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."