Friday, December 30, 2016

"THE WORD BECAME FLESH."


Homily for December 31st, 2016: John 1:1-18.
          If you came to Mass on Christmas morning, you probably heard this gospel. You may have thought it strange. Where are the shepherds, the manger, Mary and Joseph? Where is their child? Instead of these familiar Christmas figures we have heard about abstractions: light and darkness, the Word becoming flesh.
Let=s start with another word: Aincarnation.@  It means Ataking on flesh, embodiment.@ This building is the incarnation of an idea in the mind of the architect who designed it, and of the sacrifices that made its construction possible. Children are the incarnation of their parents= love. And Jesus is the incarnation of God. 
We cannot see God. Jesus shows us what God is like. That is why this Christmas gospel calls Jesus God=s Word. A word is used to communicate. Jesus is God=s word because he is God=s communication to us: not a lifeless, abstract statement, but God=s living and breathing utterance and self-disclosure.    
When we listen to Jesus, we hear God speaking to us. When we look at Jesus, we see what God is like. What do we see when we look at Jesus? We see that he preferred simple, ordinary people. He came to the world in a provincial village where nothing interesting or important ever happened. Jesus moved not among wealthy or sophisticated people, or among scholars and intellectuals, but among ordinary people. They were the ones who welcomed him most warmly.  The rich and powerful and learned had difficulties with Jesus. Many were hostile to him – then, and still today.
In his youth Jesus worked with his hands in the carpenter=s shop. His teaching was full of references to simple things: the birds of the air, the wind and the waves, the lilies of the field, the vine, the lost sheep, the woman searching for her one lost coin, leavening dough with yeast, the thief breaking in at night. Those were images that everyone could understand. Jesus also told stories: so simple that they capture the interest of children; yet so profound that learned scholars are still studying them today.
In preferring simple people and simple things, Jesus was showing us what God is like. He who is God=s utterance and word, God=s personal communication to us, is saying through all the circumstances of his life that God loves humble people. God is especially close to those who feel that they are not in control of their lives; that they are the victims of circumstances; that their lives are a tangle of loose ends and broken resolutions.

It is because God gave us his Son at Christmas that we give gifts to one another. The greatest gift we can give cannot be bought in any store. It is the gift God gave us at Christmas: the gift of himself. Look at Mary=s child: helpless, vulnerable, and weak, as all babies are. He is God=s way of saying: >This is how much the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, loves you; enough to be become tiny, insignificant, vulnerable.= Jesus, the personal utterance and word of God, is God=s gift to you. He wants you to share this gift with others.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS


Dec. 30th, 2016: Feast of the Holy Family.  Col. 3:12-21; Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23.
AIM: To give the basis for true happiness in the new year.
 
          We stand almost on the threshold of a new year. What will the year 2017 bring us? We cannot know. All of us hope that it will be a good year. It is this hope which inspires New Year’s resolutions.
          The Church helps us to form our resolutions by placing before us, in today’s second reading, an exhortation to people who have just crossed the most important threshold this side of heaven: baptism. Baptism gives us new life, the life of God himself, who is in Christ Jesus. The people to whom Paul wrote that exhortation were adults. They were baptized by immersion. As they emerged from the baptismal water, they put on new clothes. The clothes symbolized the garment of Christian living. That new life which Paul describes for them can serve as a model for our New Year’s resolution. It has three aspects.
1. “As the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”
          The people to whom Paul was writing had just received, through baptism, God’s precious gift of forgiveness. Like all God’s gifts, this one is meant to be shared. If we don’t share it, we lose it. Here are some questions for questions for reflection and self-examination: 
          As I approach the threshold of a New Year, am I conscious of my unworthiness before God? that it is only by his goodness and mercy that I have been spared to experience a new year at all? that I can stand before God today, that I will be able to stand before him in judgment only in reliance on his mercy, not on my good character or good conduct record? 
          Only if we have this consciousness of falling short, of moral failure, is there any chance of happiness in the new year. The First Letter of John tells us: “If we say, ‘We are free of the guilt of sin,’ we deceive ourselves ... But if we acknowledge our sins, he who is just can be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong.” (1:8f)
          Perhaps you’re thinking: ‘I can’t see my sins; I think I’m doing OK.’ If you’re thinking that, you are probably measuring yourself not by Jesus Christ, but by others. Don’t bother looking around at others. Look up, at Jesus as he hangs on the cross, and you will soon see how far you fall short, how little you deserve his love. Jesus gives you his love nonetheless. It is not a reward for services rendered.  It is a free gift. He asks you to share this give with others. This brings us to our first New Year’s resolution:
To see myself as a sinner, but forgiven; and to share this gift of forgiveness with others.
2.  “Be thankful”, Paul tells the newly baptized.  They had every reason for thankfulness. In the waters of baptism their lives had been changed. Here are some more questions for self-examination:
           Am I a thankful person? Does gratitude come naturally to me? Or do I find it easier to grumble and complain? For many people grumbling is easier. They have a gloomy view of life; they expect things will turn out badly. That is why so much of our news is bad. People are interested in bad news. It confirms what many already believe. Good news doesn’t get much coverage.
          Jesus came to proclaim good news! He does not gloss over any of the evil in the world. How could he when it brought him to the cross? But Jesus Christ knows that the power of good is stronger than the power of evil. That is the message of Easter — and we celebrate a “little Easter” every Sunday. The risen Lord proclaims good news. It is by the power of this good news that we live. God’s free forgiveness is part of this good news. Forgiveness tells us that we need not drag behind us an ever lengthening trail of guilt. God’s forgiveness enables us to begin anew. This brings us to our second New Year’s resolution:
To concentrate in the New Year not on the bad, but on the good; and to be thankful.
          Let no day pass without counting your blessings. That will enable to you fulfill Paul’s exhortation in our second reading: “Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God.” A person who is looking always for the good is looking for God. Only if we do that can we find happiness in the year ahead.
          Finally, Paul writes in our second reading —
3.  “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of
the Lord Jesus ...”
          There is the rule for Christian living. Can I do this, say this, for Jesus Christ? Can I offer it to him, be glad he is with me as I do or say it, that he sees me and hears me? Only if we can say Yes to these questions can we find happiness in the New Year. This gives us our third New Year’s resolution:
Whatever I say or do, I shall say or do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.
          As you cross the threshold of the New Year, take with you Paul’s exhortation to newly baptized Christians. It will give you the basis for true happiness in the coming year. But take something more — the picture of the Holy Family in our gospel reading. Like many today — tragically many — they are refugees, fleeing from danger. They cannot know what lies ahead, save that it will be difficult. Soon they will disappear. Save for one glimpse of Jesus as a twelve-year-old in the Jerusalem Temple, we know nothing of his boyhood, adolescence, and early manhood. Those are the hidden years. From what we know of Jesus later, however, it is not difficult to fill in the gaps. As a boy, in adolescence, as a young man, Jesus was learning to apply Paul’s three principles:
     Forgiveness: can we imagine that Jesus ever bore a grudge?
     Thankfulness: even as a child, much more as a man, Jesus had a sense of unbounded wonder and gratitude at the greatness of his Father’s blessings to him, and to others.
     Doing all for God: that was Jesus’ guiding principle at every age.
          Those three principles, which guided Jesus’ life from childhood, are his New Year’s gift to you. Take them with you as you cross the threshold of the New Year, and then it will be a truly happy New Year. Because it will be, for you personally, a year lived in, with, and for him who loves you more than you can ever imagine: Jesus Christ, your savior and Lord; but also your elder brother, your lover, and your best friend. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"INVOKE MY NAME."


January 1st, 2017: Solemnity of May.  Numbers 6:22-27; Luke 2:16-21.
AIM: To encourage the hearers to use the holy name of Jesus as the perfect prayer.
 
On a hike, many years ago, through the great L√ľneburg Heath south of Hamburg in northern Germany, I came upon a shepherd. He was sitting on a rock, his sheep grazing nearby, kept together by a dog which occasionally brought back a sheep that had wandered away from the flock. AWhat=s the dog=s name?@ I asked.  AI=ll spell it for you,@ the shepherd replied. AI never say his name unless I want him to do something.@
Any dog owner understand that. A dog can be fast asleep, but immediately at the sound of its name, you see the ears go up, and sometimes the head as well.  To know the dog=s name is to have power over the dog. That is why smart dog owners put only their own names and phone numbers on the dog=s collar. They do not want a potential thief to know the animal=s name.
In human life too our own names have a special power to move us. We respond in one way when we hear our name being spoken by someone at a social gathering; and in quite another way when our name is spoken tenderly by someone we dearly love.
The Bible often speaks of Athe name of God.@ In our first reading God tells Aaron and his sons, the priests of Jesus= people, to Ainvoke my name upon the Israelites.@ When they did so, the priests recalled before the people, and before God, all that God had done for them, so that God would continue to be, for all time, the one he had shown himself to be, when God had told Moses his name: I AM B the one who is always there, always faithful, the one who never fails us, no matter how often we may fail him.
The gospel tells us how, on the eighth day, according to the rites of her people, Mary with her husband Joseph gave her child his name: Jesus. In their language, Hebrew, it was the name of a great hero, Joshua. Long ago that first Joshua had brought his people into the land God gave them following their long period of wandering after their deliverance from Egypt. Mary gives her son the same name. He was destined by God, his Father, to lead a homecoming far greater than the one the first Joshua had led: the coming home of all people to God himself.
As we cross the threshold of a new year, the Church invokes this name upon us, and gives us the name of Jesus to take with us into the new year. What will the year 2017 bring us? Perhaps some great success or joy; perhaps suffering or sorrow: the loss of a dear one, some failure, humiliation, loneliness, illness.  For some, this year will bring God=s loving summons home to Him.
Whether we look forward in joyful anticipation to the year just beginning, or in foreboding and fear B we take this name with us: Jesus. This holy name, so closely linked with the name of his mother Mary, will keep us safe, as a password keeps safe the soldiers to whom it is entrusted, enabling them to identify themselves in the dark as friends and not as enemies.
When the apostle Paul had been changed from an enemy of Jesus Christ to a friend in that great encounter on the Damascus road, God sent a man named Ananias to baptize Paul. Ananias didn=t want to go. He had heard about this man: he knew he was dangerous. God told Ananias: AHe is my chosen instrument to bring my name before the nations, and their kings, and before the people of Israel@ (Acts 9:15). In baptism God chose each one of us as his chosen instrument for the same purpose. He gave us, in baptism, the holy name of Christian. He charged us to bring honor to that name, to proclaim by the inner quality of our lives to all we encounter that the name of Christian is the only name worth having; and that the One who gave it to us is the only One worth serving.

Take this holy name, Jesus, with you as you cross the threshold of the new year. Use it in times of joy, or sorrow, of temptation, and of suffering, as the perfect prayer. Amid all the unknowable changes of the year ahead it will keep you close to Him who never changes, and whom the letter to the Hebrew calls in  words which, twenty centuries later, have still not lost their power to thrill believers= hearts:

AJesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, yes and forever.@ (Heb.13:8)

"WHOEVER HATES HIS BROTHER WALKS IN DARKNESS."


Homily for December 29th, 2016: 1 John 2:3-11.

          “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says in John’s gospel (8:12). How dark the world would be without him. In baptism we were commissioned to be lenses and prisms of that light, shining from the face of Jesus Christ. In today’s first reading the apostle John tells us how we fulfill that commission. “Whoever loves his bother remains in the light . . . Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

          To understand these words we need to know that the words “love” and “hate” here do not refer to feelings. They refer to our conduct. This becomes clear if we look at the words of Jesus himself in the parable of the sheep and the goats in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel. There Jesus says that when we come to stand before God in judgment, he won’t ask us how many prayers we’ve said, or how many Masses we have attended. He will ask instead how we have treated other people.

          To those on his right hand, designated as sheep in the story, the king (a stand-in for the Lord God) will say: “Come, you have my Father’s blessing! … For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you come to me.” Astonished at these words, those on the king’s right hand ask when they had done all those things. To which the king responds: “As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.” 

Then, to those on his left hand, designated as goats in the story, the king says: “Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and has angels!” To explain this harsh judgment the king tells those on his left that they have done none of those things. Conduct and not feelings is the standard by which both are judged.

          We pray then in this Mass that when the Lord sends his angel to call us home to Him, he will find us walking not in the shadows, but in light --  by doing good to those we encounter along life’s way.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS


Homily for December 28th, 2016: Matthew 2:13-18.

          Which of us does not remember the brutal killing of 20 young schoolchildren, first and second graders, in Newtown/CT six years ago? It happened the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent, which is called “Rejoice Sunday” because the readings are about joy and rejoicing. I was away from St. Louis, visiting friends in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington/DC, and staying in the rectory of a large parish. I had prepared a homily for Rejoice Sunday, on the theme of joy.  

          As soon as the terrible news came from Connecticut, I knew I could not preach about joy, when our hearts were breaking at the slaughter these innocent children. Away from home, and without access to the books I use for homily preparation, and the mass of material already on my computer, I was unable to produce the full text which I would have prepared at home. I reflected long and hard about what I could say which would help people grieving over this tragedy. And I prayed that the Holy Spirit would give me the words I needed.   

At 11 o’clock on that Sunday morning I stood before a congregation of at least 300 people to speak about grief and how God can bring good out of evil. My own voice was breaking as I did so. When I finished, I knew that God had answered my prayers for inspiration and guidance. The whole congregation erupted in applause. And I remember saying to myself: “It’s not about you, Jay, it is about the Lord.”

          Today’s gospel tells us about a tragedy every bit as great as that one three years ago. In a frantic attempt to kill the baby king whom the Wise Men from the East had told him about when they passed through Jerusalem two years before, the cruel Gentile tyrant Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys in and near Bethlehem two years old and younger.

          We cannot observe the feast of the Holy Innocents in America today without thinking of the mass killing of unborn children, a quarter of all babies conceived, which goes on day after day and year after year, leaving their mothers, most of them acting under pressure from others, burdened for life with regrets, shame, and guilt – a burden no woman should have to bear. This modern slaughter of the innocents will end only when hearts and minds are changed and people become as ashamed of abortion as we now are about slavery. For that we pray at Mass today.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"THE OTHER DISCIPLE SAW AND BELIEVED."


Homily for Dec. 27th, 2016: 1 John 1:1-4; John 20:1a, 2-8.

          “The other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first.” Why? There are two possible answers to that question. Both are probably true. First, “the other disciple,” as he is called, was probably younger than Peter. That is what most Bible scholars believe. This is the man we celebrate today: St. John, author of our fourth gospel, written, Scripture scholars believe, between 90 and 100 A.D., well after Peter had been crucified in Rome.

In the gospel which bears his name he is identified throughout as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Known therefore as “the Beloved Disciple,” he alone of all the twelve apostles returned to stand beside the Lord’s cross, along with Jesus’ mother Mary and the other faithful women disciples, after the men “all deserted him and fled” at Jesus’ arrest the night before in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:50).

And it is this special love which gives us the second reason for John’s earlier arrival at the tomb. His love for the Lord was more intense than Peter’s. Once he heard that the tomb was empty, the Beloved Disciple had to get there, to see with his own eyes what had been reported. And it was precisely this special bond of love between him and the Lord which explains the closing verse of our gospel today: “Then the other disciple also went in … And he saw and believed.” John is the only one of the Lord’s apostles who came to belief in the resurrection on the basis of the empty tomb alone. The others assumed that the Lord’s body had been stolen. They came to belief only when they saw risen Lord – and then only after overcoming their initial skepticism.

The late American biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, who died in 1998 at age 70, writes that John “was the disciple who was bound closest to Jesus in love [and hence] the quickest to look for him and the first to believe in him.” The Beloved Disciple was also the first to recognize the risen Lord standing on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing on the lake, and to tell Peter, “It is the Lord” (Jn. 21:7).

“Faith is possible for the Beloved Disciple,” Fr. Brown writes, “because he has become very sensitive to Jesus through love. … Love for Jesus gives one insight into his presence.” On this feast of the Beloved Disciple what better gift could we ask of the Lord than an abundant measure of the love that he has for us?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"YOU WILL BE HATED BY ALL."


Homily for Dec. 26th, 2016: Acts of the Apostles 6:8-10; 7:54-59; Mt. 10:17-22.

          A priest fifteen or perhaps more years ordained, told me recently that he was concerned about the overly rosy image of priesthood being offered to today’s seminarians. The recruitment material sent out by Vocation Directors is full of success stories. All the photos on the websites of today’s seminaries show young men laughing, smiling, and joking. None of this is false. Thousands of priests testify to the joy of serving God and his holy people as a priest. You’re looking at one of them right now. The late Chicago priest-sociologist and novelist Fr. Andrew Greely said: “Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.” And he cited sociological surveys to back up this statement.

          The result of all this happy talk, my priest-friend told me, was that young priests who have a bad day, a bad week, or who encounter rejection or failure, start thinking that perhaps they have chosen the wrong vocation and should abandon priesthood. Jesus never promised his disciples that they would have only joy, success, and happiness. Both of today’s readings are about the price of discipleship. “You will be hated by all because of my name,” Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel. Only after these words warning about the cost of discipleship does he proclaim the good news: “But whoever endures to the end will be saved.”

          Christmas is a feast of joy, of course. But the day after Christmas year reminds us each year that this joy has a price. In a dispute with his enemies, the deacon Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, cries out: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Infuriated by the supposed blasphemy in those words, his enemies take Stephen outside the city and stone him to death. Omitted from our first reading are Stephen’s dying words: “Lord, do not lay this sin to their charge.” Jesus too suffered outside the city. Among his Last Words was the prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests about the increasing secularization of our society, the late Cardinal George of Chicago said, in what he later admitted was an “overly dramatic fashion”: “I expect to die in bed; my successor will die in prison; and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Mostly omitted by those who quote these words, is the good news which the cardinal spoke in conclusion: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”