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.