Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"NOTHING WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD."


Homily for December 12th, 2018. Luke 1:26-38

          Fourteen days before Christmas we come to Mass, and what do we hear? The story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, telling her that she is to be the mother of God’s Son. What’s going on?

What’s going on is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On December 9th, 1531 a Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, encountered a girl at the hill of Tepeyac who told him to go to the archbishop of nearby Mexico City and ask him to build a shrine there in her honor. Recognizing that the girl was Mary, Juan Diego went to the archbishop and placed Mary’s request before him. ‘Go back to Tepeyac,’ the archbishop told Juan Diego, ‘and if the girl appears again, tell her I must have some sign to authenticate her request.’

Three days later the girl reappeared and told Juan Diego to gather some roses, put them in his cloak, and take them to the archbishop. Although it was cold and long past the time of roses, Juan Diego found plenty of roses atop the normally barren hill. He filled his cloak with them and returned to the archbishop. When he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor, revealing on the inside of the cloak an image of Mary. The image survives today, enshrined in the great church of Guadalupe, at the edge of Mexico City. It is the most visited Marian shrine in the whole world. Despite extensive examinations of the image, there is no scientific explanation of how it was produced or how it has survived intact for almost five centuries..

Nor has there ever been any explanation of how Mary, while still a virgin, conceived the baby boy whose birth we shall celebrate in just 14 days. When Mary herself asked the angel Gabriel who brought her this astounding news how such a thing was possible, she received simply the words: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Some thirty-three years later (according to the traditional dating), her Son experienced something no less impossible than his virginal conception. On the third day after his public death by crucifixion, his tomb was found empty, and he started to appear to those who had loved him before. Jesus is not a dead hero from the past. He is our risen and glorified Lord, alive forevermore, holding in his hand the keys of death. He waits for each one of us at the end of life’s road, to lead us to the place he has gone ahead to prepare for us. There we shall experience not just joy, but ecstasy –for we shall see God face to face!     

 

Monday, December 10, 2018

"REJOICE IN THE LORD ALWAYS!"



Third Sunday in Advent, Year C.  Zeph. 3:14-18a; Phil. 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
AIM:  To help the hearers experience Christian joy.
 
Is there anyone here who does not remember Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta? Can anyone forget her radiant smile? A secular journalist wrote about her: AWhen she smiles and laughs, which she does often ... the human clay molds itself in unambiguous joy.@ Can there be any doubt that Mother Teresa was a living embodiment of the theme of our liturgy on this third Sunday in Advent: joy
ASing joyfully, O Israel!@ we heard in the first reading. ABe glad and exult with all your heart.@ The responsorial psalm continued this theme: ACry out with joy and gladness.@ Paul repeats it in the second reading. Writing from a Roman prison, hardly a place of joy, he tells the Christian community at Philippi: ARejoice in the Lord always!@ And joy is evident also in the gospel description of the people=s reaction to the preaching of John the Baptist: AThe people were filled with expectation@ B or, as another translation has it, they were Aon tiptoe of expectation@ [New English Bible] B Aand all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.@
Would a stranger visiting a Catholic church on Sunday morning find people Aon tiptoe of expectation,@ radiating Mother Teresa’s Aunambiguous joy@? In some places, perhaps. But in many others definitely not. Why are there so many bored, joyless faces in Catholic churches B on both sides of the altar? One reason, surely, is the emphasis we place on obligations. Catholics who come to Mass on Sunday simply to fulfill a legal obligation – to get their card punched -- are hardly likely to experience much joy.
Now don=t get me wrong. Obligations are important. They are the bridges that carry us over life=s valleys, when zeal and enthusiasm slacken. Sunday Mass, however, is meant to be more than just an obligation. It is a celebration. A religion which never gets beyond fulfilling a list of obligations will always be joyless. Though our religious obligations are defined in minimum terms, Catholics who are concerned simply with fulfilling these obligations experience them as heavy burdens, without which life would be much more pleasant. 
A religion of minimum obligations only is based on the idea of a remote God who makes unpleasant demands on us, and punishes us when we fail to measure up.  If we don=t want any trouble, therefore, we=d better satisfy God=s demands.  Catholics who think of God like that tend to think that once they have satisfied God=s demands, they are free to live the rest of their lives as they please. Such people are living with God on the fringe of their lives. At the center are their own plans, their own desires, their own Apursuit of happiness.@
At this point I must tell you something that may surprise you. As long as God is on the fringe of your life, he will always be a threat to you. Why? Because he will always be trying to move from the fringe into the center. That is why there are so many joyless faces in church on Sunday morning. Most of the people behind those faces probably think of God as someone threatening and remote, on the fringe of their lives, whom they are trying to appease by fulfilling a list of minimum obligations. Such a God is always a threat. He seems always to be asking for more; wanting to move from the fringe into the center. 
         Have you ever felt threatened by God? Would you like to end that threat? To make your religion a source of joy, rather than a burden? You can B and it=s very simple. All you have to do is move God from the fringe of your life into the center.  If your religion is based upon fulfilling a list of minimum obligations, that will sound very threatening. Once God is at the center of my life, you=re probably asking, won=t he take over and smother me with his demands?
In reality, precisely the opposite is the case. A religion which places God at the center is the only kind of religion that can produce joy. Show me a follower of Jesus Christ who radiates the Aunambiguous joy@ that even a secular journalist saw in Mother Teresa, and I will show you someone who never asks: >How little can I give to God and still satisfy my obligation? How late can I come to Mass, for instance, and how early can I hurry away, and still have it Acount@?= People whose religion brings them joy, and who radiate that joy to others, ask a very different question: >If God has given me all that I have and am, apart from my sins, how much do I dare keep for myself?=   
That is the question Mother Teresa asked when, at age thirty-six, she felt called by God to leave the security of her Principal=s job in a convent school for wealthy girls in Calcutta in order to devote the rest of her life to the service of the poor. She had no money and no companions. It took her over a year just to get permission to leave her convent for new work. At her death, however, there were almost 3000 women in 132 countries worldwide who had joined her Missionaries of Charity B and that in a day in which, in our country alone, over 100,000 women left the convent to pursue other paths. 
Comparatively few people are called in the special away that Mother Teresa was B though some are. Somewhere in this church right now there is a young person whom God is calling to be a Sister, a religious Brother, or a priest. Ahead of you is a wonderful life! Respond generously to God=s call, and you will discover that the Lord will never be outdone in generosity. How do I know that? I know it from my own experience. When I was just twelve years old, the Lord put into my heart the desire to be a priest. Since then, I=ve never wanted anything else. I=ve been a priest now for over 61 years. And I=ve never regretted it: not one single day. The late Chicago novelist and sociologist, Fr. Andrew Greeley, writes: APriests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.@ I can confirm that from my own experience. [I’ve written about that experience in a book called No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace. It’s the story of my difficult journey to the Catholic Church: I was a priest in the Episcopal Church for six years before I became a Catholic, and later a priest. And it’s the story too of a man who, more than 64 years after ordination, is still in love with priesthood.]

Let me tell you finally about another man who was in love with priesthood. He died in Rome sixteen years ago as a cardinal: the Vietnamese bishop Francis Xavier Van Thuan. When the Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, he had just been made archbishop of Saigon. He was arrested and imprisoned for thirteen years. He writes:

AWhen I was arrested, I had to leave immediately with empty hands. The next day I was permitted to write to my people asking for the most necessary things: clothes, toothpaste. I wrote, >Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach ache.= The faithful understood right away. They sent me a small bottle of wine for Mass with a label that read, >Medicine for stomach aches.= They also sent me some hosts, hidden in a flashlight.  

AThe police asked me: >You have stomach aches?= >Yes,= I told them. >Here=s some medicine for you,= they said.

AI will never be able to express my great joy! Every day, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I would celebrate Mass. This was my altar, and this was my cathedral! It was true medicine for soul and body.

AEach time I celebrated Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with him the bitter chalice. Each day in reciting the words of consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and soul a new pact, an eternal pact between Jesus and me through his blood mixed with mine. Those were the most beautiful Masses of my life!@

Those words challenge us. Does the Mass mean, for us, even a fraction of what it meant to that imprisoned bishop?

______________________________________________________

 

The bishop=s story is taken from Francis Xavier Van Than, Testimony of Hope (Boston: Pauline Books, 2000) p. 131.

 

THE LOST SHEEP


Homily for December 11th, 2018: Matt. 18:12-14.

          “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” Jesus’ rhetorical question invites the answer, “Of course, any shepherd would do that.” In reality, no shepherd in his right mind would think for a moment of  doing what Jesus’ question suggests. That would risk turning a minor misfortune, the loss of a single sheep, into a major disaster: the dispersal and possible loss of the entire flock.

          ‘That’s how good God is,’ Jesus is saying with this simple parable. God’s care for us is not reasonable, measured, prudent. God’s love for us is reckless, according to ordinary worldly standards. When we stray from him, God will go to any lengths, and wait without limit, to get us back.

          But what about Jesus’ following words about the shepherd rejoicing more over the one lost sheep than over the ninety-nine who never strayed? Shouldn’t there be some rejoicing, at least, over those who never left the flock?

          To answer that question we must ask another. Who are these ninety-nine who never went astray? Do you know anyone like that? I don’t. Oh, I know many people who think they have never strayed from their heavenly Father’s love. But they are wrong. How can there be any rejoicing over people who are so mistaken about their spiritual condition?

          In reality all of us stray from our heavenly Father in some way and at some time. All of us need the Father’s loving forgiveness. With this short and simple parable, Jesus is telling us that God’s care, his love, and his forgiveness, are available to us always. Or as our wonderful Pope Francis never tires of telling us: God never gets tired of forgiving us. It is we who grow tired of asking for forgiveness.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

THE MIRACLE OF FORGIVENESS


          “Child, your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the paralyzed man in today’s gospel. Jesus is not saying that every illness is the result of sin. His words suggest, however, that Jesus saw in this particular man a spiritual burden that needed to be loosed before the man could be healed physically. 
          “We have never seen anything like this,” the onlookers exclaim in astonishment as they see the formerly paralyzed man pick up his mat and walk. For Luke, the gospel writer, the true miracle, however, is not the man’s physical cure, but the spiritual healing of forgiveness. 
          Perhaps you’re thinking: “What is so miraculous about forgiveness? Don’t we forgive others every day?” Thank God, we do. Between our forgiveness and God’s, however, there is this great difference. When we forgive, there is always a memory of
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the injury done, a “skeleton in the closet,” we call it. The wrong needs only to be repeated, or one like it, for the memory to be revived. God doesn’t have any closets. And even if he did, there wouldn’t be any skeletons there. God’s forgiveness is total. Jesus brings us this total forgiveness. In the sacrament of penance, Jesus uses his priests to bring us this gift.
          Some of the things we priests hear in confession help us to repent. Across the distance of almost sixty years I can still hear a child’s voice saying: “I stamp my foot at my mother and say No.” And I thought: that little one has greater sorrow for that small sin than I do for my sins, which are far worse. Telling you that is no violation of the seal of confession. I haven’t identified that child. I believe the Lord sent that little one into my confessional, to teach me a lesson. I’ve never forgotten it.
            “What will the priest think?” people sometimes ask. Let me tell you what one priest thought, a young man newly ordained and in his first parish assignment. In a letter to a friend, still in seminary, the new priest wrote: “I go into the confessional now, Jack; and I experience God in a completely new way.” 

Friday, December 7, 2018

THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION


“HAIL, MARY, FULL OF GRACE ... ”
Immaculate Conception of the BVM.  Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Ephesians, 1:3-6,
          11-12; Luke 1:26-38.
          Have you ever felt so ashamed of yourself that you wanted to run away and hide? Today’s first reading is about a man who felt that way. After disobeying God’s command, Adam hides, hoping to avoid a confrontation with the loving Creator and Father against whom he has rebelled. 
          When God pursues him and asks, “Where are you?” the man replies: “I was afraid ... so I hid myself.” He thought he would find happiness by ‘doing his own thing.’ Instead he finds only disappointment, frustration, and shame. Is there anyone here who has never had a similar experience? This simple story is no primitive folk tale. It is the story of Everyman – true to our common experience of life. If the story has a moral, it is this. We find happiness, joy, and peace only when we stop trying to run away and hide from God, and begin entrusting ourselves to him in faith. 
          The Church gives us, in Holy Scripture, a beautiful human model of this trusting faith: Mary, the mother of the Lord. The Catechism says: “By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity.” (No. 967)
          Mary did not insist on what she wanted, on doing her own thing. She was content to do God’s thing, even though it involved much suffering and grief. On today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, we praise God for preparing Mary from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb (which took place through normal human procreation) from that fundamental defect of human nature which the theologians call “original sin.” This defect means that we come into the world imperfect, not as God originally intended us to be. From this defect we are healed by baptism, when God reaches out and claims us for his own. In baptism we are reborn spiritually, becoming God’s children by adoption; and by his free gift, we are graced with the perfect human nature of our savior and redeemer, Jesus Christ. 
          The Immaculate Conception means that Mary had no need for baptism. As the Catechism says, quoting the words of our second reading: “The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person ‘in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ and chose her ‘in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love.’” (No. 492)  
          Today we praise God for bestowing this unique privilege on Mary in order to prepare her beforehand to be the mother of his Son. That gift did not take away Mary’s freedom, however. For her, as for each of us, her acceptance by God – her salvation – was a free gift that required her cooperation with God, the giver of this gift. 
          As we honor Mary for her words of free assent, “May it be done to me according to your word,” we invoke her prayers that we may make our assent to God; that we too may say our “Yes” to God, as she did.  

Thursday, December 6, 2018

"DO YOU BELIEVE I CAN DO THIS?"


Homily for December 7th, 2018: Matthew 9:27-31                

          “Do you believe that I can do this?” Jesus asks the two blind men who ask for healing. “Yes, Lord,” they respond. This declaration of faith is crucial. Faith opens us up to the action of God, as the sunshine opens up the flowers to the sun’s life giving warmth and the morning dew. Jesus reaffirms the close connection between faith and healing as he says: “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” Whereupon he touches the two and they are immediately healed.

          Now comes a surprise. “See that no one knows this,” he commands. Why? Bible scholars have been puzzling over this question ever since the gospels were written. The most convincing answer seems to be that Jesus did not wish to be known as a sensational wonder-worker. If all those who preach Jesus Christ today were to follow his example, a number of hot gospelers on TV have to go off the air. In Jesus’ day many of his people thought that when the long awaited Messiah came, he would be a person of power and glory. The only power that Jesus had was the power of love. His only glory was acceptance of the cross – an instrument of shame, degradation and death.

          Pope Benedict gives perhaps the best explanation for Jesus’ unwillingness to reveal his true identity until after his resurrection. Identifying himself publicly as Messiah, the anointed servant of God, “would undoubtedly have been misinterpreted in the public climate of Israel [Pope Benedict writes] and would necessarily have led to false hopes in him and on the other hand to political action against him. … The true Messiah is the ‘Son of Man,’ who is condemned to death as the precondition for his entrance into glory as the one who rose from death after three days.” (Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, pp. 297f)

          The two newly healed blind men know nothing of all this, of course. Overwhelmed with gratitude for their newfound sight, “they went out [Matthew tells us] and spread word of him throughout all that land.” Now, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has removed all false expectations of the Messiah, Jesus invites us to do the same: with words when necessary, but in any case through a joy no less intense and contagious than that of the two men in today’s gospel: previously blind, but now able to see.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

THE PARABLE OF TWO HOUSES


Homily for December 6th, 2018: Matthew 7:21, 24-27.

          “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells us, “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Who are the people who say, “Lord, Lord”? We are! Every time we pray – and your presence here shows that you do pray – we are saying, “Lord, Lord.” God asks for more, Jesus is telling us. If our prayers do not bear fruit in our lives, they are useless.

          The parable of the two houses which follows shows the difference between words and deeds. It may reflect something Jesus himself had witnessed: a house built on sandy, low lying ground, swept away by heavy rains and storms. Those of us who live in the Mississippi valley witness that every decade or so. Houses built, despite all previous experience, on the floodplain are swept away, or rendered uninhabitable, when the Father of Waters, as the native Americans called the river, overflow its banks. Meanwhile, those who build on higher ground, with solid foundations, experience no loss at all.

          What does it mean to build on sand? It means basing our lives and hopes on things that are unstable and fleeting: money, success, fame – even health and prosperity. To build on rock means to build our lives on God. The Bible often compares God to solid rock. We have an example in today’s first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, “Trust in the Lord forever,” he writes, “for the Lord is an eternal Rock.” Simply calling out ‘Lord, Lord,” is useless, if the good things we do are not done for Him, but for our own glory, to impress other people.

          Here is a prayer written by a man who built on God: Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, a hero to his people for defending them, at great personal cost, during the German occupation of World War I. It goes like this: “O Holy Spirit, Beloved of my soul, I adore you. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do. Give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that you desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me. Let me only know your will. Amen.

          I pray that prayer every day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

'THEY ALL ATE TO THE FULL."


Homily for December 5th, 2018: Matthew 15:29-37.

          This story of Jesus feeding the vast crowd in the wilderness was clearly a favorite with Christians in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection. We find it told, with variations, six times over in the four gospels.

What accounts for its popularity? I can think of three reasons. First, it shows Jesus’ ability to solve what, to us, is insoluble. Second, it is an example of what is sometimes called “The Law of the gift.” And finally, it helps us understand the central Christian mystery: the Eucharist. Let me speak briefly about each of these three.

Feeding a vast multitude with seven loaves of bread and a few fish was clearly impossible. Not, however, for Jesus. The story tells us that when we place our resources, however inadequate they may be, into the hands of Jesus Christ, we discover that they are inadequate no longer. Jesus is the Son and representative of the God of the impossible.

Second, the story helps us understand what is sometimes called “the law of the gift.” This tells us that when we give something to the Lord, it is not lost. It comes back to us. But it comes back transformed, and enlarged. That is because God is, in the words of the theologians, sufficient unto himself. He needs nothing.

Third and finally, what we offer to God in the Eucharist -- a little bread and a small quantity of wine, gifts every bit as insignificant as the seven loaves of bread and a few fish offered to Jesus in this story -- comes back to us transformed into the Body and Blood of God’s Son: all his love, all his goodness, all his  strength, all his purity and compassion, all his willingness to forgive.

And friends, when we have Him – Jesus – we have everything.