Fr. Bryan Howard
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 19 January 2020
What is the goal of our faith? Someone might say that their goal is to get to heaven, and they would be right. One of the goals of the faith is to get to heaven, and sometimes that motivation and desire to get to heaven is what I need to avoid sin and do good works. The problem with that is that it might lead to doing the bear minimum. What is the least I need to do to get to heaven? When I was in a parish with a school I used to visit the classrooms and let the students ask any questions they had. For the middle school students I used to get a lot of questions about what is and isn’t a sin. They point was to figure out how far they could push before something became a sin, and we all think like that sometimes. We want a clear line. The faith is about building up our relationship with God. When I’m friends with someone should I ask, “What’s the least I can do and still remain their friend?” or “What more can I do to help my friend?”
Another way to answer that question is to say that the goal of our faith is to grow in holiness and to become a saint. That desire to be holy and to be a saint can lead us to strive to grow in virtue, faith, and love and to try to be the best person that I can be. However, if that desire becomes unbalanced it can lead to another distortion in our faith, where we focus on ourselves. How can I be holy? How can I grow in virtue? How can I be a better person? The focus point of our faith should be on God and not so much on ourselves. Yes, I should be trying to grow in virtue and holiness, but not for myself; it’s so I can better love God, my family, and my neighbors.
Another issue is that a lot of people think that they can’t be a saint. This is a very common belief among Christians and Catholics. We think that holiness is only for monks, nuns, priests, deacons, and consecrated people, people who’ve taken vows. We think that we’re not holy if we don’t get emotional or cry when we’re praying. To have an emotional sense of God’s presence in prayer or to be moved to tears during prayer are great gifts, but they are relatively rare and they are not necessary to be holy. They aren’t evidence that we aren’t praying right. St. Paul wrote to Corinthians in our second reading today, “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Who is it that have been sanctified in Jesus Christ and called to be holy? It’s not only those in Corinth, but “all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” including all of us gathered in this Church today.
We have all been given the same Holy Spirit. We have the word of God in the Bible to tell us what’s God’s will is. We have the seven Sacraments and especially the Eucharist to strengthen us to do God’s will in our lives. We have the Christian community, the Church, to support one another in living the faith. Not all of us are called to make the ultimate sacrifice of giving our lives for God in martyrdom, but we are all called to live our lives for God.
The most common Christian prayer is the one that Jesus Christ taught us, the Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer. In the Our Father we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” That is, give me the grace that I’ll need today, for today’s burdens, to be good and holy today, to bear today’s cross. Today is what I really need to focus on. How can I do a little bit better today than yesterday? What is God asking me to do today? How can show my love for God today? When I took martial arts my teacher used to say that each punch should be better than the one before. Let’s ask God, every morning, to help us to be a little bit holier today, and to grow a little bit closer to God today.
The greatest gift we have in living the faith is the great gift of the Eucharist, our daily bread, which strengthens us in God’s grace. We need to put the Eucharist and to put Christ at the center of our lives. That why, as a parish, we’ve moved the Tabernacle into the center of the Sanctuary, so that Christ is at the center of our parish. You may have noticed that we’ve also turned the celebrant’s and deacon’s chairs so there facing the altar and tabernacle more, because I’m not the most important person here, Jesus is, and we turn towards Jesus in prayer together. As we receive the Eucharist, or, for those who can’t yet receive, make a spiritual communion by asking Jesus to be in our souls, let’s ask God to give us the grace we need to grow in holiness…today.
We refer to the teaching office of the Church, or the Magisterium, as the authority that Jesus Christ gave the Church to teach on matters of faith and morals. That is, the Church speaks in the name of Christ when the bishops, in union with the pope, teach about the faith or about morality. One of the ways that the popes have of using this teaching office is the Apostolic Exhortation. It ranks third in papal documents after the Papal Encyclical, letter addressed to the bishops on a particular Church teaching, and Apostolic Constitution, on Church governance. An Apostolic Exhortation is written to all the members of the Church and is meant to guide them in a particular area of the faith.
In 1982, Pope St. John Paul II wrote an exhortation on “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” called Familiaris Consortio. In his own words, Pope St. John Paul II wrote this exhortation because, “the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives.” In part one, the Pope talked about the hopeful signs and challenges facing the family. Among the hopeful signs, he includes greater personal freedom, more attention to the quality of relationships, the promotion of the dignity of women, advances in education, etc. Among the challenges he mentions, among other things, the difficulty in transmitting fundamental values to younger generations, the growing number of divorces, and the scourge of abortion.
The second part is called, “The Plan of God for Marriage and the Family.” This is a very beautiful explanation on God’s plan for the family going all the way back to the account of the creation of the world in Genesis and the first marriage, of Adam and Eve, and tracing the Biblical teaching on marriage to the teaching of Jesus. The third part is on “The Role of the Christian Family,” and is significantly longer the part two. He divides it into four sections: forming a community of persons, serving life, participating in the development of society, and sharing in the life and mission of the Church.
Although the entire document is more of a small book, the part on God’s plan for marriage is only a few pages long, and is well worth reading, even if you don’t read any of the rest of it. In fact, I always have the couples that I prepare for marriage read that section. Sometimes people need to read it several times to make sense of it, because Pope St. John Paul II packs a lot of meaning into those few pages, but it’s worth the effort. I’ll include a link to a free English translation of it when I post this to the Pastor’s Blog on our website, www.olol-church.com.
Fr. Bryan Howard
The Baptism of the Lord – 12 January 2020
The ancient Greeks had a mythical story about Prometheus. Prometheus was a Titan, but feeling sorry for humanity, he stole fire from the god Hephaestus and gave it to us. The fire symbolized life, science and philosophy, and power. Zeus punished Prometheus for giving this gift to humanity by chaining him to a rock and having an Eagle attack him every day and letting him heal every night. He punished humanity by unleashing toil, illness, war, and death, forever separating humanity from the gods. The Greeks, like most pagan cultures, thought that there was competition between the gods and humanity, and they tried to placate the gods and win their favor by making offerings, sacrifices, and gifts to them.
The ancient Israelites, and Christians following them, see God in a different light. God created us from nothing and breathed life into us not because He needed anything from us, but because He wanted to share His own life with us. Then, He continued to poor out His gifts and graces on us, every day. He even gave us the law to show us how to live good lives. However, every time we sin, we reject God and His place in our lives. At the heart of every sin, from the smallest venial sin to the worst mortal sin, is a little voice inside us saying, “I know better than God. I can decide what’s right and wrong for myself.” Through sin we alienated ourselves from God, we rejected His love, grace, and friendship, and we had no way to win it back for ourselves.
If the Greeks believed that Zeus punished Prometheus for giving humanity fire, then Christians believe that God Himself, Jesus Christ the Son of God, came down to bring us the light of truth and to restore us to the friendship of God. Remember that Jesus said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing,” and St. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
When Jesus began His public ministry He was already almost 30 years old. Notice what John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” He realized that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized because Jesus had never sinned. He had nothing to repent. He didn’t need to be restored to grace, because He is the source of all grace. Jesus told him, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, this had to happen; it was part of God’s plan. Then, after Jesus was baptized, the heavens were torn open, the Spirit of God descended on Him, and God the Father spoke, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That didn’t happen for Jesus, that all happened for us, to show us what happens in baptism. The waters of baptism didn’t sanctify Jesus, Jesus sanctified the water, so that the water could then sanctify us in our baptisms.
When we are baptized, what happened visibly at Jesus’ baptism happens invisibly in our souls. The Holy Spirit floods into our souls, filling us with God’s grace and giving us the life of the Spirit of God. It forgives all of our sins and unites us to Jesus Christ. We become, like Jesus, children of God, sons and daughters of God with whom God is well pleased.
After His baptism, what did Jesus do? First, to prepare Himself, He spent 40 days in the desert fasting and praying. Then, He began His public ministry, doing great miracles and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He finished by showing us what the Christian life is all about, but offering His life for ours on the Cross as a total gift of love.
We, too, have been baptized. We’ve received the Spirit of God, the grace and life of the Holy Spirit. We’ve become children of God. But do we live like it? Do our words and actions reflect the love of God to the people around us? We get caught up in our own problems, we judge one another, we try to get back at one another, and we begin to hate one another, or brothers and sisters in Christ, because we follow a different religion, vote for a different party, or have a different color skin. The big thing these last few years has been tolerance. We should be tolerant of different ideas, different people, different lifestyles. On the contrary, Jesus didn’t tell us to tolerate one another. He didn’t give the commandment to be nice to one another. He said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and to love even our enemies and pray for them.
Let’s recommit ourselves to following Jesus Christ and to doing what He did. In your words and in your actions, proclaim the Kingdom of God. Share your love of God with others. Don’t hesitate to stand with Christ, even if that means that some people will reject you. Some people rejected Christ, and when we follow Him some people will reject us, too. Don’t fall into the temptation to right them off, to reject them back. Continue to pray for them and treat them with love and compassion.
Christianity is revolutionary because we see that we don’t have to be in competition with God, as if God is up there with a grading sheet for each one of us, just waiting for us to do something wrong so He can condemn us to hell. No, God is constantly giving us little graces, little reminders, little nudges to help us live life to the full so we won’t be weighed down with sin, bitterness, and hatred, but will be free to live in the light.
I think of two different experiences when I think of Christmas. One of them is how my family celebrated Christmas. I remember setting up the Christmas tree every year on my mom’s birthday, December 9, untangling the lights with Uncle Robert, and how every ornament was unique. I remember attending Nanny’s family Christmas party on Christmas Eve, playing with Big Mac boxes to see who could stack them the highest, and seeing Christmas carols. I remember waking up on Christmas morning to open presents, going to the noon Mass at St. Clement of Rome, and having Christmas dinner with Aunt Pat, Uncle Paul, and my cousins at my house because we had the biggest dining room.
On the other hand, I think of my Christmases since I’ve been a priest. I think of all the Christmas parties for the different Church ministries, the PSR Advent Program, and setting up decorations in the Church. Mainly, though, I focus on helping people prepare spiritually for Christmas. Christmas has become such a huge thing in American culture that it’s easy to overlook the religious significance of the day as the turning point of human history. There’s a reason why the calendar changes from B.C. to A.D., or B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) to C.E. (Common Era) at the birth of Christ. Some scholars have switched from using B.C. and A.D. to B.C.E. and C.E. either to keep from offending non-Christians or to deny the importance of Christ, but we don’t number the year from the ascension of Augustus Caesar to Emperor of Rome, or from some major military battle or great invention, or from anyone else’s birth. When Jesus Christ was born, salvation came into the world and the Kingdom of God (not Caesar or Rome) was inaugurated. The promise that was given in the birth of Jesus Christ was fulfilled in His Resurrection. That’s why celebrating Mass on Christmas is one of the most meaningful moments in my priesthood. On the day that Jesus Christ came into the world in the flesh, I am privileged to make Jesus Christ present on the altar, body and blood, soul and divinity.
12 days after Christmas, on January 6, we celebrate the Epiphany (although the celebration is moved to the nearest Sunday, January 5 this year). The Epiphany is the celebration of the “Light of Christ” coming into the world and spreading to every land and people. May we never forget that Christ is our light, that we cannot truly see unless we have His light in our lives, and that He is calling on us to spread His light through acts of faith, hope, and love.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.