Friday, December 16, 2016


Homily for December 17th 2016: Matthew 1:1-17.

          To come to Mass eight days before Christmas each year and to hear this long list of mostly strange sounding names – a challenge to any priest or deacon reading them – is discouraging, to say the least. And when we get to the end and find that Jesus’ ancestry has been traced not to Mary but to Joseph, his legal but not his biological father, is jarring. What can we say about all this?

          The list contains both saints and grave sinners. They symbolize all of us, with our strengths and weaknesses, who need the saving power of God. Jesus came, humanly speaking, from some great and talented people, but equally from the poor and insignificant. God, this list tells us, writes straight with crooked lines. He has certainly done that in my life. Which of you could not say the same about yours?

          Especially interesting are the women in the list. The first mentioned is Tamar, a Gentile outside God’s Chosen People, who seduced her father-in-law, Judah, so that she could have a child. The next woman is another Gentile outsider, a prostitute named Hagar, honored by the Jews despite her sinful way of life, because she hid and thus saved from execution the Jewish men sent out by Moses’ successor Joshua to spy out the future home of God’s people. Then there is Ruth, another outsider, though not a grave sinner. Bathsheba, also a Gentile, is not even mentioned by name. She is identified simply as the one “who had been the wife of Uriah.” She was the one who committed adultery with David – whose advances she could hardly refused, however, given the absolute power of a king in those days. And at the end of her life she would scheme to make sure that one of her own offspring would inherit David’s throne.

          The late great American biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes: “The God who wrote the beginnings on crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of these are own lives and witness.” Christianity is not just for the talented, the good, the humble and honest. No one is so bad, so insignificant, so devoid of talent that he or she is outside the circle of Jesus Christ. And that includes all of us here today.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Dec. 18th, 2016: Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A - Mt. 1:18-24.
AIM: To help the hearers recognize God=s presence in their lives today.
A Sunday school teacher told a class of young children the Christmas story of the shepherds and the Wise Men. At the end she asked them: AWho do you think was the first to know about the birth of Jesus?@
A girl=s hand shot up: AMary,@ she answered.    
Well, sure. How could anyone miss that? That=s just the kind of thing, however, that we adults often do miss. We=re looking for more complicated answers. Lacking the simplicity of young children, we associate God with things that are dramatic and spectacular, like the choir of angels appearing to the shepherds, and the star which guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem. It=s easy for us to miss God=s presence and action in something as ordinary as pregnancy and birth. 
That explains why so many of Jesus= own people failed to recognize him as their long awaited Messiah. The popular expectation was that the Messiah would come dramatically, and unexpectedly. Jesus= people had a saying: AThree things come wholly unexpected: the Messiah, a godsend, and a scorpion.@ No one expected God=s anointed servant to come as a normal nursing baby born to a young girl in a small village. People expected him to drop unexpected from the sky, full-grown in his royal regalia and power. What more fitting landing place for the Messiah than the Temple mount in the holy city of Jerusalem, venerated by Jesus= people as the earthly dwelling place of God? This helps us understand why one way the devil tempted Jesus during his forty days= fast in the wilderness was by suggesting that he jump down from a pinnacle of the Temple.          
How could people raised on such expectations reconcile them with this man Jesus who been born and raised in their midst? AWe know where this man is from,@ they say in John=s gospel. ABut when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.@ (Jn 7:27) Matthew reports a similar reaction to Jesus. When Jesus returned to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and taught in the synagogue there, the people asked: AIsn=t this the carpenter=s son? ... Where did he get all this? They found him altogether too much for them.@  (Mt 13:55f)   
It is easy to criticize Jesus= contemporaries for failing to recognize him. But are we really more clear sighted than they were? When God first came to us in human form he did so not dramatically on the clouds of heaven, but through the nine months= pregnancy of a simple country girl, and through thirty years of the normal human process of growth, infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. That tells us something C or at least it should. It tells us that God comes to us today as he did then: in ways we would never expect. More C God comes to us, and is with us, when we think he=s not there at all. 
In the days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York twelve years ago, one of the television networks showed a group of people in New Jersey who had lost loved ones talking about that terrible day. AWhere was God?@ one man complained. AGod wasn=t there.@ Many people said the same. The complaint is understandable. But it is wrong. It assumes that God is there to protect us from pain and suffering, or at least from disaster and tragedy. Often God does protect us. But not always. Our Christian and Catholic faith promises us something different. It gives us the promise, and the assurance, not that God will always protect us, but that God is with us in pain and suffering, and especially amid disaster and tragedy. 
AWhere was God on September eleventh, 2001?@ people ask. God was there in the countless acts of heroism, large and small, which were so widely reported in the days and weeks after the attack, and which still remain reason for gratitude, admiration, and wonder.  
God comes to us in more ordinary ways too C not only when tragedy strikes. He comes to us, again and again, in the normal events of everyday life, in people we know and love C but also in those we dislike and find difficult, sometimes impossible. 
God came to me almost sixty ago through a child=s voice on the other side of the confessional screen saying: AI stamp my foot at my mother and say No.@ That hit me hard. That little one is so sorry for that small sin, I thought. My own sins are worse B and I=m not that sorry. I believe that the Lord sent that child into my confessional to teach me a lesson. I never knew that child’s name. He or she is probably a grandparent now. But I=ve never forgotten what that little one taught me.
The Lord came to me more recently, and spoke to me, in words of a woman, a daily communicant, who said to me after many years of married life: AFather, when you walk up to the altar on your wedding day, you don=t see the Stations of the Cross.@ Preaching recently to a group of men preparing for ordination as permanent deacons, and to their wives, I quoted those words. As I did so I could see heads nodding all over the chapel.   
An African proverb says: AListen, and you will hear the footsteps of the ants.@ God=s coming to us is often as insignificant as the footsteps of ants. God is coming to each one of us, right now. He is knocking on the door of our hearts. He leaves it to us whether we open the door. How often we have refused to do so, trying to keep God at a distance because we fear the demands he will make on us.  Yet God continues to come to us, and to knock. He never breaks in. He waits for us to open the door. As long as life on this earth lasts, God will never take No as our final answer.
Refusing to open the door means shutting out of our lives the One who alone can give our lives meaning; who offers us the strength to surmount suffering; the One who alone can give us fulfillment, happiness, and peace.  Keeping the door of our hearts shut to God means missing out on the greatest chance we shall ever be offered; failing to appear for our personal rendezvous with destiny.
Opening the door to God, letting him into our lives, means embarking on life=s greatest adventure. This is the most worthwhile thing we can do with our lives C at bottom the only thing worth doing. When we open the door to God, when we say our Yes to him, we place ourselves on the side of the simple Jewish girl whom we encounter in today=s gospel. When she opened the door to God and said her Yes to him, she was able to speak words that would be the height of arrogant conceit were it not for one thing: they were true:

AAll generations shall call me blessed.@ (Lk 1:48)


Homily for December 15th, 2016. Isaiah 54:1-10.

          We sometimes hear that the Old Testament is the book God’s law, the New Testament the book of his love. There is a basis for this statement. God’s gift to Moses of his law, the Ten Commandments, is central in the Old Testament. It tells the story twice over: once in Exodus (chapter 20), again in Deuteronomy (chapter 5). And Israel’s prophets insisted constantly on the need to obey these laws, given by God.

          Moreover, no one can dispute that the theme of God’s love is central in the New Testament. “God so loved the world,” we read in John’s gospel, “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but may have eternal life” (3:16).

If we dig a little deeper, however, we see that the difference between the two parts of the Bible is not so clear as we often assume. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount. “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt: 5:17). And in the Old Testament we find the words which closed our first reading: “Though the mountains leave their place, and the hills be shaken, my love will never leave you, nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Is. 54:10).

The Old Testament, indeed the whole Bible, views God’s commandments not as fences to hem people in, but as signposts pointing to fulfillment and happiness, a gift given to the people whom he chose for his own, and not to other nations. Deuteronomy states this explicitly when it represents God asking his people: “What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you this day?” (4:8).

When Jesus taught us, in the one prayer he gave us, to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” what else was he teaching us but to pray that we might obey God’s laws. In today’s chaotic world we see only too clearly how deeply we suffer when we disobey God’s law: through killing, lying, stealing, and violating the marriage bond. We pray therefore in this Mass that through obedience to God’s commandments we may find those precious gifts which, at the deepest level, come from God alone: happiness, fulfillment, and peace.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Homily for December 14th, 2016: St. John of the Cross.

          The Church celebrates today one of the great men of the 1500s, a century which brought both the disaster of the Reformation, but also great saints. The previous century witnessed repeated demands for Church reform in head and members. No one imagined, however, that reform, when it came, would result in the departure from Catholic unity of whole nations, and the setting up of altar against altar. The fruits of these divisions remain with us today in the form of literally thousands of Christian denominations which greatly weaken Christian witness to the world.

          At the very time however, when this disaster was unfolding, God raised up men and women of heroic faith: Ignatius of Loyola, the founder the Society of Jesus; his fellow Jesuit and missioner to the Far East, Francis Xavier; Philip Neri, the apostle of Rome; Charles Borromeo, born to wealth and privilege and made a cardinal at age 22 by his uncle by Pope Pius IV, but a champion of Church reform nonetheless.

In Spain the century witnessed the birth of St. Teresa of Avila, whom we celebrated on October 15th, and her fellow Carmelite whom we commemorate today, St John of the Cross. Both dedicated their lives to deep prayer, and to reform of the Carmelite order, encountering for their efforts bitter enmity from their fellow Sisters and Friars. For St. John this included imprisonment and torture.

          Though 17 years younger than Teresa, John of the Cross was her confessor and spiritual director. The writings of both on prayer are spiritual classics. A frequent theme in the writings of John of the Cross was the importance of silence. Here are three quotations from his writings which give an indication of his spirituality:

-- “A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul.”        

-- “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this    

     great God with our appetite and with our tongue; for the language he hears best

     is silent love.” And finally, my personal favorite:

--  “In the evening of life, we will be judged by love alone.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Homily for Dec. 13th, 2016: Matthew 21:28-32.    

Today=s parable of the two sons was Jesus= way of bringing home the contrast between the religious leaders, who rejected him, and the outcasts of society, who heard him gladly. To Jesus= hearers, living in a patriarchal society, the father in the story was a figure of unquestioned authority. His sons owed him the obedience enjoined in the fourth commandment: AHonor your father and your mother.@ 

The first son=s response to the father=s request for help on the family farm was an in-your-face refusal of his duty which would have deeply shocked Jesus= hearers. ABut afterwards [he] changed his mind and went,@ Jesus tells us. The second son responds courteously and at once: AYes, sir!@ ABut [he] did not go,@ Jesus says.

Immediately Jesus confronts his critics with a question. AWhich of the two did what his father=s will?@ Jesus= critics give the only possible answer: AThe first.@ They are convicted out of their own mouths. AAmen, I say to you,@ Jesus tells them, Atax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.@   

For us the story contains a warning C but also encouragement. Faithful performance of our religious duties is in itself no guarantee of salvation. Such obedience is profitable only if it brings us closer to others and makes us more loving people C and if it brings us closer to God. And the closer we come to God, the more clearly we shall recognize our remaining sinfulness and unworthiness of all the love he showers on us. 

What counts, Jesus is telling us, is not what we say, feel, or intend. The only thing that counts is what we do. God sees the difficulties with which we must contend. When we stumble and fall, and think we can rise no more because we=ve been down so often before, we need to ask God to do for us what we can no longer do ourselves.

          Let me conclude with the verses of an evangelical hymn. If you have ever watched a Billy Graham revival on television, you have heard it sung softly by the massed choirs as people come forward to give their lives to Jesus Christ. It goes like this:

Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me

And that thou bid=st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come.


Just I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt

Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come.


Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; sight, riches, healing of the mind,

Yes, all I need, in thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come.


Just as I am: thou wilt receive; wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;

Because thy promise I believe; O Lamb of God, I come.


Just as I am, thy love unknown, has broken every barrier down;

Now to be thine, yes, thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come.


Just as I am, of thy great love, the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,

Here for a season, then above: O Lamb of God, I come.


Sunday, December 11, 2016


Homily for December 12th, 2016. Luke 1:26-38

          Fourteen days before Christmas you come to Mass, and what do you 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!