22 April 2018

No other Name

4th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Lest there be any confusion about who saves us from sin and death, Peter – filled with the Holy Spirit – says of Christ Jesus, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” Peter is answering a question here. Some in the crowd want to know how he healed a crippled man. Rather than taking the credit and boasting about his spiritual power, Peter tells the truth: Christ healed him. Christ saved him. This once-crippled man joins the millions, billions of broken people over the millennia who have heard their shepherd's voice and followed him to their salvation. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me. . .” Knowing Christ, loving Christ is how we stay secure in his flock, confidently led and protected from the wolves of the world. You can be sure that Christ the Good Shepherd knows and loves you – he died for you – but are you as sure that you know and love Christ? 
This question isn't meant to make you anxious. I'm not trying to scare you. Far from it. I ask the question b/c it is far too easy these days for us to lose sight of our final goal – eternal life with the Father through Christ. So much of what we experience everyday is designed to steer us away from knowing and loving our Lord. Rarely are we directly confronted by a stark choice btw following Christ and running with the wolves of the world. Rarely – at least here in the US – are we asked outright to choose: love Christ or love the World. The Enemy is not so stupid as to believe that we would choose the World if our choices were so plainly stated. So, we are instead forced to make – over and over again – smaller, seemingly less urgent choices that slowly but inevitably turn us either toward Christ or the World. Choices that either lead us away from the flock or send us running from the wolves. You know what I'm talk about. Here's a chance to tell the truth or lie. Here's another chance to speak up for Christ, or stay silent. Here's a moment for showing mercy. or taking your revenge. Stay faithful to your spouse, or commit adultery in your heart. Offer praise and thanksgiving to God, or walk away believing you are entitled to His gifts. Knowing and loving Christ means – at the very least – that you keep firmly before you your final goal: eternal life with the Father through Christ. 
This is why Peter and his Church have taught for more than 2,000 years that the only name given on earth and under the heavens for our salvation is the name, Christ Jesus. Many have tried through the centuries to modify, undermine, or outright destroy this constant teaching. Historically, the list of alternative Saviors includes: Good Works, Good Intentions, Just Being Human, Social Justice, Secret Mystical Knowledge, the Law, Rituals Well Done, the State, Community, and Prosperity. In all cases, the idea is to push Christ as-he-is out of the way and replace him with an alternative that demands less from us and is easier for the World to control. In all cases, the alternative is Christ with just a few little modifications, just a few tiny little tweaks that some believe improve on the original Savior. BUT the Good Shepherd knows his and his know him. When the wolves start to hunt, the sheep know where they can go to be secure, to be protected. As St. John says, “Beloved, we are God's children now. . .” And God's children take refuge in His Son.

You can be sure that Christ the Good Shepherd knows and loves you – he died for you – but are you as sure that you know and love Christ? If you are unsure about whether or not you know and love Christ, ask yourself: do I follow his commands? Christ says that those who would be friends follow his commands. Do I love as I ought? That's his first command. Do I bear witness to his mercy in my life? That's what apostles do, bear witness. Do I speak up and tell the truth about his Good News? Do I speak and behave in a way that shows others my love for Christ? Am I faithful to my baptismal vows? Do I use my personal opinions to judge Church teaching? Knowing and love Christ the Good Shepherd is never about “following blindly.” It is always about making a fundamental decision to follow Christ and then reorienting our lives along with his words and deeds. That what “following Christ” means. To walk with him, to talk with him, and to find ourselves living peaceably in his flock.

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15 April 2018

We are witnesses to these things!

3rd Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The disciples are “startled and terrified.” They're troubled, “incredulous for joy” and amazed. What has them all discombobulated and witless? Days after his death and resurrection, Jesus appears among them – in the flesh – and says, “Peace be with you.” Believing that they are seeing a ghost, the disciples freak out! And Jesus asks them, “Why are you troubled?” Well, Jesus, maybe it's b/c you were scourged, nailed to a cross, stabbed in the chest with a spear, buried in a new tomb, and then disappeared after three days, leaving behind nothing but your burial clothes! Now you're walking around, showing us your fatal wounds, and talking to us as if nothing has happened. That's why were troubled! But Jesus seems genuinely confused by their reaction to him, so he asks, “. . .why do questions arise in your hearts?” See answer above: nails, cross, spear, tomb, missing body! Maybe a better question for us to consider is this: why is Jesus confused by his disciples' surprise? Why does he find it odd that they are frightened? After all, he taught them that he must suffer, die, and rise again to fulfill the law and the Prophets. Despite their dumbfounded surprise at his reappearance, the disciples are witnesses to all these things.

And so are we. No, we're not eyewitnesses in the same way that the disciples were. None of us here were there back then to see and hear the nails hammered into his hands and the spear pierce his side. BUT we are witnesses now to the salvation his death purchased for us. We are witnesses now to the mercy we've received b/c he freely chose to become the Lamb of God. We are witnesses now to the love that both the Father and the Son share with us in the Holy Spirit. We can speak about our lives as sinners and give testimony to being freed from sin and death through the waters of baptism. We can speak about the challenges and victories of growing in holiness. We can speak about the beauty of a life lived abundantly in God's grace. The truth we find in the Word and the Sacraments of the Church. The goodness we see in one another when we are at our best. And, yes, we can speak too about our failures; those times we have been less than truthful, those moments where we refuse to be charitable. We can even speak about our doubts, our questions, and our battles to remain faithful. Christian testimony is not propaganda bent toward making us Look Good to the world. Christian testimony is truth-telling. Not “my truth” or “your truth.” But The Truth!

This brings us back to the disciples and their odd reaction to Jesus' reappearance after so many days dead and gone. Jesus told them again and again that he had to suffer, die, and rise again to accomplish their salvation. He told them The Truth. Repeatedly. Their reaction to his reappearance tells us that they didn't believe him while he was with them. So, he returns – wounds and all – to show them. But notice – not only does he show them his wounds as evidence, “he open[s] their minds to understand the Scriptures.” He opens their minds to Scripture to show them that “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” In other words, he shows them the proof of fulfillment written on his body, carved into his flesh, and teaches them – again – that he is indeed the Messiah, the Holy One of God. We hear Peter preaching, “. . .God has thus brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer.” Suffer for what? For whom? For us! Therefore, “Repent. . .and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” We can bear witness to this truth. 
As we move rapidly toward Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we can do a great deal of good by examining our witness to Christ's sacrifice. Ask yourself: do I live and speak in such a way that others can see and hear Christ in me? Do I live and speak in such a way that others see and hear the Father's abundant mercy in me? Am I an instrument of grace for others? An example? A model of righteousness? Or am I like the troubled disciples, surprised by Christ and too afraid to come out of hiding? Jesus says to his disciples back then and to us right now, “You are witnesses of these things.” Therefore, bear witness and allow God's love to be perfected in you!

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07 April 2018

Make your witness worthy of trust

2nd Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel Sisters, NOLA

How do we not see and yet believe? That is, how do we come to believe despite not having seen? Thomas' refusal to believe that his dead and resurrected Master had visited the apostles makes perfect sense to most Americans. Even most Catholics. We are no less prone to our culture's empirical pragmatism that our Protestant and even non-religious friends and family. In this scene from John, Thomas the Twin stands in for whole generations of western Christians who either ignore the supernatural elements of the faith, or simply refuse – along with Thomas – to believe until empirical evidence is presented, vetted, duplicated, and peer-reviewed. What's astonishing to me is that we always never insist on a Thomas Level of proof in our daily relationships. If my colleague tells me that one of my seminarian-advisees missed class w/o notice, I don't hesitate to contact the miscreant to find out why. When Sr. Angele asks me to celebrate Vigil Mass on April 7th at Mt. Carmel, I don't ask her to send me physical evidence that this alleged academy exists and that there are Carmelite sisters living and working there. We believe in what we do not and cannot see b/c we trust the witness of others. This is why our witness must always be faithful, worthy of trust.

So, is the witness of the other apostles to Thomas trustworthy? We know it is b/c we've been – in a sense – watching from the corner the whole time and saw Christ appear! For Thomas, their witness is insufficient. Why? There's no way for us know for sure why he refused to believe his brothers in the faith, but we can speculate. Maybe the news of his recently executed Master's appearance is just too much for him to process. Grief can cause us to do and say things out of character. Maybe he's been an empirical sort all along, one of those who just needs to see how things are done up close before he gets a grip on what's happening. Maybe Christ's horrible death on the cross has shaken his faith to it core and up-ended his world. Maybe Good Friday caused him to swear off believing in miracles. Maybe his brothers had lost his trust long before this and his refusal to believe is just the latest instance of his suspicious nature. Whatever it is that created his mistrust, we must be clear: Thomas does not doubt; he refuses to believe. Doubt occurs in the intellect. Refusing to believe is all about the will.

Why does that matter? The intellect seeks the Truth. The will seeks the Good. Thomas' refusal to believe is a refusal to accept the Good that his Master's appearance embodies. After the trauma of Good Friday and all of the nastiness of running and hiding after Easter Sunday, Thomas cannot bring himself to move toward the Good of Christ's reappearance. He needs more than trustworthy witnesses. He needs more than his own wishful-thinking. He needs Christ standing in front of him. And that's what he gets. His will is moved and he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Many who do not yet believe will be moved by our witness to the Risen Christ. Some unbelievers may ask for proof. What proof can we give them beyond what we ourselves have experienced of God's mercy? For those seeking the Truth, we can give rational arguments and answer their questions. But for those seeking the Good, something more is required. That Something More is where the truly difficult work of our witness begins. They want to see Christ standing in front of them. And all we have to show them is. . .us. Good, bad, and/or ugly. . .it's down to us. Here, on April 7, 2018 in New Orleans, LA, we are Christ reappearing to everyone he has asked to believe.

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31 March 2018

You know what has happened. . .now what?

[NB. The bracketed words are responses from the congregation. . .and, yes, they responded!]

Easter Sunday 2006 
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Are you here this morning, Church? [Yes] Royal Priests! [Yes] People of God! [Yes] Holy Nation! [Yes] Pilgrim Church! [Yes] Sons and Daughters of the Most High! [Yes], Brothers and Sisters [Yes], then you know what has happened! Christ Jesus the Lord is risen from the tomb! [Amen]

He was sold in betrayal by a friend for the price of a murdered slave! [Amen] He was denied by His best friends when He needed them most! [Amen] He was falsely accused of blasphemy by His own people, found guilty on perjured testimony, and given to Pilate for judgment! [Amen] He was bartered for a murderer with a riotous mob and given to Roman soldiers to be scourged! [Amen] He was crowned with thorns, robed in purple, mocked and spat upon, and hailed as the King of the Jews! [Amen] And, finally, in the place of Skulls, He was nailed hands and feet to the Cross to die forsaken! [Amen]

But you know what has happened! Christ Jesus the Lord is risen from the tomb! The stone is rolled away. His burial cloth thrown to the ground. The tomb is empty.

You know what has happened! But do you know what it means? The disciples, seeing the rolled-away stone, the empty tomb and the burial cloth did not yet understand. And it is no simple matter to say “yes” when asked: do you believe in 2006 that a man who hung on a cross, who was dead and buried for three days, has somehow sprung to live and walked away from his grave? How do you say “yes” to that absurdity? How does anyone in their right mind say to “yes” to that!? I say, it is precisely b/c you are in your Right Mind, your righteous mind, that you say YES to the Rolled Away Stone [Yes], that you say YES to the Empty Tomb [Yes], and that you say AMEN to what you know has happened: Christ Jesus the Lord is risen from the dead! [Amen]

We are not here this morning to celebrate a vegetative regeneration myth. Jesus was not raised from the tomb b/c a god of a myth must rise from the dead so the flowers and grains of the Earth might rise in spring. No. We are not here this morning to celebrate the defeat of our subconscious’ death wish. Jesus was not raised from the tomb because our neurosises need fuel for another year. No. We are not here this morning to celebrate the triumph of an archetypal Hero over an archetypal Death. Jesus was not raised from the tomb because we need a Jungian happy-ending to our quest. No. We are not here this morning to celebrate the triumph of empowered self-esteem over the oppressive, patriarchal structures of organized religion. No. Jesus was not raised from the tomb because our pet-ideologies would be empty without some revolutionary symbol of victory. No.

We are here this morning to celebrate the triumph of New Life over Death, Creation over Chaos, the Goodness of Being over the Evil of Nothingness, the triumph of Freedom over Sin. The tomb is empty because God raised His murdered Son from an ignoble death to New Life. The tomb is empty because the living do not live in the grave! The living have no need of burial clothes! The living say YES to the Father [Yes] and Amen to a glorious life lived in the sure faith of the Resurrection! [Amen]

It is easy to say YES and AMEN on Easter Sunday. The account of the Empty Tomb is still fresh in our hearts and minds. The courage of Mary Magdala’s witness to the cowardly disciples still stirs in us. But let’s be honest: the long 50 day march to Pentecost will see our fervor fade, our energy wane, and the alleluia’s of this Easter morning will droop with these lilies. We will find ourselves before long in the Upper Room cowering with the remnant of Jesus’ once mighty band, wondering what idiocy possessed us to witness to the ridiculous notion that a dead man rose to life and starting popping up all over the city and chatting with people. We hope for the coming of the Holy Spirit to put us back in our right mind, but we have fifty days of Easter to live faithfully. How?

If Palm Sunday is about welcoming the soon-to-be tortured and executed Lord into our lives and Good Friday is about witnessing His suffering for our sakes and Easter Sunday is about celebrating the New Life of the Empty Tomb, then our fifty days to the coming of the Holy Spirit needs to be about gratitude, about giving thanks. We have immediate access to the abundant blessings of the Father through gratitude. Gratitude does two things for us spiritually: first, gratitude is a confession that everything we are and everything we have comes from the Father—we are completely dependent on Him; and second, when we gratefully accept the gifts we are given by God, we become willing beneficiaries of His abundant goodness.

We deny ourselves the benefits of the Resurrection by living lives of entitlement (I am deserving w/o costs!), by living lives of victimization (My problems are someone’s fault!), by living lives of denial (That’s not me!), and by living our lives wallowing in hurt (I will never forgive!). Do not deny yourselves the benefits of the Resurrection.

Practice Easter Gratitude instead! Pray daily to the Father, our Abundant Provider and generous Lord: In You I live and move and have my being. Everything I am and everything I have is Your blessing. This day I offer it all to Your service. Thank you, Lord, for this season of my life, for the gifts You have given me, for those I love and who love me in return. Thank You, Lord, for Your creation, for Your revelation in scripture, for our salvation in Christ Jesus, for the holiness I await in the coming of the Holy Spirit, and for the Church that will rise from the tongues of fire. Make gratitude my constant prayer, Father, so that I may live as a Living Blessing for others. Pray for these in name of our Easter Lord, Jesus Christ!

The tomb is empty, brothers and sisters! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Are you here this morning, Church? [Yes] Royal Priests! [Yes] People of God! [Yes] Holy Nation! [Yes] Pilgrim Church! [Yes] Sons and Daughters of the Most High! [Yes], Brothers and Sisters [Yes], then you know what has happened! Christ Jesus the Lord is risen from the tomb! [Amen]

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29 March 2018

Perfected through obedience

NB. from 2015

Office of Readings: Holy Thursday
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

All that we read and hear read in these Holy Thursday liturgies teach us to how to see our Lord's death. If we were to watch him die on the cross as a criminal, we would have nothing to celebrate. He is dead. If we were see him die as just a man, as this morning's sin-offering, we would have to prepare another victim to sacrifice for tomorrow's sins. If we were to see him die as a god, then nothing human is healed by his dying. Holy Thursday teaches us to see our Lord's death in truth. He is a heretic to the Jews. A criminal to the Romans. Just a man to Jew and Gentile alike. But for us, he is the Son of God and the Son of Man, offered once for all on the altar of the Cross as a sin-offering for the whole world. “When perfected [through obedience], he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. . .” 

Holy Thursday teaches us how an execution became a sacrifice and how a sacrifice becomes a on-going feast for giving thanks. When Jesus and his disciples gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, they are doing more—much more—than honoring an ancient Jewish custom. For three years now, Jesus has reminded his disciples—in word and deed—that everything he says and does is moving them all toward a single goal: the fulfillment of the Covenant btw Abraham and God the Father. Every sermon, every hostile exchange with the Pharisees, every healing miracle, everything he has said and done fulfills scriptural prophecy and points to his birth as the coming of the Kingdom. This last celebration of Passover in Jerusalem is no different. It too is a prophetic sign of who and what he is for us. When Jesus and his friends recline at table to begin the feast, they know that what they are remembering is God's rescue of His people from centuries of Egyptian slavery. Bread for the feast is unleavened b/c there is no time to wait for it to rise. The wine is watered b/c they need to be clear-headed for their escape. They are girded for travel and lightly packed. Jesus lifts the bread and says, “This is my Body.” He lifts the cup of wine, “This is my Blood.” At that moment, what were the disciples thinking? Knowing full well what the Passover means—freedom from slavery—did they understand that the Lord was telling them that their ancestral meal of remembrance was now a feast of freedom? That eating his Body and Blood would free them from sin and death? Later, after Jesus' execution, did they make the connection btw ritually sacrificing a lamb in the temple with his sacrifice on the cross? 

Holy Thursday teaches us that the Roman execution of Jesus is a Jewish sacrifice that the Risen Christ transforms into a feast of thanksgiving—a New Covenant Passover celebration that celebrates our rescue from slavery to sin. How does a Roman execution become a Christian feast? When the one executed is the Son of God and Son of Man. When the one whose body and blood we eat and drink is presented to God as a sacrifice, a sin-offering made once for all. And when we are commanded to remember this sacrifice, to participate in it by taking into our own bodies the Body and Blood of the one sacrificed for us. Holy Thursday teaches us that Jesus the Christ has fulfilled the promises and obligations of the Covenant made btw Abraham and God the Father, establishing for us a New Covenant of grace, of freely offered forgiveness for all of our offenses. Knowing this, “. . .let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor and to find help in time of need.”

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25 March 2018

He goes to Jerusalem knowing. . .

Palm Sunday (B)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Between today and next Sunday we will hear again and again how Christ emptied himself out for our sake. How he took on the form of a slave for us. How he “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Palm Sunday remembers the day he entered Jerusalem in triumph, hailed as a conquering king. What a difference one week can make. From King to Criminal, from Conqueror to Crook. He will be celebrated and honored, betrayed and falsely accused, wrongly convicted and executed. . .all this week. . .and for no other reason than to free you and me from the bonds from sin and death. He goes to Jerusalem – knowing he will die – he goes to Jerusalem b/c it is in Jerusalem that every righteous sacrifice must be made. He dies in this one place so that every place from then on will be made right for offering the Father worthy praise and thanksgiving. Spend this week before his death giving God thanks and praise for making His mercy freely available. For making His Son the means of your freedom from the darkness of sin and death. For making us His children. . .again.


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24 March 2018

Three Scenes from the Field Hospital

Pope Francis says that the Church is a "field hospital."

Brilliant metaphor!

Let's explore:


You are experiencing severe chest pains. An ambulance takes you to the E.R. The doctors take one look at you and call security to throw you out. Eventually, a disgusted nurse comes outside and you ask her, "I'm having a heart attack! Why won't you treat me?" The nurse sneers, "We only accept perfectly healthy people at this hospital." You die.


You are experiencing severe chest pains. An ambulance takes you to the E.R. The doctors do a battery of tests and conclude that you are having a heart attack. They nod solemnly and walk away. After a couples of hours of intense pain and panic, you ask a nurse, "I'm having a heart attack! Why won't you treat me?" She smiles and chirps, "Oh! We are only here to affirm you in your concrete circumstances and accompany you while you share our space." You die.


You are experiencing severe chest pains. An ambulance takes you to the E.R. The doctors do a battery of tests and conclude that you are having a heart attack. They immediately get to work stabilizing your condition with meds and order a series of treatments that prevent further damage to your heart. After the initial emergency is over, a nurse comes by to arrange long-term out-patient care and suggestions for altering your diet and exercise regimen. You live.

Which of these three scenes best represents the salvific work of the Church as a field hospital?
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12 March 2018

Do you need signs and wonders?

4th Week of Lent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic, NOLA

This scene from John always makes me a little nervous. Jesus seems to be dismissing the royal official's anxiety about his dying son. He asks Jesus to come to Capernaum and heal the kid and Jesus sort of waves him off with “You people just won't believe unless you see signs and wonders.” Completely ignoring him, the official persists, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Here's where I have to be careful, b/c I can almost see Jesus roll his eyes and sigh before he says – a little too pompously? – “You may go; your son will live.” Now, I know Jesus didn't roll his eyes or sigh, and I know he's not arrogantly dismissing this poor man's distress over his dying son. But I think you can see how this all reads on the page. Jesus here isn't exactly the picture of the heroic healer we've some to expect. So, what's going on? The answer – I think – comes in the sentence immediately after Jesus tells the man that his son will live. John writes, “The man believed what Jesus said to him and left.” In other words, the man believes Jesus has healed his son before he actually knows that his son is healed. He didn't need to see signs and wonder before he believed. He takes Jesus at his word.

When we talk about faith, we often talk as if faith is a quantity of something, a measurable amount of “holy stuff.” I need more faith. I don't have enough faith. We do the same thing with grace. More grace. Not enough grace. This is a deadly way of thinking about the trust we place in the Lord. We cannot account for faith; that is, count it up and balance the ledger btw credits and debits. Faith is our living, daily trust in the Father's promises. I trust God, or I don't. If I say that I trust God but still seek after signs and wonders, then all I'm doing is gambling that I'm right to trust Him. If I refuse to trust until I have proof, then my trust – when the proof comes – isn't really trust at all. However, if – like the official – I ask in faith for something and believe it is given before I see it done, then I can say that I truly trust in God's Word. We like evidence. We like to see and hear and touch. We like to know. But the only grounds we have for believing in God's promises is the indwelling of His love and our belief that we are – from all eternity – the subjects of His boundless mercy. To this truth we are vowed to be public witnesses, to give testimony without fear or shame.

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10 March 2018

By Grace We Have Been Saved

NB. I almost forgot that I am celebrating a Vigil Mass for the Carmelite sisters and their benefactors today.

4th Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel Academy, NOLA

For all the weirdness of the Catholic faith – things like chapels made of skulls and monks sleeping in coffins – we Catholics are a practical people overall. We like prayers that work for us. We like devotions that console us. One of the ways that we sometimes keep track of our salvation looks something like a bookkeeper's ledger. Good deeds on the credit side. Sins on the debit side. We look at that ledger and think, “If I can manage kick off while the credits are larger than the debits, I'm good.” With this mindset firmly in place, we look for ways to build the credit side – indulgences, extra penances, more time in the confessional, maybe a few extra bucks in the collection plate. We may even take on trying to reduce the debit side of the ledger by giving up a few vices or fasting once and awhile. Lent is a particularly time of year to kick a few bad habits and pick up some good ones. At the end of these 40 Days we sit down at the ledger and hope the balance looks good before Easter! While all this is a sensible, practical way of growing in holiness, it does nothing to the bottom-line of our salvation. Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy. . .brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved. . .”

By grace we have been saved. Not prayer or good deeds or donations or extra penances. By grace. Through a gift from God. His gift of His only Son, Jesus Christ. Being the practical people we are we sometimes have difficulty really believing that our redemption is free. In fact, our redemption from sin and death is so free that we were given our freedom before we could do anything to earn it. Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy. . .brought us to life with Christ. . .” Why? “. . .because of the great love he had for us. . .” When did He do this? “. . .even when we were dead in our transgressions.” Even when we were dead in our sins, God's love for us, His mercy for us brought us back to life with his Christ. We did nothing to earn this. Nothing to merit it. Nothing we could do would gain us this life in Christ. We hear this echoed in John oft-quoted verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The kicker here is that even our desire and ability to believe in His Son is a gift!

So why do we work ourselves into a frenzy “doing holy things” to assure our salvation? I have no idea. Doing holy things can help us grow in holiness, to become more perfect in Christ, but they can do nothing to save us. Why? Because we are not saved in degrees. Being Saved is like Being Dead. Either you are or you aren't. Now, you can sin to such an extreme degree that you effectively reject your salvation. But even then God's offer to return remains open and free. Just turn around. Confess. Do your penance. And receive the Father's mercy. Here's a suggestion for the remaining days of Lent: sacrifice your religious pride; that is, give up any false notion that you can “do your own thing” in order to be saved. You can't. You can't earn what's already free. You can sacrifice your religious pride by adopting a program of prayer that focuses exclusively on giving God thanks for all that you have. No other prayer than: “Thank You, Lord, for my family, my friends, my health, etc.” Thank Him for your trials so that they can be made holy. Thank Him for your temptations so that they too can be made holy. Work for holiness not salvation. John writes, “whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”

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I'm WAY holier than you. . .

NB. The deacon is preaching the Sunday Mass at OLR, so here's a Vintage Fr. Philip Homily. . .

4th Sunday of Lent 2006
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

Hear it!

I’ve been feeling rather proud of myself this last week! I got up early everyday and said my rosary. Spent thirty minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament on my knees. Prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Forty Days Prayer for Lent. I did all this before breakfast, without food, in our unheated chapel at the priory. I don’t mean to boast, but you know, I feel really, really holy, like I’ve really managed to get God to love me a little more, maybe I got a little closer to convincing Him to let me into Heaven. One morning, one of the other brothers just popped into the chapel for a second. Just bopped through like a rabbit and grabbed one of those missalette things and ran off. Guess he’s not interested in saving his soul. Well, I tell you, not to boast, of course, I’m determined to earn some Heaven Points today. I’m saying the rosary two more times, praying the Stations, and doing a few prostrations before the Blessed Sacrament! That should top off my grace account for the day.

Man, you know, working for redemption ain’t easy! But at least I’m working, right? At least I know that God loves me when I’m working for His love. I’m not like those other friars in my priory—I can fast more often, kneel longer, pray louder (and in Latin!), I adore the Blessed Sacrament instead of the TV, spend time with the Blessed Mother instead of the computer, and I know I’m holier because my habit is cleaner, and I iron it too! Jesus loves me best and most because I deserve it. You know, I’ve earned it.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re absolutely sure that you’re holier than the guy kneeling next to you at Mass? That you are most certainly better loved by God, closer to redemption and better insured against Hell? Look right now at the people around you. Can you tell who God doesn’t love as much as He loves you? Who isn’t as close to Heaven as your hard work has gotten you? They’re just spiritually lazy, right? Don’t you have a solemn duty to let them know that they’re being spiritually lazy, that they need to work a little harder for their grace points? Don’t you, as one more loved by God, have a duty to monitor their spiritual progress and correct their faults so that they will earn as many points as possible? Don’t you have a responsibility to save them, to save them from themselves for Christ?

No. You don’t. And do you know why? Of course you do! Grace ain’t earned. God’s love cannot be worked for. Our salvation was accomplished 2,000 years ago on the Cross and out of the Tomb, and no amount of kneeling, fasting, praying, boasting of holiness, monitoring our brothers and sisters, correcting others’ faults, or walking the Stations during Lent will get us one more ounce of redemptive grace, not one step closer to the Father’s mercy. Listen to Paul again: “[…] by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” His love for us is not our handiwork. We are the Father’s handiwork. We do not conjure His love. We can stand in awe. We can offer thanks. We can bend the knee in adoration. We can even fall flat on our faces in righteous humility. But we cannot earn, buy, beg, steal, or in any shape, form, or fashion bank God’s love.

You’re probably thinking: “OK, Father, why are you on about this again!? Didn’t you just prattle on about this recently?” I’m on about this again because I think we all need to be reminded, especially in Lent, that God loves us and that our redemption, the healing of the Original Wound, is done and nothing we can do now will make redemption more available or freer or easier to get. Lent brings us to a powerful recognition of our mortality, a kind of panic about the years left to us and the weight of the years behind us. Lent dangles before our eyes our lives of sin: our disobediences, our many failures to love. It is uniquely a season for us to pull out of our souls all the festering junk that poisons us and set it ablaze in the desert. That vulnerability, that nakedness can leave us open to alien notions about grace, ideas foreign to our tradition. Our bishops know this well, so we have today, in the middle of Lent, John’s gospel on Christ’s love for us. How fitting!

Any time we spend with God alone leaves us naked in His glory and every blemish, every smudge, every little imperfection in us shines like a beacon. God does not love us despite our blemishes and little imperfections—as if we will live with Him forever stained with sin. No! It is because He loves us first and always that He opens a way to cleanliness for us and then He leaves us to wash. We do not earn the invitation to bathe. But we must bathe to enter His house.

Whoever believes in him will be saved. Whoever refuses to believe in him is already condemned.

I said to you earlier that no amount of fasting, prayer, or kneeling, none of these, will get you one more ounce of God’s love. This is true. It is true because you have every once of God’s love right now. He sent His only Son to die for us. He loves us as Love Himself, caritas per se. There is no love for Him to hold back. No love held back for Him to reward those who work harder. Deus caritas est. God is Love. And God is a person, Jesus Christ.

Our Holy Father, Benedict, in his first encyclical, teaches us, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Perhaps too boldly, I want to elaborate on our Holy Father’s teaching: being a Christian is not the result of righteous work or well-earned grace, but the result of “bumping into” the love that is God, the person of Jesus Christ, the Christ who freely accepted his death on a cross for us, and in so doing, makes it possible for us to live with him everyday of our lives and with him always in glory.

Pray. Fast. Kneel. Fraternally correct. Prostrate. Confess. Do penance. It is Lent! Be repentant, absolutely! But know that your spiritual athleticism will not save you. If you pray, fast, kneel, and do penance to earn God’s love, you will not grow in holiness. If you pray, fast, kneel and do penance because God loves you, in the full knowledge that your redemption is accomplished, then your work will be a blessing and holiness will prosper. The temptation of this wonderful penitential season is to fall into the Devil’s trap of believing that the Father expects us to earn His approval, His love. This is evil. The truth is that we are loved now, always. And we are loved sacrificially.

By grace we have been saved, raised up with him. By the light of this truth may our works be clearly seen as done in Him, with Him, and through Him.

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to bathe!

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04 March 2018

The Church is not a marketplace

3rd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP

When is the church a house of prayer, and when is it a marketplace? What is prayer and what is commerce? Prayer is asking God to bless us with what we need. Commerce is buying from and selling to others what we think we need. Prayer is an act of humility; commerce is simply an exchange of goods or services, seeking profit. The church is a house of prayer when it is a place for God’s people to gather to ask Him for what they need in humility and to offer Him worship in justice. The church is a marketplace, however, when it becomes a place for God’s people to make profitable deals with the Father, or attempt to buy or sell His gifts. There is nothing sinful about commerce or profit per se. But when the merchandise is the Truth of the faith, or when the profit gained weakens God's people, there we have a problem! The Church is not a marketplace. It's a nation, a priesthood, a tribe of men and women who make up the Body of Christ, men and women given to Christ by his Father to save from sin and death. Nothing we have from the Father is for sale. Nothing we need for eternal life can be bought.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem with a little righteous anger brewing and hits the temple area like a desert whirlwind. Laying hold of his prophetic authority, Jesus, recalling Zechariah the Prophet, calls the temple a house of prayer that has been made into a den of merchants. To cleanse the temple of thievery, he drives out those who have turned his Father’s place of worship into a marketplace for Mammon. Now cleansed, the temple becomes his place for teaching, a place for proclaiming and preaching the Word—a place where the people gather to hang on Jesus’ every word. In this one movement, this single display of righteous indignation, Jesus has redefined the church for us, reconceived what it means for his people to gather, to hear the Word, to worship in spirit and truth, and to live in the abiding presence of God day-to-day.

When the People of God, the Body of Christ, come together to offer praise and thanksgiving, to offer up petitions and intercessions, the house of the Lord is a house of prayer. When the Word is proclaimed and preached and the sacrifice of thanksgiving made on the altar and in the heart, the house of the Lord is a house of prayer. When we gather to give to God what is His in justice, that which we owe Him as a matter of covenant and elemental desire, that is, our lives, the house of the Lord is a house of prayer. When the house of the Lord is a house of prayer, it is a time and place of distilled righteousness, a time away from time, a place away from place, where and when we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ. Where we ourselves are the sacrifice.

While here we don’t just hang on his words in prayer; we hang on his cross, offering to God what has been His gift to us from the beginning: our love, our adoration, our very lives.

The house of the Lord becomes a den of merchants when we withhold our assent and our surrender. When we choose, freely, the stingy path of hoarding for later our desire to be with God forever; that is, storing up our YES, tucking away our YES, we steal from Him what is rightly His. And deny ourselves everything we can be for Him.

To worship in spirit and truth, to adore Him with our strength in joy, to be seduced by His hope, cherished in His love, and brought forever to live in His beauty – that’s prayer! That’s justice! We are not here in this church as The Church to make deals with the Father. We aren't here to bargain for healing or to trade on promises of good deeds done sometime later. We're not here to borrow grace with interest or make payments on a loan. Everything the Father gives us He gives us for free. We owe Him praise and thanksgiving not b/c He needs it but b/c we need to praise Him and give Him thanks. That's how we grow in holiness. That's how we become more like Christ. On the Cross Christ destroyed the temple of the merchants – the deal-making, the buying and selling of salvation – and he rebuilt the temple in three days, rising from his grave on the third day to establish his Church, his nation of priests, to offer him praise and thanksgiving.
If, on this Third Sunday of Lent, you need something for which to give God thanks and praise, look to Paul writing to the Romans: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” The One who promises us eternal life is both wiser and stronger than we are. Our foolishness and weakness is no match for His mercy and love.

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26 February 2018

Could be scary. . .or not

2nd Week of Lent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Conventual Mass

Of all the truly difficult things Jesus asks us to do, at the top of that long list would be: “Be merciful. . .Stop judging. . .Stop condemning. . .Forgive.” Right up there on that same list is another familiar command from the Lord: “Love God, love your neighbor.” You can always tell when Jesus knows that he's giving us a difficult job b/c he makes that job a command. He makes so that we really don't have much wiggle room when it comes to hearing and doing what he's asking us to do. We could see this as a slight – “He doesn't trust us with just a kind suggestion or a subtle hint!” Or we could see it as a gift – “Left on my own, I couldn't forgive you, but Christ commands it!” And just in case the command alone is not enough to move us toward mercy and forgiveness, Jesus adds this little trailer, “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” So, we not only have his command to forgive, we also have a preview of how we will be judged on the Last Day! When we get to the Lord's Prayer later in the Mass, pay close attention to the line that goes, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” You are asking God to judge you in the same way you judge others. Could be scary. . .or not.

Forgiveness is difficult b/c we carry with us many false notions about what forgiveness entails. “If I forgive her, I'm saying that what she did wasn't wrong.” If what she did to you wasn't wrong, there's no need to forgive. “If I forgive him, then he'll just do the same thing again.” So, by refusing to forgive you hope to prevent a future offense? Is that how God works with us and our sin – withholding His mercy until we're perfect? How about this one: “I like having something on her. I like feeling wounded and righteous in my anger”? Fine. Just remember: you will soon ask God to forgive you in the same way that you forgive others. Do you really want God holding a grudge against you? My personal favorite: “I have forgiven him. I just don't feel like I've forgiven him.” You've forgiven him, or you haven't. How you feel about it is an entirely separate issue. No where does the Lord command us to be happy about forgiving those who've sinned against. He simply commands that we forgive. If there's a season in the Church calendar that's better suited for a reckless spree of mercy and forgiveness than Lent, I don't what it would be. There's still time. Get out there and show your fellow sinners – all of us – some astonishing mercy!

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25 February 2018

But why do you sacrifice?

2nd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

God commands Abraham to slaughter Isaac, Abraham's only son, as a sacrifice. Let that sink in. Abraham has just the one son, Isaac. God wants Isaac's father to kill him as a sacrifice. I don't know what y'all have sacrificed for Lent, but I'm willing to bet that none of you will be offering a child on an altar in the wilderness. My own pitiful Lenten sacrifices pale in comparison to what Abraham is asked to do. I have no children of my own, so I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to hear God command a mother or father to sacrifice one of their own children. Fortunately, we know, that God's will was not that Isaac should die in sacrifice but that Abraham's obedience to God be tested. Whatever we may think of God's command or Abraham's willingness to obey Him, we must keep in mind that God the Father Himself does what He commands Abraham to do: He sacrifices His only Son, and He does it not to prove His devotion to us but to save us from sin and death. He gave us then and gives now us His Son in sacrifice so that we might come back to Him made perfect, and share in His divine life. Ask yourself and think carefully: what am I sacrificing this Lent, and why?

We need to be absolutely clear up front about how our Lenten sacrifices work in our growth toward holiness. First, our sacrifices do not “buy” us holiness. We are not purchasing degrees of holiness by giving up our favorite vices. Small sacrifices buy us small amounts of holiness, and bigger sacrifices buy us larger amounts of holiness. Second, we aren't changing God's disposition towards us by sacrificing our vices. We are not performing some kind of magical ritual that forces God to love us more when we abstain from a vice. Third, prayer and alms-giving during Lent aren't bribes to God to persuade Him not to be angry with us, nor are they goodies meant to entice Him to be happy with us. The very idea that anything we can do or say or think has the power to change God in any way is a pagan notion, and one we need to vigorously remove from our thinking. The pagan thinks in terms of appeasing the gods or bribing them into favorable action. The Christian – the human person consecrated to Christ – knows that every good gift, every blessing, every grace he will ever receive has already been given to him. Our Lenten sacrifices make it possible for us to see more clearly all that God has given us and more easily receive what He has given.

Lent is a time for us to clean our spiritual pipes. A time for us to sweep away the spiritual dust and cobwebs. It's a time to re-focus our time and energy on the only thing that matters to a Christian – Christ himself and his mission. Lent provides us with the time, the instruction, and the support we need to think deeply about and explore intensely how we relate to the one who sacrificed himself for us so that we might live. Our time in the Lenten desert becomes a time of temptation precisely b/c we shift our attention to God and away from self. This “shifting away from self” invites the Enemy to test us, to try us; we become more vulnerable to his attempts to stroke our pride and see us abandon Christ. By sacrificing a few vices or taking up additional prayer and alms-giving, we remove the Enemy's preferred weapons, making it more difficult for him to tempt us with our own weaknesses. By detaching ourselves from all those things that drain us of spiritual strength, we conserve all that makes us strong in the Lord. When the Enemy tries harder to break our bond with Christ, we respond by sacrificing more, by sacrificing until it hurts. And it does hurt. But only for a little while.

Paul writes to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? [. . .] It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?” We are shown what God's support and acquittal looks like. On the mountain Jesus is transfigured in the witness of the apostles. He is changed into his glorified body – the body he will have in heaven, standing in the immediate presence of the Father's glory. We are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and b/c we are so baptized, we follow Christ in his death and resurrection. Along the way, we wrestle with temptations, failures, victories, and we do it all with Christ beside us. We do all this as men and women on our way to becoming Christs. Our sacrifices – big and small – keep us detached from the things of the world and attached to the things of heaven. If we sacrifice in love, for the good of another, we not only strengthen our bond to Christ, we also strengthen the Church, the whole body of Christ. So, again, I ask: what are you sacrificing this Lent, and why? The why is more important than the what. Sacrifice b/c you know that you need Christ. Sacrifice b/c you know that the Church needs Christ. And remember: “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”

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18 February 2018

We must be made ready

1st Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert. Why? Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man, the Messiah. Why must he endure 40 days of hunger, thirst, and loneliness? He doesn't need the discipline to help him repent of his sins. He is sinless. He doesn't need the time alone with God the Father b/c he is God the Son. Satan knows who he is, so there's no need for Jesus to prove his identity to himself or the Enemy. What makes our question even more interesting and infuriating is that Mark uses the Greek verb, ἐκβάλλει (ekballei) which means “casts out.” The same verb used to describe what Jesus does the demons he encounters in his ministry. So, in the same way that Jesus casts out demons, so the Holy Spirit casts Jesus out into the wilderness. There's an almost dismissive or casual sense that Jesus is being “thrown away,” tossed out like garbage. But to get the full picture here we need to remember where Jesus is heading next. He goes to Galilee and begins to preach, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Before he can endure his passion in Jerusalem and die on the cross at Calvary, he must be made ready. We too must be made ready. And Jesus shows us the way.

We can think of Jesus' time in the desert in the same way that we think about his baptism. The Messiah, sinless and unable to sin, doesn't need to be baptized. Jesus' baptism in the Jordan is God's way of revealing His Son to us; His way of announcing to the world that His Christ has arrived. Jesus forty days in the desert didn't need to happen either; that is, he didn't need to endure all that for his own sake. He did it for us. He did it to reveal himself – his true nature and purpose – before he set off to Galilee to begin his public ministry. What this scene in the wilderness tells us about our Lord is that though he cannot be properly tempted, he knows that we can. He knows that the power of the Devil – though real – is ultimately temporary and deceiving. And he know that when we place ourselves at the mercy of Father, we will be ministered to by the choirs of angels. None of this knowing on Jesus' part prevents us from actually feeling hunger, thirst, loneliness, or pain. Our knowing that we can be tempted doesn't make enduring temptation any easier. Knowing the Devil's power is deceptive or that we are ministered to by angels makes the preparation for our own passion and death any more pleasant.

BUT knowing that Christ has gone before us and is with us now, makes any trial here and now endurable. Knowing that Christ is with us when we fast, when we pray, when we give what we have to others, knowing he is with us always and everywhere, that makes our troubles more than endurable. . .it makes them sacrificial. When do as he did and speak as he spoke, and when we do and speak in his name for his sake, we follow faithfully behind, picking up his work and his words, and we bear witness in the world to the love that made it possible for him to die on a cross for us. His forty days in the wilderness with Satan and the wild beasts was our preparation, the preparation of his future body, the Church, to carry on with his ministry. And, thanks be to God, we do not minister alone. The same spirit that drives Jesus into the desert, the same spirit that saw the angels minister to him, and the same spirit that set the apostles to fire at Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit that binds us together now in the Church.
Make these forty days of Lent a time for preparation for your own passion and death. It may sound a bit morbid. But think: death misses no one; no one gets out of here alive. Take this season to heart and spend the time necessary to dig deep into your relationship with God. He loves you. Do you love Him? If there is sin in your life that prevents you from receiving His love, confess it, repent, and believe the Gospel! If there is temptation pestering you, name it and face it. Call on the Holy Spirit for help. That's His job. If you are attached to something that has become a god, an idol for you, sacrifice it – make it holy by giving it up. Fast and pray. There is no better way to see the deceptive power of the Enemy than through the eyes of fasting and prayer. Give what you have to others. There is no better way to destroy the power of attachment than to surrender whatever it is you believe you can't live without. Jesus did it all before us, he did it all for us. And, now, it's our turn to prepare. Prepare well. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”

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