Thursday, February 15, 2018

Why do we use incense at Mass?

I’m continuing to answer questions that I know many parishioners have, so let's tackle this one, which I know comes up. And because I don’t like to reinvent the wheel, I’m going to borrow from Father William Saunders, who wrote on this for EWTN’s website.

Father Saunders points out that God “instructed Moses to build a golden altar for the burning of incense (Exodus 30:1-10), which was placed in front of the veil to the entrance of the meeting tent where the ark of the covenant was kept.”

Christians have used incense in worship for a very long time; we use it not only in Mass, but also for exposition of the Holy Eucharist and solemn Morning and Evening Prayer. To quote Father Saunders again: “The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification.” Incense also “symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: the Psalmist prays, "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141).

Above all, “incense also creates the ambiance of heaven.” Father quotes the Book of Revelation: "Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God's holy ones. From the angel's hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God's people."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We start with the Sign of the Cross (Ash Wednesday homily)

As I mentioned on Sunday, all my Sunday homilies 
will try to shed light on the Mass. 
This is especially appropriate because the Mass is, simply put, 
the most important thing we do as Catholics. 
The Mass is the most important thing that will happen today, 
anywhere in the world. 

Mass and Lent have a lot in common. 
Lent is a journey to Good Friday, 
when we remember that Jesus died for us, and to Easter, 
when we remember that he rose from the dead, 
and to the Ascension, when he returned to his throne. 

Holy Mass is all these things too; except that in the Mass, 
what we “remember” is truly and really present to us.

Since Ash Wednesday is when we start Lent, 
Let’s start our deeper look at the Holy Mass;
And let’s start with the simple prayer that began Mass: 
the Sign of the Cross.

Let’s do it right now: “In the name of…Amen.” Notice what we just did.

We marked ourselves with the Cross. 
When we were baptized, the priest makes the sign of the cross on us, 
claiming us for Christ for the first time. 
To be marked by the Cross is to be a Christian. 
The sign of the Cross summarizes our Faith: 
Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus rose; and he is our only hope!

Notice we surround ourselves with the Holy Trinity. 
This is what Jesus died to give us: life in God. 
His Cross puts us “in” the midst of the Trinity.

Also notice that the Cross is what Lent is about. 
That’s why we fast today, and make sacrifices.
That’s why we have the Way of the Cross on Thursdays. 

In a word, the Mass IS the Cross. If you get nothing else, get that: 
when we are at Mass, we are at the Cross. 
No Cross, no Mass. No Cross, no hope. 
No Cross, no point to any of this.

For all the emotion we might feel about the Cross,
there is no escaping the hard reality of the Cross.
It is about pain. It is about cost. It is about work. 

And so is Lent. I don’t actually “enjoy” Lent. 
I get up earlier, I work harder, and I give up things I like. 
No, I don’t enjoy Lent, but I need it. I am glad for it.

The Mass is exactly the same way. Sometimes we complain: 
Mass is boring. It takes too long. I don’t understand parts. 
It is an interruption of my day. Why can’t it be easier?

Why should it be easy? Compared to the reality of the Cross,
Lent doesn’t sound so bad, and Mass isn’t really all that hard. 

The journey is challenging. Christ helps us, and we help each other. 
Our destination is Heaven. We start today.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What does 'IHS' stand for?

If you look around a lot of churches, or look at a lot of Christian artwork, you’ll see some variation of “IHS” keep showing up. The origin of this is the name of Jesus, written in Greek letters. To help explain things, here is our Lord’s name – which is Greek – written first with Greek letters; then with the Latin alphabet, then as a Latin name, and then as we call him in English:


In ancient times, and a long time after, lots of words were frequently abbreviated, which was very helpful before the printing press, and everything was written out by hand. It was common, therefore, to abbreviate Jesus by using the first three letters. In Greek, that gives you: IHS. But over time, this became Latinized into IHS. Sometimes you’ll also see Ihs, which is just a further development. You might even see IHC, which reflects the fact that a Greek Sigma (S) was sometimes written like a C.

But why did Jesus have a Greek name if he was Jewish? Another great question! The answer is that in the 300 years before Jesus was born, Greek culture became dominant in a large area stretching from Greece all the way to present-day Afghanistan. This was the empire created by Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC (i.e., Before Christ!). Although Alexander’s lands were divided among his military commanders, Greek culture and language continued to exert great influence all through the region for a long time.

As a result, the New Testament as we have it was written entirely in Greek, as was some of the Old Testament – most of which was written in Hebrew. Even then, in Jesus’ time, the entire Old Testament had been translated into Greek. Even so, many Jews, very likely including Jesus, his mother, Joseph, and many (if not all) of his apostles, would have spoken Aramaic, which was a language derived from Hebrew, which was no longer widely spoken. This shows just how widespread the Greek language was.

One way we know this is by looking at the names of people in the New Testament. Some names are Greek: Andrew and Phillip, for example; others are very Hebrew: Simon and Jude; and still others are Hebrew names that have been rendered in Greek: James (from Jacob), John (from Yochanan). And this is the case with Jesus: it is a Greek rendering of Joshua or Yeshua.

We speak four languages at every Mass! By the way, while you may think the Mass as we are accustomed to it is all in English, that’s not quite right. A small part of it is Greek: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison; a small part is Hebrew: Amen, Alleluia; and sometimes we use Latin, too: Gloria in excelsis Deo, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The earliest Christians likewise would have dealt with Aramaic, Greek and Latin. They might have spoken only one, but they would have encountered some of the others as well.

(This is adapted from a recent article in St. Remy Parish Bulletin.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

'This is something we do together' (Sunday homily)

Skin diseases might be an odd thing to talk about at Mass. 
But the point is that illnesses like these do more than make us sick. 
They separate us from others.

Being a leper meant a profound separation from others.
And even if you were able to be with other lepers, 
you still weren’t able to worship with the community.
Can you imagine how that must have felt?

We experience this now.
On the one hand, you have people with a cold, or the flu, or pneumonia, 
so they stay away because they are sick.
But then you have people who are taking chemo for cancer, 
and they stay away, because they can’t afford to get sick.
And there are so many others who, for various reasons, 
can’t get out, can’t do what they used to. 
It can all be very discouraging.

That’s why Jesus told the man to go show himself to the priests, 
so that he could come back to the temple.

Ash Wednesday is in a few days, and we of course begin Lent.
This gives us a chance to set the tone for our Lent.

I’m going to tell you something you may not believe, but’s it’s true. 
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation.
It really isn’t! And yet, our churches will be filled. Why?

Ash Wednesday – and Lent as well – 
is one of those times when we realize 
our spiritual journey isn’t solitary. We are part of a family.

If you wanted to, you could put ashes on your head at home.
But that’s what we want to do.
We do this in a public way, and we do it together.
Not just the ashes, but the whole journey, 
the whole spiritual campaign of Lent.

Notice, we all do certain penances together:
Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,
and abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent.
Many of the school students will come to daily Mass together.
We will come to pray the Stations of the Cross together.
There is power in that “together,” isn’t there?

As we go into Lent, I want to highlight 
some of the opportunities we have – together – 
to grow closer to Christ. That’s what it’s all for.

There are still forms in the pews for the Catholic Ministries Appeal, 
if you want to contribute.

In your bulletins, you will find a bright pink handout that looks like this, 
with lots of opportunities for growing in holiness in Lent.
We have some Bible studies; we have some prayer groups.
We have materials for you to use at home. 
You’ll see some free materials on the tables at the doors of church.

Most important, you’ll see times for the sacrament of confession; 
both here, and at nearby churches.

When we go to confession, we do that individually; 
and yet, even there, we’re together in a way.
I’m in that line; you are; your parents, your children, 
Archbishop Schnurr, Bishop Binzer, Pope Francis – all of us.

There’s another part of this. Lent is not only about holiness; 
it is also about reconciliation.  
Remember, we call confession the sacrament of reconciliation.
The leper, being cleansed, 
was also able to be reconciled with the community.

When we go to confession, as hard as it can be to tell our sins, 
that is still, really, the easier part.
The really hard part is what we do next – 
after we are absolved, after we do our penance.

The really hard work comes next. 

How about going and finding people at home or work or school,  
and apologizing? 
How about taking concrete steps 
so that we will be different toward others?
Seeking out someone to be reconciled with?

People say, “Oh, that’s just me, I can’t help it.”
Oh…let’s just say, hogwash.
Being Irish or German or Scottish or whatever is not an excuse.
And yes, change is hard; but we can do it, if we really want it, 
with God’s help. It’ll still be hard, but we can make it happen.

If you want a powerful conversion experience, 
ask the Holy Spirit to awaken you 
to how your sins affect other people.

If you are making fun of other kids, or bullying them, at school?
If you are drinking too much, too often? 
Cheating? Not doing a full day’s work? 
Those pictures on the Internet? They are real, flesh-and-blood people.

Even our most private sins – we think they affect no one else, 
but it’s not true. Eventually they always affect others. They always do.

So as we go into Lent, be mindful of the people around you.
Ash Wednesday can be a great time to bring someone along.

When I was in my 20s, I was away from the Catholic Faith. 
And I remember a co-worker saying to me, it’s Ash Wednesday, 
why not come along and get ashes?
And it was that same Lent when I went to confession 
for the first time in ten years. And then, to Holy Communion! 

That is something I will never forget.
Anyone and everyone, without exception, can get ashes.
Anyone can come to the Stations of the Cross.
Anyone can come and adore Jesus in the Eucharist.
Anyone can take part in Lent.
This is something we do together.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

No, the earth is not flat.

There really is such a thing as the Flat Earth Society. It is not a joke. At least, there really seem to be people who take this sort of thing seriously. My perception is that there are more of them lately; and I am not the only one who thinks so. Do an Internet search, and you will find articles here and there on the phenomenon.

Have you ever talked, face to face, with someone who believes this? I have not; but I have exchanged comments online with flat-earthers. Forgive this if it seems rude, but my impression is that the folks I talked to aren't very smart. But they aren't overly dumb, either. They are capable of bandying about a lot of patter, sprinkled with science-y sounding assertions and theories, which they draw from flat-earth websites.

I hesitate writing about this, because it's like getting near a black hole: you can't help being sucked in, and once in a black hole, everything becomes crazy. I am a firm believer that you pray for people who live in Crazyland, you wish them well, and even spend time with them -- but only outside of Crazyland. Don't. Ever. Go. There.

This has been confirmed by actual experience, as I am one of those people who can never quite give up hope in the ability to reason things out, no matter how many times that hope is dashed, and ground into dust by bitter experience.

So let me tell you what happened when I didn't follow my own rules recently, and actually read a thread somewhere on this subject. I didn't really read much of it; but it only takes a little for it to get into your brain and work like an "earworm," burrowing in and driving you crazy.

About 3:30 am Sunday, I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. Before long, I was thinking about the stuff I'd read the day before on flat-earthers. I told myself, "No, don't start thinking about that! You'll never get to sleep that way!" But it didn't work, and before long, I gave up the ghost. I was awake the rest of the morning.

What was I thinking about? How would I refute the flat-earth theory without recourse to any complex science, which I, myself, am not master of?

Flat-earthers love to cite all sorts of things. They claim all sorts of supposed evidence that proves their case. (Meanwhile, a little voice in my brain is screaming, "but it's all flipping nonsense, remember that! DON'T TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY!!!" I agree with myself, but real people are taking it seriously, and that is not nothing. Do you see what happens when I even get close to Crazyland?) They are like many of those folks who knock on people's doors on Saturday mornings; they have their prepared remarks and rebuttals, ready to deploy. Unfortunately for them, I really am an expert on theology and Scripture. I don't mean I have advanced degrees; but I do mean that I know a lot more about these things than the door-knockers. They've learned not to knock on my door (the church next door also has something to do with it).

But I'm not especially conversant in the science the flat-earthers are surely distorting, so I can't really call them on it. So what would work? (Remember, it's a sleepless 4 am when I'm pondering this.)

Then it hit me: geometry. Simple geometry. Let me know what you think. And if this is too long so you won't read it (tl;dr), skip down to where I show why this might actually matter.

Proof 1

The earth -- as a globe -- has longitude lines. They begin at a single point, the north pole; they widen to the equator, and then narrow again, until they converge at the south pole. But according to flat-earthers, the earth is a disk with the north pole at the center; they claim Antarctica is a ridge of ice that circles the disk, containing the oceans. If so, then these lines never converge, right?

Well, that creates problems for navigation, wouldn't you say?

Here's an easy experiment. Take an orange, and treat the navel as the north pole. Locate the equator. Take a marker, and just "north" of the equator, make a few dots, keeping them close to the equator.

Now, cut your orange in half. Take the "north" half, and clean out all the pulp, without tearing the skin. Now, take a sharp knife and carefully make cuts, so that this hemisphere can be laid perfectly flat. Notice what happens to those dots? They spread out apart, didn't they. Had you kept the skin intact, as a ball -- rather than cut the orange in half -- and then spread the whole sphere out, the portion representing the southern hemisphere would be even more spread out, wouldn't it?

So guess what? All the timetables for air travel, train travel, bus, truck and car travel, are all based on the globe. So if the flat-earthers are right, there is a problem. Do you see it?

Either Australia is much, much, MUCH larger than we all think it is -- and it takes many, many times longer to drive or fly across it...

Or else, it's the same size, but it's east and west coasts aren't at the longitudes we all think they are.

Either way, all travel along east-west routes that happens right now -- planes are in the air as I write -- simply must take vastly longer than it actually does. People will show up today who shouldn't show up for several days, because the distance would be so much greater if the earth is flat.

Well, I could go on to proofs 2 and 3, which had to do with triangles and something else, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, there is the problem of arguing "conspiracy" -- which is exactly what these poor folks must argue. My proof, above, made their conspiracy vastly larger; I made it involve, I guess, many billions of people. But even without my help, they still concede there must be some significant conspiracy, in order to account for all the fake satellites and space travel and what-all.

Here's the thing about secret conspiracies: they mostly aren't real, because they don't stay secret and they don't stay well coordinated. It's one of the easiest things for people to believe: all the energy companies are in a conspiracy, or, the CIA conspired to kill President Kennedy, get the idea. If you felt very smug so far about the poor flat-earthers, can you honestly claim you never took the bait on any conspiracy theory? I'm betting not. Most of us give them credence at some point or another. But it's all bogus; and it's not hard to see this, if you stop and think about how very hard it must be to pull it off. A conspiracy of even three or four people is pretty hard. For every new participant, it gets more and more certain that it will break down, and certainly become known.

My point is not really just crowing about flat-earthers. Rather, what interests me is why this sort of thing even has a few adherents; and why do more people seem susceptible to it (if that is indeed the case)? And I have a theory.

In recent decades, there have been three notable trends. One is that we aren't educating people so very well, particularly in how to think critically. That isn't as prized a skill as it used to be. Look at our college campuses: do they prize critical thinking? On the contrary: ask the wrong questions, disagree, and you are guilty of a "microaggression," you are a hater and you must be shut down and driven out. Quite a lot has been written about this. It is depressing.

A second trend is that we live in an era of disillusionment. One institution after another has been discredited before the eyes of the world. The Church. The free press. The government. Business. Sports. Entertainment. And, yes, Science.

And then, third, we live in a time when fakery is quite impressive. Special effects in movies and TV are so routine anymore that we forget just how marvelous they are. This feeds the notion that pretty much anything can be faked.

Maybe all this is a flash in the pan, but maybe not. It may be we will see more and more of this.

And in the meantime, if you find yourself simply dismissing science as all "fake," and there's a conspiracy to keep this afloat -- i.e., evolution, or climate change -- maybe you have more in common with flat-earthers than you want to admit?

Sunday, February 04, 2018

'How Hope and Healing Happen' (Sunday homily)

If you want a title for this homily, it is, “How hope and healing happen.”

To set the stage for the readings, listen to a quote 
from John Bergsma, a Scripture scholar:

“The true virtue, the true courage, is to maintain hope 
(and also love, and joy) in the face of 
what can sometimes look and feel like an ocean of darkness.”

So, “hope.” Let’s focus on that.

Job is discouraged for two reasons. The first we usually remember: 
he has lost everything: his children, his flocks, and his health. 
But there is a second reason as well.

You see, at the beginning of the story of Job, 
he has the mindset that if he does his part – if he lives right, 
keeps the commandments and offers worship to God – 
then he can expect blessings and good fortune.
So when everything falls apart, he keeps asking God: 
What did I do wrong?

And the answer, coming from God himself 
at the end of the Book is to tell Job:
You didn’t do anything wrong. 
All that we have from God isn’t something paid to us,
As if we earned it, or as a reward for good behavior.
Rather, everything is a gift.
The difference between Job’s idea – 
that he got blessings like a transaction – 
and God’s correction, that blessings are pure gift, 
which either we respond to, or we do not…

Is the difference between whether 
we place our hope in ourselves, or in God.

You tell me, which is a better focus of hope?

Maybe this has happened to you. 
There are times in our lives when we really do think, 
“I can fix this; I’m in control.”

And then we have that harsh awakening: 
“No, I really can’t do it myself.”
That is when we either despair – 
or cry out to God, who truly is our hope.

That brings us to the Gospel. 
We see what can happen when we really do cry out to God.
When we say, from the depths of our hearts,
“I can’t do this God, only you can: please save me!”

There is a detail in this Gospel we shouldn’t miss.
Yes, it talks about physical healing – 
for Peter’s mother-in-law, for example – 
but much more, it talks about casting out demons.

I want to reiterate what I said last week:
The mission of the Church – 
which we have received from Jesus Christ himself – 
includes confronting and driving out evil.

There is a scene in one of the Harry Potter films, 
where Hermione says to Harry, 
the enemy wants to divide us and make us feel isolated, 
alone and powerless. 

And the devil does this too.

As a priest, I hear many things, and I repeat nothing.
But I can say that many people are weighed down with sin and troubles, 
and what makes it harder is they do not talk to anyone about it.

Sometimes it is seeking happiness in the bottle, 
to make up for unhappiness elsewhere. 
Or it can be work or volunteerism,
As an escape from trouble at home. 
Still others seek empty fulfillment in dark places of the Internet, 
Isolating them from the harder but true joy of real relationships.

Fear, isolation and shame are chains that hold so many bound.
Have the courage to talk to someone. If you don’t know who, well:
You can talk to me. 

I am not Christ; but if I can be Christ for you – 
to be someone you can approach – nothing would make me happier.

But then, there’s this: isn’t that something 
each one of us can be for each other?
When Christ showed up, everyone flocked to him. 
They weren’t afraid to open their hearts to him.

Can you just imagine how much it would transform this parish, 
this community, our families, and the lives of so many people,
If each of us could be that kind of person for someone else?

Think of it! 

How that would smash the chains of bondage, 
because people would no longer be isolated by shame.

If someone near us felt safe to say, “I am struggling, 
and it’s so hard to talk about, but I trust you: will you help me?”

And that “help” isn’t about expertise; it isn’t about being smart. 
There are always ways to find that expertise.

But the first step is simply finding someone – 
another real human being -- to talk to about
Alcohol, or bitterness in the home, or addiction, 
or feelings that don’t line up with God’s plan for marriage, 
or whatever else is weighing you down.

The task – which Christ calls each of us to – 
is to be a sign of love, a beacon of hope.

So here is the irony. We’ve already established that hope 
won’t come from ourselves, but only from God. 
Yet the twist is, that that hope, which only God can be,
He makes present to others, through us.

Now, I want to take a moment to talk about 
one practical way we do that.
And that is the Catholic Ministries Appeal.

Many of us have gotten mailings. 
I am sure many have already responded 
with either a contribution or a pledge.
But if you haven’t, there are envelopes in your pews.
You can either take it hope and send it in later; 
or, you can take a moment now, and fill it out, 
and put it in the collection.

The Catholic Ministries Appeal, as you know, 
supports several worthwhile projects.
It provides for the retirement of priests.
It helps prepare our growing number of seminarians.
This fund also supports prison and hospital ministry,
And a Catholic presence on college campuses.

The CMA fund also supports Catholic Social Services, 
which is a lifeline for people either in so many situations, 
whether poverty or personal crisis.
And this fund is helping address the growing challenge 
of sharing our Faith in an ever more challenging culture.

Every year your generosity exceeds the target, 
and that means some of those funds come back here. 
We use them for our children and youth programs.

The other thing in your pews is not an ask for money,
But rather, an offer of something for you.
It is an invitation to “go deeper.”
You’ll see on this card some options for Lent, 
which is only ten days away.

This parish, for all we love about it, 
Is really only worth anything if it is a place of life.
A place of healing and hope.
The CMA is a way to be that healing and hope for others.
This “Go Deeper” invitation is a way to tap into that for ourselves – 
and then also be hope for others.