Monday, December 30, 2013

Family Is a Gift, Not a Choice

I’m not sure how many of you have been out shopping for post-Christmas deals.
I really haven’t done too much of that.  I am already way over the shopping tolerance by the time I get to Christmas – I don’t want to even look at another store for a few months at this point.

But there are some of you who go back in to these torture chambers, from what I hear.
Because you can get good deals now, or at least I hear.And that make sense.  The retailers are trying to get rid of inventory that is now out of season.  Candy canes, which were flying off the shelves just days ago, are just going to sit there…  no one wants them.  They have probably eaten way too many.  So they have to bring the value way down – way, way down, to try to sell them.  That is when you smart shoppers can go in and buy up all the Christmas cards, and lights, and candy canes, and fruit cake and anything else with an extended shelf life – and you can pay about one tenth the cost and put all those things in the attic until next year.

Same stuff, same products, but because no one wants them this time of year, they are worth pennies on the dollar.  That’s the way that supply and demand works.  The value of a thing is dependent upon the demand for it – and so when there is no demand, there is no value.  Everyone understands that – and some of you are probably smart enough to save some money because you understand it.

On the feast of the Holy Family, though, we remember that we have to check this supply and demand principle at the door when we come home.  Because while it is true that the value of a thing fluctuates based on how desirable it is, on the demand for that product, the same is not true for people.

It seems that I should not have to say that.  Of course people are not products with a shelf life.  Of course people do not have a value that can be measured or that is contingent on whether others want them around or not.

But unfortunately I think I do have to say these things – the whole Church, all of us, have to say these things.  Because our culture has been showing signs of losing the understanding that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God and have infinite value.  Instead, in many subtle ways human life is often treated like a commodity whose value is based on its desirability, on whether it is wanted, like a product on the shelf.

Now immediately our minds might go to the tragedy of abortion.  And certainly this is the clearest case where many in our culture have decided that human life has no value because it is not desired.  Fortunately there has been progress made in this area recently, and the public opinion on abortion seems to have shifted slightly in the country.

But what is interesting about this shift is that it has happened, I think, because of an increase in our awareness of children in the womb and therefore an increase in our desire for them to be protected.  With the increased technology we can see them so much better and they are beautiful and so we want them.

And so even though the tide seems to be turning on abortion, the underlying problem, the underlying problematic perspective still endures: and that is the idea that to choose someone is to make him or her valuable.

To be chosen is to be valued.  Not to be chosen is to be nothing.  And this is the real problem that afflicts us.  Why?  First, because it is simply not true that human life is valued by being chosen by others.  It is valued because it is chosen by God.  Period.  He gives us life, he chooses us, and his choice and his alone is what secures the value of our lives.  The valuing of human life on any other terms is flawed and dangerous.

But there is a second reason why this commodification of human life is so problematic.  And this is because most human relationships are not chosen.  We do not choose our neighbors most of the time.  The same is the case with those we work with – we do not choose them, for the most part.  We don’t choose our priests or our bishop or pope or our fellow parishioners.  And on the most fundamental level, we do not choose our parents, we do not choose anyone in our families.  These are all relationships that are given to us, human lives that are entrusted to us without our choosing them.
And so if we have this idea that something is only valuable when it is chosen, when it is desired, then what happens to this whole matrix of human lives around us?  They become worthless.  The only people that have value are those we choose: and this is why I think we see in our time such a distorted emphasis on relationships of choice: friendships and to an extent, marriage, as long as it can be ended when we don’t want it any more.  Relationships with family, friend, neighbor, fellow parishioner?
If I don’t choose them, then they don’t mean anything for me.

Sometimes we hear lines like: “Every day when you wake up you have to choose to love your spouse again, choose to love your children, your neighbor, etc…”  And I understand that there is a positive message behind this saying: to recommit ourselves every day to those around us.  But might we also ask: “Or what?”  They won’t mean anything?  Your wife won’t be your wife anymore?  Your children won’t be your children?  You parents your parents?  Your neighbor your neighbor?

No – our families, our children, our parents and grandparents, our neighbors, our priests and fellow parishioners – whether we choose them or not, God has given them to us to help us become holy men and women, in joy and in suffering, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  A holy family is not a chosen family, a holy family is a gift received gratefully from the hand of God.  That is why we honor those around us – because they are beloved by God to such an extent that he tells us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to him.  Your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, your neighbors and co-workers: these men and women are gifts of incomprehensible value.  God has set the price of their lives: it is the price of his blood shed upon the cross.

So as you shop for candy canes and fruit cakes and Christmas lights and cards, remember this: you can discount holiday knick knacks, you can put just about any earthly product on sale: but the price of a human life, the price of a holy family, of a loving community is never affected by the waxing and waning of fickle want, desire, and attraction: it is the same yesterday, today, and forever: it is the price of God’s never-failing love.

Friday, December 27, 2013

There Was No Room in the Inn

Homily for Christmas Masses 2013

Mary and Joseph couldn’t find room in the inn.  I have been reflecting on that.  This was their first baby.  I can’t even imagine what was going through their heads.  They had been on the road for days – Mary out to here…  Far from home, exhausted – and then Mary started having contractions.  And I just wonder…  they must have been so confused.

Nine months earlier Mary had been visited by an angel.  She was carrying a baby who had no earthly father.  Joseph had been visited in a dream by another angel.  And he had also been told that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit and that her child would be the Messiah, the promised one, the savior of Israel.  He was to adopt him as his son and take Mary into his home as his wife, to protect and care for them as his own.

Their minds must have been so full of questions, so excited, so anxious.  What was God going to do next?  Would the angels come down again at the appointed hour for her to give birth?  Was there a midwife angel?  What would their son look like?  Would he have wings?  How would he act?  Would he cry like other children?  Would he sleep?  Would she need to nurse him?  Maybe he would only be able to eat angelic food…  Would they set up a throne for him right away?  And for a bed?  The wings of angels...  Certainly they would not be able to care for his needs, certainly a poor carpenter and a lowly girl from Nazareth could not give birth and care for the savior of the world, the Son of God, Emmanuel!

So I imagine that they were anticipating more angelic visits… more miracles, more wonders….  Riding and walking along together…  “Surely,” Mary must have thought, “surely the angels will come and bring us somewhere to have this baby now.”  No…  Just the clacking of hooves and the smell of donkey breath…  On they went…  They would stop at an inn – at least they could try to be prepared for the arrival of their celestial guests.  Joseph could wash up a bit, get the dust off his face.  Mary could put her feet up…  But no. It was full.  Really?  No divine intervention here?  God can’t figure out a way to give his son and his parents a place to stay for the night?

And then the contractions started…   well, the inn keeper said there was a stable out back…  For the Son of God…  wow.   Well who knew what the Lord had in mind, right?  Maybe this was a test?  So out to the stable.  Was that the flutter on an angel’s wing?  No, just a few pigeons.  Joseph looks disapprovingly at the rotten beams.  Mary tries to ignore the stench.  There are worse problems: Mary’s midwife is back in Nazareth.  They had found the best one in the whole region… but to no avail – it would have to be Joseph with his rough carpenter’s hands.

As if in a dream, they labor through the night, one moment blending into the next - and it seems to happen so fast - suddenly there before them lies their little son, Emmanuel.  No wings, but a fragile, little baby boy.  He had been born in a smelly manger with no midwife and now there were no angel’s wings to rest on – it would have to be some straw in the manger.

I wonder if their first impulse was to apologize…  “We are so sorry Jesus – this was the last thing we wanted, that you deserve – to be born in such a way, in such a place, by two people so inept as to not even find you a proper bed.”

And maybe they wondered about God’s plan – had they gotten it wrong?  Had all the things they had seen and heard about this boy been imaginations?  Were the angels real?  Was the prophecy true?  How could this be?  That the Lord would not intervene – that he would allow his Son, almost conspire to ensure that his Son, was born in such a way, in such a place?  What kind of Savior could this child be?

A knock on the door.  A rough looking fellow sticks his head around the corner.  A shepherd.  He had been looking for them.  Not one, either… More and more start to wander in.  Shepherds!  The rude and crass men who worked the fields.  They are talking about angels and songs and singing in the heavens, and about their son.  They had come to meet him, to honor him.  More and more started showing up at the door, talking about the same thing – angels and songs and lights in the heavens.

And then it must have hit them.  These were the first subjects of the king.  The first to share in his kingdom.  These rude and crass men.  These forsaken.  These lowly.  The poor.  The destitute.  The uneducated and disabled.  Those who lived in the margins and the dark corners of life.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Isaiah had prophesized.  “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.  They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”  Who would give him these names?  Not the rich and powerful, not the famous and strong.  Not even angels from on high.  But shepherds.  The poor.  The uneducated.  They angels were out finding them and bringing them to a stable, a place where they would feel at home to meet their new king, their savior.

And when Mary and Joseph saw this, I can only imagine that it brought tears to their eyes… To see that this child was already bringing mercy to those who are cast out, comfort to those who are afflicted, justice to those who are oppressed, consolation to those in sorrow, sight to the blind, wisdom to the simple, healing to the sick, freedom to captives, and good news to the poor.

How could they not love him – and not only because he was their son, but because he was the Savior who they had longed for without even knowing it.  He showed them the face of God: a God who was good beyond their hopes, compassionate beyond their dreams, beautiful beyond their imaginings.

We just had an ice storm.  I imagine many of you are without power.  Maybe the oven won’t even work.  The circumstances are not great…  And you know, even if your power is on – we’re not in heaven yet.  Life is messy – life is often Bethlehem during a census.  There are disappointments, just as Mary and Joseph faced long ago.  We wonder: will this be enough?  We apologize: I wish I could offer better.  We question: why doesn’t God intervene?  Why does life have to be this difficult, this imperfect?

Yet as Mary and Joseph watched the procession of rugged and smelly shepherds coming in to meet their son, one can only imagine that their disappointment, their frustration, their questions and doubts began to fade away.  The difficult circumstances, the limitations, the humble setting before them was transformed by Christ’s presence into a holy temple.  God was with them.  Emmanuel.  He had entered the darkness and made it light.  His favor was upon them, his love poured out among them.  He had turned their straw to gold.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ask for a Sign!

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2013.  Year A.

I am sure that many of us are looking forward to Christmas finally getting here.   We are out running around – trying to get the last minute gifts, trying to make sure that we haven’t forgotten anyone important.  Worrying that someone might give us something when we haven’t gotten them anything, or that our whole house is going to be a wreck.

And then there are the overarching anxieties that start to come to mind this time of year: will Uncle Bill insist on talking politics during the Christmas meal, will our son get on his soap box again and rile everyone up?  How are we going to deal with the sugar-brained kids or grandkids who are melting down and throwing tantrums?  Is Julie really bringing that problematic boyfriend home from college and what kind of sleeping arrangements are going to work for that?  Will our health hold up to allow us to host or to travel?  And how in the world are we going to pay for all the gifts?

By the time we hit this 4th Sunday of Advent, I think many people are ready to run away to somewhere tropical.  So much Advent craziness.

St. Joseph had some Advent craziness to deal with too.  We hear about it in the Gospel today.  And it was pretty crazy.  This woman – a woman who I would imagine he must have had the utmost respect for, who he must have admired and cherished above most anything - this woman who shared with Joseph a fierce dedication to observing the Law and the teachings of the prophets, whose virtue and religious conviction were unparalleled - this woman who intuitively and freely loved God with her whole heart and followed his promptings with great joy and courage - this woman who God had brought into his life, who he had spoken with at length about starting a family, who would bring their children into this world and raise them with him, and hopefully grow old with him surrounded by their children’s children - this woman who promised Joseph a line of upright and God-fearing descendants and a future full of hope – this woman, Mary, was pregnant, and not by him.

The Gospel is understated.  It says that since Joseph was a righteous man, he decided to divorce her quietly.  But this is a man who must have been reeling!  Not only had his honor been tarnished, not only had he been betrayed – but by such a woman!  A saint!  It must have seemed incomprehensible to him.  Imagine the conversation – how crazy she must have seemed.  An angel?  Emmanuel?  What was she talking about?  He had been courting a lunatic!  How could he not question his every assumption, everything he had previously thought to be true?  To think of having such a woman as his wife?  To call her boy his son?  No.  It was too much.  He could not handle it.  He would not lash out in hatred, but quietly walk in the other direction, leaving the drama, the insanity behind and moving on.

Such was his intention, we hear.  Such was his intention.
It is like Ahaz, who we hear of in our first reading today: overwhelmed.  He can’t figure this out, it is too much. He wants to flee, to run.

Then, out on the highway to the fullers field, Lord sends Isaiah out to meet him with the message, the same message of the angel sent to Joseph: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.”

When our hopes and dreams have fallen to the ground around our feet, when we are overwhelmed by anxieties, when the task before us seems insurmountable and we are ready to flee, to run: it is at this moment that our heavenly Father sends his prophets, his angels, to meet us: “Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home.”

“Do not abandon my Son when he comes to you hidden within the messy and chaotic circumstances in life.  Hidden within the difficulties of family dynamics, hidden within the financial stresses of generosity, hidden within the dysfunction and difficulty of friendship.”

The angel, the prophet send us home, they tell us not to give in to fear or anxiety, to become discouraged or to loose heart.  God dwells in mystery, his ways are not our ways.  Often he is not born in circumstances that we would expect – in pristine settings of warmth and comfort.  No – he is often born in the dwellings of animals, in dark caves cut into the ground, in the places of last resort.  He is often born in the wake of destroyed hopes and dreams, of circumstances rife with scandal and shame.  He is often born in relationships that have been damaged or grown cold, in families where intimacy seems lost.

“Ask for a sign!” Isaiah tells us, “Ask for a sign!”  “Let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”  Do not weary the Lord with your running.  Do not let your anxieties drag you away.  Christ waits to be born among you, in your home, in your marriage, in your family, in your friendships.  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Justice that is Human and Divine

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2013

Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.  This is the refrain for the Responsorial Psalm on this 2nd Sunday of Advent.  And our readings this weekend encourage us to reflect on this aspect of the coming of the Messiah: the prophets promised that in him the injustice and violence, the corruption and greed that torment this world would finally be brought to an end.  Isaiah’s prophetic words paint such a vivid picture of the radical peace and justice that God promised: the lion and the lamb lying down together, the child lying in the adder’s lair.  This is not the image of a merely superficial tranquility, a kind of temporary truce.  The prophets were united in signaling that the coming of the Christ would bring usher in a new era of peace, equity, and justice.

John the Baptist echoes this refrain: the coming of the Lord means justice, a clearing of the threshing floor, the wheat being gathered and the chaff burnt.  The poor and lowly and downtrodden would find their reward in him, the greedy and authoritarian and violent their recompense.

Pope Francis made the news again recently with the new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  I have been reading it, and I have also been reading what everyone has been saying about it.  As you might have read, one of the things that got people going was the pope’s criticism of trickle-down economics and his general condemnation of the abuse of the free market.

What has been interesting is that people are responding to his words as if he has introduced something new – as if Christ did not have anything to say about the rich and the poor, about justice and equity, or at least as if the Church has never bothered to hand on these teachings until our current pope.

I do not have time, brothers and sisters – and nor would I want to bore you with endless citations – but let me be very clear on this point: you cannot speak about the role or mission of the Messiah without speaking of social justice.  Christ clearly came to bring justice, and clearly came to bring justice for those who are most in need of it: the poor and downtrodden.  That is why there has been a clear, uninterrupted, and virtually unanimous line of social justice teaching in the Church for 2000 years.

In the modern era, this teaching has become all the more clear.  Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum which was promulgated in 1891 and continually affirmed by our bishops and popes to the present day, our faith has consistently and clearly voiced the teaching of Christ: that the work of increasing his kingdom on earth is a work of spreading his justice and peace for all people.  This teaching was confirmed again 40 years later by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and reaffirmed in a particularly authoritative way in the second Vatican council document Gaudium et Spes.  Recent Popes have continued in the same line of thought: Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, John Paul II in the encyclical Centessimus Annus, and Pope Benedict in his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas et Veritate.  Now we hear the same thing from Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.  I cite all of these Latin titles to make the point that Pope Francis is not teaching anything that is new or outside of the magisterial tradition of the Church in his recent document.

Recent commentary by pundits and even professional journalists reveals that either so few have bothered to familiarize themselves with the teachings of Christ and his Church, or that their efforts are really directed toward advancing their own agendas, rather than accurate reporting. The recent media furor over the Pope’s comments about economic justice, and in particular just one or two lines of an incredibly long document, is overblown, superficial, and divisive.  Predictably so much of the commentary has fallen into two traps into which I fear many Catholics may inadvertently also be drawn.  The traps represent two extremes that Christ sought to avoid and that the Church has worked to navigate since the beginning.

The one extreme is the interpretation of Christ’s messianic work in an exclusively political sense, as if he were merely seeking to reform earthly structures and bring about earthly justice.  In responding to Pope Francis, some have really pushed toward this extreme – speaking of the liturgy, prayer, beauty, truth, as if the Pope’s words in support of social justice relegate the areas of life that point us to the transcendent to the category of the superfluous and distracting.  Some have also tried to use the Pope’s words as an endorsement of whatever social agenda that they might have, or whatever policy that they think needs to be put in place, or whatever governmental organization they think needs to be built up.  As if the Pope were primarily concerned about politics, policies, and social agendas, or as if he did not care about prayer, beauty, and the truth.  It is as if they have forgotten that the title of his Apostolic Exhortation is Evangelii Gaudium, “The Gospel of Joy.”  It is a document about the New Evangelization.  His goal, Pope Francis says again and again in its pages, is to bring our world to an authentic encounter with the person of Christ.  Christ is the Justice we seek – he and he alone can bring about the fullness of justice that we need.

Again and again Pope Francis reminds us, as Christ told us himself: the Kingdom of Christ is not a kingdom of this world, it is not another NGO.  To carry out our efforts to advance social justice in a purely horizontal way, along merely economic and socio-political lines, is to hijack the work of Christ in an attempt to make it our own.  History has shown that when we try to supplant the kingdom of heaven and its justice with earthly governments and policies and movements we create monstrous idols that inevitably oppress and enslave us.

The Christian answer to trickle-down economics is not a socialistic theocracy.  If that were the answer, Christ would have founded one himself and taken his seat on its throne.  What Christ seeks is the conversion of the private and public, corporate and civil orders so that all spheres of human life operate in harmony with one another according to God’s justice, a justice that transcends any institution or enterprise.

On the other hand we find the extreme of those who act as if the Gospel had nothing to do with social justice.  They have criticized the Pope’s discussion of economic injustice as if he were speaking outside of his area of competency or introducing some novelty.  What, do they want him to just talk about angels and holy oil all day, as if the Gospel did not have repercussions on day to day life?

Further, some have reacted to his statements as if he were some kind of leftist or socialist by saying that the rich have an obligation to help the poor, that the healthy have an obligation to help the sick, that the well fed have an obligation to help the starving.  Do they not recall the words of our Lord “When I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink, when I was sick you visited me”?  It is not socialism to recognize that we have a social responsibility for one another – that is the Gospel.  And it is not socialism to insist that all orders of life: private, public, corporate, and civil – be carried out in justice and with a deep concern for the needs of the poor and marginalized.  That is the Gospel.  As much as it is true that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, we cannot live in this world as if God’s kingdom and his justice have not come to earth.  Christ is the promised Messiah.   He is fully divine, but he is also fully human.  As members of his body we have the responsibility to seek and to serve his justice in the establishment of a kingdom that is at the same time both human and divine.

No one knew this better than Our Lady.  The solemnity of her Immaculate Conception has been moved this year – we do not celebrate it today on the 8th, but on the 9th.  But on this 2nd Sunday of Advent let us recall Mary’s prayer as she rejoiced that God's promise of justice would be fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven through her Son:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent Reflection

Advent Reflection 2013

The days of Advent have begun once more, and again Christians find this season of joyful expectation drown out by the frenzy of over-the-top consumption and washed out holiday sentimentalism.  And so the annual chorus of those decrying the holiday madness sounds from the predictable choir lofts, as if turning off the syrupy sweet holiday music and keeping the million Christmas lights under lock and key will somehow produce a peaceful vacuum for Advent to fill.  But the negation of Christmas does not induce Advent.  Ironically, the more Christians protest, the more it sounds like the Grinch howling from the pulpits and pews about the reason for the season. 

Advent is not the privation of Christmas, it is its anticipation, its prologue, its appetizer.  And so instead of yelling at our culture for snacking on Christmas the moment Halloween costumes are stowed, we should make an effort to show our culture what a fitting and tasty appetizer Advent can be.   Our culture loves appetizers.  We are addicted to nachos and buffalo wings.  We make them the main course, we enjoy them so much.  And Advent could be like that.  Because Advent, when it is set before our culture in all its glory, is irresistible – like one of those huge piles of nachos at a sports bar that you just can’t stop eating…  Advent speaks to contemporary culture like no other season.  Its ingredients make it distinctively appealing to today’s spiritual taste and nourishing to today’s spiritual hunger.  Here’s why:


Our culture longs for authentic hope.  Politicians have recognized this for a while now, running on messages of hope and change.  They have predictably failed to deliver on their utopian promises, exacerbating an already escalating societal pessimism.  Individual and national indebtedness, pervasive violent crime, insolvent entitlement programs, environmental disasters, and a whole host of social ills are constantly referenced in everyday conversation.   There has been little refuge within the church from the bad news, especially for those living in New England: priest scandals and shortages, fallen away Catholics, and divisive social battles have caused many to worry about the future. 

The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken. – Isaiah 25:6-8

In the midst of this dark and anxious landscape, Advent offers us hope that is rooted in a deep and unwavering trust in God’s goodness.  We focus on the writings of the prophets who urge us to trust in the faithfulness of God who never abandons his people, even when they dwell in darkness.  Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to save us from our sins, to bring us redemption.  He reassures us that God is not unaffected by our struggles, that he will not leave us orphaned or forget us. 

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
He has come to the help of his servant, Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever. – Luke 1:49, 54-55

Advent shows us how to face the darkness of our world with authentic courage – not running or escaping from sin and evil, not giving in to anger and resentment, not being overcome by fear and anxieties.  Through word and example, the prophets and the saints of Advent – Isaiah, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, John the Baptist – they lead us along the pathway of Christian hope, a hope that is at once gritty and pure, hidden and radiant in splendor.   Eating locusts and honey, facing rumors of premarital escapades, riding donkeys and paying taxes – and yet dreaming with angels and led by a star.  A God who is gentle in the midst of a brutal world.  A God who upholds when appearances are deceiving.  A God who gives shelter when there is no room at the inn.  These are the deeds of the Lord we recount in the days of Advent as the reason for our hope and trust in him today.  These are the saints who we pray with and to during Advent, asking that we be men and women of hope in the midst of a despairing world.


So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. - Matthew 24:44

None of us are getting out of here alive.  Yet of all the scientifically verifiable realities that impose themselves upon us in a deeply personal way in this world, there are few that our culture tries to forget as much as death.  Death is pushed out of society and into hospitals, nursing homes, hidden in body bags.  Funerals are increasingly “celebrations of life” that ignore the cold body and focus solely on warm memories and feelings.  So many have a hard time placing the remains of their loved ones in the ground: instead they set urns on the mantle, or ashes are divided and placed in lockets and trinkets in a futile attempt to keep the memory of a loved one alive.  The pile of dirt at the grave is covered over with plastic fake grass sheets, the casket left above ground as everyone departs. 

Our society can’t stand finality, preferring to think of every day as ground hog day.  The idea that a decision can be permanent, that there are choices that cannot be revoked, that a day can come to a definitive end: no, we abhor the thought as much as that of a cold and rigid corpse.  Which is why Advent is so important.  Because Advent reminds us of the second coming of Christ – of the end of time.  Advent asks us to focus on the fact that life does not end when we want it to, but when God allows it to.  And when God allows our lives to end, that’s it.  Death is definitive, it is the end of our earthly journey.  There are no do-overs.  Nor is there a place after death where we can correct all the mistakes that we have made here and remedy anything we have done wrong.  This may be a common misconception of purgatory.  But purgatory assumes that our lives are over – the die is cast.  As we leave this earth we are cleansed in the purifying fire of Gods’ grace if we are not ready to meet him but have not definitively rejected him.  But we do not have a chance to make up for our wrongs – he makes up for them in his mercy.  We live once.  We are judged once.  We should try not to screw up.  Yolo.

Brothers and sisters:
You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. - Romans 13:11-12

And so Advent remedies the common subconscious assumption today that we can live our lives tentatively, as if we were trying them on for size.  St. Paul urges us not to waste the time that we have, not to play with life as if it were a mere toy or a warm up for the real thing.  Life is real, life is serious business; beautiful and joyful, but serious, precious business.  It is for this reason that Christ instructs his disciples to be strategic, thoughtful, calculating – time is limited in this world.  The readings of the Advent season help us to clear away the vague notions of perpetual youth that pervade our culture and instead to view our lives as Christ has taught us.  To ask questions like, “When I look back at the end of my life, what might I wish I had done more of?  What will I regret I neglected?  Are the things that are truly important the things that are occupying my time?  What can I do to ensure that I am living my life deliberately?”  These are not morbid questions, but clarifying questions.  They are questions that help us avoid the snares of the evil one, the most destructive of which is a lukewarmness in our response to the gift of life that God has given us.  When we reflect on our mortality, the clear preciousness of each day prompts us to live wisely: in prayer, with family and friends, reading and working on various artistic and cultural endeavors, reaching out in service to others.  And this Advent reflection is also a powerful antidote to the consumerism and social over-commitment that tempt us in the run-up to Christmas. 


During season of Lent, the other purple penitential season, the Church on the beginning of creation, on Adam and Eve and the fall.  Reflecting on the original sin of our first parents, we acknowledge that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we reflect on how our disobedience led to the cross, to the scapegoating of our Savior, to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.  How our sins became a happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.

Advent is also marked with purple, but it is a purple less mixed with the blood of our iniquity and more tinged with the blue of tears.  Advent repentance looks not so much to what we have done, but to what we have failed to do: not so much to our sins of commission as our sins of omission. 

And this is an incredibly important reflection for Catholics today.  For it seems as though the consciences of most people today are almost exclusively preoccupied with consideration of sins committed, and almost entirely oblivious to the seriousness of failing to do what is good.  In fact, it does not even dawn on a great number of people that their moral life consists not merely in avoiding the injury of others, but most importantly in their love of God and neighbor.  For many, the examination of conscience is carried out as if it were preparation for a ritual washing: we look for the dirt, for the defects, so that we show Jesus where we need him to scrub.  We employ Jesus’ grace to fix our problems, our ugliness – to relieve us from our shame and disgust.  Sin is thought of as dirt.  This is not all wrong – sometimes we do need to be cleaned up.  But if our moral awareness is limited in this way, we risk spiraling into a myopia consumed with the state of our own soul’s cleanliness without any regard to the world around us, not to mention consideration of our love for Christ.

Advent reminds us that the primary moral posture of the Christian is not that of naval gazing, but of vigilance, of keeping watch!  Yes, sometimes we must turn our attention to those things that have enslaved us or weakened us or are blinding us.  “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” etc…  But the great weight of Christ’s moral teaching has to do with vigilance in following in the path of love, not dissecting and operating.  “Go, sell what you have to the poor, then follow me.”  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Who are the evildoers who are consigned to the eternal flames in the final judgement?  No mention is made of murderers or thieves or adulterers, but those who did not give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, or visit the sick.  All sins of omission, sins due not to malice and hatred, but to indifference and lukewarmness: to being asleep.

Advent reminds us that moral minimalism has no place in the Gospel.  It is not enough to merely avoid evil, we must also be vigilant in seeking and serving what is good.  It is not only divorce that is a sin, but also the neglect of our spouses and children.  It is not only stealing that is a sin, but also a lack of generosity.  It is not only swearing that is a sin, but also the failure to say the good and true things that others need to hear.  It is not only impure thoughts that are a sin, but also the failure during the day to turn our minds to our Heavenly Father in prayer.

An examination of conscience infused with Advent vigilance is not mired in preoccupation with a few crass, ugly, or dirty things we have done, but instead examines our perseverance and watchfulness in caring for the bountiful gifts entrusted to us by our Heavenly Father.  If tears arise it is not so much from shame as from regret – regret for our callousness, our neglect, our indifference, our laziness in the face of the Lord’s goodness and generosity.  Contrition arises against the backdrop of God’s generosity rather than the limitations of human frailty.

Our culture needs to experience this type of Catholic guilt – contrition that is accompanied by gratitude rather than shame.  Contrition that frees and refreshes.  Contrition that strengthens within us the desire to be with the Lord rather than to run and hide from him. 


In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” – Isaiah 2:1-3

Advent is a truly Catholic season in the sense that during the season we reflect on the universal plan of salvation that God has revealed to us in Christ.  First announced by the prophets, particularly Isaiah, and then confirmed by Christ himself, the Church reflects during this season on the universal call to holiness.  Holiness is not the privilege for a few, but an invitation extended to all people by Christ.  Many times this invitation is extended in hidden and mysterious ways to those who seem to be on the religious fringes: the Samaritan, the tax collector, the Centurion, the gentile. 

Advent reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and that his grace can never be circumscribed within the limits of earthly institutions or structures, no matter how glorious and holy they may seem.  The life of Christ can never be flattened into a merely horizontal project.  His kingdom is not of this world.  The Church, as Pope Francis says, is not another NGO.  It is not the sum of our labors, a work of the people – it is a divine project, an initiative of God’s grace.

This too is an Advent theme of critical importance in our day, when many conceive of religion as the expression of personal spirituality by a specific set of adherents within the confines of a place of worship.  Identity is no longer primarily rooted in being a son or daughter of the living God, but in a particular local community.  “I’m a member of Such and Such Parish.”  And all too often power and authority are wielded and controlled with a sense of entitlement.  How many sacristies have been staked out more aggressively than spots of grass at a Phish concert?  How many parishes are tormented week after week for the personal fulfillment of a few mediocre musicians?  How many Catholic associations are rife with gossip, petty politics, rivalries, and jealousies?  How many Catholic schools have become cliques of secular upper middle class families who don’t want their children to rub shoulders with riff raff? 

Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  – Matthew 3:9-10, 12

Advent reminds us that we worship a sovereign king.  Earthly kingdoms, domestic tyrannies, parish fiefdoms: all of these must give way before the Christ child.  For even though he will not trample a bruised reed or extinguish a smoldering wick, Christ will not quietly take a place with other gods in the pantheon of modern secular religiosity. The Sunday prior to Advent boldly proclaims Christ the king of the Universe.  He has not just come to save some people, a chosen people who are edified together in a remote little house of worship that doesn’t bother anyone.  No, Christ does not play nicely with idols or despots.  All nations shall come to him, and before him every knee must bow.   The bow he will break, the spear he will snap.  Earthly powers will crumble.  Christ’s reign, his authority is universal, encompassing all things so that he can redeem all things on the last day. 

The Woman

Perhaps the most critical and promising Advent reflection for our time centers on the feminine.  We live in a time when Catholicism is portrayed by many as unfriendly toward women.  Women cannot be priests.  The Church teaches that abortion, contraception, and sterilization are wrong.  The progressive talking points speak of out of touch old men who are stuck in the Middle Ages and who don’t care about the rights and the freedom of women.  Pundits wistfully opine about the possibility of Pope Francis modernizing the Church so that women can finally find equality within its walls.

But Advent reminds us that the Church’s vision and tradition present a far more exalted view of women, one that would never demean women so much as to try to make men their equals.  What man could possibly equal the glory and splendor of our lady?  Not one.  Men can only earnestly pray for the purity, the fidelity, the charity of such a woman! 

The weeks of Advent encourage us to reflect on Mary’s singular and most important role in our salvation and on the incredible virtue that she possessed.  Unlike any other human person, she was freed from sin from the moment of her birth, a grace we celebrate during the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th.  Thus invited by God to be the flesh he would assume, she freely accepted his will without hesitation.  Where so many prophets stuttered and shook, questioned and protested, fled and rebelled, Mary resolutely and firmly and quietly agreed: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”  If only more men could be her equal!

And then off to Elizabeth – pregnant.  Traveling.  Rumors flying.  She greets her cousin.  It is the most well-known and celebrated encounter of two women in human history.  Thousands of paintings depict it – the joy on their faces, the kinship, the anticipation.  These women are radiant –they are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Prayer flows from their lips as naturally as breath.  “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”  After the “Our Father” (the prayer that comes from the mouth of God) this prayer, the Magnificat, is most prized of the Church.  It is prayed every evening by men and women across the world.  It has been sung millions of times according to a thousand different settings.  There is no more hopeful and beautiful expression of faith known to the Church than this, our Blessed Mother’s song.

The visitation is also an unequaled celebration of motherhood and feminine authority and power.  These two women prepare to do what no man will ever do: give birth to a “Voice crying out in the wilderness,” give birth to the Son of God.  How did the ground not tremble to hold them?  How did the sky not give way?  They are giants, they are mighty, they are the epitome of human flourishing and life.

Advent allows us to reflect on the glory of motherhood.  To celebrate the profound capacity that women have to bring forth life.  Even among those who are not able to conceive or who are not called to bear earthly children, there is in the feminine a unique capacity to bring forth life.  Women build community, women create the home, women weave the matrix of society, women shape the identity of a people.  This is certainly the case for the followers of Christ.  Women form the bookends of the Gospel: they come forward with heroic strength and virtue to welcome Christ into this world, and they come forward again with heroic strength and virtue to accompany Christ in his dying and rising to new life.  They greet his arrival and they bid him farewell.  They sustain him during his ministry by providing shelter, food, and clothing.  They swaddle him when he is a baby and wrap him in burial garments when he is a man.  They are the matrix of the Gospel, the glue that hold the twelve together, that remind them who they are and who Christ is and why he came.

Advent reminds us that women possess a deep awareness of the divine that wise men like St. Joseph cherish and honor.  Women seem to be more capable of understanding Christ on a visceral level, of intuiting the promptings of his Spirit.  And perhaps this is because of the passion at work in their bodies, the dying and rising that patterns their lives.  Men must be taught how to bleed, and even then they are slow to learn.

If the Church celebrated Advent properly, if she reflected on Our Lady with the honor she is due, it would be clear that the priesthood does awkwardly what Mary does with grace.  There is nothing inferior about a woman that makes her incapable of being a priest.  It seems more likely that it is the inferiority of the man that leads him to be slaughtered on behalf of the body, the Church, the bride of Christ, our mother.  We are sustained by priests as we are sustained by the sacraments – but these are partial and imperfect measures to help us encounter Christ incarnate in a world not yet fully redeemed.  St. Paul says that we groan in labor pains – that all creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God. 

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!  Fill us with Advent hope, expectation, and joy. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

What Keeps You Awake?

Homily for the first Sunday of Advent, Year A, 2013

I keep seeing these ‘5 hour energy’ drinks around all over the place.  They popped up a few years ago, and now it seems that almost every place you can get a candy bar has them.  They are just the latest addition to what seems like a continuous increase in various types of energy drinks you can find these days.  And also on the rise: coffee shops – they are everywhere now, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Tim Hortons...  Can’t get enough coffee.  Or as a friend of mine used to call it, “happy juice.”

If an outsider were to encounter our culture for the first time, I think he or she might logically conclude that the people who live here are having a hard time staying awake.

Now… that seems kind of strange, doesn't it?  We are doing so much less manual labor today.  When you think about how people used to work their bodies so much harder than we do - all the hard, physical labor that used to be required, both at home and at work.  We have all these machines to do so many things for us now, you would think that we would have no trouble keeping awake.  But this is not the case.

So why are so many people so tired and worn out all the time?  Now certainly there are physical reasons - we grow tired when our bodies wear down, and many people are running from one thing to another.  But hard work or a lack of rest is not the only thing that causes sleepiness, right?  Otherwise, why would children wake up at the crack of dawn to find out what Santa brought them after staying up half the night?  Or hunters wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed early in the morning to go out?

Sleepiness is also heavily related to our psychological state, to our desires, our feelings.  I think it is pretty clear that if you are happy or seeking something you think will make you happy, you can do an immense amount of work without becoming sleepy.  On the other hand, if you are miserable or caught up in doing things that you do not feel will be rewarding even the most trivial things can be exhausting.  In fact, two people could be doing the exact same work, and one, because that work has no meaning, will come to the end of the day exhausted, while the other, who finds meaning in the work, will come to the end of the day refreshed.

Sounds a little like what Christ is speaking about in our Gospel, doesn’t it?  Two men out in the field, doing the same work.  One is taken, one left.  Why?  Because he was sleeping.  Two women grinding at the mill, doing the same work.  One is taken, one left.  Why? Because she was sleeping.  One found the work exhausting and sleep inducing, one refreshing and life-giving.

“Stay awake,” our Lord tells us.  “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep” St. Paul announces.

And what awakens us?  What keeps us awake?  It is not necessarily a matter of resting more or working less.  But there is a profoundly powerful interior dimension to staying awake.  What is it?  Think back to the kids and the Christmas tree, or the hunter preparing to hunt, or whatever situation that would make it so that you would find it virtually impossible to sleep… and underneath that, what do you find?

Might we call it an eagerness?  An excitement and anticipation?  A sense of heightened engagement?  An unbounded and unrestrained joy?  What gives rise to these sentiments?

Pope Francis this week released his first apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world called ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ or The Joy of the Gospel.  These are the first lines of the exhortation:

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
“In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.  The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

God made us to be full of life, to eagerly greet each day, to find joy in serving him and our neighbor.  To be alive, fully awake in him, watching and waiting for the day when he will come to bring us home with the same excitement and anticipation that children have to open their presents on Christmas morning.

How?  Not by drinking 5 hour energy, my friends.  Not with happy juice either.  Nor even by producing events and shows that elicit in us passing emotional highs and moments of enthusiastic fervor.

No, a wakefulness that is grounded in a deep and lasting joy can only be found, Pope Francis says, in the heart of the risen Christ: when we walk in the love of God.  This Advent Christ wants each of us to encounter with a renewed intensity the love and the joy of his love.  Animated by his love, we will be able to stay awake with him no matter how much work and sacrifice are required of us.  This holiday season we can do the same things: the same work, throw the same parties, buy the same gifts, run the same errands, and sing the same Christmas songs…  But we can run without growing weary.  When we walk toward Christmas animated by Christ’s love, we arrive in Bethlehem refreshed, not exhausted.

The Pope have given us all an invitation in his recent Exhortation.  And I repeat it for all of you and encourage you to take him up on his invitation this Advent:

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.
 The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”.