Thursday, December 26, 2013
It might seem odd that the day after we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we have a feast for a martyr. But the Church deliberately gives us a day to reflect on St. Stephen immediately after the baby Jesus.
First, we recognize that Christ came into our world that is full of sin, death and destruction. There is a war going both for the world and for our soul. Luke vividly describes the response of Stephen’s enemies, and in so doing sets forth what we face as well: “When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him.” No one has ever claimed our Christian walk is easy.
At the same time, God’s love is great. It is through this love that He sent His son as a baby in Bethlehem. Christ’s love—coming down to us from heaven—allows someone like Stephen to enter into heaven. Christ’s love was so great that he prayed even for those who crucified him—“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Stephen—living in God’s love—prayed for his enemies too—“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”In the battle for our faith and souls, we have an exemplary model in St. Stephen. And we have nothing to fear, because God always wins.
It gives me great joy to see so many of you here today! Know you, your family and friends are most welcome here at St. John’s (and any other Catholic parish). If Fr. Rich was here he would probably take a second (or third) collection, but as I am the associate and don’t have to worry about our budget, I’ll keep it to one.
During the last weeks I have been preparing for something big. Yes, Christmas—but something else. I have been compiling a playlist with the greatest hits and my favorite songs from the 1990s. The 90s was the first full decade I lived through. It was when I first fell in love, made friends and played on many sports’ teams. Listening to music from the 90s has brought back many great memories.
I came across a song I hadn’t heard in years—“One of Us.” Part of the song goes like this (and I’ll spare you the singing): “What if God was one of us? Just another slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” The rhetorical question in this song is—if God is real, how would we live our lives?
Yet this question has an answer—God has become one of us. Today we celebrate the birth of the God-man Jesus. In a sense, he has become a slob like one of us as Jesus was human. I mean, think of the Nativity. Often we picture this pristine and pious stable. Yet the animals there probably smelled. Jesus himself was wrapped in swaddling cloths because, like any other baby, he went to the bathroom. He came into the messiness of our human experience. And he came as a stranger, away from heaven and in a foreign territory. But come he did! He was one of us!
My question this Christmas day for you: is this real? Was Jesus, both God and man, truly born here on earth? Or is this a cute story to tell our children? Do we celebrate Christmas for only nostalgic or celebratory reasons? Or, is all of this real?
If Christmas is real and God truly became a man—a baby—our lives should be different. I can tell you that if this whole Christmas thing wasn’t real, there is no way I would be a priest. Why would I give up a lucrative job, a wife and children for a cute story? I am a sinner, but I believe with all my heart that the mysteries of our faith are true.
As we near the end of the calendar year and begin 2014 it is common to make New Year’s resolutions. I challenge you, make resolutions in your faith! Pray daily. Experience the joy of Sunday Mass. Experience Christ’s mercy in Confession. Make God your best friend.
Today we rejoice that God has become one of us. And that is as real as it gets.
Three days before Christmas the Church places before us the two most important people in salvation history—Mary and Jesus.
First, we heard a prophecy from Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” We saw this prophecy fulfilled in Matthew’s Gospel account a few moments later. Yet remember, over 800 years elapsed between Isaiah’s proclamation and its fulfillment. 800 years!
Who do you imagine when you picture Mary? Often I think of a mature woman—someone who was in her twenties or thirties. Mary was actually between twelve and fourteen years old—a junior high student’s age. Like many of you, I have seen many children’s Christmas programs over the years. It is cute to see the kids play the parts of animals, shepherds, Joseph and Mary. What hits home for me is that Mary was actually closer in age to the children who play her than to an adult.
And Mary didn’t have to say yes. She was approached in freedom and made a choice. In the Office of Readings this morning, St. Bernard gave an insightful meditation on the moment after Gabriel approached Mary: “Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. Answer quickly, O Virgin.” And Mary did—“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”
This same prophecy gave us a particular title for Jesus—Emmanuel. Of all the titles he has—Messiah, son of God, son of Man, Christ—we focus on the Emmanuel during Advent. Emmanuel means, God is with us. I love this definition. Note, Emmanuel doesn’t mean God could be with us if we were perfect, or God will be with us when we get to Church more. God is with us. He is with the youngest baby and the oldest senior. He is with you if you are sick or healthy, sad or joyful, suffering or rejoicing. God is with us.
We have three days until the momentous nativity of Jesus. Like Mary, may we always say yes to our Emmanuel.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
There are several miraculous births in the Bible. We may recall Abraham and Sarah who had Isaac when they were well past child-bearing years. Or Hannah, whose prayers for a child led to the birth of Samuel.
We have a cool pairing between two other births—Samson and John the Baptist. Notice the similarities between their stories—both came from an infertile couple, featured an angel, a command to drink no wine or strong drink and the promise that the child will be filled with God’s Spirit.
In all of the above, God shows His providence and power in bringing life forward where it was humanly impossible.
In six days we celebrate the most miraculous birth of all—Mary was not infertile but a virgin. Yet God, through this virgin, gave us His son.
Jesus Christ has many titles—son of man, son of God, Christ, Messiah, etc. The title we hear the most during Advent is Emmanuel: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.’”
Note the statement of fact in the meaning of Emmanuel—God is with us. Emmanuel doesn’t mean God is with us if we are perfect, healthy, righteous or happy. God simply is with us…no matter what. He is with us if we are young or old, athletic or clumsy, smart or ignorant, upstanding or troublemaker.
We pause this afternoon to remember that God is always with us.
Now you know why priests have to go to school so long—to pronounce a list of names like this!
I don’t often do show-and-tell during the homily, but here is something I keep in my office I would like you to see [Jesus’ family tree all the way from Adam and Eve].
We might be surprised to hear such a list in a Gospel in the New Testament. More than this, these are the very first words in the Gospel according to Matthew! Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, appeals to their emphasis on such a list.
The Old Testament especially features genealogies. These names listed more than people, but showed how their religious history passed from one generation to the next. On this poster you can see an unbroken line from Adam to Jesus—a sign of God’s fidelity through the generations. Matthew gives three cycles of fourteen generations, showing that God’s hand was directly involved in Israel’s history.
Something else is pretty cool about the genealogy of Matthew. In ancient history genealogies were structured on males—sorry, ladies, this is just how it was. Yet in Matthew’s account four women are included—Tamar, Rahab and Ruth in the Old Testament. Notable is Rahab’s faith (she let the Israelite spies into the Promised Land, knowing that God would be faithful in His promises) and Ruth’s passion (another foreigner who converted to Judaism and was King David’s great-grandmother).
The last woman: Mary. As the New Eve she comes after many generations and is the last name on this list before Jesus Christ himself.
Through approaching these genealogies more closely we see God’s providence in history and the extent to which he prepared for Jesus. Buckle up! Christmas is coming!
Monday, December 16, 2013
There are two important words paired in Psalm 25: sinner and humble. Every one of us is a sinner, thus every one of us must come humbly before God for forgiveness.
This is especially true in the sacrament of Confession. It is not always easy to confess your sins to a priest and doing so takes humility. This is especially true when you confess the same sins you have been confessing your whole life. Believe me, I am a sinner myself and know how humbling it is confessing the same stuff over and over again!
There is another level of humility when we face our sinfulness. Sometimes after we mess up we can beat ourselves up. Yet doing so contains a subtle form of pride—as if I think I could be perfect if I just try harder. The fact is many of the great saints were not surprised when they fell. They were disappointed, but not crushed, because they knew their own weakness yet walked humbly before God’s throne of mercy.
Face your own sins with humility. Come to Confession this Advent and walk humbly with God as you wait for Christ’s birth in a few days.
You may be wondering what this third Sunday of Advent is all about—and why pink? Today is Gaudete Sunday, a time to pause from our Advent penances to rejoice in the coming of our Savior. The word Gaudete means just that—rejoice. The color change symbolizes a move from waiting to celebrating. It comes from the first word sung in the old Latin Mass on the third Sunday of Advent—“Rejoice in the Lord always…”
St. James uses a cool image in his letter: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” Like a farmer, God has been patient in preparing the soil of the world for the coming of Christ. He has been waiting—not just thousands of years (the time we humans have existed), millions of years (longer than when the dinosaurs roamed the earth), billions of years (our universe has probably existed five to six billion years) but forever. That is why we rejoice today.
John the Baptist represents the nearness of Christ. Today we hear Christ declaring, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you…” This prophecy, from Malachi 3:1 is fulfilled only three chapters later in the Bible as John makes his appearance in Matthew 3:1. To my knowledge, it is the quickest prophecy fulfilled, at least in pages, in the Bible.
Jesus shares two facts about John the Baptist: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist…” Here Jesus points out that as great as Abraham, Noah, Moses or David were, John the Baptist is greater. This, not because of his own merits, but because John saw the Messiah. John announced the coming of Christ and was a bridge between the Old and the New.
Yet Jesus adds, “…yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Remember, John the Baptist was beheaded during Jesus’ public ministry. Thus, he did not live long enough to see the salvific act of Christ on the cross. Because of this, the apostles, disciples and all of us, in a sense, are even greater than John the Baptist.
As we rejoice on Gaudete Sunday, we continue to be patient for the Lord’s coming. We praise God for his messenger—John the Baptist—and are especially gracious for seeing, with eyes of faith, what John the Baptist did not.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
John the Baptist is a key figure in salvation history. Jesus describes him as follows: “…among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist…” Part of what this means is that John the Baptist is, in a sense, greater than all the men and women in the Old Testament—Abraham, Noah, Moses, David. Why? John the Baptist welcomed the Christ himself.
At the same time, Jesus adds, “…yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Why? John the Baptist, while announcing Christ’s arrival, actually died before witnessing the salvific act of Christ’s death and resurrection. Thus, those of us coming after John are, in a sense, even greater than him.
This is the most true when considering our Blessed Mother, whom we celebrate today under the title Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary gave her yes, lived most purely and followed her son to the full. She is the greatest of all humans, save Jesus.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
We haven’t had a school Mass for a while and we have entered a new liturgical season since then. I want to wish you all a very blessed Advent.
In Advent we wear purple. We do this because purple is a sign of penance. Like Lent, we ought to make sacrifices in Advent. It is a time to give up candy, video games or other. It is also a time to do something extra. In this regard I am so grateful for your contributions to the Giving Tree program. [The kids have been bringing non-perishable food items throughout Advent to give to the poor.]
At the same time, purple is a royal color. We are waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our king, Jesus. Christmas is hardly about presents or Santa—it is about the Baby Jesus.
Jesus gives us true peace. He is with us even in the most difficult situations. Our school is facing one of these in knowing our friend Alyssa is recovering from a scary night outside. Yet we know that Alyssa and her family, and us, can live in the reality of the Scriptures: “They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint”; “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Trusting in the coming of Christ, we stand together to offer our prayers to the Lord.
Providentially, Advent takes place in the dark in northern Minnesota. Many times we start our day in the dark and come home in the same. This darkness indicates what the Advent season is all about.
We live in a world of darkness. We have seen in the news how a 19 year old is suffering after spending a night outside in the cold. As a priest I too frequently see someone taken too quickly, or too tragically. Darkness is all around us.
In Advent we embrace the darkness. We seek moments of quiet to listen to God. We sacrifice, as we do in Lent. And we try to do extras to serve God and neighbor.
Isaiah, a prophet of hope, preaches to a people living in the darkness. The Israelites had been ripped from their homes, deported to a foreign nation and witnessed the destruction of the temple. Isaiah encourages them, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end…”
We can always take comfort in God. Sometimes we act like we need to find God. And this is true—we do need to seek Him. Yet we must remember that before we try to find Him, He is finding us. He is the Good Shepherd, looking for the lost sheep.
As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, we renew our trust in Him and take comfort that he finds us.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
“Brothers and sisters: Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
St. Paul refers here to the Old Testament. Indeed, the Old Testament was the only defined Scripture when Paul lived. It wasn’t like he thought to himself as he wrote to the Romans, “This will be part of the Bible someday.” Instead, he points back to seek instruction from God’s Word.
One of the Old Testament books from which we hear often during Advent is Isaiah. In fact, we have heard from Isaiah during every Mass of Advent thus far. And rightly so—Isaiah features many prophecies about the coming of Christ.
Today we heard, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him...” This might not be an obvious prophecy of Christ, but the Israelites would have immediately thought of the coming Messiah born of David’s line.
And listen to some other prophecies from this great prophet (some will be familiar as they were used in Handel’s Messiah):
· “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el [God is with us]”;
· “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined”;
· “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”.
Isaiah used the Messianic prophecies as a way to give hope to the Israelites. They were ripped from their homes, exiled to foreign lands and watched the center of their faith—the temple—destroyed. These words were met by ears of men and women who were devastated.
Are you going through devastation right now? If not, imagine one of the most difficult parts in your life. As you do, listen again to these words of hope from Isaiah:
· “…a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el [God is with us]”;
· “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined”;
· “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’”.
No matter what you may be facing right now, have hope. Jesus is coming!
Many of us last night lost power for a bit. It made me count my blessings as I fumbled around through the dark rectory before finding a flashlight. And even then it was difficult to see. At one point I remember thinking to myself, “What if I was blind and lived like this all the time?”
Darkness was the reality for the two blind men in the Gospel. They cried out, “Son of David, have pity on us!” Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah—“And out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see…”—cures them both.
In so doing Jesus proves to be literally our "light and our salvation".
Thursday, December 5, 2013
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
It is not enough to simply hear the message of Jesus Christ and know who he is. No, we must respond to Christ by the way we live our lives: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Every day we are faced with temptation and have opportunities to choose Christ or choose something else. Our job is to take the message we have heard and apply it to our daily lives.
We know that Christmas is near. We know the end of the Advent story—Jesus will be born in a stable in Bethlehem. But having heard the story and knowing it well, is it making a difference in your life today?
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Studying the Trinity produces some cool results. For instance, since there are three distinct Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—we can attribute different mysteries to each person. For instance, creation is attributed to the work of the Father.
At the same time, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. Thus, while we may point out one Person for a given mystery of faith, all Three Persons are present in any of Their works. In creation, the Spirit was present hovering over the waters and God’s Word, Who was God, was there too.
As we walk to Christmas, most of our focus is on Jesus Christ and his upcoming birth. Yet we must remember this season is not just about Jesus—it’s about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is why we hear Isaiah foreshadowing the Holy Spirit in the first reading: “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A Spirit of counsel and of strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.”
And notice in the Gospel that Jesus himself referred to the Father and Holy Spirit: “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said…No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
While we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the baby Jesus, remember the upcoming feast also rejoices in God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Monday, December 2, 2013
I love the Advent season. I enjoy the new color purple, music we sing and prayers in the Breviary all geared at the coming of Christ as a baby. And that’s exactly what Advent means—an arrival or coming.
Yet I have to admit, I can’t stand the holiday season—what secular society calls this time of year. While Advent and the holiday season overlap in time, they are quite different. Today I’d simply like to share why.
First, the name itself: holiday season, happy holidays, etc. Here Christ is removed from the scene in order to avoid offending potential shoppers. And when Christ is allowed to stay, he is given a position below Santa.
The holiday season runs from 4:00am on Black Friday until the presents have been opened up on December 25th. During this time Christmas music (which often has nothing to do with Christ or religion at all) fills the airwaves, lines fill the malls and anxiety fills the minds as people scramble to get everything done.
The mascot for this season would be the Target lady. Dressed in red and trained to get the best deals of the season, she personifies the holidays. Her goal is simple: get everything done as simply and cheaply as possible.
Advent is quite different. In a very real way, it is a second Lent—kind of like Lent light! It is a time to give up chocolate and to seek extra ways to pray, fast and give alms. In this area, I appreciate that Advent is relatively short—24 days this year. Rather than a season of noise and busyness, Advent is meant to be quiet and reflective. This is a time of year, not to consume and purchase and buy but to refrain and give and sacrifice. It is a time to stand in a different line--the line to Confession. And as the days get shorter and shorter, we enter into the darkness of quiet anticipation waiting for Christ to come.
Our mascot is the Blessed Virgin Mary—she is 24 days from giving birth. In fact, the image of any mother close to her due date is one of the best ways to think of Advent. You Moms know your whole life—diet, sleep, functions and activities—was directed solely to the birth of your baby. So, too, our diet, daily activities and prayer should be directed solely towards the birth of Jesus.
We have 24 days until Christmas. Will this be just another holiday season for you or will an Advent season lived to the full? Will December 25th be the end, or the new beginning?