Sunday, August 26, 2018

You Must Remember! - Homily for the 21st Sunday in OT

One of the reasons why I believe that the Gospels are true is that they sometimes give us details that are unflattering and messy. This morning, we hear that many of the disciples left Jesus. That's an unflattering and messy truth-- because isn't He the Messiah? Why would people leave Him? Yes, it's that our Gospels speak these very real and perennial truths (even when they are messy) that I believe them.

So the question remains: Why? Why did many of the disciples leave? And, as a follow up, why didn't Jesus go after them?

Let's answer that first question: why did they leave? The disciples leave for two reasons [and a third here added].

First, what Jesus said was scandalous. Imagine you are going into Panera Bread Co and someone approaches you and says, "Hey, if you want to get into heaven, you have to eat my flesh." How would you react? I know how I would: I would say, get away from me. Weirdo.

But here's the thing: what if that person was known for healing people and for raising the dead? What if he had some... credibility?

Didn't Jesus have some credibility? Hadn't He just performed two of His most iconic miracles on just the day before?-- namely, the walking on water and the multiplication of the loaves? Sure, Jesus may have sounded weird, but what about those miracles?

This is the second reason why the disciples left: they forgot about the miracles and did not credit it to Jesus' credibility. Had they remembered, they may have been slower to leave and quicker to stay.

[[[A third reason-- and it's a historical one. At the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus is announced by John the Baptist. John points to Jesus and says, "Behold, the Lamb of God..." John is alluding to the Lamb of the Passover Supper (that's when Moses, at God's direction, instructed the people to take a lamb, kill it, smear its blood on the doorposts, and eat it. The reason for this was that, if this sacrifice was offered and followed, the people would be saved from the Angel of Death and delivered from Egypt). John points to Jesus and says, "Behold the Lamb of God... who takes away the sins of the world"-- in essence, He who frees us from this spiritual Pharaoh (the devil) and his slavery (namely, sin).

The people see the connection between this and when Jesus says that they must eat Him (one of the requirements of the Passover Lamb) and they put two and two together: if Jesus is the New Passover Lamb, that means that He must also be killed (for that was another requirement of the Passover Lamb).

This is too much for the people. They came out to follow a Messiah that would overthrow the Romans and give the people power and riches. They didn't come out to follow someone who was going to be killed. They didn't want to follow a loser-- they wanted a winner. So they left.]]]

And notice: this wasn't about a hard teaching on marriage or some matter of morality. The people were leaving because of the New Passover-- which we call the Eucharist.

***

This brings us to the second question: Why didn't Jesus go after them?

First, it's because they understood correctly. They may have judged Jesus incorrectly, but they understood the teaching correctly. Jesus didn't have to run after them and say, "Hey, you misunderstood!"

Second, it's because He had already given them everything necessary to stay with Him. He had given them the miracles. And not just the walking on water. He had healed their sick and expelled the demons and even raised their dead. What more did they need?

Here's an aside: many people think that Christians are just supposed to have "blind faith"-- a faith that just blindly follows. That's not Christianity. Jesus calls us to faith, but He gives us reasons. This is important. If we don't have reasons-- if we forget the miracles and the graces, for example-- we will fall away. Remember how I started this homily: I told you one of the reasons why I believe. You should have reasons, too.

This is important because Jesus turns to Peter and asks Peter a poignant question-- a question that every Christian must answer: "Do you want to leave as well?" Or, in other words: "Do you have a reason to stay?"

Imagine it: Peter has just heard the same things the crowd has heard. He has seen the same things. And he has seen half of them leave. Can you imagine his thoughts, the scandal, the struggle to believe?

Peter's faced with the same razor's edge that Joshua posed to the people in our first reading when Joshua said "Decide! ... Decide today whom you will serve."

***

Peter responds quite honestly and in a way that I often find myself responding these days. Peter says "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life." 

In other words:
Lord, I don't understand how you are going to give us your flesh to eat and what this whole New Passover Lamb thing means. But, Lord, in the past-- in fact, just last night-- I saw your grace at work, "great miracles before [my] very eyes." You have "protected [me] along [my] entire [life's] journey"; you "brought [me]... out of slavery." And when you called me, something resonated in my heart such that I left everything so as to follow you. I have nothing else to go to. So, Lord, it's a choice between you or nothing. I choose you.

Notice: Peter is able to accept the hard teaching because he remembers the miracles and, from that, Peter gives Jesus his trust.

***

Are there any other hard teachings that we encounter today? I can think of two.

Firstly, the second reading has that line, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands."

Let me simply say that if your husband elbowed you in the ribs at that line, he misunderstood it.

What is this passage about? Is it about men and women? Look closer. Paul says, "I tell you a great mystery and I speak in reference to Christ and His Church."

In other words, Paul isn't firstly talking about your marriage. Paul's talking about His-- Jesus'-- marriage. Jesus is the groom; the Church is the bride.

And what Paul is getting at is: if we don't understand how Jesus treats the Church and how the Church is to treat Jesus, then we will not understand how husbands and wives are to treat each other.

Or, to put it another way: Paul knows his scripture and he knows that, in the beginning, the battle of the sexes and the domination over women came not as God's plan, but as the result of sin. So why would Paul, a saint who rails against sin and who follows Jesus (Jesus who upheld women to the scandal of that day's culture)-- why would Paul encourage a structure of sin?

The fact is: Paul does not encourage such sin. Rather, he proposes something revolutionary. "Look at Jesus," he is saying. "See how Jesus lowered Himself even to the point of washing Peter's feet (for those who have power must use it to serve)." This is the scandal of God: that He so lowered Himself and became subordinate to humanity.

And to what purpose? Jesus's goal is to bring His bride, the Church, to heaven. He will do this by laying down His life.

Therefore, "husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church."

To the ladies, Paul then says, "Wives, is the bride of Christ called to love and follow Him?" Of course-- every Christian is called to follow Jesus. Paul then says, "Wives, would you follow Jesus-- knowing that His whole purpose is to bring you to heaven and that He will lay down His life for you to see it through?" What woman wouldn't?

Then Paul says, "Be subordinate to your husbands as to the Lord." In other words, if your husband is sitting at the feet of Jesus, if your husband's goal is to bring you to heaven, if he is laying down his life for you, then why wouldn't you go where he goes?"

The problem is, of course, is two-fold: one, that many husbands don't sit at the feet of Jesus and take on His ways; and two, many husbands who do take on His ways are not loved-- just like many in the Church don't love Jesus even though He loves them.

So, what are we to do?

Remember the graces.

Remember the graces of your marriage. Remember the miracles that have happened together. Remember what Jesus has done for you. "And be subordinate to each other out of reverence to Christ" who has been subordinate to you!

Help each other to remember. Build each other up. Wives, look for those reasons to believe in your husband again; husbands, look for ways to deepen the reasons for your wife to believe in you again!

***

That was the first hard teaching. The second hard teaching is much, much briefer. And it comes from the last two lines of the Sixth Chapter of John. For some reason, they are omitted from today's Gospel reading (you can find them in your Bible at home, however). Anyway. After Peter remembers the miracles and makes his statement of faith, Jesus responds:
Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?” He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve.
What's going on here? Jesus is saying: 
Ok, Peter, good. You remember and you are with me. But this is not the only time you will not understand. This is not the only time that you will be scandalized. One of your own-- not the crowds, not the people in the pews-- but one of your own, an Apostle and a bishop like you, will betray me. One of your own is going to be the cause of scandal.

And what will you do then? Will you remember the miracles? Will you remember the graces? Will you proclaim a living faith then?




I think such words are important in our times. I addressed the clergy scandals at length in my previous homily and noted many things that we as a church must do, from support of victims, to holding people accountable, and so on (and you can find that homily on my webpage).

But I think another thing we must do during these times-- the mission that we have-- is twofold:

One: remember. Remember the miracles; remember the graces. God is with us; His Eucharist, His Presence is here. And He gave that on the very night He was betrayed by an Apostle, a bishop. Jesus foresaw what would happen and He gave us all the reasons to keep on believing.

Two: go out and help people remember. Help a scandalized and unbelieving world to remember that there are miracles and graces and reasons to believe.

This is our faith. This is our hope. Let us proclaim that now and ask our Lord to strengthen us in it.

St. Theodore, pray for us! +

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Running into the Burning Building

Shock, horror, amazement, anger, sadness, worry. In the moments and days after the 9/11 attacks, I would use these words to describe my thoughts and feelings; of course, those words were not adequate. Like many of you, I still remember where I was when it happened. Of course, for those of you who are currently in college and younger-- you probably do not remember having such feelings on 9/11 because you were too young or not alive. Yet, you and all of us were effected by it: we live in the age of security checkpoints at airports, ziplock bags in carryons, "God Bless America" in the seventh-inning stretch, an un-ending war in the middle east, and a rise in anti-religious sentiment. This is the post-9/11 world.

A few months after 9/11 came the "Long Lent of 2002." This is when the first bombshell of a series of bombshells fell about how many priests in the Boston Archdiocese had done terrible things to the young and innocent. Catholics would be using the same words I had at 9/11-- and with the same inadequacy. Surprisingly, I remember nothing about that Lent and those bombshells. That may sound odd, but the Internet back then was not what it is today; I did not have a TV; and I was trying desperately not to fail out of WashU. Many college students at this time do not remember Lent 2002.

Of course, like our young who never experienced 9/11 but who know it by its fruits, I would see 2002's effects years later: parish churches' attendance was dropping dramatically; there was disillusionment and increased distrust of clergy along with names calling them what many of them were (and which I will not repeat here because there are little ears present); we would see Protecting God's Children seminars; and a rise in anti-Catholic sentiment.

Since I wasn't anywhere close to being alive in the Church prior to 2002, I figured that these seminars, the names, the anti-catholic sentiment, and so on were normal-- much like those who live in a post 9/11 world consider airport security lines normal.

When I entered the seminary in 2006, I was entering at a time that it was not popular to enter. I didn't really care, however, because I was entering not for popularity but for Him. And after all, I didn't commit those crimes. And I was still the same guy who just weeks before was in a shirt and tie and trusted with teaching high schoolers. Certainly, I thought, people would still see I was the same Anthony whether I wore a collar or a tie. I was naive.

When I told my dad I was entering the seminary and not becoming a doctor, he raised his fist so as to hit me. He had stopped practicing the faith after the scandals of 2002 came out. After the craziness that followed Vatican II, it was his last straw. And the fact that I was becoming a priest in what he saw was a perversion of the Catholic Church-- it was too much for him.

Walking around in my collar in this post-2002 world is life-changing. Many people thanked me for becoming a priest at such a time; but many people looked at me with suspicion and even hatred-- even though I had done nothing wrong. I came to realize that many in this world which preached non-judgmentalism judged me guilty by association; or someone who is cow-towed into silence and cover-up. Some expected me to apologize for criminal priests, not thinking that this would be like asking David Freese to apologize for the 1919 Black Sox. Maybe I'm wrong there.

At any rate, I began to understand why many faithful priests would remove their collars when they went out to eat. And why many parents now worry about sending their boys to seminary.

The effects of 2002 were enough. I prayed I would never have to live through a 2002 as a priest. Just like we pray we never have to live through another 9/11.

But this past week, I found myself hearing about new bombshells, now in Pennsylvania: scandals that are double in size to Boston. And more bishops. And even Cardinals. I found myself saying those same words as I did at 9/11: I am shocked, horrified, amazed, angry, sad, and worried. Hearing parts of the unsealed Grand Jury report have made me sick to my stomach-- and I cannot hear any more of it.

In the past week, I have wanted bishops to resign and I have battled thoughts of vengeance. I have searched for wisdom and for the holy course of action. I have prayed for the victims and for all the innocent. Including those priests that are innocent. And the lay faithful, you, who have to endure these evil times.

The comparison to 9/11 is the best I can come up with right now. The analogy fails, however, in that we are not watching this on TV. We're living it.

That said, I remember the fire-fighters that ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11 and I realize this is what I'm being called to do here. Terrorists-- sadly our own priests-- have bombed the Church and the Church is on fire. And I can either stand there-- amazed, afraid (and both would be normal reactions) or I can be like those heroes and run in there and save her. I prefer that-- even if people say that I'm wasting my life. Because this is what Jesus did.

During the past couple of weeks, Jesus has been telling us how He is going to give us His Body and Blood. I have always wondered why He included His Blood. Why not body and soul? Here's why: Blood is connected to life and to judgment. Here's what that means. When Cain killed Abel, Abel's blood cried out to God and God heard it. When Jesus gives His Blood "of the new and eternal covenant," He is saying that He loves us not just with nice words, but with actions. And this blood proclaims judgment: those who do evil will be judged. Jesus sweat blood in the Garden as He saw all of these sins-- these sins even of His priests-- and His blood proclaims both love (for He went to the Cross anyway and His mercy can forgive all), but for those who refuse mercy and love: judgment.

That said, I am in agony with Jesus over this. And will go to the Cross with Him anyway. This will mean certain things that I as a priest will do in prayer and in penance.

If you wish to join me, if you are looking for what to do, run with me into the burning building:

First, if you are a victim of abuse-- abuse of any kind (sexual, emotional, physical) and by anyone (spouse, teacher, priest, anyone) tell somebody. Report it to the authorities. I know this takes courage, but the truth is not afraid of the light. This needs to be addressed. Only then can healing begin.

Second, if someone attacks your Catholic faith because of these scandals, do not defend what happened. What happened is reprehensible and indefensible. People need to grieve this and vent their anger-- that's one of the stages of grieving.

Third, do not fall for the lie that prayers do nothing. We must both call for bishops to tell the truth and treat this as the crisis it is AND we must pray. If we do not pray, this spiritual war will never end. That said, I am not praying for more policies-- we have plenty of those-- I am praying for action, for the Holy Spirit to pull up this evil by the roots. Eucharistic Adoration, where we pray before Jesus' body and blood, is crucial here. Come to adoration.

Fourth, do not lose hope. When Judas betrayed Jesus, Jesus and the apostles kept loving and believing. Our parish and the Church at large continues to do great things: in our schools, in our help with the poor, at our Masses. Remind people about the good and that holiness continues-- just as Paul said: "where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more."

Fifth, know that the Archdiocese of St. Louis has overhauled its seminary since 2002. To gain entry, a man must go through a thorough psychological examination and his every-day activities are observed and evaluated by formators-- which include lay professors and psychologists. In addition, the Archdiocese's child protection practices were evaluated by a member of the FBI and found to be thorough. On my end, knowing that even just one false-accusation can ruin a priest, I am scrupulous when it comes to being with children; I always make sure there is a group and another adult present.

Sixth, when people say this is a reason to get rid of celibacy because men need to engage in physical relations; tell them, no, this is the reason why men need to take control of their physical appetites and master them. Indeed, if a married man wants to remain married, he knows this fact: that when a beautiful, "newer model" comes walking into the office with high heels, that man had better be celibate while she is there. Celibacy is not the issue-- promiscuity and psychological illnesses are (along with the culture that covers up and encourages them).

Seventh and finally: I have sat and talked with God about this homily. He responded with the following words. Please take them to reflection and prayer, too:
Matthew 18:6 "If anyone causes scandal to any of these little ones, it would be better for that man if a millstone were tied around his neck and cast into the sea." 
Romans 12:19: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord."
Matthew 18:21: "Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but seventy times seven."

I leave you with a prayer that has given me comfort in these days. It is Psalm 5:
Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my groaning.
Hearken to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to thee do I pray.
O LORD, in the morning thou dost hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for thee, and watch.
For thou art not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with thee.
The boastful may not stand before thy eyes; thou hatest all evildoers.
Thou destroyest those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors bloodthirsty and deceitful men.
But I through the abundance of thy steadfast love will enter thy house,
I will worship toward thy holy temple in the fear of thee.
Lead me, O LORD, in thy righteousness because of my enemies;
make thy way straight before me.
For there is no truth in their mouth; their heart is destruction,
their throat is an open sepulchre, they flatter with their tongue.
Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against thee.
But let all who take refuge in thee rejoice, let them ever sing for joy;
and do thou defend them, that those who love thy name may exult in thee.
For thou dost bless the righteous, O LORD;
thou dost cover him with favor as with a shield.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. +

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Out from the Clearance Bin - Homily for Corpus Christi (2018)

This weekend, we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi-- that's Latin for "The Body of Christ." It is a celebration of God having given us the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ present here in the Eucharist.

One of the joys of being assigned to a parish with a school is that I get to see the children and their reaction to the Eucharist. For example, on Tuesdays we have Eucharistic Adoration here. This is where we place a gold object, called a monstrance, on the altar (monstrance from the Latin "to show"). In this monstrance, there is a window and, behind the window, you can see the host, the Eucharist. When people come to Eucharistic Adoration, they come to see and to adore Jesus present in the host. There's no need to recite lengthy prayers or to "do" anything. It is enough to just be with Jesus.

The kids, for their part, often kneel in the pews and some of them move up to the floor in front of the pews where they sit or kneel. But it's pretty cool to see what they do. I see them close their eyes in prayer; others sit criss-cross and just look up at Jesus; once, I saw a child blow a kiss to Jesus. It's very beautiful.

Children, I think, have a sense that Jesus is here. A mom of our parish recently told me that her little one whispers in her ear at communion time: the little one says, "Mom, my mouth is watering. I want Jesus." Indeed, I have a memory from my childhood-- I was about 4 or 5. I remember the priest giving out communion from the ciborium (that is the gold object that holds the Eucharist-- from the Latin "cibus" meaning "food"-- a ciborium is a food container...)-- I remember the priest giving out communion and I wondered how it was that he never ran out of hosts. I knew the story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes and I just presumed that when Father gave out one host, another miraculously reappeared in the ciborium!

I will admit: in hindsight, I know that I am very blessed that, from a very young age, I always believed or at least intuited that there was something miraculous going on here. I knew it wasn't about the preaching (thank God!) nor the music. Mass wasn't a meeting on Sundays. It was something special-- Jesus was here. And something miraculous and transcendent was going on-- something out of the ordinary.

I'm blessed in that I've never really doubted this. Sure, I've had temptations just like anyone else, but I always believed. What I found interesting, however, is that the moments of temptation typically came in those moments when I was in a hurry or preoccupied with some other project. I started to wonder why this was.

The conclusion I came to was this: there is a correlation between the cost of something and the value we place on it. Let me repeat that: there is a correlation between the cost of something and the value we place on it.

That's kind of heady, so let me explain.

Say that you want to buy a pair of shoes and you find the pair you want in the clearance bin. Ok, so they're twenty bucks, but they were the ones you were looking for. -- But they were in the clearance bin. We start to think: what's wrong with them? why are they on clearance? why did no one else want them? are they knock offs? are they damaged? and so on.

Let's say that you go to the store again and this time you buy a pair of shoes, but this time you spend $120 on them. A pretty fine pair of shoes for that cost. Indeed, you are going to take care of those $120 shoes. They cost $120-- so you're not going to walk through the mud in them or give them to your dog to chew on and so on. No, you're going to take care of them.

Here's the point: our human nature will take care of the shoes that cost $120 much more than those that cost $20-- even if they are the exact same pair of shoes. In other words, it doesn't matter so much about the shoes so much as how much you spend on them. If you spent a lot on that pair, you're going to take care of it much more than the one you got from the clearance bin. There is a correlation between the cost of something and the value we place on it.

The same can be said about our faith.

So, for example, it is no secret that some converts to the Catholic faith are more zealous and evangelical than some cradle Catholics. Why is this? Take, for example, a Baptist who is becoming Catholic. She may lose her friends over this; or her parents; she will definitely lose her Baptist worshipping community (some who may even accuse her of idolatry when she talks about worshipping the Eucharist). But she feels called to the Eucharist. So, to help explain to her family and friends and community, she starts reading and studying and forming ways to articulate. And, probably during all of this, the way that she is living is changing, too.

This-- this Eucharist, the very Thing that makes Catholics different than all Christian denominations-- this is costing her a lot. And precisely because it cost her so much-- much more than those $120 shoes-- she is going to value it so much more than those for whom this faith cost them nothing.

What does this mean for us?

I think it means that we need to raise the bar when it comes to our spiritual life and Eucharistic devotion. Here's what I mean by that. After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there was a kind of experiment in the Church that thought that, if we lowered the bar when it came to morality, to what was expected at Mass, and so on-- that if we lowered the bar, more people would become Catholic.

But if you look at how many parishes have closed and how many people are no longer Catholic-- well, I think you can see that this particular experiment has failed.

The question is why?

The answer is: because at the very heart of our religion is the belief that love costs. We believe in Jesus Christ, who is God, and that He loved us even unto the Cross-- and that cost Him His life. It is this same Jesus that then turned to us and said, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must lay down his life, pick up his cross daily, and follow me." In other words, if you love, there is a cost.

In past centuries, the laws of the Catholic Church helped Her children to remember this fact and actually to live it out. For example, many of you remember that, when it came to fasting before receiving communion, it wasn't an hour-- it was from midnight. You had to make it from midnight all the way to after Sunday morning Mass. (Which is why you didn't see too many Sunday evening Masses. And the word "breakfast" literally comes from this: Break Fast). You would literally feel a little pain before and even during Mass.

Our culture is so averted to cost that when the Church even begins to mention the costs required for Holy Communion (like, being free from mortal sin and a practicing Catholic), people get upset. But precisely because there is no cost, so many have such a little value of the Eucharist.

Now, this is not a complaining homily about how things have changed from the 1960s. That's not the point.

The point is that, when we were children, we found it quite easy to believe and to love Jesus in the Eucharist. We didn't have anything else pulling us away from valuing this. But then there came dating. And then college and studies. And responsibilities like a job and bills and family and so on. And we are pulled in many directions. Because things became complicated, we now had to choose-- and whatever we chose would cost us those things that we didn't choose. If I chose work on Sunday, it would cost me the Eucharist. If I chose the Eucharist, it would cost me the extra sleep on Sunday, etc.

To battle the temptation and to grown in a greater faith and love in Jesus here-- we have to raise the bar and, in a sense, we have to have this cost us more. I'm not talking about money. I'm talking about Monsignor Orf. Monsignor Orf-- he's a priest that came from our parish. He's about 90 years old. He offers Mass with me once in a while. Now, I have bad knees-- I can't imagine his, being 90 years old, but he tells me they aren't all that great. And yet, he genuflects to Jesus here. And when Monsignor genuflects, I hear a little grunt of pain-- it hurts.

There's the cost of love.

I don't know the specifics of how God wants to raise the bar of your spiritual life and Eucharistic devotion, but maybe it starts with a devoted genuflection. Maybe it means kneeling without putting your butt on the pew to rest. Maybe it means making a good act of faith when you come up the line. Maybe it's the commitment to Sunday Mass every Sunday. Maybe the cost is dressing nicely instead of casual. Maybe the cost is telling your employer that you can't work on Sundays anymore. I don't know what it is for you-- but can you imagine that person whom God is asking to tell their employer that Sunday Mass is more important than work on Sundays? Or the churches in Syria that are being destroyed and yet the people still come?

Can you imagine how much they value the Eucharist? They can look up at the Lord and say, "Jesus, I took that great chance, Lord, to be here with you."

It was a little Cross; but believe how much the Lord will bless that!

We must not lower the bar, but raise it. It makes our faith all the more firm; it makes our communion all the more sweet; it makes our worship all the more intense; it makes our community all the more vibrant. It makes us all like children again, kneeling in prayer, telling Jesus that we love Him and blowing Him kisses.


Friday, February 2, 2018

A Moment in Groundhog Day...

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. It's the Feast of the Presentation AND it's Groundhog Day. I celebrate with Holy Mass in the morning and then, sometime later, I watch the movie "Groundhog Day." (I know: I have weird traditions).

For what it's worth, one of my favorite moments in the movie "Groundhog Day" (and, for that matter, in any movie), is the moment of Phil's conversion. I won't tell you the whole movie, but there comes a point when he's reading poetry and, at the poem's last line, Phil realizes he's been foolish about love and about God.

The rest of the movie (and it's a pretty beautiful rest of the movie) is all about giving yourself over in self-gift.

... Which also happens to be a major theme of the Catholic Feast of the Presentation. In this Catholic Feast, the light of God comes to us as Mary brings Jesus (the light) into the temple. It is at this moment that hearts come to see that the best way to respond in life is to give ourselves over to Him and neighbor in self-gift-- that is, in love.

It's a beautiful moment. And, as I sip my coffee this morning, I can't help but smile at seeing this little bridge between the two.

Oh, and if you would like to know the last line of the poem that Phil was reading, it is from "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer. I hope you read it-- it's one of my favorites. You can find it right here:



I think that I shall never see 
A poem lovely as a tree. 

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest 
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast; 

A tree that looks at God all day, 
And lifts her leafy arms to pray; 

A tree that may in Summer wear 
A nest of robins in her hair; 

Upon whose bosom snow has lain; 
Who intimately lives with rain. 

Poems are made by fools like me, 
But only God can make a tree.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Alone and in a Family - Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family (B)

Merry Christmas!

I know, it may sound a little weird to say that today, December 31st, but contrary to our culture, Christmas continues! A full season, in fact. So, you'll notice the crib is still up and the poinsettas and the lights. And over at the rectory, too. So, while the radio stations have turned off Christmas, we're still celebrating. So, merry Christmas!

One of the gifts we receive this Christmas-- in fact, The Gift we receive-- is Jesus. And we all know that, of course. But what is interesting to me is that He came to us in this way. *pointing to the manger scene* I mean, God is GOD, so He could have just beamed Himself down here or come to us as a 30 year-old man. He didn't have to go through all the trouble of growing up and living under a roof. In other words, He didn't have to enter into a family. But, of all the ways that God could have come to us, here He has come: right through the family!

Why does He come this way? One of the reasons is that the experience of family is universal. Whether we came from an integral family or a broken family, we came into this world not by our lonesome, but by another. Jesus entered into this universal experience. But not just to say, "Hey, I know what it's like," but to give the family a new and elevated dignity. The family is no longer "just" a family. The family has been raised to Holiness.

This is one of the greatest gifts of Christmas: Jesus enters the family and shows us what family can be. Indeed, He shows us that family IS a gift. It is a gift to be part of a family.

***

This is a major point of our readings today. In the first reading, Abraham and Sarah are lamenting that they cannot have a family. They think they are infertile and too old. Many people in our world feel this pain: they want children but are unable to have them. They know quite keenly how great a blessing it is to have children, to have a family. God promises Abraham and Sarah that a family is coming.

In the Gospel, we see Simeon and Anna. Both are childless. Anna is a widow. There is a longing in their heart-- and this longing is fulfilled when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to them. "At last!" cries Simeon!

But wait. Jesus isn't Simeon's child. So, why is Simeon so happy? Because, in the words of the prophet Isaiah (9:6), "Today a child is born to us. A son is given to us."

In other words, Jesus doesn't simply enter into a human family. He draws every single person into His family. A child is born to us, a son is given to us-- and that's because Jesus draws us into His family where God is our Father.

This Family *pointing to the manger* shows us not only what our families are to be like. But this Family also shows us what we as a Church are to be like. Jesus is our center-- and notice the prayer of Mary and Joseph and the love that they share between them.

It is a blessing to have a family. And not only the biological ones, but especially the spiritual ones.

***

I say that because there's a lot of loneliness out there, isn't there? So many people feel alone and isolated. The winter is cold, not only because of the temperatures, but also because they are looking for the warmth of love-- but where is it to be found?

On the one hand, we can say that this isolation and loneliness exists in our communities-- and it does-- and that we, our parish family, the Catholic Church, we must reach out and go in search, like our Good Shepherd did, for those who are lost and alone, still walking in the darkness and the cold. We are called to bring others to the warmth of this family.

But on the other hand, the isolation and loneliness exists in areas that we may not expect it: under our own very roofs. (It is very easy to think that priests are lonely-- some are-- but I find that I'm not lonely at all. I know that I have a wonderful family: you, this parish; my own family; and especially this one (the Holy Family). I know that I'm never alone.) What surprises many people is that married people can be alone. But you who are married know this quite well. A fight happens and you're angry or they're angry and then you have to go to bed-- and no one ever said that you could be sleeping next to someone and feel alone, but here you are.

Today, we are given the gift of a healing God who enters into our family. If we are married, we need to ask the Holy Family to enter under our family roof and to bring us healing and reconciliation. We need this, because how we go, how our families go, is how the world goes. If there is not peace and forgiveness in our homes, how will there be peace and forgiveness in the world? I mean, we love each other-- sometimes, though, we let ourselves get in the way. Too much stuff, trying to do too much-- and the anxiety builds, and the stress, and we get snippy and impatient. And maybe this has been building for a while and the resentment.... Let us kneel before Jesus and Mary and Joseph and ask their holiness for this marriage.

***

Sometimes we wonder whether we are good parents. As a father, myself, I wonder whether I am a good spiritual parent sometimes. And here's the thing: we're not going to be great parents all the time. We mess up. And our kids feel lonely and so on. What we as parents-- what we need to do is to give our families (our children, and for me my parish) to This Family. To show our children that, even when families struggle, even when families are broken apart by sickness, death, and distance, that they are never alone-- we still have This Family and it is a Holy Family, a good family, a family that will always be there and never fail.

A mom going through a divorce once came before such a Nativity Scene as this and knelt and said, "Mary, you be the mother that I cannot be for my children!" And then the mom turned to St. Joseph and said, "And you, Joseph, you be the father that my husband can't be for my children." And that mom gave her family over to the care of The Family-- the Holy Family. In that moment, her family became part of a better family, a holier family, a family that was going to take care of her own. And it's true. If you are struggling to be a good parent, a good grandparent-- bring your family here and give them to Jesus.

***

Now, I know, some of you are thinking: "Father, I'm a widow" or "Father, I'm a single person" -- "This doesn't apply to me." It does!

When I visit with the homeboud, I remind them to pray for our parish and to pray especially for vocations-- I ask them to offer their pain and suffering to God, so that God can turn it into grace for the birth of holy Christians. This is what Jesus did on the Cross, right?

When they do that, they become spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers. Their prayers and sufferings literally give birth to Christians and to vocations like priests and religious sisters and marriages.

If you are single or widowed, you can be a father or mother of spiritual children-- and this can be the best kind! You are giving birth to saints-- all without having to change the diapers!

And you who are married-- not only are you biological parents, but spiritual ones as well. What if you knew that, somewhere down the line, there was a priest or religious sister that God was going to call forth from your lineage? Or a saint? Would we not expend greater spiritual time and energy to give our descendants a greater chance for holiness? Could Abraham have ever thunk that he would be the father of so many saints?

*** 

You see: all of us-- we are never alone. You are not alone! You are part of a great family!

This is our Church. This is our family-- no matter how broken our families have been, no matter how alone we may feel. Jesus comes to us in the family-- whatever state it may be in, whatever state we may be in-- and He says, "Let me bring you healing. Let me help your marriage. Let me help your children. Let me help you as you are a widow, to be a parent again. Let me help you as you are single, to show you your place in the world and the great treasure that you are!"

To conclude, I know that there are some in our pews who were with us at Christmas and have joined with us again. Or maybe it's your first time here. And you're looking for a family and a place to call home. Maybe you're feeling alone.

Well, I want to welcome you to our family. Welcome home. I pray that you will find our brothers and sisters here to be like Mary and Joseph: in love with Jesus and each other. May that love come to you!

To all of us, before you leave Holy Mass today, bring your family to this Nativity Scene. Whether your children are with you in the pew this morning or with you in your heart, bring them to the Nativity Scene and give them and your family to the care of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Give you marriage to them. Give this parish to them.

I am convinced this is one of the greatest gifts of Christmas. Jesus our God came to us by way of the family, to bless it, to raise it, and to heal it in his love and peace.

May God bless you and your family this Christmas, this New Year, and every day of your lives.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Victory Path (through Mountains and Valleys) - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (B)

Did you notice how that started? It said,
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

That doesn't seem like much-- like it's just an introduction or something akin to "Once upon a time." But this line is important. In fact, it's the key to all of our readings today.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Mark starts his gospel book in a way that echoes how the Bible starts: "In the beginning." And what happens "In the beginning"? God creates. Here, Mark starts his book hearkening to that beginning-- to point out to us that something new is about to begin. And what is about to begin?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Again, we've heard that word-- Gospel-- before. But what does it mean? It comes from the Greek: evangelion. That word means "message" or "good news." From this word, evangelion, we get English words such as Evangelist and Evangelize and even the word "angel". So, at Christmas, Gabriel the archangel is a messenger of good news. And what is the good news-- the Gospel, the evangelion?

Of course, it's that Jesus is born.

But there's more to it than that. This word hearkens back to ancient times when a king would be off at battle. If the king and his armies were victorious, they would send back to the cities an evangelion-- a messenger with good news: and the good news was that the king was victorious.

Hold on to that thought for a moment, then, because we need to take a detour back in time.

***

In our first reading, we hear Isaiah speaking to God's people, Israel. They are in exile in Babylon-- enslaved in a foreign country and far away from home. God says to Isaiah: bring my people comfort, tell them that I will send them a Messiah, one who will deliver them from Babylon, who will win the victory for them and bring them home.

So, the good news, the evangelion, that Isaiah brings is that there will be a king, a messiah, whose victory will set them free.

Do you know what the Greek word for Messiah is? It's Christ. (Christos).

So, when Mark starts off his book with the line
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Mark is saying: "Look! Something new! I come bearing a message: good news: our king, Jesus, is victorious!"

Indeed, the rest of the Gospel of Mark will revolve around this theme.

And it points out something very important: whereas in Isaiah's time the Messiah was promised to come some time in the future, Mark is saying, "Look, the Messiah is here now!" That's why Mark begins with the prophet Isaiah-- to say, "Hey, this is being fulfilled right now! The victory is here! We're going home!" And Mark's gospel then continues with John the Baptist pointing this out: there's a new beginning here! The kingdom of God is at hand!

***

But Isaiah and John say something very interesting. They say: "Prepare the way of the Lord." And, later, "Every valley shall be raised and every mountain made low." What does this mean?

Well, practically speaking, when the victorious king was coming home from battle, he would be bringing with him the spoils of war. But to go up and down mountains and valleys would be difficult and time consuming. So, on the practical side of things, both Isaiah and John are saying, "Hey, make the returning king's path easy! Help him bring back these spoils of war quickly!"

Prepare the way of the Lord: if you make His way easy, He will all the more quickly bring His victory to you.

And what is His victory? It is over sin and death and the devil Himself. It is a spiritual victory.

The mountains and valleys, therefore, are not just geographical places but the quality of our souls.

The valleys are those souls that are weighted down by their sins and maybe even wonder "can I be forgiven?" And God is saying, "Yes! Let me fill you with my grace." The valley is the soul that needs to receive.

The mountains are those souls that have grown large by their pride, and in their heights may think that God is too far beneath them, too dull or unintelligent and so on. And God is saying, "You are not beyond me. Come down from your height for I have great treasures for you, too."

Both kinds of souls-- valleys and mountains-- are being told that they will participate in the King's victory. There is but one thing necessary, and John tells us what it is: repent.

***

Often, we think of repentance as simply saying "I'm sorry." But in the context of our readings today, we see that repentance is actually the condition for receiving the King's victory. His victory is over sin-- repentance is the door that opens to the spoils, the treasures.

We see this beautifully in the confessional. This past week, the second graders went to First Confession and some of them were a little nervous. They go in with their heads down, but they come out with such joy! Something has happened in this moment when they are the valley that is filled with grace and the mountain that acknowledges their sin-- they receive the joy of a new beginning; their hearts become light. This is the Gospel, the evangelion, the good news.

***

Our Catholic Church highlights these opportunities in particular when she obliges us to go to confession once per year or when she says that a particular Mass is a Holy Day of Obligation. Take this past Friday, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, for example. The Church knows that all of us during this busy season are becoming like those valleys, low by the lack of sunlight and burdened by our to-do lists. So the Church says, "hey, there is a great opportunity for grace that can fill you up-- that will slow you down for a night and refocus your Advent and set you free on a course of peace. And that is Immaculate Conception Mass. And we've been at this for a few years and we know how much you need this great grace, so we're going to make it obligatory." And those of you who went, I know, were lifted up, filled like those valleys.

But then there were some who did not go. Not because of sickness or mandatory work, but because we let other things get the best of us or we were lazy or maybe selfish. And the Church highlights that we, the mountains, need to be lowered a bit-- that we didn't "Prepare the way of the Lord" and didn't make it easy for Him to come to us. And the Church does this by saying that if we missed-- again, not because of sickness or mandatory work, but because of our own free will-- that if we skipped the Holy Day, we can't receive Holy Communion today until we go to confession. We need to lower ourselves and acknowledge our disobedience to the king-- we need to be filled by the grace of repentance before we can be filled by the grace of holy communion.

And, I know, we may not like to hear that or we may think it's going to be embarrassing to come up in the communion line with our arms crossed. But I want to tell you that I've been there before. And I don't judge you. Neither will my deacon. In fact, none of my amazing parishioners here-- none will judge you. In fact, I will admire your courage and your honesty and your faithfulness to God and His Church. Because I will see that you take this seriously and you are letting God lower the mountains.

Indeed, the treasures of our victorious king are yours-- precisely because you are repenting.

Of course, it would be unfair of me to give such a homily without hearing confessions right after Mass. So, that's what I'm going to do. After Mass today, I'm going to go straight to the confessional and hear confessions of the mountains and the valleys. Those valleys who say, "I don't know-- could God really forgive this really big sin in my life?" Jesus is going to forgive you today. Those mountains who say, "I don't know-- does God really care about what goes on up here in my life?" Jesus is going to forgive you today.

This is what it means to "make straight his paths," to have "every valley... raised" and "every mountain... made low." This is "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" our victorious king who brings the treasures of mercy. Let us now "prepare the way of the Lord!"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Into the Small - Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent (B)

It's not too often that we hear a one-word Gospel, but that's exactly what we have this morning: "Watch!"

Once again this Thanksgiving, I found myself at my aunt's house with my nieces and nephews. And they are growing up and we're playing ball outside now. But the warning is still there: "Be careful! Watch out!" -- especially for the little ones. Don't clobber them with the soccer ball.

That word, "watch," implies that there is danger. So what is the danger that Jesus is warning us about? Well, we could say that it's the usual suspects: sin, pride, selfishness. But, really, it's even more basic than that. The danger is that we might stop being on the lookout.

On the lookout for what?

For Jesus.

You see, during these next few weeks, we're going to have a lot do to. And we're all going to be tempted to forget what is most important: Jesus.

It's not as though we intend to forget Jesus-- it's not like we're trying to be malicious or bad. It's just that life, somehow, seems to happen.

I meet with many couples getting married or having kids baptized. And I ask them how their faith is doing and they many times say that it's been a while since they have been at Mass. And I'm like, "Ok, tell me about that. What happened?" And many times they don't know-- life just... happened. Things got busy.

At that point I tell them, "ok, yeah, it happens to the best of us. But it's good to have you back. Now we're gonna take steps so that we don't get swept away by the busy-ness of life."

I remember Ferris Bueller, that wise sage. He said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

It's true. Especially during busy seasons like this one when there is so much to get done. Don't overlook what is most important. As Jesus says, "Watch!"

***

Now, let us be painfully clear. I'm not just giving you good advice. The reality is, when we don't watch, we really do get ourselves into big trouble.

Exhibit A: have you seen the headlines recently? I'm not going to use the actual words because we have little ears here present, but we have all heard of "misconduct" and "inappropriate behavior." For the kids: just know that some men did some bad things.

Matt Lauer of the Today Show, one of those men, wrote an apology. In it, he says that he now must "take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It's been humbling." You see, at heart, he lost sight of what was important. And more, he forgot that small decisions, every day, build up and become big issues. Small decisions for virtue, each day, build up and become great saints. Small decisions for vice, each day build up and become, well, what we have seen on the news.

You see, we don't become great sinners or saints overnight. It happens with small decisions, each day.

You've probably heard it said, "Well, at least I didn't kill anyone." Ok, that's great. But is that what we are to be aspiring to? "At least I'm not Matt Lauer."

This is the danger, brothers and sisters. The danger not only that we might not "watch," but the danger is also that, in not-watching, we start to watch others. We start to compare ourselves and think ourselves alright. And, worse, start to condemn our fellow man-- for didn't Jesus see all of our sins, including Matt's? And didn't Jesus die for those sins anyway? Is there a sin worse than crucifying Christ? The Father forgave that. And He sends His Son to forgive-- even this.

We need to pray for Matt. And the victims. And we need to keep watch-- for we need to watch Christ. That's who we should compare ourselves to.

***

I think, then, of the beautiful church in Bethlehem which is built over the site of Jesus' birth. I've never been to that church in Bethlehem, but everyone who has been there remembers it. "Father Gerber," they say, "you've gotta see it!" And they tell me how big it is and gold and candles everywhere and how impressive it is. "And then," they say, "there's the door to the church." "The door?" I ask. "Yeah, the door."

What about the door? I'm thinking it's going to be impressive like the rest of the church: big, oak, gold leaf, ... "No, it's small. Maybe four feet tall. You literally have to bow to get in."

That strikes me as fantastically wonderful: in order to enter the place where Jesus was born, the place where we first saw the almighty God become small, we too must become small.



I think that is a crucial part to Advent. Part of us watching is to become like Jesus-- and, in the case of Christmas, He became small. Humble.

That means that as we prepare for Christmas, we must ask ourselves: are my preparations marked by a humble simplicity, a "smallness" if you will? Or am I in search for the big?-- the huge list of presents from Santa, the big party, the belief that if I get enough things, then they will love me.

The reality is: smaller is better. Just writing a small couple words in a letter, small words of love-- that is so huge in a world that doubts love. Even if it is as small as a tweet, big dividends. Or those small words: "I'm sorry." Big.

***

I mentioned Ferris Bueller at the beginning of this homily. Here's another 80's movie for you: Back to the Future. Have you ever noticed that Marty (the main character, lost in the 1950s, trying to return home to 1985)-- have you ever noticed that his friend, the comedic-relief scientist Doc Brown-- have you ever noticed that Doc warns Marty not to change a thing-- not one. small. thing. "Don't meet up with your parents, Marty! You'll alter the space-time contiuum!"

All sci-fi flicks that have a hero going back in time-- they all have that great caveat: don't change one small thing.

Why?

Because it's dangerous.

Why?

Because it could change your entire future.

Hmm. I wonder what would happen if we ascribed that thought to the present moment: what if you changed one small thing today? That small door in Bethlehem, that small babe in the crib-- can one small decision, one small person make a big difference?

Just you watch, says our Lord.

***

So, that's what I want you to do. Pick one thing. Just one thing. What is that one thing-- no matter how small-- that our Lord is calling you to do this Advent? Ask Him at this Mass. "Lord, what is the one thing you want me to do?"

And do it. Decide and do it. Believe that we don't become saints over night, but saints are made in this moment-- this moment of deciding to believe that one change for the good, one small act towards virtue will build up and grow and become holiness.

That one small thing might be to remember that we all need a Savior and that's why we have Christmas. Maybe it's to remember, when you are standing in that long checkout line, that the important center of Christmas is that Jesus has come to save us. That's what it means to watch.

There's a song that reminds me of that small, essential center of Christmas. I'll end with it this morning.

God rest ye merry gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan's power
when we had gone astray....
O, o tidings of comfort and joy....!