Sunday, August 21, 2016

August 21, 2016
Assumption Sunday
Today, instead of a regular sermon, I thought we would have a refresher catechism on the Assumption.
The doctrine of the Assumption says that at the end of her life on earth, Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven, just as Enoch, Elijah, and perhaps others had been before her. It’s also necessary to keep in mind what the Assumption is not. 
Since the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are not explicit in Scripture, Fundamentalists conclude that the doctrines are false. Here, of course, we get into an entirely separate matter, the question of sola scriptura, or the Protestant "Bible only" theory. There is not enough time in a sermon to properly discussthat idea. Let it just be said that if the position of the Catholic Church is that oral Tradition (in some cases handed down from as far back as the Apostles) and divine revelation do play a part in how we believe and live as Christians, thus the notion of sola scriptura is false. There is then no problem with the Church having a doctrine or belief which is not explicitly in Scripture, so long as it is not in contradiction to Scripture. 
The Catholic Church was commissioned by Christ to teach all nations and to teach them infallibly—guided, as he promised, by the Holy Spirit until the end of the ageWe must keep in mind, as the Gospels tells us, Christ spoke many things to his Apostles and Disciples privately that were not written down in what we now refer to as the Bible.
I find it strange that Protestant Evangelicals, AKA non-Catholics, never seem to wonder where Mary is now, or what her role might be. If they do chance to wonder, they generally keep it to themselves. Raise too many of the wrong topics, and questions may start being asked about whether you really are "one of the group". Therefore, it is quite uncommon for Protestant evangelicals who are quite certain that Uncle Fred is in heaven, wearing his kingly crown, or that they themselves are heaven bound, to question Mary's presence there.
If the Virgin Mary isn't in heaven, then there's very little chance that anyone else will ever get there. Mary is the supreme example, or prototype, of what happens to a person who fully places trust and faith in God. Everything we hope to become in Christ, she already is. Out of the millions of "decisions" made for Christ, Mary's was the first. Therefore, whatever promises the Holy Scriptures hold for us, Mary already possesses.
But why do people say that Mary was taken bodily into heaven if it not anywhere in the Bible?
The problem with showing Mary's Assumption, (or the deaths of Mary or most of the Apostles, for that matter), in the Bible, is that the Gospel record ends before any of these events occurred. The Assumption, however, seems to be implied the 11th and 12thchapter of the Book of Revelation. Surely, some would argue, then it could have been mentioned in one or more of the Epistles? Even these end prior to all the Disciples and Apostles dying, so that is a weak argument as well. 
Mary's Bodily Assumption is also a long-standing teaching of the Ancient Churches. The celebratory festival in August dates from at least the 5th century in Palestine, and had reached Gaul by the 6th. The setting of a Festival Day for a belief is evidence not only of a strong and almost universally-held belief in that doctrine, but also of a long-standing belief - since it is rare for Festival to be celebrated for a belief or incident for which there is not some long attestation. As a comparison, the date of December the 25th for the celebration of Christmas was set only in 354 AD by Pope Julius I. 
Early references to the Assumption of Mary include Timothy of Jerusalem in around 380 AD, who wrote: "Wherefore the Virgin is immortal up to now, because He who dwelt in her took her to the regions of the Ascension.
Gregory of Tours in 580 AD wrote: "Mary, the glorious Mother of Christ, who, we believe, was a virgin before and after childbirth, was, as we have said before, carried to Paradise preceded by the Lord amidst the singing of angelic choirs."
Apocryphal writings detailing the Assumption have been dated back to the 3rd century AD. Although other early references are few, the fact that the Celebration of Mary's Assumption into Heaven was not opposed in what was a highly disputatious age, argues strongly for a general acceptance and belief in the doctrine.
But isn’t it wrong to say that anyone but Jesus ascended into heaven? That is His privilege alone.
Some people think Catholics believe Mary "ascended" into heaven. That’s not correct. Christ, by his own power, ascended into heaven. Mary was assumed or taken up into heaven by God. She didn’t do it under her own power such as was the case with Christ.
This point is quite often made by Protestant apologists. But they are mistaken. The Old Testament tells us that both Enoch and Elijah were assumed (taken) bodily into heaven. (Enoch = Genesis 4:26; Elijah = 2 Kings 2:11) So Mary's Assumption, is far from being unbiblical, in fact it follows a strong Biblical pattern. Furthermore, it appears from the New Testament, (Jude 9), that Moses too may have been assumed into heaven, even though no record of this appears anywhere in the Old Testament. This, incidentally, provides a biblical record of an important teaching that was passed down over an extremely long period purely by Oral Tradition.
Some would ask. “Isn’t Mary’s Assumption a new doctrine developed by the Church of Rome?”
No. As we have already seen, it is a very old belief in the Church. What happened in 1950 was that Pope Pius XII "defined" it as a Roman Catholic dogma. This did not make it a new doctrine - it simply reinforced its status. The Church has never formally defined whether she died or not, and the integrity of the doctrine of the Assumption would not be impaired if she did not in fact die, but the almost universal consensus is that she did die. Pope Pius XII said of Mary, "after the completion of her earthly life", [she] “was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven" " (note the silence regarding her death).
The fact that the Christian Community has believed from the earliest days that Mary was taken bodily into heaven can also be proved from the fact that no-one ever claimed to have her relics. It is agreed upon by many scholars that Mary ended her life in Jerusalem, or perhaps in Ephesus. However, neither those cities nor any other claimed her remains, though there are claims about possessing her (temporary) tomb. And why did no city claim the bones of Mary? Apparently because there weren’t any bones to claim, and people knew it. Here was Mary, certainly the most privileged of all the saints, certainly the most saintly, but we have no record of her bodily remains being venerated anywhere. Yet, many of the Apostles’ relics were and are in existence.
St. Peter is in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
St. Paul is in St. Paul's Church in Rome.
St. Matthew is in the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Messina, Sicily.
St. James the Greater is in St. James Church in Compostela Spain.
St. James the Less (the Just) is in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Rome.
St. Bartholomew is in St. Bartholomew-in-the-island Church in Rome.
St. Andrew is in the Cathedral of Amalfi in Italy.
St. Philip is in the Church of the Dodici Apostoli in Rome, Basilica of the Holy Apostles.
St. Simon is in the Vatican, under the Altar of the Crucifixion.
St. Jude is in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
St. Thomas is in the Cathedral of Saint Thomas in Mylapore, India.
St. Matthias is in St. Matthews Abbey in Trier Germany, and in St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
St. John is in the ruins of the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus Turkey.
From the times of the persecutions, relics of the Saints had an immense value. Christians would often risk their lives to collect the remains of martyrs from the Arena and preserve their relics. In later days, having the body of a holy Saint in your church could make your city wealthy. St Peter's body has the greatest church in the world built on top of it. Thomas a Becket drew enormous pilgrim crowds to Canterbury in England. St James drew millions to Compostela in SpainAny Church or city that could have claimed to hold Mary's body or even a single bone from her finger would have at once become one of the richest and most popular places of pilgrimage in the world. In fact,about 400 AD the Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. He was informed that there were no relics of Mary.
So valuable were relics that many were accused of fraudulently manufacturing them just to draw pilgrims and create wealth. Yet from the earliest days no-one has claimed to have the body of the Virgin Mary - or even as much as a single small bone. Why not, you might ask? Because her body was hard to find? Not really. Plenty claimed to own part of the True Cross or even the Crown of Thorns. So why did no-one claim to have Mary's body? There is one logical reason. Quite simply because no-one would have believed them, because there was no body left on earth to findTradition (word of mouth from the Apostles) says the reason there are no relics is because Mary was assumed into heaven. From the earliest days of the Church everyone knew that Mary's body was not on earth. Every Christian simply believedthat she had been assumed bodily into heaven. Surely, if there had been room for any argument about that fact, if there had been room for the slightest doubt, then some church somewhere would have claimed to have had Mary's body.
As a note of comparison, the belief is especially fitting when one examines the honor that was given to the Ark of the Covenant. It contained the manna (bread from heaven), stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (the word of God), and the staff of Aaron (a symbol of Israel’s high priesthood). Because of its contents, itwas made of incorruptible wood. If this vessel was given such honor, how much more should Mary be kept from corruption, since she is the new ark—who carried in her womb the real bread from heaven, the Word of God, and the high priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. 
It is worth noting that 1 Chronicles 15:14 records that the persons who bore the ark were to be sanctified. There would be no sense in sanctifying men who carried a box, and not sanctifying the womb who carried God himself! After all, wisdom will not dwell "in a body under debt of sin" (Wis. 1:4). But there is more than just fittingness. After all, if Mary is immaculately conceived, then it would follow that she would not suffer the corruption in the grave.
Lastly, as most of us know, we venerate Our Lady, we do not worship her. Worship is only for God and God alone. Just as we venerate the saints and all Angels. As Catholics we make the claim that we reserve worship for God alone: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, but we allow veneration for Mary, saints, all Angels and earthy heroes.  From an outside perspective, this does seem hypocritical, or at least somewhat shady.  However, by looking at the definitions that the dictionary offers, it is clear that the words “worship” and “veneration” are very distinct from another, and are appropriately applied.
Worship: 1) reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred. 2) formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage.
Veneration: 1) a feeling or expression of awe or reverence. 2) the act of venerating or the state of being venerated.
Or to put it as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “Reverence (dulia) is showing respect to someone, whether it be your parents, pastor, government official, or a saint. These people are worthy of respect either because God has put them in a position of authority over us (parents, pastor, government official) or we recognize the work of God's grace in their lives (saints).
Worship (latria) is giving your life to God as a living sacrifice. God is our creator and redeemer, so he has a double claim on our lives, so the proper response is to offer our lives back to him. Worship should be all consuming such that even the reverence we show to the saints is actually an act of worship to the God who made them saints.
As the joke, attributed to Archbishop Fulton Sheen goes: “One day the Lord says to St. Peter, "How are all these people getting into heaven?" 
"Don't blame me," St. Peter says, "Every time I close a door, your Mother opens a window!"
Let us pray.
Father God, in Your Divine providence, You chose Our Lady Mary to be Your mother, when You were born to us as the second person of the Trinity, Your Son, Jesus the Christ. In so doing, Mary was the first to receive the eternal redemption given to us all by receiving Your Son Jesus Christ. 
As God, Jesus could not enter a womb of a sinful person, and so, Mary was given the gift of Immaculate Conception in preparation for the Birth of Jesus. She became the Theotokos, the Mother of God, and thus the most pure of human beings. 
Due to her place in our salvation, the world over has venerated her as Your mother and hence the Mother of the World. In such, we often ask her intercession in our lives. As that of being Your mother in Jesus Christ, we know that she has a very intimate ability to seek answers to our prayers, as has been seen throughout history.
Today, we ask her prayers to help each of us to not only understand her role and placement in Your kingdom properly, but that we also may have true devotion to her, that we too may be worthy of Your kingdom. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

God Love You+
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

August 7, 2016
Transfiguration Sunday
Americans love conspiracy theories.

Think of rumors about a CIA conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Or that some think the Holocaust never took place. Claims of the government causing 9/11. The popularity of the television show The X-Files and Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. Even the most recent conspiracy - that the killings in Orlando did not actually take place at all – it was a big orchestrated hoax. All revolve around the belief that powerful people or organizations are secretly manipulating historical events. It’s the Illuminati!

Most of this is crazy-talk, but still we find ourselves drawn to it. There is something within us that tries to make sense of tragic or shocking events, and very often we try to pin blame on a mysterious group of people conspiring to do us harm.

We’re Americans, so we think of ourselves as common men and women — you know, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union” — distrustful and even disdainful of powerful elites. When something goes wrong, we look for a conspiracy theory to reveal the secrets of the powerful to everyday folks. Shankar Vedantam of The Washington Post, makes the point that nothing ever happens by accident in the world of conspiracy theories. Instead, “the hidden hand of the puppeteer is everywhere.” We are all merely pawns in a big fat conspiracy!

Of course, it’s one thing to see a hidden hand in the assassination of JFK. It’s another thing to see a hidden hand in the story of the transfiguration. In today’s passage from Luke, we catch sight of something really strange happening, a paranormal something that is way off the charts. If you’re Peter, James and John, you can’t make up this stuff. More weird than catching a boatload of fish on the left side than the right side of the boat. God is orchestrating a shocking event — one that terrifies but also glorifies.

It’s a divine conspiracy, you could say. Collusion. Collaboration. This is worse than not only believing in what happened at Fatima in 1917 when some 30,000 people saw the miracle of the sun – oh, I forgot – that was UFO’s. Not sure which is harder to believe – that the Blessed Lady could perform a miracle or that a UFO appeared. I think I will go with the miracle and the 30,000 witnesses.

Anyway, back to the text. The story begins with Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. Suddenly, God changes the appearance of Jesus’ face, and makes his clothes dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear in glory, and they speak of Jesus’ departure — which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Then a cloud comes and overshadows them all, and the disciples are terrified. The voice of God thunders, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And as quickly as the stunning spectacle starts, it ends. Jesus is found alone, and the disciples remain stuck in bewildered silence. (Poor God; He’s been trying to get us to listen to Him for many millennia. Anyway….)

We can call this a conspiracy because it involves a powerful force no less than the Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. God intervenes in human affairs and manipulates a historical event, turning a mountaintop prayer retreat into an awe-inspiring announcement that Jesus is God’s Chosen One, his Messiah, his Beloved Son. Look at the story, and you can see that the hidden hand of God is everywhere. I don’t believe the Illuminati was in existence quite yet.

But there’s a problem. The word “conspiracy” carries a ton of heavy, negative baggage these days. Yet, the word is really the right word in this case. The word “conspire” literally means “breathing together.” When powerful people plan together secretly, they are “breathing together” — you can just picture them huddling together and plotting away in some undisclosed location. In the same way, when God works with us to advance his will, we “breathe together” with God. God’s ruah — the Hebrew word meaning breath, spirit or wind — fills us with life, inspiration and power, and it gives us the ability to push God’s plan into the world. God does not do God’s work alone.

Think of Jesus on the mountaintop, breathing together with God.

Moses and Elijah, breathing together with God.

Peter, James and John — confused by what they are seeing, are beginning to breathe together with God, but it’s more like a gasping than smooth, easy breathing.

Whenever people breathe together with God, they become part of a divine “conspiracy.”

So what does it mean for us to be breathing with God today? We are invited into the Lord’s conspiracy, and challenged to be part of a network of cells operating all over the world. Within these cells, we breathe with one another, but more importantly we breathe with God. We allow God’s breath — God’s ruah — to fill us with life, to inspire us, and to give us the power to push his divine agenda. Instead of ISIS, we have ruah.

To get a grasp of the specifics of God’s plan, we have to go back to that original meeting on the mountaintop. There, the conspiracy is hatched, and the plan begins to unfold.

Prayer. At the beginning, Jesus is praying. There is no better way to begin the process of breathing with God than to follow Jesus in this practice. Prayer settles us down and opens us up — it allows us to shed our ambitions and to immerse ourselves in the desires of the Lord. Prayer doesn’t so much change God’s mind as it changes our hearts — it makes us much more likely to be co-conspirators with the Lord.
As you all have heard me say on more than one occasion in my previous sermons, prayer was never meant to be a way to manipulate God into doing what we want God to do. Prayer isn’t about changing God; we pray to change ourselves. We are always looking for God to rescue us from our problems, but God doesn’t always rescue. Sometimes; but not always. If God did, surely Jesus would have been rescued, for no one deserved it more. No, God doesn’t rescue us from every problem or suffering. Rather, God walks with us in the darkness. He helps us thru our problems and needs. Though, all said, keep in mind that God does, of course, sometimes answer our prayers as we desire. Jesus made this clear as well. But, do well to go into prayer knowing full well that the end result is not always going to be exactly as we would like. This kind of happen with the three Apostles we are speaking of today.

Appearance. Suddenly, Christ’s appearance changes. His face is transformed, and his clothes become dazzling white. As a sign of his intimacy with God, the face of Jesus becomes radiant — Matthew says it “shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). Jesus shines like Moses coming down off Mount Sinai, with a face so bright that the people are afraid to come near him (Exodus 34:29-30). Have you ever wondered if the appearance of Jesus in His transfiguration is His natural appearance that He merely subdued while He walked on earth? I think so.

Once you start breathing with God, your appearance is going to change. This was true for Moses. It was true for Jesus. And it’s true for you. When you are in a divine conspiracy, you look, sound, and act like a different person. You offer your enemies a smile. You speak the truth to your neighbors. You live in love, as Christ loved you. You act in ways that are kind and tenderhearted, forgiving others as Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:25-32). You begin to live a transfigured life, a life that is transformed by true intimacy with God. This isn’t the stuff of the Illuminati. This is real!

Discipline and self-denial. Next, Moses and Elijah appear, and talk about God’s plan for Jesus — in particular, they speak of Christ’s departure, “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem”. This is a difficult topic, since it involves Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, but it is an essential one, since it contains the most important events in God’s divine conspiracy. Jesus was resolute; he set his face toward the cross. Through his death on the cross, Jesus brings us forgiveness of our sins, and through his resurrection on Easter morning gives us the gift of new life. Sort of like a modern day suicide bomber, but only Jesus and for life, not death! Our life in exchange of His.

Moses, Elijah and Jesus are “conspiring” together — breathing together — about this world-changing plan, and although Peter wants to build three dwellings to capture the glory of the moment, Jesus knows that the divine conspiracy cannot be arrested on the mountaintop. It has to move relentlessly toward the cross.

Jesus also made the point that if we’re going to follow him, to “breathe” with him as it were, it’s going to mean self-denial; it’s going to mean the death of selfish desire and the birth of godly desire. His discussion of the seed falling into the ground is also apropos here (John 12:24).

Finally, Followship. If you’re a witness to what Peter, James and John, were witness to, you can’t be the same. You’ve got to follow and get on board, or forever give it up.

Think about it. As Peter is speaking, God’s voice thunders out of the cloud, clarifying the identity of Jesus. “This is my Son,” says the Lord God Almighty, “my Chosen; listen to him!” God is making the stiletto-sharp point that Jesus is his unique son and his chosen servant, the one through whom God is workingout his conspiracy of salvation. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life — the Savior who has come to reconcile the world to God.

Too often today, we downplay the uniqueness of Jesus, seeing him as just one of many wise and compassionate spiritual leaders who have had a positive impact on the world. We fall into the trap of “truthiness” — a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert. Truthiness refers to something known intuitively, instinctively or “from the gut,” without regard to evidence, logic or intellectual examination. Truthiness is found in a sweet and sentimental understanding of Jesus, one that perceives him as kind, gentle, meek and mild. This grasp is intuitive and instinctive, and it has some merit to it — but it ignores a piece of crucial evidence.

All joking aside now, look at the transfiguration. Examine it. Breathe it in - deeply. This event reveals that Jesus is an exalted Lord, Chosen One of God, a messianic King with power to change the course of history. King of kings and Lord of lords — that’s the truth about Jesus, not the truthiness.

Once you’ve seen this side of Jesus, you’ve got to pick up your cross and follow, or get out of the way. He is a man on a mission, and he’s not going to hang back and sing “Kumbayah” with a bunch of stragglers.

When the voice of God stops speaking, Jesus is suddenly left alone with his disciples. Luke tells us that “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen”. No surprise there. The disciples had been stunned by this experience, hit hard by an unfiltered blast of the power of their divine Master. It took them some time to recover from the shock of being drawn into a divine conspiracy.

For you, however, the end of the story is different. You know what it means to breathe with God. You’ve had time to get used to the fact that Jesus is Lord. You are beginning to understand the significance of his suffering, death and resurrection. You know that God’s conspiracy has begun, and that it continues to impact human lives and change the course of history.

Take a deep breath now, for only one question remains for you to answer: “Are you breathing with God?”
Let us pray.
Father God, we often times like to place the notion of a conspiracy taking place rather than believe in various happenings in the world – we even are so cynical in these times that we discount miracles as they take place.
Father, we ask You to help us breathe with You and sense Your presence in some modern transfiguration that will literally transform us, not into a conspiracy, but into a living embodiment of You.
Each day help us to find quality time to sit in prayer; not only for the needs of our own as we see them, but to also find Your will in our lives and to be given the strength to live it in Your way.
Father, we ask that as we breathe with You that You help us to look, sound and act like different people. Help us to be conspirators in divine action toward peace and love throughout our communities and the world.
Father, we ask that You help us in discipline and self-denial so that we can learn to sacrifice for You, just as Your son did for us. In time, discipline and self-denial will help us to be less selfish and more in tune to Your breathing and thus we begin breathing together as one.
Father, we ask that You help us to be in fellowship, not just with You, but with our fellow mankind. Too often we are separated by belief, race and faith and so much more. We must learn that this shouldn’t become a wall segregating us from each other, because You created us all to be one. It is in this life that we should be one cell of love.
Lastly, Father, send Your son’s merciful heart to touch our hearts, so that each day we move closer to the creature creation You created us to be. As this transforms us, we will feel peace and transfiguration within our lives and souls and become much happier in our walk of life – living and breathing in You. We ask all this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.