Friday, March 18, 2022

HOMILY – Third Sunday of Lent – Go Low to Go High


          Our theme this Lent is:
Choosing the road that leads up to Calvary. The only real high road.

When we take the high road, sometimes we have to go low.

No, that does not mean we take the low road, but we do have to go low.

What is meant by that?

In our current culture, it’s all about upward mobility:

          Finding the better job. Living in the bigger house. Driving the fancier car.

In the kingdom, it’s all about downward mobility (going low):

Uniting with the poor and marginalized.

Serving the unhoused, the undocumented, the prisoner, the outcast, the sick and dying.

Rejecting the trappings of a warped culture of comfortability and entitlement.

Where are we on this spectrum? 

          This coming Thursday, we will remember the life of a new saint in the Catholic Church: St. Oscar Romero, Bishop and Martyr.

He was canonized October 14, 2018.

With Maryknoll, I was blessed to lead a pilgrimage to San Salvador, El Salvador, for the first official celebration of St. Oscar Romero’s feast day: March 24, 2019.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated on Monday, March 24th, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a chapel near his home.

March 24th used to be a day of sad remembrance. Now it is a day of celebration for one of the Church’s newest Saints.

          I had the honor to celebrate Mass at the Hospitalito chapel where St. Romero’s life ended.

The first time was with Maryknoll in 2013. During the recitation of the Our Father, I realized I was standing on the exact spot where his body fell and he died after being shot by a sharpshooter’s bullet. It was a powerful moment of reflection for this then newly ordained deacon. 

The fig tree parable in Luke’s Gospel is much different than that found in Matthew and Mark. The parable there was about a cursed tree that bears no fruit, an allusion to the Temple and the leaders of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus.

          Here in Luke, the fig tree analogy is different. Jesus describes the fig tree owner as patiently waiting three years for the tree to bear fruit. The moral of the story here is about the God of second chances.

Oscar Romero was brought up in by a middleclass family and formed in Rome.

When he was made Archbishop of San Salvador, many thought he would maintain the status quo where the rich took advantage of the poor.

He had been an Auxiliary Bishop in San Salvador and Bishop of the poor Diocese of Santiago de Maria and was not remembered as a champion of the poor then.

But a major event early in his tenure as the pastoral leader of El Salvador changed his perspective. Three weeks after being installed as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, his dear Jesuit priest friend was brutally murdered in the nearby community Aguilares along with two other Salvadorans, a teenage boy and an elderly man.

         The military Junta was suspected from the start.  

Fr. Rutilio Grande was an outspoken proponent of peasants’ rights and preached against injustice and oppression of his poor community of campesinos.

He was the first priest to be assassinated just prior to the Salvadoran Civil War. Many other priests would be killed during that Civil War.

This past January, Fr. Rutilio Grande was Beatified in San Salvador by Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez.

          We walked for five miles in a parade through the streets of San Salvador to the first Feast Day Mass for St. Oscar Romero in 2019 with Cardinal Gregorio who was treated like a rockstar by young people asking to take selfies with him. It was quite a sight.

Cardinal Gregorio was Archbishop Oscar Romero’s Auxiliary Bishop and was passed over 17 times for promotion before Pope Francis elevated him to Cardinal in 2017.

A sign of love from the God of second chances.

As for Romero, his second chance came when his friend was killed, and he had to choose: the poor and marginalized? Or the rich and powerful? Upward mobility? Or downward mobility?

By becoming the voice of the poor he knew someday he might suffer the same fate as his Jesuit friend.

          But that is when his words became powerful and prophetic.

Take for instance this homily at a Mass in Aguilares shortly after his friend was killed:

“We are here today to retake possession of this church building and to strengthen all those whom the enemies of the Church have trampled down. You should know that you have not suffered alone, for you are the church; you are the People of God; you are Jesus, in the here and now. He is crucified in you, just as surely as He was crucified 2000 years ago on that hill outside of Jerusalem. And you should know that your pain and your suffering, like His, will contribute to El Salvador’s liberation and redemption.”

Or the homily he delivered moments before his execution three years later.

This Gospel passage from John that led into the homily was prophetic in its own right:

          “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I assure you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains infertile. But if it dies, it produces a great yield.”

           Here’s what Archbishop Oscar Romero said in a homily moments before his death:

“Many do not understand, and they think Christianity should not get involved in such things (as championing the poor). But, to the contrary, you have just heard Christ's Gospel, that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life which history demands of us, that those who would avoid the danger will lose their life, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about because it dies, allows itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by destroying itself does it produce the harvest.”

Moments after delivering this homily, an assassin’s bullet pierced his heart as he lifted the chalice during the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer.

He died in the arms of the nuns who ran the hospital and hospital chapel.

         God calls us to die to ourselves and rise again in him.

No doubt Oscar Romero knew that he might die for speaking truth to power. And so, it is with all of us.  

We are not called to take the easy road, the low road.

We are called to take the high road, the difficult road, the road to Calvary.

We are called not to be upwardly mobile, but downwardly mobile. Not to seek the higher things. But accept the things that can lead to suffering and despair.

It’s only by going low that we walk the road to Calvary with Jesus and find our salvation.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

HOMILY – First Sunday of Lent – Temptation


          Fr. Bryan's and my preaching theme this Lent is: Choosing the road that leads up to Calvary. The only real high road. 

Life is hard. Sometimes we prefer the easiest path – one without suffering or pain or sorrow. But Jesus tells us we all must carry our crosses if we are to follow him.

You’ve heard it said, there is no resurrection without the cross.

This week Jesus is being tempted by the devil in the desert, seduced by three temptations (the three-p’s): pleasure, power, and prestige.

Jesus is tested -- all the way up to Calvary and the cross.

And, as we know, he always takes the high road. And he always passes the test.

         This week we also are looking at our response to temptation.

How do we deal with temptation? How do we deal with evil? How do we deal with the devil?

We hear in the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation.”

How does God “lead” us into temptation? It is a question some may ask.

God doesn’t lead us into temptation.  The Evil one does.

And we need God’s protection to battle the snares of the devil.

First, the antidotes to the devil’s temptations of pleasure, power and prestige are the three pillars of our Lenten journey: fasting, prayer and almsgiving, the first fruits of our relationship with God.     

Fasting helps us to conquer the sin of pleasure.

           Prayer for God’s will in our lives helps us to conquer the sin of desiring power or control.

Almsgiving (without anyone noticing) helps us to conquer the sin of prestige.

Lent is a time to call us back to these disciplines as we enter our own deserts.

In Luke’s Gospel we see a bunch of scenes of Satan trying to regain control of the world by taking away the word of God from people’s hearts.

Jesus is fasting and praying as he walks in the desert, facing the devil’s temptations, and all the while he is discerning a new way of living – a way totally focused on serving to the poor and marginalized, the outcast and outlaw, the despised and disposed. 

Jesus is about to build a community on a foundation of love and mercy.

This is the way of Jesus.

Luke's Gospel ties nicely to today's first reading from Deuteronomy.

Each of Jesus’ temptations was faced by the Hebrew people during their 40-year Exodus in the desert.  

They were tempted to believe that God had abandoned them or that they were being punished by God. 

Do we sometimes feel that way as we wander through our own personal deserts

          The devil continually whispers false things about God into our ears, turning God into something small and controllable in our eyes. Making God into an idol; a genie we can ask to grant our every wish.

Our faith life must always be one of continual idol-busting. Because God is not some puppet or creature under our control. God is always bigger than we can imagine.

We are not called to a one-sided objectification of God, but instead each of us is called into authentic relationship with God, a personal relationship with Jesus.

Do you have an intimate relationship with Christ?

Then there’s the devil. Yes, the devil is real and continually tempting us.

Truth is some people feel uncomfortable talking about the devil. The concept smacks of ancient superstition for many.  But whether or not we believe in the devil, we can all agree evil is real. 

          We need only look at the events in Ukraine to see a human example of evil rearing its ugly head in the world.

God is found in the brave actions of the men and women of Ukraine defending their nation by laying down their bodies in front of tanks. God is found in the brave leadership of a young President who believes he might die leading his country. God is found in our prayers for Ukraine, our almsgiving to the peoples there, and our fasting for peace on Ash Wednesday as Pope Francis asked us to do.

Evil is found in the bombing of civilian (not military) targets to grow an oppressor's empire. Evil is found in Russian missiles terrorizing old people, mothers with children and young men who have never experienced war. Evil is found in the lies told to Russian soldiers about how they will be received in Ukraine.

Take for instance the last text message found on the cell phone of teenage Russian soldier moments after his death.

          The text was read by Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations during an open session this week. Here’s the full transcript of the text message sent by a teenage Russian conscript to his mom:

“Mom, I’m in Ukraine. There’s a real war raging here. I’m afraid. We are bombing all the cities together even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us. And they are falling under our armored vehicles. They’re throwing themselves under the wheels and not allowing us to pass. They call us Fascists. Momma, this is so hard.”

Moments after sending this text to his mother the young soldier was killed.

          Everything he was told about the mission into Ukraine was a lie. This Russian teenager spent his time in the desert and was led to his death by the lies of the devil.  

Compare that to a viral video showing the humanity of Ukrainians feeding a hungry captured Russian soldier and letting him call home to his mother on a video chat. 

As we walk through the desert on our own 40-day Lenten journey, we will face temptations, too. The temptation to look away from the misery and suffering. The temptation to be ambivalent to the struggles of people in faraway lands.  The temptation to demonize young Russian soldiers instead of understanding they were lied to by their leaders.

Temptations supplant God with idol worship of our own making. It lulls us into thinking what’s bad is good and what’s good is bad. It warps our souls and brings about death and destruction.

          My prayer for us all is that we will open our eyes to the evils that surround us, and do as Jesus did: stand up to evil and say “no.”

We do this through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These Lenten practices are the path to salvation, and antidotes to the temptations of pleasure, power, and prestige.

Christ shows us today how to effectively rebuke the devil and turn away from his evil ways.

Jesus shows us his way, the only way – to choose the road that leads up to Calvary. The only real high road.