Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holy Family

Today we celebrate the feast day of the Holy Family.  A day when we remember and venerate the blessed family from Nazareth, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  I think that the Holy Family is one of the most important feasts for our daily lives, because, last time I checked, every one of us was born into a family.  Now, believe me, every family is different.  We all have the crazy uncle, the angry sibling, the odd circumstance.  We all see difficulties and obstacles in our families.  So, when we look at the Holy Family it might be quite easy to just write it off: that’s it, off course they are holy, one is the son of God, one is the Immaculate conception, and the last was known as a righteous man and is remembered as a saint.  Of course they are going to be a holy family, we don’t have a shot. 
Ok, that is true.  Not to burst your bubble, but you will not be a mirror image of the Holy Family.  None of your children are the incarnate word of God, none of us are the Immaculate Conception.  But, all of our families are called to be Holy Families.  All of us are called to be Holy, we all living in families… therefore, our families are supposed to be holy.  How do we get there?
First, let’s turn to the Holy Family for inspiration.  In the Holy Family we see a blue print for holiness in the family.  First, there is a tremendous trust in God.  Mary was approached by the angel and she says yes to God’s will.  Joseph was approached by the angel and he says yes to God’s will.  Now, we probably don’t receive divine messages by angelic messengers, but each of us are called to know God’s will, to seek him in our daily lives, to grow close to him, to trust in him, to allow him to aid and guide us in our decisions.  This is especially true in our family lives.  Each and every member of the family must draw close to God.  Each of us should have a life of prayer, we should lean on God and ask him for direction and guidance.  Each day we should pray for the members of our family, by name.  Each day we should thank God for the members of our family, by name.  Each day we should pray for guidance, bring our specific issues, problems, and circumstances to God.  Name them, pray for them, be open to God’s guidance.  Just think what family life would be like if each and every member of every Christian family spent some time every day praying for the good of the whole family.  I think it could be life-changing.  So the first lesson from the Holy Family, is that each member of the family needs to trust God and grow close to him.
Secondly, the Holy Family would not be the Holy Family if it were not for Christ.  Without Christ, you just have Joseph and Mary, good people, but not the Holy Family.  It is the presence of Christ in the midst of Mary and Joseph that makes it the Holy Family.  The same thing is true for our families.  Christ must be present in our lives as families.  Think about all the things you do as families: eat, go to sporting events, watch tv, go to movies, and go to Church.  Prayer and spirituality as a family should be an important part of our family life together.  I know that it is not always possible to go to Sunday mass as a whole family, but I do think it is important to have some kind of communal prayer as a family.  I remember growing up we used to have family rosaries and during Lent we would pray the Stations of the Cross together as a family.  These family prayer times are an important way to keep Christ a part of our family.

So the Holy Family teaches us a lesson about how to be a holy family.  Each member of the family must trust in God and draw close to him.  Also, the family as a whole must be committed to keeping Christ in the family.  So, while our families will not go down in history as the Holy Family of Nazareth, our families can become holy families filled with peace and love.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas 2013

Christmas 2013:
First of all, a very Merry Christmas to you all.  May this celebration of the birth of our Savior fill each of you with a new sense of Joy. 
Indeed this is a happy time of year.  It can certainly be a stressful time of year.  We have so much going on and so much to do, that it is very easy for us to lose focus on what really matters.  It is certainly cliché to say: Christ is the reason for the season, but indeed he is.  We gather here today to celebrate the birth of Christ.  He has to be our focus. 
Almost 800 years ago St. Francis of Assisi began a tradition that has carried down to this very day.  He is credited with inventing the nativity set.  Perhaps he also found it difficult to stay focused on Christ during the feast of Christmas.  So, in order to stay focused on Christ, we put up this nativity set. 
We are blessed here at St. Jude to have such a detailed and wonderful manger scene.  Thanks to all of Fr. Tom’s hard work, this manger scene will continue to be an inspiration for this parish for many years to come.  Spend some time with this scene.  Put yourself into it, imagine what it was like to lay eyes on the Word of God, born of the Virgin.
As I was contemplating this image of Jesus, who was born for us, a simple question kept popping into my mind.  Why?  We all know how Jesus gets there: the angel appears, Mary says yes, Joseph is visited by the angel, he protects this Holy Family.  There was no room for them in the inn, etc.  All of this tells us how Jesus gets into that manger.  But, why is he there?
In perhaps the most famous line in all of scripture, St. John says it best: for God so loved the whole world that he sent his only begotten Son, so that all those who believe in him, even if they die, should not perish but live.  This is the famous John 3:16, and it explains so well why Christ was born.  He was born because of love.
And really, the birth of Jesus is just one chapter in the great love story of our creation.  Love is the reason for everything. 
One of my favorite spiritual authors is St. Alphonsus Liguori.  He explains the whole story of creation and redemption as a story of love in 4 stages.
How do we know that God loves us?  Simple, we exist.  There is no other reason to explain our existence.  I did not create myself.  I was not responsible for my creation.  If it was not for the love of God, there would be nothing in existence.  Everything that exists exists because God loved it into creation.  So the very fact that there is something in this universe as opposed to nothing is proof that God loved us. 
But, we all know what happened, Adam and Eve turned away from God, they rejected his love, and we all pay the consequences of sin, death, sickness, disaster, you name it.  How do we know that God loved us even after our sin?  Easy, we look at this little baby in the manger.  God continued to love us even after sin by sending his son Jesus to be our savior.  This little baby was born to set us free from the very evil that we caused in the first place.
Now, we know that God loved us in the beginning and loved us even after sin.  What about Jesus, how do we know that he loved us?  We need to look no farther than the cross of Christ.  This baby who is born for us today, is the same Jesus Christ who mounts the wood of the cross in order to put to destroy sin and death.  His birth was brought about by love, but it is completed when he shows his great love for us on the Cross.
So, now we know that Christ loved us 2000 years ago, how do we know that He still loves us?  Jesus continues to show his love for us by giving himself to us in the Holy Eucharist.  The story of the birth of Christ is not simply a history lesson, because Christ continues to come into our lives each and every time we gather here to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.  Jesus continues to show his great love for us by giving himself to us every day in this way.  2000 years ago when Jesus was born, Mary laid him in a manger, which is where the food is placed for the animals.  This is a powerful symbol for the altar, where Christ comes again, not as food for the animals, but the bread of life for each one of us. 

So today we celebrate one chapter in the great love story of creation.  God created us out of love, he sent Jesus as our savior out of love, Jesus died out of love, and he continues to feed us with his body and blood out of love.  No wonder Christians should be filled with Joy.  Because after having witnessed so much love given to each one of us, how can we do anything but love one another?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Trusting like St. Joseph

As our season of Advent comes to a close we start to focus on the birth of Christ.  Today our attention is focused on St. Joseph.  He is a wonderful model and inspiration for trusting in God’s will.  Very often in my life as a priest people will share with me a similar struggle: Father, I am finding it difficult to trust God.  What does it mean to trust in God?
As I was reflecting on this theme I remembered a little story I once heard.  There was a good-hearted man who trusted in God.  One day there was a very bad storm and floods started to sweep through his area.  As the water was rising, someone in a big pickup truck drove up to his house and told him: there is a flood coming, quick come with us.  No, the man said, I trust in God, he will take care of me.  The waters continued to rise.  He had to climb up to the second floor of his house.  A small family from down the street paddled up to him in their boat, they said: quick come with us.  No, the man said, I trust in God, he will take care of me, and the waters continued to rise.  The man then proceeded to climb on top of the roof of his house.  The coast guard came with a helicopter: quick come with us, they said.  No, the man replied, I trust in God and he will take care of me.  Then the man died (ok, sorry it is kind of a sad story).  So he comes face to face with God and he is a little bit angry.  Hey God, what’s the deal.  I have always trusted in you to take care of me, but now I died in a flood…  God said, I was trying to take care of you, I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter, and each time you turned me away.
I think that we often believe that “trusting in God” means that we sit back and wait for God to pull the strings in our life.  But, that is not how God works.  God never intrudes in our life, he never takes away our freedom.  God guides the events of the cosmos, but he does so in a way that always respects our freedom.  Like the man in the story, we sometimes sit back saying that we are trusting in God, but then we miss all the opportunities God gives us in our life.
So, how to trust in God?  St. Joseph is truly our model.  First, we hear that St. Joseph was a righteous man.  That is the first place to begin.  In order to truly trust in God, we have to move away from our sinfulness.  We have to make a commitment to do God’s will first of all by following the commandments and seeking to live upright lives.  So much of the stress and turmoil of our lives is often caused not by outside forces, but by our own sinful choices.  So, if we want to trust in God, the first lesson is to be righteous and upright people.
Second, we hear that Joseph was able to hear God’s voice.  Now, for Joseph this happens when an angel appears to him in a dream.  But, that is not the normal way that God speaks to his people.  Normally, God speaks to his people through his revelation and through our life of prayer.  This is why we need to remain faithful to prayer and to the reading of scripture.  God never acts in such a way as to take away our freedom, but he does give us indications of our path if we are open to hearing his word.
Finally, Joseph shows us that if we hear God’s word in our lives, we then need to carry it out.  Joseph took Mary into his home.  Joseph trusted in God and then he took that step in faith.  Sometimes it is not enough to simply know what God wants from us, but we also need the courage to take that step. 

Trusting in God means that we recognize that God is with us always.  He gives us the strength we need to live each day.  He will bless us with guidance and wisdom if we draw close to him and listen to his voice.  Trusting in God does not mean that we simply sit back and expect God to do everything that I want him to do; rather, it means that we acknowledge his presence in our lives, we listen to him, lean on him, and then have the courage to take the next step in faith.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gaudete

3rd Sunday of Advent Year A 2013:
Today has always been one of my favorite days of the liturgical year.  This is Gaudete Sunday.  It is one of my favorite days, not because I get to wear these fancy pink vestments, but because we light our third candle.  This Gaudete Sunday is a signal the Christmas is coming soon.  Indeed it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas with the snow on the ground and decorations on people’s houses.  The day is quickly coming.  So today is a day of Joy, amidst our patient waiting of Advent.  I think this mirrors our life in many ways.
It is certainly true that there is a great deal of patient waiting in this life.  We wait in our cars, we wait in our homes, we wait at banks, restaurants, you name it.  There is a great deal of waiting.  In fact, I think that the modern parent probably spends half of his/her day sitting in a car waiting on kids.  I know that I don’t like to wait, I’m not very patient, I like things to happen right away.  But, what makes waiting bearable is always what is at the other end.  As long as we keep our goal in sight, we are able to wait with patience.
The same is true in our life of faith.  We are in the season of Advent, which allows us to patiently wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but also prepares us for the arrival of Christ when he will come again.  But, sometimes life seems all to full of waiting for God that we might tend toward losing our patience.  This is why we need to keep the goal in our sights.
These pink vestments help us to do this with Christmas.  This symbol is a blending of the purple of Advent and the white of Christmas.  It is almost like Christmas is starting to break through the purple of Advent.  So, by setting our sights on the end, which is Christmas, it fills us with joy as we continue to wait.
It shouldn’t be any different as we prepare to meet Christ on the last day.  The joy of his coming should break into our daily lives, filling them with joy as well.  But, the future coming of Jesus can see remote and distant.  What about right now, especially when we are dealing with sickness, sadness, pain, or mourning?  How does the joy of the coming of Jesus break into our daily lives?
Jesus says it well today: Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news.  Jesus does not say that these things are limited to the end of time when he will come in his glory, but that they are happening even here, right now. 
I see this every day. One of the most amazing things about being a priest is that I am always seeing how God is working in people’s lives.  Maybe it is someone fighting against an illness, but is strengthened by the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.  Or maybe someone who is quite downcast because of his sins, I get to see the freedom that comes through the sacrament of Confession.  Or the many people who are strengthened and inspired for daily living by the celebration of the Eucharist, or by the worship of Christ in our adoration chapel.  I am so blessed to see so many wonderful moments of grace in people’s lives. 

Every time we gather to celebrate the sacraments, the joy of eternity is breaking into our daily lives.  Every time we experience God’s love through the caring of another person, eternity is breaking into our daily lives.  We see, even here and now, glimpses of the life to come.  And these glimpses are meant to be like these pink vestments or that pink candle: these glimpses fill us with joy as we patiently await the coming of Christ. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Kingdom of God IS at hand... now!

2nd Sunday of Advent Year A 2013:
For the next two weeks we are given the character of St. John the Baptist for our reflection.  St. John is the quintessential Advent figure.  He is the voice saying “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
St. John the Baptist is one of those people whose actions speak as loud as his words.  We hear that he is eating locusts and wild honey, that he is living in the desert, that he is wearing camel skins, and he is baptizing.  He is an interesting and intriguing person.  Why is he doing all this?  People were curious and excited.  We hear that Jerusalem, all Judea, and the surrounding countryside were going to see him.  In other words, he was a big draw.  What was this crazy person doing out in the wilderness? 
I think this is a good reminder for us too.  Advent is a great time for us to renew our interest in this story.  This is a good time to renew our enthusiasm for the gospel.  We need to let these familiar stories strike us again, we need to sit with the strangeness of the gospel.  I always find that the hard part about Advent and Christmas as a preacher is that we all know these stories so well that it can be difficult to really pray and reflect upon them.
But, that is what I wanted to do this week as I prayed with this gospel passage.  I wanted to let it speak to me in a new way.  I kept coming back to the central message of St. John the Baptist.  Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.   It certainly seems that repentance is a recurring theme of the gospel, we hear this message often.  And it is John’s central message, but it is interesting to note that he is wildly popular.  Hard to imagine repentance as popular.  But, then I noticed the second half of the phrase: for the kingdom of God IS at hand.  How interesting: repent for the kingdom IS at hand.  Notice, St. John puts it in the present tense.  He does not say: repent for the kingdom of God is coming at the end of time and you will have to give an account on the last day.  He also doesn’t say, Repent because God has done great things for you in the past.  He says repent, for the kingdom of God IS at hand.
What a great message for each of us during the season of Advent.  It is certainly the case that we are living between the two comings of Christ: he came 2000 years ago, and he will come at the end of our lives or at the end of time, whichever comes first.  So, it is easy to be stuck in this in-between time where the story of Jesus seems to be in the past, and the coming of Christ is always in the distant future.  But, what does John say?  The kingdom of God is at hand.  The kingdom of God is not simple a past or future reality, the kingdom of God is a present reality. 
The way this message usually hits me is like this: repent, because Jesus is coming back and I don’t want him to find me like this.  When rather the message should be repent, and I will see Jesus even now.  What John was telling those people 2000 years ago is just as true today: God is near us, he is not some distant reality.  Repent, because it allows us to draw closer to God.  This is why John was out there in the desert.  He wasn’t just on some fad diet, he wasn’t looking for his inner zen.  John was out there and did what he did because he was close to God.

It should be the same for us.  Right here at Holy Mass we come into the very presence of Christ in this Eucharist.  He is not some distant memory, he is not simply a future occurrence.  He is here, right now.  We repent not because we are afraid of some future judgment, but we repent because it will bring us closer to Christ, present here for us in this Holy Eucharist.