Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Good News!

When was the last time you heard really good news, the kind of good news that changed your life?

It could have been when you found out you or a loved one was going to have a baby. It could have been that you were accepted into the school you had always dreamed of attending. It could have been that you got the job you interviewed for. Or it could be that you learned that someone you love loved you back.

This type of good news brings something new and exciting into our lives. It reminds us that life is good and gives us hope for the future. It lifts our spirits and gives new purpose to our days. We all need good news like that from time to time and welcome it whenever it comes.

Today’s readings are all about good news, the kind of good news that can change our lives.

The prophet Isaiah, whom we will hear throughout this Advent season, spoke God’s word during a very difficult period in the history of God’s people. Israel had been invaded, Jerusalem had been destroyed and most of the people were carted off into exile. Far from home and feeling abandoned by their God, they began to despair. But God sent prophets to the people to remind them that He was still in their midst and to urge them to be faithful to the covenant promises they had made to Him.

At their lowest point, Isaiah appears among them bringing good news. He comforts them with the word of God letting them know that their exile is coming to an end. They had endured a time of testing and punishment but now a time of blessing was coming. He reminds them that God is their Shepherd and that He has been leading them not only through the good times but also through the bad times. Though they feel abandoned by God, He had never left them and, in fact, was carrying them through the time of trial as a shepherd picks up and carries a wounded lamb. They could be assured that no matter how rocky the road, God was leading them to a place of rest and peace. Like a Good Shepherd, He would gather all of them and lead them home.

Many of us are here today waiting and praying for good news. Life can be very difficult. We can feel lost and alone. We can even feel as though God has abandoned us or let us down. Maybe things have gotten so bad for us that we have nowhere else to turn than to our Heavenly Father. There is good news for us even in the midst of our trials and tribulations. No matter what we may be experiencing, God is with us. There is nothing that can drive God away from us or cause Him to abandon us. Even when we are suffering because of our bad choices, He never abandons us. Most likely, when God feels distant, we cannot see Him because He has hoisted us up on His shoulders to carry us through the rough patch of road. The good news is that God is always by our side.

The good news is also that the God who is always at our side is also ahead of us leading the way. Like a Good Shepherd, God is leading us to green pastures where we can rest and be fed to our heart’s content. He goes ahead of us clearing away all the obstacles and chasing away all the wolves who threaten to harm us. And if we should get distracted and jump off the road, God will go into the thickets to find us and bring us back. God has a plan for our lives. There is a purpose for every path He leads us through. He can make good come out of whatever may happen to us along the way. Many times, we cannot see it until we have gone through it. But in faith we can walk forward with courage and confidence knowing that he cannot steer us wrong.

For our part, we need to trust God. Every morning, we need to entrust our lives into His loving hands and say, “Thy will be done.” Whatever problem we are faced with, we need to say with confidence, “Lord, I trust in you.” It means taking one day at a time, dealing with what is directly in front of us and letting God take care of tomorrow. As Saint Peter tells us in the second reading, “in the Lord’s eyes, one day is as a thousand years.” Today is the day of decision, the day that God has prepared for us. Living this day well will make tomorrow that much better.

We heard proclaimed today the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark. He tells us that it is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The good news, the news that has changed the lives of untold people throughout the centuries, is that God sent His only Son to die for our sins. He rose from the dead and is still among us. Our Heavenly Father has created each of us for a special purpose and He will lead us to fulfill that purpose if we can leave sin behind and entrust ourselves to Him with childlike confidence.

That is what we are called to do in these weeks leading up to the celebration of our Savior’s birth. We remember that He was born of the Virgin Mary. We proclaim that He will come again to create a new heavens and a new earth where God’s justice will prevail. And we celebrate His presence among us now in the people He has gathered, in the word that is proclaimed and in the bread and wine that will become His Body and Blood. It is the good news that changes our lives forever, the good news our hearts are longing to hear. Our God is with us forever.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Baptist's Cry

John the Baptist is one of the key figures in the drama of Advent unfolding in these weeks leading up to Christmas.

The New Testament tells us that he was born around the same time as Jesus. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were very old and had never had children. One day, while Zechariah was ministering in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him to announce that he would have a son whom he was to name John. As we can imagine, Zechariah found it hard to believe that he and his wife could have a child at such an advanced age. Because of his lack of belief, Gabriel told him that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child. And so it was. Zechariah's inability to speak when he left the sanctuary made it evident to the people that he had seen a vision. And Elizabeth's pregnancy at such an old age made it clear that the child was to be great, that God's mighty hand would be upon him.

Many centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah spoke about John the Baptist. We hear it in today's first reading. He would be a voice crying out in the desert to make straight a way for the Lord. He would call the people to clear out of their lives all the obstacles that kept God from being able to reach them. John preached a baptism of repentance, and the people flocked to receive it. They sensed that, in John, God was doing a mighty work. They didn't know all the details, but they did know that if they failed to listen, they would be missing out on God's offer of salvation.

Two-thousand years later, we still find the Baptist's call to repentance gripping and compelling. We have a sense that God has worked in our lives and called us to this place. We enjoy a lively sense of his presence and love around us. Yet, we must acknowledge that we so seldom live up to the great call he has given us to be light for the world and salt for the earth. The concerns of daily life crowd out the voice of God. The striving to earn more and to have more keeps our hearts from attuning themselves to their one great desire - to be united in intimacy with God.

Saint Peter warns us of this in the second reading. The earth will pass away. Nothing we have accumulated will have lasting value. Our true treasure is our soul and its relationship with God. Only that will survive our personal death and the end of the world. Knowing this, we must then strive to live "...in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord."

And so, we come here today, not unlike the throngs that lined the banks of the Jordan River, heeding the cry of the Baptist to make our crooked ways straight. We want to change. We want God to have more access to our hearts and to our minds. We want to put him at the center of our lives so that we can receive the mighty works he wants to accomplish in them.

We know how weak our resolve can be. We know how willing we can be on Sunday, but how distracted we can get on Monday. The source of our hope, then, is not our own willpower and self-discipline. Rather, the source of our hope is the desire of God to have an intimate friendship with us. God's desire for us is so much deeper than our desire for him. And so he doesn't rest until he has straightened out our crooked ways. He labors to penetrate the defenses we have built around our hearts and the darkness that veils our minds.

John the Baptist made his appearance in Galilee to announce the arrival of someone greater than he, someone whose sandals he was not worthy to loosen. John came to baptize with water which can only give a superficial cleansing leaving us capable of getting dirty again. The one who was to come - Jesus - would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Matthew, in his gospel, tells us that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Unlike water, fire changes what it touches. After something has been burned, it can never go back to what it was before. It is marked forever by the flames.

And so, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and have been lit with the fire of the Holy Spirit through the anointing of our Confirmation, have been changed forever. There is no going back. We can't be unbaptized or unconfirmed. The gift we received through those sacraments can be tarnished and disfigured by sin and neglect, but they can never be lost. Our souls are permanently marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit giving us the foretaste and the promise of everlasting life. We belong to God, and he will never forget or abandon us.

The God who created us is coming to visit. He desires to sit down at a meal with us. Are we prepared? Have we confessed our sins sincerely and thoroughly? Are we determined with God's help to change the way we live, the way we treat others and the way we spend our time? God wants to do something great in our lives. If we can set our sin aside, we will witness it, and it will leave us speechless.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Fully Human - Fully Saved

During the 1980’s, the rock band, Human League, had a hit song called “Human”. The refrain of the song was:

                                    I’m only human
                                    Of flesh and blood I’m made.
                                    Born to make mistakes.

As fellow human beings, we can all relate to the words of this song. Throughout our lives we often experience ourselves as weak and imperfect. We sometimes want to do the right thing but find it to be too difficult. Sadly, many times we desire to do what we know is wrong. Despite our good intentions, we make mistakes and hurt one another. In our humanity, we experience brokenness and vulnerability.

However, that is not what God intended for us from the beginning. Early in the Book of Genesis,  from which today’s first reading is taken, we read that God made man and woman to be the pinnacle of His creation, with dominion over all the earth. Whereas God called His other creatures “good”, He called Adam “very good”. We were created for immortality, to walk intimately with God and to live harmoniously with one another and with all living things.

What happened? We chose a different path. We disobeyed God. We fell under the illusion that separating ourselves from our Creator would make us freer and more powerful. Instead, sin has only weakened our nature, darkened our ability to reason and harmed our relationships. By choosing to disobey God, we have fallen from the heights of glory He intended for us.

Though we turned our backs on our Creator, He did not abandon us. He sent us a new Adam - Jesus Christ. Jesus is fully human as was the first Adam but also fully divine as the angel Gabriel announces to Mary in today’s gospel: “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Because Jesus never sinned, He came to show us what it means to be fully human as God intended. We are not most human when we sin. Rather, we are most human when we are close to God and when we serve one another out of love. By restoring our friendship with God, Jesus empowers us to overcome our fallen natures and live truly good lives.

Not only has our Creator sent us a new Adam. He has also given us a new Eve - The Blessed Virgin Mary. Today we celebrate the mystery of faith that she was kept free from the sin of Adam from the moment of her conception. Like Eve, Mary was created sinless. However, unlike Eve she never disobeyed God.  Her Immaculate Conception teaches us that God wants to restore all humanity to the goodness and glory we enjoyed before the Fall. While Eve is “the mother of all the living”, Mary is the mother of all those who are restored to friendship with God through Jesus Christ.
And so, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary gives us hope. We continue to be weak and imperfect human beings. However, by the grace of God, our human nature can be healed and elevated. Whenever we hear the word of God with faith, it empowers us to turn away from sin and to practice good works. Whenever we receive the sacraments with devotion, we are strengthened to love God and neighbor. By the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls, we become truly good people despite our human weakness. God accomplished this in Mary at the moment of her conception. If we give our lives to Him, He will also accomplish it in us over time and, then, perfectly after our death.

Without God, we are merely “made of flesh and blood” and “born to make mistakes”. With God, we are raised up above our fallen nature to be truly good people capable of great things. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary gives us that hope - that God intends to restore us to the glory Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall. Through her prayers, may we strive everyday for perfection and goodness in the hope that we too will one day be free from sin and stand before our Creator endowed with all the glory He intended us to enjoy from the beginning. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Full Of Saving Grace

If there is one Catholic doctrine that many people find difficult to understand, including some Catholics, it is our belief about the special place that the Blessed Virgin Mary has in the history of salvation.

Why do we hold Mary in such esteem? The first answer to that question would be that, because we love Jesus, it is natural that we would also love His mother. If I have a special love and friendship for someone, it would be natural that I would also love his or her mother. Can you imagine ever being friends with someone who did not also like your mother? Therefore, it is only right that we who seek to imitate Jesus in all things would also seek to imitate his special love and affection for His mother.

The most significant reason, however, that we love Mary is that she said “yes” to being the mother of our Savior. God chose her to be the mother of Jesus. He sent Gabriel to ask her consent and permission to allow His Son to be conceived within her. Without her “yes”, without her saying, “May it be done to me according to your word”, Jesus would not have come into this world. Therefore, she has an indispensable role in the story of our salvation.

We also believe that God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus from the beginning of time. When she herself was conceived, our Heavenly Father prepared her for her special role by already freeing her from sin. That is the mystery we celebrate today, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Sin has never touched the woman God chose from the beginning to be the mother of His Son. From the first moment of her life, she never offended God by her thoughts, words or deeds. Though we can assume that she was tempted at times as Jesus was, she never fell to the tricks of the devil. In all things she remained pure and immaculate.

Christians throughout the centuries have come to believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary in part because of the angel’s words to her which we hear in today’s gospel. When Gabriel speaks to our Lady, he calls her “full of grace.” These words have been understood to mean that Mary was so full of grace, so full of the life of God, that there was no room for sin in her. Just as a glass that is full of water would have no room for any other liquid, so Mary was so full of God’s goodness, truth and love that there was no room for pride, greed, hate or any of the other vices that we so easily fall prey to.

Those who do not believe that Mary was preserved from sin from the moment of her conception say that it would mean that she did not need Jesus to die for her. If she never sinned then she would not need the blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross for her salvation. However, this is not the case.

This is the way early Christians first explained the mystery of how a sinless Virgin Mary would need Jesus to die on the cross for her. They gave the example of someone falling into a hole who could not get out. If I come along and see that person  and help him to get out of the hole, then I have saved him. Now let us say that another person comes along and I stop him before he has a chance to fall in the hole. I have also saved that person but in a different way. The first person I saved by helping him out of the hole while the second person I saved by keeping him from falling in the hole in the first place.

The same is true with Mary. All of us who have sinned are saved by having our sins forgiven. Mary, on the other hand, is saved by being preserved from sinning in the first place. This beautiful grace that preserved her from sin is not something she earned or accomplished on her own, but a gift of God given to her for the special task of being the mother of Jesus.

We gather here today, therefore, to celebrate Mary, full of grace, preserved from sin from the moment of her conception. We celebrate also because of the promise given to us that we can also experience victory over sin in our own lives. While we cannot claim to have never sinned, we can, through God’s grace and Our Lady’s intercession, overcome temptation, break bad habits and grow in virtue. Though we cannot avoid falling into the hole of sin, God offers a hand to lead us out and keep us from falling back in. We hear that promise in today’s second reading, “....he chose us...before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.”

Therefore, because Mary said “yes” to being the mother of Jesus, we have the forgiveness of sins. The same Holy Spirit who hovered over Mary to conceive Jesus in her womb lives in us, filling us with grace and strengthening us to avoid sin and choose good. That is why we gather to celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Immaculate Conception. In her and through her God has won the victory over sin. God wants to do great things in our lives as well. Therefore, we look to Mary to be our inspiration and to pray for us as we strive to live holy lives, to say “yes” to all the ways God calls us to serve Him and to look to heaven for the ultimate victory over death.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Worthy Vessel

If you are thinking of giving someone you love a very special Christmas gift and have thousands of dollars to spend, you might consider getting a bottle of Louis XIII.

Louis XIII is one of the world’s most expensive cognacs selling for over $2,000 a bottle. It is made in France and aged in oak barrels that are several hundred years old. Because of its reputation as one of the best cognacs available, older bottles can sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. If you do not have $2,000 to spend on a bottle of Louis XIII, don’t worry. You can get a snifter of it at any restaurant for only $250.

One of the reasons that this cognac is so prized throughout the world is the beautiful crystal decanter it is sold in. Just the empty bottle sells for over $200. Some special edition decanters have even sold for over $500 at auction. It is natural that a cognac that is so expensive would be sold in a bottle that is worthy of it. It is also natural that the connoisseurs who value this cognac so highly would also value the bottle it comes in.

Now, if cognacs and fine wines are distributed in beautiful containers, how fitting is it that the mother of Our Lord, who carried in her womb the Saviour of the World, should herself be the most worthy and purest of vessels? Because she would carry Jesus within her, God preserved Mary from sin from the moment of her conception. Our Heavenly Father fashioned her into a beautiful, stainless vessel to bear His Son.

When the angel Gabriel greets Mary at the Annunciation, he calls her “full of grace”. We repeat the angel’s greeting every time we pray the Hail Mary. She is so full of grace that there is no room for anything else. There is no room for sin, no room for hate, no room for evil. There is only room for Jesus. And as a bottle allows us to see what is within it, so Mary allows us to see Jesus within her. The clearer the bottle is, the better we see what is within it. Just so, our Lord shines through Mary more clearly than any other person in history because she was the purest creature to ever live.

Because of this, we can learn from Mary what it means to love Jesus. No one loved or knew Him better than she did. And because Jesus gave her to us to be His mother, she loves us and wants to introduce us to Jesus. In all our struggles with temptation and the burdens of life, we can turn to her for help as we would to our own mothers. We can be assured that she will bring our needs to her Son for us. We can also be assured that Jesus will not deny any request made to Him by His mother.

This feast day is also an opportunity to examine ourselves. We also have Christ living within us through faith and baptism. Is our soul a worthy dwelling place for the Saviour of the World? Do we strive everyday to avoid sin with God’s help so that we remain a pure vessel for Jesus? And can others see Jesus within us? Jesus was born of Mary so that He could offer us the forgiveness of our sins and the power to live a good and holy life. He has also given us His Mother to serve as an example and to pray for us. We can be assured, then, that God will make us pure and holy if we will only entrust our lives into His loving hands.

Today we join with Christians throughout the world in celebrating the power of God who preserved Mary from sin from the moment of her conception. We also celebrate His promise that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we too one day will be free from sin and filled with grace, love and joy. The Holy Spirit is at work in us even now to fulfill that promise by purifying us so that we may be worthy vessels to carry Jesus within us as Mary was. As we approach Jesus today in the Eucharist, let us embrace Him as wholeheartedly as Mary did and ask Him to make our souls a worthy place for Him to dwell. Then we will experience God working in powerful ways in our lives as He did in the life of Mary.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Beautiful Hope

What do we mean when we say we “hope” for something?

Usually when we say “I hope” we mean that we want a future event which is beyond our control to go our way. We hope we get an “A” on a test. We hope we get a raise at work. We hope the  football team we are cheering for wins its game.

Often the object of our hope is not just trivial issues but the very serious problems of our times. We hope that there will be peace in the Middle East. We hope that every human life will be protected as sacred. We hope that our political leaders can work together to insure justice for all people.

When we use the word “hope” in everyday conversation we are really expressing a wish. We are “keeping our fingers crossed” or “knocking on wood” in hopes that what we long for will become a reality. Most of the time, we could take out the word “hope” and replace it with “wish”. We simply wish problems would go away or get better. We do not necessarily know that they will or even expect them to, but we wish they would.

However, when a Christian says, “I hope”, he or she means something totally different. We are not merely wishing that somehow problems will get resolved or society will somehow change. We are not merely “keeping our fingers crossed” that life will get better. Wishful thinking is based on the fanciful desire that fate will intervene or that we will get lucky. On the other hand, Scripture teaches us that Christian hope is, first of all,  based on the God who has done great wonders in the past and who promises to continue to act in our lives.  Secondly, it is firm because it is founded securely on His love for us. Thirdly, Christian hope actively works to make what we hope for a reality.

Today’s readings are full of hopeful expectation in the God who works wonders because of His great love and who calls us to translate our hope into action in the present.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah finds the people of Israel in dire straits. They have been in exile and seen their land ravaged. Everything they worked so hard to build up has been torn down. They feel so desperate and abandoned that no amount of wishful thinking can raise their spirits.

What do they do? Through the prophet Isaiah, they turn to God for help. In their prayer, they remember the great deeds He had done for them in the past and affirm their faith that He will continue to provide for them. As Isaiah writes,  “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.”

Likewise, our Christian hope is based on what God has already done for us. As a people He has sent His Son not only to teach us about His love but to die on a cross for our sins. Furthermore, He raised Jesus from the dead to give us the promise of everlasting life. There is no foe whom God has not already conquered through Jesus Christ. Remembering the past, we look forward in hope to the future because the same God who defeated sin and death will strengthen us to overcome whatever obstacles may lie ahead.

As the first reading continues, after the people remember what God has done for them. They reaffirm their belief in His love. “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” Though everything around them is crumbling, they believe in God’s enduring love for them and His promise that He would never abandon them.

Christian hope, therefore, is based on God’s faithfulness and love. He has promised to always be by our side. He has promised to provide us with everything we need to do His will. He has promised that all things will work for our good if we love Him. Our hope in the future, therefore, is based solidly on these promises made to us by our Heavenly Father who cannot lie.

Christians look forward to the future with hope because God has already acted in powerful ways both in our history as a people and in our individual lives. We look forward with hope because of God’s great love for us and His many promises. Because of this great hope, we do not sit around waiting for things to get better. Rather we work actively to make God’s dream of peace, justice and righteousness a reality in our times.

In the gospel, Jesus uses the analogy of a man on a journey who, when he comes home, expects to find his servants hard at work ready to welcome him when he returns. In the same way, Jesus expects us to be hard at work following His commandments, loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry, defending the rights of the unborn and immigrants, telling others about the truth of the gospel and always being ready to give an explanation for the hope that is within us. Filled with hope that He loves us, that He has already won the victory and that He will come again to establish His Kingdom, we labor on in the hope that our faith will move mountains.

Christian hope is not wishful thinking. Rather it is grounded solidly in God’s love for us displayed in all the mighty deeds of the past and all the promises He has made about the future. In the present, we put our hope to work bringing God’s love and justice to a world that is desperate and afraid. This Advent Season which we begin today is a time of hope. As the light from our Advent wreath grows with each passing week, may our hope in the God of love also grow until it banishes the darkness from every corner of our suffering world.

Monday, December 4, 2017

God Never Changes

Life is full of uncertainty. We do our best to plan for the future. We try to prepare for whatever may happen and save as much as we can. However, so many things can change in life that we cannot always be on top of everything. Besides the economic uncertainties, there are also political changes, changes to our health and changes in our relationships. That is why, as we grow older and wiser, we learn to take one day at a time, enjoying what we have today and trusting that we will have enough for tomorrow.

With all the change in life, there is one thing that stays constant - God. God never changes. He is always by our side. No matter what may happen, He will always love us. There is nothing and no one that can change His love for us. There is nothing that can distract Him from us. He has us securely in His hands.

The prophet Isaiah writes beautifully about this in today's first reading. God is the potter, and we are the clay He molds and fashions. We sometimes think that God was done creating when He formed Adam and Eve out of the mud and rested on the Sabbath day. However, God is still at work creating us. We are all works in progress. God is not finished with us yet. And so we need not look to the future with fear because we are in the capable hands of our Creator. Whatever may happen, He will give us what we need to face it all. He will make sure that everything turns out for our benefit no matter how difficult the trials may be.

Saint Paul continues this theme in his letter to the Corinthians. Not only is God at work creating us but He is also saving us in Christ. Through Jesus' death on the cross and through faith, God is enriching us with gifts of grace. To take the image of God as a potter, not only does God create us as a potter would create a jug out of clay, but He also fills us. He does not leave us empty but pours out His love, mercy, peace and joy into us. Paul continues to explain that we lack no spiritual gifts as we look forward in hope to the future. Furthermore, Paul explains, God is faithful. He will never get so frustrated with us that He gives up on us. Rather He will work on us so that we will be ready to greet Him when He comes again.

Despite all the uncertainties of the future, despite our inability to plan for every and any eventuality, we can look forward with hope and confidence. Our health may fail, our money may run out, we might even lose our loved ones but God will always be with us. With God by our side we can lack for nothing. He will always provide for us.

And though we are not able to see into the future, God is able to. In ways we may not be aware of, He is already preparing us for what is to come. Through the small obstacles we overcome today, He is training us for the larger obstacles that will come our way tomorrow. By putting us through small tests today, He is schooling us in the patience, strength and confidence we will need for the larger tests tomorrow. That is why, though our first reaction may be to complain to God about the challenges we face,  we really should be thanking Him for equipping us with what we need to succeed in the future.
So as we look forward in life, our confidence is not in ourselves, in how much money we have saved or how well we have prepared. Instead our confidence is in the God who holds us in His loving hands and who makes all things work together for our good.

There is one thing about the future that we can be absolutely certain of. Jesus will come again. We do not know when He will come, but He has made it clear that the world will one day end and He will establish the Kingdom of God once and for all. In the meanwhile, He has left us His word, the Bible, to teach us how to live as we await His return in glory. There is no better preparation for the future than living a good and virtuous life. When we look back at our past and the mistakes we have made, how often were they a result not just of bad planning but of bad choices?  We knew what the right thing to do was, but for some reason we chose to do what we knew was wrong thinking that we could get away with it. As a result, we lost our way.  If we want to be prepared for the future, then, we must strive today to live the words of the Scripture and to follow the teaching of the Church. They will keep us safe and on the right path as we navigate our way through all the dangers of life.

Life is a journey. We do not always see what is ahead of us. We cannot always plan for what is waiting for us down the road. But we have a God who does see ahead and who will give us all we need to travel securely. We need only trust Him and follow the path He has marked out for us as we look forward to our final destination, the eternal life of heaven.

As we gather here today, God also provides us with the food to sustain us along the way. It is the Body and Blood of His Son which is given to us out of love. Whatever difficulties we are facing, whatever uncertainties are weighing on us, let us offer them up to our Heavenly Father. And when we receive the Eucharist, let us be reminded that He loves us and that He will see us through. We are the clay in His hands and He will never let us go.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Working The Clay

The prophet Isaiah in today's first reading offers us one of Scripture's most beautiful images of God. God is the potter, and we are the clay. Like an artist, God is busy molding and shaping us. He is not some distant, impersonal force watching over the world the way a little boy might look at an ant farm. Rather, God is involved in our lives, calling us to recognize his great love and inspiring us to show it to the world.

The question we might naturally ask is, "If God is so active in the world, why is it such a mess?" Isaiah himself asks this question when he writes, "Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?" It is a question that mankind has been asking for thousands of years.

One simple answer is that God is not done with the world yet. Before the potter gets his hands on it, clay is just a lump of wet mud. The potter has to place it on the spinning wheel and then form it gently but firmly into whatever shape is pleasing to him. Then, the clay must be baked in a kiln, and once it is removed, the paint can be applied. It is a long process to go from a lump of clay to a beautiful vase. And, it is a long process to lead humanity out of its selfishness into the wisdom of God.

If there's one thing we can say about God it is that he is in no rush. God takes the time he needs to get things right. He has all the time in the world! He took millions of years to form the universe and eventually to form the earth. He took millions more years to make the earth suitable for life and to sustain humans. Then, he took many centuries to form the people of Israel. Over the course of several more centuries, he taught them to hope for a Messiah. Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus was born to save us from our sins. Now, God is preparing the world for the time in which Jesus will come again to create a new heaven and a new earth.

We don't know how long it will be until the world comes to an end. But, it will come to an end. And, when it does, Christ will be revealed as the King of Creation, and those who have believed in him will reign with him in glory. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, "He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." God's masterpiece, which he fashioned patiently with his own hands, will then be complete.

There's another reason why the world can be such a mess. Very simply, we don't give God permission to work on us. We keep trying to get in the way of God's plan. Clay does not have a mind of its own. It cannot jump out of the potters hand or out of the kiln. But, human beings are always running away from God. We'd rather stay a wet lump of cold mud than be transformed into something beautiful by him. Even believers very often find it difficult to trust God enough to let him take control of their lives. It is a basic human tendency to believe that we know better than God what's good for us and how we should live.

But, God never gives up on us. Like an artist consumed with his work, God is intent on making each of us into the woman or man he dreams we can be. He doesn't see a cold, hard lump of clay when he looks at any of us. God sees something beautiful made in his own image. No matter how we may have tarnished our beauty through sin, God never fails to see the good he has placed within us. And, God will never stop working to bring the good out of us.

The early Fathers of the Church had a beautiful way of describing how God works in the world. They described Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the two hands God the Father uses to shape us. Jesus reveals the truth of the Father's love while the Holy Spirit works within our hearts to inspire us to do good. All this takes place within the course of our lives. When things are going well, the Son and the Spirit work together to make us grateful and generous. In bad times when we are suffering or struggling, the Son and the Spirit teach us to place our trust in God and to allow him to carry us through it. Therefore, whatever situation we may be facing, God is with us, using the circumstances in our lives to help us grow in holiness. With the Son and the Spirit, the Father shapes and molds us into something beautiful.

Today, we begin the season of Advent - four weeks of preparation for the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We wear purple during this time as we do during Lent because it is a season of penance. We are to spend these weeks searching our hearts for the ways in which we fail to let God work in our lives. We are to invite God back, asking him to take us into his hands and mold us into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. The gospel warns us to be on the look out for the God who approaches us with tenderness and mercy. May he find us ready to welcome him and ready to abandon our lives into his gentle yet firm hands. 

The Saintly Queen Of Portugal

We are all familiar with Jesus’ saying, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24). However, as always, Jesus leaves us with a word of encouragement and hope, “For man this is impossible but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

Throughout history, by God’s grace, many rich and powerful people have found their way to heaven and are counted among the saints we honor and venerate.

One of those rich and powerful persons who became a saint was Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.

She was born in 1271 in Spain. Her father was Pedro III who would later be King of Aragon. Though raised with great wealth and privilege, she always sought to live modestly and humbly. Possessed of an intense love for God, she practiced self-denial and frequent penance from a young age.

As was the custom among royalty of the day, she was given in marriage at the age of 12 to King Dinis of Portugal. During those years, she suffered greatly because of his infidelity. Though they had only two children together, he fathered as many as seven children with other women. Nonetheless, Saint Elizabeth was determined to remain faithful to her husband and to lead a model Christian life in hopes of inspiring him to convert to a more moral lifestyle.

The greatest sign of her holiness, however, was her care for the poor. To the outrage of her husband, she would often leave the castle at night to bring them food, clothing and money. Whenever she learned that a beggar had been mistreated by one of the castle guards, she would usher the beggar in, feed him and treat his wounds.

She also had a profound devotion to the Holy Spirit, directing that a church be constructed in honor of the third person of the Blessed Trinity. When the country was suffering from a long drought, Saint Elizabeth promised to donate her crown to that church if God would bring an end to it.

When the drought did end, she established the tradition of feeding all the poor in Lisbon on Pentecost Sunday. At that celebration, she would choose children from the crowd and place the crown on their heads to symbolize that the poor were the true royalty of Portugal, thus committing herself to serving them as she would any other king or queen. 

Though she was a woman of great wealth and power, she chose to use her privilege not to benefit herself but the poorest members of society. In so doing, she is an example to us of the meaning of the feast we celebrate today - The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Though no one more powerful than Jesus has ever walked the earth, He came to serve and not to be served. And He calls upon us who have any wealth or privilege, no matter how meager, to use it in service of others, especially the poorest and weakest.

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear to us that we will be judged at the end of time. It is a fearsome scene which should grab our attention. Furthermore, He lets us know on what terms we will be judged. Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned or welcome the stranger? If we have provided for the needs of others, then we will share His victory and be welcomed into His Kingdom. If we have not, then we will be cast off to eternal punishment.

We should pay very close attention to what Jesus has to say to us. It is not enough to say that we believe in Jesus if we reject Him in the poor. It is not enough to say that we came every Sunday to be fed by Him if we failed to feed Him in the hungry. It is not enough to say that we read the Bible everyday if we did not put into practice its mandate to welcome the stranger.

Though these words may cause us to tremble, they should not leave us without hope. Certainly, all of us have fallen short in one way or another in serving our needy neighbor. But it is possible to turn things around because all things are possible with God.

The first step is to ask God for the opportunity to help someone in need. However, be prepared! This is certainly a prayer God will answer when we least expect it. It could be that we see someone stopped at the side of the road who needs help changing a tire. It could be a student being picked on in the schoolyard who needs someone to stick up for him. We never know when needy people will cross our path, but we should never fail to help them. Why? Because we will need that good deed to be counted in our favor when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ more than whatever money or time helping them cost us.

The second step is to practice self-denial on a daily basis. We often do not serve the poor because we are too attached to money and to comfort. However, serving others means going out of our comfort zone and even taking the risk of being hurt. Saint Elizabeth of Portugal prepared for her life of service by refusing to indulge in  the many luxuries of palace life. If we are to follow her example and win praise from Christ when we stand before Him at the end of time, then we must learn to rely less and less on modern conveniences. This will give us the courage to go out of our comfort zone and also leave us with more money to give to others.

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal followed the example of Christ who came to serve and not to be served. Despite her great wealth and privilege, she sought to comfort others rather than live comfortably. We must do the same. This mandate of Jesus is even more urgent in our day when the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. And, the truth is that our time is short. It will not be long before we will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. What good deeds will we have to ensure that we are counted among those who are blessed? 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Prison Angel

Mary Clarke was born with every advantage in life. Her father was a wealthy businessman who moved his family to Beverly Hills, California. Among her friends were millionaires and movie stars. Though surrounded by luxury and all the trapping of wealth, she always felt that something was missing.

As a young girl, she had a dream that she was about to be executed on Calvary. Jesus appeared to her and offered to be killed in her place. However, she refused promising Him that she would never leave His side. This dream stayed with Mary and later helped convince her that she would only find happiness and fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

When she reached the age of fifty, her second marriage ended in divorce. With her seven children already grown, she decided it was time for her to realize her dream to dedicate herself totally to God’s service by becoming a religious sister. However, because of her age and divorced status, she could not find a religious order that would accept her.

Nonetheless, she remained determined. Selling her house and all her possessions, she decided to dedicate herself full time to serving the needy. One of her cherished ministries was visiting prisoners. Eventually she decided that visiting them was not enough. In 1977, she moved into a cell in the women’s section of La Mesa Prison in Tijuana, Mexico. Though free to leave whenever she wanted, she otherwise lived under all the restrictions of prison life eating with the prisoners, using the same bathroom facilities and lining up at roll call. She became a prisoner for the sake of other prisoners and came to be called “La Mama” or “Mother” by the inmates.

Her work in the prison was not limited to providing spiritual advice and guidance. Often she would bring blankets and medicine for the prisoners. When they were sick, she would nurse them back to health or sit by their bedside when they died. Despite her love for the inmates, she would never allow them to forget why they were there, the suffering they caused to their victims and their need to repent and change their lives.

In 1997, she fulfilled her dream of becoming a religious sister by starting her own order, The Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, and changed her name to Sister Antonia Brenner. Her heroic service came to the attention of the whole world when a book about her life, The Prison Angel, was published and a documentary later produced.

After nearly forty years of ministry in the prison, Sr. Antonia died on October 17, 2013.

Like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Saint Damien of Molokai, Sister Antonia decided it was not enough to merely visit those in need. She wanted to share her life with them. She wanted to live among them, to experience what they experienced and  to suffer alongside them. In doing so she was also following the example of Jesus who, though rich, made Himself poor for our sake. Jesus did not descend from heaven merely to rule over us but to share our life. He made Himself poor and homeless for our sake. Eventually He was tortured and killed, refusing to use His power to protect Himself from the cruelty of the Roman soldiers. In every way He lived a human life, identifying Himself with the naked, the prisoner and the sick to such an extent that He can say to us, “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

It is one thing for us to serve the poor. But it is another thing for us to look upon them as brothers and sisters. It is one thing for us to share our surplus money, food and clothing with them. But it is another thing to call them our friends, to know their names, to know their background and to allow them to know us. It is one thing to give of our time to those in need. It is another thing to give of ourselves to them, to inconvenience ourselves or even suffer alongside them.

This is what makes Christian commitment to the poor different from other philanthropic efforts or from the welfare provided by the state. When government agencies step in to help the poor, all they can provide is food, money or housing. Of course, that is good, but it is not enough. There is a deeper ache in each human heart that no amount of material goods can comfort. We need love, friendship and compassion. No government agency can provide that.

That need for love, friendship and compassion is not only felt by the poor but also by the wealthy. It is what unites us as brothers and sisters created in God’s image and likeness. It is what made Sister Antonia restless even though she lived in a Beverly Hills mansion. Jesus Himself felt that need which impelled Him to seek out the poor, the blind and the outcast. Only by going outside our comfort zone to reach out a hand of friendship to those in need will that loneliness within each of us be comforted. Only by living among the poor - by being poor alongside them - can we truly discover Jesus hidden among them.

These are challenging words. They should give all of us - myself included - much to think about. For each of us, the call to not only serve the poor but identify with them will look different. However, it is not an option. Jesus, our King, makes it clear that He will judge us by how we treated them. To receive the blessings of His Kingdom we must become poor ourselves. If we put our lives under the Lordship of Jesus, our King, He will provide us with opportunities to do so. In the process, we will find the unsettled feeling within us subsiding and being replaced with the blessings that only come from God.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Finding Jesus Among The Poor

Many of the Church’s great saints were soldiers. Such a one was Saint Martin of Tours.

Young Martin joined the Roman army at the age of nineteen. Unlike other soldiers his age, he was a sensitive and spiritual man. Though drawn to the teaching of Jesus and inspired by the lives of the Christians he knew, he did not seek to become a Christian himself.

One day while standing guard by a city gate, he noticed a beggar shivering in the cold. Martin took his sword, cut his cloak in half and gave it to the beggar. That night, he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him wearing the cloak he had given the beggar. In the dream, Jesus was telling his angels, “This is Martin who shared his cloak with me.” When he woke up the next morning, he arranged to be baptized, left the army and dedicated his life to serving the poor and defending the Christian faith.

Saint Martin experienced the promise that Christ makes in today’s gospel. Whatever we do for the poor, the hungry and the suffering,  we do for Jesus. And, whenever we turn our back on those in need, we are turning our back on Jesus.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. We know that earthly rulers live in splendid palaces and wear the finest clothes. They move in the circles of the wealthy and powerful. But Jesus is a different kind of King. Though He is almighty and can do whatever He wills, He chooses to associate Himself with the poor, the meek and the humble. Whereas we can expect to find earthly kings in palaces, we can expect to find Christ the King in factories, in slums and in soup kitchens.

If Jesus seems distant, if we have had trouble finding Him and wondered whether He is really present among us, it could be that we have been looking for Him in the wrong place. If we really want to meet Jesus and get to know Him, perhaps we need to find Him among the people He so strongly identifies with. Maybe we need to break out of our circle of friends and acquaintances and take the risk of going out to the homeless shelters, the hospitals, the prisons and the soup kitchens where we will encounter a Savior who makes His home with the poor. If we want to take our spiritual life to another level and deepen our relationship with Jesus, that might be just what God is calling us to do.

Of course, poverty comes in many forms. Often people with plenty of food and enough money can be poor in other ways. They may find themselves isolated and lonely. They may be caught in addictions and harmful habits. Or they may feel lost with no direction and no meaning in their lives. Jesus also identifies with these spiritually poor people. So besides feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, we are also called to pray for those who have died, comfort those who mourn, counsel those who are confused, and teach those who are in error. If we love Jesus and desire to serve Him, we must be ready to provide for the needs of others no matter what they are. We do so with trust that if God puts a needy person in our path He will also provide us with what we need to help him or her.

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel also mean that we have to start looking at people in a different way.  Too many times as a society and as a nation, we talk about the poor, the unemployed and the immigrant as a problem to be solved. Often they become scapegoats for society’s other problems. This is particularly true of immigrants. But people are never problems to be solved. Rather they are individuals whom we must love. Most importantly, they are Jesus in disguise. And we will be judged by how we treat them both as individuals and as a nation.

We are always asking for God’s blessing, and it is a good thing that we do. Could it be, however, that God’s blessing comes to us through the needy people who cross our path everyday? Could we begin to change our outlook to such a degree that we see the homeless person on the corner, the beggar in the middle of the street and our lonely relative as God’s blessing in disguise? Rather than feeling inconvenienced or put out by those who ask for our help, could we see ourselves being blessed by them instead?

Can we also change the way that we look at our possessions? Are they for our use alone, or are they given to us by God to share with others? Could we ever consider doing without so that we could share more of our goods with the poor? Could we ever consider sacrificing one of our most precious commodities -  our time - to visit someone who is lonely and could use a little of our attention? What might not seem like much to us could make a world of difference to someone in need. And we will find ourselves being immeasurably blessed in return. We may come to see and know Christ in a way we never did before.

Jesus is in our midst, but He is hidden among the poor. One day He will come in glory. Then there will be no doubt that He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Everyone will have to acknowledge Him and bend the knee before Him. And each of us will be judged not just on how often we went to Church and not just  on what Church we belonged to but on how we served Jesus in the poor and needy in our midst. Jesus has already revealed to us what the questions on the test will be. He has also provided us with His word to guide us and His sacraments to strengthen us. There will be no excuse for us if we fail to live up to His expectations. At the same time, there will be untold blessings for us if we serve Him in every needy person we meet along the way.