Sunday, December 25, 2016

That Christmas Spirit


Christmas Eve 2016

His dominion is vast, and forever peaceful.

The world is getting smaller, isn’t it? Technology, the ease of travel, and the global economy have brought far flung cultures closer together. And yet, ironically, the world, our country, seems to be ever more divided the closer we get.

In the midst of all our squabbling and fighting and hatred and murder and injustice, there are moments that arise in which we put it all aside and reach out to those we hurt and hate and realize the peace of Jesus. And it is no accident that this sort of thing usually happens around the feasts of Jesus.

What connects us truly is not technology, it is our humanity. That’s also what connects us to God. God has chosen to become one of us so that we can become one with Him. In St. John’s gospel Jesus says, “As you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”

The message of Christ has always been one of unity, not division. There’s something about Christmas that fills a deep basic need in all people all over the world. Christmas is not just for Christians. Its message is truly universal, truly catholic, if you will. Christmas is celebrated all over the world by people of all faiths, or no faith. The meaning of Christmas is instilled in each of our hearts and souls at the moment of our conception. We believe that God became truly human so that we could become fully human.

The message of Christianity has always been one of peace. If you delve into the true history of the Church and actually understand our doctrines and our teachings, it is always a spirit of peace that emerges. As human beings, we haven’t always lived that spirit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and isn’t true and valuable.

And perhaps that is why we are usually at odds with the world, because the world is not about peace. The message of Jesus has always been met with violence. The small innocent child that was born in Bethlehem became the greatest threat ever to the status quo. So much so that he was eventually tortured and killed. But his message endures just as he endures. It is telling that the first thing he assures his disciples of after his resurrection is that nothing has changed. He is still all about peace. Yes, he has suffered. Yes, they killed him. But he still brings peace. And he wishes to bestow that peace upon all mankind.

Life here on earth is not peaceful. Like Jesus, we suffer, we are attacked, we are misunderstood and maligned, and we die. But God is still all about peace. We wander far from our intended path but God is always calling us back. We have holidays, holy days, that remind us of that call from time to time, and for a time we experience a taste of His peace, until we go back to our old ways.

Just because we know we’ll fall back doesn’t mean we should stop our celebrations. It’s good that we have these few short periods of peace amidst the chaos of our lives. We need these touch points to keep us on track. Could you imagine the world without the promise of Christmas? Even the watered down, commercialized Christmas message of the secular world is based upon peace on earth, good will towards all. Christmas fills a basic human need. You can take the God label off it, but it is still God behind it. Because that need is for our salvation.

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” The two things go together. If you give glory to God you will have peace. If you have peace you will be giving glory to God.

Tonight we do both.

Everyone, not just Christians, want the “Christmas Spirit”. Everyone wants a kinder, gentler, more compassionate world, and we want it more than once a year. We all know that things work better, relationships are closer, and life is more peaceful when we recognize and embrace the Spirit. We want the fruit of the Spirit but we won’t name the Spirit. We get almost there but can’t seem to make it all the way for fear of offending someone. It’s like we want to say it but can’t find the words. We acknowledge the gifts but not the giver.

The true “Christmas Spirit” is the Holy Spirit. The world will try to remove Christ from Christmas but it’s impossible to do so. All the wonderful fruit of the “Christmas Spirit” is actually the fruit of the Holy Spirit St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Galatians. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The fruit of the Holy Spirit is the result of the Holy Spirit's presence in the life of a person.

Once we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in Christmas it will be easier to live the “Christmas Spirit” every day of the year. We must begin to see things differently, almost in reverse.

And I think that the real reason so many people come to worship at Christmas is that deep down, in spite of all the intense pressure to make Christmas all about Santa and turkey and buying and receiving just the right presents, we all know that that’s not what it’s all about. We all know the true meaning of Christmas. We all know that we all need a savior, and that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to us to become one of us so that we could become like him.

 

We come because God wants us to come, and whether we recognize it or acknowledge it, that’s why we also want to come. The need for God is buried within us from our conception, and the important thing is not why we come, but that we come. We can work out the details later.

 

We know that no matter what we’ve done or what has happened to us this past year, for good or bad, it all comes down to that. I think that we all need to have this time to look at our lives, take stock in our actions and their meaning, and spend a little bit of time with our creator. Here we can escape what the world has done to Christmas and re-root ourselves in what is important. Unity with God, our families, and our fellow human beings. Take away all the decorations and music and presents and such, and that’s what is left.

 

My hope for you is that you can find that meaning in your lives, and that your time here at St. Mary’s will be one of peaceful contemplation of exactly what your God has done for you in giving you the Christmas gift of himself.

 

We often hear the saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas”. My prayer for you is that you keep Christ in yourself.

 

 

 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Great Expectations


3rd Sunday of Advent

Cycle A

Is 35:1-6a,10

Ps 146:6-7,8-9,9-10

Jas 5:7-10

Mt 11:2-11

 

What have you come to see? Who have you come to see?

 

The Jews of Jesus’ day were all searching and waiting for the Messiah. They wanted desperately to be delivered from Roman oppression. God had promised that they would be saved some day. By the messiah. Who would it be? And what would he be like? Would he be humble, would he be magnificent? Would he raise a great army and overthrow the Romans to restore the kingdom to Israel? Everyone seemed to have a different expectation.

 

Could John be him? They didn’t know exactly who John the Baptist was. They had heard all sorts of rumors about him. He was definitely a great prophet. Thousands of people came to the Jordan River to be baptized by him. Was he the messiah?

 

But now John was in Herod’s prison, and his future was uncertain. John told his disciples that he was not the messiah, that there was another coming after him. John obviously knew his cousin, Jesus, but they lived far apart, so we don’t really know what sort of relationship they had growing up. John had heard of Jesus’ preaching and healing as he traveled throughout Galilee, and he knew his cousin was special. His mother had told him so. Was he really the promised one? He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask.

 

They were surprised by what they found. This was no military leader or strongman. He seemed ordinary and he was from Nazareth. Could anything good ever come from Nazareth? How could this be the one who John said was so much greater than him that he was not fit to loosen his sandals? And he spoke in riddles. He didn’t give them a straight answer. Instead he quoted the prophets and left them to figure it out for themselves. I wonder if they were disappointed.

 

Who is Jesus to you? What are your expectations of him? Will you be surprised by what you find? Will you be disappointed? Will he be the one for you or will you look for another?

 

Today, people from all over are also searching for God, They come to Jesus to see if he is the one they’ve been waiting for. For some, he meets their expectations and they become his disciples. Others are disappointed and move on to the next fad they think will bring fulfillment.

 

Are you looking for a reed swaying in the breeze, a flexible God who will bend his or her teachings as the winds of change blow with the times? Are you looking for a king, an authoritarian figure who sets the rules and then acts as judge of all? What kind of Jesus are you looking for?

 

We often project our own personalities onto our images of Jesus. For some he’s the ultimate liberal, filled with compassion and love for all. For others he’s a staunch conservative, the stern king who will come to judge the living and the dead. They make lists of his commandments and strive to keep each and every one to the letter.  But is Jesus one or the other? Is he really that one dimensional? We are always trying to change Jesus into our image, when what we are called to do instead is change ourselves into his image.

 

But we’re all searching, aren’t we? We ask, as John the Baptist did, “Are you really the one or should we keep looking?” Have you found him here, in this church? Or will you keep on looking? Are you surprised or disappointed by the Jesus that’s present in this community? Or will you walk on down the road to the next church until you find the Jesus that fits with your expectations of him?

 

What do you do when Jesus doesn’t meet your expectations? He says today, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” I guess that’s a good starting point for discipleship. At the very least be open enough to not be offended by what he says and does. First get your expectations aligned with the reality of Jesus.

 

The thing is, Jesus never needs to live up to our expectations of him. We need to live up to his expectations of us. Like the people who went out into the desert to see John, we have never met Jesus face-to-face. We have relied upon what others have told us about him. We meet Jesus in scripture, in the Mass and the other sacraments, and in the lives of his present day disciples. And we have formed our impressions of who he is from this second hand information. Some of us have actually encountered Jesus personally in our hearts and seen him working in our lives. Sometimes those encounters have surprised us and sometimes we have been discouraged. But Jesus never changes. We do. And his message never changes. Only our response to his message changes. His reality does not change based upon what we believe. We change because of what we believe. We change because Jesus is who he says he is.

 

Rejoice! The Lord is in our midst. Here is your God, He comes with vindication.. That’s the message of our readings today and that’s the message Jesus proclaimed throughout all Judea. Stop looking, you’ve found Him. He is not up in the sky somewhere or anyplace else. The Lord is in our midst. Here. Today. And that is cause for great rejoicing.

It’s time to take a break. It’s time to change gears for a bit. Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudate Sunday, and gaudate means rejoice. It’s time we stop and step out of the whirlwind of parties and shopping and Santa and Christmas carols and simply rejoice in the wonders of our God and all the marvelous things He has done for us.

I think it is very easy for us today to lose sight of how wonderful we have it. We keep looking for the meaning of Christmas in the sights and sounds and traditions of the season, when all along they’re right here, in our hearts. It doesn’t matter if the secular world has hijacked Christmas. All Christmas is is living as a disciple of Christ, and so for us, Christmas isn’t a day and it isn’t a feeling. It is a way of life.

What can you do to acknowledge the most important gifts you will be receiving? How can your eyes and ears be opened to recognize the hand of God in every carol, every delicious meal, every child? How can you rejoice in just being alive and acknowledge the gift? How can you accept the mercy that God has extended to you and then offer that mercy to others, especially to those who have hurt you?

Advent is a time of great expectations. Let’s take the time the next two weeks to truly see and hear, to pay attention to the Lord who has come into the world. Lay your expectations aside and just let Jesus be Jesus. It’s the unknown gift under the Christmas tree that generates the most curiosity and excitement. Allow yourself to be surprised when you encounter him.

 

 

 

 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

In Good Conscience





32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

2 Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14

2 Thess 2: 16-3:5

Lk 20: 27-38

 

When I was a boy my parents had this big old bible, the one with the gold on the edges of the pages, and it had all these full page color paintings of bible stories in it.  There was the story of the Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well, and the Fall of Jericho. I liked to look at the pictures because, heck, I was a kid.

I remember one picture in particular, that of the third brother in today’s first reading. He had his eyes raised to heaven and his hands on the chopping block, and a thin stream of blood was flowing out of his mouth. I know, pretty gruesome, but it isn’t the drawing of his hands and mouth that has stuck with me all these years. It is his eyes. The artist had captured almost a look of ecstasy on the man’s face. And I still remember the words written on the page, the same words we heard him say this morning. And I wondered what it meant to be raised to new life. I still ponder that today.

There are two themes to today’s readings. The first is conscience and the decisions we will all be called to make for our faith. The second is the reason why we make those decisions, the promise of what is to come for those who endure.

The story of the Maccabees isn’t read very often in our liturgy, and in fact, is not even included in Protestant bibles. But I think we see a lot of parallels between their story and what we are experiencing in our world today. What was happening to force such choices on the Jews and why were they so stubborn in their opposition?

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, there was a struggle for control of Israel, Egypt and Syria. Eventually the Seleucids from Syria gained control and began a program of Hellenization that threatened to force the Jews to abandon their monotheism for the Greek’s paganism. They erected a shrine to the Greek god Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem, outlawed circumcision, and forced the Jews to either eat pork as a sign of abandoning their law or be tortured and killed. That is the choice that faced the seven brothers in today’s reading.

To the Jews, this was more than a religious struggle. This was a struggle for their identity as a people. They saw the Law as being both a sign of their fidelity to God and a symbol of themselves as a nation. It is easy to see why they would resist the Greek’s effort to assimilate them. They could not in good conscience go against the Law. They chose death over assimiliation.

We talk a lot about conscience today, don’t we? Your conscience is the thing that guides you in your choices, and it does not form in a vacuum. It is your sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and it must always keep in mind the consequences of your actions.

The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, opened this week. It is the story of a World War II conscientious objector who faced the difficult decision of how to serve his country without taking human life. He went on to save 75 men’s lives during the battle of Okinawa, and received the Medal of Honor for it. We celebrate his heroic story, and it is inspiring to us all. In the movie he prays, “Lord, help me get one more.”

Most of us will never have to face a life or death choice like his, or the Maccabees. But we are witnessing Christians in the world today who are making that choice daily.  Coincidentally also in Syria and other areas of the Middle East, Christians are being forced to choose between conversion to radical Islam or torture and death. What drives these Christians to choose death rather than go against their consciences is their faith in Jesus and his message of hope. I wonder how we would choose in the same situation.

When we hear these horror stories, what do we think? Do we stop and say a quick prayer for the Christians who have died? Do we do more and offer financial support to groups who are trying to help them? Do we write our senators pushing to grant more of them refugee status? Do we even notice the horror of it all because it is happening so far away? A movie about a soldier who saved 75 men without lifting a gun or firing a shot we find heroic because we all recognize and agree that war is horrible and to be avoided. But would anyone go to see a movie about a lone Christian who kneels outside the local abortion clinic or stands vigil outside a prison gas chamber, or the spouse desperate to save a dying marriage, praying, “Lord, let me save one more”? Those are the life and death things we must deal with. Those are our battlefields.Those are the tough choices we need to make, those everyday decisions on how to view our fellow human beings.

Consider the upcoming election. I think that most if not all of us have been struggling with our consciences on how we should vote. What does it mean to vote your conscience, and what are the consequences of our vote? I think so often we choose our faith based upon our politics and not the other way around. Do you see your vote as an act of faith? As an act of discipleship? As an act of heroism? Do you seek the Church’s guidance on the issues before making a decision? Do you separate church and state in your own heart, as well as in the public square, or do you view all things through your eyes of faith?

You will form your conscience whether you want to or not. It is formed by your life experiences, your moral upbringing and belief, and your faith, or lack of faith, in God. As faithful Catholics, we are called to constantly be forming our consciences. It is not that right and wrong are constantly changing, it’s that our understanding of right and wrong develops and grows. As Catholics, we are required to form our consciences within the teachings and guidance of the Church. Not because we blindly follow the law, but because, like the Maccabees, our faith defines who we are. Our relationship with God is central to our lives, because we are all called to build up the kingdom. We can abide by changes in thought and practice in society to a certain extent, but eventually we will be called upon to make a choice. It seems that more and more society’s norms are in direct opposition to our consciences. Some choices are easy and obvious, others are actually between life and death.

It is a good thing that we have a conscience to guide us, and it is a good thing that it is often a struggle to determine the correct course of action in a given situation. However, as the writer Robert Royal once said, “When someone wrestles with their conscience, it’s remarkable how often he wins.” What do you do when your conscience tells you the right thing to do is the opposite of what you want to do? What do you do when the consequences are just too dire, so you go against your conscience? I think that every time we choose to go against our conscience it dies a little bit, and it takes a long time to build it up again. It takes courage to follow a properly formed conscience.

The thing that gave the Maccabees the courage to resist was their hope in what was to come. There was a growing belief in Judaism at the time that there was an afterlife, that they would be raised again by their God to a glorious future. It was this hope that drove them to resist. It was that hope that gave them their conviction.

In Jesus’ time there were still divisions in Judaism around the existence of an afterlife and especially of the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, and it was they who were testing Jesus in the gospel today. They were focusing on the letter of the law and Jesus was trying to help them see the bigger picture. He was focusing on the hope of the message, and they would not allow themselves to see it. They were focusing on death, He was focusing on life.

But then, Jesus always focused on life. He never said it would be easy. In fact, he predicted the opposite. But he always said it would be worth it. And he promised to never leave us orphans. He is always there to strengthen us and give us the grace we need to make the right choices, no matter how hard they are. As St. Paul tells us today,

But the Lord is faithful;

He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God

and to the endurance of Christ.