Monday, December 24, 2018

Homily for 25 Dec 2018

25 Dec 2018
Solemnity of the Birth of Christ

Among our Sacred Scriptures, there are some words which are especially sacred.  Words like: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and “Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.”  Those words immediately arouse something inside us.

It’s kind of like so many of our national documents and speeches: “Four score and seven years ago…,” or “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” and so on.  Those words immediately enkindle something within us: patriotism, pride, resolve, strength.  They touch our hearts.

And some familiar words of Scripture touch our hearts every Christmas: “I proclaim to you good news of great joy: today a Savior is born for us, Christ the Lord;” “a child is born to us, a son is given us;” and “suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace….”  They immediately arouse within us a sense of: awe, wonder, peace, reassurance, freshness.

It’s the same with so many of the Christmas carols we sing; they touch us deep within.  And they do that because we’ve let them.  We’ve let ourselves be touched by the Spirit of these Scriptures, the Spirit of the Christmas story, and the Spirit of “peace on earth and good will to all.”  That’s the effect of welcoming God into our homes and into our hearts: we actually hear him speak to us, and we’re glad and warmed.

I was remarking to my mom today how much work it is to get ready for Christmas—the cooking and baking, the cleaning, the shopping, sending out cards.  And as I thought about it, I saw that the reason we put that effort into Christmas is that we’re trying to create an experience.  Or, rather, we’re trying to create the environment where a certain kind of experience can happen.  And it’s the experience of gladness and warmth and peace.

That’s why we put so much work into “getting ready for Christmas:” we’re getting to bring the things of heaven down to earth.  Things like: happiness, good cheer, a feast, giving, gratitude, family and belonging, and also hope and love.  That encounter with the things of heaven takes a certain amount of work.  But it’s work that we gladly do because the payoff is very much worth it.

And all the “work” involved in getting ready for Christmas gives us a hint of how to approach our own friendships with the Lord.  Being a friend of Jesus takes work—just like any relationship: friendships, marriage, co-worker relationships, and so on.  Relationships take work.  But we have already at the start of our friendship with Christ those powerful, heart-warming words of Scripture.

The angel says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy: today a Savior is born for us, Christ the Lord.”  If that stirs your heart—even a little—all you need to do is to follow that.  Then, as we get to know Christ more and more, our hearts will be warmed by more than what we hear at Christmas time.  Then, all the other great stories of our God will move us as well.  Stories like: Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount; and characters like: Abraham, Sarah, Bartimaeus, the Apostles, the Saints.

Our hearts can be inspired and warmed time and time again in our life.  But that ongoing encounter with God begins here, tonight, as we’re moved again by the simplicity and beauty of the Christmas story, and as we hear those sacred words of Scripture: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” “a child is born to us, a son is given us."

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Homily for 23 Dec 2018

23 December 2018
4th Sunday of Advent, Year C

Most, if not all of us, live what we might call “ordinary” lives.  Our domestic churches—our home lives—aren’t so over the top as to be like the rich and famous, and they’re not so peculiar as to be the focus of a tv reality show.  Our home lives are pretty...ordinary.  We get up and have a bowl of cereal, take the dogs out, clean ourselves up, go to work, think of what to have for supper, and maybe catch a movie or read a good book. 

Our lives are pretty ordinary—and I don’t mean “boring” or “not special;” I mean ordinary as in “ordinary”—a generally quiet existence, each doing our own thing in the world, trying to live life as genuinely good people.  We lead “ordinary” lives.  And, you know, that’s where the Lord most often comes to. 

Of course, he enters the massive Temple, too; he preaches in the Synagogue.  We find him in cathedrals and in gold chalices.  We hear him speaking through inspiring preachers and leaders.  We see his handiwork in the grandeur of creation.  God is present in magnificence, for sure.  But he’s also—and perhaps more often so—found around things which are just...common, regular, even unimpressive.

And so, if our home life—if our own particular domestic church—is what we’d call “ordinary,” that’s not a reason to think that God Almighty doesn’t—or won’t—live there.  And, really, what better season is there to remember this than Christmas.

The Letter to the Hebrews puts onto Jesus’ lips the words of Psalm 40, where Jesus says: O God, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me [that I might do your will]” (Heb 10:5; Ps 40:7).  “A body you prepared for me....”  That right there is the gist of Christmas: the Word of God became one of a regular human body.  God didn’t come to us in a chariot of fire, he didn’t come in a spectacular cosmic show; he came to us in the dark of night, in the lowliness of a manger, through the messiness and blood of childbirth, in order to take on regular human flesh. 

It wasn’t a superhuman body that God prepared for him.  It was an ordinary body, one that aged with time, one susceptible to illness and disease, one which was quite destructible—just like ours.  And, in doing that, God sanctified “the ordinary;” he transformed what we think of as “ordinary” into a vessel of his grace.  And so, why can’t God be a part of our ordinary home life?  Well, that’s just it: there is no reason why we should think he can’t be a part of (and the head of) our own domestic churches.  He can be, and he wants to be.

And this was really a stumbling block for a number of Jews in Jesus’ time.  For them, the Messiah was supposed to be the savior of the nation, a revolutionary, a national leader fighting against the occupying Romans and everybody else.  The Messiah was supposed to be like another King David, majestic and magnificent.  Instead, they got Jesus—Jesus, who spent most of his time putzing around with sinners and the sick and ordinary people in their homes.  He certainly didn’t act like people expected the Messiah to act.

And we have to be careful of this, too.  Jesus is the Christ, he is the Messiah, the Savior of the world, the Son of the living God.  But we have to be careful not to think that because of Jesus’ greatness, that he can’t (or won’t) come into the smallness and ordinariness of our home lives.  We have to cautious about having our own expectations of what Jesus the Christ will—and won’t—do.

There’s no part of human life, there’s no part of our home life, our family life, the life of our domestic churches, which God wants to be kept out of.  There isn’t part of our home lives he doesn’t already know every detail about anyway.  And so, we wants to be welcomed into our homes—not just into the living room, but into the kitchen, into the workshop, the laundry room, the bedroom, and even the bathroom. 

Wherever there’s happiness in the family, we can welcome God into that.  Wherever there are tears and frustration in the home, God wants to share that.  Wherever there’s shame and embarrassment, wherever there’s scandal, wherever there is intimacy, we can welcome God into that.  That’s all part of our “ordinary” lives, and Christ comes right into that—if we invite him.

We think of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  She was an outsider and had had many husbands.  And Jesus knew all that.  But he still came to her.  We think of Jesus and those who were blind, and who had leprosy.  He didn’t stay away; he came right up to them and their everyday realities.  We think of Jesus and the children. “Don’t send them away,” he said, and he crouched down to greet them.  The same with the widows and the orphans.

We think of Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever.  When Jesus came over, she didn’t try to put on a strong face; instead, she just laid there and invited Jesus into the reality of her sickness.  Then there’s the story of the Prodigal Son.  The son came back home, probably all dirty and smelly.  But the father embraced and kissed his son just the same.  Our Lord has a history of coming into the messiest parts of his people’s homes.  And that’s where he wants to be in our homes, too.  He wants to be welcomed into the ordinariness of our lives—our individual lives and our family lives, not to intrude, but to help.

The Jews were right about the Messiah in expecting the Messiah—the Christ—to be the savior of the nation.  They were right about that.  But they didn’t realize the Messiah would save the world in such an inefficient and small-scale way: by going into the homes of ordinary people, one by one, one family, one village at a time.  Of course, Jesus knew something then that we know today: that the health of the domestic church is the foundation of everything else.  If you want to save the nation, you have to save the home first.  The home—and the heart—is where salvation begins.

Not the perfect home, not the perfect heart, but the ordinary home, the ordinary heart, where there is both strength and weakness, virtue and sin, love and fear.  That’s where God most often does his thing: in the ordinariness of our home life, in the ordinary, everyday life of our domestic churches.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Homily for 16 Dec 2018

16 Dec 2018
3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C

John the Baptist was very careful.  He could see that people were being drawn to him, and he was quick to correct that.  And what he said, in effect, was, “I’m not your God.  I’m not the Messiah.  Don’t get sidetracked by what you think I am.”  John was being very careful.  He was sent to restore God as the center of people’s lives—not himself as their center.  John was careful not to get them more off-center than they already were.

And in doing that, John the Baptist preaches to us here, today, as well.  Notice that the gospel today doesn’t have any words from Jesus in it; instead, the words we listen to are John’s words.  But he preaches what Jesus would’ve preached if Jesus had been on the scene.  John says to us: “Whatever you are able to share, share it with those who can benefit.  In your dealings with others, be honest and fair.  Speak the truth and be content with what God has given.” 

Now, Jesus could’ve easily have given those instructions.  And, in so many words, and by way of his life’s example, he did.  And so, even though John the Baptist was giving those instructions, they really were Jesus’ words.  They really were “the Gospel of the Lord.”

And we see the same phenomenon in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (and all his letters), where he wrote, “Brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord always.  Have no anxiety at all…make your requests known to God.  Then the peace of God…will guard your hearts and minds….”  Jesus could’ve easily have said those words as well.  Even though Paul wrote them, they’re in sync with the mind of God; and so, they really are “the Word of the Lord.”

The phenomenon here with John the Baptist, Paul, and so many others is that God is at the center of their lives.  And, because of that, they reflect God when they speak.  They’re the face and the hands of Christ when they act.  It’s as Saint Paul says: “I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God; it is Christ who lives in me” [Gal 2:20]. 

“I am not at the center of my life—Christ is.”  And the effects of that kind of living are exponential.  Then there is true evangelization.  Then there is true worship.  Then there is real hope when life takes a bad turn, and living faith when despair wants to set in.  Then there is genuine love of neighbor, and the capacity to love our enemies.  It begins and ends with Christ—where he’s at the center of things, and not off to the side.

Last weekend, we talked about welcoming Christ into our homes, into our “Domestic Churches;” not as a visitor, but as a member of the family.  And not just any member of the family, but as the one to whom people go for wisdom, for reassurance; as the one whom people gather around to hear a good story that has a lesson to it.  And our Scriptures this weekend tell us, essentially, the same thing. 

“God indeed is my savior; I am confident and unafraid…Shout with exaltation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel,” says the Prophet Isaiah.  “Rejoice in the Lord always, I shall say it again: rejoice!  Then the peace of God…will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” says Saint Paul.  And, again, Saint John the Baptist says, “I am not your God.  Don’t get sidetracked by what you think I am;” as if to echo Saint Paul when he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” [Phil 4:13], so give thanks to God, not me.

Welcoming Christ into our homes, into our individual souls is at the heart of the Domestic Church.  And the Domestic Church—the home—is the foundation for everything else.  So you can see why John the Baptist said, “No, no…don’t replace God with me.  He is your center, not me.”  John knew that great things can happen, but only when God is at the center, and not somebody else. 

So it’s a worthy thing to put (and keep) God as our center.  But, to be honest, to do that can be a major challenge.  And that’s because the last time when God and faith were at the center of people’s home lives—on a national scale—was around the 1300s.  Between roughly 1275 and 1575 there was a major shift in the Western world—away from God as God, and toward the human person as God; the human person as the ultimate judge of what is right and true.  It didn’t happen in the 1960s.  It happened centuries ago.

Even if some of us can remember a time when families prayed together and went to Church on Sundays without fail, even at that time the prevalence of the Christ-centered home—the Domestic Church—was on the downswing.  And so, any attempt on our part to put God (and to keep God) as the center of our homelife is probably going to be a major challenge—because it is so counter-cultural today.

Just think of all the influences that come into the home which can distract us from God: money, getting the utility bill in the mail, television, internet, video games, radio, Church—yes, even the Church can distract us from God; the Church and all the issues that come with it being a community of sinners.  Relationships can distract us, especially where there’s unforgiveness or grudges, or just simply hurt feelings that won’t go away.  Our jobs can distract us from God.  National politics, maintenance around the house, car problems.  There are lots of things in the home that can sort of replace God as our center. 

But it’s not that it’s an “either-or” sort of deal.  It isn’t “God or my car.”  It isn’t “God or money.”  It’s “God and my car;” “God and my money;” welcoming God into how we deal with those things.  That what it means to have God at “the center.”

And the larger culture isn’t going to be there to get us back on track if other things take the place of God.  That’s partly what was lost in the 1300s—social accountability for faith.  You know, if you don’t pray at home, nobody’s going to call you on it.  If I don’t pray in the rectory, nobody’s going to come knocking on my door.  If you don’t go to Church, your neighbors aren’t going to come over to see what’s up (although, some might).  The larger society isn’t a supporter of the Domestic Church anymore.  And even we priests can only do so much.  After all, what happens in the home is, ultimately, up to you.  You are the spiritual heads of your homes, not us.

So shifting God to the center of our home life can be a significant challenge.  Even for me as a priest, God can easily become that “visitor who sits in the corner,” who I give lip service to, but who I don’t actually sit down with and “rejoice in,” like Martha’s sister, Mary.  Saint Paul says to, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”  And to help with that, in my own home—the rectory—I use a lot of imagery.

I have an image of Jesus in every room of the rectory.  But they all appeared gradually.  I’d be in a room, getting distracted or “anxious” (as Saint Paul says), and I’d think, “I need Jesus in here.”  So I’d get another crucifix, or print off an image of Christ from the internet, or maybe put a little statue there on the piano or wherever.  And, pretty soon, every room in the rectory had some image—some reminder to me—of Jesus. 

And it’s not that I spend my day wandering around the rectory like I’m in an art gallery.  That’s not why the images are there.  They’re there simply as reminders.  They’re just reminders to me—not necessarily to drop what I’m doing, but reminders to make sure I welcome Christ into whatever it is I’m doing, into whatever it is I’m thinking about.

And I’ve discovered that the reason why I have so many images of Christ around the rectory isn’t because I’m especially holy.  It’s because I’m especially…distracted.  Christ has to be everywhere—because that’s where my mind is—in order to keep me grounded; in order to keep him as the center of things for me.  Christ has be to everywhere.

And, of course, this is a reason why we have so much artwork in church buildings, too.  So that when we start to wander off during Mass, we can at least be drawn to images that invite us back to God and things of God.  It’s why the Mass should be “extra”-ordinary, not ordinary; it should help us regain our balance, our centeredness in God, so we can bring God to the world and transform it; rather than the other way around.

And so, it’s a good thing this week to consider your own home, your own Domestic Church, and how you keep the Lord as a welcomed member of the household—not just as another member of the family, but as the head of the home. 

Is it through a daily routine of prayer?  Maybe it’s a “prayer corner;” a place to go to be with the Lord without distraction.  Maybe it’s through lots of images like I have; or maybe it’s a single major picture or something that sort of dominates the view from the hallways and such.  Maybe it’s through a piece of jewelry you always wear.  Or maybe you do it by keeping your home as quiet and still as you can.

How do you keep God as the head and center of your home?  It’s a worthy question to wrestle with because, as I mentioned before, when God is at the center of our home, and the center of our hearts and minds, wonderful things can happen.  Then there is true evangelization and true worship.  Then there is real hope and living hope and genuine charity and love.  But the foundation for all that is the Christ-centered home, the Christ-centered heart.

And so, it’s a worthy thing to consider this week: How do I keep God as the head and center of my home, of my heart?  How can I “rejoice in the Lord always,” and live in peace and love?  If you’re not sure, sit at the feet of Christ and put the question…to him.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Homily for 9 Dec 2018

9 Dec 2018
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C

The “separation of Church and State” is an idea we’re all familiar with.  It comes from the First Amendment to our Constitution, where it reads that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."  And, today, that amendment is so often taken to mean that the Church and the State should just mind their own business; that they shouldn’t have anything to say to one another; and even, perhaps, that they should at least be unfriendly, if not combative, toward each other.

And I bring this up because it’s a dangerous interpretation which undercuts the well-being of society.  Instead, the “separation of Church and State” means that they should cooperate with one another, without trying to replace the other.  Both have the same goal; namely, the flourishing of human society, the flourishing of the human person.  But they approach that goal from different spheres: one human, and the other divine. 

It’s why the clergy are prohibited—by the Church—from supporting any particular candidate or party.  Instead, we support general Christian principles.  And it’s why there’s such a problem when the State tries to “push” any one set of religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs) over and against another.  The Church and the State can’t replace one another, and they have to cooperate; again, for the good of human society and the flourishing of the human person.

In some ways, the country is like a “home.”  We have certain values embedded in the State, and those values help shape us; values like: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  And we have certain values embedded in our homes, too, that shape who we are; values like: “don’t hit your brother,” and “eat everything on your plate and be thankful.”  So you can imagine the impact of having God in the home, and God in society.

God gives us values.  He shows us what’s important and what isn’t.  He shows us what’s right and what’s not.  So in a society where God has been banished, or in a home where God is not welcome, there are going to be some important values missing. And those are values, teachings, and truths which cannot be replaced by the government or by secular society.  A society and a home where God is “separated” off and banished is a severely handicapped place.

And it’s not only a handicapped place, it’s an increasingly scary place, as we see on the news, in social media, and so on.  There’s a certain lawlessness, valuelessness, a place of violence, where “it’s every man and woman for themselves.”  Of course, it’s not like that all over the place.  There certainly are pockets of civility and goodness.  But those pockets are places (and people) where God is still allowed to be a part of life; where God hasn’t been “separated” off.  And one of those places, hopefully, is in our own homes.

Last weekend, Deacon Mike brought up the idea of the “Domestic Church.”  And it’s something the homilies will focus on through the Feast of the Holy Family.  And we’re doing that very intentionally, because we know that the health of the Church, and the health of any sort of missionary work we do is entirely dependent upon spiritual health in the family, in the home.  Without homes where God is welcome, we don’t have much to build on, and the gospel cannot be spread—except by a few people who are paid to do that.  And that’s not really what Jesus envisioned for his people.

Now, “evangelization” is an intimidating word—mainly because we immediately picture people going around door-to-door, standing on street corners, trying to shout out the good news to whomever will listen.  And for some people that might be what their vocation in life looks like: to be a street preacher.  And that’s fine and we can support them.  But for most of us, the call to share the gospel is much simpler.  The call involves simply having a home where God is welcome and invited.

If you’re a parent, you evangelize your children every time you pray and give thanks before a meal.  You share the gospel every time you correct your children—with love, with firmness, with a desire to see them be “good” people.  You share God with your children by being the face of God to them, when it’s easy and when it’s difficult.  You don’t have to stand on a street corner to evangelize; you just have to have a home where God and his influence are welcome and invited.

If you’re empty nesters, how do the kids and the grandkids experience your home? your marriage?  Do they realize that “this is a Catholic home,” and that prayer is important, that truth is important, and that happiness and mutual respect are values of your home?  Do the two of you pray together?  Do you ask God to be part of your marriage, just like you did on your wedding day?

If you’re a widow or a widower (or even a single person who’s never been married), what do you fill the “empty times” with?  Family and friends?  God?  With the front door always open to God, there’s always someone to share with, there’s always someone to laugh with and to cry with.  Even when life gets tough, do God’s hope and love still dwell in your home?

Sharing the gospel, being missionary disciples begins in the home.  It begins in the Domestic Church.  It doesn’t happen in the parish office.  It doesn’t happen in the Sunday homily.  It doesn’t really even happen here at Mass.  Sharing the gospel, living the gospel begins at home.  Nothing can replace a home where God dwells.

Now, if I were in the pews listening to this homily, I would feel...nervous, maybe.  And that’s because I’m not crazy about others trying to organize my personal life.  And this talk about God’s influence in the home gets personal.  Of course, that’s something I’ve had to get over—because it’s God we’re talking about.  You know, God isn’t someone we invite into our homes, only to have him just sit there—kind of like when Martha had Jesus over for coffee and donuts and she couldn’t stop telling him what to do.

Welcoming God into our home also means welcoming a certain amount of change—and stability—into our home.  While I’m sure God enjoys the coffee and donuts and our hospitality, he especially enjoys it when we sit down and let him do the talking.  And I don’t mean just having him remind us of the commandments and the Beatitudes and his other teachings.  I mean sitting down and listening to his story.  Who is this Jesus?  What’s God the Father like?—we know he’s happy to share what he knows.  What was it like to be raised by Mary and Joseph?  How did it feel to be betrayed by his friends?  What makes him happy?  What makes him sad?

And that might be a change for us—to welcome God into our home, but to let him do the talking; to let him be that person who people gather around to hear stories.  That might be a change for us: to actually welcome God and to take in what he has to share—not only as a visitor, but as a member of the family.

But with that change in approach to God (if that would be a change for you), God also brings a certain stability to the home; stability by way of a set of values and beliefs, stability by way of a solid faith, a confident hope, and that never-ending light of Christian love.  God transforms the home into the Domestic Church, and the Domestic Church transforms society into an earthly kingdom—one household at a time.  But it all begins by welcoming the Lord into our home, into our personal space, and letting him set the tone at home.

Now, the Jewish people have a long-standing tradition with the ritual of circumcision (it has its roots in the First Book of Kings).  And the tradition is that they place a “chair for Elijah” next to the person who leads the ritual.  The Prophet Malachi refers to Elijah as “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal 3:1).  And Elijah serves as “the guardian of the little ones” being circumcised. And so, Elijah’s Chair signifies his presence; it signifies the blessing and protection of God at the ritual.  A physical chair signifies Elijah’s presence in the home.

And we can take a cue from this Jewish tradition.  When we welcome the Lord into our homes, into our families, is there a physical “something” we put in place as a reminder of his Living Presence?  Many people put a crucifix in a prominent place.  Maybe there’s an image of Jesus or the Trinity or the Holy Family that sits on the mantel—not by itself, but maybe with a candle by it, and a little basket by it where we can offer our prayers and thoughts to God.

When we welcome the Lord into our homes, is there a physical “something” that serves as a reminder of his presence?  Next weekend, we’ll talk more about some of those concrete ways we might do that. 

But, for now, this weekend, it’s good to consider some fundamental questions: How do people know that my home is a Christian home?  What do they experience there?  And how do I, myself, remember that God dwells in my home...that I have welcomed him, not just for a visit, but to stay.  How do I see to it that in my house there is no “separation” between God and the life that goes on in my home?