In Your Own Words – Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C


One of the most dreaded phrases
in classrooms everywhere is
“in your own words.”

“Explain the causes of the Civil War in your own words.”
“Describe the process of photosynthesis in your own words.”

Teachers love the phrase because it requires students
to do deep thinking;
and students dread the phrase,
because it requires them to do deep thinking.

It may seem cruel of me to be talking about school
so soon after summer vacation has begun,
but I only bring it up because of what happens in today’s gospel.

Jesus is ending one stage of his ministry,
and he’s giving his disciples a kind of oral mid-term.
This is a turning point in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus is about to begin his long journey
toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Before that happens,
he wants his disciples to be clear about who he is.

And so first Jesus prays in solitude.
In Luke’s gospel, this is always the signal
that something important is about to take place.
This is a key event,
not only for Jesus’ disciples in this gospel,
but also for us, Jesus’ disciples here and now.

And so for this mid-term test,
Jesus begins with an easy question:
“Who do the crowds say that I am?”

That’s just a matter of simple recall.
You can almost see the disciples raising their hands.
“John the Baptist, some say;
others say Elijah;
still others, one of the prophets.”

Maybe the disciples begin to feel a little proud of themselves:
“See, we’ve been paying attention.”

But then Jesus asks the tough question:
“But you, who do you say that I am?”

What he means is,
“You who walk with me and live with me,
you who know me,
Who do you say that I am? In your own words.”

Jesus asks the same question of each one of us.

We might reply
the Son of God,
the New Adam,
the Lamb of God,
my Lord and Savior.

Or maybe we would would borrow some of the great answers
that have come down through the ages
from saints, poets, theologians, and authors*:
In the Litany of the Sacred Heart
Jesus is the House of God and Gate of Heaven.
Fr. Eugene Boylan calls him This Tremendous Lover.
For poet Francis Thompson he is The Hound of Heaven.
To C.S. Lewis he is Aslan, the Lion of Narnia.
Bach called him The Joy of Man’s Desiring.
For Pope John Paul II he is a mirror in which we can see who we are.

Those are all excellent answers,
but they’re not in our own words.
That would be cheating.
Jesus wants the answer in our own words,
not repeated from memory or found in a book.

Peter didn’t read his answer in a catechism;
his answer came through his personal encounter with Jesus.
He saw Jesus work and heard him speak,
and so he was able to say,
“You are the Christ of God.”

Jesus wants our own answer
to be based on our personal relationship with him.

Our answer doesn’t have to be poetic.
It doesn’t even have to be completely right.
Peter’s answer was incomplete—
he correctly called Jesus the Christ,
but he had little idea that it meant Jesus would suffer
and then die on a cross.

We don’t need to worry about flowery language
or getting things just right.
We only need to be honest.

But it can be hard to come up with our own answer
especially since we’ve heard all the other answers so often.
When we start to think about who Jesus is,
the first thing that often comes to mind is what we hear at Mass,
what we’ve been taught by parents and catechists,
or what we’ve read in books.

The challenge of today’s liturgy, then,
is to get past those other answers,
and tell him in our own words who he is for us personally.

There are a couple of practices that can help us do this.

The first is a writing exercise,
and it’s a technique for helping students
who get stuck writing things from the surface,
unable to get at their own deeper thoughts.

The same thing can happen when we think about who Jesus is.
We can remain comfortably on the surface,
simply repeating the same phrases and titles we’ve heard before
without really challenging ourselves to go deeper
and really understand how Jesus wants to transform our lives.

The technique to get below the surface
is a little free writing exercise
that only takes ten minutes.

Get a piece of paper and a pen,
and set a timer for ten minutes.
Start the timer and begin writing an answer to Jesus’ question:
“Who do you say that I am?”
The key is to write for the entire ten minutes without stopping,
without picking the pen up from the paper,
not thinking about spelling or grammar,
not analyzing what you’re writing,
just letting your mind run where it will
while you write what goes through it.

At first, you’ll probably write down familiar words and phrases,
but after a while you’ll start to run out of ideas.
That’s when the deeper answers will start to come out.
It’s important not to stop when you run out of ideas,
but to keep the pen going.
If your mind goes blank, just keep writing the last word you wrote
until you get more words.

After the ten minutes is up,
you’ll have something authentic to think about,
something in your own words
to pray about
and to talk to Jesus about.

The other practice is for when we have a hard time
answering the question of who Jesus is
because we have lost touch with him.

We all lose touch with Jesus from time to time
as the busyness of the world creeps in
or as we get caught up in other pursuits.

One of the most honest answers we can give
to Jesus’ question of “Who do you say that I am?”
is “I don’t know.”

When we find ourselves in that situation
then we know it’s time to reconnect with Jesus.
It’s time to ask the Holy Spirit to help us encounter Jesus.
And here’s one way to do that:

This only takes about ten minutes, too, by the way.
Bring your Bible to a quiet spot where you can be alone.
Open your Bible,
and choose any single event from the Gospels—
Jesus walking on water, healing the blind man,
telling the parable of the Good Samaritan,
teaching his disciples to pray—it doesn’t matter which.
Choose just one,
and then briefly ask God for the grace
to encounter Jesus,
and read the Gospel story.

As you read, try to enter into the story imaginatively,
just daydream about it for five minutes or so.
In your imagination, observe what’s happening;
look, listen, walk around and pay attention to Jesus.
What is he doing, what is he saying?
When you’re done thank God for this time with his Son.

After you do this over the course of several days,
revisit Jesus’ question,
“Who do you say that I am?”

Chances are, you’ll have an answer in your own words.

This is what Jesus wants.
He wants us to know him,
to really know him,
and not just words about him;
to be in a personal relationship with him
and to speak to him
in our own words.


*Thanks to Fr. James Gilhooley for these references to Jesus.

An Icon of the Holy Trinity – Homily for Trinity Sunday Year C

Andrei Rublev- The Trinity

Andrei Rublev – The Trinity

Not long ago we celebrated the Ascension,
and this was the first year we could celebrate that feast
with the beautiful icon of the Ascension greeting us
as we walked into the Church.

On this Solemnity of the Holy Trinity
I am reminded of another icon,
perhaps the most famous icon of them all,
the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev.
Rublev painted, or wrote, this icon in 1425
for the church of St. Sergius near Moscow, Russia,
and it’s regarded as one of the highest achievements of Russian art.
But more than that, it speaks to the heart about the Holy Trinity.

Icons are windows to the divine
that speak to the heart,
rather than to the head.

Lately I’ve been reading the book Contemplating the Trinity,
by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa.
Fr. Cantalamessa has been the preacher to the papal household
for more than thirty-five years.
It has been his job to preach Advent and Lenten meditations
to the last three popes.

His book Contemplating the Trinity is a collection
of some of these meditations,
and he begins by speaking about Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity.
He writes,
“Lengthy contemplation of this icon can yield more insight into the Trinity
than reading whole treatises on it.”*

If I had a copy of the icon to give to each one of you
I would simply hand it out
and invite you to contemplate it for the next few minutes,
rather than listen to me.
Alas, all I have is this rather small reproduction to hold up as I speak.

But I will share with you what I’ve learned so far about this icon
and what it has to say to us about the Holy Trinity,
and maybe you can take the time to look it up online this week
and contemplate it.

First of all, though it’s called the Holy Trinity,
what it actually depicts is a scene from the book of Genesis
in which three angels appear to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.

However, many early Christians saw these three angels
as a prefiguring of the Trinity
and that is how Rublev chooses to portray them in this icon.

The icon beautifully expresses the dogma of the Trinity,
that God is one in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The figures in the icon resemble each other very closely,
and yet they are distinct.
The icon is composed as a circle,
emphasizing the unity of the three persons.
“All three are wearing blue garments
as a sign of the divine nature they have in common.”
But they each also have another garment on of a different color.
The Father, represented by the angel on the left,
wears a garment of almost pure light.
The Son in the center wears a dark garment
“as a sign of the humanity with which he has clothed himself.”
The Holy Spirit on the right wears green,
since he is “the one who gives life.”

But Fr. Cantalamessa points out one thing
that is especially striking in contemplating the icon, and that is
“the profound peace and unity that emanate from” it.
He says, “A silent cry comes forth from the icon:
‘Be one as we are one.’”

“Be one as we are one.”

That is the message of this Solemnity of the Holy Trinity.
It is a reminder that the Father, the Son and Spirit are one.
And it is a reminder that we are to be one as they are one.

The unity of the Holy Trinity is what the world desperately needs today.
Because we are not one.
We are fractured by divisions that seem to be getting wider,
living in a world that seems to be getting more and more polarized.

And yet we all want unity.
We all have within us the desire to be united, to be one.
We don’t want political gridlock or intolerance.

Today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity calls us to recommit ourselves
to ending division and to build unity in our diversity.

And that begins with ourselves as individuals.
It means asking myself, “Where am I divided?”
What are the struggles within myself, what are the false faces I wear,
the different parts I play?
How do I balance work and home, leisure and responsibilities?
To grow in the spiritual life is to be made whole,
to have unity of purpose and will
where our values and actions align.

The family is also called to be one as the Holy Trinity is one.
The husband and wife unite to become one flesh,
and it takes years of sacrifice, patience and love
to discover what that means,
and how to remain two individual people, and yet at the same time be one.
Their children add to the diversity of the family,
bringing more life and more love,
but also intensifying the challenge to remain one.
Anyone with children knows the hard work of keeping a family together.

And as a faith community and as members of the human race,
we are called to be one as the Holy Trinity is one.
But it’s a challenge.
As Fr. Cantalamessa points out in his meditation,
we try to bring everyone around to our point of view,
while everyone else tries to bring us around to their point of view.

Or we finally give up and say everyone’s point of view is right,
which really means that no one’s point of view means anything.

True unity doesn’t come about by watering down our differences,
and it can’t be achieved through force.

It is the Holy Trinity that shows us the true path to unity.
In the Trinity, “…each Person ‘identifies’ with the other,
gives himself to the other,
and sustains the existence of the other.”

Can we follow the example of the Holy Trinity?
Can we identify with each other,
recognizing our commonalities,
suffering with each other, walking in each others’ shoes?
Can we give ourselves to each other in service,
bearing each other’s burdens?
Can we sustain the existence of each other,
strengthening social structures, policies and laws,
to ensure that everyone’s needs are met?

Rublev created his icon for the church of St. Sergius.
St. Sergius was an important figure in Russian history
whose motto was,
“through the contemplation of the most Holy Trinity
we can overcome the hateful divisions of this world.”

During his lifetime, Russia was invaded by a neighboring empire,
and St. Sergius was able to bring about unity among the warring chieftains
who then worked together and liberated Russia.

We are faced with invading forces of a different kind,
forces like poverty, prejudice, injustice, ignorance, and materialism;
but we are called to be united just the same in order to overcome them.

St. Sergius’ motto holds true for us, just as it held true for him:
“through the contemplation of the most Holy Trinity
we can overcome the hateful divisions of this world.”

Rublev’s icon is easy to find online.
Perhaps we could take some time each day this week to look at it closely,
contemplating each of the figures individually and as a whole,
asking the Holy Spirit for the grace to be one as the Trinity is one,
and to bring unity to our families, our community and the world.

And, as Fr. Cantalamessa writes,
we can do something even more blessed
than contemplate and imitate the Holy Trinity:
we can enter into it.
The Trinity meets us every time we come forward for the Eucharist.
By receiving the Body and Blood of Christ
we are united with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We enter into Rublev’s icon and become one as they are one.


*All quoted passages come from Fr. Cantalamessa’s book.

The Greatest Love Story of All Time – Homily for Holy Thursday 2016

Rick and IlsaThe world is full of great love stories.
We see them in literature and film and in history:
stories like Casablanca, Pride and Prejudice, and Titanic.
Lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester,
even Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary.

We all relate to a good love story.
What makes them so powerful
are the obstacles that the lovers try to overcome.
Sometimes they’re successful
and their story ends in joy;
and sometimes they’re not
and the story ends in tragedy.
But they remain great stories all the same.

The greatest love story of them all
is the story we begin to tell again this evening,
this Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
It is the story of Jesus’ love for his Church.

The Bible has been called the greatest story ever told.
We might call the three days of the Easter Triduum
the greatest love story ever told.

It’s the greatest love story ever told for three significant reasons:

First, it’s a true story, a real story, an historical story.
It’s not something from the mind of Shakespeare
or Jane Austen or Hollywood.
It’s the true story of the love of Jesus.

And the second reason it’s the greatest love story ever told
is because of the unique way Jesus overcame the challenges of love.
Every love has challenges,
but not every love can overcome them.

The first challenge lovers face is the challenge of saying goodbye.
In love there’s always a leaving, a departing.
Rick stays behind in Casablanca so Ilsa can leave safely.
Rhett Butler abandons Scarlett O’Hara.
Jack sinks slowly under the freezing water
while Rose cries “Come back,” as the Titanic sinks beneath the sea.
For lovers there’s always a time of saying goodbye.

This was an especially difficult challenge for Jesus.
He “knew that his hour had come.”
But “he loved his own in the world
and he loved them to the end.”

He wanted to stay, but he had to go.
It was the will of his Father.
He loved his Father and he loved his friends.
“Two loves in conflict. Which would yield?”

Jesus’ solution to that conflict shocks the world to this day.
“He did go and he did stay,
left us and remained with us.”
What was Jesus’ solution? The Real Presence.
On the night of the Last Supper he said,
“This is my body….This is my blood.”
He is present in the Blessed Sacrament and his presence is real.
The man who could be seen with the eyes of the body left us,
but the man who can be seen with the eyes of faith remains with us.

A second great challenge of love
is the desire to give up everything for the beloved;
“to give until you can give no more,
to lay down even life for the beloved.”
Every true love is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the beloved.

Jesus wants to save his people. He wants to give everything.
“Jesus would gladly have died a thousand deaths for us,
would gladly have died daily.”
But a person cannot die daily.
A lover cannot die a thousand times for the beloved,
but only once.
St. Paul said it clearly:
“Christ, having risen from the dead, dies no more.”

But this is greatest love story ever told,
and at the Last Supper
Jesus has a solution that again rocks the world.
“Each hour of the day, all over the world,
a priest brings down on an altar
the Victim of Calvary.
Not that he dies again;
but the Christ who rests on that altar is the same Christ,
wounds and all,
who died once for all on the cross.”
Jesus’ solution: The Mass.
On the night of the Last Supper,
he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
His sacrifice is made present again at each and every Mass.

And the final challenge that all lovers face
is how to achieve love’s deepest desire: union.
Love seeks to be one with the beloved
in perfect, unending, union:
body to body,
heart to heart
soul to soul.

But such a union happens only in heaven.
That’s what heaven is—complete and total union with God who is Love.
And yet the Bridegroom, Jesus, longs for perfect union
with his Bride, the Church.

How does Jesus solve this final problem of love?
How does Jesus unite with his beloved here on earth?
Here is how theologian Walter Burghardt describes it:
“He gives himself, but beneath a veil;
unites himself, but without making himself felt;
a passing thing, but wonderfully real,
and a daily thing;
not heaven, but awfully close.”
What is Jesus’ solution? Communion.
At the Last Supper Jesus said,
“Take and eat…Drink of this…”
We unite with our beloved Jesus
every time we come forward for Communion.

The Real Presence.
The Mass.

These are the ways that Jesus overcomes the great challenges of love,
and that is the second reason why his story
is the greatest love story ever told.

But for those of you keeping track,
I said that there were three reasons this love story is the greatest,
but I’ve only given two:
First, that this great love story is true,
and second, that Jesus has overcome love’s challenges.

The third and final reason this love story is so compelling,
so powerful, and so beautiful,
is that we are intimately bound up in it.
This is not someone else’s story.
It is our story.

We are the beloved of Jesus,
in this real and ongoing true story
of the one who conquered the great challenges of love
for us.

There are many great love stories in the world,
but each of them is merely a shadow of the one great love story
in which we find ourselves here at this Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.



This homily was built on the work of Walter Burghardt, SJ in Preaching: The Art and the Craft.

Henry V and the Transfiguration: Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Henry V Kenneth Branagh

One of the greatest speeches in all of literature
is the St. Crispin’s Day Speech by William Shakespeare
from his play, Henry V.

It’s October 25, in the year 1415,
and King Henry of England and his men are about to fight the French
in what will come to be known as the Battle of Agincourt.

Henry’s men are exhausted and sick.
They’ve been fighting for months,
and they’ve just finished a long and grueling siege of Harfleur castle.
As they move across the French countryside
trying to find a place to rest
the French army discovers them.

The English are outnumbered five to one,
and the French send a herald to receive their surrender.
But rather than surrender to the superior forces,
Henry chooses to fight.

When Henry’s cousin Westmoreland wishes they had
ten thousand more soldiers with them,
Henry begins his famous speech.

“No,” he says, “if we are to die, we are enough.
But if we are to live, the fewer the men the greater share of honor.”

He calls the men his “band of brothers,”
and says years from now survivors in their old age
will gladly bare their scars
to show that they were there on St. Crispin’s Day.

It’s a rousing, stirring speech,
especially when delivered by Kenneth Branagh,
in the 1989 movie version of Henry V.
On YouTube the speech has well over a million views:

And that’s what we have in today’s readings.
They are meant to inspire us, to motivate us
in this season of Lent.

We’re a week and a half into Lent,
and we’re trying to overcome not physical enemies like the French,
but the ancient enemies sloth, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, anger, and pride,
those deadly sins that enslave us.

During these forty days we intensify our efforts to overcome sin in our lives,
to reconnect with God and with each other.
And we may feel exhausted, we may feel outnumbered,
we may feel intimidated by the prospect of trying to change our lives,
or we may just not want to be bothered.
We may just want to be left alone.

Like Henry V, we are faced with a choice.
Do we surrender to those hostile forces that we struggle with?
Do we give in to our vices?

The readings of today’s liturgy encourage us to stand firm
in our Lenten commitments.
Like Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech,
today’s readings ask, “Who’s with me?”
“Who’s willing to stay faithful to God?”

And the first answer to that question is Abraham.
Abraham trusts in the Lord even though he’s old,
even though it seems unbelievable
that he and Sarah in their old age
could have descendants as numerous as the stars.

But God promises that, and even more, saying
“I will give you this land.”
And when Abraham asks for a sign
God performs an ancient covenant ceremony
to seal his promise.
Abraham brings the sacrificial animals, splits them in two
and places the halves opposite each other.

Usually at this time in a covenant ceremony,
both parties would walk between the dead animals
as if to say,
“If either of us breaks the covenant,
this is what’s going to happen to us.”

But in this situation God alone passes between those pieces
as if to say to Abraham,
“You don’t need to guarantee this, I guarantee it.”
God is a God of promises, and a God who keeps his promises.
And Abraham trusts and the promise is fulfilled.

So as we go through Lent,
we can be assured
that God has promised and it will be done.

And what is God’s promise to us?
The answer to that is made visible in today’s gospel.

We see Jesus,
who has been teaching, preaching and healing,
very successfully.
But the gospel is about to take a turn.
In the remaining chapters of Luke’s gospel,
Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem,
the city that kills prophets.

Jesus knows what’s coming,
he’s told his disciples what’s coming—
his suffering and death.
He goes up on the mountain to pray
and when he’s there his disciples get a glimpse of what is to come,
a vision that will give them hope when things get bleak.
A promise of eternal life.

Jesus is about to go to Jerusalem
and experience humiliation, suffering, and death
And before that happens, the disciples get a view of what comes after.

It’s like Henry V’s speech,
when he tells his soldiers
“In the future, the survivors will bare their arms and show their scars,
they will tell the story of St. Crispin’s Day, of the Battle of Agincourt,
to their children and grandchildren.
Everyone will know your names.”

Henry is appealing to his men’s sense of honor.
The whole play is about honor.

But in the Transfiguration it’s not honor but eternal life that’s on display.
We see eternity, we see our eternal destiny.
It’s much greater than the honor.

Jesus is not going to Jerusalem to be honored.
He is going to be humiliated.
He is going to suffer a shameful death.

But, after that, comes resurrection.
The disciples can see it in his face.

That is the vision that gives his disciples hope.
That is the vision that gives us hope.
That is the vision to keep before our eyes this Lenten season.

When we want to remain where we are,
when we would surrender to our vices,
when we would rather not go through the difficulty of Lent,
the glory in Jesus’ face encourages us onward.

That is God’s promise to us:
the face of Jesus.
Eternal life, eternal joy.

This is what Paul means
when he says,
“…our citizenship is in heaven…
the Lord Jesus Christ…will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body…”

He says,
“Stand firm in the Lord.”
Stand firm, hold fast.
It’s worth it.

These readings are to inspire us
to stay true to the commitments we made for Lent.

Whatever it is we’ve given up,
whatever it is we’ve committed to doing,
keep it up.

Because if we stand firm in the Lord,
Easter is just around the corner.
The resurrection will happen.
We know this because God has promised,
and what God has promised, God does.

Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech was effective.
The English, though outnumbered five to one,
defeated the French that day at the Battle of Agincourt.

God’s word to Abraham and Sarah was effective.
Though old and childless,
their descendants are as numerous as the stars,
and their people inherited the promised land.

And Jesus’ words and deeds were effective.
Though seemingly defeated by crucifixion and death,
he rose again on the third day,
opening the way to eternal life for us all.

It is now for us to stand firm in the Lord this Lent
and hold fast to the promises of God
and the vision of Christ transfigured.