Sunday, December 29, 2013

Helping Hand

I've been looking for an occasion to share this great book since I received it 5-6 Chirstmases ago...

   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, & Joseph   

A less-than-reverent Christmas card 
I’ve seen in recent years
shows a horse, a camel, and a donkey 
lined up from behind.
Each beast of burden 
has a woman seated on top,
and each has a bumper sticker on its rump.
The first one says, 
“Our son is an honors student.”
The second one says, 
“Our son is in medical school.”
The third one says, 
“Our son is God.”
“Well!” sneers one of the women. 
“If it isn’t Mary and Joseph…”

I suspect that, for most of you as it does for me,
Christmas means a little extra time spent with family.
And whenever we get together,
I marvel to watch my siblings raising their children.
It’s such an incredible responsibility!
(Of course, often as I’m headed back here to Malone
I’m asked, “Do you want to take them with you?”
Celibacy isn’t all sacrifice…)

While I was pastor in Old Forge,
a young family there
gave me a wonderful children’s book one Christmas
called, Father and Son: A Nativity Story,
by British author Geraldine McCaughrean.
The flap of the dust jacket says,
            “Every day new parents are awed by the miracle of life,
            and by the responsibility that comes with being entrusted
            with a tiny perfect person to protect and teach. 
            But what if you had a baby
            whose coming was even more of a miracle?”

And so, on this feast of the Holy Family,
I want to share this story with you...

After the star had set, after the angels had roosted,
after the shepherds had hurried back to their sheep,
there was one person still awake in the dark stable.

Joseph sat watching the baby asleep in the manger of straw.

“Mine, but not mine,” he whispered. 
“How am I supposed to stand in for your real Father? 
How is a simple man like me to bring up the Son of God?

“Not a good start. 
I could not even find him a proper place to be born,
a proper bed to sleep in—
he who has cradled us all in his hands since the Start of Time.

“What lullabies should I sing to someone
who taught the angels to dance
and peppered the sky with songbirds?

“How can I teach him his words and letters:
he who strung the alphabet together,
he who whispered dreams into a million, million ears,
in a thousand different languages?

“The very thought of it leaves me speechless.

“How can I teach him the Scriptures? 
It will be like reading him a book he wrote himself!

“What stories can I tell him? 
He wrote the whole history of the world.

“What jokes? 
He knows them all.

“Didn’t he invent the hilarious hippopotamus
and make the rivers gurgle with laughter?

“Didn’t he form the first face, wink, and make it smile?

“Someone tell me: how do I protect a child
whose arm brandished the first bolt of lightening,
who lobbed the first thunderclap,
who wears sunlight for armor, and a helmet of stars?

“And yet…and yet…somehow
my heart quakes for you, child, small as you are.

“How shall I teach you Right from Wrong,
when it was YOU who drew up the rules,
YOU who parted Good from Bad?


“When I get angry and lose my temper, who will be to blame? 
Always me, I suppose.

“How do I feed and clothe someone
who seeded the oceans with fish and hung fruit in the trees? 
Who shod the camels and crowned the deer?

“It’s bread and fish from now on, son,
and clothes no better than mine.

“What games shall we play, boy, you and I? 
I mean, how can I rough-and-tumble with someone
who pinned the ocean in place with a single, tack-headed moon?

“And how shall I ever astound you, child, as my father did me? 
You are the one who fitted the chicken into the egg
and the oak tree into an acorn!

“How can I put a roof over your head,
knowing it was you who glass-roofed the world
and thatched the sky with clouds,
and stitched the snow with threads of melting silver?

“I am a carpenter, child. 
By rights, you should learn my trade. 
But how can I teach you to plane a door,
knowing it was you who planed the plains,
who carved the valleys and hewed the hills,
the wind in your one hand and rain in the other?


“What presents can I offer you
who has already given me everything?
This wife.
This night.
This happiness.
This son.

“What shall I pass down to you, little one,
apart from a world of Love? 
Not as much as the color of my eyes. 
Not even my name.

“And yet…I’ve been thinking, child…

“My hands are strong, God knows.
And everyone needs an extra pair of hands
from time to time.

“So that’s what I’ll give you, my son.
That’s what I’ll be, God willing.
A helping hand.”

So, long after the star had set, after the angels had roosted,
after the shepherds had hurried back to their sheep,
there was one person still awake in the dark stable,
watching over a sleeping child…

…while his God was watching over him.

Whether it’s parents raising young children,
grown children caring for elderly parents,
schoolmates, coworkers, neighbors,
or even fellow parishioners looking out for each other,
being a family, as St. Paul tells the Colossians,
is about compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience,
bearing with and forgiving one another,
and over all these things putting on love.
It’s about being a helping hand—God’s helping hand.
For in that tiny child of Bethlehem,
the Son of God did not only come
to dwell with Mary and Joseph;
the Son of God has come to—and continues to—
dwell with all of us,
to make of us his brothers and sisters,
to form us as the one holy family of God.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

For Real

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

Last week I came across
a recently published book of Christmas stories 
by Tomie dePaola.
He’s the author of many beautiful children’s books…
…but these weren’t his usual stories for kids:
they were recollections of 15 
of his most memorable Christmases
over the course of almost 80 years.

The one that really caught my attention was titled,
“The First Television Christmas.”

It was 1947, and the author’s father
won a monthly sales competition at work.
The prize?  $1,000 or a television set.
Even though his father earned about $4,000 a year,
he chose the television 
and it was delivered in early December—
only the second TV in all of Meriden, Connecticut.
(The other one was in the showroom
of an appliance store downtown.)
The television had just a 12-inch picture tube;
most of our computer screens are bigger than that these days.
The picture was black-and-white.
And the family got three channels on the weekends,
just two during the week,
tuned in by a tall metal tower on the roof.
(By now, the young folks here probably think
I’m talking about life on another planet—
so far removed is this from what they know of TV today!)

“I tell this story,” dePaola writes,
            because the new television played a romantic part
            in my life that Christmas Eve. 
            I was in eighth grade
            and had an “older woman” for my girlfriend. 
            Her name was Sheila Rosenthal and she was in the ninth grade.
            I had gone to Sheila’s house for a Hanukah party… 
            and she was coming to our house for Christmas Eve.
            After…Christmas Eve supper…we went out to the TV Room. 
            We sat on the sofa like two lovebirds,
            holding hands and stealing a few chaste kisses,
            while we gazed at the screen broadcasting
            a black-and-white image of a fire burning in a hearth.
            The blazing Yule log with a “Holiday Greetings” banner above it
            and Christmas songs playing in the background
            filled the screen from five in the afternoon until about ten at night.

            Needless to say, Sheila and I were thrilled
            with our first TV Christmas. 
            Never mind that we could have moved into the living room,
            where the Christmas tree was lit
            and a real log blazed in full color in a real fireplace. 
            It just didn’t dawn on us.  (from Christmas Remembered, 2006)

That story caught my attention for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, I didn’t realize
that the curious tradition of a televised Yule log
went back quite so far!
(Of course, today there are multiple apps for that
on your Smartphone or iPad.)
But it also got me to thinking
about just how much of our modern celebration of Christmas
has become—to put it quite bluntly—fake.
Many of our Christmas trees have needles made of plastic
and branches made of wire.
We don’t light our candles with matches but with batteries.
We spray on snow from a can
and hang icicles of shiny aluminum
(although, with the weather we’ve had lately,
I’m not sure we want to see any more of either of those—
no matter if they’re only imitation).
Even our mouths are filled with artificial flavors
and the air with artificial aromas.

I guess I worry a little bit
with so many other things gone synthetic
that we’ll be tempted to think
that Christmas itself isn’t quite genuine.
It’d be easy enough to lump together
the familiar, stirring account of Jesus’ birth
with the colorful tales of Frosty and Rudolph—
feel-good stories, with a comforting message,
perfect for the kids…but not exactly bona fide.
And that would be doubly tragic
since the very purpose of Christmas—
it could be easily argued—
is to make things real.
The story of Mary and Joseph, of angels and shepherds,
of a newborn baby asleep in a borrowed manger,
are all about the grace and the glory of our great God
appearing on the earth
in a way we can see and feel and hear and touch:
the invisible God made visible;
the eternal God stepping into time;
the almighty God, who made all things,
coming in our fragile human flesh.
We’re all too familiar 
with the reality of our own weaknesses.
We’re well aware 
of the wickedness at work in this world.
But sin and sorrow and suffering: 
these are the illusions;
these are the things which will pass away.
On the contrary, the good news of a savior,
of peace on earth and glory in the highest:
these are the most real things of all.

There’s a beautiful fireplace in the rectory.
And I have no doubt 
that we’ll spend a few moments
sitting in front of it at some point this evening.
True confession: 
it’s no longer safe to have a fire in there…
…so it’s glow comes from 
four battery-operated candles!
But the true light which shines out in the darkness,
the flame which forever burns 
to warm us deep within,
isn’t found on a glowing electronic screen
nor even in a pile of blazing logs;
it issues forth 
from the very heart of the Lord of hosts,
and its coming to dwell among us
is the very thing which calls us together 
on this holy night.

This Christmas, 
don’t be satisfied with any cheap imitations,
because God’s love for you is oh-so-real!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Special Delivery

So, we've kind of had a wild weather weekend around here: alternating bouts of sleet and freezing rain, all piled up to make one great big slippery mess.  (It didn't quite look like the picture to the right...but isn't that fun?)  We did have five of our six regularly scheduled Masses, but with much reduced congregations.  And then we had four churches to get all decked out for Christmas.  All of that to say: Sorry this is running a little late!  Hopefully the USPS will be more timely in getting that box to Skokie...

   Fourth Sunday of Advent   A 

Yesterday, in the midst of all the sleet and freezing rain, I walked through the park and across Main Street to the Post Office to mail out my Christmas cards.  I expected to return empty handed, but instead discovered that we had seven or eight packages waiting for us there.  So I stacked them up in my arms and made my way back over the ice to the rectory.  (I must have been quite a sight!) 

Among the boxes was a delivery I’d been awaiting: a Christmas gift I’d ordered for a friend, but which I’d begun to worry would not arrive in time.  I eagerly tore that one open and pulled out the gift…only to discover that there were two of them!  My first reaction, admittedly, was to get a bit mad: “They’d better not charge me for the second one!”  But I quickly noticed that in the box there were also two packing slips.  It seems the shipping department had made a mistake and boxed up someone else’s order together with mine…which meant that a woman out in Skokie, Illinois, was waiting—I presume—for delivery so that she could give a Christmas gift to a friend, just as I had been.

On an icy Saturday, just four days before Christmas, what could I do?  Even if I called and found someone at the company, I’m not sure how they’d remedy the situation.  After giving it just a bit more thought, I put the second gift back in the box, sealed it up with some shipping tape, slapped on the mailing label which had come inside, and had barely enough time to walk carefully through the park and across Main Street to the Post Office—five minutes before closing time.   I explained the situation to the lady working at the window; she said she could get the package to Skokie by Tuesday.

On my second trip back to the rectory, I got to thinking: I had just been given the opportunity to pass along a gift which really wasn’t mine to give, and to do so for someone I hadn’t met, nor would I likely ever meet, who had been eagerly awaiting it.  Unexpectedly, I’d become an essential link in a chain; if I’d chosen not to play my part, the whole process would have come to nothing.

In other words: in a small way, God had given me a chance to be righteous; God had given me a chance to be like St. Joseph.
You see, St. Joseph was simply a hardworking man, set to marry a beautiful girl, then settle down into small town life and live happily ever after.  But God had other plans.  Joseph was entrusted with a gift that really wasn’t his to give—a gift long awaited by many.  Unexpectedly, he became an essential link in a chain; because he chose to play his part, the very course of history was changed.  Joseph safely delivered God’s own Son to the world: the best gift we’d ever receive.

"St. Joseph was an ordinary sort of man on whom God relied to do great things" (St. Josemaria Escriva).

How many unexpected opportunities are we given each day to do the same thing, even if on a much smaller scale?  To be a link in a chain of grace: a channel of God’s love and compassion to a friend or stranger?  The gift is not ours to give, but our role is crucial; we’re an essential link in the chain.

In these final days of Advent, let us keep our eyes and our hearts especially open to such opportunities in our very ordinary lives.  Let us cooperate with God’s unexpected plans and so help others to experience the very mystery we celebrate at Christmas: that God is with us.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


   Third Sunday of Advent   A 
When Cardinal Timothy Dolan
was introduced as the next Archbishop of New York
almost five years ago,
he was peppered with hard-hitting questions.
The Catholic Church—in the city, the state, the country—
was facing many challenges:
sexual scandals, fewer people in the pews,
a decreasing number of priests.
What would be his strategy
for dealing with such ponderous problems?

He answered very simply: 
“Happiness attracts.”
Dolan said this specifically
about recruiting more priestly vocations,
but it could just as easily have been his answer
to almost any one of the many other concerns faced by the Church.
“What weighs on me the most,” 
he once said in an interview,
“is the caricature of the Catholic Church
as crabby, nay-saying, down in the dumps,
discouraging, on the run.
And I’m thinking if there is anything
that should be upbeat, affirming, positive, joyful,
it should be people of faith.”
Happiness attracts.

“What did you go out to the desert to see?”
Thus Jesus questions the disciples of John the Baptist.
What were they expecting?
A pushover—easily swayed like a reed in the breeze?
A powerbroker—robed in royal majesty?
Or a prophet—one willing to say the tough stuff:
less concerned with tickling people’s ears
than with prodding their consciences?
What did they expect?
What did they go out to the desert to see?

What should people expect to see when they see…us?

Even before Time magazine
named him Person of the Year the other day,
Pope Francis had been in the news quite a bit
for the release of his Apostolic Exhortation,
Political types have had much to say 
about his diagnosis of what’s wrong
with the modern global economy.
A few Church-watchers have gleefully noted
what the Pope had to say about homilies:
that they shouldn’t be too long.
(Please—hold your applause!)
But what hasn’t gotten 
nearly enough attention—in my opinion—
is the opening section of that document,
the premise upon which stands all the rest:
that Christians ought to be joyful people
because they have encountered Christ.

There are Christians—Pope Francis writes
whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.
I realize of course that joy
is not expressed the same way at all times in life,
especially at moments of great difficulty.
Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures,
even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty
that, when everything is said and done,
we are infinitely loved.
I understand the grief of people
who have to endure great suffering,
yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith
slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust,
even amid the greatest distress… (6)

If a stranger walked into this Church right now,
what would they see?
What impression would we give them?
Would they see the faces of people
who couldn’t think of a better place to be
on a cold and snowy Sunday morning?
Or would they see the faces of people
who are just waiting to get this over with?
If coming into our church
looks more like the waiting room at the dentist’s office
than it does the living room on Christmas morning
with eager youngsters gathered around the tree,
then we shouldn’t be too surprised
that our pews aren’t as full as they used to be.
How can we get others to accept the Good News
if all we do is go about saying, “Good grief”?

“Go,” Jesus said, “and tell John what you see:
the blind see and the lame walk…
and the deaf hear and the dead are raised
and the poor are told of good news.”
After long and patient waiting,
the prophecies of old were being fulfilled in him;
the Lord had come to save his people.
Imagine what an effect it would have on Malone
if people went forth from this place saying
that they had seen lives changed,
people singing and smiling,
welcoming the stranger and caring for each other as family—
Jesus’ twofold commandment of love being beautifully fulfilled.
It can be that way!  No—it must be that way!

On the two Sundays each year
that I come out wearing rose-colored vestments,
I see more smiling faces in the congregation
than I do at most any other time.
I’d wear this color every week if that were all it takes!

Joy—it has been wisely said—
is the infallible sign of the presence of God.  (cf. Léon Bloy)
Let’s make sure people can see that God is here.
Happiness attracts.
Be a joyful messenger preparing the way before the Lord.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


   Second Sunday of Advent   A 

It’s just about a month ago
that I left for my annual retreat.
The Sisters of Bethlehem—
at whose monastery I spent the week—
take their silence pretty seriously.
In fact, the first time I asked to make a retreat with them,
I was sent a sort of contract to sign,
stating that I understood just how quiet I was expected to be.
Pretty much the only spoken words I heard all week
(unless I was talking to myself)
were when I offered Mass each day for the Sisters
or when I joined them for Morning and Evening Prayer
in the monastery church.

When you speak or hear so little,
you choose your words very carefully.

The Sisters have a beautiful custom
with which they conclude Vespers each night—
their last prayer together for the day.
First, they turn down the lights in the church,
until the only remaining illumination
comes from the two candles left burning on the altar.
And then they begin to chant
one of the most ancient of Christian prayers: Maranâ thâ!
In Aramaic—
the language spoken by Jesus and his Apostles—
it means, “Come, Lord!”
Now, when I say that the Sisters “chant” it,
you probably think of something very somber and subdued…
…but that’s not the case here;
“haunting” is the best way I can describe this brief song,
whose piercing notes echo through the rafters
of the chapel all in shadows.
It’s clearly a heartfelt—almost a heart-wrenching—
cry shot straight up to heaven,
and each evening as I walked back in the dark
the half-mile road to my cabin,
it was something that just wouldn’t stop ringing in my head.

It’s fairly obvious—to me, anyway—
that the Sisters really mean what they’re singing.
When they plead, “Come, Lord!”
they’re taking it absolutely seriously.
Which got me to thinking one night
as I walked amid the moon-lit trees:
What if Jesus takes these Sisters seriously?
What if he’s listening one day
and decides—well—to heed their call?

Throughout these days of Advent,
we echo that prayer of the early Church
as we sing and say, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
But do we really mean what we’re saying?
Do we realize what’s involved
if we take these words seriously?
Or are we sort of play-acting—
routinely looking forward to December 25…
…but not to another coming of Christ?

While the last days of Advent rightly focus our attention
on such immediate preparation for the great feast of Christmas,
these first weeks of the season
are meant to have a very different tone:
one not so much concentrated on getting ready
to recall when the Son of God first came in human flesh,
as getting ready for the day when Christ will come again.

The whole history of the Jewish people
had been a preparation for his first coming:
from the call of Isaiah to make straight the way of the Lord,
to the desert preaching of John the Baptist,
who challenged his hearers—from the greatest to the least—
to drown their sins in the waters of the Jordan
and emerge with hearts made clean.  (cf. A. Esolen)

If the whole history of the Jewish people
was a preparation for the Messiah’s first coming,
then the whole history of the Church
ought to be a preparation for his return in glory.
That certainly was the perspective of Saint Paul
and the first believers to whom he wrote letter after letter
of encouragement and hope.
But what about us, all these twenty centuries later?
Do we still take faith in the Second Coming seriously?
Most of us could list the careful preparations
we’ve already made to celebrate Christmas
(or least we’ve got a pretty good idea
of all the work that’s yet to be done).
But what if, one quiet night,
Christ listens to those singing nuns down in the Catskills?
What if we don’t have until December 25?
Do we live in such a way that we’re ready to meet Christ
whenever he should come again?

I challenge you, this Advent:
take things a step further.
Each day,
whether in the first light of the morning 
or at day’s dark end,
pray with sincerity for Christ’s return.
It’s a practice that has the power
to completely change your perspective.
But choose your words carefully!
He just might take you seriously.

Maranâ thâ!  Come, Lord Jesus!