Sunday, November 27, 2016

Of Trees and Piñatas - Homily for the 1st Sunday in Advent (A)

I hope everyone had a blessed Thanksgiving holiday. And I know that a few of you still have a final family gathering. Blessings to you. And a special welcome to our college students who are home for the Thanksgiving holidays. Know that we are praying for you, especially on your travels home later today and, also, for your final exams.

*          *          *

This morning we begin the season of Advent. (And where does the time go?!) After the food-coma of Thanksgiving, we hear the words of our Lord: “stay awake,” don’t fall asleep. What does He mean by this? He means, don’t lose your faith; don’t lose your hope; don’t lose your charity. Stay awake in faith, hope, and love!

This message is very timely as we begin Advent because we all know how busy-ness and the craziness of the marketplace can consume us—whereby we forget the true meaning of things. Indeed, losing the meaning of one’s life (starting with such things as losing the meaning of Advent and Christmas) is a very quick way to lose one’s faith and hope and charity. Losing meaning is a lot like falling asleep; it’s a kind of death.

So, for example, putting up a Christmas tree can become a great chore and just another “thing to do” if we have lost (or indeed never learned) the meaning of the Christmas tree. What does the Christmas tree mean? I could give you the history, but the meaning is found elsewhere: that is, in the answer to the question, “On what was Jesus crucified?” On a tree. And what did the crucifixion win for us? Grace. (Hence the Christmas presents—graces—under the Christmas tree). And why was Jesus’ crucifixion on a tree necessary and fitting? Because in the beginning Adam and Eve sinned by taking fruit (the ornaments, if you will) from the tree.

Putting up the Christmas tree is to be a great reminder of our Savior (who comes to born to us on Christmas) and our need for Him (to undo the effects of the first tree).

Lose these basic meanings and Christmas becomes a chore. We fall asleep. It is, as Lucy exclaims in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia: “What? The cold of winter and never Christmas?” That would shake anybody’s faith, hope, and love!

*          *          *

Just like in Lent, Advent requires a fight from us. And it is a terrible fight. It is the fight against sleep. Ask any college student who is trying to pull an all-night for exams (not recommended), and they will tell you of the struggle—and the need for Mountain Dew. Or watch any young niece or nephew who wants to stay up with the older kids and fights the heavy eyelids. It is a great fight. And it is doubly hard when it feels like we are fighting alone.

To reclaim the meaning of the “things” of our faith and the meaning of our lives—which especially include these beautiful seasons such as Advent—requires a great fight from us. This is why I love the image of the piñata as a sign for Advent.

Yes, the piñata is a sign for Advent.

Let me explain….

Typically, we think of the piñata as part of a child’s birthday celebration. If you don’t know what a piñata is, it is a medium-sized papier-mâché figurine—sometimes a donkey or a pony—that is fairly flimsy, is covered in tinsel and other decoration, and is hollow in the middle but filled with candies and goodies. At the party, the kids line up and one by one they are blind-folded. The blind-folded kid receives a stick (this may not be such a good idea!) and is told to strike the piñata. It is tough to do but, eventually, the piñata is hit a few times and it breaks open and the treasures are spilled for the kids to enjoy.

Most think this is a Mexican tradition, but it actually comes from medieval Italy (and was brought to Spain by missionaries). The Italians would use the piñata not at birthday parties, but on the first Sunday of Lent (the Spanish would use it for Advent). The reason for this is that there was deeper meaning to the piñata than just a birthday party and hitting a papier-mâché figurine. Here’s what they saw:

Ø  the figurine with all its flimsy paper and tinsel represented the pomp of the world and the show of the devil.
Ø  the blind-folded child represented faith
Ø  the stick represented the battle of virtue with the pomp of the world and the devil
Ø  the breaking apart of the piñata and the reception of the treasures in it represented the prize of eternal redemption for those who fought the good fight of faith

Who knew, right?

*          *          *

In many Hispanic cultures, the piñata would be used during the final days of Advent, to remind everyone to not get caught up in the pomp and show of the world; to fight the good fight of faith, to stay awake and pray and remember who is really coming at Christmas.

(And we thought the piñata was just for birthdays! Little did we realize it was for The Birthday par excellance: that is, Jesus'!)

The virtues were also very important, just as we heard in the second reading: so that we may avoid drunkenness and lust and rivalry and jealousy. I mean, goodness! Am I wrong in saying that so many are tempted by these things at Christmas parties? Isn’t there also so much rivalry and jealousy among our children at Christmas, too? Shouldn’t we be fighting harder with weapons of virtue, therefore?

Stay awake, therefore! Do not be lulled into the sleepy trances of this world and its loss of meaning. That’s what happened at the Inns at Bethlehem on Christmas eve, right? The people there had lost the meaning of life and their faith; they had lost their hope of a Savior and so were not looking for Him; they had lost charity and so when Mary and Joseph came with the Savior, no one opened the door to them.

The Spanish have another great tradition here called the posadas (the inns). And I think it is a tradition will should all make our own:

On the final eight or nine days of Advent, the family gathers by the nativity scene in their home. (Sometimes friends and neighbors gather for this too—which would be great for our Christmas parties!). Typically, all pray the Rosary (or as much as the little children can handle). After that, the parents in the home or the little children pick up the statues of Mary and Joseph from the nativity and begin a candle-procession throughout the home or the neighborhood. Mary and Joseph go to each door of the house (which are closed) or to the Catholic neighbors and knock on the door. No one answers. Or, if they do, they say that they have no room.

Mary and Joseph continue on their way, knocking, and being turned away. Eventually, the procession returns to the nativity in the home. This is where Mary and Joseph will find room. While the rest of the world turns them away, we fight for them and embrace them.

Then the piñata comes out and there is a little celebration. (And probably a burning off of the kids’ holiday sugar high).

*          *          *

I hope all of us, therefore, will see through the pomp and show of this world. I pray we all walk in faith and prayer and make room for Jesus and Mary and Joseph. I have faith we will fight with virtue and rediscover the meaning of the season. I pray that when the Lord comes at Christmas and even here at this altar, that He will find us alert, awake, ready, and eager to receive Him.

This is Advent. The Lord is coming!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Age of Mercy - Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King (C)

This morning we celebrate the great solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. On this day, the liturgical year draws to a close and, in that, we are given a chance to reflect on the End of All Things. Today also happens to be the close of the great jubilee Year of Mercy; a year when we have been given special graces and opportunities for confession and indulgence, most especially in the pilgrimage Doors of Mercy. I do hope you were able to take advantage of our Lord’s consolation.

Already, however, we know that some of us did not. We missed out. At which point, we may ask: “Is it too late?” This is the Great Question which all of us face—not only at the end of this Year of Mercy, but at the end of our life. At the end, we will be tempted to think that it is too late; indeed, some of us may already think so: “It’s too late for me. I can’t make it into heaven. I’ve messed up too much. I’m too old. It’s too late.”

But it’s not too late! Notice the two thieves on their crosses. They are on their death bed. This is their last moment. And who is with them in their last moment? Jesus is. Jesus, the King who can save them in an instant, who can pardon a lifetime of sins with one word of mercy. Both thieves have spent their lives doing bad. Neither deserve heaven. It would seem to be too late. But the one, in his last moment and with his last, gasping breaths, asks our Lord for mercy. “Remember me, Lord…”

Jesus, suffering on the Cross, could have said “No, it’s too late.” Or “I’m suffering here, leave me alone.” But this Cross is Jesus’ throne; this is the place where He rules; and on this Cross, He is bestowing Mercy. And so, even though the thief has had a lifetime of sin, Jesus answers his last request and the King responds: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” And so the good thief enters heaven and becomes a saint: St. Dismas.

So take a breath right now.

That’s proof that it’s not too late. So long as you have breath in your lungs, it is never too late. We live not simply in a Year of Mercy, but an Age of Mercy. And Jesus is giving that Mercy to you right now from the Cross. If only we use our breath to ask for it: “For the sake of His sorrow Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!”

*          *          *

Naturally, there are some who become afraid when we consider the End of All Things. To some degree, this is expected—we know that we will be judged and we are afraid of God’s justice. (What would be worrisome would be those who pass through this life without any fear of judgment. To humanity St. Dismas, the good thief, asks: “Have you no fear of God?...  we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes…”)

But there is some sense that God does not want us to be afraid of our death. St. Augustine writes (in a Discourse on the Psalms): “[W]hat sort of love of Christ is it to fear his coming? ... We love him, yet we fear his coming.” What does he mean? He means that if we love Jesus, why would we fear the approach of the one that we love? The only reason why we would fear his arrival is if we have loved sin more and have refused mercy.

Think of Jesus’ coming (again) like a sunrise. Those who have become accustomed to the light of Jesus’ Truth and the warmth of His Love and have basked in that and themselves given it—they will be eager and will indeed rejoice when that eternal son rises! Those, however, who have not embraced this Light—however much or little was given to them in this life—those who have not grown accustomed to it will be startled by it at the end of their life. Like a man hungover, they will shield their eyes and revile its arrival.

Eternal life, therefore, begins now: in whether we love Jesus and live in the light of that love, or push Him to the side and dwell in darkness.

*          *          *

When humanity realizes that this light is piercing and non-negotiable and eternal, there comes not only the divide of those who love versus those who fear and revile; but there also comes the frantic cries for help. “Save us! Save yourselves! Every last man for himself!” The bad thief on the Cross says, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself. And us!”

None of them realize that this is exactly what the Christ the King is doing. The bad thief is so self-centered, so self-concerned on saving his own life that He overlooks the Messiah’s saving and suffering love. We may recall the words: “Anyone who wishes to save his life will lose it. But anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Why is it that anyone who tries to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for Jesus's sake will save it? Because of love. When Jesus is on the cross, He cries out: “I thirst.” For what? For our love. For someone to love him, to be with him, to remember him (“do this in memory of me”) and to say “I am with you.” When St. Dismas is on the cross and defends Jesus ("this man has done nothing criminal") and declares his faith in "the kingdom," St. Dismas is giving Jesus that little cup of water which is love. That’s all that Jesus wants. “At last, there is someone with me,” Jesus is saying, “I am not dying alone.” And so He saves St. Dismas' life.

We who console Jesus in this life will receive consolation at the hour of our death. Console His Mother, too, and you will receive her as well. And that’s a good thing, that: to die in the arms of Jesus and Mary…. It is the definition of a happy death. And we pray for that grace.

*          *          *

Certainly there are many applications from our reflection today. But let us consider one in particular.

We are about to embark upon the season of Advent. What does the word “Advent” mean? It means “Coming.” Whose coming? Jesus.

But when does He come? We want to say “Christmas” and that is true. But we’re not talking about a past coming; we are also talking about a current and future coming. There will come a day, soon, when we will see the Advent of Our King—not as a humble, little babe, but as the glorious Son of God. This is an Advent that we must prepare for: the Advent of Christ at the hour of our death or at the hour of His Second Coming.

The liturgical season of Advent, therefore, is not just simply four weeks before Christmas. It is actually a microcosm of life itself: it reminds us how we are or are not preparing ourselves for The End of All Things.

For the bad thief, Advent was the carrying of his cross and Christmas was dying next to Jesus—but the bad thief had no room in his heart to receive the Christmas gift of mercy. For the inns at Bethlehem, Advent was the call of the census and everyone going to their towns and Christmas was Mary and Joseph knocking on their doors to bring them the Savior. But their hearts were not prepared; there was no room for them to receive the Christmas gift of the Holy Family.

For us, Advent is both the liturgical season and our life's preparation; Christmas is both the liturgical day and the End of All Things. The question is: will we be prepared? And that is answered by what reigns in our hearts.

Will we have received mercy in confession or will it be too late? Will we be in love with Jesus who comes or be anxious of The Day? Will it be every man for himself or every man for Jesus?

These next few weeks will give us a good indication of where we are in our preparation for The End.

Practically, then: while the world speeds up, we will slow down. While the world forgets Jesus, we will remember. While people pile up sins of drunkenness and licentiousness at so-called Christmas parties, we will be confessing our sins and getting ready. While people grow selfish in their own gifts and have no room in their hearts, we will become selfless and simple and poor like the manger that receives Jesus. 

And by Christmas we will either be closer to the reality that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Peace—or farther away. Indeed, even Thanksgiving on Thursday will help us to see how much we need to prepare: when family comes to our homes or we to theirs, we will see: when differences of faith and politics ruffle feathers, will we remember Jesus and His mercy? Will love and peace reign in our hearts? Will we be quick to speak and judge-- or quick to pray?

The Year of Mercy is over. But the Age of Mercy is here... until He comes again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Moment of Sonrise - Homily for the 33rd Sunday in OT (C)

“His judgment cometh and that right soon.” 

These words were cross-stitched in a picture on the wall of Warden Norton’s office in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The movie, based on Stephen King’s novel, takes place in a prison where an evil warden hypocritically passes himself off as a religious man. The words on the warden’s wall act as a reminder to all who see it that God will come to judge the living and the dead. For some, this will provide hope. For others, this prophecy will inspire dread. Ironically, for the Warden, the one who placed that picture on his wall, the words carry no weight. Behind the picture and the words, he hides a safe with all of his evil secrets and plots. The Second Coming isn’t really real is how he lives. And he is surprised and shocked at the end when it does.

*          *          *

The month of November is a kind of mini-season in the liturgical year wherein we reflect upon the end of our lives and also those who have gone before us. We started the month with the celebration of All Saints and the commemoration of All Souls; at the end of this month, we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe and then begin Advent—the season of preparation for the King’s unexpected coming as a babe.

In between all of that, we have these Sundays that sound like an overture to a symphony, announcing that the time of preparation for the King’s Coming is now. And this may seem like a Protestant thing to do, to say “The End is Near!” But, really, this has been a Catholic thing too, for Jesus Himself said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And we announce as Jesus did because the reality is: we forget about the eternal dimension of our lives. We forget that the world is passing away and that no two stones will remain atop each other. And that the weight we gave to some things should really have been given to others.

That was the point of Jesus’ words of warning: don’t get too attached to the stuff in the here and now. Even the Temple will pass. The Temple meant not only the Temple in Jerusalem, but also Jesus’ body (and, by extension, our own). And not just that, but the Temple also meant the entirety of the world. There will come a time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth—which means the old world is passing away. So, we cannot place too much weight on things. The weight we need to place is on the things of eternity.

*          *          *

Taking from today’s first readings, the Catholic Theologian Peter Kreeft notes that the moment of our death and of our rising to new life—whether to heaven or to hell—will be like a sunrise (Malachi wrote to us today: “There will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays”).

At the end of all things, the Son will rise on the landscape of our life and there we will stand in His piercing rays—rays that are Truth and Goodness; rays that are beautifully terrible and universal and unwavering and non-negotiable. Everyone will stand in the Son. The crucial point, says Kreeft, is whether we will be able to stand it. That is: all of us will fall into one of two kinds of people: those who bask in it and soak in its rays and so find eternity heaven; or those who curse the Son’s rising light and cannot stand it and so find eternity hell.

The crux, therefore, is whether we have in this earthly life cultivated a taste for that eternal sunrise. Cultivating that taste for the eternal sunrise is the summation of all that the Church and her saints teach about prayer, the moral life, the reception of the sacraments, and the embrace of the Truth. God Himself, in giving the Sabbath Rest for example, was giving man that “space” if you will to slow down and to attend to the eternity in which God and man dwell—and not only later but in the here and now; there is a “thickness” of life in which man is called.

Man, however, too often pursues what is shallow and “thin”—the temporal, the passing, the fleeting, and the rotten. Such a man will be shocked and annoyed by the brightness of the eternal light. (In the here and now, such men are often shocked and annoyed when the Church proclaims such things).

To summarize, then, our life here on earth is the place where we are to develop a taste for, an ability to bask in, the brightness of that eternal life.

*          *          *

Already based on this, many of us can form resolutions on how we are to change our lives and slow down and focus on what is important.

But let’s translate this into an immediately practical application. In the coming weeks, we are going to become busy with Thanksgiving and Christmas. And in this, the world will speed up as it frantically prepares. Let's be very clear: how we live this season is how we will live our eternity. This season is truly a microcosm of how we approach our ever-after.

What I mean by that is: how we prepare for Christmas is indeed the way we will prepare for the coming of Christ at the end of our lives and the end of time. Some people become hurried and frantic and stressed and anxious and care about the things of this world such that when Christmas comes, they miss Christ and are focused on gifts and whether family is happy and, really, are just simply glad when Christmas is finally over.

Some people just thumb the whole season and don’t prepare at all and just live their same. boring. lives. Or they say they love Christmas, but don't do much about it.

There is a third way—the Catholic way. And that is to slow down and to ask for whom we are really preparing. It’s not for our children. It’s not for our guests. It’s not for our neighbors who will see our houses and our lights. It is for Jesus Christ. And this is the moment where we have the chance to cultivate the taste for the eternal—and it happens precisely when the world will be focusing on the temporal.

Preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the end of our lives will therefore involve a good confession. It will involve a prioritization of what is important in our lives and not a scurrying or flitting about trying to get so many presents, but to be simple and intentional and loving in our family. It will involve prayer and reflection and time to make lists of gratitude. It will be a time to bask in the rays of the rising sun. It will be heaven.

Or it will be hell.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Honor Your Father and Your Mother - Homily for the 32 Sunday in OT (C)

There are two reactions to Daylight Savings Time. The first says, “Ah, an extra hour of sleep!” The other says, “What sleep?—I have children.”

*          *          *

Imagine for a moment that you are coming home from work. And you pull up the driveway and you walk to the door of your house. And as you open the door, you are overcome by an overwhelming smell: there’s a gas leak. And it’s not a small leak—it’s a going-to-blow-your-house-up kind of gas leak.

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, but when it happens, you only think of one thing: fix the leak. If your daughter tugs your clothes and says, “But mom, can’t I go and get Apples.” (Apples is the hamster). You would say, “Honey, I love Apples too, but we have to wait and get this leak fixed first.” “But mom,” says your teenage son, “the upstairs toilet is clogged.” “That stinks, son, but we have to fix this first.”

Any home-owner knows that when it comes to a gas leak, everything else is less important: the hamster, the leaking toilet, even cracks in the basement. Everything takes a backseat to the leak.

If you understand this, you can understand the Church’s social teaching on the hierarchy of goods—that some issues are more important than others and can even outweigh them all.

*          *          *

But before we talk about that, I know that every one of us has within us a sense of right and wrong as well as a kind of moral calculus that weighs what is important and what is not.

This sense/calculus is the result of years of formation… from the lap of our parents to the desks and halls of our schools and universities. Even the light of our television sets, computer screens, and smart phones have been forming us—for good or for bad.

The people of this parish are incredibly well-educated and I love and respect that about you. As good as our education has been, however, all of us—all of humanity, myself included—still suffers from the wounds of sin and the effects of concupiscence. In other words, on our own, our moral calculus is never as solid as we would lead ourselves to believe, nor is our intellect as piercing as we would like.

*          *          *

Take, for example, the King in our first reading. He’s a smart guy. But he is absolutely befuddled by these seven brothers and their mother. He doesn’t understand their moral calculus—how they would prefer to die than eat meat. “It’s just pork, after all,” the king could say. I mean, we’re talking bacon! It’s not like we’re talking the Fifth Commandment. So why, brothers, would you give your life for something so small, something so… disproportionate? Why is this issue so important to you that it outweighs everything else, even your own life?

What the king did not know—because he was not formed by the mother (she who prefigures the Church)—What the king didn’t know is that the issue wasn’t about pork. It was about their identity. And integrity. Fidelity. And love.

Love will not permit itself to be unfaithful even to the slightest degree. Love knows that it loses its integrity and therefore its identity when it is unfaithful. (Unfaithful love, after all, ceases to be love).

The brothers calculated that loving the king more than God was tantamount not only to unfaithfulness but to a loss of their very identity as God’s children. The Ten Commandments, after all, were not only God’s way of teaching us morality; it was also His way of carving us out from the rest of the world: “the rest of the world kills its own, etc, but it will not be so with you.” To lose our sense of the Commandments meant to lose our very identity.

*          *          *

The brothers further calculated that only God could raise the dead. So to spurn God was to spurn any chance one had for eternal life. Therefore, since eternity was at stake, this issue of pork was no small issue at all. This was a very big issue.

The king, without this light of faith, did not see the weight of the eternal dimension and so he miscalculated.

He was like a homeowner that does not understand the danger of the gas leak. Or a person who does not get why the defense of life in its most vulnerable stages is the greatest weight in the social calculus. Such things hold such great weight not simply because of their eternal dimension, but because God has made them so.

And we, who are God’s children, if we are to hold on to our integrity and our identity as such, must always remember that and act according to it.

*          *          *

The world may say that we are disproportionate and they could talk economic theory and poverty and so on. But none of that changes the fact that we are children whose mother is the Church and whose Father is God and that children are called to honor their father and mother. To honor does not mean to say “I am personally opposed, but…you know” for such words lack not only honor and integrity, but they also lack good sense, for who would say, “I am personally opposed to gas leaks, but…you know.”

Further, no good parent would let their daughter get the hamster or send their son to fix the toilet before fixing the gas leak. Indeed, if we choose to fix the toilet or get the hamster before we fix the gas leak, we are responsible for the destruction of the house and the people that were in it. So too, if we choose social issue a or b before fixing our culture’s fixation on killing its elderly and the unborn, we are responsible for their deaths and will have to give an account to not only Jesus at our death, but to the array of all the killed who stand at the gates of heaven for our judgment.

*          *          *

I will admit: I’m tired of being a pawn: on the one hand, being told that candidate A will fix the economy and candidate B will overturn things and get good judges. I’ve been around to see that rarely do either happen. We just had 8 years of the promise of hope and change and great unity, but we are worse off and more divided than ever.

But we Catholics have a powerful voice. Politicians don’t take us seriously because so many Catholics don’t take our faith seriously. They get our vote and then do nothing. We must hold them accountable. We may vote you in, but if you do not hold true to your promises, we will vote you out. Because we want people of integrity.

*          *          *

Sure, some may think our Mother the Church to be un-cool—that she is behind the times. But she is ahead—and she is ahead precisely because she possesses an eternal perspective and, as such, she can see and calculate that the state of one’s soul is more important than the State of the Union. Indeed, the State of the Union depends entirely on the state of one’s soul. And that depends entirely whether the soul is united to the laws and will of God—both of which are communicated through the Catholic Church.

This is why She is constantly trying to navigate the narrow way for us: the narrow way between, on the one hand, that idolatry where we make a person or political party a replacement for God; and, on the other hand, that horrible apostasy where we loudly or quietly say to God and to Church “I disagree” and so lose not only our holy communion, but our identity and our eternity.

*          *          *

Every Catholic has an obligation to vote. And that obligation involves not only the Presidential election, but the numerous races and issues facing the State in which we live. In order to vote, we must first study what is on that ballot. Then, we must measure the issues and weigh them in the light of the moral calculus of which not only our dim intellects provide, but firstly and especially in the light of Christ and His Church. Such exercise is an opportunity to express our faith, our hope, and our love-- as well as an opportunity to honor our Father and our Mother.

To quote the last words of the martyr St. Thomas More, that saint who served as a faithful man in politics: “I beg you: pray for the king daily … I die his faithful servant. ... But God’s first.”

* I'd like to thank our holy Deacon John Schneier for several of the ideas found here. The gas leak, the connection to St. Thomas More, and the State of the Union line are all his. :)