The Thirty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: A Prelude to a Prelude

6be470fa-e502-4654-af4c-e01711f803f9This Sunday’s readings are like a prelude to a prelude.  What do I mean?  

Let’s get a handle on the prelude to which this Sunday’s readings are a prelude.  Next week is the Sunday of Zacchaeus when the lowly Zacchaeus seeks Jesus’ mercy.  This marks the beginning of the five-week preparation for the Great Fast.  The following Sunday we will hear about the haughty Pharisee who thinks he is too good to need God’s mercy and the lowly Publican who begs God’s mercy.  The following Sunday we will hear the Parable of the Prodigal son who begs his father’s mercy.  That will take us up to Meatfare Sunday when we learn the fate of those who do not follow Jesus’ way of mercy.  Finally, we will find ourselves on the cusp of the Great Fast: Cheesefare Sunday when we will be reminded of the importance of forgiving others.  And as that day draws to a close we begin the Great Fast when we come together as a community to pray Forgiveness Vespers asking God His forgiveness and asking one another forgiveness for the offenses we have committed to one another.  Forgiveness may be the most difficult act of mercy to perform.

That will be our prelude to the Great Fast.  Today may be considered a prelude to the prelude because thereadings we heard are about the mercy of God.

Saint Paul wrote to Saint Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom, he said, he was the greatest.  Saint Paul reasoned that since he was the first among sinners, Jesus displayed all his patience as an example to all who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. Jesus, our Brother, manifests the infinite mercy of the Father.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man who the Evangelist Mark identified as Bartimaeus – was sitting by the roadside begging, and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.  The people in the crowd told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”  He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  He repeated himself once again: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he said, “Lord, please let me see.” The blind Bartimaeus had faith that Jesus could and would heal him.  So Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God.

There is a beauty and simplicity to this story.  We can take away at least three important elements from this event in the public ministry of Jesus:

First, the blind man certainly believed that Jesus was merciful and could make him see.  Second, Jesus healed the blind man in response to the blind man’s plea for mercy.  Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!  Jesus heals those who have faith in him and invite him into their lives.  He is a merciful God to those who actively seek his mercy.   Third, Jesus’ mercy demands a response from the one who is healed.  Bartimaeus’ response to being healed was to follow Jesus, giving glory to God.  Following Jesusdoes not mean that Bartimaeus literally walkedbehind Jesus wherever he went.   Bartimaeus’followed in the way of Jesus, the way of mercy.

To follow Jesus in the way of mercy is to have a merciful heart.  Rather than four chambers, the merciful heart is composed of fourteen interconnected chambers– one for each work of mercy.  There are the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual acts of mercy.  

The corporal works of mercy are those kind acts by which we help our neighbors with their material and physical needs: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead, and giving alms to the poor. In last Sunday’s reading from Luke, Jesus was speaking about corporal acts of mercy when he told the rich young man who had kept all the commandments and wanted to know how he might inherit eternal life: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

There are also acts of compassion by which we help our neighbors with their emotional and spiritual needs.  These are the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those who sorrow, forgiving those who hurt us, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead.

On January 30th we will commemorate the Three Holy Hierarchs: Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom.  It is safe to say that these three Fathers of the Church are teachers for all time; their words as relevant today as they were in their day.

Saint Basil followed Jesus’ way of mercy: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need.”  Basil opened the first hospitals for the sick and the poor, called, at that time, basiliads in his honor.

Saint Gregory the Theologian followed Jesus way of mercy: “We are all one in the Lord, rich and poor, slaves and free, healthy and sick alike; and one is the head from which all derive: Jesus Christ.  And as with the members of one body, each is concerned with the other, and all with all.”  And very pointedly he wrote that the one salvation for our flesh and our soul is to show people in difficulty charity.  

Saint John Chrysostom followed Jesus in the way of mercy: If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” The man with the golden mouth never minced his words, did he?

Each of the Three Holy Hierarchs found the True Faith.  Each, like the blind Bartimaeus, asked God for His mercy, and our Lord generously extended it to them.  Each, like the blind Bartimaeus, then followed Jesus in His way of mercy.

As the Church helps us prepare for the Great Fast over the next several weeks, listen to the stories of God’s mercy.  Let these stories inspire you to go ahead and take the risk to make the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner – your own every day and throughout he day.  Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.  Allow His Holy Spirit to show you how to imitate Jesus’ way of mercyevery day of your life and in every situation you encounter.  See where God leads you.  And pray for the intercession of our Three Holy Hierarchs – Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom.  

By Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

BE MERCIFUL JUST AS YOUR FATHER IS MERCIFUL

Pope-Francis-and-sickSaint Ignatius of Loyola taught that there are three voices:
-The voice of God
-The voice of demons
-The voice of humanity/psychology

The voice of God in the Gospel cannot be any clearer in the Gospel reading for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Luke 6:31-36).  Mercy figures prominently in this reading.  So, too, in the Divine Liturgy where in Litany of Peace, after every intention prayed by the deacon, the congregation prays, Lord, have mercy…for peace from on high, for peace in the whole world, for the union of the churches of God, for our Holy Father Francis, for our most reverend Metropolitan William, our God-loving Bishop Kurt, the priests, deacons, and all the people, for seasonable weather and abundance of the fruits of the earth, for this city and every city, for the sick, the suffering, and the captive, for those who travel by sea, land, and air.  Lord, have mercy.

In Hebrew the word is chesed.  Mercy doesn’t quite capture its full meaning.  Some have suggested that loving kindness better captures the meaning of chesed.

What can be better than experiencing the mercy, chesed, the loving kindness of another, especially that of God, who is Perfect Love?  In Psalm 63:4, the Psalmist David prays, “Because your mercy is better than life, my lips will praise you.”

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus invoke the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Lest that seem fairly simple rule to keep, Jesus immediately raises the bar, saying it’s no big deal to love someone who loves you.  Even a bully can love a bully! He tells us to “…love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

We have our marching orders, but what does that mean for our day to day lives?  What does mercy or loving kindness look like?  Consider the story of a beloved fictional character.

Before his conversion experience Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge personified the opposite of mercy: greed.  One life-changing Christmas Eve in Victorian England, Scrooge was approached by two upstanding Christian men asking that he offer a donation for the poor in the workhouses.  Scrooge’s response?  “I wish to be left alone.  Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the [workhouses]—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

To which the men responded: “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

Scrooge’s retort? “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—It’s not my business. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.”

Whose voice was Scrooge listening to?  Certainly not God’s.  How self-absorbed!  He harbored such bitterness toward the poor.  After all, it was his taxes that helped pay for the workhouses.  It was as if the poor were stealing his money . Scrooge was a slave to his passions and desires.  There was no room for anything or anybody.  His appetite for money could never be satisfied – to the neglect of anybody and everybody.  Then, later that night, Scrooge had a series of dreams in which he encountered spirits who helped him to see the selfish, self-absorbed man he had become.  When he awoke on Christmas morning he was a new man.  He became a man for others, merciful, and eager to help others.

The next day he told his longtime clerk, Bob Cratchitt that he would raise his salary, after many years without one, and assist his struggling family.  He promised to help Cratchitt’s crippled son, Tiny Tim.  At that he kept his word, becoming like a second father to Tim.

My brothers and sisters, to show mercy or loving kindness takes us out of ourselves.  A merciful person is selfless, open, and free to offer loving kindness to his brother, sister, and, yes, as Jesus insists, even his enemy.

So what are the ways of mercy? The ways are many.
-To feed the hungry, and to give drink to the thirsty.
-To clothe the naked, and to give shelter to travelers.
-To visit the sick and the imprisoned.  Isn’t sickness – both physical and mental – often, a form of imprisonment?
-To bury the dead.  Can we ever doubt the comfort the family receives when we help bury their dead?
-To give counsel to those who waver in their faith, and to instruct those who are ignorant in the faith.
-Without judgment and in humility, to admonish the sinner, remembering always that you are a sinner.
-To comfort the sorrowful with a visit, a listening ear, or a homemade meal.  Isn’t it comforting to know that you are not going through a great loss all alone?
-To forgive injuries.  This is the act of mercy which allows all other acts to flow.  It’s a tough one, but every time we pray as Jesus taught us we ask the Father to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
-To bear wrongs patiently – difficult as it may be.  God never asked anything of us that he did not endure on the Cross.
-To pray for the living and the dead.  Prayer makes a difference, for those we pray for and for us.

These are the ways of chesed – mercy – loving kindness.  When we fail to be merciful, we are allowing ourselves to be swayed by the often very loud voices of the demons and of our humanity.  Pray to God that we listen to His voice, and not be swayed by these other voices so that we embrace the ways of mercy, that we be transformed and treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated, even those whom we consider enemies and those who have hurt us.

Jesus has certainly raised the bar.  His expectations are high, but as the Lord said to Saint Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  Did you hear that?  Power is made perfect in weakness.   Because of this, Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he would rather boast most gladly of [his] weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with [him].  He wrote: “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

May we be open to the grace of God, that we be made perfect in our weakness so that we live our lives in the ways of God’s mercy in a world which so desperately needs it.

Homily by Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

The “Little Way” of St. Therese

st-therese-of-lisieux-icon-426St. Therese of Lisieux was born in France on January 2, 1873 to Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin.  She was the youngest of nine children, four of whom died in infancy. At the age of four, she faced great sadness when her beloved mother passed away.  When she was fifteen, she followed in the footsteps of her older sisters Pauline and Marie and joined the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux. St. Therese loved God completely, and, above all else, desired for others to love God too.  Known for her “little way,” she once wrote: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice.  Here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”  

In the 1880s, a notorious criminal by the name of Henri Pranzini had been sentenced to death after murdering two women and a young girl.  St. Therese read about this sentencing in the newspaper, and also learned that he was unrepentant, bitter, and angry. Upon hearing this when she was only fourteen years old, Therese committed herself to praying tirelessly and offering sacrifices up for Pranzini’s conversion.  When she read the news article detailing his execution, she realized her prayer had been answered: “Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance!”

St. Therese truly strove towards union with God with both prayer and simplicity.  While she is the patron saint of missionaries, she never left the walls of her convent.  However, St. Therese proved that you did not have to travel far and wide to lead others towards Christ.  While some of us feel as though we are not capable of doing “spectacular acts” for God and others, we must never underestimate the power of a simple prayer or the significance of doing “little things with great love,” just like St. Therese of Lisieux.  

By: Adriana Shubeck

St. John the Baptist: An Earthly Angel in Human Body

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For contemporary Westerners, it seems a bit odd to commemorate a beheading. Christians, of course, venerate many martyrs, but rarely do we remember their modes of death as unambiguously as we do today on the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. So why all here? Why now?

We must recall that St. John the Baptist was, according to St. Sophronius, an “earthly angel in human body.” He “went into the desert to imitate not men but the angels.” For this reason, he is often depicted with wings in the Byzantine tradition; his life of asceticism, his announcement of the Incarnate God, his role as the last of the prophets, and as the greatest born of a woman—as Jesus Himself tells us—demand our respect and veneration. He serves as an example of the simple life of humility, united to God’s will.

But more than this John died for the Faith. He died, perhaps more accurately—like St. Stephen—because he testified to the truths of humility and self-denial in a corrupt and fallen world, the world of Herod, a court—as the account tells us—filled with dancing, lasciviousness, and finery. These things ran opposite the Baptist’s insistence on piety and simplicity.

In this sense, his beheading is a visceral reminder of the slings and arrows of fate that afflict all in this world, and especially those who desire to live with a foolish simplicity and faith in God and His will. This is not unlike the “foolish simplicity” observed by many pious people on this feast day—fasting, refusing to eat anything round, and forsaking plates. These are customs passed down to us in memory not just of a holy man but also of the holy life for which he died, the one we continue to try to live, the one that may appear as foolishness.

We remember St. John’s death not merely to commemorate his life but also to remind ourselves of the basic (and yet easily forgotten) truths of the faith: simplicity, self-denial, forgiveness, those ideas well encapsulated in the two previous Gospel readings from St. Matthew. We celebrate, because as St. Theodore the Studite has asked, “is there need for us to extol John the Baptist when he was so highly extolled by Christ Himself, Who is the Truth and the Eternal Word of God?” We might add: is there any better way to re-center ourselves in the Christian life than to remember the sacrificial death of the one who announced Christ, this “earthly angel in human body”?

By Chase J. Padusniak

 

The Nature of Confession

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The Foo Fighters lyrics “I’ve Got Another Confession to Make” usually comes to mind for this topic but on Mondays the local country music station in Pittsburgh has a bit that allows listeners to make a confession and receive absolution from the radio host… for whatever it is worth. Anonymous people make a very public broadcast of the things they need to get off their chest. This isn’t foreign though, we all have confidants that we hold in confidence that they will not spill the beans, in return they affirm us that everything is going to be alright.

The Catholic Church both affirms the penitent that everything will be alright as well as has been given the authority to make it right. In a Catholic Theology on Tap, the speaker (whose name unfortunately slips my mind) explained that the Catholic Church understands that God’s forgiveness is not limited to the Sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation, however Christ himself affirmed that forgiveness was GUARANTEED through the sacrament. We can receive verbal affirmation by a minister of God, in the sacramental office, that we are forgiven by offering a contrite heart, through a confession, with the satisfaction of an act penance. With those three we have a guarantee unlike any other and like that the weight is lifted from the chest of a penitent.

But I don’t need a priest, I can go right to my neighbor. Or God will know I feel contrition in my heart? When we sin we not only hurt our neighbor but we hurt the Church and we hurt our relationship with our perfect God. While we are encouraged to set aright our relationship with our neighbor we also must ask forgiveness from God, not in a public way but also not in a way that I could deceive myself in private. After all I do have the internal debate after sinning that my action wasn’t really a sin. I can try to rationalize my sin away, instead of humbly asking for forgiveness. In my Hospital Chaplaincy program we are taught that sometimes the patient may intellectually know they are sick but not so much emotionally. When a chaplain asks them to discuss their own treatment as a new person in the room, suddenly the waterworks come out. They could accept the bad news that the doctor gave them as if they were talking to the patient in the bed next door but the moment it reaches their lips they see the impact of their treatment; that life is no longer guaranteed, that pain and exhaustion are ahead of them, and their next visitation and word may be the last. In the confessional, we are the sick and broken, the priest is an ordained chaplain to hear our sickness from our lips but also the physician with the necessary cure.

“It could be Lupus” – A quote from Dr. Gregory House

Some sins may manifest quicker or more often. Some sins may actually coverup other sins. When we do an examination of conscience we may forget something because our mind was clouded by another sin. Well here’s the good news, even the sins that are truly forgotten have their cure in the confessional. However, if we withhold a sin because of our own shame, we are like Adam and Eve naked hiding in the brush despite bringing ourselves to the confessional. We withhold from ourselves the remedy that has been made available to us. “It is never Lupus”

Do you like to go to a new doctor every time you feel ill? Sometimes a Doctor can spot what is a symptom and what is the illness better than we can. While you could technically go to a new confessor every time and sometimes find one that only speaks Polish or Swahili, it is better for our spiritual development to have a regular confessor that speaks our language. That doesn’t just mean English, it is okay to feel a connection to your confessor in how he speaks to your soul. As he gets to know you he will be better at offering you the words and treatment you need. However, do not mistake a priest that challenges you as not speaking to your soul.

Lastly, there may be some confusion in the language we ourselves use. Do we receive penance or absolution? Are we reconciled or confessed? What is contrition? Why not have only a last confession as Last Rites?

Last Rites, more properly termed Anointing of the Sick, is a time of absolution of sins in preparation for the heavenly reward, but do we really want to be in the bottom of the Grand Canyon for 127hrs with a rock on our arm before we follow the first rule to never hike alone? If we spend our whole lives slowly drifting from God are you likely to seek to be reconciled? This state of despair is prevented by regular confession (whether it be monthly, seasonally, but at least during the Great Fasts).

The Sacrament of Reconciliation has some distinct characteristics. First, the penitent offers contrition or sorrow for the sins committed, because it has harmed their relationship with God. They confess their contrition along with the sins and receive absolution. This absolution is the forgiveness and remission of our sin. By this we are made perfect and reconciled to the Church and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The penitent and the Confessor (CCC1448) are given a penance. Penitents are not alone in this because they have been reconciled to the Church. Penances are often easy but that is not to say that it is a trinket to be neglected. It is easy because we cannot earn the grace of God’s forgiveness but are for the spiritual good. “Penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all.” CCC1460. The completion of the Penance confers the grace of the sacrament as we are configured to Christ’s perfection.

Hopefully, this encourages you to seek confession, not as a judgement of your actions, but so that we see the glory of your baptismal garment that is made new and seek an ever-closer relationship with Christ. God Bless.

By Tim Fariss, 3rd Year Seminarian at Ss. Cyril and Methods