Sunday, January 24, 2021

Responding to the Call

In my five plus years as a pastor, there have been a handful of times that I have had to hire a new employee. There are a lot of things about priesthood that they don’t teach you in the seminary but being an employer is close to the top of the list. Hiring a new person can sometimes be challenging in that you need to find someone who can do the work of the position but who also possesses certain intangible qualities needed to work for the Church. I’ve found that those things that don’t always go together, which is why we should always be grateful and supportive to the men and women who work in our parishes and schools in service to the Church.

In the Gospel today, Jesus begins to call others to follow Him. In today’s terms, we could say that he is seeking qualified candidates for an open position. But Jesus doesn’t operate the way we might expect – the way I certainly would: creating a job description, fielding inquiries, interviewing candidates. Instead, He simply walks along the Sea of Galilee and invites people directly: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” I would probably have asked, “Excuse me, Jesus, how many hours will I be working? What is your benefit package?” But for these men, the invitation is enough — they leave behind everything they know to follow Him.

Being a disciple is not exactly like being an employee, of course, so my analogy doesn’t work completely. Still, I think the Gospel today invites us to consider our own response to the Lord’s call. Would we have responded if we had heard him along the Sea of Galilee? And what’s more – are we responding now when He calls us? The Lord hasn’t stopped calling disciples to follow Him; He just does so now in different ways than before.

What might prevent us from responding? One factor is a lack of interest or attentiveness. Did you notice how immediately the disciples responded? Presumably, it was because they were already very familiar with who Jesus was and the charisma that He must have had. In last week’s Gospel, we heard how Andrew and Peter had spent time with Jesus, getting to know Him. In today's reading, now the Lord calls them, and knowing Him and being familiar with who He is, they are ready to respond. 

The Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew (c. 1888) by James Tissot

In our lives, too, we need a familiarity with Jesus – more than that, an intimacy, a friendship – because we can only respond when we recognize His voice and hear the loving urgency of His call. Daily prayer, including regular reading of Sacred Scripture, is an essential way of communicating with the Lord and growing in our friendship with Him. Today is the second “Sunday of the Word of God,” when we recall that the Bible is God’s living Word and that through it He continues to speak to us today. To engage with Scripture every day, even for just ten minutes, can form a habit within us of listening for the Lord’s voice, and often discovering it in the other ways He calls us.

A second factor that can prevent us from responding to the Lord’s call is a lack of confidence in ourselves. In today’s first reading, God calls Jonah to go and preach to the city of Nineveh. He does so effectively; the Ninevites turn away from their sin, and Jonah fulfills his role. But we shouldn’t forget what happened before this story: Jonah had run away from God, afraid or unwilling to do what he asked. We also will hear the voice of God speaking to us, calling us to do something, but sometimes we turn Him down because we are afraid or unwilling to do what He asks. We might doubt that He is really speaking to us, or else convince ourselves that we are not qualified to do whatever He asks.

This lack of confidence in ourselves is really rooted in a lack of confidence in Him, in trusting that He will make us ready for the mission he gives to us. Maybe that mission is helping to form our family in holiness, or giving witness in our workplace to our coworkers, or perhaps serving our parish in some way, or perhaps reaching out to those who are lost and in need to share with them our resources, whether material or spiritual. Whatever it might be, we can have confidence that the Lord who calls us will also give us whatever is required to fulfill that call.

Friends, as the Lord once walked along the Sea of Galilee calling the disciples, so too He is present among us and calling us to be part of what He is doing, what He is still doing – sanctifying the world, something needed now more than ever. If we listen to Him, hearing His voice and being attentive to His Word, He will show us how what He desires us to do. Be confident, then, in His call; after all, you don’t have to be an employee of the Church to be doing the Lord’s work. In this Eucharist that we will celebrate, the Lord Himself comes to us in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood to make us ready for the work He sends us to do.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Together on the Way

Do you remember the last time you gave directions? In this era of smartphones and built-in GPS, maybe it has been a while. It is an important skill, though, or was: to be able to clearly and succinctly explain to someone how to get to where they need to go.

In the Gospel today, John the Baptist knows that two of his disciples are lost, not physically but spiritually. We recall how the Gospels tell us that great crowds had gone out to John in the desert, to hear him preach and to see him baptize, and no doubt many followed him, thinking he was the Messiah. But John clearly states that he is not; he has only come to prepare the way for the Messiah. No doubt this left his own disciples troubled and uncertain What were they going to do now? To whom could they turn?

Fortunately, John the Baptist knew how to give good directions. He points out Jesus to these followers, Andrew and an unnamed disciple, and says “Behold, the Lamb of God.” And as he does so, these men who had followed him now become followers of Christ. John’s message of repentance and preparation had gotten their attention, but here at last was the One they had been searching for all along, the One who would truly answer their deepest spiritual yearnings. We can see how they are hesitant at first, perhaps not sure how to follow. But with Jesus’s invitation – “Come and see” – it’s all they need to become His disciples.

Saint John Points Out Christ to Saint Andrew (c. 1635) by Ottavio Vannini

This story is about more than how two men long ago began to follow Jesus. It’s emblematic of how He calls every one of His followers. As Christians, you and I have embraced the role of being Jesus’s disciple, too – that is, His student, one who learns from Him as Teacher. But how we learn and how we follow is not something that can be accomplished individually; we need the aid and involvement of other people. Faith in Christ is not a private enterprise – as if it is something I do that is just between me and God, and maybe in the presence of a few others for an hour on Sunday. No, Jesus’s desire then and now is that we follow and learn from Him not just as mere individuals but as part of a larger group, a community of people that helps and assists each other, with Him at the center. Who we are as a Church, as the Body of Christ, forms and sustains who we are as individual believers.

Sometimes, therefore, we are going to need help in finding Jesus. Perhaps it is going to be getting through a particularly challenging personal moral struggle; maybe it’s a difficult relationship or an interior feeling of being lost, unsure of where to turn. When that happens, we have to look for someone in our life who might be able to point us in the right direction. Like He did for the two disciples in the Gospel, God will place someone in our path, but we must be willing and open to receiving guidance. Remember that the One whom you are truly searching for is Jesus – to become more like Him in some way, to be reminded that He is calling you to follow Him, to remember that He is the Light that guides your path. So if you are searching for Him, look for a person who seems to have found Him. Ask that person for help, do what they are doing, and you will find that you are soon back on the path to the Lord.

But, then remember, it’s not just about you. As part of a community, a Church, we also have to be attentive for the times when God will call us to help others in finding Him. In the Gospel today, notice how after finding Jesus, Andrew and the other disciple aren’t content just to follow after. They go first and share Whom they have found with someone else – Simon, Andrew’s brother – who also meets Jesus and follows Him. They do for Simon what John the Baptist had done for them; they give directions on where Jesus can be found. So it must be with us, as well. Our faith can't be a private, individualized affair; we must be ready to share it with confidence and joy. If God helps us to find Jesus through others, He is also going to ask us to give directions to others as well. When that happens, we shouldn’t be shy or timid; we may not feel particularly wise or holy, but if we trust in the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that whatever we say or do, whatever guidance or encouragement we can give, will be used by God for that person’s benefit. God used Andrew and the other disciple to call a man named Simon, who would one day become Peter, the greatest of the apostles and the first pope. Who knows what might happen in the life of someone else if we too are bold in sharing what we have found?

So, my friends, do you remember the last time you gave someone directions – not to find a place, but to encounter Jesus? As disciples, we are all on the journey of faith, a path of following and learning form our Lord. But we are on this journey together, supporting each other, receiving help when we need it, and giving help when others do. That is how Jesus has willed it for us, His Body, His Church, so let’s put aside our own fears and misgivings, and focus instead on the Master calling us, inviting us each day. “Come and see,” He says to us; let us boldly follow after.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Beloved

The Christmas season comes to a close today. I don’t know about you, but I always find myself feeling a little sad, especially when I have to put away my decorations. It always feels like the end of something special: kind of like cleaning up after a big party, or going back to work the first day after vacation. Normal life sets back in, and the challenges of the real world return.

Of course, this year, the challenges of the real world never really went away. Our Christmas celebrations were different, we watched with concern as the pandemic has only gotten worse, and more recently, the political and social tensions that highlighted much of last summer and fall have returned with a vengeance. We have experienced various challenges in our own local community too: the sadness of loss, uncertainties in regard to work and the future, and the difficulty of living with daily anxiety about the state of things, near and far from home. Add it all up, and it’s enough to discourage anyone.

How fortunate, therefore, for us to hear from God himself in the Gospel just now: “You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.” At the Lord’s baptism, the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice of God himself was heard. This passage comes from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel — a Gospel which doesn’t have any of the Christmas stories from which we have been hearing the last several weeks. Instead, Jesus just shows up in the desert, appearing out of the blue, wanting to be baptized. But lest we have any doubt about his identity, the voice of God himself assures us that he is no ordinary fellow: he is the Divine Son. He is the fullness of God, not just present before us, but present with us.

That’s the truth that we have been celebrating all through this Christmas season, but notice the setting for it this time: it’s not in a manger scene, or in front of kings bearing gifts, but among a crowd of sinners waiting for repentance. To be baptized was to declare that one’s life needed a radical re-start. It involved not just a confession of sins but the acceptance of a whole new way of life; in today’s terms, think of something like getting sober or going vegan, but even more radical. What a surprise then that Jesus is there among the group – as God’s Son, he didn’t need to repent of anything. But that’s the point; despite being sinless himself, he identifies himself with us completely, even to the point of being baptized. He is God’s Son, yes – but he has come to share in the very depths of our brokenness and tragedy.

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1690) by Antoine Coypel

I would suggest that’s a reality that we should hold on to, especially as we move back to the post-Christmas rhythms of daily life. Perhaps our sorrows and struggles are feeling burdensome; perhaps we are even feeling anxiety because of the uncertainties we face. As I mentioned earlier this Christmas season, our temptation can be to cast around for false hopes and fleeting pleasures – to try to find heaven on earth, or worse, to create it ourselves. But as the saying goes, those who try to build heaven on earth often just end up making life hell. Instead, what we need is to renew our faith in the Savior who has come down into the very depths of our human reality, the muck and disorder of our condition, in order to raise us to something greater.

The Feast of the Lord’s Baptism closes the Christmas season but it also sets the stage for the rest of the year. It reminds us ultimately of the mystery of grace. When Jesus was baptized, it wasn’t the waters that did the washing; rather, he purified them, so that the waters of baptism could purify us and make us sharers in his identity. Because of grace, because of our baptism and all of the sacraments, God says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Grace is not like fleeting earthly pleasures, where we search for an escapism from our troubles. Nor is it the false promise of utopian thinking, where we think we can solve every problem, our own and society’s at large. No, grace is the divine gift by which we realize that we are loved by God, through which we can face the challenges we have without being overwhelmed by them. It is the heavenly power to live a supernatural life even in the midst of our daily, natural ones: enduring our trials and sorrows in faith and hope, because we are always focused on the higher reality of being God’s beloved sons and daughters.

Friends, the holidays may have ended, and yes, sadly (for me, at least), the Christmas decorations have to come down. But the true gift of the season is the share we have in Jesus’s sonship, and that can remain and flourish throughout the year if we stir into a flame the Lord’s saving grace. Let’s focus ourselves this year on being the Lord’s more faithful disciples in order to be His more faithful witnesses, so that all who are searching for hope and for answers can find it in him through us. May this Eucharist assist us in beginning anew.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Door of Humility

One of the oldest and most important churches in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Pilgrims from all around the world – Christians of all kinds and some non-Christians, too – visit there to see where Jesus was born. One of the remarkable things about the church is what you see before you enter. Instead of a tall and broad entryway, as one might expect for such a venerable church, the door from the outside is a narrow passage about four feet tall. It was probably built that way for security reasons, but over the years, the door has taken on a spiritual significance as well. The “Door of Humility,” as it is known, is the only way in to the place of Jesus’s birth; to enter into where God humbled Himself to become Man, each person has to literally bow down as well.

The Epiphany (1653) by Francisco Herrera 'the Elder'

In today’s Gospel, the Magi journey to the same spot in Bethlehem to find the Child Jesus, the Son of Mary. Upon finding him, we are told they “prostrated themselves and did him homage.” There was no Church of the Nativity at that time, no Humility Door to pass through, but they humbled themselves because such is the way to greet a king. The Magi have made the long journey because they know the Child born in Bethlehem is “the Christ”, the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

You and I recognize something else, something the Magi may not have – that this Child is not just a king but also our very God come to redeem us. In Jesus, the glory of the Lord has been made manifest, fully revealed, if we have the humility to see it. Such is the mystery of the Savior's birth, the way He chose to enter into our world. The Son of God comes not in power and glory, as we might expect, but with humility and love, through the door of our own lowly human nature. But to encounter the truth of who He is and to receive the salvation He brings, we also must bow down low.

The Gospel today reminds us that there were others who were aware of the birth of Jesus who did not receive Him with humility. Herod, along with his advisers and the rest of the important people in Jerusalem, reacted to the coming of Christ with fear, violence, and indifference. This is the pattern that played out throughout Jesus’s life. Many people were attracted by Him and came to see Him, but only the humble truly understood who He was and what He offered. The rich, the powerful, the important, the high-and-mighty – for them, Jesus was disappointing, perplexing, infuriating. But for the poor and the needy, for the disgraced and the outcast, for the sinner and the desperate, Jesus was Himself salvation – He offered love, mercy, transformation of life.

This is still the pattern that plays out today. So often we search for God but only according to our own terms. Our prideful expectations of what we want from Him hold us back from truly encountering Him where He is. Our fear at what He might ask of us prevents us from receiving the gifts He desires to give us. If only we were to approach Him in a different way – with trust, with humility, with dependence – we could behold the newness of Christ, the salvation that God offers us in him. 

"The Door of Humility," Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Friends, whether we know it or not, you and I entered the doors of this church to do what the Magi did long ago: to worship the King, the Savior born for us. Whether we will have found Him by the time we leave here depends largely on whether we are willing to pass through another door, not a physical one but a spiritual one: a door that consists in humility of heart. Only by accepting our own littleness, our total dependence on the Lord, can we experience the love of Him who made Himself little for our sake.

May this Eucharist enliven our hearts to behold in faith His humble Presence and to love Him where He may be found.

Friday, January 1, 2021

A New Year's Blessing

One of the great joys of being a priest is being able to impart blessings upon people – that is, to call down God’s favor upon them. Blessings are often given when starting something new. At the end of every confession, for instance, the priest absolves the penitent with a blessing, so that they can start their spiritual life fresh, free from sin and guilt. During a wedding, the newly married bride and groom receive a special Nuptial Blessing from the priest. And if you start a new job, or move into a new home, or buy a new car, you can ask for the priest to bless you to get you off on the right foot.

In today’s first reading, the Israelite people are beginning something new. Freed from slavery in Egypt, now they have entered into a covenant with God on Mount Sinai, in which he promises to be with them and they promised to be faithful to him. To begin this new relationship, God communicates a special formula by which Moses’s brother Aaron and his family would impart priestly blessings upon the Israelites: “The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!” Shortly after receiving this blessing formula, they will move on from Sinai to continue their journey through the desert. They still have trials and struggles to undergo, but they do so now with God’s presence with them, and with his blessing upon them.

As we begin a New Year, we too want to start it off on the right foot. Perhaps we have certain resolutions we have made about how we can improve our lives as individuals. And surely collectively we hope for something much better in 2021 than what we endured last year. It is fitting therefore that we begin the year by asking for God’s blessing here at Mass. We do so during the Christmas season, a time in which we contemplate – like Mary does in today’s Gospel – the marvelous way in which God *has* blessed us: not by any formula of words or set of special favors, but by sending us his Son. With her, we reflect upon the mystery of how the same God who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai now dwells among us. In Jesus, God has truly visited his people.

Marianne Stokes, Madonna and Child (c. 1900)

And that mystery is itself the greatest blessing we could possibly receive. That may seem flippant to say, especially at the end of a difficult year, in the middle of a pandemic, with so many worries that we still face. But while we all have certain desires we wish to be fulfilled this year, many of which are very good and holy, the greatest thing God could do for us is to renew what he has already done: to renew within us the saving grace of his Son. Every blessing we receive finds its source in the mystery we celebrate in this Christmas season, the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation.

So, friends, as we start the New Year, perhaps we can get off on the right foot by asking for that blessing anew. God wants to give it to us – not by helping us fulfill our resolutions, but by helping us encounter anew the mystery of Emmanuel, “God-with-us”. It is fine to ask God for the particular blessings we desire, the things he knows we need; but let’s also ask for those things which will make us more Christlike – minds more humble, hearts more devout, wills more pure, and lives in general more faithful to our relationship with him as his people. What better time than a New Year to make whatever changes we need to? 

In the name of Jesus Christ, as his priest, I am happy to give you my blessing:“The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!”

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Holy Family, Suffering Family

There is a reason why we form children as much with images as with words. Images can be a powerful teacher. When I was growing up, my family had an image of the Holy Family that hung on our wall. When I was still very young, I remember asking my mother about it: “Who are they?” I asked. She responded: “That’s the Holy Family: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.”

I think that image fascinated me because I could see that my family looked something like the Holy Family. My dad was like Joseph, my mom was like Mary, I was like Jesus, and best of all my little sister and brother didn’t fit in at all! That picture told me something about what God intended my family to be like, and when I didn’t go along with that – when, for example, I was mean to my sister and brother – it was as if I could feel that image of the Holy Family urging me to be better.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family has a similar purpose. We can see in the Holy Family the purpose God has for family life: a community of persons formed and united in love. God intends the family to be the basic unit of human society, founded on the self-gift of spouses united by marriage and ordered to the good of their children, raising them and educating them in virtue. In the family home, the fruits of love and joy and peace are born forth: taught, learned, and shared.

Sadly, we know that our human families often fall short of that ideal. When we experience tragedy or difficulty, the Holy Family may sometimes feel like a distant ideal, very far removed from the reality of our own family lives. Perhaps today’s feast even causes us pain, as we compare the Holy Family with our own family’s sufferings and shortcomings. But lest we think that the life of the Holy Family was completely idyllic, the Gospel today reminds us that they were not immune to suffering. When Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, the righteous man Simeon prophesies to them that their Child will be the glory of Israel, a light to all the nations. But he also tells them he will be a sign of contradiction – words that were proven true true when he was rejected, arrested, tortured, and murdered. And Simeon tells Mary that she too will be pierced by "a sword" – not a physical suffering and death, like her Son, but the spiritual cross of experiencing his death with him.

The Scene of Christ in the Temple (1516) by Fra Bartolommeo

Today’s Gospel tells us quite pointedly that suffering was right at the heart of the Holy Family. Consider the other things we know the other very difficult things they experienced: Mary was called to become the Mother of the Savior at a young age; Joseph was called to accept a woman pregnant with a Child that he knew was not his; they were forced to give birth in humble circumstances, far from their own land; they had to flee to Egypt because a king wanted to murder their son; Mary and Joseph even lost Jesus for three days on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. All of these experiences would have been difficult, most of them traumatic, and yet all of them are merely a prelude to what comes later: Christ’s own passion and death.

What sustained the Holy Family in their trials? The same thing that can sustain us and our families when we suffer: grace. God allowed the Holy Family to suffer because it too was part of the mystery of redemption for which he sent his Son. That mystery of redemption culminates in Christ's cross, which is also the font from which every grace is given. In this way it was fitting that Jesus's family would experience suffering, since his own suffering was the source by which they also lived in grace. 

In other words, Jesus was born into our world to redeem every part of the human experience, and that includes the lived experience of the family. For our families to also experience his redemption, we will also experience the mystery of redemptive suffering. Sometimes that suffering comes from outside the family – e.g., death, illness, infertility, debt, unemployment – and sometimes it comes from within – e.g., marital strife, abuse, infidelity, addictions, loneliness, resentments, abandonment, and more. In all of it though, the grace of Christ can be made present. God can give to our Christian families the grace we need not only to endure the sufferings that come but to give witness in them to his Son, through our faith, hope, and love. It is for this reason that the Christian family can often be a place of both great love and great suffering – but never suffering hopeless or meaningless, but always suffering that can bring forth even greater love through the power of grace.

Friends, I hope you have an image of the Holy Family in your own homes; if you don’t, consider getting one. It can be a great way of forming your children, your grandchildren, and even yourselves – not just as a model to strive for but as a reminder of the power of grace in the midst of suffering. Just as God sustained the family of Nazareth by his grace so too he can sustain yours, but always in the degree to which you seek to unite your lived experience – whether as spouses, as parents and grandparents, as sons and daughters – to that of Jesus, and that is true especially for your sufferings.

As we continue our Christmas celebrations, may the grace of this Eucharist renew us so that we can help make alive again the mysteries of faith, hope, and love in our family lives.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Heavenly Light

[This homily refers to John 1:1-18, the Gospel for the Mass During the Day of Christmas]

Did you get to see the Christmas Star? If you know what I’m talking about, chances are good that you probably did. If it doesn’t ring a bell, then perhaps you at least heard about the phenomenon they called “The Great Conjunction”: on Monday night, the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Saturn aligned at their closest point in centuries, so much so that for the human eye they seemed to form one single point of light in the sky. Because it happened so close to Christmas, for many of us it is reminiscent of the star that the Gospel of Matthew says appeared over Bethlehem and guided the Magi to find the Christ Child.

It’s hard to know for sure if the astrological event this week is what the wise men saw. But there’s still something fascinating about the idea that it might be, something that captures our imaginations and brings home the reality of what we celebrate today. Human beings have long looked up into the heavens to contemplate their own place in the universe and even to try to understand something about the One who created it. In the desire to know about God, many believed that God could communicate to human beings through the movement of stars and celestial bodies, and that these events signified something about what was happening on earth. It was as if the lights of the heavens could also be a light for our minds as well, to understand the universe and our place in it. The great difficulty, of course, is that that’s really hard to do, and perhaps impossible to do. The orbits of the stars and the planets are fascinating, but in the end, they don’t really tell us anything more about ourselves than what we might read into them.

But – and if you’ve been wondering, “Father, why all of this astronomy stuff on Christmas?”, here’s what I’m leading up to: God’s message to human beings *has* been communicated to us from the heavens. He did send a light from on high to illuminate us, but it came not in the form of a star, but in the Person of the Eternal Word, as we heard in the Gospel for our Mass. This passage, known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel, may seem like a strange choice for a reading on Christmas, since it doesn’t mention any of the things we are used to hearing: a star, angels from on high, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, a child born in a manger. What it does do though is clearly communicate what those other stories all mean: that this Child Jesus born in Bethlehem is the Eternal Son of the Father, the Person of the Divine Word of the Holy Trinity. He who is literally Life, through whom all life and all things were made, has now himself come from heaven to dwell with us. 

Gerard von Honthorst, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

That is who Jesus is, but the question still remains: why has he come? To redeem us, to save us from our sins, to make it possible for us sinful human beings to go to heaven? Yes, certainly. But even more fundamentally: Jesus has come to reveal God’s love. John’s Gospel puts it so beautifully: “this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I don’t need to tell you how dark this year has been: a global pandemic; devastating financial crisis; massive job loss; social isolation; fear and anxiety; racial and political tensions; increase in incidence of addictions and mental illness; millions getting sick; hundreds of thousands, including members of our own families and communities, dying. So many people have suffered, and so many of us are still suffering. We think, “Why, God? Where are you in the midst of all of this?” And I think if we are honest with ourselves those questions always come from this vague, underlying fear that we all share to some degree: that the universe is a cold and unfeeling place; that our short human lives are insignificant; and that, if there is a God, he has better things to do than worry with us.

Christmas, in its essence, is about assuring us that those fears are flat wrong. God *loves* us – not just collectively, but individually. He loves *you*. In Jesus, he has given you the fullest possible assurance of that love; Christ is God’s messenger of love, who is also the message of love himself, who is also God himself. Every question and desire and struggle and doubt that we have – and think for a moment about the ones you have experienced this year, or in any year – all of them find a response, an answer (sometimes, a very mysterious one!) in the Person of Jesus Christ. In truth, we could even say that he is the Great Conjunction of divinity with humanity; his coming tells us what God truly wants us to know.

Now, that is the beginning of the mystery, not the end. To understand that Christ has come out of love for us doesn’t eliminate our sufferings and woes, but it does allow us to begin to see with eyes of faith. At times, the darkness of the world can be thick and oppressive; it blinds so many still. Even we who profess faith, at times we can cast around in the darkness, grasping onto all kinds of things, desperate for something to illuminate our blindness, to assure us that God does love and wishes to communicate that love to us. But the fact is the Light is here; we just need to see it. We need to behold anew its coming – not as a star that appears only every few centuries, not even just in the Birth that we celebrate once a year, but in the presence of a Person always here with us – Really Present among us all the time. He is the Light shining always for us, and not just for us but for all. Having seen the Light, we can bear it also for others – to illuminate the path of those in darkness, to show them a Light no darkness can overcome.

Friends, there is no getting around that this Christmas feels different. Many of the things we like to do are not possible; the warm and fuzzies of the season may feel largely absent. But rather than let that lessen the joy of the season, I suggest it makes it sharper, all the more powerful and meaningful. Jesus is the Light of the World, born for us to show us God’s love, and perhaps we recognize that most clearly when the lights of this world are dimmed, when it’s only his heavenly Light shining in the darkness. May this Christmas be for all of us an opportunity to see that Light anew – not in the sky, not in a manger scene, but present in our minds and hearts, shining even in our darkest moments. Because “the light shines in the darkness” and now we see “his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

Sunday, December 20, 2020

God's Greatest Secret

How good are you keeping a secret? That word often has a negative connotation; we think of secret societies, government secrets, secrets that we don’t want others to know. But some secrets are good, and it is good to keep them – planning a surprise party, for instance, or knowing about a special gift that someone has no idea is coming. Sometimes the hardest secrets to keep are the good ones, the ones we are tempted to share out of joy and excitement.

In the Gospel today, we hear God’s greatest secret – that he himself will be born as a Son to the Virgin Mary in order to save humanity. This reality is, of course, the very reason for the coming Christmas season celebrated by the whole world. Because we know it so well, it can be easy for us to forget that it was originally a secret. From the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, God had planned to save his people: he formed a covenant with them through Abraham; in Moses he gave them a law to follow; in David he raised up a king to rule over them. All of this was to prepare them for the final redemption, in which a Messiah would come to form God’s people to be a light to the rest of the world. But the wondrous secret – the greatest secret since the foundation of the world – was that this Messiah would be none other than God’s own Son. He would be born into time and history so that in a human way he might show us the depths of divine love, even by dying on a Cross, so that by rising again he could also raise us mere humans to the divine light of heaven.

And that is the Christmas story in a nutshell – the Christian story, too. It is what St. Paul describes as the “mystery kept secret for long ages” now revealed for all the world to believe. It is the realization of the the promise God makes to David to establish his line as unfailing; as the angel says to Mary, Jesus is the true heir to David and “of his kingdom there will be no end.” That God would plan, from all of time, to save his people by himself becoming part of his people, by desiring to walk among us – that is the joyous secret at last revealed, because of which we celebrate, in which we rejoice, by which we have our hope.

The Annunciation by George Lawrence Bulleid (1903)

That God’s greatest secret has at last been made known does not meant that he does not still have joyful secrets to share with us. In Christ, he has revealed his great plan of salvation but how that plan unfolds for each of us is still a mystery to be encountered, to be lived out each day. His plan of redemption came to life in the birth of his Son, but it must be born anew in our lives – in the desires of our hearts, in the pursuits and endeavors of our day to day, in our relationships and encounters with each person we meet. All of that and more takes on a new character in light of this greatest secret made known, the great birth that announces God’s saving plan for you and for me.

The Christmas season feels very near now, but until it arrives we are called to continue our Advent preparation. Perhaps we do that best not by taking away from today’s readings a Scriptural insight or moral teaching, but an invitation to reflect anew upon the mystery of Christ’s birth – maybe according to how we are familiar with keeping a secret. Have we marveled at how God, the master planner of this surprise, has ordered all things well? Do we share in the mystery with eager anticipation, like a man planning to propose to his beloved? Do we treasure it with joy, like a couple who has not yet shared with their family that they are expecting?

Friends, in the end, God’s greatest secret is the one he wants us to share with everyone: the joy and love of his Son Jesus Christ. But perhaps we do that best only when we have taken time to reflect upon it ourselves, and thereby come to a new appreciation for its mystery and grandeur – this secret from long ago that still means so much for us today.

May this Eucharist, itself a mystery of the Lord’s coming to us, inspire us to await with joy and with faith the salvation that Mary’s Child has come to bring.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

A Year of Favor

I have said it often enough lately that you may be tired of hearing me say it: it has been a difficult year. Thankfully, it is drawing to a close, and it does seem as if good news is coming. The first approval for a vaccine has now been given, and so perhaps we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel for this pandemic. Of course, it hasn’t ended yet, and we know there will still be difficulties ahead; nonetheless, I imagine we all will be very ready to turn the page on this year and start fresh in a few weeks.

I have remarked to a few people that I hope 2021 is everything that 2020 has not been. Can you imagine if instead of what we experienced this year, when it felt like there was wave after wave of difficulties and discouraging news, instead we had a year of good news, happy occasions, and one long continued celebration? Maybe we can even imagine what particular thing we would want to happen, or whom we would like to visit with, or what blessing we would want to receive. To have a year of favor would be a blessing indeed.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah announces just such a year to God’s people. What he prophesied was more than just the end of sorrows: it was a revitalization, a spiritual and moral renewal that would touch every part of their lives. And it would be ushered in by a particular messenger, a righteous one through whom God would act – the Messiah, the Anointed One. It is he who will come “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.” If that passage sounds familiar, it is because it is claimed by Jesus, who in the Gospel of Luke quotes this very passage from Isaiah in his home synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus is the fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied; it his coming into the world which communicates God’s favor and revitalizes his people.

And yet, Isaiah didn’t live to see that day; Jesus was born several hundred years later. John the Baptist, about whom we heard once again in the Gospel, did live to see Jesus, but he didn’t live to see the revitalization that Jesus began; it’s only after John’s arrest by King Herod that Jesus begins his public ministry, and of course he is executed shortly afterward. And even us today – who live 2000 years after Christ, who believe that he is the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, the very Son of God – we have not yet seen the full manifestation of his power and glory, the final restoration of all things. We believe that is coming, but in the meantime, we wait.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Preaching of John the Baptist (c. 1490)

In order to wait well, we need something, something that John the Baptist had, something that Isaiah had. It’s a virtue that could be said to sum up the entire season of Advent, maybe even the entirety of our lives as Christians: hope. The word “hope” today often is used to mean little more than wishful thinking. We say, “Let’s hope so,” or “I hope that’s the case,” and we mean a vague notion that perhaps what we want will come true. But that’s not what Christian hope is. St. Thomas Aquinas defined the virtue of hope as “the certain expectation of future happiness.” The hopeful person believes, and believes with *certainty*, that the good thing they are waiting for *will* be fulfilled. They believe it so completely that they have, to a certain degree, the joy of that good thing. It hasn’t come yet, but because it surely will, it already brings joy to those who have hope.

Maybe we can think of this in relation to what I mentioned earlier: about what it will be like when this pandemic comes to an end and when life can go back to normal. We’re not there yet, but even now we can feel a whisper of joy at the idea. Hope is always that way; it must always involves something that hasn’t yet come to fulfillment. As St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans (8:24-25) who hopes for something they already have? No, hope has to involve an act of faith – to believe, to fully *expect* that happiness is coming, even if it can’t yet be seen.

Isaiah had hope for Christ, even though he never saw his coming. John the Baptist did, too, even though he never saw the extent of his power. Hope is always what sustains us – through this long and difficult year, but also in any form of suffering, public or private, that we have to endure. To hope is to believe that despite the sufferings of the present moment, God will surely give us happiness. Perhaps we ask – but what about those things that we can't hope for: a relationship that has has broken, a loved one who has passed away? How can I hopeful about those things. For the Christian, hope is never rooted in a particular good – a thing, even a person, – but must be rooted ultimately only in the happiness of the life to come. It is only in salvation, in the happiness of eternal life, where sorrow and suffering will be no more. 

Perhaps, therefore, a good exercise for us at this point in Advent is to ask ourselves a few questions: What am I hoping for? Is that hope related to Jesus? Where in my life do I need to be revitalized, to receive what God can give me: glad tidings, healing, liberty, favor, vindication? Do I expect to receive those things, or does it just seem like wishful thinking? Can I trust God enough to believe that he will give me what I need – maybe not always what I want, but what will bring me closer to eternal life?

Friends, in a year as difficult as this one, it may seem hard to be hopeful, and even harder to be joyful, especially with the many difficulties we face. And yet that’s what the Church bids us today – to be renewed in hope, to be joyful. Whatever the new year will bring, nothing will happen that is not permitted by God, and so we can be hopeful, even joyful, because we know he is faithful. May this Eucharist strengthen us to endure the sufferings of the present so as to anticipate with joy and hope the salvation that is to come.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Grace Not to Hide

It is part of human nature perhaps to hide from our mistakes. A child who breaks something might try to hide the evidence, hoping to not get caught, or will hide themselves, delaying the moment that they will. We adults are often not much better. We avoid those with whom we have had disagreements, and we’d rather make excuses than admit our faults.

This is not a new problem. In today’s first reading, we hear that our first parents behaved the same way with God when they broke the one commandment he had given them. If we struggle with understanding why this was so terrible, it’s important to focus less on the action itself – eating the fruit of a particular tree – and more on what the action was: blatant disobedience. And what’s more, it wasn’t like the disobedience of a child; Adam and Eve had greater powers of intellect and will than we have, and so they truly *knew* what they were doing went against everything they had been given by their friend, the God with whom they dwelled in the garden. And so, having been deceived, having realized their sin, Adam and Eve hide in shame and fear from God.

The rest of the reading is really about God’s mercy. He seeks out his sinful creatures, not to destroy them as he could have done, but to assure them that all is not lost. It is true that their sin has some definite ramifications. They have to leave the paradise of the garden, and as a result of their sin, things that weren’t originally part of God’s creation enter the world: sin, concupiscence, suffering, and death. But, despite their infidelity, and despite ours too, God does not abandon us. In fact, we might say that the rest of history is God’s great rescue mission to save human beings from sin and death.

Today we celebrate the feast which marks the first glimmer of God’s plan of salvation coming at last to its culmination. Long before Jesus died and rose again in Jerusalem, or was born in Bethlehem, or was announced by an angel in Nazareth, his Blessed Mother was herself conceived without sin in the womb of her mother. In other words, from the moment of her conception, Mary was Immaculate, and that spotlessness stayed with her throughout her life, the free gift of grace from God that accorded completely with her will. We often think of Mary’s most glorious moment as her fiat to the angel Gabriel – her response, “Let it be done to me according to God’s word.” And while it was indeed the shining moment of her faith and her humility for the Lord’s plan, it was also possible because she was, as the angel said, “full of grace.” It was God’s gift of grace from the moment of her conception that made it possible for her to say “Yes” to being the Mother of our Lord. 

The Immaculate Conception (c. 1628) by Peter Paul Rubens

This truth of Mary’s life has significance not just for what we believe but also how we live. The serpent had told Eve that disobedience would make her “like God”; but that was a lie. It only led to shame and hiding, and all of humanity suffered as a result. Sin is always that way; whatever attraction it holds in the moment, it always is a letdown, an illusion. And yet God does not abandon us, but he offers us his grace anew. Through her obedience made possible by God’s gift of grace, Mary received what Adam and Eve had desired – to be like God, and even more, to become the Mother of God, and all of humanity has benefited as a result. So too in our lives, God’s grace never restricts our freedom; rather, it perfects it, and it makes it possible for us to obediently follow his will – so that we can be like him in this life and even live with him in the next.

Friends, in a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of our Savior, but we can be celebrate already today the grace of Christ which redeems us – the grace given to Mary at the moment of her Immaculate Conception, and the graces he offers to us as well. May we never hide from the Lord but allow him to find us, to make us whole, to give us his grace anew, so that like Mary, we can glorify him in all that we do.