Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Holy Families

If you decided that you wanted to become a saint, where would you have to go to make your dream a reality?

Would you have to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or Rome? Would you have to go to a monastery? Would you have to visit renowned people of faith around the globe? Would you have to visit all the world’s great libraries and read the works of faith handed down to us over the generations?

While all these pursuits might be helpful in nourishing our faith, they are not absolutely necessary to becoming a saint.

If we want to become saints - and all of us are called to be saints through our baptism - then we need to look no further than our families and our homes.

It is through our family that we first come to learn about our faith. Our parents are the ones who bring us to church and teach us our prayers. By their example, we learn what it means to be men and women of faith. And in the home we learn and practice virtues such as patience, kindness and love which are necessary for living a godly life in this world. It is through our families that God forms our minds and hearts to serve Him as women and men of faith.

There is no doubt that all the great saints had their beginnings in a family. Jesus Himself needed Mary and Joseph to teach Him how to speak, how to pray and how to obey God. One of the Church’s greatest saints, Saint Augustine, was converted by the ceaseless prayers of his mother, Saint Monica. In more recent times, Saint Therese of Lisieux learned her faith from her godly parents both of whom are also canonized saints. In fact, they are the first saints to have been canonized as a couple. Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke frequently and fondly of how his parents nurtured a sense of faith, courage and integrity in him.

All of us, no matter where we are on our journey of faith, are called to make our families a priority. It is in our homes and among our loved ones that God wants to make us holy.

Today’s readings are rich with advice and encouragement for us in relationship to our family members. We could be here until next Sunday going through every line of these Scriptures and reflecting on their meaning for marriage and family life. In fact, it would be a good idea for all of us in the coming week to look these readings up in our Bibles or online and pray over them so that we can begin to act on them. They give us a beautiful blueprint for how God intends us to live. However, today, for the sake of time, let us focus on what the role of each member of the family is.

Our first reading tells us that “God sets a father in honor over his children.” In any family, the father is irreplaceable.  It is by the father’s words and example that daughters come to know that they are beautiful and worthy of being protected. Sons learn from their dads about courage and integrity and about the dignity with which they should treat women. Not only do fathers bring economic security to families, they bring psychological and emotional security as well. Also, it is through our earthly fathers that we learn to relate to our Heavenly Father. If our father on earth is stern and distant, we will perceive God the Father in the same way. However, if our father is warm, affectionate and loving we will relate to God the same way. So all fathers have a very important role - a true vocation from God - to be examples of love to their wives and children.

Mothers also have an irreplaceable role in the home. All new life comes through the mother who shares her body first with her husband and then with the children which come from their loving union. This is a beautiful reflection of Jesus who gives His own Body and Blood to give us live and nourish us in the family God. Mothers teach their children how to be gentle, how to take care of themselves and how to care for each other. When children are hurting, their first instinct is to run to their mothers because they have a special touch in bring comfort and making the pain go away. As Jesus honored His Blessed Mother, we should all honor our own mothers no matter how flawed or imperfect they may be, because they are God’s gift to us reflecting His own tenderness and mercy.

Children also have a very special role to play in the family unit. It is for the nurturing of children primarily that God created the family. It is through children that parents experience true self-sacrificing love. By facing all the challenges that come with raising boys and girls, parents grow in patience, love and gentleness. Also, children grow in virtue by sharing in chores around the house. By emptying the dishwasher, raking the leaves, cleaning their rooms, they learn diligence and the satisfaction that comes from doing a job well. When they interact with their brothers and sisters, they learn how to share and to put the interests of others before their own. Through their families, children learn to become good citizens of their country and holy saints in God’s Kingdom.

No families are perfect and not every family is whole. Many times through death or divorce, homes cannot always have both a father and mother. However, God provides the grace to overcome the shortcomings and weaknesses of our families. So the other essential element of any home is Jesus. When we put Jesus at the center of our family lives through prayer and through attending Mass, He will provide us with all we need to grow in love and faith.

In no other time of human history has it been harder for the family. However, through faith, we can reclaim the blessings that God intends to offer us through the home. It requires us to make a renewed commitment to our own family, taking up whatever challenges may come our way with determination and courage. When we embrace it all with the grace that God gives we will find ourselves growing in holiness and, in the end, becoming saints.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Feast of the Holy Family

There was a family that was very poor. Because they could not afford to buy a house, they had to rent out a small basement apartment. It was small and cramped for a family of five, but they tried to make the best of it. The children chipped in to keep it clean. They prayed before meals and made sure to be thankful for what they had.

One of the children’s teachers stopped by to pay a visit. She was appalled by the poverty they lived in. The next day, the teacher pulled the child aside to tell her that she felt sorry that she did not have a home. The young girl replied, “Oh, we have a beautiful home! We just don’t have a house to put it in.” (adapted from Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons).

When the teacher looked at the family’s apartment all she could see was what they lacked. But the young girl looked at it differently. She saw all that they had. They had love, and they cared for each other. To her mind, that is what made a home.

Today we reflect on and celebrate the model for all Christian families, the Holy Family of Nazareth. Like many families in today’s world, the Holy Family were poor. In fact, in the early years of Jesus’ life they were homeless. We know that Jesus was born in a barn. But shortly after his birth, he lived as an immigrant in Egypt. They would have to find whatever lodging they could, and Joseph would have to find work in a country where he did not know the language and had no connections. They would have faced the same suspicion and resentment that so many immigrants in our society have to deal with.

Though the Holy Family lived in poverty, they had the ingredient most necessary for any family to be happy. They had Jesus. With Jesus at the center of their family, they could weather any storm. Though they had little money, they were blessed with the greatest treasure any home could have - Jesus.

This is very  important for us to remember in the hectic world we live in. We can get so wrapped up in all the details of having and maintaining a home, that we forget the reason we have one in the first place. We have a home so that we can show love to one another and so that we can raise children who will come to know, love and serve our Lord.

All parents want to give the best they can for their children. It is natural for a mother and father to work  hard so that their children will want for nothing. But the most important gift we can give them is our witness to the love of God. If they have Jesus in their hearts, they will want for nothing. No matter how difficult life will get for them they will always have the strength of God to get them through it. On the other hand, if we do not teach our children how much God loves them, they can never be happy no matter how many presents we shower them with.

Consider all the presents the children of our parish received over this Christmas time. Dolls, computers, bicycles, video games, clothes, cell phones....the list is unending. Even though we have spent thousands of dollars on these gifts which of them will have lasting value for them? Which of those gifts will console them when they are picked on at school? Which of those presents will help them deal with peer pressure? Which of those gifts will teach them to be kind and loving to others? When they are older, which of those presents will help them when a relationship fails, when their house is foreclosed on or when they are diagnosed with a serious illness?

But if along with those gifts we have instilled faith in them, we will have given them something that no one can take away and that will sustain them throughout their lives up until the time they have their own families.

The secret to a happy family life is easy. It is Jesus. When He is at the center of our homes, then our families will be successful. They will be marked with the peace and joy that only God can give. And the way to put Jesus at the center of our families is by prayer - first of all, by attending Mass together every Sunday, and secondly, by praying together at home, at the very least saying grace before meals. That foundation of prayer will make the good times more joyful and the hard times more bearable. It will give parents and children the patience to put up with each other and the ability to forgive as Saint Paul urges us to do in the second reading. It will stir up in our homes a love which others will notice and want for themselves. And it will sustain us on our journey through this life until we finally reach our heavenly home.

Family life is the heartbeat of the Church. As a Christian community, we can only be as strong as our families are. Let each of us, therefore,  put our commitment to our family at the top of the list of our Christian responsibilities. In that way, both our Church and our society will be renewed, and we will experience the peace and joy of having a home no matter how small or large a house we may have to put it in.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas With Family

The days leading up to Christmas are among the busiest travel days of the year. Whether it be by car or by plane, everyone is scrambling to be home for this special day. No one wants to be far away from loved ones or alone on Christmas day. The bright faces of so many of you who are home from school or returning to us after having moved far away fills this place with joy. You are home again and we are blessed to have you.

What makes this day important is that we set it aside to mark the mighty work that God has done for us. Just as we do not like to be far from our loved ones, God does not want to be far from us. He traveled through the heavens to take on a body like ours. To be close to us, He became a man in the person of Jesus, the baby born in Bethlehem. With the birth of this baby, God has made His home among us. Saint John tells us: “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory.”

Not only has He come to live among us, He has come to gather a family around Himself. He was born, the Son of God, so that we also might be daughters and sons of God. Saint John tells us: “...to those who did accept Him He gave power to become children of God”. He was born so that we could be born again. This new life that we find in Jesus is not like our human life which has an end. Rather it is an everlasting life that begins with our baptism, sustains us throughout our years in this world and carries us into the glory of heaven.

Because He was born for us, we need not live in the darkness of despair, ignorance and sin. Rather we live with the joy of knowing that our God loves us and is close to us. We live with the hope that no matter what challenges and difficulties we have experienced in our lives, our inheritance as children of God is awaiting us in heaven. We serve others out of the conviction that they too are loved and cared for by our Heavenly Father.

Sadly, not everyone can be joyful on this day. There are many here today who have lost loved ones over the past year. Many of us for whatever reason are far from family members and friends with whom we wish we could share this day. And still others of us feel so overwhelmed by the burdens of life that we cannot open our hearts to the joy of this day. Though the light has come into the world, we still feel trapped in the darkness of depression, unemployment or loneliness. The festivities surrounding the holidays only make us feel worse.

This Christmas day is not just for the young or for families. It is not just for those who can afford to decorate their homes with lights and fill their living rooms with presents. This Christmas day is especially for those who find themselves downtrodden and alone. It is for those who feel rejected and outcast. It is for sinners as well as for saints. This little baby born in Bethlehem has come to save us. He has come to seek out the lost and bring them home. He has come to find those living in despair and depression and bring them hope and joy. He has come to those who are alone to say, “I am with you.” If we are happy, then His presence increases our joy. If we are sad, then He is by our side to carry us. Now that the love of God has come into the world, none of us is ever really alone any more. Jesus has made His home with us and welcomed us into His family.

This day, therefore, is a time for rejoicing no matter what situation we may find ourselves in or no matter what may be burdening our minds. Jesus, the One our hearts long for, is among us. We have seen His light and celebrate the glory He has as the only Son of God. It is a glory that makes its home in a stable in Bethlehem, on city streets, in suburban sprawl, in lonely apartments and in congested malls. Jesus is with us. Our joy is complete. Come, let us worship!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Dawn From On High Will Break Upon Us!

This past Saturday was the first day of winter. For the next three months, we can expect colder weather, gloomier days and snow.

But there is hope! The first day of winter is also the longest night of the year. Over the next six months the days will be growing longer. We will have one more minute of light in the morning and one more minute of light in the afternoon. Slowly but surely, the light is taking over. We cannot notice the difference yet. But as the weeks pass by we will start to notice that it is light out later. Soon nature will notice as well. The spring will arrive, the buds will blossom and the long winter nights will give way to warm summer evenings. And it all started this past Tuesday with the first day of winter.

On this Christmas night, gathered in the dark and the cold, we proclaim in faith with the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The light is Jesus. He was born to a world engulfed in the darkness of poverty, war and seemingly endless conflict. His birth brings the hope of peace and the light of love.

This dawning of God’s love and mercy was imperceptible at first. Only Joseph and Mary knew who this child would be. But God would not allow his gift of love to go unnoticed. He sent His angels to announce to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that their Savior was born. Meanwhile, a star was leading wise men from the east to bring Him gifts. All of heaven was rejoicing in His birth. Now God was beginning to gather people to worship Him. The light of God’s love was breaking into the world and being proclaimed. Little by little, the whole world would come to know it.

It has been over two thousand years now since the angels first proclaimed Jesus’ birth to the world. During that time, the good news has spread over all the world. In every land, churches have been built to enshrine His presence and proclaim His word. Billions of people have been baptized in His name and have experienced the forgiveness of their sins through the blood He shed on the cross. Billions of people have taken comfort in His promise of everlasting life and drawn strength from faith in His presence. Slowly but surely, the light is overcoming the darkness.

Unfortunately, so much of our world continues to live in sadness and despair. So many have fallen prey to the lie that there is nothing beyond this world and this life. They must live every day with the emptiness that comes from having no purpose greater than their own pleasure and material success. We find such people among our families and friends. We find such people in our schools and places of business. We even find them in our churches. They are walking in darkness. The light of Christ has not reached them.

That is where we come in. Our celebration of this blessed event will be empty if it stays here in this church or within our homes. We must bring the light out with us into the dark and cold world to those who have not yet heard the good news and to those who have heard but have not yet understood or accepted it. Like the angels on that first Christmas night, we must proclaim that the glory of God has appeared and that it can be found in the man, Jesus Christ.

Our second reading teaches us how we can do that. We must reject godless ways and worldly desires to embrace the grace of Christ. If our lives are not transformed by the light of Christ, then our words will have no power to convince anyone. We must live justly, temperately and devoutly as Saint Paul urges us if we are to be beacons of hope spreading the light of Christ.

Brothers and sisters, our Savior Jesus Christ is born for us. Our celebration of this blessed event gives us joy and peace. The light of love and faith has conquered the darkness of ignorance, conflict and selfishness. Let us welcome this light first of all into our own lives so that we may be transformed by it. May the light shine in our lives so that others may experience the peace that only Christ can give. Then, one heart at a time, the light of Christ will take over until the night is no more.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Holy Name of Jesus

Expecting the birth of a child is an exciting time in any family. All the work that goes into preparing the nursery, buying clothing and getting the house ready brings the family together to welcome the new baby.

One of the funnest preparations, however, is selecting a name for the child. Sometimes the whole family gets involved suggesting either names of relatives, of celebrities or, in many Catholic families, names of saints. Once we have chosen a name, it really becomes part of the new baby’s personality. Can you imagine yourself with any other name than the one you have? Just so, once we give our babies a name, they go from being anonymous faces to having real personalities.

In our society, the literal meaning of names is rarely important. However, in many cultures, especially in the Old Testament, a person’s name gives us insight into who they are or under what circumstances they may have been born. For instance, the first two people ever to be named were our first parents, Adam and Eve. In Hebrew, their names simply mean “man” and “woman”. When the holy woman, Hannah, who had been childless for many years finally conceive and bore a son, she called him “Samuel”, a name meaning “God has heard” because God finally heard her prayers for a son. Very often in the Old Testament if a child was to be set aside for a specific mission, God Himself would name him. We see this to be the case in today’s first reading and in the gospel.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells the king of Israel, Ahaz, that a child will be born who will be the savior of the nation. Isaiah says that the child’s name will be “Emmanuel”. This name literally means “God is with us”. Therefore, the Messiah who was to come would be the presence of God among His people. No longer would our Heavenly Father seem distant and far off. No longer would He seem to be far from our cries or aloof from our daily cares. Rather He would live among us, share our joys, carry our burdens with us and ultimately lead us to the kingdom of Heaven.

This Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He is God among us. Unlike every other holy man or woman of the Old Testament period, He does not only speak for God, He is God. Every word He speaks is literally the word of the Father. Also,  He does not only perform mighty deeds in God’s name. Rather when Jesus heals, it is God healing. When Jesus forgives sins, it is the Heavenly Father Himself who is forgiving sin. In the person of Jesus, God fulfills His promise to never abandon us, to walk always by our side and to carry us in our time of need.

In the gospel, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The child she is carrying is the Son of the Most High, and the angel instructs him to call the child “Jesus”. In Hebrew, our Lord’s name means “victory” or “salvation”. As the angel goes on to explain, “he will save his people from their sins.” Therefore, His person and mission are revealed in His name. He was born to save us from our sins. We can go to Him with confidence, then, because the whole meaning of His existence among us is to forgive us of our sins. Because of this we can go to Him just as we are and expect to be treated mercifully.

Because it is so full of meaning, the name of Jesus is powerful. It has been a pious custom for people of faith to bow their heads when saying “Jesus”. It is a good tradition for us to continue because it shows reverence for the name which is above every other name. Because of the power of the name, we should call upon it frequently during the day to give us strength in temptation, inspiration when we must explain our faith and courage to do the right thing. Saying the name of Jesus also reminds us that He is always by our side as He promised. The name of Jesus is powerful. We should have it on our lips often and bow our heads respectfully every time we use it.

Now that we are aware of the meaning of Jesus’ name, it is all the clearer why we should never take His name in vain. We should never use it in anger to curse or swear. When we do so, we show a lack of respect for our Lord and Saviour. We show a lack of gratitude for all He did to save us. And we give a bad example to others, especially to young people. When out of our human weakness we do use Jesus’ name in vain, we should apologize immediately to the people who heard us and go to confession as soon as possible. When we hear others use His name in vain, we should politely but firmly correct them and ask for an apology. It is the least we can do for the One who suffered and died to set us free.

In Jesus, God has fulfilled all the promises He made in the Old Testament. He sent us Emmanuel,  a Messiah to be His presence among us, to share our lives, to suffer alongside us and to lead us into His Kingdom. He sent us “Jesus” who gives us salvation from sin and victory over death. Jesus is the name above every other name, the only name given to us by which we are to be saved.

At this Mass, we celebrate that promise in a particularly powerful way. For the bread and wine we offer will become the very Body and Blood of Emmanuel. Not only is it the reality of God among us but God within us. Through the Eucharist, God makes our hearts His dwelling place. Jesus lives within us. This mystery gives us even more reason to bow our heads when we speak His name and to have confidence to draw upon the strength of that name in every challenge we face while striving to live the good news of His love.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Do Not Be Afraid to Take Mary into Your Home

While there are four gospels, only two of them tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

The Gospel of Luke focuses on the role Mary played in being the mother of the Savior. Matthew, on the other hand, tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. Though Joseph never says a word in the Gospel of Matthew,  his obedience to God’s plan helps make the birth of Jesus possible.

When Joseph receives the news that Mary is pregnant, he must have felt devastated. How could such a thing happen? He thought he knew her. It was unimaginable to him that Mary would betray him. Naturally, he would have felt angry and hurt.

In light of this, what Joseph decides to do is incredible. If he were to accuse her of adultery, she and her child would have been ostracized and shunned for the rest of their lives. They would have lived as strangers in their own families. By deciding to divorce her quietly, on the other hand, Joseph would make it look as if he were the father of the child but that he was abandoning Mary and the baby. Instead of Mary being shunned, he would come to be despised by the community. He would become the outcast. So great was Saint Joseph’s love for Mary that, even though he felt betrayed by her, he was still willing to protect her from the scorn of the community.

The love that Joseph shows to Mary and her unborn child is much like the love God shows to us in sending His Son, Jesus, to suffer and die for us. Through our sinfulness, we have betrayed God. Again and again, we have turned away from Him and refused His love. We have ignored His commandments and offended Him through our actions. Yet His plan was not to condemn and punish us. Rather He came to earth to suffer the punishment that we deserved. Rather than expose us to shame, He took it upon Himself, nailing it to the cross.

That is why Christmas is so much more than a nice story about a baby being born. It is, rather, the story of a God who came to earth to share our life. It is the story of God with us. By becoming human, God shared every aspect of our life. He knew what it was to be tired and afraid. He knew what it was to be tempted and discouraged. He knew what it was to be rejected and made fun of. There is no experience that we have had that Jesus did not have. There is no sin that we have committed that Jesus did not feel tempted to commit in one way or another. Whatever we are going through, Jesus understands. We can carry our burdens to Him because He knows what we are going through. He is “God with us.”

Most importantly, we can go to Jesus with our sinfulness and receive forgiveness. We can go to Him with our weakness, and draw strength. We can go to Him with our shame, and find healing and wholeness. The one who went to such lengths to save us will never reject us if we come before Him humbly. Jesus is waiting for us with outstretched arms and an open heart. All we need to do is go to Him to find the peace our souls are craving.

Now that we have been told the story of Joseph in the gospels and learned of the compassion of a God who forgives us and takes our shame away, it is time for us to consider what our behavior in our own families has been like. Have we been holding grudges? Do we keep reminding our parents or children of the mistakes they have made in the past? Have we abandoned our families because we could not bear the responsibility? Have the demands of our jobs kept us from spending time with our children? How do we need to change so that our families can be true reflections of the love of God?

Because we are human, all of us have failed in one way or another in our role as parents and children. God understands and wants to help us to do better. The example of Saint Joseph is a great help to us. He is the patron saint of families, of workers and of unborn children. We can ask for his intercession so that we can become better protectors and providers for our families. Because he was obedient to God’s plan even when it was difficult, his prayers can help us to be more obedient to our parents and those who have authority over us. Strong families are vital to the health of our society and of our Church. They are essential to our psychological and spiritual well-being. No matter what state our family may be in, no matter what challenges it may be facing, God wants to give us the grace to make it work. He only asks that we turn to Him and trust Him.

Jesus is “God with us” at every moment of every day, during every difficult and every joy. God never abandons us. Therefore, we can live with confidence no matter how weak we are and no matter how difficult the road ahead of us seems. God is with us especially through the gift of the Eucharist. As we prepare to receive Him, let us offer our families up to Him for healing. Let us offer ourselves up so that we may be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Then we will know the peace that only a God who is with us can give.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Third Sunday of Advent

Today’s gospel poses a problem for us that is not easy to resolve.

How is it that Saint John the Baptist can be unsure whether Jesus is the Messiah, the “One Who is to Come”? Was it not John the Baptist who saw the heavens parted and the Spirit of God come down upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan River? Was it not John the Baptist who pointed Jesus out as the “Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world”? Did not John the Baptist say when his disciples were leaving him to join Jesus, “I must decrease and He must increase”?

At one point, it seemed clear to John that Jesus was the one whom he and all of Israel had been waiting for. Why was he so unsure all of a sudden? What has changed that he now seems to doubt who Jesus is?

While there is no way for us to know for sure, many who study the Bible speculate that John, like many religious people of his day, was expecting a different kind of Messiah than Jesus. Many were looking forward to a Messiah who would conquer all of Israel’s enemies and establish the nation as the most powerful on earth. In particular, it seems that John the Baptist was expecting that the One to come after him would exact punishment on all sinners and evil doers. As we hear in last week’s gospel, he warns the Pharisees about “the wrath to come”. He prophesies that “Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

It could be that John, from his prison cell, heard that, instead of punishing sinners, Jesus was welcoming them and dining with them. It could be that instead of living a severe life of penitence in the desert as he did, John saw Jesus moving about the people, going to wedding banquets and enjoying himself. Jesus was altogether not what John was expecting and so he wondered whether he was to wait for someone else.

In His usual way, Jesus does not answer John directly. He does not give him a “yes or no” answer. Like a good teacher, Jesus is not giving John the answer but challenging him to come up with the answer himself. Therefore,  He quotes from the prophet Isaiah that the blind are regaining their sight, the deaf are hearing and the lame are walking.  In effect, He is telling John that He has come not to condemn the world but to save it. Like the rest of the people, John now has to make a decision. Can he believe in a Messiah who offers forgiveness to sinners and treats them mercifully? Or is he so attached to his ideas of what a Messiah should be that he cannot accept Jesus?

Like John the Baptist, all of us have an idea of who God is and how He should act. For many of us, God is a loving Father. To others of us He is a just judge. Many of us expect God to be merciful and act tenderly toward sinners. Others of us wonder why He does not act more quickly to punish those who disobey His law.

No matter how we may view God, the fact is that both sides are correct. God is a loving Father and He is also a just judge. God is both merciful and just. He expect us to obey Him but is gentle when we ask for forgiveness. Like John the Baptist, we all have to accept a God who is greater than we can ever imagine, a God who is not willing to fit into the tight categories we have drawn up for Him.

Therefore, if we think of God as a Loving Father, it could be that we need to pay more attention to His laws and the rules of His Church. If we think of God as a just judge, it could be that we have to open our hearts to His tender mercy and His willingness to forgive us. Either way, the fact is that God is working in our lives and in our world. If we hold on too tightly to our rigid ideas of who God is and are not willing to change, we will miss out on it.

There is another dimension to this as well that is important for us to understand. If we are to find God it is not going to be in the places where we feel most comfortable. Rather we will have to reach out to people we normally would not associate with and neighborhoods we would normally not travel to. When He walked the earth, Jesus was found among the blind, the poor, the lame and other of society’s outcasts. Today, He can be found among prisoners, drug users, illegal aliens and others who are at the bottom of the social ladder. Unless we are willing to go out of our comfort zones and to reach out to those we would otherwise ignore, we will miss out on all the graces that God is offering us.

This Advent season we celebrate a God who does not keep His distance from us, but is within us and all around us. Too often we lose sight of Him because of our rigid ideas and narrow expectations. Today we are being called to broaden our vision and raise our eyes to a God who is always greater than we can hope for or imagine. Though He is the One we have been waiting for, He has too often passed us by because we were looking the wrong way. Like John the Baptist we are being challenged to look for our Heavenly Father in the people, places and situations we would otherwise run from. If through His grace we can find the courage to do so, then His coming among us will not be a nice thought or fanciful wish but a reality in our hearts, in our homes and in our world.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are You The One We Are Waiting For?

For thousands of years, the people of Israel waited for someone to save them. Through the prophets, God taught His people that He would send a man anointed with His Spirit to lead them to a freedom that would not end. That burning hope helped the Jewish people endure many hardships including wars, exile and the occupation of their land by foreigners. That hope was focused on the Messiah.

The word, “Messiah” means “anointed one”. In Israel, when someone was anointed with oil it was a symbol that he had been set apart for a special service to the community. Kings, priests and prophets were all consecrated by the use of holy oils. This anointing came to be connected with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Messiah would be one who was anointed with the Spirit of God to bring to the people the justice and peace that would be the hallmarks of God’s Kingdom.

We know that the Messiah was Jesus Christ. He was revealed to the world at His baptism in the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove and the heavens opened up. God then declared to the world, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus preached that God’s kingdom was at hand. Along the way, He healed the sick, expelled demons and raised the dead. The prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading proclaimed that miracles such as these would take place when the Messiah arrived to establish God’s kingdom. And so, it was clear to anyone who witnessed Him that Jesus had an authority unlike any prophet who had come before Him. He was the Messiah they had hoped for.

John the Baptist was chosen and sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah. He preached at the banks of the Jordan River calling the people to repent of their sins and to be baptized. It was shortly after Jesus’ baptism that John was imprisoned by King Herod. His time was quickly coming to an end. Yet he wanted to know from prison whether the One he had been preparing the way for had finally arrived. Was Jesus the Messiah?

What was Jesus’ response to the disciples John sent to Him? He simply recounted to them what they already had seen. The sick were being healed, the blind were being given their sight and the poor were having the good news preached to them. Jesus was the One Isaiah had foretold would come, and the One John had prepared the way for. He was the One who would bring an eternal Kingdom. By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, He would win the ultimate victory by conquering death itself.

Over two thousand years after the birth of Jesus, many in our world still await a Messiah. They want someone who will come and save them. They are imprisoned in ignorance, in abusive situations, in poverty or in their own sinful choices. They are looking to us to answer this question for them: “Is Jesus the One we are waiting for? Is Jesus the One who can save us?”

How are we to answer them? What can we point to in our lives to show that God is at work in the world freeing us from sin, changing lives and bringing peace?

They are not searching just for intellectual arguments. They know that the world cannot offer them what they truly desire, but they are also not yet convinced that Jesus is the answer. They want to see how He has changed our lives. They want to see what difference a life lived in relationship with God makes. Will they be able to see that by looking at us?

Each of us through baptism and confirmation has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is the same Spirit which empowered Jesus to preach the good news to the poor and to perform miracles. It is the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. Because we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, Jesus can say in today’s gospel that the least in His kingdom is greater than John the Baptist. John the Baptist never understood that Jesus would die for his sins. He never read the New Testament.  He never received the Eucharist as we do. And so, we have a power at work in our lives that even He could not understand.

Like the priests, prophets and kings of the Old Testament, we have received an anointing. It is now time for us to put that power of God to work in service of others so that the world can see for itself what difference a life lived for Jesus makes. Only by seeing our lives transformed by the peace which only God can give will the world come to know that Jesus alone provides the answers that the people of today are seeking.

Where do we begin? We begin right here and right now with the people around us. It is by showing kindness everyday to the people we bump into that the transformation can start. If I can hold a door open for someone or say a kind word to a teenager, then I will have an open heart for the beggar who asks me for change or the hitchhiker who needs a lift to the gas station. Our acts of mercy will leave people wondering what motivates us to be so kind. Through our goodness, they will come to know Jesus who is the source of all goodness. And knowing Him, they will have grasped the answer to the longing of their hearts.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Our Divine Physician

When a doctor diagnoses cancer, she must act decisively and immediately. Every cancer cell must be either removed through surgery, burned away through radiation or poisoned through chemotherapy. If we did not know what the doctor was doing, we might think her cruel for cutting the patient open or for pumping chemicals into him. It is only when we realize how dangerous the situation is that we can accept how drastic and radical the cure must likewise be.

One of the central figures of Advent, John the Baptist, makes his appearance in today’s gospel. He is among the most sharp tongued characters in the New Testament and must have been an intimidating figure in his camel hair garment. When addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees, he calls them a "brood of vipers" as they approach him for baptism. It was a shocking insult to hurl at men known for their commitment to the Law. It may have made some in the crowd wonder, “If that is what he thinks of good men, what will he think of me?!”.

The Baptist’s words sound cruel and hurtful. But he wanted to be clear with all those who approached him - both the religious leaders and the common people - just what they were committing to by being baptized. They were preparing for the coming of one who would bring judgment. Whatever sins they harbor would make them unready to welcome the one who was coming to baptize in fire. If they were approaching John only to make an outward show of repentance with no interior conversion, it would do them no good. They must be ready to embrace a radical change of mind and heart if they are to be a part of this mighty work of God. And so he urges them,  "Give some evidence that you mean to reform!"

What is true for those who were awaiting the coming of the Christ is true of us who have already been baptized in him. We cannot accommodate any sin in our lives any more than the body can accommodate a little cancer. Society cannot tolerate a little injustice, and marriages cannot survive with a little infidelity. Evil destroys whomever welcomes it. Once we recognize sin in ourselves, in our society and in our Church, radical surgery is indicated. "The ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire." If the words sound harsh, it is only because God knows that any evil we tolerate will eventually strangle us and prevent us from bearing fruit.

Now the doctor can only extract the malignancy. She cannot put health back into our bodies. God, on the other hand, not only roots out the evil in our heart but replaces it with the power to live a good and holy life. This new health floods our souls when we receive the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" which Isaiah lists in the first reading as the marks of the Messiah:

"a spirit of wisdom and of understanding;
a spirit of counsel and of strength;
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord;
and his delight will be the fear of the Lord."

We receive these gifts through our baptism and confirmation which are the "baptism with fire" which John the Baptist foretold that the Messiah would grant to all those who believed in him. They are not only found in prophets, canonized saints or religious leaders. They become the marks of all those who have been baptized in Jesus Christ. They are the new vitality of all who have put sin aside in favor of a life of faith.

When we welcome those gifts and put them to use in our lives, then we begin to bear the "fruit of the Spirit" which Paul describes in Galatians 5:22. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

These are the fruits which God looks for in those who follow Jesus. These are the fruits which will spring up in us once sin is uprooted from our hearts, and the Holy Spirit replaces them with his gifts. Through them, real health and vigor return to us as individuals, as a society and as a Church.

Jesus is often called the Divine Physician because of his power to heal and to free us from our sins. He diagnoses our wrongdoing and prescribes the cure. Though the treatment and recovery can be long and painful, we can be confident that the outcome will lead to peace and joy. We are in the hands of a gentle doctor. Saint Augustine in his Confessions puts it in a beautiful way: "My weaknesses are many and grave, many and grave indeed, but more abundant still is your medicine."

The call to repentance and the challenge of conversion can be intimidating. We grow comfortable in our lives and want to keep any change at arms length. It is easy for us to convince ourselves, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that we are already doing enough. But God has so much more planned for us than just comfort and security. He wants us to live a full and abundant life marked not by complacency but by joy, wisdom, peace, understanding and courage. Conversion and penance can be tough medicines to swallow, but the healing and wholeness they bring make any temptation to slide back into selfishness and apathy unthinkable.

These weeks leading up to Christmas are a time for us as individuals and as a community to uproot whatever is not of God and to recognize that no good can come from allowing sin and evil a place in our hearts or homes. It is a time to turn to our Divine Physician, Jesus, for the radical surgery only He can perform and the infusion of health and vitality only he can give.  By conversion and penance, we make a straight path for the one who alone can bring joy and enduring peace into our lives. In that way, the coming of Jesus will be not a historical fact of the past or a long off, future anticipation, but an everyday event bearing fruit in our world.

(this originally appeared in Connect! magazine)