Saturday, December 26, 2015

The reason for Jesus


If you’re a fan of the comic strip, Family Circus, you may remember a Christmas comic they did a few years ago. In the scene, young Dolly was sharing with her two young brothers the story of Christmas. Here is how she recounted it, “Mary and Joseph were camping out under a star in the East…It was a Silent Night in Bethlehem until the angels began to sing…then Santa brought Baby Jesus in his sleight and laid Him in a manger… Chestnuts were roasting by an open fire and not a creature was stirring…so the Grinch stole some swaddling clothes from the Scrooge – who was one of the three wise men riding on eight tiny reindeer.” And then Dolly says to her brother, “Pay attention, Jeffy, or you’ll never learn the real story of Christmas!”

We hear a phrase regularly this time of year – Jesus is the reason for the season. It’s a phrase that invites us to remember that Christmas is not just about presents and parties and food, desserts and time with family and friends – but that there is a faith dimension to all of this. Jesus is the reason for the season. But, today’s feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – so close to the Feast of Christmas – asks us to take that a step further. If Jesus is the reason for the season, what is the reason for Jesus? And, that is a really interesting question.

We sing the carols, we marvel at the sights of the lights and the trees and the decorations – especially the Christmas mangers – but how often do we go deeper and ask what are those leading us to, what are they drawing us to? Lights aren’t meant to be mere colorful decoration, for example, they are meant to remind us of the symbolism that Jesus is THE LIGHT that has conquered the darkness of our world, the darkness of sin and death. Similarly the trees, the EVER-greens that we bring into our houses in the midst of winter are symbols of life.

And, how about those Christmas mangers. They are so beautiful and probably the most treasured of decorations in most households. In fact, in many families, Christmas mangers are even handed down from generation to generation. And, we are so blessed here at St. Anthony’s with our beautiful Christmas manger outside on West Houston Street – certainly one of the most famous and visited in New York City. Camera crews come to film here, countless people come and take their pictures here. Many come just to be silent and say a little prayer.

And, if you know the history of the Christmas manger, you know that it was our own St. Francis of Assisi, who originated this custom back in 1223. St. Francis did this because he wanted to truly understand the impact of the reason that Jesus, God Himself, became one of us. He wanted to imagine what that moment was like. And it is powerful for us to likewise take a moment do the same.

This feast of the Holy Family in particular reminds us that when God decided that the time had come for Him to enter into our human reality; to come to earth and take on our human flesh, that we need only to look at the manger to see how He chose to do it. God chose to enter humanity not in a grandiose way, not in flurry and splendor, not with trumpet blast and glory, but in the simple way that you and I entered humanity - within a family. And, not only that, He chose to enter humanity as someone who was homeless – they could not find a place to lay their head. He chose to enter humanity as a migrant as they were on their way to another land for the census. And, He chose to enter our world as a little baby, as someone who was helpless and had to rely upon the aid and assistance of others if He were to survive to an age where He could complete His mission among us of spreading the good news and bringing His promised salvation.

God chose to enter our world precisely in the places and in the people and in the ways that we, today, so often struggle or even fail to see God. When we look at the immigrant, the refugee, the homeless, the helpless, what do we see? Do we realize that they are icons of the very image of God as He was on that first Christmas morning? We have our spectacular Christmas manger outside, which is an image of a homeless, migrant family who had no place to lay their heads that night. And a block away in virtually any direction from this Church you can find a homeless woman or man huddled under a blanket or a cardboard box. As we pass them by, do we recognize that their image and the image of the Holy Family are the same? Do we see God present there when we see them? This is where He is present today.

In a few days or weeks, our Christmas mangers will be carefully packed and put away for another year, but these urban mangers that surround us on our streets will remain in the men and women who live there. I think this is exactly why Jesus came to us, God Himself came to us, in a family, and one that was homeless and migrant and in need of the help of others. Because He wanted us then and now, to look at our own family, to look at the homeless and helpless around us, and to see that God is present there; they are not the “other”; they are our brother, our sister, our family; and to reach out to them in need.

My friends, Jesus is the reason for the season; and this is the reason for Jesus. He came among us so that we might see God’s presence in our midst; that we might see God’s presence in one another; that we might see God’s presence in the most unlikely of places. If we want to become a Holy Family, this is how we do it. We say yes to that presence, that invitation before our eyes, just as Joseph and Mary did so long ago. And it will make all the difference in our lives, in our world and in our families. May we become one, united and holy family under our loving and compassionate God this Christmas and always.

Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you peace.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fall on your knees


Join me in a little sing-a-long: “Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy Infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace. ” If you were here at this Mass last year, you might remember that I invited you to do the very same thing and join me in singing that beautiful hymn.

This is a time of year that engages us fully through all of our senses – we love the sights that are all around us, the bright lights and Christmas trees, bows and ribbons and wreathes and wrapped presents; we love the smells and flavors even more, and I’m sure each of us has a special tradition of this time of year, whether it is certain desserts or special foods that we have, fruitcake or Christmas cookies, seven fishes or a roasted goose. But, we love the Christmas carols, I think, most of all. We know this because there are even radio stations that play nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving Day all the way through Christmas.

Christmas songs conjure up so much in us. There are the fun ones – Jingle Bell Rock, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and of course, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (poor Grandma!). There are the sentimental favorites – White Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and The Christmas Song (you know, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”). And, there are the holy ones, the spiritual ones, that touch us deeply in our hearts – songs like the one we just sang, Silent Night, and so many more like O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, or a more recent one, Mary Did You Know?

But, I think my favorite one of the season, and certainly, my favorite one of this very night is O Holy Night. And, I love this hymn for two, somewhat contradictory reasons. I love it for its sheer grandeur. No other Christmas hymn dares such boldness and lofty greatness. It’s melody builds and grows until it wants to explode; and when the notes and the words reach that triumphant apex what does it call us to? It calls us to tremendous humility – fall on your knees the hymn begs the hearer.

Fall on your knees. Know your smallness and be humble in light of the profundity of this moment of Christ’s birth. Sometimes, the act of falling to our knees is a response to tragedy or cruelty. We fall because we are beaten and broken, because we have nothing left to give.

But sometimes - times like tonight - we fall in awesome wonder. These are the knees of O Holy Night, of this holy night: we are "wonderstruck, joyous, and eve a little wobbly". Fall on your knees, the song commands. Jesus has been born, and even the angels are singing. A thrill of hope; the weary soul rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. This, my friends, is no normal night. It’s a time to humble ourselves and get close to the ground. Oh, night divine.

It’s easy to imagine that dark Bethlehem night, a stunning planetarium sky, the stars brightly shining, the world laying “in sin and error pining.” Amid all this we lower ourselves, trying to find a bit more stability. This reaction seems right. It’s a posture of openness, rather than knowing, because on this night as on that night, who would guess what was to come?

Often, this humility can be lost in the singing. We associate O Holy Night with singers like CĂ©line Dion or Andrea Bocelli, who dramatically build the song to unbelievable heights, a full orchestra behind them. These versions are popular, but clearly not on their knees.

In a 12-days of Christmas series on the history of our most favorite hymns by The Atlantic, which I'm indebted to for the inspiration of this homily, they point out that in 1855, the American Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight translated the song from its original French, which had been composed a few years earlier. The first version referred simply to a “kneeling people,” but Dwight gave the knees greater prominence, translating the line as a more urgent call to action. He wrote in a November 1870 essay for The Atlantic Monthly: “True music breathes and makes appeal…to a holy love and yearning after unity.” A yearning after unity, seems like a subtle nod to the power of music to make us feel humble again; humble in the presence of our God. It calls on the desire – especially of this night – for joy and peace and love; for compassion and forgiveness and healing; for an opportunity to begin again and be made new, just like the newness promised by the remarkable birth of a child in a manger; a child whose birth would change everything; a child who can change everything again and make us new again today.

You know, people don’t often declare whole nights divine, except in a passing, literary way. But, the holiness of that night in Bethlehem was not literary, but literal; it was holy and full of promise. And, my friends, the holiness of this night is not literary either – it too is literal and full of promise. And the Babe of Bethlehem wants to enter into our world and our hearts and our lives as humbly and as powerfully as He did so long ago, if we will only humbly fall on our knees and welcome Him.

My friends, the stars are brightly shining this night, the world lay in sin and error pining, ‘till He appeared and the soul – your soul, my soul – felt its worth. So, fall on your knees, hear the angel voices. This night when Christ was born. O holy night. O night Divine.

Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you His peace.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Christ is in your midst


A certain monastery was going through a crisis. The monks were leaving, no new candidates were joining, and people were no longer coming for prayer and consultation as they used to. The few monks that remained were becoming old and depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. But, the abbot heard about a certain holy man 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 the monks and recounted what the hermit told him. The aging monks looked at each other in disbelief, wondering 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 doesn’t 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.

We heard from Luke’s Gospel today, “The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” As our Advent moves steadily on towards Christmas, we are filled with a joyful expectation to welcome Christ once again into our hearts and our lives. But, we also realize that our celebration is not a mere commemoration of the arrival of Christ 2,000 years ago. We do not simply remember something that happened long ago and far away, but we are also being called to wake ourselves up again to the reality that the presence of God is in our midst – all around us – here in this Church, in the sacraments, in all of us gathered, but also out there in the streets, in the people we encounter – all of them, the local and the tourist, the cab driver and the bus driver, the waitress and the actor, in the hungry and the homeless – our God is present everywhere and is just waiting for us to discover Him.

The challenge we face is that our world is working overtime hoping that we won’t recognize that Christ is in our midst. There are too many voices of fear and anxiety that would rather have us be suspicious of one another and afraid; that would prefer if we demonized each other and treated one another as anything except brothers and sisters. But, this is not God’s message. This is not the message of Christmas.

God has come among us in the hopes that we will realize that we are all luminous beings and that God fills us and surrounds us with His presence so that we will be united in peace, mercy, love, joy and compassion – that these are the things that will transform us and our world into the Kingdom He promised us.

My friends, I have 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? Are we able to recognize Him in the ordinary and familiar women and men in our midst, right in front of us every day?

John the Baptist, today shows us what we are to do. He calls us to faithfulness and care in the normal circumstances of life: If you have more than you need, share with those who have less; be honest; do not take advantage of the vulnerable; cherish your children; be faithful to each other; live in peace. 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.

But, most of all we are being called to bring Jesus, the Light of the World into all of the places of darkness. We are called to let that Light be born in us and let Jesus 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 and hearts, and welcome everyone we encounter – whether family or stranger, citizen or immigrant or refugee, Christian or Muslim or atheist, friend or foe, rich or poor – as though it were Christ Himself. Only then can we both be the presence of Christ in our world, but also meet Him in the people we encounter.

“Again, I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!”

May the Lord give you peace!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

God is stronger!


A woman was having a very busy day at home caring for her five children. On this particular day, however, she was having trouble doing even routine chores - all because of three-year-old Kenny. He was on his mother’s heels no matter where she went. Whenever she stopped to do something and turn around, she would nearly trip over him. After stepping on his toes for the fifth time, the young mother began to lose her patience. When she asked Kenny why he was acting this way, he looked up at her and said, “Well, 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.” Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our commemoration of the reality that Mary was conceived without sin in the womb of her mother Anne. This is a belief that dates back to the earliest days of the Church, and is not a feast about an abstract aspect of the birth of Christ, but it is a sign to us of God’s care for us, and of God’s triumph over the darkness of the world.

And I think that our world needs to hear this message more today than any time in my memory. We live in a world of chaos. We live in a world of violence and division. We live in a world of suspicion and fear. And to that confusion and fear God speaks these words: “Do not be afraid.”

Pope Francis said a few days ago, echoing perfectly the message of today’s feast, “Around us there is the presence of evil. The devil is at work. But in a loud voice I say: God is stronger.” My friends, let that message settle deeply into your hearts tonight – God is stronger. Today’s feast reminds us that God was stronger than the stain of original sin in the life of Mary. God was stronger than the darkness that enveloped the world at the time of Christ’s birth. God was stronger even than death itself in the resurrection of Jesus. God is stronger than the evil that fills our world today. He is stronger than anything that might seem insurmountable in our lives today.

There are no shortage of voices in our world today that are proclaiming the opposite message, that says, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” It is a message that says we should look at one another with suspicion and fear; with doubt and anger – that we should treat our brothers and sisters as something less than human, something less than men and women who have been created in God’s image. But to that message of fear, we are reminded today that God is stronger, “do not be afraid.”

Pope Francis today also inaugurated the extraordinary Year of Mercy in the Church. At the Angelus following the Mass today, he said, “Two things are necessary to fully celebrate the day's feast. First, to fully welcome God and His merciful grace into our life; second, to become in our own times 'workers of mercy' through an evangelical journey...In imitation of Mary we are called to be 'bearers of Christ' and witnesses of His love, especially towards those who are most in need."

The Holy Father is reminding us that fear takes root when we fail to welcome God’s mercy into our lives. We are reminded that our call is not to be messengers of fear, but workers of mercy, imitators of Mary, bearers of Christ, witnesses of love. Do not be afraid. God is stronger than evil.

My friends, Mary reminds us today that we are called to be holy people; to draw near to God and be united with Him. Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is belief in a provident God - a God who provides for the future, who prepares us for life even before we are born, a God who foresees and equips us with all the natural and supernatural qualities we need to play our role in the drama of human salvation, a God who is stronger than the darkness of our world.

Let us today be inspired by our caring God and by the example of Mary; let us follow in her footsteps. Let us strive to conquer the fear of our world and to be the workers of mercy who bring God’s gentle, kind, loving and compassionate presence to our world so desperately in need.

Let us ask our Blessed Mother’s intercession for all these things as we pray together, Hail Mary…

May the Lord give you peace.

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