32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

I Kings 17:10-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
The French Catholic writer Léon Bloy once said that “there is only one tragedy in life: not to be a saint.” There is a profound difference between being a saint and not being a saint. This distinction might sound obvious. But it’s not as obvious as it seems.
If you were asked, “What is the opposite of hot?”, you would likely answer, “cold.” If asked, “What is the opposite of darkness?,” you would probably answer, “light.” So then, if you were asked, “What is the opposite of a saint?” you might answer, “a sinner”; but if so, you would be wrong.
The opposite of “a saint” is not “a sinner.” In fact, being a sinner is part of the definition of being a saint (for all the saints except Mary, at least). The definition of a saint is: a sinner who perseveres in spite of his sins. On the other hand, a soul who is in hell is: a sinner who has despaired in the face of his sins. So both saints and the damned are sinners: the difference is what choice they make in the light of their sins.
Think of the contrast in Sunday’s Gospel passage between the scribes and the poor widow. What is the difference between them? Think of Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment. We hear of the sheep and the goats being divided. We might think that the sheep – pure and white – represent sinless saints who are escorted to Heaven. On the other hand, we might think that the goats are sinners, darkened by sin, who are dragged down to Hell. But one part of such a picture is false.
The sheep are saints, and they are escorted to Heaven. But they are not saints because they never sinned. They are saints because they persevered in spite of their sins. They are saints because, in the face of their sins, they looked up, and handed over their lives to God.
In other words: the sheep are sinners who turn towards the Shepherd, who washes them clean. The goats are sinners who turn away from the Shepherd. Instead, they turn into themselves. Both the sheep and the goats are sinners. The difference is in whom they turn towards: either outwards and upwards to God, or inwards to themselves.
If we turn inwards – into ourselves – we are not elevated: in fact we are dragged down, and become less than human. The human being is the only earthly creature who can rise above his God-given nature. But he is also the only earthly creature who can sink below his God-given nature.
In pondering all this, we might remember a saying attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo. Whether or not this saying actually comes from him, it reflects his own experiences of deep sinfulness in his fallen self, and profound sanctity in Christ: “There is no saint without a past. There is no sinner without a future.”

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Nov. 4: Deuteronomy 6:2-6, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 12:28-34
During the last Sundays of the church year, which lead up to the feast of Christ the King, conflict comes to forefront. With each of these Sundays, the conflict becomes more pronounced. Finally, Christ the King presents both the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time and his last judgment of mankind.
While you may not face Jesus’ Second Coming while on earth, you will face divine judgment at the end of your earthly life. God will take stock of your life, and judge you by the manner in which your life corresponds to His life. So consider today’s readings.
There’s a strong parallel between the first reading and the Gospel reading. Jesus directly quotes from the first reading and its command to love God. By contrast, the Second Reading – from the Letter to the Hebrews – seems very different.
On the one hand, the command in the First Reading to “love the Lord your God with all your heart … soul … mind, and … strength” seems very calm and peaceful. On the other hand, the Second Reading describes the sacrifice required by God for atonement for sin. It’s easy to see that the Letter to the Hebrews is dealing with conflict. But the first reading and the Gospel reading seem extremely different from the second. Is there any way to bring all three into harmony?
The key might be the refrain from the responsorial psalm. “I love you, Lord, my strength” [Psalm 18:2]. This verse echoes the words Jesus quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy. When the scribe challenges Jesus to identify the prime commandment of God, Jesus quotes the prayer known as the Shema. This prayer, which is important to Jews as the “Our Father” is to Christians, commands you when you pray it to “love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…mind, and…strength.” Strength: there’s the echo of Psalm 18:2. “I love you, Lord, my strength.”
But there’s a significant difference between the two. It’s not that they’re opposed to each other. It’s that one is much bolder and demanding. In the Shema, the believer is commanded this way: “love the Lord your God with…all your strength.” It’s all your strength, without any description of that strength. But the psalmist is more explicit, which makes all the difference in the world (and in the next). The psalmist claims: “I love you, Lord, my strength.” The psalmist declares that his strength is the Lord.
Maybe that seems like splitting hairs. But it’s not. The difference shows up in the lives of Christians all the time: that is, the difference between a Christian who wants to love the Lord only with his own human strength, and the one who wants the Lord to be his strength. This is the difference between merely human strength, and human strength that’s fortified, if you will: shot through with the divine strength of God’s grace.
Even before someone tries to be loving in a specific circumstance, this difference becomes apparent in that same Christian’s petitions to God. Have you ever had the experience of praying to God for the strength – or the wisdom or perseverance – to accomplish some specific goal, only to hear silence from God in response?
“Where is God?” you ask. “Why isn’t God here for me?” If you ever feel like God’s not here for you, and that he’s standing remote and silent over there, at a distance, you might reflect on that distance between here and there. Ask yourself, and then ask God, if maybe he’s wanting you to move from here to there. Maybe where you are, isn’t where God wants you to be. Maybe where you want to be isn’t where God needs you to be in order to extend his love where it’s needed most.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Oct. 28: Jeremiah 31:7-9, Hebrews 5:1-6, Mark 10:46-52
Reflect on how the greatest gift – the strongest virtue – that Jesus offers is the virtue of caritas (sometimes simply called “charity”, or “love”). The Joyful, Luminous and Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary lead to the Glorious Mysteries in the way that the chapters of a novel lead to its climax. So too, the virtues of the Christian life lead to its goal: the divine virtue of caritas; divine charity; divine love: the life of the Trinity who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When Jesus releases Bartimaeus by saying, “Go / your / way,” Bartimaeus follows Jesus on Jesus’ way. In other words, for the person with vision – for the one with insight – the Way of Jesus becomes that person’s own way. There is no other way for us to walk if we want true and lasting happiness. Every other path results in a dead-end, or an endless circle going nowhere.
So how do we travel this Way of Jesus? By a wheel. Picture a wheel, and use this image to sum up how the Christian virtues work in concert inside the healthy Christian soul.
The first virtue is humility, which is like the center of the wheel. Humility is the mother of the other virtues, which radiate out from humility.
Then the virtue of prudence is like the wheel’s axle. In other words, prudence is the “inner ear” of the soul, that helps us to keep our balance and to steer us.
Most of the other virtues are like the wheel’s spokes. Consider courage. Courage flows from humility. By contrast, false courage seeks to dominate and make my ego ever larger. But in Christian humility, I do not worry about my ego. However, this courage still has to be steered and given balance by prudence.
After all, even the martyr has to choose the best time to be courageous: he doesn’t want to be foolhardy, or give up his life for a cause that could be defended more simply.
But what is the goal of this virtue of courage? If the spokes radiate out from humility, and are steered by prudence, where do they radiate out towards? The goal of every virtue is the divine virtue of caritas. Humility leads us to caritas. Prudence leads us to caritas. Courage leads us to caritas.
So in humility, we give up our own self, so that we can be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Jesus is the divine caritas who became flesh and dwelt among us, for us and our salvation. This is what Bartimaeus learns in Sunday’s Gospel.
This is what happens in the life of every blind person, as he gives up his own way through the world, and instead follows Jesus on the Way: the Way that leads to Calvary, and through Calvary into the eternal life of God.
In other words, this divine virtue of caritas is the wheel’s tire. This “final virtue” is where – so to speak – the rubber hits the road, and your Catholic faith is actually lived out in your daily life, manifesting love for both God and neighbor.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Oct. 21: Isaiah 53:10-11, Hebrews 4:14-16, Mark 10:35-45
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews, from which Sunday’s second reading is taken, offers a profound meditation on the meaning that suffering gains through Christ’s Sacrifice on the cross. Here one of the best-known definitions of “courage” is illustrated: “not the absence of fear, but fear that has been prayed over.”
In other words, courage means being willing to bring God into a decision about whether to fight or flee from conflict. Once God shows you whether a conflict demands your involvement, the stakes are raised. Because to abandon a conflict in which God has staked a claim is to abandon God himself.
Three years ago, in a ruling about marriage that will continue to worsen our nation for many years to come, the U.S. Supreme Court doubled down on the principle of moral relativism that it had defined in a 1992 ruling supporting the legality of abortion, claiming that at “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In the face of this sort of claim and the suffering it inevitably causes, you as a Christian have four paths to consider taking. Two are against conflict. The first of these is the path of resignation. Many Christians walk this path saying, “It’s not for me to impose my morality on others.”
A second path leads away from conflict, but into a bunker. Those who choose this path say, “Culture today is going to ‘you know where’ in a hand basket.” They close above them the door to their bunker, and inside they live the faith without passing it on to anyone except perhaps their children, who like them are isolated from others.
In the opposite direction, there are two paths that engage conflict. Each demands its own type of courage. The first is the path of aggression. Its operating theory is that life is a “zero-sum game” that says, “I can’t win unless you lose.” This path requires the courage of the child’s game “King of the Hill.”
The second path that accepts conflict demands the Christian virtue of courage. This is the courage of Christ the King, who did not dominate as king on the hill of Calvary, but sacrificed his life there. The offering of His life was so others could join Him there: not just “us”, but all mankind. That is to say, we fight in defense of objective Truth not to defeat others, but so that they would join in adoring the One who called himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Jesus promises James and John in Sunday’s Gospel passage, “‘The cup that I drink, you will drink’.” Little do the brothers know at this point how much and what sort of courage they will have to bear for these words to be fulfilled. James was martyred for the Truth, while John lived a long life preaching the Truth in word and work, ending his life in exile on the island of Patmos.
No matter how the Lord calls you to spend your days on this earth, courage from the heart of Christ our King will be needed. Simply ask him for this gift then, trusting that in Jesus “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens.”