5th Sunday of Easter - First Communion

For all the ways that the Book of Revelation tends to inspire intrigue and is used a blueprint for predicting the end of the world, today’s second reading shows us there’s much more to it—and it’s beautiful. It’s author, John, describes beautiful visions that were given him, and ultimately what we find is that it’s not a book of terror, but instead a book of promise and hope.

At the end of all the turmoil and the fight against good and evil, the dust begins to settle and suddenly, he sees something: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.….I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…..I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people….The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

It says that God comes to us. There is nothing anyone of us have ever done that is the cause of God’s love, His coming to us. I remind us of what the Eucharist is—Jesus’ Body and Blood, his very life—and it’s generously given to us. In this gift, He not only comes to us, but he dwells in us. We become living tabernacles.

I remind us that we are body and soul. We get it when it comes to caring for our bodies. But the human soul is too often forgotten about and too often neglected. Grace is food for your soul, and this Eucharist grace—that is God’s very life source—is the nutrition it offers.

Parents, God wants to be part of the lives of your children. I remind you that they were his children before they were yours, and he has asked you to care for them, to make Him known to them. I don’t think for a moment that you want anything but goodness for your children, and to love them. But I remind us: The primary task of a Christian parent is not college for their child. It’s not to create for them the infrastructure that makes for comfort, power, and self-reliance. Instead it’s to make sure they come to really know this Jesus who gives himself to them, to get them to heaven.

If that’s not our goal and what we desire in our hearts, then this moment is a little hollow. But if it’s true that your job is to get them to heaven, how is that plan coming together? What kind of foundation has been laid? The point is not to put anyone on the spot, but instead to ask us to reconsider what we’ve set as priorities, and to adjust as needed. It’s not too late.

Be sure, God wants to come down, to descend upon them and make his dwelling within them through this heavenly food. God, who never stops creating, wants to make something new in them through this intimate encounter in Jesus’ Body and Blood.

4th Sunday of Easter - Annual Catholic Appeal

Today is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Throughout the Bible we find God imaged as a shepherd to His people, but it’s in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus distinctly says, “I Am the Good Shepherd”. It just so happens that Good Shepherd Sunday falls on Mother’s Day this year. I suspect it’s not a stretch, for most of us, to think of all the ways our mothers have been like shepherds for us—I know it’s true for me—guiding us, protecting us, sacrificing herself for us.

But as Catholics, we think of our Church as a mother, and similarly, a shepherd for us. I know the Church is flawed, not always a perfect mother, but that’s certainly her ideal, and the task for which she still strives.

Recently you likely received and saw letters from both Archbishop Sartain and Fr. Todd regarding the upcoming campaign for the Annual Catholic Appeal. We would do well to remind ourselves, what exactly is this and why do we have it? It’s a one-time donation we make each year that helps fund about 60 different ministries in our diocese. In this big, diverse diocese of nearly 180 parishes and 900,000 Catholics, there is much to be done in the name of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

So, for example, your contribution to our Annual Catholic Appeal helps our youth, by means of funding CYO programs (which by the way, many of our St. Joseph boys and girls take part in this). It helps fund the Office for Youth and Young Adult Evangelization, as well as the Newman Centers on college campuses in our state —so important to reach out to young adults. It helps to support our Catholic schools, making places of prayer for our children, 5 days a week. The Annual Catholic Appeal helps fund our many programs that serve the poor and the vulnerable, particularly Catholic Community Services. And there’s more—a whole lot more.

 To fund these services and ministries, our parish will be assessed $135,000. I’m asking for your help. As you surely recall from past years, what we pull together above that $135K comes back to our parish in the form of a rebate. In years past the rebate paid for the pews you’re sitting in, our bell tower; it paid to renovate our beautiful Blessed Sacrament Chapel. It has given substantial support to our outreach programs.

After discussion with our Pastoral Council and other parish leadership, we came to the decision to use this year’s rebate in the following ways:

  • First, we will give $10,000 of our rebate to outreach, in service to those in need.

  • Second, we plan to build walls to serve as a backdrop for the ambo and the presider’s chair. Depending on how long you’ve been here, you may recall when there was nothing but open space in those locations. While the openness it provided was good, we eventually hung the fabric panels you still see. They provided a place to hang seasonal art, to give color, beauty and focus to the sanctuary, the heart of where we worship. The walls we plan to construct will still provide openness and light to pass through, a place for seasonal art and color. You get some sense of it, looking at the architectural rendering in the back of the church. Our intention is to have these built in the summer.

  • But there’s more: We also plan to set aside a portion to help fund next year’s Parish Mission and Parish Picnic.

  • Finally, any remaining amount will be used to fund maintenance needs for our parish facilities.

For whatever way it serves as a convenience for you, we will now give you the opportunity to fill out a pledge card, which can then be placed in the collection basket. I ask you to pray about possibly contributing the equivalent of $1 per day for the year. If you’re not sure if you can do that or even want to, please spend a little time this week praying about. I’m well aware that there are those among us who are struggling to make ends meet, and so any contribution is helpful, even prayers in lieu of a monetary gift. It all helps.

 As a seminarian, I benefited directly from your past generosity: all so that I might be here with you all, to serve in the name of Jesus the Good Shepherd. And if I live long enough to become a retired priest, I’ll again benefit directly from your generosity. For it all, I am most grateful and privileged. For all the ways you’ve made it possible, through contributions to the Annual Catholic Appeal, through prayers, and everything else—for it all, I am truly grateful.

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)

We’re a week removed from Holy Week, from all that went wrong: the abandonment of Jesus’ friends, his arrest, suffering and death. Today’s Gospel follows up that mess, as Jesus suddenly appears to his friends, where they were gathered like frightened bunnies. Instead of anger or laying on the guilt, he simply says, “Peace be with you….Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is the very definition of mercy: receiving something good, even when it’s not deserved.

It’s a curious thing that Jesus shows them his wounds, and that he bears them at all. These are not exactly the wounds, as we contemplated them on Good Friday, wounds that were born of our sins. As Jesus was Resurrected, so his wounds were also transformed. St. Gertrude the Great (D. 1302) once describe her vision of Jesus and how he extended his hand to her, revealing his wounds like radiant jewels—mercy.

It’s no accident that Pope John Paul II—back in the year 2000—established this as Divine Mercy Sunday. But part of this goes back to Poland, where he was born and raised. He knew the story and the writings of Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun and mystic who lived during his lifetime. Her writings describe that when she was 25 years old, one Sunday night she was in her cell alone and saw Jesus before her for the first of what would be many occasions. His right hand was raised in blessing and his left was touching his garment, just above his heart. Red and white rays emanated from his heart, which were to symbolize the blood and water that poured out of him from the cross. As he had shown her this image of himself, he wanted the world to know of God’s mercy, to change hearts, to change the world, and so he directed her to have someone paint this image.

Though not without difficulties, she did as instructed. She had the image made, describing what she saw to the artist as best she could. When she saw his finished painting Faustina cried, because it wasn’t close to being as beautiful as she seen in real life. But Jesus later consoled her, "Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush is the greatness of this image, but in My grace." Faustina also wrote a diary of all that Jesus revealed in that image about God’s mercy: our need for it, our need to trust in it, and our need to be merciful to others. To be clear, it’s not that nobody ever knew of God’s mercy before Jesus spoke to Faustina, but clearly Jesus wanted us to experience it in a new way.

Moved by all this as a young man, Pope John Paul II wanted the world to truly know what God’s mercy means for us. In 1980 he wrote his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). He echoed what so many theologians before him had proposed: that mercy is the greatest attribute of our infinite and perfect God, and that we are proof of it. He said that the Church is authentic in her mission when she proclaims God’s mercy, when she brings people close to the sources of His mercy.

And as he says in Dives in Misericordia,Therefore, the Church professes and proclaims conversion. Conversion to God always consists in discovering His mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind as only the Creator and Father can be” (DM, 13). That’s the primary reason there is a Christian Church in any part of the world and it’s the primary reason for St. Joseph parish in Issaquah—to help us receive and live in God’s Divine mercy.

The Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are two of the most powerful ways of receiving and living in that mercy, but we can partake in either without actually receiving it. How? As John Paul II said, the only thing that can keep us from God’s mercy is our unwillingness to give ourselves over to it, to allow it to change us. We must have a true intention and desire to be affected and changed. And we must always recognize it as a gift greater than we deserve.

Some of us are trapped in the realities of past sins. Some of us are trapped in patterns of sin that we can’t leave behind. As he did with the disciples, Jesus would want to come to us with his transformed wounds, to heal ours. Let him. But some of us are too preoccupied to even bear in mind our sins and how we need God’s mercy. Our very ignorance is the barrier that keeps us from being lifted up in his mercy.

But we exist also to make it known to those around us. How? For sure, by proclaiming it, but also by modeling it. As I have heard it said, part of the benefit of receiving God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so that we can learn to be more merciful ourselves. So as a disciple of Jesus, do the people around—strangers, people in traffic, your siblings, your coworkers, your exasperating family members—do they see God’s mercy in you? Do they get better than they deserve, or do you tend to merely mirror the behavior of those around you? We all want things to be better—for our families, for our world. It begins with us. As Jesus told us, “Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

And as this same Lord told Faustina,”Humankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.” For the sake of His sorrowful Passion….have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Today’s celebration is known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Most of us simply know it as Palm Sunday, but it’s important that we see the connection between the palm frond we just received and the passion (passio, meaning ‘suffering’) of Jesus.

Many of you remember the movie Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene was jarringly realistic. Many of the men who survived the invasion on the beaches of Normandy remarked about its authentic depiction of the events. For the rest of us who never experienced anything like that, it gave us some sense of their experience.

The film was powerful because it didn’t merely show us violence and death but made us viewers feel fear as we experienced it. This is in contrast to so many movies and video games in which death and violence are gratuitous or trivialized, where violence and death are a form of entertainment. Saving Private Ryan drew us into the drama and forced us to consider the realities of death and invited us to deepen in our consideration of life.

Today’s liturgy serves as sort an overture to what will happen in the coming days. Like the aforementioned movie, we are to enter into and re-live the events we commemorate: Jesus’ journey to the cross: his passion, death and yes, his Resurrection.

The fact is, the vast majority of Christians who come to celebrate Easter Sunday have not partaken of any of the events that preceded it. They show up to a church filled with white lilies and they hear about the empty tomb and are supposed to be joyous about it. That dumfounding event that we call the Resurrection is only a cause for joy if we properly bear in mind what preceded it and why it was necessary: suffering for our sake, abandonment, and a cruel death that seemed to be the end of it all. Without that, what’s Easter?

At the beginning of this mass you received a palm: a simple slender thing that might serve as a decorative keepsake in your home. But today we consciously hold it as a way of bringing the past and the present together. And as we hold it, it reminds us of the fact that it’s not just Jesus’ story, but also our story. It’s not only an event of the past; it’s happening now, because the Passion of the ‘whole Body of Christ’ is still happening and the resurrection of the whole body of Christ is still a future event. But perhaps also think of your palm branch as a theater ticket, admission to the drama that awaits us.

The story which we are beginning today, like every truly great drama, only has its deepest meaning if it reaches into our lives and challenges us. This week, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, our Lord whom we greeted today will be present to suffer for us, to love us. He’ll be present, but will you? With admission already in hand, we are at the entrance of the venue where the drama awaits us. Don’t let it go to waste.

5th Sunday of Lent - The Woman Caught in Adultery

In today’s Gospel, with its dramatic story, one of the things it stirs up in almost all of us, is sympathy for the woman. We know nothing about her, not even her name. We only know that she was caught in the act of adultery—admittedly, not a good thing, whether in Jesus’ culture or ours. But like you, I suspect, I’ve often wondered why it’s only the woman who is being scrutinized. Why wasn’t the man also undergoing this public trial?

As I thought about it, I considered how this woman was used. First, she was used by the conspicuously absent man. Yes, possibly she was using him too, but in that culture, men held the position of power. She was used for his pleasure.

But then she was used again. The scribes and the Pharisees had brought her and were using her as bait to put Jesus in a precarious position. Again, although the woman had done something immoral, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her.

This past week I saw a movie, currently showing nearby, called Unplanned. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman named Abby Johnson who, as a college student, was recruited to volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Although she was opposed to abortion, she was told that Planned Parenthood, in advocating for and supporting women, actually seeks to reduce the number of abortions. That appealed to her, so she began volunteering.

Over time, she moved up the ranks, having come to believe the claim that Planned Parenthood, helping women, made abortion less common. She eventually became director of a clinic, but soon began to see fallacies in the claims of her employer, especially when, as director, she was told that Planned Parenthood planned to expand their abortion services, and thus the quota on abortions would be substantially increased. When Abby questioned the increase, she was sternly told: “Fast-food outlets break even on their hamburgers. The french fries and soda are the low-cost, high-margin items….Abortion is our fries and soda!” She was told that her 401K and health benefits, were there because of abortion services.

I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, because many of us need to see it, especially in any way we don’t know where we stand on this issue. It would seem, despite Planned Parenthood’s claim to advocate, empower and support women, that they’re instead using them. As the movie reveals, and as my personal experience has shown me, women tend to hurt afterwards, not feel empowered. I’ve seen how they carry the pain afterward.

I had the privilege of serving as the priest on a Project Rachel retreat, where women (and men) wounded by having made the choice to abort their child, were able to face their decisions, the painful loss, and find a path toward healing. What they learned, that they didn’t understand when they made the choice, is that it’s not merely a ‘women’s issue’. They learned it’s not about seeking to control anyone’s sexual or reproductive freedoms, despite how it’s commonly presented.

There’s a baby involved, whose fragile and tender life is hanging in the balance. And despite how we’re told that these services help situations of incest or rape, taking the life of the baby does not fix the pain already inflicted in such cases. But the fact is, most abortions are not the result of incest or rape. Instead, they occur usually because women are in fear, feeling helpless and without support. We must love them and help them.

In fact, even as troubling as the idea of abortion is, and as much as pro-choice advocates might tell us that it’s judgmental or intrusive, we can’t be merely like the accusers in today’s Gospel, seeking to shame. Recall Jesus’ words: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” As we advocate for the right to life for the unborn, we are also sinners, each with our own baggage and immediate struggles.

One of the beautiful and unique things about our Christian faith is what it says about God’s regard for the human person: He loves humanity so much that He became human, to make of us sons and daughters, rather than just His creatures. As he wanted to help the adulteress woman to live in the fullness of her humanity, so he desires it for those who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and their vulnerable and voiceless children. He desires it for you and me. Therefore, we do not use people for our purposes. We use things, but we love people.

In the Gospel, after all her accusers drifted away, one by one, Jesus was left with the woman, undoubtedly scared, feeling powerless, and ashamed. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” When said no, he replied in truth and love, with a two-part message: First, I don’t condemn you either. In other words, I want you to live and to know my love. Then he added, But to do that, you must leave your sinful ways behind. We who are baptized into Jesus, are called to mirror this love that heals and gives life, but also like Jesus, to understand that some things that are never ‘okay’. We, even as sinners, are called to speak truth, but always with love.

4th Sunday of Lent - Divine Justice-Mercy

In our faith tradition, there are four virtues that we identify as ‘cardinal virtues’—cardinal meaning virtues from which other virtues come: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Today’s Gospel challenges our idea of justice. Culturally speaking, justice means that someone gets what he/she deserves. If you’re bad, you deserve bad; if you’re good, you deserve good.

Jesus was responding to some people, identified as Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining that he passed time with sinners. He decided to make a point to them by telling a story: the story we know as the Prodigal Son. Jesus described the son’s irresponsibility and selfishness in choosing to leave and putting his family’s financial well-being at risk: all so that he could leave the family who loved him and satisfy his wanderlust. Like any of us hearing a story, Jesus’ listeners would have seen this son to be sinful and foolish.

Jesus then described how the son eventually fell into a desperate situation, having to work and eat with pigs. The listeners would have thought, “Ok, that’s justice, he got what he deserves.” They would also have understood the son’s regret and his desire to go back home: “Father, I have sinned against you and no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as a servant”. They would have agreed that going back as a hired worker was appropriate. That’s justice, they would have thought.

But then Jesus flipped justice upside down: He described that when the son approached home, his father saw him in the distance and rushed out to embrace him. Before the son could even finish his rehearsed words of repentance, the father smothered him with kisses and affection, clothed him in sandals, a robe and a ring—all outward signs to everyone, that the son’s identity was restored.

A quick word about the older son and his resentment. He believed that he had earned his father’s love by doing what was right, that he had become entitled. Throughout the Christian Scriptures, we are reminded that this is not so. Those of us who regard ourselves as rightful heirs, because of our self-perceived faithfulness, do well to bear this in mind.

But Jesus’ listeners, quite like the older son, listening to the story, would have shifted their focus from the foolish younger son, to the father’s foolish response. He wasn’t following the protocols of justice. Justice would have been to wait until the hungry and weary son reached him, and to take a bowl of rotten vegetables and dump them on the ground at his feet. To say, “Here’s what you deserve”.

We’re likely not so different from Jesus’ listeners: we want virtue to be rewarded and sinners to be punished, whether it’s people in the news or the person driving erratically in morning traffic. But Jesus is giving us a deeper understanding of justice, telling us something important about God the Father—that our Heavenly Father’s justice gives us something better than we deserve—we call that mercy.

And that’s what St. Paul emphasized in our second reading: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them…For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” In other words: God took on our sinful nature, so that we could unite ourselves to God’s divine nature. And as St. Paul says, we did nothing to deserve so great a gift and in fact, he ignored all our offenses.

And God’s brand of justice—mercy—can offend our sensibilities and maybe even scandalize us, as though God condones bad behavior. But the fact is, we’re all sinners. It’s only a matter of degree. At this Mass, you and I are the sinners dining with Jesus. How’s that for justice? And to be clear, God’s mercy does not mean that a society no longer has a judicial system or even prisons, that no one gets speeding tickets. Paying debts to society is not negated, even as God is merciful to those who seek His mercy.

So why do we struggle with God’s justice? Perhaps because unlike the foolish son in the parable, we’ve never dealt with our past transgressions and made things right.

But God’s justice asks us to resist our tendency to write-off a person, to see them as less than a brother or sister. God’s justice asks us to pray even for His mercy for criminals, even as we pray for those they’ve harmed. God’s justice asks us to consider how much God loves that person, and it calls us to love them likewise.

And if God’s justice doesn’t resonate within, I encourage you to gaze into the visible manifestation of that mysterious justice and mercy. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that (you) might become the righteousness of God in him.” God’s justice is mounted to the wood of the cross, and you are the beneficiary.

3rd Sunday of Lent - The Burning Bush, The Heart of Jesus

We all know something about Moses, but I remind us that he had an unusual upbringing: he was a Jew who, since the time he was a baby, had been raised as an Egyptian. As a young man though, he had gotten into trouble, and fled Egypt. He lived for many years as an exile, having established a new and stable life. It’s hard to know how much he was aware of his true ethnic identity. Did he know he was a Hebrew, or did he think himself truly an Egyptian? But even if he knew his true ethnicity, like all the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt, he had lost sight of the God of his ancestors.

He would soon have no doubt about his ethnic identity. In his new life, on an ordinary day, doing his ordinary work, a theophany occurred, the God he had never known, reached out to him. To his amazement, Moses saw an ordinary, thorny shrub—yet it was ablaze. In that arid region, a bush like that would have burned up quickly and thoroughly, yet curiously, this one remained filled with fire, yet not consumed.

As he watched it, surely mesmerized, he heard a voice, perhaps like a whisper in his head: Moses! Moses!….I am the God of your fathers….the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry….I know well what they are suffering. I have come to rescue them. In other words: My beloved sons and daughters don’t even know that it is me they need. They have forgotten me, but I never forgot them. 

For all the ways that we are inclined to think of God as something like the Force on Star Wars, or a sort of organic energy that underlies the universe—pantheism, as we would call it—this reading reveals that while God is both mystery and infinitude, he is also proximate, intelligible, and personal. Moses! Moses! I have come to rescue my people. Our God speaks and acts.  

I read a Jewish commentary, comparing the flame in the bush to the flame that then came to life in Moses’ heart[i]. His heart came to burn yet remained unconsumed. Pope John Paul II once compared the burning bush to the Heart of Jesus: A furnace burns everything material, whether wood or other easily combustible substance. But the Heart of Jesus, the human Heart of Jesus, burns with the love that fills it….an unquenchable furnace. In this it resembles the "burning bush" of the book of Exodus….the bush that burned with fire, but is not consumed. Indeed, the love that burns in the heart of Jesus….the human Heart of God-Man, is embraced by the "living flame" of Trinitarian love that never fails. The Heart of Jesus—the burning furnace of charity—enlightening the darkness of night and warming the bodies of pilgrims numb with cold.[ii]  

In the way that God revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Horeb, speaking to Him in that living flame, so He does to us in the heart of Jesus. We often see it imaged as the Sacred Heart, and all the ways it resembles the burning bush: aglow with light, wrapped in thorny branches, and flames emerging from within—and yet it too remains unconsumed.

We see that heart at the intersection of those two wooden beams, in the breast of Jesus crucified. But we also see that heart—not so different from what Moses saw—in the monstrance on the altar. It’s there that God would tell you, “I am here to rescue you. I know your affliction and how you suffer. My heart burns with love for you”.

I want to encourage you during these days of Lent to make some time to come to adoration, to place yourself before Him, to bear in mind whatever ways you are enslaved and need freedom. We may not be slaves in the way we commonly think of it. Instead, we’re enslaved to things like:

  • our destructive habits of the heart, such as anger, pride, envy;

  • a wound within that gives way to fear, self-doubt and negativity;

  • an unhealthy appetite or compulsion, such as drink, food, sexual impulses;

  • a fear of not being relevant or loved, of being rejected, and forgotten;

  • a distorted self-identity, that tells us our measure is based upon our work, our financial success and material goods, an outward appearance of having it ‘together’;

  • an attitude of ingratitude for the people in our lives….

He knows your heart, how it hurts, how it wants freedom, truth, peace. He knows your heart….But do you? What are you enslaved to…even if you usually don’t even bear it in mind….or even if a part of you likes being enslaved to it? As He spoke to Moses from the thorny bush, the burning and Sacred Heart of our Lord says, “I have come for you, to set you free”. Make time for adoration. Come lay your heart before Him in the silence so that you can begin to sort through the stuff in your heart. Then bring it confession and be freed.


2nd Sunday of Lent - The Faith of Abram

In our first reading, we heard what might sound like a downright bizarre story about Abraham. Abraham, sometimes called the Father of Faith, serves as the central character in what can be thought of as the beginning of a new section in the Book of Genesis. Up to that point, it’s as though everything is told from a mile-high view, in cosmic proportion: creation of the universe, the universal condition of original sin, the flooding of the world, and so on. With Abraham—or more correctly at this point, he’s known as Abram—we begin to zoom-in to a specific person and his life.

Abram had been born in a distant land, having no awareness of the God who would eventually call him out of thin air, like a voice in his head: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you….All the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Gen 12:1-3). Perhaps inexplicably to us, Abram went, with no certainty of what lay ahead. 

Along the way, God promised him: “I will give you numerous descendants”. Abram had no children despite being already aged, but the cruel irony was that his very name means Beloved Father. Yes, I will give you descendants, and I will give you land, despite the fact that he was a wandering vagabond. All these promises God made, and Abram kept moving, still with no certainty of exactly how or when God’s plan would come together.

Eventually, perhaps worn-out from wondering, and entertaining doubt, Abram asked if he had understood God’s intentions correctly. The LORD told him to look at the stars in the sky, to see if he could count them. As the verses that follow subtly indicate, it was daytime. How could Abram, or any of us, count the stars, especially in the daytime? Leaving Abram still wondering how, the LORD lead him through an ancient covenant ritual, meant for two parties to demonstrate commitment. After sacrificing specified animals, the next step of the ritual would be for both parties to walk between these halved animals (Gross, right?). By doing that together, it was a way of saying, “May what happened to these animals, happen to me, if I don’t uphold what we’ve promised”.

But just before they were to do this, a mysterious phenomenon occurred: a heavy darkness descended upon Abram, putting him into a state of sleep. Then, God, imaged as fire in the darkness—just as He was when the Israelites would later pass through the Red Sea—passed through the remains of these sacrificed animals. It was God’s way of telling Abram, I will uphold my promise to you.  

Perhaps you’ve wondered about your call from God—this call we take on faith, and how fragile our faith can be. Maybe like Abram, wondering, Did He really call me? And like Abram, who for as long as he remained childless and displaced, wondering, “God when are you going to do what you said you would?”. I suspect every one of us has moments—examining where we are in life—wondering if we understood God correctly—where he intended to lead us, and if what He promised is real.

These thoughts and inevitable questions are exactly why we keep the stories of these figures of our faith before us, and why we recount the lives of the saints, time and time again. We can look back on the entirety of their lives in ways that we can’t our own. In looking back on their lives, we see how God keeps His promises, even as it feels to us like we’re wandering and waiting. 

Our reading today speaks of that mysterious event in the darkness, and the sacrificed animals, that “It was on that occasion that the LORD ‘made’ a covenant with Abram”. In English we use the word ‘made’, but in Hebrew the word is karath, meaning cut. As the animals were cut-open, God cut a covenant with Abram.

Just as God cut a covenant with Abram, so He does with you at this altar. To show His commitment, God was willing to be cut, in order to carry out His plan for you. We see it on the cross, but we experience and receive it from this altar, as his Body and Blood serve as his halves. As we process toward his Body and Blood, perhaps not so different from the covenant ritual that would have had Abram passing between those halved-animals, may we be mindful of at least two things: First, that this Eucharist is a living sign of the covenant that God cut with you. May we take it as seriously as He did. And second, that our God keeps His promises, even when we can’t understand how and when they’ll be fulfilled—like trying to count the stars in the sky at daytime. Let us pray for the steadfast faith of Abram.

1st Sunday of Lent - Giving God Our Firstfruits

It’s not often that we hear from the Book of Deuteronomy. It tends to be lumped-in with the other four books that together we call the Pentateuch or the 5 Books of Moses, but it’s a little different. Deuteronomy’s thirty-four chapters are made up of three lengthy discourses from Moses, addressed to the Israelites at the very end of their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai wilderness. A generation had died in that time span, and many of the new generation were not born when God first laid out the terms of the covenant, the Law.

Deuteronomy means ‘second law’. At long last, they were just about to cross the Jordan river and enter the Promised Land, and Moses called the people together, as an assembly, to re-declare, and it went something like this:

“Before we cross over into the Promised Land, we need to remember who gave us life, who we are, and how we are to live in relationship with the One who gave us life. So please listen as I spell it out. We cannot move forward if we do not remember.”

Today we hear from the second of the book’s three discourses, specifically a section that speaks about what the Israelites are to offer to the LORD their God and how it is to be offered. In that first reading we heard, it explains that the people are to take the first fruits of their harvest, offer it to the priest in a basket, then to offer a prayer about how God has given life in place of death. Then, it explains, that the people are to bow before God as gesture of reverence.

It sounds a little like what we do at Mass: the tithing collection, the bread and wine brought to the priest and placed upon our altar. I remind us that all that goes to the altar represents us in our entirety, as though we are being placed upon the altar to be an offering, an oblation for God. The priest prays a similar prayer in the Eucharistic Prayer as we kneel and bow. But considering today’s reading that speaks of bringing the firstfruits of the harvest, let us ask ourselves: Do I bring my best to God? I don’t narrowly mean financial offerings. I mean all that I am, my state of mind, even my appearance. Ask yourself, “Am I giving God my firstfruits, in terms of my heart and mind? Have I taken any time to prepare for this Mass?” 

I mentioned on Ash Wednesday the Exodus 90 program that I’m going through. A few days ago (Day 45) the reading for the day was from chapter 19 of Exodus, in which the LORD instructs Moses to tell the people how they are to prepare before they encounter God: “Go to the people and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. Have them wash their garments and be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Ex 10-11).

The meditation that followed that reading served as a challenge for how we prepare. Do we treat the sanctuary with reverence and respect, as though we are preparing to encounter the Lord on Mt. Sinai, or is this space reduced to a social hall? The meditation said (paraphrase): God told the Israelite people to wash their garments to prepare for the Lord. Today, grown men attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass wearing flip-flops, shorts and their game-day jersey, and their defense tends to be, “At least I’m here”.

I fully realize also that God loves us for who we are not our outward appearance. I realize that what’s in our heart is most important (1 Sam 16:7). I realize it’s not earning our worth in God’s eyes, because we already are His beloved sons and daughters. And we don’t want people to feel judged for what they wear or what they can afford. But we do well to ask ourselves: Am I demonstrating for myself that I take this encounter with God seriously and that I care? Am I bringing the LORD my firstfruits—inwardly and outwardly—of who I am? Maybe this is part of how we—as individuals and as a collective Church—seek to be reformed in these 40 Days.

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Finding God in the Living Word

Why have Catholics traditionally been regarded as being biblically ignorant? You could blame it on the Church, and what has been declared historically about popes and bishops, who in a desire to control people, kept the Sacred Scriptures in Latin, preventing them from developing their own interpretation. You could blame it on our attention to sacred Tradition, saying it dilutes our focus on the Scriptures. While a person who lived prior to the 20th century could have offered these reasons, they don’t hold water for us today.

You might also say that the Scriptures are too hard to understand—that it’s hard to get past what seems like outmoded thinking and an angry, punitive God, and thus it’s hard to find personal meaning in it. But in a parish that has formed.org, regular Bible study groups, and Gospel reflection groups—these ways to dig in and make better sense of it—that doesn’t hold water either.

The Scriptures do have meaning, even for us of this time and culture. But it requires that we engage them. For too many of us, the only time we engage the Scriptures is that fleeting and fragile moment when they are proclaimed from this ambo. And the odds of it being received and taking root are rather slim.

 I remember Matthew Kelly pondering an encounter with God after death:

GOD: “So how was it down there on earth?”

YOU/ME: “Pretty nice, thank you.”

GOD: “Did you enjoy the weather? The food?”

YOU/ME: “Yes, that was nice too, thank you.”

GOD: “Did you read any good books while you were there.....maybe for instance, My Book?”

YOU/ME: “Uh….for about five minutes….a few times….actually, only twice….I always intended to, but just never got around to it”.

GOD: “You know, I’ve only got one Book….one! It’s not like I’m coming out with a new sequel ever six months. Just one!”

Figure it out. Yes, you might have to let go of something in order to fit it into the schedule. But can you imagine saying to God, “I wanted to read it, but that would have meant I got way behind on this series I’ve been watching on Netflix or Hulu. You understand that, right?”

A couple weeks from now we are going to have a parish mission with Dr. John Bergsma. He’s a renowned and highly regarded biblical scholar. You may know, he formerly was a pastor of a Dutch Calvinist church, who found his way to Catholicism through the Bible. Learned in Hebrew, Greek and even Latin, he teaches at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. I’ve read a couple of excellent books by him, which I’ve posted on the TV monitor, in case you want to look into them. I also cited an audio lecture that you can listen to through formed.org. I’m grateful for all the work Jill Carr went to, to arrange his coming. You deserve something like this, so I believe it’s a worthy investment. See the schedule. In a nutshell:

  • Beginning on Saturday morning, March 16, there’s a 3-hour workshop on strengthening families. Maybe our families don’t need help. They’re all built on solid rock, with no troubles or unresolved questions. Maybe not. (see details for childcare)

  • Then on Sunday evening after Mass, a talk on understanding the cohesion of science and a Divine Creator.

  • On Monday evening, a talk about growing in personal holiness.

  • Finally, on Tuesday evening, spiritual warfare through the grace of our Sacraments.

Block out your calendar for this. This is truly a rare opportunity. Do it for those entrusted to you, including your own soul. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE HERE.

Ultimately, it’s in engaging these things—the grace of the sacraments, connections with those of the community of faith, but also the living Word of the Sacred Scriptures—that we slowly come to discover God more deeply—the God who is within us, even if unrecognized, the God who desires to come to life within us. In all this we come to also understand who we are and our purpose. We discover how we are to grow in holiness, how to temper and purify our desires, how to reflect the love of Jesus, and how to deal with the inevitable suffering that finds us and our loved ones.

I think of the words of St. Augustine, who searched here, there and everywhere for truth and meaning, before eventually losing himself in God’s beauty. He said it this way: “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the inmost depth of my soul…On entering into myself I saw….your immutable light. It was not ordinary light….”

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you….You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath…. now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burn for your peace” (the Confessions, Lib. 7, 10, 18; 10, 27: CSEL 33, 157-163, 255).

Our Lord is waiting to be discovered and known by you. What’s going to get in the way? Or will you take the step He’s calling you to make?

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Beatitudes

Today we hear St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Among the ways they differ from St. Matthew’s (Ch 5:3-12), as I’ve heard it suggested, is that Matthew spiritualizes these states of blessedness, as interior dispositions: Blessed are the poor in spirit…..those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Whereas, for St. Luke, Jesus is addressing a material reality: Blessed are you who are poor….you who are hungry. As people who are body and soul, both sets of Beatitudes have meaning for us in this lifetime.

These Beatitudes reflect what I think of as Jesus’ upside-down logic. In nearly everything he does, he’s trying to point us to something beyond our present reality—to the Kingdom, where the realities of this world are turned upside-down. Those who have it all here, will be without there, and vice versa. Those who have it easy here, will have it hard there, and vice versa.

Of course, we see this upside-down logic in Jesus himself: the One through whom all material things of this world were created, who lived detached from possessions; the One who came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, gave up his life; the One who said, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (Lk 9:24).

Jesus intended to bring that upside-down logic of the Beatitudes through his words and his actions. But he also did by establishing a movement, a Church. It began with the Twelve he chose, but beyond that a larger band of followers, a movement.

The Church hasn’t always done this well. As it aspires to be an instrument of the coming Kingdom, it’s comprised of people of this world. And so we’ve had Church leaders at times, who have been at times misguided, weak, sinful and scandalous, including the recently laicized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. And yet here we remain, 2000 years later. How is that? Why didn’t it die?

One way of understanding what has kept us together and has helped us to live the Beatitudes, in whatever way we’ve succeeded, is that it’s driven by the spirit of Jesus that has worked through Peter and his successors. As we celebrate later this week, the feast day of the Chair of Peter (Feb 22), I think of Jesus’ words to Simon Peter (and here I paraphrase): Simon, Simon, behold Satan is going to try to derail you, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and you must strengthen your brothers (Lk 22:32).

You may know the word chair or seat in Latin is cathedra—from which we get the word cathedral. In the early centuries of Christianity, a wooden chair was on display, said to have been the chair on which Peter sat upon as head of the Church. Over time the chair decayed and deteriorated, but in the 9th century, craftsmen fortified it to endure.

Most all of us have at least seen images of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the far, opposite end from the main doors is the apse. In that high-altar, created by artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, around the year 1650, what one first notices there is the beautiful stained-glass window, variations of yellow and orange, with the Holy Spirit in the center. Immediately around the window, like a frame, are clouds and rays of light, cast from bronze, seeming to spill forth.

Beneath the stained-glass image one sees what looks like a giant chair. Despite its appearance, it’s not a chair; it’s a reliquary that houses the aforementioned Chair of Peter.

Immediately above the reliquary-chair are two bronze angels, each holding a key and together holding a crown over the empty chair. Around the base of the reliquary-chair are four cast-bronze figures, doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom). An optical illusion of sorts, the Chair of Peter appears to be floating between heaven and earth: a powerful image of the Church, both human and divine; neither entirely of earth, nor entirely of heaven.

In whatever way we continue to proclaim the Beatitudes, or gather to hear them proclaimed, and even more, that we carry them out, in their upside-down logic—advancing God’s Kingdom—it’s at least in part due to the prayer of Jesus for Peter and his successors.

May God bless our current pope and those that follow, that they may help us to truly be a Church for the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and those persecuted for their Christian faith—a Church of the Beatitudes and Jesus’ upside-down logic. Let us pray that from the Holy Spirit, so beautifully imaged by Bernini, our pope continues to receive strength, wisdom, courage, and love, necessary for so great a task.

An English Catholic priest named Ronald Knox (D. 1957) once said:

“Perhaps it would be a good thing if every Christian, certainly if every priest, could dream once in his life that he were pope, and wake from that nightmare in a sweat of agony”.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Theophany - Heavenly Vision

Isaiah received his call from God about 740 years before the birth of Jesus. What we hear today is not his first calling, but the beginning of a new phase of his prophetic ministry. It’s extraordinary to hear this event described: he had what is called a theophany—a vision of heaven. The angels uttered those words we say or sing at every Mass: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” But given that those words of the angels, from that heavenly setting are the same words we use here at Mass, we should understand that as we sing those words, that we are actually entering that angelic court seen by Isaiah, in which our God Most High, is surrounded by adoring angels. Those two realities become one in that moment.

Coming to grasp God’s holiness, Isaiah began to fear, believing that seeing this God so holy, it would end his life, because he knew he was a not always a man pure of heart. But God wished to make him holy. So an angel brought a burning coal from the incense and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, not for the purpose of inflicting pain, but instead to render him pure.

As an aside, there’s a short, silent prayer that the priest makes as he bows before the altar, on his way to the ambo, to proclaim the Gospel. He says,

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”

In the old Roman Missal, before the changes in the Mass that followed the Second Vatican Council, the wording to this prayer made an explicit connection to Isaiah’s experience:

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O God almighty, Who didst cleanse the lips of the Prophet Isaias with a burning coal; and vouchsafe through Thy gracious mercy, so to purify me that I may worthily proclaim Thy holy Gospel.”

I know it gets lost on us—myself included—but all these references to the experience of the heavenly court are not arbitrarily referenced in this experience that we call the Mass. Because the liturgy is designed to take our senses heavenward. In all the ways we can make it so much about us—whether it’s the hymns we sing or just our state of mind—it falls short of what it’s supposed to do for us. While we are God’s beloved, our worship shouldn’t be primarily about us or trying to make God like us.

As you’ve heard me say, for all the good things that came with the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the danger in it is that it perhaps brought a tendency to make it more about affirming ourselves, rather than impelling us to transcend beyond ourselves.

But what risked being lost was a way of worship that more clearly moved us into the mystery—the mystery that Isaiah experienced in his heavenly vision.

I remind us of how our altar was anointed with the Sacred Chrism on the occasion of its dedication (December 20, 2014), and how the oil remained on its top over the course of months, slowly being absorbed into the granite. It calls to mind the story of Jacob from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 28). He was making a long trip alone and stopped to rest for the night, using a stone for a pillow. That night he had a dream, a vision. In his dream, he saw a stairway or ladder of some sort, connecting heaven and earth. Going up and down the stairway were angels, God’s messengers. God then spoke to Jacob and re-affirmed his familial and covenantal relationship with him.

The next morning when he awoke, Jacob realized that it was more than just a dream, he had really encountered God. He declared, this place is “the house of God, the gateway to heaven”. Which, by the way, are the exact words, boldly proclaimed in the mosaic on the floor, just inside our Cathedral’s great doors: Domus Dei Porta Coeli. Jacob took the stone that he had slept on, anointed it with oil and made it an altar of sorts. Our altar is that stairway, connecting this space with the heavenly court and this building is indeed a house of God, the gateway to heaven.

Furthermore, the bread and wine brought forward and placed on this altar—this gateway to heaven—don’t remain in that state. After we join our voices with the seraphim, singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts”, we’ll pray the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon, which asks our Lord:

“In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing”.

Brothers and sisters, what we are in midst of right now is not just a church service. It is a heavenly mystery, active and alive, in the midst of which we are given heavenly food to nourish our souls. Let us look beyond just the here and now and see more than just each other. We are in the midst of angels and saints, God’s heavenly court. Let us desire to enter into that mystery, to discover God of Jacob, the God of Isaiah, our God.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Hymn to Love

I think most of us would agree that the word ‘love’ is overused, so much that its power and meaning get lost. We use the same word to describe our enjoyment of ice cream, as we do for a parent’s feelings about his/her child. We use the same word in reference to sexual intimacy, as we do to describe what motivated Mother Theresa to care for the dying on the streets of Calcutta. We use the same word to describe our favorite sport, as we do what impelled Jesus to suffer on the cross.

Today’s second reading gives us St. Paul’s famous Hymn to Love. If you attend a Christian wedding, there’s a 50% chance this will be read. A friend once said this is the Stairway to Heaven of scripture readings, meaning it’s overused and tired. I don’t entirely agree. It’s only overused in the sense that we might not bother trying to understand what St. Paul really meant.

You likely know that St. Paul wrote in Greek. In that language there are four distinct words for ‘love’. There is eros, which can be described as erotic love. There is filia, which can be understood as the deep loyalties one has for family and close friends. There is storge, which is exemplified in the love a parent has for his/her child. Then there’s another Greek word, agape. It’s a love that says, “I will love you, even if you don’t love me back, even if stand nothing to gain from it”.

In thinking about love in this way, isn’t that how God—Who is love (1 Jn 4:8)—loves us, even when we don’t love in return? Even when, in our desire for love, we look everywhere else, seeking anything to satisfy our need to feel loved—too often, willing to cheapen ourselves, just to feel that security, a false-love.

Our culture bombards us with messages that tell us that everything is about us, a vision that looks no farther than the ends of our noses, seeking to satisfy our immediate needs or desires. And it all leads to a shallow existence and a prevailing thirst for real love, transcendent love. But agape-love, is not only unconditional, but it’s also, focused on the other; it is self-giving.

The saints show us, in their different ways, how to move toward love. As St. Therese says it:

”Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love”.

Today St. Paul calls us to love like that. As a litmus test, we can use the words from this second reading, and insert our name in place of the word ‘love’: “_____ is patient, ____ is kind. ____ is not jealous, ____ is not pompous, ____ is not inflated, ____ is not rude, ____ does not seek his/her own interests, ____ is not quick-tempered, ____ does not brood over injury, ____ does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. ____ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ____’s (love) never fails”.

This love to which he calls us has the ability to draw us out of ourselves, and if we choose it and work at it, and it will therefore open us up to truly be able to receive love. If we can first love like this, then all our other lesser-loves will find true meaning.

Agape-love is the love that’s revealed when we look at Jesus’ arms outstretched on the cross. It’s the expression of love that awaits us in the Eucharist, reminding us that God ‘wills our good’ so much, that he gave everything for us. May our participation in His love, and meditating upon it, help us to know we’re loved, and to reflect that love.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Jesus, a Sign of Contradiction

At our parish Men’s Group yesterday, we discussed the different elements of this Gospel. It gives us a formal introduction to the Gospel of St. Luke, which we will be hearing from primarily in the Sundays of this liturgical year. Then it gives us Jesus’ very first appearance of his public ministry.

He showed up at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. And as we heard, he spoke that beautiful proclamation of God’s justice: Good news for the poor, for the oppressed, for those who suffer. And as we’re told, the people looked at him and reveled in his words with what sounds like dumbfounded amazement.

That’s where today’s Gospel reading ends, but there’s more. If we continue reading, we learn that no sooner than they had expressed their praise and wonder at his powerful words, it all changed, when he began to tell them even more of God’s great plan of justice. The second part of his message was not well received. They went from being wow-ed to suddenly becoming so enraged that they intended to kill him.

It made me think of something that had been said about Jesus when he was only eight days old. You’ll recall, Mary and Joseph had gone to the Temple to dedicate him to God. There they encountered a mysterious man named Simeon, who took the baby Jesus in arms and told Mary:

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted…” (Lk 2:27-25).

As our Catechism says it: “Many of Jesus' deeds and words constituted a ‘sign of contradiction’” (CCC, 575).

Jesus was indeed a sign of contradiction for the people of Nazareth, who marveled at him, but also wanted to harm him. And I think he can be for us too. Jesus comforts us, but perhaps he also makes us uneasy.

Yesterday morning I was asked to help at a nearby parish for children’s first confessions. It made me think of what I experience pretty much at any parish I go to for first confessions, including our own: that the children tend to want to go to their pastor for their confession, while the parents tend to want to confess to any priest but their pastor.

Most of the children are pretty care-free in that encounter with Jesus, but so often the parents are anxiety-filled, some of whom are grinding through their first confession in years. The children are coming with sins that are like cotton-balls, while the parents lumber forward with sins that may well feel like bowling balls.

By the way, kudos to those parents who witness to their children in doing that, because there are too many parents for whom Jesus isn’t even on their radar. But for all of us, for whom Jesus is part of the landscape, we know within that we shouldn’t have that fear of Jesus, or the life he calls us to—even though to live the way he demands is not necessarily easy or without sacrifice.

In whatever way Jesus is a sign of contradiction—bringing us comfort in some ways, but also causing us anxiety—it may well be that our anxiety is the result of the fact that we’re hearing his voice somewhere in the mix of all the noise, calling us, calling us to something more. And yet we don’t know how to answer that call, or we fear what it will demand of us. In that anxiety, like the town-folk of Nazareth, we may rather just be done with Jesus: Just go away. You’re disrupting the happiness I’ve made.

I remind us that our children don’t instinctively have that fear. If they develop it, they’re likely getting it from us. In that, we’re getting in their way, when in fact, our task is to lead them to Jesus, as we ourselves are trying to move toward him.

For whatever ways he causes us fear, trepidation, please know that he doesn’t want to cause that feeling, and actually, it’s not from him. He wants us to find and feel peace. Furthermore, that fear will remain unless we either drown him out and do away with him, or unless we start taking steps in the direction he’s calling us. Only then will he cease to be a sign of contradiction to us.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Am I, Your Mother, Not Here)

Fr. Jerry Burns and I celebrated Mass two days ago at the Basilica of Our lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, as I do just about every year. If memory serves me correctly, it’s the second-most visited Christian site in the world. It’s positively vibrant with living faith.

 A Mass is celebrated every hour on the main altar of the basilica. One time we con-celebrated at one of those Masses. During the first reading, the principal-celebrant, a priest of the basilica, leaned over and asked me to proclaim the Gospel. I agreed, then said a quick prayer. The Alleluia music began, and I nervously processed to the ambo. The flood of lights obscured my ability to see the people in the pews, and the sound of my voice, echoing through the PA system was disorienting. I got through it fine, and there was a certain joy in it all, but ever since then, our preference has been to celebrate a private Mass in one of the many chapels that are in the balcony, above and behind the pews.

The chapels face toward the main altar, where hanging just above, is the beautiful image that appeared in 1531 on an apron made of cactus fibers, worn by an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego. Christian missionaries had come from the old world decades before, but had made little progress in drawing the people to Jesus. Inexplicably, after the apparition, everything changed: over the next seven years, eight million natives were drawn to life in Jesus through his mother[i].

In the humble image we know as Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are numerous mysterious and interesting details. One that tends to escape notice is the maternity band around the mid-section of Mary’s body: She appeared to the people of the New World, with the life of her Son within her. Mary never comes alone.

But back to the basilica: Outside, above the main doors, are the words:

No estoy aqui yo, que soy tu madre?”, meaning “Am I, your mother, not here?”

These are words Mary said to Juan Diego, to help him trust. By extension, they are words to us, inviting us in to come find her Son.

In today’s Gospel, she is the first person mentioned. At the wedding feast, a crisis has ensued, the wine has run dry. The mother of Jesus urges him to act and make it right. His response is curious, and might even seem a little bit jarring: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?”

While the title ‘woman’ was a common way of addressing women of that time, it was not used for one’s own mother. I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus calling her woman suggests a change in Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. It reveals that she went from being just his mother, to becoming also his first disciple. Unfazed by being called “woman” by her Son, Mary promptly acted as a disciple, immediately telling the servers, “Do whatever he tells you”. In obedience to Mary, the first disciple, the servers did what Jesus instructed, and from that, water became wine.

Wine was understood to be a symbol for joy. I remind you that, in the Gospel of John, this was Jesus’ first miracle. But St. John doesn’t call them miracles, he calls them signs, and there would be a total of seven. He calls them signs, because they are principally done to reveal Jesus’ identity. This sign was intended to reveal that Jesus came to bring joy through a marriage with humankind—or as he says it in another part of John’s Gospel: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The water symbolized the human condition, but Jesus came to divinize it, to elevate it, to change it into wine. And Mary says, Let him do it….”Do whatever he tells you”.

She is mentioned only twice in St. John’s Gospel, once at the beginning and once at the end, but never by name, only as “the mother of Jesus”. In this first mention, as we heard it today, she went from being Jesus’ mother to disciple. In the last mention, at the foot of the cross, where Jesus saw the Beloved Disciple, whom theologians suggest represents us all. To him—and by extension, us—Jesus said, “Behold, your mother” (Jn 19: 25-27). Mary went from being Jesus’ mother, to disciple, and now…..our mother.

I urge you, in whatever way you’ve cast aside our Blessed Mother, perhaps as a way to avoid what has sometimes been called Mary-olatry, or maybe believe it to be piety of a bygone era, reconsider. If you want to know Jesus, get to know his mom, the first disciple, our mother. Just as she interceded to Jesus on behalf of humanity, urging him to bring joy, to elevate us, so will she intercede for you. Yes, you can ask our Lord directly, but what would you also ask our mother, to urge her Son on your behalf? She says to you: “No estoy aqui yo, que soy tu madre?”….“Am I, your mother, not here?”

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God….

….that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

 


[i] Elizondo, La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas, 50-86, 105-121.

Epiphany of the Lord

Maybe you’ve heard commercials or seen ads for something called the National Star Registry. For those who haven’t, it’s a service provided to consumers, starting at $40, who wish to name an actual star in the sky after themselves or someone else. Your purchase also includes a letter of congratulations, a detailed celestial map, as well as the exact coordinates of the star, so that should you have the desire to visit, you can find it. The website doesn’t indicate that if by chance there is life on your planet, whether or not the citizens who live there are notified of the change in name, that they live on the star now officially named “Steve” or “Betty”.

But do we even notice the stars? We have so often a clouded sky to contend with, as well as the flood of artificial lighting at night. The majestic stars in the night sky escape our notice, even on a clear night, because our attention tends to be occupied.

Today we celebrate the journey by the magi: on the first part, a light in the sky led them to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ; the second part led them back out into the world with the message of this discovery. The story of the Magi captures our imaginations, partially from the details that narrative provides, but even more from the details that tradition has provided. Artistic depictions of these visitors go back to the 4th century, in the catacombs of Rome.

They’re sometimes called kings, or wise men, but St. Matthew refers to them as magi. Indicating that they were men who looked to the sky; they were stargazers. They saw one particular star, perhaps more accurately, a vision, which called them to a journey. And that’s the first aspect of this story that relates to us. Like these magi, we are all seeking something that’s beyond us. You could call it meaning, purpose, happiness. As people of faith, we would say it’s therefore a search for God. Like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the people of Israel, Saint Paul and these magi, God calls us forward, to move, to find him. And the thing is, God wants to be found. Like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and St. Paul, the magi found him. A star led them to the house where within, they found the Child Jesus and his mother.

Before him, they prostrated themselves, a gesture of adoration. But in addition to their gesture of adoration, they presented the Christ-child gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Early Christian tradition interpreted each of these gifts as matching a corresponding characteristic of Jesus: gold symbolizing his kingship; incense was used in temple worship and so it symbolized his priestly nature; myrrh, a substance secreted by certain trees, was used to anoint a dead body and so it foreshadowed his future death.

Regardless of the exact meaning of these gifts, we should understand that the baby Jesus had no practical need of such gifts. But perhaps consider that maybe they were not so much gifts, but instead things that the Magi simply chose to leave behind upon discovering Christ. That too is part of our journey: to abandon whatever we must, so that we can discover more deeply, Christ our Lord. I’ve heard it said that it’s only when our hands our empty that we can fully receive what God wishes to give us: the gift of Himself. Unlike King Herod, fearful and clinging to the things he believes he can control, his hands locked and clenched to what they held; there was no way to receive the gift that is God’s Son.

St. Matthew tells us they returned to their country. It was a two-part journey for the Magi. I imagine that their journey back was slower, more contemplative. Rather than looking to the sky for guidance, they looked within, peacefully considering their discovery, what their eyes beheld. They had left behind their riches, they had received him, and they took this discovery back with them, as what could be considered the first witness to Christ.

That’s our journey too—even in this Mass—because our God is one who puts us on a journey to discover him, to leave behind what needs to be left behind, so that we might receive him; and then to take him out into the world—all that, again and again. This story reminds us to look for the signs of God’s call—stars in the sky or even here today, the host held aloft above the altar—and to come to him with empty hands and open hearts and to receive the gift of his Son. As you journey forward in procession, consider what you need to leave….do him homage….receive the Son of God….and take what you receive out into the world.

Mary the Holy Mother of God

It was a week ago today that we celebrated the Jesus’ birth, declaring that born unto us is the Son of God. Today we continue that celebration and conclude these eight days by recognizing that he is also the son of Mary.

What exactly are we declaring as we call her Mary Holy Mother of God? Maybe one way of answering it is go back to the year 431 A.D. to the Council of Ephesus, where a theological dispute was settled. One side argued that the two natures of Christ—his divinity and his humanity—were separate, yet sort of fused together (as though with duct tape or super glue). The other side saw a problem with this thinking. If his two natures were not truly one, in what is called a ‘hypostatic union’ (such as is demonstrated when we co-mingle water with wine at the altar) then his divinity cannot truly lift up and save our humanity. But also, that would mean created matter, such as bread and wine, would not have the capability to impart divine graces upon us. And so the Council of Ephesus formally declared that his two natures formed one person, not two.

The council further declared that because Mary was mother of Jesus’, she is therefore properly understood as Mother of God. This may sound like splitting hairs over stuff that is theological mystery, but it is important to say it right, to the extent we can. Of all the titles that come from devotion that we have for her—Queen of Peace, Seat of Wisdom, Mother most amiable, morning star, mystical rose, etc.—Mother of God is the oldest.

While there is a theological basis for this celebration, there is also a very tender aspect to it as well. I suspect I’m not alone in my appreciation for images that show Mary and Jesus: the image and the reality it represents, a mother gazing lovingly at her young child[i].

Perhaps it’s tender because it speaks to our own beginnings. For nine months, hidden safe within the womb, we all had our first intimate human relationship with the woman who bore us. As we grew and developed from a single cell into a being equipped to contend with the world, we literally shared our mother’s lifeblood. Born into this world, we continued to depend primarily upon her to feed us, to nurture us, and to keep us safe[ii].

This reality that is our shared beginnings is undoubtedly a major source of our capacity to bond with one another, regardless of our skin color or national origin. Like Jesus himself, we were all given life and brought into the world by our mothers.

I believe this is what makes the image of Mary and the infant Jesus, meaningful to us. It invites us to recall with a certain awe that Jesus, our Lord, shared our common origin: He came into the world through the loving cooperation of a human mother[iii].

There’s a song, a lullaby of sorts, that speaks of this tender reality, a reality both miraculous and yet so very ordinary, the mother-child relationship that is at the very heart of today’s celebration. St. Luke tells us in today’s Gospel, that "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart". In this lullaby, Mary treasures it and reflects upon it as she sings to and worships her infant son:

Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong. Help me be strong. Help me.

Breath of heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me, breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy
[iv].

Yes, as St. Luke declares, Mary treasured this news and pondered it within her heart. As we begin this new year, with many things for which to be grateful, let us be thankful for the gift she gave us: her son, our Savior. Let us also be thankful sons and daughters of so loving a mother: Jesus’ mother, our mother. Let us rest for a moment in her tender embrace.

[i] Fr. Dan Ruff, SJ; The Priest Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Mary’s Song (Breath of Heaven); Christ Eaton, Amy Grant.

Feast of the Holy Family

It's no accident that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family in the Octave of Christmas.

This timing is intended to remind us that just as Jesus took on our human flesh in order to sanctify it and eventually redeem it, so he did with the human family.

Today’s gospel reading is a unique one, in that it gives us a snapshot of Jesus’ life that is both preceded by and followed by years of silence—the hidden life of Jesus, as it’s called. Here, he’s twelve years old, the age when a Jewish son would begin to take on a new level of instruction in order to become a son of the Mosaic Law, what we would eventually refer to as a bar mitzvah.

The gospel tells us that the family had gone to Jerusalem for the annual Passover feast, one of the three annual feasts that Jewish men that lived in Judea were expected to attend in Jerusalem. On their way home, they got separated. Part of the confusion that would have led to this, is that in these caravans, the women and men traveled in separate cars. But nevertheless, children could travel with either parent, and so Joseph perhaps thought Jesus was with Mary, and vice versa.

We can only imagine their sudden sense of panic, when they learned of his absence, racing back toward Jerusalem, a whole day’s travel, and still not finding him until three days had elapsed. At last they found him, with undoubtedly a mixture of relief and anger: “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

In response he gave a mysterious answer that on the surface sounds dismissive and perhaps even disrespectful: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
St. Luke tells us they didn’t understand, and that Mary kept these things in her heart, as though to continue pondering it all.

All of this tells us a few things about the Holy Family.

First, they were not without problems. They had plenty. Secondly, despite the fact that Mary had initially been informed of God’s plan by the angel Gabriel, and despite the fact that Joseph had received messages from God in his dreams, they were still trying to figure this all out, and perhaps also to trust.

But finally, it also tells us something about Jesus. As I mentioned he was twelve years old, entering a new stage of his religious instruction, of becoming a son of the Law. St. Luke tells us that returning home with Joseph and Mary, he advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. Again, even Jesus had to grow in his faith. Sometimes we think he was just hard-wired with it.

So, what does this tell us about ourselves, in our experience of family? If family life for the Holy Family was challenging, it’s no surprise that it is for us too. While all of us experience at least some level of dysfunction in our families, some of us have families that are deeply divided and disconnected, and some of us carry painful memories and bear living wounds associated with our families.

But family is a mysterious construct given to us by God—not merely a construct of human society—so therefore it cannot be dismissed as unimportant or abandoned as an institution. Our challenge is to lift it up as best we can, to what God intended it to be, to redeem it. Again, Jesus was born into human flesh, but also a human family, to redeem it.

It was in the context of their Jewish faith that Mary, Joseph, and even Jesus, learned and made their way through their struggles and difficult decisions. Therefore, we must likewise bring the faith into our homes, the domestic church, to invite God to be a part of our family life.

  • First, pray together. They say the family that prays together, stays together, and statistics prove this true.

  • Secondly, moms and dads, show your children that God is more important to you than your personal interests. They are learning their priorities from you, more than you are likely aware.

  • Third, stay close to God as a family, especially when crises have you blaming each other.

  • Fourth, communicate and stay engaged. It’s too easy to get frustrated and disconnect.

  • Fifth, don’t take your family members and their love for granted, treating them poorly.

  • Sixth, make family meals a priority.

Baptized into the living Jesus and desiring to draw upon those baptismal graces throughout our lives, let us be part of the redemption of humankind, but also instruments of redemption of the human family. Let us hold this desire and recommit, especially as we, a parish family, brothers and sisters, gather at this table to partake in this meal give us by our brother Jesus, here in our Father’s house.

Nativity of the Lord (Light and Peace)

Long before Jesus was the baby born in Bethlehem, we are told that he was the Word, the Logos: the Eternal One, through whom all things were made in the beginning. St. John describes it this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness….
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…..
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

He’s described as a beautiful and powerful light that entered our darkness.

Yes, the Word became flesh, but for most of us when we think about the Christmas event, we think of another story, one that is altogether more tender and tangible: the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, the animals and the baby who is the object of their attention. The details of the story tell us there was no room in the inn, that there were shepherds in the fields keeping night watch over their flocks, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. It all speaks of this event happening in the dark of night.

We even sing of it: “Silent night, holy night….” So what’s the meaning behind the mention of night-time? Perhaps it can be understood by the fact that night is generally a time of stillness and peace, when the anxieties of life and the worries of work are put on pause, when our bodies and racing minds are given rest, to reflect, marvel and dream. Jesus came at a period in the day when humanity was at rest.

And even more, he was born unto us at a time in history when the world itself was at peace of sorts, a long period known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), rest that followed years and years of wars and conquests.

Jesus came at a time of stillness and peace in our world.

But another way of understanding his coming to us in the darkness, is to understand the very purpose of his coming. For one, he comes to us in the darkest days of the year. The ancient peoples knew that this was the time of year when gradually, the light of the sun begins to find its way back into our days, little by little. The early Christians, having no exact knowledge of the date of Jesus’ birth, saw it fitting that these darkest of days would be most appropriate for this celebration, when Jesus, the eternal Word, the light that shines in the darkness, came to bring us light.

For several reasons, the meaning of that likely gets lost on us, but in part because we tend to only think of it as something that happens to the whole universe, for all humanity. That’s true, but what gets lost is the very personal reality and purpose of his coming.

Think again of the night sky with its majestic beauty: shimmering stars and cool light cast from the moon. But think also of all blanket of dark emptiness. Likewise, with each of us, within there is beauty and light, but there is also a dark emptiness: something we come to realize about ourselves when we move beyond childhood, when we come to discover something amiss in our lives: fear; insecurity; feeling lost; disconnected; depressed; continually desiring something beyond our grasp, even if we don’t know what it is; wondering if our lives actually have meaning and purpose; wanting to be loved and cared for, to matter to someone.

The Christmas story is intended to tell us and remind us that this baby came to bring light into that dark emptiness—for all humanity, but for you individually. That all sounds good, but how?

Perhaps in part, it goes back to the idea that Jesus was born at a time of the day, at a time of history when there was peace. We call him the Prince of Peace, and say that he came to bring us peace, but perhaps for him to come to you, you need to make peace. It may be finding peace with past hurts, or present realities. Maybe it’s peace in your broken relationships. It may be peace with God, in whatever way you feel He has failed or forgotten you. Maybe it’s struggling to find peace with this Church, broken and in need of reform. It may be peace you need within your family. And maybe you need peace with yourself, for past mistakes, regrets, or missed opportunities.

I remind us that Jesus’ birth is an eternal event, not merely something that happened 2000 years ago. He is born unto us, to you, to shine a light within you and within me—to show us our true identity as sons and daughters of a God who loves us; to fill us with light where there is only dark emptiness.

But we must make a place of peace for him: in our lives and in our hearts. How do we do that?

First of all, it demands a persistent desire for it. It must be more than just this moment or tonight. But also, you must do the things that bring peace and nurture it. For those of you who have been far away from the faith, I pray that you would be open to re-engaging your faith. This place and all we do here is built upon trying to cultivate Jesus’ peace. What we do here, with time, I believe will help to make the place of peace within you, where Jesus wishes to be born in your heart, to live within you, to be your light.

3rd Sunday of Advent - An Abiding Joy

Even though the words of the song tell us, “’Tis the season to be jolly….”, physicians tell us there are more cases of depression and cardiac arrest in December than any other time of year. They believe it most probably is due to anxiety, the stresses of shopping, spending, preparation for family gatherings, and perhaps escalated by excessive levels of Christmas cheer, such as grown-up Egg Nog. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but also ‘tis the season to feel anxious and over-burdened.

We see commercials of happy families enjoying lots of gifts and holiday foods, while we are confronted with the reality of those we know who are unemployed. The season calls us to jump into the crowd at the mall to buy gifts, but the fear of a crash in the economy tells us to hold back and be cautious.

This season is built on the joys of being with family, yet some of us have lost loved ones in this past year are facing these losses in a new way or for the first time. And of course, many people live alone or are estranged from families.[i]

Advent, with its contrasting experiences, can leave us feeling conflicted.

Today’s readings perpetuate this contrast: St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice” and Zephaniah proclaims, “Shout for joy!”, but then John the Baptist warns his listeners to straighten up, because there is one coming who will burn with unquenchable fire.

The very nature of our Advent celebration is a clashing of moods: rejoice!…but repent. This stems from its gradual development. Advent was first celebrated in 5th century Gaul (France). For the people of that place and time it was a season to prepare for the coming of Christ though repentance and conversion. But soon after, as the Church of Rome came to celebrate this season, Advent was celebrated with festivity, rejoicing at Jesus’ birth.

The universal Church eventually melded these traditions into the season of Advent that we know. But today we focus on that Roman approach to Advent, lighting the wreath’s rose-colored candle, on this Gaudete Sunday. In the midst of this penitential season, we are to intentionally focus on the cause of joy in it all.      

So what is this joy?

At weddings, I almost always remind the couple that the love they are pledging to one another is not an emotion or a feeling, as we express it in popular music. Love as we understand it in our faith is an act of the will. And it’s true for joy: it’s not a mere feeling or a momentary pleasure; it too is a choice, an act of the will.

Think of St. Paul the beautiful words from the second reading:

“Rejoice in the Lord always…..Have no anxiety at all….the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.

He wrote these words to the Christians of Philippi from a prison cell. The joy that inspired and lived in his words was not the result of the circumstances of the moment, but instead something deeper within.

You may know that Beethoven developed a hearing impairment so severe that he began to isolate himself due to the embarrassment of his condition. What a curse for a musical genius. And yet it was while facing the harsh effect of that advancing condition that he composed his beautiful and buoyant Ode to Joy. How? 

I want to suggest that a deeper and prevailing joy—aside from being an act of the will—comes from remembering both God’s promises that await us, and God’s promises that have been fulfilled. Whether it’s the stresses of this season or those that confront us any time of year—the things that cause us worry, the difficult realities that leave us wondering “How is this going to work out?”—in those present causes for concern, we must hold on to the promises fulfilled from the past.

What I mean is that in every crisis of my past, somehow God saw me through. It may not have been the solution I would have had in mind and it may not have been an instant fix, but somehow, He brought things back into order, even if I didn’t see it happening at the time. If He did it then, He’ll do it now.

This call to joy is not intended to ignore the troubling realities of our lives, but instead manages to see beyond them. We all know people who live with an abiding joy. It’s not that nothing ever goes wrong in their lives, but rather that they hold on to the promises of God to see them through.

May we not show up at Christmas to greet our newborn King with only our causes for stresses and worry. These days of Advent call us to meditate on God’s promises. Whether it’s concerns about our family, our work, our finances, our health, our even our grieving and broken hearts, our joy as an act of the will, demands that we make some space to contemplate both His promises fulfilled, but also His promises to come, for each and for all. “Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always… rejoice!...The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all.” Let the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[i] Robert P. Waznak, SS, Lift Up Your Hearts