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.


Because it's dangerous.


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....!