Last week I wrote about how the laying on of hands in the sacraments represents the blessing of God the Father coming down unto us and making us His children. If we keep reading in the Old Testament, we see that the laying on of hands has another meaning. When Moses ordained Aaron and his sons as the first priests, God told them to take 1 bull and 2 rams, then to anoint Aaron and his sons with Chrism and dress them in the priestly vestments. Then, it says that Aaron and the other priests “lay their hands upon the head of the bull, and you shall kill the bull,” and “Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the ram, and you shall slaughter the ram,” and finally, “you shall take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the ram, and you shall kill the ram” (Ex 29). The book of Leviticus is the instruction book for the Old Testament priests on how to make the sacrifices in the Temple. Over and over the book of Leviticus says things like this, “He shall bring the bull to the door of the tent of meeting before the Lord, and lay his hand on the head of the bull, and kill the bull before the Lord” (Lv 4:4). If you’re a bull or a ram or a lamb in the Temple and you see a guy in special priestly vestments coming towards you with his hands stretched out, you better run because you’re being set apart as a sacrifice for the Lord.
Likewise, in the ordination of a Catholic priest, the bishop lays his hands on the head of the young man, thus setting Him apart for the Lord and marking Him as a sacrificial offering for God. The priest is called to die to himself so He can live for Christ. It’s not just priests who receive the laying on of hands. In the Sacrament of Confirmation each candidate, or all together if there are many of them, receives the laying on of hands, signifying that they too are set apart for God. In the sacraments we are conformed to Jesus Christ. We become children of God because we are united with the Son of God. We are, as it were, sons in the Son. Jesus Christ became one of us in the incarnation in order to make us like Him and show us what it means to be children of God. As Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Being conformed to Christ means to take up the Cross and be willing to suffer for the good of others, as Jesus Christ did for us.
How do we take up the Cross in our daily lives? First, we know that everyone experiences suffering at some points in their lives. We can suffer patiently and offer it up. There’s no special trick to this. Simply tell Jesus that you are giving Him you pain and suffering for whatever intention you have. You can offer it for the souls in purgatory, for your family or children, for Catholic missionaries, or any other intention that you may have. This won’t make your suffering go away, but it will unite it to the Cross of Christ and give it meaning.
Some suffering, like an illness, comes to us against our will and some we choose to undergo. The highest form of suffering is the suffering that we willingly endure for the sake of a loved one, as a soldier or first responder puts their lives on the line to save some else or as a martyr endures suffering and death because of their faith in God. Martyrdom is to die the death of Christ and so to be conformed to Christ not only in life but also in death, and so martyrs go straight to heaven, because they are already united to Christ. Let us ask Jesus to give us the strength of the martyrs in all the suffering in our lives, that we may be conformed to Christ in life, in death, and for eternity in heaven.
I deviated quite a bit from my text this weekend, and I think the recorded version was better.
Fr. Bryan Howard
23rdSunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C – 8 September 2019
What makes you happy? The way that we answer that question has a huge impact on the choices that we make in our lives. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that everyone chooses what they think will make them happy, what they think is good, although they sometimes overlook a greater evil in their choices. The addict chooses to do drugs because they think it will make them happy; they choose the good of the pleasure they receive from the drug while overlooking the greater evil of the pain it causes them and others. If we can figure out what really makes us happy, what can bring lasting happiness, then we can train ourselves to choose the rights things and avoid the wrong things, i.e. to choose good and to avoid evil. We must see that happiness is more than merely physical pleasure but is, as the Bible puts it, blessedness, or closeness to God.
So, what makes you happy? The contentment that we get from good food and drink fades after the meal. The joy we get from being well thought of and honored by others sours with time. Power over others is temporary, and those who hold on to power constantly fear losing it. Even money is simply a means to acquiring other things, and those things eventually turn boring. All of those things can only bring temporary happiness in our lives and ultimately leave us wanting something more. Only God can give us lasting and eternal happiness.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus sees the great crowds that are travelling with Him and turns to them, saying, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”If we think of life as the pursuit of pleasure then these words of Jesus don’t make any sense. We may think of the Cross as a Christian symbol representing God’s love for us, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, the cross was the ultimate symbol of Roman power and a cruel and painful form of execution. Criminals and rebels were forced to carry their own crosses to the place of their execution. If we think of life as the pursuit of personal happiness, or the pursuit of pleasure, then these words of Jesus don’t make any sense. Jesus is challenging us to see that we can only be truly happy by putting God first in our lives, ahead of our family, ahead of our own lives, and even ahead of our own desire for happiness.
Why would Jesus say this in such a blunt way? Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus is traveling with a great crowd following Him, but at the foot of the Cross there will only be a handful of people, Mary, His mother, St. John, and a few others. I think Jesus knew that many of those people were only following Him because of the miracles that He performed, and He wanted them to understand the cost of being His disciple. We must give ourselves totally to Jesus. St. Paul calls Himself a slave of Christ Jesus in His letter to the Romans, even as He tells the Corinthians, “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ”(1 Cor 7:22). In today’s second reading one of the Christian communities sent a slave, Onesimus, to tend to St. Paul while he’s in prison, and St. Paul is sending Onesimus back having baptized Him and is asking them to free him, “That you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother.”So which is it, or we slaves of Christ or are we free? Both, when we make ourselves slaves of Christ, giving ourselves completely to God, then Christ makes us free by giving us the Holy Spirit and making us children of God.
The paradox of the Gospel is that true and lasting happiness only comes when we set aside our own desire for happiness, or pleasure, power, money, and fame, and put other people ahead of ourselves. This is what Jesus did when He became one of us, “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”(Phil 2:6-11). Jesus emptied Himself, took on our human condition, and willingly bore the Cross and was crucified for us. We must now do what Jesus did. Married people, put your husband or wife ahead of yourself. Parents, put your children ahead of yourselves. Young people, strive to grow in virtue and holiness, to become ready to accept your full responsibility as a Christian. We must all strive to love as Christ loved, and especially those who are most in need.
True happiness is not found in pleasure, which is only temporary; it is found in being close to God. In the same way, true love is not found in warm and fuzzy feelings, which come and go out of our control; true love is found in doing what Jesus did for us and putting the needs of others ahead of our own. As we celebrate the Eucharist, the memorial of Christ Cross and Resurrection, let us ask God to fill us with the love of Jesus and draw us ever closer to His Most Sacred Heart.
If you’ve been around the Catholic Church very much, then you’ve surely noticed a priest imposing hands over or laying hands on some object or person, for example, when he’s blessing something or someone, or in the sacraments. In the Mass the priest holds his hands over the bread and wine during the epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer, in the ordination of a priest or deacon the bishop lays his hands on their heads before praying the Prayer of Ordination, and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation the priest holds his hand over the person while praying the Prayer of Absolution. This is a symbol of the priest calling down the Holy Spirit to give grace, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17). So, extending the hands in blessing is a priestly act of calling down the Holy Spirit, but what is that blessing actually doing for us.
The first blessings we see in the Bible occur in the Book of Genesis. We see Isaac blessing Jacob and Jacob blessing his children and grandchildren. The blessings in Genesis are of fathers blessing their children, as when Isaac blesses Jacob and makes him his primary heir. A blessing can also make someone who isn’t your child into your child. The 12 tribes of Israel are the sons of Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, except that the rest of the Bible often speaks of the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. These were Joseph’s two sons, who received a special blessing from Israel, and from that point on they were listed with the sons of Israel instead of his grandchildren.
In the book of Judges we read about Micah, who set up a shrine in his land and was looking for a priest for the shrine. One day, a Levite, the priestly tribe, was passing through, and Micah asked him to stay and be their priest, saying, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of apparel, and your living” (Jdg 17:10). So, a priest, in the Old Testament, is seen as a type of spiritual father. This continues in the New Testament, when St. Paul calls himself a father to those whom he has brought into the faith, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). In both the Old and New Testaments, the one who blesses, the priest, is considered a spiritual father, because through the blessing of God we become children of God.
In the Sacraments, whenever the priest imposes hands over something he calls down the Holy Spirit and that thing changes. In the Mass, the Holy Spirit, changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation our sins are forgiven and our souls cleansed. In Baptism the priest lays his hand on your head, you are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit, and you become a child of God. If, then, we are children of God, let us follow the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, in the way we live our lives.
Fr. Bryan Howard
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 1 September 2019
Today’s second reading ends with the lines, “You have approached Mount Zion… and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.” You might remember the story of Cain and Abel from grade school religion classes. They were two brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They both made offerings to God, but only Abel’s offering was accepted. Cain, in a jealous rage, kills his brother Abel. God tells Cain, “Listen! Your brothers blood cries out to me from the soil” (Gn 4:10). Whereas Abel’s blood cries out for punishment, the blood of Christ was shed for the salvation of the world and the forgiveness of sins. That is why the blood of Christ “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.” When Christ was hanging from the Cross, even as His blood was still dripping to the ground, He turned to the men who had nailed Him to the Cross and prayed for them, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). If Christ can pray for the forgiveness of the greatest sin ever committed, His own murder, then He can certainly forgive our sins., if we repent of them, so that we may be transformed in the love of God.
Imagine if your neighbor knocks on your door and tells you, “I forgive you for washing your own car.” Well, there’s nothing there to forgive, because it’s your car, so you can wash it whenever you want to. Now, imagine if he says to you, “I forgive you for stealing the tools I let you borrow,” and you respond, “Well, I don’t believe in private property, so it was my right to take those tools.” Now you have a real problem. How can there be forgiveness if there’s no repentance? How can you forgive someone who neither recognizes the wrong they’ve done nor wants to be forgiven? God respects our freedom and won’t force His mercy and forgiveness on us.
Imagine a second scenario. Adolf Hitler has just died and is standing at the Pearly Gates with St. Peter. Looking in, he sees people of all races and groups centered around God, and many people who were killed because of his orders and policies. Would he want to go in, or would he instead think that this cannot be paradise and, instead, choose the alternative. To him, the reality of heaven would be hell, unless he repents and allows himself to be truly transformed in the love of God. Of course, the sin that we should be most concerned with is our own. Hitler’s sins can’t keep me out of heaven, only my own sins can do that.
A lot of people don’t like to talk about forgiveness of sins, because that would be to admit that sin is a real thing. To truly ask for forgiveness and receive it, we must first admit that what we’ve done is wrong, that we’ve offended God and hurt others and ourselves, and that our sins have separated us from God and God’s love. That takes humility. Humility means to recognize the truth about myself and others, so that I recognize that God is God, that I’m not, and that I need His mercy and forgiveness.
Now read today’s Gospel again. Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’… Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’” Jesus isn’t teaching people a trick to make themselves look good in front of other people. He’s teaching a spiritual lesson about our relationship with God. Lower yourself and recognize that you aren’t that important and don’t deserve the place of honor. As Jesus says in another place, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10). Then, God will come and move you to a higher place in heaven.
Humility isn’t the most important virtue, that would be love, but it is the foundation of all the other virtues. Without humility we can’t grow in virtue because we don’t recognize our faults, we don’t recognize our need for help from both God and other people, and so we don’t repent and pray for God’s help to grow in holiness. So, how do we grow in humility? I’ll give you three things you can start doing today. First, practice gratitude. Find at least three things every day to thank God for. This reminds us that we rely on God and on His grace in our lives and that we can’t do it all by ourselves. Second, practice listening. humility makes us try to find the wisdom in what other people are saying, instead of always trying to our own wisdom. There is a great danger for those who teach others, like priests. You can’t truly listen to someone else without valuing there opinion and thinking that they might say something worth hearing. Third, make a good confession. When we go to the Sacrament of Confession we have to bear our soul to God and let His light and life in. When we make a good confession by focusing on our own sins and not on someone else’s, don’t make excuses, and confess all of our sins that we can remember, it’s a humbling experience to receive forgiveness from our God who loves us more than we love ourselves.
Christ shed His blood for our sins, not to force us to do things His way, but to truly transform us in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the spirit of humility, I want to end with the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who says it much more eloquently than I can, “Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return…The Bridegroom’s love… asks in return nothing but faithful love.”
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.