Saturday, December 24, 2016

Heaven - Homily for Midnight Mass (2016)

O Night Divine, O Heaven Descending!

It’s a heavenly night, isn’t it? A mystical, magical, and yet so very ancient night.

Even though midnight Mass is inconvenient and late and (let’s be honest) rather illogical, there is something so heavenly about tonight: about the music, the candles, the peace of a world at rest, and here we are joined by family and friends in one love.

Heaven, I think we would all expect, would have some of these qualities: of angels and saints in beautiful song; of brilliant light that leaves us kneeling, blinking as we behold the glad tidings of great joy; of peace in a world that is no longer at war but finally at rest. Heaven would be the place where we would be joined by family and friends, young and old, joined by saints whom we have loved but had not yet had the pleasure of meeting face-to-face. It would be the place of love so deep that it shows itself stronger than death.

And what is at the center of it all?

The equally inconvenient, seemingly-late, and illogical reality that from heaven, God himself chose to make His dwelling on earth and become one of us—and not any one of us, but a baby. An innocent, humble, adorable, and peaceful baby.

A Babe to Behold Beyond Comprehending

I say this is an inconvenient, seemingly-late, and illogical reality because whoever would have thunk it? It’s illogical because it defies all logic that the almighty God would become so tiny, so helpless. It’s seemingly-late because the night is half-spent—what can a baby do to overcome the power of the dark? And it’s inconvenient because if this is God, then not only does He destroy all preconceived notions, but He challenges me. He challenges me by the very fact that He has become so little.

And what is the challenge? To hold him.

And I don’t know if you remember the first time you held a baby—or if you have experienced that—but when I first held my godson, it made me uncomfortable. Was I doing it right? Was I going to break him? If you know this, then you will know that as the little one nestles its nose into your chest, you start to breathe differently—you notice your breathing because it moves the baby. And after a moment of being tense, you begin to relax.

And then, if you have the nerve for it, you begin to wonder. Who will this little one become? How will it see the world when it becomes old? Will it know what it is to love and to be loved? Will it know heaven? And maybe you begin to pray for it, knowing that so much of its journey is going to be spent in the dark—the darkness of being often frightened, alone, and uncertain.

But then it happens. The matter becomes spiritual: I’m no longer holding my godson-- "whatever you did to these little ones," says the Lord, "you did to me"-- I’m holding the baby Jesus. He knows what it is like to be held.

And because He knows that, He knows its comfort. He knows its peace. And in the darkness of your life, when you are frightened and alone and uncertain, He is going to hold you.

This became my prayer for all of my godchildren: May you always remember that you are a child held in the Father’s arms. It's my prayer for all of us: May you always remember that you are child held in the Father's arms!

.... How did I come to prayer? By holding the baby.

In other words: in order to know that in the night of your life God holds you, you must hold Him at some point. And He makes it easy for you: He comes to you as a child, as a little one. And Mary, his Mother, is going to help you.

This is all He asks from you tonight: to just hold Him. Even though it may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar ...

But if you do, then in that moment, I promise you: you are nearer to heaven than you know! And you'll start to know peace.

The Doors at Bethlehem, the Gates of Heaven Opening

A final thought:

In the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem in the present day, there is a main door. The door, in much earlier times, stood over fifteen feet tall. Now, however, after many reinforcements after many battles, the door is much smaller: four feet and some inches. It’s almost child-sized. In order to enter, a person must literally bow and become small.

Image result for how tall is the door church nativity bethlehem?
There is a spiritual reality here. And it’s not simply about humility. It’s about heaven: the gate to heaven, like the door in Bethlehem, is small. Child-sized.

“Unless you become like little children,” says the Lord, “you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” This is from the God who became a little child. But what does this mean?

To become like little children, we must put aside the constant delusions and doubts of the world and live as children do: in faith, totally trusting and totally dependent upon the heavenly Father.

For the child, there are not many races of human beings, but only one race: fellow children, all who may become friends in the end.

For the child, there are not aspirations for the bigger, better deal, but a child-like satisfaction in the simple, moved by the creativity of the spirit and wonder and the joy of everything being gift.

For the child, the night can be frightening and uncertain and it cannot stand to be alone another moment. And so it calls out, “Mom! Dad!”

And what happens then? The Father enters with love and takes him in His arms and holds him and says “My child, it’s going to be alright. I’m with you. I will always be with you.”

That, my friends, will be heaven and there will be rest there and peace. And it’s not far away: but near. Indeed, it's right now.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Is Jesus God? - Homily for the 4th Sunday in Advent (A)

In Our Youth

Several years ago, I helped out at a parish’s 8th grade Confirmation program. Near the end of the 8th grade Confirmation program, the priests, deacons, and a couple of the catechists would interview the 8th graders to see how much of the faith they had retained over their years of Catholic education. I was one of those—I shall not say whether I was yet ordained or just a seminarian—but I was one of those that was asked to interview the 8th graders.

We had a standard list of questions: name the persons of the Trinity; name the seven sacraments; and so on. But as I asked one young man these questions, I realized that something was amiss. I felt called by the Holy Spirit to ask him a very basic question: “Is Jesus God?”

The young man responded by saying, “Well… He’s the Son of God…”

Ok, but is Jesus God? … This isn’t a trick question.

“Well, I’m not sure… I don’t think so….”

I was taken aback. Nine years of Catholic education and this young man didn’t know from head-to-toes that Jesus is God? I started asking all of the children: Is Jesus God? And about 70-80% of them did not know.

The Proofs

I tell you that story not that we may lament—although there is a place for that. But to point out that for many of our youth—even for some of us—we were never explicitly taught that Jesus is God. Jesus is God!

And that’s very important. Because if Jesus is God, then what He says is very important. His life is very important.

And we would need to know how to defend that.

So, for example, the world may ask us to prove it. Prove that Jesus is God. How would we do this?

We could point to the miracles—so many miracles—that were performed: walking on water, turning water into wine, healing the sick, knowing others’ thoughts, raising the dead, Himself dying—dead as a doornail—and returning on the third day.

And these miracles weren’t done in a vacuum. They had witnesses. And not just “believing” witnesses; some of these miracles were done in front of unbelievers who became believers: Thomas, for example, or some of the Pharisees, or a roman soldier or two, for starters.

Another proof that we have is that Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies; He’s the only one that I know of—of all the major religions’ founders—who was pre-announced and by many and multiple times and not just proximately to His birth but some prophecies were seven centuries prior to His coming!

In Our College Years

So, for example, in today’s first reading we hear about how a “virgin shall conceive.”

I once went to a secular university and there I took a class: Introduction to Christianity. During that class, I learned that the Hebrew word for virgin is “almah” which means “young woman.” The professor went on to say that this prophecy isn’t about a virgin and so on. And, I must admit, that college professor shook my faith. (And how could I refute that? I didn’t know Hebrew!)

What the professor didn’t tell me, however, was that the Jewish people themselves would translate that word, almah, into the Greek. And the word that they chose from the Greek is “parthenos” which means “virgin.” There are, of course, other words that they could have chosen for young woman, but the Jewish people showed us how they understood their own prophecy when they chose the Greek word for virgin.

Why is this important? Because who cares if it’s just a young woman that conceives a child? So what—that happens all the time! But if a virgin conceives—well, now that’s a whole new ballgame!

Matthew, the inspired author of the gospel from which we read today, himself understands this and notes Gabriel, the archangel’s prophecy to Joseph: “it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her”—not by a man, but by God. And if God conceives Jesus, Jesus certainly shares in the nature of the One who conceived Him.

So, despite the doubts that I had in college, I would still discover that Jesus is God.

In Our Adulthood

Thus far, then, I have noted that in our youth, sometimes we are not explicitly taught that Jesus is God. Then, sometimes in our high school or college years, a so-called expert shakes our faith and leads us to doubt that Jesus is God.

Sometimes, however, the difficulty comes in adulthood and we again face the question: “Is Jesus God?”

Take, for example, the two men outlined in our readings today. On the one hand you have King Ahaz. On the other hand, you have St. Joseph. Let’s briefly talk about these adult men.

The year is 735 BC and people of Israel are split into two kingdoms, North and South, with King Ahaz the king of the South. The North is plotting with another country to take back the South. King Ahaz, well aware that war looms on the horizon, cries out for help. God answers and says that He will help him. Ahaz, however, feigns modesty and says he doesn’t want to trouble the Lord.

I say Ahaz feigns modesty because Ahaz already sought out a savior—that is, a pagan country next door—and has formed an alliance with them. In other words, Ahaz doesn’t want a sign from God because Ahaz doesn’t want to change his plan.

Joseph, by the same token, is also worried. He had a plan, too, and this—that Mary has come home from visiting Elizabeth and comes home pregnant—this isn’t Joseph’s plan. We can imagine Joseph laying awake at night, searching the stars, praying “Lord….”

In this, Joseph is different than Ahaz. While both experience disappointment, Joseph still believes. He still holds on to the fact that “nothing is impossible for God!” After all, hasn’t God done miracles in the past? Has He not shown His mighty arm again and again—the flood, the plagues, the Red Sea, the manna, the walls of Jericho, the chariot in the sky, the prophets from of old?

“Do not be afraid” Gabriel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home.”

(I like to use that line on our Protestant brothers and sisters: “Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home!”—there it is, right there in Scripture!)

And we need to hear those lines as adults because, really, as adults we too face difficulties: a little like Joseph, perhaps our lives didn’t pan out exactly as we had expected or wanted; perhaps we have experienced disappointment or even the crushing of our hopes and dreams; perhaps we are confused by what God wants and why would He give me such a Cross in life?

But this is where we must be like Joseph and less like Ahaz. Be not afraid! And ask for a sign: pray: ask! Let your prayer be as deep as the netherworld or as high as the sky!

Is Jesus God?

All of us, therefore, at one time or another in the course of our life must answer this very basic question: Is Jesus God?

Is Jesus God in your life? Not just on Sundays, but when you’re at work or struggling at home. Do you pray to Him as God, letting your prayer be deep as the netheworld or as high as the sky? Don’t be like Ahaz; don’t be afraid of what God will do to your plans. God is with us—Emmanuel—God is for us, God is with us!

Do not be afraid, He says to us. You have so many proofs. Let Him prove it to you again. As the Psalmist says, “Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.” Let Jesus into your heart. Bring Him your prayers. “For nothing will be impossible for God!”

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Origin of Species - Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

A blessed Solemnity to you all. One of the reasons why I get really excited about the Immaculate Conception is that it sheds light on so many of the RBQs. RBQs: that is, Really Big Questions. We all have them: Where have I come from? What happens after I die? And what is the meaning of my life? Why is there suffering? And so on. The Immaculate Conception helps us to see the answers to these questions. 

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his famous “On the Origin of Species.” It was his attempt to explain where we have come from and, to some extent, where we are going and the meaning of things in the here and now. If there is one word that gets to the heart of his publication, it is the word “Evolution.” Now, I’m not going to address here the pros and cons of his argument. But at the heart of his evolution argument is that things progress by biological processes and things such as the survival of the fittest.

Five years prior to this, in 1854, the Catholic Church provided a different explanation for the beginning of things. Instead of saying that everything is the product of chance and mere biology and material processes, the Church infallibly declared that God can radically enter and alter human history and cause a new kind of evolution: that is, at the moment of the conception of the woman, Mary, when God infused her with a soul, He did so in such a way that she would not experience the devolving effects of sin.

In other words, there is a supernatural reality to the existence of things; evolution may not be just simply the product of biology. There may just be a supernatural side to things. And, looking at the other side of the coin, things may not just simply evolve; things can also de-volve—that is, things don’t necessarily go from a lower species to a higher, but they may go from a higher to a lower.

Take, for example, Lucifer. He was one of the most beautiful of the angelic creatures. But he chose not-God; he chose things lower. As a result, Lucifer de-volved: we see him in the Garden like a serpent.

The same can be said for humanity: sin de-volves us. Have you ever seen the movie “Wall-E”? It’s a wonderful movie about humanity and our consumerist tendencies and neglectful ways. Situated many centuries in the future, humanity has trashed planet Earth and rendered it uninhabitable. So, humanity boards a large space-ship and zooms into Outer Space to let Earth clean itself up and become inhabitable again. While on this ship, generations come and go. The people become mired in their electronics and forget how to walk and talk to each other. There’s a wonderful moment where we see the pictures of the past six captains and how they have de-volved:

Humanity clearly has a problem. And it isn't just a biological problem. It's a sin-problem. And it needs a Savior.

This gets at the heart of such questions as “why is there evil?” and “why is there suffering?” and so on. The reality is, when God made humanity, He made Adam and Eve immaculate; they were not made to die, but to live forever; they would never get sick nor would they have arguments; creation was in peace and harmony, too. But when they chose not-God, devolution began: Adam and Eve could now become sick and die; arguments would rise between them; creation too would become disordered (because Adam and Eve were once its guardians). The situation was so dire—de-volution would lead to humanity’s utter destruction. This is why there is suffering and evil; this first sin—called the Original—explains why we struggle to do good and avoid evil, and so on.

Enter the Immaculate Conception.

At the moment of Mary’s conception, God preserved her from the devolving effects of Original Sin. He kept her Immaculate—from the Latin “im”+“macula” meaning “without stain, without sin.” This is the moment of Mary’s redemption. This is the moment when de-volution is reversed and we see a new, supernatural revolution: that is, that grace elevates us and raises our nature and helps us to progress in real and substantial ways.

It was fitting that God would do this.

First, if His Son, the Word, was to become flesh, He wouldn’t take on any ordinary or corrupted flesh. He would take on immaculate flesh. Mary, made immaculate, would be able to provide that.

Second, it is fitting that God would make Mary immaculate because it restores the woman to where Eve once was prior to her decision: When God made Eve, Eve was immaculate. Mary, just as immaculate as Eve, would have all the gifts and knowledge to make a decision just like Eve did. And in such a way, Mary’s definitive Yes would be able to undo Eve’s definitive No. In other words, God was willing that woman, once integral to the condemnation of humanity, would be vitally integral to humanity’s redemption. To put a very fine point on it: without Mary, there would be no Christmas.

Finally, it is fitting because mothers deserve the best. And God fashions for us a mother. He could have preserved us all immaculate, but that would not be fitting because we would not receive a mother that way.

That last point seems unsatisfying. We are not preserved immaculate. But it brings us to the last of the RBQs: where are we going? We pray for heaven. And in heaven, there is no sin, right? Which means, that everything is immaculate. After all, there is no suffering, there is no death nor tears nor injustice nor any of that. Which means that there must have been some kind of supernatural evolution between humanity in the here-and-now and the humanity that exists in heaven.

If we are to be in heaven, there must be some supernatural change in us! We must become immaculate. And that begins right now: in the confessional, when your sins are washed away by the grace of God, you become as clean and innocent as on your baptismal day; you become immaculate. In the Holy Eucharist, you receive the immaculate body of Christ and also His divinity—both of which help your body and soul “evolve” and become elevated to partake in the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). Whereas Mary is redeemed and rendered immaculate at the moment of her conception, our redemption is given to us here and now and the grace is given here to render us immaculate.

These are the gifts of Christmas. We celebrate Christmas not only because it’s about Jesus, but also because it is about Jesus who comes to save us from the devolving effects of sin and to raise us up to the higher nature and realms of heaven.

And the Father could not wait to give us these gifts! That is why, even before the coming of Christ at Christmas, He gives to His mother this redemption and elevation. The Immaculate Conception is the first Christmas gift.

We pray, therefore, that with Mary accompanying us to Christmas, we may be purified of our sins and welcoming of our savior. May we receive all of the graces God wants for us and be raised to the highest of our species of which Mary is the most beautiful and immaculate.

Mary, Our Mother and the Immaculate Conception, pray for us!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Of Sprouts and Stumps - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (A)

When I was coming back to the faith, one of the first papers I was ever assigned at Franciscan was to give a line-by-line explanation of the first reading. I had heard it before at Mass—or in Ghostbusters, Bill Murray, when describing events of “biblical proportions” talks about “dogs and cats… living together!”

But what did it mean?

It means this is the extent of the total re-creation that our Messiah, Jesus Christ, brings with him.

We heard about all kinds of animals: the lion, calf, leopard, ox, wolf, bear, child, and snake. What is this all about? It’s about the Garden of Eden. All of those animals once lived together in peace. Humanity used to live together with God in peace. But when sin entered in by man’s free choice, the order of creation was spoiled by chaos. Harmony was replaced with fighting and discord.

With the Messiah, creation will receive restoration. There will be a renewed order. There will be peace—even among the animals. For, the Messiah who comes to bring such renewal comes anointed with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who was there at the beginning, “hovering over the waters” when the earth was a “formless wasteland.” The Messiah comes with the fire of the Holy Spirit to make all things new.

*          *          *

For Isaiah’s audience (in c. 740 BC), this was great news. In Israel, king after corrupt king had operated not by the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, but by the spirit of the world. There was envy, the pursuit of worldly treasures, and a lack of faith. Israel longed for a king that would rule by the spirit of God. But at the moment it had none. This is why the tree of Jesse—the father of David the great king—is described as a stump. The tree of the kings was corrupt, rotten from the inside out, and it was to be cut down.

This actually came to pass in 732 BC when the northern kingdom of Israel is taken into exile. The line of kings was broken. A stump.

For 700 years thereafter, the people of Israel held on to this prophecy. That there would be a new springtime, a shoot that would come forth, a new king even from the stump.

But as the years passed, the prophecy seemed to be mere wishful thinking, foolishness. Cynics would scoff: the “calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them”—ha. When would that ever happen? Peace… there will never be peace…

*          *          *

This weekend, many of our teens attended a retreat entitled “Behold, I make all things new.” I like the very next line: “Behold, I make all things new… do you not perceive it?

The new beginning that comes from the dead stump is a small—a very small—sprout. The new beginning is a humble beginning. Almost unable to be perceived. But the new beginning is there. Small like the baby in the crib at Bethlehem. Humble like the small host we receive at Mass. But the beginning, the Messiah, is indeed there.

This gives me pause. Because the re-creation of the world, the bringing together of all peoples and even creation itself, is taking place right here. “Do you not perceive it?”

Even this past week: our second graders were re-created by the Messiah and His Holy Spirit as they received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. All that was dead in them was cleared away. Space was made for the new sprout of life.

Throughout St. Charles county, people have been going to confession and having the old, rotten tree of sin cleared away and a new beginning of goodness re-created in them.

There is so much newness going on around us. Winter should blush—as the Messiah approaches and is indeed here, there is a new springtime. There is truly reason to hope!

*          *          *

“Behold, I make all things new… do you not perceive it?”

What gives you hope in your day-to-day life?

Our Messiah, Jesus Christ, comes with the fire of His Love and the re-creation of the Holy Spirit. The peace and the restoration of new life that we are looking for is not some distant dream. This same Jesus is here, coming to you right now. Ask Him to re-create you; to clear away the old, rotten roots of sin; to give you that new beginning; and to give you the faith and hope to see its small, humble beginnings—but beginnings nevertheless!