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.