Saturday, December 26, 2015

Feast of the Holy Family

Holy Family Year C 2015:
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family.  Every year on the Sunday following Christmas we celebrate this important feast.  It is a chance for us to look at the Holy Family of Nazareth for intercession and guidance.  It’s a feast where each of us can thank God for our families as well as ask God for help in our families.  None of our families will ever replace the Holy Family, but our prayer should always be that our families be holy.
Our scriptures today shed some light on what it means to be a holy family.  In the first reading we heard that Hannah remembered the promise she made to the Lord.  She also remembered all the good that the Lord had done for her.  These two acts of remembering led her to the temple to worship and praise God, but also to entrust her son to God’s protection.  Now, I’m not saying that we should just leave our kids here at church.  But, I am saying that it important for us to make these same acts of rememberance.  We have all made promises to the Lord.  If you are married, you made promises on the day of your wedding.  I made promises on the day of my ordination.  If you are single, you made promises on the day of your baptism.  We are all called to be in closer union with Christ.  But, we don’t just remember obligations, we also remember all that the Lord has done for us.  If we do so we will grow in happiness and holiness.  I heard a statistic yesterday: just by keeping a thanksgiving journal people responded that it helped them grow in happiness by 25%.  Hannah remembered what the Lord had done, and she went to the temple to worship.
Then we hear the story in the gospel.  It’s one of my favorite stories.  I just love trying to imagine the scene when Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus wasn’t there.  Imagine the dread they must have felt.  I can just hear Mary saying, “how do I explain to the angel that I lost the son of God?”  They were so busy, so distracted by the feast that they lost track of their son, they lost track of Jesus.  Don’t we have a tendency to do the same thing?  We can get distracted and busy, we can lose track of our relationship with Christ.  If Mary and Joseph could do it, so can we!
In both readings we hear that the solution was found in returning to the temple.  Hannah went to the temple in good times, Mary and Joseph went to the temple in bad times.  In both occasions, it was a source of blessing for them.
We want our families to be holy right?  So we learn a lesson from the scriptures.  In good times or in bad times, the important thing is going to the temple.  I think that many people misunderstand our obligation for attending Mass.  We all know that we have to go to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.  But, why?  Why doesn’t the church just relax these rules?  I mean, we are busy right?  It’s precisely because of the absolute zaniness of our lives that the church insists on Mass obligations.   There are just too many things out there to distract us.  There’s sports practices, after school activities, television, internet, new Star Wars movies, video games, etc.  There is just so much that can pull us in many different directions.  The Sunday Mass helps us to get focused.  It helps us to center our lives on Christ.  Our weekly returning to this temple for worship and praise is not just some obligation.  Rather, it’s powerful medicine.  Whether in good times or in bad, we come to this temple to worship and praise almighty God.  Here at the Mass we find grace and strength.  Today we celebrate this Mass in honor of that Holy Family of Nazareth.  May this Holy Mass give to all of our families the grace and strength to become holy families as well.

Merry Christmas

Christmas 2015:
Hello, and a very merry Christmas to all of you.  It is such a joy for me to be with you for this special celebration.  Among the very cool things I get to do as a priest, celebrating Christmas here at St. Jude is one of the very best things.  While we didn’t quite get a white Christmas this year, I’m hoping and praying that this feast of Christmas will be a day of great joy for each and every one of you, a moment of grace and peace for you and for all your families.
But, I have to be honest with you.  This is a tough day to give a homily.  This is my 6th Christmas as a priest and every year I find this really challenging.  Not because Christmas isn’t awesome, it's the best.  I just find it hard to come up with something new and interesting for the Christmas homily.  So, I thought maybe I’d try to incorporate some movie idea.  I know that about 300 million people saw Star Wars over the last week.  So, I tried to come up with some witty idea about how the birth of Jesus is like the force awakening… But, I thought that was a terrible idea.  I thought about talking about cookies somehow.  It seems to me like cookies are the second most important thing about Christmas behind the birth of Jesus, but I couldn’t think of a good cookie homily.  I thought about inviting the kids forward and talking about the story of Christmas, but then I remembered the time I tried that at St. Matt’s and a kid climbed under the altar and had to be rescued by his parents. 
In other words, I was running out of ideas.  But, then I read Pope Francis’ Twitter feed.  He had a great thought there.  He said, “God is in love with us.  He became very small to help us love him.”  Christmas is all about love.
God is in love with us.  Do you know that?  Does that simple phrase have an impact in your life?  Every day we should wake up in the morning and let this simple truth be the start of our day: God loves me very much.  I can only imagine how much our lives would change if this simple truth became the core of our existence.  God loves me.  God!  The maker of the universe, the all-powerful ruler of everything, loves little ole’ me.  Just think about how much more we would appreciate everything we face and experience in life if we held onto this simple truth at every moment.  We would appreciate the good things even more.  Wow, God loves me.  We would have a better time dealing with trials.  This sickness is really tough to deal with, but God loves me and that’s enough for me.  I think we would be more loving people: I’m really mad at this guy who just cut me off in traffic, but God loves me and so I’m going to love him.
I don’t think this is pollyannish.  I mean all the great saints in the history of our church did amazing things precisely because they knew that God loved them.  Now, we might say: I know that God loves me, but how do I really know that God loves me.  Look at this little baby.  God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that all those who believe in him might have life.  This little baby is an eternal proclamation of the love that God has for us.  If he didn’t love us, he never would have sent his son.  If Jesus didn’t love us, he never would have died on the cross for us.  Truly, God is in love with us.
But, it might not always seem easy for us to love God in return.  I mean how can we get our heads around this?  God, the eternal, the creator, the ruler of heaven and earth, loves little, puny me.  How can I return that love?  I’m weak, I’m sinful, I’m insignificant in the divine perspective.  As Pope Francis says, God became very small as a way to help us love him in return.  Look at this little baby, love this little Baby.  It might be hard to love the eternal triune God, but it's easy to love little babies.
Don’t we all love babies?  They are cute and sweet and innocent.  Ok, sometimes they cry and smell bad, but we love babies.  I have a lot of experience with babies.  I have 18 nieces and nephews.  I’m the oldest of 11 kids.  There is something just so amazing about little babies.  So, don’t be afraid to love this little child.  Jesus became small so that it is easier for us to love God.
I really find the littleness of this baby as such an important mystery.  He was born as a little child.  Think about that.  Babies certainly are cute, but they are completely helpless, completely dependent on others.  No babies can take care of themselves.  All of us were babies once, and none of us would be here today if someone didn’t feed us, cloth us, take care of us.  The same was true for Christ.  He was completely dependent on his human family.  The Son of God became small, weak, and helpless because we are small, weak, and helpless.  Jesus Christ became human so that humans could have a relationship with Christ.
So, my homily for Christmas this year is quite simple, and I’m shamelessly stealing it from Pope Francis.  God is in love with us.  He became small to help us love him in return.  So, don’t be afraid to love this baby.  Don’t be afraid to love God.  He loves us.  Christmas is a chance for us to remember this great love.  To look on this little child and see the Son of God, born to set us free, born to save us, born to help us love God better.

May this love, the love God has for us, and the love we have for God, live richly in your hearts and minds.  I pray that this love lives in your lives, in your families, and in our world.  May the love of God fill you with joy and hope.  May it give you strength in time of difficulty, may it fill you with peace.  May the Good News of the Birth of Jesus Christ grant you a wonderful, joyful, and very merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent 2015 (December Stewardship Sunday):
Well, my friends, Christmas is almost here.  This is the final Sunday of Advent, our joy and expectation are building.  Our Savior will soon be born for us.  This season of Advent is a time for us to remember that our Lord comes to us to be our Savior. 
During this season of Advent we have been reflecting on the Mass.  During Advent we are supposed to be preparing for the coming of Christ, but we have been remembering that Christ comes to us at every Mass.  In the Liturgy of the Word, Jesus comes to us, he speaks to us in language that we can understand.  He guides us and forms us for our lives as his disciples.  In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we join in the sacrifice of Christ.  We offer this sacrifice with Christ in thanksgiving for all that he has done for us.  The entire Mass is one act of worship and praise.  How can we repay the Lord for all the good he has done for us?  We give him our worship and our praise.
This last week of Advent, I want to talk about what happens after Mass.  No, I’m not talking about shaking hands after mass, or wading through our congested parking lot.  Rather, I’m talking about how the Mass changes our lives.  We come here to Mass just as we are.  We are sinners in need of God’s mercy.  But, hopefully, we leave Mass a little different.  Hopefully, encountering Christ here in this act of worship has an effect on the people we are and the way we live our lives outside of these walls.
At the end of each Mass, there is a dismissal.  Go in peace, is often the last phrase we hear.  But, this is not just a phrase of utility.  Its meaning is not just: ok folks we’re all wrapped up here.  Rather, it comes from the Latin phrase: ite, missa est.  Which, loosely translated means, Go, you have been sent.  Missa is where we get the word for missionary.  When we are “dismissed” from Mass, we are not simply sent home.  We are sent on a mission.  What’s our mission?  You remember the show and movies “Mission impossible?”  Every movie or episode contained a mission.  And the mission is always presented this way: your mission, if you choose to accept it.  It’s the same for us, we get a mission, but we have to choose to accept it. 
Now, our mission doesn’t self-destruct in 3 seconds like the ones on the movies.  Our mission is the gospel.  Our mission is to spread the good news.  Our mission is to spread the kingdom.  The way I like to think about it, our mission is to take what happens here at Mass and let it happen out in the world.  I like to think about it in three ways: the kingdom in our lives, in our families, in our world.
First, our mission is to bring the kingdom into our lives.  We are called to be disciples of Christ.  But, what does that mean exactly?  The disciples in the bible listened to Christ, they followed after him, they tried to live and love just as he did.  Many of the admirable saints in the history of our church did heroic things.  The fed the poor, they built hospitals and schools, they might have even died in fidelity to Christ.  And, it can be easy to call attention to these marvelous things they did.  But, one question that always pops into my head is: where did they find the courage and strength to do these things?  The lesson of the saints is that they did amazing and marvelous things precisely because of their connection to Christ.  Every saint has a unique story and took a unique path, but one thing they have in common was an unfailing love of Christ.  They knew Jesus.  They listened to him.  They changed their hearts and minds because they wanted to be disciples.  The Mass is a privileged place for encountering Christ, we hear his voice and we are united to him.  If we are faithful to what we receive here at Mass, it will change our lives.  Our first mission is to let the mass live in us every day of our lives.
Second, our mission is to spread the gospel in our families.  Christmas is a great time for family.  So many of us get a chance to see and connect with family members during this joyful season.  Yet, for so many of us, there are difficulties and tensions in our families.  Christmas can be a time of sadness or conflict in many families.  So, we have a great opportunity to spread the kingdom in our families during this time of year.  But, how do we go about it?  One method that has been tried for decades is the old fashioned guilt trip.  This method tries to criticize or shame our family members into going to church or reconnecting with Mass.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure this method is all that successful.  But, what do we learn here at Mass?  When Jesus calls us to follow him he doesn’t criticize, blame, shame, or ridicule.  Rather, when we come here to Mass he inspires us, lifts us up, gives us grace and strength.  I think that if we are going to try to spread the gospel in our families, we need to use this same strategy.  We should be thinking: how can I inspire my family members?  How can I lift them up?  How can I meet them where they are, and lift them to the next level?  We can do this by sharing with them the beauty of the Mass, the beauty of the story: God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to be our Savior.  Like St. Paul said in Ephesians: say the good things that people need to hear to build them up.
The third mission we receive at every Mass is to spread the kingdom in our world.  Last month on Stewardship Sunday I mentioned many of the ways that St. Jude spreads the kingdom.  People from this parish are feeding the poor, consoling the sick, visiting the imprisoned.  Today I would like to call attention to our monthly food collection.  The last Sunday of every month you bring in food.  This gift of food is distributed far and wide.  This simple gift touches the lives of thousands of people throughout our community.  This past week I received a kind note from a woman who received one of our food baskets.  She couldn’t thank us enough for the generosity of this gift, it meant so much to her.  This food collection is one of the ways that we fulfill our mission to spread the gospel.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to follow Christ.  Mary is our model for this.  After her encounter with the angel, after she welcomed Christ into her life, she rushed out to her cousin.  She went out in peace to bring the Good News to the world.  Here at the Mass we encounter Christ, we hear his voice, we give him thanks and praise.  At the end of every Mass, we are dismissed: go in peace.  Our mission is to accept the peace of Christ in our hearts, in our families, and to give this peace to the world around us.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gaudete Sunday

3rd Sunday of Advent 2015:
Today we celebrate the Third Sunday of Lent.  Also known as Pink Sunday.  Today get’s its name from the entrance antiphon which begins: Rejoice.  Truly we do rejoice, because our God comes to save us.  Also, during this season of Advent we have been reflecting on the Mass.  Today we will reflect a bit on the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which is the second major section of the Mass.  This part of the mass culminates with our reception of Holy Communion, where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  But, before we get to communion we have the Eucharistic prayer.
The Eucharistic prayer tells us everything there is know about the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  If we pay special attention to the words used in the prayer we will see that the Liturgy of the Eucharist is a sacrifice.  There are currently 4 major Eucharistic prayers, and there are several others that can be used in special circumstance.  All of them contain the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: this is my body, this is my blood.  And, all of them are filled with sacrificial language.
Take, for example, Eucharistic prayer III which is the one that I commonly use at the Sunday Mass.  Just listen to some of these phrases: you never cease to gather a people to yourself so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.  After the consecration we hear: We offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.  Look upon the oblation of your church, recognize the sacrificial victim by whose death you willed to reconcile us to yourself.  May He make of us an eternal offering to you.  May this sacrifice of our reconciliation advance the peace and salvation of the whole world.
So, the mass is a sacrifice.  It’s important to know whose sacrifice it is.  First and foremost, it is the sacrifice of Christ.  I explain it like this: at every Mass the sacrifice of Christ is offered anew for the salvation of the world.  Jesus is not killed at every Mass, but the one death of Christ is offered again, throughout history until Christ comes in glory.  So every Mass is a new sacrifice, a new offering of the Cross of Jesus.  So, the mass is the sacrifice of Christ.  But, it’s also our sacrifice.  We are the ones who get to offer the sacrifice of Christ at each Mass.  I can tell you that offering this sacrifice with and for you is the greatest honor I have as being a priest. 
The Mass is a sacrifice.  Why is that so important?  I would like to recommend to all of you a book by Scott Hahn called The Lamb’s Supper.  In this book, Scott Hahn takes a look at the book of Revelation and examines it in light of the sacrifice of the Mass.  It’s a great book for understanding Revelation, but the first 4 chapters are all about the Mass and sacrifice.  I can’t tell you how good those chapters are.  I read this book this week and it helped me to see things new. 
Scott calls sacrifice one of the most primal forms of worship.  Throughout history, people have been offering sacrifices to God as a way of giving him worship and praise.  The first sacrifice in the Bible takes place with the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain brought an offering from his harvest, and Abel sacrificed an animal from his flock.  Both did so as an act of worship.  The people of Israel would offer sacrifice for a number of different reasons.
First, sacrifice was a recognition of God’s sovereignty over creation.  By offering sacrifice of material things, people recognize that all these things belong to God, and we are giving them back to him.  Sacrifice praises God from Whom all blessings flow. 
Second, sacrifice was a way of giving thanks.  By giving back to God, we not only recognize his rule of all creation, but we also give him our thanks for the creation he has bestowed upon us. 
Third, sacrifice was offered as a way of sealing oaths or pacts.  When God made covenants with humanity, sacrifice is offered.  We see that especially in the sacrifice of Christ, who inaugurates the new and eternal covenant with humanity. 
Fourth, sacrifice was offered as reparation for sin.  The people of Israel knew that because of their sins, they deserved death.  But, the sacrifice would stand in their place.  It was an offering to God imploring mercy and forgiveness. 
These four examples of sacrifice from the Old Testament tell us a lot about why we are here offering this sacrifice.  When we come to Mass and participate in this sacrifice, we do so for the same four reasons.  By offering this sacrifice, we recognize God’s power and majesty, we recognize all that he has done for us.  We offer this sacrifice as an offering of thanksgiving.  God has given us life, breath, everything; he has given us new life in Christ.  Every time we offer this sacrifice we agree and enter into the New Covenant of Christ again.  The covenant is renewed in us at each Mass.  We offer this Mass as reparation for our sinfulness, and we beg the Lord’s pardon and mercy at every Mass. 

I’m sure that all of us, myself included, can sometimes go through the motions while we are here at Mass.  But, by renewing our appreciation for the importance of sacrifice, I think we can gain a new appreciation for the important place Mass plays in our spiritual life.  Sacrifice is the most primal form of worship.  Today at this Mass, we lift our hearts to the Lord, we give him thanks and praise because it is right and just.

2nd Sunday of Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent Year C 2015:
This year during the season of Advent we are taking a closer look at the Mass.  I think this is a great way to spend the season of Advent.  This is a season where we contemplate the coming of Christ.  Not only his first coming, but also to prepare for the day when he will come again.  There is no better way to prepare for the coming of Christ than to worship and praise God here at the Mass.  That is because at this Mass, and at every Mass, Jesus comes here to us.  Last week we talked a bit about some things we can do to prepare for Mass.  Things like praying with the readings during the week before Sunday Mass, arriving early to spend a few minutes in prayer, seeing the Mass as an act of worship, a chance to give God thanks and praise.
This week, I want to think a little bit about the first half of the Mass.  It’s called the Liturgy of the Word.  At the heart of this part of the Mass is the reading of Sacred Scripture.  Catholics have a bad rap about the Bible.  How many of us really think that we know the Bible well?  It was actually pretty common some 70 years ago that Catholics were discouraged from reading the Bible.  The thought was that it was too difficult to interpret, so better off not reading it.  But, this is certainly not the teaching of the Church.  The Church encourages all the faithful to know the Bible well.  Because, through the Sacred Text of the Scriptures God makes himself known to the human race.
If you want to learn more about the bible, go to the Catechism at paragraph number 101.  There is a great description there of what we believe about the Bible.  We profess and believe that this Bible is no mere book, no mere history lesson.  Rather, the Bible is truly the Word of God.  This means that we hold that God is the author of the Sacred Scriptures.  Now, we also hold that humans acted as true authors.  But, through the miracle of inspiration, God employed human authors so that they wrote down all and only what he wanted, and did so without taking away human freedom.  It’s truly a wondrous teaching.  These are the words of human beings, but because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these are truly the words of God.  This is one of the greatest miracles of all time.  God inspired human beings so that he could talk to us directly.  Therefore, the Second Vatican Council states that the Sacred Scriptures contain the truth which God wished to reveal for the sake of our salvation.
No wonder the Bible is so important.  Contained in the Word of God is the truth that will set us free, it’s the truth that leads us to faith in Christ.  As St. John says so well in his gospel: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”  Isn’t that a great description of the Bible: the things written so that you might have faith in Jesus?
No wonder the Bible is an essential part of the celebration of the Mass.  By encountering the Word of God we are led to faith in Jesus Christ.  But, it is not a simple or automatic kind of thing.  The Bible doesn’t work like magic.  We can’t put the book under our heads and hope to learn more about God.  We have to read it, study it, wrestle with it.  We have to let the words of the Bible comfort us sometimes, like in our first reading: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.”  Sometimes we need the bible to challenge and inspire us.  St. Paul prayed in the second reading: may your love increase ever more and more … so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.  I don’t think I’ve gotten to the point of being pure and blameless, have you?  The Bible tells us the story: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee.  But, it also calls us to something deeper: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” for “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The catechism states: “In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way.”  Think about that, in the Scripture, God speaks to us in words that we can understand.  At this Mass, and at every Mass, Christ comes to us, he speaks to us in the Liturgy of the Word.  If we open our ears, open our minds, open our hearts, each one of us will hear the saving truth that God wishes to speak to each one of us. 
And it really is God who does the speaking.  One time when I was at St. Matt’s I wrote out my homily just like I normally do.  But, as I was starting the second Mass I decided that I wasn’t too happy with the way that homily came out the first time.  So, I decided to scrap that homily and go with something else for that Mass.  And I have to say, that was a colossal mistake.  I kept putting my foot in my mouth, nothing came out like I wanted to.  After I sat down I thought “even I don’t know what I said, how were they supposed to get anything out of that.”  But, after mass a woman came up to me and said: “thank you so much, that was exactly what I needed to hear.”  I was tempted to ask her what she heard, but I decided to let it go.  It was God who was speaking to her.

My friends, God has a message for each one of us.  He speaks to us through the Sacred Scriptures.  I hope each one of us has a great relationship with the Bible.  I hope it’s a part of our daily lives.  I especially hope it is an important part of our worship here at Mass.  Because if we are listening, God will speak to us exactly what we need to hear.