Thursday, December 31, 2009
Happy New Year! As we gather on this first day of a new year and a new decade, we celebrate something that has a dual nature – both secular and religious. Today marks an important moment in our secular calendar – the start of a new year – and an important day in our Church calendar – the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.
This is historically a day to review the year past and look forward to the year ahead. It is rooted even in the name of the month we begin today. The name “January” comes from the Roman god Janus, who is depicted as the god with two faces, one face looking to the past and the other looking to the future. This is indeed a time to look back at the year that has just ended and to look forward to the new year ahead of us. How did I spend this one year of my life that has just passed? Could I have done better last year in the way I invested my time between the demands of work, family, friends and society, and the demands of my spiritual life? What things did I achieve last year and what did I fail to achieve? Through soul searching questions like these we find that a review of the past year naturally leads to setting goals and resolutions for the new year.
New Year’s resolutions always seem silly to me. As I checked my email this past week, I was greeted with an online poll asking, “What’s your New Year’s resolution for 2010?” These were your choices, “Lose some weight, save more money, or find true love?” Of the nearly 800,000 people who’d answered the poll, 336,633 said lose weight, 263,532 want to save money, 152,802 said to find true love. Silly. And meaningless. Let’s face it. Most of us will probably lose some weight – and gain it back by this time next year; save some money – and spend it by this time next year; and fall in and out of love in the same amount of time.
Hopefully, these things are not what constitute a good year. Hopefully, this is not what constitutes worthy goals for living. Instead, imagine if the poll asked, “What’s your New Year’s resolution for 2010?” with these choices: spend more time with the people who love me, do my part to make the world a better place, be a person of peace, spend more time in prayer, be more like Christ. These are the kind of resolutions that are worthy of our time. These are the things that help us live better lives. These are the things that our minds and hearts should be focused on.
In the secular world, Christmas is already a distant memory – over and done with. Let’s move on to Valentine’s Day. In our Church world, the world of faith, the incredible event of Christmas, the incredible reality that our God came to be with us as one of us, is still with us because it is so powerful an event that we couldn’t possibly do it justice in just a day, we continue to reflect. And we will continue to reflect all the way until the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord on January 10th. Plenty of Christmas is left.
And our continued Christmas reflection today gives us Mary, the Mother of God to focus our minds and hearts on. And it is Mary who gives us the best example of how to achieve these better, holier resolutions for the year ahead. Our Gospel told us, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary is the model of that new life in Christ that all of us wish for ourselves in this new year. But Mary did not merely wish that new life, when invited by God through the message of an angel to be a part of His incredible plan, she was resolved to do what God asked of her. She said yes and her will God’s word. So what did she do? “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary valued the Word of God, treasured it, meditated and pondered it, in order to discern what God was saying to her at every stage in her life as the handmaid of God – and then, so resolved, she obeyed that Word.
Right there is a difference between a resolution and a wish. Let’s face it, losing some weight is a wish. Winning the lottery is a wish. A wish identifies a goal you want to reach, but a resolution specifies the concrete steps you will take to reach it. A wish says this is where I want to be, a resolution says this is the road I will take, this is what I will do to get there. The wishful person says “I want to pass my exams this year” and the resolved person says “I will devote an extra hour to my studies every day in order to pass my exams.” The wishful person says “I want to have more peace and love in my family this year” and the resolved person says “I will spend more time with my family at table instead of rushing off to the TV, so that we get to know and understand each other better.” The wishful person says “I will live a life of union with God this year” and the resolved person says “I will set aside time every day to pray and hear God's word.” The difference between wishing and resolving is this: are we prepared to do what it takes to make our goals come true, are we prepared to change as God calls us to?
On this day of prayer, this day of peace, let us look to Mary as our model. Let us reflect in our hearts on what our God is calling us to. Let us be so resolved this year to be people of peace, people of prayer, people who show forth God’s love to our world. Let us be so resolved to reflect upon all that God has revealed to us in our hearts, to discern His will in our lives, and to act upon His life-giving, life-saving, life-changing Word.
May God give you peace! Happy New Year!
Saturday, December 26, 2009
“Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” How many wives poked and prodded their husbands as that was read? How many husbands twisted uncomfortably in their seats? This is one of the most challenging passages of Scripture to tackle and I think most homilists shy away from it. But, I think that is a real mistake.
I too shied away from this passage until a few years ago when I saw a movie you may have seen called, My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding. The movie is about a large ethnic family focusing on their awkward daughter who pursues her dreams, falls in love and marries. But, there is a scene early on that puts our reading from Colossians in perspective. After years of working in the family restaurant, the daughter decides she wants to go to college. She musters up the courage and asks permission of her father, who immediately turns her down. Crying on her mother’s shoulder the mother responds, “Don’t worry, I will talk to your father.” Feeling the hopelessness of the situation the daughter responds, “He won’t change his mind. He is stubborn. ‘The man is the head of the household.’” The mother strokes her daughter’s hair and smiles, “Yes, the man, he is the head of the household, but the woman? She is the neck. And I can turn that head any way I want.”
This wonderful scene gives us a new perspective on this reading, and that’s exactly what is needed. The problem with this phrase from Colossians, “Wives be submissive to your husbands,” is that we tend to isolate that passage out and not look at the rest of the reading. Alone, this passage is troubling, but seen in the bigger picture, we find not a chauvinistic household, but one that is balanced; not one where husbands lord authority over wives, but one where everyone is subordinate, or the servant, to the other. St. Paul gives us the lens with which to look at the passage in his Letter to the Ephesians where he also uses this controversial line. But, in Ephesians before he speaks about wives he says, “Brothers and Sisters, be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Subordination, or servanthood, is not just for wives towards husbands, it is for everyone out of reverence for Chist. So, if it is true to say “wives be subordinate to your husbands,” then in the perspective of St. Paul it is also true to say “husbands be subordinate to your wives.”
This all ties in to today’s Solemnity of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, because what St. Paul gives us is the image of what a holy family looks like. We heard his description, “Put on…heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”
This is a tough time for the family in our world. Families are struggling. Family life in many places is falling apart. Just look at the images that we get of families from the media today. Families are not portrayed as places of love, respect and safety; rather they are battle grounds. Television and movie families often feature children who regularly outsmart their parents, or parents who are preoccupied with their own interests and neglect their children. These are not holy families.
Our opening prayer today said, “Father, help us to live as the holy family, united in respect and love.” That seems like a tall order for us today, but it is one that we can achieve if we have the desire to live in holy families. And that is the challenge – throw out what the world tells you a family should be; and put on Christ and what God wants a family to be; one where love, respect, compassion, and humility prevail. Be subordinate to one another; be families of servants and of service.
Yes, the Holy Family is a tough act to follow. The dad was a saint, the mom was the Mother of God; and the son was God Himself. But, that is not what made Jesus, Mary and Joseph a holy family. They were not a Holy Family because of who they were, but rather they were a holy family because of the way they loved and served each other. They were subordinate to one another. Joseph was faithful to Mary even though the child she carried was not his own. Mary was faithful to Jesus even to the foot of the cross. And one of the things that most concerned Jesus as he hung on the cross was to make sure that John would be there to care for His mother after He was gone. God brought the Holy Family together, but love and concern and service to each other kept them together and made them holy. They became holy as a family in the way that they loved.
The challenge of holiness for families today is to put them first – before career, before wealth, before everything. Families need the support, understanding and love of everyone in them. There is a great freedom that comes from family life. We can be crankier, moodier and grumpier within our family than we can with other people. Snoring in your own house is just noise; in another person’s house it’s an insult. But, never let the freedom you enjoy in your own home become an excuse for failing to extend to the members of your family all of the love, respect, attention and compassion they deserve. Reserve your deepest kindness and love for your own family. Honor all of the members of your household; compete in holiness so that you may grow in your love of each other and the love of God.
Make St. Paul’s words your family’s mission statement: “Put on…heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”
May God make your family a holy family; and may God give you peace.
Friday, December 25, 2009
As I was preparing for today’s Christmas Mass, a movie scene came to mind. It is from Steven Speilberg movie of a number of years ago called, Amistad. This movie is about a group of slaves who were able to win their freedom from slavery in the Supreme Court long before slavery was abolished in this country. It is a powerful movie. But, there is one point in the movie when a slave is given a copy of the Bible by an Abolitionist. The slaves, though, speak no English and have never heard of Jesus Christ and so he doesn’t know what this book is. But, this version of the Bible had pictures in it. The man was fascinated looking at these pictures. At one point in the film, two of the slaves are sitting alone in their jail cell, waiting. One slave thinks that the other one carries the book everywhere simply to impress people and he says to the one looking at the Bible, “No one is watching you here, you can put the book down.” The other one responds saying, “No, I think I have figured out the story.” Pointing to the pictures he says, “See, here, things were very bad for these people, it was a dark time, and they were oppressed. Worse even than us.” He flips a page to the scene at the manger in Bethlehem, “But, see here, this boy was born and that changed everything.” Referring to the drawing which depicts Christ with a halo he said, “You can see that he was very important, even the sun followed him where ever he went.”
“See here, this boy was born and that changed everything.” My friends, this is the great message of the feast we gather here to celebrate today. With Jesus, everything is changed. Christmas isn’t about presents and extravagant family dinners – as wonderful as those are. We see the signs and bumper stickers everywhere that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but we also endure what can be a very un-Christian experience of visiting a Mall to do Christmas shopping. Need I say more? In the midst of all the hustle and bustle we can be tempted to lose sight of what we gather here to celebrate – the incredible reality that our God became one of us, the incredible event of our salvation. We need to remember always – perhaps now more than ever – that nothing can ever take away the wonder of that event.
We often find ourselves looking for signs. We want God to show us the way, to give us a sign that he loves us. There was a time in my own life, before I became a priest when I was praying about my vocation, trying to decide if God was calling me into the priesthood and religious life. On retreats, I would hear other guys talk about how God had told them this, or how they received a sign for that. I went to church one day to pray and I was being a very typical Thomas, demanding a sign from God. “Why can’t you give me a sign? Is that too much to ask for God?” After leaving the Church, I was driving home when all of a sudden I passed a billboard that said, “Are you looking for a sign from God?” Of course the rest of that sign read, “Join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” I didn’t take that sign literally to mean I should become a Mormon, but rather to stop asking for such things from God.
What we celebrate today is the greatest sign that God could ever give us – Himself, in the form of a little baby born in a humble manger; the Light of the World that shone in the darkness; the Word become Flesh; the Savior of US ALL. It is in fact the greatest sign of God’s love for us. As we hear in John’s Gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” No matter what trials we have in our personal lives, in our relationship, marriages, in our families, our work lives, this Son of God has come to triumph over them all. He can make everything right again in our lives, His Light can shine in our darkness – if we let him.
That is why we celebrate this day with such joy. We gather to hear this Good News of great joy that God showers on the world at Christmas. But, we still need to do something so that we can experience this joy in our lives, in our families, and in our world more personally.
How do we do that? Well, it is easier to explain than to practice – so I'll explain. Just look at the word JOY. It’s a small word – just three letters: first J, then O, and lastly Y. Well, let me propose that the J stands for Jesus, the O for Others, and the Y for You. Joy therefore is: Jesus and Others, before You. To know joy in our lives we need to place Jesus first in everything. When we place Jesus first, he encourages us to place others before ourselves. And that is the recipe for true joy. That is how we can convert the Christmas “Joy to the world” into a personal “Joy in our lives” now and always.
So, as hear the great story of Christmas once again, we would do well to pay attention to the various people mentioned and see whether they place Jesus and others before themselves, or whether they seek their own interests first. You will discover that those who practice J-O-Y are the ones who enjoy peace and joy, and that those who practice “me first” are always the unhappy and miserable ones. Here are a few examples.
On one side we have the innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary out in the cold night while he enjoyed the warmth of his inn. And then there's Herod who wanted above all else to preserve his position as king, to the point that he was prepared to kill Jesus and others. These people would never experience the JOY of the Good News. But, on the other side, look at the shepherds who leave everything they own and their flock in the fields to go adore Jesus first. Or the wise men from the East who leave the security of their homeland and make a long and dangerous journey to Bethlehem just to worship the new-born Jesus and bring him gifts. They are the one's who receive God's favor, they are the ones who experience in their hearts the true peace and the true JOY of Christmas.
My brothers and sisters, today – this Christmas – let us resolve to follow their good example by always being people of JOY – placing Jesus and others before ourselves and then the true joy of Christmas will always be ours. This is the Christmas story that we all must learn by heart, in our hearts.
“Behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
“See here, this boy was born and that changed everything.”
On behalf of Fr. Antonio, Fr. Claude, myself and the parish staff, let me wish you all the happiest and holiest Christmas.
Buon Natale, Merry Christmas and may God give you peace.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
A man asked his wife what she wanted for Christmas. She said, “I’ll give you a hint. What I want goes from 0-200 in less than 5 seconds, and I want to see it in the driveway Christmas morning.” Christmas came and the woman ran out to see her 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 fresh whipped cream 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 waistlines 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!
My friends, as we gather in this holy place tonight, of course, our minds are on the relevance of Christmas, on the reality that God came to us as a little baby boy in a manger, and the fact that this day reminds us that in the birth of Christ we find our opportunity to know God on a more intimate level. That is the reason for Christmas; and the purpose of our gathering. But, I want to pose a very different question tonight, not about the reasons, but about the outcome. What is the result of Christmas in our lives? How should our lives be different because of this event – both the birth we remember 2,000 years ago and the celebration we gather for tonight? One way is that our lives are supposed to be joyful and peaceful. We sing about just these things in all of our beautiful Christmas hymns. But, for many of us, the last few weeks and days before Christmas are anything but joyful and peaceful. 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, his tidings were of great joy. The point is that in the midst of our stress, we sometimes refuse that joy, that happy, healthy, holy, life-giving joy that results from welcoming anew the birth of Christ.
This time of year, people love to bake and give all kinds of goodies. Our kitchen counters can lake any free space for all the sweets covering them. As I was reflecting on this notion of Christmas joy, I remembered one particular plate of M&M cookies that I received last year. 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 I certainly 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 looking for reasons 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 her? She had every good reason to say no. But the angel told Mary that she would have a baby, and that baby would be named Jesus, and that He would be the very Son of God. And Mary finds herself at that plate of cookies, stressing out over this news. “How can this be?” she initially questions. 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, Mary says yes, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” She takes the risk and she accepts the gift of God’s joy; of God’s love; of God’s peace. 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, instead of listing the reasons to refuse the gift, Mary simply says “yes”. “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
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. I want you to open your heart; open your life and accept the joy of the birth of our Savior.
True Christmas is, of course, about more than the joys of a cookie. In fact, the reality is that the joys we refuse are more often spiritual and eternal; and far more meaningful and transformative. 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, 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 remembrance of the birth of Christ so long ago, lead to a new birth of Christ within us, right here, tonight. 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 our lives, to be more concerned about holing back than serving others, more concerned about counting costs than reaping true rewards, more concerned about what we can’t have in our lives; what someone else has that’s better than ours; than what we’re truly missing in our lives. We too 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; of love and of peace. Have we felt that joy yet? Have we embraced the joy of this season? Or in our stress have we refused the joy God offers us as a free 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; the gift of joy, love and peace; 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 tonight and thank God for the gift of His Son and welcome that joy; that truest of joys, in to the depths of my heart. And only then can we all say, “Thank you Lord. It was truly awesome!”
Buon Natale, Merry Christmas and may God give you His joy.
Monday, December 21, 2009
The Cardinal mentioned that at this time of the year, children often approach him with a very important question: "Are you Santa Claus?" And, while the Cardinal of course responds that he is not Santa, he reminds the children that the real Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was also a bishop.
St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra and among the interesting things about him is the fact that he is the first saint canonized in the Church who was not a martyr. In the early years of the Church it was the tremendous heroism and courage of the martyrs, willing to die for the faith, that received the most attention and veneration of the faithful. But, Nicholas, living in the third century after most persecution of Christians had ceased was the first to be officially recognized not for dying for the faith, but for living heroically and faithfully the Christian life.
There are many stories and legends that surround this saint and come down to us over the centuries, but they all have one common factor - his incredible charity.
St. Nicholas, was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Cardinal Sean told the congregation that it was St. Nicholas who wrote the text of the great Symbol of Faith of that Council, a prayer that we pray each and every Sunday - the Nicene Creed. So, the Nicene Creed is, in fact, the Prayer of Santa Claus.
After the homily, as we stood to profess our faith, the Cardinal invited us all to pray the Prayer of Santa Claus, and I invite you to pray it with me too:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through Him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
He came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
He was born of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and His kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look to the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
St. Nicholas, pray for us!
Friday, December 18, 2009
Long ago, a wise and good king ruled in Persia. He loved his people and wanted to know how they lived – especially in their hardships. So he dressed himself in regular clothes and went to the homes of the poor. No one he visited suspected that he was, in reality, the king. One of them was a very poor man who lived in a cellar. The king spent time with him, talked with him, listened to him, ate his meager food with him and cheered him up before leaving. Later he visited the poor man again and disclosed his true identity. The king expected the man to ask for some gift or favor, but he didn’t. Instead he said in wonder, “You left your palace and your glory to visit me in this dark, dreary place. You ate the meager food I ate. You brought gladness to my heart! To others you may have given rich gifts. But to me you have given yourself!”
My brothers and sisters, in just a few days we will celebrate something very similar. Christmas celebrates that the King of kings left his divine glory and came to our dreary world to share with us our poverty, our struggles and challenges. Like our story, Jesus didn’t just come to give us a gift or a favor, He came and gave us Himself.
This has been the challenge of this entire Advent season, a challenge made ever more urgent as Advent comes to a close – who’s arrival are we preparing for? When we think about it, there’s a choice, and most people are preparing for the arrival of one of two people. Are we preparing for the arrival of Jesus? Or are we preparing for the arrival of Santa Claus? We’ve all seen the bumper stickers and pins that say, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” or “Keep Christ in Christmas.” We all know the challenge of the busyness of this time of year. I’m sure that the malls and the roads are crazy today. I’m sure that people are scurrying around picking up all of those last minute presents. And as much fun as all of that is, Advent reminds us that we are preparing for something so much bigger, so awesome, so much more monumental than presents and Santa Claus. So, who’s arrival are we preparing for?
We can learn something important by looking at some key differences between Jesus and Santa. What does each of them do? Tradition tells us that Santa Claus rides in an open sleigh giving gifts to children who have been good – so be good for goodness sake. Santa leaves the gifts under the Christmas tree, perhaps enjoys some cookies and milk and then disappears until next year.
Jesus, however, does something very different. Jesus does not leave a gift and disappear. Instead, Jesus is the gift. Jesus comes to live with us. He comes to share our human condition. His very presence is the gift. And, as the poor man in our story knows, being with the king is far more satisfying than receiving a gift from him. Most importantly, Jesus does not disappear not to be seen again for another year. Jesus gives us all of Himself and gives us His real presence in our lives for ever at each and every Eucharist. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving!
So, who’s arrival are you preparing for? Preparing for Santa is a very hurried preparation, one that involves lots of activity, lots of rushing around, lots of hustle and bustle. Preparing for Jesus is much more internal, much more prayerful, much more transformative. The King of kings wants to visit your household, wants to visit your life. Will you welcome Him? Will you have the time or the quiet space to welcome Him into your home and into your heart? How will you prepare for His arrival?
Today we are just like the poor man in our story. Like him, our hearts should be full of joy, not in the extra gift the king will give us but in the fact that the king has come to be with us, to become one of us. Let us prepare well so that we can exclaim with the poor man, “To others you may have given rich gifts. But to me you have given yourself!” Come, Lord Jesus.
May God give you peace.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
You should congratulate any priest or deacon who successfully made his way through today's Gospel. It is the decathalon of proclamation linguistics - the Genealogy of Jesus from Matthew's Gospel. Perez, Hezron, Amminadab, Nahshon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asaph, Jehoshaphat. The names just keep coming at you like a verbal assault. The rat-a-tat-tat of them seemingly endless! Such is the family of the Messiah.
But what are we to make of this Gospel passage? Some cringe when it finds its way into the schedule. Some avoid it all together. Some rush through it so quickly it is an unintelligible garble of gobbledy-gook! This is a shame because despite the verbal gymnastics, it is one of the richest passages of Scripture.
I remember tackling this in a Scripture class we had while I was a novice. The Novice Master, himself a great Scripture scholar, asked us if we could only keep one passage of Scripture, the rest was going to go away, what would we keep? His answer was the Genealogy of Christ. He would go on to explain how in this list of the descendants of Christ, the whole of salvation history was being presented.
When we look at the geneaology, we see lots of what we would expect for the lineage of the Savior of the World; the very Son of God. We find Abraham, the one with whom the story began; the forebear of all who would be called God's people. We find Jacob who would wrestle an angel. We find the great kings - the courageous David; the infinitely wise Solomon. This much is not surprising.
But, if we look deeper, it could raise an eyebrow. We find non-Jews; people not of the covenant - namely Rahab and Ruth. Worse than this, Rahab is a prostitute. We also find Bathsheeba, an adulteress. We find other kings who were not of the stature of David or Solomon, but rather those who would lead Israel down the wrong path away from its Godly destiny.
In other words, we find a family just like yours or mine. We find a family complete with its success stories and its triumphant figures; and we find a family complete with its crazy Uncle Joe's and Cousin Betty's. We find a family just like any other human family.
I can't help but think of that often-cited phrase, "You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family." The same was true for even the Son of God. The technical theological term we use for the Birth of Christ is the Incarnation; a word that comes from the Latin in-carne or quite literally "in the flesh." Jesus did not magically or suddenly appear on the scene as though from some Fellini movie - Heavens part, choirs sing, bright light, and voila Jesus!
No, our Savior is born the same we were through a 9 month pregnancy; even through the difficulties along the way - ending up birthed in a manger stall. He comes to us in the flesh in the same way you and I came into the world. He came in the likeness of humanity.
And the beauty of this, I think, as we reflect upon the family, the genealogy of Christ is this - if the Savior could be born into this family - beginning with Abraham all the way to Mary and Joseph - with all of its triumphs and challenges; then He can be born again into your family and my family too.
In fact, He has. In fact, His genealogy is ours too. In baptism, we were made members of this very same family of God. So, these descendants are ours. So, as we recall the great heritage that is our Godly Family, let us remember to make room again because just around the corner, we will have a new arrival - the Son of God wishes to be born again in our hearts, in our homes, in our lives and in our families!
May God give you peace!
Monday, December 14, 2009
One of the troubling things that I have noticed in reading these articles are some of the comments that have been made by readers online commenting about stories, and even more startling comments made by some legislators in relation to Catholics making their voices heard; and in particular Bishops making their voices heard. These comments have generally gone along the line of, "What ever happened to the separation of Church and State."
The implication is that if you are a person of faith, or worse if you are a member of the clergy or church hierarchy, somehow the freedoms afforded citizens in the Constitution of the United States are left at the Church doors. The implication is that if faith is your guide, you have no right to voice your opinion, your hope, your dream, your expectation of what our country should be. Baptism apparently, in addition to washing away the stain of original sin, also washes away freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of press, freedom to influence our representatives and those who work on our behalf in Washington.
They would have us believe, I suppose, that we are a truly secular state, perhaps even an atheist one. They would have us believe that we've got it wrong on our currency. In fact it is not "In God We Trust," but "In Ourselves We Trust."
The problem is that they have failed to read our Constitution well; have somehow forgotten the heritage of our nation built upon not a secular state, but a religiously plural and free one; and forgotten what our founding documents actually say.
So, what ever happened to the separation of Church and State? Well, quite simply, it never existed!! Our Constitution does not call for a separation of Church and State. It calls for a seperation of STATE from Church.
To quote the relevant text. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The concept of a seperation is not a concept that hopes to silence religious voices; it is a concept that seeks to stop our government from trying to silence religious voices. So, when a citizen or a legislator suggests that we should keep silent, aren't they "prohibiting the free exercise" of our religion?
Obviously, legislators remain free to make decisions and laws that they feel are best. No matter how loudly the Church, its members or its leaders speak, they do not have the power to effect law in this land; but they most certainly retain the "God-given" right to speak out for the government that they hope for just like each and every last citizen of this great land does.
So, if anyone should be keeping their nose out of things, it is the government. When the Church speaks, listen! Just as you would listen to any of your citizenry. We have the same right to freedom; to speak; to participate; to effect without anyone prohibiting our free exercise of our faith.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Sunday, December 13, 2009
At this time of year, with each passing week, our Church seems more and more full. That got me thinking of a story I heard a while back about a pastor who wrote in his weekly bulletin, “To make it possible for everyone to attend church next Sunday, we are going to have a special No Excuse Sunday. Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say ‘Sunday is my only day to sleep in.’ There will be a special section with lounge chairs for those who feel that our pews are uncomfortable. Eye drops will be available for those with tired eyes from watching TV late Saturday night. We will have steel helmets for those who say ‘The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.’ Blankets will be furnished for those who think the church is too cold and fans for those who say it is too hot. Scorecards will be available for those who wish to list the hypocrites present. We will distribute pins saying ‘Stamp Out the Collection Basket’ for those who feel the church is always asking for money.
“One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature. Doctors and nurses will be in attendance for those who plan to be sick on Sunday. The sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them. We will provide hearing aids for those who can’t hear the preacher and cotton balls for those who can.”
I begin with this humorous little story because today, the Third Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of celebration in the season. We celebrate Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday. The first reading at Mass today reminded us of this, “Shout for joy, sing joyfully, Be glad and exult with all your heart.” The church is a little more festive, we wear rose-colored vestments. Everything about today says rejoice! It is hard to believe that this is the third week of Advent already. Christmas is barely a week away. How quickly Jesus is coming to us. Advent begins to take on a very different character today.
We heard in our Gospel passage from Luke today, “Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” In the passage, the people knew that the Messiah was coming, and they asked the most natural question, “What are we to do?” This is the same question that is on our minds and on our lips in Advent. We are excited at the coming of Jesus, but what are we to do? The guest is nearly here, what do we have to do to receive him?
There is a story of a certain monastery that was going through a crisis. The monks were leaving, no new candidates were joining them, and people were no longer coming for prayer and consultation as they used to do. The few monks that remained were becoming old and depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. The abbot heard about a certain holy man, a hermit living alone in the woods and decided to consult him. He told the hermit how the monastery had dwindled and diminished and now looks like a skeleton of what it used to be. Only seven old monks remained. The hermit told the abbot that he has a secret for him. One of the monks now living in his monastery is actually the Messiah, but he is living in such a way that no one could recognize him.
With this revelation the abbot went back to his monastery, summoned a community meeting and recounted what the holy hermit told him. The aging monks looked at each other in unbelief, trying to discern who among them could be the Christ. Could it be Brother Mark who prays all the time? But he has this holier-than-thou attitude toward others. Could it be Bother Peter who is always ready to help? But he is always eating and drinking and cannot fast. The abbot reminded them that the Messiah had adopted some bad habits as a way of camouflaging his real identity. This only made them more confused and they could not make a headway figuring out who, among them, was the Christ. At the end of the meeting what each one of the monks knew for sure was that any of the monks, except himself, could indeed be the Christ.
From that day, however, the monks began to treat one another with greater respect and humility, knowing that the person they are speaking to could be the Messiah. They began to show more love for one another, their common life became more brotherly and their common prayer more fervent. Slowly people again began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and began coming back for retreats and spiritual direction. Word began to spread and, before you know it, candidates began to show up and the monastery began to grow again in number as the monks grew in zeal and holiness. All this because a man of God drew their attention to the truth that is so easy to overlook – that Christ was living in their midst as one of them.
After 2000 years, we have to ask ourselves, are we able to recognize Christ in the ordinary and familiar men and women in our midst with their very normal habits, backgrounds, and looks? Or has little changed? Are we still, like those in the Gospel, looking for the mighty king to come with trumpet blast, with fanfare and excitement – looking so much that we look beyond the Christ that is right in front of us every day.
Brothers and sisters, I’ve got a secret for you today – Christ is actually living in our midst but in such a way that perhaps we do not recognize him.
So, what are we to do? Given what we know about John, we anticipate a radical answer to that question like “Leave everything and join me in the desert; adopt a life of fasting and penance.” Instead, John calls people to faithfulness and care in the normal circumstances of their lives: If you have more than you need, share with those who have less; tax collectors should be honest; soldiers should not take advantage of the vulnerable; parents should cherish their children; spouses should be faithful to each other ; neighbors must live in peace. John gives us great advice for our lives and especially for this season. Share, be honest, be fair, cherish each other, be faithful and be people of peace – and open our eyes to the presence of Christ all around us.
We are being called to be the people who bring Jesus, the Light of the World into all of the places of darkness. But, first we have to let that Light be born in us. Then Jesus will use us to fashion a new world and bring forth the Kingdom of God. On our part, we must open our hearts and look with new eyes, or not look with our eyes at all, instead, we must look with our hearts, and welcome everyone we encounter – whether family or stranger, friend or foe, rich or poor – as though it were Christ Himself.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!”
May God give you peace!
Monday, December 7, 2009
A woman was having a very busy day at home. With many children, every day was hectic. On this particular day, however, she was having trouble doing even routine chores - all because of one little boy. Kenny, was three at the time, and was on his mother’s heels no matter where she went. Whenever she stopped to do something and turned back around, she would trip over him. Several times, she patiently suggested fun activities to keep him occupied. “Wouldn’t you like to play outside?” she would ask. But he simply smiled an innocent smile and said, “That’s all right, Mommy. I’d rather be in here with you.” Then he continued to bounce happily along behind her. After stepping on his toes for the fifth time, the young mother began to lose her patience and insisted that he go outside and play with the other children. When she asked Kenny why he was acting this way, he looked up at her and said, “Well, Mommy, in school my teacher told me to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. But I can’t see Him, so I’m walking in yours.”
“The angel said to (Mary), ‘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. 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, not Jesus, 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. 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 young people. During the service, I brought the kids 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 to them. 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! 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. She reminds us that we all have been invited to be sin-free. Another word for sin-free is holy. We are all called to be holy people; to eliminate those things that distance us from 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 be sin-free on our own. And it was the same for Mary. Her sinlessness is not something that she achieved by her own power or merit. Rather, it was 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. We would do well to be like young Kenny and follow in the footsteps of our Blessed Mother striving to follow the example of Christ, so perfectly exemplified in her life.
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 loving Providence of our God and by the example of Mary; let us follow in her footsteps. Let us strive to live a life worthy of the same angelic message that was given to Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”
May God give you peace!
Sunday, December 6, 2009
This Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
In the history of the American church, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York recently mused that "there’s never been anybody who’s been able to communicate the timeless truths of the Catholic religion to a very timely culture" as Sheen did, "without diluting any of the essentials."
What amazes me is how timeless he is. This clip originally aired in 1959 and could still play on tv today. Enjoy.
As a young man he is said to have made a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt in order to study in the school of the Desert Fathers. On returning some years later he was almost immediately ordained Bishop of Myra, which is now Demre, on the coast of modern day Turkey.
Read the full story here: Church celebrates feast of St. Nicholas, the 'original' Santa Claus
Saturday, December 5, 2009
A newly ordained priest was sent to work as an assistant to an older priest. The young priest went to the older priest for some advice. “What should I preach about?” asked the young man. The only reply he got was, “Preach about five minutes.”
As a priest we are often faced with the challenge of trying to not let our Masses go to long. I have been in parishes where people even call the office to find out when the quick priest is saying Mass. That has never been me. People don’t want to sit for longer services. They get bored or they don't have much time. But it can be surprising that the same people who can’t sit for an hour long Mass will have no trouble going to a three hour concert or sporting event and still want more at the end. It causes us to wonder, how can people can sit in one place for three hours or more and listen with joy to music or watch sports but they cannot do the same when it comes to listening to the word of God at Mass?
I think the answer lies in something that we hear in today's Gospel. Why don't people hear the word of God with joy? People need to have a personal experience of God in their lives before they can hear the word of God with joy. Proclaiming the word of God to people who do not know God in a personal way, and who do not have a personal relationship with God, is like reading poetry to people who do not know what poetry is all about. They get bored very easily and are in a hurry to leave. How can such people move from a situation of being bored by the word of God to a situation of joy and enthusiasm in hearing the word of God? Today, John the Baptist gives us an example.
As we read in today's gospel, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In this short passage we find the three steps necessary to us from being lukewarm to enthusiastic in the faith. The three steps are (1) John went into the desert, (2) the word of God came to him, and (3) John left the desert and went about proclaiming the faith. We also must pass through these three stages to arrive at the point where we begin to live the life of faith with joy.
Stage 1 - We go into the desert. The desert is a place of being alone with God. We go into the desert when we take time off our normal job and household occupation to be with God in church, in prayer, in reading the word of God. The desert is the place where we encounter God. The desert is the place where we eliminate all of the more superficial things that distract us from our relationship with God, so we can truly listen to Him and have the clarity to tell Him what we need. But, we ourselves must take the first step to go into the desert, to reach out to God, to look for God. If we make that first step, He will meet us there.
Stage 2 - The word of God comes to us. Once we open our hearts to God, in the desert God Himself will come and fill us up. A saint once said that when we take one step to God, God takes two steps to us. At this stage God takes the initiative to come to us, to fill us, to renew us, to transform us, to remold us into God's image that we are supposed to be. This is the stage that some other Christian communities often refer to as being “born again”. If we have been lucky enough to have this type of experience with God, everything changes – we want to spend more and more time with God; we would spend the whole day alone with God in church, in prayer, in Bible reading. But unless we are going to embrace the life of a cloistered monk or nun, like John, we must go on to live our lives and carry out our duties in the family and in the society.
This brings us to stage 3. With this overwhelming love of God in our hearts, we are compelled to go about proclaiming the faith. Having experienced the goodness of the Lord in our own lives, our next desire is to share this experience with others. It's like we are wearing a tee-shirt with the inscription, “Wow, God is great!” People look at us and see the joy and peace and serenity that radiates from us and they would like to be like us. They would like to be our friends. And then we can in turn help them by showing them the pathway to the desert, the place where they, in their turn, will encounter God personally. The experience of God is like the experience of love. You can tell people about it but they will not understand what you are talking about until they themselves experience it.
In the opening prayer for this Mass we said, “God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy.” In order for this to happen, we must resolve, in this season of Advent, to take the first step, to head to the desert, to make room for God, make time for church, for prayer, for hearing the word of God, so that we too can be transformed into people exploding with love and joy for God and for each other.
May God give you peace!
Friday, December 4, 2009
But, what many people don't realize is that writing "Merry Xmas," does not take Christ out of Christmas. In fact, it keeps Him right there in the middle of it in one of the most ancient ways of referring to Christ, by displaying the letter "X."
The "X" in Xmas is from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of Χριστός, Christ in Greek. The word "Christ" and its compounds, including "Christmas", have been abbreviated in English for at least the past 1,000 years. "Christ" was often written as "XP" or "Xt"; there are references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as AD 1021. This X and P arose as the uppercase forms of the Greek letters χ and ρ used in ancient abbreviations for Χριστος (Greek for "Christ"), and are still widely seen in many Eastern Orthodox icons depicting Jesus Christ. The labarum, an amalgamation of the two Greek letters rendered as ☧, is a symbol often used to represent Christ in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian Churches.
In ancient Christian art, χ and χρ are abbreviations for Christ's name. In many manuscripts of the New Testament and icons, X is an abbreviation for Christos, as is XC (the first and last letters in Greek).
In fact, in the early days of Christianity, when it was still illegal in the Empire to be a Christian, the community used the sign "X" to mark the places where the Eucharist would be celebrated. They used this as a sort of secret code that the Romans remained unaware of, yet for Christians, "X" marked the spot (ever wonder where that phrase came from?) where they community would gather to "do this in memory" of Christ.
Additionally, long before Christians began to make the sign of the cross, they would mark an "X" on their forehead or over their hearts to identify themselves as followers of Christ.
So, this is all a long way of saying that writing "Xmas" does not take Christ out of Christmas. In fact, it connects us with a tradition that dates all the way back to the earliest times of Christianity, even to a time when it took great courage and strength to live as a follower of Christ.
Maybe it is time for us to reclaim this glorious symbol and be just as bold in our following of our Savior. So, "Happy Holidays?" No, thank you. "MERRY X-MAS?" Amen!!