had at any point in history. 50 years ago you probably couldn’t find all of these things collected in one place even if you went to a library, but today you can access them all on one website. If you want to go deeper in your understanding of the Holy Scriptures and Traditions of the Catholic faith, this would be a very good place to start.
Fr. Bryan Howard
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 3 March 2019
Today’s readings are about bearing good fruit and following in the way of Christ so that we can rise to new life with Him. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Lent comes before Easter to teach us that the way to life, to the new life of Christ, is to follow the path that He did, the Cross.
A lot of people think of the Lenten Fast as just a bunch of rules that some old guys in Rome said we have to follow, but there’s a reason for all of the things that we do. I’ve heard so many people say that they don’t give up meat on Fridays because it’s not really a sacrifice in Louisiana, where our seafood is so good. So, instead of making a small sacrifice, they choose not to make any sacrifice. Instead, why don’t you take it to the next level. St. Frances de Sales in his famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, says that, instead of giving up meat, you should instead eat whatever is set before you without complaint, which may be a harder thing to do for most people. Whatever you do, keep in mind the reasons that we fast and how it can prepare us for Easter.
First, we fast to be in solidarity with the poor. The poor don’t have a choice; they live with limited resources, not for forty days, but every day. Fasting can give us a new appreciation for what we do have. Instead of taking things for granted we are more able to enjoy the small pleasure of life. That sense of gratitude for the people and things in our lives and for the blessings that God has given us can lead to greater compassion for the poor. Our Christian spiritual tradition has always said that we shouldn’t just fast during Lent, but that we should take what we’ve saved in time and money and give it to the poor. Fasting should lead to almsgiving.
The first reading, from the book of Sirach, says, “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one's faults when one speaks. As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just.” Lent is meant to be a sort of tribulation, a test, and it can teach us a lot about ourselves. If we choose what we give up well, it can show us where we’re struggling in the spiritual life. We shouldn’t choose something too hard, as that might discourage us and tempt us to give up, but we also shouldn’t choose something too easy. Like kids always joke that they’re going to give up homework. It should be challenging, but not debilitating. When we really enter into the silence of Lent, the sensory deprivation, then we suddenly have time for our own minds to start working, to start thinking and reflecting on our lives. We’ve invented ways to always have sound, especially music, with us, from the Walkman isn’t he ‘80s to wireless earbuds today. There are many great quotes about silence, but here’s something that Mother Teresa said that I recently found, “If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
We sometimes think of the Lenten Fast as giving up bad things, but really what we’re doing is giving up good things. The Lenten Fast is an offering to God; let us never offer God anything that is evil. The ancient Jewish people would give the first fruits and the unblemished lambs to the Lord, meaning that they would take the very best of what they had, the juiciest grapes, the most perfect part of the crop, and give it to God. During Lent, we cut back on or give up things that we enjoy, good things, as a way of expressing our love for God. By doing so we’re saying, “I love this, but I love God more,” and, “This is good, but God is the source of all goodness.”
We sit here under the Crucifix not because we’re “keeping Christ no the Cross,” as some people say, but because as long as we are in this world we are on the Way of the Cross longing for the Resurrection. Seeing that Christ allowed Himself to be lifted up for our sins and the sins of the world we can be strengthened by Him to carry our Crosses. The little crosses that we choose to carry during Lent are light compared to the great crosses that all people have to bear at some point in there lives, but they can give us the hope that we don’t carry them alone, and that the Resurrection of the Lord is waiting for us at the end of the Road.
“Preparing for Lent? What do you mean preparing for Lent? I thought Lent was about preparing for Easter?” Lent is indeed about preparing to receive the Lord at Easter, but Catholics traditionally also prepare themselves to have a holy Lent, so that they can be well prepared for Easter. Quinquagesima, meaning “fiftieth,” refers to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, sexagesimal, “sixtieth,” refers to the Sunday before that, and septuagesima, “seventieth,” refers to the week before that, which is nine weeks before Easter. They would begin to pray and even to fast, the prayers and readings at Mass would take on a penitential character, and they would stop singing the Gloria and saying “alleluia,” but they would also celebrate with parades and feasts, as we do at Mardi Gras.
We no longer celebrate these days in the liturgical calendar, but we can learn from the wisdom of our ancestors that we need to prepare for the Lenten fast. First, you can examine your conscience and go to confession before Lent starts, so that you start with a clean slate, and then go to confession again as we get closer to Easter. This way, the Lenten fast will show you what sins you are most struggling with and encourage you to seek God’s help, in the sacrament, to overcome them.
Second, start to plan out your Lent. Decide what special penance you want to do for Lent. Do you want to give something up or add something or a little of both? One of the best ways that we can prepare for Holy Week is by meditating on the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus by making the Way of the Cross, praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, praying the Magnificent Prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden, and reading the Passion Narratives in the Gospels (Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, John 12-19). Even if you can’t make it to the Way of the Cross at Church, on Friday morning at 8:30 and Friday evening at 6:00, you can still do any of these prayers by yourself.
Let’s commit ourselves to having a good Lent this year, to praying with all of our mind and heart, to fasting in such a way that we increase our hunger for God, and to conforming ourselves more and more to the Cross every day. As St. Paul wrote, “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Rm 6:5-6).
The burning of incense at Mass is a traditional Catholic practice that is used more or less by each priest. Here at Lourdes, we tend to use incense on Holy Days of Obligation and other important feasts, as well as at most funeral Masses, although I never us incense at the 9:00 AM Mass to leave it available for people who are allergic to incense.
Some people like the incense, and some people don’t like, but whether we like it or not is beside the point. We use incense because it is a truly ancient tradition going back even before the time of Christ into Old Testament times. We read in the book of Exodus that God told Moses to have an altar made for the burning of incense. It says, “And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony…and Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it every morning…and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord.” (Ex 30:6-8). The Israelite priests would burn incense before the Ark of the Covenant twice every day as an offering to the Lord.
The burning of incense, and the smoke rising up, represent our prayers rising up to God. The book of Revelation says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with the golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8). Psalm 141 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”
The incense also represents the presence of God. In the Bible God’s presence is seen as a cloud. When the Lord descends upon Mt. Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments, a cloud envelopes the mountain. When Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up Mt. Tabor, God the Father speaks to them from a cloud. The First Book of Kings records what happened when King Solomon dedicated the first Temple, “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Ki 8:10-11).
We use incense at Mass, in Eucharistic processions, and in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament as a visible reminder that God is present among us. In the Mass we incense the altar, the Book of Gospels, the priest, the people, and the Eucharist, because God is present in His Church, in His Word and in His priest, and in His people, and God is sacramentally present in His Body and Blood. That incense represents the prayers, worship, and praise that we offer to God, that they may rise up to the Lord and be pleasing to Him.
Fr. Bryan Recommends
True Devotion to Mary
by St. Louis-Marie de Montfort
St. Louis de Montfort was a priest in France in the early 18thcentury. He’s best known for his works on Mariology, the study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his two classic books, The Secret of the Rosaryand True Devotion to Mary. Reading True Devotionis the first step in the St. Louis de Montfort’s way of “Total Consecration to Jesus Through Mary.” The Total Consecration, following a 33-day preparation period, is a way of completing giving yourself over to Jesus through Mary. The Blessed Mother is always leading us to her Son, helping us to understand Jesus’ teachings, to grow closer to His Cross, and to be filled with His Holy Spirit.
However, even if you don’t intend to do the consecration, you may still want to read True Devotion. The book first teaches us why devotion to Our Lady is necessary for a Christian and what true devotion looks like and consists of. In the second part of the book, St. Louis covers consecration to Jesus, why we should do this devotion, Biblical precedents, the effects of the devotion in our lives, how we perform the devotions, and advice on how to receive Holy Communion devoutly.
We honor the saints because they are our elder brothers and sisters in the faith awaiting us in heaven and helping to guide us there. The guide us by their prayers for us and by the example they left us. Some of the saints, like St. Louis, left not only their example of holiness but also their own words to teach us how to live like they did. In True Devotionwe can learn from St. Louis de Montfort himself how to be devoted to God and to His Son Jesus Christ and the role that our Blessed Mother plays devotion to God.
On February 11, 1858, 13 year old Bernadette Soubirous was out collecting firewood with 2 other children. The others had run ahead and left Bernadette behind, and as she was preparing to cross the Gave River she heard a peculiar sound. Looking up, Bernadette noticed that one of the caves by the river bank was glowing with a golden light. She then saw a beautiful lady dressed in a pure white robe with a blue sash, a veil over her head, a rosary in her hands, and yellow roses at her feet. The Lady asked her to pray her rosary, and by the time she had finished praying the Lady had vanished.
She went back the next Sunday and saw the Lady again, and the next time she went back the Lady told Bernadette that she should return every day for 15 days. She asked Bernadette to pray for the conversion of sinners and to tell the priests to build a chapel on that site. She also told Bernadette to scrape away the soil in a particular spot, revealing the spring of water that is still there today. Bernadette was kept from going to the Grotto several times, but during the sixteenth apparition, on March 25, 1858, which is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the Archangel appeared to Mary to announce the conception of Jesus in her womb, the Lady finally revealed her identity to Bernadette. She told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” revealing herself to be the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Bernadette didn’t understand what this meant, but others did, and people flocked to Lourdes in even greater numbers than before.
The finding of the spring of water and the miraculous healings that have resulted from it are proof that the apparition was true, and that the Lady really was the Mother of God. On one occasion in 1902 Dr. Alexis Carrell, an agnostic and a physician, accompanied the train bringing the sick to Lourdes as a favor to a friend, and out of professional curiosity about what was causing these stories of miraculous healings. On the train he met a girl, Marie Bailly, who was suffering from tuberculous peritonitis. He was standing right behind her when the Lourdes water was poured over her stomach and saw her physical symptoms, abdominal distension with large hard masses, gradually disappear. By the next day she was able to get up and dress herself, to eat without stomach pains, and to take the train ride back to Lyon. Subsequent testing showed her to be completely and inexplicably cured. It would take another 40 years for Dr. Carrell to fully accept the faith, but he would eventually return to the Catholic Church. In the meantime, he lost he job with the medical faculty of Lyons for defending the account of the event and being open to a miraculous explanation.
These miracles are an awesome proof of Our Lady of Lourdes, but we must remember that they point us back to Our Lady herself and the message that she gave to St. Bernadette. She told her to pray for the conversion of sinners and to urge people, “Penitence, penitence, penitence!” On the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and the anniversary of her first appearance to St. Bernadette, let all remember to pray not only for cures of physical ailments, but also for conversion of heart for ourselves and for all sinners.
Fr. Bryan Howard
4thSunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 3 February 2019
In one of the most famous and well-known passages in the Bible, St. Paul describes love in these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Love is at the very center of Christianity. After all, St. John in his first epistle says that God is love and that anyone who does not love does not know God. Those who love much are close to God, and those who fail to love are far away from God. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus describes the judgement after the second coming in terms of love, saying that those who will go to heaven are those who have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. In other words, those who care for those who are most in need are doing the work of God.
When we look at the world around us it’s hard to take St. Paul’s claim that “Love never fails” seriously. There is hate, violence, selfishness, greed, and suffering all around us, and often even in our own hearts. In our more cynical moments we may think that St. Paul should have said, “Love often fails,” or “Love usually fails.” So, what does St. Paul mean? I think he means, first of all that choosing love is always the right thing to do, that no one can take God’s love from us, and that God is constantly offering us His love.
Love is always the right choice. The moral life is about making choices. God could have taken those choices away, made us always choose the right thing, but that wouldn’t be real love. Genuine love always comes from a choice to choose the good of another rather than your own good, especially when it costs you something. And deep down we know that’s true. We wish that we would always make the right choices; that we would always choose to exercise patience, kindness, generosity, courage, and gentleness. We know that it’s more important to be a good person than to be thought of as a good person. We sometimes get confused about what the right choice is and in those circumstances it’s important to go to God. If you have the time, it’s best to wait, spend some time in prayer, and ask God to give you guidance. If you have to make a choice right away, think about what God is asking you to do in this moment.
The best way to prepare for those moments is to have a well-formed conscience. Our conscience is the voice of reason inside of us that urges us to do the right thing and accuses us when we’ve done the wrong thing. You may hear people say that anything is okay as long as you follow your conscience. Well, many of the Nazis truly believed that what they were doing was for the greater good, does that make it okay? Or how about the Spanish Inquisition? Many of those people believed that they were protecting the Church, did that make it okay to torture confessions out of people? We have a moral responsibility to train our consciences to know what is truly wrong and what is truly right and to recognize good and evil. We’re experts at convincing ourselves that what we want to do is right, so we have to learn to be honest with ourselves about our own motivations. Everyone commits sins, but let’s never lie to ourselves about why we’re doing it.
Once we’ve formed strong consciences and trained ourselves to choose the good, then we can be confident that no one can take that away from us against our will. Mind control is science fiction. People may be able to influence your choices, but only you control what you choose. Even in the most dire circumstances, you are always able to choose the good. St. Paul tells us that neither danger, nor distress, persecution, hunger, or the sword can separate us from the love of God. Only sin, only our own free choice to act against God, can separate us from the love of God. Let us ask God to give us the strength that He gave to the prophet Jeremiah, recorded in our first reading today. That he may help us to stand against everything in society drawing us away from God and make us “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.”
It should give us great hope that God’s love never fails. Even in our sin and weakness, even when we do fall away from Him, God’s love for us never fails. He is always calling out to us, always calling us back to Himself, and always ready to forgive those who come to Him in penitence. If Jesus could look down from the cross upon the very people who put Him there, upon the Roman soldiers, upon the Jewish leaders and people, and, with great effort lifting Himself on the nails driven through His feet and wrists to draw a breath, ask God to forgive them. Then He can surely forgive us.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.