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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