Sunday, November 23, 2003

Are You Offended by the Kingship of Jesus?

Attorney General John Ashcroft

(Christ the King (B): This homily was given on November 23, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read John 18: 33-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christ the King 2003]

Before Attorney General John Ashcroft was confirmed by the Senate back in 2001, he was publicly attacked by certain senators (the usual suspects) for his strong pro-life views. Some of you may remember this; it was “big news” at the time.

They also tried to discredit him for saying that he strives in his life to serve “no king but Jesus.”

Barry Lynn, head of the group that calls itself “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” was deeply offended by Ashcroft’s statement.

Members of the Anti-Defamation League were deeply offended.

Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy were deeply offended.

Are you offended? Ask yourself that question this morning.

But before you answer, let me read Ashcroft’s words in their proper context. What he actually said was (and here I quote), “A slogan of the American Revolution was the line, ‘We have no king but Jesus’.”

Joseph Farah, in a column he wrote at the time for WorldNetDaily, commented on this remark and said, “[Ashcroft’s statement] is 100 percent accurate. Colonial America rebelled against paying tribute to King George, saying they had ‘no king but Jesus.’”

Obviously some of our current civil leaders wouldn’t have fared too well in Colonial America!

Farah went on to write the following in his column:

“[This statement about the kingship of Jesus] was not only a slogan of the War for Independence, it was [also] the cornerstone of the philosophy that led to the Constitution, with its concepts of a limited federal government and separation of powers.

Not only did this slogan, ‘No king but Jesus,’ in many ways inspire the American vision of freedom and self-government, it is a slogan with a history that goes back to the First Century Church.

Let me remind you of this history.

Why were the first Christians crucified by Rome? Why were they fed to the lions in the Colosseum? Why were the Christians the major target of persecution by the Caesars?

The answer is simple and self-evident: Because they recognized no king but Jesus.

That simple idea was so threatening to the Caesars that Christians paid for it with their lives—by the hundreds of thousands. This was the second holocaust of the modern era—the first being the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And no one knows for sure just how many Christians were put to death. There are historical descriptions of Roman roadways being lighted by night by the burning corpses of crucified Christians—all because they would serve no king but Jesus.”

Why were the Caesars—and Pontius Pilate—and the senators who attacked John Ashcroft—so threatened by Jesus? Think about the things that Jesus said during his life here on earth: think about his teachings—“Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you. . . .Love your neighbor as yourself. . . .Forgive, as you have been forgiven.”

What is so subversive—what is so threatening—about teachings like those?

The answer is, “Nothing—unless you’re not interested in observing them.” Then, they are highly threatening!

Yes, it’s true, King Jesus is a loving, compassionate, merciful ruler. (And for that we should all be deeply grateful, because it means there’s always hope—even for the worst of sinners.) But he’s also a ruler who demands virtue—a ruler who requires holiness of his subjects (or at least he requires that his subjects be striving for holiness).

He doesn’t accept sin and evil, since he came into the world to destroy both.

Pontius Pilate was not interested in following the teachings of Jesus, and so he was threatened by our Lord.

He was not interested, for example, in loving his enemies and knowing the truth. As we heard in today’s Gospel text from John 18, he was only interested in keeping his political power.

The Caesars weren’t interested in forgiveness, they were interested in vengeance—and, as Joseph Farah reminds us, they had some very bloody methods of achieving that goal.

The sad reality is that most of the senators who opposed John Ashcroft’s confirmation as Attorney General were not interested in the teaching of Jesus that says, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” Rather, they were interested in keeping the killing of unborn babies legal in this country. They wanted Ashcroft out of the running, simply because he was pro-life.

Are you offended by the kingship of Jesus? I sincerely hope not, because the kingship of Jesus is really what heaven is all about!

In heaven, Jesus reigns completely, and his gospel of love rules eternally—thank God!

Which leads to the obvious question: If a person is offended by the kingship of Jesus Christ here on earth, wouldn’t he also be offended by heaven itself—since that’s the place where Jesus’ kingship is absolute?

Perhaps this explains (at least in part) why a totally loving God would actually send people to hell: it’s because he doesn’t want to offend them! He knows that putting them in heaven would cause them terrible distress (since they’d have to acknowledge Jesus as king for all eternity), and so he allows them—in the words of Scripture—to “go to their own place”—the place where someone else is master.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we ask you at this Mass to be our king. Take control of every thought, word, and deed. And by the power of your grace, change the hearts of those who are currently offended by your kingship in any way, so that we will all rejoice together someday, in your eternal and glorious kingdom. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The End Gives Meaning to the Now.

(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on November 16, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Daniel 12: 1-3; Mark 13: 24-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-third Sunday 2003]

A priest was patiently waiting in line to have his car filled with gas just before a long holiday weekend. The attendant at the station was working as quickly as he could to serve everyone, but it was quite some time before the priest finally made it to the front of the line. When he arrived at the pump, the attendant said to him, “I’m really sorry about the delay, Father, but it seems like everybody waits until the last minute to get ready for a long trip.”

The priest just smiled back and replied, “My son, I know exactly what you mean. It’s the same in my business.”

How true it is! Although it’s certainly not the case for everybody, there are some people who will delay their repentance, who will put off a long-needed confession, who will procrastinate about making positive changes in their lives, until their days on earth are almost over, and they’re about to make “that big, one-way trip” into eternity!

I’m sure this is why, at the end of every liturgical year, the Church gives us readings like the ones we heard this morning. Our first reading was from Daniel 12; our Gospel text from Mark 13. Both focus our attention on “the end.” In this 12th chapter of Daniel, the prophet speaks about the final conflict that will occur between good and evil just before the consummation of human history. Then God tells Daniel that when this decisive moment arrives, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace. But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”

Jesus gives us a similar message in the Gospel, adding that this will be the moment when he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (as we say in the Apostles’ Creed).

As to when this will happen, Jesus says, unequivocally, “No one knows . . . except the [heavenly] Father” (so please tell your Jehovah’s Witnesses friends to stop trying to figure it out!).

The obvious conclusion here is that we must always be ready, since the final moment of human history—or the final moment of our life here on earth—could come at any time. If we delay our repentance, put off a much needed confession, or procrastinate about making the changes we know we need to make in our life, we may never have the chance to do so. The end may come when we least expect it.

Now please understand something: Jesus does not tell us all these things about the end because he wants us to live in fear! Quite oppositely, he tells us to be ready because he wants us to live in faith! If we live in faith, then we have nothing to fear!

I was reminded of the importance of always being prepared for the end a few weeks ago, when I was called to the emergency room of Westerly Hospital on a Tuesday afternoon. A man from our parish had died suddenly a few hours before while playing tennis. He was in his 70’s, but he didn’t look or act it. And he was such a wonderful parishioner: involved in our Habitat for Humanity group, and a host of other things. During the course of my conversation with his wife at the hospital I said, “Dot, there are some people about whom I would be very worried if they died so suddenly. But not your husband. And that’s the greatest compliment I can possibly give him. Of course, only God is the final judge of anyone’s life, but I have a very confident hope for your husband’s eternal salvation, because it seemed to me that his Catholic faith—his love for Jesus Christ—was at the foundation of everything he did.”

She agreed; and I know that the thought of his faith and charity also gave her hope—and a good bit of consolation and peace—in an otherwise tragic moment.

And let me say a word here to the young people: Don’t think the message of this homily is only for the elderly and for those who have a terminal disease! It’s for you, too! Many adolescents and young adults currently live lives that they describe as “boring”: lives without direction, without purpose, without meaning. I would say that in many cases this is because they never stop to think about “the end” (the end of their lives, the end of the world) and how that relates to their present circumstances.

But this is something we all need to do, because (believe it or not) it’s “the end” that gives meaning and purpose to the present moment. It gives meaning to the “now.” And we all know this truth from our everyday experiences. For example, at the beginning of every pro football season, players look to the END POINT they want to arrive at—namely, the Super Bowl! And that’s what motivates them to practice hard and to play their best in the present moment. Thinking of the terminal point of the season doesn’t depress them, it inspires them! The end gives meaning to the now.

Every college student looks forward to that terminal point of his schooling known as “graduation,” and to finally getting a job in his chosen field—and this is what motivates him to study and work hard in the classes he’s presently taking. (Unless, of course, he’s just in school to party and waste his parents’ money!—in which case he’ll probably flunk-out anyway in his first year!).

Ever since the finance committee said yes to the idea of a capital campaign for the improvement of our church, school and rectory, I (and many others) have been thinking of the terminal point of the project: of that moment when all the work will finally be done and all the bills paid! And the thought of that happy end gives meaning and purpose to the entire process: to all the meetings, the paperwork, the phone calls, the fundraising—and the frustrations—that we’re enduring now.

And so it should be with the terminal point of life as a whole. Knowing that it will come someday shouldn’t depress us; rather, it should inspire us to live for Christ, since living for the Lord in faithfulness to our baptism is what will bring us to his kingdom in the end.

The end must give meaning to the now.

Let me close by sharing with you the final words of a reflection that was given at a funeral I recently attended. This funeral was for a young man, in his late 30’s, who, sadly, led a life filled with self-destructive behaviors—behaviors that ultimately led to his demise.

This man’s brother spoke at the end of the liturgy, and I was deeply impressed by his words—because he didn’t try to “sugar-coat” reality in any way. Yes, he highlighted his brother’s talents and good qualities (as he should have), but he was also very honest about his brother’s faults and failings. You don’t often encounter that type of clear thinking at a funeral.

His final words to the congregation are a fitting conclusion to this homily. He said, “Let us all learn from this [tragic] experience [of my brother’s death]; let us [learn to] take the time to listen, to care, to make peace, to do what we can for one another, and to love unconditionally, before time passes and it becomes too late.”

For the man who wrote those words, thinking of the end—the end of his own life—gives meaning and purpose to the present moment.

And that’s the way it should be for all of us.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Thank God For Purgatory!

(All Souls Day 2003: This homily was given on November 2, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Daniel 12: 1-3; Romans 6: 3-9; John 6: 37-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Souls 2003]

The very fact that we have an All Souls Day on the liturgical calendar of the Church reminds us of the importance of praying for the dead. It also serves to remind us that purgatory is real—because if purgatory isn’t real, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to pray for the dead! If our deceased relatives and friends are already in heaven, they don’t need our prayers; and if they’re in hell, our prayers will not—and cannot!—help them.

And yet, many Catholics have trouble embracing this important doctrine of the faith. In some cases, this may be because they’ve been challenged by some of their Protestant friends, who have said to them, “Why do you Catholics believe in purgatory? The word purgatory isn’t found anywhere in the Bible! Don’t you know that?”

True enough. Of course, neither is the word Trinity found anywhere in the Bible—and yet every true Christian (Catholic and Protestant) believes that there are three Divine Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in the one, true God.

The bottom line is this: the word Trinity is not found in the Bible, but the truth about the Trinity is most definitely found there! For example, there are many New Testament passages (like Colossians 2:9 and John 10:30) in which the divinity of Jesus is clearly affirmed. And in certain verses of Acts 5 and John 15 (among others), the divinity of the Holy Spirit is witnessed to and revealed.

The Blessed Trinity, therefore, is merely the non-biblical term the Church uses to express the truth about the inner life of God which is revealed to us in the Bible.

Along the same lines, purgatory is the word the Church uses to speak of the “final sanctification” after death which is experienced by some of those who die in the state of grace. Here’s how the word is defined in the glossary of the new Catechism: Purgatory is “A state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.”

Please note: It’s for those who die “in God’s friendship”; it’s not a “second chance” for those who die in the state of mortal sin. The notion that it’s a “second chance” is a common misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching.

And, as was the case with the Blessed Trinity, there are also many Biblical passages which point to the existence of purgatory: 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is one example. That’s the text where St. Paul speaks about certain souls who are saved after passing through a purifying fire (fire, of course, is the traditional image for purgatory).

Other important passages are Hebrews 12: 14, where the Biblical writer tells us to “strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord”; Revelation 21:27 which tells us that “nothing profane shall enter [the kingdom of heaven]”; and 2 Maccabees 12: 38-46, where the sacred author commends Judas Maccabeus for offering prayers and sacrifices for the dead.

Again, the only reason such prayers and sacrifices could possibly be effective is if purgatory exists!

Let me share with you now a very good imaginative exercise through which you can help people (especially your anti-Catholic friends) to see the need for purgatory. I came across this about a year ago in an article by Benjamin Wiker which was printed in the National Catholic Register.

Wiker rightly notes that many of us have trouble seeing our own need to be “cleaned up” before entering God’s kingdom, but we have no trouble whatsoever recognizing the faults of others. (As Jesus would say, we have a much easier time seeing the speck in our brother’s eye than the plank in our own!)

Consequently, if someone we know is having difficulty believing in purgatory, a simple solution is to ask the person to imagine himself as the gatekeeper of heaven, in charge of the eternal destinies of others.

Remember, since he doubts the existence of purgatory, that can’t be an option for him when he makes his judgments. Every person who approaches him must be sent either directly to heaven or directly to hell.

Of course, what’s really interesting is when you put yourself in the position of the gatekeeper!

Try to imagine yourself in that role, as I now read to you a direct quote from Ben Wiker’s article:

“Your first day on the job and who should show up but one of your co-workers, Fred, the generally friendly but irritating office gossip. To the flames? Into eternal bliss? He isn’t really evil; he’s more like a slightly grating noise that, while not loud, distracts and agitates until it seems to fill the room. With Fred, forever, in heaven? The thought makes you shudder.

And isn’t that your neighbor, Heather Finwinkle? Oh, what a hell heaven would be if you had to listen to her drone on and on about her petty problems, world without end. That tedious, whining voice! That theatrically doleful look of hers, continually glancing to see if you’re properly sympathetic! An eternity next to her? You can’t even stand being next door!

And here comes Uncle Sid and Aunt Ethel, the ruin of every family gathering! Should they be let into heaven as is? An eternity like last Thanksgiving? Or the Christmas before last, decked with their same old fights, deep-rutted grievances and fingernails-on-the-chalkboard peccadilloes poisoning the holiday air? A few hours with them twice a year feels like an eternity. You break out into a cold sweat.”

Do you see the problem yet? I’m sure you do!

As Ben Wiker puts it, “If we are really honest about other people, we would not want them in heaven [as they are]. We rightly grasp that nearly everyone we know is an unfit companion for eternity. We can’t really consign them to eternal torment, yet with their annoying habits, tangle of little vices, tiresome concerns, tedious self-absorptions and lack of depth, we’d like to excuse ourselves politely from them and live forever on the far side of paradise.”

Of course, as Wiker rightly notes in the next paragraph of his article, if we could really be honest about ourselves, we would realize that WE are one of these troublesome people for someone else (and perhaps for nearly everyone else). Consequently, they’d have the same difficulty judging us, that we would have judging Fred, Heather Finwinkle, Uncle Sid and Aunt Ethel!

This is why purgatory is such a blessing! In purgatory, all that petty, annoying, sinful stuff is finally burned away, never to return; and what ultimately remains is a purified, transformed person: the loving, holy person that God created each of us to be in the first place.

Yes, it is possible to bypass purgatory altogether. Some extremely holy men and women have probably done so when they’ve died (these are people, no doubt, who suffered a great deal during their earthly lives). But even if we, and all our relatives and friends, are forced to pass through this state on our way to eternal bliss, it will be well worth it.

In fact (as hard as this may be to believe) we will actually be happy to experience purgatory, even if it involves some pain! Because—think about it—without purgatory, life in heaven would really be no better in certain respects than life here on earth. It’s only because of purgatory that heaven is, for lack of a better term, heavenly!

Which is why I say, “Thank God for purgatory!”