August 19, 2018 – Believing the Unknowable

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings / Lecturas


Preached at St. Charles, Burlington [5:00pm, 7:00pm, 7:45am] and Immaculate Conception, Mount Vernon [11:00am, 1:00pm]



At this point, most of us have seen the horrific news coming out of Pennsylvania about that state’s investigation into decades of sexual abuse by priests and cover ups by bishops. Any act of abuse is terrible, but the scale and magnitude of these sins is truly disgusting. I am hoping to dedicate my entire homily to this topic next week, but for now, let me say these few things.

First, sexual abuse is more prevalent than most of us realize. It happens within families, affecting generations. It infects every institution. But that it should happen at the hands of the Church of Jesus Christ is especially gruesome. Christ died to save us from the power of sin and death, and he entrusted his Church with spreading this victory to every corner of the world. But instead, we allowed ourselves to become agents of the enemy, to become the very thing that Jesus worked to destroy. The only way we can ever begin to repair these sins is to go to the Cross and unite ourselves to the salvific suffering of Christ.

Second, I want to emphasize that all but a handful of cases being described by the State of Pennsylvania occurred before 2002. When the magnitude of this crisis first became news in 2002, the US bishops implemented a series of policies nationwide to prevent these sins from ever happening again, and in almost every case these procedures have worked. Our children are safe in our churches and we will continue to make every effort to preserve this safety. An event like this grand jury report does not suggest that our procedures are not working. Instead, it reminds us that we must continue to do penance for the sins of the past, and that we must never allow ourselves to become complacent as we enforce these policies for the future.

Finally, if you or anyone you love has been affected by sexual abuse, please know that it is not your fault and that our merciful Father in Heaven loves you infinitely and completely. He always has and he always will. If that abuse was at the hands of the Church, I know that nothing that I can say will every make up for such a betrayal. Regardless, please understand that our community present here today will continue to be vigilant in our efforts to protect our children and that we will continue to pray for, and support as best we can, victims of abuse.


Now, even in the midst of crisis or maybe especially in the midst of crisis, we must continue to feed our minds and souls, so we are going to start this homily with a fancy word: “epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, more specifically the study of what we can know and how we can know it. In Christian epistemology, the major distinction ends up being the difference between what we can know without the intervention of God and what we can know only with God’s help.

The first category, what we can know without the intervention of God, is usually referred to as “natural” knowledge. This, of course, includes the natural sciences, but goes far beyond just these sciences. Christian philosophers have always held that there are also metaphysical truths and moral truths that can be discovered by all thinking people, regardless of their religious affiliation, just by observing the world around them and using deductive reasoning to come to conclusions.

For example, we believe that the existence of a Creator God can be known by all thinking people, simply by observing cause and effect, contingency and creation among natural objects, and realizing that, logically, the universe could not create itself or sustain itself in being. Atheists may have many good reasons for rejecting religion, Christianity, or the Christian version of a loving, personal God, but when they reject the existence of a Creator God, they abandon the same logic they accuse us of being allergic to.

Similarly, we believe that certain moral teachings can be known by all honest, thinking people. We refer to these teachings as the “natural law”, since they are moral laws that can be known without the intervention of God. Most people would include prohibitions against murder and incest in this category, of course, but it also includes, for example, the Church’s teachings on abortion and gender. While an abortion advocate is absolutely right to advocate for the health and well-being of a pregnant and post-partum mothers, we believe that they abandon reason when they fail to recognize that a zygote with a unique genetic code is the same human being that will take her first breath nine months later. In case you have ever been frustrated with the Church’s political advocacy, notice please that we only ever publicly advocate for things in this category, that we believe are knowable by all people through reason, and we never publicly advocate for things that could only be accepted by someone who has already accepted the Christian religion or the Bible.

Which brings us to the second category of knowledge: that which can only be known with the help of God. This category is referred to as “Revelation” because it is all the things that have been “revealed” by God.

In the category of revelation, we have such doctrines as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and salvation through the cross and the sacraments. These are things we could not have known unless God had specifically revealed them through his Son or through his Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They cannot be arrived at through reason. This does not mean that they are irrational or that they have abandoned reason, they simply could not be arrived at through observation of the natural world alone.

Of course, there are some gray areas. The Resurrection, for example, is an historical event. Because it occurred in a specific time and a specific place, it should theoretically be available to all people equally through the historical method, which is a form of reason. But the idea that a man was definitively dead, and then definitively not dead, is so outlandish that even if it is theoretically available to all people, it is usually only accepted in faith through a relationship with God and reception of his inspiration and grace. We might, in fact, include the entire life of Christ in the category of things which could be known by all people but are usually rejected anyway.

There are some teachings that can be known naturally but are much easier with Revelation. One might, for example, conclude by reason alone that the rich have a responsibility to the poor, but it seems equally reasonable to believe that the rich have earned what they have and deserve to keep it. Maybe this idea falls under the natural law, maybe it does not. But Jesus was exceedingly clear about our responsibilities to the poor, so with Revelation we have far more certainty about what our responsibilities are.


Okay, so we have things that we can known on our own, which are sometimes aided or strengthened by Revelation, and we have things that we can only know when God reveals them to us. Now let’s look at our readings.

There are a few different ways to interpret our first reading, but I believe that it is speaking about the first category of knowledge. To me, “Wisdom…has spread her table” speaks of God creating the world, a world full of things that can be observed, learned from, reasoned about. Wisdom has given us a beautiful universe, every fiber of which speaks in some way of the magnificence and loveliness of God. Of course, the reading is clear that Wisdom is an active agent in aiding this understanding, which is exactly right. Though many things can be known without God’s revealing them, a relationship with God does aid our quest for understanding, because it puts us in touch with the Creator and it purifies us of the selfishness and narrowmindedness that might cloud our judgement and bias our reason.

And then there is our Gospel. Nothing is more ludicrous than Jesus’ teaching that we must consume his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Put yourselves in the place of the disciples at this moment. This is before the Last Supper, before the Passover meal, before they realize that Jesus will institute a sacrament that will turn bread into his flesh and wine into his blood. Just standing there in Capernaum, it sounds exactly like Jesus is requiring cannibalism. Even today, knowing everything we know about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and institution of the sacraments, few of us want to admit that sometime during the Mass, the bread and wine actually turn into the physical body and physical blood of Jesus. Yes, they retain the appearance of bread and wine, but this is only so that they are palatable. For Catholics, his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.

So on this Sunday, when Jesus is saying such crazy things, we should ask ourselves if we have restricted ourselves to only believing things in the first category of knowledge. Do we only believe things that we can prove, that we can observe, that we can conclude using our own reason? Or do we also allow ourselves to have faith? Do we allow ourselves to believe the Revelation of God, even if it is crazy, because we know it comes from God? My friends, unless we open ourselves to Revelation, unless we begin to trust the Word of God and the words of Jesus, we will never be able to believe in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and yet it is also one of the most difficult tenets of our faith. Will we allow ourselves to believe in it? Will we trust Jesus?

If I can make one final suggestion, go to adoration. We have weekly adoration on Thursdays in Mount Vernon and Fridays in Burlington, and we have monthly adoration in Sedro-Woolley. Go to adoration and look at the host and ask yourself: am I sitting here worshipping bread? Or will I allow myself to believe that this is actually Jesus sitting upon the altar looking me in the eye.

I promise you that it is Jesus, and the Eucharist is the most powerful presence of God you will ever know. But you could only know this through the Revelation of God. Trust me, if you make the effort to believe Jesus today, it will change your life and it will bear fruit for eternity.



No tuve que predicar en Español este fin de semana, así que no hice una traducción. Lamento que no haya ninguna copia en español. Si necesitas, usa Bing Translate.


End Notes

Featured image found here.

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