Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Review: The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

Louis Bouyer was a Frenchman who lived from 1913-2004. He was a Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He is of interest because of his involvement in the Second Vatican Council and his close relationship with various popes on liturgical and theological commissions. These Memoirs have been published in French for quite some time and only recently have been translated into English.

Most people are interested in these memoirs for his personal insights into the popes, which are always positive, and his unique insights into the commissions he worked on, which are sometimes contrary to the normal positive narrative told by others of the period. He is the one who who told the alternative history of Eucharistic Prayer II, famously quipping that he would never pray Eucharistic Prayer II "because I wrote it." His wry view of the Council, at the height of his frustration, is worth quoting, both as an example of his opinion and of his wit:
In the best case scenario, that of a truly ecumenical council in the traditional meaning of the term, i.e. actually representative of an undivided Christendom, the most that divine assistance can ensure for the Apostles' successors is the absence of any possible error in the doctrinal definitions such assemblies venture to produce. But, short of this extreme case, any dosage of approximation, insufficiency, or simple superficiality are to be expected from even so sacrosanct an assembly.
As insightful as it is, his involvement in the Council is really only one chapter of the book. The rest of it is the story of a man born on eve of World War I, who became a Lutheran minister and couldn't resist the draw of the Catholic Church, and who ended up advising Cardinals and Popes. He's traveled the world speaking and teaching, and yet he never comes across as a worldly man. He's simply an academic, a man who studied and prayed hard, and who had the gifts necessary to be a part of big events. These memoirs are written in an entertaining, intelligent style, and I would highly recommend them.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Holy Innocents

Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents. The awful things Herod did out of fear can't help but make me (and many others) think about abortion. The presence of God's blessing should represent hope for the future, but it's a hope to which I have to conform my life. A blessing of this magnitude requires that I order my whole life around this new blessing. If I won't do that, my only other option is to attempt to eliminate the blessing so that I don't have to change. That's what Herod tried to do.

HERE'S my homily for the day.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fighting for the Family

Each year around this time we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, a feast where we pay particular attention to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a family. And the context for this feast is always within the Octave of Christmas. In our liturgy, an Octave is where we suspend time and just live in the same celebration for eight days and examine it from different angles. So this Octave of Christmas, this eight day celebration of Christmas, has various feasts throughout it that help us to examine and appreciate the various ways that Christmas is made. Today we try to make sense of the fact that the second person of the Trinity, through whom all things were made, was born into a family, and what the implications of this great mystery might be.

Our God always does what's best. Jesus wasn't born into poor circumstances and adored only by shepherds and foreigners simply because there was no other choice, but rather because it was best and most fitting that it should happen this way. And also with the fact that he was born as a helpless baby into a family, rather than arriving on a cloud in Jerusalem fully grown and surrounded by trumpeting angels. It's not that the clouds and angels and trumpets couldn't have happened, but it was most fitting that it should happen the way it did. This is consonant with what we find in scripture from the very beginning. The first thing that God doesn't call good in the story of creation is man's loneliness. Everything that God made he called good: the land, the sea, the birds, the fish, the land animals. It was all good, until he looked on Adam's aloneness, and then he said, "It is not good for man to be alone," and so he made Eve. He made someone to complement Adam, because Adam wasn't whole on his own. He made a family. This complementarity of male and female out of which family springs is integral to God's plan for creation.

And so, if complementarity and family is integral to God's plan for creation, it would make sense that if the devil and his minions wanted to sabotage God's plans, they would go after the these things. Pope Benedict, one of the clearest thinkers of our age, spoke on this back in 2012. I want to quote to you from what he said, then I want to pick the quote apart because Pope Benedict is a deep thinker:
"Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him...from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man."
That was a lot, so let's understand the basic things he's saying. First his assumption or starting point: he assumes that man and woman are have a Creator, and that that Creator made them to complement each other, that is, man and woman complete each other and that they're designed to go together. Then, he says this is disputed today, our world claims that there's no real difference between man and woman, that they don't complement or complete each other. And because the world rejects the idea that man and woman are designed by God to complete each other, Pope Benedict lays out three consequences: First, he says that the family is no longer seen as something springing naturally from creation, but rather it's simply a social construct that we can change however we want. Second, he says that if man and woman aren't designed by God to be complementary, than the child has no inherent dignity or rights, but now he or she has become an object that other people have a right to obtain or dispose of as they so desire. And third, if complementarity isn't something that we were created with but rather something we choose if it suits us, then God himself is denied, and along with God the inherent dignity of man as his creature is denied.

All of this stems from a denial that God made us and has a plan for us. And the results aren't hard to find. Marriage continues to take on new and bizarre forms. Aside from the homosexual marriage phenomenon that has been sweeping our country, start learning the words throuple or monagamish. Throuple refers to three people being married, and monagamish refers to couples that are faithful to each other but open to others. It's all coming. And of course abortion continues to be a scourge on our society, and now euthanasia is starting to make strides as well. Children are being created in petri dishes in order to be experimented upon. Now, all of this has been present in one form or another since the fall of man, but it's always happened in secret and in shame. Never before has such disrespect and abuse of the human person been declared good and wholesome.

Yes, the devil is very good at what he does. He knows that to wreak the most damage possible on God's creation, he had to go after the family. Step one in fighting back is to acknowledge that I have a creator. Say, "Eternal Father, you are my creator and I adore you." I've heard of this line being used at exorcisms, the priest challenges the person to say the line, "Eternal Father, you are my creator and I adore you," because as long as the person is possessed, they cannot say it. The devil cannot, will not acknowledge God as creator and worship him, and he wants to drag you down to the same level. So step one in combating the devil's plans is to acknowledge God as Lord and Creator.

And then, once you've acknowledged God the Father as your creator, you want to ask yourself what the repercussions of this might be. Number one is this: If God made you, that means you didn't make yourself. This is basic, but our world is intent on forgetting it. I didn't make myself, therefore, I don't get to call all the shots about me. The one who made me does. I have an obligation to learn about this one who made me and made the world, and to come to understand his purpose for it all. Luckily, he didn't leave us empty-handed in this crucial task, he gave us a Church with real teaching authority to make him known to us. So then, once you have God's purpose fixed in your mind and heart, then anytime the worlds come at with you with some new idea concerning these fundamental truths, you can ask yourself, "Is this stemming from the way God created and ordered the world, or is this stemming from a denial of God as creator?" If it stems from a denial of God and doesn't resonate with the teaching of God's Church, then you know to reject it outright.

Our God loves you and he wants to draw you to himself. This feast of the Holy Family, celebrated within the Christmas Octave, is how he wants to manifest one particular aspect of his love. Accept his love by living in the truth he offers rather than the lies that the world proposes. Accept his love, conform your life to it, and let that love lead you to eternal life.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Child of Hope

[Audio recording of the homily HERE]

Every time a child is born into the world, the world is permanently and irrevocably changed because of the presence of this new child. A new child always represents promise. A new child always represents hope for the future. A new child makes us think that just maybe this world is bigger than my own view of it, that maybe everything is going to be ok after all.

On this most holy night so long ago, the world changed once again because a child was born. To those on the outside, this child looked like any other, and so they moved on. A new child should represent hope, and we should respond with joy, but with eyes dimmed by sin we often respond with tragic indifference to hope in the world. In fact, to those on the outside, without the eyes of faith, this child born so long ago may have represented a burden. Born to homeless immigrant parents in questionable circumstances, those without the eyes of faith could easily see in this child nothing more than just another burden, another mouth to feed, another drain on society.

But, to those with the eyes to see, this child represented hope like no child before or since. This child represented the fulfillment of a promise made by a God to his people so long ago, a promise to deliver them from the domain of sin and death and return them to himself. The rich and the powerful couldn't see such promise in this child. But the lowly did. The young couple to whom he was entrusted, they recognized the promise. Shepherds faithfully watching their flocks, representing the watchful ones of Israel, they recognized the promise when the angel of the Lord announced it to them, and so they came to adore. Wise men from the east, who were given a message they could understand in form of the star, they recognized the promise, and so they traveled far to worship this new child.

The parents, the shepherds, the wise men, each in their own way recognized that his new child represented a new hope for fallen humanity. Before the birth of Jesus, humanity, all of mankind, was under the domain of the ancient foe that seduced our first parents so long ago. But because we have a Father who loved us even in our sin, that situation, that tragic separation of the children from the Father, could not stand. So out of the love that is the essence of the Most Holy Trinity, God became man and the devil's stranglehold on humanity was broken because the evil one couldn't ensnare the Most Holy One.

So while on the surface we see a manger, shepherds, and a silent night, the eyes of faith help us to see that that isn't the whole story. Hidden from human eyes, a battle was raging for the fate of humanity. The devil fought hard to keep humanity under his power. He saw the Father's plan to send a Redeemer and he knew that Redeemer would ultimately defeat him. But the love of God won out over the hatred of the devil, and so a child was born this night.

And now, the message that a Savior has been born to us has gone out to all the world. This message has toppled empires and converted millions. This message, that God became man, has been the pivotal message of humanity for two thousand years. Since that night in Bethlehem so long ago, whether you accept or reject this baby as God has become the primary factor to unite and divide humanity ever since. And yet, it has remained a message from the humble, for the humble. For this child wasn't born among the poor merely because of social circumstances, but because it was the very Will of of the Almighty and Eternal Father that it should happen this way. Kings and rulers can usurp the message of Jesus and exploit it to their own ends, but it remains a message of the little ones.

And so in order to participate in God's plan of salvation and love, we have to take the path of the humble. John's gospel tells us that Jesus came to the world, but the world did not know him. He came to his own people, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who do accept him, he gives power to become children of God. So we cannot approach him with any sort of power or authority, claiming to know who this God-man is or what he wants. We approach him with humility and wonder, like the shepherds, like the wise men, in order to offer him what poor gifts we have. For us, it is not gold, frankincense or myrrh that we bring, but attentive ears, a trusting heart, and an obedient will.

We draw near to the newborn Savior by drawing near to those who are most like him: helpless children, the poor, the marginalized. Jesus, the Savior of humanity, was born into a family in order to teach us the importance of family as well. And so we draw near to the newborn Savior by loving the family which God has entrusted to us. Through these things, through these most important of people in our lives, we come to recognize the awesome hope that was born two thousand years ago, and by loving these people we love the Savior himself and we live in the hope he represents. To one and all, a very blessed Christmas to you.

Proclamation of the Birth of the 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.


A Blessed Christmas to You

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Longing and Obedience

As our Advent draws closer to the actual event of Christmas, our readings draw closer from remote to proximate preparation. The last couple weeks we've been hearing from John the Baptist, that voice crying out in the wilderness, and he's been telling us to get ready. That was remote preparation for the Savior. Today our preparations become much more proximate and much more intimate because rather than hearing about the wild man crying out in the wilderness, the story shifts today to focus on the mutual joy of two pregnant women. But what ties it all together is this longing for redemption

From the Benedictine Monastery, Clyde, MO
So before we get to the gospel, we need to look at our first reading from the book of the prophet Micah, because Jesus can really only be understood in the light of the Old Testament. Micah, like all Old Testament prophets, was sent by God to call Israel to return to the Lord's way. Much of Micah's book contains this same call to return to the Lord that we hear throughout the prophets of the Old Testament, but this particular section that we heard today is different. Here, Micah is prophesying about the future salvation of Israel.

In particular, he's prophesying about the humble origins of this coming Savior. He's not going to come from Jerusalem or one of the major regions of Israel. He's going to come from a little backwoods town called Bethlehem. And in ancient Israel when Micah was preaching, much of Israel's problems were due to weak and immoral leadership, and so Micah predicts a Savior who will be a firm and good ruler. He shall shepherd Israel like a flock, he will be strong, and he will bring peace. To the Jews, this would be a dream come true.

And then in the Gospel, that dream is beginning to come true. To really enter into Advent and Christmas, we want to enter into the longing of ancient Israel for their Savior. If we can feel some of Israel's longing for a Redeemer, then we can start to see that this isn't just the joy of two women unexpectedly blessed with pregnancies, as if that isn't cause enough for joy, but this is also the redemption of a whole people that is happening here. Elizabeth recognizes that redemption is at hand, that's why she addresses Mary as "the mother of my Lord." And she calls Mary blessed a couple times. Why? "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." Blessed are you who believed. Blessed are you who trusted.

Mary is called blessed because she believed and trusted, and because she trusted, great things happened through her. Because she trusted, the redemption that Israel longed for was accomplished through the child she gave birth to. Israel had been laboring for its redemption for years but could never accomplish it. That was the point of the ritual animal sacrifice of the temple, it was an attempt to atone for the sins of the people. But our second reading teaches us that that's not quite what God wanted. "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; in holocaust and sin offerings you took no delight. Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will." This is a line from one of the psalms of the Old Testament (Psalm 40), but here the author has put it, so to speak, into the mouth of Jesus the Redeemer to explain his mission. Sacrifices and holocausts don't please God, but obedience to his Will does. Jesus comes to be obedient to the Father.

God the Father delights in obedience to his Will, but we want to make sure we understand that the right ways. God is not a dictator who is just made happy when people appease him and do what he says. God delights in your flourishing, and he's the one that made you. He knows what makes you flourish and he knows what hurts you, and so he commands that which is good for you and forbids that which is bad for you.

From the Missal of Bernhard von Rohr
Archbishop of Salzburg, ca 1481
And so with Mary in our gospel and with Jesus in our second reading, we have these portraits of humble obedience to the will of God. Mary's obedience gave life to Jesus, whose own obedience in turn gave life to the whole world. This is contrasted with Eve's disobedience so long ago, which handed death to Adam, whose subsequent disobedience gave death to the whole world.

So it's a good exercise to examine your attitudes towards the commandments we receive through God and through his Church, because through them we can reveal our attitudes about the whole Christian life. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that Christianity is a set of rules and regulations, and so being a Christian means just following a set of rules. If we see Christianity as just a set of rules, we'll come to resent those rules and the rule-giver. But Christianity is about following the Christ, and not Christ the rule-giver, but Christ the Redeemer. To be a Christian is to live in the fulfillment of the longing of ancient Israel. In these last couple days of Advent, let the longing for the Savior fill your hearts. He came into the world to save us from sin and death, from these things we couldn't save ourselves from, and he wants to come into your heart to do the same thing. Don't let his coming be an indifferent event in your life. Long for him to come into your life the way he came into ancient Israel. Long for him in this lead-up to Christmas, and he will not disappoint.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

#LaterHomily: Holy Friendships

Last Monday we heard the story of the man who was brought to Jesus and lowered through the roof by his four friends. I preached a homily that a day about the importance of holy friendships that a couple people have said they really liked, but I forgot to post it here. So, here it is now. Enjoy! [HOMILY HERE]

Monday, December 14, 2015

St. John of the Cross

Today is the memorial of St. John of the Cross. I've studied St. John a little bit, even though I really didn't do well in that class. I preached on him today [HOMILY HERE] and gave a very rough outline of his teaching.

St. John was a 16th century Spanish mystic. Together with St. Teresa of Avila, he spent his life laboring for the reform of the Carmelite order, even enduring imprisonment at the hands of those who resisted his reforms. He is most well remembered today for his spiritual poetry, especially the Dark Night of the Soul. His teaching is often seen as unapproachable or frightening in its difficulty, but those who have studied him know that it need not be seen that way.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I Say It Again: Rejoice

First things first, let's talk about the vestments. This Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the first word of the Latin entrance antiphon: Gaudete in Domino Semper, Rejoice in the Lord always. Gaudete means rejoice, and so there's this sense where as we get close to Christmas, the penitential aspect of Advent is tempered by the joy of Christmas, so the purple of Advent is infused by the white of Christmas to give us pink, or rose. Now, I have learned that purple and white actually make lavender, not rose, but lavender doesn't exist on the average guy's color palette, and it was guys that made these decisions a long time ago, so we ended up with rose. I'm not actually sure what color lavender is.

So we are called today to rejoice in our Lord who is coming, not just at Christmas, but at the end of time. The Collect set the tone for that. "Oh God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord's Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing." This prayer has several movements. First, we noted how God sees us faithfully waiting for Christmas, the feast of Jesus's coming. Then, we asked God to enable us always to celebrate the joys this feast brings us with glad rejoicing. This prayer recognizes that God is the source of our joy, and that if we have joy, it comes from him.

So then we move into the readings. The first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, continues this command to rejoice. Zephaniah has been preaching against the corruption he saw in Israel, but at this point in his book he turns his attention to the coming Messiah who will remove the judgment that Israel is suffering under. Israel was suffering because they weren't faithful to their promise, but Zephaniah prophecies that this will not last, and so he commands them to rejoice. He tells them that one day God will be in their midst, and so they need to rejoice.

But John the Baptist seems to take the "God is going to be in your midst" thing a different direction, and the joy is not as immediately apparent. John says that one mightier than himself is coming, and he says that this mighty one is coming with his winnowing fan, to clear the threshing floor and to burn the chaff. A winnowing fan is how a farmer would separate the wheat from the useless chaff. The wheat is gathered in at harvest but the useless chaff is blown away by the wind or burned. John the Baptist is using this as an image of Jesus's coming: Jesus will gather his own to himself, but those who are not his will be burned with unquenchable fire. So, rejoice? Luke, who wrote the gospel, describes this as good news that John was preaching.

And it should be good news to us, if we're ready. Jesus didn't come to allow us to keep living our old lives. He came to call us to a new life. When you were baptized however long ago, it wasn't so that you could keep living your old life. You were baptized so that you would have the grace to follow Jesus into a new life, to be the wheat that he would gather into his barns. This is indeed news worth rejoicing over.

And finally, St. Paul in the second reading reiterates this call to be joyful. He says, "Rejoice in the Lord always," but then he does something interesting. He says our kindness should be known to all, and he tells us to have no anxiety at all. He seems to link joy, kindness, and peace. He does this by encouraging absolute dependence on God. Paul says that if you depend on God, it will make you more joyful, it will make you kinder, and it will bring more peace into your life.

And Paul's right in this, but it's not an instantaneous thing, partially because depending on God is easier said than done. Dependence on God is tricky, because it doesn't absolve you from doing your own share of the work in your life. If you sit at home all day and depend on God to provide you money to buy food, you'd probably end up hungry. So you and I have to work at the things that it is in our power to work at. But we lose sleep over a whole lot of things that are far beyond our power to control: the choices our family and friends make, the direction our country is going to go, what the future holds, and a million other things. These are the things we have to turn over to God.

There's a famous story about Pope John XXIII (if anybody has cause for anxiety it's the pope) who would pray for the Church every night and he would always conclude his prayer with, "Well, it's your Church Lord, I'm going to bed." And because John XXIII found peace in letting God take care of the things that he couldn't, he was known as an exceedingly kind and joyful man. Kindness and joy came naturally to him because he let go of the problems he couldn't control.

We all have a risk for increased stress as we get closer to Christmas. I urge you strongly to resist that. If the house isn't perfectly decorated or that last present isn't bought, it's ok. None of it is worth your own peace, which is truly a gift from God. So rejoice today because the Lord is near, and let the peace of that Lord permeate the last half of Advent.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Our Lady of Guadalupe

One of many pictures of the day
Happy Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe! I had the privilege of visiting this Shrine back in 2012 during a Spanish Immersion experience in the heart of Mexico. During this immersion, I had the good sense to keep a daily journal of what I was experiencing. Here is the journal entry written from the day we visited Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.
What an incredible day. Today we visited the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was definitely the highlight of the trip so far. We left Puebla at around 9:30 in the morning. We rented a bus that seated twenty passengers and we filled it with seminarians and Fr. Luis' family. We drove to Mexico City and the traffic in the city was as bad as they promised. We were scheduled to celebrate (for Fr. Luis) and serve (for the seminarians) the 1:00 pm mass on the main altar. Mass is constantly being celebrated on the main altar right in front of the tilma (the tilma is St. Juan Diego's cloak on which the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared), so 1:00 was our time. Unless you know someone, you usually celebrate in one of the private chapels that has a distant view of the tilma. Fr. Luis knows people so we got to be on the main altar. The MCs of the basilica manage everything wonderfully so that we prayerfully and expertly celebrated mass with thousands of pilgrims and visitors.

Before and after mass we got to wander around the basilicas and the grounds. The tilma is in a new basilica built in the 60s to replace the old basilica that was sinking into the soft ground (much of Mexico City is built on a former lake). The new basilica is expertly designed to give thousands of people a view of the tilma. Mass can constantly be celebrated on the main altar with the tilma on the wall behind it. But immediately in front of he tilma, between the tilma and the altar, is a 25 foot wide hole to the basement level where those who are not attending the mass can see the tilma much closer. There are actually moving sidewalks so you view the tilma from those, because the area would be constantly swamped with people if they were allowed to stay without moving. After our Mass, we were actually allowed back out onto the altar to view the tilma from the edge of the hole for as long as we wanted. That was incredibly moving.

I visited the old basilica, where they have arrested the sinking but the floor is disconcertingly tilted inside. The floor was mostly smooth so you couldn't see the lean, but when you walked through it the floor just didn't work quite right. I visited the chapel on the hilltop where the apparitions actually took place, and I visited the chapel around St. Juan Diego's house. I expected the square in front of the basilicas to be filled with vendors, but the current cardinal of Mexico City kicked them all out. This made the whole experience very peaceful and prayerful. Even though there were thousands of people there, it didn't feel crowded at all. This is the most visited pilgrimage site in Catholicism. I returned to Puebla at the end of the day exhausted but incredibly happy.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Delightful Law

Today's first reading and responsorial psalm focused on the positive aspects of God's law, so I wanted to emphasize in my homily at the school mass this morning that God's law is in place for our good, to make our lives happier, not to keep us from having any fun. Please ignore the part at the end where I tell them to have a nice Christmas break. They actually have another week of school and I'm not good with calendars.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Advent Preface

The Preface we've been using for Advent has been really beneficial to me in my prayer, so today I examined it closely at this morning's homily. Here's the homily, and the preface is written out below just for a reference:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day
may inherit the great promise
in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Repentance and Mercy

Yesterday I was a passing through Fort Collins so I stopped off to see my grandmother. She likes to host a family Christmas party, and this year it's not for another two weeks yet, but she was already making preparations and she was excited to show me how she was decorating her little house for her party. She understands the importance of preparing well to receive people.

Back in September, Pope Francis visited the United States. Preparation for this visit was underway for a year beforehand. The right sites had to be selected and set up, traffic had to be rerouted. Artists and craftsmen were enlisted to create the sanctuary furniture at the various papal masses that the pope would use just once. Chairs were made with the finest care for the pope to sit in for just an hour or two. No one's ever made a chair for my visit, and that is right and just, but for the Pope we make chairs. For the right events, we all understand the importance of preparing well to receive people.

Some of you might host parties through this holiday season, and before you do, you'll probably clean your house more thoroughly than you ordinarily do. If you're hosting guests, you want to make sure they have a nice time. Now imagine this, imagine that one of your guests calls you up ahead of time and says that they're friends with the queen of England and that the queen wants to come to your Christmas party as well. Absurd, I know, but just imagine. If the queen of England was coming to your house, I guarantee you'd clean it like you've never cleaned before. If you know a friend with nicer dishes than you, you'll call them up to borrow them. When somebody of great importance is coming, you naturally go out of your way to make all the preparations you can.

In this gospel today we hear John the Baptist saying that someone cooler and more important than the queen of England is coming (Let's just pretend that John the Baptist knew about the queen of England). Someone more important than the queen of England is coming. He's telling us that Jesus is coming! And he's not just coming to have dinner with us, he's coming to be king of the world, and that starts with being king of our hearts. Jesus wants your heart to be his throne.

This is a tall order, so luckily, John the Baptist also tells us how to make the right preparation: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus doesn't care if you've vacuumed your carpet or dusted your house, he wants you to make sure you've cleaned your heart.

Remember, John the Baptist showed up and started preaching before Jesus did, so John had a lot of followers while everyone was waiting for the savior John was preaching about. John would give his followers a baptism of repentance. He'd wash them in the Jordan River as a sign that they were washed clean and turning away from their old way of life. This foreshadowed the sacraments of baptism and confession.

What John did is always called a baptism of repentance, and this word repentance is important. To repent is to acknowledge that I have done bad in the past, and that I want to change my ways in the future. To repent is to acknowledge that I am a sinner in need of mercy. Most of us were baptized as infants, and our parents acknowledged for us that we had inherited the original sin of Adam and Even and thus needed God's mercy.

But since our baptism, every one of us have sinned and have needed to experience God's mercy anew. For this, he gave us the sacrament of Confession. Confession is where we participate anew in this repentance that John the Baptist spoke of. But as Catholics, we all have a strained relationship with Confession, so I want to review the basics.

Confession is not a creation of the Church, it's a gift from God to extend his forgiveness of sins to the whole world. Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles and said "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:23) Jesus gave his apostles the authority to forgive sins. That authority was passed to the bishops, who in turn pass it to the priests. To forgive sins is truly a powerful act because it restores the proper balance and proper relationship of love between the Father and his son or daughter. So the priest acts with real but delegated authority to forgive sins.

Jesus chose to make this power present through his priests because he wants us to seek him together. As Christians and as members of the Body of Christ, we minister to each other, and the forgiveness of sins is a unique ministry that the priest offers to the laity. He didn't tell us to say we're sorry in our hearts because he doesn't want it to be a "me and Jesus" sort of relationship. We seek God together. No matter how big or small your sin is, he wants you to hear those words, "I forgive you," not just in your heart but with your ears.

So what do we say by our actions if we avoid the beautiful sacrament of Confession? What does it mean if we say, "Yeah, that may work for others, but not for me." Here's what I'm afraid it says if we decide we don't need Confession: If I avoid Confession and say that I don't need it, then by my actions I am saying I don't need God's mercy. After we die there are only two options, heaven or hell, and if I don't depend on God's mercy in Confession, that means that either I don't want heaven or I don't think I need his mercy to get there. Whatever tough guy excuses we make for why we don't need Confession are really just manifestations of pride, and they won't get us to heaven. Because If I don't go to Confession, it means I'm trying to get to heaven by my own merit, and not by God's grace, and that will never work.

All three of the priests here love Confession. I love hearing Confessions, and I love going to Confession even though I get nervous like everyone else. I go to the same priest every month for Confession, and I always worry that he'll get tired or annoyed that I confess the same things every time. As we lead up to Christmas, there'll be several extended opportunities for Confession. And if none of the scheduled times work for you, call one of us up, we'll schedule a time just for you because this is important. If it's been a long time, that's ok, what matters is that you're there. No priest would get mad that it's been a long time, he'll just be glad you're there. If you don't remember how to go to Confession, just tell the priest. Again, he won't be mad, he'll just be glad you're there and he'll happily walk you through it.

So please, everyone, say yes to God's mercy offered in Confession. And not just during this Advent season, but all through the year, ideally once a month. God offers his mercy to all of us, and it's up to each one of us to say yes.