Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Hidden Life

Today's gospel reading, the finding of Jesus in the temple, is the last word we hear about Jesus until he appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. From the time he is twelve until he turns thirty, the gospels are silent about his life. These twenty years are called the "hidden years" because Scripture gives us no details about the life of Jesus during that time. What little we do know is summed up at the end of today's gospel: He lived in Nazareth. He obeyed his parents. And he "advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man."

Though we have few details about their life together, the Holy Family of Nazareth - Jesus, Mary and Joseph - have served as a model of what the Christian family is meant to be. Like most families, they lived ordinary and unremarkable lives. We can presume that they worked, shared meals together and prayed. As a good Jewish family, they would have attended their local synagogue and made pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem. It was in this simple, uneventful home, however, that Jesus, our Savior, grew and was formed into the man who would one day shoulder the burden of our sin, die on a cross and rise from the dead. It was in these humble and simple surroundings that this great man spent most of his life on earth.

Most of us, like Jesus during his hidden years, are not called to do remarkable acts of charity or heroism. Rather it falls to us to live simple and humble lives with our families. Whether we are parents or children, we grow in age, wisdom and grace through the joys and trials of our everyday lives. We learn the beauty and power of God whenever a new baby is born into our families. When the anxiety of paying bills or dealing with illness mounts, we grow in trust of our Heavenly Father who always makes things work out for our good. By doing our chores around the house cheerfully and with love, we learn about serving others. At family gatherings, we learn to be patient and kind by biting our tongue whenever our cranky uncle starts talking about politics or our teenage cousin double dips his tortilla chip into the salsa. Each family, no matter how imperfect, is a temple where we can find Jesus present and a school where we can learn the ways of God.

It is for this reason that prayer is so important for family life. We need to acknowledge that Christ is at the center of our lives as a family and to remind ourselves that our home is a holy place. One great way to do that is by having our homes blessed. Whenever we bless something, we are setting it apart for God, we are declaring that it is holy. By blessing our homes, we are saying that our home life is consecrated to God the Father, that it is now under his protection and that his word will be the guiding principle of our family life. Another vital way of bringing prayer into our homes is by making it a point to say grace at every meal, even when we are eating in a restaurant or have guests over. Grace at meals teaches us to be thankful for what we have and to be mindful of those who go without. It also sets a tone for the meal, making the behavior and conversation at the table more courteous and serious. No matter how we choose to do it, prayer is vital to family life so that we may have the strength to deal with the pressures of modern life and to help us recognize God's grace working in small and subtle ways in our home.

It should not surprise us that Jesus, the sinless one, obeyed his parents, Mary and Joseph. As children in catechism we learn that obeying our parents is our first duty. No doubt, whenever we went to confession, disobeying them was at the top of our list of sins. We learned that God gave our parents to us to protect us and to teach us. As imperfect as they may be, our parents are the first to introduce us to our faith and our primary models of what it means to live a Christian life. For this reason, the fourth commandment - Honor they father and mother - is the first one which deals with our responsibilities to our neighbor. And it does not expire when we turn eighteen or move out of the house. Rather, God intends that we love and honor our parents throughout our lives, especially when they are older and most need our attention and help. Older people in our society increasingly feel that they are a burden to their families and that their lives lack meaning and purpose. They need our affection in their old age more than ever. All of us have much to learn still from our parents no matter how old we are. Most especially, teenagers and younger children need contact with their grandparents and older relatives so that they can learn their family history and grow in their sense of personal identity. Along with prayer, honoring our parents as Jesus did is one of the pillars
of a strong family life.

Like Jesus, each of us is called to grow in age, wisdom and grace through our family life. As children, we are called to honor our parents as the ones given to us by God to teach us. As parents, we are to recognize that our children are gifts from God, entrusted to our care, so that we can nurture them into strong followers of Christ. There has perhaps been no other time when family life has been under so much pressure. We see the effects of our weakened moral climate and a difficult economy all around us. Divorce has touched just about every family in one way or another. Now more than ever it is time for us to turn to God for strength to make him the cornerstone of our homes so that the strains of modern life will not break our families. We should also turn to that model of simple faith and humility, the Holy Family, and ask for their prayers to help us follow their example in our lives. Then our families, no matter how broken or imperfect, will be holy temples where we find Jesus, a safe place for children and a school of love and faith.

(image by Margaret Werlinger)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

What Child is This?

One of the most popular Christmas hymns is "What Child is This?" The melody is taken from a sixteenth century English ballad entitled "Greensleeves". However, the lyrics we know today were written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. As a young man in his late twenties, he was struck down by an illness which nearly killed him. The recovery period left him bedridden for several months during which he fell into a deep depression. To pull himself out of it, he began writing poetry turning his attention to more positive and constructive thoughts. The words to the popular song, "What Child is This?",are the fruit of his efforts. It quickly became a standard piece featured in Christmas liturgies and a favorite among Christmas carolers.

The song asks a question which is at the center of today's celebration. What child is this laid to rest in the manger at Bethlehem? Who is it that is born for us this day? Why do we continue to celebrate his birth so many centuries later?

This child is Christ the Lord. He is the Savior, sent to rescue us from a life of sin. He is God come down to earth for us to worship and adore. He was present when the world was created. He is the image and likeness of God. When we look upon him, we see the all-powerful God. When we hear him, it is the very Word of God which reaches our ears.

Before his birth, God sent his prophets to teach us his ways. They proclaimed to Israel the truth of God's love for them and the promise that one would come who would be their King forever. With the birth of Jesus, however, it is not another prophet who is sent but God himself who comes not only to teach us but to share our lives with us. Today's second reading puts it this way: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son." This child is the Son of God come down to bring the light of God's truth to the whole world.

At the same time, this child is one of us. He is made of flesh and bones. He needed to eat and breathe just as we do. He needed to be protected as a baby by his parents. We know all too well that he also was capable of suffering and dying. Yet he lived a life of perfect obedience to his heavenly Father, and because of it, he could be the source of new life to us who have believed in him.

And so, Jesus teaches us not only about God, he also teaches us about ourselves. No man in history lived as fully a human life as Jesus did because he was free from sin from the moment of his birth. All other women and men have had the beauty of their humanity scarred by selfishness, pride and greed. As great as many of them were, they could never show us the full potential of our human nature. But Jesus, being free of sin, reveals to us what God meant us to be and how he meant us to live. Not only that, by sending his Spirit upon us, he has given us the power to live a fully human life, free from the bondage of sin. This is Saint John's message to us in the gospel: " those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name."

Today's feast is not just a commemoration of Jesus' birthday. Rather, it is about our new birth through faith. In the waters of baptism, we were born again. We stepped out of the darkness of ignorance and sin into the light of God's word. We rejoice that on this day that light entered the world and that it has shone in our hearts. Because Jesus was born, we do not have to stumble around in the darkness unable to reach God and unable to live a good life. Rather we have God's word revealed to us, we have his Spirit in our hearts guiding us on the way of salvation and we have a Savior who made it all possible by becoming one of us.

What child is this? He is Christ, our King and our Lord. He is the one whom shepherds adore and wise men seek. He is our brother who walks among us and reveals to us the love of our God. He is Jesus who will one day come again, not in the humility and meekness of the baby born in a manger, but in the power and glory of the only Son of God. We look forward to his coming again just as we rejoice in his birth. We commit ourselves to bringing the light of his word into the darkness of our world. That light is Christ the Lord, and the darkness will never overcome him.

(image by Fr Fred Babiczuk - St John of God Church, Somerset, Ma)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Silent Night, Holy Night

It was 194 years ago this day that the popular Christmas carol, "Silent Night, Holy Night", was sung for the first time during midnight Mass at Saint Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. The lyrics had been written a few years earlier by Father Joseph Mohr during his first parish assignment. When he was transferred to Saint Nicholas Church, he sought out Franz Gruber, a local music teacher, to put the poem to music so that the young priest could play it in on his guitar since the church organ was being repaired. In the ensuing years, the song grew in popularity and became a feature of every Christmas liturgy throughout the parishes of Austria. By the time the song had spread throughout Europe, however, Father Mohr and Franz Gruber had died and their identity as the composers of the song had been forgotten. It was assumed that the carol was the work of one of the great composers such as Haydn, Mozart or even Beethoven. It is only in the last few decades that the world learned the real story behind the song, that it is the work of a simple parish priest and an otherwise unknown music teacher.

In the years since "Silent Night, Holy Night" was first performed it has been translated into hundreds of languages and become the mainstay of every midnight Mass. The popularity of the song is no doubt due to its simplicity. It is easy to sing and easy to learn. However, more importantly, perhaps unlike any other Christmas carol it evokes for us what it must have been like that night when Christ was born in a stable at Bethlehem. The song brings us there. We feel the stillness of the night air. We see the joy on the faces of Mary and Joseph. We look upon the radiant face of the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We kneel down with the shepherds as they adore their newborn king. We take in the peace of knowing that a child is born for us who will be the Savior of the world. No other composition helps us to contemplate the scene at Bethlehem that night as that simple song does.

What do we see on this silent and holy night as we gather to celebrate the birth of our Savior? We see the Almighty God become a helpless baby. We see that there is no room on earth for the one who came down from heaven. We see a baby adored by simple shepherds but despised by the mighty King Herod. We see the God who stooped down from heaven to save us; the one who loved us enough that he would die for our sins; the one who, though weak, would conquer sin and death through his resurrection. We look upon Jesus, a baby, who is our Lord and our God.

This is a silent and holy night. It is a night for quietly reflecting on the birth of Jesus. It is a night for welcoming the one who came to save us. It is a night for taking into our arms and holding the baby from Bethlehem. It is a night to savor the joy and peace of Christ's humble presence among us. It is also a night to weep because it is our sins that made it inevitable that this helpless child would suffer and die.

Is this beautiful and peaceful scene enough to change us? Now that the salvation of God has been revealed to us, can we put aside godless ways? Now that our Savior has come down from heaven, can we leave the world and all its empty pleasures behind? Now that the wisdom of God has been revealed in Jesus, can we turn away from our foolishness?

On a silent and holy night such as this one over two thousand years ago, the world changed forever, and we have been celebrating the miracle of Christ's birth ever since. It was those with simple faith and open hearts who were able to recognize the mystery and welcome it into their lives. We gather here to open our eyes in wonder once again at the great love that God has shown us in sending Jesus to save us, and we renew our commitment to live the mystery of his love every day of our lives. We pledge to allow the gift of Jesus' presence in our lives to make us holy. At the same time, we will not be silent, but spread the good news of his birth to everyone we meet.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Who does not get excited to see a baby? Who is not thrilled to hear that someone in the family is pregnant? Who is not moved by a small child’s innocence and beauty? Whenever we see an infant it is natural for us to gush with affection. Babies bring so much joy and hope into our world.

Today’s gospel speaks of two women who are filled with joy because of the children they are carrying in their wombs. The older woman, Elizabeth, is very old but pregnant with her first child. All her life she was considered cursed because of her inability to conceive. Her neighbors probably whispered behind her back speculating about what sin she may have committed to be so abandoned by God. Now after years of prayer and far past her natural ability to bear children, she is blessed with a son. It is clearly a miracle and cause for rejoicing.

The other woman, Mary, is much younger - a mere teenager. Her life is turned upside down by the appearance of an angel declaring to her that she will be the mother of the Savior. The announcement confuses her and fills her with dread. What does it mean? How can it even be possible? However, once the reality sets in and it becomes clear to her that the angel’s words were true, she too becomes filled with joy and exclaims, “God has done great things for me!”

Both women, Elizabeth and Mary, despite their differences are signs of hope that God can do the unexpected and the impossible. And it starts not with vast armies, not with political maneuvering and not by awesome displays of power. Rather it starts with two babies conceived in silence and carried in the wombs of two humble women.

Our life of faith both as individuals and as a Church is much like the exchange we see between these two women in today’s gospel.

Like them, none of us here is famous or influential. For the most part, what we do or say in the course of a given day goes unnoticed. Yet there is a light of faith we carry around within us that is explosive enough to set the world on fire. We received it at our baptism, we nourish it through prayer and the sacraments and we put it to use through our good works. Just as Mary carried Jesus in her womb we carry Him in our hearts through faith. It may seem impossible that the God who created the universe dwells within us and works through us. However, with God all things are possible.

Many of us are like Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. We can often feel that we have been abandoned by God. We can wonder why our Heavenly Father has not answered our fervent prayers. We may ask ourselves what it is we could have done to deserve having to suffer silently for so long. However, like Elizabeth, we should take courage. God has a plan. He wants to do great things in and through us. If he has delayed in answering our prayers it is because He has something in mind that is greater than we could ever hope for or imagine. We can only wait patiently as His plan unfolds, the way a pregnant woman waits patiently for her child to be born.

As we reflect on the joy that babies bring us, we should not forget one reality. Not all women welcome the news that they are pregnant with delight and exuberance. For many women, discovering they are going to have a child brings with it fear, shock and sometimes even embarrassment. Depending on their situation, they may worry about how they can afford another child, what it will mean for their jobs or how their parents will react.

Mary and Elizabeth have something to say to these women as well. As amazed as she was at her pregnancy, Elizabeth must have also worried. Being an older woman, what would the pregnancy mean for her health? What effect would it have on her aging body? Once her child was born, how would she have the energy to get up in the middle of the night and chase him around in the middle of the day? After being childless for so long, what would having a son to look out for mean for her marriage?

To some extent, Mary’s situation is much the same for many young women in our society. She was not married when the angel announced to her she would become pregnant with Jesus. What would it mean for her relationship with Joseph? How would she explain it to her family? It was perhaps because of these questions that Saint Luke tells us she “made haste” to make the trip to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, in the hill country.

As a people who value life, we should always make haste to help women who find themselves in difficult pregnancies. Not only should we not judge them or gossip about them, we should make real efforts to give them what they need to settle their fears and welcome the gift of life growing within them.

We can always turn to Mary. She understands every situation a woman and mother could find herself in. She knows what it is to have a difficult pregnancy, to have her child be lost for three days, and to have her child be killed. We can be assured that she understands and that she will pray for us.

We often say when a woman is pregnant that she is “expecting.” As a people of faith and hope, we are also expecting. We are waiting with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior. We are living with eyes wide open in search of His presence among us. In just a few short days we will celebrate His birth with adoration and gladness. God is within us and among us just as He promised. Let us bring Him into the world, despite the difficulties, so that everyone may share our happiness.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rejoicing In The Lord Must Be Our Strength

Every great city has a monument that becomes part of its identity. Paris has the Eiffel tower, London has Big Ben and San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few. They are a source of pride for these cities as well as symbols of their importance. They are the first places tourists visit when they are in town and are on every postcard they send.

Ancient Jerusalem, however, had no great landmarks or tourist attractions to set it apart from other nations or peoples. The source of their pride was not huge granite monuments or architectural wonders. Rather the glory of Jerusalem was that God was in its midst. The fact that God selected Israel to be his chosen people made Jerusalem a shining jewel among the cities of the earth. And so the prophet Zephaniah can say, "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! The Lord, your God is in your midst." Israel could be a joyful nation not because of its military might, not because of its economic power and not because of its economic influence. Their joy was that God dwelled among them. And the joy of the Lord was their strength.

This is a theme which Saint Paul picks up on in the second reading from the letter to the Philippians. He urges them to be joyful and to give thanks in all circumstances because God is near to them. Even in their need, they are to bring their petitions to God with gratitude in their hearts knowing beyond any doubt that he will hear and answer them. The joy of the believer is not based on what mood we happen to be in nor on how things are going in our lives. No matter what circumstance we may find ourselves in, God is always near to us. Christian joy, then, is rooted in the knowledge that we are loved and chosen by an Almighty Father who never leaves our side.

This attitude of gratitude is very important to our lives as Christians. It is easy to lose sight of it during our day-to-day struggles. When we choose to be thankful we are making an act of faith that no matter what we face God is at our side through it all. And so we give thanks for our rude co-worker. We give thanks when it is cold and rainy outside. We even give thanks when we face tragedies because they are all somehow a part of God's plan. It does not mean that we do not cry. It does not mean that we do not clench our teeth in anger. It does not mean that we never lose our cool. What it does mean is that we face all these challenges with a new strength and a new courage. It means that no tragedy can break us because we take joy in knowing that God is always by our side. And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

This attitude of gratitude not only has the power to change our mindset, it can also make real changes in the people around us.

About ten years ago at a Catholic men's conference, a college athlete gave a powerful witness to the power of gratitude. One of the teammates on his lacrosse team had been experiencing a dramatic loss in his strength and endurance. Though he had been a standout athlete throughout much of his college career, he was now no longer able to keep up in practice. After a battery of medical tests, he was diagnosed with a muscular disease. What had been a promising career in athletics had come to an abrupt end. All his dreams had been shattered.

Rather than sulk and brood, the young man decided that he would be thankful for the strength he had left and enjoy as much of his life as he could. He continued to show up at the practices and games to encourage his former teammates. His joy and gratitude were contagious. They no longer took for granted their own health and abilities, but played with renewed focus and purpose. What he was no longer able to contribute physically to the team, he contributed spiritually and emotionally. The change it made in their lives was evident off the field as well. They no longer swaggered around like "big men on campus" but made time to visit their fans in the hospital and to use their celebrity to promote charitable events.

Joy and gratitude, even in the face of a life threatening illness, made all the difference in the world.

The crowds that gathered around John the Baptist at the banks of the Jordan River asked him, "What must we do?" They were anticipating the coming of one who would be mightier than John, one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. They did not yet know the one who was to come, but we know him. He is Jesus, our Lord and Savior. What must we do who have been baptized in his Spirit and have been formed by his word? We must rejoice that he is present among us. We must live with gratitude no matter how much or how little we have. And then we must bring the good news to others so that they can share our joy. Then the joy of the Lord will truly be our strength.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Preparing a Way Home

Every successful company has a catchy slogan that helps us to identify their products and services. For example, if I were to say, "Just do it", you would immediately think of the sports apparel company, Nike. If I were to say, "I'm loving it", you would think of McDonald's. These tag-lines are clever marketing tools designed to make us remember the company and its brand and to make them stand out against their competition.

However, it is not just modern corporations like Nike and McDonald's that use slogans and tag-lines. Prophets do as well. When we say, "Prepare the way of the Lord," there is no doubt that we are talking about John the Baptist. That phrase sums up his whole life and ministry. He was a prophet sent by God to help the people prepare for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, by turning away from their sin. His central message was that God was about to visit his people in a new and powerful way and that they had to prepare themselves to welcome him.

The phrase, "Prepare the way of the Lord," not only sums up the message of John the Baptist, it also describes what these four weeks of Advent are about. We are preparing ourselves for the coming celebration of Jesus' birth. Through prayer and penance, we are giving thanks that he has come among us as a man, we are looking forward to his future coming in glory, and we are attentive to the ways in which he visits us here and now with his grace. And so when we hear the words, "Prepare the way of the Lord," we are not only reminded about John the Baptist preaching on the banks of the Jordan River two thousand years ago, but we are also reminded that we are called upon today to get ready for the God who is coming to visit us.

Even though we associate this phrase with John the Baptist, it did not originate with him. It was first used by the prophet Isaiah and then echoed in the book of the prophet Baruch from which our first reading is taken today. Baruch, however, uses the idea very differently from the way Isaiah and John the Baptist did. Whereas they were encouraging us to prepare the way for God, Baruch was consoling his people by telling them that God was preparing a way home for them.

The prophet Baruch ministered at a time when many of God's people were living outside of the Holy Land. The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and, in order to strengthen their control over the city, they marched the people out into exile. The journey into exile was long and treacherous leading through mountains, valleys and deserts. Many Israelites died along the way. The Babylonians took them along the most dangerous routes so that the Israelites would lose all hope of ever returning to their homeland again. It would be too perilous a journey to ever undertake even if they were to regain their freedom. Through the prophet Baruch, God wanted to console his people - both those who remained in Jerusalem and those who were forced into exile - to let them know that he would prepare a way home for them again. It would not be a dangerous and treacherous path like the one which led them out to exile, but a smooth and easy way back to their home in Jerusalem. If they would prepare a place for God in their hearts, God promised to prepare a way home for them.

These weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time for homecoming. Our family members who live far away will often make the trip home to spend the holidays with their loved ones. It is a joyous sight to see our parish filled to capacity with students who are home from college for winter break and parishioners who make a special effort to attend Mass for Christmas even if they do not happen to come every Sunday. Hopefully, many of our local men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will be able to make it home for the holidays as well. We are preparing to welcome them with great joy.

However, we need to remember those for whom the way home is a hard road. So many people are separated from their loved ones during the holidays because of resentments and unsettled quarrels. Just as sadly, many people are separated from the Church because they feel that their sinfulness puts them beyond the hope of ever reconciling with God or because something unkind was said to them by a priest and they have never gotten over the hurt. That bitterness between family members, friends and between the Church and her children can make these days especially difficult and painful. Could it be that this year God wants to prepare a way home for someone we love with whom we have lost touch? Could it be that God wants us to prepare a way for him by reaching out to someone who has hurt us? Could it be that this year God wants to smooth out our rocky past and clear out a straight pathway home for us - both to our family home and to our spiritual home? Is there someone in our lives who is waiting for us to invite them home again?

During this Advent season we pick up the cry of John the Baptist, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" But we also remember that God is preparing a way for us, a way which leads directly to him. The way he has prepared for us can seem like a difficult one full of sacrifice and difficulties. But it is a much smoother pathway than the bumpy road of selfishness, pride and greed that we have so often found ourselves on and which has lead us away from our loved ones and our God. Can the cry of John the Baptist be more than just a slogan for us? Can it be a way that we choose to live, always preparing ourselves to meet the God who calls us home and ever ready to set our foot on the pathway which leads to peace?

Friday, December 7, 2012

The New Eve

The Scriptures offer us two women to reflect upon today.

The first woman, Eve, is created by God free of all sin. She enjoyed all the pleasures of paradise, including an intimate friendship with God. She saw God face to face and spoke with him as directly as we speak to each other. Yet with all those blessings, she allowed the serpent to place the suspicion in her heart that God was holding something back from her. Why would God tell her not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? He must be hiding something from her. With all the abundance that nature could provide surrounding her, she became fascinated with what she could not have. She lost trust in the God who created her and disobeyed him. Then she lured her husband, Adam, to do the same.

We know what the tragic consequences were. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Paradise. The fruits of the earth which had been in Paradise in abundance could now only be harvested by the intense labor of plowing the ground, planting the seeds and waiting for the harvest. We lost our ability to see God and speak to him face to face. Every type of evil entered our world - sickness, natural disasters, hatred and death.

To this day we suffer the consequences of Eve's fatal choice. Most especially, we carry within ourselves the same disobedience. Despite all the blessings God showers upon us, we still fail to trust him. We still are tempted to believe that our plan is better than God's plan and that our will is superior to his. As a result, we continue to hurt one another, to poison our environment and to suffer from the despair caused by our separation from God.

Happily the disobedience of Eve is not the end of the story. For another woman comes upon the scene, a woman like Eve whom God created free of all sin. This woman did not have the pleasures of Paradise around her. She did not see God face to face nor did she talk to him directly as Eve did. Yet she awaited the salvation he promised with a lively faith and hope. When the angel Gabriel appears to her, she becomes troubled and confused. She is full of questions. Although she does not fully understand God's plan for her and although it would mean a big change in her own plans, she says "yes" to becoming the mother of the Savior. Unlike Eve who was suspicious of God's plan, Mary entrusted herself fully to him. And, as a result, Jesus our Lord and God was born to us.

Just as Eve's disobedience brought evil into the world, Mary's "yes" ushered in untold blessings. Because Mary offered her body to God, Jesus could take on our human nature, becoming a man like us. It was because of her obedience that Jesus could suffer and die to save us from our sins. While we must never forget that it is Jesus alone who saves and sanctifies us, none of it would have been possible without Mary's cooperation. And so we rightly call her not only the mother of Jesus, but the mother of all believers because she was the first to believe in him and the first to offer herself in service to the gospel.

Eve, our first mother, brought despair into our world. Mary, our mother by faith, brought new hope.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception is one of the few times during the year when the Church requires us to gather for Mass on a day other than Sunday. We interrupt our regular schedules because this truth of faith is so important to us as followers of Christ. God chose Mary from the beginning of time to be the mother of Jesus. From the moment of her conception, he purified her from the stain which Eve's disobedience left on all our souls. In that way, her body would be a worthy temple for the Son of God. Though we have not been given the tremendous gifts of grace which God showered upon Mary, we can still hold on to the hope she offers us. God has chosen each of us from the beginning of time to provide a service for him that no one else can offer. From the moment of our conception, he gave us all we could ever need to fulfill his plan for our lives. Like Mary, all we need do is entrust ourselves to him with complete faith and confidence. Then the strength to do his will and the grace to follow his plan will be ours in abundance. And we can be sure that our mother, Mary, will be praying for us every step of the way as she points us to her Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 3, 2012

First Sunday of Advent

There are many cliches for it.

Focusing on the big picture. Not missing the forest for the trees. Not sweating the small stuff.

All these sayings are about keeping a healthy perspective on life.

We live in a society suffering under an epidemic of stress. Juggling all the expectations of home, family and work has put us under constant strain. The technology that was supposed to make our lives easier has only complicated it. The abuse of alcohol, overeating and chronic insomnia are only symptoms of this larger problem that we are too busy. With all the activity our lives demand of us, it is easy for us to lose perspective, to forget what really matters and to lose ourselves in the process.

Jesus' message to us could not be more relevant as we begin the busiest season of the year: "Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap." Jesus is warning us that this world is passing away. Our lives are short, and we have much less time than we think. He wants us to keep things in perspective. It is the eternal life that God is preparing for us that is really important. Any other worry or concern is insignificant in comparison.

What is most pressing on your mind today? What is distracting you from prayer as we gather here? What plans are you making in your head for later in the day or later in the week? Ask yourself honestly, how important is it really? Will you be worrying about the same things next week? Can you even remember what you were anxious about last week or the week before? Is what you are concerned about so important that you should let it distract you from the word of God? Have you let your work, small jobs around the house or other activities take away time you could be spending with your family and loved ones?

Our lives are indeed short. Time passes us by very quickly. While we are busying ourselves with the messy details of life, our children are growing up, we are losing touch with our friends, and we are losing touch with our God. Before we know it, we can look back and ask ourselves, "How did all this happen? How did I lose all this time?" It happened because we allowed ourselves to lose perspective on the things in life that really matter.

Thankfully, God never ceases to call us back to him and remind us that we were created to live with him forever in heaven. From the perch of faith we can examine our actions and how we have used our time and make a renewed commitment to those beliefs, people and activities that are most important. It is never too late to start over and make up for lost time with our loved ones and with our God.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul gives us a game plan for re-centering our lives on God and his word.

The first thing he tells us is that we should "abound in love for one another and for all." We were each created by God with a heart that can only find fulfillment in loving others. If our activities are not helping us to grow in love then they are useless. If we are too busy to show basic kindnesses to people or to help those in need, then we are wasting our time and wasting our lives. At the end of the day, we will be judged on how we have loved others. Everything else is meaningless. And so the first step to re-focusing our lives on God is to drop from our schedule any activities that keep us from loving others as we should.

The second thing he tells us is that we should be "blameless in holiness." God requires that we love him above all things. We can never be so busy that we do not make time to pray or to attend Mass on the weekend. If we let that happen, we will lose sight of the whole reason for which we exist in the first place. And if we use our busy schedules as an excuse to indulge in sinful behavior, then we are really missing the mark. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation to make us holy as God is holy. And so the second step to regaining a meaningful life is to cross off our schedule any activities that are keeping us from attending Mass, from praying regularly and which are leading us to sin.

The third thing Saint Paul tells us is that we should act so as "to please God." As we examine all the activities we fill our days with, the question we should always ask is, "Is what I am doing pleasing to God?" We will only have success in life when we are acting in accordance with God's plan for us. If we are doing something which is against God's will, we will face nothing but failure and frustration. On the other hand, when our lives are harmonized with God's word, things work out for us. We find the strength to overcome whatever obstacles we face. Our lives become less hectic and more peaceful. It is not always easy to know what God's plan for our lives is. That is why making time for prayer and to read the Bible is so important. Without it, we can get lost pretty quickly. And so the third step to bringing our lives into harmony with God's will for us is asking ourselves in whatever we do whether or not it is pleasing to God.

Today we begin the four weeks of preparation leading up to the feast of Christmas. The festivities of the coming month will keep us very busy. But if we are not preparing our hearts with as much care as we are preparing our homes and our tables then we are wasting our time. These weeks provide us a precious opportunity to re-center our lives on God by focusing on love, on holiness and on pleasing him in whatever we do. May God strengthen us to cut out of our lives those things that are keeping us from him so that this Christmas will be a time of life-changing grace unlike any we have ever known.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King

The founders of the United States had a very basic and important insight about how governments should rule over peoples. Thomas Jefferson articulated it in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights." The rights that we hold dear as a free people - the right to free speech, the right to worship and the right to free assembly, among others - are not given to us by the government. Rather they are given to us by God. It is because we are made in the image and likeness of a good God that we have these rights. The government cannot give them to us and neither can any government take them away from us. They are ours because of who we are as human beings. All the government can do is recognize them and protect them.

Government, therefore, is not the ultimate authority. The ultimate authority is God himself.

The same is true with our laws. If they are to ensure that we live well as a society, then the laws that governments enact must be reflections of the truth and justice of God.

We are all familiar with the law of gravity. We call it a "law" because it is a foolproof guide to how the world works. What goes up must come down. And we know that if we try to ignore the law of gravity by jumping from a bridge or dropping a boulder on someones head it will have disastrous consequences.

Just as there is a law of gravity, there is also a moral law, a law that guides how we should live as human beings and the choices we should make. It is as foolproof a way of guiding our lives as the law of gravity is. If we ignore it and act contrary to it, then it will also have disastrous consequences for ourselves as individuals and for our society as a whole. The laws enacted by our government, if they are to truly benefit us, must be taken from this moral law which comes from God. Just as the government cannot give us our rights or take them away, so it cannot create laws that are contrary to the law of God and expect them to serve the common good. It would be like trying to walk off a cliff or jump from a bridge and hope to come out of it unharmed. Sadly, we have seen over the past decades how laws and policies that are contrary to God's law have damaged the family, young people, the economy and our society in general.

Each of us knows how true this is from our personal lives. We have all tried making our own way through life. We have lived under the delusion that life is whatever we make of it, that truth and reality are whatever we decided they should be. However, instead of giving us a sense of control over our lives, this attitude only confused us. We became unsure about what choices were right for us. Our lives began to lose their purpose and direction. It wasn't until we submitted ourselves to God and his plan that we regained a sense of meaning and started to make good choices again. When we put God at the center of our lives, when we make him our King and let his law rule over us, we can go forward with confidence, peace and joy.

What is true for each of us as individuals is also true for us as a society. Only when Christ and his truth are at the center of all we do can we be assured that history will make real progress toward a future marked by peace and justice.

The feast we celebrate today - Christ the King - is a proclamation of this central truth: that Jesus is the ultimate authority. Each person, no matter how great, will stand before him one day and be judged for the good or the evil he or she has done in life. We will all be accountable to the one who created us for the choices we have made.

Saint John says it beautifully in the second reading from the Book of Revelation. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Alpha and omega are the first and last words of the Greek alphabet. What Saint John is saying is that Christ stands at the beginning of the world and its history as its creator and also at the end of the world as its judge. All things come from Christ, and all things are leading toward him. Whatever exists exists because of Christ. There is no part of our world and no part of our individuals lives that does not fall under the shadow of his mighty arm.

Jesus is our King. However, his kingdom is not of this world. It is not a kingdom we can see. It does not have an army, a flag or any territory. It is a kingdom of faith whose territory is the hearts of believers and whose flag is the Scriptures. But that does not mean that this kingdom is not real. In fact, history tells us that it is the only real and lasting kingdom that has ever existed. Every earthly power, no matter how mighty, has faded from the scene. Many of them are unknown to us today. But God's kingdom has endured through the centuries because it is based on his law which never fails.

At our baptism, we made vows that we believed in God and that we rejected sin. We promised to place ourselves under the rule of Christ our King. Our presence here today is a testimony to that commitment made in faith. Let us also commit ourselves today to spreading the word about the justice and peace that can only be found in God's word. Only by making Christ king over our hearts will our society stop its descent into wickedness and will we as a country know the true meaning of peace and the freedom that the founders of the United States envisioned for us.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Drawing Back the Veil

It seems hard to believe that it is already over ten years ago that the world was caught up in worry over the "Y2K bug". The fear was that, once the year changed to 2000, the calendars that regulate computers would become confused. It was predicted that the computers controlling the nation's power grids and the world's financial institutions would go haywire and fail. Electricity would be cut off, financial records would be erased and communication networks would fail. Countless millions of dollars were spent to try to upgrade computers and circumvent the "bug". In the end, the year 2000 arrived like every other year, without incident. All the worry and fear were for nothing.

This year, we are beginning to hear predictions of calamity surrounding the end of the year 2012. It has something to do with the end of the calendar developed by the Mayan civilization that flourished in South America prior to the arrival of the Spanish and also something to do with predictions made by the French astrologer, Nostradamus. There will be countless television programs about how reliable these predictions are, even though so many of them have failed in the past. And if, God willing, this year comes and goes without incident, there will no doubt be another date in the future for which there will be even more predictions of the end of the world.

All these fears are fed by a sense that we are living in a time of rapid change, and not all of it is for the better. Whether it is the economy, the climate or society in general, things are not as they were in the past. There is great unease in not knowing what lies in the future. Our world feels unbalanced and unstable. It is natural to feel that it is all building up to an unhappy ending.

Both the Old and New Testaments speak frequently about the end of the world and the coming judgment of God. The first reading from the book of Daniel is one example, as is the gospel reading. We call this type of literature in the Bible "apocalyptic" writing. The premiere example of it is the book of Revelations which is also sometimes called the "Apocalypse". Though in our popular culture the word "apocalypse" tends to mean a "catastrophe", the original Greek word literally means "drawing back the veil". When the apocalypse happens, as the Bible teaches us it will, the veil which separates heaven and earth will be opened like a stage curtain. God will be revealed in all his majesty and glory along with Christ so that there will be no doubt that he exists and that his word is true. At the same time, the curtain will be drawn back on us as well. The intentions of our hearts, the good or evil of our actions and our innermost thoughts will be revealed as we stand before the throne of our God.

When the authors of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote about the end of the world, they intended neither to scare us nor make exact predictions about when the end of the world would occur. In fact, Jesus tells us that even he does not know when these events would take place. Rather this type of literature appears in the Bible during times of intense persecution to encourage believers to not abandon their faith but to remain faithful and persevere. For example, the book of Daniel from which today's first readings are taken was written at a time when Jews living outside of Jerusalem were being forced to give up their beliefs and traditions. The gospel of Mark as well as the book of Revelations were likewise written at a time when Christians were being fiercely persecuted both in Jerusalem and in Rome. They wanted believers to know and understand that God will appear to judge harshly those who have made his beloved people suffer and that, if they remain faithful to him, they will share in his victory.

In today's world, we are fortunate to have the freedom to worship God and live our faith. But that does not mean that we are not persecuted. We only have to watch television for five minutes or read the front page of the newspaper to see our beliefs and way of life being ridiculed. The message is constantly going out that Christianity is backwards and meaningless in today's world. That along with the upheaval in our society and the allure of material things may cause us to question our faith and make us wonder if the sacrifices our baptismal vows require of us are really worth it. It is at those times that we must remember Jesus' words, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Governments come and go. Fashions and popular trends come and go. But we are guided by the light of God's word, and we press on with our eyes focused on Christ and his promise of eternal life. When we do so, we can be assured that we will not stumble and fall for Jesus promises us that those who believe in him will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

Jesus certainly does teach us that the world will eventually come to an end, and there will be much turbulence and tribulation leading up to it. It sounds terrifying. But, for the believer, the end of the world will be glorious. Jesus will reveal himself to all peoples as the Son of God and Savior of the World. As the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, all God's enemies will be placed under his feet. This includes especially sin and death which will have no more power over us. Though we will be judged for the good and evil we have done, we must remember that it is the Father who offered his Son to death for our salvation who will be weighing us in the scales. If we have made a sincere effort to cooperate with his grace and live according to his word, we can be assured that he will look upon us with mercy for he knows our hearts. Our struggle against sin, the sacrifices we have made and the ridicule we have endured will seem nothing when we look upon the face of God and know that we will spend eternity with him.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

All That She Had To Live On

There is nothing more that I can do.

There is nothing more that I can give.

I am at the end of my rope.

The widow in today's reading from the first book of Kings has hit rock bottom. There is a famine in the land, and she has run out of food. She has just enough to make two little biscuits for herself and her son, and then she expects to starve to death. There is no one who can help her. She has run out of options and run out of hope.

Any of us, if we were in her shoes, would have laughed at the prophet Elijah's request to bring him a bit of bread. At worst, we would have scolded him for being insensitive to the dire plight of a widow facing starvation and death. He should have been bringing her food.

But the prophet promises that if she will perform this kindness for him, God will reward her for it. In her extreme need, she does not say to Elijah, "I have done enough, and I have given enough." Rather she gives what little she has, and God blesses her beyond measure. God visited her when she was most abandoned and most alone and worked a miracle to save her. But what opened God's hand was her willingness to literally bet her life on the prophet's promise that God would not forget her act of kindness. Faith in the face of impossible circumstances unleashes God's mighty power in our lives.

Each of us has a place in our lives where we feel powerless. It may be in our personal life, in our family or in our work. We feel that we have done all that we can do. We feel that we have given all that we can give. Nothing has changed. We have seen no improvement despite our best efforts. The situation may have become so dire that we have fallen into depression or bitterness because of it. It may be sucking up so much of our energy that we are unable to find joy and peace in our daily lives. We may feel that we are at the end of our rope with no hope in sight.

It is when we have hit bottom that God comes to meet us. It is when we have exhausted all our options that God reminds us that he alone is all-powerful and that he will help us if we place it in his hands. A simple act of faith is the first step in turning things around for the better.

However, there is one catch. Before God starts to turn things around in our life, he may ask us to do something we think we are unable to do. As with the widow in today's reading, he may ask us to give something we think we are unable to give. It is God's way of opening a door for us into a world of new possibilities. Mother Angelica who founded the global Catholic television network, EWTN, often said, "If we are unwilling to do the ridiculous, God will be unable to do the impossible." If we want to see a real change in our lives and in our world, we must be willing to trust God and to do whatever he tells us.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus introduces us to another widow and holds her up as an example of faith and generosity. She is also in extreme need, with little to give except two coins worth mere pennies. It was too little to do anyone any good. Though others put into the treasury much more significant sums of money, it is her contribution that Jesus points out and that we reflect upon two thousand years later. The courage and faith she demonstrated in abandoning what little she had into God's hands has done more to confirm and strengthen the faith of believers over the centuries than millions of dollars in contributions could ever have done. Great faith makes even small contributions yield infinite dividends.

Most of the time, you and I fail to contribute our time, talents or money not because we are selfish and want to keep them to ourselves, but because we do not think it will do any good. We fear that what little we have to give will make no difference. We see how gifted others are and may feel intimidated. Or we may hold our talents in such low esteem that we think anyone can do the same and so we are not needed. But nothing can be further from the truth. God has placed each of us here for a reason. Each of us is irreplaceable. No one else can do what you or I are able to do. No one else can reach the hearts that you or I are able to reach. Each of our contributions are needed no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. God sees the heart. If we give of our time, talent and money with humility, love and faith, then God will make it multiply and bear fruit beyond our power to imagine.

God has gathered us here today and prepared a meal for us. It is a wafer of bread which seems very small and insignificant. And yet, it happens to be the very flesh and blood of Jesus, the Savior of the World. It is taken from a jar of flour which has never gone empty and has nourished countless saints and sinners throughout the centuries. God never fails to make it available to us, small though it may seem. As we prepare our hearts and minds to receive this tremendous gift of God's love, let us ask him what it is he wants us to do. Where can we give more? Where can we do more? If we think we do not have it within us to go one more day, let us turn to him to find that strength. And then God's power will be unleashed in our lives in big and small ways. Doors will open for us, and hearts will be touched. And we will know what it is like to have the joy of the Lord be our strength.

(image by Mary Walker)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Heaven Runs On Love

A Catholic school teacher invited her pastor to visit her classroom and answer questions her students had been asking about heaven.

In the course of the conversation, one young man asked, “If God loves us and wants us to be with Him in heaven, why didn’t He just put us there already instead of making us live on earth?”

The pastor explained it by comparing the situation to a child who was about to inherit his family business. Would it make any sense, he asked them, for the father to give his child the business before he had learned to read and write or before he knew how to add or subtract? No matter how much he may love his son, would it make any sense to let him run the business before he understood the product they were manufacturing and what went into bringing it to market? If he were to give it to his son before he was ready to run it, both his son and the company would suffer.

He went on to explain that it is the same with heaven. It is not just a place but an activity, the activity of loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength. To be ready for eternal life in God’s presence, we must learn first to love Him above all things. Just as a son is not ready to inherit his father’s business until he can learn how to add and subtract, so we cannot enter into Paradise until we learn how to love.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that the greatest commandment is that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is a commandment that we have heard often and, like the scribe, we can wholeheartedly agree with Jesus that there is nothing more important than love. But what does it mean to love God above all things? How can we know that we have reached such a love?

Jesus answers that question for us by linking our love of God to our love of neighbor. We know that we love God if we also love others. As Saint John tells us, we cannot love the God we do not see if we hate the neighbor we do see. Therefore, our love of God is not measured by those we love the most - our families and friends. They are easy to love. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Pagans and tax collectors do the same.” Rather, our love for God is measured by those we love the least. It is measured by the concern we have for the poor who cannot repay us. It is measured by the attention we give to the sick who are pushed aside and forgotten. It is measured by our willingness to forgive those who hate and hurt us. If we want to know how much we love God, it is there that we must look.

Like faith, such love is a gift from God. Loving those who do not love us does not come naturally to us. It is difficult for us to look past our own interests to the needs of others. It can only come as a gift of grace. Nonetheless, it is absolutely necessary if we are to reach our eternal destiny of everlasting life with God.

How can we receive this gift? First of all, it comes to us through prayer. When we reflect on how much God has loved us, when we consider that He sent His only Son to die for us, when we consider all the blessings He gives us, we cannot help but love Him in return. As Saint John says, love consists not in that we have loved God but that He has loved us. We also grow in love by reflecting on how each person is made in the image and likeness of God and on how He loves all people without distinction. As that reality sinks into our minds and hearts, we also find it easier to love others no matter their race, religion, social status or political beliefs. Out of love for God, we can even find it possible to love and forgive those who do not love us in return.

We also grow in love by keeping the commandments. Jesus tells us that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments. Though love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments, they do not mean that the others are not important. All of God’s laws, and in turn, all of the Church’s rules, are meant to teach us what it means to love. As Moses tells the Israelites in today’s first reading, by observing God’s law we grow and prosper in the land He has given us. We can measure our love of God, then, in our willingness to keep His word. If Jesus founded the Church, then we can also say that we can measure our love of God in our willingness to follow what the Church teaches us is necessary to believe. They are all given to us not to limit our freedom or take away our pleasure, but to instruct us in what it means to love so that we will be prepared not only to flourish in this life but to enjoy eternal life with our loving Father.

Heaven runs on love. When we love others from our heart, we bring a bit of heaven to this hurting world. As we grow in our ability to love, we also prepare ourselves for our eternal destiny. The Eucharist we are about to receive is also all about love. It is the Body and Blood of Jesus given to us out of love. He died for all people - both those who would come to love Him in return and those who would reject His offer of salvation. Through this Sacrament, we are strengthened to do the same - to love all persons without distinction and without limits - until we reach our destiny where love reigns supreme.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

For All the Saints

It has been a very ancient custom of the Church to venerate the relics of the saints.

A relic is something connected to the life of a saint. Often it is a piece of their body such as a bone or hair. But it can also be an article of their clothing or a place they lived. In fact, many of the first churches were built over the sites where the saints were martyred or buried. Saint Peter's Basilica, for instance, was built over the site which is believed to be where he was buried. In keeping with this tradition, every altar in every church, including our own, has relics of the saints within it.

For the church of the early centuries, venerating the relics of the saints was a way of recognizing the sacrifices of those who went before them. Those first saints were the ones who faced persecution by the Roman authorities, they were the ones who spent long hours copying the Bible by hand so that it could be made available to the people, and they were the ones who formulated and clarified the beliefs we hold to this day. Their memory deserves to be honored because of the gift of grace that God displayed in their lives and the foundation they laid for our own faith two thousand years later.

However, there was one more very important reason that the early Church displayed and reverenced the bodies of the saints. It was to show the Roman and Greek peoples that the heroes of this new Christian faith were very different from the heroes of pagan mythology. Unlike Hercules, Odysseus and Zeus, the Christian saints were actual people who really lived. Jesus, Mary, the apostles and martyrs were not mythical figures but real flesh and blood who lived in human history. By honoring their remains and building churches at the places they were buried, not only was the memory of their sacrifice kept alive but the people were reminded that these saints were women and men no different than themselves. They had simply been given a powerful gift of grace to answer the call of Jesus in a heroic way.

For us two thousand years later, the memory of the saints is still important. Everything we cherish as Catholic Christians - the Bible, the Mass, our beliefs, our prayers - all have been given to us by God through the saints. We stand on their shoulders and build on the foundation of faith which they laid. They are examples to us of what it means to follow Christ. And they remind us of the great destiny that God has in store for us. Like the saints we are all called to spend eternity in heaven looking upon the face of God in all its splendor. Not only will our loved ones be there, but so will Jesus, the apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels. Saint John speaks about this hope of ours very beautifully in today's second reading. Through baptism, we are rightly called "children of God". But in heaven, when we see God face to face, we will be transformed into the likeness of his glory. It will be a wonder beyond our power to imagine and describe. Whatever beauty we experience in this world is only a shadow of the beauty and majesty of the face of God. And so, as Saint John teaches us, we strive to keep ourselves pure from sin as we look forward in hope to the glorious destiny that awaits us.

Also, it is important for us to remember that the saints were human beings made out of flesh and blood who were no different than we are. They became Christians through the same baptism we received. They held the same beliefs we hold today. They received the same Holy Spirit which we received in our Confirmation. Like us, they had weaknesses and knew what it was like to be tempted. If they were different from us, it was because they loved God above everything else and so desired heaven that nothing on earth could tempt them to turn away from the source of their joy. Because of their great love for God, they were able to live the beatitudes which we read in today's gospel. The saints were people like Saint Francis of Assisi who gave up all the comforts of his father's house to become poor in spirit and so inherit the Kingdom of heaven. They were men like Saint Peter Claver who had such a hunger and thirst for righteousness that he chose to work among slaves. They were women like Saint Maria Goretti who so valued her purity of heart that she preferred being stabbed to having her virginity taken away from her. They were countless women and men throughout the centuries who so desired the rewards awaiting them in heaven that they endured insults, persecution and even death. Despite their heroic lives, they were just like us. God holds out to us the same gift of grace and the same rewards of eternal life that motivated the saints to live lives of faith, hope and love.

We are here today because of the saints. But they are not just heroes of the past whose time has come and gone. Rather as they stand before the throne of grace in heaven they continue to pray for us. We should each take advantage of these powerful intercessors and call upon them whenever we are in need or are facing temptation. If we befriend them and model our lives after them, they will not let us down. If we follow their example and desire the glory of heaven to any pleasure the earth can offer, then we can hold onto the hope of one day meeting them face to face as we look together upon God in all his splendor and majesty.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Healing of Bartimaeus

Jesus healed many people during the years he traveled with his disciples through the Galilean countryside. Lepers, the deaf and the blind would come streaming out to meet him holding out the hope that he would take pity on them and cure them. However, of the many people touched by Jesus, only a few are named by the gospel writers. Bartimaeus, the blind man healed in today's gospel, is one of them.

There are a few reasons why the disciples of Jesus would have remembered the name of this humble beggar. Saint Mark tells us that after his healing, he joined the other disciples in following Jesus to Jerusalem. In fact, the very next scene in the gospel of Saint Mark is the account of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem which we recall every Palm Sunday. It is very likely that Bartimaeus is remembered because he was with the other disciples the week that Jesus was condemned to death and crucified. He may have even been one of those who saw Jesus with his own eyes after he rose from the dead.

However, the most likely reason that Bartimaeus is remembered by the gospel writer is for the faith he showed in calling out to Jesus. The whole scene probably made a great impression on the other disciples. And for believers throughout the centuries, this humble, blind beggar has served as an inspiration and an example of faith, perseverance and the willingness to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Let's take a look at how his story can motivate us in our own journey of faith.

First of all, Bartimaeus is an example of faith and trust. He was deeply aware of his need for God. Having been blind much of his life, he had no other hope than that God would some day restore his sight. We have to always remember when we read about sick people in the Bible that illnesses were considered punishments by God. Not only did Bartimaeus want his sight restored so that he could be a part of human society, he was also longing to be reconciled to his heavenly Father. Love as much as hope spurred Bartimaeus to cry out to Jesus. And so, when Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?", he could respond without hesitation, "Master, I want to see."

If Jesus were to ask us, "What do you want me to do for you?", would we be able to respond without hesitation as Bartimaeus did? Do we know what our most pressing and urgent need is? What weighs most heavily upon our hearts as we listen to God's word today? Do we believe that Jesus is willing to carry our burden with us and able to take it away completely if it be his will? The story of Bartimaeus serves as an example of just such faith that is willing to hold out hope in God alone.

Secondly, Bartimaeus serves as an example of perseverance. When he realizes that it is Jesus who is passing by, he shouts out at the top of his lungs, "Son of David, have pity on me." The people around him waste no time telling him to shut up. They tell him that he's a nuisance, and that Jesus would not be interested in helping someone as wretched as he. But he doesn't listen to them and shouts out all the louder, "Son of David, have pity on me." He recognized that, in Jesus, God was visiting him, and he would not allow his only opportunity for healing to pass him by no matter who tried to discourage him. Bartimaeus persevered, and Jesus rewarded his great faith.

Very often, Jesus delays in answering our prayers. That is because he wants to build our faith by, first, helping us to recognize our need and, second, training our hearts to continue seeking him no matter how desperate our situation becomes. For this reason, persevering in prayer is central to our friendship with God. When others are discouraging us, when people tell us to "face the facts" and give up hope, we need to shout out all the more to God. As he did with Bartimaeus and as he has done with countless others, Jesus will reward our faith if we continue to reach out to him.

Thirdly, Bartimaeus teaches us that we must leave behind our former way of life if we are to follow Jesus. It might not mean much to us to read that Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak when Jesus called him. But, in Jesus' day, only the wealthy would have had more than one cloak. And for a beggar who was most likely homeless, that cloak would have been his only protection against the cold and the rain. So when Bartimaeus throws his cloak aside, he is declaring that now that he has met Jesus, his life cannot be the same. He will no longer be a beggar. His world will no longer be the gutter of a road in Jericho. His life will not longer be characterized by his disability but by his identity as a believer in Christ. Leaving the cloak of a beggar behind, he will now wrap himself in the Lord Jesus Christ.

By faith and baptism, each of us has been healed and wrapped in the mantle of Christ. Nonetheless, we may be holding on to some vestige of our former way of life. What are we still keeping as a souvenir of the sinful way we lived before we knew Jesus? Can we cast those things aside as Bartimaeus cast aside his cloak so as to follow Jesus unburdened by the skeletons of our past? Jesus wants us to be free of such things so that we can serve him joyfully.

The gospels hold up for us the person of this humble beggar to give us an example of faith, of perseverance and of the willingness to cast everything aside for Jesus. Though he was blind, he saw better than anyone else who it was who was offering his sight back. And once he recognized him, he was eager to follow Jesus wherever he went, even to Jerusalem, the place of his crucifixion. At this Eucharist, we will be approached by Jesus present in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Do we know what it is we need from him? Are we ready to ask him with faith to be healed? And are we willing to cast aside our former way of life to follow him wherever he may lead us?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Thomas Vander Woude was a 66 year-old retired commercial airline pilot and father of seven children, the youngest of which, Joseph, has Downs syndrome. While working in the yard one day after morning mass, Thomas heard his son calling out for him. He had fallen through the metal covering of their septic tank and was struggling to get out. Without hesitation, the father called out to the house for help and jumped into the sewerage to try to push his son out. While his wife held onto Joseph's hands, the father submerged himself to keep his son's head up above the muck. When rescue workers arrived, they were able to finally pull the young man out of the tank and stabilize him. Unfortunately, the father, whom they estimated had been in the tank about 15 to 20 minutes, was unconscious and later pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.

While Thomas Vander Woude's death was heroic, it was no surprise to those who knew him. His family, friends and fellow parishioners recounted how what he did to save his son was in keeping with the generous spirit of service he displayed throughout his life. Besides being a father of seven sons and a grandfather of twenty-four children, he went to daily Mass, was a veteran of the Vietnam war, volunteered as a basketball coach and trained altar servers. His was a life of service and giving that culminated in offering his life to save another person. His pastor, Father Francis Peffley, said it best: "His whole life was spent serving people and sacrificing himself. . . . He gave the ultimate sacrifice. . . . Giving his life to save his son."

By his heroic act, Thomas Vander Woude was living out the meaning of the Mass he had attended that tragic morning. At every liturgy, we recall how Jesus humbled himself to enter into the muck of our world of sin so as to lift us up above it. And, along with the bread and wine, we offer ourselves together with Jesus as a living sacrifice to the Father. We pledge that we too will give of ourselves in service to the needy, the lonely and the desperate so that the blessings of eternal life may be extended throughout the world. When we come to Mass, we are not unconcerned bystanders. Rather our lives are at stake. We are proclaiming that Christ has died to save us and that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in service to others.

Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples in today's gospel reading. Though he was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, Christ did not become human to amass wealth for himself or dominate others. He came to seek out the sick, the suffering and the sinners. Not only did he desire to instruct and heal them, he gave his life suffering the cruelest death imaginable to open up heaven to those who would believe. Jesus was not in it for the glory. And anyone who follows him must be willing to live as he lived. To be like our master, we must make ourselves the slaves of others.

As a parish family, we can relate to the bickering that went on among the disciples. We all love our church and many of us give long hours of our free time to support it. Many of us are generous when it comes time to give to special collections or help out with fundraisers. However, it happens more often than we would like to admit that generous people get overlooked and feel slighted. We can feel bitter that others get the recognition we believe we deserve. We can resent that we are giving so much and others are giving so little. Or we can get so frustrated and offended by the pettiness and gossiping of others that we want to give up altogether.

While it is natural to want to be recognized for our work, it is not what the follower of Jesus is called to seek. All the great saints prayed that they would be overlooked and taken for granted even as they spent long hours in service of others. What they wanted more than anything was to be recognized by God for their work. So they continued on even when they were made fun of because they wanted to be like Jesus who gave without counting the cost and who did everything not for the glory it would bring him but out of pure love for others. Each of us who calls Jesus "Lord" must do the same.

We are gathered here to recall the sacrifice that Jesus made to save us. Are we willing to give of ourselves for others? Are we willing to go without so that we can give more generously to the needy? Are we willing to risk injury or even death to protect the helpless? Are we willing to take on the thankless jobs no one else wants out of pure love for Jesus? Are we willing to go without being recognized because we set our hearts on the reward that only God can give? Above all, can we do all this with a spirit of joy and thankfulness because we are blessed to be able to know, love and serve our Lord?

People like Thomas Vander Woude become heroes because they live for others and not for themselves. Such people give of themselves daily in big and small ways. We cannot help but be inspired and challenged by them. However, we have as our supreme example of love and sacrifice the one who has saved us - Jesus Christ our Lord. He will offer himself to us again in this Eucharist, giving his very body and blood to nourish and sustain us. Let us not overlook or take for granted what he has done to free us from sin. Let us approach the throne of grace with awe and trembling that it is our Lord whom we are receiving. And let us ask for the strength to serve him in everyone we meet and to do whatever he asks of us especially when the task is hard, the hours are long and there is no recognition or glory.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Come, Follow Me

The saints we call "great" are not great because they knew how to follow rules. Rather, their greatness and holiness were a result of their willingness to go beyond what was required, to go beyond the letter of the law, to follow Christ. It is the holiness of Saint Francis who not only kept the commandments, but gave all he had to live among the poor. It is the generosity of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who left her native land to seek out and serve the poorest of the poor. These great saints teach us what it means to follow and to serve Christ. It means not only keeping the commandments and following the rules, but being willing to sacrifice anything and everything to do God's will.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus meets a young man who is full of enthusiasm for his faith. He has been keeping the commandments throughout his life, but, deep in his heart, he knows that God has something more to offer him. And so he throws himself at Jesus' feet asking what more he can do to inherit eternal life. Unfortunately, he is not prepared for the challenge Jesus places before him. " Go, sell everything and follow me." The young man is utterly shocked by Jesus' words and, despite his initial enthusiasm, cannot bring himself to sell his possessions. He was torn between his desire to follow Jesus and his attachment to his belongings. He is not free to follow Jesus because he is held back by material things. Interestingly, the gospel does not tell us that the young man felt relieved or grateful the he was able to keep his possessions. Instead, it tells us that he went away sad. Our possessions can never replace the joy and freedom that comes from following Jesus.

Our Lord is offering a challenge to each of us who have gathered here today to ponder his word. He is extending an invitation to go beyond an approach to faith that is based just on following rules. He is challenging us to stop trying to figure out how little we need to do and how much we can get away with. He is inviting us to be like the young man in the gospel and to discover that religion is about having a deep love for God and experiencing the joy that the Holy Spirit gives. At the heart of it, Jesus wants us to welcome him into our everyday lives and to make him our friend. As Cardinal Basil Hume once put it, "Holiness involves friendship with God. There has to be a moment in our relationship with God when he ceases to be just a Sunday acquaintance and becomes a weekday friend." That is what the young man was seeking when he ran up to Jesus. That is what is being offered to each of us here today - friendship with our Savior, Jesus Christ.

There is another challenge, however, that Jesus is extending to us. If we want to continue on this journey to his kingdom, there is going to be something we need to leave behind. It may not be every single one of our possessions, as it was for the young man in the gospel. It is more likely a bad habit, an unhealthy relationship or something else that is keeping us from experiencing all the joy and peace that God has planned for us. Every single one of us has something we are holding onto, something we are trying to keep hidden from God, that is draining life away from us and keeping us from getting closer to him. He is asking us if we love him enough to let go of it for good. Or will we continue holding on and letting it keep us in darkness and in slavery.

As we look into our hearts and consider the invitation that Jesus is making to us today, it may be clear to some of us what it is we need to give up. For others of us, however, it might not be so clear. It begs the question, how do we know what God's will for us is? How can we be sure that it is God asking us to give something up or to do something for him? These are questions which the saints have been grappling with throughout the centuries. There are no hard and fast rules for recognizing the voice of God because it involves mystery. The most important thing for us is to put ourselves in God's presence daily and ask him to give us the wisdom we need to sort out his will and the strength to carry it out. Today's first reading promises us that if we ask God for such wisdom and seek it out, he will not fail to give it to us. And, as so many saints before us have learned, we will come to desire it and treasure it more than any material possessions.

For the Christian, religion means more than following rules, keeping commandments and attending church services. It means, above all else, having a close and personal relationship with Jesus. That friendship is what gives life and meaning to the dogmas we hold and the principles we live by. As we grow in love for our Savior, we will find that spending only one hour a week with him on a Sunday is not enough for us. We will find ourselves making more time for prayer and looking for opportunities to go to Mass during the week. We will find ourselves going out of our way to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The material possessions that once gave us a sense of security will no longer be as important to us. We will find ourselves wanting to live a simpler life so that we can give more of our money to the needy. And we will no longer look on our faith as something we have to do but as someone we have to love - namely, Jesus and our neighbor. Then we will know what it is to be on the path to everlasting life.

Monday, October 8, 2012

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God? Simply put, we are like God because we have the ability to love. By making us capable of and willing to give ourselves totally to another person in a life-long embrace of love, God shows us who he is. God is love.

Today's first reading is taken from the book of Genesis which tells the story of the creation of the world. On the last day, God completed the crowning achievement of his creation when he formed man from the clay of the earth and breathed a soul into him. While God proclaimed that all his creation was good, he said of the man that he was "very good." But right away, God noticed that something was not right. This man whom he made capable of loving had no one to love. None of God's other creatures were suitable partners to the man. So God decided to take a rib out of Adam to form a woman. When Adam sees Eve, he is overjoyed. We can hear in his words how relieved he was that finally he had someone he could share his life and his love with. "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!" The man who was made in love and for love, finally had someone to give his heart to. Without someone to love, the man could never live up to the potential that God had placed within him. Without a suitable partner, the man could not reflect the image and likeness of God and so fulfill his destiny. The two - man and woman - were created to be one flesh.

In the gospel, Jesus gives us an even deeper understanding of what this life-long partnership of love is. When asked whether or not it was permissible for a man and woman to divorce, he says that it is God himself who unites a woman and man in the sacrament of marriage. Therefore, no one - no government, no church, no individual - has the power or the right to separate them. Just as God made Adam and Eve for each other, so he makes every woman especially for the man she marries and ever man especially for the woman he marries. Married couples are literally made for each other!

This is a truth that every married couple should reflect on daily. Can each of us love and honor our spouses as someone who is made especially by God to be our partner? Can each of us rejoice over the woman or man God has given us to spend our life with just as Adam rejoiced over Eve? And, if we are not yet married, can we trust that God has someone picked out for us already and will introduce us to him or her at just the right time if that is indeed his will for us?

Just as we are each created in the image and likeness of an unfailingly loving God, so married life is meant from the beginning to be a reflection of the faithful love of our heavenly Father. The love that a man and woman show each other in good times and in bad times, for richer,for poorer, in sickness and in health is meant to be a living portrait of the faithfulness and love that God shows to all of humanity. And we see the supreme example in the life and person of Jesus Christ who, as we hear in the second reading, gave his life so that we could be saved. Love is not only showing affection to one another and having romantic dinners. It is, above all, sacrificing ourselves for the good of the other. It means waking up in the middle of the night to feed a baby. It means taking a second job to provide extra income when our spouse is unemployed or disabled. It means sometimes not watching our favorite TV show or not going to our favorite restaurant to accommodate the other's wishes. All those mundane chores and sacrifices we make throughout our day, even though they do not seem heroic or significant, are sanctifying us and making us more and more like Jesus who gave of himself for us. Through the mystery of the sacrament of marriage, husbands and wives are knitted together in one flesh and live out a level of love which is deeper than emotions because it is rooted in and draws its life from the mystery of the love of Christ.

Even as we reflect on the beauty and the power of God's words, we must keep in mind those for whom those words are difficult to hear and accept. There are many for whom marriage and family life are often burdensome and painful. There are many who are separated from their spouses by divorce or death. And there are those who have given up hope of ever finding someone to share their lives with. In a world that seems to revolve around couples, they can feel left out and lonely. If married couples are to live their lives as reflections of God's love, then they must always be willing to open their homes to those who have no families, to those who spend their holidays alone and to those who grieve the loss of a loved one. Following the example of Jesus, families cannot be closed in on themselves, but must be willing to share their blessings with the needy. Then the all-embracing love of Christ will be the hallmark of their homes.

We are each created with a desire to love and to be loved. The more we love, the more like God we become, because he is love. Marriage and family life is one way, along with consecrated celibacy and a chaste single life, that God has given the world to help us grow in holiness. The supreme example of love which we are all called to follow whether we be married or single is that shown by Jesus Christ. In a short while, we will be invited to this altar to become one flesh with him through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Let us take this opportunity to ask God to help all married couples to grow in love and holiness and so inspire us to live the commitments we have made as people made by love and for love.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

This homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine

When we picture Jesus, we tend to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken man who loved and cared for everyone. While he was certainly that, he was also a man who was passionate about the truth and unafraid to proclaim it whenever necessary. There are times throughout the gospels when Jesus, because of his love of the truth, can sound severe and even harsh. We can sometimes be shocked when we hear Jesus speaking clearly about the reality of hell or when he tells the religious leaders that they are like "vipers" and "white-washed coffins." However, Jesus was not crucified because he was nice. Much of what he said upset the people of his day. Not only was he loved and followed because of his strong proclamation of the truth, but he was hated as well.

It can be a temptation for us when we read passages in the Scriptures which do not sound "nice" to want to overlook them. However, all of Scripture is inspired by God and meant for our education and edification whether it be verses that bring us consolation or words that make us question our choices and our way of life. We have to pay attention to and take very seriously the Scriptures when they point out our sinful behavior no matter how difficult they may be to hear. Otherwise, we may continue in that behavior and miss out on the graces God wishes to shower upon us.

Today's readings have some very harsh and pointed words for those who are envious. Jesus rebukes his disciples for trying to stop a man from casting out demons in his name. Instead of being concerned with the people who were suffering, the disciples were trying to control the powers Jesus had given them. They considered themselves "insiders", part of a clique, and were unwilling to share their authority with others, even if it meant allowing someone to continue to be caught in the grip of the devil.

In essence, they were envious of the others who were able to perform wonders in Jesus' name.

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins and an offense against the tenth commandment. It is also one of the most unpleasant feelings we can have. In fact, Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us that envy is the only sin that does not give any pleasure. When we are envious, we begrudge people the talents, friendships and material possessions they have. Envy is such an offense against God because it can lead to our wishing or even committing harm on others. When we are jealous, we tell God that all the blessings he has given us are not good enough.

No one is immune from envy. It happens among classmates, it can take place between neighbors, and it can be found in businesses. Sad to say, even clergymen can find themselves envying other deacons or priests who are more charismatic or better preachers. When jealousy does find a place in our hearts, it destroys relationships and communities. It is at the root of many crimes such as robbery, fraud and even murder.

In a materialistic culture like our own, envy is widespread and far-reaching. Over the past years, we can see the effects it has had on our economy. As we suffer through the current financial crisis, we have to ask ourselves, how much of it was caused by jealousy? Is it not true that people over-extended themselves buying homes, cars and other items they could not afford because they wanted to impress their friends and neighbors or because they wanted what other people had? In the process, many have lost their homes and their life savings, families have been torn apart and whole neighborhoods have been ruined. When we consider how much havoc envy has wreaked it is easy to understand why Jesus had such harsh words to say about it to his disciples.

The good news is that there is a way out for us who might find ourselves struggling with envy. As with any sin, it begins by turning to Jesus and asking forgiveness. In prayer, we can confess to God that we are envious because we do not always appreciate how he has blessed us. We can ask him to give us a real and lasting gratitude for the good things we already enjoy. And we can ask him to give us a true humility so that we do not always have to be the center of attention and do not always have to impress everyone all the time.

If our jealousy has led us to seriously harm others by spreading rumors about them or stealing from them, we should go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as soon as possible. And, whenever possible, we should try to make things right by restoring whatever we may have damaged or stolen. Another good way of overcoming envy and learning humility is to ask forgiveness of the person we have harmed and confessing to him or her that we were acting out of jealousy. Chances are they already know that, but it will go a long way toward healing the relationship.

The essence of the Christian life is to follow the example of love which Christ set for us. It means loving others as we love ourselves and putting the interests of others before our own. It is the exact opposite of how we act when we are jealous. And so, another important cure for envy is to pray for the well-being of the people we are jealous of. In fact, as difficult as it may sound, we should ask God to bless them with the talents, friendships and material possessions we would like for ourselves. One of the Church's greatest preachers, Saint John Chrysostom put it this way:

Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother's progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised.

When we do that sincerely, we begin to feel the grip of envy loosen on our hearts. We live with a deeper sense of gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. And we begin to marvel at how God's blessings are spread far and wide for his greater glory.