Sunday, December 27, 2015

Full House

   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph   

Once when Fr. O’Malley came into the classroom
to visit the schoolchildren,
he asked if anybody knew where the Holy Family lived.
There was complete silence for a few moments,
and them a string of incorrect answers.
Finally, one little boy raised his hand and said,
“I know, Father!  The Holy Family lives at 125 Main Street!”
The puzzled priest asked how the kid knew this.
“Well, Father,” said the boy,
“every morning, when I walk by that house on my way to school,
I hear somebody shout, ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, why won’t you get up!’”

It was sure nice to see our churches full for Christmas, wasn’t it?
As I jokingly said to somebody after Mass Christmas morning:
it’s nice to have so many visitors from out-of-town…
…and it’s nice to have so many visitors from right here in town!

All kidding aside—
full churches at Christmas is a bittersweet thing for me
as the “father” of this parish family,
just as it is for so many Catholic parents:
I’m awfully glad to have them here for that one Mass…
…but what can I do to get them back here again every Sunday?

During this past week,
a Catholic writer who’s published a book I’ll be ordering very soon, 
In this season which brings families together,
which brings a lot of lapsed Catholics to Christmas Mass,
and which, for many, tends to bring religious subjects to mind,
she makes some helpful suggestions
about how to share your faith—with your family and with others—
in a way that’s fruitful rather than divisive.

For one thing,
she urges people to avoid starting arguments about religion.
We often wonder, “What can I say that will win them over?”
But this isn’t about “winning.”
It’s pretty rare that a heated debate
actually brings someone back to the Church;
more often than not, it drives them farther away.
What you want is for your faith to rub off on them—
not to rub it into them.
So don’t nag.  Don’t get preachy.
Convincing people with well-reasoned “proofs”
about the truth of the Catholic faith
might work on a few of the more intellectually inclined,
but not everybody.

Dr. Gress points out that hospitality is much, much more effective.
“When we have people in our homes,” she asks,
“do they feel welcomed?
Are we attentive to who they are, their work, their interests?
Do they leave our homes feeling drained and empty
or edified with a better sense of feeling ‘known’ by us?
It is little things like this that can open a heart to Christ.”
Hospitality works because we’re called 
to imitate God’s graciousness and generous love.
“While no two conversion stories are exactly alike,” she says,
“the most effective transformations [happen]
when people [feel] they [are] loved and not judged.…
In prayer, the idea came to me to give them back to God
and just love them exactly where they were in life.
I didn’t have to endorse every element of their lives,
but just love them as they were. 
What happened was that our relationships
became richer, fuller, and more genuine.
Trust was established and they knew that I really loved them
and treasured them for who they were.
Rather than feeling pressure that ‘I’ll love you if…’
they knew I already loved them.
Only then did small changes start taking place.
Of course, I was also praying and fasting for them
so that grace was moving in their lives.”

You know what else Dr. Gress suggests
if we want to bring others back to the practice of the faith?
That we make every effort to first grow in faith and holiness ourselves.
For one thing, “in order to pass along the faith,
we must first have it. 
You cannot give what you don’t have.”
But she also points out:
“Looking at the lives of the saints,
we see that their holiness is attractive, not off-putting.
People just wanted to be around them
because it made them feel closer to God.
The more we grow in our own faith,
the more attractive we will become….”

It’s every parent’s vocation to bring his or her children to God,
as is played out so very vividly
when Hannah gives over the young Samuel to the Lord’s service,
and when Mary and Joseph take the twelve-year-old Jesus
to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
Even when our children are now adults,
that same vocation remains—
although the means by which we fulfill it may be altogether different.
Like Mary and Joseph,
we should be anxious for those who seem to have lost their way,
never giving up on them.
But we must take our cues on what to do
from our heavenly Father,
who won’t compel or pressure us,
but constantly attempts to move his children by the appeal of love.

Do you want to help others find their way to the Catholic faith?
Turns out that the secret to filling the Lord’s house lies in your house.
So make your home a place of real welcome,
and take every opportunity to grow in your own faith,
that people can point to your address and say,
"I know a holy family lives there!"

Friday, December 25, 2015

Not Too Little

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

Among our Christmas decorations,
we have seven different Nativity scenes
set up throughout the rectory,
along with four statues of the Holy Family
and one large figure of the Christ Child—
not to mention that there’s at least one manger to be found
in each of our four parish churches.
So it’s not much of an exaggeration for me
to claim to be an expert observer of Nativity sets.
And carefully looking at all of these
and many other Nativity scenes over the years—
especially the older ones—
a person could easily get the impression
(and I mean no disrespect here to my infant Savior)
that Jesus was a pretty big baby.

Have you ever noticed that?
Life experience tells us that newborns
are rather tiny, fragile creatures…
…but so often in our depictions of the Christmas story
we have a child who’s simply all out of proportion
to be the just-delivered babe
of the woman depicted in the statue
kneeling right beside him.

Why is the baby Jesus all out of scale?

One reason, no doubt,
is that he’s the big player in the scene.
It was a common principle of religious art in earlier ages
that the most important characters
would be depicted much larger than all the rest.

But I think the explanation
runs much deeper into the human psyche.

We don’t like to be little.

It starts when we’re physically little—when we’re children.
I think most of us can recall how much it would sting
to be told that you were “too little”—
whether it was too little play with the older kids,
too little to do whatever the grown ups were doing,  
or too little to go on that special ride at the fair.
And that continues into adulthood:
not wanting to be little, not wanting to be overlooked,
we frequently shun playing a minor part.
We aim to land the big job,
which will mean a big bank account and then a big house.
We’d like to be a big deal—
in our own circle of friends, at least,
if not in our community, or the country,
or even on a worldwide stage.

We don’t like to be little. 
And if the Only Begotten Son of God
is going to come from heaven to earth to live as one of us,
we don’t like the idea of him being too little, either.

Our Catholic faith tells us that, when he comes again,
the Lord Jesus will do so in great power and glory.
But when the kindness and generous love of God
first appeared in human flesh,
he didn’t make a big, splashy entrance.
In fact, the sign announced by angels
and which shepherds sped in haste to see—
an infant who lay sleeping in a hidden nook of a minute town—
was so ordinary, so small,
that it could have quite easily gone unnoticed altogether.
And it did go unnoticed by many—and still does.

Especially as we celebrate Christmas in this Jubilee Year of Mercy,
it’s essential that we acknowledge the littleness
which God so willingly embraced 
when his Son was born of the Virgin Mary.

For one things, 
we’re challenged to renew our efforts during this Holy Year,
to extend mercy to others:
to care for our neighbors in their physical need
for things like food and safe shelter;
to tend to their deep spiritual needs, as well;
and even to forgive those who have wronged us.
Pope Francis often speaks of his longing
for a “revolution of tenderness” in the Church.
If that’s going to happen,
then we need to have eyes for the little ones.
Jesus said we actually serve him
whenever we serve the least of his brothers and sisters.
Our words and actions must tell them they’re not forsaken.
We see Christ’s face in theirs.

You and I are also invited 
to experience God’s mercy firsthand
during this Extraordinary Jubilee Year.
But in order to experience the grace of Divine Mercy,
humility is called for:
we must become little ourselves.
It's with good reason that we kneel this morning
before a manger where livestock feed,
and kneel at every Mass before the altar
where Jesus comes in Sacrament that we might be fed:
it’s so that we can make ourselves small
before the immense mystery of the Incarnation—
that God was once born as a tiny, helpless child
and comes to us still under the appearance of a little white Host.
It’s in our tininess, in our weakness,
that the surpassing strength of the Lord’s mercy
can most clearly shine through.
When approaching God, littleness isn’t a liability at all;
instead, it’s a great asset.

What the shepherds saw in Bethlehem
was a newborn child too small, too poor, too insignificant
to really attract any notice.
And that, paradoxically,
must have been the source of their amazement:
that this otherwise apparently ordinary birth 
was heralded by choirs of angels;
that these shepherds themselves,
who worked on the edge of the village
and lived on the fringes of society,
would be the first privileged recipients of such good news;
that this tiny baby is none other than Christ and Lord.

In this Year of Mercy,
make a commitment to keep your eyes open
to see God in the least among us.
And learn from Jesus to walk the path of humility:
fear not to be little before him
who became so small for us.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Upside Down

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas Eve   

Christmas is a time for stories, right?
Each and every year,
we hear stories about Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch.
Most important of all,
we hear the story of Mary and Joseph
and the birth of the baby Jesus.

I wrote a story myself many Christmases ago,
and told it right here a few years back—
but when someone asked me about it the other day,
I figured it might be time to tell that story again.

Boy and girls:
How many of you have a Christmas tree at home?
Just as I suspected!
And how many of you have those trees hanging upside down?
Just as I suspected again!
I’m sure that sounds like a pretty silly question.
But did you know that, once upon a time,
that’s how people decorated for Christmas—
with an evergreen tree hanging upside down from the ceiling?

Let me read you a little story
about one of those first Christmas trees…

Long, long ago,
         in a land far, far away,
                  there was a big and beautiful forest
                  very near to a tiny village.
And growing beside each other in that forest
         were three different trees:
                  there was Ollie, the oak tree,
                  whose wood was very strong;
                  there was Alice, the apple tree,
                           whose fruit was very sweet;
                  and there was Peter, the pine tree,
                           who was youngest of them all.

The three trees became good friends
         since they spent all of their time together.
But Peter always felt unimportant next to the others.
It was hard enough to be younger and shorter.
But Peter’s wood was soft,
         not hard and strong like Ollie’s
And Peter’s branches didn’t produce any fruit
         like Alice’s delicious apples.
Peter was sure he had a purpose…
         …he just wasn’t sure what that purpose might be.
Now, in that tiny village there lived a little boy
         who often played among the trees of the forest.
He loved to climb in Ollie’s strong branches.
He loved to eat Alice’s sweet apples.
And he loved to lie down under Peter’s thick, green branches,
         where he would spend hour after hour
                  dreaming fantastic dreams
                           and asking life-sized questions.

His mother and father
         had told him there was a God
                  who had made this vast and wonderful world
                           and everything in it.
But the boy wanted to know more
         about this God he could not see.

So the boy asked Ollie what he thought about God.

“This God must be very strong,” replied the mighty oak tree,
         “stronger than anyone or anything else,
                  if he can set up the mountains
                           and dig out a place for the sea.”

Then the boy asked Alice what she thought about God.

“This God must be very rich,” replied the fruitful apple tree,
         “richer than anyone or anything else,
                  if he can provide enough food
                           for every hungry creature.”
Finally, the boy asked Peter what he thought about God.

“I’m not really sure,” said the pine tree.

Looking at Peter’s green branches
         pointing straight up like an arrow to the sky,
the boy said,
         “All I know is that this God must be very far away—
                  way up in heaven above everyone and everything else—
                           if he can watch over the whole world.
That must be why no one has ever seen God.”

And the little boy would lie there
         imagining journeys to distant lands
                  where he would look for people who could tell him
                           if God were indeed very strong,
                                    or very rich,
                                             or very far away.

And that’s just what the little boy did.

When he got older,
         he said good-bye to his mother and father
                  and to his friends in the forest,
                           promising them all that he would come back some day
                                    and tell them about everything
                                             he had seen and learned.

So Ollie, Alice, and Peter waited.
And they waited.
And they waited some more.
And after a few years
         the little boy—now a fully-grown man—
                  came back to the tiny village where he has been born.
He called together all the people to the center of town
         because he had some wonderful news to tell them.

He had met some people who could tell him about God.

Now, the three trees could see
         that there was much excitement in the village,
                  but they could not hear a single word
                           of what their old friend was saying.
It wasn’t long, though, before they saw him
         coming into the forest carrying a saw.
He walked up to Ollie and said,
         “I want to build a house for God—called a church.
But I need wood to build it.
Oak tree, may I have some of your strong branches?”

“Why yes, my friend,” said Ollie.
“I want to help you build a strong house for God.”

When the church was finished,
         the now-grown boy came back to the forest,
                  carrying a huge basket.
He walked up to Alice and said,
         “I want to have a great festival for God—called Christmas.
But I need food for the feast.
Apple tree, may I have some of your sweet fruit?”

“Why yes, my friend,” said Alice.
“I want to help you have a rich celebration for God.”
And when all else was ready for the festival,
         their friend returned to the forest one more time,
                  but this time he was carrying an axe.
He walked up to Peter and said,
         “I want to decorate God’s house for the great feast.
I want to share with everyone the amazing story I have heard,
         but I’m going to need your help—
                  even more than I needed Ollie and Alice.
Pine tree, may I cut you down
         and bring you into the church for Christmas?”

Peter was very much afraid,
         but he mustered up all his courage
                  and managed to answer, “Yes, my dear friend:
                           I want to help you point people to God.”

Afraid that the axe might hurt a bit,
         Peter closed his eyes real tight
                  but by the time he opened them again
                           he had already been brought inside.

“I have a very special place for you, my friend,” said the boy.
And with that,
          he tied a rope around Peter’s little trunk
                  and raised him—upside down—
                           to the rafters made from Ollie’s branches,
                                    hanging high above the floor of the church.

“I don’t understand,” said Peter,
         now more confused and dizzy than afraid.
“I remember when you were little,
         how you would lie down
                  and dream beneath my green branches
                           and think about how they pointed like an arrow
                                    straight to God up high in heaven.
What have you learned, my friend,
         that you now need to hang me upside down?”

“I nearly forgot to tell you,” said the boy.
“I used to think that God
         was stronger than anything—and that’s true.
But Christmas has taught me
         that that same God chose to be weak—
                  born as a little baby boy, just like I used to be,
                           who needed a mother and father to care for him.

“I also used to think that God
         was richer than anyone—and that’s true.
But Christmas has taught me
         that that same God chose to be poor—
                  born in a tiny village, just like mine,
                           with only a manger for his first bed.

“And I used to think that God
         lived far away in heaven, watching over the whole world—
                  and that’s true, too.
But Christmas as taught me
         that that God chose to come live with us
                  right here on earth.

“And that’s why I’ve hung you upside down, little pine tree:
         to point like an arrow, for all people to see—
                  pointing to the wonderful news that because of his love
                           God has come down from heaven
                                    to be very close to us.”

Now Peter understood the great excitement
         he has seen spreading throughout the village
                  and the reason for this grand celebration called Christmas.

No longer feeling unimportant,
         no longer afraid or confused,
                  he proudly hung up there, high in the rafters.
Peter has finally found his purpose:
         it was to be a Christmas tree,
                  helping everyone who would see him to remember
                           the most wonderful news of all—
                                    that God is with us.

So, boys and girls,
before you crawl into your warm beds tonight,
I want you to look very carefully at trees in your homes,
and to picture them hanging upside down!

And when you do that,
remember how again each year
Christmas points down like an arrow from heaven
to tell people that God loves us so much
that he didn’t want to stay far away,
but he chose to be born—weak and poor—
as a little child…just like you!

The end.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2015


It's rather beautiful seeing all four candles lit on the Advent wreath.  
It's also rather terrifying: there's only a few days left!

   Fourth Sunday of Advent   C 

Thursday is generally my day off each week,
and this past Thursday was earmarked for Christmas shopping.
I put more than 200 miles on the car making my rounds,
and found myself on many a wild goose chase:
items out of stock, store staffers nowhere to be found,
stores closed, one store gone right out of business.
Many of the other folks I encountered—
whether they were employees or customers—
looked like they were enjoying themselves
just about as much as I was.
As my baby sister sarcastically put it in an email the other day,
Christmas shopping is “essentially
a winter wonderland of love, peace, and joy!”
When I pulled back into Malone a little after 9 o’clock that night,
I wasn’t exactly brimming with Christmas cheer;
I was exhausted…and rapidly approaching cranky.
So much to do…so little time to do it!

“Mary set out and traveled…in haste…”

As this Sunday we hear again the story of the Visitation,
it can seem that even our Blessed Mother
has been caught up in the pre-holiday rush!
But Mary’s not running off to the mall in suburban Nazareth
to shop for the nursery or register in advance of a baby shower.
Many have assumed that her quick action
is an indicator of her abundant charity—
although pregnant herself, rushing to help her aged cousin
who’s now quite astonishingly with child…
…but if that were solely the case,
Mary would have probably stayed put
until little John the Baptist was actually born,
and not returned home a whole month early (Lk 1:56).

So…why the rush?

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary
and announced to her
that she would bear the Only Begotten Son of God,
the good news came with the promise of a miraculous sign:
that Elizabeth, even though long barren, was now pregnant, too.
The sign was Mary’s invitation to go—
not so much to verify the Lord’s word
as to experience firsthand
that, “nothing,” in fact, “will be impossible for God” (Lk 1:37)
And so, much like a band of shepherds
will also later do at the prompting of angels,
Mary hastens to see the sign—
a swift and determined movement of her heart
even more than of her feet along the roads of Judah.

In my experience, anyway,
all the rushing about at this time of year
tends to cause me to miss out—
to race right by the people and things that ought to matter most:
the family and friends for whom I’m shopping;
God’s sacred, saving purpose
which set this frenzy in motion in the first place.
In our haste to merrily mark the Savior’s birth,
we’re moving so fast that we can fail to see and recognize his face.
We need to learn and relearn from Mary’s urgency,
which isn’t motivated by societal or sentimental expectations,
but by the fervor and zeal, by the joy and enthusiasm of her faith.
Maybe we need to set down our shopping bags for a spell
so that our hearts, like Mary’s, can race to see the signs
the Lord’s performing right here among us
and get as close as possible to their heavenly source.

May these last few days of Advent be for us
about more than simply hurrying to meet a December 25th deadline.
Let our haste—now and always—
be to see the signs of where and how
the Lord is still working wonders in our lives.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

That's 24

Last Wednesday-Thursday, Fr. Scott and I spent the night at Trombley Landing on the Raquette River (between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake).  They were notably milder conditions than when we stayed in this same spot back in November 2014: no snow on the trail or the trees, no ice on the river or in our water bottles...

This overnight makes for two full years now that I've camped out at least one night each month...and I'm still rather enjoying myself!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Three Questions

   Third Sunday of Advent   C 
“What should we do?
That's the question John the Baptist gets asked three times this Sunday—
by the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers.
"What should we do?
You've told us that someone mightier is coming after you,
and that he'll set this world on fire.
How do we get ready?
What difference ought this to make in our lives?
What should we do?"

Two thousands years later, it's still a pertinent question.

This week,
I came across a story
by the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy,
which gets us closer to an answer.
Appropriately enough,
it’s called, The Three Questions.

It once occurred to a certain King,
that if he always knew the right time to begin everything;
if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid;
and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do,
he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And [so the King] had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom
that he would give a great reward to anyone [who could answer his questions.]
[Many knowledgeable people] came to the King,
but they all answered his questions differently.…

 [T]he King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none.
But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions,
he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in a wood which he never left,
and he received none but common folk.
So the King put on simple clothes,
and before reaching the hermit's cell climbed down from his horse,
and, leaving his bodyguard behind, went on alone.

When the King approached,
the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut.
Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging.
The hermit was frail and weak,
and each time he stuck his shovel into the ground and turned a little earth,
he breathed heavily.

The King went up to him and said:
"I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions:
How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time?
Who are the people I most need,
and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest?
And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?"

The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing.
He just spat on his hand and started digging again.

"You are tired," said the King, "let me take the shovel and work awhile for you."

"Thank you!" said the hermit,
and, giving the shovel to the King, he sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions.
The hermit again gave no answer…and the King continued to dig....
One hour passed, and another.
"I came to you, wise man,” [said the King,] “for an answer to my questions.
If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home."

"Here comes someone running," said the hermit.  "Let us see who it is."
The King turned round, 
and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood.
The man held his hands pressed against his side,
and blood was flowing from under them.
When he reached the King, 
he fell fainting on the ground moaning weakly.
The King and the hermit unfastened the man's clothing.
There was a large wound in his side.
The King washed it as best he could,
and bandaged it with his handkerchief 
and with a towel the hermit had.
When at last the blood ceased flowing,
the man revived and asked for something to drink.
The King brought fresh water and gave it to him.
Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool.
So the King, with the hermit's help,
carried the wounded man into the hut 
and laid him on the bed.
[The King] crouched down in the doorway, 
and also fell asleep.
When he awoke in the morning,
it was awhile before he could remember where he was,
or who was this strange bearded man lying on the bed
and gazing intently [up] at him with bright eyes.

"Forgive me!" said the bearded man in a weak voice,
when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.

"I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for," said the King.

"You do not know me, but I know you.
I am that enemy of yours who swore to take revenge on you,
because you executed my brother and seized my property.
I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit,
and I resolved to kill you on your way back.
But the day passed and you did not return.
So I came out from hiding to find you,
and I came upon your bodyguard, and he recognized me, and wounded me.
I escaped from him,
but would have bled to death had you not dressed my wound.
I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life.
Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave,
and will bid my sons do the same.
Forgive me!"

The King was very glad…to have gained him for a friend,
and he not only forgave him,
but said he would send his servants and his own doctor to attend him,
and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out.
The hermit was outside, on his knees,
sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.
The King approached him, and said:
"For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man."

"They have already been answered!" said the hermit.

"What do you mean?" asked the King.

"Do you not see?" replied the hermit.
"If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday,
and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way,
that man would have attacked you,
and you would have been sorry for not having stayed with me.
So the most important time was when you were digging the beds;
and I was the most important person;
and to do me good was your most important business.
Afterwards when that man ran to us,
the most important time was when you were attending to him,
for if you had not bound up his wounds
he would have died without having made peace with you.
So he was the most important person,
and what you did for him was your most important business.
Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now!
It is the most important time
because it is the only time when we have any power.
The most necessary person is the one with whom you are,
for no one knows whether
he will ever have dealings with anybody else:
and the most important affair is, to do him good,
because for that purpose alone were we sent into this life!"

“What should we do?”
The question once put to John the Baptist is still as relevant as ever.
And the answers Tolstoy proposed in his story ought to ring true for us—
especially in this Advent season,
particularly in the Jubilee Year of Mercy:
Now is the time, this is the moment, today is the day
to see the Lord and to serve the Lord in our neighbor.
Or as St. Paul puts it,
"Rejoice always.
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near."
To truly live by this faith changes absolutely everything.