18 March 2019

Our Time to Shine

Second Sunday of Lent
The most recent Marvel movie that debuted is “Captain Marvel.”  The previews didn’t really excite me, but on a Sunday afternoon I had some free time and decided to catch the movie.  I have to say, I was really impressed with the movie, both as something enjoyable, and as a good part of the Marvel universe, especially with the upcoming late-April release of the latest Avengers film.
I don’t want to give away the movie, but like many of the first movies of a superhero (or in this case, superheroine) it explains Carol Danvers’ history and identity, as well as her becoming who she truly is meant to be.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us a glimpse of what we’re supposed to be.  In the midst of the impending Passion of our Lord (in the Gospel according to Luke, the Transfiguration happens after the first prediction of Jesus’ Passion, and right before Jesus sets out for Jerusalem to undergo His Passion), Jesus gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse of what will happen after Jesus’ Passion and Death.  The Gospel describes Jesus as with “dazzling white” clothing and His face changed in appearance.  We often depict Jesus as glowing in His Transfiguration.  But what it comes down to is that Jesus shows His special apostles a prefigurement of His glorified body, and Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah about “his exodus,” Jesus leading His people from slavery to freedom.

We were created for that glory that Jesus shows us in the Transfiguration.  We were created to communion with the saints in heaven as we make our way on our pilgrimage on earth.  We were made for heaven; that is the goal of every human life.
When we depict saints artistically or for sacred worship, we do so with a glorified body, and with a halo.  Good liturgical depictions of the saints may include the instruments of their life or even their death, but it does so in a way that shows that they are at peace.  We also try to make it look like the eternal light of heaven, that place where there is no night because the Lamb is the light and He is never hidden.  If you look at our icons, we have gold leaf for their halos as a way of reflecting and showing off the light.  And their faces are definitely peaceful, not affected by the passions or by even the external events of the world, but simply living the peace of Christ.
But that reality is not only for those in heaven.  If we are living the life of Christ, if we are putting on Christ and living as He desires, then we, too, can shine here on earth.  About certain holy men and women on earth, some have even mentioned that they seemed to shine.  Moses’ face shone after every encounter with God, as we read in the Old Testament.  
And if we shine more and more as we live the heavenly life, then we become more dull the more we immerse ourselves in our earthly life.  St. Paul speaks about that in our second reading.  He talks about those whose “end is destruction.  Their god is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’  Their minds are occupied with earthly things.”  The more that we focus, instead, on the heavenly life, the more Jesus “will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.”  The more that we focus on our earthly life, the more we resist that transformation that Jesus shows us in the Transfiguration.
Now, you might be thinking that you have to focus on our earthly life because you live an earthly life.  You, like I, have to pay bills, buy food, travel back and forth, pay mortgages or rent, etc.  But that’s not what I mean by the earthly life.  Earthly life is when we focus on our fallen and base desires.  When we are lustful; when we are greedy; when we make money or power or fame a god; when we lie; when we gossip.  When we do those things, we say no to the divine light that wants to change us, wants to transfigure us.  When we focus on prayer, on generosity, on helping our neighbors, on the common good, even while we are working or vacationing, then we allow that light to penetrate into the very fabric of our life and make us shine with the light of the eternal sun that never sets in heaven.  When we live the heavenly life, we can truly say that the “Lord is my light.”  
I don’t know about you, but I feel like our world is darker now than it was even not that long ago when I was growing up.  And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since that time, people’s participation in the faith has decreased greatly.  Our world is darker because it is not illuminated by as many men and women striving for holiness, striving to let the light of the Lord shine through them.  And even some of those who do attend Mass do not have their hearts set on the Lord, but are living a double life where greed and power and lust are the happy focus of their life for six and a half days of the week, and the Lord is the focus for one hour on Sunday.  The light will not shine through those people, either.   Instead, by the grace of God, we need to allow God to change us, to forgive us through the Sacrament of Penance when we fall, and to transfigure us with His light.  

Our identity is not in our base desires.  Perhaps you’re still discovering the “superhero” that God is calling you to be.  Be that superhero of the faith.  Be that saint, even in your daily life.  Let God transfigure you to let His light shine through you.

11 March 2019

Into the Desert

First Sunday of Lent
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus…was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days.”  Did you hear that first line of the Gospel, or did it go by unnoticed?  Listen to it again: “Filled withe the Holy Spirit, Jesus…was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days.”  If we’re listening to it, it should jostle us a little.  It should lead us to ask, ‘Why would the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the desert?’  
The desert, after all, is a place of trial and death.  It’s the opposite of the place God first intended for humanity, which was a garden, the Garden of Eden.  God also led the Chosen People through the desert, but the desert wasn’t a happy place for them.  The goal was the Promised Land, the “land flowing with milk and honey.”  The desert was where they had to wander due to their lack of faith in God, and it is the place where they grumbled against God, even though He was providing for all their needs.  So why would God the Holy Spirit lead Jesus (God the Son) there?
Jesus goes into the desert to show us how to fight against temptation.  Jesus was like us in all ways except sin.  He shows us that, when we unite our humanity, our nature, to the divinity of God, God’s nature, we can resist in the desert what Adam and Eve did not resist in the garden.  While not for Jesus, for us, the desert is a time of purification, helping us to grow in our relationship with God and to trust in Him to provide all that we need.
Lent for us is that time of purification, of growing in our relationship with God, of trusting in God to provide for all our needs.  It is the desert.  It is not the destination, not the goal, but the way by which we reach our destination and goal.  It is the place where God puts to death temptation and sin, and prepares us for the life of paradise.  It is what makes us ready for the life of paradise, the life of the Promised Land.  And the Holy Spirit leads us there, not to stay there, but to get to the Promised Land.
Right now we are in the desert as a Church.  We are in a time of purification, where temptation and sin are being put to death.  We could talk about the different issues that are plaguing the Church right now.  But those are simply symptoms of the problem.  The heart of the problem is that we, as a society, have given in to the second temptation of Satan from today’s Gospel.  
The enemy tempted Jesus, “‘I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.  All this will be yours if you worship me.’”  We, as a society, and therefore as individuals, have decided to worship false gods, mostly the self and pleasure, for the sake of power and glory.  We abandoned the worship of the true God who leads us to paradise, and we have reveled in the worship of false gods who lead us to death and destruction.
We see it in politics, where money and power have become ultimate goods, and people are told what they want to hear, not what is right.  The personal pleasure of each individual has become the supreme good to which everything–the child in the womb, the elderly who are sick or dying, the natural law written into our very human nature–has to be subjected.  So many politicians, across party lines, do whatever will get them money from donors and reelected, not what is best for the country and its citizens.
We see it also in our sacred liturgy.  My formative years were where most of the songs and most of the focus at Mass was on me: what makes me feel good; how can I be affirmed as a person; and how much God loved me as I am.  Now, feeling good can be good; personal affirmation can be good; and God does love me unconditionally.  But feeling good is only good when it comes from doing good and avoiding evil.  Affirmation of what is noble is good, but we should feel shame for doing what is base.  God loves me as I am, but He loves me too much to leave me there; He calls me each day to conversion.  We are tempted to narcissism, exercises on focusing on the self, rather than God.  But, as Jesus reminds us, “‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.’”
How often do we hear: I don’t like the music, so I’m leaving the church.  I don’t like the preaching, so I’m leaving the church.  I don’t like the priest, so I’m leaving the church.  The common denominator is that the person is not going to church for God, but for what he likes.  But we don’t come to Mass because of what we like.  We come to give thanks to God for what He did by giving us Jesus so that we could go to heaven.

The Holy Spirit has led the Church into the desert because we have given in to temptation to worship false gods, often the self.  We need to be purified from societal narcissism and be drawn back to the transcendent God, who draws us from ourselves to Him who satisfies all our needs.  Following God doesn’t always feel good; the desert is dry and hot.  Following God doesn’t always affirm our actions; the desert requires us to put away what is ancillary.  Following God means that we say no to the temptations that arise in our daily life which look enticing, but which really keep us out of the garden and paradise.  But, if we follow God through the desert, if we say no to the temptations, especially the false gods we make in our life, then it leads to the Promised Land, to the garden, to place that God has prepared for those who follow His Son.  So during this Lent, follow the Holy Spirit into the desert and fight temptation, empowered by that same Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is one God, for ever and ever.

25 February 2019

Catholic Identity

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
A parishioner was recently asking me about my work with the Michigan State Police.  In the midst of the conversation, I started to talk about how, for law enforcement officers in general, their work is their life.  That’s not to say they don’t have hobbies outside of work, but simply that their work changes who they are, how they see people, and how they act.  One example: if a cop goes out to eat, even off duty, he or she almost always will sit facing the entrance, if at all possible, to see what’s going on, who’s coming in, etc.  The same could be said for being a mother: it changes how you see things, and you’re always a mom, even if the child doesn’t necessarily belong to you.  And I’m sure there are others whose identity changes how they relate to the world they encounter each day.
I bring this up because the same should be able to be said about us as Catholics, as followers of Jesus.  Being Catholic is not a matter of belonging to an ancient club, with dues, with old rituals, with hierarchy, that provides certain privileges.  Being Catholic is not only about coming to Mass one day each week.  Being Catholic is, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, having the same attitude as Christ.  And when we have that same attitude, it changes everything we do.
A statue of King David
from Jerusalem
Even before Jesus, we can see what that looks like in our first reading.  David had been anointed by the Prophet Samuel to take over for King Saul after Saul was dead.  David’s fame and power kept growing, while King Saul’s fame and power was waning (remember that he had disobeyed the Lord, which is why the Lord’s favor left him).  Because of this, King Saul wanted to kill David, to get rid of his rival.  So David had to flee.  But King Saul pursued David.  And that’s where our first reading comes in today.  David is hiding from King Saul, but finds him asleep, along with all of his men.  David could have killed King Saul (Saul’s spear was in the ground next to King Saul’s head), but didn’t.  David’s advisor, Abishai, told David to kill King Saul, so that he could be king instead.  But David rejected that advice, and did no harm to the king that the Lord had anointed.  
That course of action makes no sense outside of faith in God.  If you come upon a man who is hunting you, who is bent on your destruction, and you have the chance to take him out, that is the best thing to do.  David could have become king and ruled over all Israel.  But it was not God’s will, so David did not do it, even though, from the wisdom of the world, it would have ensured success.
Jesus, the Son of David, tells us in the Gospel: 

“love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  […] Give to everyone who asks of you….Do to others as you would have them do to you….Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful….Stop judging…[s]top condemning…[f]orgive.”

That’s not the way to make it in a cutthroat world, the world in which Jesus lived, the world in which we live.  That’s not the smartest plan for someone who wants to be powerful, in control, determining his own destiny.  But that’s the attitude of Christ.
Being Catholic is about living in our daily circumstances like Jesus would live.  It means loving enemies, praying for those who hurt us, being generous with our material goods, being merciful.  Those actions, and everything that Jesus teaches us, is meant to become a part of us, so that, again paraphrasing St. Paul, it is not longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.  Being Catholic is about becoming like Jesus, not so that we can earn God’s love, but as a result of God’s love.  Being Catholic should be in us as a part of who we are, which changes who we are, how we see people, how we act.   
When we approach people, we should try to see a person created in the image and likeness of God, and love them.  When we are struggling with a co-worker or a family member, our first instinct should be to pray for that person.  When we’re at the grocery or department store, or dealing with customer service, we should treat them as we would want to be treated.  When someone wrongs us, we should try to extend mercy to them, just as our heavenly Father extends mercy to us.  All of those things should flow from us because we are followers of Jesus, because we are Catholic.  Even more to the core of who we are than a job; even more to the core of who we are as a mother or father, we are followers of Jesus, and that should impact the way we live.  

Imagine for a second that our actions flowed from our identity as sons and daughters in the Son of God.  Imagine how different our world would be if we stopped acting out of a worldly mindset where we are in competition with each other for every last scrap, and where if we don’t take someone else down, that they could take us down.  Imagine if we had the same attitude as Christ.

11 February 2019

Duc In Altum

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of my favorite saints has always been St. Peter.  No, I don’t want to be pope (being a pastor is enough responsibility for me!), but I like St. Peter.  He’s one of the great apostles of Jesus, who always has great things to say, unless he’s putting his foot in his mouth (as he also often does).  He is, we might say, very relatable.  I’d like to believe that I have had great moments of faith and trust in God (even if great is a sliding scale), but I also know that I have had my own outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease.
And since I like St. Peter so much, today’s Gospel is one of my favorites.  It’s St. Luke talking about how St. Peter was called by Jesus.  St. Peter (still going by Simon at this point) is fishing all night and catching nothing (side note: have you ever noticed that St. Peter is never able to catch fish on his own?!?).  Then Jesus, who, from all outside views, knows nothing about fishing, tells him to go out again, and put into deep waters.  St. Peter begrudgingly does this, and then catches so many fish that he has to call his partners, James and John (who also became apostles), to help him drag it in.  St. Peter realizes that he is in the presence of someone special, someone great, and makes a confession of his own sinfulness.  Jesus tells him not to be afraid, because he will be catching men from now on.
When others hear this story, they sometimes ask me how I came to follow Jesus as a priest.  And certainly, all of our readings focus on calls: on the call of Isaiah to be a prophet; the call of St. Paul to preach the Gospel as the last apostle; and, as I mentioned, the call of St. Peter to follow Jesus as one, and the chief, of His apostles.  
Some priests I know have amazing stories like St. Peter of Jesus doing something great and spectacular in their lives.  But for me, that’s not the case.  As an eighth grader, I started thinking about what I wanted to do as an adult (so that I could concentrate on the right classes in high school, get into a good college in a field in which I wanted, and then get a good job).  If it were up to me, I wanted to be a lawyer, and then maybe go into politics.  I wanted to be married, have a few kids, a couple of dogs, and have lots of money.  But I knew that if I were going to be happy, I had to do what God wanted me to do.  So I started praying to God each night, asking Him to let me know.  And I heard nothing.  
So I started to go to daily Mass a few times at Lansing Catholic High School, and it was there that a stranger asked me if I were going to be a priest.  And other classmates and teachers started to do the same thing.  And before long, I started to realize that maybe God was asking me to consider a vocation to the priesthood.  I started to learn more about Catholicism, and fell in love with the Church, as one falls in love with his girlfriend.  And I decided that I wanted to give my life to serve her, just as a man decides (and hopefully the woman agrees) that he wants to give his life to serve the woman he wants to be his wife.  I applied to the seminary in my senior year through the Diocese of Lansing, and was accepted for my freshman year of college.  Each year I asked God to make it painfully clear if He didn’t want me to continue on.  And each year, I was asked to come back and continue studying to become a priest.  It wasn’t always easy; there were times where I thought (with the assistance of a rather attractive female lab partner) that maybe the priesthood wasn’t for me; but God did and has sustained me in my vocation.  God’s providential care for me has been more in the day-to-day events of life, not so much in the spectacular, like St. Peter.
But God knows what we need in responding to His call.  Some people don’t need the dramatic moments.  Some people do.  The key is that we are listening for the call of Jesus, and we respond with courage to the call of Jesus.  Because Jesus says to anyone who wants to follow Him, “Put out into deep water.”  In Latin that phrase is Duc in altum, and it was used by Pope St. John Paul II as he began his Apostolic Letter on the new millennium in 2001.  It was also a favorite of Bishop Mengeling, who told us seminarians not to dangle our toes in the water, but to put out into deep water.
Any vocational call–ordained ministry, marriage, consecrated life–and even while discerning God’s call, takes courage.  It takes faith in God, and confidence that He will show you the way.  As a priest it takes courage to serve when a very small percentage have tainted the good name of the priesthood, and it takes courage to say yes to never having a wife and a biological family of your own.  As a consecrated man or woman it takes courage to promise to not have any personal bank accounts and to be obedient to the religious congregation’s superiors.  As a married man or woman, it takes courage to commit to only being with one person in the special friendship of marriage for your entire life, to only be physically intimate with that person as long as that person lives.  Any vocation, and, again, even when trying to find out what God wants us to do, takes the courage to put out into deep waters and trust that God will not abandon us in those waters.

Many of you already have discerned your vocation here.  But some of you have not.  Be courageous in answering the Lord’s call, whatever it is, in your life.  Some of you may have spectacular calls like St. Peter.  Some of you will have more quotidian or ordinary calls like me.  But don’t be afraid to answer it.  Duc in altum!

04 February 2019

Disciples are Made for Greatness, Not Comfort

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There’s a temptation that can creep into any believer’s life, that if we just do the right things, then everything in our life is going to go well.  Maybe it comes from a desire for justice, for everyone getting what is owed them, but we can easily think that if we follow God, if we live our life according to what the Church teaches, then life should be easy for us.  We should be rewarded for good behavior, just like bad behavior should be punished.  There are even those who claim to preach the Gospel (they are really just perverting it) who say that if we follow God’s laws and if we give 10% to the Church, then God is going to make us rich and give us every earthly pleasure that is holy that we could desire.  We call that the Gospel of Prosperity (note that it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ).  
This perhaps also betrays a certain tendency in our human nature to want comfort, which is especially prevalent today among the young.  We want the good life, where we don’t have to struggle, don’t have to put forth effort, but we still get the rewards that would come from struggle and effort.  In one sense, we might say that this is built in to us because we were created for prelapsarian life, the life before the Fall in the Garden of Eden.  But we are living in postlapsarian times, the time after the Fall, where we earn our living by the sweat of our brow.  Furthermore, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort.  You were made for greatness.”  Greatness takes work.  Works means struggle.  Struggle means pain.  And it even applies for those who follow God.

Take Jeremiah in our first reading.  God appointed him a prophet.  In fact, God says that He appointed Jeremiah a prophet even while Jeremiah was in his mother’s womb.  And yet, Jeremiah has a tough life, so much so, that God says, “gird your loins; […] Be not crushed on their account.”  Jeremiah is the prophet who immediately prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people to Babylon.  As you might imagine, no one liked hearing this dire message.  But even as God tells Jeremiah that he will undergo a lot, he also promises that he has “made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass…They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”  
But besides the fact that God does not promise that those who follow Him and speak for Him will have it easy, Jesus also reminds us that sometimes those who don’t follow God get blessings.  The widow in Zarephath to whom Elijah was sent was not a Jew, and yet God took care of her.  Naaman the Syrian was a foreign general, a general of an army that was constantly threatening to destroy the Jews, and yet God, through the Prophet Elisha, cured him of leprosy.  Those who don’t follow God can still receive His blessings and healing.
And, if we look at Jesus, the co-eternal Son of God, He was perfect.  He never sinned, never did anything wrong.  He followed God’s will perfectly, and extended healing to many, both Jew and Gentile alike.  And what did Jesus get for perfectly doing the will of God and healing those who were ill?  He was led to the cross do die for our sins.  He suffered the most painful and embarrassing way to die as nails pierced his hands and feet and he hung naked outside the walls of Jerusalem.
But just in case you thought that being a disciple of Jesus means that life is going to be quite painful and horrible, that’s not the truth either.  Yes, our life on earth, in the vale of tears, may have a lot of suffering, but faithfulness to God always leads to eternal life in heaven.  Jesus shows us that in the most perfect way in His Resurrection.  Yes, following God’s will led Jesus to the cross, but the cross led to the Resurrection.  Yes, Jeremiah was treated poorly for speaking a difficult word from God, but he was received into heaven when Christ opened the gates of Paradise.  We long for the ease of Eden, but God promises, after our trials and tribulations on earth, a paradise and a comfort that exceeds anything that earth can offer to an infinite degree.  To tweak Pope Benedict’s words slightly, we were not made for comfort on this earth, but we were made for eternal joy in heaven.  
And what guides us amid the joys and sorrows of life?  Love.  True love, which means the type of love that is patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, not rude, not quick-tempered, not brooding, rejoicing in the truth.  Love guides us to our eternal joy because perfect love is eternal joy in heaven, where God, who is Love itself, shows us himself face to face.  

It would be nice if everything came to us without effort; if following Jesus did not require sacrifice and struggle.  But because we are fallen, following Jesus does not mean that we will get everything we want and life will not always be easy.  But, if we stay faithful to Christ, especially when it requires sacrifice and struggle, we know that we have a treasure, not made by hands, eternal in heaven, waiting for us, and fulfilling beyond measure the desire we have on earth for true joy.

28 January 2019

Not Them vs. Us

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
If you’ve been watching the news recently (a depressing venture, to be sure), you’ve heard about students from Convington Catholic High School at the March for Life.  A first video was shared which seemed to show an elder Native American activist being shouted at by the students, some with “Make America Great Again” hats, with one student in particular with a smug, very condescending smile on his face.  Some also claimed that the students were chanting “Build the Wall.”  The students were excoriated in the media as being the problem with America, and by some, the problem with the pro-life movement.  The Diocese of Convington apologized for the students’ behavior and judged them as guilty based upon the popular narrative at the time.
Shortly after the first video was released, a second video was released with more context, showing that the students were being yelled at by an African-American group that was protesting.  That group of people were yelling hateful things towards the students, so, to drown out the hate, they started doing school chants.  At that point, the elder Native American and his group walked towards the students, and the Native American elder stood very close to the smiling student.  That student explained that he was smiling to try to diffuse a very tense situation, and did what he thought was best to keep other students from the school from becoming verbally or physically abusive in retaliation.  Some apologies and retractions were issued about those who pounced on the first video, and these students were put forward as good examples of our youth not being baited into a fight, while others were excoriated for jumping to conclusions and reporting those conclusions before all the facts were available.
I’m not here to dissect all the blame in this situation, and who is right and who is wrong.  I’m here to preach the Gospel, and our Gospel today bears upon this situation.  Jesus in the Gospel says, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, that he has come “‘to proclaim liberty to captives…[and] to let the oppressed go free.’”  When we hear those words, we probably associate them with those who are incarcerated or held by strong forces (captives) and those who are downtrodden (the oppressed).  Maybe we think about it in social terms or government terms, or maybe even military or law enforcement terms (probably, some of those hearing it understood Jesus to mean that He was going to free them from Roman rule).  
But we are today captivated, that is to say, held by, and oppressed by more things than just foreign powers or strong worldly forces.  We are, I would suggested, held captive and oppressed by a mentality, from which Jesus came to free us.  That mentality, which captivates and oppresses us is a mentality which divides the world into “them” and “us.”  Jesus does not see people as “others,” but rather, as “His,” because all things have been handed over to Him by His Father, by our heavenly Father.  
This is not to say that Jesus na├»vely thought that everyone was working for him.  How many times did Jesus condemn the scribes and Pharisees for their wrong interpretation of the law, their oppression of people, and they hypocrisy.  And yet, when a Pharisee came asking Jesus about the greatest commandment, and when Jesus responded, that Pharisee gave his assent to the teaching of Jesus, then Jesus told the Pharisee that he was not far from salvation.  Jesus condemned the misreading and skepticism about the resurrection of the dead by the Sadducees, and yet Nicodemus, one of the Sadducees, engaged in dialogue with Jesus about baptism and being born again, and there was no condemnation from Jesus.  Jesus told the adulterous woman to go and sin no more, and called tax collectors to stop cheating others, and called everyone to stop hating their enemies, or looking lustfully at people, or swearing oaths blithely.  But Jesus also welcomed sinners into His company and invited them to a relationship with Him so that they could find the conversion to which Jesus called them.
We have become captives and oppressed by a worldview that divides the world.  We are all too happy to condemn them when they don’t agree with us.  This is hard to do as humans, because we’re social and want to belong.  So we demonize others, put them down, so that we can write them off.  Look at Congress and the President over the past month.  Nothing was getting done because each side had demonized the other.  There’s plenty of blame to go around for both sides; no one side is perfectly innocent.  The same goes for the coverage of the Convington Catholic students.  And yet, we willingly let ourselves be led like lemmings to a pre-determined conclusion because of a political or social affiliation that we value more than our affiliation with Jesus.  St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: 
remember that at one time you, Gentiles in the flesh…were at that time without Christ, alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become nearly by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh…[creating] in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace.

St. Paul puts it in terms of Gentile and Jew, the Jewish division of the world.  But it applies to any division we make in our world.

There are people who do evil in the world.  There is legitimate blame for things that people do wrong, for which we can hold them accountable.  But if we see the world through the lens of “them” vs. “us,” then we are ignoring the Good News that Jesus came to bring, that He came to bring us freedom from being held captive and oppressed by division, and that God’s freedom, prophesied by Isaiah, has been fulfilled by Christ.

12 January 2019

Our True Identity

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
One of the most popular Disney movies is “The Lion King.”  I think we’ve all seen it; I know as a kid I watched it too many times to count.  Powers did a great stage production of it last year.  Towards the end of the movie, there is a powerful scene, and I won’t be able to do justice to it here, but it’s the scene where Rafiki, the wise baboon, tells Simba, now grown and hanging out in the jungle with Timon and Pumba, that his father, Mufasa, is still alive (remember that Scar had killed Mufasa when Mufasa saved Simba).  Rafiki takes Simba to a pool, where Simba looks into the pool and sees his reflection.  Disappionted, Simba says that it’s just his reflection.  “Look harder,” Rafiki says.  And Simba looks again.  Rafiki continues, “You see, he lives in you.”
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.  Even though Jesus was already God the Father’s co-eternal Son, still, the voice of the Father is heard from the heavens, “‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”  Jesus had no need to be baptized, but he still allowed St. John the Baptist to baptize him as a model for what we are to do, and to show us the reality of what happens.
When we are baptized, original sin is washed away from us, like dirt being washed away by the water.  When we are baptized, we become a member of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, the group of those who follow Jesus’ teachings.  When we are baptized, even if we cannot hear it, the voice of the Father comes from heaven and says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  In baptism, we become sons and daughters in the Son of God.  God gives us His life, and imprints in us the identity of His Son, Jesus Christ.  That becomes who we are, and who we are meant to be.
Too often, we identify ourselves by something other than our baptism.  Maybe we identify ourselves by our work, by what we do.  Maybe we identify ourselves by our worldly successes, by how much money we make, or the home we own, or the car we drive.  Maybe we identify ourselves by our failures, by the mistakes we make, the sins we commit, the standards, realistic or unrealistic, that are set for us or that we set for ourselves.  I know that’s my Achille’s heal: to identify myself by my failures, and Lord knows there’s enough of them to think about!  But, however we think we should identify ourselves, God invites us today to identify ourselves the way He does: by our baptism. 
In Baptism we are given a dignity that infinitely surpasses anything we could hope to achieve on earth.  Even if we were the most powerful, the richest, the most famous person on earth, that is nothing compared to how God sees us.  Even the weakest, poorest, most insignificant person, if baptized, is a son or daughter of God in the Son of God, and has worth beyond measure in the eyes of God.  Think about how much love God has for Jesus.  Try to imagine it!  You can’t imagine it, because God’s love for Jesus is infinite, and our finite minds could never even come close to processing how much God loves Jesus.  Now, because of baptism, that love that God the Father has for Jesus is given, freely and generously, to us.  In baptism, we are joined to Christ so that the Father sees Jesus whenever He sees us.
It is that identity that then becomes the way we should live our lives.  We don’t live a certain way to earn God’s love.  That’s foolish and a heresy (Pelagianism).  We can never earn God’s love.  If we were to live the best and holist life ever, we could still never earn God’s love.  But the identity that we receive in baptism, the identity of Christ, that calls us to live in a certain way, to live as Jesus would live, to the best of our ability.  It is supposed to be, as St. Paul says, no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me.  
Think back to the Lion King.  Simba had grown used to living as a wart hog and a meer cat.  It was fun, it was carefree (hakuna matata!), but it wasn’t who Simba was.  Sin is often fun, it’s almost always carefree.  But it’s not who we are.  We are not our jobs.  We are not our successes.  Most importantly, we are not our failures.  Satan tries to convince us that our identity is in something other than our baptism.  Simba, though, was a lion and a king.  And it was living according to that identity that gave him true joy.  We are, in Christ, little anointed ones, little christs.  In Jesus, we are sons and daughters of God.  That identity gives us true joy, and helps us know how we are to live our life.

When we were baptized, we went from merely being our parents’ child, to being a child of God in the Son of God.  God made our identity that of His beloved Son.  That is how we should see ourselves.  That shows us how to act in life.  That is the most important thing to know about who we are.  Today the voice of the Father speaks: “‘You are my beloved Son.’”

07 January 2019

Giving Jesus our Time, Talent, and Treasure

Solemnity of the Epiphany
When we think about the gifts that the magi bring to the Christ Child, we might think that they’re a little odd.  Gold, yes, everyone can use some gold.  Frankincense, we might not think as so helpful.  And myrrh, well, let’s be honest, many people probably don’t even know what myrrh is.  We may think that the magi should have brought more practical gifts, like diapers, or blankets, or almost anything else.  
But while our minds are geared towards practicality, the gifts that the magi, or wise men, brought is not concerned with the practical, but rather, the symbolic.  The magi, by their gifts, mean to communicate a message about who they understand Jesus to be.  Gold is a gift that you would give a king.  The magi understood, however faintly, that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and their gift acknowledged that reality.  Frankincense, like the incense we use today, is what is offered to God.  The smoke of the incense rises, reminding us of our prayers rising to the heavens as we adore God.  It also gives a sense of transcendence, since the cloudy can seem otherworldly.  Think about Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus: the mountain is wrapped in smoke when God is present.  The magi recognized that, in addition to being a king, Jesus was also a deity, and deserved worship and the things that belong with it.  Myrrh is an oil, or a balm, and it was used to anoint the bodies of the dead.  While the Egyptians embalmed their dead, such a practice was not as common in the rest of the world.  So the bodies were anointed with a perfumed oil as a sign of respect and preparation for whatever came after death.  Besides recognizing that Jesus was a King and God, they also recognized that He was going to die (especially an odd thought if you believed that Jesus was a God).  Yet, we all look to Good Friday when God died on the Cross in the Person of Jesus.
As we celebrate this Epiphany, and the gifts that the magi presented to Jesus, we, too, have a chance to bring our gifts to Jesus.  Maybe we wonder what gifts Jesus really needs, since He’s God and owns the whole world.  But what Jesus desires from us is all of who we are.  Jesus desires us to share with Him our very life, each day, in all that we do.  This is what St. Paul means when he exhorts us to pray constantly.  When we offer our lives, and everything that is a part of it, each day to God, we are praying throughout the day as we work, as we learn, as we relax.  
The Church sometimes expresses how we can give Jesus a gift through the word stewardship.  Stewardship means that we have received gifts which do not, in fact, belong to us, but are given to us to use wisely.  A steward had the full authority of the master, and could act in his name.  But the steward was supposed to act according to the mind of the master, too, not simply using the master’s possessions without reference to the will of the master.  When we talk about stewardship, we talk about the three Ts: time, talent, and treasure.
Treasure is the easy one to think about.  We earn money by working, using what we have received from God to provide for ourselves and our families.  But that money is entrusted to us to use for our good, the good of the poor, and the good of the Church.  I honestly hate talking about money, and our generosity with money is often the fruit of a deep relationship with Jesus.  When we love Jesus we give what we can to serve Him through the poor and the Church.  When we are selfish with money it usually betrays a lack of a love for the poor and Jesus, as we put other priorities, sometimes simply our own will, ahead of the good of others.
Talents, though, are easy to talk about.  Each of us have gifts that God has given to us.  God expects us to use those gifts for helping us to be saints, and helping others to be saints.  Those gifts are not meant to be kept to ourselves (like in the parable of the talents), but are meant to be “invested,” shared, for the building up of the kingdom of God.  A talent doesn’t have to be extraordinary, but it is meant to be shared.  And at this time I invite our ushers to pass out our stewardship surveys.  This survey is meant to help you determine how best you can share your talents with our parish family.  You can mark down how you currently participating, or how you wish to participate.  If it’s something new, someone will contact you (give us a few weeks) about how to get involved.  But I encourage you to get involved.  This parish cannot operate without volunteers, and one of our parish challenges is that our volunteers are getting voluntired and we need people to fill the roles that many of our older parishioners used to fill.  Usually, about 20% of the people do 80% of the work.  It would be great if we could even get that number up to 30 or 40%!
Time is also easier to talk about, though perhaps this is a commodity that we value at least as much as our money.  How much time do we give to God?  If we are in a good relationship with another, we want to spend time with them whenever we can.  Facebook is always showing me ways that friends are spending time with each other.  But when it comes to our relationship with God, are we willing to spend time with God?  We have a great number of retirees in our parish, and our Mass times during the week are geared towards them.  But it seems like the same people each week (and, to be clear, I’m happy to have them!), which is simply a small selection of the parish.  I’m not saying you have to go to Mass every day (there are worse things to do with your time), but maybe, if you have a weekday open at 8:15 a.m., you could join us for Mass.  Or make sure you’re taking time out to pray.  If you’re not at all, start with 5 minutes, and then increase from there.  Or maybe, if your schedule allows, spend 30 minutes with Jesus in adoration on 3rd Fridays, or almost every Friday between 7 and 8 a.m.  

God desires gifts from us, not out of necessity, but as a sign of our love.  Is there anything that we’re holding back from God?  Will we give Him the gift of our time, talent, and treasure?

31 December 2018

Challenges for the Holy Family

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
This Christmas was different than in years past.  In the past the tradition was always to visit my mom’s parents on Christmas Eve, celebrate Christmas as an immediate family Christmas Day morning, and then go to my dad’s parents for Christmas Day dinner.  Then, when I became a priest, we tweaked things a little to adjust to my new responsibilities.  This year, with both my mom’s mom and my dad’s mom deceased (and I think many of us know how mom’s are often the glue that holds the family together), we celebrated our immediate family Christmas on Christmas Eve morning, and invited both grandfathers over later in the morning so that we could see them.
Those changes weren’t easy.  And this year especially it felt like Christmas celebrations were truncated, even though I got to see my immediate family and both grandfathers.  I am certainly the kind of person who likes to leave traditions the way that they have been.  But, with both grandmothers now gone from this earth, it was inevitable that things would change.  And, we’ll see what happens for Christmas 2019.
In our parish family over this past year I’ve buried my fair share of grandparents, and some younger people, too.  We’ve had 19 funerals of active, sometimes very active, parishioners since 2018 began.  The trend, going back at least to 2014, but likely before, of losing 80-90 parishioners per year according to our October counts, has continued to the present, where we’re down to just under 400 people who attend Mass at St. Pius X each weekend.  These changes to our parish family precipitate adjustments, just like changes in our biological family yield new realities.  Adjustments are difficult.  Changes can be hard, especially when they are not always communicated well or received well.  Each member of the family takes changes differently, and that’s no different with our parish family.  Over my past three years here, there have been some who have been very welcoming to changes of different kinds that were made, about 25% of the people.  There have been some who have been very vocal about not liking the changes, about 25% of the people.  There have been some who have not communicated delight or disgust, about 50% of the people.  Some have joined our parish family because of changes; some have left our parish family because of changes.  
As we celebrate the Holy Family, I think we forget that their life was not easy, not really in any way.  Before Joseph and Mary were married, Mary comes to Joseph and says that she’s pregnant, and that the child is not his.  But don’t worry, it’s the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit!  Talk about changes!!  Then, as Mary’s ready to give birth, Joseph and Mary, pregnant with Jesus, have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census put on by the Roman government, which was none too kind to Jews.  Then, they finally make it to Bethlehem, only to be told that there’s no room (because of the census), they should have left earlier if they needed a place to stay, so they go to a nearby cave, which I’m sure is the exact place any mother would want to give birth, especially when you’re child is the Son of God!
After settling in Bethlehem for around 2 years, the Magi visit, and bring unique gifts.  But then, Joseph is warned in a dream that he has to take Mary to Egypt, because King Herod wants to kill Jesus.  Egypt was not a place a Jew went willingly.  When Joseph, the son of Jacob, from the Old Testament, went down to Egypt, it eventually led to 400 years of slavery.  Deciding to settle in Egypt is like asking a Spartan to settle down in Ann Arbor, or a Wolverine to settle down in Columbus.  And yet, on the road again, Joseph, Mary, and the Christ Child are obedient to God.  After King Herod dies, the Holy Family travels back to Judea, but because of another not-so-hot king, they again settle in Nazareth, a very backwoods part of the area called Galilee.  And we all heard the story about losing Jesus in the temple.  And then Joseph dies sometime before Jesus turns 30, and Mary follows Jesus, because she has no one to take care of her.  
The Holy Family was a family that was, more often than not, going through changes and challenges.  And yet, they are our example of how to respond: by trusting in God.  They didn’t complain; they didn’t tell God that if there was one more change they were going to stop believing in Him.  Theirs was a true example of patient perseverance in following God.
St. Paul also reminds us how we can all navigate changes that happen in our lives, both those in our biological family and those in our parish family: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.  […] And over these put on love.”  That’s how we can imitate the Holy Family every day.  It’s certainly a tall order, but it’s also a recipe for how to be saints.

Just like the Holy Family, our life will probably include changes, some of which will be difficult.  But we all can look to the Holy Family to see how to trust in God, to remain faithful, even in the midst of difficult changes.  

21 December 2018

Belonging to Jesus

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
One of the great feelings that we get to experience as humans is the feeling that we belong.  There are so many groups to which we can belong.  First and foremost is family, and as we celebrate Christmas, we have a strong sense of belonging to that group.  We might also belong to a school, and we especially gravitate towards high school and belonging to a particular class (e.g., I’m a member of the Lansing Catholic High School class of 2002).  Maybe work gives us a sense of belonging.  I know that one of the greatest blessings in my life is belonging to the fraternity of the Catholic priesthood, a band of brothers who are in the field, fighting spiritual combat day in and day out.  Or perhaps our volunteer work gives us that sense of belonging.  I would say that being a chaplain for the Michigan State Police is also a great blessing for me and is a group I treasure.  Or maybe it’s something altogether different than any of the categories that I have mentioned.  Still, as humans, we seek to belong.
As Catholics, there is a group to which we belong which should be a defining aspect of our life: our faith.  In baptism, we became part of the family of God.  We also became members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, through baptism, a group that offers us belonging.  We often break down this sense of belonging into a more manageable size, we might say bite-size pieces, as we look to our parish.  Parish identity is often how people identify how they belong to the Catholic Church, and how they define their membership as a Catholic.  I know that, as a priest, while I have been in three parishes in my eight and a half years as a Catholic priest, each time I go to a place, I dive in, and make that new place my home, my family, and how identify myself (at least partially).  
I think of all the people who are back here tonight because of a connection, present or past, to St. Pius X parish.  In my three years here I have seen people come to Christmas Mass here (regardless of where they live now) because they went to school here, because they were baptized here, or because their family still goes here.  And it’s beautiful to welcome them back.  People always talk about how St. Pius X always feels like home.  And I think we can say that part of that is that they belong.
But what we celebrate tonight is one of the primary mysteries, or realities, of our faith: that God became man.  God did not lack anything.  He was a perfect communion of Divine Persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–existing from all eternity in perfect love, in perfect belonging.  But, in the fullness of time, in order to save His highest creation, humanity, who had wandered away starting in the Garden of Eden and through the subsequent centuries.  God joined Himself to us in Christ, uniting the Divine to the Human in the Person of Jesus.  We might say, in a sense, that God wanted to belong with us in a way that He never had before.  God knew us better than we knew ourselves, but He wanted to share all of our human experiences, except without sin.  And that’s what we celebrate tonight/today: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus, who is consubstantial with the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was born in Bethlehem.
Few things are more hurtful than when the desire to belong is not reciprocated.  Mary and Joseph, looking for a place to give birth, did not belong and were not welcomed in Bethlehem.  How many times would Jesus be rejected throughout His public ministry, especially by the Pharisees and scribes, but eventually by almost all people, including most of His closest friends who were not with Him at the foot of the cross.  When Jesus taught about Himself as the Bread of Life, the Eucharist, in John 6, at the end, it says that many of His disciples left Him because His teaching was too difficult for them.  And on the cross, Jesus even experiences the full weight of sin, of feeling separated from God the Father, as He cries out, “‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’”
But have we changed?  Are we so different from those who rejected Jesus?  Being a follower of Jesus means more than just showing up tonight/today.  Yes, this is one of the important high points of following Jesus, celebrating His Nativity, but if we wish to truly belong with Jesus, then it can’t be the only point.  If we think of our relationship with God like a marriage, it becomes obvious that this is true.  If I imagined myself married for a second (every woman’s nightmare, I’m sure!), and then, after the wedding, told my bride that I’d see her once a year, or even once a month, I’m sure our marriage wouldn’t be exactly a model union.  If, in our home, we agreed to treat each other with a certain level of respect, and follow certain practices for the betterment of our union, like putting the toilet seat down after I’m done, but then I never followed through, I’m sure our marriage wouldn’t be one for the ages.  I’m sure if we had kids, and I let the kids do whatever they wanted, while I relied on my wife to do all the disciplining, our marriage would be more written in the sand than in the stars.  

Belonging to someone means that we change our life for that person.  Belonging to Jesus means that we give our whole life–not just one day a year, or one day a month, or even just one day a week–to Him.  If we haven’t before, today is the perfect day to start.  The Lord always is waiting for us with open arms.  Jesus gave us everything: His conception, His birth, His life, His Death, and His Resurrection.  He left nothing out when He chose to belong to us.  Will we, to the best of our ability, leave nothing out when we have chosen to belong to Him?