01 March 2021

Transformation through Trial

 Second Sunday of Lent
    In many a great story of literature, we find a hero who has to undergo a great trial, or many great trials.  After going through the trial(s), the hero is changed, for the better; transformed, we might even say.  This is true of ancient literature, like “The Odyssey,” where Odysseus, on his way home from war, has to conquer many trials on various islands as his ship is tossed about the seas.  This is true of classical literature like “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, where Ebenezer Scrooge has to grapple with his past, his present, and even a possible future in order to be changed from a miser to philanthropist.  This is true in the great Catholic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien where Frodo is put through many trials trying to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom.  This is even true in J. K. Rowling’s novels about Harry Potter, who discovers who he is and how to stop the evil wizard Voldemort through many tribulations.  
  

 That is true also for Abraham in today’s first reading.  After being promised a son to inherit everything; after his wife, Sarah, getting impatient with God’s plan and telling Abraham to conceive a child with her slave, Hagar; after finally having that son through Sarah, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son (at least of the promise), the son whom he loves.  Abraham’s willingness to abandon himself to God’s plan, however mysterious, is his great trial, for which God greatly rewards Abraham.
    As for the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus, He doesn’t have to do anything to be great; He is great because He is God.  And yet, Jesus, too, in humility, undergoes a great trial in His Passion and Death, in order to be transformed, to be raised from the dead and receive a glorified body.  And in today’s Gospel, we hear about a foretaste of that glorified body as Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John.  It is a rest before the great struggle begins, and the apostles will need that reminder as they go through an unexpected journey of their own with their Master.
    What about our story?  I dare say that everyone over the past year has had trials.  And many people had trials before COVID.  And we will all have trials after we’ve gotten a handle on this pandemic.  How do we view those struggles in the light of faith?  Do we view those struggles in the light of faith, or are we fatalists, just letting life happen to us?  
    God does not call us to be fatalists, as if suffering is beyond the control of God and so we have no one to turn to during our tribulations.  God calls us to be sons and daughters in His Son, who gives us everything that we need, including allowing us to undergo trials to help us to grow.  
    There is, I would also dare say, a part of us that cringes from the trials and tests.  We would rather have the Resurrection without the crucifixion.  We would rather have abs of steel without going to the gym and eating well.  We would rather have infused knowledge than going to school for so many years.  But that’s not the way the world works.  In God’s mysterious plan, somehow the struggle is good for us, and builds us in ways that cheap grace never could.  There is no such thing as cheap grace; it is never earned (because grace is a gift), but it’s also not encountered passively; it always requires some death to self, which is a struggle.  
    And the attitude to have through it all is the attitude of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jesus: God will provide.  We can imagine how much the thought of sacrificing his son tore up Abraham.  We can imagine how confused and perhaps even scared Isaac was.  And in a few weeks we’ll hear the reaction of Jesus to His known, impending suffering and Death as He asks His loving Father for another way, if it is possible.  But, and these words are key, Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.”  
    The trials and tribulations of life, the sufferings we encounter, especially if they are not of our own making, are the ways that we pass through death to life.  Lent is a long time of truly entering in, as we are called to do year round, to the Paschal Mystery–to the Passion and Death of Jesus–so that we are share in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.  And if we go through whatever struggles we have with God, they do strengthen us, they transform us, they even transfigure us to be more like Jesus in glory.  
    We have a choice: do we want to get to that glory that Jesus showed His apostles on Mt. Tabor?  If so, there’s only one way to get there: through the cross; through suffering and death to our own wills and to our own sinfulness.  St. Rose of Lima put it this way: “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”  The ladder may be difficult to climb, but the reward at the top is joy beyond imagining!  In the story of your life, follow the path of so many literary heroes: go through trials so that you can be transformed!


15 February 2021

Prepping for Lent

 Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time


    Many of you probably remember my attempt a few years back to practice with the Powers Catholic boys soccer team, and how I broke my thumb in a drill.  Certainly it was a humbling experience in my life.  But it happened because I wasn’t ready.  34-year-old me thought (quite incorrectly) that I was still 20-year-old me, and could simply run around without having really exercised in quite some time and still have the same ability and stamina.  Was I ever wrong!!
    So as we sit today only a few short days away from Lent, we may think that we can just pick-up this Lent where we left off last year, without any real preparation.  Or maybe we’re just procrastinators who live by the motto: don’t do today what you can put off till tomorrow.  But if either of those are our approaches, I’m going to suggest that Lent might not be that fruitful for you.
    And Lent is supposed to be fruitful.  We often think of it as a time of negation and less, but in terms of our spiritual life, it’s a privileged time of growth.  Lent is meant to help us more and more to do what St. Paul said in our second reading: to imitate Christ and the saints.  And we do this in three primary ways during Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
    Prayer is key to our life as followers of Jesus and in imitation of Him.  The lepers today in the Gospel spoke to Jesus, and asked Him for the favor of healing.  That’s what prayer is for us, whatever our physical or spiritual needs.  We talk to God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and present what’s going on in our life to Him.  Sometimes it’s asking for ourselves, sometimes it’s thanking, sometimes it’s praising, sometimes it’s interceding for another.  In the comedic Will Ferrell movie, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” the coach says, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”  For prayer, I adapt that to say if you can talk to a friend, you can talk to God.  
    But prayer is also listening.  How much time do you spend listening to God?  How much time do you make for God in silence?  We offer beautiful times for silence before the Blessed Sacrament, almost every Friday from 7-7:45 a.m. and every third Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  But besides that, our church is open usually until 3 p.m. or so each day.  Even if you don’t want to come to church when there are crowds, pick out a time during the day, and for the most part, the church is empty or almost empty.  You can visit the Lord, speaking, listening, and being close to him while social distancing from everyone else.
    Fasting is something we’ve gotten away from in the Church, and I would say to our detriment.  We all have a sickness, not leprosy, but concupiscence, which draws us to avoid good things that should do, and draws us to do bad things that we shouldn’t do.  Our body sometimes draws us in ways that are not in accord with God’s will.  Just like in sports, we have to train our body and soul to perform at its best levels.  Fasting is a great way of training our bodies and souls to reject the bad, but denying ourselves even good things that we don’t necessarily need.  
    When we talk about fasting specifically, we’re talking about not eating certain amounts of food, like we do on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the two days that the Church requires us to fast.  We eat one main meal, and two smaller meals that, combined, equal or are less than the one main meal, and at the same time don’t snack.  But fasting in a broader sense can include what we call abstinence, which, in the case of our penitential practices, means abstaining from beef, pork, and chicken on Fridays, but especially Fridays of Lent.  Many of you are old enough to remember not eating meat on any Friday, and that’s a practice I have taken up, and I do find that it has helped me draw closer to God, choose good things more and bad things less.  Fasting can also mean giving up a particular type of food or drink, either for a time or permanently, in order to help our spiritual life.
    Fasting also is meant to give us solidarity with the poor.  There are so many people in our world, and even in our very rich nation, that don’t eat because they don’t have money to buy food.  Or they rely on the generosity of neighbors and food banks to give them their daily bread.  Fasting reminds us that we are no better than them, and that we are all children of our heavenly Father.  My plan is to give up alcohol this Lent as a sign of solidarity with all those who struggle with alcoholism.
    Almsgiving means giving money or goods.  Almsgiving is, in its original sense, money or goods given to the poor.  It is an imitation of our loving Father who gives blessings to many people, no matter who they are or what they do.  Almsgiving is also stretched to mean giving money to the church or to another charitable organization.  As I mentioned in our annual stewardship report a couple of weeks ago, I am very appreciative of your generosity to the parish, to help us continue to serve you.  This current fiscal year, our Sunday and Holyday collections have accounted for 77% of our income.  Because of your generosity, I don’t talk about money that much, but, as expenses continue to grow each year, we need to keep our weekly income at least at the $7,700 per week level.  Your almsgiving to the church will decide what our staff levels and office hours are for next year.  We can only give what we can, but it’s a way of sustaining not just ourselves, but our entire faith community.
    I would encourage you not to “stumble” into Lent this year.  Take these next few days to really consider how the Lord is asking you to pray, to fast, and to give alms.  Don’t make Lent a quick diet, but by your planning and prayerful consideration of what God is calling you to do, make it a great time of spiritual growth and development!

08 February 2021

Job and Detroit Lions Fans

 Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


    I am convinced that at some point in the future, the Lions will make it to the Super Bowl.  It will be the fourth quarter, and the Lions will be losing by 1 point.  They’ll be on the opponent’s 20 yard line, ready to kick the game-winning field goal, with 1 second left on the clock.  The kicker will kick the ball, and it will go straight, ready to pass through the uprights, and just as it’s about to pass through, and the refs are about to raise their hands, Jesus Christ will return in glory, and the Lions will forever be the team that never won a Super Bowl.
    As Lions fans we are used to disappointment.  There are other bad teams, but only the Lions seem to find new and exciting ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  So perhaps we can sympathize with Job from our first reading and say “I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.”  In case you’re unfamiliar with Job, it’s a beautiful book of the Bible.  It may be more of a parable than a literal story, but it tells the story of a man who is faithful to God, but then undergoes great trials.  His first trial is that his oxen and donkeys were grazing, and were stolen by Sabeans, who killed all the herdsmen, save one.  Lightening struck all his sheep and shepherds and killed all but one shepherd.  Chaldeans came and stole all of Job’s camels, and killed all their caretakers, save one.  His seven sons and three daughters were all killed when their house collapsed during a party, and only one servant survived.  To this Job says: “‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’”  Quite the ordeal!
 

   But then, Job is struck by severe boils “from the soles of his feet to the crown of the head.”  Life is so bad that his wife, obviously a loving and caring woman, tells Job, “‘Curse God and die.’”  The Book of Job makes clear that Job has done nothing wrong, and yet he suffers greatly.  This story of Job is an attempt to understand why bad things happen to good people.  I encourage you to read the rest of the book (we only hear a part of chapter 7 today) to see how it ends.
    Suffering is a part of life, not just for Lions’ fans.  There are moral evils that we have to suffer with (crimes, betrayals, loneliness from others’ rejection of us); there are also natural evils that make us suffer (natural disasters, illnesses, pandemics).  People of all faiths and none struggle with this question, sometimes called Theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, and why there is evil in the world.  In case you’re wondering, there is no easy answer.
    Jesus, as He so often does, turns the question on its head.  What does He do?  He heals; He grants wholeness; He saves.  Our Gospel today relates healings that Jesus did, exorcisms, and preaching.  Jesus shows us that He enters into our evils, some of our own making, some that we have no control over, and He brings healing.  The very word for savior in Latin, Salvator, is connected to another word, salus, meaning health.  The Salvator is the one who brings salus.  
    But Jesus, our Savior, doesn’t do so extrinsically, outside of all our sufferings.  He doesn’t watch from afar and offer us health while social distancing.  He enters into our pain, our suffering, our illness, and brings us delight, wholeness, and health.  And that’s part of the beautiful message of the Gospel: Jesus defeats sin and death through His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension; but we still see it happening, until Jesus returns and ushers in the fullness of His Kingdom.  Until then, Jesus suffers with and in us; He does not abandon us.  And while suffering is not good, it always helps to know that we are not alone, that our suffering has not separated us from the One who loves us above all, as suffering often does make us feel segregated.
    I think this is so clear from our pandemic.  I’m not here to argue against science and taking necessary precautions to protect one’s health.  But one of the greatest evils in this pandemic, whether physically necessary or not, is that we are being disconnected from each other.  Whether we have symptoms, are asymptomatic, or are virus-free, COVID has sought to divide us from each other.  The age-old wounds of sin and division, that were always just below the surface, have come to the top and are festering.  And because we lack a physical unity with each other, that spiritual and emotional unity has also been stretched, or even torn.  
    In the midst of that division, Jesus continues to heal and make whole.  There are stories of heroic Catholics–priests, deacons, and lay faithful–who have refused to let people die alone, even if they had COVID.  The Church has continued to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, educate adults and children, because that is Jesus’ work, and that work does not stop just because there’s a pandemic.  My mind is drawn, by way of an earlier example, to St. Damian of Molokai, whose Belgian blood I share, who gave up his own life to bring Jesus and His healing, especially spiritual healing, to the leper colony in the Hawaiian islands.  
    But even today, through the Sacrament of Penance (confession) and the Eucharist, Jesus continues to heal, and continues to walk with us through our suffering.  He has defeated it, and suffering will end when Christ is all in all.  But until then, Jesus does not leave us orphans; He does not leave us to suffer alone, but suffers with and in us, so that we can bear our burden with Him.
    In the times when you feel most alone, most abandoned, most bereft of human interaction, turn to Jesus in prayer.  Come to the church and spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  Look to the crucifix, and lay all your trials on that cross.  If you do, life, victory, and wholeness will be yours in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

01 February 2021

Listening

 Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fr. Jim Rolph

    Last Sunday I went to a family’s house for dinner, a family that I have visited before.  When I visit, the adult children in the family like to tease me and say how much more they like Fr. Jim Rolph, the chaplain at Powers Catholic.  So during dinner conversation last Sunday I was talking to someone else at the table, but one of the kids interjected and said something, but all I heard was “in Flint.”  At first I just let it pass and figured it wasn’t anything important, but then young man started laughing, and realizing it was connected to what I had missed, I said, “Wait; what did you say?”  He started laughing and said, “I wondered why you didn’t react.  I said, ‘After all, Fr. Jim is the best priest in the Flint area!’”  
    Sometimes our attention is divided, and we don’t hear what’s going on.  And because we don’t hear, we miss something that we would want to know.  It’s not such a big deal when a young man is poking fun and saying that a brother priest is better than you (for the record, Fr. Jim and I are good friends, and I respect him greatly!).  But if it’s not teasing, but the voice of God, it’s much more important to pay attention and listen.
    In our first reading, Moses prophesies that God will send another prophet, like Moses, to whom the people need to listen.  This prophet will have very important messages to communicate.  Of course, we know that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the prophets, and was a prophet Himself, since He spoke for God.  But He didn’t even speak like the other prophets, but spoke with authority, authority that came from Himself, since He is God.  The people listening to Jesus recognize this, and they recognize “a new teaching with authority.”  
    Part of this authority is that Jesus, unlike the other rabbis of His time, would not appeal to an earlier rabbi.  That was the way the interpretation of laws and teachings worked for the Jewish people.  If you were a rabbi, people wouldn’t necessarily believe what you were teaching or interpreting.  But if you could appeal to an earlier rabbi who was well-respected, then your teaching took on more authority.  And the closer you could get to Moses, the more authority you would have.  
    But Jesus did not appeal to any other rabbi.  He simply spoke as if it were true.  Think back to Matthew chapter 5.  Jesus keeps saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”. He teaches as one who is authentically interpreting God’s will, authentically speaking for God, like Moses, but even more authoritative than even Moses.  And even unclean spirits respond to the words that Jesus speaks.  It’s not even a contest about who has authority; Jesus speaks and they have to obey, because He is the Creator, and they are mere creatures.
    It is with this same authority that the Church, when teaching on faith or morals, speaks.  Because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and because Jesus has given His authority to the pope and bishops who lead His Church (remember that Jesus said to the apostles that whoever listens to them listens to Him), the Church can say that, to be in union with Jesus, you have to believe this, or you can’t believe that.  The Church can also say with the authority of Jesus that, in order to be living as a disciple, you should do this or you shouldn’t do that.  It’s not simply the opinion of some old men who wear pointy hats; it is Jesus Himself teaching.
    Our psalm today encourages us: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  How often do our hearts harden when someone tells us something that we have to do, especially in the area of faith (what to believe) or morals (how to live).  It’s almost like an instantaneous reaction that someone tells us what to do and we automatically want to do the opposite.  That’s our fallen human intellect and will.  When the Church says we cannot support abortion, or we need to assist the poor, we have a responsibility as followers of Jesus to obey.  When the Church says that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus, or that marriage is only between one man and one woman, to be loyal to Jesus we conform our lives to that teaching.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s very hard, and may even seem counterintuitive, but God asks us to listen to His Son, who will never lead us astray if we follow Him.
    But besides the struggles to listen to Jesus as He speaks through His Church, it can also simply be hard to listen to Jesus.  Our age is filled with cacophony, which comes from the Greek meaning “bad sounds.”  We often surround ourselves with noise, and in doing so, drown out the God who likes to speak to us like He spoke to the Prophet Elijah: in the whisper in the silence.  Hardening our hearts can include not making time for God in daily prayer.  Maybe the only time you have is five minutes; maybe it’s turning off the radio in your car; maybe it’s coming to a daily Mass, or spending time in adoration.  But in order to hear God, we have to carve out time for Him, especially in silence, not only speaking to God, but listening to how God responds.  Sometimes silence can be scary, but God will, in His way, in His time, speak to us.  All we have to do is pay attention and listen.
    Don’t miss the conversation God wants to have with you.  Don’t miss out on how God teaches us to follow Him and to find true happiness.  Listen to the Church when it comes to faith and morals.  Make time for silence with God each week.  You will find the happiness for which you long.

11 January 2021

Banjos and Baptism

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

    As a fan of country music, I love the sound of the banjo.  The banjo got a bad name from the movie “Deliverance,” but it’s a beautiful instrument with a great sound, almost part and parcel of country music.  When I served as a priest in East Lansing, I decided one year to get a banjo.  I’ve played piano, saxophone, and the bassoon before, so I felt I could handle a new instrument.  I took lessons for a few months, bought a book with an accompanying DVD to help me learn, and went to it.  I didn’t pick up the instrument as quickly as I liked, and then Bishop Boyea named me pastor of St. Joseph in Adrian, so it fell by the wayside.  After years of not using it, I gave it to Jake, the seminarian who was living with me for the summer when I became pastor here.  Hopefully he has found more use for and success with it than I did!
    Sometimes we Catholics treat baptism and our faith life like a banjo.  We’re excited about it when there’s a new child, we might use it a lot at the beginning, but then things get hard, and we set it off to the side, never to use it again.  I think some of this comes from a misunderstanding of what baptism is and means.
    For years after the Second Vatican Council, there was an emphasis on how similar our sacraments were to human milestones.  The intent was good.  If all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and if all humans truly desire God, as St. Augustine noted, then it makes sense that other cultures and even other religions would have times and ceremonies that mimic what Christ Himself instituted in the sacraments.  For example, baptism is connected to birth, confirmation to adolescence, matrimony and holy orders to marriage and family, anointing of the sick to dying and death.  Many cultures and religions do have rituals during those times of life, and I do think that it reflects the pieces of truth that connect other cultures and faiths to our true religion.
    But at the same time, baptism now is often viewed as a merely sociological experience that is over as quickly as it begins.  Parents come to church to have their children baptized, and then they’re not seen again until first reconciliation and first Holy Communion, then leave again, then not seen again until confirmation, then leave again, then return again for marriage (often because it’s a requirement of the parents who are footing the bill), and then leave again, hopefully returning again at the baptism of their own children. 
    But millennials in particular, and the generations that are following them, are not into empty rituals that are done for the sake of being done.  Many young people who leave the church during college never return, unlike the generations before them.  And when they have kids, fewer and fewer are having their children baptized.  In some ways that’s troubling, because baptism is the ordinary way that eternal life is opened up for humans, but in other ways, it’s almost more honest, at least if the parents have no intent to live out their faith. 
    Baptism means seeking the Lord, like Isaiah said in the first reading, but it also means the scoundrel has to “forsake his way and the wicked mad his thoughts.”  It’s the beginning of the growth of new life and a relationship with God, the first watering of the field of the soul, not the harvest and the rest that comes after.  Jesus didn’t quit telling people about God the Father and drawing them into relationship with the Father once Jesus was baptized; He began His public ministry of calling all to repentance and the fulness of happiness.  As a pastor, it seems like many take baptism to mean that they never have to work at keeping the commandments, unlike what St. John said in the second reading.  Baptism is treated as a Get Out of Hell Free card. 
    But Baptism really means that the person will try his or her best to make the life of Jesus his or her own.  Baptism is the grace-assisted and grace-empowering beginning of a habit of: listening to the Holy Spirit; trusting in and following the will of God; dying to our own preferences and fallen desires and habits; putting behind us sinful life and living for God above all else.  Yes, it washes away original sin; yes it imparts a character with which we are sealed for all eternity as a child of God; yes it gives us sanctifying grace which pushes us toward heaven.  But it’s not magic.  It’s not a “do this and then you’ll never have to do anything else” ritual. 
    Baptism is the beginning of a grand adventure with God.  Baptism is the beginning of a saintly life.  It doesn’t mean that we always get the saint part right, but it means we’re trying to, and we put behind us things that don’t help us be saints.  It is a life-long commitment to strive to do the will of God in every circumstance.  It gives us the identity of a son or daughter in the Son of God, which isn’t so much a badge that we can scan to get to exclusive areas, but rather a mission to live like Jesus would in our own day, a life that truly begins happiness, and share that call to happiness with those we meet, both by word and by deed. 
    Don’t let your baptism be like my banjo.  Don’t just start and then not follow through.  Don’t just pick it up every now and then.  Allow your baptism to be the strength which allows you to live each day in the freedom of the children of God, a freedom God gave us not for license, for doing whatever we want, but for holiness, for doing what God wants.  Live your baptism every day, and at your judgement you will hear from the Father: “‘This is my beloved…with you I am well pleased.’”


04 January 2021

Follow the Light

 Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord


    One of the great images of the Epiphany is the star.  And sometime in the fall of last year, we heard that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which some postulate was the “star” of Bethlehem and led the magi to the Holy Family, was going to be visible on 21 December.  This was a seeming bright spot in a very dark year, and many people were excited to be able to see this celestial phenomenon, which one could even do while being social-distanced.  But, just to make 2020 feel even more 2020ish here in Flint, it was, of course, cloudy.  Lucky for them, the magi weren’t trying to find the newborn king in Michigan, because our usual cloudiness during this time of year would’ve made that nearly impossible!
    Because we’ve heard the story so often, we probably gloss over what the magi, the wise men, went through to find the Christ Child.  They were likely from modern-day Iran, a foreign land, which was not a friend of Israel or the west.  It was the Babylonians (in modern-day Iraq) who had conquered and exiled the Jews from the Chosen Land.  After the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire, they were not always friendly to others around them.  Recall that King Leonidas of Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae fought against the Persians, some 500 or so years before Jesus was born.  The Persians (now referred to as Parthians) had kicked Rome out of Judea in 40 BC, but the Romans had regained control in 37 BC, and held it until centuries later.  All of this is to say, they were foreigners, and probably not necessarily welcome visitors.  In fact, it was a Herod who had helped the Romans to kick the Parthians out of Judea.
    Depending on where the magi came from, they may have traveled upwards of 700 or more miles, perhaps from Babylon, a great center of learning that the Persians took over from the Babylonians.  That’s 700 miles, and assuming the camel was carrying them and the supplies at about 3 mph, and traveling for maybe half a day (taking time to rest and eat), it would have been more than 20 days of travel, if everything went well.  It’s clear from the fact that they go to see Herod first that they were not exactly sure where this newborn king was supposed to be.  But Herod, after asking the chief priests and scribes, informs the magi that it will be in Bethlehem, which is about 5 miles away from Jerusalem by foot.  All that way, to see a little child, in the home of a carpenter and his wife, probably not much to speak of.  But they were guided by the light of the star, and they adapted their lives around that light because of the importance it had for them.
    Isaiah prophesies in our first reading that Jerusalem’s light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon it.  While the world is in darkness and clouds, the Lord shines upon His people,  and even other nations shall be guided by that light from the Lord (a foreshadowing of the magi, those from other nations, coming to see the Lord Jesus).  The light of the Lord was to allow the Chosen People to see clearly, to not trip over obstacles, or lose their way.  
    That’s what the Lord wants to be for us, as well.  He wants to be the one who guides our way, who helps us to see clearly, who gives us the ability to avoid obstacles that will hurt us or wrong paths that will not take us to our destination.  Is He that light for us, or have we allowed clouds to cover up that light?
    The magi, for a king that they would see only for a short time, traveled some 700 miles.  They likely left behind family and friends to bring fine gifts to an unknown child.  They risked much for someone who wasn’t even part of their religion, but whom, they knew, they had to see.  How much effort do we put into seeing Jesus?  Which lights guide us, and where do they lead?
    God wants to be the light in our life.  Jesus will refer to Himself as the Light of the World.  Light allows us to see and interact with the world.  Are we guided by the light of Christ, or by other lights?  Jesus reveals to us how the world truly is, and where we want to go.  But how often do we find other paths, or prefer to stumble around in the dark?  
    I think that many people know what God wants them to do; they understand Jesus’ teaching; but their will is not in relationship with Jesus; they are not willing to follow that star.  Following the will of God is sometimes very difficult, because, like Herod, the world or even simply our fallen will would rather be in charge, and doesn’t want competition.  It seeks to snuff out the light, or to present us with other, dimmer lights that are pale reflections of the true light and do not lead us where we want to go.  We prefer our way to God’s way.  We bristle, especially now, at any institution which tells us how to live our life, as if guidance means that we lose control.  We prefer to stumble in darkness, and are then surprised when it hurts.  We follow lesser lights to places we are not meant to go, and then are shocked that we can’t find happiness.
    The life of a Catholic is meant to be a life that follows a star, the Morning Star, Jesus Christ, in everything.  God, through His Son Jesus, and the one Church that Jesus founded, the Catholic Church, reveals to us what we are to believe and how we are to live in order to be happy.  Sometimes that means that we have to give up things that we desire, or things that others, sometimes many others, say will make us happy.  Sometimes it means that, while the rest of the world goes one way, we go another.  It means when we come to significant or major decisions, we take them to prayer and evaluate them by Scripture and the teachings of the Church, not just think about them and decide what we want to do.  
    The magi followed a star to a foreign country to briefly see a king from a different religion.  For us who claim to follow Jesus, to belong to the religion He founded, are we willing to follow Him, our Star?  Are we willing to conform our life to Him in order to find the happiness we all desire?

28 December 2020

Year of St. Joseph

 Feast of the Holy Family

     On Tuesday, 8 December, to the surprise of many (there wasn’t any Catholic gossip that this was going to happen of which I was aware), Pope Francis proclaimed a special Year of St. Joseph, on the 150th Anniversary of Pope Bl. Pius IX naming St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church.  As St. Joseph is part of the Holy Family, I thought it would be good to preach about him today, as we begin this special year dedicated to the Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Foster-Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  While the entire homily won’t be directed only at men, ladies, I would ask your forbearance for those parts that address only the males.
    I had seen a post on Facebook that jokingly challenged everyone to memorize every word that St. Joseph said in the Gospels by the time the holy year ends on 8 December 2021.  The joke is that St. Joseph, while mentioned numerous times in the Gospel, never has a recorded word spoken in the gospel accounts.  This lack of talking may make him, in the view of many wives, the perfect example of a husband: always silent.
    What can we learn from a man who never had a word that he said recorded?  There is much we can learn from this saint, and I’ll highlight one in particular.
    St. Joseph was a man who had a deep relationship with God.  Before even Jesus was born, Joseph was attune to God speaking to him in dreams.  Joseph took Jesus and Mary to the temple 40 days after the birth of Jesus in accord with the Law of Moses.  And the Holy Family traveled to the temple for the pilgrim festivals of the Jewish faith, like Passover and the Feast of Booths.  While we have no direct evidence, Jesus seemed very familiar with the synagogue and how the services were conducted, so Joseph must have taken Jesus to synagogue throughout Jesus’ life.  
    Fathers: in many ways, we fathers have lived up to our call to help our families have a relationship with God.  This is certainly true of certain spiritual fathers, priests who preyed on the vulnerable and led them away from God.  But it’s also true of biological fathers.  How many children consider religion to be a things that mostly girls do?  How many times is it the mother who is making sure that the kids go to Mass, while the father makes excuses about golf, watching sports or sleeping in?  
    I encourage you, fathers, to make sure that your families (including you!) are going to Mass every Sunday and Holyday, except in case of illness (or a pandemic).  Why don’t kids practice the faith after they leave the house?  Because, in so many cases, the faith clearly wasn’t that important when they were living at home.  It certainly isn’t the only part of being Catholic and developing a relationship with Jesus, but it’s an important part.  Most people who attend Mass will tell me that they never had a choice when they were growing up about attending Mass; it was non-negotiable, even on vacation.  I dare say that most people, at some point in their lives, do not want to go to church.  But that habit of going is so important.  Because when life gets rough, as it always does, without faith, it’s so much harder to get through and to know where to turn, than it is with a practice of going to Mass.  
    Another part of our faith is daily prayer.  The Mass is necessary for our relationship with God, but so is daily prayer.  Sometimes that prayer can be formal prayers that we learned, like the Our Father, Hail Mary, and/or Glory Be.  Maybe during this year of St. Joseph we can learn the Memorare of St. Joseph.  But prayer isn’t always formal.  Yes, in the Mass, we use special, elevated language to communicate with God.  But in our daily prayer we are encouraged to use everyday language to share with the Lord our hopes and fears, our desires, our struggles, our needs, and everything that is a part of our life.  If you can talk with a friend, you can talk with God.  And, like with our friends, we also need to learn how to listen, so that we can hear God’s voice.  Fathers: teach your children (or grandchildren) to pray.  Teach them to be able to speak to Jesus and to listen to Jesus.  
    There are so many other ways that St. Joseph is a great model for all Catholics, especially, but not only, for men.  He is a great intercessor for chastity, for work, for the importance of fathers in a family, as well as the patron of a happy death, which is not something to be neurotic about, but something for which we should always be prepared by living the best life that we can, centered around God.  I’ll close today with a prayer to St. Joseph, which closed the Apostolic Letter, Patris corde, with which Pope Francis inaugurated the Holy Year of St. Joseph:

Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil.  Amen.

23 December 2020

Joy to the World–Even in 2020

Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord–Mass at Night and During the Day



    Our Savior, dearly Beloved, was born this day.  Let us rejoice.  Sadness is not becoming on the Birth Day of Life Itself, which, now that the fear of death is ended, fills us with gladness, because of our own promised immortality.  No one is excluded from sharing in this cheerfulness, for the reason of our joy is common to all men.  Our Lord, the Conqueror of sin and death, since there was no one free from servitude, came that He might bring deliverance to all.
    …Let the sinner rejoice, since he is invited to grace.  Let the Gentile exult, for they are called to life.  For the Son of God, in the fulness of time, has taken upon Himself the nature of our humanity, as the unsearchable depths of the divine counsel hath decreed, in order that the inventor of death, the devil, by that very nature which he defeated, would be himself overcome.

These words are not mine, but those of Pope St. Leo the Great.  He invites us to rejoice at Christmas.  But, you may say, Pope Leo the Great didn’t have to deal with COVID-19.  He didn’t have to cancel family celebrations.  He didn’t have to miss seeing children and grandchildren whom he hadn’t seen in the better part of a year, if not a year or more (though, as a pope, it’s good that he didn’t have children or grandchildren).  He wasn’t a waitress who had her job taken away, given back, and then taken away again, just in time for the holidays.  He didn’t have to quarantine because a student in his child’s class was diagnosed with the virus.  
    And that’s all true.  Pope St. Leo the Great had his own difficulties–Attila the Hun sacking most of central Europe, into Italy; barbarians sacking Rome; heretics seeking to divide the Church with their errors; emperors being murdered; the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire in the west.  But Leo’s happiness wasn’t based upon something transitory or temporary, and certainly not simply on the twenty-fifth day of December.  Leo could encourage the people of Rome, to whom he preached this homily, to rejoice because of what we celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of December: the birth in the flesh of our Incarnate Lord. 
    What we celebrate on Christmas is that God loved us so much that His Eternal Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was born for us in Bethlehem.  And that birth is, in itself, great enough news that there is no room for sorrow, because God has become like us so that we can become like Him.  How much love does it take for someone in a distant land, not needing anything, perfect in himself, to travel to a far away land in enemy territory, subject himself to all kinds of humiliations, just to be close to us?  And yet, that is what God did for us! 
    And if that wasn’t enough, that little baby, whose birth we celebrate today, would grow and would show even greater love, as He chose not only to become like us in all things but sin, but to die for us, so that we could live forever.  Matthew Kelly describes it this way in his Sacrament of Confirmation program called “Decision Point”: there is a virus that is infecting and killing everyone, and try as they might, scientists cannot find a cure.  As they try to work out how the virus works, more and more people keep dying.  And then, one day, they discover this one person, whose blood contains the antidote to the virus.  From his blood, a vaccine can be made that will eventually save everyone on earth from this virus.  The only problem is that, in order to make the vaccine, every drop of blood is needed; the person will have to give up his life.  That person, not thinking only of himself and how he will be fine, but all the people he can save, agrees to die so that others could live.  That Confirmation program was developed years ago, but it hits home even more so now, in the midst of this pandemic.
    Jesus’ Nativity is a reason to rejoice, no matter what is happening in our lives and in the world.  Jesus’ Nativity is the hope that gives us the strength to keep going, these 9 months after “14 Days to Flatten the Curve.”  As Catholics, we don’t live for this world.  While we treasure and care for the creation that God has entrusted to us, we have our minds on the world to come.  And this “momentary, light affliction,” as St. Paul says, is as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed in heaven.  We care for ourselves, and make prudent choices about our health, but we don’t obsess and fret about death because Jesus has freed us from the fear of death.  Death is not the end, but for those who follow Jesus, a transition to new life, glorified life, joy-filled life. 
    This is not to make light of the many sacrifices that have been made and are being made by people each day.  This is not to brush off the real hardships that many find themselves in during the pandemic.  But Jesus’ Nativity is a great reminder that these experiences are not all there is to life.  If anything, this pandemic has revealed to us how much we have lived like this life is all there is, and have not focused on heaven enough. 
    No government official nor any created thing can stop our joy that comes from this day and the hope the newborn Jesus brings to us.  Though our celebrations may be smaller, and maybe not happen with family and friends at all, and though we rightly find some level of happiness from our time spent with loved ones, the true joy of today comes the fact that God’s love for us has been revealed in Jesus being born for us to save us from sin and death, and open for us the way to eternal salvation.  So “let us rejoice.  Sadness is not becoming on the Birth Day of Life Itself.”  “Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!”

The Hard Way

 Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord–At the Vigil Mass

When I was a freshman in high school I had a science class.  I like science, in general, but I’m not good at science.  One of our final projects in the class was to make a car from a mousetrap and have it travel 3 feet or so.  We could use anything we wanted to, as long it didn’t include a motor.  All we were given were the mousetrap and four plastic wheels.  I had seen someone else use CDs for wheels, and though that was a good idea.  Besides, what else would I do with all those AOL CDs that we got in the mail each month?  Try as I might, I could not get it to go forward.  I was left with simply pulling the arm of the trap back, and quickly releasing, trying to get enough forward momentum from my arm releasing it quickly.  It didn’t work.  When it came time for us to demonstrate what we had done, I watched my classmates and saw their cars.  They used strings or rubber bands attached to the arm of the trap, which were connected to the axels of the wheels, which, when the arm was released, propelled the mousetrap car forward.  It seemed so obvious, and yet it hadn’t occurred to me at all.  I certainly hadn’t found the easiest way to do things.  In fact, I have a special gift for often missing the easiest way, and finding the hardest way to do something.
    It may seem like God also chooses to do things the most difficult way.  St. Paul gives the basics of the Gospel as he is preaching in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, which we heard in our second readings.  God chose a people, is where St. Paul starts.  The story would have been familiar to the Jews.  But in case it’s not as familiar to us, let’s make sure we know that the people God chose were not a strong nation, or the best warriors, or the smartest.  No, God chose a family, Abram and Sarai, who were very old, had no children, and lived in modern-day Iraq, and told them to go to the land of Canaan.  That family, starting with the miracle child, Isaac, slowly grows into a small household, who sell one of the brothers into slavery, and then they have to beg from that brother for food during a famine.  
    The family makes its way to Egypt, lives comfortably there for a while, before Pharaoh gets nervous about their fecundity, and enslaves them.  God sends them Moses to free them from slavery, but this people, this nation now, always seems to think life was better in Egypt as slaves as God tries to give them Canaan and freedom.  God promises them the land and peace as long as they follow Him, but they can’t do it for even one generation.  So they struggle with the surrounding nations, until they beg God for a king, even though God tells them they have a king: Him; they don’t need another.  But they whine some more, and God gives them what they want.  First comes Saul, who is pretty bad at following God, and then David, who is much better at following God, except when he’s murdering to cover-up his adulterous relationship.  Still, David is mostly for God, which is good, because he’s the last king like that.  
    The people, throughout the centuries, wander away from God, get in trouble, cry out to God, and then God saves them, only for the people to get comfortable again, and turn away from God.  Then God sends John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Messiah, Jesus.
    One would think that the Messiah, God’s own co-eternal Son, would have things easier.  Instead, His mother is almost divorced by His foster-father; He has to make numerous trips, first in the womb, then as an infant, then as a young boy.  Jesus’ foster-father, Joseph, dies before Jesus reaches the age of thirty, and then Jesus preaches God’s message, first welcomed with open arms, but eventually rejected by his followers, betrayed by one of his closest friends, and then dies on the cross, abandoned by almost everyone except His mother and few others.
    That’s not the easiest way.  As we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate that God took flesh, and so could feel the jostling in the womb on the road to Bethlehem; was cold as he was delivered in a cave, because no inns had room.  Jesus, the eternal God, could be hungry and thirsty, could stink from soiling his diapers, and could feel the emotional struggle of rejection as He grew up, similar to everyone else in appearance, but clearly very different from his neighborhood friends.  
    God didn’t choose the easiest way to save us; but He chose the best way.  He entered into our forsakenness, our desolation, so that He could change us into His Delight and His Espoused.  It was not clean and easy, but neither was humanity.  Whether it’s building mousetraps or trying to live as disciples of Jesus, we seem to choose the harder, not smarter, way.  But God loves us enough to enter into that messiness so that, by His grace, we can clean up.  
    What we celebrate at Christmas is that God didn’t take the easy way out.  He could have simply willed to save us, but instead He sent His only-begotten Son to become like us in all ways but sin.  He took on our messy history, the saints and the sinners, and made it His own history.  God became man, so that man could become God, to paraphrase St. Athanasius.  
    This Christmas is hard, no doubt about it.  But the Good News is that God is here, and He understands our challenges, our difficulties, probably better than we do ourselves.  But God is still working to save us, no matter how hard, how difficult.  And that love, that dedication to us and to our eternal happiness that humbled itself to become like us in all things but sin, is definitely worth celebrating, and is something that not even COVID-19 can take away.  O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

14 December 2020

We're On a Mission from God

Third Sunday of Advent

     If I say the names Jake and Elwood, those of you who remember the 80s probably know exactly who I’m talking about.  Jake and Elwood are the Blues brothers, from the movie with the same name.  And as they work to get the band back together, they make it clear to everyone, that they’re on a mission from God. 
    Our first reading and Gospel today focus on a mission.  In the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we hear the mission statement that Jesus Himself will give as He preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth.  Jesus tells them, as Isaiah told Israel, that God has sent Him “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.”  That’s definitely a mission from God, and a pretty good one!
    Our Gospel, too, makes clear that St. John the Baptist was “sent from God.  He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  We heard about St. John the Baptist, also called the Precursor, last week in our Gospel.  The Precursor is a man on a mission, to prepare the way for Jesus.  He is not the Messiah, as some had started to think, but wants everyone in Israel to be ready for the Messiah. 
    We, too, are called to be people on mission.  We, like Jake and Elwood, are on a mission from God.  I have used this quote before, but St. John Henry Newman wrote: 


God has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.  I have my mission….He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good; I shall do His work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place.

God has given us each a mission, a call, and it’s something that no one else can do like we can.  Can we respond to that call?
    Many times when we think of a call, we think of priests and consecrated men and women like monks and brothers, nuns and sisters.  But all of us are called, by baptism, to be on mission for God.  Many are called to be on mission as a wife or mother, husband or father.  Others are called to serve as a priest or deacon, or be in a religious community.  Some women are called to be consecrated virgins.  But all are called to advance the Gospel to others.
    How do we recognize our call?  Prayer is key.  A call is something that we choose, but to which God first invites us.  We make a deliberate choice to follow the urging of the Holy Spirit in our life.  Imagine how silly it would sound if I said I chose to be a priest simply because no one else wanted me.  Probably not a great way to start the seminary interview with the bishop.  Instead, a call is something to which we are driven.  A wife (hopefully) doesn’t agree to marry someone simply because no one else will have her.  She finds a man who cares for her, who puts her needs above his own, who wants to work with her to build a family according to God’s plan.  She chooses to love him because she senses that they are meant to become saints together.  And through daily prayer, taking time in silence to hear the voice of God, we learn what God wants for us.
    Sometimes our idea of the call develops or changes.  I didn’t always want to be a priest.  I wanted to be married, have a few kids, a couple of dogs, a really nice house and car, and work either in the military, or as a lawyer, and then maybe a politician (don’t let that last part lessen your opinion of me!).  But through prayer, I came to sense that I could only be truly happy as a priest.  Of course, the Church had something to say about it, too.  It wasn’t simply that I wanted a particular vocation.  But with the formation that the Church provided, and the “yes” that the Church spoke through her leaders, I came to be confirmed in what I felt God wanted me to do.  Sometimes our understanding of our mission changes or develops.
    Another key part of our mission is that we don’t replace the Messiah.  An older priest once told me that his spiritual director had counseled him when he became all-too-convinced of his own importance, “The Church already has a Messiah; we don’t need you!”  Our mission is to cooperate with God, not to take His place.  So many people feel that they can decide what they want to do, rather than God; that they can define what happiness will be–whom they can marry, how many kids they need to have, how they should spend their money–without any consideration of what God wants.  God has made the world a certain way, and has taught us, through the Scriptures and the Church, what truly makes us happy.  When we choose other than that, we are in an exercise of futility; we cannot be happy doing the things that God has said will not give us true happiness. 
    Some of you may feel, due to age or other factors, that you have already accomplished your mission because you know your vocation.  But, as long as you are alive, you still are on mission.  You can continue to spread the Gospel through your children, your grandchildren, and others.  You can offer suffering to Jesus on the cross for an intention.  You can continue to help others know the joy you have from your relationship with Jesus.  Don’t let COVID give you the blues.  You are on a mission from God!

St. John Henry Newman