From Tragedy to Glory

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Deacon Doug McManaman

This gospel reading, the raising of Lazarus, is so important, because it reveals Christ’s power over death. Only God has the power to open the grave, as we read in the first reading from Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God:  O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them” (Ez 37, 12). Jesus opens the grave of Lazarus and has him rise from it. In other words, Jesus is God. He is divine. And this miracle announces what is to come, namely, Jesus’ own resurrection. Lazarus, although he rises from the dead, will also die again, so this is not a complete victory over death. That will take place on Easter Sunday, when Jesus rises from the dead, never to die again. And that is the good news of the gospel: the resurrection. Death has been defeated. 

This is such an important point to grasp. There is so much suffering in this world, so many people whose lives are beset by a tragedy of one sort or another. And tragedy, which has many different origins, is always connected in some way with death. At the root of tragedy is often human error, or incompetence, or worse, human sinfulness and malice. Sometimes the root of tragedy is not human error or sin at all, but the course of nature. Nature’s disasters, however, often lead to human loss and death, and so they are designated as tragedies–without human loss, we would not refer to such events as tragedies. 

But tragedies rooted in human error are more difficult to deal with, and these are tragedies which often are in turn rooted in human sin, such as laziness or overconfidence or arrogance–think of the sinking of the Titanic. But then there are tragedies that are simply rooted in malice, such as the senseless murder of a loved one, a life cut short. Parents can suffer such loss, the loss of a child for example. Such tragedies leave wounds that stay with them throughout their lives, and their lives are practically defined from that point onwards by that very tragedy. 

But here is the point. The word gospel means ‘good news’, and the good news has gravitas. It is weighty and has real consequence. Christ’s death destroyed death. The good news is that Christ has power over death; he conquered death. If we really believe this, then it is the case that whatever tragedy has befallen us, it need not define our very existence. It no longer has the power to crush and deprive us of light and hope. We can allow it to crush our lives and redefine our entire existence, shrouding our lives in darkness, if we so choose. But because Jesus rose from the dead, and because he raised Lazarus, not to mention a twelve-year-old girl and the son of the widow, it need not do so. Death does not have the final word over our lives. Resurrection does. 

All those whom we have loved and who have died, some even in the most tragic circumstances, we will see and touch them again. The resurrection was for us. The Second Person of the Trinity joined a human nature to himself, uniting himself to every human person, as it were; he died and rose in our humanity, joined to his divinity. If we live our lives in him and die in him, he will raise us up as well: “For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6, 5).

And that is why those who have suffered a terrible tragedy as a result of the sinfulness and malice of another person are able, in time, to forgive that person, because they know, through faith, that tragedy is relative. That is what Christ’s death and resurrection has accomplished: he has reduced tragedy from the absolute to the relative. The crucifix, once a symbol of horror, has become a symbol of power, victory, and glory. Death is no longer absolute and final. And so despair is no longer absolute and final, but relative and temporary. 

Those who have no faith in the resurrection of Christ, who do not live out of that faith, will be unable to rise above the tragedy that besets them, and so they are hardened and imprisoned in unforgiveness. But the power of the risen life of Christ is revealed in those who choose to believe in him and in the one who sent him, and they will not allow tragedy to imprison them in the darkness of perpetual resentment and unforgiveness. These are the people who know the risen Christ, whose lives have been illuminated by the hope of resurrection, by the good news of Christ’s victory over tragedy, sin, and death. 

Indigenous Religion and the Sacrifice of the Mass

Deacon D. McManaman

It is always inspiring to teach a World Religions course. What becomes obvious to anyone studying the religions of the world is, first and foremost, that man is naturally a religious animal; he has always aspired to seek a relationship with his origin, the very source of his being, either God, or the gods, or both. Particularly fascinating are the myriads of creation myths of the indigenous peoples around the world, from Australia to Africa, to North America and the Amazon basin. For the indigenous, life itself is religion, that is, life is ritual. The more one becomes familiar with these myths, the more one understands the essence of ritual, that the day-to-day activities of the indigenous peoples are really an emulation of the gods of these myths. Everything they do, i.e., hunting, cooking, giving birth, basket weaving, etc., it is all sacred to the degree that it imitates the acts of the gods or ancestors whose deeds are recounted in myths and legends. 

The indigenous believe that the great sky god created lesser deities, who in turn created the earth, mountains, rock formations, trees, rivers, and man, and the basic pattern of his daily life. All this took place in what the indigenous refer to as the creation period (or the dreaming), a period of time that is sacred, for it is a time that measures the very work of the gods. This sacred time is of an entirely different dimension than ordinary time. To get a better understanding of this notion of sacred time, consider C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, specifically The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the children pass through the wardrobe, they enter a different world, the world of Narnia, and many years in Narnia amount to about a minute or two of earth time. Similarly, for the indigenous, there is earth time, which is profane time (our time), and there is sacred time in which the gods dwell, and the two are not parallel. Ritual is precisely the way that the indigenous bring sacred time into contact with profane time. In performing ritual, such as an elaborate initiation ritual—which may require an entire season to complete—, they imitate the ancestors or lesser deities, and in doing so, sacred time is made contemporary with profane time. The two different realms are in contact, all as a result of ritual. In other words, the acts of the gods are made present, in the here and now, through the ritual acts of the indigenous, and it is by virtue of this contact that they are renewed, strengthened, and made holy. 

There is one feature of their myths and legends, however, that I have always found particularly striking, and this feature is found all over the world, in the myths of the Australian, African, South and North American tribes. In their myths, there is very often an account of a murdered god. It is an unjust murder of an innocent deity or ancestor, and from the body of this murdered deity will come vegetation of all kinds, i.e., beans, melons, corn, tobacco, or a certain tree from whose wood are made flutes that produce enchanting sounds, like the archetypal flute that was played by the murdered god in sacred time. To create such a flute out of the wood of this particular tree is a ritual that makes present the murdered deity. And to harvest the crops in the fall is a ritual act that includes sacrificial offerings to the deity and festivities, since it is from his sacrificed body that the fruits of the earth come to us year after year. Even the headhunting and cannibalism of certain tribes can only be understood in light of the tribes’ myths, for these acts are always offerings to the murdered god, a re-enactment of the myth carried out for the sake of the blessings that will inevitably follow upon such ritual. 

What is it in the human subconscious that can account for this universal theme found in the creation myths and legends of tribes separated by oceans and thousands of miles? The Church may have an answer for that, and the clues are in the first reading from the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: 

Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

How do we explain this reading in which the ancient king of Salem and priest of God the Most High, Melchizedek, brings bread and wine to Abraham, with a blessing? Melchizedek, a pre-Israelite, prefigures the priesthood that Christ established, and of course Melchizedek knew nothing about this foreshadowing or prefiguring, nor did Abraham. And well after Abraham, at the time of the Exodus, the Passover feast was established. The Seder plate prefigures the Eucharist as well. Here the original Passover lamb is sacrificed, and it is the blood that marks the doorposts of the Israelites that is their deliverance. 

To share in the Seder meal is to be part of that Exodus; for the Jews, to share a meal is to enter into communion with all who are at table, because all share in the one food, which is a source of life. When they celebrate the Passover, they believe that what is past is made present, in the here and now, and so each time the Passover is celebrated throughout the centuries, Moses is present in their midst; Jews who celebrate Passover believe they leave Egypt with all of Israel at the time of the Exodus. 

In the gospel reading for that same Solemnity (Corpus Christi), the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish also prefigures the coming reality of the Eucharist. We see this prefiguring of the Eucharist not only in the New Testament, and not only in the history of Israel, which includes a small account of the pagan king Melchizedek, but it goes back further, as far back as the indigenous peoples of the world. God leaves clues throughout history, in every continent and in every people, clues about where He will be found. In the Person of Christ, myth becomes reality. All that the indigenous dreamt of, believed in and articulated is affirmed by God and is brought to reality. We (Catholics) worship a murdered God, a crucified God, and from his body come the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. To partake of this thanksgiving sacrifice is to enter into him, to live in him. And just as the indigenous regard ritual as the way of making sacred time contemporary with ordinary time, a way of making it touch profane time, thereby renewing it, so too has this come to reality in the Eucharist, because to be present at an ordinary Mass is to be just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago. The sacrifice of Good Friday, which took place 2000 years ago, is made contemporary, that is, re-presented in the here and now. It is not this or that priest who is offering the sacrifice, it is Christ who is the priest who offers the sacrifice, and Christ is the victim, the murdered God, who is being offered. The individual priest is only acting in the Person of Christ (in persona Christi).

And Catholics believe that Christ is the new Passover lamb, whose blood frees us from the slavery of sin and death, and of whose flesh we partake, making us one with that sacrificial offering. And so to eat of this Eucharistic meal is to become one not only with every member of Christ’s mystical body, past and present, but it is to become intimately one with all the faithful of Israel, as well as the indigenous peoples who knew something of this sacrifice, however obscure that understanding might have been. 

One year as I was explaining to some students that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ, not merely a symbol of his body and blood, a girl raised her hand and said: “It can’t be. That would make us cannibals”. And of course, she had no idea the religious significance of ancient tribal cannibalism. She saw primitive man with the condescending eyes of the western world, that is, as backward and unintelligent. But it is not that we cannot be like them; rather, when we understand the significance of indigenous myth and the rituals that enact them, we begin to see that we can be like them, we are like them, and indeed they are like us. They yearned to participate in the life of the gods, that is, they yearned for the sacred to repeatedly touch their ordinary existence and make it holy and complete, as we do now. They yearned for the deification of the earth, the deification of creation. God answers man’s deepest longings and aspirations in the mystery of the Incarnation, and ultimately in the Eucharist. God reveals His mercy and humility in joining a human nature and entering into human suffering, and dying on a cross. Like every child, God loves to play hide and seek, and like a good player He hides Himself in unexpected places, under a humble disguise of one form or another. He continues to hide in our midst under the ordinary and humble appearance of a wafer of bread. After consecration, it is no longer bread, although it looks like bread, tastes and feels like bread; it is the substance of his murdered and resurrected body. The sacred has joined itself to the profane, matter is made holy, the food which is creation itself has become the Bread of Life, the bread of angels. Had we in the west paid more attention to the deeper significance of indigenous myth and allowed indigenous knowledge to open our eyes to what has always been present but hidden in our own theology, we would have become more fully cognizant of the deeper brotherhood that unites us all.  

The Necessity of Battle

Deacon D. McManaman

As I reflect back upon the more than thirty years I spent as a teacher, I realize that out of all the school principals I had worked with over those years, only two were brave and relatively exemplary Catholic leaders. One was a man, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the other a strong and bright Trinidadian woman. In between these two were a number of men whose leadership style emboldened the enemies of the school, i.e., drug dealing thugs, who, as a result of the timidity they witnessed, eventually gained a level of control over the fearful students of the schools.

I will never forget the day this Trinidadian principal came on the PA and instructed everyone in the school to put down their pens and to listen up very carefully. Her message was specifically addressed to the drug dealers in the school who had begun to provide free marajuana to some of the younger grade nine students, as a way of increasing their clientele. She was incensed at the news that this was happening. With great indignation in her voice, and after instructing everyone to stop what they were doing and listen, she said: “All you drug dealers out there, know this: your days are numbered at this school. I’m coming after you, and I’m your worst nightmare.” She went on for another minute or two chastising them, reiterating her foretelling. All I could think of were all the male principals I worked with in previous years and how they would react if they were to hear such an announcement; without question, every single one of them would have insisted that this woman had lost her mind, that she was a fool for initiating a battle she could not win.

But before her announcement was over, the “kingpin” of the school had been nabbed, for during it, he was out of class wandering the halls and at one point began to jump up and down crying out: “Catch me if you can! Catch me if you can!” At that very moment, a vice principal turned the corner and witnessed it all: “You’re caught”, he said.  He was sent home and expelled the next day. By the end of June, every drug dealer was caught and expelled. At the end of the year, I overheard a vice principal saying to a colleague: “We don’t know how it happened, but we always found ourselves at the right place at the right time”. 

I had to shake my head at this man’s dull witted remark; for it was obvious to anyone with faith how it happened. This woman loved the students enough to enter a frightening battle for them; she had the faith, the trust, and the intensity of love to take the first step in that battle, and when that happens, the Lord takes the next step and battles on our side: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Ja 4, 8); for “the Lord is a warrior, Lord is his name” (Ex 15, 3). When a person in a leadership position steps out in faith to do what in fact he or she has an obligation to do, to protect the vulnerable and engage in the battle that life in Christ fundamentally is, the Lord joins us: “But during the watch just before dawn, the Lord looked down from a column of fiery cloud upon the Egyptian army and threw it into a panic; and he so clogged their chariot wheels that they could drive only with difficulty. With that the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from Israel, because the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” (Ex 14, 24-25). 

I remember the year my best friend, a priest of a nearby diocese, was assigned to a new parish. On his first day, a group of women introduced themselves to him, referring to themselves as “the bitches of St. Basil’s”, assuring him that “we’re here to give you a run for your money”. These were women who saw themselves as catalysts of true progress; needless to say they did not like the straightforward, back to the basics preaching of my friend. They opposed him at every turn. But my friend too was a “warrior” who loved the congregation enough to actually preach with substance and grit. I recall the Sunday he actually called the ladies out, publicly, loudly and clearly telling them: “If you don’t like it (i.e., the principles and fundamental teachings of the Church), get out!” A few days later, my friend received a call from the bishop, who insisted: “You can’t be telling them to get out”. My friend simply replied, “Well, I have been telling them to get out, and the more I do, the more people come, and the collections are steadily increasing”. In time, my friend even moved the tabernacle to the center of the Church, and just as he began to call the congregation’s attention to the change on the sanctuary, a thundering applause erupted. The ladies never returned after that, and the collections continued to increase. 

What is it that accounts for the increase in Church attendance, not to mention collections? Although determining the causes and factors that explain a phenomenon like this is more complex than intuition would suggest, who can doubt that a significant factor is courageous leadership and a challenging kerygma, as opposed to the innocuous and insipid preaching they were subject to for years, a style of leadership that typically does not appeal to men?

There are many anomalies in our lives, but struggle is not one of them; on the contrary, a life without struggle would be truly anomalous. I recall one principal I worked with who typically identified a good day with a smooth day; conversely, a bad day was one beset by frustrations, conflicts, and difficulties–in short, a struggle. Most people make that identification, but a smooth day is not necessarily a good day, and a day full of frustrations, confrontations, and difficulties might very well be the best and most fruitful day of the week. Many of our leaders today typically identify good days with smooth days, and doing so causes them to regard setbacks, conflicts, uncomfortable confrontations and challenges as anomalies. When this occurs among clergy, Catholic leaders will employ strategies designed to avoid battle altogether. The result is that the Lion of Judah is slowly tamed, and preaching becomes mind numbingly innocuous. However, one cannot win a battle that one refuses to fight, and a lion tamed is not the Lion of Judah (Christ), but an imposter. Moses directed Joshua, both of whom prefigure Christ, to go to battle:

At Rephidim, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”

So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Ex 17, 1-16)

Moses with raised hands prefigures the crucified, the sign under which we are always victorious. But the decision of a “king” to siesta while his army is at war makes himself vulnerable to a serious fall, as we see in king David:  

At the turn of the year, the time when kings go to war, David sent out Joab along with his officers and all Israel, and they laid waste the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. David himself remained in Jerusalem. One evening David rose from his bed and strolled about on the roof of the king’s house. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; she was very beautiful… (2 Sam 11, 1-2)

The Christian is not called to a life of peace, rest, and tranquility: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household’” (Mt 10, 34-36. See also Eph 6, 10-12; 2 Cor 10, 3-5). Peace and tranquility are only moments of reprieve in a long war; they are gifts from God, and although we would like that state of affairs to endure perpetually, as did Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, the Lord assures us we don’t know what we are talking about and directs us to come down from that mountain to continue the struggle. 

The decision to face conflict for the sake of the gospel is rooted in a love of God that extends to our neighbor; on the other hand, the decision to avoid all conflict is a decision to avoid battle. Immediately following these verses, Christ points out that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”. In other words, whoever loves his own peace of mind more than the division and conflict that life in the Person of Christ inevitably brings about is not worthy of Christ, for such a love amounts to a refusal to fight under the sign of the cross: “…and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10, 38). The follower of Christ has to be willing to lose his life in battle if he is to find life: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10, 39). 

The effeminate, which includes both males and females, are characterized by an unbecoming delicacy or overrefinement. They tend to confuse an argument with a quarrel. If these people are teachers, they often discourage debate; disagreement with his/her point of view is often taken as a personal affront. The more “manly” among us, which includes strong women as well as real men, tend to enjoy a good debate. Such people appreciate the fact that the other was willing to act as an obstacle. In this light, cancel culture is fundamentally a phenomenon rooted in the increased feminization of western culture. However, the fear of being canceled is also fundamentally effeminate. It is particularly ironic to uncover this fear in the Church, for Christ was canceled; the very redemption of humanity was the result of a “cancellation”, and we are called to share in that cancellation (Jn 15, 18; Mt 10, 17-19). Catholic leaders who find themselves in the midst of a war must indeed fight with prudence and strategy, for one has to be able to discern what battles are worth our attention and which ones waste time and energy–a prudence not always exemplified in conservative Catholics; for there’s a fine line between audacity and strong leadership, but there is a difference between a prudence that has as its end the avoidance of battle and a prudence that has victory as its end. Avoiding battle for the sake of peace does not achieve peace in the end, because peace must be “made” (Mt 5, 9), and “making” is an activity, not a passivity. Those who fear being canceled to the point of rendering the kerygma of the Church palatable to the enemies of the Church essentially love their own livelihood over the spiritual and moral integrity of the vulnerable. Such fear is unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a pastor or bishop, for each one of us is called to be a peacemaker, and the harmony that peace is (pax) can only be achieved by engaging in a difficult battle that upsets those who love evil and despise everything the Church loves. 

Catholic Education and the Proclamation of the Kingdom of God

Deacon Doug McManaman

I’d like to focus on the notion of the kingdom of God, which is so prominent in the New Testament. It is such an important notion, but it is rather difficult because it is so multifaceted. The kingdom of God is at the heart of Christ’s preaching. 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1, 14-15)

Jesus speaks specifically of the good news of the kingdom of God (Lk 4, 43). I’ve often asked my students in the past: “You have had about 10 years of Catholic education, and you’ve heard the words “good news”, and of course the word ‘gospel’ means good news. Tell me: what is the good news?” More often than not, they simply have no clue. I once met a Catholic nun in the U.S who was beginning to buy into the latest ideological fads, political in nature, that are typically nothing more than temporary substitutes for the authentic kerygma of the Church, and as I was arguing with her, it became rather obvious that she seemed to me to lack a basic understanding of the faith. So at one point I asked her: “What is the good news of the gospel?” She too was stuck for an answer, which is why over the years I have wondered whether or not she is still a Catholic nun. I say this to stress the point that political ideologies are not the gospel. Christ was not a political revolutionary; he did not speak of “social justice”–which is not to suggest that Christ’s teaching and his life have no social implications, they certainly do, but the cart must never be placed before the horse. Christ came to proclaim the good news; he came to establish it. He is the good news. 

The good news is the establishment of the kingdom of God in him. But what does that mean exactly? Certainly this is strange language to modern ears; for we don’t speak of kingdoms, but provinces, nations, countries, and we speak of Prime Ministers and Presidents, not kings. So what does this really mean? 

Consider this historically. Under king David, the nation of Israel became a kingdom that subjugates other nations. In fact, at the time of Christ, the Jews were expecting a Messiah who would restore Israel to its former status as a kingdom. They were expecting a Messiah like David, a soldier who would lead the defeat of the Romans and free Israel from Roman occupation. But that is not the kingdom Jesus came to establish. He said to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18, 36). And in the synoptic gospels, Jesus foretells his passion three times. The reason is that he is preparing his followers so that they may come to understand his true mission. He came to defeat another enemy, the one enemy that man cannot defeat; for he came to conquer sin and its offspring, which is death. The good news of the gospel is the resurrection. And if death has been conquered, sin has been conquered, because death is the effect of sin; for death entered into the world as a result of the sin of the first parents of the human race. 

But ‘good news’ (gospel) and ‘kingdom of God’ are often used together in the New Testament.  A king governs a kingdom, and a kingdom is an empire that subjugates other nations. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God over and against the kingdom of darkness. The kingdom of darkness is a different kingdom. Recall the story of Genesis: “God said ‘Let there be light’, and God separated the light from the darkness”. This is the creation of the angelic realm. Angels are immaterial, pure spirits, created intellectual lights, and so they are not limited by matter and subject to time as material things are, such as human persons, who are composites of spirit and matter. And angels choose instantaneously whether to serve God or rebel against God. And so, immediately after God created the light of the angelic spirits, God separated light from darkness, that is, He separated the good angels from the rebellious, the angels of darkness. And we know from a study of the fall of man in Genesis chapter 3 that the devil, the prince of darkness, draws the first parents of the human race into the current of his own rebellion. Through his inspiration, darkness enters into the world. The result of the first sin is death, concupiscence, and a loss of the life of grace and the sense of the divine. Sin and darkness spread throughout the world as history continues. 

Moving right into the New Testament to the biblical story of the temptation in the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus in the desert. In the second temptation in the gospel of Luke, we read: “Then the Devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.’” Notice what the devil says: “…the kingdoms of the world have been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish”. And in the first chapter of the gospel of John, we read that the light entered the darkness. Jesus came to free man from the kingdom of darkness. He came to defeat that kingdom, to take back what rightfully belongs to God, to free man from the dominion of Satan. In the first letter of John, we read: “Indeed, the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil.” 

Christ came to buy back (redeem) the human race, to deliver man from the darkness of this kingdom. And so a battle ensues. This temptation in the wilderness is the first round of this battle, and the first round goes to Christ. This kingdom, the kingdom of darkness, is both a visible and an invisible kingdom. Its origin is invisible (the demonic realm); its effects are visible in human sinfulness manifest in history. This is a kingdom that was established in the beginning, not at a particular time in history, as was the Roman or Alexandrian empires. When the first parents cooperated with the evil one and chose to taste radical independence from God, for themselves and their offspring, they submitted themselves to him. They rejected their status as children dependent upon God. Christ came to undo the work of the evil one, and the work of the evil one was to draw humanity into his own sin and rebellion, with all its effects. Christ came to reverse that. 

But how is Christ going to reverse that? He reverses that in his Incarnation, death, and resurrection. By his Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity joins his divinity to our humanity. The Son dwells among us. The signs of the impending defeat of the kingdom of darkness occur almost immediately, beginning with the overcoming of temptation in the desert, but they continue in the miracles Christ worked, in his miracles over nature (changing water into wine, the calming of the storm, etc.), in the raising of a 12 year old girl from the dead and the raising of Lazarus, which imply his power over death, and most importantly in his forgiving others of their sins, something only God can do. All these are signs that the kingdom of God is among us. 

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”, he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” (Mk 2, 1-12)

Christ, who is Messiah, exercises power over the kingdom of darkness; he forgives sins and cures the sick. Rise up, he says, just as he will say to Lazarus and the 12 year old girl whom he raised from the dead. Christ exercises dominion over death. But his definitive defeat of this kingdom takes place on Good Friday. By dying, he destroys death, by rising, he restores life. His blood is the price he paid for the sins of man, and the proof that they have been forgiven is his resurrection, for sin begets death, but divine grace begets life. 

So what is this kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is something that cannot be adequately expressed in one answer, which is why we have a multitude of parables of the kingdom. Each one highlights one aspect of that kingdom. What we can say is that it is not of this world. Indeed, it is in this world, but it is not of this world. It is not a political kingdom. And like the kingdom of darkness, it is both visible and invisible. Its origin is invisible; its sustaining source is invisible–the Holy Spirit is invisible. But it is visible insofar as Christ is visible, and insofar as the kingdom has a grip on visible human beings, in particular the visible Church that Christ established on the twelve foundation stones of the Apostles. And, it is a kingdom that grows and develops in history. Consider the parable of the mustard seed: 

He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’” (Mt 13, 31-32)

A very short parable, but it conveys only an aspect of that kingdom, namely, its developmental nature: the kingdom of God develops and evolves in history; it begins small, but grows, develops in time, within history. 

The kingdom of God is an invisible kingdom that is here, within the confines of space and time, developing like a plant. The kingdom of God is the redemptive presence of God through the power of the reconciling Spirit. Christ said that he has overcome the world. Christ redeemed us. His presence, his influence, his life, his grace, is in the world. It has been joined to matter. The divine life, divine grace, is intimately present to a sufficient degree to each individual person, and it is up to each person to accept that grace or reject it. Those who accept his grace and cooperate with it will possess sanctifying grace, which is a supernatural quality that is indwelling and habitual, unlike sufficient grace. To be in a state of sanctifying grace does not mean one has achieved spiritual perfection. Rather, it means that one has freely opened himself to the divine nature, which now dwells within; for grace is a sharing in the divine life. This makes one a member of Christ’s Mystical Body, for the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the very soul of the Church. Hence, the kingdom of God is present in the world, through that Mystical Body. 

The king, who is Christ, is the king of the universe, but he does not reign by force. He does not compel. First and foremost, he reigns within; he reigns through the free cooperation of human persons, and so Christ reigns in his Church. But he does not yet reign in the world of which he is king. Not yet. The world will not allow him to. There is still darkness, enmity, strife, war, between the offspring of the evil one and the offspring of the woman (Gn 3, 15). And so we see history as a battle. We are at war. You are at war. It is not a war fought with conventional weaponry. It is a spiritual battle. My spiritual director would always remind teachers: “There is a war for the souls of our students”. And our responsibility as teachers is to enter into this battle and go to war for them, for their sake, to protect them from the subtle influence of darkness. And that means coming to know that faith, and above all witnessing to the joy of Christ’s resurrection, the joy of belonging to that kingdom, being under the influence of that kingdom, allowing that kingdom, that redemptive presence, to have dominion over your own life; it involves praying for our students, helping them to see the world through the eyes of faith. It is a highly dignified vocation. A very noble one. It’s no longer completely in the hands of the clergy, the religious, as it was of old, when the schools were run by the religious orders. Now, it is up to you and me to carry on that mission, to enter into that battle. 

So, even now, Christ is still in the process of defeating his enemies, but he defeats his enemies in the same way that he did when he came among us 2000 years ago in Palestine: as a servant, a humble servant, through the power of the cross. He does not come in military and political power, as did the kings of history. He defeats the kingdom of darkness in “weakness”, for “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Co 1, 25). God is so powerful that he defeated the one enemy that man could not defeat, namely sin and death, and he did so by dying on a cross. The eternal Person of the Son, who is Life and Light, allowed himself to be swallowed up in death, like a mound of earth would swallow up a stick of dynamite, only to be detonated. Christ’s life fills the darkness of death with the light of life. For the rest of us, dying is loss, it is defeat, but for God, dying is victory. And our dying becomes light and victory in him. 

And so the crucifix has become the most powerful sign under which we operate–that is why it is so important to have a crucifix in every room of our house, especially in each classroom, and not the resurrected figures fixed to a cross, but a crucifix; Satan recoils from the crucifix, because it is the sign of his definitive defeat.

Another parable of the kingdom that illustrates an aspect of the kingdom is the following:

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” (Mt 13, 33)

Yeast takes time to influence the entire loaf. The kingdom of God is in the world like yeast. A teacher is above all yeast, and a good teacher has influence. That’s the power of a teacher. Influence. It is a real tragedy to have a teacher spend over 30 years in the classroom, with a mission to witness to the good news of the kingdom, to inspire kids to enter that world of grace, truth, and joy, and to neglect that mission completely, to waste those years, by seeing his teaching profession merely as a job, to become totally preoccupied with making his life easier, doing as little as possible. The light that they could have brought into the classroom but did not, because their faith was lifeless, limp, unenlightened and ineffective. Such teachers are forgettable, for instead of bringing light into the classroom, they bring tension, darkness, and hardness. 

It is the faith of the Church that it is impossible for man, outside of Christ, to establish peace and justice on earth. Man is inclined to sin. In the Psalms we read: “Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain to the builders labor” (Ps 127, 1). The fullness of the kingdom will only be achieved in the Second Coming of Christ, the Parousia. What we do in the meantime is allow Christ the King to reign in our own lives, and we influence people that way. When Christ the King reigns in our lives, we begin to love with the heart of Christ. We love with humility. We love with the love that we see from the cross, which is a love the world cannot understand, because the world only understands power and politics. It does not understand the humility of the divine love. The world admires strength, wealth, fame, youthfulness, etc. But God the Father admires His Son, who:

…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2, 6-11)

The kingdom of God, as we said above, is an invisible kingdom, but it is visible insofar as it dwells within the hearts of visible sinful, flawed, neurotic human beings who make up Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Christ the king reigns in his Church, and Christ reigns in the hearts of our Protestant brethren who speak and act in his name, and he also reigns implicitly and perhaps pre-consciously in many of our Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, etc., brothers and sisters of good will, who are open to divine grace, whose decisions are moved by divine grace, even without them knowing it explicitly. These are part of the invisible Church.

There will always be conflict between the two kingdoms. We know this from the words of Christ himself who said: “If the world hates me, know that it will hate you too” (Jn 15, 18). We also know this from as far back as the book of Genesis: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. She will crush your head, while you will bite at her heel” (3, 15). The woman is Israel, as well as the New Israel, Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, and the Blessed Mother, whose offspring is Jesus. That battle plays out in history, and we are part of it. The specific task assigned to us is to bring the light of the gospel, the commands of Christ, and the message of Christ’s forgiveness of sins to the students entrusted to us. We labor for the next 30 years or so, but in the end, the Lord will take our labors, all our works of charity, as a builder takes wood, glass, and steel, and he will make the final product. But he will usher in the fullness of the kingdom, and when that will occur, no one knows. In large part it does depend on us in that we create the conditions for his ushering in the fullness of that kingdom; we delay that coming or we hasten it by our cooperation or lack of cooperation. Moreover, eternal life with God in the fullness of the kingdom will include the resurrection of the body, our bodies, for we profess this in the Creed, and it will include the Beatific Vision, which is the vision of God as He is in Himself. To see God as He is in Himself is to possess the Supreme Good, the source of all that is Good. Everything you and I desire in this life is ultimately a desire for God, for everything we desire in this life is only a finite good which does not satisfy indefinitely, but only temporarily. The human heart was created by God and for God, and in the human heart is an infinite thirst, and only one thing in reality is infinite, and that is God Himself. The happiness of the eternal possession of God (heaven) is unimaginable. It is not in any way comparable to a Club Med vacation. Any depiction of heaven in film or media is necessarily false, for it is beyond our ability to conceive. However, the more you grow in prayer and begin to experience the joy of intimacy with God and grow in a deeper sense of the divine, you will begin to get glimpses of what the happiness of heaven really is and what it is not; for this is a very subtle joy that is indescribable. 

But the joy of heaven begins now, in this life. Christ said that “the kingdom of God is within you”. Too often, Catholic teachers speak as if our mission is to build a utopia, that the kingdom of God is some sort of utopian society that we create, and so the gospel is once again reduced to politics, and what happens then is that political action takes priority, rather than the personal action of the pursuit of holiness, through prayer, confession, Eucharist, works of charity, etc., and soon the teaching of religion becomes a matter of encouraging students to political activism. The fact is social justice will naturally proceed from a life that is growing in holiness. 

St. Paul tells us that you are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and so each one of us is called to be a sacred space, a temple that houses the presence of God. The light that will fill that temple if we are open will certainly illuminate our own life, our own interior, but as teachers, that light will illuminate the space outside of us so that others can begin to make their way through the darkness. That is the great blessing of the vocation of a Catholic teacher. The greatest joy in store for those who have sought first the kingdom of God and left all else to God’s providence will be the awareness that they’ve loved God far more than they thought they did and that the Lord has accomplished so much more, through their efforts, labors and sufferings, than they could have possibly imagined. 

The Sense of Sin and the Sense of the Divine

Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deacon Doug McManaman

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Those are really great lines from the second reading. The one time that we see Jesus particularly angry in the New Testament is when he drives the money changers from the temple, overturned their tables, grabbed a chord and beat them with it; for it was the desecration of the temple that angered him above all. And now St. Paul says that you are the temple: “If anyone destroys that temple, God will destroy that person”. The parallel is the gospel text that says anyone who is a scandal to one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for that person to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea. That was the harshest thing Jesus ever said, and he seems to have said many harsh things. 

A couple of weeks ago I asked a group of confirmation students in Toronto: “How many of you have a “sense of the divine” (sensus divinitatis), an interior sense of God’s presence in your lives. The majority of the 40 or so grade seven students put up their hands. I was very impressed with this, and I urged them to value that and protect it, because it may not necessarily stay with them all their lives. They can lose it, if they’re not careful, especially in their adult years. A week later I asked them: “How many of you have a sense of sin?” Again, the same majority put up their hands.

What is interesting is that the two are connected; for the only way to have a sense of sin is to have a sense of the divine. If one does not have an awareness of the personal presence of God within one’s own interior, one will not have a sense of offending him by doing something contrary to His will, which is what sin is.

It was popular in the 60s and 70s to downplay any talk of sin, both at the parish level and in the schools. It was considered unduly negative. And so the words error, mistake, or weakness, were substituted for the word sin. Instead of “…let us call to mind our sins and ask the Lord for pardon and strength”, we would sometimes hear at Mass: “…let us call to mind our frailties and ask the Lord for pardon and strength. The problem here is that frailties are not sins. We’re all frail, we’re all weak, but that is no sin. 

My first 10 years of teaching were in the heart of Jane and Finch in Toronto, and I can assure you that talking about sin was the students’ favorite topic, especially those students of mine who had criminal tendencies, and there were many. Naming the disease that was keeping them in darkness was intriguing to them, and it gave them a genuine hope that there is a way out of that darkness and that one day, when they are ready, they can make their way out.

But more importantly, the good news of the gospel is precisely the revelation of the divine mercy. God’s mercy is incomprehensible. It is pure grace, pure gift. But it is not possible to know God’s mercy without a profound awareness of sin. If I have no sin, I am not in need of God’s mercy. If I am aware of my sins and am aware of how undeserving I am of God’s gifts, and if I am aware that I am addicted to certain sins and cannot free myself, and then suddenly I am told that I am forgiven of everything, that God has separated my sin from himself as far as the east is from the west (which means they will never meet), only then will I experience tremendous joy and relief. This is especially the case if I realize that I have been given the interior grace and strength to rise above those sins. 

And so those people in the past who, perhaps with good intentions, worked hard to play down sin and the sense of sin in the lives of the faithful, have really only indirectly deprived the faithful from experiencing the deeper joy of the divine mercy. 

Unless the message of the gospel includes the call to repentance from sin, it cannot be experienced as the good news of salvation. And of course, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth at the start of his Galilean ministry were: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We cannot repent if we have no awareness of sin. And life without any struggle against ourselves soon becomes boring and banal. There’s no challenge. And when the faith ceases to be a challenge, people, especially men, walk away and move on to other more challenging things. 

“Gospel” means good news, and the good news is the forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection, that is, it is the good news that the new life of Christ is available for us, to fill our interior, to give us the power to rise above the darkness and to make a significant difference in this world. I’ve worked with young people for 35 years now, and they always want to make a difference in this world; the problem is we don’t have the power to endure or to be effective. We need to be empowered by Christ, and it is only when we die to ourselves and give ourselves to him and allow his divine life to penetrate deeply into us that we actually begin to achieve anything at all. All we have to do is look at the great saints, such as Pope John Paul II, a man of true guts who went to the very end, rising above the crippling effects of his Parkinson’s disease out of love for the faithful, especially the young, or Mother Teresa, who also labored to the very end of her life, or St. John Bosco who devoted his life to the young at the time of the Industrial Revolution, or St. Katherine Drexel who tirelessly served the indigenous in 16 states. The list goes on and on. These are people who made a difference in this world because they went out into the world, but they did not rely on their own strength, but on the power of Christ. But it all begins with repentance and the forgiveness of sin and the experience of the divine mercy.

Paul says that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us is called to be a sacred space, a temple that houses the presence of God. The light that will fill that temple if we are open will certainly illuminate our own moral deficiencies and sins, but renouncing those sins with determination is the path to the joy of living with an ever increasing sense of the divine in our lives. Such a temple will then illuminate the space outside of us so that others can begin to make their way through the darkness. 

The Heart of a Shepherd

Homily for the Memorial of St. John Bosco

Deacon Doug McManaman

            These are fabulous readings, and they are so appropriate for this feast day of St. John Bosco. Just take that opening in the first reading: 

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

            That’s the heart of Christ right there. He is the good shepherd who goes searching for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And if you know anything of the life of Don Bosco, you know that he too had the heart of a shepherd, the heart of Christ. Don Bosco was no “sanctuary priest”. He was not one to shelter himself in the rectory, only to come out to say Mass, and then go back in. Some young priests today choose to live out their priesthood in precisely this way, believing that all one needs to do is have a reverent liturgy with nice candles, elaborate vestments, a bit of Latin thrown in here and there, a sanctimonious countenance and nicely folded hands, and a strict observance of the rubrics, and the world will automatically be saved. Where these young men got this idea I have no clue, but that certainly was not Don Bosco’s vision of the priesthood. Like a true missionary, he went out in search of the lost, out into the streets to meet with the young and unemployed, to interact with them, to pay attention to them, to really know them. 

            I’ve known a lot of priests in my life, but there are three in particular who stand out, for they were widely beloved priests. The first priest was from the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., who back in 1979 picked me up hitchhiking outside of Columbus, Ohio, and who was the turning point in my life. He was a great friend from that point onwards. He witnessed our marriage, baptized our daughter, but he was murdered on June 8th, 2000. The rectory was robbed and the housekeeper found him dead the next morning, stabbed to death. I remember that day looking at the Washington Post online and seeing, on the front page, the face of Father Tom Wells. That was probably the only time the anti-Catholic Washington Post spoke positively about the Church. The headline included the caption: “Widely beloved priest…”. And he was widely loved. Going anywhere with him was always a bit of a pain, because no matter where we were, someone would know him and come up to him. The other priest friend of mine, Father Don Sanvido, is also widely loved. He’s retired, but he is still pestered by all sorts of former parishioners to do weddings, funerals, Masses, visits, etc. And the 3rd priest in my life who is also widely loved is a Salesian in this parish. 

            Very recently I began to reflect upon these three priests, wondering what it was that made them so widely beloved. It certainly was not any kind of theological liberalism; they are very faithful to Catholic teaching and were always willing to preach the hard and difficult truths, much more than I am. The reason they are so widely loved is that they have a genuine interest in people. When you meet them, they are genuinely interested in you. They want to know about you. They ask about you, they listen to you with great interest, about your life, what you do, how you got there, your unique gifts, and they are genuinely delighted in you. And that’s a rare quality. Not many people are like that. Many people have known you a long time, but they don’t know anything about you, because they don’t ask, and they don’t ask, because they are not interested. 

            But the heart of Christ is a heart that is interested in people. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, points out that the more we pray, the more we enter the heart of God, but there in the heart of God, we discover our neighbor, who was conceived there from all eternity. At that point, we are moved to return to earth to seek out that neighbor. That’s why the more a person grows in holiness, the more interested they are in concrete individual human persons, that is, interested in their world. 

            And that’s why St. John Bosco was so widely loved, why he befriended countless young people and influenced the world through those young people in ways that are simply beyond our ability to conceive. He was genuinely interested in people, young people in particular.

            The next portion of the readings that struck me was from the gospel: 

Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones, for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

            This is the harshest thing Jesus ever said in the New Testament: it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the sea. I don’t know where people get the idea that Jesus was always nice and accepting of everyone and everything, that he’d never say an unkind or offensive word to anyone. This is what the Cardinal of Toronto refers to as the “meringue Jesus”, sweet and light, like the meringue on top of a lemon pie. Followers of the “meringue Jesus” don’t read the New Testament; if they did, they’d see that Jesus can be rather offensive at times, especially to Pharisees. In any case, what’s the issue here? The issue is scandalizing these little ones who believe in Christ. There is nothing that Jesus values more than the heart of a child, which is why he commands us to change and become as little children. That alone is the condition for entering into the kingdom of God. But the heart of a child can be corrupted by the bad influence of others. 

            The other day I had a Confirmation class of about 40 grade 7s. We were talking about Original Sin and I asked how many of them have a ‘sense of the divine’ (sensus divinitatis), that sense or awareness of the presence of God within your life. I wasn’t expecting many hands to go up, but many hands went up, a clear majority. There’s a remarkable innocence in these kids; they believe, they are open to the Lord, and I did tell them that they could lose that sense of the divine in their lives as they get older, that they really need to make sure they don’t lose that, but to value it, nurture it, protect it. 

            There are, however, adults in this world–basically the culture in which we live–who will be in the lives of these kids, perhaps their teachers, or their professors when they are old enough, or a family doctor, a next door neighbor, or even their own parents, who through their words, their demeanor, their own lack of faith and devotion, etc., might cause these little ones to stop believing, stop praying, and eventually lose that sense of the divine. This is death penalty material for Jesus. The reason is that there is nothing he values more than the heart of a child that believes in the Lord. And that’s why he commands us to change and become as little children. In the garden of Eden, after the sin of the first parents, God approaches: “When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden … the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees”. One of the effects of Original Sin is this tendency to flee at the approach of God, which is the root of the loss of the sensus divinitatis. Man cannot tolerate the truth about himself. After the first sin, they saw that they were naked and felt shame. This is significant because children are fine with walking around naked, and they do so without shame, but the first sin was a rejection of our status as “child” dependent upon God. The first parents chose to be their own god, independent and sufficient unto themselves, and so man’s natural tendency now is towards prideful self-sufficiency.

            But here, in this gospel, Christ commands us to reverse all this. We are to become as children, naked and without shame, unself-conscious like children, humble like children. Humility is a strange and interesting virtue, for so many people believe they have it; moreover, you can believe you have it, without having an ounce of it. Moreover, the truly humble will not perceive that they have it, because a virtue is a certain kind of excellence, but the truly humble do not for a minute entertain the thought that they possess such excellence. They never look at themselves in the spiritual mirror and delight in what they see; they are empty of any kind of self-satisfaction and complacency. That’s what we are called to, and the more we go down that road, the more joyful we will be, like children who are full of wonder and delight in the simplest things. So too will our lives become full of wonder, for we will begin to see the hand of God everywhere.