Sunday, December 28, 2014


   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph   

Modern American culture does a great job—
maybe even too good a job—
of documenting childhood these days.
When I was young,
at most you had a nice little baby album
with a few cute photos and maybe a lock of hair.
Today, nearly everything an infant or toddler does
is broadcast far and wide—and instantly—on Facebook:
first word, first tooth, first solid food, first step, first day at school.
Parents seem prone to overshare when it comes to their kids.
I think most of us of a certain age
have an embarrassing baby picture in the bathtub
lurking somewhere in our past;
it was a whole lot easier to keep those out of sight
when they were just printed on paper,
rather than floating around forever in cyberspace.

Now compare that
to what we know about Jesus’ earliest years.
This Sunday’s brief gospel passage is about all we’ve got
before he hits young adulthood—
except, of course, for an infamous twelve-year-old trip to Jerusalem.

Quite naturally, we’re curious about those hidden years,
which actually make up the bulk of Jesus’ time spent here on earth.
It’s an incredible temptation to try and fill in the gaps
with likely but imagined details.
The silence of the Scriptures—like silence in general—
can make us pretty uncomfortable.


While I was home Friday,
my brother-in-law was asking me
(Shane’s not Catholic, 
and he’s often got questions for me
about the Church or the priesthood.)
For more than a decade now,
I’ve annually gone to a monastery or hermitage
to spend a week on silent retreat.
What most fascinated—and perplexed—Shane
was the silence.
Standing there in the middle of his house
while the TV was blaring, the dogs were whining,
my niece and nephew 
were buzzing about with new toys,
and the microwave was humming 
in the next room,
Shane just shook his head and said, 
“I couldn’t do it.”
(Which is how most folks react.)
I stood there thinking, “I couldn’t do without it!”

Silence is an increasingly rare commodity in the world today.
In addition to the chatter and music which are always around us,
there’s the constant noise of our many machines:
the rumble of traffic on the street;
the ding of an incoming text on our cell phone;
the perpetually whirring fans of our computer 
or furnace or refrigerator.
We don’t even notice it all…
…till it’s not there (say, when the power goes out).
And then we feel the need to fill that void—
to break the uncomfortable silence.
I know of folks who require a “white noise” machine
to make static-like sounds in the background
just so they can sleep.  
(So much for “Silent Night”!)

Maybe the Scriptures’ silence on the life of the Holy Family
is meant to remind us of another way.

What can the silence of Nazareth teach our families?
For one thing, it encourages us to listen—
to listen with greater care to one another,
to listen more attentively to God.
In my experience,
poor communication is the source of most strife in family life
and most confusion in the spiritual life,
and communication breaks down most often
not because we fail to express ourselves clearly,
but because we fail to listen well.
In family relations, in our relationship with the Lord,
silence encourages us to truly listen.

And silence also encourages us to trust—
to live by faith.
Think of the task entrusted to Mary and Joseph.
Where could they turn for guidance?
How could they know
if they were parenting the Son of God aright?
Sure, angels occasionally appeared on the scene
in those first few months,
but their messages may have only made matters more mysterious, not less.
Like Abraham and Sarah so many generations before them,
faith alone could support and sustain them.
And that’s how it is with us, too.
Such faith, such trust in God’s promises,
is tested and matures in silence.

Our heavenly Father will never be accused of oversharing—
quite the opposite, in fact.
As Mother Teresa of Calcutta liked to say,
“God is the friend of silence.”
And yet, because silence is so rare,
it makes us uncomfortable.
And because silence makes us uncomfortable,
we’re pretty quick chase it away.
We work hard to fill in the gaps.
But it’s precisely in those silent gaps,
in those quiet and open spaces,
that we’re most likely to meet the Lord.

May our families—whatever their size or shape—
learn to listen better and learn to trust more.
We’ll learn these things best when—little by little—
we begin to befriend even just a few brief moments of silence.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

We had a little accident around here last January:
as the Christmas decorations were being put away,
somebody dropped the baby Jesus.
I don’t want to name names
because it was a perfectly innocent mistake—
but the old plaster figurine simply shattered.
(When they came up with the word “smithereens,”
this was precisely the sort of thing they had in mind!)
Repair seemed right out of the question,
so we focused our efforts on replacement.
Before the end of last winter,
we’d found a reasonably acceptable substitute;
it was nowhere near the same,
but I figured it would have to do.

Then, about a month ago, I was in St. Mary’s Church in Lake Titus,
looking for something else altogether,
when I saw a box of old Christmas decorations
in the back of a small closet.
I dug through the tangle of old lights and plastic evergreens,
and there he was:
a nearly exact match for our broken baby Jesus!
But this one was in perfect condition,
while the other one had previously
been cracked and touched up a few times.
Christmas was saved!

The new bambino came with an added bonus:
in the box was his very own manger.
(We didn’t have one for the old infant;
we simply built up a pile of straw
and put a small cloth under him.)
After arranging the nativity scene 
Monday afternoon,
the last piece I put in was the “new” manger,
filled with fresh hay.
Yet as soon as I set it in place,
I was tempted to take it out again—
or at least make a slight alteration to it.
You see, at the top of this simple assembly of sticks
there’s a small wooden cross.
I grew up on a farm;
I know a thing or two about mangers,
and I know that not even the most devout farmers
put a cross on the top of a feed box.
It was a pious little touch,
but it seemed to me terribly out of place.

Until yesterday afternoon.

I was making a visit to a ill parishioner
who wouldn’t be able to get to church this Christmas;
I knew she and her husband would appreciate the chance
to receive Holy Communion at home.
In the course of our conversation, she asked me:
“Father, maybe you know:
Why did God even let me be born?
I’ve been sickly much of my life.
Right now, I can’t really leave the house
and must depend on others for nearly everything.
Why would God bring me into the world…for this?”

And that’s when I knew
why that cross belongs on the manger.

I shared with her that she’d been born
for the very same reason 
that God sent his Only Begotten Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary:
because God’s madly in love with her,
and can’t stand the thought of this earth—
or, later, heaven—being without her.
Out of sheer love, 
he’d brought her into being;
out of utter love, 
he’d come to redeem her;
out of purest love, 
he’d seen her through many an earlier hardship,
and wasn’t about to abandon her now.
I quoted St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests,
beside whose image in stained glass I’m preaching tonight:
“The cross is the gift that God makes to his friends.”
“I guess God thinks of you as a pretty good friend,” I said.

I made her husband promise
to bring up her favorite Nativity scene from the basement
and set it up right there in the living room.
(They hadn’t done hardly any Christmas decorating this year).
She needed to keep her cross near the manger.

We come to this Christmas celebration brimming with joy—
“’tis the season to be jolly,” after all.
Be we come here bearing a fair amount of sadness, too—
things disappointing and discouraging,
personal and unique to each one of us.
Life’s not always easy—rarely so, in fact.

So we’re here tonight with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds below and angels above,
to kneel again in wonder before the mystery
that almighty God, the Creator of the world and Lord of all,
came to be born in our human flesh—
with all its limitations and weaknesses.
The heavenly hosts sang, and we echo still:
Gloria in excelsis Deo—Glory to God in the highest!
Nearly one hundred years ago,
English writer G. K. Chesterton wrote a poem
that proposed a different take:
Gloria in profundis—Glory [to God] in the lowest.
The reason for our joy tonight
is that God didn’t hesitate to wholly join us down here below.
From diaper rash to arthritis, from Ebola to terrorism,
and all the dark and gloomy moments in between,
he’s entered totally (excepting for sin) into the human condition—
beginning in the humble manger of Bethlehem,
all the way to the humiliating Cross of Calvary.
Often enough, we feel like that fragile plaster baby:
dropped hard, and broken to bits.
Instead, what’s been smashed by the Incarnation
is the dominion of sin, death, and hell.
And our human nature comes out
not only looking good as new, but even better than before:
destined to live with God forever.

Our holy patron, St. André Bessette,
suffered from ill health much of his life,
and was a instrument of healing in the lives of many others
who were afflicted in countless ways.
He used to say,
“People who suffer have something to offer to God. 
When they succeed in enduring their suffering,
that is a daily miracle.”

It’s the miracle of grace that keeps his holy crib
ever-so-near our every cross.
Gloria in profundis—Glory to God in the lowest!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dewfall

   Fourth Sunday of Advent   B 

When the new English translation of the prayers of the Mass
began to be used back in Advent 2011,
it took some getting used to.
I still slip up during the Creed sometimes…and I know I’m not alone.
One of the expressions
which continues to stand out as a bit odd for many folks
is, “like the dewfall.”
We hear it in the second Eucharistic Prayer:
            Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray,
            by sending down your Holy Spirit upon them like the dewfall…
(I was told of a priest who,
during that first Christmas with the new Missal,
prayed for the Holy Spirit to descend “like the snowfall”:
not exactly very reverent…but clever!)

What in the world 
does this unusual expression mean?

Think about how the dew falls:
gradually, all silent and unseen.
When rain or snow fall,
their arrival is rather obvious—
sometimes, even violent.
But not the dew, 
which is always quiet and gentle.

That’s how the Holy Spirit often comes:
he does much of his best work in secret.

That’s certainly what we encounter
in our gospel reading this Sunday,
where we find the Holy Spirit very much at work—
as powerful as ever,
but also all hidden and hushed.
Mary wonders at the angel’s incredible message,
and how this might come to pass:
“The Holy Spirit…will overshadow you,” she’s told.
God’s dew was settling in a most definitive way
to bring new life to the parched earth:
the Eternal Word taking on human flesh;
the Son of God becoming man—
secretly, in the womb of a virgin.

Our worldly sensibilities, of course,
prefer things that are more concrete.
When King David wants to show his devotion,
and make clear that God dwells among his people,
he proposes to replace the flimsy, portable tent
which has long been the focal point of Israel’s worship
with a fixed temple of cedar and stone.
Even when it comes to spiritual matters,
we favor things we can see and touch,
things stable and sturdy—
not fleeting, like the dew.
But God is mystery,
and his working, regularly in secret.
Despite our desire to have it otherwise,
the Lord is notoriously hard to pin down.

Christmas is, of course, very near,
and our celebration of the Lord’s Nativity
has become increasingly tangible:
filled with trees and lights and mangers
and presents and music and cookies—and more!
It’s a veritable feast for the senses!
But we mustn’t get so taken by the good stuff of the holiday
that we miss the very essence of the holy day…
…which is and will always remain a mystery.
How can it be that the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages,
…for our salvation…came down from heaven,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit
was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man?

Just the thought of it should stop us in our tracks—
as it, no doubt, did Mary—and have us saying, “Wow!”

In the Old Testament,
when the Israelites were wandering hungry in the desert,
God fed his people with manna from above.
“In the morning,” we read in Exodus,
“there was a layer of dew all about the camp,
and when the layer of dew evaporated,
fine flakes were…on the ground.
…[T]he Israelites asked one another, “What is this?” 
…Moses told them, “It is the bread 
which the Lord has given you to eat.”  (16:13-15)

At every Mass, in a way even more wondrous,
God continues to feed his people.
The Lord who was made manifest in our human flesh
still dwells among us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

All silent and quite unseen,
the heavenly dew continues to fall.

Let us never fail to stand in wonder
before the mystery.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

12th Night

♪ On the twelfth night of camping,
Mother Nature gave to me
a blanket of freshly fallen snow... 


With the last of my year-long series of camping expeditions coming so close to Christmas, it only seemed appropriate to head into the woods near the North Pole.  North Pole, NY, that is.  (Not to mention that, since much of my winter gear just happens to be either red or green, a camping companion had already called them my "elf outfit.")  While the original plan for December camping had been elsewhere, trail conditions and the forecast tempered enthusiasm with prudence, and Fr. Scott Belina and I headed midday Wednesday into Cooper Kiln Pond.  The trailhead is not far outside of Wilmington, just up from the Santa's Workshop theme park.  It's a 2.7 mile hike in from the road to the lean-to. "Gentle" and "easy" climbing, the guidebook said, to a spot where "solitude is just about guaranteed."

At least they got that last part right!

The trail conditions were the second worst I'd encountered all year.  Temperatures were in the mid-thirties, which had the snow in the trees melting down on us, and the snow on the trail rather  heavy and gloppy.  The snowshoeing was a difficult slog, taking us two and quarter hours to reach the lean-to.  Since the grade was a good bit steeper than the authorities suggested, we were wet from both the inside and out.

When we arrived at the lean-to, so did a change in the weather: the wind picked up strongly, and it started to snow.   (The forecast had been for very little of either.)  The real trick was, this wind was blowing the snow right over the pond and into the lean-to.  Having packed for the forecast, we had neither tent not tarp...which meant we were likely to have a problem.

I had gotten rather chilled after arriving at the pond, so after eating my sandwich I climbed into my sleeping bag to warm up for a spell.  (Truth be told: I dozed for a bit, too.  The trip in had been a hard one!)  Fr. Scott decided to deal with things in an altogether different fashion: he built a snow wall.

He dubbed it: The Great Wall of Cooper Kiln.

Despite all the abuse he took from me during its construction ("You're ruining the view!" I called out from the warmth of my sleeping bag), his efforts made a big difference for the night.  (Yes, I later said, "Thank you!")

Here we are around supper time:

That snow on the lean-to floor is what made it over and around the wall.  (We'd scraped the floor clean when we arrived around 2:30pm.)  And here's how things looked after we crawled out of bed in the morning:

Like I said: a blanket of snow!  (Much of it had already been shaken off our bags.)

A couple of other shots of Fr. Scott's handiwork:

Yes, there's a lean-to somewhere behind there!

It was 25˚ F when we got up on Thursday, and the temperature hadn't risen a bit when we left Cooper Kiln at 11:15am.  The lower temperature and the fresh snow improved the trail conditions immensely.  It was actually a fun snowshoe out, and we shaved nearly an hour off our time coming in.

Not an easy trek in...but another fine night in the woods.  Is there any other kind?

*  *  *

This wasn't actually my 12th night of camping out this year...but my 15th.  (I had a couple of "bonus" trips in there, too.)  Over the course of 2014, I stayed in 10 different lean-tos (with a couple of repeat visits), and spent 3 nights in a tent.  I traveled on foot, by snowshoe, XC skis, and canoe.  I had a few different camping companions (Fr. Scott on six of my trips), and spent four nights out all on my own.  I even spent my 40th birthday sleeping out in the woods.  It wasn't always easy.  But I don't regret a moment of it.

The most common question folks have asked this year (especially when hearing about cold and snowy nights like this most recent one) is, "Why?"  That's a hard question to answer.  Fr. Scott and I usually respond by simply saying, "Because we can!"  True, a big part of it is about testing your mettle and proving yourself.  But it runs a good bit deeper, too.  I'll borrow an answer from another clergyman enamored by these mountains--the Rev. Joel Tyler Headley, from his 1849 book, The Adirondack; or Life in the Woods:

I love nature and all things as God has made them.  I love the freedom of the wilderness and the absence of conventional forms there.  I love the long stretch through the forest on foot, and the thrilling, glorious prospect from some hoary mountain top.  I love it, and I know it is better for me than the thronged city, aye, better for soul and body both.  How is it that even good men have come to think so little of nature, as if to love her and seek her haunts and companionship were a waste of time?  I have been astonished at the remarks sometimes made to me on my long jaunts in the woods, as if it were almost wicked to cast off the gravity of society, and wander like a child amid the beauty which God has spread out with such a lavish hand over the earth.  Why, I should as soon think of feeling reproved for gazing at the midnight heavens, gorgeous with stars, and fearful with its mysterious floating worlds.  I believe that every man degenerates without frequent communion with nature.  It is one of the open books of God...  (167-168)

I've also been asked, "So, does this mean you'll stop camping?"  Of course not!  I love it.  (And I've also got way too much money invested in cool gear to quit now!)

And then I've been asked, "So what will you do next?"  That, my friends, is still to be determined...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Oh, Lucy

   Third Sunday of Advent   B 
As a kid, I remember being fascinated by books
that told of Advent and Christmas customs
from around the world.
(Truth be told: I still love those kind of books!)
I could recognize so many of the traditions described in there
as the source of so many of the curious things
we still do here at this holiday time.
But there was always one set of customs
that looked nothing like anything I’d ever seen…
…and those were associated with St. Lucy’s Day.

Yesterday, December 13th,
was the memorial of St. Lucy, virgin and martyr.
A hero of the early Church,
Lucy died for her faith in Jesus 
around the year 303.
And, according to legend,
one of the cruel torments she endured for being a Christian
was having her eyes cut out.
Thus she’s become the patron saint of sight.
We’re blessed to have a relic of St. Lucy
on the altar at this Mass today.

Devotion to St. Lucy 
was rather popular back in the Middle Ages,
and particularly so in Scandinavia—
which is a bit peculiar,
when you consider we’re talking about a woman
who died in far off—and far warmer—Sicily.
As I learned in those children’s books,
it’s still customary in Sweden on December 13th
for a young woman—often the oldest daughter of the family—
to dress up as St. Lucy.
She puts on a long white robe with a red sash:
white for Lucy’s purity, red for her martyrdom.
(Lucy, you see, was killed
because she refused to violate the virginity
she had dedicated to Christ.)
The girl also wears a crown of burning candles,
since Lucy’s name means “light.”
(Picture a small Advent wreath sitting atop her head.)
And the young lady then goes from house to house
with a tray of baked goods,
spreading joy to all she meets.
Other than the obvious fire hazard 
of setting your daughter's hair on fire,
I can see the appeal of this unusual tradition:
in the cold, dark days of winter,
who wouldn’t be attracted by someone
whose sole mission is to bear to others
warmth and sweetness and light?

And when you put it in those terms,
St. Lucy is a shining example of the most basic vocation
of each and every one of us Christians.

This is the third Sunday of Advent—
the midpoint of the season.
In scripture and song,
in prayers and a brief break from somber purple,
the Church tells her children, “Rejoice!”
It’s a message we desperately need to hear…
…and not just because Christmas is getting closer.

I had a conversation with a parishioner this past week
who shared that, despite her belonging here for many years,
she often doesn’t feel very welcome
when she walks into our churches for Mass.
Oh, there are the formal welcomes
of someone with a bulletin at the door
or the reader before Mass begins.
But she’s rarely greeted—or even smiled at—
by anyone else in the pews.
I’ve heard similar things said over the years,
especially by new parishioners who find it very hard
to break in and feel like they’re accepted.
I’m not sure where this standoffishness comes from.
(Maybe all the exposure to winter’s cold seeps into our bones!)

But what I do know is that there’s another way.
When Catholics leave to join another congregation,
in not usually over a matter of doctrine,
and rarely actually caused by any scandal.
It’s usually because our Protestant neighbors
are really good at fellowship:
extending warm welcome, making others feel at home,
radiating the true joy of the Gospel.
(It’s probably no accident that the Lutherans
seem to be the ones most inclined
to hand out cookies on St. Lucy’s Day!)
And our own patron, St. André, gives us good example, too.
As the doorman for his religious order,
and later at St. Joseph’s Oratory, 
his chief occupation was to bring people in
and make them feel welcome—
giving joy and hope to those who were suffering
in body, mind, or spirit.

As Cardinal Dolan of New York likes to say,
“Happiness attracts!”
Yes, our faith is serious business…but that doesn’t make it dour.
Christ came to announce glad tidings—good news.
The world needs us to be witnesses to that joy!

Despite the bright shade of my vestments today,
being a people of joy doesn’t mean
pretending things are all fine and rosy when they’re not.
We should not—we cannot—ignore the tough stuff in life.
Isaiah’s joyful message this Sunday was first delivered
to a people returning after a long and painful exile;
faced with rebuilding both their country and its culture,
they seemed to be up against a nearly impossible task.
The Virgin Mary’s jubilant canticle—her Magnificat
is sung by a young, unwed woman, visiting an elderly cousin,
both of them quite unexpectedly pregnant…
…and no doubt concerned
about what all their neighbors would think.
And St. Paul’s encouraging letter is written to a town
where he’d made some converts and started a small community,
but was then spitefully harassed and eventually driven out.

We, of course, must deal with the difficulties
of our own time and place:
personally, we’ve all known heartbreak and loss;
as a community, we’re dealing with
a struggling economy, harsh weather,
and even uncertainties about the future of the Church.
But as Christians,
we find joy not apart from hardship and suffering,
but right here in the middle of it.
Yes, we acknowledge the pain and sorrow…
…but we can see through it.
Marked as we are by both Christ’s Cross and his Resurrection,
we know it’s not the whole of the story.
That’s what sustained St. Lucy:
she could endure brutal torture and even death
because she firmly believed that there’s something more.

In the midst of so much darkness and cold,
who wouldn’t be attracted by someone
whose sole mission is to bear to others
warmth and sweetness and light?
My friends, that’s our calling!
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon us to be messengers of joy!

John the Baptist was sent by God to testify to the light.
“There is one among you,” he would say,
“whom you do not recognize…”
If only the Lord always came to us
with a tray of cookies and a crown of candles on his head,
we’d never miss him in his many disguises!
But by faith we can still see him, and rejoice,
even on the darkest of days.

Let us ask good St. Lucy—
that saint of light and of sight—
to gain for us clear vision—
both of the eyes and of the heart.
If we can recognize Christ present with us
in the midst of every struggle,
we discover the only true cause for joy—
a joy that can’t help but overflow,
and which never fails to attract others to him.