Sunday, April 10, 2016

Get Out of the Boat - A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

 Here's the homily I would have given today, had I not confused the preaching schedule.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit intervened for the good.  You be the judge . . . .

          A bishop, a priest and a deacon were out fishing on a lake when they realized that they had left their beverages of choice on shore.  The priest said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get them,” as he stood up, stepped out of the boat, walked across the water and retrieved their drinks.  Upon his return, they soon found that they also had left the bottle opener on shore.  So the deacon said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it,” as he stood up, stepped out of the boat, walked across the water and retrieved the bottle opener.  The bishop was amazed and humbled at what he had seen, so when they noticed that they had also left the pretzels on shore, he felt obliged to demonstrate his trust in God in a similar way.  Nervously, he stood up, stepped out of the boat, and quickly plunged to the bottom of the lake.  As the priest and deacon were hauling the bishop back into the boat, the priest said to the deacon, “We probably should have told him where the stones are.”  The deacon replied, “What stones?”  In the priest, deacon and bishop we find reason, faith and courage, the three key components of Christian belief that today’s readings present so beautifully.

            If nothing else, our readings this morning tell us that Christianity can be hard to believe.  In our first reading, we find the apostles rejoicing because they suffered dishonor in Jesus’ name, while in our Psalm we learn that God can turn our mourning into dancing.  So apparently we’re called to believe that God can transform curses into blessings.  In our second reading from Revelation, John learns that the Lion of Judah who will open the scroll of God’s providence is, in fact, a Lamb that was slain.  So we’re called to believe that power reveals itself most fully in weakness and humility.   In our Gospel, we encounter the risen Jesus feeding his apostles.  So we’re called to believe that Jesus, who suffered, died and was buried, rose again from the dead.  Christianity can be hard to believe because it doesn't always align with our expectations.  To believe all that Christianity teaches, we need reason, faith and courage.  Allow me to address each in turn.

          I’ll begin with reason.  The priest in our little joke observed his surroundings and used his God-given gift of reason to find a way to get out of the boat and walk across the water to shore.  Christian belief doesn’t require us to check our brains at the door.  Jesus came to take away our sins, not our minds.  That’s why “Catholicism is an intellectual religion.  If it holds something to be true, it has reasons for this claim, reasons that should be valid in logic and in evidence.”[1]  And if we take the time to read Scripture, the Catechism and the magisterial teachings of the Church, we’ll find that they are.  In his somewhat infamous lecture at Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI said that it’s both “necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason.”[2]   God is the source of all knowledge - knowledge obtained through Divine Revelation and knowledge obtained through reason.  Faith and reason do not contradict each other.  “There is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith.”[3]  God gave us our brains to use them, not just to contemplate the world around us, but his eternal truth as well.  After Jesus’ gruesome death and burial, the apostles saw the risen Lord with their own eyes; they touched him with their hands; they spoke with him; and they broke bread with him.  They had ample evidence to believe, through the use of reason alone, that the one who appeared to them “was not a vision, nor the figment of someone’s excited imagination nor the appearance of a spirit or a host; it was Jesus who had conquered death and come back.”[4]  Christian belief requires reason.

          Faith – We’re often told in religious contexts that we need to have faith, but what does that really mean? At its core, “faith is, not a system of knowledge, but trust.”[5] Trust is an essential component in life because we simply can’t know or do everything. I’m a lawyer; I’m not an electrician. You may well find me reviewing a contract before I sign it, but you won’t find me rewiring my house. We trust others who know more than we do all the time: our doctors; our teachers; and especially at this time of year, our accountants. Well, “[w]e also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us.”[6] Jesus is the one who makes the superabundance of God’s love and peace available to us, if only we have faith in him. Our good deacon in the joke relied upon faith to get out of that boat and walk across the water to shore. The apostles had fished all night and caught nothing. They had every reason to think that they wouldn’t catch anything at all. But when they faithfully follow Jesus’ instruction, they gather so many fish that they can’t even haul in the net. Christian belief requires faith.

          Saint John Paul II said that “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”[7] But these two wings are useless to us, if we don’t have the courage to step out of the nest in the first place (or the boat, as the case may be). Courage is essential to Christian belief. In an increasingly secularized world, religious belief is often greeted with patronizing disdain. That’s because Christianity calls us to the highest standards of moral living – God’s standards – and human standards don’t always live up to God’s standards. So for some, it’s easier to criticize and dismiss God’s standards as archaic, irrelevant or oppressive than to try to live up to them. For some, it may seem easier to go along with the critics and ignore what faith and reason compel us to believe. I encourage you, particularly our teens and young adults, to have the courage to believe anyway. That bishop didn’t want to leave the safety of the boat, but he had the courage to do it anyway. I challenge you to be like that bishop and the apostles in the Temple, summon up the courage to proclaim Christ crucified unabashedly, even if it’s not the cool thing to do, the easy thing to do, or the dry thing to do. Christian belief requires courage.

          Let’s face it, Christianity is hard to believe. It takes reason, faith and courage. But if Christianity weren’t hard to believe, it wouldn’t be worth believing at all. You see, “the entire purpose of the Christian life [is] to make us, not simply better people . . ., but to make us divine, to conform us to a participation in the life of the Trinity.”[8] What greater goal could we have than to be holy and burning with God’s eternal love through Jesus Christ? Scripture shows clearly that every encounter with Christ is life-changing. But first, we have to engage our reason, our faith and our courage and believe. You can’t walk on water, if you don’t get out of the boat.

[1] James V. Schall, The Order of Things (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2007) at 170.
[2]  Pope Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University, Memories and Reflections (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006) <>.
[3] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998) 16.
[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) at 283.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and the Future (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2006) at 33.
[6]Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, (Vatican City, Libreria Vaticana, June 29, 2013) at 18.
[7] Pope John Paul II at 1.
[8] Robert Barron, The Strangest Way:  Walking the Christian Path (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2002) at 29.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Keep the End in Mind - A Homily for Good Friday Morning Prayer

My oldest daughter, always a voracious reader, has the curious habit of skipping ahead to read the end of a story first.  As you might imagine, my Teutonic DNA simply can’t fathom reading a book out of order.  How can you understand the end of the story, without knowing what leads up to it?  Caitlin takes the opposite view, of course:  How can you appreciate the story without knowing how it ends?  Well, looking at our reading for Morning Prayer, it seems that Caitlin and the prophet Isaiah take the same approach.  They prefer to keep the end in mind.

Our passage from Isaiah comes from the very beginning of the Suffering Servant narrative, where Isaiah tells us the end of the story first.  Before we learn of the suffering that God’s servant will undergo, we hear how it all turns out:  “My servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.”  It’s the same with the Gospels.  Jesus teaches us about the wonders of the coming Kingdom before he speaks of his passion and death.  I guess God’s not German.  Don’t tell Pope Emeritus Benedict.

Why would God, through Jesus and the prophets, tell us the end first?  Perhaps it’s because we couldn’t handle the brutality of the passion without knowing that everything turns out alright.  Perhaps it’s because we couldn’t handle the challenges of life without knowing that everything turns out alright.  There’s a lot of suffering in this world, and more and more people seem to be turning away from God because of it.  But if we turn away from God, if we reject his promise of eternal salvation, happiness and peace, then we have nothing to hope for.  God tells us the end of the story first to give us hope.

Knowing, indeed, believing the end of the story carries us not just through the events of Good Friday, but through every challenge we face in life.  The hope of salvation sustains us in times of trial and gives us the strength to persevere.  With hope we can bind our sufferings with Christ’s on Good Friday and every day, knowing that in the end, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

          As hard as it is for me to admit, maybe Caitlin and Isaiah are right:  We have to keep the end in mind.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

What More Can I Say?

                I was absolutely stunned when I signed on to the internet this morning to learn that there had been yet another senseless terrorist attack in the world – this time in Brussels.  My heart went out to the victims and their families.  I prayed for them, and I prayed for an end to such horrific violence.  I felt an urge to blog to try to address violence in the context of our faith, but I didn’t know what to say.  In the past six months alone, I’ve blogged twice about terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, about the need to pray, about the power of prayer and about trusting that God will keep his promise of an eternal life of perfect love and happiness.  What more can I say?

                Later in the day, I came across Anthony Esolen’s commentary on the Inferno that discusses Dante’s understanding of violence.  The premise of Dante’s Divine Comedy is the unique opportunity given to a sinner (Dante himself) to get a glimpse of hell, purgatory and heaven so that he can make his earthly choices more wisely before his time is through.  In canto twelve of the Inferno, Dante visits the seventh circle of hell, the circle reserved for the violent, who float along in a boiling river of blood.  They are guarded by the Minotaur and centaurs, who are shooting arrows at the sinners as they try to escape from the river.  The Minotaur and the centaurs are apt images for the bestiality of violence.  As Esolen explains it, “[t]o kill, rape, maim, and pillage is to be as heartless and ferocious as a tiger.  It is unworthy of man.  For the Christian, it violates the rights of God (as all sin does), for it turns the created world into an arena of destruction.”[1]  This is especially true when violence begets violence.

                Faced with violence, we often feel the urge to respond in kind.  This response reflects our bestial nature at work.  Violence is contrary to human nature and human dignity, and it flies in the face of our creation in the image and likeness of God.  Violence can never conquer violence; it simply encourages more violence.  Now I’m not saying that we don’t have a right, indeed, an obligation, to defend ourselves against violence, perhaps even with the use of force, and to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice.  But we have no right to indiscriminate violence against the perpetrators of violence and certainly not against innocent classes of people with whom the perpetrators of violence may be associated.

               So what’s the proper response to violence?  Love.  God became man to free us from the beastly ways of sin and return us to his image and likeness.  God became man to teach us that “love conquers all.”[2]  We conquer violence when we love our neighbor.  We conquer violence when we feed the poor, cloth the naked, comfort the ill and visit the imprisoned.  We conquer violence when we pray for the victims of violence and their families.  We conquer violence when we pray for the violent.  Our reaction to violence must always be horror, because violence is unworthy of man.  But our response to must always be love.  As we remember during Holy Week, faced with violence and death, Jesus loved, and in loving, he conquered sin and death.  What more can I say?

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, notes to canto 12, trans. by Anthony Esolen (New York, Random House, 2005) at 451.
[2] Virgil, Ecologue X.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What Are You Waiting For? - A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

            Over the past few weeks, several people have approached me to share a common frustration.  You see, they live good lives; they go to church; they pray, but they still seem to be challenged by sickness or death in their families, financial trouble or great disappointments of one kind or another.  When these difficulties befall them, they pray all the more.  But sometimes things still don’t turn out as they had hoped, so they get frustrated with God.  It’s probably safe to say that we’ve all shared that frustration at different times in our lives, times when we’ve considered God’s promise of eternal happiness, turned our eyes to the heavens and asked, “What are you waiting for?”  In today’s Gospel, Martha and Mary shared that frustration.  Jesus provides the answer.

          In our Gospel passage, we hear the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus.  Lazarus is dead, and Jesus brings him back to life.  But the story isn’t that simple.  When Jesus learns that Lazarus is ill, he doesn’t rush off to cure Lazarus, as we would expect.  He does something very strange, almost preposterous.  “[H]e remained for two days in the place where he was.”  Lazarus, Martha and Mary are Jesus’ friends and disciples, but when they call on him in their hour of need, Jesus waits.  What was he waiting for?  Not surprisingly, Martha and Mary greet Jesus with frustration and disappointment.  But interestingly, Martha’s and Mary’s identical statements of disappointment, are also “implicit acts of faith.”[1]  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Martha and Mary called on Jesus because they believed that Jesus is the Son of God.  They were disappointed with him because he didn’t do what they expected him to do, but they wouldn’t have had any expectations of him at all, if they hadn’t believed that Jesus was the Messiah in the first place.

I think there’s a little bit of Martha and Mary in each one of us.  “Who hasn’t felt that God wasn’t doing what God should be doing in a painful situation?”[2]  We serve the Lord, we listen to his word, so we’re disappointed when God doesn’t seem to answer when out of the depths of our sorrow we cry like the psalmist:  “Lord, hear my voice!”  (Psalm 130: 1-2)  Like Martha and Mary, our disappointment arises from an implicit faith – from our hope and expectation that Christ will save us.  We want God’s promises to be true, and we want to believe that God will deliver.  Still, we just can’t help asking, “What are you waiting for?”

Such is the challenge of the spiritual life.  God never stops calling us to life in the spirit, as St. Paul tells us in our second reading.  God calls us to life in the spirit because faith in God gives us the hope of eternal happiness.  “When we believe that God is as Jesus said, we become absolutely sure of his love . . ., [and] we enter into a new relationship with life.”[3]  Believing that God is love gives purpose and meaning to our lives.  Believing that God provides all that we need gives us comfort and security.  Believing that God “will open [our] graves and have [us] rise from them,” (Ezekiel 37:12) frees us from fearing illness and death.  Believing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life gives us the remedy for all of our disappointments.  Jesus is the bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.  Through Christ’s Spirit dwelling in us, we draw on the eternal joy and peace of the heavens as we face our earthly challenges.  “Christian spirituality is neither escape from real life nor denial of its pain but a way of living that is transfigured even now by the resurrection and the life, which is Jesus.”[4]  Even in their grief and disappointment, Martha and Mary believed in Jesus, and they had hope:  a hope that “keeps [us] from discouragement; sustains [us] during times of abandonment; [and] opens up [our] heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.”[5]

It’s not always easy to believe.  In a world dominated by rationalism, we’re encouraged to ignore spirituality and religion – to ignore God’s call to eternal happiness – and we’re scorned and ridiculed when we dare to express religious belief in the public forum.  We’re told that believing in God is chasing a fiction, and when God doesn’t act the way we want or expect him to act, we begin to believe it.  The sad result is that more and more people eschew religion and live in fear – fear of disappointment, fear of illness and fear of death – “the fear [that] is characteristic of a godless life.”[6] 

Faced with the choice of denying God and living in fear, or believing in God and living in hope, one would think we’d all choose to believe.  But not everyone does, and even those of us who do, aren’t always steadfast in our faith because in making that choice, we have to deal with the Martha and Mary problem:  God doesn’t always act the way we want or expect him to, so we become frustrated and disappointed.  When we choose God, we have to accept that God’s ways aren’t necessarily our ways – that God acts in God’s time and in God’s way – and that God’s ways are the best and the only ways to live.  To have faith, we have to trust God when he tells us, “I have promised, and I will do it.”  (Ezekiel 37: 14)  God always delivers, but he does so in his time and in his way. 

          Life will always have its disappointments.  God never promised that it wouldn’t.  It’s our challenge, then, to work through our frustration and disappointment with God when things don’t go as we want or expect them to.  It’s our challenge to listen for God’s voice and to keep accepting God’s invitation to rise to the new life of hope that he offers us, just as Lazarus did.  God never stops calling us to eternal life in the spirit, a wonderful way of life that’s available to us here and now if we only believe.  The choice is ours, and if we listen really carefully, we might just hear God ask us, “What are you waiting for?”

Readings:  Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45

[1] Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe:  Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003) at 181.
[2] James Martin, Jesus:  A Pilgrimage (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014) at 322.
[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) at 95.
[4] Schneiders at 179 (emphasis added).
[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1818.
[6] Barclay at 95.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Where Do We Stand? - A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

        A lion used to prowl around a field in which four oxen would graze.  He tried many times to attack them, but whenever he approached, the oxen turned their tails toward one another so that the lion was met by horns on all sides.  One day, the lion had an idea.  He started spreading rumors among the oxen, lying to them about what one had said about another.  The oxen began to quarrel, and each went off to graze alone in separate corners of the field.  The lion then attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.[1]  The moral of this story is “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”  Our readings challenge us to ask ourselves, “Where do we stand?”
          In our Gospel passage, we find Satan trying to tempt Jesus, twisting God’s word for his own evil purposes in an ill-fated attempt to separate Jesus from the Father.  Jesus, of course, resists temptation because he knows that our help is in the Lord, and he knows that when we stand united with God and with each other, Satan doesn’t stand a chance. 

          The devil’s evil ways are evident in his names.  “Satan, ‘Satanas,’ means the accuser.  Devil, ‘diabolus,’ means the one who tears things apart, the divider.”[2]  And so, Satan does everything in his power to accuse us before God and one another, and to divide us, to separate us from God and from each other.  He goes so far as to try to convince Jesus to “play the games of accusation and division.”[3]

Satan failed with Jesus, but unfortunately, he’s had his successes with us.  “Temptation is a universal human experience.”[4]  We find Satan’s strategy of divide et impera – divide and conquer – woven into the fabric of human interaction.  Machiavelli advises in The Art of War “that a Captain should endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men in which he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker.”[5]  Sound familiar?  We see the devil’s strategy at work in our world every day.  We see it in politics, in our social interactions, and even in religion.  Let’s face it, how many of us have blamed our assistant when we’ve forgotten a meeting?  How many of us have allowed our spouse to think that our child did something that we did?  And worst of all, how many of us have blamed the dog?  We succumb to temptation; we neglect our Gospel values; we accuse, and we divide.

Why do we do this?  The short answer is that we do it out of a feeling of insecurity that manifests itself in many ways.  When we feel inadequate, we try to elevate ourselves by tearing down our colleagues.  When we’re hurt and angry, we lash out at our loved ones.  When we’re so frustrated that we can’t express ourselves adequately, we resort to name calling and slander.  When we’re guilty, we point fingers at the innocent to deflect attention away from ourselves.  And in the hyper-connected cyber-world we live in, we can accuse and divide incessantly, anonymously and with little accountability, joined by legions of other insecure people who are more than willing to pile on.  We accuse and divide to help ourselves feel better, but the only one we help is Satan.

So what can we do about it?  We have to put our faith in God, as Jesus did.  As in all things, Jesus is our role model for resisting temptation.  Jesus was fully human, so he knew what it meant to be tempted.  And faced with temptation, “Jesus allowed himself to be led by the Spirit.”[6]  He turned to Scripture, knowing that God’s word “is a bulwark against evil and essential for spiritual growth and conversion.”[7]  Scripture calls us to radical trust in God and gives us all the evidence we need to put our trust in Him.  Scripture tells us that God hears the cry of his people and rescues us from slavery.  (Deuteronomy 26: 98-9)  Scriptures tells us that no evil shall befall us for God’s angels guard us in all our ways.  (Psalm 91: 10-11)  Scripture tells us that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  (Romans 10: 13)  Scripture tells us that we have every reason to feel safe and secure when we stand united with God and with each other against temptation and sin.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  (Romans 8:31)  All we need to do is repent and believe the Gospel, which is exactly what we’re called to do during Lent.

Lent is a call to conversion; it’s a time to examine our consciences; it’s a time to find and eliminate everything that separates us from God.  It’s a time to renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty show.  We’ve just witnessed a beautiful Lenten conversion this past Friday when Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill held the first-ever meeting between a Roman Pontiff and a Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in the more than 950 years since the Great Schism.  Their embrace in Havana International Airport has been billed as the “hug heard ‘round the world,” but I can assure it was felt most profoundly in hell, as nearly a millennium of accusation and division was conquered by a moment of unity in Christ.  Let’s follow the example of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill this Lent.  Let’s use this Lent to set aside accusation and division and adopt forgiveness and reconciliation.  Let’s use this Lent to stand united with God and with each other, resisting temptation as Jesus did.    

          Our Gospel reading “is a strong reminder that  . . . there is a cosmic agōn or struggle taking place for the human soul.”[8]  United with God and with each other, we stand together tails turned inward to meet Satan with horns on all sides.  Separated from God and divided from each other, we fall prey to the devil’s temptations.  The question that remains for each one of us, then, is, “Where do we stand?”

Readings:  Deuteronomy 26: 4-10; Psalm 91; Romans 10: 8-13; Luke 4:1-13

[1] Aesop, The Lion and the Four Oxen.
[2] John Shea, The Relentless Widow:  The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Luke Year C (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2006) at 65.
[3] Id.
[4] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995) at 100.
[5] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Art of War, Book VI,
[6] Shea at 101.
[7] John W. Martens, “God Alone,” America, vol. 214, no. 4 (February 8, 2016) at 39.
[8] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2012) at 66.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Trying Time – An Ash Wednesday Reflection

In recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate Ash Wednesday much more than I ever did as a young adult.  You see, I used to think that Ash Wednesday was just a day when the super pious would walk around with dust on their foreheads to remind everyone else how super pious they are.  But once I started receiving ashes myself, and especially when I began distributing ashes as a deacon, I came to realize how wrong I was.  From my new vantage point, I see people from every walk and circumstance of life – the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the super-religious and those who may just be hedging their bets –  humbly submitting themselves to the sobering rite where we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  I see people who are trying – trying to be humble; trying to connect with God; trying to change for the better.  Lent is exactly that:  a trying time.

During Lent we’re called to conversion.  We’re called to change – to set aside our bad habits, repent, and believe the Gospel.  But truly believing the Gospel isn’t simply a matter of words; it’s a way of living.  To believe in the Gospel, we need to live the Gospel values.  That means we need to place ourselves in proper orientation with God our creator and at the service of our fellow man.  In other words, we need to love God and love our neighbor. Through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, Lent offers us a special opportunity to try a little harder to be a little better in our relationships with God and our neighbor.
Lent also offers us the opportunity to acknowledge that others are trying, too.  Let’s face it, It’s a lot easier to be judgmental than trying to figure out another person’s circumstances, motivations and intentions.  So we spend a good part of our day angry:  angry at the slow driver who made me late for work; angry at the store clerk who once again forgot to double-bag my groceries; angry at the guy who hogged the stepper at the gym.  It’s easy to assume that others are being the way they are just to tick us off.  But maybe, just maybe, that slow driver was bringing her newborn home from the hospital for the first time; or that store clerk has special needs; or that guy on the stepper was recently told that if he didn’t lose weight soon, he’d have serious health issues.  Maybe, they’re all just trying, too.
          Lent, then, is also a great time to love God and neighbor by trying to add a little more forbearance and forgiveness to our repertoire.  We can’t always know a person’s circumstances, motivations or intentions.  So maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt.  If we do, we’ll certainly be a lot less angry, and maybe we’ll grow to appreciate that we’re all living in a trying time.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

It’s the Humility

          When I was a little boy, I remember my father taking me to Henry’s Fine Foods, a family-owned deli in my hometown of Verona.  Every once in a while we’d run into a man at Henry’s who seemed to know everyone, my father included.  He was a short, stocky, self-deprecating man of obvious Italian-American descent - not an uncommon look in a town called Verona.  He always smiled, said hello and asked how we were as he bought his morning cup of coffee.  As I grew in age and wisdom, I came to realize that that little man was none other than Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.  As a young boy, I didn’t know who Yogi Berra was, but he made a lasting impression on me anyway.  What stood out to me about Yogi Berra so many years ago is the same thing that stands out about Jesus in today’s Gospel.  It’s the humility.

          At first glance, today’s readings seem to emphasize the stark contrast between divinity and humanity.  Our first reading and our psalm set the stage with magnificent images of the awesome power of God, while Saint Paul, in our second reading, reminds us of the simple, devout life that God calls us to.  In our Gospel, John the Baptist contrasts his own lowliness with one who’s coming who’s mightier than he.  And then something strange happens.  In Jesus, God’s power and might doesn’t stand in contrast with human lowliness.  When the mighty one comes, he humbly presents himself to John for baptism.  In Jesus, God’s power and might is expressed perfectly through humility. 

          Much ink has been spilled over the centuries trying to figure out why Jesus would need to be baptized.  He’s the Messiah, the sinless Son of God.   But rather than talk about why Jesus is seeking baptism, I’d like to focus on what Jesus is doing.  “For Jesus, the emergence of John was God’s call to action; and his first step was to identify himself with the people in their search for God.”[1]  In other words, in launching his earthly ministry, Jesus’ first step wasn’t to announce his divinity, but to declare his humanity.  As Saint Paul said, Jesus “emptied himself . . . coming in human likeness; and found in human appearance, he humbled himself.” (Philippians 2: 7-8)  Jesus is a model of humility, and as the Yogi-ism goes, “You can observe a lot by watching.”[2]  By presenting himself for baptism, Jesus humbly acknowledges that he “could not have done what he did apart from God’s empowerment and blessing.”[3]  By presenting himself for baptism, Jesus teaches us that our mission in life, the mission we assume in baptism, begins with humility.

Baptism, then, can be understood as God’s gift to the humble.  As Saint Gregory of Nazianzus explained, “Baptism is God’s beautiful and magnificent gift. . . .  It’s called a gift because it’s conferred on those who bring nothing of their own.”[4]  And what does baptism do for us?  It makes us nothing less than sons and daughters of God.  We bring nothing to the baptismal font that God needs, and yet we leave it as God’s beloved sons and daughters empowered with all the grace we need to carry out our baptismal mission as priest, prophet and king.  If that’s not humbling, I don’t know what is.

The call to live our baptismal mission with humility may not seem so easy in a world that exalts the high, the mighty, the wealthy and the beautiful.  I’ll admit that humility’s not my strongest virtue.  I seem to live more by the words of Ted Turner:  “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect.”[5]  It seems that we “possess[] two very different kinds of life:  [our] real life and the imaginary one in which [we] live[] in [our] own mind or in the opinion of others.  We labor unceasingly to embellish and preserve our imaginary existence, and we neglect the real one.”[6]   But real success isn’t measured in terms of status, wealth, or even beauty.  As a certain successful baseball player once said, “I’m ugly.  So what?  I never saw anyone hit with his face.”[7]  Real success in life is all about being authentically human, living simply and humbly as the real person that God created us to be.  Jesus calls us to be humble because “It is human to be humble.”[8]

It’s no coincidence that the words “human” and “humility” are derived from the same Latin root.  Humus, meaning dirt, reminds us that God formed man “out of the dust of the ground.”  (Genesis 2:7)  To be humble, then, we must heed the ominous words that we hear every year on Ash Wednesday:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Humility reminds us that we’re not God; we’re lowly creatures.  Humility reminds us that God doesn’t need us, but he loves us anyway.  Jesus calls us to be humble because humility “creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.”[9]  The more we humbly empty ourselves of ego and pride, the closer we become with the one who humbled himself to share in our humanity, and the more we’re filled with his love and divinity.  Just think of the humblest people you know.  I’ll bet God’s love shines right through them, doesn’t it?  That’s what we see in Jesus, and that’s what I saw so many years ago in Yogi Berra.

Much later in my life, I asked my father how he knew Yogi Berra.  He smiled and said, “I didn’t.”  It seems that Yogi Berra was a humble man who treated everyone like a friend he’d known all his life.  The testimonials that followed his death last September attest to the fact that what friends and family remember most about Yogi Berra isn’t his illustrious baseball career, but his desire to remain one of us.  Yogi Berra never forgot the secret to real success in life.  To borrow his words, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”[10]

Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Psalm 104; Titus 2: 11-14, 3: 4-7; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) at 45.
[2] Yogi Berra.
[3]R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995) at 92.
[4] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio, 40, 3-4: PG 36, 361C.
[5] Fizra Pirani, “Happy 77th Birthday, Ted Turner:  13 Things You May Not Know about the Media Mogul,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 19, 2015,
[6] Raniero Cantalamessa, Life in Christ:  The Spiritual Message of the Letter to the Romans (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1990) at 165.
[7] Yogi Berra.
[8] Cantalamessa.
[9] Monica Baldwin, I Leap Over the Wall:  A Return to the World after Twenty-eight Years in a Convent.
[10] Yogi Berra.