Fr. Bryan Howard
3rd Sunday of Advent – Year A – 15 December 2019
St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin, is the one who first noticed the Jesus is the Messiah. He had the mission to prepare the people for the Messiah and to point Him out when He came, and he accomplished his mission. However, by this point St. John the Baptist has been imprisoned by King Herod for questioning the legality and morality of his marriage. So, St. John is at a low point in his life and he’s beginning to doubt himself. Is Jesus really the Messiah? Did I get it right? Is the Kingdom of God coming? He sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if He’s really the Messiah, the Christ? Jesus tells them to look at what He’s doing: giving sight to the blind, healing the crippled, cleansing lepers, making the deaf hear, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor. He’s doing all of the things that the Messiah was prophesied to do, and He’s letting His actions speak for Him.
Actions always speak louder than words. It’s one thing to say that you love someone, and it’s another to put their needs ahead of your own, or valuing bravery verses risking your life for a worthy cause, or saying that generosity is important verses making a real sacrifice to help the needy. The prophets of the Old Testament understand that merely proclaiming the Word of God wasn’t enough, they lived out their prophesies. That’s what St. John the Baptist was doing. He lived in the desert, wore camel hair clothes, and lived on locusts and honey. This was a dramatic way of asking people if God was more important to them than comfort, honor, wealth, and luxury. Are we ever tempted to put aside our honesty to get ahead at work, or will we sacrifice worldly success to build up treasure in heaven? Are we willing to put aside our faith because we think people will think we’re strange or crazy? Are we willing to put aside our morality so we can hang out with certain people, the cool crowd? Now, let me be clear, money, honor, comfort, and success are all good things. Accomplishing things in life is good. Providing a good life for your family is good. But they’re only good in the context of a good, moral life. It’s the single minded pursuit of them and willingness to sacrifice our principles for them that is immoral. By giving them up entirely, St. John the Baptist was saying, in a dramatic way, that God must be first in our lives and that we should be willing to give everything else for Him.
We don’t usually think of it like that, but marriage is another way of living out a prophetic life. Catholics consider marriage to be a sacrament. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible graces. For example, the water of baptism symbolizes the effect that baptism has on the soul of giving spiritual life and spiritual cleansing. So in marriage the love of husband and wife for one another and for their children represent the love that God has for us. It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of love that God has for us because we don’t actually have any experience with it. The Bible compares it to the love of a spouse or a parent because that is the closest thing we have to it in this life, and yet, we’re only human, so we make mistakes and fail to show our love for one another. We show love or feel love, but God is love.
St. Augustine wrote about the three goods of marriage, and these are what the bride and groom promise to one another in the marriage vows: fidelity, indissolubility, and fruitfulness. The bride and groom promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, and for richer or poorer. It’s easy to be faithful in good times and health, and for better and richer. What they’re really promising is fidelity in bad times, in sickness, for worse, and for poorer. God’s faithfulness is one of the primary ways that God is described in the Old Testament. He is faithful to Israel even when they sin against Him by worshiping false gods, breaking His laws, and taking advantage of the most helpless in society. When they forsake Him He allows them to go, even when it results in destruction, but He always forgives them and brings them back. He keeps sending them prophets to call them to repentance, and He eventually sends even His own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die for them and for us.
The bride and groom promise to be faithful “until death do us part,” or “all the days of my life.” That’s a poetic way of saying that they are promising to love each other without limit. They give themselves to one another in every aspect of life and for their entire life. That’s what the Eucharist is for us. In Jesus Christ, God has given Himself to us. He even suffered and died for us, and He continues to give Himself to us in the Eucharist, body and blood, soul and divinity. Husband and wife promise that their love for one another doesn’t depend on they’re emotions, which can change, but that they will continue to place one another’s needs ahead of their own. It’s not just hard, it’s humanly impossible, so we go before God and ask for His help.
Finally, marriage is fruitful. Love always wants to spread, to grow, and to give life. After all, even though God has everything that He needs in the Trinity, He created the universe and gave us life in order to share His life and His love with us. The most obvious way this is shown in marriage is having children, who are a living expression of their love for one another, but it’s also shown in those who adopt children or reach out in love to those around them in so many different ways. The very witness of their love and care for one another is one of the greatest gifts they can give.
I’ve been focusing on marriage because it’s so important and families are under so much stress, but we are all, as Christians, called to be witnesses of love to one another, to live in a prophetic way, and to bring God into people’s lives. We’re each called to do that in our own way, but in this Mass let’s ask God to give us grace and strength through the Eucharist, the great sign of His love for us, so we can go out and be better witnesses to that love in how we treat one another.
Why are the sacraments important? What do they do? How do they affect us? The sacraments are symbols of the grace of God that was won for us by Christ on the Cross and that comes into our lives through the Holy Spirit, but they aren’t merely symbols. Since the sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself, they have His authority and carry His power. When the sacraments are performed in the proper way they really bring about what they symbolize. They don’t rely on the holiness of the one performing the sacrament; they rely on the promise of Christ.
Certain sacraments can be received many times, like the Eucharist and Confession, because they give us graces that we need over and over, like the nourishment of God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins. Other sacraments can only be received once, like Baptism, because they give us a grace that tends to stay with us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or “seal” by which the Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different sates and functions. This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible; it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated. (CCC, 1121)
This seal is permanent. Once someone is baptized, confirmed, or ordained, they are forever baptized, confirmed, or ordained. Since the mark or seal is on the soul it lasts even after death. This seal confirms us to Christ and especially to His Cross and Resurrection. It is a “disposition for grace” and a “promise of divine protection.” God wants to give us grace to protect us against spiritual evils and the activity of the devil and to help us to grow in holiness, but we still have to accept those graces and cooperate with how God wants to work in our lives, which the sacramental seal helps us to do.
Finally, the seal is a “vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church.” In other words we’re called to make use of the grace that we’ve been given. This grace adheres or sticks to the soul and it’s difficult to get rid of. So we have to ask ourselves, “How am I using the grace of Baptism that I received? The grace of Confirmation? The grace of the diaconate or priesthood?”
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.
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.
Since today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism. John the Baptist said about Jesus, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt. 3:11). The only thing necessary for baptism is to use real water, to intend to do what the Church intends, and to use the formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” However, there are other rites and symbols in a Catholic baptism which the Church uses to show us what’s happening in baptism, such as the water, the white garment, and the candle.
Water is necessary for the baptism to be valid, but it isn’t used on accident. We use water because water does physically for the body what baptism does spiritually for the soul. Water is used to clean things because almost everything dissolves in water, and baptism “cleans,” or purifies, the soul since it removes all traces of sin, both personal sin and original sin. Water is also necessary for life. We need to drink water to live, our bodies are filled with water, and we are born from water. In baptism, we’re reborn through water into the family of God and given the new life of the Holy Spirit.
After the person is baptized they are clothed in a white garment. As this is done the celebrant prays, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity…bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” This visibly shows the cleansing of the soul that happens in baptism and reminds us not to stain ourselves by falling back into sin.
Then someone, usually one of the godparents, lights the baptismal candle from the Paschal Candle, which is lit for every baptism. The Paschal Candle, or Easter Candle, represents the resurrected Christ. At the Easter Vigil Mass the Paschal Candle is lit outside and then brought into the Church in procession, representing Jesus Christ returning to the Church after His death on the Cross on Good Friday. As St. Paul tells us, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rm. 6:3-4). The baptism candle therefore represents the Resurrection of Jesus Christ giving new life to the soul of the baptized and the hope for our own resurrection to eternal life in heaven.
There are other rites in the Rite of Baptism, like the two anointings and the ephphatha (and yes, that’s spelled correctly), but I chose to reflect on these three to show us that baptism is supposed to be about being cleansed of our sins and anything that is not of God and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit. May we all live out the grace of baptism in our lives.
We all know that we have to go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, which are the Assumption (August 15), All Saints Day (November 1), the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas (December 25), and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1). Have you ever wondered why? In the next few weeks I’ll answer that question and other related to the Mass and the Sacraments.
The Second Vatican Council was a gathering of all the bishops of the Catholic Church to discuss certain issues affecting the Church and society, including the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, the Bible, evangelization, the relationship of priesthood and the laity, and modern society and technology, among other things. It began in October of 1962 and ended in December of 1965. One of the most important topics the Council Fathers (the bishops who attended and voted on the acceptance or rejection of the documents) covered was the Mass.
They called the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life,” because the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the presence of God Himself. God is the source of all things, but in a special way He is the source of the Christian life because He sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to unite us to Christ. Whenever we receive the Eucharist we are more and more closely united to Jesus Christ. God is also the summit of the Christian life, meaning that He is our goal. The reason that we are Christians is to grow closer to God. That’s what holiness is: closeness to God. The Eucharist is the best way to grow in holiness because we are never closer to God than we are when we receive Communion.
In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul writes about marriage and the responsibility of husband and wife to love one another. At the end of that passage he writes this, “’For this reason a man shall live faith and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31-32). St. Paul is saying that the love of a husband and wife for one another should be an image of the love that God has for the Church.
In His love for us Jesus descended from heaven to become one of us, fully human as well as fully divine, He lived among us, and them He died and rose again for us. He loves us fully and completely, holding nothing back. We are called to love Him the same way, to live for Him as He lived for us, and to give our lives for Him as He gave His life for us.
Marriage is meant to be a sign in the world of God’s love for us. We should be able to understand a little of God’s love for us by seeing how a husband treats his wife and how a wife treats her husband. This is why the Church focuses so much on marriage and family.
This would be a good examination of conscience for married people. Do you try to imitate Christ’s love for us in your relationship? Do you love without counting the cost, or do you keep score? Do you forgive completely, or do you hold on to things? Do you have unreasonable expectations of your spouse? When was the last time that you did a good thing for your spouse unexpectedly?
The Sacrament of Marriage is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Through it He allows us to see selfless, life-giving love in action, so that we can learn to love all people just a little bit better.
Next Week: The Domestic Church
Fr. Bryan Recommends
The Priest is Not His Own
by Archbishop Fulton Sheen
I’ve recommended books by Archbishop Fulton Sheen before, and when I was thinking of books on the priesthood to recommend it didn’t take long to settle on this one. He was born in 1895 and ordained a priest on September 20, 1919. He was consecrated a bishop in 1951 and archbishop in 1969. He is most famous for His television show, Life is Worth Living, which ran from 1951 to 1957, and a followup show from 1958 to 1968. The viewing audience is estimated to be as at least 10 million or as high as 30 million viewers every week.
His book on the priesthood is not really a theological explanation of what the priesthood is, but it’s more of a spiritual look at the priesthood. He writes about who the priest is, why we need priests, what priests do, and how priests should live. He gives practical advise to priests on how to grow in holiness, and how to draw souls to Christ.
He focuses on the fact that the priest is meant to imitate Christ, to be an alter Christus. Christ came as a victim offering Himself for our sins. He was born in order to die, and He died for us, to save us. If Christ came to offer Himself for us, His flock, then every priest is called to do the same, to offer Himself for his flock. Hence the title, The Priest is Not His Own.
This book is really written for priests and seminarians, but if you want to understand the priesthood better, then this is one of the best places to start.
Next Week: Three Kinds of Love
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony
We’re coming to the end of this series of bulletin articles on the Seven Sacraments which began on September 3 and will finish in May with the articles on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In my article about Holy Orders, I mentioned that Marriage is a Sacrament of Service calling husband and wife to serve one another and their family in love and help one another get to heaven. Today, we’ll go a little bit more in depth on what marriage is.
When you see a marriage ceremony on TV or in a movie, there is a moment when the person officiating, the priest or judge, says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” If you’ve been to a Catholic wedding you may have noticed that this doesn’t happen. The priest is there to witness the exchange of vows on behalf of God and the Church and offer God’s blessing to the newly married couple, but he doesn’t pronounce them married. The bride and groom are married in the moment when they exchange vows with one another. The blessing, exchange of rings, and prayers of the Church are important, but far more important is the exchange of vows. Through those vows, made honestly and with good intentions in the presence of the Church and the community, God unites man and woman in the bond of marriage and gives them grace to live out those vows.
In the marriage vows a husband and wife basically promise three things, called the “three goods” of marriage. First, they promise to be open to life. The priest or deacon asks, “Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” and the couple respond, “I am.” The intention to accept children lovingly from God and to raise them lovingly is at the heart of marriage. Just as God shared His love with us by creating us and bringing us into His family, so married couples are called to imitate God by being open to the new life that God wishes to give them and expanding their families.
Second, they promise to be faithful to one another. In their vows husband and wife promise to be faithful “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you.” It’s relatively easy to be faithful in good times and in health, but it’s much more difficult in bad times and in sickness. This promise is not just to not mistreat one another or cheat, but it is something positive as well. They promise to love and honor one another, which is to put the good of your husband or wife first.
Finally, they make these promises “all the days of my life,” or, in the other version of the vows, “until death do us part.” The vows are not meant to be temporary. Some people think that it’s too much to expect people to keep a promise like this for their entire lives, but God and the Church have a higher view of humanity. We know that a husband and wife can, with the help of God, love and honor one another for their entire lives. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but it’s definitely worth the sacrifice. For my part, one of my greatest joys as a priest is to see families growing together in love, whether they’re just starting out or have been together 50 plus years. Witnessing their joy and love for one another motivate me and give me encouragement for the future.
Next Week: Fr. Bryan Recommends
Celibacy for the Kingdom
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ speaks of those who choose to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The practice of celibacy has endured in the Roman Church and in the Greek Churches to this day; however, there has always been debate about it. There are those who wish to end clerical celibacy, or at least to make it optional, but I fear they don't understand what they wish to do away with. The question is not whether it is useful or not, Christ himself recommended it (Mt. 19:12), the question is why.
In the seminary, we were often told that priests are "in the world, but not of the world." Priests live in the world, in the midst of the secular culture, the media, and the everyday lives of normal people, but we are not of the world. We live in the world as those who are about the business of God the Father. Celibacy is one of the main ways that we live this reality, as well as detachment from material possessions and obedience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Churchsays, "Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God (CCC 1579)." This statement gives the main reason for the practice of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church: complete dedication to the Lord.
The life of celibacy allows the priest to be completely devoted to the service of God and of His Church, and to the service of the people entrusted to His care. It allows us to order our lives to God instead of to the world. Instead of worrying about raising a family and all of the concerns that go with it, we focus on prayer, the sacraments, and the care of souls.
Although the practice of priestly celibacy is primarily a theological concern, there are also practical benefits from it. Priest are payed by and taken care of by the Church, because being a priest is a full time job. If priests had families, we would need a much bigger salary because, as you know, children are very expensive, or we would need to be part time, but then our parishioners would suffer. However, this is a minor reason, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have married priests and they make out just fine.
This reminds me of another reason that some people want to allow priests to marry. They say that more people would want to become priests if they could also get married. However, the Eastern Orthodox Churches show that this is false. They allow priests to choose marriage or celibacy and most of them have a shortage of priests just like we do. This shows us that the priesthood is not chosen by people, but that priests are called by God; our job is to respond to that call.
An important part of Catholic culture is sacrifice. We fast during Lent to prepare ourselves for the Resurrection of the Lord, we fast out of sorrow for our sins, and we fast to increase our desire for God by denying ourselves. Priestly celibacy is also a fast, or a sacrifice; it is abstaining from marriage. When we fast from anything, we choose something that is good, that we like, to fast from. We don't fast from bad or evil things, because we're supposed to avoid those anyway. Fasting from something good is our way to saying that God is better than that thing, than chocolate, or television, or meat. Priestly celibacy is not forced on the priest, it is something that we choose; it is a sacrifice that the priest makes because he puts God first in His life, above everything else, even above having a wife and children.
In this way it is also a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. We give up marriage because we are not living just for this world and the things of this world (res mundi); we are living for God and the things of God (res Dei). We are living in the expectation of the Kingdom of God, of the second coming of Christ, and of the resurrection of the dead. More than just a sacrifice, celibacy is a witness that reminds everyone that God is with us, that He loves us, and that we are called to love Him "with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength."
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.