Thursday, January 29, 2015


Olalla Oliveras seemed to have what every young woman would want. In her career as a model, she traveled the world, graced the cover of glossy magazines and appeared in television commercials. Her face was recognized by people all over Spain. She had all the fame, wealth and glamour that any young person would want.

However, on a trip to the shrine of Our Lady in Fatima, Portugal, she experienced what she called an “earthquake”. In her mind flashed a strong image of herself dressed as a nun with a veil around her head, blue robes reaching down to the floor and rosary beads around her waist. At first the image seemed ridiculous to her since a nun’s habit is such a far cry from the stylish fashions she was used to sporting. However, it stayed with her. Not only could she not shake the idea of becoming a nun, she started to become attracted to it.

With time, She came to understand the growing desire to enter religious life to be a call from God. And so, at the height of her career as a model, Olalla left everything to enter the Order of Saint Michael. As she explained to the National Catholic Register ,  “The Lord is never wrong. He asked if I will follow him, and I could not refuse.” Upon taking her vows, her name was changed to “Sister Olalla del Sí de María”, which translated in English means, “Sister Olalla of the Yes of Mary.”

Saying yes to God’s call has changed everything for her. Looking at pictures of her some four years later, it is hard to believe that the simple, unassuming nun dressed in blue sackcloth is the same glamourous model who once commanded so much attention. The biggest difference one notices, perhaps, is that now her face shines with a broad smile and a radiant joy that only can come from giving one’s life to God. She exchanged the passing fashions of the day and the fleeting beauty of youth for the love of God which never goes out of style or grows old.

Today’s readings center around the theme of “vocation” or “calling”. God’s call comes in many ways. The prophet Jonah heard God’s voice commanding him to preach to the people of Nineveh. Saint Paul received a vision of the Risen Lord on his way to Damascus. In today’s gospel, Jesus Himself calls Andrew, Peter, James and John to leave their work as fishermen to follow him.

In today’s world, however, rarely does the call to follow Jesus and dedicate one's life to Him appear so strongly and indisputably. Usually, it stirs in our heart through a strong desire. For instance, Sister Olalla received a strong image of herself as a nun, almost a vision, compelling her to follow her vocation to religious life. Many priests say that they felt inspired to serve God’s people because of the example of priests who impressed them with their goodness and holiness. Often religious sisters and deacons in their personal witness report that, once they discovered within themselves a desire to serve God and His People, they knew that no other life would satisfy them.

However, there are more vocations in the Church than just those called to religious life and ordained ministry. Marriage is also a calling. In no other sacrament do we see more clearly how God uses the mystery of love to draw His people into a life of self-giving love. God calls men and women to marriage by putting in their hearts a strong attraction to one another. Using the natural attraction for one another that men and women have, He draws couples together to love one another and so serve the world as shining examples of His love. They cooperate with God in creating the world anew by bringing new life into it. By educating their children they also cooperate with the mission of the Church to bring the good news of Jesus to all people.

The Sacrament of Marriage teaches us how the mystery of vocation is connected to the mystery of love. No one enters into a marriage thinking about how much sacrifice it will entail or how much one will have to give up. Rather, men and women begin their married life excited about the opportunity to love another person for the rest of their lives. While there are times that the responsibilities of providing for a family and raising children can seem overwhelming, it is the love for one another, sanctified and strengthened by God’s grace, that fuels the couple’s commitment to their life together. The joy that comes from loving another person unconditionally outweighs whatever sacrifices it may require.

Each of us has a vocation, a role we are called to play in the Kingdom of God that only we can fulfill. When we feel the desire to follow God stir in our heart, it is natural to experience some doubt and resistance. It is true for those called to religious life as well as for those who are preparing for marriage. Because we are dealing with a mystery, it is not always easy to understand what God is calling us to. That is why it is important for us to find someone to talk to, whether it be a spiritual director or good friend, whose wisdom and experience can help guide us. We also need to pray for the grace to overcome our fears and trust in God’s love. Only then can we give ourselves over with total love to whatever we are called to and experience the joy that comes as a result.

While challenging, God’s call is never meant to diminish or suffocate us. Rather, it is meant to liberate us. When we say “yes” to God’s call, we are doing what He created us to do. We are being ourselves in the fullest sense. With that comes deep fulfillment and joy.

Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading that “...the world in its present form is passing away.” If we look to the world to fulfill us, we will be sorely disappointed. The world is always changing. What was fashionable yesterday is out of style today. If we look to the world for guidance, we will always feel disoriented and lost. However, God never changes. His love is eternal. When we look to Him, we see our true selves reflected in His love. When we find the courage and grace to follow Him, we can be sure that we will never be lost.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Time for Repentance

James Townsend was one of those men who just could not get a break in life. From the time he was very young, trouble seemed to follow him.

His father was physically abuse and his mother was too sick to take care of him. When the stock market crashed and the Great Depression hit they lost their home and young James turned to a life of crime. His first arrest came at the age of 10 and from that time on he was shuttled from one reform school to another.

During World War II he joined the Marines and life appeared to be turning around for the better. After the war, at the age of 19, he was able to land a job and married a young woman who soon became pregnant with twins. However, one night after losing badly at a poker game, he came home and shot his pregnant wife to death in the kitchen of their cabin. She died instantly along with the two lives that were growing within her. He was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

James was distraught and without hope. So he began to turn to God. At first, he started going to Mass in hopes that the prison officials would think he had changed and offer him parole for good behaviour. But he soon became friends with the prison chaplain, and the message of God’s love and mercy even for a cold-blooded murder such as he began to sink in. He gave his life over to Christ and allowed the Holy Spirit to change his heart. He began to reach out to other inmates to tell them about the same hope and mercy he had encountered in God.

Behind bars, James found a freedom that had eluded him when he was out in the world. The prison officials were impressed by the change in him and he was released after serving twenty years of his sentence.

He knew that his early release was a gift from God and he wanted to make the most of it. In particular, he wanted to do penance for his crimes so he considered joining an order of monks. But his heart was drawn to the Capuchin order of Franciscans and after several years of study and training, he was ordained a priest. During his almost forty years of ministry he witnessed to others about God’s power to change even the most hardened sinner and brought his message of hope to inmates throughout the world. God used him to soften many hearts and turn many lives around up until his death in June of 2011.

Brother James’ incredible story is living proof that God still works miracles among us. There is no one, no matter how sinful or wicked, who cannot be changed by giving his or her life over to the Holy Spirit. There is nothing we can do that would make it impossible for God to change us and use us to touch others. If God can turn around the life of a murderer, what can he do with ordinary sinners like you and me?

Today’s first reading is from the book of the prophet Jonah. God had called him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the oldest and greatest city in the Assyrian empire. They were a particularly wicked and brutal people. Yet God wanted to offer them the opportunity to repent and to change. Our Heavenly Father’s love and mercy are so great because He knows the misery and despair that sin causes. He knows how evil-doing breaks hearts and ruins lives. In His love he cannot help but take pity on those who fail to recognize and live in His presence. So He never fails to offer again and again his gift of forgiveness and healing.

The same is true for us gathered here today. We have all fallen short of the ideals that Jesus preached. We have all failed to love. And yet we are called by God here to experience His mercy and forgiveness. No matter what we may have done in our past, God can help us overcome it and change us. We should never let guilt and shame over our past mistakes keep us from embracing the love of God today. We cannot change the past, but we can go forward into a future of hope by welcoming the mercy of God into our hearts and allowing it to change us.

Though we can always count on God to forgive us, we should be careful never to abuse His love. How would we feel if the people we loved kept on hurting us because they thought we would always forgive them? Though God is always willing to forgive us, He is offended when we take His love and mercy for granted. That is why Saint Paul warns us in the second reading that our time is running out. Because of His mercy God gives us time to repent, but that time is not as long as we think. We will eventually stand before the judgement seat of God to give an account of our lives and how we have taken advantage of the opportunities to change that He has given us. If we have kept putting it off, it will not go well with us. But if we accept the message with joy, we will witness miracles in our lives and stand before God with confidence.

With God there is always hope. He never abandons anyone He has created and redeemed in Christ. There is no heart He cannot touch, no mind He cannot enlighten and no life He cannot change. All we have to do is invite Him in, give Him our lives and let Him take care of the rest. If we trust Him with our lives, not only will we change but He will use us to touch the hearts of others. It is His promise to us in Christ. It can really happen if we repent, believe in the good news and follow Christ who calls us to a new and more abundant life.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hearing God's Call

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Jason Brown was one of the best  American football players at his position. He was soon signed for a contract worth 37.5 million dollars. However, after 12 years in the league, he decided at the age of 29 to give it all up. Instead of signing with a team, he bought a one thousand acre farm in North Carolina. Some of his teammates wondered whether he had taken too many shots to the head. His agent told him that he was making the worst decision of his life. Nonetheless, he was determined.

What motivated Jason Brown to give up a promising and lucrative career for the simple life of a farmer? He felt in his heart a deep need to provide for the less fortunate. After learning that one out of five people in North Carolina do not have enough food to feed themselves and their families, he knew he had to do more than donate money to charity. He committed himself to using his farm to provide fresh vegetables and produce to those families. Calling his business, “First Fruit Farms”, he pledged to donate the first yield of his crops to area soup kitchens and food pantries.

Though it is a far cry from the excitement and glamour he experienced playing in the National Football League, Jason finds working on the land and providing for others fulfilling. When describing his new life to CBS news he was quoted as saying, “When I think about a life of greatness, I think about a life of service.”

We live in a culture that glorifies fame and wealth. Even believers can be swept up in the illusion that if we had more money or more glamorous lives we would feel better about ourselves and all our problems would melt away. However, as the story of Jason Brown teaches us, it is the life of service to others that is the most fulfilling. Seeking to enrich others rather than ourselves is the real secret to a happy life.

Of course, we have to imagine that the decision to leave the career he had worked hard to establish did not happen overnight. There must have been many evenings when he lay awake wondering what God’s plan for him was. There must have been many days when he asked himself whether there was more to life than throwing a football around. There must have been many hours of prayer and soul-searching before making such a huge change in his lifestyle.

Such was the experience of Samuel in today’s first reading. He heard God’s call but was still too young to understand who was calling him. It was not until he received some guidance from the older and wiser Eli that he could answer, “Speak, for your servant is listening” and hear the voice of God. We do not always recognize the voice of God when He first calls us. However, He never gives up on us, stirring our hearts again and again until we finally stop and listen.

Are you feeling restless? Do you feel that your life is not as fulfilling as you expect it to be? Do you wonder whether there is more that you should be doing but do not know where to look? It could be that God is stirring your heart, calling you to something greater. Finding out what it may be is as simple as slowing ourselves down to listen to what is going on within us. Like Samuel, all we need to do is find a quiet place and pray, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

It can be tempting when we sense a void within us to want to fill it with noise. We think that watching a movie or listening to music will drown out the discontent echoing in our souls. Other times we may be tempted to fill our schedule with activities so that we will be too busy to slow down and attend to the cry of our heart. We can also try to fill what is lacking in our lives with toys, clothes or technology. However, none of these distractions ultimately satisfies the longing of our soul. There is no way of silencing the call within us except to slow down and listen to it.

Most likely, as Jason Brown discovered, the call we are hearing is to serve others. It may be as dramatic as leaving our job to work with the needy or to dedicate ourselves to religious life. Or it may be as simple as volunteering at a soup kitchen or hospital. Whatever it may be, we will never find out unless we are willing to listen to the stirring of God in our soul.

One thing is certain. We can never find happiness and fulfillment in this world if all we do is live for ourselves. All it can bring us is endless dissatisfaction and anxiety. When we live only for ourselves, nothing is ever enough. We blame others for not meeting our needs and become collapsed in on ourselves. Only when we decide to live for others do we find our real identity and purpose.

John the Baptist is our shining example. The whole purpose of his life was to point to Jesus. Even before he met the Lord, he dedicated himself to preparing the way for the One who was greater than he. And when Jesus did appear, he was quick to point him out to others, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Those who were following him left to follow Jesus. In that moment, John the Baptist must have experienced his deepest sense of fulfillment and happiness because he was leading others to Jesus.

We are gathered here today to interrupt our busy schedules, to slow down and to listen to the God who stirs in our hearts. He is calling out to us to make us aware of how much He loves us. Then, He is calling us to share that love with others. God has a plan for each of us. We can only avoid Him for so long. Today is the day to stop searching for our purpose elsewhere and to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.

Monday, January 19, 2015

God's Voice Coming Through

Kevin was a young man who had graduated from college with a degree in accounting and was struggling to find employment in his field. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not seem to find a job which fit his skills and training.  To make ends meet, he was forced to work part time jobs as a landscaper during the summer and preparing tax returns during the spring.

After three years of searching and still not having any luck, he complained about his situation to a friend over a beer. Listening to him pour out all his frustration and bitterness, the friend looked him in the eye and said, “You have looked everywhere and have not been able to find anything that suits you. Do you think God may be trying to tell you something?”

Kevin was not quite sure what his friend meant but it made him think. Maybe the reason he had met with such little success was that he was thinking too much about what he wanted and not enough about what God wanted. So he decided to start praying about his future career and to ask God to reveal His plan to him. Within a few months, he landed a job working for a non-profit organization. Though it was not what he originally had in mind, he found the work challenging and fulfilling. By placing his future in God’s hands and listening earnestly to what God had in store for him, he found his way in life.

When we are struggling, when things just do not seem to fit, when everything we try seems to go wrong, it is very often the case that we are not in the place God desires us to be. Sometimes we want a career or a relationship so badly that we will do just about anything to make it work. But no matter how hard we try it just seems to fall apart in our hands. That is when it is time to turn to God and ask Him whether what we are pursuing is really part of His plan for us. Then we have to trust that He will answer us and provide us with what we need to follow His way for our lives.

How can we listen to the voice of God? Today’s first reading gives us an important clue. Young Samuel hears the voice of God but mistakes it for his mentor, Eli. When he realizes that it is God calling the boy, Eli gives him some good advice. He tells him to pray, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” Whenever we prayer, we should make those words our own. “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” Then we have to simply trust that God has heard our prayer and will answer in His own way and in His own time. If God has a message for us, He will make sure we hear it. For our part, we have to keep our eyes and ears open looking for God’s answer. And we have to be ready to act on His word as eagerly as young Samuel who jumped right out of bed when he heard his master’s voice.

God speaks to us in many ways. However, most often He delivers His message to us through other people. It was true of Kevin, the accounting major, who needed his friend to remind him to make God a part of his plans for the future. It was true of young Samuel who was not familiar with the ways of the Lord and needed the more experienced Eli to advise him on how to listen to the Lord. It was true of Jesus’ first disciples in the gospel who needed John the Baptizer to point out that the Lamb of God was passing by. It was true of Peter who needed his brother, Andrew, to lead him to Jesus. And it is true for us. Most often, God will deliver His message to us through others. Sometimes it will be people we are close to such as family members or friends. Other times, it will be through total strangers. Whomever God sends our way, however, we need to be ready to listen and respond.

That is why if we are going to make any progress in following Jesus, we need to surround ourselves with virtuous Christian friends. We are not meant to follow Jesus alone. Each of us needs other Christians to be models of virtue for us, to encourage us when we fail and to give us advice when we are confused. A good way to find such friends is to become more involved in our parish. We are blessed with many members who are faith-filled followers of Christ and are willing to share their faith with others. Helping out with fundraisers, religious education or other activities is a way to meet such wonderful people. Also making a retreat is a great way to meet other people who share our faith in the Risen Lord and can inspire us to be faithful in our own journey. If we are serious about following the Lord and seeking His will, he will place such friends in our life to help support us along the way.

It is incredible to think that the God who created the universe with all its wonders and who guides the course of history knows each of us by name and loves us personally. He wants to speak to each of us, to tell us how much He loves us and to take us by the hand and lead us to a fulfilling life. Because He loves us, He places people in our lives to support, encourage and inspire us. For our part, we have to listen for His voice and be ready to respond eagerly when He calls. Just as He has given us His word to instruct us, so He gives us the Body and Blood of His Son to strengthen and heal us so that we can leave this place to follow the Lamb of God.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Listening. Following, Loving

Ask any married couple, "How did you know your husband or wife was the one for you?" Everyone would have a different answer. Some knew right away, from the moment they first saw each other. For other couples, the process was longer. They may have known each other for years and dated off and on before they decided to spend the rest of their lives together.

No matter how they met or how they decided to marry, every couple has one thing in common. They had to decide together that marriage was the right thing for them. One person cannot decide on his own that he wants to get married. It is a joint decision because marriage is by its nature a partnership.

As Christians, we have an even deeper understanding of what marriage is because of the teaching of Jesus. Marriage is more than a contract between a man and a woman. Marriage is a calling from God himself. God is the one who brings a man and a woman together to live as examples of the beauty of his love. That is why Jesus can say, "What God has joined, no man may tear asunder." It is God himself who joins a man and a woman in married life. It is God who calls them to live together as one.

Marriage is not the only calling. Some men are called to be priests or deacons. Some women are called to live as religious sisters. Different careers such as writing or business can also be callings. Each one of us, in one way or another, is called to be part of God's plan and to contribute to the common good. Each one of us is chosen by God to play a special and unique role in the salvation of the world.

Today's readings speak to us about what it means to be called by God.

In the first reading, young Samuel is asleep in the temple when the Lord calls him. But he mistakes it for the voice of his mentor, Eli. Sometimes we wish that God would just come down from heaven and tell us himself what he wants of us. Just such a thing happened to Samuel - in the temple where the Ark of the Covenant was, no less - and he still needed help understanding that it was the voice of the Lord he was hearing. His mentor gives him excellent advice. When you hear the Lord call, simply say: "Speak Lord, your servant is listening."

Listening is an important part of any relationship. But it is crucial to our relationship with God. If we are to know where God is calling us, we must listen. God may be speaking to us by placing a desire to serve him in our hearts. He may be speaking to us through a passage from Scripture that we keep opening our Bible to or that we hear being quoted frequently. He may be speaking to us through a friend. One thing is sure - God is trying to get our attention. We have to open our ears, and more importantly our hearts, if we are going to get the message.

Today's gospel tells the story of the calling of Jesus' first disciples. They were among those who answered the call of John the Baptist to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John points Jesus out to them, and they decide to follow him. But something interesting happens. Before they could speak a word to him, Jesus turns around and asks them, "What are you looking for?" Jesus makes it clear to them that it is not they who are choosing him, but he who is choosing them. Throughout the gospels, no one follows Jesus on their own initiative. It is always Jesus who picks out and calls those who will be his disciples.

Just so, none of us can make our own path in life. None of us can live our lives "our way." God has a plan for each of us. We can either say "yes" to God, or "no". But our lives belong to God, and our peace is only in doing his will.

We all know how true this is by looking at our own lives. We have all tried forcing things to work out, and they just didn't. We may have wanted to be doctors or rock stars when we grew up, and it just didn't fit. Or there may have been that one woman or one man we wanted to spend our life with, and the relationship just wouldn't work. For some reason, the pieces didn't seem to fit no matter how hard we tried. We had to finally stop trying to force things to happen and let events take their course. We then started to experience peace as things began to work themselves out on their own. We could then look back and thank God that the course of our life worked out his way and not our way.

It is not always easy to know what God's will for us is. If it wasn't easy for young Samuel in the temple nor for the followers of Jesus, then we cannot expect it to be any easier for us. Like the decision to get married, it takes time for the right course of action to become clear to us. It takes much patience and a heart willing to listen for God's voice. But there is also great relief in knowing that an almighty and all-loving God is in control, and that he has a plan for us.

The Catholic spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, put together the following prayer for people like us who want to serve God but are not always sure how:

My Lord God, 
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so. 
But I believe that the desire to please you 
does in fact please you. 
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Love That Dirty Water

On Christmas Day of 1988, Walter had a strong conversion experience. Though he had been a Catholic all his life and gone to church faithfully every Sunday, he realized that it was all a show. The gospel of Jesus Christ had never really reached his heart and changed him. Deep within, he felt a need to welcome Jesus and to put him at the center of his life rather than just going through the motions.

During the weeks that followed, Walter could not read enough of the Bible. He poured over the stories of Jesus’ birth, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the journey of the Wise Men, Jesus’ presentation in the temple and His baptism in the Jordan River. He reflected on what it must have been like to actually be there when these mysteries took place. The more he prayed, the more determined he was to one day make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see for himself where all these stories took place.

When he did finally have enough money saved and was able to book a trip to Israel, he began to feel excited about going to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. Like most Catholics, he was baptized as a baby. He saw this visit as a chance to renew his baptism vows as an adult and to recommit himself to his faith. In his mind, he imagined himself standing in the waters feeling his sins washed away and God’s grace rushing in.

The day he had been waiting for finally came. When the bus pulled up to the parking lot at Qasr el-Yahud, the place where tradition tells us John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Walter ran down to the bank of the river. However, what he saw surprised him. It was not the beautiful place he imagined it to be. The water was brown like coffee with not enough milk in it. Where he expected to see white sand, there were rocks and reeds. His first thought was that there was no way he was going to get into that filthy water. He just wanted to get back on the bus and return to his hotel room.

However, another thought came into his head at that moment. When Jesus came to earth, there was nothing glamorous about it. Our sinful humanity was no more appealing to God than the brown water running through the Jordan River. Yet, out of love for us, Jesus took on our human nature with its weakness and suffering. He experienced rejection, ridicule and death for us. Reflecting on this, Walter also realized what the vows of baptism mean. When he said, “I do”, it meant going with Jesus into the dark places of our world to bring His light. It meant going with Jesus into the sad places of our world to bring His joy. It meant following Jesus even when it meant getting dirty.

So, with tears in his eyes, Walter stepped into the waters of the Jordan River and renewed his baptismal vows with a full sense of what God had done for him and what he would be called to do for God and for his neighbor.

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Though sinless, Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of John the Baptist. He entered the waters of the Jordan River to purify them so that we could be baptized not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Just as Walter realized when he stood at the banks of the river, Jesus humbled himself throughout His life on earth to bring us all the gifts of God’s love. The first gift is baptism which opens us up to faith, to the Holy Spirit and to all the other sacraments which follow.

However, as Walter also realized, our baptism is not only an occasion to get dressed up and to celebrate with family. Rather, it is a commitment we make to share Jesus’ concern for the lost and the broken. As Isaiah tells us in today’s first reading, Jesus came “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners out of confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” If Jesus is willing to stoop down and live a life of service for the poor, we must be willing to do the same or we cannot call ourselves His followers. All we would be is secret admirers.

It was also at Jesus’ baptism that the Holy Trinity revealed itself for the first time. We see Jesus, the Son, descending into the waters. We see the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Blessed Trinity,  descend from heaven like a dove and alight on Jesus. Finally, we hear the voice of the Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit through Jesus’ act of humility.

This mystery reveals to us why it is that we must seek out the needy. In serving them, we discover God. By bringing bread to the hungry, we encounter Jesus who is suffering in them. By teaching the ignorant, we feel the presence of the Holy Spirit burning within us. By embracing the lonely, we experience the embrace of our Heavenly Father who calls us His beloved daughters and sons. When we stoop down in humility to serve others as Jesus did, no matter how dirty it may get, we come face to face with the God who humbled Himself for us.

We are all searching for God. If He has seemed distant and hard to find, it could be that we are looking in the wrong places. Perhaps we are looking on the mountain tops when we should be looking in the ghettoes. Perhaps we are reading books when we should be feeding bellies. Until we are ready to get ourselves dirty, to risk our safety and to give without counting the cost, God will continue to remain elusive to us. However, if we can follow Jesus into the dark places of our world, it could just be that we will be surprised by His marvelous light shining out where we least expected to find it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Voice From Heaven

In the Old Testament, we read about God's mighty works and the words he spoke through the prophets. God spoke face to face with Adam and Eve, called Abraham to be the father of his people and gave the ten commandments through Moses. The people of Israel witnessed God's power as he led them out of slavery in Egypt. It is in the Old Testament that God, the Father, reveals his tender love for his people and his desire to save them.

In the New Testament, we witness something altogether different. God the Father remains silent throughout most of the gospels. In fact, there is only one time we hear the Father's voice. It is in today's gospel, at Jesus' baptism.

As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River a booming voice from heaven is heard: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." God the Father uses the opportunity of Jesus' baptism to let the whole world know that this is his Son, his beloved. But from here on, God the Father will remain silent. It will be Jesus who now speaks for him and performs mighty deeds in his name. With his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, the torch is handed on to Jesus.

Before this time, Jesus lived an ordinary life among the people. No one besides Mary and Joseph knew his secret that he was the Son of God. But upon his baptism, Jesus begins to proclaim the kingdom of God with an authority that no other man had ever claimed for himself. It was clear to all who heard him that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. John the Baptist even recognized this when he claimed that one was coming who was even mightier than he. No one had ever seen anyone like Jesus of Nazareth before.

Where did this power to teach with authority and to perform miracles come from? It came from the Holy Spirit.

The word "Messiah" means "anointed one." According to the Old Testament, the Messiah would be anointed by God with the Holy Spirit to save his people. The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit." The gospel tells us that it was the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus like a dove as he was baptized. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus the Messiah to touch hearts, to free those held in bondage and to speak the truth with conviction and courage.

Now that Jesus Christ has risen and ascended to heaven, we are living in a different time. Just as God the Father remained silent throughout much of the New Testament, Jesus the Son is silent now. He does not appear from heaven to speak to us directly. He does not show up at hospitals to cure the sick or at the scene of accidents to raise the dead. As God the Father passed the torch on to Jesus, Jesus has now passed the torch on to us! It is now up to us to witness to God's love.

And so, if our family members have questions about their faith, how else will they learn the truth unless we witness to it? If our classmates are being picked on, how else will they learn about Jesus' love unless we stick up for them? If a beggar is hungry, how else will she eat unless we feed her? Jesus wants every confused person to know the truth, every suffering person to be comforted and every lonely person to have a friend. But he will not rip open the heavens and come down in a fiery chariot to do it. He will use us.

How can Jesus expect us to speak the truth with courage and perform heroic deeds in his name? Because he has anointed us with the gift of the Holy Spirit!

At our baptism, each of us received the same Holy Spirit which lived and worked through Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who empowered him to teach with authority and to perform miracles lives in our hearts through baptism and through faith. We have within us the same Holy Spirit who compelled the apostles to give testimony to the Messiah with their words and the martyrs to bear witness through their blood. We have exactly the same tool that Jesus and every saint throughout the ages has had to live the Christian life with power and confidence. Not only has the torch been passed on, but the power to hold that torch up high and carry it proudly has been given us through the Holy Spirit.  

Having the Holy Spirit at work in our lives is like having a billionaire give us a credit card. With it, we can buy things we could otherwise never be able to afford. Just so, with the Holy Spirit we have the strength of God within us which enables us to performs acts of generosity and courage we could never have dreamed of doing on our own. Because of our baptism, we have been made daughters and sons of God and now have access to that great power at work in us who believe.

When someone wins a million dollars, the first thing people ask is, "What do you plan to do with your money?" As we reflect on the gift of the Holy Spirit we have received, we should ask ourselves the same question, "What do we plan to do with the power of God at work in us?"

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Looking For Another Star

During the last century, many great writers converted to the Catholic faith. Some of them are quite well known including G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton and Graham Greene. Others were lesser known. Nonetheless, these literary luminaries helped inspire not only the Church but the entire world with their compelling and thought provoking essays, novels and poetry.

One of the lesser known writers who converted to Catholicism was Louis de Wohl. He was born in Hungary in 1903 of a Catholic father and Jewish mother. When Hitler came into power in Germany, Louis fled to England. During that time he became interested in astrology, the attempt to foretell the future by studying the stars. Many influential people came to him to have their stars read. With three books published on the subject, his prominence as an expert grew and won him the attention of England’s intelligence service, MI5. Since Hitler was believed to rely heavily on astrology, they hoped de Wohl could provide them with useful information. However, they soon learned, as many others have since, that looking to the stars to predict the future was a fool’s errand.

Despite the fame it had gained for him, de Wohl was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with astrology. Deep in his heart, he became haunted by Jesus’ parable of the talents. He reflected on the account he would have to give to God one day for the use he made of his special talents and abilities. Eventually, he repudiated astrology and turned his efforts to writing books Catholic history. From the time of his conversion around 1945 to his death in 1961, he had written some twenty books on Catholic saints. To his mind, they were more reliable guides than the soulless stars in the sky.

Who were the Magi who come to visit Jesus in today’s gospel? They were basically astrologers. Though more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the astrologers who write horoscopes in the newspaper, they preoccupied themselves with the same question - What do the stars have to say about my future? Because of their talents, they became very rich and powerful. It is clear how wealthy and influential they were  because of the very valuable gifts they brought to Jesus and because of how quickly they were able to get an audience with King Herod.

Nonetheless, like Louis de Wohl, they must have been growing dissatisfied with the knowledge they gained through the stars. They must have wanted more. Nothing else can explain why they would have made such a dangerous trip from their homeland in modern Iran to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. A journey like that would have required months of planning to hire people to accompany them, to put together all the supplies needed and to arrange the security. Then the journey itself would have taken many months if not a full year through what was still then some of the most barren and dangerous areas of the Middle East. Seeing the star and predicting His birth were not enough for them. They had to see the child for themselves, so strong was the longing that burned within them.

We do not know what happened to the Magi once they visited with Jesus in Bethlehem. All Saint Matthew tells us is that “...they departed for their country by another way.” They did not go back the way they came not only to avoid Herod but because they were changed persons. They had devoted their lives to studying the stars but they had now encountered the Light of the World. They had sought to know the future but they had seen for themselves the Lord of all History. They had looked for power over others but they held in their arms the One who created all things and sustains them in being. How could they go back the way they came? How could they continue to follow any other star than Jesus,  King of the Jews?

Like the Magi, we have been on a journey that began on the First Sunday of Advent when we lit the first candle on our Advent Wreath and heard Jesus warn us to keep watch. Since then we have burned the candles down, decorated our trees, set up our mangers and exchanged presents. In this month long journey, have we met Jesus, the star which enlightens all hearts? In His light, have we learned how unreliable are the other stars which have led us whether they be comfort, pleasure, wealth or power? Can we abandon our desire to know the future and to have power over others, even over our own lives, so that we can place all our faith in the God who loves us? Like the Magi, are we prepared to go back to our homes “a different way” because we are no longer the same?

There are many people out there who promise us security, happiness and peace. They tell us it comes from money and possessions. They tell us that it comes from consuming drugs and alcohol. They tell us that it can be found in crystals, exotic mysticism or by studying the stars. At one time or another, we have all fallen into their trap. Though it seemed alluring for a time and maybe even liberating, in the end we found ourselves depleted, confused and lost. We asked ourselves, “Is this all that there is?” Maybe there are some here today who are still asking that question.

There is no need to keep on searching. The truth has been revealed. He was revealed to shepherds tending their sheep at night. He was revealed to  Magi who traveled hundreds of miles to see Him with their own eyes. He was revealed to fishermen who left everything to follow Him. He has been revealed to women and men of wisdom down through the ages. And He is revealed to us in the Scriptures and in His Body and Blood. Here, in this place, is to be found the One your heart has been aching to encounter. Here is to be found the One who can change our lives. All we need to do is welcome Him into our hearts and our homes. Then the real journey can begin.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Busy Seeking Out Jesus

There is no other holiday with as many traditions surrounding it as Christmas. Setting up Christmas trees, decorating with lights, caroling and exchanging gifts are all a part of what makes this the most beloved holiday for so many of us. All these traditions can help us to celebrate what Christmas is really about - the birth of our Savior, Jesus.

Since Christmas is celebrated throughout the world, every country has developed its own stories and traditions around the holiday.

One interesting Christmas tradition comes from Italy. It is the legend of the Befana. As the story is told, Befana was a woman who kept a very clean house and was always hospitable to strangers. So when the wise men were making their way to Bethlehem to see the Christ child, they spent a night at her home. Because she was so kind to them, they asked her if she wanted to join them to see the baby Jesus. However, she said that she was too busy with her chores around the house to go on the trip. Later, she regretted not going along with them and so every Epiphany night she goes out to visit every home with small children in it leaving gifts in hopes of finding the Christ child.

Like many children’s stories, the legend of the Befana has much to teach us in today’s fast pace world. Just as the decorating and gift giving surrounding Christmas can help us celebrate Jesus’ birth, it can also distract us from what is most important. All the busy work we fill our days with can keep us from taking the opportunity to go out and meet the Christ child who comes to save us.

In today’s society, we value keeping busy. When we have a lot to do, we feel needed and important. But all the busyness of today’s world is also a way of avoiding reality. Just as an alcoholic drinks to avoid dealing with his problems, so we often keep ourselves busy to avoid dealing with issues we may be having in our relationships or with painful emotions we may be feeling. If we are feeling ragged and irritable or if we are feeling unappreciated, it is important for us to make some time to look at why we are so busy and whether what we are filling our time with is really as important as it seems. Most especially, we must take a good hard look at what we may be trying to avoid and what we may be missing out on.

The wise men are a good example for us. They were obviously highly educated, wealthy and important men. They would have had many responsibilities in their native lands. However, when the star announcing Jesus’ birth appeared in the sky, they dropped everything to follow it. They understood that nothing was as important as finding the newborn King of the Jews. They were not going to let other responsibilities keep them from seeking out the Christ child.

If we look at ourselves honestly we would have to admit that none of us here today is as important as those wise men were. None of us is as busy as they were with all the responsibilities they would have had in their countries. If they were able to make the time for a long, dangerous journey through the desert to seek out Jesus, what is our excuse for not spending time every day seeking him out ourselves?

We may not be as important or as wealthy as the Magi were, but we can be as wise if we seek out the Christ child. In our case, we do not have to travel across the desert to a far off land to find Him, for He is already among us. We only have to train ourselves to recognize Him. The only way to do that, however, is to make time for prayer everyday and for reading the Bible. Then we must make time to serve Jesus in the poor and needy. And, finally, we must receive the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and Eucharist, as frequently as possible.

It takes time, and often time is what we have the least of. But whatever we give to God will be given back to us many times over. When we make time for prayer, we will find that we have more time for ourselves. As we grow closer to Jesus, we will be more focused on what is really important in life and will make better use of our time. Though the wise men left very expensive gifts at the feet of Jesus, they nonetheless felt richer for having seen the Savior of the World. In the same way, we will find our lives blessed and fulfilled many times over for making the time to seek out our Lord.

We are here today because we seek the Lord. We have left our homes to gather together and celebrate His birth. Like the wise men we acknowledge Him as our King and God. With the angels, we proclaim His glory. And like so many women and men who have found Him, we know that our lives can never be the same. We will receive the Body and Blood of Christ who was born, died and rose again to save us. Now we must continue to seek Him out every day until He comes again.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

From the East

The story of the Magi is among the best known and most popular of the gospels. Whether we know them as the "Three Kings" or the "Three Wise Men", they have a prominent place in every manger scene as well as in the New Testament story of Jesus' birth.

But who were these Magi from the East? The gospel does not tell us much about them. It is assumed that there were only three of them based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which they bring to Jesus. But the gospel never tells us how many Magi there actually were.

We do know, however, that they studied the stars.

In Jesus' day, knowledge of the stars and their position in the sky was vital for travelers. There were few established roadways in the Middle East, especially through the desert. Only by coordinating one's journey along the position of the stars could one be assured of staying on the path and not getting lost.

We also know from the New Testament that the Magi were not Jews. Like many pagans in ancient times, it is likely that they observed the stars not only to guide them when traveling but also to predict the future, just as our modern-day astrologers try to do. They would have believed that their fate was written in the stars. Any unusual occurrence such as a comet or a large star would have gotten their attention.

And just such a thing happened. The Magi observed a star which foretold the birth of a great king, the King of the Jews.

As it is usually told, the Magi follow the star all the way to Bethlehem to the stable where Jesus was born. But that is not how the story is told in the gospels. According to Saint Matthew, the Magi go first to Jerusalem. They needed to consult the Scriptures and the teachers of the Law to learn where they were to find this great king. The star by itself only took them so far. They needed to turn to God's word to get the whole itinerary. If they had not consulted the prophecies of the Old Testament, they would have been lost.

The meaning for us who search for Jesus and seek to lead others to him cannot be clearer. Without the Scriptures, we are lost. Relying on the light of our own intelligence and experience, we may be able to grope our way along. Unaided by faith, we may be able to become nice people. But God wants so much more for us. God wants us to know Jesus personally and intimately. He wants to reveal his love and power to us and use us to lead others to him. We cannot do it on our own. Without the Bible and the Church's teaching which helps us to understand it, we can easily get stuck in our journey or lose our way.

In today's world, we see just how true this is. People are lost. Billions of dollars are spent on palm readers, astrologers and other spiritualists. Books on new age spirituality continue to be popular. Everyone is looking for the latest thing, but they are never satisfied. Their conscience tells them that they are lost, that something is missing, but they are unable to find their way back by the light of their own intelligence. They need the light of God's word to reveal to them that it is Jesus that they seek. To fill the missing piece in their life, they need look no further than the Bible they have tucked away in some drawer and the neighborhood parish they pass on their way to work every day. 

Today's readings, however, do not only contain a message for those who seek Jesus and do not know where to find him. There is another side to this coin that has to do with us who claim to already know that Jesus is the answer.

The Magi were seeking the newborn King of the Jews but did not know where to find him. The chief priests and the scribes knew where to find him, but they were not looking! You would think that many of them would have wanted to join the Magi on the trip to Bethlehem to witness the birth of their Messiah. But they were content to let their knowledge of the Scripture and their positions of authority replace their relationship with God. And so they missed out on the blessed event of Christ's birth.

Like these chief priests and scribes, it is easy for us who believe in Jesus to get complacent and even lazy. It is easy for us to make our relationship with Jesus and the Church simply a matter of following rules - going to Mass on Sundays, fasting on Good Friday, going to confession and so on. Rules are important, but they are not the whole life of faith. If we are not actively seeking God in our daily lives, then we are missing out. If our religion is not about a relationship with Jesus the Messiah then it is dry, lifeless and uninspiring.

As followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to be light for the world. If people are lost, we have to be the light leading them back to Christ. Could it be that our society has turned to palm readers, new age gurus and other quacks because we have not shone forth in our lives the joy and peace that Jesus can give? Rules do not inspire people. Lives of faith and courageous witnesses of truth do.  If we are to be a light to those we meet, we have to ask ourselves - are we seeking to follow rules or are we seeking to follow Jesus? Only by following Jesus ourselves can we hope to ever lead others to him.  

The Magi were not satisfied with merely knowing that a newborn King of the Jews had been born. They wanted to meet him, to pay him homage and to bring him gifts. We cannot be satisfied with just going through the motions when it comes to the practice of our faith. We must seek Jesus daily in a sincere manner. We must study the Scriptures and conform our minds and hearts to its teaching. Then we will become the stars leading others to the desire of their souls - Jesus the Messiah.