Sunday, December 28, 2014

Feast of the Holy Family

Merry Christmas! Right now we are in the Octave of Christmas. The joy of Christmas is too much to be contained to a single day, so we celebrate Christmas Day as an Octave, as eight days. And on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. So this is a day to honor Jesus, Mary, and Joseph together as a family, and in honoring them, we can learn a bit about what family should look like for us.

It's good for us to have a feast to honor the Holy Family, because family is precisely how Jesus came into the world. Jesus didn't come riding in on the clouds surrounded by triumphant angels to live among us. Rather than anything normally considered worthy of a king, he was born into an ordinary family, with a working dad and a stay at home mom. And from when he was twelve to when he was thirty, we know nothing about his life. The most important man that ever lived, and for eighteen very formative years we have no idea what he was doing. But the human virtue he clearly had during his public ministry, he learned that from his family, from a faithful mom and dad who taught him from the very beginning of his time on earth.

So when we turn to our gospel reading, what do we find this holy family doing? We find them in the temple, practicing their religion. After every birth, Jews were to go to the temple to offer sacrifice for purification and thanksgiving to God, so that's what Mary and Joseph did. But while they were at the temple, something a little strange happens. An old man named Simeon comes forward and after seeing Jesus he gives thanks to God and says, "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word." Basically he's saying, "I've seen the Savior, now I can die happy," because God had told him he wouldn't die until he'd seen the Savior.

So Simeon speaks this beautiful prayer to God where he is thanking God for his goodness and saying he can now die happy because of the things he has seen. But then he addresses Mary and the tone changes. "This child is destined for the fall and rise of many" and "you yourself a sword shall pierce." What is this about? We know that Mary didn't die like this, so this is understood as a sword of sorrow at seeing her Son be rejected and then killed.

But if we're looking at this reading and trying to learn something about family, it's the first part of that prophecy we need to examine, "This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted." Simeon is making it clear that Jesus will be a controversial person, that some will reject him and some will accept him, that some will rise and some will fall. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets were regularly rejected, and killed, for the message of love they carried from God. Prophets are always divisive people, and Jesus, being more than a prophet, will no different, Simeon is telling us. But Luke doesn't want to leave it entirely negative, because Simeon and Anna represent something new and different here. Simeon and Anna represent that small portion of Israel that accepts Jesus. Many will reject him, but a few will accept him, and Simeon and Anna represent those few.

So if we want to strengthen our families amidst all the struggles and challenges of the world, we have to accept Jesus, as individuals and as families. We have to welcome into our own hearts and into the heart of each of our families. This is not an easy or a trite thing, but this is a very serious business. The family is called the domestic church. Jesus came into the world through a family because the family is the fundamental unit of human society. Therefore, in order to destroy the foundation of our society and our Church, the devil himself is very interested in destroying our families. The devil himself wants to work his way into the heart of your family and destroy the peace of Jesus present there. This is happening on a global level, but it also happens on an individual level. There's not much we can do about the global level, but we can each make sure that our own family is strong, that our own family is a single light in the dark, showing Jesus to the world.

To make sure that your own family is a light in the dark, to make your family a welcome home for Jesus, takes the work of each member of the family. It requires constant practice in the selfless love of Jesus. In the daily work of being a family, in managing the thousand affairs of a home, the devil wants to sneak in and complicate things. The devil wants to whisper in your ear after a long day, "You deserve this drink, this lazy time in front of the TV, or this shopping trip, you deserve this selfish pleasure, whatever it is, and it's ok because the rest of the family doesn't really understand" and that sounds really nice so you start to go along with this and say, "Yeah, I do deserve this." But I look through the Gospels and I can't find any place where Jesus says, "I deserve this," that's not the attitude of Jesus, but rather he is constantly looking to give to those around him. In the exact same way, in order for your family to be a beacon of light in this world, each member of the family has to say, "How can I give, how can I sacrifice myself in love for those around me." Sacrificial love is the true mark of the Christian, and it is never selfish.

Now, I can picture the car ride home after a message like this. You can see where everyone else in the family needs to change, so you want to say to your spouse or your child or your parent, "See, Father said you should be more generous." Don't do that. If you walk away from Mass today ready to see how everyone else needs to change, you missed the point. This is a call to you, not your spouse, not your child, not your parent, to find new ways to pour yourself out in love for your family.

If we each welcome Jesus into every aspect of family life, if we each practice that sacrificial love of Jesus, making the good of the other our paramount concern, then we would see a revolution in our families, in our parish, and even in our world. With Jesus at the center of your family, the world can experience the love of Jesus through your family. So welcome Jesus into your family, practice his sacrificial love, and let Jesus mold and teach you and your family.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Et Verbum caro factum est

Merry Christmas! Before we begin, I want to give you the context for why we have this readings on Christmas Day. Our Church provides four different masses for Christmas: that is, four sets of readings and prayers, depending on when you go to mass. In other masses, yesterday on Christmas Eve and last night at midnight, we heard the stories of Jesus' birth from the different gospel authors. Here at this mass, we are invited to meditate on the meaning of Jesus' birth. We are invited to take all the elements we know and love: the angels, the wise men, the shepherds, the manger, and place them in a larger context. Because on one level, the story of Jesus' birth is so similar to the story of the birth of every other baby. There is human drama, there's a sense of mystery and wonder over the future and what this child represents, and overshadowing it all is a profound sense of gratitude for God's blessings. Any parent has experienced all this, this combination of mystery and wonder and blessing, and Mary and Joseph were no different. There's a certain familiarity with the Nativity story we know and love, that's why the story has nourished us for two thousand years.

But our readings today invite us to go further. These readings invite us to take the familiar story about the birth of a child, albeit a unique child, and see its place in the larger context of heaven and hell and sin and redemption. Because this child was born for a very specific purpose. His birth had been prepared for thousands of years, and the event of his birth made angels shout for joy and it made demons tremble. We want to see how it could be that this single birth is the event from which all time before and after is measured, and we still want to make it home for a Christmas feast, so let's get started.

Our first reading returns us to Isaiah, who has perhaps more to say about Jesus than anyone else in the Old Testament. The first line sets the mood for his message today: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings." Isaiah is addressing Israel here, and Israel has suffered a lot under bondage to foreign nations. In their physical suffering and bondage, they represent our spiritual position before Jesus came. Before Jesus, we were captive to sin and death, with no way out. There was no way we could save ourselves. We needed someone to come to us, to come bringing glad tidings, to come and say to us "Your God is King." And if God is King, king of the here and now and not just a god in a far off heaven, then he cares about my spiritual enslavement, and if he cares he's going to save me from it. God refused to let death have the last word, and so, as our reading tells us, he "bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations; all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God." Isaiah announces of years before Jesus that not only does God care about your physical suffering, he cares about your spiritual predicament as well, just as real and just as important, and he's going to save you.

Now we turn to the letter to the Hebrews. What we now call a letter seems to have been something between a letter and a homily in its original form. It has a lot of thought and prayer behind it, and that comes through in the writing. This section right here is talking to us about how God speaks to us throughout history. To understand what God wants to speak to us, we have to understand what God is. That could be answered a lot of different ways, but the easiest and fullest answer is quite simply "God is Love." God is Love, and love communicates itself. Love, the person who loves, doesn't keep that love bottled up inside, love has to be shared with others. So if God is Love, what he has been saying all throughout history is "I love you." Through all the prophets, through the partial and various ways God has spoken to us, he has been communicating all along that he loves us. But now, "in these last days", as Hebrews phrases it, "he has spoken to us through the Son." Jesus is the Word of God, Jesus is the most perfect expression of "I love you" that God could have ever spoken. God is basically saying "I love you so much that I am sending my only beloved Son to live among you, to die for you, and to bring you back to me."

This idea that Jesus is the Word of God brings us to our Gospel reading. This reading is from the beginning of the Gospel of John. Now John's gospel is different from the other three. The other three gospels were written early, and they kind of say "Jesus did this, this, and this, and it was awesome." John's gospel was written later, so there had been a lot of prayer and reflection on who Jesus was and what he meant. John's gospel is like a fine wine of the gospels: it's matured, it's aged to perfection, and to read it, it's clear that the author knows what he's doing.

The first line, for example, when we studied it in my gospel of John class in seminary, this single line took almost three weeks. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That's it, pack up your bags and go home, that everything you need to know! Words are spoken, words are meant to communicate something. So this Word spoken by God has been present from the beginning, always with God, and is in fact also God. That's your Jesus 101: He comes from the God the Father, he has always existed with the God the Father, and he himself is God the Son. But in case you had any doubts, the next line, "He was in the beginning with God," makes it clear that his Word is in fact a person.

As we follow this reading through, it continues to teach us about what this Word is like. It is a light shining in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it, John the Baptist testified to this light. This Word, this light, this person, has been in the world and the world, "the world came to be through him," and yet the world has not recognized this Word. Through the partial and various ways of the past, the world failed to recognize God's love message to us.

And so this Word, this message of love, became flesh. "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."  Et Verbum caro factum est. This is the most perfect expression of love God could have given us. There is no better way for God to say "I love you" than for his only Son to be born as a man, and not just born, but to be born essentially in secret, in a small town outside of Jerusalem, far from the eyes of the kings and rulers of the world. To be born into such ordinary circumstances like so many babies, to be born into a family and community, to be affected by the winds of world politics and yet still be loved, like so many ordinary babies. This ordinariness of this extraordinary baby helps to remind us that no baby is really ordinary. Every baby, every person is extraordinary. God thought so, that's why he thought every person was worth saving through the incarnation of his Son.

Having reflected on the eternal implications of this birth, we realize that it really is all about God's love for us. Today we experience that love of God while surrounded by family and friends. We realize that distant concepts like light and darkness, prophecies and eternal Word, are made tangible and real in the love we experience each and every day. The love of our families, like the love of family that Jesus experienced, is where we experience the eternal God. Today we try to make some small return on that magnificent love that God has shown us by loving those around us. The birth of Jesus is the greatest communication ever of God's love to us. We respond by loving him back, present in our brothers and sisters. A blessed Christmas to you.

The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
unknown ages from the time
when God created the heavens and the earth and then
formed man and woman in his own image.

Several thousand years after the flood,
when God made the rainbow shine forth
as a sign of the covenant.

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation
of the city of Rome.

The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ
according to the flesh.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2014

A God of the Unexpected

Our God is a God of the unexpected. Whatever you think God is going to do, he's got something better in mind. This is evident throughout our Christmas mysteries, so it's something we should focus on in our last couple days of Advent preparation. God does the unexpected, and it's always far better than what we had in mind.

That's present in our gospel reading today. So after hearing gospel stories for the last three weeks that helped prepare us for the Nativity, finally today with our story of the Annunciation we're getting down to the beautiful stories we know and love, we're getting to the heart of the matter. This is the final preparation for the plan God has had to rescue us since the Garden of Eden.

We saw a small piece of that plan in our first reading, so that's where we need to first turn our attention. This reading shows us a small episode from the life of King David, Jesus' ancestor. David is king early in Israel's history, so at this point there was no temple, so the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of God, still rested in a tent from the desert wanderings. So David thinks, "This is no good, I need to build a temple for God." The problem with this is that David told God his own plans on what he was going to do for God, rather than receiving God's plan. As he's preparing to do this, God sends his prophet to tell David, "Not so fast. You want to build me a house? No, I've done so much for you already, and to prove my love I am going to do still more. I'm going to build you a house a kingdom, a dynasty that will last forever." Partially, God is referring to David's son Solomon who was allowed to build a temple. But primarily, God is referring to David's descendant, Jesus, whose throne does indeed last forever.

Then, in our Annunciation story, this throne is referred to again when the angel tells Mary "the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." This idea of kingdom is very important to Jesus' birth, his ministry, and even his death. It was mentioned generations before his birth, then here at the Annunciation the angel says that this baby will rule over an everlasting kingdom, throughout his ministry Jesus teaches us about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God, and then at his trial Jesus explains to Pilate this his kingdom doesn't belong to this world.

So what is this kingdom? Like God so often does, he does the unexpected, and the unexpected plan is far greater than what we, in our limited vision, thought he was going to do. We had thought the kingdom would be a kingdom like David's kingdom: a place you could point to in the world with a king like other kings. But God had something bigger in mind: he envisioned a Church. This Church isn't bound to a single place; it can exist in all places so that all people, no matter where they're at, can be a part of it.

And, because God does the unexpected big thing as opposed to our planned mediocre thing, he didn't send just a normal king to rule over this kingdom. Rather than a normal king, he sent his only Son. Despite all the prophecies of the Old Testament, this one was difficult to predict. We knew God was good, but this good, good enough to send his only Son to save us? That was totally unexpected. God continually works through the unexpected.

But a huge unexpected thing we need to deal with is Mary, the one through whom we received Jesus. In Mary, God used the most unexpected vehicle of all to fulfill his plan, so let's examine Mary in the context of where she lived for a minute. Mary is a woman in a patriarchal society, she's young in a society that values age, and poor in a society that valued wealth. And she was unmarried, so she had access to none of the things that would have validated her existence. She's part of a tribe whose royal lineage has about played itself out, and she's part of a nation that currently finds itself under foreign occupation. Her circumstances put her among the lowest and most humble people in the world.

And yet, despite her being among the lowest in the world, the whole world, all of humanity, from Adam down to you and I, depended on her saying yes. One time in a homily, St. Bernard of Clairvaux addressed Mary and said, "The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent...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" (quoted from the Office of Readings for December 20). The most unexpected thing of all God could do was to put his whole plan for salvation, the plan he has been working at since Eden, and put into the hands of a young virgin named Mary, and just wait for her yes.

God won our entire salvation by constantly doing the unexpected. God wants to do great unexpected things in your life too, things better than you expect. But for God to work in your life, for God to work in my life, I need to be more like Mary, and less like King David. David had his plans for what he wanted to do for God, instead of relying on the Lord for protection. Mary on the other hand, when she found out God's plan, her response was simply "Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord." If we learn from Mary to have this humble response to God's plan for each of us, then his power will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. As we pray with Jesus and Mary the next several days, ask for the humility of Mary to surrender to whatever God wants to do in your life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rose Vestments

As promised, here's a picture of Gaudete Sunday's rose vestments. Or, as one classmate put it, a #sacristyselfie.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gaudete in Domino Semper

Let's talk about the vestments first. (at Mass I wore rose vestments, pictures are forthcoming) We call the third Sunday of Advent Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means rejoice, and we're rejoicing that Christmas is so close. As a result of this joy, a bit of our Christmas joy enters into this Advent Sunday, and so a bit of white, the liturgical color of Christmas, enters into purple, the liturgical color of Advent, to get rose. Now, a woman has informed me that when white and purple are combined, they actually form lavender. But as a man, I'm still not sure what color lavender is. The way my mind works, and I imagine also for the men who decided our liturgical colors long ago, white and purple make pink, or rose, so on  Gaudete Sunday, when we rejoice that Christmas is so near, rose became the color of the day.

Conversion of St. Paul
 In our second reading, did you notice the three tough commands that Paul gave to us? At the beginning of the reading he said, "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks." These are tough commands because he's not calling us to ignore the world, so we need to get to a Christian understanding of joy. Paul is not calling us to cover our ears, close our eyes and just sing "Everything is Awesome." Rather, we Christians are called to engage the world, engage this life in all of its messiness, and still give thanks in all circumstances. We need to talk about how we do that, because joy is crucial to the Christian life and vocation.

The second reading was the first letter from Paul to the Thessalonians, and this letter is interesting because it's the very first piece of the New Testament to be written. Paul's two letter to the Thessalonians were written in about 50 or 51 a.d., and that predates any other piece of our New Testament. So we can imagine at that point there was still a whole lot about Jesus' life and actions the early Christians were still trying to digest, but this much was sure: his followers had to be people of joy and hope.

When we consider our own lives and all the difficulties involved in them, we might be tempted to tell Paul, "I'll be thankful when there's something to be thankful for, but I can't do it all the time. It's a bit unrealistic to expect me to be joyful always because my life is different than yours, you don't understand the things I have to deal with." Yes, Paul's life was indeed different than yours. In another letter he writes, "Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:24-28). Despite everything he experienced, Paul's command is still to rejoice always! How does he say this?!

Paul knew that ultimately, the victory wasn't his to win. The battle and the victory ultimately belong to Jesus, and he's already won. Paul can be joyful because he knows that his sufferings do not mean he has failed in his work. He knows that his sufferings do not mean that Jesus doesn't love him. We rejoice in the fact that Jesus is the Savior of all, because that fact is not diminished by any suffering we experience in this life.

John the Baptist points to Christ
This is where we meet our gospel today. Like so many times throughout Advent, our gospel presents us with John the Baptist as the model of how to prepare ourselves for the Messiah. One line in particular continued to stick out to me in this gospel: "When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, 'Who are you?' He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, 'I am not the Christ.'" It's an interesting statement because in saying "I am not the Christ," John is in fact making a denial, he's denying that he is the Christ. But the gospel writer says "he admitted and did not deny, but admitted." So it looks like a denial, but the gospel says it's not. Now, using the word "admitted" here is one way to translate it, but it misses some of the force of the statement. Other translations use the word "confessed" in the sense of a declaration, like confessing God's glory. So the gospel author is at pains to tell us that this phrase "I am not the Christ" is in fact a proclamation, and it's a proclamation because it's good news for John and for everybody else. John is happy to proclaim that he is not the Christ, because that means there's someone else coming who can in fact save him from the sin from which he cannot save himself.

This recognition that "I am not the Christ" gets to the heart of Paul's command to be joyful. Paul can be joyful because he knows that ultimately, it doesn't depend on him. Whatever was going wrong in Paul's life, and there was a lot that we heard about, Paul was confident that Jesus was in control.

We too can be joyful that no matter what is going wrong in our life, Jesus is ultimately in control. We are commanded to be joyful. And yet, this joy isn't always easy to come by. Paul's command to rejoice always actually sounds kind of stupid if we hear it the wrong way. We need to differentiate between joy and happiness, because he certainly wasn't telling us to be happy all the time. Happiness or sorrow exist in response to the circumstances of our lives. I'm sure Paul wasn't smiling when he was shipwrecked or getting whipped, yet his joy was unshakeable. Joy exists at the level of our soul. Joy comes from knowing you are a beloved son or a beloved daughter of God our Father. Joy comes from rejoicing in that relationship. Rejoicing can exist right alongside sorrow, we see that even in our liturgy. At the beginning of Mass the first thing we do is recall our sins, and this remembrance of our sins, of our wretchedness, is then laced right into this deep and profound encounter with the God who loves us. Here at Mass we experience the deepest joy possible this side of heaven, and the sorrow of our sins exists right alongside it, it even amplifies our joy.

As we celebrate Guadete Sunday, check your heart to make sure that in the craziness of this season, you haven't lost the essential joy of Christmas. The Lord is near, as John the Baptist wants to tell us, so before he arrives, rekindle the joy of Christmas in your heart.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mark, Discipleship, and John the Baptist

We just heard from the beginning of Mark's gospel. On most Sunday's throughout this coming year, we're going to be hearing from Mark, so we need to understand who Mark was and who he was writing for. This will help us to understand what he was trying to accomplish in his gospel. So we have four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus, Mark and Luke were not, they learned about Jesus from other sources. Mark was a disciple of Peter after Peter had moved to Rome, so he learned about Jesus from the man who had followed him closest during Jesus' ministry. As a result, Mark's gospel often feels like an eyewitness testimony to the event's Jesus' life.

And Mark was writing for the church in Rome, which was being persecuted and had to operate underground, so Mark's reason for writing this gospel was to strengthen this community in the midst of persecution. To do so, throughout his gospel he would highlight the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. He would emphasize that being a disciple is not easy, that it comes at a price. And that is where Mark's gospel meets us today. Being a disciple is still not easy. If anything, the  cost of authentic discipleship has gotten higher for us.

What we have here is the very beginning of Mark's gospel. Mark needs to highlight how difficult it is to follow Jesus, people are dying and he wants to strengthen them in their trials so they understand that they are perfectly following Jesus. So he doesn't have time for Nativity stories, mangers and wise men. Rather, he sets the stage with a few lines from the prophet Isaiah, then he drops us right into the heart of the story with John the Baptist, who was the first man to pay the ultimate price for following Jesus. He started by quoting from the prophet Isaiah in order to explain John the Baptist, so that Christians can be reassured that everything they are about springs directly from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Caravaggio's Saint John the Baptist in the Wildeness
My favorite painting of John by my favorite painter
The Church often directs our attention to John the Baptist during Advent. Advent is about preparing for the coming of Christ, John the Baptist announced the coming of Christ. This isn't hard to figure out. So what was John the Baptist's message? "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths." Basically, repent. The Savior is coming, and therefore you need to change you ways, repent of your sins, and get ready. The implication of this way of preaching is that you are a sinner, your former ways are bad, and you do need to change. John the Baptist was no Joel Osteen. But John wanted you to be ready for the Savior when he came. So Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus when he comes again, not just at Christmas, but more importantly at the end of time.

Like John the Baptist, our readings throughout Advent, especially when we're in Mark's gospel, seem to offer up equal parts hope and warning. Our first reading was full of hope as it prophesies about John the Baptist. "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated." That first reading is also where the coming of John the Baptist is prophesied with those lines about the voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord. John's message is primarily one of hope: Jesus is coming. But the announcement that Jesus is coming can also be a warning. It might even be a threat if you're not ready for Jesus to come. But Advent is about preparing, so we need to heed John the Baptist's words as both a promise and a warning that Jesus is coming.

During Advent, we focus a lot on the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and again at the end of time, and yet for two thousand years we haven't seen it happen. Saint Peter deals with this in our second reading. "With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard "delay." Peter is trying to explain that God's time does not work like our time. But Peter goes further than just saying "You don't get it," he even offers an explanation as to why the Lord's second coming is so long delayed. He says that the Lord "is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." The Lord wants to give every person on earth every chance possible to turn to him, so that when he comes no one will be lost.

So what do we do with this, what do we do as we await this new heaven and new earth that Peter talks about? Peter continues to explain that our job is to conduct ourselves in perfect holiness and devotion as we await the coming of the Lord. We are to be found without spot or blemish. Our job is to wait, but not wait passively. We shouldn't sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for Jesus to come. No, it should be an active, joyful, hopeful waiting. We should go out looking for him, in the sacraments he gave us and in the people whom he loves. We should announce his coming just like John the Baptist did. Make your Advent a time of joyful, peaceful hope.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advent Tension

Look with favour, Lord God, on our petitions,
and in our trials grant us your compassionate help,
that, consoled by the presence of your Son,
whose coming we now await,
we may be tainted no longer
by the corruption of former ways.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

St. John the Baptist, who pointed to Christ
This is today's collect, or opening prayer, for mass. The special seasons of the year (Lent, Advent, Christmas, Easter) have special collects for each specific day, so there's always something new for us to discover in them. I like this one because of the dichotomy it draws between the presence of Jesus and his coming we still await. It helps to highlight for us the beautiful tension of Advent. Tension is not a terrible thing, I remember a priest once remarking that a corpse has achieved balance, but the human condition, and even more so that of the Christian, is one of tension. So in Advent we have a tension. We celebrate Christ who came and never left, and we anticipate his coming again. We like to say he comes in history, mystery, and majesty. Jesus came in history, he was born long ago. He comes in mystery: he dwells in us through the reception of Sacraments and he wants to meet you anew each and every day. And he will come in majesty: Jesus will come again at the end of time to judge the world and take his own to himself. So this prayer reminds us that Jesus is here among us, we are "consoled by his presence," and yet it is this same Jesus "whose coming we now await." We don't await just a memorial or anniversary of his coming on December 25th, but more importantly, we await his coming at the end of time. Advent is for us to prepare for that second coming, for us to be "tainted no longer by the corruption of former ways." What is the former way? Sin. The new way? Grace. Advent is for going to Confession (heck, all seasons are for going to Confession). Advent is for looking ahead, not back.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King

On the last Sunday of the Church year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI initiated this feast in 1925 to combat what he perceived as a growing nationalism and secularism. He thought it was high time that we remembered that Jesus Christ gets our highest allegiance. Not our country, not any earthly entity, but only Christ. He had high hopes for what we are supposed to learn from this feast. In the letter he wrote establishing the feast he said:

His Holiness, Pope Pius XI
"The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal. If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God."

This lengthy quote from Pius XI makes clear what is at stake in this cosmic battle. We have been purchased by the blood of Christ and so everything we are is subject to his dominion. He has authority over everything: over our minds, our wills, our hearts, and our bodies. Our friend Pius is talking about a lofty calling, but it's not really Pius doing the calling, it's God, and Pius is just reminding us of it. God has claimed us, has won eternal life for us, and so it is quite right to call him the King of the Universe.

But we, partially as free Americans but more as sinful humans, don't want to give God everything. If we're talking about our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies, then we'll give God bits and pieces of each, maybe quiet a lot, but we're scared to death to give him everything. If I give everything to God, what's left that's mine? The answer? Everything. When I look at this creature that is myself and everything about me, I have to acknowledge that I am not the source of anything there is. My mind, my heart, my body, I didn't make any of this. God did. Even the things I do, the things I have accomplished in life, God is the source of that too, and he wants to rule over it all. But he doesn't rule in an authoritarian manner, but rather as the one who knows what I need even before I ask, and so I work each day to hand myself back to him.

And there are eternal implications to this daily work of handing myself back to God. This gospel deals with eternal implications, because it forces us to look at heaven and hell. The King of all creation tells us that he is not found on a lofty throne, but rather in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. Now, there's a negative way and a positive way to look at this gospel. Viewed negatively, we could talk about how if you don't feed the hungry, visit the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned, you will go to hell. That's true, we have it straight from the mouth of the Son of Man. Jesus said to those who ignored the poor, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Those are frightening words, but they are the words of Jesus to those who ignored the poor. So we could take this gospel as a warning not to do what those accursed did, and we would probably make it to heaven. But if we stop there, if we take this gospel only as a warning, then we've missed the beautiful opportunity, the invitation, that Jesus presents here.

And the invitation is this: anytime you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill, or visit the imprisoned, you get to feed, welcome, clothe, or care for Jesus himself. You get to meet Jesus there! Is there any better opportunity? If I told you that after Mass, Jesus was going to be at the cafe down the street for lunch, I bet I know where you'd be for lunch. I bet you'd pick up the tab too. We want to meet Jesus. Well here in this gospel, Jesus doesn't say, "If you feed the hungry, I'll think that's a really nice thing and I'll reward you for it," No, Jesus says, "Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me." You truly minister to Jesus when you minister to the poor.

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King
But then if I told you that Jesus would be outside after Mass, shamelessly trying to get money for a meal or a bus ticket, what would you do? What if he had alcohol on his breath or needle marks in his arm? Would you feed him then? Can you say that that's not Jesus? What if you know him to be a guy who abuses the welfare system? Would you feed him then? Let's take it further. What if he's poor by his own fault, maybe he gambled away everything he had. What if he's in fact passed out drunk? Can I say that's not Jesus? What if he's here illegally? Is he not Jesus just because he's not a citizen? Because I'm looking in this gospel here for some sort of caveat or condition, something from Jesus to suggest that I only need to feed and care for the nice poor people and not the dirty ones, not the sick ones, because they're not really Jesus. I'm looking for something to let me off the hook, and I can't find it. Jesus put no conditions on who we have to care for, on whether they were nice or easy to care for them, he just said if you feed them, you feed me, and then you will inherit the kingdom prepared for you.

This is probably not an easy message for any of us to hear, so I want you to hear carefully what I'm saying and what I'm not saying. I am not dealing with any of the ways we like to complicate helping the poor where we tell ourselves, "Well, if I give this guy money he's just going to waste it on alcohol and that's not actually helping him." Sometimes that's legitimate but often it's an excuse to not help. I'm not dealing with that concern, I just want you to hear the hard words of Jesus and take them seriously, because eternal destinies are at play. I'm also not condemning anybody here for the way you may have treated the poor in the past, because as I prepared this homily I felt quite convicted and I had to pray about a lot of times when I ignored Jesus in the poor.

The invitation that Jesus extends to those who loved the poor, and the curse he has for those who ignored the poor, are important words we all need to hear carefully on this Solemnity of Christ the King, because the only throne our King has on this earth is in fact the Cross. That throne endures to this day in the lives of all of our suffering brothers and sisters. If we ignore that throne, we ignore God, but if we worship at that throne by serving Christ present in the suffering, then we to will hear that beautiful invitation, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Taking a Risk with God

Our readings from this time of year want us to be thinking about the end times, about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.  This gospel is no different. While we usually think about this gospel in terms of not wasting our God-given talents and using them for good, the real purpose of Jesus's parable is revealed in the line "Come, share your master's joy." Jesus wants us to understand that he's talking about heaven and hell. Another way of translating that phrase would be "Enter into the joy of your master." And the Greek word for joy, "xara," or the Latin word, "gaudium," don't imply just happiness, "come be happy with your master," but they point to a joy that originates from the deepest level of the heart. So clearly this isn't a normal  master-servant relationship. Since this is a strange way to be talking, there's something we should be picking up on.

If Jesus isn't describing this master like a normal rich man, then we're not meant to understand him that way. If Jesus is describing this master so strangely, so compassionately, then we're meant to understand this master as an analogy for God our Father.  It's worth noting that biblical scholars don't actually know how much money a talent was, but they agree it was a huge sum of money. One scholar I read suggested it was about a year's worth of wages. So, one talent is a lot of money, but two or five? That's an incredible amount of money, so then for this master to just be handing it out to his servants while he's away is something else. This master is crazy generous, even unreasonably generous, but he's also demanding, harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter. This master is not a pushover.

So we need to talk about risk in the Christian life, because this master, our God and Father, is apparently one for risks. In this parable, there was a risk when he gave his servants this money while he was away. And I don't think he was ignorant about his good or lazy servants. If he was ignorant of their personalities he would have given them all the same amount. He knew what he was doing, and he knew that his risk may not pay off. Yet he passed this money out anyway.

Throughout Jesus' parables, we see people acting unreasonably and being kinder than they should. In the parable of the sower,  the sower took a risk by throwing his seed among rocks and weeds and hard ground. The man who left the 99 sheep to look for the one took a huge risk by leaving the 99 alone for the sake of the one. And the father of the prodigal son risked never seeing his son again when he gave his son the inheritance and letting him leave. But instead he got back a son who learned the depth of his father's love.

Love naturally takes risks, love can't help but go out on a limb. Every man who has ever gotten down on one knee to propose to the one he loves understands the risks that love causes you to take. And God our Father is no different. Throughout his parables, Jesus tried to explain to us what the Father was willing to risk to win us back. But then through his own Passion and Death, Jesus proved exactly what the Father was willing to risk. Our Father was willing to allow his only Son to destroy death, to be beaten, crucified, and killed, and to be raised again, so that maybe, just maybe, you might accept his invitation to eternal life. There has been no greater gamble in all the world.

How do we respond to this risk, this gamble, this invitation? We have to try to respond in kind, even though we can never adequately respond to this gift of love the Father has given us. God has taken huge risks in loving us and so in order to love him in return we have to ask where he is calling us to take some risks. Because if we return to our parable, then we can see that there were risks on both sides. The master took risks in passing out these talents, but then two of the three servants took risks too in the way they invested them. One didn't. One servant played it safe, buried the talent out of fear, and sheepishly tried to give it back with a pitiful excuse about how demanding the master was. For that, the master called him wicked and lazy, and had him cast into the darkness outside, all because he let his fear get the better of him and wouldn't take a risk.

But the two who did risk, the two who were able to give the master a return on his generosity, they received that incredible reward. They received that generous offer of the master to "come, share your master's joy." That's what happens when we take risks in our relationship with God, when we move beyond the realm of what is safe and what is comfortable and move into the realm of the unknown and the uncomfortable.

I can guarantee that God is inviting each and every one of you to take some risks with him. Now, the way God wants each of us to take risks with him will be sort of the same for each of us, but it'll also be sort of different. It'll be sort of the same because the fundamental risk that God wants us to take is to love him more. That's it. Just step out on that limb and love him, trust him, a little bit more today than you did yesterday.

So that's the "common risk," if you will. Love God more. That's how God wants all of us to risk and make ourselves vulnerable to him in the same way. But then, the repercussions of this love will be different for each of us. So for you specifically, what sort of risks is God asking you to take with him? Where is he calling you to give up some of your own control and put things into his hands? If you do step up and ask the Lord where he wants you to risk more in your relationship with him, the answer won't be what you think, it won't be what you expect, and it certainly won't be what you want. Maybe he's asking you to tithe more. Maybe he wants you to speak his name more boldly to this culture, perhaps at work or at school. Maybe he's inviting you back to Confession. Maybe there's a situation in your life he wants you to stop worrying about and hand over to him. I can only make suggestions, whatever particular risk Jesus wants you to take with him will be very personal.

But here's the thing about taking risks with God. It only feels like a risk from our perspective, but in reality, God always has your back. There is no surer bet in the world than to bet on God, to surrender your control and let him have it. God will never let you down. If you move from where you're at today and move into a deeper relationship with him, he will support you all the way. So ask God that question, ask him where he wants you to risk a little bit more in your relationship with him. Ask him, and then don't be afraid of the answer, and know that he's got your back the whole way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran

Today we are celebrating the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. The Lateran Basilica is Rome's cathedral church, so we celebrate it every year as a sign of our unity with the pope. This is one of those feasts that just make me love being Catholic, because it's seems so random and so far removed from our daily lives, yet here we are honoring a building built a long time ago on the other side of the world. So the full name of the Lateran Basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. Don't worry, there's not going to be a quiz later. That name is a mouthful, so we just say the Lateran Basilica. A basilica was the name for Roman meeting halls, and as we converted them into churches we now give the title basilica to particular large and important churches. The Lateran Basilica is the Cathedral of Rome, it is the Pope's church. St. Peter's Basilica gets a lot of attention because it's where the Pope actually lives and it's built over the site of St. Peter's tomb, but the Lateran Basilica is actually the head church of Rome, and therefore the world. Why? I want to give you the basic history so you can understand why we have this feast on our calendar, then we need to think about what this feast means for us.

So first the history. Roman Empire, early 300s. Christianity is has been illegal, but growing. The emperor Diocletian is convinced that Christians are the source of all his troubles, so he makes it his stated goal to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. Things are not good for the Church. But Diocletian gets sick, retires, and eventually passes away.  Constantine, one of his closest aids, becomes emperor. Constantine makes Christianity legal, and gives the Lateran Palace to the Bishop of Rome. Constantine's got lots of palaces, so he's not hurting because of this gift. The bishop converts the main meeting hall of this palace into a huge church, and this church came to be known as the Lateran Basilica. This basilica and palace were then the home of the pope, the bishop of Rome, for a thousand years.

The nave of the Basilica
We honor this basilica today because it is the head church of the head diocese of the whole world, and so it represents our unity as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The unity of the Church is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit who dwells among us, but it also takes work on our part to make sure we stay within this unified Church established by Jesus. The divisions we see among the various Christian denominations are a scandal to the world, and they are the result of tragic failures on our part throughout history. But as Christian denominations divide and multiply, which one holds steady? Which denomination, despite conflict within and persecutions without, despite being populated by the greatest saints and the most terrible sinners, has survived through the ages? Where has the center held while the rest of the world spins out of control? The center has held with Jesus' best friend, Peter, the first pope, and the 265 men who have sat in his place and caused the Church to spread, all the way from a backwater Galilean fishing village here to our own town. That's why we honor this basilica, because it represents our unity.

St. Paul in our second reading was talking about the importance of unity. His words are just as relevant two thousand years ago as they are today. He wrote to the Corinthians "You are God's building," and then he goes on to say "According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid the foundation and another is building upon it." Paul's basic work in his various journeys was to establish a church, these communities of Christians, but then he only hung around long enough to make sure it was firmly established, then he entrusted it to other leaders. That's why he said "I laid the foundation but someone else is building upon it." Paul wants us to recognize that we did not establish this Church. Lots of people made huge sacrifices to build this church building, but even they did not build the Church. Jesus Christ himself established this Church.

The apse of the Basilica
But Paul isn't done with us yet, his bigger lesson is yet to come. Next he says "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" He is still addressing the community, not individuals, so you the community of believers are the temple of God. The Spirit dwells in your midst. That's the teaching, now comes the warning. "If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person." That is a word of warning to each one of us. Unity is an essential characteristic of Christ's Church, Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that we may all be one as he and his Father are one. If we destroy God's temple by causing disunity, then we have been warned by Paul that God would destroy us. This should cause each of us to reflect: do I enjoy gossiping about other people, especially other members of my church? Do I harbor hatred or resentment for other members of my parish because of things that have happened in the past? How often do I justify my anger, claiming that it's my right to hold onto these feelings because of what has been done to me? Do I wait for the other person to make the first move before I dare forgive them?

Paul gives a stern warning to those who would destroy God's holy people by causing disunity, and it's phrased in the negative. But if we only focus on the mean old Paul who says God will destroy so-and-so, or if we we only focus on the mean old Jesus who was so intolerant of the money changers, then we've missed the point. The positive side of the coin is that God values the integrity of his Church, he values our unity. God knows that we need this community to walk with him. We need to be surrounded by our fellow Christians in union with our bishop and our pope if we want the Holy Spirit to dwell with us. God loves unity, and so Paul gives a warning to those who would threaten it. Today as we honor the head church of all Christendom, we pray for the gift of unity both in our own parish and in the Universal Church.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Just a Photo

Also worth noting from yesterday's, we wore black instead of white or purple. It's the one day of the liturgical year where black is listed as an option (although black is still permissible at funeral masses). The new black vestments arrived just in the nick of time (Friday) for Sunday's celebration of All Souls.
Requiescant in pace

Sunday, November 2, 2014

De Purgatorio

First Reading: 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 He acted in an excellent and noble way as he had the resurrection of the dead in view.
2nd Reading: 1 John 3:1-2 We shall see him as he is.
Gospel: Luke 7:11-17 Young man, I tell you, arise!

Today we celebrate the feast of All Soul's Day. This feast follows right on the heels of yesterday's feast: the feast of All Saints. All Saint's Day remembers and celebrates all those who have made it, all those who are now in heaven, worshiping God day and night. Today, All Soul's Day, we remember all those who have passed from this life, but maybe haven't quiet made it to Heaven yet. So it's kind of a somber day. The ordinary position of the Christian is one of joy, and while we never let go of that joy, at certain times we highlight other realities of the Christian life. So this is a good day to think about death and mortality, and what happens afterwards. It's a good day to think about Heaven, and the sins that keep us from Heaven.

Today you could pick any readings from Masses for the Dead, so I hand picked these readings to try and get is thinking about death and resurrection. If we look at the gospel we just heard, death and resurrection are obvious, but we've heard these dusty old stories so many times, we run the danger of becoming used to them. We stand for the gospel. Jesus made a dead man come alive. God has visited his people. Can I sit down yet? But imagine you were there, or imagine that happened here. Imagine someone walking into a funeral you're attending, or stopping the funeral procession on the way to the cemetery, and then speaking to the guy in the box and saying "Get up!" What do you do? At the very least, you're not bored anymore. That's the power of this guy: the dead came to life just because he told them to. And that's the love and compassion of this guy. He didn't raise everyone from the dead, not yet, but he found the only son of a widowed mother and raised him from the dead. That is true love.

And he can and will raise us up also. He has defeated sin and death, those primordial enemies, so that we might share eternal life with him, free from the pains of this earthly life. He will bring us into a perfect paradise where there is no sin and no imperfection. But for me to get there, I have to be free of all sin and all imperfection. That's why Purgatory exists.

Christ freeing the dead
We don't think a lot about Purgatory. Maybe you remember it from Sunday School classes a long time ago, but we talk about it so little now that you might think we don't actually believe in it anymore. Well, we do. In general, the Catholic Church is the only one that teaches Purgatory. But that doesn't mean that only Catholics go to Purgatory, while Protestants go straight to Heaven. That would be a ridiculous view of spiritual realities. No, Protestants will learn about Purgatory. Maybe not until they get there, but they will learn about it. When it comes to unseen realities: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, angels, the importance of Confession or the reality of the Eucharist, either they exist for everyone or they exist for no one. They don't cease to exist or cease to be important just because you don't believe in them.

Purgatory is a wonderful intervention on God's part, it's a provision God made for our benefit, so that if we're not perfectly holy at the moment of our death we may still make it to heaven. Our Catechism says that "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030). Our first reading today is an important text for us to understand Purgatory: even in the Old Testament, Judas Maccabeus (not Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, a different Judas), took up a collection to pay for a temple sacrifice, because he understood that this earthly death is not the end and that those who have died can be helped on their way to heaven by our prayers. He "made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin." His kinsmen had committed idolatry, so he was trying to atone for their sin even after their death. He recognized that the dead are not beyond his help. He recognized that his prayers and sacrifices could help the dead in their ongoing purification.

To really understand the necessity of Purgatory, we need to understand the nature of sin. When we talk about sin, about breaking commandments, we sometimes fall into the danger of thinking that sinning is simply rule-breaking. God set us his rules, and if we don't obey them then that's a sin. Sinning is bad only because it's a thing God said not to do. But the nature of sin is deeper than that. Every commandment that God has given us is for our own good, because they help to draw us closer to the one that created us, and the God who created us is the only one who can give our lives meaning or purpose, he is the only one who can give us identity. Sinning isn't simply breaking rules, but it damages the most important relationship in my life: my relationship with God. And by damaging, by wounding, my relationship with my God, my sins wound me too. Even the sins that I don't think hurt other people, the evil thoughts I entertain or the things I do when no one is looking, they hurt that relationship, and so they hurt me.

Sin is not a trivial matter, and no sin, no trace of sin, will be allowed in Heaven. That's good and bad news. It's good because Heaven is going to be an unimaginably awesome place, we can't even begin to picture what it'll be like. Our second reading told us "We are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." You are going to be in a perfect relationship with the one who created you, knows you, and loves you more than anyone else does. The bad news is that our sins can delay this beautiful reunion. Because sin affects that relationship with God, if I'm still hanging onto my sins at the moment of my death, if I'm not literally a saint, then I can't just waltz right into Heaven like everything is alright. But if I sincerely love God and am truly sorry for my imperfections, then neither will I go to hell. Purgatory is there for my final purification so that I can indeed enter Heaven pure and ready.

I've said it before:
Even the Pope goes to Confession!
So today we mourn those we have lost, and we mourn our sins that separate us from God. But we don't have to stop there. We don't have to be stuck wallowing in this sadness, unable to do anything about it. You can pray for your loved ones who have died, praying that if they're not yet in Heaven that they may get there soon. And you can offer sacrifice for them. Whatever trials and sufferings you endure in your daily life, whether they are big or small, you can make an act of the will and offer those sufferings for the sake of the souls in Purgatory. You unite them to Christ's Passion, because his Cross endowed all suffering with meaning, and you can tell God that you want to offer your daily sufferings for the souls in Purgatory.

And for your own sins that separate you from God, we have the beautiful sacrament of Confession. Like I said early on, Confession, and all spiritual realities, are not just important for those who like it, or for those with huge sins to confess, while everyone else just confesses to God in their heart. Confession is important for each and every one of us, myself included. Confession doesn't exist for you to be judged, it exists for you to be loved. God can't wait to show you his love on Confession.

Confession and Purgatory are gifts from God to help us on our way to Heaven. They come to us from a God who loves us, who recognizes our weakness and loves us anyway. Accept the gifts, and let yourself be loved by God.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Loving my Neighbor in Truth

Our first reading today, from the Book of Exodus, drops us into the middle of the instructions that God is giving to his people at Mount Sinai. This section comes just shortly after the 10 Commandments, the foundational law for how we are to relate to one another and to God. But God knew that just giving the 10 Commandments without explanation wouldn't be enough, so in the Book of Exodus, the next several chapters after the 10 Commandments are devoted to God spelling out in more detail what these commandments meant. And in this section, God is making clear that my relationship with God is not simply between me and God, to the exclusion of everybody else, but rather my relationship with God requires me to have a deep and abiding care for my neighbor, and even for the stranger. So God tells the Israelites that they have to respect the strangers among them, because they were once strangers in Egypt. They have to love the widows and orphans, the most helpless in society, because such people always have a special place in God's heart, and to oppress them is to oppress God himself. What comes out time and time again is that my love of God absolutely requires that I love my neighbor.

Moses and the 10 Commandments
But the Israelites often got this confused, and they would start to weight and twist the various commandments so that it started to look like you could love God without really caring for your neighbor or the strangers among you. This is the situation that Jesus walked into and this is the situation he was trying to speak into today. The gospel this week continues the sharp dialogue and the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees. Last week the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him a question about taxes. This week they're trying to trap him by asking a question about commandments. There is an important lesson in this for us, because we, like the Pharisees, run the danger of weighting the commands and precepts of our God to suit our own purposes. But Jesus lays out priority number one and priority number two very clearly, and then everything has to be considered relative to those. First, you love God above else, and second, you love your neighbor just as much as we love yourself.

Love of God considered just in itself calls to mind our religious duty, our duty to attend Mass and to participate in the liturgical life of the Church. But it is incomplete without the second great commandment. Just to go to Church and worship God is incomplete if I ignore him in my neighbor. So I have to love my neighbor as myself too. To love my neighbor as myself completes the first commandment, it is not just an add-on to the first commandment.

If loving my neighbor is so important, if it in fact is a crucial part of loving God, then how do I do it? If this is so important, then it's something I want to get right. How do I love my neighbor? This important question has come up in Rome recently, at least implicitly. A couple weeks ago, various cardinals, bishops, and other experts gathered in Rome for what was called the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. A synod is a meeting of clergy and laity for a particular purpose, so basically, this was a meeting about how the Church addresses the challenges facing families in this day and age. If you followed this synod at all through the secular media, then you might have been led to think that this synod was entirely focused on how the Church reacts to homosexual couples and divorced and remarried couples. This couldn't be further from the truth. You may have been led to believe that there has been an earth-shattering shift in Catholic teaching on divorce or homosexuality. This couldn't be further from the truth. Never get your news about the Church from secular sources. They've been getting us wrong for decades and they continue to get us wrong today.

But what this synod was really about, and why we're talking about it today, is how we love our neighbor, no matter who they are or what position they find themselves in. And the thing we need to understand today is that if you love your neighbor, then you give them the truth, not lies. Truth comes from God, lies come from my own big fat ego that insists I know best. Truth can save your neighbor, lies do nothing more than make you feel good. So at this synod, the truth of marriage and family was affirmed once again: Marriage is forever, and if you are divorced and remarried outside the Church, you shouldn't receive Communion. Yet divorced people are still welcome in our Church. Marriage is between man and woman, protected and blessed by God as a sacrament for the good of the couple and their offspring, and yet people who experience same-sex attraction are still welcome in our Church.

If we love our neighbor as ourself, then we want to feed them with the truth, even when it at first sounds harsh. If I love my neighbor, then I have to tell him that if you're divorced and remarried outside the Church, you shouldn't receive Communion, and I have to tell him that the meaning of marriage is given by God, and not by us. If we don't love our neighbor, then we want to feed them with lies, like "Communion is cool if you're divorced and remarried," or "marry whoever you want as long as you're committed," because those lies make us feel good, it makes everybody like us, and no one is unhappy. But those lies don't draw my neighbor closer to God. Recently, the archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput, was asked his opinion of the synod, even though he wasn't there. He said something (skip to 57:00 to hear it from him) that sounds harsh but actually contains in it a very important truth. Regarding the Church's acceptance of people with same-sex attraction, Archbishop Chaput said, "We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian—you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality."

The Good Samaritan
And lest we think that Archbishop Chaput is just some out-of-touch cleric who has no love in his heart, in that same speech he also said "If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbors." If we love God, and if we love him in our neighbor, no matter which neighbor it is, then Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, will bless your neighbor and you through the mutual exchange of love.

St. Paul lived these two commandments well, and so in our second reading today he is explaining what happened because he did so. Because he loved God and loved his neighbors, those to whom he preached started to imitate him. He said today "You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord." Because Paul followed these two commandments, he stirred the faith of his followers into a living flame. He said later in the reading, "For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth." Because Paul followed these commandments, his followers recognized the love of God in him and couldn't help but spread that love to the whole world.

For ourselves, if we consider our love of God under these two aspects: love of God and love of neighbor, those around us will start to recognize God in us. If we are not cold, uncaring Christians, but rather Christians with a deep and honest care for the world, and for helping the world come to know Christ in truth, then this world, each and every one of our neighbors, will be attracted to the presence of Christ and Christ's truth they see in us.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sign of Peace

So back in July, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (the Pope's people who help us understand why and how we worship in liturgy) issued a circular letter about the Sign of Peace at Mass. There had been a request that the Congregation study the Sign of Peace, possibly with an eye towards moving or changing it. The Congregation studied the rite and ultimately decided that it fits best where it currently is: right before the reception of Holy Communion. However, they did mention that we should "definitely avoid abuses" during the Sign of Peace. They then listed some of those abuses, found on page three of the primary document below (not the two page cover letter that accompanies it). The whole document is worth reading to understand this sometimes strange gesture, but if you want the meat then skip to page three.

PDF of the Congregation's Letter

The Congregation clearly highlights what they consider to be errors: priest or people leaving their places, the offering of congratulations or condolences instead of peace. It seems clear that the Sign of Peace is an important (but ultimately optional) rite, so it is worthy of our reflection so we don't make too much or too little of it. I think every week we simultaneously fall into both errors.

This is baseball, not the Sign of Peace
First, the error of excess (my term). Far too often we see the Sign of Peace become a liturgical time out, a 7th inning stretch as one friend put it, where we can collectively relax after 40 minutes of organized prayer. Then, it becomes the goal to see how many hands we can shake before the choir starts the Agnus Dei. If you don't get everybody within arms reach, you lose. My friends, the sign of peace is not a 7th inning stretch, it is not a cocktail hour where we chat and catch up with friends.

On the other hand, we have the error of insufficiency (again, my term). If our focus during the Sign of Peace is solely our friends and family, that's nice but it misses the point. Our focus should be on our enemies, those who have something against us. Our focus should be on people who in all likelihood aren't even at Mass with us. Jesus tells us "If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24). Before we approach the altar of the Lord, we need to be at peace with our brothers and sisters. That is the purpose of the Sign of Peace. Therefore, when we offer the Sign of Peace to those physically near us at Mass, we should do an interior self-check: Is there anyone who, if they offered me a sign of peace, I couldn't return the gesture and mean it? If the Husseins, the bin Ladens, the giants of evil in our day, walked into this church and wanted to be reconciled to God and to you, could you do it. If the one who has hurt you most deeply - the spouse, parent, or child who abandoned you, the friend who betrayed you - walked into your church and wanted to be reconciled, could you offer that person the Sign of Peace? If we don't pray about that during the Sign of Peace but instead focus on how many handshakes we can get in, then we have fallen into the error of insufficiency.

Peaceful, and they didn't even leave their pews
I would really like to see us as a Church focus on not losing our prayerful attitude during the Sign of Peace. Jesus Christ is physically present on the altar, and with Him the whole Trinity is mysteriously present, veiled in the bread and the wine. This is not the time to lose focus on Him. Rather, it is the time to make sure you are at peace with your brothers and sisters so that when Jesus moves to the only place more dignified than the altar-your soul-He may find a worthy dwelling place there.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time and Identity

Jesus before Caiaphas
We have a gospel today where Jesus seems to be giving us tax advice, and we may be tempted to say, "Jesus, that's not really your area of expertise, why don't you just go back to telling us to be nice to each other." But Jesus is driving at an important point about how to properly order the world and put everything in its right place, so we should look deeper at it.

Our readings this time of the year come from near the end of Matthew's gospel and they seem to constantly involve confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus is in Jerusalem, the time of his Passion is drawing nearer, and the Pharisees are becoming increasingly agitated by his teachings and the followers he's attracting. So now they're trying to trick him and trap him in legal arguments, and that's what we see today.

Today is interesting because we see enemies teaming up to try to bring down the Messiah. The gospel says that the Pharisees and the Herodians approached Jesus, now the Pharisees were the religious zealots, no fan of the Roman occupation, but the Herodians were supporters of Herod, the local governor ruling by Caesar's permission, and they were in power only by Caesar's favor. So the Pharisees and Herodians hated each other, but were willing to work together to bring down Jesus.

Their method today is to try to get him in trouble with either the Roman authorities or the Jewish crowds. If he speaks in favor of the tax, then he would appear to be in favor of the Roman invaders and so the crowds would turn on him, and if he speaks against the tax then the Romans would view him as a rebel and arrest him. Others with Jewish nationalistic tendencies who had opposed the tax before had been brutally executed, so they think they've got him for sure this time.

But Jesus is having none of their business, because their whole line of thinking misses the most important things. So Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and the Pharisees show him one. They're opposed to paying the tax, but apparently they're cool with carrying the money and using it for other purposes. Jesus cleverly avoids answering directly by pointing out that the coin belongs to the emperor in the first place so you might as well give it back, and then Jesus uses it as an opportunity to discuss one's duty to God. The danger for the Pharisees is that, in their dealings with the Romans, they were in danger of giving to God what belongs to Caesar and giving to Caesar what belongs to God. And for our purposes, Caesar represents the government or nation, basically secular society. So what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? Jesus just tells us to give each their due, but then doesn't really explain what that is.

We know that God should get the first and the best of who we are and what we have. God gets our unconditional love and devotion, he gets our praise and our worship. These are things that we should not give to our country, at least not in the same way. Our country deserves our loyalty and support, but not an unconditional loyalty because our country is not infallible. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are not wed to any single country, any single political party, or any system of government. We are pilgrims on this earth and so we are at home in none of these systems.

Where do we spend more time?
And yet, even while we recognize that we are pilgrims and that this is not our final home, our country often inspires in us a deeper devotion than our God does. So I want to use our relationship with our country as a way to think about our relationship with God. We willing to perform our basic duty of paying taxes regularly, no matter what and without thinking about it, yet sometimes we're ok to miss Mass, that most basic of duties to God, just because we're tired or we don't feel like it. If we get a speeding ticket or some other civil penalty, we pay it immediately, yet we consider once a year confession sufficient to atone for our sins against our God and Creator. We read the newspaper and watch the news channels, we spend a lot of time staying conversant on what's going on in the world, and yet we think our duty to God can be fulfilled in just one hour a week on Sunday because we think it's ok to drop our kids off at CCD but we certainly don't need any further education in our faith. Now, I am not condemning anybody! This is a call to attention for all of us. Consider whether God is calling you to be more involved in your parish, beyond just Sunday. Consider if just an hour a week is enough to sustain you on this pilgrim journey. Consider if your role in the Church, your efforts to be involved, should look more like your role in civil society.

When we recognize ourselves as pilgrims on this earth, we should start to ask questions about our identity, and what we place our identity in. We like to apply lots of labels to ourselves because they help us to form an identity and to feel at home in a group. This is not a bad thing. So if I were to ask you "What are you?", after you stare at me blankly for a time for such a strange question, you might start to tell me "I'm an American, I'm a Wyomingite, I'm a fan of this or that sports team," or you might tell me about your job. Like I said, none of these things are bad. Maybe you would say "I'm a husband or father or wife or mother." These are better answers. But how many of us would answer the question "What are you?" with "I'm a Christian" before we said anything else? I suspect that not many of us would. But if we give to God what belongs to God, if we give God our first and our best, then that has to include the most important part of our identity. We should find our identity primarily in God. We have to know and believe that:

I am a beloved son or daughter of God our Father, and that is my identity and the source of my worth. I am saved and redeemed by Jesus Christ and that is the source of my hope. I am filled with the Holy Spirit and that is the source of my inspiration.

So today, reflect on what belongs to God and what belongs to our country in your own life. Make sure that your primary identity is a Christian, the primary way that you think about what you are in this life. Render to God what belongs to him in this life, and that will prepare you to live with him forever in the next.