Sunday, August 29, 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Oh Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble…

Dear sisters and brothers, as sometimes happens, our readings today remind me of a song. It’s an old country number by Mac Davis. And the chorus goes like this:

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me. I must be a hell of a man. Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble but I’m doing the best that I can.

Don’t be mistaken, sisters and brothers. Of course I know that I’m far from perfect in every way. And I’m definitely not getting better looking each day. But, even with all my flaws, I have to agree with Mac Davis that it is truly hard to be humble. Don’t you think so?

For one thing, it’s difficult to know what exactly it means to be humble. What at first looks like humility can often turn out to be something very different. For example, if I am unable to accept a genuine compliment because I don’t think very highly of myself, that’s not humility. It’s just low self-esteem. And neither is it true humility either, if I criticize myself on purpose, just so I can hear others disagree and tell me how wonderful I am. Humility is not a hook that I can use to fish for flattery. Humility is not about falsehood. It’s about the truth.

Even so, our readings remind us that humility has to do with lowering ourselves in some way. Humility involves lowering ourselves by first recognizing that all the good things in our lives are blessings from a generous and loving God. As the first reading reminds us: humble yourselves the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. And not only does humility involve lowering ourselves before God, it also involves lowering ourselves before others. As Jesus tells his listeners in the gospel today, to be humble means to be willing to take the lowest place. And this is far from an easy thing to do, especially today, when it often seems that our very survival depends on our being able and willing to fight tooth and nail for the highest places. And what does it mean for me to take the lowest place if I am already unemployed, with a family to feed? Does it mean that I should somehow do less than my best to secure a job?

Which leads us to a second reason why I think it’s hard to be humble. It’s hard not just to know what humility is. It’s also hard to figure out when exactly to be humble. It’s difficult to know when we should lower ourselves before others. Consider, for example, what Jesus does in the gospel. Notice how several verses are missing from our reading, which jumps from verse 1 to verse 7. In verses 2 to 6, a man appears who has a sickness called dropsy. And Jesus challenges those with him at table: Should he heal this man even though it is a Sabbath day? Everybody keeps silent, probably because they think that it is unlawful to do so. Still, Jesus heals the man and sends him on his way. Was Jesus being humble? Was he lowering himself? Not before the Pharisees he wasn’t. But Jesus stood up to the Pharisees only so that he could lower himself before the one who needed healing. He challenged the first in order to show compassion to the second. And by doing this, Jesus teaches us that there is a right time and a wrong time to lower ourselves. The difficulty lies in distinguishing one from the other.

And, in order to do this, in order to know when is the right time to lower ourselves, it is important for us to face a third difficulty. Not only must we consider what humility means and when we should be humble, we also have to ask ourselves why we need to be humble. Why should we even bother to lower ourselves before others? Why not just rush for the highest places like everybody else?

It may at first appear that our readings are proposing a purely practical answer to this question. Why should we lower ourselves before God? According to the first reading, it is so that God will show us favor. And why should we take the lowest place before people? According to the gospel parable, it appears that it is only so that we can then be raised to the place of honor. But is this true humility? Or does it not resemble the kind of tactic used by the person who criticizes himself in order to fish for compliments from others? Consider also what Jesus tells us in the second half of today’s gospel. When we hold a lunch or dinner, we are to invite those who cannot invite us back – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind? Why? According to Jesus, we will be repaid at the resurrection. But is this the only reason why we should invite all these people? Just so that we can be repaid? Is there no other reason to be humble, no other reason to lower ourselves?

Our readings contain a deeper reason. Notice, for example, what we heard in our second reading. Here, the writer invites us to compare two different appearances of God. The first is God’s appearance to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. The second is to us on Mount Zion. In both cases God lowers God’s self in order to show mercy to the people. But notice how the second lowering far exceeds the first. In the first, God spoke in a voice that still frightened the people, such that they begged that no message be further addressed to them. Then, in the second, God speaks in a different, far more accessible, far more approachable voice. God addresses us in the blood of Christ the Son, which speaks more eloquently even than the blood of Abel. This is the same blood of which we will partake at this Eucharist, the blood that sings of a love more powerful even than death. What then do we find here in this reading, sisters and brothers, if not a moving description of a humble God? One who is willing to lower God’s self even to the extent of shedding blood upon a Cross. And the reason why God does this is to raise us up. In the words of the response to the psalm: by lowering God’s self, God has made a home for the poor. Here, sisters and brothers, we find the deeper answer to our question. Why should we be humble? Why should we lower ourselves? We do so for no reason other than that this is what our God has done and continues to do for us. Like children who love nothing better than to imitate their parents, we are called to humility because we are sons and daughters of a humble God.

Sisters and brothers, it is indeed hard to be humble. But are we truly doing the best that we can?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Who Made You?

Picture: cc Virginia Zuluaga

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever seen people shopping for designer goods – say, maybe a Ferragamo bag or a Coach wallet, something like that. Maybe you even buy such things yourself. They’re very costly, aren’t they? And not only are they costly, but these days fakes are also very common. And I don’t mean an obvious imitation. Like a bag that says FerraBamo, for example. These days, fakes can look very authentic. So how do you know that you’re getting your money’s worth? How do you make sure that what you’re buying is the real deal?

A good way is, of course, to buy directly from the designer store. But then there are those of us who don’t want to pay the full price. So we go elsewhere, looking for bargains. And that’s when you have to be especially careful. What do you do? You check the product very carefully. You examine the zipper, for example, and the rest of the material. You make sure that the item bears all the marks of the designer. What are you really doing? Whether consciously or not, when you give the product the once over like this, you’re really questioning it, aren’t you? Where do you come from? You ask. Who made you? And you will only buy the thing if the answer is Ferragamo and not Ferradamo.

We find something similar in today’s gospel. Here, Jesus tells a parable about people trying to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, not everyone is admitted. Not unlike a shrewd buyer of designer goods, Jesus chooses only a certain kind of people to enter the kingdom. Like goods that are guaranteed by a designer store, the people the Lord chooses are those who enter through the narrow gate. And when others try to get in after the gate has been closed, he tells them something very interesting. I do not know where you are from, he says. Even when these people tell him that they’ve spent much time in his company, even though they claim to have listened to him teach in their streets, Jesus says he doesn’t know where they are from. It’s as though, like the shopper looking at a fake product, after giving them the once over, the Lord turns them away because he does not recognize in them any mark of the designer. He doesn’t know who made them.

Some of us may still remember the old Catechism, which presented its lessons in question-and-answer format. Who made you? was the first question. To which the answer was God made me. This is our belief as Christians: that, even though our parents gave us birth, we owe our existence ultimately to God. Who made you? God made me. And yet, isn’t it also true that our birth is but the beginning of a much longer manufacturing process? Although God may have been the one ultimately responsible for putting us on this earth, through the choices we make, we somehow play a part in shaping our own lives. As someone once said: what we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.

But this doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we like. Like designer goods, our lives will be of a certain quality only if they are shaped according to the designer’s directions, only if they bear the mark of the Lord. Isn’t this the problem with the people in Jesus’ parable? Instead of following the Lord by entering through the narrow gate, they have led lives according to their own design, such that the Lord does not recognize his mark on them. He does not know where they are from, who it is that made them.

But how does one enter through the narrow gate? How does one follow the designer’s directions? If it isn’t enough just to go to church every Sunday, what more is required of us? We get some hints of an answer from the rest of our readings.

In the first reading, for example, we find God sending out people to gather the nations into God’s kingdom. And these people who are sent are told to do one thing. They are to proclaim the Lord’s glory especially to those who have never heard of the Lord’s fame. Or, in the words of the response to the psalm, they are to go out to all the world and tell the Good News. Although this may seem like what the people in the gospel claim to have been doing, there is an important difference. It’s possible to spend time with Jesus and even to listen to his teaching only for the sake of our own selfish interests. I may go to church only because my girlfriend goes too, or only because there is something I need the Lord to do for me. I may preach the Word so that people may think highly of me. I can do all these things for my own glory. But what the people in the first reading are sent to do is to proclaim God’s glory, not their own. To allow ourselves to be shaped by God, we need somehow to make the praise of God the center of our lives, as Jesus did. And you can only really praise someone if you have experienced the person’s goodness. Authentic praise can spring, for example, out of gratitude – gratitude for all the good things that God has done, and continues to do for us, gratitude especially for the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And yet, life is not just filled with bright moments. It is also sometimes covered in shadow. Can we continue to be grateful, can we continue to praise God at such times? According to the second reading, the answer is yes. Even in times of trial, it is possible to continue giving glory to God if we learn to see such difficult times as moments of discipline. It’s difficult for us to do this because we often connect discipline with punishment. When something bad happens, we may immediately ask ourselves, Why? What have I done wrong? Why is God punishing me? But discipline does not have to be the result of guilt. Athletes in training discipline themselves even though they may have done nothing wrong. The point of the second reading is that it is possible to praise God in dark times, when we learn to see our trials as opportunities for growth in the ways of God. This is how we enter through the narrow gate as Jesus did. Both in good times and in bad, it is possible for us to allow God to shape us. Through praise and through discipline, it is possible for us to come to bear the mark of the Divine Designer: neither the brand of Coach nor of Ferragamo, but the mark of the Cross of Christ.

And we do this even more effectively when we allow praise and discipline to meet, when, in our gratitude for all the good things that God has done for us, we praise God by reaching out to help those who may be experiencing God’s discipline. Isn’t this especially important in these days when massive flooding has displaced thousands in Pakistan, even as, here at home, many others continue to suffer the effects of unemployment and homelessness.

Sisters and brothers, when we examine our own lives on this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, whose mark do we see? Who is making us, today?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
We Have Lift-Off!

Readings: Revelation 11:19a, 12:1-6a, 10ab; Psalm 45; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27a; Luke 1:39-56
Picture: cc Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Center

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever seen a rocket being launched into the sky? Probably many of us have watched it on TV, or in the movies, or seen pictures of it in the newspapers. Can you imagine what it must be like to observe it in person? Can you imagine what it must feel like to be deafened by the roar of the explosions, and to witness the incredible sight of thousands of tons of steel being blasted into the heavens in a great crimson ball of fire and smoke? And then to hear the words, Houston, we have lift-off? Can you imagine what it must be like? In addition to the feeling of wonder and awe that such a marvelous thing could be possible, we would probably also experience a sense of excitement and exhilaration. It’s as though the rocket carries our hopes and dreams with it as it rises into the heavens. And, as we watch, we may wish that we too could go along for the ride.

But isn’t it true that, in order for the rocket to fly upward, there must first be an opposing force directed downward? The rocket is blasted into the heavens only because hundreds of tons of rocket fuel is first set on fire, and the force that is produced by the explosion is then directed downward onto the earth. Most of the rocket is really a container for this fuel. Which is why, especially if we’re watching from a distance, it’s difficult to see the rocket itself because of all the fire and the smoke. We can only follow its flight upward by carefully watching the flames that are emitted from its tail.

And to watch carefully is also what we need to do today, as we celebrate this great feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like a rocket rising gracefully into the sky, today Mary is lifted up body and soul into heaven. And we need to watch carefully – with the eyes of our minds and our hearts – if we want to share in the joys of her flight. For, as we all know, the bible does not tell us what happened to Mary when she came to the end of her time on this earth. The bible does not give us any description of Mary’s Assumption. How then do we know that this is what happened to her?

We know because, although the bible does not describe her flight from earth to heaven, it does tell us about the crucial role that Mary played in bringing heaven down to earth. In a sense, our readings help us to appreciate the rocket’s upward rise by showing us the flames being emitted from its tail. In the gospel, for example, we are reminded of how Mary brings heaven to earth by first consenting to become a mother. In agreeing to carry Jesus in her womb, Mary allows herself to become something like a container for rocket fuel. For consider what the second reading tells us about Jesus, the fruit of Mary's womb. As in Adam all die – and so are buried in the depths of the earth – so too in Christ all are brought to life – all are raised to the heavenly heights. Like the fuel that, when ignited, drives a rocket into the sky, the fiery force of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is what propels us all into heaven. And it is Mary who carries this propellant in her womb. It is Mary who directs its power onto the earth.

We see her doing this in today’s gospel. Even before she actually gives physical birth to Jesus, Mary is already sharing him with others by going to the aid of her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. We’re told that Mary set out… to the hill country… It was not an easy journey. But she undertook it in haste, for the sake of her cousin. And at the sound of Mary’s greeting both Elizabeth and the as yet unborn John the Baptist are filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary endures an arduous journey to bring Christ to her cousin. And this is but one of the many trials that Mary had to undergo to bear Christ to the world, to bring heaven to earth. Later, she would also have to give birth to her son in the discomfort of a stable, to flee with him by night into Egypt, to lose him for a time in the Temple in Jerusalem, and then, years later, to watch him suffer a cruel death on the Cross. Not unlike the rocket that crumbles and collapses even as the force from the exploding fuel pushes it heavenward, such are the trials undergone by Mary our mother. And these sufferings of hers recall to us the image of the woman in the first reading, the one who wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth, as she struggled to bring heaven to earth.

But what was it that enabled Mary to endure these terrible trials? How was she able to bear and to bring the awesome power of her Son’s dying and rising to the world? It is Elizabeth who reveals Mary’s secret to us. Elizabeth calls Mary blessed because she believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled. God told Mary that her Son was to be the Savior of the world. And Mary believed it. So strong was her belief that she was willing to receive Jesus into her womb as an unwed mother, and, years later, to have his lifeless body placed in her arms after it had been taken down from the cross. So great was her trust, that even in the midst of her trials, she is able to sing a beautiful song of praise to God. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord… And not just Mary’s soul, but also her body: Mary’s whole being is a song of praise, a Magnificat to the Lord.

Such then is the brilliance of the flames that fly from the rocket that is Mary’s life on earth. Her whole existence had but one purpose: to bear Christ to the world. And if rockets can fly into space by shooting flames onto the ground, is it not reasonable to believe that Mary was assumed into heaven because she first helped to bring heaven to earth?

But that is not all. There is something about the Feast of the Assumption that goes beyond even a rocket’s flight. Although we may feel excited by it, unless we are astronauts, or multi-millionaires, it is not very likely that we’ll be able to take a ride in a rocket, at least not in the near future. But things are different with the Assumption. For today’s feast is not just a celebration of Mary. As the scripture scholars tell us, the woman in labor that we find in the first reading represents more than just the Blessed Virgin Mary. She also stands for the Church. She represents you and me. Like Mary, we too are chosen to be carriers of rocket fuel, bearers of Christ to the world. Like Mary, we too are called to put our trust in God, to bear our trials for love of others, and so to be assumed into the heavenly heights. And isn’t it especially important for us to hear and to answer this call today, when even in a place like Santa Barbara – a place as close to heaven on earth as one can get – the newspapers continue to speak to us of homeless people dying in the streets?

Sisters and brothers, on this Feast of the Assumption, are we ready for lift-off?