Monday, December 19, 2011

Hail Mary, Full of Grace; Hail Mary, Full of Questions

4th Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation
December 19, 2011

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
28 And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 35 And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 37 for nothing will be impossible for God.” 38 Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26–38 (NAB)

The crowd is packed that evening on a winter’s night in 1975 on the Hudson River in New York, and thousands of cadets enter the auditorium from the cold outside, adding their grey uniforms to the depressingly grey clouds and cold night sky that is West Point in early January. They have been commanded to attend a lecture that evening, but it is from no military historian, politician, or even their commander-in-chief. Tonight they will hear from a very old Archbishop who in 4 years, at age 84, will be dead.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen walks slowly to the podium, not weak with years, but thoughtfully and carefully scanning the audience, smiling brightly, as if nothing he could do, no where he could be, or nothing he could say to anyone in the world was more important that what he would say to those cadets that evening. He wears the bright red colors of an archbishop, and even to a room used to regalia and a sense of formal parade dress, he is spectacular in appearance.

Halfway up in the crowd of grey uniforms, a slightly jaded ex-Catholic, with little use for religion in general and Catholicism in particular, sits in frustration. Yet another boring presentation by some old guy, and even worse, some old religious guy.

But this speaker is different.

Starting strong and getting stronger, Fulton Sheen speaks for over an hour without notes, and no one notices the time. Even the jaded cadet from Virginia is engaged. He hears Sheen say words that will be remembered, words about Christ, and words about the mother of Christ, Mary.
“There is, actually, only one person in all humanity of whom God has one picture and in whom there is a perfect conformity between what He wanted her to be and what she is, and that is His Own Mother. Most of us are a minus sign, in the sense that we do not fulfill the high hopes the Heavenly Father has for us. But Mary is the equal sign. The Ideal that God had of her, that she is, and in the flesh. The model and the copy are perfect; she is all that was foreseen, planned, and dreamed. The melody of her life is played just as it was written. Mary was thought, conceived, and planned as the equal sign between ideal and history, thought and reality, hope and realization.

"She is the one whom every man loves when he loves a woman—whether he knows it or not. She is what every woman wants to be when she looks at herself. She is the woman whom every man marries in ideal when he takes a spouse; she is hidden as an ideal in the discontent of every woman with the carnal aggressiveness of man; she is the secret desire every woman has to be honored and fostered; she is the way every woman wants to command respect and love because of the beauty of her goodness of body and soul. And this Dream Woman, blessed above all women, is the one of whom every heart can say in its depth of depths: "She is the woman I love!"
Sheen went on to a formal reception that night, and I went back to my barracks. But I never forgot what the old Archbishop said that evening, and it has helped me to understand more about Mary than I could ever imagine.
The Blessed Virgin, The Mother of God, theotokos, immaculately conceived, highly favored, blessed above all women.

Today we celebrate the 4th Sunday of Advent, and with it, the Annunciation to Mary.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
And they say that’s only a Catholic prayer.

Seriously, we Christians often don’t know what to do with Mary. While there are extremes of Marian devotion—I like to call them “Marian deviation”—that have been clearly and rightly condemned by the Catholic Church—everything from the appearances of Mary in Poppa John’s pizza in Glendale Arizona—I mean really, Poppa John’s? I would have thought at least Domino’s, since the founder, tom Monoghan, is a Catholic…to the absurd, where you have the picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a gang tattoo, plastered on Mexican billboards like the Golden Arches or the Coke logo—it’s just ludicrous.
On the other hand, some of my brothers are comfortable with a “Hail Mary” only in the fourth quarter of a Bronco’s game—which may be necessary today. They would name their church building St. Anything…rather than name it after Mary, named by the very Bible they claim is their standard, as blessed among all women.

So can we reject the extremes on both edges, and settle down to understand Mary…an unmistakeably human being unarguably touched by the Divine?

The short minutes we have today do not allow a deeper examination—into both Scripture and tradition, to inspired words and correct church teaching—to comprehend more fully these truths. I will leave you with two things about Mary on this third Sunday of Advent, but you have a lifetime to sort them out in your own heart, and apply them to your own lives.

1) Hail Mary, Full of Grace

In our gospel reading today, let’s listen to how the angel greets Mary. In the New American Bible, we read Gabriel say, Luke 1:8-30 “And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

The Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures reads “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”; this is not simply a Catholic translation….in fact, going into the original Greek will reveal far more about the praise that Gabriel has for Mary.

He says in the original khaire kekaritomene χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη—rejoice, the one having been favored. Not “about to get favored”, or “getting favored now”, but already having been favored. It is a pluperfect of state. When did she receive this, but if not in her birth, by divine grace. My Protestant brothers, long afraid of Mary, should open up their Bibles and understand who Mary is Biblically, she is the one FULL OF GRACE. Filled by God, Blessed among all women.   Her divine fiat—her yes to God—is but a continuation of her life of complete obedience to the Father. Answer the question—when was she filled with this grace? I think you will learn why she is favored among all women. She later says, “I am the doulous –the handmaid—of the Lord”

2) Hail Mary, Full of Questions

We understand as we read this that Mary’s was not the obedience of an automaton; like Eve, she possessed complete Free Will without any stain of sin, she was highly favored, but she did question.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And later in verse 34, she said to the angel “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”  

Here we find in the Blessed Mother,  not only the one greatly favored, but the questioning Mary. Here we see that for the first Advent, it was for Mary one of unanswered questions, ones whose answers were not clear, ones that were certainly terrifying, ones that took a lifetime for her to ponder in her heart, questions where only faith can fill in the unanswered.

Her response?

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
In Mary’s response, we can see that it’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to have questions. It’s okay to think that God owes us more of an explanation that He has provided thus far. To paraphrase the immortal Cuban philosopher, Ricky Ricardo, "God, you gots some 'splaining to do!"

It's okay to have the questions, sometimes if that's the only thing we truly own. In fact, with time, the questions can even become our guideposts even if they will never be our friends.

Rainer Rilke, the German Poet, wrote
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Advent is a joyous time, it is a time of great revealing, of great hope, of realization that God continues to reveal Himself, and we treasure ways in which we come to see His son more clearly. I wish that for you this season.

Christmas is next Sunday. Come to Mass. Bring everyone you know. Bring everyone you don’t know.
Come next week in anticipation. Come next week in hope. Come next week in joyful song. Come to see God made flesh, come to see our Savior, who is born in David’s city. Come to join of throng in praise. Come before Santa and presents and too much food and turkey-induced comas attack. Come to Christ, come to Christmas!

But it’s also okay to come next week with our unresolved questions, with our nagging, crippling fears, with things uncertain—and with little hope that answers will ever be found.

Come anyway!

Come especially! Take your place right by me…cause we all have those questions.

It’s okay to come to the manger, to come to the table, with questions like Mary—“how can this be”? and know that there are no easy answers.·    
  • No easy answers for loved ones lost and never returning to this world.
  • No easy answers as to why our spouses and friends are deployed on faraway foreign sands.
  • No easy answers for those who have lost jobs and are losing hope.
  • No easy theology to explain the gut-wrenching destruction of divorce.
But come…come with whatever faith you have…and muster the courage and the fortitude to say with Mary,

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.

Know that God is as please with your “may it be to me according to your Word” as He is with Blessed Mary.

--and She is proud of you, too (whether you believe in her or not!)

As you peer into the manger this Christmas, like Mary, make the faith-filled decision to bring your questions as well as whatever faith you can find. In God made flesh, in God with us—the Hebrew immanu-el—we will find that’s everything is all right.

May it be done to me according to your Word.” 

Surely, that will be enough.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Feast of the Blessed John Paul II: October 23, 2011

Bishop Sheridan established October 23rd, 2011, the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time and the day following John Paul’s feast day, as the day for the liturgical celebration in this diocese.  We also continue in our thoughts on Stewardship, and look at commitment and love in this context. Certainly, there is no greater example of a human being who lived out these virtues of commitment and love in front of the world than in the Blessed John Paul II.

He visited 116 countries, promoting church teaching on personal behavior and public morality and condemning what he said was a decline of spiritual values brought about by the rising materialism of the twentieth century. The most traveled pope in history was also the first non-Italian to lead the church in more than four and a-half centuries.

Born in Poland, he secretly trained for the priesthood under Nazi occupation, lived under Communism, and was recognized by secular historians, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as having greatly contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain by denouncing the oppression of Christians. John Paul II unequivocally opposed pre- and extra-marital sex, homosexuality, abortion, and the use of contraception.

A priest nearly all his adult life, John Paul had a remarkably varied resume. As a young man, he worked in a quarry for a chemical company and was a playwright and actor. A pope who had been a manual laborer was a change of pace for the Catholic Church, as was his love of soccer, swimming, canoeing and skiing, pastimes shelved as he stepped into the limelight at the Vatican, but characteristics which endeared him to many, making him seem more like a man of the people. He loved to sing. Once he said, “I have a sweet tooth for song and music. This is my Polish sin.”

John Paul was the first pope to humbly and publicly ask forgiveness for the Church's past sins. As Pope, he officially made public apologies for over 100 of these wrongdoings, including:

· The legal process on the Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo, himself a devout Catholic, around 1633.
· Catholics' involvement with the African slave trade.
· The Church Hierarchy's role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation.
· The injustices committed against women, the violation of women's rights and for the historical denigration of women.
· The inactivity and relative silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust.

We celebrate today the life of a man who lived in commitment to Christ and His church, and whose sacrifice and dedication—of his mind, his talents, his heart, and his comforts—literally changed the world around him, which led Pope Benedict XVI to beatify him in a ceremony attended by 1.5 million people, including our own pastor Fr. Andzrej.  John Paul II preserved the unity of the Catholic Church at a moment when it seemed likely to fracture.

I was a schoolboy during the years before John Paul II’s predecessor; what I remember from the time was a sense that the boundaries of Catholicism were being stretched until they seemed likely to snap. The Catholic Church in the 1970s had something of the flavor of the Anglican and Episcopal churches today. American and European theologians were hurling fundamental assaults on Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Christ in communion, the sacramental priesthood and many other doctrines. As a high schooler needing some guidance and clear teaching, I remember watching a US priest in my parish drive a VW beetle automobile up the main aisle on Easter Sunday, dressed in a bunny suit….anything for attention, except adherence to the Scriptures. I did not need entertainment; I needed someone to preach with conviction.

John Paul II used the power of the papal office to settle debates over these matters, and keep the church focused on her mission. What we were witnessing was the leader of a worldwide religion using his teaching authority to declare that the Church believed X and not Y. No religion can survive without such boundaries, wherever they are drawn—and we see that happening with the failure of mainstream Protestantism today. The Church in the past settled debate over the divine nature of Christ; John Paul ruled that the Church did not have the power to ordain women now or ever – and, in issuing this ruling, put the prospect of women priests beyond the boundaries of Roman Catholicism, just as anything less than the Real Presence of Christ in Holy communion is firmly outside authentic Catholic teaching. The Church became a more peaceful place as a result.

These are just a few examples; there are other instances of boundary-drawing which kept in what other Catholics were trying to throw out, such as traditional devotion to the Virgin Mary, which was marginalized after the Second Vatican Council but, thanks to Mary's devoted servant John Paul II, is now firmly back in the mainstream.

Karol Votiwa was a man of formidable intellect. His central achievement was to spell out what Catholics believe and what they do not, something that was by no means clear when he took office.

Paul writes to Timothy in our second reading today in prophetic predictions of the times that Blessed John Paul II lived, and the times in which we live.
1I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power:  2 proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

Paul tells Timothy what to focus upon…preaching the Word. Timothy, don’t lose your focus, don’t lose you way, don’t descend into entertainment or cutesy stories—you preach the word! We know that Blessed John Paul II was a man of the Word of God. Paul tells Timothy, “you preach when it’s convenient, and you preach it when it’s not” (not sure when it’s ever convenient, but I know when it’s not).

--it’s not convenient when it challenges our beliefs
--it’s not convenient when it challenges us to give more, to sacrifice more, to love more, to get outside our comfort zone, to really love our spouses
--it’s not convenient when it challenges us to change the way we think about being a Christian
--it’s not convenient when it does against everything that everyone else believes
--and I know it’s not convenient when the homily runs longer than 10 minutes!

3 For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires, will accumulate teachers 4 and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.

Blessed John Paul II encountered a post-modern world that no longer tolerated sound doctrine, a relativistic world that as a result of the Enlightenment no longer saw the Bible as the inspired word of God, no longer saw sexual morality as ordained and defined by God. Out of selfishness, self-centeredness, and pride, they gathered more and more religious teachers who just told people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. Paul wrote to Timothy—you keep preaching the Word, don’t get sidetracked. Blessed John Paul II took every Wednesday for several years and gave us his Theology of the Body, one of the greatest gifts to the Church—insights into the way we should treat our bodies, how we should live sexually. Pope John Paul II confronted the culture of death—of euthanasia and sterilization and abortion—and he was a prophetic voice of warning. And decades later after Roe v. Wade and forced government sterilization programs around the world, euthanasia policies increasingly being adopted around the world and even embraced in our own nation, the myth that we live in a world that cannot sustain itself, that we need to stop having children—and today we confront a Western Europe who can no longer replace its population and so is importing a lower, resentful, servile class from the third world which is destroying the Western democratic tradition, a Japan growing weaker because it has fewer and fewer youth, and an America that has lost 33 million of its unborn citizens—33 million—and we wonder how prophetic indeed was the blessed John Paul’s voice.

Today we face the same challenge—people want to have something less than the Word of God as their authority. They want an ambo filled with cutesy stories and happy talk; they want to feel that everything is ok, and that nothing is really wrong with our world. They want entertainment, they want laughter, they want a version of Christianity that does not challenge them to do better.

5 But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.

Today, we are called, like Timothy, like Paul, like Blessed John Paul II, to take up again a stewardship of commitment, of sacrifice. We will be defined by what we believe in, by Who we follow, and by what it costs us. Paul told Timothy to preach the Word, to correct, to rebuke, to encourage…and Blessed John Paul II did just that. John Paul II had the wonderful gift of balancing correction with encouragement, of speaking powerfully against sin, but all the while showing great love and joy. He corrected with the power of Jeremiah or Ezekiel, but he encouraged and he loved, just as Jesus lovingly reinstated Peter in our gospel reading this morning. “Peter, feed my sheep!””Peter, I know you’ve betrayed me, I know you’ve denied me—not to the Roman or Jewish authorities on the witness stand, but to a servant girl in a courtyard.” “Peter, I still love you, I still believe in you, and I have the greatest mission in the world for you—you are going to feed my sheep.” Remember what Blessed John Paul II told us:

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

John Paul got Paul’s admonition to Timothy right. Correct, rebuke, encourage. He corrected people. When he faced down a hedonistic society, when he challenged liberation theology and called it incorrect. He spoke boldly when he said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

He rebuked the culture of death in this world, and he spoke boldly to people who did not believe him when he said, “From now on it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive.” If our world is to survive, it will be as he predicted—only through a conscious, deliberate, pro-life foundation.

He preached, he rebuked, he corrected…but his was also the role of encourager. He en-couraged—he put courage back into—the wavering church. He built back up our faith when he said “Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.”

May we be stewards of the graces of Christ, may we follow the virtue and exemplar of the saints in our world, and may we reverence the memory of the Blessed John Paul II.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Be Real: The Parable of the Two Sons

28 “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’29 He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. 30 The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21:28–32 (NAB)

The first and most important requirement before God is to be real. It is more important to BE real than to TALK about being righteous. 

Talk is cheap. This also reminds me of a story, one I am sure you have all heard. If you do, just admire the way I tell it!

There was this game warden who was trying to catch a guy in the act of poaching.  This poacher always had a limit of fish and the warden was suspicious of how he was “catching” them, but whatever he did he could not catch him in the act.  One day the guy invited the warden to go fishing with him.  Of course, the warden thought that was a great idea as he might be able to figure out what the guy was doing if he went fishing with him.  The warden met the guy at the boat ramp, jumped in his boat with him and headed to the fishing spot.  The warden thought it was strange that there was nothing but a cooler in the boat, no fishing poles, no tackle box, no bait, nothing.  When they got to the fishing spot the poacher opens up the cooler, takes out a stick of dynamite, lights it and throws it in the water.  BOOM!  Dead fish.  The warden starts spitting and sputtering and telling the guy he cannot do that.  The poacher opens up the cooler, takes out another stick of dynamite, lights it and hands it to the warden.  The warden is sitting there holding a stick of dynamite with the fuse burning and wondering what to do when the poacher looks at him and asks, “So what are you going to do?  Are you going to talk or are you going to fish?”

So talk is cheap…in fishing, and at the vineyard.

Lou Holtz, the famous former coach of Notre Dame, once said, “when all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Someone else said, “Talk is cheap - except when Congress does it.”

I’m not sure if it was Plato or Rodney Dangerfield who said “Anybody who thinks talk is cheap should get some legal advice.”

When he was president, Calvin Coolidge was known for his reluctance to make big speeches.  A woman bet her friend that she could get Coolidge to speak to her, which was something he was reluctant to do.  She went up to him and said: "Hello, Mr. President, I bet my friend that I could get you to say three words to me."  "You lose," Coolidge replied dryly, and walked away.

In our story today, “which one”, Jesus asks, “did the will of his father?” The answer is one that the Pharisees cannot wriggle out of. The answer is obvious – the first son. Even though he initially said “no,” he later regretted his refusal, and he entered the vineyard. But, the second son, though his words were “yes,” his actions were “no.” Jesus inquired who DID the father’s will, not who SAID he was going to do it.

So, the Pharisees give the only answer that is possible: they admit that the first son was the one who did the Father’s will. And then, Jesus clobbers them.

“Tax collectors and prostitutes will go (literally, prosagoge “they are already entering”) into the Kingdom of Heaven before you.” Why? Well, they are like the first son – their words and deeds say NO to God’s will, but when John comes preaching, they repent. The Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, they’re always insisting that they were serving God. And, to make matters worse, when they see those whom they think are the worst of sinners repenting at the preaching of John the Baptist – they STILL won’t repent themselves.

Let’s look at these two sons…we are in this story somewhere.

Dad says, “it’s time for chores.” First son says , “I will not”.
I don't know about you, but when I was growing up, that was not one of the options I had with my dad. This answer is rude, curt, and disrespectful, such a one as would naturally issue from the lips of a person who was selfishly wrapped in his own pleasures, and caring nothing for the Father, who in this parable stands for God. But he repents. Repentance always precedes the doing of the will of God. The bold, self-willed rebel is the first son to yield and obey.

Maybe we have loved ones who have refused to obey God, or who have left the faith. Don’t despair for the restoration of the disobedient—maybe there is a son or daughter who has boldly left the faith, and don’t give up hope for the conversion of the defiant skeptic. I would much rather talk to a skeptic or an atheist or someone who has left their faith than a person who has just enough religion to know how to talk about it, but not live it.
This first son changes his mind, literally, he repented, and went” ; i.e. into the vineyard to work. The worst sinners, when converted, often make great saints.

The first prerequisite is to be real. Before anything else, live out what you believe. Life is too short for pretending—either pretending to be a Christian, or pretending to not be a believer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes we think we need to be a wretched sinner to really have a conversion. Not everyone is going to be St. Augustine. I think of some cradle Christians, and how they are a powerful example
In 2 Timothy 3:14–17 (NAB), we read14 But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, 15 and that from infancy you have known (the) sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

We can grow up grateful, we don’t have to fall into great sin to have great my daddy said, “you don’t have to go to Hell to preach on it.”

The second son said "I go, sir," and did not go. In the final analysis, all who ‘don’t go’ at God’s command into the field of service for Him are disobedient and rebellious, no matter how nicely they may talk about “the Lord’s work.” Talking about church and religion is not working for God any more than talking about wine is the same as gathering grapes.

Matthew 7 says, Not every one that says, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom, but only he who does the will of My Father.

Ver. 30.— “I go, sir”, Ἐγὼ, κύριε: Eo, domine, literally, "I go, Lord." This son is outwardly respectful and dutiful; his answer is in marked contrast to the rough “I will not” of his brother. He has the words down. "I go, sir." Do your kids ever say that, except when they want the car keys" If I ever said that to my dad, he would wonder what I was up to.

At the end of the day who talked, and who picked grapes? Who made a difference, who just sounded good at the beginning, in the meeting in the morning in front of the other brother and the father?

The last implication for us from Jesus’ parable I want to mention is this: it is always the right time to repent. Because God is patient, because he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, he waits. And that means for you, if you have let your mouth make promises to God that your life is not keeping, the time to repent is today. That’s why the scriptures teach “today is the day of salvation.”

God grant that we may be like those tax collectors and prostitutes who hear the Word of God and repent.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sky Full of Holes: The Parables of 9/11

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'  Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” Matthew 18:21–35 (NAB)

It is fitting that the readings today occur on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our nation remembers the deaths at New York City’s World Trade Center terrorist attacks that left 2,606 people dead; from the crash of American Airlines flight 11, which killed 87; from United Airlines flight 175, which took the lives of 60; from the crash at Pentagon, which claimed 125 souls; from American Airlines flight 77, which saw 59 others lose their lives, and from the crash of United Fight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, which killed 40 others. A total of 2,977 died that day, not counting the 19 hijackers who also perished.

Placed before the altar today is a New York City fireman’s helmet, given me by my uncle George; although he was not one of the 343 fireman killed in the 9/11 attacks that day, because of his rescue work and clean-up participation at Ground Zero in the days and months ensuing, he would later die of respiratory failure. Along with cousins and uncles who are or were NYC fireman and policeman on that day, he and they are special heroes to me. 

There are no words I can offer, and nothing could ever match the heroism and service of these brave souls; nothing said that would further hallow the heroism of those who sacrificed, on that fateful day or later on foreign sands as we struck back to protect our nation from the further onslaught of terror; only borrowed words can bring remembrance and honor also to those who daily provide security and emergency response in our cities, states, and for our nation. Their sacrifices, and those of their families, can never be calculated by others, and can barely be understood. We can but only say “thank you” in appreciation for their incalculable sacrifices.

Good fortune and an opportunity by my employer allowed me to work a bit with the Wounded Warrior Project at Fort Carson, tutoring our wounded warriors in technology. Far exceeding any slight service I could offer them, they have provided me the clearest insight into the horrific costs of armed conflict, the terrible price often demanded for the freedoms and liberties we enjoy, the ennobling faith that these men and women have in our nation, and our commitment to pay any price to see that they receive every opportunity at training and a career when they return to civilian life. Last year we lost more of our armed forces to suicide than from combat wounds; surely they deserve our prayers and encouragement at every turn.     

It is for those far wiser to offer insights and lessons about the meaning of 9/11, and no doubt on this weekend we will also have our own private reflections. I am reminded of a reality all recognized that terrible day—that it was love that caused those firefighters and rescue workers to race into burning buildings to rescue others. “That’s what we do,” my uncle said, but he really meant, “that’s who we are.” “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friends”, were the words of the Master in the Upper Room, and it was that same greater, higher love that lifted those heroes up flights of stairs into those “upper rooms” of the World Trade Center that day as well.

In the horrors of New York, Arlington, and Shanksville, it was as if God was giving us a living parable—God as the loving First Responder. God like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone—and only God knowing that a sacrifice for the rescued will soon be paid in death and blood. That's how much God loves us. He knows that hatred and intolerance will always destroy; He knows that human sin will always devastate ourselves and others; yet we are not left alone in the crumbling towers of our own self-destroying sins and weaknesses. The Word becomes flesh not only in Bethlehem’s manger, not only on Golgotha’s hill, not only—if we find faith—at Ground Zero’s utter senseless devastation—but God is there to provide hope, salvation, comfort, and forgiveness in our lives as well. He can become flesh in our flesh through our conversion, through the sacraments, and through His many untold graces. And He can become real as we forgive.

Which brings us to our second lesson this morning, one drawn from Jesus’ parable about the one forgiven who could not forgive.  The Apostle Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive seven times (a biblical number for perfection); Jesus responds by multiplying that number by orders of magnitude. Jesus’ response, “Seventy times seven”, is not a finite limit, either; the forgiveness we extend to others should reflect the extent to which we have been forgiven by our Master. Oftentimes we would rather preserve our grievance than seek to forgive, and yet in Jesus’ words we see that forgiveness needs to issue forth from the one sinned against even before the one who sins ever realizes the magnitude of the offense. It is how we can forgive the absolutely unforgivable, as we can pray the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Those who offend may never come to their senses and realize what they have done, but there is remaining the danger that if we hold on to an offense against us it will fester and grow by our failure to release it in forgiveness and by endlessly recounting it to others.

In this parable of Jesus, we should not try to tease out a neat solution for reconciliation and forgiveness in every situation; we should not infer that in cycles of domestic violence or sexual abuse forgiveness without repentance and the creation of safety is acceptable. These are complex matters that cannot be reduced to a single simple formula or parable. Jesus does teach here that there should be no limit to the number of times one must try to forgive. In our lifetimes this means there will be endless hurts that require endless offers of forgiveness and endless acts of repentance. We must always be ready to do the difficult work of repairing and reconciling.  

But our cry may still go out, “you don’t understand how much I have been hurt,” and invariably an attempt is then made to further clarify and magnify the offense, the wrongness of the wrong, the hurtfulness of the hurt, the utter sinfulness of the sin. We finally realize that none of this provides lasting comfort, and will absolutely be a cancer upon our spirits.

And so, we must forgive from the heart. On this commemoration of the terrorist attacks ten years ago, we must learn to understand and accept those who are different in their dress, in their skin color, or in their beliefs from us. Sadly, there are those who would condemn all Muslims for the events of 9/11; I would offer to you today that such a prejudice would be like blaming all Catholic clergy, or even all Catholics, for the actions of a few pedophile priests….as we seek to understand, we learn to recognize the evils of overgeneralizing, or of overreacting to violence with more violence.

The experience of 9/11 changed us as a nation. Has it made us more helpful, more willing to lend a hand? Has it given us greater respect for the sacrifices of our first responders and our military?  A visit to Ground Zero a few months after the attacks, late one evening, during a cold and misty February’s rain, gave me a change to weep and sob like I had not been able to previously. This tragedy made me reflect on the precious gift of life, on the tie of relationships, on making every day good in some way and using the opportunities and gifts God pours out upon us. It made me be more conscious of trying “not to sweat the small stuff” as much as I used to. Life is so precious and yet so fragile. A hug, a smile, an embrace, a kind word, a strong or even a gentle handshake –all took on new meaning for me. We never know how long life will be; every time I fly I call my wife before the flight, and after when I land…even on the connecting flights…you just don’t know. It’s also made me try to be swift to reconcile problems.

Perhaps you know someone today whom you have not forgiven. We cannot force reconciliation, we cannot by dint of prayer or ardor of affection cause godly sorrow in the hearts of others, but we can release our feelings of hurt and offense that have us in their death grip this day. I pray you spend time today, spend time soon in the confessional, spend time with that person if you can and if the circumstances allow—if not for their sakes, then for your own.

Some say they saw the face of Hell at Ground Zero, and the face of the devil in the smoke of the wreckage of the Pentagon and in Shanksville. But if we look again with faith’s eye, we also saw the face of God in the people working, caring, sweating, crying, rescuing, recovering and reflecting God’s image and likeness in their very humanness. We made decisions to be united when hatred sought to divide; we would bind up the wounds when others sought our destruction, we would protect and defend when others assumed we were helpless; and finally, we should extend love and forgiveness over life’s comparatively minor hurts and offenses, and in the light of such grave devastation and hatred, we would pray the prayer of Saint Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”