The Apocalypse and Christian Duty – 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

It has been said that we are living between times – between Advents – in the times between Christ’s first coming – as an infant in the manger, and His second coming – as Lord and Judge of this earth. Our Scriptures challenge us today – the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – with an important question: “Do my actions in public and private indicate that I am a disciple of Christ, dutifully preparing to meet the Lord?”

You see, we could spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out the signs of the times, discussing this visionary and that seer, trying to determine whether or not we are in the actual last days before the Second Coming. We could speculate on how various personalities in the media discuss the deterioration of political effectiveness, the degradation of cultural discourse, or our precarious economic situation. We could also become unsettled over the apocalyptic scenario of what continues to occur at the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, the possible demise of its nuclear core, and the resulting catastrophic impact on the Pacific region.

Troubled times were also prevalent two thousand years ago when St. Paul penned his letters to the Greeks of Thessaly. St. Paul was alarmed that the gossiping about current events and apocalyptic speculations were causing disruptive behavior. The Greek word that Paul uses to describe their behavior refers “to actions that interrupt the truthful announcement and living out” of the Good News of Christ. He carefully tells us that these alarmists are false prophets if they are causing such unease as to reduce the effectiveness and the realization of the Gospel in the lives of the people.

So what does Jesus and St. Paul suggest?

First, we need to take them seriously and not be overly concerned about when the last days will come. Christians should be alert – but not worry; rather, like Noah upon hearing the word of God, they should prepare and rejoice. We need not worry because we have plenty to do in the interim by concentrating our attention on our duties to love God with our whole heart and our whole soul, repent of our sins, and love and assist our neighbors, too.

St. Paul, echoing Christ, is very specific on this point, he says, “Your love must be sincere. Detest what is evil, cling to what is good. Love one another with the affection of brothers and sisters. Anticipate each other in showing respect. Do not grow slack but be fervent in spirit; He whom you serve is the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient under trial, and persevere in prayer.” (Romans 12: 9-12)

Let us pray that whatever the role we find ourselves in, we faithfully carry out the duties the Holy Spirit has asked us to complete. Each of our jobs and duties are important in the eyes of God. How, and in what spirit we perform them affects our life, and the lives of others, both on earth and in eternity. So let us be worthy of the trust, love, and friendship that Jesus has for us. If we do that, and live in the prayer and grace-filled life of His Word and Sacraments, we will have nothing to fear.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. I will deliver this homily at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island on Sunday November 17, 2013.

St. Francis of Assisi, Faith, and Grace

The following is my homily for the 27th Week in Ordinary time delivered at St. Francis of Assisi Church Wakefield, Rhode Island USA, October 6, 2013. The memorial of St. Francis of Assisi was celebrated on October 4th. 

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This weekend, as the Church remembers the life of St. Francis of Assisi, let’s pause for a moment and examine the virtues that energized Francis’ life.

We can begin by saying that he was a simple man. He pursued simplicity. This does not mean that he was of limited intelligence, or that he pursued simplicity for simplicity sake, rather, it means that he was successful at eliminating everything from his life that did not enhance his love of Jesus and service to his fellow man.

In other words, he was continually aware of the four eternal goals of life: keeping our soul in the state of grace, awareness of judgment by God, eternal life, and companionship with God Himself.

He realized that “to be simple is to see things with the eyes of God. St. Francis pursued simplicity because he innately knew that God Himself is simple.”

Other characteristics of Francis’ life are the virtues of faith and love. St. Francis understood that by praying for faith, by acting faithfully and lovingly, his spiritual life would be stressed – like an athlete preparing for a match – enabling him grow stronger in faith and love of God. He knew that if he committed himself to it God’s grace would assist him in this spiritual exercise.

In St. Francis’ life story we see his extraordinary reaction to his father’s demand for repayment for the fabrics he took, and sold, to benefit the poor.

How did he react when accused by his father?

In innocence and detachment he publicly disrobed –  a humble nude standing majestically in the Assisi town square.

Michelangelo should have attempted to sculpt that scene in marble. For what was the scene?

It was the image of the young Francis, not confronting the Goliath of military invasion, rather, the Goliath of a garden serpent (in the form of acceptance by society and his father’s love) who tempted him to return to the sweet life, “la dolce vita”.

But it was also the image of the grace of a Divine call to live a virtuous and detached life, filled with love for God and His creation.

The simple grace of Francis’ vision would be the stone that would bring down the giant of his own ego and worldliness.

Now let’s apply this to our Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10).

In today’s parable Jesus demonstrates the power of faith for overcoming temptation and obstacles.

But what did Jesus mean when He said that our faith could move trees and mountains? (see  also Matt.17: 20; Mark 11:23)

In the Middle East  – even to this day – the term “mountain mover” is used for someone who could provide the solutions to great difficulties.

So when Jesus tells us that if our faith was just the size of a mustard seed we could “uproot trees and mountains,” His emphasis is on His grace working in conjunction with our faith.

The gift of His grace is sufficient to assist us in dealing with our problems. Jesus doesn’t say that all our problems will instantly go away, rather, He says that we will be able to endure them, and yes, like Christ Himself, even overcome them.

So, we know St. Francis of Assisi today because he responded, in a heroic way, to the specific grace that he was given as a disciple of Christ.

Faith and grace was infused into his soul, and ours, at the moment of Baptism. If we choose to participate in Christ’s Sacraments, and do so on a regular basis, grace will build upon grace, and like Francis, our perception will become clearer, we will understand our personal Christian duty, and know how to respond to it.

With today’s Gospel, and St Francis in mind, we can say that God wants us to respond to His grace and scale the mountains of our own difficulties – to climb upon the crosses of our everyday life – because it is through this effort that we receive, in His love, the ability to be His partners in eternity.

At the end of his life, if St. Francis had been asked the question of what did he accomplish, he would have probably answered that he accomplished – nothing.

Rather, he may have said that it was as a loving disciple of Christ that he responded to the gift of God’s grace – and that it was God’s grace working through him that enabled him to perform good deeds and loving actions.

Let us pray that, in the spirit of St. Francis, we respond to God’s grace with the same faith, love, and generosity of spirit.

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Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the art: The first image of St. Francis is a 13th century contemporary image of him. It is found in the Benedictine Monastery in Subiaco, Italy. Thanks to Digitalnun at www.ibenedictines.org. The second and third paintings are by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). Bellini painted this around 1480. The third painting is a close-up of a section of this painting by Bellini which shows a curious and loving rabbit peeking out of his den just as St. Francis receives the stigmata. The last photo is of a cloak that was worn by St. Francis. You may observe it and other personal items of St. Francis, such as his prayer book, slipper, and a cincture in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. Quotations on simplicity based on a 1936 sermon by Fr. Ronald Knox. The reference to “mountain mover” and its usage in the Middle East was provided by D. Schwager. My thanks to him.

The Meaning of Lent: Repentance and Renewal

The following is a homily that was delivered at St. Francis of Assisi Church and St. Romuald Chapel in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA by Deacon Paul O. Iacono on the weekend of the 5th Sunday of Lent –  March 16/17, 2013.

Last week’s Gospel related the story of the prodigal son; this week the prodigal daughter stands before us.

These two people start with dissent against authority and its commands. Their actions led to life altering, almost near death experiences. They end their self-destructive journey with a conversion that speaks to all repentant sinners of the availability of the astonishing love, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

In last week’s Gospel, the merciful father pardons his prodigal son; today, God’s merciful Son pardons the sinful daughter.

Last week, the oldest son questioned the father’s reasoning; today, the Jewish elders question Jesus’ reasoning, and He responds to this challenge with questions of His own.

Jesus’ first challenge is to the mob: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This inquisitive command forces even the most proud and dogmatic of them into uncomfortable moments of self-reflection, and to see in that mirror their own sins – which results in their silently walking away.

Then Jesus turns, and looks at the woman – twenty-four hours earlier she was beautiful and appealing. What does He see now?  A woman whose feet were bloodied from running in panic through the streets, clothes torn, hair askew, mind and heart filled with panic at her impending death.

Her defiance of the 6th Commandment was gone; as she was running for her life defiance gave way to abject terror and remorse, and when finally caught, her grief gave way to despair.

In lust’s name, she had betrayed married love – publicly humiliated and publicly condemned – she stood surrounded by the mob – waiting for the first rock to be thrown – staring alternately at Jesus and the ground.

But, Jesus’ second challenge is to the woman herself. His challenge doesn’t wound her, rather, she comes into full contact with Jesus’ Sacred Heart. His words, spoken from His heart – caresses her heart; and as their eyes meet He says:    “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

Stunned with disbelief she must have stood there for a few moments, staring into Jesus’ eyes, the realization of His forgiveness washing over her – her heart filled with a new sense of hope and an overwhelming awareness of the invitation to live in His love and mercy.

The woman caught in adultery was blinded by her own lust, caught in the web of darkness she was unable to hear and speak to God, yet, what does Jesus do?

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He opens her eyes and ears; He gives her interior light; He covers her nakedness with a mantle of love and mercy and renews her ability to live a life that respects the laws of God.

At that moment Jesus blessed the adulterous woman with all the graces that are available to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation

In the stories of the prodigal son and daughter, we have a new awareness that in our own ways, we too, are prodigals; and relief – relief in the knowledge that when we do Sacramentally repent, and attempt to sin no more, we receive extraordinary graces and the invitation to live in the love of divine mercy.

This is the meaning of Lent my brothers and sisters. For it teaches us that we have no reason to fear Christ – no reason to fear reconciliation with Him – for He freely offers us His Sacramental strength so that we may walk in His freedom, be renewed, and become more like Him.

Like the prodigal son and daughter, let us put aside our sinful ways, and grasp the hand of our merciful God in Sacramental Confession. Let us trust in Him; for Jesus’ love is vast and the waters of His mercy, to those who repent, continually refresh and satisfy our deepest longings to rest in Him.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on painting: The above artwork is a preliminary sketch by Rembrandt for his finished painting on Christ and the  Woman Taken in Adultery (1644). I thank art historian Gary Schwartz for providing an image of that sketch at his website: www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/. Rembrandt’s finished painting is now displayed at the National Gallery in London, England.