Wednesday, December 31, 2008
About 100 years ago, the Jesuit poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem that begins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It’s a beautiful statement of the miraculous – all the more surprising because Hopkins himself suffered from depression. His life was a struggle, full of difficulties and disappointments. It was not always easy for him to see God’s goodness in the world around him. It can be that way, at times, for all of us.
But there is no better time to look for God’s grandeur, and to discover it, than now – at the beginning of a new year. We see this in all the news stories that will mention the first baby born this year. We also see it in the hundreds of thousands of people who huddle together in Times Square, shivering in the cold, waiting for that ball to drop, and waiting for history to be made, and waiting for a new number to be added to the calendar.
It’s there in every horn that is blown, every explosion of confetti. It’s loud and crazy – but it is our way of saying, “We are alive. Despite all that has happened to us, and all that we have done wrong, and all that has gone right…we are starting a new year. We are beginning something new.” And I would add that we are able to do this because “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
We need to be reminded of that, I think. It’s easy to miss – especially given the times we live in. Foreclosures, unemployment, recession, growing debt, the bloody battles underway in Israel and elsewhere. It can seem hopeless. But then we look at the feast we celebrate today, and this feast teaches us hope.
Mary was a woman who herself understood what it was like to live in an uncertain and frightening time. The Mother of God found herself in a situation giving birth to the Son of God in a situation of homelessness. There wasn’t even room for them in the inn. She was forced, just days later, to become a refugee, to save the life of her child. Yet she never abandoned hope. She never lost trust in God. Her trust in God, and her faith in the future, is one reason why we honor Mary today, the first day of the new year.
But consider another reason, too: as we begin a new year, the year is – like the Blessed Mother – spotless. The future that lays out before us is a clean page, an empty calendar, waiting to be written on. Everything is pure. Everything is possible. Everything is full of hope. And that is Mary. She is Possibility. She is Creation begun anew – the New Eve. With Mary, and the birth of her son, God among us, we get a fresh start.
We begin this new year with a reminder of how 2,000 years ago, the grandeur of God was made known in the unlikeliest of places, a manger. The Gospel reading today speaks of the first people to discover it: the shepherds who hurried to the stable. As Luke tells us, they left from that encounter with Jesus to “make known the message that had been told them about this child.” With that, they became – in fact -- the first evangelists.
It was those anonymous shepherds, men who probably couldn’t even read or write, who were the very first to tell the good news. Luke tells us that soon others were also hearing the news – and that they were “amazed” at what they were told. We’re still being amazed. And Mary? Ironically, today, her day, in our readings, she doesn’t utter a word. She “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Others spread the word. But she is the one who gave us The Word.
This is traditionally a day of beginnings – when resolutions are made. That treadmill you got for Christmas will get a work out – for a week or two. So will the diet…and the promise to stop smoking…and the vow you made to finally clean out the garage. It all sounds good for a few days. But it’s soon forgotten, or neglected.
But don’t forget or neglect this beautiful reality: God’s grandeur is with us, and among us. The world IS “charged with the grandeur of God.” That grandeur is in the Eucharist we are about to receive. It is there in the bright light of every winter morning – and the bright hope that is promised to us with the birth of the savior.
If you’re going to make resolutions, resolve to live this year in that hope. And my hope for you, and my prayer for you, for this year is the same one we heard in the first reading. It dates to the time of Moses…but was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi. Today, I want to make it my prayer, our prayer for the New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”
Happy New Year and may God give you peace.
Monday, December 29, 2008
By Tiziana C. Dearing December 29, 2008
Dear Mr. President-Elect:
Congratulations on your election to our nation's highest office. You take the reins at an unprecedented time. We face tremendous challenges. That gives you tremendous opportunity. Please, use that opportunity to love the poor and abhor poverty.
Please, love the poor by talking about poverty. Yours was a campaign about the middle class. Truly, their needs are serious, but the poor have been in crisis for a long time. Poverty has plenty of precedent.
Love the poor by calling people to empathy. Encourage them to walk a mile in their poor neighbors' shoes, and then to give as they would want to be given to if they actually had no money, and had bills to pay, a family to house and clothe, and children to feed.
Love the poor by calling people to solidarity. You have an opportunity to help our nation redefine the social contract. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston has been overwhelmed these past few months by people giving $25 or $50 of their hard-earned money, and telling us, "We know we're all in this together." We are. Does the social contract reflect that wonderful spirit?
We underfund child care while poor mothers try to work. We fund prisons, but underfund rehabilitating drug abusers who commit crimes to support their habits. We reduce public assistance for people who try to save money, and make college education for the truly poor a pipe dream. We could change that, and create hope for the 36.5 million poor Americans.
Mr. President-Elect, while you love the poor, I encourage you to abhor poverty openly. Twice as many people suffered in poverty this last decade than in the two before it. That is a national tragedy. Massachusetts went through an "economic recovery" in the mid-2000s, but the number of people in poverty actually grew.
Our country has seen a systematic disinvestment in the infrastructure that supports the poor, and a privatization of much of what is left. Organizations like ours are doing our part to maintain the social safety net. We will continue to do so. But this trend will bottom our communities out, and leave the poor isolated in a way that no democracy should tolerate.
Mr. President-Elect, you will lead in uncharted times. I ask you, please, to try to chart a path to prosperity for all Americans. Let us no longer leave our poor behind.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
I am a big fan of the cable TV show, “Inside The Actor’s Studio” with James Lipton. If you’ve seen it, you know the basic idea: Lipton invites celebrities – famous actors, writers and directors – to talk about their careers and how they do what they do. And he always ends each episode the same way, with one particular question: “If you believe that God exists, what do you think He will say to you when you finally see Him?” It’s a good question, by the way, to ask ourselves periodically. It can make for an interesting examination of conscience. A few years ago, I caught an episode of the show and Lipton was interviewing Steven Spielberg. Lipton asked him that final question: What do you hope God will say to you when you finally see Him? And Spielberg thought for a moment and smiled. He replied: “’Thanks for listening.’” Thanks for listening.
Fr. Mike was telling me about his Christmas homily this year. In it, he quoted a 7 year old boy who was asked to define love. The boy said, “Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” As we gather today for this celebration of Eucharist, we still find ourselves deep in the heart of Christmas. The Christmas season will last until January 11th with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, but today we are still in the octave of Christmas. And, as I think about this event of the birth of the Baby Jesus, I can’t help but think that this season is truly, about listening.
When the angel Gabriel arrives to bring Mary the news that she will bear a child…she listens. When the angel tells Joseph in his dreams what is about to happen…he listens. The shepherds listen when the angel announces the “good news of great joy.” In the passage that follows, the shepherds go out and tell the world what they have seen. And the world listens.
Two thousand years later, we confront this stunning message – “tidings of comfort and joy,” as the carol says – and our hearts swell with the sentiment of the season. Now, yes, we hear. But are we listening? There is a difference between mere hearing and true listening. One involves only the ears, the other engages the mind and the heart.
Christmas invites us to listen. To listen for God’s messengers. To listen for His good news. And what good news it is: that God is with us! That we are no longer alone. That He has come into our lives, and into our world. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes. Isaiah says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This is the news we’ve been waiting for; the news all of humanity has been listening for.
Think of how Christmas comes to us – if only we listen for it. It comes to us with angels singing and a baby crying. It comes to us with the clang of bells, a blare of trumpets. The rip of wrapping paper. The laughter of loved ones around the table. It comes in unexpected sounds, too. A soft voice that a soldier hears on the other end of a telephone line, a voice that says “I miss you.” It comes on Christmas Eve, when a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar, and hears the laughter inside – but keeps on walking.
It is also there in the silence, when the one who used to share your life and your home is no longer there, and you find your heart full of sorrow and longing and memory – and into that, unexpectedly, comes Christmas. Quietly. Gently. Whispering with the angels: “Rejoice. Rejoice, because we are not alone. God is with us. Emmanuel.”
Not long ago, I heard the story of a man who had lost his job right before Christmas. It’s a story we’re hearing a lot these days. The man was a salesman with two young children. His wife was beside herself with worry, and didn’t know what they would tell the kids. How would they celebrate Christmas? She was also a very proud woman, and hated to ask for any kind of help. But she swallowed her pride, and called her brother in another state and asked if there was anything he could do. Well, there was. He drove down with his family and he helped create Christmas that year – the tree, the dinner, gifts, the spirit, the memories that would last a lifetime. It happened because when he heard someone in need, he listened. And his heart was moved by love. The brother of the woman did far more than simply hear a need. He listened. And he loved.
My friends, on this Sunday in the Octave of Christmas, the message I want to leave with you is so simple: Listen. With your ears. And more importantly with your heart. Our salvation has been announced. What shall we do with it?
Twenty centuries ago, shepherds listened, and told the world what they heard. But God has no shepherds now but us. We are the ones chosen to hear His good news – and to pass it on. It is news of wonder and hope. Of light breaking through darkness. It is the sound of music filling the heavens. Of Hallelujahs in our hearts. Listen for it. Surrender to the joy. Carry it with you out into the night.
And if we do, maybe one day we might hear God say, in gratitude and in joy: “Thanks for listening.” Thank YOU for listening.
Merry Christmas and may God give you peace!
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
A man asked his wife what she wanted for Christmas. She said, “I’ll give you a hint. What I want goes from zero to 200 in less than 5 seconds, and I want to see it in the driveway Christmas morning.” The day came and the woman ran out to see her Christmas gift. And there it was right in the driveway - a brand new, shiny bathroom scale!
Now, I don’t know about you, but although this is supposed to be the season of sugar plums dancing in our heads, and Joy to the World, for me it often feels like wartime. On one side of this war are you and me – good, upstanding citizens and faithful Christians. And our opponent? That plate of chocolate chip cookies that are so fresh from the oven that the chips are still melting. And that piece of pumpkin pie with the dollop of cool whip on top. And Grandma’s cobbler. And chocolate cake. This my friends is not mere spiritual warfare; no, this is gastrointestinal warfare.
This battle of the bulge takes place every year around this time. The double whammy of Thanksgiving and Christmas explodes our tummies like a hand grenade. Our cholesterol and blood sugar say no, but our eyes and stomachs say yes, yes, yes. We always end up losing this battle, which means we have to make bold New Year’s predictions about eating tofu and drinking soy milk, which lasts until we open the fridge on New Year’s Day and see there’s one more piece of pecan pie left. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is oh, so sweet!
As we gather tonight, of course, our minds are on the relevance of Christmas, which was that God came to earth, and the reason for Christmas, which was the chance to know God on a more intimate level. But what’s the result of Christmas? How should our lives be different because of this event? One way is that our lives are supposed to be joyful and peaceful. But, could that be any less true than these last few weeks and days? One trip to the mall or post office in the last five days is all anyone needs to be reminded of how easily this season of anticipation turns into one of frustration. The problem is we add to that stress ourselves, and often fret over the things that we should be welcoming as joys. And in this season, that stress can distract us from what Christmas is all about.
Of all the times of the year, this is not supposed to be the season of stress. It’s not “God Fret You Worried Gentlemen” or “O Come All Ye Frazzled.” The archangel didn’t tell the shepherd, “Be afraid! I bring warnings of great stress!” He told them to NOT be afraid, he brought tidings of great joy. The point is that in the midst of our stress, we sometimes refuse that joy, that happy, healthy, life-giving joy that results from the coming of Christ.
This time of year, on an almost daily basis, people bring Fr. Mike and I all kinds of goodies. Our kitchen counter is full of goodies! Thank you! I was thinking, though, about one particular plate of M&M cookies. It was a wonderful gift, and the kind person who gave them told us that a lot of love went into every one of those cookies. As I stood agonizing over whether to eat one or not, those red and green M&Ms were staring at me symbolizing the inner battle: stop, go, stop, go. I thought, “Should I? It’s only a few hours until dinner, and haven’t exercised; but I did have a salad for lunch. But, I probably shouldn’t.” And then I realized something. These cookies were a gift, made with love, and I was rationalizing why I shouldn’t accept this gift. It’s not the right time, it’s the not the right place, I haven’t earned such a gift. Joy and love were given to me, and was finding a reason to refuse that joy.
Think about this: what if the Blessed Mother had been so stressed out that she had refused joy offered her by the angel? She had every right to. She was in no position to take on the responsibility the angel was putting before her. She was engaged to Joseph. How would she explain this pregnancy? She could tell the truth, but who would believe that? She had every good reason to say no. But the angel told Mary that she would have a baby, and that would be named Jesus, and that he would be the Son of God. And Mary finds herself at that plate of cookies, stressing out over this news. If she accepts, she will be the vessel for a Divine gift; she will be the Mother of God. But it also means that very soon it will be obvious that there’s more than a cookie in her belly, which could lead to the destruction of her marriage and her reputation. She could even be put to death.
And yet…she says yes. “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” She takes the risk and she accepts the gift of God’s joy. There are a lot of reasons she could say no: not the right time, not the right place, not the right man, not the right plan. And yet, instead of weighing the pros and cons, instead of counting the costs, Mary simply says yes.
So, my friends, today, I want you to say yes to Christmas. Say yes to the cookie! Eat and enjoy! Sing and be merry! January’s coming soon enough. There will be plenty of time to eat right, drink bottled water, take vitamins, and get plenty of sleep. So this Christmas, I want you to eat the cookie. Accept the joy.
True Christmas, of course, is about more than the joys of a cookie. In fact, the reality is that the joys we refuse are more often spiritual and eternal. The joy that we are guilty of leaving behind is the joy of accepting God’s loving gift, of letting Christ bless us, and giving ourselves to follow Jesus. Christmas is more than a chance to eat and open presents. It’s also a chance to open ourselves to Jesus, and to be filled, to be satisfied, to be nourished, to be strengthened for growth, as only the presence of Jesus can do. It’s a time to recommit ourselves to God and to recommit our lives to worshiping and serving Him. It’s a chance to let the birth of Christ lead to a new birth of Christ within us. His birth was not only life-changing 2,000 years ago; the result of his birth is meant to be life-changing for each of us gathered in this holy place tonight.
And yet, we don’t have to accept God’s joy any more than Mary had to. We can say no, and continue to let stress rule in lives, to be more concerned about saving than serving, more concerned about counting costs than reaping rewards, more concerned about what we can’t have in our lives than what we’re truly missing in our lives. We can say, “It’s not the right time, it’s not the right place, I haven’t earned such a gift.” Well, none of us have, but we’ve been given it just the same. And there’s never a wrong time or a wrong place to recommit ourselves to following Jesus. This is the season of joy. Have we felt that joy yet, or in our stress have we refused the joy God offers us as a gift?
Now, I know what’s going to happen. You’re going to come to me next month with a frown on your face. Your belt will be a notch looser, and you may even be waddling a bit. And you’ll say, “Father, I did what you said, I ate that cookie, and now I weigh five pounds more than before Christmas!” And I’ll say, “Me too. But, how did your cookie taste?” And your eyes will glaze over, and you’ll look up, and with a big smile on your face, you’ll say, “It was awesome.”
My friends, in this very moment, the gift of Christ is once again being offered to each of us. What will you do? It’s all up to you. But if you ask me, I’d eat the cookie, I’d get on my knees and thank God for the gift of His Son and welcome that joy; that truest of joys, in to the depth of my heart. And then we’ll all say, “It was awesome!”
Merry Christmas and may God give you His joy.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Representatives of 15 Catholic organizations met with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team yesterday in Washington.
The Catholic groups presented members of the transition team with a list of policy concerns in the areas of international development and trade, health care reform, immigration, domestic policy and poverty reduction, and the environment.
The presentations and policy discussion that followed were based on “Platform for the Common Good,” a consensus document that came from a convention the groups hosted this summer in Philadelphia called the “Convention for the Common Good .”
The Catholic groups gave the transition team copies of the document, which, they say, advocates policies that are “enlivened by the Gospel message of hope and the wisdom of Catholic social teaching.” A copy of the document is available at www.votethecommongood.com .
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a group that describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed to promote awareness of Catholic social teaching, and Network, a national Catholic social justice organization, organized the Catholic groups that sent representatives to the meeting. (See also New groups add broader Catholic views to politics .)
The meeting lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.
The purpose of the meeting, according to Sr. Simone Campbell, director of Network, was to acknowledge the work that some of the Catholic groups had done in the Catholic community during the election and to begin to develop relationships for “post-Jan. 20,” when the new administration takes over after Obama’s inauguration.
The Obama team is trying to create a climate of collaboration among various interest groups in Washington, Campbell said. She thinks their concern is not just to look for allies to advance their policies but also to be in touch with groups who are in touch with their constituencies.
Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told NCR it is important to note that the group, which she described as “national Catholic social justice leaders,” spoke as a movement.
“We have our individual priorities and different groups take leadership on different issues, but it is important to note that … we were there as a resurgent common good movement in the public square,” she said.
Kathy McNeely of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns said the Obama transition team told the groups that their concerns “would definitely be channeled to the people working on specific policies.” But she also said “they were very careful about that, saying that policy people are in a listening mode right now.”
Until Obama is president, they said, talking about ideas and seeking advice was OK, but now was not the time to set policy, according to McNeely.
But McNeely said the overall impression was that “they would like to seek our advice in the future, definitely.”
“They both encouraged us [to come to them with advice] and suggested people who might be good people to work with in the administration and to bring our ideas and platforms and recommendations to them.”
Campbell said that Michael Strautmanis, the director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs, told them that the Obama team sees Catholic groups as “not just service delivery folks” but as valuable sources of experience. “They want to benefit from the experience of Catholic groups, on-the-ground experience,” she said.
Different representatives of the Catholic groups spoke about specifics of the five concerns they brought to the meeting. Kristen Sampson, Coordinator of the Global Women’s Project for the Washington-based Center of Concern, spoke about international development.
“A consistent, and not pre-planned, theme in each of these brief presentations was concern for the poor and oppressed,” Sampson told NCR in an e-mail about the meeting.
Kelley said, “Catholics United and other groups presented on the need to come together to prevent the tragedy of abortion — to really work on abortion reduction and to really prevent this tragedy.”
“Obama had talked about that [during the campaign], and a number of pro-life Catholics heard that,” so the group needs to hold the new administration accountable on this issue, she said.
Asked which side had initiated the meeting, Campbell said, “We wanted the meeting. They wanted the meeting.”
She said the transition team was clear in that they valued the ideas Catholic groups had to offer, but they stressed that this was one meeting among many similar meetings on a wide variety of topics and issues.
“They have an agenda and we have our agenda,” she said. “So while we are friends, we have different agendas and we are trying to find a place of synchronicity. It is a challenge.”
Then she added: “It’s an exciting time. To think that the concerns of the poor have a chance to be heard. What a great Christmas gift.”
McNeely said that in terms of international policy, the Catholic groups’ message was that now is a real opportunity for the United States to change from a military response to problems around the world, to more diplomatic and multilateral approaches.
“When they responded there was some indication that they saw some possibility [for a change in apporach].” Iran having nuclear capacity was cited as an example. “They found that this brings up an opportunity to discuss with the world all the concerns about nuclear weapons and disarmament,” McNeely said.
In terms of international development, concerns were raised that U.S. engagement had blurred the lines between military exercises and development work. “They said their military advisors were saying that they wanted to see separation between the military forces of the U.S. and development work,” McNeely said. “We found that very uplifting and good to hear because there is some confusion in parts of the world … where there seems to be a lot of lines crossed.”
Anne Boyle, director of communications for the Sisters of Mercy, spoke for the group on immigration reform. “We would like to see legislation that includes a pathway to lawful permanent residence or citizenship, meets immigrants’ basic needs and encourages family unity/reunification,” she told NCR in an e-mail.
Responding to her, she said, Strautmanis “said the American people need to have some faith in our borders,” but “we need to change the conversation from one that demonizes immigrants to one that helps the American people understand their situation and moves our country toward welcoming and treating people more humanely.”
Campbell said that Strautmanis compared the demonization of immigrants to what felons feel after they have been released from prison. Their sentences have been served, but they have not been reintegrated into society, he said.
Second-chance programs for felons are a priority issue for Network, and Campbell was a bit surprised and excited to have the idea of such programs mentioned even tangentially at such a discussion. “To have it even acknowledged, and at that level, was striking. What a wonderful thing,” she said.
On poverty issues, the Catholic groups advocated finding alternative funding for the Housing Trust Fund. Signed into law this summer, the fund aims to protect and maintain a stable supply of low-income housing. The trust was to have been funded from profits from the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae, and the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation, or Freddie Mac, which are now nearly defunct.
The group also advocated extending benefits to welfare recipients beyond the five-year limits, which were mandated by welfare reform of the 1990s.
Kelley said that for the economic stimulus package that will be a major focus of the Obama administration in its first weeks, the Catholic groups pushed the idea of including values from the corporal works of mercy.
“Housing assistance, children’s health, food stamp increases — these kinds of poverty- reduction pieces. We talk about them as including the corporal works of mercy, shelter for the homeless, care of the sick, food for the hungry, clear commitment to those values,” Kelley said.
“We’ve had these bailouts and now poor people are really hurting, the middle-income people too. That’s just a push we have around the stimulus package — making sure it’s really helping people who are in poverty and jobless,” she said.
Attending the meeting from the Obama transition team were Strautmanis; Mara Vanderslice, who is in charge of faith outreach in the public liaison and intergovernmental affairs office; Lisa Ellman senior transition staff to Melody Barnes, the director-designate of the presidential Domestic Policy Council; Joshua Dubois, the Obama campaign’s director of faith outreach; and Mark Linton, Catholic Outreach Coordinator for the campaign.
The Catholic groups represented include: Catholics United, Pax Christi USA, Network, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Jesuit Conference, School of the Americas Watch, Franciscan Action Network, Sisters of Mercy, Africa Faith and Justice Network, the Center of Concern, Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
(Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .)
As we find ourselves today on this last Sunday of our Advent season (already!), you may be among those for whom the chaos level is ever rising. Just a few days left and so much to do – presents to buy, food to prepare, travel to plan. But, our liturgy and our Scripture calls us to something else – to slow down again, and spend these last few days waiting.
Waiting is often underrated in our society. We do not like to wait. You know this as you’ve probably been frustrated in long lines at the Mall or elsewhere. People get anxious and even ornery when they have to wait, but waiting is actually a wonderful thing when we take the time to embrace it.
There are many songs about waiting. Immediately, I think of a song by Tom Petty, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Of course, we’ve been singing every week as our Communion Meditation, “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart.”
In our Gospel today, we hear the ultimate story of waiting. The angel appears to Mary and tells her what is going to happen. She is going to be with child. Then the angel departs and Mary is left to basically wait. Anyone who is a mother knows what that waiting is about. Even as I write this, a very good friend of mine is in labor awaiting her first child.
And what happens when we take the time to wait? Well, waiting is full of possibilities. As my friends wait, we all wonder, will it be a boy or a girl? I’m sure the parents wonder, am I ready for this? Will we be good parents? What lays beyond this day? Will every day after today be different? Waiting is full of possibilities and full of potential. My friends know this, Mary knew this, and our liturgy calls each of us to know it as well.
So, try and find the time this week to wait – not in long lines, or traffic, or for a parking spot at the Mall – but wait for the Lord. Don’t take Christmas for granted. Don’t think you know what it will be. Sure, we will do all the same things – go to certain parties, go to Christmas Mass, have certain foods for dinner and probably even get some gifts we are expecting. But, this isn’t the kind of waiting I’m talking about.
The externals of our celebration may be just the same as they were last year; as they are every year, but something extraordinary is going to happen – Jesus will be born again. Don’t take it for granted. Make it new in your heart. Find some time to just be quiet with the Lord each of the final days of our Advent. And allow your religious imagination to explore an incredible reality – that Jesus is coming. That Jesus wants to enter your life again; your life new. What will that be like? Are you ready? How will the days after Christmas be different for you because of His arrival?
There’s only one way to know – don’t forget to wait.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 21, 2008:
After one of the Masses last week, I was in the back of the church greeting people and I saw someone with an interested button on her jacket. It had an image of the Blessed Mother with the Baby Jesus and said, “You can say ‘Merry Christmas’ to me.” As you know, the politically correct crowd has gotten on the “Happy Holidays” bandwagon the last few years, some stores even instructing its employees that they cannot say, “Merry Christmas.” Perhaps the most bizarre statement I’ve seen is a combination of all religious holidays into one generic one with the greeting, “Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah.” Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up! Now, I don’t plan on entering that battle; I’m sure you can imagine where I stand. The holy day we celebrate is Christmas! It is about the birth of Christ. So, we shouldn’t shrink away from that, and people of other faiths or even no faith should respect that this is what we are celebrating, just as we respect that they celebrate Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanza or any other holy day.
In fact, instead of making our holy day generic, I think we should make it even more distinctly Catholic. A few years ago, I had a wonderful experience that spoke to this issue. Someone had shown me some handmade Christmas cards that our young people made to send to local military personnel from New Milford. One of the cards, made by a first grader read, “Have a ‘Mary’ Christmas.” Notice the difference, I didn’t say “Merry” m-e-r-r-y, but “Mary,” m-a-r-y. Now, I think this was actually just a spelling error, but the more I think of that, especially with today’s Gospel passage, I thought, this is a good Catholic greeting for this season. Never mind the generic “Happy Holidays,” how about the extremely Catholic “Mary Christmas.”
Reflecting on today’s Gospel, we realize this season is really about Mary perhaps as much as it is about Jesus. First and foremost, Mary is the only woman in all of human history to be given the unique distinction - the almost incomprehensible distinction - of being the Mother of God. And by wishing a Mary Christmas we are being reminded that we are called to be just like Mary in the way that we welcome the Christ child into our lives and into our world.
Some children were preparing a Christmas play. Little Cynthia was assigned the part of Mary, but she wanted to change parts with her friend, who was playing an angel. When asked why, she said, “Because it is easier to be an angel than to be the Mother of Christ.” The little girl is certainly right. To be the mother of Christ is no small matter. Yet difficult as it sounds, that is exactly what we are all called to be. In fact, we could say that even though Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his real desire is to be born not once in a limited place and time, but to be born over and over again in the hearts of all believers.
Mother of Christ is a title we usually reserve for Mary. But Mary is mother of Christ in two senses. She is mother of Christ in the physical sense. She carried Jesus in her womb and gave birth to him. This is an unrepeatable event and an honor that no other human being could share with her. But she is also mother of Christ in a spiritual sense; and in this spiritual sense the role of being mother of Christ is available to all Christians. We all can and should become mothers of Christ. The idea of Christians called to be mothers of Christ is very common among Christian mystics. The mystic, Meister Eckhart, said that God made the human soul to bear the divine Son, and that when this birth happens it gives God greater pleasure than the creation of heaven and earth.
What is this spiritual motherhood of Christ and how does it happen? Well, in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear, “While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him…But Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
This passage shows us that Jesus expects his followers to be not only his brothers and sisters but his mothers as well, and the way to be the mother of Jesus is by doing the will of God. Spiritual motherhood of Christ is attained by saying “yes” to God, even when God appears to demand from us what is humanly impossible, like asking Mary to be a virgin mother. To become mothers of Christ we need to make the prayer of Mary our own prayer: “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”
This prayer of Mary has been known as the world’s greatest prayer. It is the prayer that brought God down from heaven to dwell in the soul and body of a lowly young woman. It is the prayer that brought about the greatest event in human history, God becoming human in Jesus. It is a prayer that changed forever the course of human history some 2,000 years ago. It is the prayer that can change forever the course of our own personal history today and everyday if only we say it, pray it and mean it. This prayer is so very different from what has been called the world’s most common prayer, the prayer in which we try to get God to do our will. The world’s most common prayer says, “My will be done,” whereas the world greatest prayer says, “Thy will be done.”
Yes, little Cynthia was right. It is not easy to be the mother of Christ. But in today’s Gospel Mary shows us how. It is in hearing God’s word and saying yes to God even when His will seems to go against all our plans for the future. As Christmas draws so very near, Mary reminds us that the best Christmas, in fact the only true Christmas, is when Christ is born not in the little town of Bethlehem so long ago, but in the very depths of our hearts today and every day.
May God give you peace and may you all have a very Mary Christmas.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
On this Third Sunday of Advent we celebrate what is traditionally called "Gaudete Sunday" or "Rejoice Sunday." You have certainly noticed the rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath, and I'm sure you noticed the rose colored vestments Fr. Mike and I wore today, but do you know why in the midst of this season we suddenly break away from our bluish purple into dusty rose for one day? (As a side note, the color we wear is a very masculine "dusty rose," it is certainly NOT "pink".)
The color rose is only occasionally used liturgically - as a matter of fact just twice a year, today and on Laetare Sunday during Lent - and it represents joy. Today, we are more than halfway through our season of Advent. While not quite as penitential a season as Lent is, Advent is meant to be a time of penance and preparation. And yet right in the middle of it, on our way to Christmas, we express the joyful aspect of anticipating the Lord's coming. You can hear the theme of joy and rejoicing throughout the readings and prayers in the Mass.
This third Sunday in Advent is called "Gaudete Sunday." Gaudete means 'rejoice!' in Latin, and is the first word in the Mass today. If you look up the "entrance antiphon" in a missalette, you will see that it starts out: "Rejoice in the Lord always!" In the Latin that would read "Gaudete in Domino semper!" We don't recite the entrance antiphon, instead we sing a song, but the theme of rejoicing is no less conspicuous now on Gaudete Sunday than in the past. This theme is repeated in our readings. We hear in Isaiah, "I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul." Our psalm reminded us "My soul rejoices in my God." And, St. Paul told us to "Rejoice always."
We are meant to be nearly overwhelmed with our joy at the celebration of the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us. I often think of that childhood excitement that we all had at one time or another. I remember as a young child, on Christmas Eve, my Dad often would have to sleep in the bedroom with my brother and I because our excitement was so great that we quite literally could not contain ourselves. I hope you have wonderful memories of that kind of excitement and joy; and the gift to see that on the faces of your own children and grandchildren.
But, this excitement and joy is not meant to be contained or limited to the young. It is the kind of excitement the Church wants each of us to have. So, today, do not let yourself enter that space of being overwhelmed - when am I going to get done everything that needs to be done for Christmas - instead, let the joy of the season, the joy of what this is really about, overtake your heart. Who cares about presents!? They are the mere icing on the cake. Today, rejoice because your Lord is near; your Lord is ready to be born again - born most importantly in our hearts. What great joy!
The rest is up to us. Fr. Mike's nephew Cody has a saying when someone's actions don't match their words, "Inform your face." Let us embrace the joy that our liturgy invites us into today. Let the joy of the coming of Our Lord enflame our hearts and be evident on our faces, in our words, in who we are.
"Rejoice in the Lord always!" "Gaudete in Domino semper!"
Love, Fr. Tom
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Sunday, December 7, 2008
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is perhaps one of the more misunderstood feast days in the Church today. When we regularly refer to the “Immaculate Conception” many people will explain that this feast is about the fact that Jesus was conceived without sin. Of course, this is not a feast of Jesus, but of the Blessed Mother. It celebrates the fact that Mary was conceived without sin in the womb of her mother Anne.
This dogma of Mary was proclaimed more than 150 years ago by Pope Pius 9th in 1854. The feast itself is, of course, even older than the proclamation. It has been celebrated in the Franciscan Order since 1263; and was adopted by Rome in 1477, by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan. And the belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception dates back to the earliest days of the Church. But, the feast takes on added importance for us today. Every nation is under the patronage of a saint. The United States is under the patronage of Mary under her title as the Immaculate Conception and so for us this is also our nation’s feast day.
So, why is this day so important to us in the Church? Quite simply, it reminds us of what our faith is all about; what the goal of our believing leads us to. A few years back, I had the opportunity to preach at the celebration of First Reconciliation for our young people. During the service, I brought the kinds forward to the sanctuary, and sat them all down. First I asked if any of them were nervous about making their first confession. Some raised their hands and said they were worried they would forget what to say, or they didn't know what the priest would say. Then I asked if any of them were excited about making their first confession. Wonderfully several hands went up. I asked one little girl why she was excited to make her first confession. She said boldly and proudly, “Because today, Father, I get to be sin free.” I get to be sin free. Isn’t that the most wonderful statement – and from a child! Since that moment, I've thought I'd like to have t-shirts made up that say that and I'll hand them out after every confession.
But, this is exactly what Mary reminds us about today. Another word for sin-free is holy. We are all called to be holy people; to make our way back to God; to be united with Him. We do this by trying to overcome the sin in our life every day. And, if you're thinking, “I can't do that. That's too difficult.” You're right! We can't do that on our own. Mary's sinlessness is not something that she achieved by her own power. Rather, it is a gift from God given to her at the very moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Anne.
That's a good reminder for all of us today. When we are without sin, in a state of grace, or when we are doing better on our road to holiness, it is not an achievement of our own greatness and power - it too is a gift from God. We can overcome our sin - with God's help; and only with God's help. We overcome our sin by prayer; by meditating on Scripture; by spending time before the Blessed Sacrament; by praying the Rosary; and pre-eminently by going to Confession regularly and then receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in a worthy manner.
If our Advent season is about preparing for the Birth of Jesus into the world, then this action of making sure Mary did not carry the stain of original sin was in effect, God's advent, God’s preparation, for the birth of His Son. God prepared Mary so that she would be worthy to carry the Savior of the World. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception tells us something about who Mary is. But maybe it tells us more about who God is and who we are in light of God's incredible love.
Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is belief in a provident God - a God who provides for the future, who prepares His children for their assigned task in life even before they are born, a God who foresees and equips us with all the natural and supernatural qualities we need to play our assigned role in the drama of human salvation. God does not just throw us into this worldwide wilderness and then leave us to fight it out among ourselves. He helps us to desire and even achieve holiness when we cooperate with Him.
Let us today be inspired by the example of Mary; and by the loving Providence of our God. Let us strive to hear the angel say the same words to us, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”
May we be blessed through Mary's intercession and may God give you peace.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
“John the Baptist appeared in the desert…[and] he fed on locusts and wild honey.” This Sunday, after a week of turkey sandwiches, turkey casserole, turkey-a-la-king, turkey burgers, turkey pot pie and turkey surprise… locusts and honey might just sound pretty good. Today, as we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent our Scriptures find us in the desert, with a strange and disheveled figure, John the Baptist, dining on strange food and proclaiming that we need to make ourselves ready for the Lord.
We tend to think of John the Baptist as “The Voice” – the forerunner, the prophet, the one crying in the wilderness. And he is. But I’d like us to think of him another way today. Not merely as prophet, but profoundly as a figure of great hope. More than an ominous, fearsome figure, he is also, to my mind, the Saint of Second Chances. He wanders into the desert of our lives and invites today us to start over, to begin again.
It is appropriate that as we begin a new Church year, we will be listening this year to the Gospel of Mark. This is the Gospel that most scholars believe was the very first one written. And we start today with the same words that start the book of Genesis, “The beginning.”
And what is the message from the beginning? The message is: make yourselves new. Begin again. Something is about to happen that will change everything. This is your chance at a fresh start, to make things right with God. That is John the Baptist’s message – the message of the Saint of Second Chances.
And like all of the second chances we’ve probably ever experiences in life, John doesn’t necessarily appear when or how we expect him to. This preacher isn’t Joel Osteen or Jimmy Swaggart in a silk suit and an air-conditioned arena, with a flashy presentation and 30 piece worship band. No, John the Baptist is instead rough and wild and even frightening – perhaps a madman yelling in the desert. But then again, God doesn’t always enter into our lives when or how we want him to either.
I recently came across the story of a 16-year-old Korean boy named Philip Kim. During the Korean War, he was one of many boys rounded by and arrested for refusing to join the People’s Volunteer Army of North Korea. They took him to prison and were going to execute him. Philip Kim stood there, lined up with other boys, facing a wall, and he closed his eyes, waiting for the gunshot that would end his life. But at the last minute, an officer yelled for them to stop. The soldier noticed that one of the other boys lined up against the wall was holding a rosary, and was praying. Because of this, the execution was called off and the boys lives were spared.
That moment changed – that unexpected second chance – everything. At the time, Philip wasn’t a Christian. But he never forgot what happened, what had saved his life. Not long after, he converted, and came to America. He married, raised a family, became active in his local Catholic church. He settled in San Antonio, Texas, where he opened his home to other Korean immigrants to hold Mass. Those Masses led him to help establish the first Korean Catholic church in San Antonio.
His love for the church led him eventually to being ordained a deacon and he served for many years. Several years later, his wife died after a long battle with cancer. Before she died, she gave Philip her blessing to become a priest. And he did. He was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 72 and served until he died just a few weeks ago. Fr. Philip owed his remarkable life to a second chance nearly 60 years ago. And he didn’t let it get away. He used that second chance to make his life matter.
What about the rest of us? During this season of Advent, John the Baptist calls out to us, imploring us. You have another chance, he tells us. Seize it. Repent. Prepare. To paraphrase Isaiah: level the mountains and fill in the valleys. Make what is crooked straight. Like that boy facing a wall, and facing death…we too can have a second chance and start over and make our lives matter – deeply.
So, think of those mountains and valleys, those winding roads that cut through every life. And think of the wild and untamed man in the desert. He tells us it’s not too late to change. He is the saint of “I’m sorry. Let’s talk.” He is the saint of “Where did I go wrong?” and “How can I make this right?” He is the saint of “I’m addicted and I need help.” He is the saint of “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” He is the saint of the slammed door being re-opened…the phone being picked up…the fences being mended…the wound being healed.
Last week, we began not just the season of Advent, but a new Church year. So consider this a time for making New Year’s resolutions. For resolving to live differently. Resolving to make room for God. Listen to the Saint of Second Chances – and take hold of every one that comes your way. The dark days of December, after all, are not an ending. As Mark reminds us, they are “the beginning.”
May God give you peace.