Sunday, January 31, 2016


   Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

In my 15+ years as a priest,
I figure I’ve done about 100 weddings—maybe more.
And of those 100 weddings,
I’m going to guess that at least 75 of them
have included today’s second reading.
It can begin to become a bit of a cliché.

But I had a wedding once
where St. Paul’s lofty hymn to love
really managed to stand out.
The bride was from the local parish,
but the groom was from Sweden.
And although he’d been in the States for awhile,
we wanted to include something in the ceremony
to celebrate his culture and heritage.
It was decided that one of the readings
would be done in his native tongue.
So when the time came for the second reading,
the groom’s sister made her way to the pulpit,
opened her Swedish Bible,
and began to read.
What came out of her mouth rather startled me!
Have you ever heard Swedish spoken before?
Now—I mean no offense—but Swedish
isn’t quite what I’d consider a “sweet-sounding” language;
to my unaccustomed ears, anyway,
it came off about as harsh and frosty as the Nordic winter.
It sounded more to me like this pretty young woman
was declaring World War III,
rather than singing love’s lofty praises.

Clearly, something got lost in the translation!
And that’s the case in general
when we read or hear this particular passage of Scripture.

Greek is the original language of the New Testament,
and ancient Greek had four different words for love—
each one with a different twist.
There was the word storge,
which referred to the love of natural attachments—
the way a parent loves a child or a dog loves its master.
There was the word philos,
which referred to emotional love,
meaning a strong liking or affection,
such as that between true friends.
Then there was eros,
which referred to passionate love—
particularly of the romantic or sexual kind.
And finally there was agape,
which is unconditional love—
love which cares not if the other is unresponsive,
or unkind, or unworthy, or even unlovable.
Agape is the sort of love that’s only delight is in giving,
and that’s only desire is the good of its beloved.
This is the highest form of love.
It’s also what we could accurately call divine love,
since it’s the love God has for us
and, therefore, the love we’re called to have
both for God and for one another.

Yup—you guessed it:
it’s agape that St. Paul is talking about
when he writes to the Corinthians.
We tend to hear these very poetic verses
and get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
At many a wedding, in fact, the reader gets all teared up
while trying to make his or her way through this passage.
But what Paul is describing here isn’t a feeling at all,
as our modern notions of love would misleadingly have us assume.
In just a few lines of text,
St. Paul uses 15 different verbs to tell us
what love does or does not do.
He’s quite clear: love is about action.
The love he’s encouraging is all about doing something—
more specifically, about doing what God does.
And what does God do for those whom he loves?
He lets himself be nailed to the Cross.

You see, that seemingly rough and disturbing
Swedish rendering I heard of this reading
was not all that far off the mark!
The sort of love St. Paul tells us is most excellent
may not be harsh, but it is demanding:
it’s all about dying.
Truly unconditional love is most willing
to lay down it’s very life for another.
No—not everyone will be asked
to take a bullet for his or her neighbor,
as much as we rightly admire people who show love in this way…
…but there are countless times
scattered throughout each and every day
when I’m given the opportunity to die to myself—
to put the needs, the desires, the good of another person
ahead of my own.

With the help of God’s grace,
am I ready and willing to love—to die—like that?

What’s set before us in everybody’s favorite wedding reading
is not the love of Christian marriage in particular,
but the love of Christian living in general:
to love with our whole person;
to love by putting the other first;
to love not only in word, but in deed;
to love and never count the cost;
to love as God loves.
*That's "love" in Swedish.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Silver Anniversary

So it's not 25 years, but it's now 25 months in a row that I've spent at least one night camping out.  I'd pretty much given up hope of sneaking one in for January, and I was OK with that (this run has to stop sometime, after all).  Scheduling, a sniffly nose, and concerns about the weather had kept me indoors, but then there was a little opening in the calendar...and I started to get the itch to get out.

Without much time and going on my own, my plan was to head to the Grass Pond lean to (where I've stayed several times before).  But when I got to the trail register, I saw that it was already occupied, as were the two lean tos at Sheep Meadow (a little further out)...and I couldn't be sure if any of these folks would be interested in some additional company.  (I wasn't sure I was interested in some additional company!)  Since it was rather late in the afternoon, I decided to take advantage of one of my nearby "just in case" lean to destinations: the lean to on Osgood Pond.  Now, it's hardly in the wild (I was less than 15 minutes on snowshoes from my car, and I could see the lights from other people's homes and cars across the ice), but it's a rather nice spot and, having been the very first lean in which I ever overnighted, I've kind of got a soft spot for it in my heart.

It was COLD last night: temperatures were in the low to mid teens, but the wind was brisk and I'm guessing the windchill was zero or below.  The cold was a good motivator to make and eat my dinner quickly and then get tucked into by sleeping bag so I could read for a few hours before calling it a day.  Thankfully the wind died down by morning...but it was still cold for breakfast!

I smiled widely while saying my morning prayers.  One of the readings (Dt 32-34) told the tale of Moses' final days on earth, when the Lord had him climb Mount Nebo to sneak a peak at the Promised Land, which he'd be unable to enter before dying.  I've long thought that if I should ever have my own place in these mountains, I'd like to name it Nebo: it's not the Promised Land...but you can see it from here.  Yes...yes you can.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Extremely Personal

   Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

Fr. Stephen Imbarrato has a lot to say about abortion.
He’s one of those who, despite threat of storm,
made it to Washington for Friday’s annual March for Life.
It would be easy for critics to write him off:
“There goes another man—with no wife, no kids—
talking about issues he couldn’t possibly understand!”

But you can only say that if you don’t know Fr. Stephen’s story.
You see, long before he entered the seminary,
at a time when he was away from the Church and the Sacraments,
just a few years after Roe v. Wade,
Stephen Imbarrato was living with his girlfriend,
and they got pregnant.
He didn’t tell his girlfriend to get an abortion,
but he also never told her he’d stand by her and their child
should she choose to have the baby.
He did, however, list for her all the reasons
this was a bad time for them to become parents.
“It is your decision,” he told her,
“and I will support you in whatever decision you make.”
That made it clear he thought of this baby as her responsibility.
And so she had an abortion.

Years later, after Stephen had come back to Christ
and was pursuing his call to the Catholic priesthood,
he tracked down his old girlfriend to ask her forgiveness.
It was only then that he learned they’d been pregnant with twins.

Fr. Stephen has a lot to say about abortion.
His message is one of God’s incredible mercy
in the face of human sinfulness;
his message is one that comes from firsthand experience
on both ends of that equation.

Standing before the congregation in his hometown synagogue,
Jesus announces:
Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.
It’s certainly one of the shortest homilies in Christian history—
less than ten words.
(Please—don’t get your hopes up!)
But it’s also one of the most powerful sermons ever given—
and one that only the Son of God could give.

You see, in our day as much as that of Jesus,
people can get the false impression
that the word of God is limited
to some commandments carved into tablets of stone
or prophecies recorded on long parchment scrolls—
cold rules and lifeless rumors,
rather removed from our everyday reality.
Likewise, many are convinced that things
like God’s favor and forgiveness and freedom
are nice-sounding concepts and high ideals—
but little more.

That’s why it’s so critical for us to recognize what Jesus is doing here
at the very start of his public ministry.
He’s come to reveal that the Word of God is personal—
in fact, is a Person.
The Lord God (unlike what many ancient cultures imagined)
does not dwell atop a lofty mountain
or somewhere beyond the clouds—
aloof from this world and distant from its problems.
Rather, God knows them intimately.
He knows them as Creator;
being the designer of human beings—
indeed, of the whole universe—
no one could be better suited to write the Users Manual.
But God has come to know this world as its Redeemer, too.
God has come in Person, in human flesh and blood,
and he’s come not just with a message, but on a mission:
to open eyes that they might really see;
to let captives and the oppressed go free.
This is a God who understands,
because he shares our human experience firsthand.

That’s the glad tidings—the good news, the Gospel—
that Isaiah saw coming from afar!

My friends,
we need to do like Fr. Stephen:
we need to share with others what we know
about God and his great mercy.
And when I say, “what we know,”
I’m not talking about matters
which are the result of intense training or in depth study—
although such things have their rightful place.
I’m talking about sharing what we know
from our firsthand experience.
It’s pretty rare that well-crafted arguments or articles
win large numbers of souls for Christ.
What’s generally more fruitful
is to do just what God did in Jesus:
to enter into another person’s lived experience.

There’s no program I can institute and organize as your pastor
to make this happen.
It’s a decision each Christian must make—
a matter of priority, which only you can set.
We need to make ourselves available and vulnerable to one another.

It can start with something as simple
as a smile and a friendly handshake
extended to a parishioner you’ve not met before.
When St. Paul says that,
as diverse members of the one Body of Christ,
we bear each others burdens and share each others joys,
that’s meant to be more than a poetic metaphor;
it’s meant to be the meat and potatoes
of your daily life and mine.
And while it’s something you do because you’re Catholic,
it’s actually done best when we’re not here at church.
It’s something you do in line at the grocery store
or in the stands at a hockey game,
something you do for the student in the next desk at school
or that coworker you know is bearing a heavy cross.
Lend a listening ear.
Promise to offer a prayer.
Whatever you do—make contact!
With compassion, with humility,
enter into another person’s experience
and share your own story.
That’s how the good news gets out:
in action, even more than in words.

Pope Francis has declared this an extraordinary Holy Year,
that you and I might do in Malone
what Jesus did in his hometown of Nazareth:
Bring the glad tidings of God’s mercy to those around us.
So in the Pope’s own words, let us pray:
            Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us
            to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
            and have told us that whoever sees you sees God.
            Show us your face and we will be saved.
            You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
            of the God who manifests his power
            above all by forgiveness and mercy:
            let the Church be your visible face in the world.
            Send your Spirit and consecrate
            every one of us with its anointing,
            so that the Jubilee of Mercy
            may be a year of grace from the Lord,
            and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm,
            may bring good news to the poor,
            proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
            and restore sight to the blind.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

His Hour

   Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 

At the time I was learning how to cook,
I was also learning how to appreciate wine.
One of my “gourmet” friends 
taught me a good rule of thumb
to make sure you’ll always 
have enough fruit of the vine
for your dinner party:
divide your number of guests in half, then add one—
that’s how many bottles of wine 
you should have on hand.
I’ve never run short.

I was thinking of that principle 
as I reflected on this Sunday’s gospel.
Doing just a little bit of research and math,
I calculated that the water turned wine by Jesus
would have filled between 600 and 900 modern bottles.
Even if it was a really big wedding,
there’d be enough to make it though dinner!

But this first—and rather extravagant—
of the miraculous signs performed by Jesus
apparently went unnoticed
by most of the folks who directly benefited from it.

Jesus says to Mary, “How does your concern affect me? 
My hour has not yet come.”

Jesus went along with his mother to that wedding
as a regular ol’ guest.
Were the newlyweds family friends? Neighbors?
Perhaps customers of the carpentry shop?
We don’t know.
But we can safely assume that Jesus wasn’t invited
because he was a rising star of a preacher
with a reputation for performing wonders.
If there were any rumors about him floating around,
they would have been surrounding the circumstances of his birth,
not that he might be a prophet—and certainly not the Messiah!
Jesus’ public ministry had only just begun.
His hour had not yet come.
He appeared to be an ordinary man
living an ordinary life among so many others.

But how is Jesus’ true identity
not discovered by his fellow wedding guests
even after producing 900 bottles of really fine wine?
Because most of them weren’t at all aware
that the wine had run out.
From the way the story’s told,
you get the impression that even the headwaiter—
who should have known better than anyone—
seems oblivious to the fact that this dinner party
was about to come to a crashing halt.

When you don’t realize there’s any problem,
then you’re not in the least on the lookout
for somebody to save you from it.

The Church continues to bask in the light of the Lord’s Epiphany, 
celebrating the saving mystery that the God of heaven
has been made manifest here on earth:
manifest as a tiny child to the star-guided magi;
manifest in the waters of the Jordan River
as the heavens opened, the Spirit descended,
and the Father’s voice was heard;
and manifest today at Cana in Galilee,
as the hand which had once divided the waters at creation
now turns water into wine.

But this great revelation of Jesus
as God come in human flesh,
as the Only Begotten Son of God,
as the promised and long-awaited Savior of God’s people
is of little avail to those who have no idea they need saving.

And so the party goes on as planned
with just another ordinary guy among so many others.

We regularly ask God to reveal himself to us—
to make his presence clearly known,
and often in miraculous ways.
But a far more foundational step is to ask God
to reveal us to ourselves:
to open our eyes to our real need, our weakness, our sin.
Who needs a Savior when “it’s all good”?
Who needs a liberator when he thinks he’s already free?

Has Jesus’ hour come in your life?
It’s not a question of his presence;
we have his assurance that he remains with us always (Mt 28:20).
Nor is it a question of what he can or cannot do;
as his Virgin Mother understood so well:
for him, all things are possible (Lk 1:37).
It’s a matter of recognizing
that your life is otherwise incomplete,
that you have deep wounds in need of healing,
that you’re incapable of saving yourself—
that you can’t go on without him.

Whether anybody noticed or not,
Jesus was no ordinary wedding guest.
And that’s because he’s no ordinary man:
in Jesus, the truth about God is revealed to us;
in Jesus, the truth about ourselves is revealed to us, too.
Recognize your need that you may recognize your Savior,
and then watch him change your life in a way far greater
than turning water into so much good wine.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

From Baby to Bathwater

   The Baptism of the Lord   

As a youngster, I was a big fan of Farmer Boy
the book by Laura Ingalls Wilder
about the childhood of her husband, Almanzo,
just down the road a piece from here.
Being a North Country “farmer boy” myself,
I was fascinated by how things were done in bygone days.

There’s a chapter in Farmer Boy called, “Saturday Night.”
Young Almanzo loved Saturday because it was baking day,
and that often meant fresh doughnuts, still hot from the kettle.
But he rather hated Saturday night.
Why?  Because Saturday night was bath night.
At this time of year, after supper,
Almanzo and his brother would head out to the rain barrel,
break through the ice that had formed over the top,
and bring in buckets of clear, cold water
to be heated atop the woodstove.
A big washtub was brought in from the woodshed
and, one-by-one, the members of the Wilder family
would be left alone in the kitchen
to scrub away the grime from the week.
Almanzo often thought it would be enough
to just change into some clean underwear and his nightshirt,
but he was sure his mother would figure him out
before he crawled into bed.

That chapter came to mind
as I was preparing for this Sunday’s Mass,
so I made sure to read it again—
it had been quite a few years, after all.
And I was glad to see that,
as each Wilder came to bath time on Saturday night,
the old water was dumped out of the washtub
and new, warm water poured in.
I was glad to read that because, in my memory,
all the members of the family had used the same tub of water—
which wasn’t so warm, and wasn’t so fresh,
by the time the last person got to it!

This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.
As we recalled back in Advent,
the word of God came to a man named John,
who went about in the desert, along the banks of the Jordan River,
proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Baptism is bath time—a ritual washing of the body
that points to the deeper cleansing of the soul.
Today we’re confronted with the mystery
that Jesus, too, went out to John to be baptized.
To this, all four of the gospels attest.
But why would Jesus, who—the scriptures tell us—
is like us in all things but sin (Heb 4:15),
ever ask to be baptized?
As Almanzo would be quick to point out:
one doesn’t really need to bathe if one isn’t really dirty!

Jesus is baptized in the Jordan,
not to be purified himself, but in order to purify baptism.
The divine sinlessness of Jesus
gives this Sacrament its amazing power
to wash all of our sins away.
Our older brother climbs into the washtub ahead of us,
but his bath doesn’t muddy the water;
instead, it makes it fresh and clean for you and for me.

Most of us Catholics don’t remember the day of our baptism,
since it so often takes place while we’re still infants.
I’ve only ever seen one photo of my young parents
holding little me over the font.
And yet the day of our baptism is the most important of our entire life!
It’s the day the Holy Spirit was first richly poured out upon us,
when we were welcomed as members of Christ’s Body, the Church,
and remade by grace as one of God’s own—
an heir in hope of eternal life.
We should be so grateful
that our parents took this step on our behalf—
that they were moved by their faith
to immerse us in this mystery just as soon as they could!
But now it falls to each one of us
to live out of this great grace everyday
and to be renewed in it as often as we can.

John the Baptist had been sent
to prepare the way, to make straight a highway,
for the coming of the Lord—
the appearing of our great God in our mortal flesh;
it fell to him to make earth ready
to welcome One from heaven.
Jesus, on the other hand, goes before us
that we—like him and with him—might live forever:
opening heaven to receive us who dwell on earth.
And so this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
is a most fitting end
to the Church’s Advent and Christmas season—
these festive days when we’ve celebrated
the coming of the Only Begotten, of God’s beloved Son.
He became man that we might become children of God.
God was born that we might be born again.

May those of us who have rejoiced so heartily
over the birth of the Baby
never forget the incredible grace
of taking a plunge in his bathwater!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Both Lights

   The Epiphany of the Lord   

What did the magi follow to lead them to the Christ Child?
A deceptively easy question!
Have you ever seen a star?  Of course you have!
But have you ever looked up, seen a star, 
and said to a couple of friends,
Well, I guess we need to drop everything,
buy some really expensive (but rather impractical) gifts,
and hit the road for an undetermined destination
so we can worship a little kid?

They saw a star: a very basic fact of nature.
But how did they know what it meant?
Or that it might mean anything at all?
How did they come to realize that this star
was more than just a star—
that it was an invitation, a call, a summons
to find one who came from beyond the stars,
and in fact had made the stars in the first place?

In remarks he made on the Epiphany a few years back (2010),
Pope Benedict XVI pointed out
that the magi were guided by two lights on their journey: 
by the star and by the Scriptures.
(Recall how they consult with King Herod
and the chief priests in Jerusalem.)
It’s one thing to see something in the night sky;
it’s another thing altogether to be able to recognize it as a sign:
as a specific message from God for man.
And in doing so—the Pope Emeritus says—
the magi serve as a model for every genuine seeker of the truth.

What the magi did is something that we Catholics
for a long time have simply taken for granted:
a both/and approach to faith and reason, to religion and science.
It’s in our Catholic DNA
that what we believe helps us to interpret life in the real world,
and that the real world is the place where our faith plays out.
At the same time that our ancestors
were building the great cathedrals of Christendom,
they were also establishing the university system.

But our basic operating assumption as Catholics
is being strongly challenged these days.
Many voices would tell us that you can’t be a serious student
of both divine revelation and earthly reality.
And that's a big problem.
Region can tell you to feed the hungry and care for the sick, 
but without giving you the tools to do that.
Science can tell you how to build a bomb, 
but not whether you should ever use it.
When it comes to religious faith and human reason,
choosing one over the other—as our times make increasingly clear—
has some pretty significant dangers.

There are some people today who have a religious outlook
that’s rather divorced from the real world.
They’re called Fundamentalists.
Every religion seems to have ’em.
They’re rightly concerned about what God has to say…
…but—in their thinking—
God has only said what they have heard.
Religion is all they need—
and they are more than willing to impose their brand of it
since you clearly need it, too.
Such religious fundamentalism—as we unfortunately know—
can be rather destructive when taken to the extreme.

Of course, there’s also a growing number of people today
whose outlook leaves no room 
for anything beyond this tangible world.
We can call them Relativists.
They believe that observation and experience
have the ability to tell them everything they need to know,
and they'll reach their own conclusions.
They see no need for religion
(at least, not for any public, organized one)
since—in their thinking—
what’s right and true for you may not be right and true for me.
Although a bit more subtle and sophisticated,
such secular relativism
is equally destructive as fundamentalism
once everybody starts going his or her own way.

Long before the magi opened their treasures before the Christ Child,
they had to open their hearts and minds.
They were clearly life-long learners, 
and not afraid to have their assumptions challenged, 
since they surely weren't expecting to find a newborn king 
lying in a borrowed manger.
If we want to avoid the dangerous extremes of our times,
we must do the same.
Was the last time you actually studied your Catholic religion
back in high school?  Or maybe even grade school?
It’s awfully hard for the remnants of childhood catechism lessons
to make a significant impact on an adult life.
And what do you do to keep yourself informed
about what’s really going on in the world today?
How can we bring our faith to bear
on realities we don’t know or understand?
In the seminary I remember being told
that a wise preacher keeps the Bible in one hand
and the newspaper in the other.
That’s not just good advice for preachers;
that’s good advice for all believers!

Likewise, the magi’s quest had to be more than a good idea:
they had to actually set their feet on the road,
to take action, to do something about what they’d discovered.
Do we have that same sort of courage?
Are we willing to make sacrifices? 
To overcome difficulties?  
To risk ridicule?

While those mysterious magi couldn’t have yet been Christians,
and they certainly were not even Jews,
their approach manages to model an authentically Catholic perspective:
not either/or, but both/and.
In following the light of both the star and the Scriptures,
carefully studying both worldly realities and divine revelation,
the magi find their way to the one truth all people are seeking:
he who is Truth in person,
the eternal Word become mortal flesh,
God made man.
Let us follow in their footsteps.
Come, let us adore him!