27 January 2020

What Good is the Word?

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time–Sunday of the Word of God

    This year, Pope Francis has inaugurated a new focus for this third Sunday of Ordinary Time.  He has decreed that the third Sunday of Ordinary Time is especially to be centered on the Word of God.  In his Apostolic Letter that created this celebration, Pope Francis writes, “without the Scriptures, the events of the mission of Jesus and of his Church in this world would remain incomprehensible.  Hence, Saint Jerome could rightly claim: ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’”
    For Catholics, especially of a particular age, the Scriptures may be a bit foreign.  Indeed, some of you have even told me that, while growing up, you were discouraged by priests, nuns, and others, from reading the Word of God.  While we do have some active Bible study groups here, some of you may be thinking: what good would it do me to read the Bible more?  I’ve gotten along without it just fine for this long!
    The Word of God, as divinely revealed in Sacred Scripture, and faithfully communicated and interpreted through the teaching of the Church, is meant to be the guide for our life.  In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, entitled Dei Verbum, of the Second Vatican Council, the Church teaches:

both [sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture], flowing from the same divine wellspring…merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.  For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve the word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. […] Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.

When we sang, with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” what we were saying is that the Lord illuminates the path that I am to take towards heaven.  The Word of God gives us a great light, whereas without it we walk in darkness.  It brings us “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”  It gives us freedom from the yoke of sin that burdens us.
    The Word of God is also meant to bring about the unity of Jesus’ followers, and all those who are created in the image and likeness of God.  Humanity tends towards disunity; it is, we might say, the communal law of entropy.  Even in St. Paul’s time, he writes that divisions are creeping in among the Christians of Corinth: “each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”  When we are left to our own machinations, we tend to divide.  The Word of God, given to us through Sacred Scripture and faithfully interpreted by the teaching office of the Church, holds together what Satan wants to sift apart.
    Lastly, as we hear from our Gospel today, the Word of God calls us on to mission.  Jesus, the eternal Word (in Greek: Logos) of God the Father, calls the first apostles, Simon and Andrew, and also James and John, and invites them to follow Him, so that He might make them “fishers of men.”  It’s not as if the Word of God is meant to stay stagnant in our lives.  It is meant to change us, and to urge us on to making other disciples.  If our engagement with the Word of God doesn’t draw us to make other disciples, then we’re not getting all that God wants to share with us through His Word.
    Now, I know, those are a lot of high-level ideals.  But does the Word of God make a difference in my real life?  It can, if we are open to its effects.  In the first way, it helps us to make decisions on how we spend our time and money, helps us to know how to interact with others, and assists us in making both big life decisions and the smaller daily decisions by shining the light of Christ on the path we are seeking to travel, to see if it’s a good path or a dangerous path.
    In the second case, there are a lot of people who claim to follow Jesus, but the Word of God can help us evaluate whether their encouragements of what to believe and how to live are truly from God and live up to His wisdom, as expressed in Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church.  Both are necessary, as we see Christian communities who were historically founded on the Scriptures as the only rule of faith, now allowing and sometimes even promoting activities which are in direct contradiction to the Sacred Scripture.  We avoid division by staying faithful to the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and faithfully interpreted by the apostles and their successors, the bishops, teaching in union with the Pope. 
    In the third case, the more that we hear the Good News expressed in the Word of God–that God loves us, God has a plan for us, God forgives us, God has saved and is saving us–the more we want others to hear that news.  Bible studies cannot be ends in themselves, but should push us to share with our family and friends and neighbors that Good News, and how following God can change our lives for the better. 
    Today God reminds us that His Word is light, unity, and mission.  May our hearing of the Word of God, and our daily engagement with it, bring that light, unity, and mission to our lives, that we may share that light, unity, and mission with those that we encounter each day.

13 January 2020

What We Are Called

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
    There are numbers of things that we can be called during our life time, and some of them can even be said in church!  My grandparents and their generation called me Tony; among my elementary and middle school friends I was TJ; in high school I was AJ; Bishop Mengeling liked Anthony, which is what I started to be called in seminary.  In seminary I developed the nickname Strohs, after the cheap beer, since my last name was similar.  In the State Police I have developed the nicknames Padre and Chap (short for chaplain).  I’m sure there are others about which I don’t know because people don't say them to my face!
    Today we hear a few names or titles.  In the first reading: “my servant” and “my chosen one,” and in the Gospel, “‘my beloved Son.”  Each, too, comes with longer descriptions about the identity of the one about whom God is speaking.  Isaiah talks about the servant and chosen one as “upon whom I have put my spirit.”  He goes on to say about this person, “I…have called you for the victory of justice, I…set you as a…light for the nations.”  Isaiah probably didn’t know it, but God was speaking to Isaiah about Jesus.    In the Gospel, the name is without doubt about Jesus, and John and the people hear it clearly.  As Jesus is coming up from the water, God the Father, who had sent the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, says that Jesus is the beloved Son, “‘with whom I am well pleased.’”  What an identity!  What an expression of love from the Father!
    And yet, in Baptism, both of those things now apply to us.  Let’s look at the Gospel first.  In Baptism, we become a child of God in the Son of God.  God does not simply cover us up with His grace, as snow covered dung (to paraphrase an alleged phrase of Martin Luther).  In  Baptism, He changes our soul and makes us like Himself, so that, when God looks at us, He truly sees His beloved Son.  We are configured to Christ, with an indelible mark, a seal, a character, that forever wants us to be like Christ in our daily choices.  Preface VII of the Sundays in Ordinary Time says it this way: “so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son.”  That’s no small thing!  God is not blind, so it’s not like He cannot see our sins, but at our soul, since we are baptized, He sees Jesus, His beloved Son.
    And then, turning to our first reading, because of our new identity in Baptism, our path is changed.  Before Baptism, we are not likely on the road to heaven.  The road to heaven is narrow, and the only way to it is through Christ.  In fact, the Church goes so far as to say that for those who do not know Christ or His Church through no fault of their own, if they are seeking God with all their heart and doing their best to follow their conscience, it is possible that they can be saved.  Possible.  It can happen, but the pre-requisites (not knowing Jesus through true ignorance, doing everything possible to try to know God, and following the conscience) are pretty tough. 
    But with Baptism, the road becomes a bit easier, because we have a well-spring of grace flowing up within us, urging us on towards the divine life of holiness.  Which is why Isaiah can say, “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice.”  We are not baptized into failure.  We are baptized for victory, for greatness.  Ours is not meant to be the mediocre life.  Ours is meant to be a heroic life, even if not many people know about our heroism.  For January 12, listen to the saints that are honored on this day (even if not in the general calendar): St. Marguerite Bourgeoys; St. Aelred of Rievaulx; St. Anthony Mary Pucci; St. Arcadius; St. Bartholomew Alvarez; St. Benedict Biscop; St. Caesaria; The Ephesian Martyrs; St. John of Ravenna; St. Martina; St. Martin of Leon; St. Salvius; St. Satyrus; St. Tatiana of Rome; Sts. Tigrius and Eutropius; St. Victorian of Asan; and St. Zoticus.  Have any of you heard of any of them?  I haven’t!  But they’re all canonized saints.  And beyond them, think of the others who are in heaven who lived heroic lives but not well-known lives.  All of that was a response to baptism, to that call for the victory of justice. 
    What does that look like?  For parents of young children, it means doing all you can to pass on the faith to them and help them to develop their relationship with Jesus.  For young children it means obeying parents and being loving even when your young siblings maybe aren’t showing that love to you.  For older couples, it means putting up with your spouse’s idiosyncrasies (which you see much more as retired), and caring for each other in illness.  For widows and widowers it means turning to the Lord in times of loneliness and sorrow.  For all of us it means donating our time to the Lord, avoiding gossip and speaking ill of others, and making our relationship with Jesus the most important part of each day. 
    In Baptism, we were chosen by the Lord as His servant and chosen one.  In Baptism we became a son or daughter in the Son of God.  In Baptism we were made for the victory of justice.  Let’s not forget those names and titles, and, by the grace of God, work to make them even more true each day. 

06 January 2020

Our Gifts for God

Solemnity of the Epiphany

    When it comes to getting my nieces presents for birthdays and Christmas, I will admit that I’m always just making my best guess at what they want.  I can even ask my sister for ideas, but I’m never quite sure if the gifts I get are the ones that my nieces want, or what my sister and brother-in-law want for their kids.  But this year, I bucked the trend!  One of the gifts that I got my nieces was a mini-backpack (apparently those are very chic right now), one with a koala and koala baby and one with a kangaroo and a joey.  My nieces were so thrilled and wore the backpacks all throughout the rest of our Christmas celebration. 
    On this Solemnity of the Epiphany, we focus on the gifts that Jesus received, as we celebrate the magi bringing the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  One of the great liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council was the restoration of an extended offertory procession, with the gifts being presented by the people.  There was nothing wrong with how it happened before, with the servers presenting the gifts from the credence table, as the servers represented the entire assembly.  But there is something nice with the gifts of bread and wine being presented by parishioners.
    Those gifts of bread and wine are not only used because they are necessary for the Mass.  But they are meant to also symbolize so much more.  So often during the Mass, we get caught up with the external things that are being done.  When people think of full, active, and conscious participation, which had been called for in the liturgy since the beginning of the twentieth century, people often immediately go to the external things, like bringing up the gifts, or maybe being a reader at Mass, or an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, or an altar server.  And none of those things are bad.  But everyone is called to participate fully, actively, and consciously, even if a person does not have a “special role.”  Externally, this happens through singing the hymns, joining in the Ordinary of the Mass (the parts that never change, like the Gloria, the Sanctus, etc.), and responding to the prayers.  But even those externals are meant to be the outer reality of something that is happening interiorly.
    Interior participation in the Mass is the first step in fully, actively, and consciously participating.  Just because one is responding or doing something does not mean one’s heart is in it.  We can all say the Creed, but how often is that profession of faith an external sign of our internal belief in who God is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  We are all called not simply to go through the motions of the prayers, but to work at making sure our inner reality is being conformed to the outer reality of the rites of the Mass.
    And that brings us back to the gifts at the offertory.  Each time the bread and wine (and on Sundays and Holydays the collection) are brought forward, that external action is meant to be united to our internal action of bringing to God everything that has happened since the last time we came to Mass.  We are invited and called to unite in a mystical way our lives with the bread and the wine, which will be offered to God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit, united to the perfect offering of Christ on the Cross. 
    Allow me to give you an example of what that could look like from my own life, extended a bit beyond what happened since the last time I went to Mass (yesterday) into the entire Christmas season thus far.  While the collection is happening, while we’re singing the offertory hymn, in my mind I would be recalling the different parts of my life, and offering them to God.  I would give God the blessing as well as the challenge and sorrow of seeing both my grandfathers, both widowers, as their own health declines, and their minds lose some of their  sharpness that I remember.  I would give God my own frustration at not being able to see a best friend who was in town for a couple of weeks, my fear that maybe our friendship isn’t as strong as I thought it was, but also my gratitude at the small ways that he confirmed for me that our friendship is a priority for him as well.  I would give God thanks for the generosity of you, my parish family, to me as an individual, and to the parish which helps us keep St. Pius X running, not only by financial donation but also the donation of time and talents.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  The offertory is our opportunity to give gifts to Jesus.
    When it comes to giving gifts to Jesus, I think it’s a little easier than my nieces.  Jesus is pleased with any gift that we give Him, as long as it’s our best gift that we can give him.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be honest and come from us.  It may not be gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but it’s meant to be the best that we offer to God from what we have experience since the last time we came to Mass.  Today, every Sunday, and every time we go to Mass, unite those experiences, good and bad, joyful and sorrowful, to the bread and wine presented from you to God the Father, transformed by the Holy Spirit into a gift of new life which God returns to you from His love: the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. 

03 January 2020

Jesus, Mary, and Judaism

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

    In the past year, there have been more and more attacks on Jewish people, both around the country and around the world.  Just this past Saturday night, a suspect stabbed five people during a Hanukkah celebration in their rabbi’s home.  Any attack on an innocent person is horribly evil, but that evil is compounded when the motivating factor is a person’s religion and/or race. 
    Why bring this up?  Why talk about anti-Semitic violence on the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God?  All three readings for today’s celebration point us towards the religion of Mary and the religion of Jesus: Judaism.  The first reading is the Aaronic priestly blessing, by which the Chosen people were to be blessed.  The Church includes this reading as a way to begin the new year, as a people blessed by the Lord with a blessing the Lord Himself gave to His People, Israel.
    The second reading reminds us that Jesus was born of Mary, “born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  Perhaps this doesn’t sound so friendly to Judaism.  And many will twist St. Paul and select only certain passages to make it sound like St. Paul himself was against the Jewish people, though, St. Paul, or Saul as he was called among the Jews, was himself Jewish, and a most ardent practitioner of Judaism before He began to follow Jesus.  But St. Paul saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, who fulfilled the promises God made to Abraham and David.  And God, through Jesus, fulfilled the law and raised us merely from followers of the Law to the freedom of God’s children. 
    And at the end of our Gospel, we heard about the circumcision of Jesus, the sign that He was part of the Chosen People, and a recipient of the covenant between God and Abraham.  Jesus, yes, is the founder and Head of the Catholic Church.  But the Church herself is a sister, as it were, to Judaism, and truly the fulfillment of all that God revealed of Himself to the Chosen People throughout the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
    To understand Jesus fully, and to understand Mary fully, we have to understand Judaism.  So often we gloss over things that would have been so important to the first Christians, most of whom were Jews.  In our first reading, we heard this phrase over and over again: “The Lord…”  In Hebrew, the language in which the Book of Numbers was written, this would have been said Adonai, though the letters spelled out the sacred Name of God, which we are not allowed to say in the Mass.  In Greek, it was translated into 𝛰 π›«πœπœŒπœ„πœŠπœ which we translate into English as “The Lord…” in all caps.  If you’re ever reading your Old Testament, and wondered why that was in caps, that signifies that the word is the Sacred Name of God.  And when St. Paul proclaims that “Jesus is Lord,” he is saying, “π›ͺπœ€πœŽπœŠπœπœ 𝛰 π›«πœπœŒπœ„πœŠπœ” which means that Jesus is the same God as the God of Israel, the Lord.
    Which brings us back to Mary, whom we celebrate and honor today.  Because if Jesus is the Lord, God who revealed Himself to Abraham and entered into a covenant with the Chosen People, and Mary is the mother of Jesus, then she is also rightfully called the Mother of God, the π›³πœ€πœŠπœπœŠπœ…πœŠπœ, as was solemnly defined at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.  She is not simply a woman who gave birth to a male child, but she gave birth to the creator of the entire universe, who saves us from sin and death by His own Death and Resurrection.  And because of that unique role in salvation history, we honor her (not worship her) above all the saints.  We love her as our mother, given to us by her Divine Son, Jesus at the foot of the cross, and we take every opportunity we can to shower our affection on her, as spiritual children and joint heirs with her Son Jesus.  So, as the deacon in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom chants, “Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.”

30 December 2019

Family Issues A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
    There’s a new Star Wars movie out, and I saw it opening night a little over a week ago.  I won’t give anything away, but it seemed familiar to the original three Star Wars movies.  In all the Star Wars movies there are certainly some family problems going on.  In the original three episodes (numbers 4-6), Luke is being raised by his uncle and aunt, who are murdered, and it’s later discovered that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, whom he hates as working for the Empire, but also wants to save, as the Emperor wants Luke to take over for his father.    The next three episodes (number 1-3; it is a little confusing) is about young Darth Vader, or Anakin, as he was then known, who also has family issues, as he has no father (he was conceived by the Force), and ends up really messing his life up by taking vengeance on those who hurt his mother.  He also falls in love with a princess, and even though, as a Jedi, he’s supposed to be celibate, marries her, and they conceive twins (Luke and Leia).  While I won’t go into detail, even the new movies (numbers 7-9) continue the family drama storyline.  But what is common to all the episodes is that the family drama has to do with power and abuses of it.
    I bring that up because, as we heard our second reading, our minds probably went immediately to power.  Maybe they didn’t go there at first, but as soon as we heard, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,” I’m sure we all probably bristled a little bit, for one reason or another.  Maybe some felt like that shouldn’t even be a part of Scripture anymore, since, so some think, we’ve moved beyond the “backward” culture in which it was written.  Maybe some of us were trying hard how to understand it, since it is a part of Scripture, which is the infallible Word of God.  But all of us likely heard that passage in the same context of power on which all the Star Wars interfamilial drama is based.
    If this feast of the Holy Family teaches us anything, it’s that the family is not about a power struggle.  It’s not about who has the most power, or who is the boss.  Instead, the Holy Family was all about obedience to God and protecting one another.
    If the Holy Family was about power, then Jesus would have come out of the womb telling Mary and Joseph what to do.  After all, Jesus is the co-eternal Son of God.  Jesus is God, who created all things out of nothing.  He even created, with the help of their parents, Mary and Joseph.  No human could ever be God’s equal, and so, if family life was about power, Jesus would have been the one in charge.  But Jesus came as an infant, with no power, totally reliant and dependent on the love of his mother, Mary, and his foster-father, Joseph.
    After Jesus, Mary comes next in the power hierarchy, as a woman who never sinned.  She was conceived without original sin, and always said yes to God.  So with Jesus as an infant, not able to talk or care for Himself, if the choice was for Mary or Joseph to be in charge, to have all the power, it certainly would have fallen to Mary, based upon her holiness alone.  But, the first time that Mary really issues a command in the Gospel is after Joseph is dead, at the wedding at Cana, when she tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.
    Poor Joseph.  In the midst of the Holy Family, he’s the only one who could be at fault.  His foster-Son is the Son of God, and his wife is sinless.  If anything goes wrong in the household, everyone knows whose fault it is.  Joseph is just, but he wasn’t perfect, and in the midst of such holiness, his sins must have stood out like a sore thumb.  And yet, to whom do the dreams come, where God advises how to proceed?  To Joseph!  In today’s Gospel, the angel appears to Joseph twice, once to tell him to leave for Egypt, and then to tell Joseph it’s safe to return to Israel.  This is backwards from how it should be, if power were the motivating factor in the family.  But that should tell us something: power is not the motivating factor.
    So as we read the passage from our second reading, we have to read it in the light of the model of holiness demonstrated by the Holy Family.  Their concern was not power, but about obedience to the will of God, as it was known to them, and protecting each other.  Sometimes the will of God will have wives obeying their husband; sometimes the will of God will have husbands obeying their wives (many wives will tell you that their greatest skill is letting the husband think that he is being obeyed, when it’s really her decision).  But it’s not about any human will that is being expressed, but what is in the will of God.  And as long as the family is seeking to be obedient to that will, then that family is well on the way to holiness.
    If Star Wars teaches us anything, it’s that viewing the family through the lens of power and control is a recipe for disaster.  And that message, whether intended or not, is based upon the Word of God, which reminds us that, for a family to be holy, it need not be concerned with who has power over whom, but how all the members of the family can be obedient to the will of God.
Statues of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt at the Milk Grotto


 




21 December 2019

A Birthday and a Wedding

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)

    When we think of Christmas as a celebration, we often think of it as a birthday celebration.  And it certainly is.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus in the flesh in Bethlehem.  Some families have even gone so far as to have birthday cake on Christmas, or to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus at the family Christmas.
    But we can also think about Christmas as a wedding.  Our church takes on some of the appearance of a wedding.  At wedding, the church often is decorated with lots of flowers, like the poinsettias that we have here.  Often times you’ll have more candles lit at a wedding.  At wedding Masses we sing the Gloria, the song of the angels in heaven when Jesus was born.  And people dress up for weddings, like so many of you are dressed up today. 
    But the wedding that we celebrate is not between a man and wife, but between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity, between God and man.  At Christmas heaven descends to earth as Jesus is born.  At Christmas we come to know of the union, never to be broken or divorced, between divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus.  At Christmas, the angels make known the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and son of Mary. 
    The Prophet Isaiah himself uses the image of a wedding:

No more shall people call you “Forsaken,” or your land, “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land, “Espoused.”  For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse.  As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.

God is our Builder and marries our humanity in Jesus.  God is our bridegroom and we, His people, are His bride.  No longer are we weighed down by our past sinfulness; no longer are we forsaken or desolate.  But we are the delight of the Lord, and espoused to Him. 
    We were not a bride that was desirable, because of our unfaithfulness.  We had been engaged or betrothed to God through Abraham, when God chose to make us His People.  But time and time again, we were unfaithful to God and wandered away from Him.  We were burdened by the yoke of slavery to sin, and Satan was our taskmaster.  But when Jesus Christ was born, He, the only one by whom we are saved, took us back to Himself and freed us from our bondage.  Jesus is truly “a savior…born for [us]” who heals us from our ancient wound of sin and gives us the freedom of the children of God.
    This is Good News!  This is the wedding announcement that should make all of us rejoice and be glad on this holy night/day.  For “The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations;” “All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.”  “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son.”  God has finally wedded us in Christ, and He will always stay faithful to His marriage vows, even when we stray and are unfaithful. 
    And this Good News is renewed for us each time we come to Mass.  In every Mass, it is as if Jesus is born again, as the bread and wine presented by you become the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Especially on Sunday Masses, we almost always sing the hymn of the angels, the Gloria, as Christ is born in our hearing of the Word of God, and in the confection of the Eucharist.  Heaven is joined to earth, with all the angels and saints, who worship God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
    But think about a wedding, and think about how you respond to that joyful news.  My sister, Allison, was married this past March, and my sister, Amanda, celebrates her 11th Anniversary on 27 December.  People were so happy and shared the news to those they met, in person and over social media.  Weddings are reasons for celebration and sharing that joy with others.  And so is the wedding of heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, God and man.  Isaiah encourages us: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation.”  Will we keep this good news of this special wedding to ourselves?  Will we keep the lamp of joy under a bushel basket of fear?  Or will we join with the angels and shepherds in proclaiming to the ends of the earth the wedding which brings salvation to all those who have sat in the shadow of death?  The wedding is certainly good news.  And “Blessed are those called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.”
My brother-in-law, Tom, with my sister, Allison

St. Joseph: Our Model

Fourth Sunday of Advent

    In my nine years as a priest I have come to have a deeper devotion to St. Joseph.  While he’s quite popular with those selling houses, and certainly I knew about him while I was growing up, he was not on my original list of top saints.  The Blessed Mother was always a focus, as was St. Anthony (for obvious reasons), but St. Joseph always seemed to fade into the background, and was never very noticeable.
    The Scriptures do not record any words from St. Joseph (perhaps wives would suggest this silence to their husbands!), but he does play an important role in caring for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus.  We hear about St. Joseph for the first time today in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: Joseph is a righteous man, and is visited by angels.  He, like Joseph in the Old Testament, is given the gift of powerful dreams, by which God directs St. Joseph. 
    But I think it’s important to look, once more, or perhaps for some of us, for the first time, at St. Joseph and his circumstances.  St. Joseph is engaged (betrothed) to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He is planning on marrying her.  And then he finds out (I would guess Mary told him) that his fiancΓ©e is with child.  Can you imagine, gentleman, your fiancΓ©e sitting you down, and maybe the conversation goes something like this: “Honey, we need to talk” (never a good phrase to hear if you’re in a relationship).  “Dear, I need to let you know that I’m pregnant.  But don’t worry!  I wasn’t unfaithful to you.  An angel appeared to me and told me that I am going to be God’s Mother, that the Holy Spirit will make me conceive and the child will fulfill the promises made to our father David so many years ago.”  Can you imagine how you would have felt in such a circumstance?
    Understandably, Joseph is a bit shaken up, and decides to divorce Mary, but, knowing that if she is found to be with child without being married, she could be stoned to death for being an adulteress, he decides that things are going to be done quietly so as not to shame her.  This is part of the evidence of the fact that he was a righteous man.  He must have cared for Mary, but couldn’t see past this new situation in her life. 
    And then, to make matters even more confusing, an angel appears to him in a dream, and tells him to take Mary as his wife, because the child truly was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And furthermore, Joseph is to name the child Jesus, Yeshua, which means in Hebrew, “God saves,” because Jesus will save the people from their sins.  After this dream, Joseph obeys God, and we know the rest of the story.
    It would have been easy for St. Joseph to walk away.  In modern terms, we could say that all that happened was “too much.”  FiancΓ©es aren’t supposed to get pregnant before marriage.  Children aren’t supposed to be conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And most people don’t get dreams that come directly from God.  And yet St. Joseph doesn’t walk away.  He is obedient to God even in very difficult circumstances, which will become even more difficult, as Joseph and Mary have to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem, and then within two years they need to flee to Egypt, and then return to Bethlehem, and then Jesus stays behind on the family annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 
    Following God is not always easy.  There can be times where you want to walk away because things are not going the way we want them to go.  But St. Joseph is our model, for men and women, to follow the will of God. 
    Of course, just because the will of God is difficult, does not mean that it’s self-contradictory.  Sometimes people think that they are doing the will of God, when they’re really only following their own will or desires.  How do we know if it’s our will or our desire or the will of God?  Look to the Scriptures.  In the first reading, the Prophet Isaiah spoke for the Lord, saying that “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.”  So when Mary conceived without having relations with Joseph, it wasn’t the normal way to conceive, but it also wasn’t contrary to the will of God, since God himself had foretold it through Isaiah. 
    But, if what we think God is asking us is in accord with the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, then God will help us through, no matter how difficult things can be.  It can even be that way with the Church.  Over the past few years we have had some difficult times: new scandals, including even a former cardinal; misuse of donations by some bishops; even some bishops and priests teaching contrary to the teachings of the Church.  We might be tempted to walk away, but St. Joseph encourages us to seek God’s will even in the midst of difficulties. 
    As we finish out these last days of Advent, may St. Joseph guide us to be faithful to God, no matter how difficult or how confusing.  And may we, like St. Joseph, have the courage to care for Jesus in our daily lives by being obedient to God’s will.

02 December 2019

Ways to Prepare for Christmas

First Sunday of Advent
    Probably the question people have asked me the most about my trip to Australia (other than the general, “how was it?”) was: “How was the flight to Sydney?”  My particular route was Flint to Chicago to Houston to Sydney (and that same route in reverse for the return trip), and the flight from Houston to Sydney alone was sixteen and a half hours on the way there, and sixteen hours on the way back.  That’s a long time to be on a plane.  And, I have to admit, on my return flight, almost as soon as I got on the plane, I wanted to be back in Flint, driving home from Bishop International Airport.  But of course, I was far from that reality.
    Perhaps we’re in the same boat as we enter Advent.  Our four weeks (24 days this year) of Advent might seem like a sixteen and a half hour flight, and all we want to do is be at Christmas.  Don’t get me wrong; the destination is the most important part.  We cannot say, as so many often do, that the journey is the most important part, because, in the spiritual life, where we end up is what should take the most import in our lives.  Still, the pilgrimage to Christmas, the pilgrimage to the cave where Christ was born, also is weighty and substantial.  We cannot skip over Advent, especially if we hope to truly appreciate Christmas and its meaning in the salvation of the world, and the salvation of our hearts.
    So what are you doing during Advent to get ready for the Nativity of the Lord at Christmas?  What steps are you taking to make sure that you’ll be ready when you get there?  I mean, imagine if I simply bought my ticket to Sydney, and got on the plane, without any planning, without any luggage, without any passport.  I would not have made it that far.  And even if I brought simply my passport, if I didn’t have clean clothes and toiletries, I don’t think I could have enjoyed the company of even my brother priests.  Or if my clothes that I brought were only reflective of the 8 1/2 inches of snow that we got the first day I tried to leave, rather than the 70-80 degree sunny days that were happening in Sydney, I would not have enjoyed such an exotic vacation getaway. 
    What doesn’t count for preparing for Christmas is listening to Christmas music and attending Christmas parties.  Those things aren’t necessarily bad (I’ll be honest, I’m listening to Christmas music in my car now that Thanksgiving has passed), but they don’t really prepare us to celebrate Christmas, even if it is Bing Crosby singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” or Nat King Cole singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Our preparations have to involve our soul if we want to reap the benefits of the beautiful, and yet short, season of Advent.
    So are you praying daily?  The little blue books, or the Bishop Barron daily Advent reflections that are on our parish website can assist us in daily prayer.  Maybe it’s just 5 minutes each day, or maybe adding on another 5 minutes if we already pray daily, but whatever it is, make sure you’re taking time to talk and listen to God.  In particular, I would invite you pray for someone who is not practicing their faith.  Pray for them daily, specifically, with the intention that, by God’s grace, they are brought back to the faith.  And, if possible, invite them to join you for the fourth Sunday of Advent here at St. Pius X (hopefully you could also bring them with you to confession to prepare for the Mass). 
    If you are able, add adoration time to your schedule.  We offer adoration here almost every Friday from 7-8 a.m., and on the third Friday from 8:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.  It doesn’t have to be for the whole hour, or the whole day, but stop in and see Jesus, present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, and adore your God who took flesh to save you, even if all you can give God is fifteen minutes before you go to work or during your lunch break.
    Read Scripture.  This year we’re walking through the Gospel according to St. Matthew.  There are 28 chapters in that Gospel, and 24 days of Advent, so you can almost make it through the entire Gospel simply by reading one chapter per day.  St. John reminds us that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Familiarize yourself with that Word, Jesus, the co-eternal Word of God who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary. 
    Give alms.  Alms, of course, is money that we donate to the poor, or to the Church.  Scripture tells us that almsgiving atones for sins that we committed.  When we take from what is precious to us, our money, and give it to someone else who needs it, whether the poor who need it for their survival, or the church so that people can find eternal life, we show that same love that Jesus had for us when He, who was rich as God, became poor by taking on our humanity and becoming subject to all things like us, though without sin.  It’s not so much about the amount (remember that the widow who gave two small coins was praised, not for the great amount, but because it was what she had, what she treasured). 
    I hope you noticed that none of those things is that complicated.  You don’t need a degree in theology; you don’t have to traverse to the farthest corners of the world.  You don’t have to take yourself to the brink of death.  In those simple ways, you can make sure that you’re ready to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ at Christmas.  Don’t let this sacred time pass you by, which it so easily does when we’re not prepared.  Don’t arrive at Christmas without the proper preparation.  Christmas will be here before you know it!

09 November 2019

Small Sacrificies Yield Large Results

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

    From time to time I see ads on TV and on the internet for ways to have a chiseled body, with well defined muscles.  I’m sure that some of the ads were photoshopped a bit, but even so, I often thought about what it would be like to have better muscle definition, stronger muscles, and a stronger appearance.  But to truly get into that shape, I would have to give up a lot of foods that I enjoy eating, and actually go to a gym on a regular basis and lift weights, neither of which sounds that appealing to me.  And looking at me, you can see which path I choose!
    Each in our own way, we probably all have things that we want, but for which we’re not really willing to work.  We have a desire for something, but we’re not really willing to do the things to make that desire an achieved reality.  That can even be the case when it comes to our faith.
    In today’s first reading we hear about a mother and her children who are being tortured and killed because they’re not willing to break God’s law, even though the local government is telling them to.  The back story is that the Greeks had taken over the Holy Land, and wanted everyone to live in the Greek manner of life: they placed idols in the temple, forbade parents to have their sons circumcised, and forced the Jews to eat pork, all as ways of rejecting the Jewish religion.  The part we hear in today’s passage highlights a heroic sacrifice that they make, simply because they would rather obey God and be tortured and killed than disobey God and enjoy prosperity. 
    But this heroic action probably did not start the moment they were arrested and brought before the king.  They likely had made smaller sacrifices to be faithful to God throughout their lives, maybe not even perfectly, but still, doing their best to say yes to God in their choices in small ways, which helped them to say yes to God when it was a major decision with drastic consequences.
    I think we can sometimes be as clueless as the Sadducees in today’s Gospel when it comes to the Resurrection.  We desire to be raised, to reign with Jesus in heaven.  But when it comes to the daily ways that we show that we want to accept this gift of eternal life, we’re not quite there, and we don’t want it that much.  We want the end result without wanting the daily effort it takes to obtain that result.
    Being welcomed into heaven is all about putting behind us the fallen parts of our nature by God’s grace, and accepting God’s grace to choose things which do not always seem to desirable, but which help us to say yes to God and say no to our fallen nature.  St. Paul talks about it as putting to death the old man (Adam, who said no to God), and living the life of the new man (Jesus, who said yes to God).  It’s easy to want to do that in major ways, and praise God when that happens, when we’re able to recognize a major temptation as something leading us away from God, and reject it.  But it’s much harder, but more efficacious, to say yes to God in small ways, which, over time, make us more like Christ.
    I would suggest two small ways that we can live more for Christ, and bring us closer to the desire to be welcomed into heaven.  The first you’re already doing today.  And that’s attending Mass every Sunday and Holyday, unless you're sick or homebound, or necessary work prevents you from attending.  Attending Mass might not seem like much, but that sacrifice to set aside your own desires on how to use your time, and then to drive to Mass to worship God, builds up our spiritual muscles.  You may not see it making a difference, but if we could see the difference it makes in our souls, we would be amazed.  Those who go to Mass still have temptations, but it’s much easier to reject temptation and sin when we’re filled with the grace of the Body and Blood of Christ, received in a state of grace.  Even if we still sin even though we attend weekly Mass, imagine the other sins you may have fallen into without attending Mass.  And daily Mass is even better, still!
    A second small way is abstaining from meat every Friday, not just the Fridays of Lent, unless it’s a solemnity, like on All Saints Day.  We might think that it’s not a big deal, and it’s not, especially if we like fish.  But saying no to our desire to eat whatever we want to is a great small sacrifice that prepares us to be faithful in bigger sacrifices that may come our way.  Sometimes, if visiting family or friends, that may not be possible, so maybe try fasting from lunch, or doing an extra work of charity on that day.  I try to abstain from meat on all Fridays, and I have seen the difference it makes in my own spiritual life.
    When I hear the story of the great martyrs, I am inspired by how they suffered for Christ in such major ways!  Some of the pain I think I could suffer through.  Some, like getting boiling water poured on me or having my fingernails pulled out, do not seem so easy to endure.  But in reality, if I’m not doing the smaller, daily sacrifices, whatever they might be, then I’m not going to be successful in the larger sacrifices if and when they ever come my way.  If we truly want to be in that number when the saints go marching in, to be as faithful as the mother and her children in not rejecting God even when it meant coercion, torture, and death by the government, then let us follow the advice of St. Paul to die to our fallen nature by little daily or weekly sacrifices, and live in the new life of the risen Christ.

04 November 2019

The Grand Tour

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

    George Jones, or as those of us who listen to classic country music know him, the Possum, had a number of hits with his unique and melancholic voice.  One of those hits, with a piano jingle you can’t miss, was “The Grand Tour.”  In the song, George takes you on a tour of a house where his wife used to live (before she left him), and all the things that are connected to memories of when they were together.  He sings about the chair where she used to bring him the paper and tell him she loved him; about the bed where they slept; about the closet where she hung her clothes; about the nursery where their baby slept.  In all of these places, the Possum wants you to see it all so that he can share the pain he’s feeling at his wife leaving him.
    Today in the Gospel, Jesus invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ house, where there is a dinner.  The locals in Jericho are not too pleased, because Zaccaheus is a tax collector, and tax collectors often increased the amount of money you owed, so that they could earn a living.  But Zacchaeus promises to give half of what he owns to the poor, and if he has extorted anything, he promises to repay it fourfold.  Zacchaeus received the Lord into his home, and was transformed by the presence of Jesus.
    Are we so welcoming to Jesus?  In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “‘“‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.’”’”  Jesus wants to be present with us, in our home, and place of comfort and security.  He wants fellowship with us, so that we can have fellowship with the Father.  But do we welcome Him in like Zacchaeus?
    If you house is anything like mine was when I was growing up, whenever we had guests over there were certain rooms the guests didn’t get to see, which happened to be the places where we’d put all of the stuff that we didn’t make time to put away before the guests came over.  Usually the guests didn’t mind missing out on that one room during the nickel and dime tour of the house.  But Jesus is not like other guests.  He wants to see us all.
    When Adam and Eve sinned, after they clothed themselves to hide themselves from each other, they also tried to hide from God.  They went to a part of the Garden of Eden in which they thought they could get away from God.  How often are there parts of our lives into which we don’t want God to look.  We hide them from God, or close the door of our hearts to God, thinking that if the rest of the house is clean, then we don’t have to worry about those messes that we have put away in a different room.
    In fact, God wants to enter every part of our house.  There is nothing in our life to which God does not want access.  But God is not a robber.  He will not break into the parts of our lives that we don’t want to hand over to Him.  That may seem like good news, but in reality, the rooms where we hide all our junk are exactly the rooms that keep us separated from God, that don’t allow us to experience the full joy of a relationship with Him, because a true relationship with God means giving Him our all, not just the parts we want Him to have.
    This makes perfect sense when we think about it like a marital relationship.  Imagine owning a house with your spouse, but there’s one room where he or she won’t let you go.  Because we not omniscient, the curiosity would probably eat away at us.  It would create a barrier between you and your spouse, which, if not resolved, could easily lead to the break-up of the marriage. 
    Or imagine after ten years of marriage with your spouse, a young adult comes to your front door and knocks.  And when you ask who the person is, he tells you that he’s your spouse’s child from 20 years ago.  I would imagine you would be confused, hurt, angry, and a whole range of other emotions.  You would feel like you had a right to know, even if your spouse thought it was going to be too embarrassing.  And not having that full disclosure would eat away at your relationship, making you wonder what other secrets your spouse might be keeping from you.
    In reality, God knows what’s in that one room that we don’t want Him to enter.  God knows all the secrets of our life.  But, because He loves us, and love never forces itself on the other, He will never force us to reveal what’s behind the door, or what’s in our past.  Still, while it’s not an obstacle to God, because His love for us is everlasting, it is an obstacle for us, because in order to have the full joy of a relationship with God, He has to receive everything from us, not just the parts that we want to share.
    Today, here at Mass and when you go home, enjoying the rest of the Christian Sabbath, invite God to take the grand tour of the house of your heart and soul.  Open up every door for Him.  Show him the clean rooms and the rooms where there’s a mess.  Invite Jesus: “Step right up, come on in.”
The sycamore tree in Jericho that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus