FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME, January 17, 2021:
Jesus asks what is perhaps the most fundamental question of faith in our Gospel today. He says, “What are you looking for?” Of all the things that Jesus says throughout the Gospels, this is the foundational question that every follower of Jesus has got to ask at some point in their journey with the Lord. What are you looking for? It’s a profound question and I think John’s Gospel wants us to hear it that way. John wants that question to hang in the air a bit to let it do its work on us.
And, I think it is given even greater weight in the midst of our world today. In the midst of a global pandemic, in the midst of the anger, violence, and division in our nation, in the midst the challenges facing our economy, and food insecurity, and renewed racism and prejudice – Jesus wants to know, “What are you looking for?” or more directly, why are you here?
There is an interesting, and even humorous, pattern in John’s Gospel. In John, Jesus often makes such deep and profound statements, and those He speaks to just as often miss the point. For example, Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see the kingdom, “you must be born again, from above.” Nicodemus misses the point as he tries to figure out the logistics of being physically reborn, “How can a person once grown old be born again?” he asks. Or when Jesus says to the woman at the well that He can give her living water springing up to eternal life, she responds, “Where are you going to get that water? You don’t even have a bucket!”
Similarly in today’s passage, when Jesus asks the disciples, “What are you looking for?” he’s asking them the deep, profound question of faith. Their response, “Where are you staying?” It reminds me of the early days of St. Francis of Assisi’s conversion. In a spectacular and miraculous moment, Jesus spoke to Francis from the cross in the chapel of San Damiano. Jesus said, “Francis, rebuild my church which you can see has fallen into ruins.” St. Francis physically and literally rebuilt four churches before he realized that Jesus was calling him to lead a renewal of the universal church, a renewal of faith in the people – not become the church’s new contractor.
And as we look at these challenging situations all over our world, and especially here in our nation – mostly by people who call themselves Christians – it can seem like perhaps we too need to refocus ourselves on what it means to be a believer; on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. What are you looking for?
The reality is that it is too easy to miss the incredible experience of the living God that is presented to us over and over. Just think of the Eucharist. This is the most incredible encounter with God possible on Earth. God miraculously transforms mere bread and wine into the real Body and Blood of His Son, and more incredibly invites us into the same transformation by our reception of the Blessed Sacrament. And yet, how often do we come to Mass with eyes that are not fully open to this miracle before us? We come from the busyness of our lives; we come consumed with our cares and concerns; we come with a sort of boredom because even this miracle can become ordinary. And yet, God will come down upon this altar once again today; and He wants to enter our lives once again today. What are you looking for?
Today, Jesus is asking us that critical question once again, “What are you looking for?” Why are you here? Let us not be so dulled to the question; let us not be so engrossed in worldly things that we miss the invitation right in front of us. When Jesus asked the first disciples, “What are you looking for?” it was His way of seeing what they think is important, what matters? Because if they are going to follow Him, they will have to discover what is important to Him. Their response, simply because they don’t seem to grasp His deeper meaning, is to ask, “Where are you staying?” Although they don’t understand the question, it isn’t really a bad answer. It says that they are willing to learn. They are willing to spend time with Jesus. Jesus responds, “Come and see,” and they go stay with him. There they begin learn from Jesus what really matters. They learn what it means to be invited into His kingdom of love, compassion, joy, and forgiveness.
To the question, what are you looking for, there is really only one answer: I’m looking for holiness; I’m looking for peace; I’m looking for unity; I want to be like Jesus – these are all the fruits of the believer. The other things that are so prominent in our world today – anger, violence, and division – these are fruits too, but they are not the fruits of faith; they are the fruits of the Great Deceiver, the Evil One.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday on Monday, it is fitting that we reflect on what his life of faith taught us about what matters. He showed us that what matters is the unity of humanity; what matters is peace, dignity, justice, and love. He said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Dr. King said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” These are the kinds of words that our nation needs to hear now, perhaps more than anytime in our past. Unity, peace, dignity, justice, and love. Perhaps this is what we should be looking for. And these words don’t need to come only from the likes of Dr. King – they should be the words on the lips of every believer – these should be the words that come from you and me because of the One we follow.
So Jesus places the question one more time before us: what are you looking for? If you are looking for a life of meaning; if you want to be part of what heals our nation; if you want to be a beacon of hope, a source of compassion, an instrument of peace – then you can find it and in fact have found right here as God once again reveals Himself to us all. Let God transform you once again by His presence, let God transform you into His presence and then go from this place to live that truth out as a disciple of the Lord.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, January 10, 2021:
I’m going to be very honest with everyone today – I’m struggling with finding the right words to say. We celebrate today the Baptism of the Lord, the end of our Christmas season; normally a moment to beautifully bring to an end our reflection on the birth of Jesus and His early years; to sing once again our Christmas carols before we put them away for another year. But, instead, it is the swirling tides of indignation, anger, resentment, division, violence, and fear in our land that weigh so heavily on my – and I’m sure your – heart today. How did we get here?
We have reached a moment that was previously unthinkable; a moment that is terrible; a global embarrassment; a moment that is the antipathy of the values we hold dear as the great democracy we aspire to be. Or perhaps the events that unfolded this week were predictable if we look at the ever increasing polarization, division, and combativeness of our society over the last several years; maybe this explosion of terror and violence was the unavoidable result of the path we have been on. What we have seen unfold in the span of the last two months in particular has been a nation that has disregarded common decency, rejected mature and civil discourse; thrown aside respect for the dignity proper to every human being no matter their race, creed, or political persuasion. And the result was the violent assault on the heart of our democratic government; an assault that has taken the lives of five fellow citizens.
What are we to do? What can we possibly say in the midst of this? Well, I think that the feast we celebrate today can help us remember who we are and what we are called to be. As always, I believe it is our faith that can help direct us through these dark and murky waters – if we will follow where the Lord leads.
As I mentioned, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus today. Have you ever stopped to ask why Jesus was baptized? Baptism, after all, is for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism places us in relationship with God. Jesus – of all people to ever exist – doesn’t need baptism. We know this. So why would He choose to be baptized?
The best response I have heard to this question comes from Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth . Let me share a bit of what he said. He writes, “The real novelty is the fact that Jesus wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. Baptism was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could even do?”
Jesus doesn’t need the newness of life that we need because of our sin. So, if the baptism of Jesus isn’t about His sin, whose sin is it about? Of course, it is about our sin. Again, the Pope writes, “Looking at [this baptism] in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of [humanity’s] guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross…The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity.”
In other words, as Jesus begins His public ministry, He does so by taking on our sins. It is not on the Cross that Jesus takes on the sins of humanity – it is there that He frees us from them. It is in the waters of the Jordan that Jesus steps into the place of sinners, into our place. In the Jordan, Jesus united Himself with us; and in our own baptism, we are united with Him – so that we can be forgiven, we can be healed, we can be saved. Again, the Pope writes, “To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus' Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising with him. That is the way to become a Christian.”
This is the image that I think can give us some help today. We are meant today, not to reflect only on Jesus’ baptism; we’re called to be reminded of our own and of the divine exchange that took place there – Jesus took on our sins; and we took on His holiness. Jesus made Himself like us; so that we will make ourselves like Him. If this week has shown us anything, it has shown us that we are not living up to our end of that baptismal bargain. What we see in our nation right now – whether in the extreme as insurrectionists tried to overthrow our democratic government; or closer to home as we engage in angry arguments with others in person or online – what we see is a failure to identify our lives with the One who saved us; to identify with the One who stepped into the waters of the Jordan to lift the burden of our sins off of our shoulders and take them onto His own. We’re meant to be like Him because of our baptism.
This week, as these tragedies have unfolded, I keep thinking of the profound words of Abraham Lincoln, our great president who forged unity out of our greatest moment of division. In his first inaugural he reminded us, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
My friends, in the Jordan, Jesus stepped into our place, so that we might be free. We have let Him down and have put on public display how stuck we remain in sin. Today, let us ask Jesus to renew in our hearts; to renew in every heart, the grace of baptism. Jesus has already stepped into our place. We must again be the ones to step into His place and be the ones to bring His peace, His healing, His reconciliation, His compassion into our deeply wounded world. Let us again be touched by the better angels of our nature, let us remember that we are not enemies, and let us pray, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
May the Lord heal our nation; and may He give you peace.
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