Sunday, December 30, 2007

Subordination and the Holy Family

(Feast of the Holy Family; This homily was given on 29 & 30 December, 2007 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I. Read Ephesians 5:21-33, Colossians 3:12-21 & Matthew 2:13-23)

This weekend, for the Feast of the Holy Family, there is a choice for the second reading, part of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians: the long version or the short one. One has to wonder if the choice is there because the long version contains the often unpopular verse: Wives, be subordinate to your husbands (Colossians 3:18).

You would be hard pressed to find a more controversial passage in the New Testament than that one…or one more misunderstood. It is not the only time in the Scriptures that we hear that statement, either. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians he says almost the very same thing:

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
— Ephesians 5:22

What on earth was St. Paul thinking…twice? Believe it or not, that passage from Ephesians is one of the selections that couples can have read at their wedding. You would be surprised how often couples actually choose it…or maybe you wouldn’t. They almost never do! That is unfortunate, since it very beautifully describes how we are all called to live and love in Christ, not just wives, but husbands, single people, priests and religious sisters and brothers, all persons.

If you go back just one verse from that “controversial” one in the Letter to the Ephesians, just one verse previous, St. Paul says:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
—Ephesians 5:21

That is not just an exhortation for wives; it is for all of us. We are called to be “subordinate to one another,” to submit to and defer to each other in love “out of reverence for Christ.” Only when we do that are we able to open ourselves up to the splendor and the dignity of love that we find in the person of Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we do not look at the world or each other to see how to live and how to love. We look to Christ. He is the source and foundation of love, and the love that Christ has for us is spousal. It is the love that a husband has for his wife. Now, that is not something I am simply making up; in fact, it is something that goes back even further than St. Paul. The spousal love of God is something we find all throughout the Old Testament.

God constantly refers to Himself as the divine spouse or husband of His bride, Israel. He calls her to Himself as a bride, and vows to care for her and watch over her forever. He makes promises to her, promises he intends to keep. He expresses His great desire and affection for her through prophets and poets alike.

It is beautiful and impressive imagery, no doubt. But it could never be more than that. It could never be a true marriage, since God is different from us. He is purely spiritual and dwells in heaven while we are corporal, dwelling bodily here on earth. In order for God to truly be a husband, well, he would have to become…a man. That is exactly what we celebrate in this Christmas season: Jesus Christ, the God who became man for us. God becomes man, and that man is the husband or bridegroom totally in love with His bride. In the New Testament Christ refers to Himself as the divine bridegroom (Matthew 9:15) and the true spouse of His bride, the Church (that’s us!).

Passionate is the fullness of the love He shows Her! His love for His bride takes Him to the cross, willing to die to save her and set her free. The Bride, for her part, is called to total devotion and love for her Spouse, giving her life to Him and holding nothing back.

Now that’s what St. Paul is talking about when he says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). It is precisely what he means when he says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Husband and wife are called to image the very love of God and the Church, and they do so freely, joyfully and mutually. They are called to “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

One of the most sought after speakers and experts on what has come to be called the “theology of the body,” is a man named Christopher West. He has an excellent way of explaining this mutual submission of husband and wife. He says that if you break up that word—“sub,” meaning “under” and “mission,” meaning “to be sent forth with the authority to perform a specific service”—then it becomes clear that the husband and wife place themselves “under” or at the service of the mission of their spouse.

This sounds altogether too theological, no? Thanks be to God we are given a beautiful example of it in the Holy Family itself.

These past few weeks we celebrated how the Blessed Virgin Mary receives a mission from God. It is an extraordinary mission. The Angel Gabriel reveals to her that she will conceive and bear a Son, and that he will be the Savior of the world. It is a mission upon which our eternal salvation rests.

St. Joseph, for his part, must place himself "under" that mission. There is no other option. If he is to be the just man and faithful husband of Mary, then he cannot deviate from this mission in the slightest way. How remarkably he places himself under the mission of Mary, as we hear each year in the Christmas celebration!

But today, on this Feast of the Holy Family, we hear that St. Joseph himself has received a mission. The same Angel Gabriel appears to him and reveals his mission: Take this Child and His mother, and get out of town. NOW! Herod is seeking to destroy this Child.

Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.
—Matthew 2:13

From that moment, Mary places herself and her Child totally under that mission. She does not say, “Egypt? Oh, the weather there is terrible this time of year. Let’s go to Jerusalem, instead.” Nor does she say, “Now? I have just had a child. We’ll go next week.” She places herself totally under the mission of St. Joseph because if she does not, the Child will die! The circumstances are that dire, that drastic. But Mary willingly gives herself to that mission, in the same way that St. Joseph had previously placed himself under her mission of bringing Christ into this world and caring for Him.

This is the way God has formed the human family. The family is a communion of persons who are constantly looking out for the best interests of the other, and seeking to place themselves at the service of the other in love.

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

How is God calling all of us—wives, husbands, priests, religious, single persons, old and young,—how is God calling all of us to do that this week?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Perfect Christmas

(Solemnity of the Nativity; This homily was given on Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning, 2007 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.)

One of my favorite movies is a film that came out about ten years ago called The Spitfire Grill. It’s about a young woman named Percy Talbot, who is struggling to let go of a troubling and difficult past and so she tries to make a brand new start in a small town in Maine (it could be any town, anywhere; it could be Knightsville in Cranston!). So she gets a job in that small town working at the Spitfire Grill.

But her arrival in that place disrupts everything. They don’t know a thing about her past, or what she’s doing in their lives now. The owner of the Spitfire Grill doesn’t want her. The townspeople are all suspicious of her (and it’s one of those towns where everybody knows everything about everybody else). The arrival of Percy Talbot turns everything upside down.

But before long something begins to happen in that small town. Percy begins to open up to some of the people; she begins to share her life with them. They discover that it is a life of brokenness and sorrow, but also one of hope and tremendous love. And little by little they begin to change. They start to look at her, and each other, in a whole new light; and in a very brief time the entire town is transformed. Of all the unexpected possibilities, this stranger from the outside gives them a whole new outlook on life; nothing will ever be the same since Percy Talbot entered their lives.

Today we celebrate the birth of Christ. It’s a miracle that goes beyond our ability to comprehend: God, who exists in eternity, before all things, and outside of time, suddenly enters into our world and becomes man. And His desire is that our lives will be transformed, just like those people in The Spitfire Grill, and that we, too, will have a whole new outlook on life.

We’ve all heard the story; we’ve all seen the images of the baby in the manger, the shepherds adoring Him and the angels singing. When God entered the world that night, everything was perfect . . . or was it?

Was it really perfect, or was God’s arrival here perhaps a bit more like Percy Talbot’s arrival to that small town in Maine? Jesus comes to Bethlehem, and they have no room for Him at the Inn. They don’t want Him. Most—if not all—the people in that town don’t have a clue who He is. And when King Herod hears of His birth he sends out soldiers to destroy Him. This is not a good start! St. John’s Gospel says it best: He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him (John 1:11).

That first Christmas was far from perfect (so if your life is not perfect this Christmas, then let this be a source of comfort and consolation. Be at peace; His first Christmas wasn’t perfect either). What Christ encountered when He came here to this earth was hostility and even rejection, but that should not surprise us. The Christian author, C.S. Lewis, in his classic book Mere Christianity, says that this world we live in is “enemy-occupied territory.” It is ruled by forces and powers that are opposed to the things of God. We do not need to be convinced of this truth; we just need to read the paper or watch the evening news.

“Christianity,” he goes on to say, “is the story of how the rightful king has landed…in disguise.” God sneaks in behind enemy lines, unknown to the “powers that be” and the rulers of this age. King Herod and Caesar Augustus have no idea that He has arrived.

But Christ has not come into “enemy-occupied territory” to do battle with them. He has come out to fight an enemy much more powerful and much more destructive than that. Christ comes to save us not from any earthly power, but the power of Satan and the forces of evil. More than that, Jesus Christ has come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). He comes to undue all the damage that has been caused by our sins and the sins of those around us.

And make no mistake about it: to do so will be a very messy and bloody ordeal. There is nothing sentimental about Christmas. This child born in Bethlehem will grow up and be nailed to a Roman cross. He will suffer and die…and rise again, to “save his people from their sins,” and give us a new start and a new beginning with God.

Like Percy Talbot, Christ comes to us from the outside and seeks to share Himself with us; He wants to transform us from the inside, out. We cannot have the perfect Christmas by trying to make the world we live in perfect. We cannot have the perfect Christmas by making our families or ourselves perfect. If we could do that, then we wouldn’t need Him!

We experience the perfect Christmas when we realize that He who is perfect came here for us, to reconcile us to each other and to God. We can have the perfect Christmas when we allow Him into our lives and into our hearts, and let Him do whatever it is He wants to. We ask ourselves today:

Are we able to recognize Christ and welcome Him in the ways that He comes to be among us?

What are we willing to do to acknowledge our need for a Savior, and to allow Him to save us from our sins?

How can we allow Christ to transform our small town, our families, and our lives this Christmas?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Be Not Afraid!

(4th Sunday of Advent-Year A; This homily was given 22 & 23 December, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I. Read Isaiah 7:10-14 and Matthew 1:18-24)

As we draw ever closer to the celebration of the birth of Christ and ponder the readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, I would invite you to reflect on the lives of three men; all of them born in different periods of history.

The first one was weak, the second was strong, and the third was, quite possibly (with the exception of Jesus Himself) the holiest man who ever lived.

The one who was weak appears in our first reading this weekend: King Ahaz. He was the leader of the people of Israel, and to understand why he was weak we need to go back a few verses before the passage that we hear this weekend. Our reading includes the middle section of Chapter 7 in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

But if you read the beginning of that same chapter, Isaiah describes the political and historical background: The nation was being threatened by nearby Assyria, who had made an alliance with the enemies of the king and planned to invade Jerusalem. Isaiah tells us the reaction of King Ahaz and the people when they discovered that horrific news:

The heart of the king and the heart of the people trembled as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.
—Isaiah 7:2

The people and the king were terrified…but that is not what made him a weak leader. It was his lack of faith and trust in God in the midst of that conflict that made King Ahaz weak.

As soon as word reaches them that the attack will happen, God sends the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to strengthen and reassure him. God wants the king to know that he will be supported; he will not be abandoned. He even tells him to ask for a sign from heaven that things will be all right, gives him permission to ask for anything at all…but Ahaz refuses!

“I will not ask,” he says. “I will not tempt the Lord!”
—Isaiah 7:12

He presumes to rely on his own strength and the strength of his allies, but not on the strength that comes from God. That was his weakness.

Thankfully God does not leave the king and his people in their weakness. He comes to them anyway, sending Isaiah out first with a reprimand for the king:

Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.
—Isaiah 7:13-14

Emmanuel means “God is with us,” and that would be the sign. God would be with the king and the people of Israel and His strength and might would see them through. Thanks be to God that our Lord does not leave us in our weakness, but comes to us anyway! That was the man who was weak.

The second man, I said, was strong. He was physically strong, growing up as an athlete and even working for a time as a laborer. But he was also spiritually and morally strong. He began studying for the priesthood around the time of the Second World War, and many years later became the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. We would all come to know him as Pope John Paul II, and he was one of the strongest leaders the Church had seen in centuries.

In his biography on Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel tells the story about the conclave in which the cardinals of the Church elected the Polish Cardinal as our new pope. They had been praying and discerning for days when finally it seemed that God was guiding them all in the direction of the young Cardinal from Krakow. As they counted the ballots it became clear that he would be the next pope.

Eyewitnesses say that he looked visibly shaken as he bent over and placed his face in his hands, overwhelmed at the grave responsibility that was about to fall to him. Seeing him then, some of the cardinals began to fear that he would not accept the nomination!

Yet moments later the entire demeanor of this man would change dramatically. When he greeted the world as the new successor of St. Peter, he addressed them all with the words that would mark and define his papacy:

“Be not afraid!”

What had changed between that first recognition that the office of the papacy had been entrusted to him, and the proclamation to the entire world that we have nothing to fear? How could he be that confident, that courageous?

I believe he understood what King Ahaz and the people of Israel had learned in that first reading: Emmanuel. That God is with us. God would guide him and our Church, just as He always had; we need not be afraid.

Which brings us to the final man I mentioned: the one who was, quite possibly (with the exception of Jesus Christ Himself) the holiest man who ever lived: St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Foster Father of Jesus the Christ.

The circumstances in which we find St. Joseph and the Holy Family this weekend are more than a little awkward. Joseph has just discovered that Mary is pregnant, and he decides to divorce her quietly.

We do not know what Mary has said to him, or what he believed about what she said, but we know he has decided to let her go. And somewhere in the midst of that decision, we know that he was afraid. We know that to be the truth because St. Matthew tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said: Do not be afraid!

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
—Matthew 1:20

Now there are a couple of different opinions on why Joseph might have been afraid to remain with Mary. The first and obvious one is that he didn’t know who the father was. The second possibility is that he did know who the father was, and he was terrified! Being a father is difficult enough, but what man could be the father of God?

Either way, Joseph faced a future that was uncertain and quite different than what he thought it would be. And into his fear and uncertainty God reveals to him a plan that will change the world forever: That this child to be born of Mary will be Emmanuel—God with us—and the savior of the world.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, as we reflect on these three very different men, we can ask ourselves: What about us? What are the things in our world, and in our lives, that we are afraid of? What are the things that cause us fear?

We live in a culture often dominated by fear, with terrorism on a global scale and our nation even now at war. We all know of courageous men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, people we pray for on a daily basis.

There are a thousand things we could be afraid of: our own death; the loss of loved ones; health concerns; fear of being alone; fear of being with other people; fear of almost anything that threatens our safety, peace and security in this fragile world we live in.

God reminds us today that He is Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us in the midst of all our fears. We can take to heart the words of Jesus Christ all throughout the gospels, the words that Pope John Paul II made his own and shared with the world on the first occasion he addressed us as our Holy Father, and words that he took to heart right up until his own entrance into eternal life: Be not afraid. God is with us.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Are You Waiting For?

(Gaudete Sunday, 3rd Sunday of Advent-Year A; This homily was given 15 & 16 December, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I. Read Matthew 11:2-11)

It’s Gaudete Sunday, that time in Advent when we catch a glimpse of the joy that will be here in just a few weeks; the pink candle is lit and it’s a chance for us to check in and see how our time of waiting has been. And so, with less than two weeks left before Christmas, allow me to ask one question: What are you waiting for?

Maybe it’s a relative, returning home for the holidays, or perhaps the chance to come together with family and friends. Hopefully we are not only waiting for, but even longing for, the person of Jesus Christ. He should be at the center of our watching and waiting…

But while we’re waiting, let’s take a look into that dark prison cell we heard about in the Gospel, the one where John the Baptist is sitting. What’s he waiting for? We’re not told, exactly, but we do know that he has grown weary, waiting. And finally he sends out a message for Jesus that might seem a little strange:

Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?
—Matthew 11:3

How do we make sense out of that question? Isn’t this the same John the Baptist who, at the Visitation, leapt in the womb of his mother as he sensed the presence of Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

Wasn’t John the first one to recognize his own cousin as the Christ when he came out to the Jordan River? John had seen Him and proclaimed with certainty: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”

Was John beginning to doubt Jesus as he sat there alone in that prison cell? I don’t think he was so much doubting Jesus, as he was beginning to doubt himself, and all that he had understood earlier about the Messiah.

John’s message was one of repentance: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And just last week we heard him say, “The axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The justice of God was coming. John preached it. He lived it. He even called King Herod to task for not living it! He held the king accountable for an adulterous affair with his brother’s wife. Now he finds himself in a prison cell, and Herod is out living the good life. Where’s the justice in that? The coming of the Messiah was supposed to change the world, to right all the wrongs, to set things straight.

And so, it is very likely that John is thinking to himself, about Jesus: “What is he waiting for?” A good question. What is He waiting for? The answer, I believe, is found in Jesus’ reply to John’s disciples:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
—Matthew 11:4-5

The Messiah had come to change the world. There was no doubt about that. And He was changing it, transforming it, making all things new. But He was not changing the world with the judgment of God as much as He was changing it with the mercy of God.

He came to open the eyes of those who had been blind to the ways of God, to bring healing to those who had been broken by sin, and to transform every aspect of our fallen nature. When God became man in Christ and came to this earth everything changed. Everything.

But let’s be fair. John was right to preach repentance, because without repentance there can be no mercy. Mercy is only available to those who are willing to receive it, those who understand that they are in need of it. And that is what Jesus is waiting for! He is holding back on the judgment required by perfect justice for the sake of complete repentance. As St. Peter says in his 2nd Letter:

The Lord does not delay his promise, as some count “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
—2 Peter 3:9

And so, finally, the question comes to us: What are we waiting for? If it is true that God wants to pour out His mercy into our lives, that He is that patient and that willing to transform us and set our hearts on fire, what are we waiting for?

As He was in the days of John the Baptist, so He is doing now: seeking to open the eyes that are blind, to heal those who are broken and in need. He is offering Himself to us here today in the Eucharist, and asking that we be totally united to Him, totally committed, totally faithful. God can transform our entire lives, if only we will let Him.

So what are we waiting for?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Feast of St. John of the Cross

(Feast of St. John of the Cross; This homily was given on Friday, 14 December, 2007 at the Carmelite Monastery, Barrington, R.I.; readings for the feast-celebrated solemnly in the Monastery-are Isaiah 43:1-5, Romans 8:14-18, 28-30 & John 17:11, 17-26)

Our reflection today is taken from the 17th Chapter St. John’s Gospel, and is known as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. In that great prayer to the Father, Christ pleads for His disciples on the night before He suffers and dies, seeking to secure us with the gifts that He considers to be the most important of all.

One of those prayers—in fact, the one that runs like a mantra throughout that entire chapter—is the prayer for unity. Over and over again, He prays “that they may be one” (John 17:11, 21, 22, 23).

But this unity which Christ calls us to is not something of our own making. It does not happen because we will or desire it. We are not united around some given set of principals or ideals; we are not one because we all like each other and consider it splendid to spend time together (although I hope we do!).

Christ tells us in that prayer to the Father that we are united as one in Him. He prays to the Father “that they may be one as we are one” (John 14:11), and “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21). Again, He continues to pray to the Father before them all, “I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one” (John 17:23). We are united as one because God lives in us and we have life in Him.
We are united in union with God.

That is the one driving force behind the life, ministry and prayer of St. John of the Cross: Union with God. It is his passion, his one great desire, his purpose for living...and dying…and living forever in God. Union.

But union with God, we find in our second reading from St. Paul, is conditional. The love of God is unconditional; God simply loves us. Period. But union is different. We cannot live however we want and expect to be in union with God. We cannot follow our own way, our own path, and then invite God to join us to Himself. We must constantly surrender to Him, be guided and directed by Him, submit to His will and His plan for our lives.

St. Paul offers another condition in that second reading. He says that we will share in the very Glory of God. Through Christ we have become sons and daughters in the Son; we call God “Abba, Father.” We inherit eternal life in God with Christ if…if….

If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
—Romans 8:17

Union with God and sharing in the eternal glory of God cannot be separated from the cross of Christ here on this earth. Sharing with Christ in His suffering and in His glory is the essence of our union with Him. And so it is throughout all the writings of St. John of the Cross.

One of the great images that St. John of the Cross uses to describe this union—in glory and in suffering—is the image of night. We are all familiar with the image of the Dark Night of the Soul.

People will often use, or mis-use, that image. They will say things like, “Oh, that was an awful year. It was my Dark Night” or “I am going through the worse time ever. I’m in the Dark Night.”

But St. John of the Cross never refers to the Dark Night as a negative experience. It is never something to be avoided or overcome. It is the very place where we experience the presence of the Living God.

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel he offers three reasons or purposes why God draws the soul into the journey of the Dark Night (Ascent, Book I, Chapter 2).

The first reason or purpose is so that the soul may undergo a purgation of the senses. We need firstly to be purged from our earthly attachments: purged from attachments to sin, purged of our attachment even to things which are good but are not God.

Secondly, the soul, in the darkness, discovers what it means to live by faith. We do not rely entirely on what we sense and feel when it comes to our relationship with God. We do not live by what we see happening around us, nor do we base our spiritual lives completely on external situations and experiences. We live by faith in the promises of God in the Scriptures, in the teachings of our Church, and in the Sacraments. In the darkness we live, and grow, by faith.

Finally, when the soul is purified and learns to grow in faith, it is then, in the night, that God unites Himself to her. Night is the time for lovers. It is in the night when husband and wife come together in that most intimate of unions. Night is the place where God unites Himself to the soul that seeks Him and yearns for Him, even and especially in suffering and in darkness.

As we celebrate this Feast of St. John of the Cross, we can ask ourselves:

Where is God purifying me at this time in my life? Where do I experience the purgation of the senses that always leads me closer to Him?

Where is God challenging me to grow in faith, to trust in Him and His promises and not in myself, my feelings, or the things around me?

That is the place where He is calling us to union with Himself. May we be drawn ever closer to union with God in the darkness of faith as we continue to yearn and wait for Christ, the Light of the World, this Christmas.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Are You Holier Than a 2nd Grader?

(2nd Sunday of Advent-Year A; This homily was given 8 & 9 December, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I. Read Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12)

Are you smarter than a 5th Grader? I am sure you have heard of, or maybe even seen, the TV show on Fox that is centered around that question. It is a quiz show hosted by TV personality and comedian Jeff Foxworthy that invites adults to answer questions that never go beyond the 5th Grade level.

Sure, it sounds easy enough. But if you have seen that show then you know eventually they come to a question that you do not know, or one that you used to know and have since forgotten…and you get it wrong! Suddenly you find yourself having to admit—like most of the contestants on that show—that sometimes you, too, are not smarter than a 5th Grader!

Today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, I would like to ask a similar question: Are you holier than—or at least as holy as—a 2nd Grader? Right now our 2nd Graders at the school, as well as those in the CCD program on Sunday morning, are preparing to make their First Penance. They are also looking ahead to their First Communion this coming May. It is a very exciting year for them, so please keep them in you prayers.

I was over to the school last week, and I met with the 2nd Grade class and their teacher to answer any questions they may have about their first confession. I read to them (and to our CCD students this morning) that popular children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

You may have read that story as a child. A young boy loves his stuffed bunny rabbit so much, and so unconditionally, that the bunny becomes real. Even after the bunny has become ragged and worn, and his stuffing is starting to come out, the boy still loves him more than ever.

I told them that the way God loves us is very much the same. God loves us so much that we become real. As St. Augustine says, God does not simply bring us into existence; He loves us into existence. It is that same unconditional love that stays with us all throughout our lives. Even when we feel ragged and worn, like the bunny in the story, God still loves us and cares for us. He will never abandon us. That knowledge is at the heart of reconciliation, and the forgiveness we experience in that sacrament.

And do you know what? Those 2nd Graders were wide open to that story of God’s unconditional love! They were excited about their First Penance coming up, and filled with joy about making their First Communion in just a few short months. They rejoiced in what God was doing in their lives.

I began to ask myself:

“Am I that open to the way God is working in my life? Do I rejoice that much in the sacraments and in the unconditional love of God for me? In short: Am I as holy as a 2nd Grader!”

It’s not an option, you know. We do not have a choice when it comes to the way we see God and the world around us. Jesus Christ Himself says, in the Gospel of St. Matthew:

Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 18:3

Unless you have a child-like trust and faith, and unless you can see the kingdom of God as a child would, than you will not see it at all!

Another way of putting it would be: Unless you are as holy as a 2nd Grader, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven!

This call to holiness is central to our gospel this Second Sunday of Advent. We hear the voice of St. John the Baptist as he prepares the way for Christ with that familiar cry: Repent!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
—Matthew 3:2

Obviously, the command “repent” has a strong connection to our moral life. We are called to turn away from sin and turn back wholeheartedly to God. But the word itself in Greek—metanoiete—entails much more than just morality. Repentance or Metanoia means literally to change one’s mind, one’s entire attitude. It means to change the way we look at the world, the way we see God and those around us.

Now that Christ and His kingdom have come into this world, nothing is the same. We are challenged to see everything in the light of Jesus Christ, to behold all things with new eyes and a new vision.

That vision is one we find in our First Reading this weekend, from the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is writing about the Messianic times; he describes for us what the world will look like when the Messiah comes. It is a remarkable and radical worldview:

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lay down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
—Isaiah 11:6

That peace, harmony and tranquility is something that will only be complete when Christ comes back again and His kingdom and will are done “here on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet we as Christians are called to embrace that vision right here, right now.

For those who have the courage to live the Gospel, the courage to forgive, and to be forgiven, then we will experience already here on this earth that inner peace, harmony and tranquility. We will begin to see the world around us in a whole new light, and grow in our child-like trust and faith in God…which brings me back to our 2nd Graders.

At the end of this week I received a stack of thank you cards from them. I would like to share with you two of them.

The first one said:

“Thank you, Father, for reading us the book. I loved it so much and I can’t wait until we receive First Penance.”

Now, I can tell you honestly that I have never had an adult say something like that to me! No one has ever said, “Father, I just can’t wait until Saturday rolls around so that I can finally go to confession again.” But imagine what our parish would look like, and what our world would look like, if more people did.

The final card said:

“Dear Father, we are looking forward to our First Communion. Oh! And that story you read was great. I think we all learned from that wonderful book.”

Do we have that same attitude in our lives, that same excitement when it comes to hearing the story of God’s unconditional love for us, over and over again? Do we ever tire of hearing that story in the gospel week after week? Are we continuing to be transformed by it?

Are we looking forward to the next time we will receive the Sacrament of Penance or the Sacrament of the Eucharist?

This Second Sunday of Advent, we can all ask ourselves:

“Are we as holy as a 2nd Grader?”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Problem, the Solution, and the Apple

(Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception; This homily was given 8 December, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Genesis 3:9-20 and Luke 1:26-38)

This morning we celebrate what is our country’s patronal feast day: the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. What we celebrate is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was conceived without any stain of original sin so that she could be found worthy to be the Mother of God.

Our readings for this great feast include both those “theological concepts” of the Immaculate Conception: the “concept” of original sin itself and God’s solution to that problem: the coming of Christ, our Savior, through the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The opening chapters of Genesis tell the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve, who had eaten from the tree of which God had forbidden them to eat. It was that act of disobedience that brought original sin into the world we live in, and along with it, all of the sin, the pain, the suffering and the brokenness that we all experience on a daily basis. It is, quite simply, The Problem that has plagued us from the dawn of creation.

But in our gospel today we hear also of the solution to that problem: How God was to send a Savior to redeem us, Jesus Christ His Son, through the Blessed Virgin Mary. In place of the disobedience of Eve, Mary freely gives herself wholeheartedly to the work and the will of God.

That act of obedience opened the way for our Redeemer and for our salvation. As St. Irenaeus of Lyon has said so eloquently: And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith (Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 22).

This feast we celebrate today gives us tremendous hope, because we discover how much God wants each of us to be a part of what He is doing to loose that knot of disobedience. Through Mary’s obedience, Christ came into this world to save us from our sins; He still comes to us today, whenever we freely give ourselves to Him, like Mary.

There is a beautiful story that was re-told in the Christian periodical "First Things" last January. It is a parable or fairy tale of sorts, written by the French authors Jerome Tharaud and Jean Tharaud.

The story takes place on the night that Christ is born in Bethlehem. The shepherds and wise men have all come and gone, and suddenly an old woman appears in the doorway, dressed in rags. Mary is alarmed at the appearance of this haggard visitor, who is bent over as if weighed down by an impossible load. She makes her way toward the manger, each step seeming to take centuries to complete.

Mary is surprised to see that none of the animals are even slightly agitated by this uninvited guest. It is as if they knew she was coming all along. Suddenly, as she reaches the crib, she bends down towards the child, slowly producing something from beneath her filthy rags. Mary wonders what this new gift might be. The old woman smiles knowingly at Mary as she departs; no longer bent over, her head now held high. The authors continue:

Finally Mary could see the mysterious present. An apple, a little apple, having within it all the sin of the world, given to the baby Jesus by Eve, for it was her, the old woman, who had come to worship the Child born of her blood, who would save her from her sins. The apple of the original sin, and the sin of so many who would follow her.

On this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, what are the sins that God is challenging us to offer back up to Him, acknowledging His forgiveness and mercy? As we set up nativity scenes in our own homes and Church this season and remember that Child in the manger, born of Mary, what is the apple that God is asking us to give back? This Advent season, as we prepare more completely for the coming of Jesus Christ, may we also see the knot of disobedience loosened in our own lives, and in the world we live in, by the forgiveness of Christ and our obedience and love for God and those around us.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Three Advents

(1st Sunday of Advent-Year A; This homily was given 1 & 2 December, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I. Read Matthew 24:37-44)

This weekend we begin the beautiful and holy season of Advent. The word advent is not one we hear very often in English. It comes from the Latin, Adventus, which means arrival or coming, and what we celebrate in this season, of course, is the arrival or the coming of Christ.

There are several ways that the Church understands this coming of Christ among us. The obvious one is His first coming, as a child. In a very real and visible way, the invisible God entered into our world. As we say each week in the Creed:

By the power of the Holy Spirit
He was born of the Virgin Mary
and became man.

I would venture to guess that most Christians, in a particular way in these next few weeks, will celebrate that coming. Certainly we rejoice in that arrival or coming of Christ, yet what we celebrate primarily at Advent is the Second Coming of Christ, when He will come again at the end of time. That is why the gospel this weekend from St. Matthew, is focused on the final return of Christ in glory. It is a real event that we wait for and even seek to hasten whenever we pray the Our Father. Indeed, each week in our Creed we also profess.

He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead.

But there is a third coming, a third advent, which St. Bernard of Clairvaux—the great 12th century monk and Doctor of the Church—talks about. He says that only those who are able to recognize Christ within themselves, within their own lives, will see this advent. Comparing it with the first two advents, he says:

Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.
—St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard says that this advent is a hidden or invisible one, unlike the first two. When Christ was born as a child of the Blessed Virgin Mary, His cries could be heard, His little hands and feet seen. As a young man, people would listen to Him speak; they saw Him heal the sick and raise the dead. Many watched Him suffer and die on the cross. They saw Him after He had risen from the dead.

In His Second Coming, Christ will be even more visible! The Scriptures talk about how He will come in great power and glory on the clouds of heaven (Luke 21:27, Matthew 25:31), and all will recognize Him: every Muslim, every Jew, every Atheist, every Protestant, every Catholic. Everyone living on the face of the Earth will see and recognize the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Not so, this third advent! Not so, this third arrival or coming of Christ! It will happen in a much more subtle way, and so we must be prepared for that coming in all the everyday and ordinary aspects of our lives…which is exactly what Christ is warning us about in the gospel this weekend!

He challenges each of us to be alert and awake, so that we do not miss Him:

Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
—Matthew 24:42

It is not only in the great and dramatic events of life that we come to know and recognize God. He comes to us often in the most ordinary and everyday things, and it is precisely there that we risk missing Him; precisely there that we need to keep awake and alert for the coming off the Living God.

Jesus uses the example of the days of Noah:

In those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…
—Matthew 24:38

Now what, you may ask, is wrong with those things? Nothing! There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking. Certainly there is nothing wrong with celebrating marriage and rejoicing with those we love. Those are all good things.

But the people of Noah’s day were concerned with only those things. They left no room for God. They left no room for the word of God and the message of God. They did not heed the warning of God, and they missed the boat…literally! They did not make it into the Ark. They all perished in the flood.

Christ draws the immediate conclusion:

So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
—Matthew 24:39-41

Again, Christ speaks of the ordinary stuff of life: grinding at the mill…working in the field…We could add: Working at the office…shopping at the mall…meeting with friends and family…

It can be so easy, in this busy season, to get caught up in so many of these activities, all of them good!

But if we focus on these things, and only these things; if we leave no room for God, no room for the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist each week, in which we are made new and strengthened in Christ; if we leave no room for daily prayer, in which our relationship with God is sustained; if we leave no room for the teachings of our faith and the practice of that faith in the everyday circumstances of life…

If we miss these things then we risk missing the coming of Christ in the third advent that St. Bernard talks about. If we are not attentive to Christ in the everyday aspects of our lives, then we also risk missing Christ when He comes again at the end of time, or the end of our lives. That is something that we should all take very seriously.

There is a beautiful story about St. Martin of Tours, a fourth century soldier of the Roman army in Gaul (modern day France). While still a young man, he felt called to become a Catholic and was planning eventually to be baptized (he was what the Church calls a catechumen).

One freezing cold and windy night, as he walked through the streets, he noticed an elderly man who was half-naked and begging for alms. People were walking past him, not even acknowledging the unfortunate soul. The thought suddenly occurred to St. Martin that this man had come to this street at this particular time especially for him.

He rushed over to help the man, but he didn’t have any money. All he had in his possession were the clothes on his back and the sword at his side. Suddenly Martin took off his cloak, and with the sword he cut it in half, giving one half to the poor beggar and wrapping himself in the other half.

Later that night, in a dream, St. Martin had a vision of Christ walking through heaven. He was wearing Martin’s cloak and speaking to the saints and the angels around him, saying:

“Do you see this cloak? Martin gave me this cloak. Martin, who is a catechumen, and not even yet baptized. Martin gave me this cloak!”

It was almost immediately after that night that Martin presented himself for baptism! He eventually became a bishop, and St. Martin of Tours is considered to be one of the most beloved and well known saints of the fourth century.

Are we able to see Christ in the people around us? Are we able to recognize Christ in the poor? Those who are poor physically; poor emotionally or spiritually? Are we able to recognize Christ in the people we see in the shopping mall, or in the supermarket; in our families and workplaces?

We are called to recognize Christ in all of the ordinary and everyday circumstances of life…but never more so than here in the Eucharist that we celebrate at the altar of God. Here Christ will come to us, He will arrive for us under the appearance of simple bread and wine, yet it is the true presence of Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity.

We are called to recognize Christ this day, on this First Sunday of Advent, right here in the Eucharist. Then we are called to leave this place and in this First Week of Advent, to simply recognize Him everywhere.