Sunday, August 30, 2009

What defiles (Sunday homily)

(This is from my notes...)

We heard about rituals in the Gospel. We might wonder what they were all about, and where they came from. They came from God himself, who gave his people, at Sinai, his Covenant, which included a lot of details rules and rituals that were designed to help his people both learn how to be holy, and how to show his holiness to the world.

We have rituals for the same reasons. Whether it's what you do getting up in the morning, or at work, or in our faith, we have rituals that remind us who we are, and help us focus on our purpose. We dip our hands into the holy water coming into church, to remind us of our baptism, for example.

The problem is making more of them than we should. For example, if we gave someone a hard time for not getting holy water as he or she came into church. That was the sort of thing I remember arguing about with some other kids in 5th grade--do 5th grade boys still argue about such things? In my case, it was actually over which hand I used to cross myself: I'm left-handed, and the other guys made a big deal about me doing it with my left hand!

The Pharisees made them too important; and that got me thinking, are there ways we do that--making our ways, our rules or preferences, more important than what God wants?

That got me thinking about a conversation I had a couple of years ago. We were talking about how there are more and more Spanish-speaking Catholics around us, many are "below the radar," and to reach out to them, to serve them better, we might start having some hymns, or prayers, at Mass, in Spanish. The reaction was very negative: no, they should learn English. I said, as a citizen, I'm in sympathy; but as a pastor we must provide care for them. What's more important? I think its true, however, that were we to do that, there would be a lot of negative reaction. Still, does God prefer English to Spanish? You see the dilemma, and it isn't resolved. The day may come, or maybe it's here.

The real kicker in the Gospel is what our Lord goes on to say--about what defiles us. Not what comes from outside, but from within. What it suggests is that these things find a home in us--we are more at home with them than we may like to admit. Moreover, we may not even recognize them for what they are. In my own life, I cannot always recognize my own weaknesses--I have blind spots--I often need others to help me realize what they are.

That's where the sacrament of confession is so helpful--we have the help of God's grace, as well as another person, the priest, to examine ourselves, and root out these things that defile us.

Did you notice how many of them involve the use of words? How easily a harsh word or an innuendo can be uttered and do damage. It reminds me of a story about St. Philip Neri, who was renowned as a confessor and something of a practical joker. One day, someone came to him in confession, and confessed to telling tales that caused harm. So St. Philip said, I want you to take a pillow up to the church steeple, rip it open, and scatter the feathers. Then come back to me.

The person came back, and said, I did as you asked. St. Philip said, OK, now go collect every feather. Every feather! I can never do that! Just so, St. Philip replied, neither can you gather up all those words that caused damage.

That cuts me, because--as you may have noticed, I'm a talkative person; and I've said the wrong thing, or said things the wrong way, so I know I will answer for that one day.

The Good News is that while what comes from within is what defiles us, there is something we can receive to make us pure again: the grace of the Holy Spirit.

It is in being filled with that grace that we can displace these things, and root them out. As we have greater reason to feel complete and at peace, we have less reason to be envious or pick at others. The Holy Spirit will help us see these things for what they are, and be less at home with them.

In this Mass, we might ask Christ to help have the courage to confront these things, and to be open to the Holy Spirit so his grace can help us overcome them. Not defiled but purified by his grace.

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