Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas: Beautiful and Scary, Joyful and Overwhelming

Homily for Christmas, 2012

If you had to run out of the house in an emergency and could only bring one thing, most of us  have a crate or a box or a cabinet that we would make every effort to grab.  Inside perhaps we keep old pictures, important letters and correspondence, tokens of love and affection, maybe an old home movie on VHS, some legal documents.

I have one, tucked away in the rectory, and in that box I have 2 letters that were written by father.  He wrote them to me when I was a little baby and then tucked them away with the instructions that they be given to me on my 21st birthday.

I was just reading them again the other day.  And I’m not going to share with you what he wrote because some things like that you just don’t share, and because I am pretty confident that those of you who are parents can imagine the thoughts that he expressed in those letters, the sentiments of a new parent.

When you have a child, everything changes.  Your life takes an irreversible turn.  And the irony is that as you look upon this tiny little vulnerable baby, you realize just how vulnerable you have become.  The world suddenly becomes a strange and powerful mixture of incredible joys and great dangers.  Little outings and events that would have barely registered on the radar become great and arduous adventures.  A new and powerful motive and drive animates your life, bringing out the best and the worst in you, stretching your character, searching the limits of your capacity to give.  It is time that is beautiful and scary, joyful and overwhelming.

On Christmas day 2000 years ago Joseph and Mary became the mother and father of a new baby boy, Jesus.  And I’m sure that as they cared for him in those first days, their experience was much the same as that of every new parent, except that maybe it was even more intense because of their awareness that the child entrusted to them was God’s son, a child precious beyond imagining.

But the experience of Christmas, of welcoming Christ our child-Savior, did not end with Mary and Joseph in those first years of Jesus’ life.  From the very early years of the Church, Christians began to celebrate Christmas because they were profoundly aware that when the Word became flesh in this little child, he was not only entrusted to Mary and Joseph as their son, but to every man and woman who has been made in his image and likeness.

Indeed, that is what we celebrate on Christmas: that Christ has been entrusted to us, given to us, when we received the gift of the faith.  And this gift of God with us, Emmanuel, impacts those who receive him in faith in much the same way that he impacted the lives of his parents 2000 years ago.  When you have been given Christ, everything changes.  Your life takes an irreversible turn.  And the irony is that as you look upon this tiny little vulnerable baby, you realize just how vulnerable and dependent on God you have become.  The world suddenly becomes a strange and powerful mixture of incredible joys and great dangers.  Little outings and events that would have barely registered on the radar become great and arduous adventures.  A new and powerful motive and drive animates your life, bringing out the best and the worst in you, stretching your character, searching the limits of your capacity to give.  It is time that is beautiful and scary, joyful and overwhelming.

This is the life of faith, the life of those who have been entrusted with the gift of this little precious and vulnerable child, the gift of our Savior.

Yet how easily we can forget this basic truth of Christian faith, avoiding the reality of how God is entrusted to us in such humble and vulnerable way.   Instead of cherishing and protecting his life within us, we drag him with us into the darkness and the noise of our world, not thinking about how our choices affect our ability to care for him, affect his ability to live in us.  “Aww, he can handle it, he knows that I love him.”  He does know that, but that doesn’t change the fact that if we carry the precious gift of our faith carelessly and without attention, as if faith were bullet proof, as if it didn’t need to be fed and nurtured, guarded and protected – we can lose it.

Christmas reminds us that out of love for us God makes himself so incredibly vulnerable.  He does not force himself upon us, he does not impose his will.  He comes to us as a child, a child who can be loved and cherished or neglected, ignored, and even killed.  He places his very life in our hands in a way that helps us to be most free to place our lives in his.  So that our love for him can be pure and unselfish, spontaneous and generous.  He gives himself to us in an all or nothing move: all the chips are in on every one of us: we are given all of Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity, nothing withheld.

When you pick up a newborn infant it is scary and beautiful at the same time: and so it must be for those of us who have received Christ in faith: scary and beautiful.  Look at who we have been given, so intimately given, so profoundly given.  A savior so easily rejected, a Lord so easily scorned, a God so easily denied.  And yet also how easily loved!  How can we not tremble a bit as we hold him in our hands: a most precious treasure clothed in such weakness!

What if we wrote him a letter.  A letter not to be opened on his 21st birthday, but perhaps at the end of our earthly life, when we hope to be born into eternal life with him.  Maybe in that letter we would try to express, as my father did, the sentiments of one entrusted with the life of a little child:  we would tell him how precious he is, how much we love him, how much our lives are enriched because of him.  How much we love his mother and admire her.  How we hope we can nurture and protect him, we worry that we are not up to the task of keeping him safe in this dark and dangerous world.  But that more than anything wouldn’t we just write about how grateful we are, grateful that he has been given to us, entrusted to us: this little baby, our God, our Savior.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and Became Man

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2012

(Well, I did have time to post this, so you get two homilies for one weekend this year!)

Today we have an opportunity to reflect on the Visitation, the beautiful encounter between Mary and Elizabeth that was marked by such joy and anticipation.

What faith these women had!  And what wisdom and generosity of heart!  As we hear in the Gospel today, Mary, though she had just found out that she was pregnant herself, traveled in haste to see her older cousin as soon as she heard that she was pregnant so that she could be of service to her.  At Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth cries out in a loud voice, spurred to speak by the baby John who has recognized Christ’s approach even in the mystery of the womb.  These were courageous and confident women, women of deep faith, women who God chose because he knew he could rely on them.  They were the first Christians, and they are examples to us all of how to live in and walk in union with God.  The Church has always held them in highest regard and earnestly sought their intercession.

This year AnneMarie and I have been guiding the high school youth ministry through a year focused on knowing and living the Sacred Scriptures.  Last week we explored the profound role of women in the Christian scriptures, and in the life of the Church.

A concern that AnneMarie and I share, along with many others, is that increasingly the Christian faith, and the Catholic Church in particular, is being portrayed as male dominated, chauvinistic, and anti-women.  While this theme has existed for some time in certain academic circles, increasingly today we see its widespread popularization in our culture.  Again and again the Da Vinci Code narrative presented as if it were based in reality: that the Church is headed up by a bunch of old men who have been suspicious of women or at least patronized them, and who have done everything in their power to keep them from gaining any authority in the Church.  This is why, many say, the Church still refuses to embrace a contemporary approach to the issues of gender and sexual ethics.  The celibate male clergy is viewed as a medieval weight around the neck of the Church, a hindrance to the spread of the Gospel, and even a sign of hypocrisy.

Now some may say, many Catholic women, in fact – look Father, we know that the Church changes slowly.  We used to believe that slavery was okay, now we don’t.  These things will change.  Women are patient.
But I don’t believe that this line of thinking works.  Especially for young women today.  And you know, it doesn’t work for me.  I wouldn’t want to be a part of an organization that was anti-woman, or scared of women.  No, the idea that the Catholic Church is discriminatory against women is entirely problematic, and it seems to me that one of the critical tasks for the Church today is to correct this false narrative.

And that is because the Church without women is nothing.  We see that in the Gospel today.  Where would we be without Mary and Elizabeth?  We are redeemed together as men and women in a complimentarity that intentional and is part of God’s plan.  Men and women factor equally into our Lord’s plan of redemption, and we must make sure that we continue to proclaim this good news of our faith in the modern world, not allowing the teachings of the Church to be distorted and misconstrued as anti-women.

In particular, we must insist that our male priesthood is not anti-woman or discriminatory.  And this insistence must be based on a correct understanding of the priesthood as an extension of the ministry of Christ among his people, as a continuation of the Incarnation, of God with us.  You see, what we believe about the priest is different than what other religions believe about their religious leaders.

For example, I think it would be sexist to not allow women to be protestant ministers or Jewish rabbis.  What?  Yes, I do.  Because a minister or a rabbi are not called upon to act in the person of Christ, they never speak the words of God become man in the first person like a priest does.  “This is my body.” “This is my blood.” “I absolve you from your sins.”  I know, when I say those words, that I am not speaking on my own behalf or even as myself, that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and is speaking through me.  I cannot change bread and wine into his body and blood.  I cannot forgive sins.  These are actions that only Jesus Christ can accomplish, not a mere man.

Now, some might say, well why can’t a woman speak in the person of Christ in the same way?  But think about that for a moment.  The fundamental reality about Jesus Christ that we celebrate on Christmas is that he is God in the flesh, in human flesh, which is by its nature, gendered flesh.  How can we remove gender from the equation, without undermining the incarnate reality of Christ who ministers among us as one who is fully human?  Gender is not like hair color or ethnicity or any other superficial attribute.  It is at the core of what defines the human person, as we know both biologically and theologically from Genesis: God made us male and female.  Human beings are created in a complimentarity.  Gender is not arbitrary.  It is laden with meaning and purpose.  When God became fully human in Christ he entered into a body that was fully gendered because it was and is fully human.  That’s not to say that the triune God is male: obviously not.  But the body of Christ, the body given to us in the sacraments, the body that speaks to us and heals us and forgives us and redeems us each day in the ministry of priests can be no other than the body of Jesus Christ, God become man.  To say that is not to be sexist.  It is just to acknowledge what happened, to be profoundly aware of just how enfleshed God became in Christ.  It was not some asexual spiritual being that Mary carried in her womb.  It was a little boy.

I don’t know why a boy and not a girl.  That’s what God chose.  And no, it was not because we would not have accepted him if he was a woman, because he could have made it so that we would: after all he spent over 2000 years preparing his people to receive his Son.  Surely he could have prepared a people to receive the Word become woman.  But he didn’t.  And we don’t know why.  He had to pick one of the two.  It was certainly not because men are better: women and men are equal before him.

And if the Word had become a woman we would have priestesses...  because we have a sacramental faith and a sacramental priesthood that continues to truly and really perpetuate in persona Christi capitis the life and ministry of not only the divinity but also the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I wonder why the Word didn’t become a woman.  Women would probably be much better at running the Church.  Women are certainly more religious.  This is not just mere speculation: across all cultures and all religions it has been clearly demonstrated in numerous studies that women hold their beliefs more firmly, practice their faith more consistently, and give more of their time to their church, temple, mosque or synagogue.  I have speculated that if we didn’t have a male priesthood you’d never see men in Church.

Look at Mary and Elizabeth today.  How beautiful their faith is, how noble their virtue.  How much they inspire us.  We need them.  The Church has always been profoundly aware that God’s plan of salvation is equally at work in men and women.  A male priesthood does not contradict this knowledge, any more than Christ’s being a man contradicts it.  Every priest, every Christian, is carried for 9 months in his or her mother’s womb, just like St. John  the Baptist and our Lord.  How could we think that God did not smile upon women?  How could we not see him at work in them, and their profound dignity and equality before him?  Our Church insists that we always treasure and reverence and follow the women of faith, like Mary and Elizabeth, who animate and uphold the her.  As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, let us make sure that we tell the world of our respect and love for his mother and for so many other women who God has chosen to be integral to his loving plan of salvation.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

What a Plan...

Homily from the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2009

(Note: I gave this homily 3 years ago and decided to publish it for the weekend because I am not sure that I will have a chance to post this year's with Christmas following so quickly.)

My sister is just about 6 months pregnant, so we’ve begun in earnest what I call the “torment the baby” stage.  My brother was the perpetrator this past week when I was home to help decorate the tree – trying to feel the baby move: “Hey, he just kicked!”  “Wait, is that his head… or his foot?”  My sister gets right into it too, poking around –  that poor kid is going to be scarred for life:
I thought we were supposed to be playing classical music and stuff.

Pregnancy – it is a fascinating and beautiful time: for men, anyway.
It’s so incredible, so mysterious how life begins and then gradually takes shape inside the womb.
When a woman is pregnant it can’t help but be a time of great hope and expectation and yet also a time of anxiety and challenge.

And isn’t it also a time of premonition and intuition?
How many of you mothers out there could say that you noticed things during pregnancy about your child that were later confirmed after you gave birth?

 Every pregnancy is different and unique because each child is, and even while in the womb each child  establish a relationship with his or her mother that is distinct from any other relationship.
From the very moment of conception our mother’s lives were changed: some of us made our mothers more nauseous, some less; some gave their mothers incredible appetites, some not as much; some of us helped them put on lots of weight, or maybe not as much – the patters of sleep, the chemical fluctuations, the whole thing: none of that was random or by chance: a baby begins to influence his or her mother’s life from day 1, from the moment of conception.

We often, I think, focus on the pain and trauma involved in giving birth and we forget about the 9 months that precede it – 9 months that every mother experiences differently: some suffer through and others seem to go along un-phased.  But no matter what child and his or her mother live the journey of pregnancy together, it is unarguable that a completely unique and intimate bond exists between them.

Mary was no different.  She carried our Lord for 9 months – and perhaps you could say that during that time no human being was ever closer to God.  A microscopic membrane in the placenta was the only thing that separated her blood and his – he breathed through her, he ate through her, he drank through her.

Sometimes Mary has been referred to as Mediatrix of all Graces: and to some the title is controversial – but perhaps they forgot those nine months, when she, like every human mother, was her child’s mediatrix with the world – the vessel through which he interacted with reality.  Jesus lived 33 years and 9 months –
and the first 9 months he lived were no less real than those that followed, they were no less a part of his mission, even if they were lived in secrecy.

In today’s gospel we hear of the graced encounter between two holy, pregnant women, Mary and Elizabeth – women who carry within them this great secret that is about to be revealed.
And the gospel shows them both to be intimately aware and connected to their sons.  Already at this early date, before either child had taken a breath, their mothers knew the treasure they carried within them – they knew the joy, the blessing that eagerly waited in Mary’s womb to be unleashed on this earth at Jesus’ birth.

And the babies were not oblivious either.  John leapt when he sensed Jesus’ approach.  I have no idea what that would feel like – to have a baby leap in your womb – very weird.  It’s a level of intimacy that no man can understand, a bond he cannot fathom.  And yet we must try, because we know that God wants to be that close to us…

Because when, through the complex web time and space, the Lord brought forth human beings from the clay and decided that the female should carry her child for 9 months before giving birth, he was thinking of Mary.  And he was thinking of those nine months that he would dwell within the womb of his own creature – of the nine months that he would listen to her heart beat and hear her gentle voice speak to him in the darkness.  And he was thinking about how he would spend 33 years working to extend that closeness he would have with his mother to all of humanity – how he would eventually give his life over for all, pour himself out to the last drop so that he could become food – food that would allow him to dwell with us and make us pregnant with his life, so that we too could give birth to his kingdom in the world.

What a plan – what a way to redeem us – he must have had a hard time waiting for Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2012

It is hard to even comprehend the horrible tragedy that occurred in Newtown Friday.  Certainly we must all pray for the families and the whole community that is wracked with unfathomable pain and suffering in the face of such a horrendous and senseless act of violence and hatred.

I think many of us have wondered what could ever cause someone to do something so profoundly evil.  How could a human being be so messed up, so horribly disturbed, and obviously so profoundly miserable?

This is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday characterized by hopeful expectation and rejoicing as the date of our Lord’s birth draws so near.  The theme seems so out of place in the wake of such a horrible atrocity committed against the innocent, almost inappropriate.

Certainly this is not the time for joking and revelry.  But there is room today, and I think the need, to reflect on the sources of joy and misery.

Where does joy come from?  While I am and have been for the most part pretty happy, there are a few times that stick in my mind as high points.   Certainly there have been joyful moments as a seminarian and priest, but as I was reflecting on our readings I was thinking about a particular happy time when I was 19: when I found out that a girl I was infatuated with liked me too.  I was working one of the more unpleasant jobs I have had: huddled in a dark room washing printing screens with a power washer all day by myself.  But those chemicals could not wipe the smile off my face – for days.  That she actually liked me seemed like a miracle from heaven, and every time I thought about it again, I would just smile.  She likes me.  Smile.

In a recent talk given about the New Evangelization, Archbishop DiNoia remarked that the great revelation of Christianity to our world is this: that God loves us.  No other theistic religion has understood this truth about God as profoundly as we do.  Other religions teach about a God who is a disinterested force in the world, perhaps a pure or good kind of force, but one who is for the most part unaffected by our little lives that pass by so quickly.

What we hear in our readings today is nothing short of the greatest revolution in the understanding of God that has ever occurred in the history of the human race.  Something no human being would ever have dared to dream, that we still can hardly get our minds around, was being announced by the prophets who speak to us through in the readings today.

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!  The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.

The creator of the universe who is all-powerful and all-knowing and the source of all goodness and life: this God, they said, had made all things and holds them in existence with one end in mind: to love us. He wills our good personally, each of us, he knows us and seeks our benefit, constantly is at work to draw us into his own love so that we can find the peace and joy we long for.

When I was 19 I was overwhelmed with happiness because a girl liked me too.  That revelation changed my world for the better, at least for a few months until she dumped me.  It was a young experience of affection and it was good for then – but how it pales in comparison to the love of God that we know in Christ.

If we really took to heart the words of the prophets, if we really thought for some time about what it is that they are announcing to us today – I can’t help but think that there would be very few flat or discouraged expressions in this church.  We might not be jumping up and down – but the knowledge of the love of God that we carried within us, of his love for us, that he has chosen us to be his own… it would just warm us right up from top to bottom all day long like a nice cup of tea on a cold day.  He loves me – God does.  He has chosen me for his own, he gives his life to me and feeds me and forgives me and walks beside me.  Of all the things that have characterized the saints over the years, it has been a deep and abiding sense of peace and well-being, a profound and mysterious source of joy animated them and could be seen by all who knew them.

Many of us have, at different times in our lives, been able to get a momentary glimpse into this joy and peace that the saints live: in those rare moments when we have been clear-headed enough, have been able to stop for a moment and experience God loving us.  But most of the time we are entirely oblivious.  Why?

St. Paul at one point told his people they were bewitched.
We live in a fallen world, a world that wants to be the center of the universe, that doesn’t want our universe to revolve around God.  A jealous world.  All day long distractions, anxieties tug at us, like false suitors trying to keep us from our true love.  And how often we just go with them, we don’t respond to God’s invitation to love him, we ignore his love and instead become increasingly preoccupied with the passing things of this world.  And they enslave us.

I think it is safe to say that the young man who committed such evil in Newtown was entirely bewitched, was overcome by darkness.  We have to pray for him and for his family.  Fortunately it is not often that evil gets such a firm hold on a person.  But it is always lurking, this world is always tugging at us, trying to make us forget who loves us and who we belong to and the purpose of our lives.  The evil one, St. Peter says, prowls like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

Gaudete is a command.  Not to put on a happy face or throw a party, but more in the sense that we who have heard the good news of Christ’s coming must hold fast to him.  Must hold fast to this incredible revelation of God’s goodness we have received in faith and be witnesses of it to our children and to a world that is often overcome in darkness.  The Lord knows and loves us.  He does not remained silent or distant, uncaring.  No, he comes to be with us, he works for the good of his people, for our good.  Gaudete.  Hold on to this knowledge of God’s immeasurable love, treasure it, protect it, today and always.

Monday, December 10, 2012

This Little Babe

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2012

When I was younger, from the time I was 9 until I was 14 or so, I was a member of a boy choir in the Portland area.  Christmas was always a busy time of year with all the concert engagements: we learned and sang so many Christmas songs and carols over the years.  And as I reflected on the readings for this 2nd Sunday of Advent, I was thinking back to a particular piece we used to sing by Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols called ‘This Little Babe.’

‘This Little Babe’ is a song about the Christ child unlike any I have heard.  Benjamin Britten set the music to a poem written by the English Jesuit priest and martyr saint: Fr. Robert Southwell, who was martyred for his faith in the English Catholic persecution of the 16th century.

The melody written by Benjamin Britten is very difficult to sing, and it fits well with Fr. Southwell’s poem, which I might call a Christmas battle hymn.  I’m not going to sing it because when I used to sing it I was a soprano, but I will read the poem to you as best I can:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
And feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes;
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward:
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Fr. Southwell, a young priest, saw in the meek and humble nativity scene nothing short of a mighty Lord come to rescue his people.  It is such an odd combination of thoughts: Of a baby being your guard.  His cries being battering shots.  Looks from weeping eyes his arrows.  His enemies foiled with joy.

Yet how very Christian: how much the sentiments of this poem resonate with the beatitudes and with so much of the teaching of our Lord, who shows us that it is in weakness that God is strong, that his work of redemption is most visibly and powerfully manifest in those who seem most vulnerable in the eyes of this world.

The nativity scenes are starting to go up in preparation for Christmas.  As we look upon the figures, and upon the little child in their midst, it is important to reflect on what we are seeing.  What Fr. Southwell’s poem makes so clear is that this little babe is our savior, is our redeemer.  And so looking upon him in the manger should elicit in us more than a vague sentimentalism as we see this cute baby and think about shepherds and angels singing.  This child is God with us, the Lord Jesus Christ who frees us from sin and death, who preserves our lives from the grave, who rescues us from darkness.  The shepherds and magi came to adore him, not to pinch his cheeks.  Yes, I’m sure he was a cute, cuddly baby; I’m sure Jesus and Mary snuggled a lot.  But we must remember that his cuddling, his snuggling was a cosmic act that shook this world to its foundations.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist carries out Isaiah’s prophecy in the Gospel today.  And the prophet Baruch speaks to us words of great expectation, telling us that our day of liberation is at hand, that our slavery is almost at an end, that we are favored by God.  They do not speak of superficial salvation, a vague sense of well-being in our Savior’s presence.  No, they talk about valley’s being leveled, mountains made low, highways prepared: about our world being completely converted and renewed and redeemed.

How you and I prepare to welcome a child who is our divine savior must be different from how we would prepare to welcome a child who has no power to save us.  You don’t just get the crib ready, get the house in good order – or in our case undertake the customary preparations like putting up the tree, buying the presents, baking the cookies.  These things are all well and good, but today the prophets urge us to allow the gravity, the immensity of who we prepare to welcome to sink in.  To step back a bit in the midst of this chaotic season: to make the time to open our hearts to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit who approaches us to  prepare a way for the Lord to enter, to level some of the valleys and smooth some of the mountains so that a straight highway can be prepared for him.

Our Catholic faith teaches us that this is best accomplished through intensified prayer and a good confession during Advent, and especially through many works of service, generosity, and friendship.  These spiritual efforts to prepare for Christ need not be arduous tasks – but preparations carried out with excitement and joy because Our Lord comes to meet us, to redeem us and free us.  Really: are any of these spiritual preparations more arduous than Christmas shopping?  But they do take a conscious effort, a bit of trust and courage, and sometimes a friendly nudge from your priest.

Where do you need the salvation this little child brings in your life this year?  Where are you bound, what keeps you tied up, what causes you anxiety and fear?  What areas of your life need to be revitalized and renewed and softened by this little one who comes to dwell with us?
The Christ child looks little, he looks meek: it is hard some days to imagine that he has the power to free us from our sins and anxieties, to convert us and sanctify us and make us his own.

At the time Fr. Southwell penned the lines of his poem, his life was in constant danger and he very well may have been in prison.  In the face of such violent persecution he urged his own soul to trust in this little babe:

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward:
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Let us ask today for the grace that St. Fr. Southwell was given: the grace to recognize in this little babe our Lord come with power to save us.  And to prepare to meet him, deliberately setting aside time during the next few weeks to open our hearts to his redemptive work so that our he can rest with us, and our hearts can rest with him, our child Savior, comfortably and peacefully on Christmas day.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holy and Free

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, 2012

An anniversary passed by with rather little fanfare this past weekend in diocese across the United States and English speaking Catholic world.  The one year anniversary of using the new translation for Mass.  I was thinking about this last weekend as I prayed the Opening Prayer for the first Sunday of Advent, which was the first prayer of the new translation – and I was remembering how awkward it sounded to me last year as I looked it over in preparation for that weekend.

After having made it through a year praying with the new translation, which is painstakingly and sometimes painfully faithful to the original Latin texts of the Missal, I think we can nonetheless look back on many prayers that have been rendered in an incredibly beautiful and profound way, even if they have sounded a bit strange and foreign to the ear. I think I’ve said graciously more in this past year than I did in all of the previous years of my life combined.  We’ve all had to adjust to some new vocabulary.

The prayers and texts for this feast, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, are no exception in that the vocabulary can be a bit jarring to the modern ear.  The prayers today are filled with rarely heard words and terms: Immaculate, Virgin, prevenient grace, stain of sin, fullness of grace, beautiful bride without spot or wrinkle, most pure virgin, advocate of grace, model of holiness.
Chances are these are not words that would have shown up with great frequency in the New York Times this week.  But it is not only the words, is it?  The very meaning of these words, the perspective of these words, I think we would have to admit is foreign.

To speak positively of being someone being full of grace, immaculate, without spot or wrinkle, of being a virgin most pure in our day and age is truly counter cultural, isn’t it?  More than most other Catholic teachings, these beliefs that we profess about Mary as we celebrate her Immaculate Conception today reveal that increasingly our culture and our Church not only don’t speak the same way, but we do not see the world the same way.

And one of the principle areas where this divergence is becoming apparent is in relation to how we see freedom and fulfillment in relation to holiness and sin.  So often today, one hears sentiments expressed that seem to imply that virtue and holiness is a sign of immaturity and that a certain amount of sin is actually healthy and a positive sign of being an adult.  There is actually a suspicion of anyone who looks too perfect, as if they must be hiding something or repressed because they were not allowed to experience life.

In a homily on the feast of the immaculate conception, our Holy Father expressed the problem so well when he said “Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.”

“In a word,” the Pope said, “we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.”

How spot on the pope is about this – we can see signs of this mentality everywhere around us.  This glorification of having ‘experienced life’ or ‘lived it up,’ while covering over the horrendous casualties that have been inflicted along the way.

And that is why this feast, and why Mary, is such a challenge to our culture.  She models for us an entirely different image of what it means to become fully human and to be free.  She shows us that freedom comes not from being able to disobey God, but from being able to follow him.  She shows us that we are most ourselves not when we give in to our lesser desires, but when we strive for the greater.  She shows us that living in a  purity of heart, mind and body is to live without restriction, without anxiety, without fear.  That the person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, that, as the pope says later in his homily “the person who puts herself in God's hands does not distance themselves from others, withdrawing into her private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that her heart truly awakens and she becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.  The closer a person is to God, the closer she is to people.”

And so we need this feast more than ever.  Our country, our culture needs to hear words like Immaculate, Virgin most pure.  But not just the words.  We desperately in our day need to be reminded that sin does not make us more human, but less.  That to be pure and virtuous is to be free from slavery and open to those around us, capable of loving them.

So today may the words of this feast not just ring strangely in our ears, but may they begin to enter and transform our hearts, patterning them after the heart of Mary, who made no tolerance for sin but was rooted in her desire to be holy – to be always and as completely as possible united with her Son.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

To You, O Lord, I Lift Up My Soul

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, 2012

On Friday night of this week I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Boston Symphony Hall with a group of 25 high school students and chaperones during a parish youth ministry trip to Boston.  The symphony hall is beautiful and the whole atmosphere, especially as we are getting closer to Christmas was warm and inviting.  Taking it all in: the hundreds of people of all ages listening intently, the musicians, the beautiful space; for those few hours the rest of the world fell away for a moment and there was a sense of peace and of wellbeing, a sense of great hope.  In fact, so hopeful and peaceful that a few of the kids soon found themselves dozing.

Our responsorial psalm for today, this first Sunday of Advent, refers to our efforts during these days of preparation for Christmas: “To You O Lord, I lift up my soul.”  As we anticipate the Lord’s coming, we are instructed to raise our hearts, our minds to God, to lift up our souls in hope.  Christ, in the Gospel reading tells us that as we anticipate the Lord’s coming we should “stand erect and raise our heads.”  Not to run from the things to come, but to face the future with hope and confidence.  For we know by faith of the goodness of God and we know the goodness of the future he has in store for us.  In fact, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict noted that a distinguishing mark of Christians is the fact that they have a future.  That even though we do not know the details of what awaits us we know in general terms that our lives will not end in emptiness, but that the Lord will come to meet us.  Christ is our hope, he reveals not only the past to us, but he is present with us leading us into a future of peace.

How important it is for men and women of faith to be witnesses to this hope, especially in our world, a world that is so full of superficial and false hopes and dreams.  We also see a lot of that around this time of year, don’t we – a state of mind, that unlike true hope, which is rooted in the knowledge and anticipation of God’s goodness, is instead rooted in the fulfillment of our every individual want and desire.  The ‘Make a wish’ kind of hallmark hope.  Instead of hoping, of lifting up our souls, in God, we are continually asked to lift them up to ourselves, so that we can see what we really want, or what others really want, and then try to make it happen.  And instead of God’s desires and the future that he has in store for us: we reflect on our desires and the desires of those around us; who wants what, who wishes for what.

But these wishes and wants and desires, when they take control of our minds – whether they be our own or even those of others around us, are bound to disappoint.  Because we are not capable of providing for what we truly need, and nor is anyone other than God.  Even if our every wish were granted this Christmas: if the kids all received every present they wanted, if the sweaters all fit, the electronics all worked, and none of the Christmas cookies burned: we would still be wanting, there would still be something left that we desired – if not right on Christmas day, on the next day certainly when we are trying to find the apps for the electronics and the diet for our waistlines.  These things are not bad, exchanging presents isn’t bad, Christmas cookies certainly aren’t bad – but we Christians must be careful not to allow wants and desires and dreams about passing things to supplant the real hope of Christmas: our savior Jesus Christ.

If Christmas is just about wishes being granted or fairytales coming true, then it will cease to be a season of hope, but instead will become more and more a season of disappointment and bitterness and resentment.  Passing things, earthly things, disappoint.  In Christ alone do we find our peace, our joy, our reason for hope.  But how easy it is to get carried away with the tinsel or start freaking out when we run out of butter or when the item we were going to get for someone is stuck in a warehouse somewhere in Kalamazoo.

And that is why in our readings we hear that holding on to hope is an act of perseverance and persistence.  You have to work to stand erect and raise your heads – you don’t just naturally end up that way.  St. Paul tells us to strengthen our hearts. How can we lift up our hearts, our souls, to God if they are wallowing in earthly things, if they are attached to everything around us?  If they are obsessed with earthly desires and wants that are bound to disappoint if they haven’t already.

These days of Advent urge us to leave behind the false hopes of this world and to persevere in clinging to the true source of hope that is found in our faith in Jesus Christ who is our savior and redeemer.  To stand erect, waiting for him, lifting our souls to him, asking him to instill in us a renewed sense of anticipation for his action in our lives, a renewed trust in his goodness and mercy.  To keep watch, our eyes fixed on him, disciplining our minds and urging them toward higher things, toward spiritual things.  Our Lord tells us to be vigilant at all times, vigilant in placing our hope squarely on his shoulders, not letting it be carried away by the lesser dreams and desires of this life that are bound to disappoint.  To keep our eyes fixed on our Lord, who comes to save us.

One of the great Aria’s of Handel’s Messiah takes up the inspired words of Isaiah and Matthew’s gospel, reminding us of the true source of our hope: "Come unto him, all ye that labor, come unto him all ye that are heavy laden, and he will give you rest.  Take his yoke upon you and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls."

Monday, November 26, 2012

My Kingdom Does Not Belong to This World

Homily for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ,  King of the Universe, 2012

There are two ways we can understand the idea of not belonging to the world, aren’t there?  In a first way, which is rather superficial, we might think of not belonging as not being present, being foreign, separate or distant.  And if this were the sense in which Jesus was speaking in today’s Gospel, as we imagine his attendants who he says are not of this world, we might think of countless hosts of angels all in battle armor standing on the sidelines, held in check by God the Father even as Christ is speaking to Pilate.  But I think that is the wrong image for this scene.

And that is because there is a second way and much more profound way in which Christ speaks about not belonging to this world throughout the Gospels.  In John’s Gospel, he tells his disciples that while it is true that they live in the world, they do not belong to the world, they belong to their heavenly Father.  That, as St. Paul says, their citizenship, our citizenship is in heaven.  We often express this simply by saying that Christians must live in the world but cannot be of the world.  And this way of being in but not belonging bears some thought as we try to understand Christ our King and his kingdom.

In the first place, this sense of not belonging to this world makes it clear that Christ’s kingdom is certainly not absent.  Far from it!  What did Christ preach continuously throughout the hills of Judea and Samaria?  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And in Luke’s Gospel, our Lord speaks very clearly: “Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he said in reply, “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.”

So it is undeniable that Christ’s kingdom is here – it’s real, it is in this world.
But it doesn’t belong to this world.  In other words, it is not contained by this world, limited by this world; it is not external and comprehensible; it is not a mere passing earthly kingdom like other kingdoms.  Christ’s dominion is God’s dominion and we know that God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.  So Christ's kingdom is not like our kingdoms, and Christ is a King unlike any earthly king.

Pilate asked Christ:  “So you are a king?” And how did Christ respond?  “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

Pilate does not understand the true kingdom and so he doesn't understand the kingship of Christ. Because Jesus does not visibly demonstrate his power, does not force others do his will, Pilate does not take him seriously.  He only believes in kingdoms that are ruled from thrones, that are governed by coercion, fear and oppression. A king without a castle? Without an army?  Without a treasury?  “Ah, that kind of a king,” we can imagine him smirking, “The king of the little blue people who came here from another planet?  Yeah, we have a special place for ‘kings’ like you.”

Pilate sees the world in only one way: in external, worldly expressions of power.  Earthly power is what motivated him.  His desire for earthly power is what brought him to his position, and the fear of losing it drove him to stand back and watch as Christ, who he knew was innocent, was led away to be crucified.  He could not see beyond earthly kingdoms.  The only Kings that mattered to him were those who had control over your life, your possessions, your reputation, your comfort.    Earthly kings.  Vague notions of a mysterious kingdom of God that could only be spoken of in parables and metaphor seemed to him an escape from the real world and of no real practical use or consequence.  Real kings and real kingdoms demonstrate real power in the real world.  So thought Pilate.

But Christ came to testify to the truth.  And what is the truth?  That earthly power is an illusion.  That all of these people and assets and stuff that earthly rulers try to push around and control externally, from above as if they were little gods – they are horribly deceived.  They are moving around mere shadows and fictions.  Their power, their glory and honor, their wealth and might, even their legacies: it is all earthly vanity and chase after wind.  Beneath all of this superficial power brokering and greed and ambition, quietly and powerfully and beautifully holding all things in existence is the real Kingdom.  The Kingdom of God.  It is a kingdom not ruled externally, not ruled by force, not treating subjects as objects, but a Kingdom that is sustained and built and grows from within through the sacrificial love of God that dwells within his creation and is drawing all things to himself.  A kingdom that is spread far and wide not by conquering armies, but by the converted hearts of saints who serve the poor and the needy.  That is defended not by strong walls of stone, but by the steadfast love of its citizens, who freely and generously seek first not to be served, but to serve others.  That is sustained not by earthly waters and lands and resources, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and by the mysteries, the sacraments of his love.  Christ is the king of this only true and lasting kingdom, God’s dominion over the whole created order of time and space.  And Christ reigns  not by subjecting creation to himself, but by subjecting himself, emptying himself and giving his life to sustain and unite all of creation in one eternal offering to our Heavenly Father.  The reign of Christ is the reign of sacrificial love, the love of God outpoured, the true source and origin of all life.

And so as we look once more at the scene of our Gospel, at Christ the King of Sacrificial Love who stands before Pontius Pilate, where are the King’s attendants?  Were they tensely standing by in the clouds of heaven, just itching to be set free so that they could strike down Pilate and save their king?  No – that is what the attendants to an earthly kingdom and an earthly king would do.

Instead, the attendants of Christ’s kingdom, the kingdom of God, took their lead from their king.  And as their king mounted the true throne of the universe, the Cross on Calvary, they stood steadfast in prayer, united to their Lord in mind and heart, praying with him that all would be one, offering their lives to the Father in one communion of sacrificial love.  Mary, our Lord’s mother, certainly is the first of these attendants, she who quietly accompanied her son with her heart and mind along his royal way of love.  And all of the saints have likewise attended to Christ as they have striven diligently to be more closely unified to his life-giving sacrifice of love in the often mundane and simple tasks of daily life.

At this Mass we stand once more at the threshold of the throne of the true king, we stand before Calvary, before Christ’s sacrifice of love.  We are his attendants, his beloved sons and daughters who he has summoned before him to be one people, one Church, one kingdom.  But we must remember what he has taught us: Christ’s throne and kingdom do not belong to this world, are not of this world, and nor do we who attend to his throne belong to this world.  Our mission is not to go out and overpower our enemies as earthly kingdoms do; it is to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.  It is to serve the widow and the orphan, to give generously to the poor and the suffering.  It is to love one another as Christ, our king, has loved us by offering his life for us.

May we be faithful attendants to Christ our King: steadfast at his side as he works for the good of all people from the throne of the universe, the throne of sacrificial love.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

God Will Invade

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012

As we reach the end of the liturgical year, it is our Catholic tradition to spend these days reflecting on the end times.  It’s kind of strange territory, this apocalyptic terrain.  The prophetic books of the Old Testament are filled with foreign and fantastical sounding images: strange animals with different parts, all these symbolic numbers, countless types of angels swirling around, heavenly hosts and trumpets sound, all kinds of things seem to be going on in the clouds and in the heavens - the whole scene seems very surreal.  Jesus’ teaching does little to dispel the mystery and fearsome quality of these last days, telling us of great tribulations, cosmic shifts, the heavens being shaken, and angelic hosts swiftly carrying out the commands of the Son of Man who has come to bring justice and peace to this world.  On many occasions Jesus warned his disciples that the end will come upon us like a thief in the night, when we least expect, and that many, many people will be terrified and entirely overwhelmed by the experience.  They will be in utter shock, caught as if sleeping.  This teaching of Christ about the end times, which is echoed by St. Paul and the early fathers of the Church, is too consistent and insistent for us to simply acknowledge it with a vague notion that we should live each day as if it were our last.

That would be like hearing an air raid siren and concluding “Ah, isn’t that nice – they want us to make sure that we have a roof over our heads.”  or listening to the emergency broadcast system announce a tsunami and saying “I guess I’ll wear a life jacket while I’m out fishing.”  In fact, what should be disconcerting to us when we hear Christ and the apostles speak about the end times is that it seems most people will be completely unprepared.

And that doesn't seem too far fetched   How many of us are confident that if all of a sudden the stars began to fall from the sky and angelic hosts swept down from heaven, even though Jesus explicitly told us this would happen, we would not be completely surprised out of our minds?  “Oh my goodness!  It actually is real!  Like really real!”  That seems to be the response that Jesus indicates many people will have: one of utter disbelief even as they see with their own eyes the truth conquering this world of shadows.  They will feel as if they were waking from a dream, all of a sudden the shades will fall away and they will see that they have been dwelling in darkness – the light of Christ will be like a blinding fire that seers their eyes, their ears will ring with strange celestial sounds, and they will find themselves face to face with the living God.

In an instant, scientific laws that seemed so hard and fast will appear to be fictions; our greatest accomplishments in this world will look like projects in a child’s sandbox.  Angels and Archangels and myriads of Seraphim and Cherubim will appear in a splendor and majesty that takes our breath away and makes our frail nature look like dust.  And from our midst it will be the little ones, the poor, the meek, the lowly, the persecuted who will shine likes stars in the sky,  revealed in their glory, their heroic battles celebrated, their great victories exalted.

We know these things, brothers and sisters – they have been revealed to us, they are not mere fictions, they are not simply convenient ways of thinking about heaven so that we are motivated to do the right thing on earth.

“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” St. Peter wrote to the early Christians, “but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  We ourselves heard the voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.  Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

These are not cleverly devised myths, but a prophetic message that is altogether reliable.  The prophet Daniel tells us this morning that when the clouds part, when the shadows are dispelled “The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever."

Christ brings to completion the revelation of this wisdom from above.  And he sends us out as witnesses to that wisdom, to be a light to others, helping them to see beyond the phantoms and idols of this world, to see that we have been chosen in Christ to be sons and daughters of the living God and to one day receive our true inheritance, when Christ returns and gathers us into his heavenly kingdom.  The Triune God dwells with us now sacramentally, in mystery, working through us to prepare all of humanity for that final consummation.  The stakes are high, the work is urgent, in our efforts to be more and more personally converted to Christ each day, and also in our efforts to encourage and support conversion of heart in those who are dear to us, and in our society.  In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis reflected on these last days, and I will close with his words:

“God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else - something it never entered your head to conceive - comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”

Deception, Division, and Shame

Discussion of Sin and Evil for the High School Journey Retreat, November 16, 2012

The purpose of our conversation about sin this morning is not to make you feel guilty – that may happen, but it’s not my main goal – my main goal is to help you to identify the chains that bind you so that you can be more open to God’s mercy and love and be more deeply converted to Christ, who wants to give you his joy and peace.  Jesus is our divine physician, but in order for him to do surgery (confession) he must first help us to identify the areas that are sick.  So it’s important to get this straight right from the beginning: we Catholics talk about sin because we love one another and want the best for one another, no other reason. 

The first thing to note is that sin is not something that just evil and bad people do.  In fact, we all have a tendency to sin.  St. Paul said that in one of his letters: “Why do I do what I don’t want to do?”  And I think we have all asked that question more than once, right?  “What was I thinking?  How did I let that happen?  You idiot… idiot… idiot!”  Every one of us, every human being seems to share this trait: they don’t always want what is good and true and beautiful, or at least they don’t always want it as much as they should. So we have to ask – well how is it that good people, people who want to follow God and do his will are still capable of making some very bad choices?  What is wrong with us? 

Original sin.  C.S. Lewis said that the existence of original sin is one of the doctrines of the Church that is easiest to prove.  God has revealed in the teaching on original sin why it is that we contain this division within ourselves: our nature is corrupted: God made us in his image and likeness with a plan that we would use our freedom as he does: to live in love.  But Adam and Eve were deceived by the evil one, and instead of the tree of freedom and life that God had given them to eat from, they chose to eat from the tree of self-love. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop with them.  We still live in a fallen world, a world that rebels against God – and we all have to admit that there is a part of each of us that rebels against God too. 
What happens when we rebel?  We are blinded, we are divided, and we are accused.  That’s what sin does: it blinds us, divides us, and accuses us.  This is the work of the evil one, who St. Peter says is like a roaring lion who prowls about this world looking for someone to devour the way that he went after Adam and Eve: he is the deceiver, he is the divider, and he is the accuser.  And we can see him at work right from the beginning of creation.  Think about Genesis for a moment.  The first sign of evil is the serpent, who deceives Eve, making her think that disobeying God would make her happy.  After they eat from the wrong tree, what is the first thing that happens?  Instead of walking beside God in the garden, they hide from him, they are divided from God.  Soon after, Adam and Eve turn on one another “She made me do it.”  Divided against each other.  And they can’t stand being naked – they are even divided in themselves, they feel ashamed before God.  It is a three-fold division, from God, from one another, and even in their very selves.  And lastly, they are ashamed to be with God, they feel accused even though it is not God who accuses them but the evil one.  And so they separate from him, they no longer feel that God is their Father who loves them, but instead they hide from him like you would hide from someone you fear.  The accuser has gotten a hold of them. 
So, if we’re going to allow the Lord Jesus to free us from sin, to free us from the grip of the evil one, we have to first look at where he might have gotten a hold on us.  Where we have allowed deception, division, and accusation to creep in and make us resistant to God’s work in our lives.


Christ, as we know, is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  He comes to reveal God’s will to us and to dispel the darkness of that comes from sin.  But we have to ask him to dispel that darkness and we have to be open to the purifying fire of his grace that will show us our sins and help us to see ourselves clearly. 

The evil one, the deceiver, doesn’t want us to see our sins or to recognize how seriously they bind us and keep us from being able to respond to God.  He wants us to be content, or at least to not struggle too much or cry out for help.  And so he works to dull our consciences, to dull our sense of right and wrong, to give us all kinds of reasons why we should not worry too much about following God’s will or finding out what God wants of us. 

I think the most common way the devil gets us is by tricking us into comparing ourselves with other people, letting the people around us form our consciences, instead of allowing our conscience to be formed by Christ.  We look at others, and we see some who seem to be very good and some who seem to be not so good.  Mother Teresa over here, and maybe Hitler over there – so I guess I’m somewhere in the middle here – basically a good person.  So… well God isn’t going to send all these people in the middle to hell, right?  So if we’re just better than most people we should be okay – just be a good person.  We hear that a lot – he or she is a good person.  Well wait a minute.  Jesus didn’t say “Go and be a good person.”  He said, “Go and sin no more.” He said “Take up your cross and follow me.”  He made it very clear that the person we are not supposed to be looking around at others to figure out what we should be doing, not even the Pope or Mother Teresa (although they would certainly help us out), but that we should first look to him, follow his example, that we should love one another as he has loved us. 

So we have to resist the deceiver who would like us to think that what is right and wrong is based on what other people think or on what is acceptable in our society.  What is right and wrong is based on God’s will, and Jesus is the one who lived in complete obedience to God’s will and shows us how to follow the will of the Father.  So that is why it is so important that we pray and work to get to know Jesus Christ so that he can form our consciences to be like his, so that we can see the truth and not be deceived.

Another deception of the evil one is this: he tries to make us think that sin makes life more interesting, more of an adventure.  That it kind of spices things up.  Kind of like flirting – that we think that it’s kind of fun to flirt with sin.  And we might have the sense: “Hey, what harm is there in it?  As long as we’re not going home together for the night, right?”  “Besides, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  “If I just have a little fun then I won’t be tempted to really be unfaithful.”  Hmmm…  That sounds kind of nice, if you were not married, and if you were flirting with some great and honorable guy or girl… but let’s think about this: Christ has died for us, given his life for us, showing us a love that is greater than any earthly husband or wife can ever give, so being faithful to him… well, that seems important, right?  Why would we even go there?  And furthermore, flirting with sin is like flirting with a dirty old man – and dirty old men are all the same.  Sin is boring.  It is virtue that makes life interesting.  Again, watch out for the deceiver!

Another trap that I want to mention as well about being deceived.  How easy it is sometimes to subconsciously let our consciences be formed by what we have done or want to do, instead of letting our consciences determine what we do and what we want.  Maybe we’ve been more sexually active with a girlfriend or boyfriend than we should.  We try to say that certain things are okay if you love someone or if you are committed to them.  Slowly we start to change our mind about what we think is okay or not okay – based not on Jesus’ example, but on what we have done.  We don’t want to feel guilty, to acknowledge that we have sinned – it is tempting to just change our definition of sin so that we don’t have to worry about it. 

So, the first thing we have to fight are the deceptions of the evil one, we have to seek the truth about what is right and wrong – not forming our consciences the way we want or the way that works best in our world, but allowing our consciences to be formed by Christ who teaches us the way to the Father.


But even if we know what is right and wrong, the battle isn’t over, right?  Far from it!  And this is where we have to look at the tactics of the evil one and where he tries to cut us off from God, from one another, and from our very selves. 

The source of strength for the Christian is our relationship with Christ, and it is this relationship that we have to guard with everything in us.  The evil one tries to keep us from God continually.  In our day in particular it is with distractions.  He does not want us thinking about God too much in the day, meditating on Christ’s life and his example to us.  It is in this area of loving God that we often commit the most serious sins, not only because they offend God, but also because when we don’t work to love God we become incapable of loving others.  If we no longer are worshipping God, chances are that we are worshipping ourselves.  Yet how easy it is to start to grow slack in our efforts to love God, to pass on prayer times or to not take the time of prayer seriously.  To go through Sunday Mass without really working to offer ourselves to God, and not to take our observation of the Lord’s day seriously. 

We can become content with a superficial knowledge of Christ, never talking with him, never listening to him in the scriptures, never deepening our understanding of his teaching by reading the documents of the Church or the lives of the Saints.  And then we wonder why our hearts begin to grow cold, why Mass doesn’t do anything for us, why we don’t feel close to God.  The divider has gotten in the way and succeeded in keeping us from our God.  Staying close to God, intimate with him, loving him with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, which is the greatest commandment – is probably also the hardest commandment to follow, and requires the most effort of any commandment we have to follow.  It’s probably in this area that we should have the most things to confess: our lack of love for God, our lack of respect and reverence for him, how little we think of him each day and seek his will in all things.  How quickly we give ourselves a pass and move on to think about stupid trivial things, our own selfish daydreams and fantasies.  But it is being close to God that will give us happiness and peace, that is what our hearts truly long for, just to rest in him. 

When our hearts don’t rest in God, we also tend to not love others as we should, right?  And that is the other area that the divider seeks to exploit.  He works to separate us from one another.  How easy it is to get so focused on what others are doing for us, or not doing, instead of focusing on how we can serve them.  Yet isn’t that what Jesus tells us again and again: whoever wishes to be first among you must be the servant of all.  Whatever you do to the least of these, you have done for me.  How quickly we forget…  An easy way to tell how we’re doing on this one is to see if we just spend time around people who are easy to be around.  What about our younger siblings or older relatives?  What about the elderly neighbor who is alone all day?  Or do we just sit around with the same friends who make us feel good?  Jesus challenges us to seek out the lost and those who are abandoned.  He says that if we do good to those who do good to us there is no merit in that – criminals do the same.  That we should do good to those who persecute us, who are out to get us.  How much would our world change if we listened to Christ and followed his example?  If we unplugged from all of our gadgets and tried to help those around us, to really understand them and love them?  Do we just call friends to say hello, do we work to be loyal and trustworthy friends?  Enjoy healthy time together, hobbies and common interests and team sports and activities?  Do we listen to our parents and to honor them, trying to understand them and love them and serve them.  If we didn’t speak about others unless we were saying the good things that others need to hear, as St. Paul teaches us?  And just to put up with annoying things.. to see the annoying traits of others as an opportunity to give our hearts a work out, to strengthen our capacity to love by loving those who are difficult to love.  Trying to overlook faults and flaws, to think the best of others and trying to anticipate their needs.  How do we think of other people?   Jesus tells us that we fall into sin not only when we do physical harm, but even in thinking maliciously or lustfully of others.  We are supposed to treat others as we would treat Jesus himself. 

And finally, sin causes division in our own selves.  St. Paul teaches us that we have to treat our bodies and our minds as temples, as sanctuaries.  After all, Christ has chosen to make his home with us, right – in fact our body is not really our own – in baptism we have died to ourselves, now we belong to Christ.  So we have to be attentive not to allow a continual stream of junk and clutter into our minds and bodies and daily routines.  Are we spending all kinds of time with mindless entertainment? 

Our minds were given to us as a gift to be developed for the service of God and others, not just to veg out.  You can’t love someone while watching tv or you tube.  Technology itself is not good or evil, but it is easy to be selfish and wasteful of our time.  It’s easy to become mentally and physically lazy, to lose our curiosity and interest in the good things that God has placed before us, to start to just walk through life as if in a daze, caught up in our own little world, walking right by people who are suffering or in need.  If we’re not working to know and love and enjoy being with others, then what are we doing?  We cannot allow our minds to be so distracted that we don’t have time to think and pray each day – and that means that we need some quiet time.  And also that we need to get a good amount of sleep and try to eat in a way that will keep us healthy and alert. 

So – in the fight against sin, we must fight the evil one who is constantly trying to divide us from God, from others, and from ourselves.  It is a battle, and often we fail.  And when we do, we have to be careful that we do not fall victim to another tactic of the evil one: his accusation.

When we recognize our sins, we see what is right and wrong and see how far we are from following it, the evil one is quick to try to jump in and accuse us before God.  “You are a hypocrite, you’re not even sorry.”  “You don’t belong here.”  “This is too hard, you don’t have the strength.”  “You are too far gone.”  Anything to try to keep you from running back to the arms of your heavenly Father.  That is why Jesus told us so many parables about the lost sheep or the lost coin or the prodigal son, or so many others – he knew that we have a tendency to listen to the accuser, to doubt that God can really forgive us, that we can really change.  Instead, Jesus wants us to have the experience that Zacchaeus had: remember he climbed the tree to see Christ as he was passing by?  And he listened to him and allowed his conscience to be formed by Christ’s teaching, he accepted what Jesus said was right and wrong.  And Jesus saw his repentance even from a distance off and then he invited himself over for dinner.  And Zacchaeus was so happy that he just started talking about all the ways that he could give things away, how he could serve others.  His life took on meaning again.  He was free.  His sins did not hang over him like a dark cloud or make him feel distant from God – he was just grateful and joyful and happy to be with Christ.

Jesus wants all of us to have this same experience of repentance and conversion – not just once, but again and again throughout our lives.  He desires that we ascend the tree of life, the cross, as Zacchaeus did, listening to him and being strengthened by his grace that comes to us in word and sacrament to lift us from our sins.  When we accept the cross, the tree of life, when we humble ourselves and follow the will of the Father, Christ comes to us and is able to gradually free us from sin, from selfishness and give us the joy and peace that come from serving him and our brothers and sisters. 

Let us pray today for the courage to listen to Christ and to let him form our consciences, to teach us what is right and wrong, what is true and false.  May his grace help us to honestly look at our lives in the light of the gospel, to squarely face our sins, trusting that God’s grace and love and mercy conquers all things.  Today allow Christ to encourage you: not to be afraid but to confidently approach him and ask for his forgiveness.  Christ has come for us sinners, to save us, to rescue us, and to give us true freedom that comes from being his sons and daughters who are fully alive and whole and at peace with our heavenly Father, with one another, and in ourselves. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

As If The Things of This World Were Meant to Be Eternal!

Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012

Our first reading introduces us to a widow in crisis.  Her words reflect her despair: “I was collecting a couple of sticks to go and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die."  She sounds entirely defeated – overwhelmed and overcome by the desperation of her situation. 

While we may not have faced circumstances that are as severe as the widow, we can all identify to an extent, at least, with her exasperation, can’t we?  With that feeling that more is being asked than we can give:  A co-worker is saying something outrageous for the thousandth time.  A baby is up again screaming in the middle of the night.  The project that is due in a few hours was erased from the hard drive.  Illness or old age has made a simple task into an ordeal.  Someone is yelling because despite best intentions the ball was dropped.  A loved one deprives us of their affection and leaves us feeling alone and unwanted.  

In those dark moments, life can begin to appear to us to be just a prolonged experience of having things taken away.  Take, take, take – why is God taking everything away that I care about?  Doesn’t he love me?

It was into this kind of desperation that Isaiah entered when he encountered that poor widow in Zarephath.  With gentleness, he reassured the widow:  “Do not be afraid – instead of clinging to what you love, who you love – give what is asked by God and trust that your sacrifice will not be in vain, you will not be abandoned in your need.”

And we need this gentle encouragement, don’t we? 
Because how easy it is to begin to cling to the things of this world, the gifts we have been given, as if they were meant to be eternal!  How easily this gravely mistaken, this irrational expectation, can sneak its way into the back of our minds.  And when it does, increasingly the many gifts we receive from our loving Father become a source of agony and pain.  God’s gifts to us in this world are temporary - a mere foreshadowing, a preparation for the eternal life, for the great gifts that he has in store for us,  that he wants to give us.  And so when we cling, we cling to nothing but shadows, to sand that slips between our fingers.  And what results?  Anger and frustration and bitterness and resentment start to take hold.  Fear and anxieties begin to overshadow the experience of life.   And often a kind of denial sets in:  a life occupied by mindless entertainment, gossip, small-talk, and political junkying , escape to the sensual and self-medication  - anything to avoid the passing reality of this world.

Yet the more we cling or try to avoid letting go, the more we are deprived of peace.  And our faith is seriously compromised because rather than perceiving God as he truly is, the giver of all good gifts, the things of this world distort our sight so that God is perceived as a threat to happiness, the one who takes away what we love and destroys what we cherish.

Jesus is the truth and the light: he comes to free us from the deceptions of the evil one and to show us the truth about this passing world.  In the Gospel today Jesus encourages us, he seeks to inspire us to follow the true way to the Father, the way to find lasting joy in this life.   He teaches us that the earthly gifts that God gives us are not meant to be clung to, as if they contained within themselves the key to  happiness, but that they are meant to be freely offered back to our Father in love and so become a means of participation in the love of the Triune God and source of lasting peace and joy for us. 

And so we see why Christ was so hard on the scribes and Pharisees: their actions demonstrated that their sacrifices, their pious and religious practices were superficial and not true offerings, that their hearts were still clinging to the things of this earth: to wealth, to reputation, to comfort or pleasure.  
They were offerings made in view of earthly success, not made for the love of God.  That is why in another place Jesus instructs us to make offerings, to pray and give alms in secret – because he wants us to have the joy that he has, the joy of a pure offering that is not tainted by self-interest.    True happiness is found in being able to offer God something personal, a real part of ourselves and to offer it to him and to him alone: and that is the joy that he wants us to have, the joy of his Son Jesus who offers his whole life to the Father for our salvation freely and without condition.  Body and Blood, soul and divinity, Jesus offers himself to the Father - not resenting his Father for the cross or us, his brothers and sisters who he heals and strengthens through his sacrifice.  No - he offers his life to the Father for us and it gives him joy to offer it because he loves us.  For Christ, the cross was an invitation, granted a painful and scary one, but an blessed invitation nonetheless, to show his love for the Father and for us.

That is what our Lord saw in those two small coins offered by the widow - love.  He saw behind the coins to her heart, her livelihood that she was offering freely to God.  And this from a woman from whom so much had already been taken. 

Yet she showed no signs of resentment: we can almost hear her speak the words of Job,  " the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord."   Jesus saw in her heart a sharing in his own sacred heart, his own love of the Father.  The Scribes, the Pharisees, they were interested in what God could do for them in this world, in clinging to their titles and honor and comforts.  But they had no love for God, they placed nothing of themselves on the altar of sacrifice.  That is not the offering of a Christian, of that poor widow.  St. Paul teaches us in our second reading, Christ came to cleanse us and gather us into the true offering of his body: the one pure and holy and sacrifice of love he offered to the Father on the cross.

And so every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass it must be personal.  And not only because we offer to the Father Christ's personal body and blood, soul and divinity.  But also because his offering, of his life to the Father, like the offering of the widow, challenges and motivates and invites each of us:  Will we work to freely offer our lives with him to the Father?  Will we allow his offering to engage us personally – will we respond to his example by laying what is asked of us before the foot of the cross?  Our hopes and dreams, our gifts and experiences, the crying baby in the middle of the night, the annoying co-worker, the frustrating homework, the lack of affection, the desire for comfort or esteem: whatever else we are tempted to cling to, from the little daily preferences even up to our very lives – will we bring all of that up here?  Everything in this world can be, and is made to be, offered to God in love.  Everything.  But he will not force us.  He wants us to follow the example of his Son, who freely offers his life on the cross in love.  May God give us the wisdom and strength and perseverance to not cling to this life, but to follow Christ and offer it: freely, joyfully, and with great love.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Greatest Commandment

Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

This week I was listening to Catholic radio and the presenter was talking about how he often asks people this rather interesting question: “What do you think is the most serious sin?”  Most people, he has found, will say murder, or rape, or torture – some heinous crime against humanity.  But no – he argued, these are not the most serious of sins.  Instead, he said, we should first think about which is the greatest commandment, because if  you want to know the greatest sin, first you have to know the greatest commandment, right?  And we hear the answer in our Gospel today, don’t we: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Since this is the greatest commandment, when we fail to observe it, it follows that we commit the most grievous of sins.

But how can we not fail this first and greatest command?  ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your mind, ALL your strength.  You can see why St. Paul said “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”  Who can say with a straight face that they observe the greatest commandment faithfully each day?  Even for an hour?  Yet, when we reach the end of our lives there should be no doubt, the question that Jesus will ask each of us is probably not “Did you kill anyone?” or “What did you steal?” or even “Have you been a good person?”, but “Do you love me?”  That’s what he asked St. Peter – “Do you love me?” –  Today he asks each of us: “Do you love me?.”

His question searches the heart, the mind, the will, the soul.  Our answer cannot just be a superficial matter of nice feelings, a kind of good will toward God – “Yeah, he’s a good guy and I like to talk to him from time to time…  like having him around.”  That’s not the kind of love he’s talking about – the kind of love we have for pizza or our favorite rock band.  He is asking whether we follow the greatest commandment: whether we love him with our whole selves.

Now, I have grown up in what we might call a rather rebellious age – and so in the back of my mind I immediately hear voices of protest:
Well, what if we don’t want to?  What if we want to love other things too?  Other people?  What gives God the right to demand ALL of our love?  Our mind and strength and heart… Doesn’t he respect us and want us to be ourselves?  Why would he ask everything from us, then?  It seems like a kind of slavery!

But wait.
What is the mind?  It is a gift from God that is made specifically by him to find its greatest joy in knowing and understanding him.  So commanding that we use the mind to love God is like commanding that we use a calculator for math.
What is the heart?  A gift from God made to be restless until it rests in him.  So commanding the heart to love God is like commanding that seeds be planted in the ground.
What is the strength, the will, if not a gift from God that is made to find peace and strength when it operates in union with God’s will?  Commanding that we use the will to love God is like commanding that a train follow the track.
What is the soul if not a gift from God: a spiritual substance made in his image and likeness dwelling within and giving life to our bodies?  Commanding that we love God with our soul is like commanding that that a fish swim or a duck quack or an eagle fly.

Slavery?  Far from it.  To love God with our whole heart and soul, mind and strength is also to know and love yourself.  We are made to love God with our whole selves: that’s what makes us fully human and capable of loving others.  The human person is only in order when his or her life is ordered toward God.  That’s how God made us.  And so his great command of love is given to us because he loves us and wants us to find joy and freedom in the fullness of our humanity.

But I think we also need to look at another, very basic truth here.  There is a God, and we are not God.  For most of us it would seem that this truth goes without saying.  But so many in our culture seem to have forgotten that we are creatures, that we aren't in charge.  Who says you can’t be a god?  You can be anything you want to be, right?  We live in a time when we are encouraged to act as if we were little gods from an early age, pretending that we have the right and ability to determine when human life is sacred, to define for ourselves basic human relationships, and to decide when actions are morally right and wrong, as if God had not already determined and defined and decided all of these things.  As if there were no plan for us, no purpose for human life, no destiny that awaits us.  As if our world were a blank chalk board that we can just write on, making up reality as we go, determining for ourselves what is right and true and good.

The first and greatest commandment is a sobering reality for our culture: the Lord our God is Lord alone.  We do not have the right or the ability to make ourselves according to our own imaginings and dreams.  We are made in the image and likeness of God – we are his people and he is our God.  He has made us and we belong to him.

Why are we here offering ourselves to him at Mass with Christ? Why do we pray, why do we follow his commandments?  Certainly because in loving God we find joy and we are given the hope of eternal joy with him forever in heaven.  Yet at a very basic level, isn't is also simply a matter of respect?  Of respect and honor - of our duty as his creatures?  He has given us everything, he made us and upholds us.  Can we, in good conscience, refuse him anything when everything we have is from him?

We All Need Priests

Reflection for Priesthood Sunday Holy Hour, Oct. 27, 2012

This weekend many parishes across the united states are observing priesthood Sunday, a Sunday that gives us the opportunity to reflect on the importance of priestly ministry and to encourage young men to be open to responding to the call to follow Christ as ordained priests.

Priesthood Sunday is relatively new, I think we’ve only observed it on the last weekend of October for a decade or so.  And that is because as scandals erupted about 10 years ago, many Catholics saw that there was a great need to support good priests and to encourage good men to become priests.  Because as Catholics we experience the presence and ministry of Christ in a very personal and critical way through the ministry of our priests.  Through the human voices of our priests we hear the eternal words of Christ in our earthly ears “this is my body, given up for you”, “I absolve you from your sins.”  Every priest is ordained to embody Christ in caring for the Church as a groom cares for his bride and as a father cares for his children.  So we need good and holy and healthy priests, priests who can bring us closer to God and to one another through their ministry.

Now, I am a priest, so it might seem strange for me to speak about the importance of good priests in the third person.  But it is important for all of you to remember that I rely heavily on the ministry of priests too.  First of all on the ministry of the bishop, who embodies the fullness of the priesthood for all of us in Maine.  His ministry is incredibly important for all of us, and certainly for me as a priest of the diocese.  The bishop is responsible for my well-being, for my training and studies, and for keeping me in line – and not just me, but every priest and deacon in the diocese.  So the ministry of our chief shepherd, our bishop, is critical and we should all be praying every day for our new bishop, that he is a holy and wise man.  But we have to pray not only for our bishop, but for all of the priests of our diocese.  Because I am also, like you, in need of the ministry of good priests.  I can’t absolve myself of my own sins, as much as I've thought that would be nice sometimes, not to mention convenient.  And when I go to confession, it’s important to me that I receive good counsel and encouragement, just as it is important to all of you.  And I am very much in need of the guidance and encouragement of brother priests as I work to serve the Church, especially being the young’un that I am.  Jesus sent the disciples out two by two for a reason: priests need the support of other priests in order to be healthy and faithful in their ministry.

So we all rely on the ministry of priests, and having good priests is critical to having a healthy Church.  I know many of you are worried about the priesthood today – troubled by where we find ourselves: with so few priests compared to years ago and so many priests today seem worn out.  And to be honest, there have been days when I have found myself more than a little anxious as I looked at the aging ranks of priests in Maine.

But then the clouds part a bit and I remember that Jesus has promised us that he will be with us to the end of the age.  He has not abandoned his Church in 2000 years and he will not leave us without the priests that we need.  And there are many positive developments today – especially in other parts of our country.  In my alma mater, the North American College in Rome, they have had to increase capacity and turn away men – over 250 seminarians from the United States are currently studying for the priesthood.  There has been a gradual increase in the number of men in the major seminary over the last two decades up to 3,700, which is the largest number since 1989.  If you look at the big picture in the United States, the number of ordinations to the priesthood bottomed out in the early 90s and has remained steady and grown a little since then.
 And the average age of men entering the priesthood has declined in recent years, so that today only ¼ of men entering the seminary are over the age of 35, down  from almost a third in the 1980s and 90s.  So while the overall number of priests continues to drop as the large number of baby boomer priests retire, there is reason to be hopeful about the future numbers of priests, we just need to get through the next couple of decades.

That is good news for young men who are wondering whether they may be called to the priesthood.  We can tell them with confidence today: you will not be alone in ministry, you will not be shackling yourself  to a sinking ship.  No, the priesthood of Jesus Christ is essential for the health and well-being of Christ’s body the Church, and so the Lord makes sure that there are priests to minister to his people.  This is not a time in which the role of the priest in the Church can or should be diminished.  In our time of increased efforts to re-evangelize areas that were once Christian in the West, priest must play a critical role.  I will close with the words of our bishops who gathered recently in a synod to discuss the New Evangelization:

“Confronted with the scandals affecting priestly life and ministry, which we deeply regret, we propose nevertheless that thanks and encouragement be given to the faithful service of so many priests and that pastoral orientations be given to the particular churches on a presbyteral pastoral plan that is systematic and organized, that supports the genuine renewal of the life and ministry of the priests, who are the primary agents of the New Evangelization.”