Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Holy Family

(Feast of the Holy Family-Year C; This homily was given on 31 December, 2006 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Luke 2:41-52)

One of the most popular movies we this time of year, every year, is the film “Home Alone.” You have probably seen that movie about the mischievous boy, played by Macauley Culkin, who gets lost in the shuffle as his family leaves for a Christmas vacation. As the title suggests, he is left home alone, and comically defends the house against robbers, gets into all kinds of trouble, and has an all around great time. In the end, it becomes an endearing Christmas story about a young boy who comes to appreciate his family in a whole new way.

A few years after “Home Alone,” that same child actor, Macauley Culkin, starred in a very different movie, called “The Good Son.” He played a troubled child who was typified by violence and dysfunction; it was a very dark story indeed. The title, “The Good Son,” was meant to be ironic, since he was about as far from a good son as one could get.

Those two films offer us two very different perspectives on the family, two very different views of family life. This morning we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—and we are reminded that we take our definition of family from no particular aspect at all in the culture around us.

We do not derive our vision of the family from popular opinion and beliefs, from the multitude of sit-coms we find on TV, nor from any of the movies in Hollywood, be they endearing tales like “Home Alone” or dysfunctional and violent stories like “The Good Son.” We receive our definition of the family from God himself, the author of life, and the founder of the family.

It is so important that we recognize that this morning, since we are living in a culture that has begun to redefine the family on every level. Many couples today are choosing to take children for themselves, as a right, through such means as in-vitro fertilization (IVF), instead of receiving children as a gift from God. Children are given by God as the natural fruit of married love or through adoption, not through any means legally and medically available.

On other end of the spectrum, many couples choose to limit the size of their families through artificial contraception, blocking God out of the equation entirely. Instead of seeking God’s plan for family life, based on his design of the human body, they decide upon an alternate plan that goes against the way God intended us to live and love.

Finally, we can see in almost every state throughout the country a redefining of the traditional understanding of marriage. No longer is it a covenant of love between a man and a woman; now it is being changed to include a relationship of love between any two persons at all: two men, or two women.

None of these are the design or definition of the family that God has given to us; none of them are based upon God’s design for our temporal and eternal happiness. In our gospel this morning we see God’s vision for family life based upon the person of Jesus Christ, His Son.

St. Luke describes the scene of the finding of the child Jesus in the temple. In many ways, it could be seen the Biblical version of “Home Alone.” Jesus is the child who is lost in the shuffle, inadvertently misplaced by Mary and Joseph, who think He has been left with someone else. They finally journey back to Jerusalem itself, and after searching for Him for three days they find Him teaching in the temple.

Jesus’ response is very revealing. He says to them:

Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?
—Luke 2:49

Jesus is focused first and foremost on His heavenly Father, and the Divine Family of the Holy Trinity. Another translation of His response says, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Jesus is obedient to His heavenly Father first, above all things . . . but NOT to the exclusion of his earthly family in Joseph and Mary.

St. Luke tells us that, after that scene in the temple, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). Jesus Christ is The Good Son in the fullest and most beautiful sense of that expression. He is faithful, obedient and true to His heavenly Father, and faithful, obedient and true to Joseph and Mary here on earth.

There is no separation for Christ between those two realities, because that is God’s definition of the family: our family life here on earth is the very reflection of the Divine Family that we find in the Holy Trinity.

Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit pour themselves out to each other completely, loving each other completely, willing the good in the other completely, even so we care called to live in our own families. We, too, are called to live for the other, to give and forgive and seek the good of the other members of our family. Our families should reflect the same love that we see in God.

Does that sound a bit overwhelming? Does it seem like too exalted a view of the family, perhaps one that is unattainable? I would suggest that it is not only challenging and difficult, but that it is impossible, without the help and the grace of God.

One of the greatest gifts that I have received personally as a priest is to be able to celebrate Mass for my parents, to give the Bread of Life to the man and woman who gave me the gift of life. My father, a number of years ago, built a small chapel in our basement. With the permission of the local pastor, I am able to celebrate Mass there for my parents whenever I am home on my day off. It is a gift that has brought us closer together and helped us to experience the truth of what our faith teaches is the “domestic church.” In a real and practical way it has helped us to live out our family life on a whole new level.

I mention that because each week we gather here around this altar as a parish family to receive that same gift of God Himself in the Eucharist. We are given that same supernatural help and strength to live out our own family life as a reflection of the love within the Divine Family of the Holy Trinity. Strengthened in that sacrament, might we continue to follow God’s plan, God’s design for our human family, as He continues to lead us ever closer to the Trinitarian love of heaven itself.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas and The Happy Prince

(Solemnity of the Nativity; This homily was given on Christmas Morning, 2006 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See John 1:1-18)

There is a beautiful short story written by Oscar Wilde called “The Happy Prince.” The Happy Prince is a statue that stands on top of a tall column overlooking the city. He is magnificent, covered in gold leaf, with sapphires for his eyes, and there is a large red ruby that is set in the hilt of his sword. All the people of that city have great admiration for the Happy Prince.

As the story begins, a small swallow is flying through the city on his way to meet his friends in Egypt for the winter. He decides to rest for the night and so he sets himself at the feet of the Happy Prince. Suddenly a drop of water falls upon him, and he looks up, only to discover that the Happy Prince is crying.

“Why are you weeping?” he asks him.

The Happy Prince goes on to explain that while he was alive he used to live in the Palace and he never saw what life was like in the city. But now that he is high above the city, he can look out and see all of the misery and suffering that are there, and he cannot help but weep.

Far away he can see a woman who is poor and in need, unable to help her family; but he is fastened to the column and can do nothing to give her any assistance whatsoever. He asks the swallow to bring her the ruby from the hilt of his sword. Although the swallow complains that he has to be going, and cannot be delayed by such errands, the Happy Prince prevails over him and the swallow brings the ruby to her.

When he returns the Happy Prince tells him of another person in that city, a young man trying to write a play. He is poor and hungry, and there is no heat in the place where he lives.

“My eyes are all that I have left,” he tells the swallow. “Pluck out one of them and take it to him.” The swallow reluctantly does so, and finally the Happy Prince sends him on another errand, this time with the other sapphire.

When he returns, the Prince thanks him and tells him that he may go now and join his friends in Egypt. But the swallow says to him: “You are blind now, so I will stay with you always.”

The Happy Prince then tells him to fly throughout entire city, and to return and describe what he sees. The swallow witnesses all the suffering and pain that the Happy Prince had seen, and when he returns and tells the Prince about it, he is sent out again and again, to bring the people all the gold leaves that had covered him so decoratively.

By the end of that story the Happy Prince is looking quite shabby, and the little swallow has lost the opportunity to join his friends, but the entire city has been changed and transformed. Not everyone recognizes it, and not everyone appreciates it, but things are different. They will never be the same again.

In many ways that story of the Happy Prince is what we celebrate this morning on the Solemnity of the Nativity. Jesus Christ is the Happy Prince who is not content to remain in His palace in heaven. God looks out and sees all of the suffering, sorrow and pain in the world, and he sends Christ to come and take on our human nature, to take on our sufferings and our sorrows.

Jesus Christ is the Happy Prince who is stripped not of gold leaves, sapphires and rubies, but is stripped of glory and stripped of heaven in order to come among us here on earth. In the end, He is stripped of His garments and nailed to a cross, in order to bring us forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. That is the miracle we celebrate this morning on the feast of Christmas.

And that is the miracle that God wants to continue right here among us even now. Like that swallow in the story about the Happy Prince, we are called to be the eyes of Christ looking out upon the suffering and pain of this world. It can be so discouraging sometimes to see all of the darkness in the world, and feel like things are never going to change. But St. John reminds us in the gospel this morning that Jesus Christ is “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

We are called to bring that light to a world that desperately needs to hear the gospel message. Like the swallow, we are called to bring the treasures of our faith and the vision of hope and love to the world around us.

What are the very practical ways that God is calling us to do that this Christmas? As we look out “over the city,” what do we see? Where are the places that sorrow and pain have entered the relationships, families and people around us? How is God calling us to carry His message of mercy and forgiveness to a world that so often sits in darkness? Might we leave this Church this morning, carrying the treasures of God to those who long for Him.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Bethlehem and the Baptist: Finding God in the Small Stuff

(4th Sunday of Advent-Year c; this homily was given 23 & 24 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy Church, East Greenwich, R.I. See Micah 5:1-4 and Luke 1:39-45)

Does today’s Mass “count” for Christmas?

How many times do we have to go to Mass this weekend?

If I go on Christmas, does that count for the Sunday Mass too?

These are the questions that people have been asking all week, and for the most part they have been asked by people sincerely looking for the right answers! They are not looking for loopholes, but for some clarity on what to do, since Christmas this year falls on a Monday. Sometimes, when a Holy Day of Obligation falls on a Monday, it is not an obligation. How do we sort all of that out?

In 1991, an assembly of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for the United States approved changes in the way we observe certain Holy Days of Obligation. They specifically looked at January 1, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints.

It was decided—on account of the shortage of priests in some places and a number of other factors—that if these days fell on a Saturday or a Monday, then they would no longer be obligatory. We were certainly encouraged to attend Mass, but not obliged to.

But the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ does not fall under that rubric. Along with Easter Sunday, it is one of the most important days of the year for us as Catholics. Therefore, whichever day it falls on, we are obliged to gather together and celebrate that great event.

Now, with all of that said, some people have asked one additional and very important question: Does God really care about all those details? Does it make a difference whether we come to Mass once or twice this week? Do these things really matter? Based upon our readings for this Sunday and the teachings of our faith about how God continues to guide the Church, I would say, unequivocally, YES! All of these things matter to God a great deal.

If we seek and search for God in the small things of life, than we will find Him also in the greater things, as well. But if we are not attentive or faithful in the small things—like how and when we come together for Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation—then chances are that we will not be faithful in the larger matters of our faith lives, as well.

Now that is not just pop-psychology, and it is not simply my own personal opinion. Those are the words of Jesus Christ Himself, from the Gospel of St. Luke. He says:

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
—Luke 16:10

Our readings this Sunday challenge us to see, in that message from Christ, not so much a juridical statement about a God who is hovering over the most minute details of our lives, as much as it is an invitation to discover God in the small things of life.

Our first reading is from the Book of the Prophet Micah. Micah is one of the smallest books of the Old Testament; it’s about 5 pages long. And in that book we hear about the little town of Bethlehem. All of us are familiar with that beautiful Christmas carol; we all know the story.

But it reminds us of the fact that God could have been born anywhere in the world that He wanted to: in Rome, the center of the Empire; in the great cultural centers of Egypt or Greece. But He chose to be born, instead, in the little town of Bethlehem, because God delights in the small stuff. He is celebrated in the little things, and if we want to recognize Him in the greater designs of the world we live in, then we have to be attentive to God in the little things.

In the gospel we heard the moving story of the Visitation, when Mary went in haste to see her cousin Elizabeth, who had herself conceived a child in her old age. Suddenly, as that story unfolds, John the Baptist recognizes the presence of Christ and he begins to rejoice! He is not yet born, and he is able to discern the presence of God in the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and He is filled with joy. Are we that attentive to the presence of God in our own lives?

One of the great classics of Western spirituality is a small book by a 17th century monk named Brother Lawrence. The name of that book is “Practicing the Presence of God,” and it was inspired by an event that happened when Brother Lawrence was 18 years old. He was looking out into a field in winter, and noticed a large tree covered in snow.

It occurred to him, as he meditated on that scene, that in a few short months that tree would take on leaves and it would look fully alive and fruitful. He suddenly felt the overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as if God were showing him how life and fruitfulness is the very work that takes place deep within the soul touched by God.

Brother Lawrence was transformed by that experience; from that day forward he set out to daily practice the presence of God in the smallest and most ordinary experiences of life: cooking in the kitchen, walking outdoors, or sitting quietly in the chapel.

Our challenge for this 4th Sunday of Advent, in these few short hours before Christmas, is to search for and find God in the small stuff. Like Brother Lawrence, and John the Baptist, and the Little Town of Bethlehem, we are called to find the presence of God in the most ordinary and often remarkable circumstances of our lives.

Which brings us back to one of the questions from the beginning of this homily: Why does coming here two days in a row really matter? Why do we come here for the 4th Sunday of Advent, and then again on Christmas itself? Because God Himself is present here in a way that He is not fully present anywhere else this Christmas. He is present here—body and blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist. The God of the universe will become present here in the form of bread and wine. We will receive that tiny piece of bread, and receive the same Christ who was recognized by John the Baptist and born in the Little Town of Bethlehem (which means, literally, “house of bread”).

May we open our eyes and our hearts to recognize the presence of Christ in that great mystery of our faith, and so be open to recognizing Him everywhere God sends us in the days and weeks ahead.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Harmony, Joy and the Holy Spirit

(3nd Sunday of Advent-Gaudete Sunday-Year C;This homily was given 17 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Zephaniah 3:14-18, Luke 3:10-18 and CCC #376)

It has been said that the easiest teaching of our faith to prove is the doctrine of original sin. All one has to do is read the morning paper or watch the evening news—or, perhaps at this time of the year, take a nice ride up and down Bald Hill Road and the Mall parking lot—and you can’t help but see the effects of original sin. It can become so familiar, in fact, that we sometimes forget that God never intended for us to live that way.

If you go all the way back to the Book of Genesis and the story of creation, there is a description of the original state of man, what the Council of Trent calls “original justice” or “original holiness.” That state has often been described quite beautifully and even musically as a state of harmony. There was harmony between the created world and God; there was harmony between the first man and first woman; and there was harmony deep within the human person (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #376).

Think, for a moment, how many times in a day you feel yourself being pulled in a hundred different directions; that is not the way God intended us to be. We were created for harmony. Perhaps you have been to a philharmonic orchestra before, or something like it. Dozens of different instruments and a cacophony of notes and chords all combine to produce a magnificent symphony that reaches right into the depths of our souls. That is an image for the way we were created.

That harmony, of course, was shattered by original sin. Suddenly there was discord, disharmony in the universe, in our relationships, and deep within our own souls. Yet at this time of the year, in a particular way, we celebrate the God who chose to enter directly into that discord. Jesus Christ is the one who enters into the world torn by original sin in order to bring us back into harmony with God and with each other.

We can see that musical story of salvation played out in a wonderful way in our first reading this morning, from the prophet Zephaniah. The Book of Zephaniah is one of the shortest books of the Old Testament, and it carries a hard message indeed. Against the backdrop of Israel’s idolatry, Zephaniah announces the impending judgment of God and the imminent Day of the Lord.

But the section we hear this morning comes at the end of that book, and Zephaniah announces to the people that the judgment of God is now over, and the time has come to sing. He says,

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you.
—Zephaniah 3:14-15

But more than that, Zephaniah announces that God Himself will come among them, and He Himself will sing!

The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness . . .he will sing joyfully because of you.
—Zephaniah 3:17

It is a prophesy about the Messiah, who would come to bring harmony between God and His people once again. It is the song of salvation, and one that all of us are called to participate in. We are all called to sing that song.

St. Paul, in our second reading, says:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!
—Philippians 4:4

The Latin word for “rejoice” is Gaudete, and it is where we get the title for this Third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday. This Gaudete Sunday, we can ask ourselves: What does St. Paul mean when he tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always”? What does it mean to say that we should all “sing the song of salvation”?

What if we do not feel like singing? What if we have seen and experienced enough of the effects of original sin in our own lives that we scarcely feel like rejoicing? Is St. Paul encouraging us to have a Pollyanna-type attitude, to pretend that we do not live in a world where there is suffering and pain? I would suggest today that St. Paul is talking about something much deeper than that.

I was at a party recently, and a person asked me quite directly: “Are you happy?” There were several other people standing nearby, and most of them stopped what they were doing to hear the answer to that question. There is an expectation (obsession?) in our culture that we should all be happy, all the time, and that if we are not happy then there must be something wrong. I thought about the question for about 5 seconds, and then I answered: “No, I am not happy. I have had a number of events happen in my life today that are not “happy” things, so I am not happy . . . but I am joyful.”

He asked me, “What’s the difference?” And I went on to explain that happiness comes from the circumstances we find in our lives; it happens as a result of the people around us, or it can be based upon the way we feel at any given moment of the day. But joy is different. Joy does not come from us, or from the people around us, or from the circumstances of our lives. Joy is a supernatural gift, and it comes from God.

God is able to give us joy regardless of the circumstances of life. God can give us joy in the midst of all kinds of situations and experiences that are not “happy.” Joy is a supernatural gift that comes to us from God Himself.

St. John the Baptist, in the Gospel this morning, talks about that supernatural gift. He denies that he is the Messiah, and is quick to point out that he himself has come only to baptize with water. But with the Messiah, it will be different:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
—Luke 3:16

Think about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples received those tongues of fire and were filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit. God set their hearts on fire with the gospel, and they rejoiced abundantly in Him. Following that day, they were to go through all kinds of trials and tribulations.

All of the Apostles—with the exception of St. John—were martyred. The Church was persecuted without mercy. They were despised by everyone in the world around them. But they were absolutely filled with joy! They had been given the supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God Himself, and they overflowed with joy.

St. Philip Neri, the great Italian priest who has often been called the “Apostle of Joy” has a great way of expressing this very truth. He says, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.” When you see joy in the life of a Christian, then you know that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in that person’s life.

The Christian preacher and author, Walter B. Knight, put it this way: “Joy is the flag that flies over the castle of our hearts, announcing that the king is in residence today.” What a beautiful way of acknowledging that the joyful life of the Christian has its point of origin not in us, but in God. The people of Israel in the Book of Zephaniah do not sing because they are happy. They sing because “the king is in residence,” because He has come among them and brought harmony and joy into their lives.

This Gaudete Sunday, we ask God for that same grace and that same supernatural gift in our own lives. Might God raise the flag over the castle of our hearts, so that those around us may recognize that the King lives here. And may we listen and heed St. Paul’s exhortation to "rejoice in the Lord," not just when we are happy, but to "Rejoice in the Lord always."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

(2nd Sunday of Advent-Year C;This homily was given 10 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Baruch 5:1-9 and Luke 3:1-6)

One of the themes we see in the liturgy all throughout the year, but one that is more pronounced in the season of Advent, is our spiritual connection to the people of Israel. Just as they were longing and yearning for the coming of the Messiah, for a Savior, a Redeemer, even so we wait for and long for the coming of Christ.

Every year at this time we sing anew that hauntingly beautiful 9th century hymn:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Captive Israel . . . in lonely exile . . . Those words, of course, allude to the Babylonian Exile, one of the darkest and most traumatic events of the Old Testament. To Israel, brought into the Promised Land so long ago, to be taken away from that land was unthinkable.

Yet, because of their sins, their infidelity to God, their lack of faithfulness to His covenant and His commandments, they fell further and further away from Him. Time again God sent them the prophets, trying to draw them back to Himself. But they had not listened. Finally, He allowed the Babylonians to conquer Israel, and they carried them away captive. Only those who were too weak or unable to make the journey were left behind.

And along with them was left everything Israel cherished: the temple and everything that was so central to their worship and faith; their entire way of life. For years they were held captive in Babylon . . .

In our first reading today, from the Prophet Baruch, the Lord announces that Israel’s captivity is at an end; her time of exile is over. Speaking to the people of Jerusalem, the ones who were left behind, Baruch exclaims:

Look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you born aloft in glory as on royal thrones. For God has commanded that every mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
—Baruch 5:5-7

God will create a direct route through the desert, a straight path for the people to return. He will level the mountains and fill in the valleys and make a level road for them to come back to Jerusalem. Baruch says “God is leading Israel in joy” (Baruch 5:9).

No longer is it Moses who leads the people through the desert and into the Promised Land. Now it is God Himself who enters into the desert and brings Israel back home, rejoicing.

The return from exile is a remarkable journey of hope; it speaks of the majestic and extravagant love of God, of His tender and merciful care for His people. And that is the very same message we celebrate each Advent.

Whether we realize it or not, we ourselves are in Exile. Even when things are going well for us, even when we experience relative peace and joy, even then we long for something more. We yearn for something beyond this place, a better life and a permanent home with God. We are in exile.

So often the sins of others, and the faults and failures of those around us cause us sorrow and pain; we realize all too well that this world we live in is far from home.

But never is that exile, that captivity, felt more than when we separate ourselves from God by our sins. Because of our own faults and failings, because of our own sins against God and against each other, we exile ourselves from God. We are held captive by our own words and actions, and we remain there, in exile.

The Good News of the gospel is that God doesn’t leave us there! God Himself becomes an exile from Heaven, in a certain sense. God becomes man, and enters directly into our captivity in order to set us free. Jesus Christ is captivated by His own love for us, and surrenders Himself into the hands of wicked men. He is bound and brought before Pontius Pilate, and badly mistreated. He is bound to the wood of the cross so that we might be set free from our own captivity to sin and death. This is the message of the gospel! This is the God who saves us and redeems us!

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Advent is a time of celebrating the answer to that prayer, that cry of the heart. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who has come and will come again. This morning, St. Luke announces His arrival. He sets up quite beautifully the historical context.

Tiberius Caesar was the Emperor of Rome, the king of the world as it was know at that time. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea; and then he names the local kings, Herod, Philip, and the other tetrarchs. These were the secular rulers. He goes on to name the religious leaders, the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. And the word of God came to none of them! Instead, St. Luke tells us,

The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert (Luke 3:2).

In the desert! In the desert, where God had met the people of Israel to lead them back from exile. And the message of the Baptist is the same message we hear from the Prophet Baruch: that God wants to make a direct route and a straight path for His people to walk on. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, St. Luke relates the mission of John the Baptist with the deepest yearning of God Himself:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths;
every valley shall be filled, and
every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The Lord is coming, and He expects us to be ready for Him when He arrives. John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Our preparation this Advent cannot be anything else than that: repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

What are those sins that have placed us in exile from God? Where do we feel that exile the most at this time in our lives? Where is God calling us to turn away from sin and turn back again to Him? We ask for the grace of repentance in our lives, and a return from the exile of sin.

God wants to grant us the forgiveness of those very things that have separated us from others and separated us from Him. But He will never do that, He will never grant us His forgiveness, if we do not ask Him for it!

He has prepared a way in the desert, a place for the forgiveness of those sins, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When is the last time we made a sacramental confession? When was the last time we heard the words:

God, the Father of Mercies,
through the death and resurrection of His Son,
has reconciled the world to Himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God grant you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is coming. Whether we are ready or not, He is coming. God comes to us in our exile, but we must be prepared. He comes to us today in the Eucharist. He will come into our bodies this Mass in the Blessed Sacrament. He will come into our lives this Advent. Are we ready for that?

The God who comes to us in the desert, and who makes a way for us to return home to Him, reminds us today that we are not made for exile. We are not made for captivity. We are made for God. We are made for Heaven. And that is something to rejoice in. As that 9th century hymn tells us:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel
Shall come to you O Israel.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Immaculate Conception

(Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; This homily was given 8 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

We are still just at the beginning of Advent, that time of preparation for the coming of Christ into our world. Today on this Solemn Feast of the Immaculate Conception we are reminded that we are not the only ones who celebrate Advent. God Himself prepares, in a particular and beautiful way, for the coming of Christ into the world. His preparation is Holy Mary, the Immaculate Conception.

Now, the Immaculate Conception is often mistaken for the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary. That is a popular mis-conception. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s being conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Ann. We believe, as Catholics, that Mary was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin because of the merits of Christ, who suffered and died on the cross to defeat sin and death for us all.

The question we can ask ourselves today on this feast is: Why? Why did God choose to do that? What is the reason for the Immaculate Conception?

Centuries of the Church’s teaching and wisdom have given us two distinct and fitting replies to that question. Firstly, when God was preparing to send His Son into the world, He desired for Christ to be untouched by sin. He wanted Jesus to be born of a woman who was not just really good, or even 90% free from sin. He wanted the person who gave life to Christ in this world to be a virgin totally free from all stain of sin. “And that virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27).

But more than that, there is a second fitting reason for the Immaculate Conception. Mary is free from Original Sin and all actual sins so that she would be totally free to say “Yes” to God’s plan at all times. Mary did not just say, “Yes,” to be the mother of Christ and give birth to Him. She said, “Yes,” to caring for Him and raising Him with great love and devotion. She said, “Yes” all throughout her life, and perhaps never more than when she stood at the foot of the cross. Mary stood in the icy shadow of the cross and cried out with her whole heart, “Yes,” while her Son was giving life to the world.

That is Mary, the Immaculate Conception! And that is God’s Advent, God’s preparation for the coming of Christ into this world. It should come as no surprise that our Advent and our preparation for the coming of Christ is very much the same thing.

God wants to come into our lives, just as He came into Mary’s. The same body of Christ that entered into Mary’s body, will enter our own body in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Have we truly prepared for that? God’s desire for us is the same as it was for Mary. He wants to enter into a person who is free from sin.

Obviously, that is—in a certain sense—a problem. You and I are not the Immaculate Conception. We have all been born with Original Sin. But God has taken care of that, hasn’t He? Through the gift of baptism, we have been cleansed of Original Sin.

And for the sins we have committed since then, God has also provided. He has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by which we are forgiven of actual sins committed against God and one another.

As we enter more deeply into the season of Advent, have we taken the time to make a good confession? Have we given God the opportunity He desires to make us more completely free from sin and totally open to His call and His work in our lives?

Through the prayers of Mary Immaculate, may we continue to open our hearts up more and more completely to God. May our lives be free from sin and free to follow God’s plan for our lives and for all that He wants to accomplish in the world around us.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Waiting and Watching for Christ

(1st Sunday of Advent-Year C;This homily was given 3 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke 21:25-36)

Today we begin the holy season of Advent, four weeks of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ; we celebrate with great joy the coming of Christ among us. This Advent we can ask ourselves one important question:

Are we waiting for Christmas, or are we waiting and watching for the coming of Christ? There is a difference.

Most of the people in the world around us are waiting for a chance to come together with family and friends. It is a time when we all give gifts to the ones we love and care about; and this time of year is always filled with a sense of joy and tremendous expectation.

Hopefully we will all be able to experience those things in these days to come. But none of these things are distinctively Christian. You could belong to any faith denomination—Jewish, Muslim, you could even be an Atheist—and still wait for and enjoy those things.

This Advent the Church reminds us that, for those who belong to Christ and follow Him, we are not just waiting for a holiday or merely anticipating a joyful season. We are waiting and watching for a person. That person, of course, is Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel this morning Jesus challenges us to do more than wait. He calls us to “Be vigilant!” He says,

“Be vigilant at all times and pray” (Luke 21:36).

Against a spirit of malaise and spiritual laziness, Jesus cautions us to be alert and ready. Be vigilant! Be watchful!

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
—Luke 21:34-35

Advent is a time that we wait and watch for the coming of Christ, because He has already told us clearly that He is coming.

There is a true story about a small farming town in the Midwest that was experiencing a severe drought. It had not rained in weeks, and they were afraid of losing the entire crop for that year. The pastor of the local church called for a prayer meeting, and encouraged all the people to come together and pray to God for rain.

On the night the service was held, the church hall was full. The pastor was pleasantly surprised to see so many of his parishioners gathered together; many were talking and catching up on old times. There was a genuine sense of community and even some laughter in that place.

He made his way to the podium to call the meeting to a start, when suddenly he stopped right in his tracks. There, on the front row, was a little 8 year-old girl, and she wasn’t talking to anyone. She was sitting, by herself, with her head bowed in prayer, and she was wearing a little red raincoat. In her small hand she clutched a little red umbrella.

Suddenly the pastor began to realize that all those people had come together, with great sincerity and faith, to ask God for rain. But this girl had come expecting God to answer. She had come to that place expecting God Himself to show up.

When we pray, do we have that kind of faith? When we spend time alone with God, do we expect Him to show up? Do we have that same humility and trust in the promises of God, who tells us “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”?

In Israel, in the time of Christ, how many people were waiting for the Messiah? They knew the promises of God; they knew that He had said He would come among them. Suddenly He appeared and walked through their streets; He taught in their synagogues and in their towns and villages. But so many of them missed Him! They were waiting for the Messiah, they were waiting for God, but they were not watching, they were not vigilant.

This Advent we ask God for the grace not to make that same mistake. Might we remain vigilant, watchful, and ready for the coming of Christ. The first and most important way we do that is prayer.

But we cannot simply remain there. We are called to put our prayer and our faith into action. Part of being vigilant and watchful for the Lord means being busy. We need to be about the business of the Gospel.

I saw a bumper sticker not too long ago that was referring to the second coming of Christ. It said: Jesus is coming back . . . Look Busy! There is some truth to that. We need to be vigilant as we wait for His return, and one of the ways we do that is by responding, in our families, our workplace, and everywhere God sends us, to the needs and the demands of the Gospel.

I worked for Stop & Shop, in the Produce Department, for 9 years. One of the first things we would do each day was to call the voicemail of the district manager for Produce. He was the one in charge of the entire Rhode Island division, and he would record instructions each day about which items needed to be on sale, what to watch out for, things of that nature.

But ultimately, we would call that voicemail because he would always end by giving a list of the stores he was going to be visiting that day. And if we were on that list, then we better be ready! If not, experience taught us all too well, things would be very unpleasant for us indeed!

And so we would do almost anything to make sure that we were ready: we would sacrifice coffee breaks, sometimes lunch breaks. We would call in extra help from outside, so that when he arrived, the apples and oranges were all stacked meticulously; every leaf of lettuce was perfect!

This Advent we are not waiting for the district manager of Produce for Stop & Shop; we are waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What are the sacrifices that we need to make in our own lives as we prepare for that coming? Where is God calling us to be more vigilant, in prayer and in our personal lives this Advent? How are we called to be busy about the Gospel wherever God directs us this week?

We ask Him here, in this place, for the grace to be vigilant and watchful; here, where we gather and pray together each week, we know that God Himself shows up. Here, on this altar, He becomes present to us—body and blood, soul and divinity. Might we be strengthened in this Blessed Sacrament today, so that we will be more vigilant, more watchful for His coming in our lives this Advent.