Monday, December 24, 2018

The thrill of hope!


Join me please, “Silent night, holy night…” As you may know, this most beloved of Christmas hymns celebrates its 200th birthday today. The words were written by a priest in a small Austrian town, Fr. Joseph Mohr. Fr. Mohr brought his words to a friend in a nearby village, composer Franz Gruber, who added the melody. On Christmas Eve, 1818, the church organ was not functioning, some say that church mice got at it, and so this beautiful hymn was played accompanied by guitar to honor the birth of the Savior that night. It quickly became popular and spread throughout the world becoming one of the most popular Christmas hymns ever. 

There is something so wonderful about the songs of this season and how they connect us with the deep spiritual reality of the birth of Christ. While we all know well the story of Silent Night, most people do not know the history of another favorite Christmas song, O Holy Night, a history deeply connected to Christmas Eve.

The story of this song begins in 1847 in a small French town with a man named Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. Placide was a socialist and not a church-goer, but at the time he was a well-known poet, and the local priest asked him to write a poem for the upcoming Christmas. Placide agreed and once done, decided that his poem was so good it should be made into a song. So he contacted a composer friend Adolphe Adams. But, Adams was Jewish, and was now asked to compose the most Christian of hymns. On Christmas Eve of that year, the song was debuted at Midnight Mass – a song whose lyrics were written by a socialist who left the church and whose music was written by someone who didn’t even believe in Jesus. And, of course, as we know, it was a big hit. But, once church officials learned the history of the writers, and the song was immediately banned from use. The Catholic Church in France deemed the song unfit for church services because of what they called its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

But, though the church had banned the song, it was so popular that people kept singing it, and eventually it made its way across the sea here to America now into the hands of John Sullivan Dwight who felt it needed to be introduced to America, but not only because it told a timeless story. You see, Dwight, was an abolitionist, and America was in the midst of the Civil War. Dwight strongly identified with the lines: “Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” Dwight translated the song into English and published it. The song caught on quickly, especially here in the North.

Back to France and yet another Christmas Eve, now in 1871. In the midst of fierce fighting between Germany and France during the Franco-Prussian war, a French soldier jumped out of his foxhole, and with no weapon in his hand, lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the first verse of this song in French. As he reached the end, a German soldier climbed unarmed out of his trench and began to sing the German Christmas hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The fighting stopped immediately and the soldiers held to a ceasefire for Christmas Day.

Finally, one more Christmas Eve. Now it was 1906, and a 33-year-old professor and former chemist for Thomas Edison named Reginald Fessenden, using a new type of generator, spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a person’s voice was broadcast over the airways. What did he say? He said, “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…” The first words ever broadcast over the radio were from Luke, the story of the birth of Jesus. Imagine the reaction of radio operators on ships and radio owners across the world when their normal Morse Code dots and dashes were interrupted by a human voice reading Sacred Scripture. But Fessenden wasn’t done. After he finished reading, he picked up his violin and played O Holy Night – making it the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves.

There is perhaps no hymn more deeply connected to this holy night. Let me speak about just one line in this song that has been coming to me in prayer throughout this season leading us to today: “The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.” Isn’t that a wonderful statement – not just hope. The author didn’t merely write, “We’re filled with hope.” No, he paired hope with another very important word – thrill. When we think of hope, I think we usually conceptualize it in very ordinary ways. We think of hope as a kind of optimism (We say, “I hope things will go well”); or a form of positive thinking (“I’m very hopeful about the future.”) Or even a kind of blind faith (“I hope I’ll get through this.”). This can’t be what the song is talking about. Those are all good things, but thrilling? You see, I think the thrill of hope expresses something so profoundly deep that it is life changing. Something so amazing that this kind of hope leaves us different than the way it found us. Of course, the hope of this hymn is the very event we celebrate today – the birth of Jesus. Our hope is not merely a momentary rush or an exciting situation or circumstance. Our hope, our Christmas hope, is in the long-awaited Messiah, born to set His people free – born to set us free. And that is a hope that is truly thrilling!

I’m sure the world into which Jesus was born was weary. “A weary world rejoices.” It was weary of Roman occupation that crushed the people under the weight of this massive empire. Weary of religious oppression that made it difficult and even illegal for people to worship the One True God. Weary of waiting for the promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled – a promise that God had been speaking to His Chosen People for countless centuries by the time of Jesus.

And, I don’t know about you, but I think we too can relate to that notion that a weary world rejoices. After all, we’re weary too. There are so many things that make us weary. We can be weary of the simple things – sitting in traffic, weary of waiting in checkout lines, weary of being sick, weary of the stresses of the holidays. But we also bear a weariness that goes deeper. We can be weary of looking for the right person or the right job. Weary of wondering when life is going to be worth living. Weary of waiting to see if God really cares about us. We can be weary about the state of our world – still so troubled by war and terror and violence; we can be weary about the state of our nation – where racism and discrimination have reared their ugly heads again, where dignity and honor seem to be gone from the public sphere, where greed and power have replaced any desire to feed the hungry, welcome the refugee, reach out to those on the margins. We can be weary indeed.

And into our weariness, what Jesus promises us is nothing short of “the thrill of hope.” I love that! When we are given this hope, it is thrilling. The birth of Jesus signifies an end to our weariness. We don’t have to keep doing things the same way. We don’t have to keep asking the same questions. We don’t have to wonder if our soul is worth anything. Because, “Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!” That line is so wonderful. Yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Jesus is no longer yonder! Jesus is here. Hope is here. And that hope is thrilling!

But the story of this hymn still isn’t over. What makes this hymn different than many others we sing at this time of year is that it not only contains praise, but also prescription. Placide left us with marching orders for how we are to respond to this thrill of hope. This hymn tells us what to do, “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.” If we are to be given hope by Christ’s birth, then that hope will shine through in how we treat each other. Even when surrounded by hatred and violence we are called to treat each other with the love and peace Christ has brought us, in a way that is noticeable by the world around us.

“Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” We are called to work so that others can enjoy the same blessings as us, blessings of freedom and justice. God’s work is our work. What are we doing to give others the thrill of hope? What are we doing to help others break the chains of oppression, the chains of addiction, the chains of racism and prejudice and indifference? What are we doing to show others the worth of their soul?

My friends, we are filled with the thrill of hope once again because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. On that night so long ago in Bethlehem, Christ came to us. As we find ourselves on this Christmas night, Christ wants to be born in us again. And when Christ in born in our hearts, He calls us to let Him be born through us for all our world to see.

This wonderful hymn comes to us from a teenage unwed mother and a Jewish carpenter in a little Middle Eastern town. It comes from a socialist to a Jewish composer to an abolitionist preacher and across the airwaves. But this story is not over. There is still one more Christmas (Eve) to tell the long story of this song. This one. Today. There is still a weary world out there in need of hope. There are still countless people out there in need of love and peace. There are our own friends and family who are shackled by grief and depression and loneliness, far from God, far from His love. There are people who are held in bondage by oppressive systems and the power of prejudice. Do we have a song to sing to them, a song about hope? Do we have a story to tell them, a story about the worth of their soul and new and glorious morn? I believe we do. So go yonder and sing it, go yonder and tell it, go yonder and live it! Christ is born again today in us, and His arrival once again fills us with the thrill of hope. Let us tell our story of this holy night.

My friends, may the Lord fill you with peace tonight. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and the thrill of hope that God has promised through the birth of His Son.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

God is with us!

HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 23, 2018:

Shakespeare famously wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Names are interesting, and they usually come with a story. Let me give you an example. I have a beautiful black and white cat named Lucky. I have had lucky for more than 18 years, and he was originally a rescue after he had been injured as a kitten. The local vet was looking for someone to adopt him or they’d have to put him down. So, being a good Franciscan, I took him. I asked my then 6 year old niece to give him a name and she came up with Lucky because as she said, “He’s lucky to be alive.”

Names can also say something about who we are and where we come from. For example, I recently led a pilgrimage to Ireland. I am of Irish-American descent, so this trip gave me a chance to connect with the roots of my family and our origins. During the journey, we traveled to some of the places that my family came from in Ireland which gave me a sense of those roots. Doing some research on my family, I was amazed when I looked up my great-grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, who was born in Ireland, whose name I share. I never knew him, he returned to the Lord long before I was born, but you feel a connection when you share a family name. As I was doing the research, l came across his baptismal record and was stunned to discover that he was born on September 1, 1879. My birthday is also September 1, just 89 years after his. For me, sharing his name, and sharing the same birthday, deepened my connection to this relative whose name I share. Names usually tell us something about who we are. You probably have great stories about your own name or some of the names in your family.

And, so much of our Advent reflection has also been about names; in fact, two names in particular. All through Advent, we hear the name Emmanuel. We’ve sung many times already, “O come, Emmanuel.” And, of course, the second name we reflect upon is Jesus, the child whose birth we so eagerly await.

When we look a little deeper, we realize that these two names have great meaning for us. The name Emmanuel tells us something very important about the birth of this child. It tells us that this is no ordinary child. When He is born, His birth will mean, as His name means, that “God is with us.” His birth signifies something different in the whole of human history. We do not have a God who loves us from afar; a God who is distant and aloof; a God who communicates to us always through someone or something else. No, our God comes to us directly – to be in our midst as one of us; to know our joys and hopes; our struggles and challenges. To proclaim His love to us directly. Out God is with us!

And then we have the name Jesus – the name that the angels tells both Joseph and Mary that they are to give to this child. This name also tells us something more about what this presence of God among us means. The name Jesus means, “God is salvation.” The name tells us that Jesus is not here only to be among us, but that the effect of His presence in our midst will also do something so amazing – Jesus presence in our midst will open the gates of salvation for us. When we look at these names together we learn what we’re really meant to hear: that the birth of this child will mean that our God is with us and He is our salvation!

My friends, as we enter these final hours of our Advent journey, let us be mindful of what we celebrate – the fact that our God loves us so much that He became one of us; that He enters our world, dwells with us, as one of us; He enters our lives, our struggles and our joys. And ultimately that our God loves us so much that He opens the gates of salvation for us so that He can be with us and we can be with Him forever.

And speaking of names, let us also remember that through our baptism, we also received a name – the name Christian, a name that means literally “little Christ.” We remember that the effect of this visitation of our God is that He calls us to be like Him; that when people see us, they see Him; that we are a living reflection of the God who is with us and comes to save us. God is not distant. He is right here, by our side, in our hearts, on our altar. He is sharing our struggles, walking with us in our suffering, laughing with us in our joys, sharing with us in our triumphs, always there when we need Him; and always calling us to reflect His image to the world. This is Emmanuel, this is Jesus. God is with us and will save us. So, what’s in a name? Nothing less than our salvation.

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

I have a secret for you!

HOMILY FOR THE 3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 16, 2018:

There was a particular monastery a while back had reached a point of crisis. The monks were leaving, no new candidates were joining, and people were no longer coming for prayer as they used to. The few monks that remained were becoming old, depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. But, the abbot heard about a certain holy hermit living nearby and decided to consult him. He told him how the monastery had 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 incredible revelation the abbot went back to his monastery, summoned the monks and recounted what the hermit told him. The old 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 never fasts. The abbot reminded them that the Messiah had adopted some bad habits as a way of concealing his true identity. This only made them more confused. At the end of the meeting what each one of the monks knew for sure was that any of the them, except himself, could be the Christ.

From that day, though, 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; their common prayer more fervent. Slowly people began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and started coming back for to be spiritually fed. 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 joy 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 in 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 – something that happened long ago and far away, but we are being called to wake ourselves up again to the reality God is in our midst – all around us – here in this Church, in His Word proclaimed, in the Sacraments shared, in each one of us gathered in His Name – but also out there in the streets, in all of the many people we encounter – whether friend or foe, family or stranger, rich or poor, happy and healthy or hopeless and in need – our God is present everywhere and is just waiting for us to discover Him.

But the world is working overtime hoping that we won’t recognize Christ among us. There are instead 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 that this season hopes to renew in our hearts. 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.

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? John the Baptist, today shows us. 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 – 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 the darkness of our world. 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 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.

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

May the Lord give you peace!

Friday, December 7, 2018

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.”

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 theological concept, but rather it is a concrete 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 we hear the words spoken by the angel to Mary in our Gospel: “Do not be afraid.”

Pope Francis, echoing perfectly the message of today’s feast, said, “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 when he inaugurated the Year of Mercy a few years ago 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 reminded 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. God is stronger than any darkness in our world; any darkness in our lives.

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 generous 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; the fear in our hearts; 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!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

"Have you not seen me?"


Let me begin today by sharing one of Leo Tolstoy’s stories called “The Cobbler and His Guest.” In the city of Marseilles there was an old shoemaker named Martin who was loved and honored by his neighbors. One Christmas Eve, as he sat alone in his little shop reading of the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus, and of the gifts they brought, he said to himself. “If tomorrow were the first Christmas, and if Jesus were to be born in Marseilles this night, I know what I would give Him!” He rose from his stool and took from a shelf overhead two tiny shoes of softest snow- white leather, with bright silver buckles. “I would give Him these, my finest work.” Replacing the shoes, he blew out the candle and retired to rest. Hardly had he closed his eyes, it seemed, when he heard a voice call his name...”Martin! Martin! You have wished to see Me. Tomorrow I shall pass by your window. If you see Me, and bid Me enter, I shall be your guest at your table.”

Martin did not sleep that night for joy. And before dawn he rose and tidied up his shop. On the table he placed a loaf of white bread, a jar of honey, and a pitcher of milk, and over the fire he hung a pot of tea. Then he took up his vigil at the window. Soon he saw an old street-sweeper pass by, blowing upon his thin, gnarled hands to warm them. “Poor fellow, he must be half frozen,” thought Martin. Opening the door he called out to him, “Come in, my friend, warm yourself, and drink a cup of hot tea.” And the man gratefully accepted the invitation.

An hour passed, and Martin saw a young, miserably clothed women carrying a baby. She paused wearily to rest in the shelter of his doorway. The heart of the old cobbler was touched. Quickly he flung open the door. “Come in and warm while you rest,” he said to her. “You do not look well,” he remarked. “I am going to the hospital. I hope they will take me in, and my baby boy,” she explained. “My husband is at sea, and I am ill, without a soul.” “Poor child!” cried Martin. “You must eat something while you are getting warm. Let me give a cup of milk to the little one. What a bright, pretty fellow he is! Why have you put no shoes on him?” “I have no shoes for him,” sighed the mother. “Then he shall have this lovely pair I finished yesterday.” Martin took down from the shelf the soft little snow-white shoes he had admired the evening before. He slipped them on the child's feet...they fit perfectly. The poor young mother left, two shoes in her hand and tearful with gratitude.

Martin resumed his post at the window. Hour after hour went by, and although many people passed his window, and many needy souls shared his hospitality, the expected Guest did not appear. “It was only a dream,” he sighed, with a heavy heart. “He has not come.” Suddenly the room was flooded with a strange light. And to the cobbler's astonished vision there appeared before him, one by one, the poor street-sweeper, the sick mother and her child, and all the people whom he had aided during the day. And each smiled at him and said. “Have you not seen me? Did I not sit at your table?” Then they vanished. At last, out of the silence, Martin heard again the gentle voice repeating the old familiar words. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…Whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Today, my friends, is the First Sunday of Advent and for us it is the start of a new Church year. We find ourselves today once again back at the beginning of our great story; back to Chapter one of the story of how Jesus came and saved us.

We begin again with the things that prepared us for the coming Savior and so today we heard from the prophet Jeremiah who said, “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” That promise of course, was fulfilled in Jesus. Likewise our Gospel called us to seek the signs that something momentous is on the horizon, something unprecedented, something that will forever change our lives.

Advent is preeminently a time to prepare for the arrival of Jesus. We remember both His arrival 2,000 years ago and we look forward to His return again in glory. But, as we look both back and forward, don’t forget to look down right where we are to become always more aware of Christ’s daily arrival in the ordinary events and the ordinary people in our lives. He wasn’t only present 2,000 years ago and at some point in the future – He is present right here in our midst today – if our eyes are open to see Him.

Our Gospel today reminds us that we should be vigilant to recognize and welcome the Lord who comes to us without warning everyday in the people, the places and the events we least expect. If we are preparing for the Lord’s coming by looking up to the sky, Luke today invites us to instead look out, to look to the person on our right and our left, to see the arrival of God that is before our eyes every day, to look into the story of our daily lives and recognize the Lord who comes to us in the ways we least expect.

Jesus doesn’t care how much money we make, how many fancy cars we own, how nice our home is, how many people work for us. Jesus won’t even ask us how many times we went to Church, or how many times we prayed – because those things only have value if they have lead us to the main criteria for salvation – did we love – without restraint, without condition, without measure? Our spiritual lives and prayer practices are crucial, necessary, we can’t live or be saved without them. But, these prayers are only working if they lead us to action, to love, to reaching out, to actively loving “these least sisters and brothers of mine.”

So, let us so resolve on this first day of a new Church year, to be people ever more aware of the presence and action of Jesus in our lives in the big ways and in the small ways – in the many ordinary people He sends into our lives every moment of every day. And let us be people who witness to that presence in the lives of others – especially in those places that need God’s presence more than ever. Let us make this a holy Advent, leading to a holy Christmas, an even holier year for us all.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Make us new!

May the Lord give you peace.

HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: Let me start today with a simple survey. Raise your hand if you would love to be poor, starving...