Sunday, December 20, 2015

Away in a Manger - Homily for the 4th Sunday in Advent (C)


Away in a manger.

In the United States, we are used to the light and joyful version of this song—which is really a kind of lullaby. The song happily recounts Jesus’ birth:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…

But, if you lived in France, you would likely hear another version—and not only in French, but to a totally different tune.

[Normandy version]

This version is more haunting and sounds almost like a lament walked in a slow, step-by-step pace. When I first heard this version, I felt more compelled to linger about the words. And I realized something: the very first word: Away.

Away in a manger.

Away means to be distant, to be separated from. Away in a manger—somewhere, out there. It means that somewhere, away from me, Jesus is being born—not near to me, but away. Why does the song begin this way? Because there was no crib for a bed: the rooms at the inn were full. Jesus didn’t want to be born “away,” but it was our own distance, the distance of our hearts, that provided it. Hence, the lament.

*          *          *

No matter how hard we try to prepare for Christmas, no matter how much we say “I’m not going to become busy this year,” we do. We get wrapped up. We often can be away.

Advent always has this quality—this quality of being away. Even the readings throughout the entire season speak of the Old Testament and how ancient Israel was in exile and distant from the Lord. In the New Testament, we hear about how we are not yet in heaven and at home with the Lord; we are on pilgrimage. We still are, in a way, away.

Even here at Holy Mass, Jesus is so close to us—but we can be so distracted, which is another way to say that we’re away. Jesus is so close!

In this year of mercy, in particular, I think too of all of our brothers and sisters who have fallen away from the practice of the sacraments….

*          *          *

Note the last verse of Away in a Manger.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.
Close by me forever and love thee I pray.

There is our prayer! Be near me, Lord. Be close, Lord, because I have fallen away. Be near to me—be near to all of us who are distracted, whose hearts are distant. Be born in us, Jesus! And not only in us, but in all who have fallen away.

This is the Year of Mercy, so let us pray in a particular way for this mercy: for ourselves and for those who are not here—that God will give us His grace. Because all of us can take this faith for granted and we can fall away.

God says: I want to be near to you! I want to be close to you! So, Lord, be close to us!

*          *          *

And if we’re honest, we must admit: we can’t do this ourselves. We’ve tried for four weeks now, haven’t we?—to slow down and be close. But we can’t do this ourselves. We need a Savior.

In the Gospel, we see Elizabeth in our similar predicament. Pregnant with John the Baptist, Elizabeth must be visited. Like the peoples of the Old Testament—and, even, like ourselves—she seems that she cannot take another step toward her salvation.

And who brings our Lord close? It’s Mary! Mary will take those steps, Mary will walk with the Lord, still in her womb. Mary brings Elizabeth her salvation!

And so too with us who are away! It is Mary who will draw our Lord close to us. If we cannot be near our Lord, if we struggle being close to Him, then look to Mary! “Mary, bring Jesus close to me! Because, Mary, I cannot take another step. Mary, visit us with your Son!”

Yes, Our Lord will be near. And not only to us, but to all who are away.

*          *          *

Let us offer that final verse of Away in a Manger for all who are away, who don’t know how to come back, or who are looking for home again. Let us offer this verse as a prayer for all who will visit here on Christmas, that they will know that God is close and so near and that they don’t have to be away anymore….

            Be near me Lord Jesus
            I ask thee to stay
            close by me forever
            and love me, I pray.
            Bless all the dear children
            in thy tender care
            And fit us for heaven
            to live with thee there.

Normandy version:

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Join the Triumph of the Skies - Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (C)



Let us continue on our journey to Christmas….

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled….

This song speaks of angels announcing our Savior’s birth. There is a backstory to this—kind of like Star Wars (you may have to watch the previous six episodes if you are going to understand this 7th installment…). If we want to understand what happens at Christmas, and why there are angels “harking,” we are going to have to understand the backstory—which will require us to go back to the beginning of Genesis (and even before the beginning, as weird as that sounds). For, before there was Eden and the serpent and so on, there was a war between the good angels who loved the Lord and other angels (who were created good) but who chose not to love the Lord. The bad angels—called demons—rebelled and there was a battle between Lucifer (Satan) with his minions and Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and all the good angels (including our own guardian angels).

We know that Satan lost and was kicked out of heaven. But the battle did not remain in heaven; the battle was also taken to Eden. It is there that Adam is supposed to do battle with the serpent, the devil, but Adam does not. And so he and Eve fall into sin: they choose not-God.

And so it happens that all of humanity, we who are the generations of Adam and Eve, fall into sin and darkness, cast out from Eden in a kind of exile which humanity continued throughout her history—seen also today in our first reading. Israel had been taken into captivity by her enemies; she had become a people that walked in darkness, praying to see a great light. They live with a hope of restoration, of being returned not only to Eden, but to the heavenly Jerusalem. There was an awaiting for this restoration that would come through the Savior, the Messiah, who would bring her peace and return her to union with God.

That is where peace truly comes from, right? It is when humanity is separated from God that we lose peace. After Adam and Eve had fallen, their sons entered into darkness such that Cain killed Abel. So, we know that when we are not at peace with God, we are not at peace with one another. Nations at war!

The Messiah would come, the Prince of Peace, who would not simply bring peace, but who is peace. And so we hear:

Hark! the herald angels sing!

What does this mean? It means: look! awake! pay attention! Over here is the Messiah! Hark! The one we have expected for so long! The one who will finally bring us peace! Hence the line,

            God and sinners reconciled.

That’s the whole point of Christmas, isn’t it?—that God should enter into our very existence so as to reconcile us with God and thus with others too, to bring about restoration and peace.

And how does this Messiah come? He comes as a little babe:

            Peace on earth and mercy mild.

Mercy, mild. Not severe mercy—severe mercy is what we see in the Old Testament. We see wars, death, and illness. And why? Because Israel in the Old Testament did not listen. What moved them were things like illness and death and hunger and war. They didn’t understand the logic of God. God had to speak their language. They were a Bedouin tribe.

Over the course of history, God prepares them to receive not a severe mercy, but a mercy mild. A mercy so mild, so un-threatening—that it is a babe!

Recently, I had the privilege of baptizing a baby at St. John’s NICU. And as mom was holding her little child—all of one pound and a few ounces—I baptized him (God and sinners reconciled). And in that moment, I saw how vulnerable God was in mercy, so mild…

God could have come with storm troopers; He could have come as Darth Vader or any military leaders of our world. But how does God come? As a little, vulnerable babe. That’s the invitation of mercy mild. An invitation He gives us now in this Year of Mercy.

We can then hear the next lines:

            Joyful all ye nations rise!
            Join the triumph of the skies!

The Triumph! Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, our guardian angels—they were victorious in battle. And now the Messiah comes to bring US victory. And over what? Over sin. Victory given in baptism and, when we make a mess of that, victory in the confessional.

Yes, it is in the confessional that we have victory over sin. We say to sin and to the devil: you shall not go any further! It is like Darth Vader in the final scene of the last Star Wars movie. Vader, he who was so evil, he had to choose—between good and evil—and when he did, finally throwing the evil Emperor down, the once-evil Vader became good. His mask comes off… He was victorious over evil. He was finally free, finally at peace.

To confess our sins is to participate in the triumph of the skies, of the victory of the angels and the Messiah. Indeed, there will be more rejoicing in heaven not over the ninety-nine who are righteous, but over the one sinner who repents (Lk 15:7). The angels rejoice, and why? Because the sinner, when he repents, has conquered sin and participates in the victory.

And there, in the victory, there is joy and there is peace.

When was the last time you were at peace? When was the last time you were “good” with God and at peace with Him? When was the last time you were at peace with your family? When was the last time you had peace in your heart?

Our Lord wants to give you that peace. That is why He comes to you this Christmas. This is the point of Christmas: to bring us peace as God and sinners reconciled.

If it has been over a year since we’ve gone to confession, then we have missed out on what Christmas is truly about: the gifts of God’s peace. If you haven’t been to confession in over a year, it is time to go to confession and receive what Christmas is truly about: your reconciliation and your triumph over evil.

If it has been twenty years, come back. We hear confessions all the time and it is an honor. It is not too late! Now is the time. Now is the day of the Lord’s victory. Now is the day of peace!

This Wednesday, we will have a special time for confessions. Come and enter the triumph of the skies!

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye nations rise!
Join the triumph of the skies!
With angelic hosts proclaim:
Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Rest... and Let Nothing You Dismay - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent

So, are you ready for Christmas? Yeah, me neither. There is so much to do! I must admit, it is so easy to crash into Christmas—it being here before we know it. That said,  I wish to continue our look at some popular Christmas songs so that we may more readily prepare. Last week, it was Joy to the World; this week, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

            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 were gone astray…

God rest ye merry gentlemen! Let nothing you dismay!

I must admit, it is so easy to fall into dismay in these days. On the one hand, we have had the constant bombardment of bad news and terrorism and death and evil in our world. It is so easy to become discouraged. And when I add to that all of the things I have to get done on my Christmas list… well, it can all become quite overwhelming.

But, let nothing you dismay!

This sounds irrational. How can we still be of good cheer and “merry gentlemen” even in the face of evil and a mountain of things to do? Two words: Remember-- and Rest.

And so, the next lines:

Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day
to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

Remember Christ was born to save us from Satan’s power. Is there any doubt that Satan has been running amok? Don’t you find it odd that in the very season of hopefulness and peace, we become the fullest of anxiety, impatience, envy, and busy-ness?

“Busy” stands for something, you know. It stands for Burdened Under Satan’s Yoke.

There’s a difference between being busy and being full. Being busy is going all over the place, stressed out, never enough time, a huge mountain… Being full, on the other hand, can be content, peaceful, joyful. Leading a full life is much different than having a busy life. A busy life doesn't necessary mean being full. Often, it means quite the opposite!

That's one of the problems with being busy: it keeps us from remembering: Jesus' power, the graces we have, the purpose of life, and so on.

Here is the key for our Advent preparation, I think. John tells us to prepare the way of the Lord. And how? To raise the valley and to make low the mountains—that's ancient-speak for making a highway for the arrival of the king. But for us, this has a two-fold spiritual meaning.

First, the valley must be filled. The valley is our dismay, our hopelessness, our discouragement and despair. No more of that! Light shines in the darkness! Remember Christ is our Savior and our King born on Christmas Day and He overcomes every evil—even the present day! Let us be filled with hope—a hope that sees that God is in control and will help us always!

Second, the mountain: the mountains must be made low. That’s our pride, our mountain of stuff to do, the envy, the great peaks of anger and impatience. We need to make those low through humility: by admitting, “I don’t need to buy so much”; “I don’t need to go crazy this season”; “I don’t have to do so much to have a good Christmas and to be a good parent. I don’t have to be so… busy.”

Let us repeat the first line of our song:

God rest ye merry gentlemen,
            let nothing you dismay.

Rest. This is what we need. Rest is the key to our Advent preparation this week.

Why rest?

A man once told me, “Son, you can’t land a plane going 600 miles per hour.” Good point, that. The plane has to be slowed down and brought in for the landing. So too, we can’t expect to be flying through Advent at 600 miles per hour and then suddenly be at rest at Christmas—that would be called crashing into Christmas. And when we crash into Christmas, we are already tired of Christmas when Christmas arrives! Instead of being awake at Christmas, we fall asleep—like the town of Bethlehem, or the foolish who did not keep watch for the coming King.

So, we need to bring our plane in slowly—we need to rest.

What does this look like? It is Jesus at rest in the boat, even when the waves are crashing 'round.

Practically, I think, firstly, we need to take a quasi-Lenten approach to our consumption of media. Perhaps a little Lenten fast from the internet and from the news cycle would be good for us. We know what is going on in the world—and if there is something really, really important, we’ll hear about it. But let’s not BUSY ourselves with it right now. Let’s rest.

Second, I think we need to take more intentional time to breathe and pray. We have a perfect opportunity on Tuesday of this week: we will be celebrating our nation’s patronal feast day: Mary and the Immaculate Conception. I dare say that if we are too busy to go to this Holy Day of Obligation, we are too BUSY. Go to Holy Mass, pray, and let our Mother, the Untier of Knots, relieve that ball of Christmas lights. 

Finally, I think we need to give God more room to be God. Pope Blessed John XXIII—the Pope, a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders and the anxieties and worries of nuclear holocaust on his mind—do you know how he would go to bed? He would take a moment to offer a prayer and then say, “Well, Lord, it’s your Church. The Pope is going to bed.”  … Let’s put our day to rest and get some sleep. I mean, really, if Jesus can save us from Satan’s power, I am certain that Jesus can bring order to our Christmas list and comfort to our worries.

Yes, it is so easy to let things get away from us—that “life just kinda happened”—and we wake up and realize we have gone astray. Well, here we are in the Second Week of Advent: the call to prepare is here renewed. Let us rest: rest from the world, rest through prayer, rest in grace. I think if we trust in this and walk in such hope, we will have a good Christmas, full of tidings of comfort and joy.

            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 were gone astray.
            O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
            O tidings of comfort and joy!