Sunday, December 25, 2016


   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

It was Christmas Eve in Nashville, 1956.  Judy Charest was just 3 months old.  Her father had jumped into the shower, and by the time he stepped back out again his wife and baby girl were gone.  His wife suffered from depression, and she had driven their little daughter to the Shelby Street Bridge.  With Judy in her arms, she jumped 90 feet down into the icy river below.

Passersby soon noticed a woman floating in the cold water, and they heard her screaming, “My baby!  Somebody save my baby!”  In the crowd were two men—Jack and Harold—who immediately ran down to the water’s edge.  Jack dove in and swam first for the baby.  He brought Judy back to shore and handed her off to Harold before diving in the frigid water again to swim for her mother.  Harold grasped the little girl tight in his arms and immediately began to run up the riverbank.  He’d only gone two or three steps when—to his great delight—he heard the girl give a little grunt.  “It’s too good to be true,” he thought to himself.  “She’s still alive.  It’s a miracle!”

Incredibly, both Judy and her mother survived the ordeal.  Actually, because of it, Judy’s mom got the diagnosis and treatment she needed and went on to live a long, full, and otherwise wonderful life.

Judy knew nothing about the story of her first Christmas until she was 21 years old.  And when she heard the tale, she suddenly understood why her father held her so very, very tight every year on Christmas.  It was only last year, when Judy was 59, that she met Harold: the man whose strong arms had carried her up the riverbank that Christmas Eve.  When they met, they hugged—tightly, and for a long time.  Just a couple of weeks ago, when they met up again, Judy told Harold that being in his arms—the arms that once saved her—felt so very familiar.

No doubt you’re thinking, “That’s quite a story, Fr. Joe…but it’s not exactly your typical ‘Christmas story.’  There are no elves or reindeer.  Nobody exchanges any gifts.  While there are a mother and child involved, there’s no manger, no magi.”  And yet, when Ifirst heard Judy and Harold’s story a few days ago, I immediately thought, “That’s the truest Christmas story I’ve heard in a long time.”

Why?  Because what Harold and Jack did for Judy on her first Christmas is precisely what the Son of God did for you and me the very first Christmas: throwing all caution to the wind, thinking nothing of himself, concerned only with the dangers we faced, he jumped down to earth from heaven to rescue us.

To help us understand this, let’s consider Christmas music for a minute.  There is more Christmas music than any other kind.   It’s in every language, every style, coming out of every culture.  From Bach to Beyoncé, everybody writes and sings songs for Christmas.  As I heard on the radio the other day, there are a surprising number of our modern Christmas favorites that have been written by musicians who aren’t even Christian!

Listening to so much of this music the last few weeks, I’ve realized that pretty much all Christmas songs—with rare exceptions—speak about deliveries.

In contemporary Christmas songs, the deliveries are of the sort that come wrapped in shiny paper and bows: deliveries eagerly awaited this very night from a big man in a red suit (or maybe deliveries awaited the last few days from somebody driving a big brown truck).  Contemporary Christmas music sings a lot about presents.  But Christmas can’t be all about the presents, can it?  We give gifts on many other occasions, as well.  Why these deliveries?

If you turn back the clock a little to an earlier era, you’ll find that Christmas songs speak of a different delivery: the delivery of a little baby, who’s found lying in a manger.  They are sentimental songs that tug on the heartstrings as we hear the story of a child born into some rather difficult circumstances.  But babies are born every minute of every day—and far too many of them in less-than-ideal conditions.  We don’t celebrate the delivery of every newborn with all this fanfare.

Reach back even farther, and you’ll find some Christmas songs that today are by-and-large forgotten.  They, too, sing of deliveries.  They sing of how this baby born in Bethlehem grew to manhood, and how he delivered himself into the hands of the wicked, delivered himself to suffering and a Cross, and did so that you and I might be delivered from sin and death.  They sing of the God who dove headfirst into our humanity in order to save us.  And only here, my friends, do we learn of the delivery that makes any sense of all the others.

The good news the angels announced to the shepherds was the birth of a Savior.   But it means nothing for us to call Jesus our Savior, to celebrate our Savior’s birth, if there’s nothing from which we need to be saved.  We Christians innately know this.  At Baptism, we were literally pulled from the waters: raised up by one who jumped in after us.  And I think that’s why, at Christmas, so many Christians who don’t otherwise think themselves very religious, who don’t regularly practice their faith, still feel the pull to come to church.  Like when Harold hugged Judy 59 years later, we recognize a very familiar embrace.  Deep down, we know we’re most truly at home when held in the arms of our Deliverer.  It’s here where life is restored to us.  It’s here that we belong.

Two men saved a baby girl 60 years ago.  On the first Christmas, a baby boy was born to save all men.  Let us rejoice his Most Sacred Heart—at this holy time, and throughout the year—by living the kind of lives for which he risked everything to deliver us.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2016


   Fourth Sunday of Advent   A 

I asked a guy at the last Mass if he did anything special when he proposed marriage to his wife.  He said, “No.”  She quickly chimed in, “He even had me pick out my own ring.”  (At least she got the one she wanted.)  So I asked another fellow the same question, and he said, “Yes.”  I asked, “Did you get her roses?”  He said, “No.”  But she jumped in, “Yes, you did!”  I quickly ended that line of questioning…  Not content, I asked another man after Mass.  “We got engaged in the McDonald’s parking lot,” he replied.  That’s not quite the kind of “special” I had in mind!  I dared to ask once more, and this time the wife answered: “The first time he asked, he said, ‘Would you marry me if we were old enough to get married?’”  I had forgotten they’d been high school sweethearts…

Matthew begins his account of the birth of Jesus by saying: When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.  Given our own experience of contemporary wedding customs, we assume that “betrothed” means “engaged.”  But that’s not actually the case. 

You see, Jewish wedding customs 2,000 years ago were nearly opposite of what we see most often today.  Today, many couples cohabit and then commit: they live together for a while and, if things work out, then they’ll consider getting married.  But in the days of Mary and Joseph, when a man and woman were betrothed, they exchanged vows publically.  They didn’t live together yet—that could take up to a year more—but they were legally husband and wife.  What did they do during this year of betrothal?  The bride would begin packing her things, say good-bye to her family and friends, and learn from other women what she needed to know about being a good wife and (God willing) mother.  The groom would go to his father’s house, where he’d begin to remodel a few rooms (or build a few new ones) in order to prepare a proper home for his new family.  Meanwhile, he’d send gifts to his bride to woo her and show her his affection.  (He’d also receive gifts from his friends to help fund the renovations.)  When all was prepared, he’d send for his wife and welcome her into her new home.  That’s when they’d have the wedding feast and their married life would begin.

Note how, in the gospel, Matthew refers to Joseph as Mary’s “husband,” and the angel refers to Mary as Joseph’s “wife.”  When Joseph is discerning how best to respond to the news of Mary’s pregnancy, he doesn’t propose breaking off the engagement; he considers “divorce.”  It makes so much more sense of the story to know these customs, doesn’t it?  But there’s still more we can learn here…

You see, the pattern of betrothal and home-taking describes the whole history of salvation.  It’s the outline of the whole of the Old Testament: the age of patriarchs, prophets, and kings that we relive, in a certain sense, during these four weeks of Advent.  God sets his heart on a people of his choosing—his people, Israel—and sets about to draw his beloved ever to closer to himself.  He binds himself to Israel with a covenant: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  It’s no accident, of course, that this sounds a lot like wedding vows! 

And to seal this covenant, uniting God and man, heaven and earth, in an unbreakable bond, he sends his Son, Jesus.  In a familiar passage from the gospel of John, as Jesus prepares his disciples for his coming Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he tells them, Do not let your hearts be troubled.… In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be (Jn 14:1-3).  We miss the connection, but those who first heard Jesus speak these words would have understood immediately: all is now ready, and the Groom has come to take his Bride home.

What is true of God’s relationship with his people is also true of God’s relationship with each and every one of us.  It is only out of God’s passionate love for you that you came into existence.  No one else can bring life into being.  God loved you before you were born, even before you were conceived.  God was in love with the mere thought of you!  And so God pursued you, and began a relationship with you.  At your Baptism, vows were made: the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—became your God, and you became his own.  The rest of your life is now the time of betrothal.  The Bridegroom of your soul has prepared a place for you, and will return to take you to your eternal home to be with him forever.  In the meantime, he sends you gifts as tokens of his love: he speaks his love to you in the Scriptures, in the teachings of his Church, and in the lives of his saints; he touches your life with his love in the Sacraments; he looks on you with love in the faces of the poor and the wonders of nature.

But what are we to do during this time of betrothal?  How do we best prepare ourselves for the fullness of life and eternal communion God has in store for us?  We can take our cue here, too, from good St. Joseph.  The angel commands him to do two things: to take Mary, his wife, into his home, and to name her child Jesus.  These things Joseph promptly did.  Likewise, we need to take Mary into our homes.  The Mother of God is our mother, too.  She is the first and model disciple of Jesus.  We need to stay close to Mary, to take Mary into our hearts and homes, because without fail Mary takes us to her Son.  As well, we need to speak the name of Jesus.  Jesus’ name is said aloud by many people many times every day…but not in a reverent fashion.  We need to say his holy name often, for in it there is great power.  It’s not enough to speak about spirituality or religion or God in generic terms.  Not only in prayer, but also in conversation with others, we need to pronounce the sacred name of him who came to save us from our sins.  As we await the Lord’s return, let us keep Blessed Mary close and speak the Holy Name of Jesus.

This Sunday, we find St. Joseph at the very crux of his betrothal—and not only of his betrothal to the Virgin Mary, but of the saving betrothal of God and the human race.  It is due to his deep faith, his righteousness, his courage in obeying God’s will, that we can recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient promise: that Mary’s child is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.  What a debt of gratitude we owe to that just man, Joseph, because of whom we can believe that God has made his home with us, that we might find our home in God!

Sunday, December 11, 2016


"You ask me whether I am in good spirits. How could I not be so? As long as Faith gives me strength I will always be joyful. Sadness ought to be banished from Catholic souls... the purpose for which we have been created shows us the path; even if strewn with many thorns, it is not a sad path. It is joyful even in the face of sorrow."  Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

   Third Sunday of Advent   A 

If my nephew finds out that I’ve told you what I’m about to share, I’m going to be in trouble…

You see, when Nathan was little, we noticed a cute habit of his: when he gets excited—say, opening presents on Christmas or his birthday, especially if he’s getting something he’s long wanted—he flutters.  Let me demonstrate… [flapping lower arms really fast]  It was adorable in a toddler, and as we’d all laugh, I’m sure he could only assume that we were sharing in the joy he simply couldn’t contain.

But now Nathan is a 5th grader, and he’s all boy: playing football, racing snowmobiles, fishing, and hunting.  Last month, Nathan bagged his first buck—a six pointer.  When I saw my sister on Thanksgiving, I had to ask, “So, did he flutter?”  “Oh yes,” his mother said, “there was a whole lot of fluttering going on…”  Of course, we had this conversation out of earshot of Nathan, because fluttering isn’t exactly cool for a boy becoming a young man.

This Sunday, the Church flutters.  At the halfway point of Advent, she’s bursting at the seems with joy—not so much that Christmas is close, but that God has come so very close to us.  Unable to keep it in, the Church sheds the somber shades of purple and clothes herself in brighter, rosy hue. 

Such joyfulness should be the normal, natural disposition of Christians.  But it isn’t, is it?  No, we grow up…and we tend to forget to flutter.

One reason is that we think joy is reserved for those times when everything is going right: when life is perfect, free from all challenge and struggle.  But if that’s the case, there will be no joy in the world.  Consider our first reading, when we hear the prophet Isaiah fluttering.  His joy is overflowing at the thought of when the Savior will come.  He says that the land itself will rejoice and bloom with abundant flowers.  But notice that Isaiah doesn’t foresee flowers in gardens, arising from earth that is fertile and well-watered.  No, it’s the desert that’s going to bud.   Likewise, we hear John the Baptist fluttering.   He hears reports of all that Jesus is doing—the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk—and he delights in the thought, “Is he the one?  Could he be the Messiah we’ve been waiting for?”  But where is John the Baptist that he must send others out to ask?  He’s being held in prison, sitting in the dark and damp beneath Herod’s palace.  Desert and dungeon!  A truly Christian joy isn’t experienced apart from all the hardships of life, but springs up right in the midst of the most adverse circumstances.

Another reason we grownups don’t flutter so much is that we’ve lost touch with our true desires.  Nathan doesn’t flutter for just anything, but only on attaining those things for which he’s waited most eagerly.  In the gospel, Jesus asks his own question of the crowds: “What did you go out to see?”  Were you disappointed by John the Baptist?  Is he something other than what you expected?  What exactly are you looking for?  The truth is, most of us don’t really know!  We’re too busy to ponder such a fundamental question.  We’ve lost touch with the deepest, most authentic longings of the human heart—the ones planted there by God himself: our desire to be in intimate, personal relationship with God; our longing to love and be loved.   But these holy yearnings have been thrown off track by sin.  And if we can’t see that we stand in need of saving, then we won’t be rejoicing too much to receive a Savior.

When was the last time you fluttered?  Oh, maybe you don’t flap your arms…but you might giggle, or grin from ear to ear, or your hearts skip a beat, or you get a spring in your step.  Most of us feel we’re too old for all that.  And I worry about that for Nathan.  I’m sure that he’s concerned that fluttering is childish and ought to be left behind.  Actually, I’d say that fluttering isn’t childish, but childlike (an crucial distinction), and did not our Lord himself say that unless we become like children, then we cannot enter the kingdom of God?  Heaven is joy in the fulfillment of our real desires, in being near to God.  Don’t we want to be in good practice?

Here are two things that ought to make you flutter. 

You should flutter tomorrow.  The “light will be on for you” all day, with confessions available from 6:00am until 10:00pm.  What more joyful preparation for Christmas could there be than one which brings to bear the very reason Jesus was born: God so love the world that he gave his only Son to pay our ransom and free us from our sins.

You should also flutter in just a few minutes, as we approach the altar to receive Holy Communion.  God did not only come close to us once in Bethlehem; he remains close to us, most especially in the Eucharist.  Jesus comes to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood—not only God-with-us, but God within us.  The thought of it ought to have us skipping down the aisle!  Sure, it’s a sacred, solemn moment, but we must never let it get so serious that it robs us of our joy.

I don’t know if I’ll see Nathan flutter this Christmas.  I also don’t know what he’ll have to say when he hears about this homily!  But I pray that your heart and mind will relearn how to flutter in these last days of Advent.  Rejoice!  The Lord is very near.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Lions and Vipers and Bears...Oh, My!

I tried to give a version of this with the kids at the 11:00am "Children's Church" Mass this morning...but after one of the little girls started to talk (in great detail) about how a shark could bite your face off, it was kind of hard to get things back on track again.  Isaiah did say, "and a little child will lead them"...but he didn't actually say where to...

   Second Sunday of Advent   A 

Fr. Scott came down for breakfast yesterday saying he’d had a really weird dream: that he was riding on a shark…but in his dream, riding on a shark seemed perfectly normal.  That’s true of many dreams, isn’t it?  The unlikely, even the impossible, seems to be completely ordinary.  But in real life, sharks aren’t made for riding.  Not to mention that, if a shark sees a person, there’s a good chance it will bite, which means that if a person sees a shark, he or she’s going to get away as fast as they can.

Fr. Scott’s dream makes me think of another dream: Isaiah’s dream of which we hear in this Sunday’s first reading—which is, of course, actually God’s dream:
            Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
            and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
            the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
            with a little child to guide them.
            The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
            together their young shall rest;
            the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
            The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
            and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
None of that is normal, natural behavior for animals.  When a wolf sees a lamb, its first thought isn’t, “Let’s snuggle!”  If a mama bear comes across a cow, she doesn’t say, “Our kids should have a play date,” but, “Our kids should do lunch!”

So what is Isaiah dreaming of?  He’s dreaming of our return to Paradise—of getting back to Eden, of God restoring things to the way they were meant to be in the very, very beginning.  Isaiah’s dreaming of the day when the promised King, the Messiah, will come, and his kingdom will be one of perfect peace.

But I don’t think Isaiah’s really dreaming about animals.  After all, for predators to attack and kill is perfectly normal and natural; it’s how they feed themselves and their young.  But we often enough use these very same animals to say something about ourselves: “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “She’s a real bear today,” or, as John the Baptist addressed the corrupt religious leaders, “You brood of vipers!”  We spend so much time on the hunt, prowling and clawing at each other, that we can begin to think this is normal, natural human behavior, too.  But that’s not at all how God created us to be!  Because of sin, our human nature is fallen and deeply wounded…but we weren’t made for greed or anger or lust or any of the other ways we hurt one another or harm ourselves.  Instead, we were made for love: to love and be loved.  If we’re going to fight anything, it ought to be injustice and sickness and poverty…not each other.  God’s plan wasn’t that we’d be lions or bears, but the sheep of his flock.  This “peaceable kingdom” of which Isaiah is dreaming is more than a dream: it’s how things were at the start…and it’s been God’s desire ever since then to get us back there.

Isaiah tells us what God is dreaming; John the Baptist tells us how we can help to make it become reality.

You see, Isaiah dreamt of all this taking place when the new King, the Lord’s Anointed, appeared: a King filled with God’s Spirit of wisdom and strength and fear of the Lord.  We believe that that King has already come: he’s Jesus Christ.  So if the King has come, where is his hoped-for kingdom of peace?  You see, just as God the Father relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary in bringing his Only Begotten Son to human birth, so the Son must rely on us to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to establish his kingdom on earth.  The Holy Trinity loves and respects us too much to force the divine dream on us.  God waits for us to say “yes” to his plan, to follow the promptings of his Spirit who was poured into our hearts at Baptism.  But as I’ve already noted, we’re weak and we’re wounded.  We sin.

Enter John the Baptist and the message he repeats every Advent: “Repent!  The promised kingdom is close at hand.  Prepare the way of the Lord.”  If there’s going to be room for the Holy Spirit to live and move and work within us, then we must cast out all those predator-like tendencies.  We must turn from our sins and seek the Lord’s mercy.  We must first be at peace with God in our hearts if there is to be any peace in the world.  There’s no other way!

And so we have God’s great gift of the Sacrament of Penance.  There’s a guide to confession in your bulletin this Sunday—which is helpful whether you regularly receive this sacrament or even if it’s been many years.  A week from tomorrow, Fr. Scott and I—as we’ve done before—will be available to hear confessions for 16 hours straight.  We should call it, “No Excuses Monday.”  This Advent, make sure to not only prepare your home for Christmas, but to prepare your heart for Christ.  Allow Jesus to free you from your sins so that you can cooperate fully with his Spirit and his plan for you and for the world.

I don’t think Fr. Scott really wants his Friday night dream to come true.  But Isaiah’s dream for his people—which is God’s dream for all people—is one that urgently needs to be fulfilled.  Repent of your sins.  Prepare the way for Christ.  Cooperate with his Holy Spirit who alone can lead us into the kingdom of peace.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Fr. Scott and I invited the men of the parish to join us in taking the Nazarite Challenge: a Catholic spin on No-Shave November.  We were quite pleased at the number of newly furry faces that began to appear in the pews, and invited those who took part to join us at the rectory for prayer, fraternity, and dinner (and a great photo-op, too).  These fine gentlemen and their whiskers (there were several others, too, unable to come) joined us in bearded brotherhood tonight...and I think this is just the start of something very good God has in store for the men of St. André's...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Time to Get Up

   First Sunday of Advent   A 

At the beginning of the month, Fr. Scott and I invited the men of the parish to join us in the Nazarite Challenge—a Catholic spin on “No-Shave November.”  Taking part was more than an excuse to stop shaving for 30 days (men already had hunting season for that).  Spiritual commitments were also part of the challenge, one of which was to give up something, to make a sacrifice, for the month. 

As a household, Fr. Scott and I decided to give up drinking alcohol—something that was part of the original Old Testament Nazarite vow.  But we each made an additional personal sacrifice, too.  Fr. Scott gave up coffee (all caffeine, actually)…which has left me feeling like I need to sneak around whenever I want to drink a cup.  I made a commitment to get right up with the alarm first thing in the morning—to be up and moving as soon as it goes off at 5:00am or 6:00am.

Ask anyone who attends the 6:45am daily Mass and they’ll tell you: it’s a struggle for me to get going in the morning.  Kay Hall (a fine lady and parishioner here who died about a year and a half ago) walked to that early Mass well into her 90’s, and was always early.  If she looked at her watch and it was 6:45am and there still wasn’t a priest standing at the altar, she’d say in a whisper loud enough for all to hear, “It must be Giroux again…” 

I’ve tried all kinds of things over the years to improve in this area.  Many a Lent I’ve given up the snooze bar…and that’s worked well enough for 40 days.  Earlier this year, I bought this new alarm clock—the old fashioned kind, with two loud bells and no snooze bar.  I put it clear across the room, so I have to get out of bed quickly to shut off all that racket!

Why is this such a struggle?  What is it that keeps me in bed in the morning?  Having some time to reflect on this, I’ve come up with four reasons—ones, I think, that can apply to every one of us at some time or another.  Sometimes we stay in bed because we’re so very tired; whatever we did the day or the evening before has simply left us worn out.  Sometimes we stay in bed because we’re lazy; there’s nothing that seems urgent enough to get us up and moving.  Sometimes we stay in bed because we’re afraid; there’s something we must do during the coming day that we simply dread.  And sometimes we stay in bed because it’s just so very comfortable: it’s warm and cozy and we don’t want to leave that behind.

Why am I telling you all of this?  It’s not to give you some insights into your pastor’s sleeping habits.   It’s because this idea of waking up and staying awake is the primary metaphor the Church puts before us on this First Sunday of Advent.  In the second reading, we heard St. Paul write to the Romans, “Now is the hour for you to wake from sleep!  The night is far spent; the day draws near.  Let us cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light!”  And Jesus, too, tells us, “Stay awake!  If the homeowner knew when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and prevented his home from being broken into.  At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

I think it’s safe to say that our Lord and his apostle aren’t primarily concerned with the time you roll out of bed each morning.  What they’re trying to wake up is our soul.   But those four things that tend to keep us in bed all apply in this context, as well. 

Sometimes it’s fear that keeps us from making progress in the spiritual life: we’re afraid of the challenges and struggles that lie ahead.  To that, we must respond with faith—believing less in the things that frighten us, and more in the God who will see us through.    Sometimes we’re too tried and discouraged to work on growing in holiness: we feel weighed down by all that lies behind us.  To that, we must respond with hope—keeping our eyes on the Lord’s promises that lead us on.  Sometimes it’s laziness or indifference that prevent us from becoming the saints we’re called to be: we get distracted or don’t take it very seriously.  To that, we must respond with deep love—tell me what you love, tell me what you’re passionate about, and I’ll tell you what gets you out of bed in the morning. 

And sometimes, we’re just too comfortable to want to make the necessary changes in our spiritual lives: things aren’t as good as they could be, but they’re familiar.  To faith, hope, and love, we need to add personal sacrifice.  When our religion’s central symbol is the cross, when our primary image of God shows him hanging dead upon that cross, we must not be surprised that sacrifice is a crucial means toward growth.

So much for what we’re waking up from.  Now to what we’re waking up for…

Everybody knows that four weeks from today it’s Christmas…which makes it clear enough that our Lord’s admonition to stay awake to greet an unknown day must concern something more than that.  We want to be wide-awake for our Lord’s return at the end of time.  Jesus Christ promised to come again, and that remains true almost 2,000 year later.  Just as one eagerly anticipates the coming visit of an old friend, so we need to stay vigilant for Christ’s coming in glory.  And we want to be wide-awake for the Lord’s coming at the end of each of our lives.  No one knows in advance the day of his or her death, and we need to always be prepared lest we be surprised on the day Jesus comes to take us home. 

But take note in this Sunday’s gospel of the example Jesus makes of the days of Noah, when people were eating and drinking and marrying, working out in the fields and grinding grain in the mill.  They were simply doing the ordinary stuff of life…and I think the Lord mentions these things so that we won’t sleepwalk through his presence in our everyday lives, either: when we eat and drink, in our relationships, in work or school.  Jesus is constantly coming to meet us—waiting around every corner—but we need to be alert and awake to recognize him.

Ringggg…  That, my friends, is the sound of Advent.  It’s a wake up call, a call to rise and shine.  It’s the call to leave behind our fears and tired discouragement, our lazy difference and comfort zones.  It’s the call of faith, hope, and love, expressed in generous sacrifice.  It’s the call to be always alert and ready to meet Christ when he comes on the last day, when comes on my last day, when comes into my life today and everyday.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


   Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe    

Quite a change in the weather, isn’t it?  When I left Mass yesterday evening, folks were walking about in their shirtsleeves—some even in shorts—it was so warm.  This morning, the only things we’re warming up are our snow shovels…

There’s another notable change I’d like to address this morning.

As you know, two weeks ago I left for my annual retreat.  You don’t need me to remind you that, at the time, we were on the tail end of rather contentious presidential election campaign—one which, please God, we’ll never see the likes of again.   I had the radio on most of my drive down to the Catskills, and there was great excitement in the way people were talking about the candidates and making predictions about the election. 

As I drove through the gate of the monastery that Sunday evening, I shut off the radio—and that was my last contact with the outside world for the entire week.  I certainly was mindful of what was going on—I had cast my absentee ballot before leaving and was praying (as were the sisters) for the country and the election—but had no idea who had won the vote or how until Sunday morning, when I saw the front page of a newspaper on my way to Mass.

As I drove back through the monastery gate and turned the car radio back on, the tone of things was very different.  The voices coming out of NPR sounded more like they were reporting on a funeral than an election.  They interviewed folks who rejoiced at the outcome, but also described cities on the verge of riots.  Many people sounded rather afraid.

After about a half hour of this, I stopped to have breakfast with a cousin of mine who lives nearby.  Walking into the diner I said, “You know, Kevin, it almost feels like I’ve returned to a different country coming off of this retreat.”

I know I’m not the only one to have had that sort of feeling.  But with another week to reflect, especially in light of today’s feast of Jesus Christ our King, I’ve come to think that feeling was a bit exaggerated.

You see, here in America, we elect a president for this country alone, who will hold office for just four years—eight at the most.  But today, we celebrate a King who rules over every people and nation, things visible and invisible, the living and the dead, and whose kingdom will have no end.

When we elect a president, we vote for a man or woman who is (whether or not we like to admit it) imperfect, using a system that’s also imperfect.    But Christ our King is nothing but good and true—perfectly innocent because he’s not only sent by God, but is God himself in our human flesh.

There’s a certain allegiance I ought to pledge to my country and her president.  But my respect is a merely human one, and my obedience to her laws is limited to those that are just when compared to the law of God written on my conscience.  But to this King and his kingdom, I pledge my whole heart and soul, mind and body.  His laws call for my complete obedience, because he not only made the laws, he made me and the whole cosmos that they govern.  This King is worthy of more than my respect; he’s deserving of all my love.

Finally—and most critically—the kings and presidents of this world without fail send their people out to die for them.  King Jesus does just the opposite: he willingly dies for his people.

The feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  It was near the end of a Holy Year—just as today marks the end of the Jubilee of Mercy.  These were the unsettled years between the World Wars.  The pope looked around and saw society becoming increasing secular and nationalistic.  (Sound familiar?)  As earthly kingdoms fell, people were increasingly fearful and doubtful—doubtful about the authority or even the existence of Jesus Christ, doubtful about the authority and relevance of his Church.  Pope Pius instituted today’s feast not to make people feel better, not to provide consoling thoughts in a difficult time, but to stress a truth that’s just as needed today as it was 90 years ago: that unless individuals and nations submit themselves wholeheartedly to Christ and kingdom, there will not and cannot be true or lasting peace.

Did America change on November 8th?  I’m not so sure.  I think it’s too early to tell—especially too early to know if it was a change for good or ill.  Let me tell you, though, about a day when the whole world and all of history changed.  It was a Friday afternoon in spring, around the year 33 A.D.  It was on a hilltop outside the city walls of Jerusalem.  On the authority of Caesar and Pontius Pilate and King Herod, three men were condemned to die.  But one of them, owning up to his crimes, submitted himself to one of the others: the one hanging beneath the paradoxical charge that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”  And in so doing, this “good thief’s” sentence of death, rendered in full justice, was transformed into a promise of everlasting life, made in complete mercy.  And that promise holds true not only for one man, but for you and for me and people always and everywhere.

As a loyal son of my country I can still reasonably say, “Hail to the chief!”  But as a citizen of heaven, my heartfelt cry, now and for eternity, remains: “All hail, Christ our King!”

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Out of This World

By the time this appears online, I should be on my way to my annual retreat--spending it this year with the Sisters of Bethlehem in Livingston Manor, NY.  I'll be there all week, so no homily next Sunday.

 Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

In advertizing, a good slogan, a good jingle, doesn’t only tell you something about the product; it’s also makes what your selling enticing, appealing, attractive, and in a way that’s pretty hard to forget.  To prove my point… What’s “good to the last drop?”  Maxwell House.  Who “brings good things to light?”  General Electric.  Who answered the question, “Where’s the beef?”  Wendy’s!

It’s clear this Sunday that Jesus didn’t have a degree in marketing, since the slogan which practically emerges from the gospel reading we’ve just heard goes something like: “Follow me to heaven…and when we get there, there’ll be no sex!”

When the Sadducees pose their ridiculous question to Jesus, he responds by pointing out that, while in this life people marry and remarry, in the resurrection of the dead it will not be so.  And since Jesus teaches us elsewhere that, by God’s design, the rightful place of sex is within marriage, then there will be no marital relations in heaven.

This is not because sex is bad, of course—quite the opposite, actually.  God invented it when he told our first parents, “Be fruitful and multiply!”  God looked upon what he made, upon the two become one flesh, and saw that it was good.

Rather, it’s because, in heaven, sex is completely surpassed.

Human beings are made male and female primarily for purposes of reproduction.  We’ve tried hard to separate making love from making babies, but in God’s plan they are intrinsically united.  Reproduction is nature’s way of outwitting death—by replacing life that was lost.  But when death has been definitively defeated in the resurrection, there remains no need to reproduce.

Not only won’t we need it; we won’t desire it.  Our hearts are made for something far greater than pleasure; they’re made for intimacy: to enter into union, into communion, with another; to love and to be loved.  In heaven, our intimacy with God and, in God, with one another will be so total, so complete, that sex would be redundant.

Why do I bring all this up?  Certainly not to be crass or controversial…but because in looking at this seemingly odd example, we see a much bigger principle at play.

As a priest, I attend more funerals than most people.  And when people face the loss of a loved one, they naturally speculate quite a bit about heaven.  I’ve noticed a pattern in those speculations.  When most people talk about eternal life in heaven, it sounds quite a lot like mortal life here on earth—souped up, of course, and never ending, but essentially a continuation of what we already know.  In our imagining, anyway, we make heaven look an awful lot like earth.  And if there isn’t really much difference between them, what encouragement do we have to live any differently than everybody else?

But that gets things exactly backwards!  Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be about making earth look more like heaven?  Isn’t that one of the things we pray for each time we say the Lord’s Prayer?  You see, heaven far surpasses all we know in this world.  Even blessings like marriage and family are but reflections of what awaits us there.  In heaven, all our needs will be met and all our desires fulfilled—perfectly and endlessly—when we know love without limit.  And when we recognize this, and get a small taste of heaven here on earth, then we can face death courageously at the hands of the wicked as did the seven sons and their mother in the Second Book of Maccabees.  Then we can live as did St. Paul, with confidence and endurance in the face of any adversity.  Then our lives become a far better slogan for the faith: “Follow me to heaven—it’s out of this world!”

In this month when we prayerfully remember the faithful departed, may this truth renew our hope.  At the start of this week when we consider God’s call in each of our lives, may it strengthen us to persevere in taking up our place in his plan.  During this season when we review our stewardship of the Lord’s many blessings, may we do our part, with all the resources at our disposal, to make earth more and more like heaven.

Acknowledgements to J. David Franks and Peter Kreeft

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Here's Your Hat

   Solemnity of All Saints    

Notes from a rather visual homily with the kids from Holy Family School...

Simply putting on a crown doesn’t make you a king; generally, you have to be born into it.

Donning a chef’s hat doesn’t make you a good cook; even if you have natural talents, it’s still pretty much something you must learn.

And even if you put one on your head, it’s simply impossible for you to become a flamingo.

But a halo?  What does it take to become a saint?

Unlike becoming king, it’s not something you can inherit.

Unlike becoming a chef, it’s not a skill in which you’re trained.

And unlike the flamingo, it’s something that actually quite possible.

Yet how—how to become holy?

First, like the multitude John saw in his heavenly vision, we must wash our robes white in the Blood of the Lamb: we must repent; we must seek forgiveness for our sins; we must let God wipe the slate clean.

And then we allow God to paint his image anew in us.  As we read in the First Letter of John, “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him…”

To be a saint mean to be like God, and only God can make us like himself.

It’s one thing to model a hat.  It’s quite another thing to model holiness.  We praise God for the models we have in the saints, who show us that holiness is possible—possible because it is God who accomplishes his wondrous work in us.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

To Save What Was Lost

Our parish's patron, St. André Bessette, said, "The door to heaven is the heart of Jesus.  The key to this door is prayer and love."

 Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
There are only three weeks left to the Jubilee of Mercy. When it commenced early last December, it did so as Catholic Holy Years have done for centuries: with the ceremonial opening of a Holy Door in Rome.

Across the front of St. Peter’s Basilica, there are five sets of bronze doors, and the pair farthest to the right (which, incidentally, is the smallest of the bunch) is designated as the Holy Door: open during a Jubilee year, but otherwise—literally—bricked up the rest of the time.  It’s a symbol of the way the doorway to God grace and mercy is open to us—during a Holy Year, and always. 

These Holy Doors are decorated with 16 bronze panels depicting scenes going all the way back to Adam and Eve and coming right up to modern times—scenes that depict stories of sin and forgiveness, of God’s mercy and our redemption.  My favorite among them is the one portraying the Good Shepherd.  This is not the Good Shepherd you’re used to from stained glass windows and holy cards: with a clean, pressed robe, perfectly quaffed hair, holding a mild-mannered lamb that looks like it just had its fleece shampooed.  No, this is a scene straight out of the parable we heard Jesus tell us seven Sundays ago: when the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind in pursuit of the one lost sheep.  This sheep is on the edge of a cliff, all tangled up in a thorn bush.  And the shepherd—clearly in a workingman’s clothes—is hanging on to the rocks for safety with one hand, and stretching as far as he can with the other, in his effort to bring this lost sheep back from the brink. 

Across the top of this bronze panel is a three-word Latin inscription: SALVARE QUOD PERIERAT, “to save what was lost.”  It the very last phrase of the gospel passage we have just heard: “The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save what was lost.”  That little phase captures the mission of every Holy Year—and this year of Mercy, in particular—which sends out the call anew that sinners are always welcome to come home.  And it’s the mission of every Holy Year because it’s the mission of the Church.  As Pope Francis is constantly reminding us, the Church was never intended to be a country club for the righteous, but a field hospital for sinners.  And it’s the mission of the Church because it’s the mission of Jesus Christ.  The Son of God came from heaven to earth where he lived, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again in order “to seek and to save what was lost.”

We see this mission illustrated so beautifully in the story of Zacchaeus—and what an example Jesus gives to you and me!

We’re told that Zacchaeus is short in stature…which makes it safe to assume he’d been teased and bullied about his height for most of his life.  We’re also told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector…which means we would have been regarded as a traitor and a serious sinner by his own people.  He may have been rich and prominent, but Zacchaeus wasn’t a well-liked or popular guy.  Zacchaeus has heard about this Jesus, who seems so different from all the rest, and so when Jesus is passing through Jericho, he climbs a tree to catch a glimpse. 

It’s when Jesus glimpses Zacchaeus that everything changes.  What does Jesus say to him?  He doesn’t embarrass him by asking, “What in the world are you doing up there?  You look ridiculous!”   (Even though it was true.)  And Jesus doesn’t say, “Repent, you sinner, or you’ll go to hell!”  (Even though, by rights, he could have.)  Instead, Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to stay at your house.”  Rather than the rejection and rebuke to which Zacchaeus was accustomed, or the reprimand he deserved, he finds acceptance, and even love.  Jesus treats him with mercy.   And because Zacchaeus knows that he is loved, although so undeserving, he’s able to find the courage to change his ways: to leave his sinful past behind, to make right the wrongs he has done, and even to move foreword with generosity.

How different is Jesus’ approach to “saving the lost” than the one we find at work in the world today!  Whether or not you use the Internet yourself, it has had a deep impact on the way people communicate with each other.  Because we can send messages at a distance, in ways that are impersonal and even anonymous, people now say things to and about one another in a very public fashion that, in earlier times, would never have been said even in private.  This has sadly happened among us Christians, too.  Instead of using the Internet as a tool to seek out and save the lost, it frequently gets used as a weapon to seek out and correct those who are wrong or to condemn those who have lost their way.

It’s pretty rare, my friends, that harsh words of condemnation will bring someone closer to Jesus or his Church…but merciful words and compassionate deeds will almost always open a door.  Daniel Burke (an American Catholic writer and speaker) puts it well when he says, “Love builds a bridge over which truth can pass.”  If people know that we love them and—through us—know that God loves them, then they can be open to hearing the truth: the truth about sin, and how it’s hurting them and others; the truth of the Gospel, of how God sent Jesus to save them by the Blood of his Cross.  But start by beating someone over the head with the truth…and they’ll likely slam the door on what was meant to be their redemption.

When in your own life have you experienced Jesus seeking and saving you?  How did you get lost, and how did the Lord bring you back?  Or maybe you’re still lost—or you’re lost again!  Do you know that you are loved?  Do you realize the lengths to which God has gone to lead you home?  And are we willing to share this experience of salvation with others so that they may experience it, too?

In three weeks, the Jubilee of Mercy will conclude as the Holy Doors in Rome are closed again…but mercy remains our mission always.  In a world of harsh and hateful talk, let’s be sure to build bridges of love over which the truth can then pass.  Let us never tire in our efforts to save those who are lost—grateful that Jesus never tires of seeking after us.