Sunday, December 31, 2017

All in the Family

   The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph   
I was Christmas shopping a few years ago when I came across one of those, you might say, “inspirational” signs in a department store: “Our family puts the FUN in dysFUNctional.”  I was rather tempted to buy it…but walked away.  When I was back in the same store a week later, they were all sold out.  I guess at least a few families have the same experience!

At Christmas, many of us spend a lot of time with family—with all the ups and downs that can entail.  And how very appropriate that is during this season when we focus so much of our attention on the manger, and there see the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  Over the holidays, families eat together and exchange gifts, all gathered together in one place.  But does sharing a meal, giving presents, or being under the same roof somehow make a group of distinct individuals into a family?  Of course not. 

The fact of the matter is that our Christmas festivities get their power and meaning from what happens the other 364 days of the year: from being there for one another; from looking after one another; from asking about each other; from supporting each other in difficult times; from celebrating with each other in happy times.  It’s only because we already care about one another, because we love one another, that it makes any sense at all for us to come together in the first place.

And the very same thing is true of our Church family.

The Church is a family.  We speak of our Holy Mother, the Church.  We refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  You even call me Father Joe.  That familiar language is intended to be so much more than a homey metaphor.  But it’s not enough that we happen to spend an hour in God’s house at the same time every Sunday to make those words a reality.

Although showing up is pretty essential, to be Catholic requires much more of us than regularly getting to Mass.  In fact, it’s what we do between Masses that helps to form us and keep us together as a true family of faith.  We have to get to know one another.   We have to care for each other—to be there for each other in good times and bad.  We have to love each other.

And this is where the dysfunction comes into our Church family.  Experience shows time and again that when Protestants become Catholic, it’s usually either because of doctrine or the sacraments: the Church’s teachings are so consistent, so comprehensive, so compelling, that they want to be a part of it, or they recognize the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and can’t stay away.   But we also see that when Catholics leave and become Protestant, it’s generally because they’re looking for a stronger experience of fellowship: their parish didn’t have an honest sense of community; they didn’t feel at home there; it didn’t feel like a real family.

Sure, we’re here right now to keep an obligation—but even more, we’re here to strengthen relationships.  That’s why taking a moment to greet one another before Mass begins—as we did this morning—is not a silly little exercise.  It’s also why racing out of Mass or heading home early is like leaving the dinner table without first being excused.  But there’s no magic program, no foolproof plan that can fix this dysfunction.  No one else can do it for you.  As in any family, being a family of faith is something we have to work at—each and every one of us.  Neglect it, take it for granted, and before long, it won’t be there for you any more.

I’ve been doing some reading recently on the life and ministry of priests.  A number of things I’ve read have pointed out that priests need to have an experience of community amongst themselves.  We were never meant to be “lone rangers.”  That’s important for our personal wellbeing—to have companions we know we can depend on.  But it’s also important for our pastoral ministry: if priests are going to be able to lead and form a parish community, then they need to have some first hand experience of community from the inside.  Community begets community; family begets family.

If that’s the case for the priest’s place in the parish, I’d say it’s much the same for the parish’s place in the wider world.  In our day and age, the family is threatened. Many would say that’s because we’ve gone and tampered with the very definition of what it means to be a family.  While that may be true, families have always come in a wide array of shapes and sizes.  (With apologies to my own parents and siblings: Have any of you ever met a “normal” family?)  For me, any concern about families these days being non-traditional is eclipsed by the fear that families may actually soon disappear altogether.

We don’t have any time to be a family any more.  Parents today are super busy with work (sometimes earning a salary just to pay someone else to look after their children).  And kids are super busy with the demands of school, sports, and countless other activities.  For many modern families, the only time they have together is in the car racing from one thing to the next.  Families are busy with many good things—it’s just they’re busy with too many good things.

And we’ve also allowed ourselves to accept some pretty cheap substitutes for family life.  Hours and hours every day are spent tending to our “social networks” and “online communities.”  Such connections can seem so much safer, so much more efficient, so much more convenient, than keeping in touch with our loved ones the old-fashioned way.  But you know these aren’t real relationships—only imitations—when you see family members, young and old, right next to each other…but never saying a word, their attention entirely given to tiny glowing screens.  Technology’s a helpful tool, but it’s also a huge temptation.

That’s why I worry that the family is an endangered species.  And that’s why the world we live in desperately needs parishes that are real families—that are authentic communities which allow people to experience human connection the way God intended it.  But “we can’t give what we ain’t got.”  And so there’s a great urgency for us as a Church family—specifically, as a parish family here at St. André’s—to get it right when it comes to loving one another as true brothers and sisters in Christ.

The sacred scriptures this Sunday remind us that the Lord promised Abraham many descendants.  But the promise was for more than a long bloodline; it was for an immense family of faith.  When God tells Abraham to go out and count the stars (for that is how numerous his children will be), we tend to overlook a rather crucial detail of the story: it was the middle of the day!  It’s not that God was asking Abraham to do something impossible—stargazing at noon; it’s that God was asking Abraham to trust him completely. 

And Abraham would be called to do that very thing again and again: when leaving his homeland; when awaiting a son with Sarah in their old age; when put to the test as he was asked to offer that same son in sacrifice.  That complete faith in God is what links all the spiritual children of Abraham.  It was that faith which united and guided Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as they journeyed to Bethlehem, then to Jerusalem, then to Egypt, and then to Nazareth.  It’s that faith which must bind us together here in Malone as one holy family.  We, the Church, are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

As a parish family, we are called by God to give witness to genuine human connection.  But deep and lasting human connection is only possible because we are really and truly connected to the Lord.  Since the Word became flesh, since God became man, the Christmas mystery is at the heart of what it means to be a family.  As he appears in every Nativity scene, it’s only when we keep Jesus at the center that we can be who we were meant to be.

You don’t get to pick your family, of course.  It’s a gift you receive—and it’s one you can’t return or exchange.  So we might as well make the most of it!  Yes, our family of faith will always be dysfunctional.  And that’s because you and I are members of it: we’re sinners among so many others.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the fun in our dysfunction.  And it certainly doesn't excuse us from answering the call to be holy.

Like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we now present ourselves before the Lord here in this temple.  We have come together again as God’s family in God’s house.  But let’s be sure we’re thinking and speaking and acting—and, above all, that we’re loving one another—as a true family of faith, not only on Sundays and at Christmas, but every day and all throughout the year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

That's My Dad!

As I've shared before, this has been a tough year on my family's farm.  But 2017 is going out on a bit of a higher note...

2017 marks 50 years since my Dad began farming on his own in a rented barn (which he later bought) on Route 22 in Beekmantown.  Even after that barn burned down in mid-July, we wanted to mark that milestone with my father.  And so, in October, we had a party--inviting family and friends to celebrate Dad's hard work and success.  My sister, Cori, created a beautiful and rather poignant video for the occasion:

That evening also brought the happy announcement from my brother, Todd, that he still sees his future on the family farm and plans to rebuild.  In anticipation of that big project, we asked God's blessing that night:

       O God,
       the author and giver of every gift,
       who, in your goodness, have made us in your image
       and gave us care over other living things,
       commanding us to till the earth and cultivate it,
       creating the animals and giving us food from them:
       grant, we pray, that this land,
       which has sustained this family for more than 50 years,
       may again bring forth your bounty.
       Continue to protect and sustain this farm and those work on it
       with the grace your blessing brings.
       May the work we plan to undertake in rebuilding here
       progress day-by-day to a successful completion
       for your glory and our own well-being.
       Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
       who lives and regions with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
       one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

       May God, the source of every good,
       bless X you and give success to your work,
       so that you may receive the joy of his gifts
       and praise his name now and for ever.  Amen.

And then we got the good news that dad was being honored by the New York State Farm Bureau with its Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award.  The whole family was there in Albany for the banquet on December 6.

If you want to hear some of the kind (and funny) things his colleagues had to say about him, you can get a taste of it here.

We're so proud of you, Dad!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Best. Christmas. Pageant. Ever.

Another smiler for your Gaudete Sunday.  It's worth the time to watch till the end.  It sure gives new meaning to "sheep stealing."  And I always knew that the Blessed Mother was a strong woman...but...



   Third Sunday of Advent   B 

I think I’ve got a story this Sunday—a true story—that ought to get you smiling even more widely than seeing your clergy up here dressed in rose-colored vestments from head to toe…

Do any of you text?  I’m one of the last 15 people on the planet who doesn’t own a cell phone so I don’t text myself, but I’m surrounded by people who do.  Texting has almost become its own language—so much so that some educators worry about our children learning good grammar or even good manners.  For example, BRB means, “be right back,” and G2G means, “got to go.”  You get the idea.

Well I heard the story awhile back of a dad who was having trouble communicating with his teenaged son.  The two men would pass each other in the house, and dad would ask, “How was school?”  He was lucky if he even got a grunt in reply.  His son was always head down, texting on his phone.

Eventually dad thought, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”  He started texting with his teenager…and he actually got a response.  He’d have preferred that they actually talk to one another, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  They began to text about all kinds of things.  They began to text all the time.  Occasionally they’d be sitting right next to each other watching the same hockey game on TV, texting back and forth but not saying a word.

Now, dad had to learn the texting lingo.  Some of it his son taught him, but a lot of it he picked up on his own.  His favorite to text was LOL.  He never asked his son what it meant—from context, he just figured it out.  The way his son used it at the end of so many messages, dad was absolutely certain LOL meant, “lots of love.”  What a beautiful expression!

After getting the hang of this texting thing, dad began to send text messages to all kinds of people—family, friends, coworkers.  And he sent LOL to everybody he knew.  He found out that his sister was getting a divorce: “Sorry to hear the news, but I’m behind you 100%—LOL!”  His own father was seriously ill in the hospital: “Get well soon pop—LOL!”  This sort of thing went on for six months.

Finally, he was in the airport waiting for a plane and missing his family (his job often took him out of town).  Dad texted his son, “I hope you understand how much I hate being away from you, but I have to do to it earn enough money so we can live the way we want to live—LOL, your dad.” 

Which is when he got the response, “DAD WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU THINK LOL MEANS?” 

“Lots of love.” 

“No it doesn’t Dad.” 

“Yes it does.” 


And right away dad knew that he had to go back and apologize for 6 full months of  LOLs…

Our second reading this Sunday comes from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.  That’s a pretty significant part of the New Testament, since it’s actually the oldest Christians writing we have—from about the year 50 or so, which is only about 15 years after the life of Jesus.  Folks like St. Paul likely wrote things before this, but it’s the oldest text to survive.  Which means we really ought to pay attention to what it has to say.

And what does St. Paul tell us this Sunday?  
            Rejoice always.
            Pray without ceasing.
            In all circumstances, give thanks.
This message comes from very near the letter’s end and, although brief, packs a real punch.  You’ll notice that Paul does not say, “Cheer up a bit—things aren’t that bad.  Maybe you could pray just a little more.  And don’t forget to say ‘thank you’ every once in a while.”  Instead it’s, “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances give thanks.”

Even for St. Paul—who can be pretty intense—this is rather over the top.  But why be so extreme?  Because for Paul, the coming of Jesus changed absolutely everything.  Jesus has turned the whole world upside down for those who believe in him.  The usual ways of thinking and acting just don’t do it anymore.  This perspective usually escapes us Christians today, but for St. Paul it was the heart of reality.  Jesus had come, and nothing could ever be the same again.

And so he tells us to rejoice always. 

But don’t you sometimes feel down?  Get really bummed?  Or just want to cry?  Going around rejoicing all the time would seem phony—or even insane. 

“I just wrecked my car.” 

“You should rejoice!” 

“I lost my job.”

 “Oh well—rejoice!”

That clearly can’t be what St. Paul is getting at—or he begins to sound like a dad who texts LOL at all the wrong times.  He isn’t saying that Christians should always be giddy or giggling—always laughing out loud.  But they should be convinced that, by his resurrection, Jesus has won the most decisive victory.  None of life’s highs and lows—not sickness, not sin, not even death—nothing this world can throw at us can undo this victory.  All these things have been defeated!  Even when we’re down and out, we can trust in Christ’s ultimate triumph and that’s cause for true joy.  Does that make life one big party?  No.  But it does give us a peace, it does give us a hope, that nothing whatsoever can shake.

So rejoice always.  And pray without ceasing. 

Even monks and nuns—who are “professional pray-ers”—can’t pray 24/7.  They still have to eat and sleep and do their chores.  It’s not rational for Paul to expect us to spend all day and all night on our knees in prayer!  So what’s he saying?

Again—St. Paul believes that Jesus changed everything.  When the Son of God became man, he made it possible for all men and women to live in close union with his Father.  Jesus has given us mere mortals access to the same intimate relationship he has enjoyed with God from all eternity.  Think about what an amazing privilege that is!  But this constant communion with the Father which marks the lives of Christians—and which is as essential to us as breathing—is, like breathing, something of which we’re often not conscious at all.

We know that prayer isn’t about simply rattling off a bunch of sacred words.  Prayer at its essence is about deep communion.  Prayer is about working on and deepening our relationship with God.  And prayer is becoming conscious of what’s actually there all the time.  Shouldn’t we want to remain continually aware of how close God has brought us to himself?

So pray without ceasing.  And in all circumstances, give thanks. 

What sort of things did you thank God for on Thanksgiving?  Family.  Friends.  The food on the table.  Your home.  Our country and its freedoms.  All the good things you enjoy, right?  Being grateful makes sense when things are going well.  But are you thankful for your setbacks?  Your failures?  Your losses?  Are we really supposed to be grateful when everything seems to be going wrong?

Remember, St. Paul wants us to realize that Jesus has changed everything.  When he became man, the Son of God immersed himself completely in the human experience—the good and the bad—becoming like us in all things but sin.  And by uniting himself with us so completely, he has transformed everything we can experience.  Those things that appeared to be our downfall become openings for grace.  The worse things we endure, our most terrible moments, become means for our redemption.  Just look at the Cross!  Humanity’s lowest point—God is dead and we killed him!—becomes the very source of our salvation.  I suspect that I’m not the only one who’s gotten through some hardship, some heartache, some suffering, and only later—maybe much later—has looked back and realized just how much grace God gave me, just how much good God has mysterious worked through that very painful experience.  We Christians should be able to see through the surface of things—even though the tough stuff—to what’s really going on. 

And so, in all circumstances, give thanks.

The message of this Gaudete Sunday is one of rejoicing—not necessarily the joy of laughing out loud, but the joy that comes with knowing we are loved a whole lot: loved by our heavenly Father so much that he sent his Only Begotten Son in our human flesh to live a fully human life, to die on the Cross for our sins, and to rise from the grave that we might share in his victory forever.

So during these final days of Advent, and all the days of your life:
            Rejoice always.
            Pray without ceasing.
            In all circumstances, give thanks.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Rock and a Soft Place

If I'd thought if it sooner, I could have brought a rock and a pillow with me and tossed them both into the congregation—a good test to see if they really knew the difference!

   First Sunday of Advent   B 

We all know the difference between a pillow and a rock, don’t we?  Well, it seems that some of God’s holy ones through the ages have had a difficult time making the distinction. 

Take the patriarch Jacob, for example.  He was on a journey and, as the sun was setting, he found himself at a roadside shrine.  Settling in for the night, he took a stone from the shrine to tuck under his head and there he dreamed of a ladder—a stairway—leading all the way to heaven.  Use a rock for a pillow and of course you’ll have some crazy dreams! 

And then there are churches scattered across Italy that keep rocks as sacred relics of St. Francis of Assisi.  Having embraced a life of radical poverty, St. Francis always slept on the floor or the bare earth.  It seems that when he visited these places, these particular stones served as his pillows.

But you and I will never make the same mix up!

How do you describe a pillow?  Soft.  Comfortable.  Something you use to rest and be at ease.

And how do you describe a rock?  Hard.  Strong.  Something sturdy on which you can depend.

And God: Is he more like a pillow or a rock?

Our first reading this Sunday, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, would definitely lean toward the pillow.  “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”  The Lord is pictured as a tender shepherd cradling a fluffy lamb in his arms.

Our gospel reading, on the other hand, from the very beginning of the gospel according to Mark, tends more to the rock.  There we meet John the Baptist: the messenger preparing the Lord’s way.  Where does St. John live?  In the desert.  And what does he wear?  Camel’s hair and leather.  And what does he eat?  Locusts and wild honey.  If you live in a rocky wilderness, wearing scratchy hides and eating grasshoppers, it’s safe to guess you’re a pretty tough guy.  And John declares, “One mightier than I is coming after me!”  His message is a rather hard one: Acknowledge your sins and repent of them.

There are times where we’re tempted to think of God as only a pillow.  We convince ourselves that he’s really a big softy, and he’ll let us get away with just about anything.  And there are times when we’re tempted to think of God as only a rock—adamant and unyielding in his demands of us, ready to get even with sinners when the time is right.

Of course, neither of those perspectives is true.  God is, in fact, much more a mix of both.

Now, we can also fall into thinking that I must please God “the Rock” before I get to enjoy God “the Pillow”—as if we have to somehow earn his love, his kindness, his compassion.  The fact of the matter is that the opposite is actually the case. 

That’s what we learn from the second letter of St. Peter.  Jesus had promised his disciples that he would come again…and Christians were beginning to wonder what was taking him so long.   Peter assures them that what they’re experiencing isn’t a delay, but God’s incredible patience.  He doesn’t want to see any of his children perish, and so in his love and mercy God is giving them ample time to turn from their sins.  But even clinging to this comforting truth, they must face the hard fact: one day this sin-stained world will be wiped out to make way for new heavens and a new earth.  And so they need to always conduct themselves with holiness and devotion, to be eager to be found without spot or stain, becoming before God the sort of person that they ought to be.

It’s not that, if we’re good, then God will love us.  It’s because God loves us that we can’t help but want to be good.  You see, it’s only when I genuinely believe that I am loved—that I have full confidence that God loves me passionately, tenderly, unconditionally—that I can find the courage to honestly reassess the direction of my life, and then take the necessary steps—no matter how dramatic—to change my ways.  That’s the ringing shout of John the Baptist.  That’s the healing cry of Advent.

So maybe folks like Jacob and St. Francis were onto something with their eccentric sleeping habits!

Let God be your pillow.  Take your comfort in him.  Be at ease in his presence.  Allow him to restore and refresh you.  But also make God your rock.  Permit him to challenge you, to call you to repentance, to be your steady strength.  The Lord of all compassion is also the Lord of mighty power.  Rest in him, and stand firm.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dare to Hope

   First Sunday of Advent   B 
The Advent wreath in St. Joseph’s Church here is huge: about 8 feet across and suspended on four long chains somewhere near 8 feet off the ground.  I understand that someone before Mass was concerned that the first candle of the wreath was already burning.  I had asked our crew to look into installing a trapeze so that I could swing right by to light it, and I even pondered shooting a flaming arrow to do the job, but since there wasn’t sufficient time to practice either of these very technical maneuvers, we took the path of least resistance and simply used a ladder ahead of time.

Crazy, right?  But no crazier than so much of what we heard in the news this past week.  In fact, it seems lately that each week is a bit wilder than the last.

For my taste, the most disturbing thing in the news—and the competition was stiff—was the scene from an international courtroom in the Netherlands.  Maybe you saw it, too.  A Croatian general, convicted of heinous war crimes, had appealed his sentence.  He had never once admitted his guilt—even in the face of overwhelming evidence and many eyewitness accounts of the brutal rape, torture, and ethnic cleansing that had occurred under his command.  When the judges announced that the general had lost his appeal, he defiantly pulled a small vial from his pocket and—with people watching live around the world—drank a fatal dose of cyanide.  He died shortly thereafter, having chosen to make a dramatic exit rather than face the facts: refusing to accept hard reality, refusing to accept his responsibility.

Our first reading this Sunday—the very first reading of this new season of Advent—is drawn from the final chapters of the long book of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah had the challenging task of speaking to God’s people in times not unlike our own.  The world around them seemed to be going mad, to be falling apart.   Israel was conquered, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, the survivors had been led off into exile.  How could this be?  Why was this happening?  Isaiah’s task is to get his fellow countrymen to own up to their guilt.  They had really messed things up.  They had grievously sinned.  And so we hear them cry:
            Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,
            and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
            Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
            all of us have become like unclean people,
            all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
            we have all withered like leaves,
            and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
It may have felt like God had abandoned them, but the truth of the matter was that they had abandoned God. 

Aren’t we faced with similarly troubling circumstances today?  As public, trusted figures—politicians, journalists, and entertainers—are exposed for their corruption, one after another, we’re discouraged and disheartened.  Things are getting crazy, falling apart, everywhere you look.  But we must not be surprised: in a culture that sells sex and violence as entertainment, in a society where the lines are increasingly blurred between what’s true and what’s false, between fact and fiction, can we really expect anything different?  Both collectively and as individuals (there are no “innocent bystanders”), we reap what we sow.

Many—like the Croatian general—when faced with the darkness around them and the darkness within—give in to despair.  Suicide isn’t the only way to check out—to skirt reality and responsibility.  Some seek ways to numb the pain—whether it’s drugs, alcohol, social media, pornography, sports, or one of countless other obsessions or addictions—so prevalent these days.  Some just choose to ride the wave, to let go of their moral bearings: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” 

But that’s not the message of Isaiah, and that’s not the message of Advent.

After pointing out Israel’s crimes, and calling the people to admit their guilt, he holds out for them a divine promise—something they can look forward to: that God has a plan to restore, to renew, to redeem them in a way they couldn’t even dream possible.  Trying to go it on their own had brought on their current misery.  But God himself will save his people.  God will provide them a way out.

And so they find themselves—as we do—at a critical fork in the road, between the path of despair and the path of hope.

Hope is one of the quintessential Christian virtues—along with faith and love.  Hope is the God-given power to long for that for which we were truly made.  God has deeply planted the desire for happiness in every human heart, and—despite the encircling gloom—hope confidently expects this deep desire to be fulfilled.  Hope gives us the ability to recognize where real happiness is found: not in the passing things of things world, but in the things that endure.  Hope acknowledges that happiness comes with knowing, loving, and serving God, and that God has prepared a place for us where we can live with him and be happy forever.  Hope is trusting in all of God’s promises, because he has always come through for us before.  Hope keeps us moving forward, not relying on our own strength—since we clearly can’t make it on our own—but depending on God’s grace.  The Lord will always provide.

Hope is the confident cry of the Psalmist, as we echoed when chanting our Entrance Antiphon today:
            To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
            In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.
            Nor let my enemies exult over me;
            and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Jesus gives us a brief but forceful lesson in Christian hope this Sunday when he repeats over and over in just a few verses of Scripture: Watch!  Watch and pray!  Be alert!  Stay awake!   Constantly watching and waiting is how the Christian lives in hope.

Our watchfulness simultaneously looks in two directions.  Most obviously, we look ahead to the future.  As we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks, the Son of Man will come again, but we know not the day nor the hour.  Whether it’s the moment of our own death or the end of all time and history, hope keeps us always ready for the Lord’s return to take us home.  But we must also keep a close and careful watch on the present.  We must be alert to all the ways that Christ is present and active here and now: speaking in his living word, touching our lives in the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments, there to love us and be loved in the members of his Body, the Church.  We can wait in constant hope because Jesus promised not only to return, but never to abandon us.  He remains—just as promised through Isaiah—Emmanuel, God always with us.

Secular preparations for Christmas (and they’ve been underway since shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, I think) focus primarily on the sentimental: we prepare the favorite recipes, sing the old songs, watch the beloved movies, hang the traditional ornaments.  It’s all meant to gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling—and who doesn’t like that?  But if we’re honest, it’s all just a distraction—yet another means of escaping from a world gone mad, a world falling apart.

But the season of Advent—the Church’s Advent—is a lot more realistic, a lot more hard-hitting.  Advent faces the tough stuff head on, requiring us to acknowledge reality and to accept responsibility—not in order to drag us down, but that we might allow God to raise us up.  We are not alone!  Yes, there’s much darkness around and within, but Light from light has come to shine in our darkness.  What only appears to be defeat is actually the prelude to a glorious and ultimate victory.

During these busy days of Advent, and throughout your life in this crazy, mixed up world, when you find yourself at the fork in the road, choose the path of hope.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Nazarites 2.0

Again this year, Fr. Scott and I challenged the men of the parish to join us in the Nazarite Challenge--to grow out their beards for the month of November and commit to growing in fraternity and holiness.  (Last year's challenge resulted in the formation of a great little parish men's group, "André's Brothers.")  Tonight, we invited those who accepted the Challenge to come together for Vespers, snacks, and drinks.  Just take a look at all these handsome, happy, hirsute faces:

Thanks to the talents of the wife of one of the men, even the cookies had whiskers:

But the greatest (and most unexpected) source of joy during this November's edition of the Challenge was that we finally got Fr. Stitt to break down and give the bearded life a try:

I'm not sure how long his man mane will last, but we'll make the the most of it while it does!

Here Comes the Judge

   Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe    

The Four Last Things
Part IV: Judgment

Two men were seated in the same train compartment.  One was grey-haired and thoughtful; the other was young, restless, and apparently quite worried.  In time, the older man spoke: “Something sure seems to be troubling you, son.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, sir,” the young man replied.  “Actually, there’s nothing anybody can do to help.  But since I feel like I can trust you, and I probably won’t ever see you again, I’ll tell you my story, and that itself will be a relief.”  With utter honestly, the young man shared how he’d gotten started in petty crime—stealing small things from work to help support his widowed mother.  But then he fell in with two coworkers, who proved to be hardened criminals.  The three planned a serious robbery, but when the security guard caught them by surprise, he was shot by one of the older men, who were both captured by the police.  They pinned the murder on the young man, who had managed to get away, and now a warrant was out for his arrest.  He was headed for the big city, where he hoped to disappear into the crowds.

Kindly, but in all seriousness, the older man said, “You know, you really need to turn yourself in and tell this whole story to the court—just as you’ve told it to me.”

“It was easy to tell you,” the young man replied, “since you’re a stranger and so understanding.  I’d be much too scared to tell my story to a judge!”  But eventually the older man prevailed, and the young man promised to do it.

He kept his promise, and there came his day in court.  Just as restless and anxious as he’d been on the train, the young man was led before the bench with his eyes cast down.  After the charges were read, he was asked to make a statement.  It’s only then that he looked up at the judge—who, to his great surprise, was none other than his friend from the train.  It was suddenly much easier to tell his story to one who knew it already.  He was acquitted of murder, placed on probation for the attempted robbery, and never turned to crime again.

On these four Sundays of November, when the Church’s thoughts turn to prayer for the faithful departed, we’ve been reflecting on the Four Last Things.  We’ve already considered (1) death, (2) heaven, and (3) hell.  This Sunday, we contemplate the hinge between life in this world and life in the next: (4) judgment.

Every Sunday, we profess our faith that Christ our King “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  This Sunday, we have a feast to celebrate that faith.  These last several Sundays we’ve been hearing parables reminding us to get ready: to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Son of Man, to prepare for Jesus’ return.  Today we hear yet another parable, through which we learn what will happen when he comes.

The scriptures are clear that all men will be raised in their bodies on the last day so as to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an accounting of their faith and works.  Standing before Jesus, who is Truth itself, the whole truth of our relationship with God will be laid bare for all to see.  Ever throw a pebble into a still pond and wonder just how far the ripples will go?  At the Last Judgment, the full extent of what we’ve all done and failed to do will be revealed as God’s justice triumphs over our every injustice, and God’s love and mercy prove stronger even than death.

But Jesus is not only the King and Judge of the whole universe; he’s my king and my judge.  Besides the general judgment at the end of time, we believe in a particular judgment at the hour of our death, when our eternal reward will be determined immediately—either to depart into eternal punishment, or to come and enter into eternal life.

By the way so many of us live, you’d think the criteria upon which we’ll be judged were how much money we’ve earned, or how far we’ve gotten in our careers, or how many friend we’ve made.  But Jesus makes it clear that only one question will be asked: “What have you done for the least brothers of mine and yours?”  That’s not an abstract question!  In fact, the King gets rather specific as he speaks to the sheep and then the goats.  That familiar list of charitable deeds is known to us as the Corporal Works of Mercy.  But why should these actions in particular be the ones upon which our everlasting destiny depends?  Because they’re a practical test of whether we really love our neighbor, and the love of neighbor is a practical test of whether we really love our God.

How does this faith of the Church in the judgment of King Jesus affect your life and mine, here and now?  For one thing, it should instill in us a holy fear—the sort that prompts us to covert our lives while time yet remains.  And for another, it should give us blessed hope—looking forward to the Lord’s return with eager expectation, for it is then that God’s will, God’s plan for creation, will come to its glorious and perfect fulfillment, when God will be all in all.

My friends, we should all see ourselves in that young man on the train—we’re all sinners, restless and anxious because we’re guilty as charged.  And for that very reason, let us reach out with charity to every stranger who walks into our lives, for in each and every one of them the King of the Universe is giving us another opportunity to become his own friend.  And if we thus allow Jesus to be our friend in this life, we will be able to stand before him with great confidence when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

What the Hell?

 Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

The Four Last Things
Part III: Hell

It’s been said that in heaven the cooks will all be French, the police will all be British, the lovers will all be Italian, and everything will be organized by Germans.  On the other hand, in hell the cooks will all be British, the police will all be French, the lovers will all be German, and everything will be organized by Italians!

I want to thank you all for your prayers during this past week while I was on retreat.  It was truly a graced time of prayer and reflection—without a doubt, the best retreat I’ve ever made.  In fact, I could say it was a little “taste of heaven”…even if the cook was Italian and not French.  The greater irony is that, coming off of this heavenly experience, I jump back into our homily series on the Four Last Things by preaching to you today about uplifting topic of hell.

We’ve just heard Jesus tell us his parable of the talents.  When we hear this story, it’s easy enough to think of it in terms of our natural abilities—our “talents”—and many a homily has been given on it inviting folks to get more involved in their parish and share their God-given gifts.  It also brings to mind the stewardship of our financial resources, providing many a pastor the opportunity to talk about increasing the collection.  Those things are good and important, but this Sunday we’re going to consider something far more decisive.

The “talent” mentioned in the gospel was an ancient unit of money, and it’s value varied.  A single silver talent was worth between 15-20 years’ wages of manual laborer.  A bronze talent was worth a bit less; a gold talent, a bit more.  In any case, we’re talking here about a considerable amount of wealth.

The master entrusts his fortune to the care of his servants according to their ability.  Two of his servants are obviously quite capable, given the large amount they each receive.  And they didn’t disappoint him: by trade and investment, by their effort and risk-taking, they earn him a 100% return.  (Don’t you wish you could find a stockbroker like that?) 

Then there's that poor third servant, who's quite the opposite of the industrious woman, the worthy wife, described in such glowing terms by Solomon.  This one gives back the exact amount he had received.  Even if he’d only earned a small return, that would have been better than nothing at all.  But he made no effort, took no risk, and simply buried the great wealth that had been given to his care.

The master’s response to this lack of initiative can seem awfully harsh, especially since nothing was actually lost: the servant had not squandered his money nor run off with it.  It’s harsh…unless what we’re talking about here is something more valuable than money.  In fact, it’s nowhere near too harsh if what this parable is really talking about is our salvation.

This Sunday, instead of taking stock of how we’re using our skills and our finances, let’s take stock of how invested we are in our Catholic faith.  God has entrusted us with things worth far more than even a huge heap of bronze, silver, and gold.  After his Death and Resurrection, before making the return journey to the Father, Jesus handed over to the care of his followers some incredible treasures: he’s given us the Church, the seven sacraments, the holy scriptures, prayer, his Mother Mary and all the saints.  By his Blood, Jesus won for us all the means necessary for our salvation.  What are we doing with them while we await his Coming?  Are we putting them to good use?  Earning a high return?  Or have we buried and hidden them away for safekeeping?  We know our Master’s high expectations; what are you and I doing to fulfill them?

You see, if we haven’t proven ourselves trustworthy and industrious in this world, how can we expect to inherit the next?  If I’ve only prayed halfheartedly here, should I expect to one day enter into the fullness of joy?  If I don’t always make time for Mass, can I reasonably expect happiness that never ends?  If I don’t read the Bible, ought I hope for what it promises?  If I give my time to sitting in front of the TV or surfing Internet but never to adoring the Blessed Sacrament, can I rightfully anticipate to behold God face-to-face?  If I don’t keep company with God’s holy ones on earth, can I assume I’ll be comfortable dwelling with them in Paradise?

You and I were made by God, and you and I were made for God: to enjoy life with him eternally.  That’s been God’s plan from the very beginning.  In God and with God is found our true meaning, our deep fulfillment, our real happiness—now and forever.  Hell is being separated from all of this—to be separated from God: from the one for whom our hearts long; from the destiny for which we were created.  To close oneself off from God’s love and mercy, to die in mortal sin without repentance, to fail to make any investment or return—even a small one—on the priceless means of salvation with which Christ has entrusted you, means being separated from the Lord forever.  That’s not the whim of some strict, angry God.  Hell is our own choice.  We damn ourselves.

It sounds kind of crazy, but the real possibility of hell is actually a necessary element of God’s boundless love for us.  Because he loves us, God has the highest respect for us and for the free will that we’ve been given.  If we weren’t truly free, we could not truly love him in return.  Which means we can choose to love…or choose not to love.  And love, of course, isn’t just a matter of some nice words or vague feelings; it’s a matter of action, it’s an entire way of life.  Our human freedom would be a big sham if the winning score were already fixed regardless of how we play the game.  Do you think the Son of God would have gone to all the trouble of becoming man and dying on a Cross if heaven were simply automatic for everybody?  God will not force himself on us. 

God does not want us to go to hell.  And the Church fervently prays that none of her children will be lost.  But the decision, my friends, belongs to each soul.  We must choose, and follow through on our choice.

So, how do we grow the Lord’s investment in us?  How do we make a responsible return on the immense spiritual wealth that we’ve been given?  (1) For one thing, on a personal level, we need to remember that faith, like the muscles of our bodies, needs to be exercised in order to grow and get stronger—and it’s not enough to do so only on rare or special occasions.  As with money: put your faith to work, and it will work for you.  (2) Secondly, on a wider scale, we grow our faith by spreading it around.  If we hope to see faith increase in the world, then we must be willing to share it with others.

Like our reflections on Purgatory a couple of Sunday’s ago, such talk might seem awfully old fashioned.  I suspect it’s been quite awhile since you’ve heard a homily on hell.  In fact, it’d be easy to think that modern, enlightened Catholics shouldn’t even talk about this stuff any more!  But just listen to what the Bishops at Vatican II had to say on the subject, citing this Sunday’s parable:
Since we know not the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, having finished the course of our earthly life, we may merit to enter into the marriage feast with him and to be numbered among the blessed and not be ordered to depart into the eternal fire like the wicked and slothful servant, into the outer darkness where "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Lumen Gentium, 48).

Now you might be thinking, “Father, I come here to Mass hoping to go home with a good feeling.  Thoughts of hell don’t exactly leave me with a smile on my face.”  My silly opening joke wasn’t enough to do that!  But my task as your parish priest isn’t to get you to smile for an hour or two; it’s to make sure you share in the happiness that never ends.  These teachings may be sobering, I know, but the stakes are that high.  Hell isn’t there to cause us to live in fear and trembling, but it does call us to get serious about the heavenly treasures placed into our hands.  Each one of us will be called upon to give a full accounting.  What return will you make?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Just Heavenly

I'm away on retreat right no homily to post for you.  Please pray that my spiritual exercises get me a bit closer to heaven!

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

The Four Last Things
Part II: Heaven

"The great lesson designed for us in this parable is expressed in those words with which our Lord concludes: Watch because you know not the day nor the hour. The bridegroom in the parable came in the middle of the night, that is, at a time when he was least expected…. Not that he desires to surprise us, for if he did he would not so often warn us; but that he desires we would always watch, and be always ready, that so we may never be surprised.…Oh, who can express or conceive the greatness of these heavenly rewards, of these highest honors, of these never-ending joys, signified here by our Lord's ministering in this manner himself to the servants whom he shall find watching!…Conclude to bear always in mind this indispensable duty of watching, so frequently inculcated by the Son of God, that so you may never be surprised and sleep in death. Carry always with you the lamp of faith to enlighten yourself, but never forget that this light must be kept in with the oil of good works."
Richard Challoner (1691-1781)