Sunday, January 06, 2019

Following in the Footsteps of the Wise Men

(Epiphany 2019: This homily was given on January 6, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3: 2-6; Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2019]

These three questions will test how well you were paying attention to the Gospel text I just read to you . . .

According to the details given to us in this passage from Matthew, chapter 2:

1.      There were three wise men.  True or False?
2.      The wise men were kings.  True or False?
3.      The names of the wise men were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  True or False?

The correct answers, believe it or not, are false, false and false again.  Matthew does not tell us the exact number of astrologers who came to offer homage and gifts to the infant Christ.  The tradition that there were three comes from the fact that three gifts were offered to the Lord: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Nor does Matthew ever tell us that they were kings!  That tradition comes from the prophecy of Isaiah 60 (which we heard in our first reading) and Psalm 72 (which was today's responsorial psalm).  From early on, Christians saw a foreshadowing of the Epiphany event in these two passages from the Old Testament.  And as for their names being Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar—that idea is rooted in a tradition that goes back at least to the sixth century.  But it was not a part of Matthew's description of the Magi as found in his Gospel.  Now please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there were not three Magi; I'm not saying they were not kings, and I'm not saying their names were not Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  I'm simply saying those details come to us from other sources—not from the Gospel of Matthew itself.

If, perchance, you didn't do too well with those three questions, I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself with two others:

1.      The Magi were Gentiles.  True or false?
2.      The Magi submitted themselves to Jesus.  True or false?

In this case, the correct answers are true, and true.  And here we see why Matthew made the decision to include this particular story in his account of the life of Christ.  He included it to teach a very important lesson to his community (and, by extension, to all of us).  The Magi were Gentiles like most (if not all) of us are.  Why is that important?  It's important because the prevailing mindset among the Jews was that only they were special to the Lord.  And so by telling us about these non-Jewish astrologers who came to see Jesus at his birth, Matthew is telling us that everyone, without exception, is included in God's plan of salvation.  This was also St. Paul's message to the Ephesians in that text we heard in our second reading today—as those who took our Bible study class this Fall would be happy to tell you.  Listen again to his words (this, remember, would have shocked many of the Jews of Paul's day):
God's secret plan, as I have briefly described it, was revealed to me, unknown to men in former ages but now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets.  It is no less than this: in Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the gospel. 
(That’s a slightly different translation from the one we heard a few minutes ago, but I like it better.  It a lot clearer.)

Many of the Jewish men and women who first heard those words must have gasped in disbelief!—"You mean those unclean, vile, heathen Gentiles have the same spiritual potential as we do?!"

Yes, they do—thank God!

But there's another crucial fact to note about these men from the East: they submitted themselves to Jesus!  St. Matthew says that when they came into the Lord's presence, "They prostrated themselves and did him homage."  In this regard, have you ever noticed that in almost every crèche scene, at least one of the wise men is portrayed on his knees?  (Look at ours before you leave Mass today.)  And the other two are usually hunched over, as if they're preparing to kneel and prostrate themselves before the Savior.  Despite the fact that they might have been kings, the Magi came to the Lord in submission and in humility.

And that's how we must come to Jesus--if we want to experience the fruits of his redemptive work.  Thus, if the Magi were standing here at this pulpit this morning, they would say to us: "Yes, everyone is included in God's plan of salvation--Jew and Gentile alike.  That means that every person can be saved.  But, regardless of who you are, you must be willing to bend your knee to Jesus like we did.  If you want to experience the gift of salvation that he came into the world to bring, you must follow our example and be willing to submit to him in humility and in repentance.  Otherwise you cannot be included in his kingdom."  That, of course, is a very difficult message for some modern-day Christians to accept: Christians who think that pretty much everybody goes to heaven, even if they never repent of their sins!  The Magi would disagree strongly!

A while back I heard the confession of a man who had not received the sacrament of Reconciliation in almost 20 years.  Without revealing any of the details, suffice it to say that this person made a great confession.  He had a lot to unload—and (as far as I could tell) he unloaded it all!  He was what St. John Vianney would have called "a big fish"--a big catch for the Lord.  Although he probably didn't realize it at the time, that man came into the confessional and did exactly what the Magi did in the cave of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago: spiritually speaking, he prostrated himself before Jesus, by humbly asking for his Savior's forgiveness.  And so it should come as no surprise that he left the confessional that day a "wise man"--a wise man filled with joy and gratitude.

May all of us in our lives learn to be equally wise. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

How to Imitate the First Adorers of the Body and Blood of Christ

(Mary, the Mother of God 2019: This homily was given on January 1, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67:2-8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Mary, the Mother of God 2019]

When did Adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ take place for the first time?  And who were the first adorers?  Since Eucharistic Adoration as we know it today didn’t begin until the Middle Ages, many historians would probably say the first instance of men and women adoring the Lord’s Body and Blood took place sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, in a monastery or convent somewhere in Europe.

But they would be wrong—by over a thousand years!  In reality, the very first time people adored the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ was on Christmas Day, in the hours after Jesus was born.  And the first adorers were none other than our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph—who were joined later on by the shepherds we heard about in today’s gospel.  And the adoration they engaged in was, at least in part, nocturnal—something we’re starting here at St. Pius on the first Friday of every month, beginning this Friday.

How timely!

Fr. Dean Perri came up with this insight, and he shared it with me the other day.  And it makes perfect sense, does it not?  In fact, isn’t this how we portray Mary and Joseph and the shepherds in many of our crèche scenes (like the one we have here at St. Pius)?  Jesus is there in the manger and his mother and foster father are kneeling beside him, their heads bowed in prayer.  Some of the shepherds are usually portrayed in that same pose. 

They’re all adoring the Son of God, the Savior, who has just been born into the world.

So here’s a way that we can all imitate our Blessed Mother, whom we honor in the Church on this New Year’s Day: We can resolve to make Adoration a part of our life (if it’s not already).  And we can begin this Friday, by coming here to church to spend some time (an hour if possible) in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, which will be exposed in the monstrance on the altar from 8pm until the Saturday morning Mass, which will begin at 8am.  We have all the hours covered by at least one person; so if you didn’t sign up for an hour already you can come anytime during that 12 hour period.

What do you do during Adoration—besides praise and adore Jesus (which would certainly be enough!)?  But what else can you do?  Actually, you can do many things.  I made a list the other day of some possibilities:

  • ·         You can read the Bible (which, generally speaking, Catholics need to do more often).   My suggestion is to start with the New Testament; it’s easier to understand.
  • ·         You can pray a Rosary
  • ·       You can tell your problems to the Lord, and then try to listen for his response—which   might come in a Scripture passage you read.
  • ·         You can pray the Liturgy of the Hours or some devotional prayers.
  • ·       You can intercede for all the people you’ve promised to pray for, or who’ve asked for   your prayers.
  • ·         You can read a spiritual book that will help you to grow stronger in your faith.
  • ·     You can reflect on your life and try to discern God’s will on some personal matter.  (That’s a very important thing to do in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.)

Or you can just sit quietly in the presence of your Lord and Savior and try to open your heart to his grace.  This is something my grandfather, Nick Suriani, used to do.  My grandparents’ house was located directly in back of Holy Angels Church in Barrington, and my grandfather would often walk over during the day and make visits to the Blessed Sacrament.  Well one afternoon Fr. Giudice happened to meet my grandfather as he was making one of his many visits, and he asked him, “Nick, what do you do when you come here to church during the day?”

My grandfather said, “I sit here and look at God, and God looks back at me.”

Contemplative saints like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila couldn’t have said it any better!

My grandfather found strength in Adoration—which definitely helped him to deal with the crosses he experienced in his life, especially the deaths of three of his four children.  Both my grandparents lived well into their nineties, but they lost three children to cancer before the age of 60—including my father, who died at the age of 46.

Adoration of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ was good for my grandfather, as it was good for Mary and Joseph, and as it’s been good for millions of other believers throughout the centuries.

May it also be good for us—beginning this Friday.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Holy Family: Three Lives with the Same Center

(Holy Family 2018 (C): This homily was given on December 30, 2018, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Psalm 128:1-5; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:41-52.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2018

I remember hearing a talk back in the mid-1990s by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who at the time was a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  In this talk he outlined what he called, “Satan’s seven-step sexual strategy.”  This was his explanation of how the devil was currently working in the world to destroy families and ultimately the whole human race.  At the time I thought Dr. Kreeft was right on target in his analysis—and 20 years later I still think his insights are valid.  So here’s the strategy:

Step 1—this is the devil’s ultimate goal: winning souls for hell.  Step 2: In order for Satan to win many souls for hell, society must be corrupted.  Step 3: To effectively destroy society, family life must be undermined--because strong families are necessary in order to have strong societies.  Step 4: In order to destroy the family, you must destroy its foundation, which is stable marriage.  Step 5: Marriage is destroyed by loosening its glue, which is sexual fidelity.  Step 6: Fidelity is destroyed by promoting and defending the sexual revolution.  Step 7: The sexual revolution is promoted and defended by the media--through which the seeds of destruction are sown into the minds of millions of people every day.

Now I wish I could stand here and tell you that Satan’s strategy has failed miserably in the two decades since Dr. Kreeft gave this talk—but I can’t do that.  That would be a lie.  Tragically, the devil has been incredibly successful.  For example, I don’t think Dr. Kreeft could even have imagined in the mid-90s that for a large segment of our society in 2018 words like marriage and gender and family no longer mean what they’ve meant for thousands of years.

Confusion is a very effective tool of the devil (Dr. Kreeft makes that clear in his seven steps) and right now confusion reigns in our culture.  What, for example, do you call a transgendered person?  Which name do you use?  What do you put on an application form in the space where you’re asked to give your “sex”?  If you’re conceived through IVF, who are your parents?  Is it the sperm donor?  Is it the surrogate?  Is it the man and woman you live with?  Is it the scientist who fertilized the egg in the petri dish?  Is it some of these people, or is it all of these people?  In one way or another, are they all your parents?

We are so confused!  However we need to be clear about it: the confusion is not from God!

Thankfully those of us who are Catholic don’t have to live in this confusion—if we center our lives on God and his revealed truth.  Which is one of the great lessons we learn from the Holy Family!  Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived lives of (to quote today’s second reading) “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  They weren’t confused about right and wrong the way people today are.  That’s because they all had God and his truth at the center of their lives.  Their common ambition was to serve the Lord and do his will.

They had problems like we all do.  They faced tense situations in their family, as every family does.  We heard about one of those situations in today’s gospel reading from Luke 2.  But the fact that God and his truth were at the center of things made a huge difference in how they dealt with these challenging situations.

Notice, for example, what happened when Mary and Joseph finally found Jesus after searching for him for three days.  Mary said to our Lord, “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”  Jesus responded, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Now, did you notice something missing from that exchange?  I did—anger!  There was no anger in Mary’s question; there was no anger in Jesus’ answer.  And also note: after Jesus said that he had to be in his Father’s house, the conversation ended.  There’s no record of anything else being said.  I think there’s a reason for that: Even though Mary and Joseph didn’t fully understand our Lord’s response, it was enough for them to know that he was serving the heavenly Father.

He did what he did to serve God the Father, and that was a sufficient explanation for Mary and Joseph.  It was sufficient because they had the very same desire in their hearts!  Their lives were also centered on doing God’s will.  And so a scene, which could have been very ugly, wasn't.  The harmony of the Holy Family was not disrupted, although it very easily could have been.

And here's where we see the application to our families.  The three members of the Holy Family shared a common commitment to God, and that's why they had peace and harmony in their relationships—even in difficult and stressful situations.  They had a common center to their lives, and everything else revolved around that common focus.  In today's families, unfortunately, God is not always the common focal point.  Dad's life might be centered on work, mom's might be as well.  One child's life might be centered on sports; another child's life might be centered on music; another child's life might be centered on something else.  That is definitely not the formula for peace in a household—and for avoiding the mental and moral confusion that’s now rampant in our culture.  Rather, it’s the formula for alienation and more confusion. 

So today we all need to ask ourselves: what (or who) really is at the center of my life?  And if we discover that what’s at the center right now is not God and his truth, then we need to make a change--for our own sake, certainly, but also for the sake of our family.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

There Was No Room in the Inn

(Christmas 2018: This homily was given on December 25, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96:1-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christmas 2018]

Bishop Fulton Sheen once wrote the following: “When finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last word of time, the saddest line of all will be, ‘There was no room in the inn.’”

There was no room in the inn.

We don’t know who the innkeeper was on that first Christmas Eve in Bethlehem some 2,000+ years ago.  The Bible doesn’t tell us.  He will remain forever nameless.

But Bishop Sheen was right in what he implied about this man.  The innkeeper of Bethlehem really is one of the most tragic figures in human history—not because he did anything openly malicious or hateful or devious, but simply because he missed out on a tremendous opportunity.  He turned away the Son of God, and so he missed out on the chance to have his life changed forever.  He missed out on the opportunity to discover who God really is, and the power of God’s love.  He missed out on the opportunity to discover the meaning and purpose of life.  He missed out on the opportunity to experience a joy and peace that no amount of money can buy. 

He missed out on all that—and a lot more!—because in effect he said to Jesus, “I’m sorry, but there’s no room for you tonight in my inn.”

Now I’m sure this innkeeper had his reasons for responding to Jesus, Mary and Joseph as he did.  Maybe he was just too busy.  The Bible makes it clear that business was quite good that December night in Bethlehem.  Lots and lots of people were pouring into the town for the census Caesar Augustus had ordered.  Maybe he just figured he didn’t have time to be bothered with this pregnant woman and her husband.  After all, he probably already had a pretty hectic schedule: beds to make, food to prepare, linens to wash, people to get settled in their rooms.  In his mind it might have required too much effort to take care of these ragged looking strangers from Nazareth who were standing in his doorway.

Or perhaps he was overly concerned with what he was going to get out of it financially—and even more importantly what he might not get out of it financially.  Joseph and Mary, after all, were definitely not the King and Queen of Sheba!  They were poor people—the Scriptures make that fact crystal clear.  I’m sure the innkeeper realized that the first moment he laid eyes on them.  So he knew they definitely were not going to be big tippers!  And he might even have wondered about their honesty—about whether or not they would pay their bill once their stay was over.

Or maybe it was just a case of fear—deep fear.  Remember, in front of his eyes this innkeeper saw a woman about to give birth to a child.  Babies, as you parents know all too well, tend to be noisy—especially when they’re hungry.  And newborn infants tend to be hungry a lot!

Perhaps this innkeeper was afraid that this baby would disturb his other guests, which of course would have been bad for his business—especially his future business.

Now you might say, “Well, this all very nice, Fr. Ray, but what does all of this have to do with me and my life in 2018?”

The answer is, “Quite a lot!”  You see, whether we’re aware of it or not, each and every one of us is, in a certain sense, an “innkeeper.”  And in our lives we constantly face the same decision that the innkeeper of Bethlehem faced on that first Christmas Eve.  Inside of us we have a kind of “inn,” and that inn is called a soul.  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, desires very much to come into our “inns” and to do for us what he wanted to do for the innkeeper of Bethlehem: he wants to change our lives; he wants to help us know and experience God and his love as we never have before; he wants to help us discover the meaning and purpose of life; he wants to give us a joy and a peace that is beyond all human understanding. 

But the thing is, we have to let him in!  And that’s where we can so often fail—because we’re sinners.  So very often we can say (especially by our actions), “Sorry, Jesus, but there’s no room for you today in my inn.”  Those of you who are Catholic, for example, say this to the Lord every Sunday and holy day that you fail to attend Mass!  And isn’t it interesting, the excuses people tend to use for missing Mass are the very same ones that the innkeeper of Bethlehem might have used on the first Christmas Eve: “I don’t have time”; “I’m too busy”; “I have a hectic schedule”; “I have too many other things to do”.

But even those of us who are faithful to Mass are guilty of turning Jesus away from our “inns”.  That happens whenever we give in to fear and sin.  Earlier I said that the innkeeper of Bethlehem might have turned Jesus away because he was afraid.  He was afraid that our Lord would drive all his other guests out.  Well, that same kind of fear can very easily come into our hearts, even if we already have some level of commitment to the Lord.  You see, there are certain guests (besides Jesus) that are always trying to take up residence within us: guests like hatred, lust, anger, greed, selfishness, bitterness and pride.  When Jesus begins to come in, those other guests have to begin to pack their bags and get out.

Now that’s a good thing, but it’s a good thing that can actually fill us with fear, because the truth is that deep down inside we might like some of those other guests!  There are moments when we may enjoy being selfish or greedy or lustful or prideful.  And so we might be afraid that if we let Jesus in, we’ll have to give up too much, or we’ll lose some of our friends, or we won’t have fun anymore.

In short, we might be afraid that Jesus will come into our “inn” and change us too much!

The Lord says to each and every one of us on this Christmas Day, “Do not be afraid.  I love you.  I know what’s best for you.  Let me do for you what I could not do for the innkeeper of Bethlehem.  Let me give you a new peace, a new joy, a new direction in your life.  I came to this earth so that you might have the fullness of life.  Open up your heart to me today and begin to receive it.”