Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time--Valentine's Day

"Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man."

I was originally going to talk about something altogether different today, but Friday night I was at a party and overheard a really tasteless joke.  And, no, I'm not going to repeat it here.  I'll just say that it involved Tiger Woods, the Pope, and the Blessed Virgin.  The more I thought about the joke the more I thought about today's gospel.  Most of us don't spend a lot of time considering that there are people who hate us and exclude us because of our faith.  No, the Klan doesn't burn crosses on Catholics' lawns anymore, but go online and search the word "Catholic."  You'll be surprised at the amount of hate that's directed our way.

But, as Jesus tells us today, we should rejoice and leap for joy because our reward will be great in heaven. 

Rather than focus on the hate, I'd rather talk about love.  Today (tomorrow) is Valentine's Day, a day for love.  One of our sons refers to Valentine's Day as a Hallmark holiday.  You know, a day that exists only for the selling of greeting cards and other stuff.  It's true that Valentine's is the second biggest greeting card day of the year behind Christmas, with one billion cards bought just in the United States.  According to the people who know about this stuff, 85% of all Valentine Cards are bought by women.  That surprises me because I know that when I went to the card store last night, there wasn't a woman in sight.  Just men.  All hovering over on section of Valentine-Wife cards.

 It's also true that the celebration as we know it today is much different than the Valentine's Day our grandparents celebrated.  The celebration of Saint Valentine's feast day goes all the way back to Roman times.  The oldest known Valentine's Day greeting was written in 1415, quite a few years before Hallmark came along.  It's in the British Library in London.  The first mass produced Valentines in the United States came along in the 1840s.

The man himself, Saint Valentine lived in Rome during the third century.  He was martyred in 270.  We don't know a whole lot about him but one legend says that Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made the best soldiers, so he outlawed marriage.  Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret.  He paid for it by losing his head.  Thankfully, that doesn't happen anymore. 

Valentine's Day, either in the middle ages, or today, is all about love.  At least it's supposed to be.  For now, we'll forget about the commercial, gift-giving, part of the celebration.  I'm glad the day's finally here so I don't have to hear any more commercials for Pajama-grams, or Vermont Teddy Bears, or 1-800-FLOWERS.  I'm just too practical to spend thirty bucks for a dozen flowers that I can buy next weekend for $12.99. 

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about today is the sacraments, the signs of God's love for you and me.   One of the real joys of my vocation is that I get to be involved in some of the most important days in people's lives through the sacraments.  Yesterday I had the privilege of presiding at a wedding here in the parish.   I wish all of you could stand where I stand during a wedding.  The looks on these kids' faces is always priceless.  To me, it's what love looks like.  They're there in front of the altar of the Lord, kneeling, waiting for me to say the words that make them man and wife.  It's something they've been planning for months, something they've been preparing for for their whole lives. It's a day that God has been planning since He removed Adam's rib to create Eve.   It's the most important day of their lives so far. 

I always wonder what life has in store for this new family.  I hope and pray that it will all be perfect for them, even though I know that it won't be.  But I always tell them that anything is possible as long as Jesus is part of their family. 

Today after 10:30 mass, I'll be baptizing two young people.  Every baptism is an act of love and what could be more special than being baptized on Valentine's Day?  Even more special is the fact that these two kids aren't infants.  They're brother and sister.  The girl is 12 and her brother is 8.  I just talked to you about baptism a few weeks ago.  I said that sometimes, not all the time, or even most of the time, but sometimes babies are baptized for the wrong reasons.  But, not in this case.  The kids' mom is on fire with the faith.  Her enthusiasm is contagious and she wants to share that with her kids.  That, and not a pair of mail-order pajamas, is what love is all about.

Another sacrament that you may not associate with love is the sacrament of the sick.  What many people still think of as "last rites" is actually a strengthening sacrament, a sign of Christ's love for us and a reminder that He still heals the sick.  Father Gary offers the sacrament to all of us twice a year as part of mass and provides it to any of us when we need it; when we're in the hospital, or about to go into the hospital.  Most hospitals, Catholic or not, make the Sacrament of the Sick available to their Catholic patients. 

Two weeks ago my wife, Jan, received the sacrament from Father, just before she had cancer surgery.  The surgery was successful and the cancer was removed.  I know as sure as I'm standing here that the combination of the anointing and prayers from literally hundreds of family and friends played a big part in the favorable outcome.  Thank you to all of you who offered prayers for Jan, and for me.  Without them, our Valentine's Day could have been very different.  We love you, too. 

Last, but not least is the sacrament that we can all receive every single day, the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.  Jesus laid down His life for us but left us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist so that we'd never be apart from Him.  If that's not love, I don't know what is.

Let's go back to the mental pictures that Jeremiah paints for us in the first reading.  Trust in human beings, seek your strength in the flesh, and you're like a barren bush in the desert.  You stand in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.  It's an unpleasant picture, but it's one that we can all appreciate.  Hot and dry.  Not good.

But for the person who trusts in the Lord, you're like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches its roots to the stream.  You don't fear when the drought comes, your leaves stay green and you keep bearing fruit.  Even in cold and snowy Saint Louis that's a peaceful picture and something we all desire.  It's something we can all achieve.  All we have to do is trust in the Lord.

Have a blessed Valentine's day.  Guys, I'll see you later at the mall.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

OK, admit it.  When you come to mass and you see that there's a choice between a long reading and a short reading, you hope that we use the short one.  Even though the longer reading may only take a minute more to read, there's just something about the shorter one that makes you feel just a little better.  So, I picked the shorter second  reading today, just for you.  The bad news is that I want to talk about the part that we didn't read, so I'm going to have to give you the Reader's Digest version.

Paul's point in this particular passage is that we're all part of one body, the Church.  The part we left out is where he talks about the various parts of the body and how they all have to work together.  "If a foot should say 'Because I'm not a hand I don't belong to the body', that doesn't make it any less a part of the body."  He goes on to talk about some other body parts including some that seem to be weaker and some parts that we consider less honorable, and some parts that are less presentable, that we usually cover up.  At least we covered them up in Paul's day.  Today, sometimes not so much.

Sometimes, when we don't like somebody very much, or if somebody makes us mad, we might call them one of those less presentable body parts.  C'mon.  You know which ones I mean.  Sometimes, in a fit of anger, we might stick an adjective in front of a body part and call someone a name like dumb head, or something more colorful.  I could be more descriptive, but I think you get the point.  And, we ARE in church.

The thing is that when we talk about the "Body of Christ", we're talking about His Church.  And if the Church is a body, then you and I must be parts of that body.  And it takes all the parts to make the body work the way it's supposed to.  It goes without saying that Jesus is the head.  He's also the heart.  We may think of ourselves as the eyes and ears of the Church.  Some may think they're the mouth.  We know that some of us are the hands, but some of us are also the feet.  The thing is that none of us, you and me, are more important than anyone else.

This little book is called the Ordo.  The Ordo lists the readings for every day's mass and Liturgy of the Hours.  It gives a short, very short, summary of the day's mass readings, what the color is for the day, and a lot of other stuff.  On the other side, it lists all the bishops, priests, and deacons in the Archdiocese who have been called home along with the date of their death.  Page after page of men who had received the sacrament of Holy Orders, who had been chosen to serve the Church in a leadership role, but in the end they're just names in a book.  Whether they were a Cardinal or a deacon, whether they served fifty years or fifty days, every listing is exactly the same.

Why do we need such a list?  Because death doesn't break up a family.  Uncle Bob is still Uncle Bob, even when he leaves this world. The listing in the Ordo reminds us of our clergy who have gone on.  It reminds us to pray for them, just like they're praying for us.   When we pass into the next life, all of us will have our names written in the Book of Life for our parish, which we bring out and display every November.  It's another reminder that we're all part of the same body.

So, what's it all mean?  Remember I said a couple of weeks ago that we're all baptized in the same water that Jesus was baptized in?  It's that common baptism, along with our sharing in the bread and wine, transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ at the Lord's table that unites all of us.  You and I are just as connected to a Catholic on the other side of the world as we are to the person sitting next to us.  When one of us is cut, we all bleed.  That's just the way it is.  That's why we respond so generously when someone is in need.  That's why Catholic Charities is collecting millions of dollars to help the people of Haiti.  They're our brothers and sisters.

What Jesus is telling us today, through the words of Saint Paul, is that we share a common bond that's not just of this world, not just for a short time, but for all eternity.

Yesterday (Friday) was the anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court ruling in the case of Roe vs. Wade in 1973.  It's an annual reminder of the millions of unborn children who have been murdered in the United States over the last thirty seven years.  Roughly 1.4 million unborn babies are killed each year, just in the United States.  We tend to think of abortion as an American problem, but  there are at least 15 million abortions each year world wide, probably more than that.

The world was outraged, and still is outraged, over the death of six million Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis in World War II.  We call it the holocaust.  In the early 1930s, between three and ten million Ukranians were starved to death by Joseph Stalin.  There was plenty of food available, but the Communist government was exporting it to pay their bills, leaving the people who grew the food to die of starvation.  The British did something similar to the Irish in the 1840s.  There aren't very good records of births and deaths during that time, but the best guess is that a million to a million and a half Irish lost their lives.  Another million uprooted their families and moved away.

During the 1960s and '70s, something like a million and a half Chinese were killed by Mao Tse Dung's troops during the so-called Cultural Revolution.  As tragic as these four events were, all four together resulted in about the same number of deaths that take place in just one year on the abortionists' tables worldwide.  Even the most pessimistic estimates of the death toll in Haiti amounts to just a few days work for the abortionists.

Why do we care about any of this?  I think you know why.  We are followers of Christ and we are all one body.  Each of us loses a little bit whenever one of us dies.  Whether it's a Jew executed by the Nazis, a family crushed by a falling building in Haiti, or an innocent life snuffed out by an abortion half way around the world.

Nazi Germany is long gone.  The atrocities in the Ukraine happened eighty years ago.  There's nothing we can do about that.  There's also nothing we can do to prevent an earthquake.  All we can do is support the victims with our money and our prayers.   But we have to take a stand for all human life, right here and right now.  As Catholics and as citizens of the greatest country in the world, we owe it to our brothers and sisters, our fellow body parts, to do all we can to protect their lives.  None of us would just sit calmly while someone tried to cut off our leg.  How can we ignore it when someone destroys a part of the Body of Christ?

There are still atrocities being committed by despotic governments all over the world.  People are being killed for daring to challenge their governments.  There are still wars being fought, two of them involving the United States.  There are people getting on airplanes with bombs in their underpants, hoping to kill Americans and others, along with themselves.  People are starving all over the world, including right here in the United States, even here in Saint Louis.  And the abortions go on and on.

You and I don't have the time, the talent, or the treasure to fix everything that's wrong with the world.  We all do the best we can with what we have. Most of us aren't going to get on a plane and fly to Haiti, even if we'd like too.  Most of us aren't going to go to Washington DC to join the pro-life march.  We won't even protest at the local abortion clinic.  We don't have the time, or it's just not our style.

But we do have time to pray.  And we should pray, and pray hard, every day for all human life.  We should flood heaven with our prayers for every one of our fellow human beings.  That's a lot to pray for, but God will hear us, and He will answer us.  We just can't let up because we ARE one body.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of the Lord

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist. We've heard the story lots of times. John's baptizing at the river and Jesus gets in line along with everyone else. But, why? He was the Son of God. He came down from heaven and would soon go back. Why did He need to baptized? The answer is that He didn't. Jesus didn't need to be baptized, but you and I needed Him to be baptized. Saint Maximus of Turin, one of the Church Fathers, wrote "Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy."

If you remember your grade school science you know that water evaporates, forms clouds, and returns to earth. The cycle repeats itself over and over. The wind blows the clouds so that the water that evaporates in one place comes down somewhere else. Eventually every drop of water on earth is connected to every other drop. When Jesus made the water of the Jordan holy, he made all water holy.

Obviously Jesus thought baptism was very important. In John's Gospel He said, "Unless a man is reborn in water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." In Matthew's Gospel he tells the Apostles, "Go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Baptism is our response to Christ.

Here's what the Church says about the three sacraments of initiation, baptism, confirmation, and first communion, straight from the baptism rite.: "Through the sacraments of Christian initiation men and women are freed from the power of darkness. With Christ they die, are buried, and rise again." Notice it says "with Christ." Just like Maximus said, Jesus had to be baptized first. "They receive the Spirit of adoption which makes them God's sons and daughters and, with the entire people of God, they celebrate the memorial of the Lord's death and resurrection."

Here's what the book says specifically about baptism: "Through baptism men and women are incorporated into Christ. They are formed into God's people, and they obtain forgiveness of all their sins. They are raised from their natural human condition to the dignity of adopted children. They become a new creation through water and the Holy Spirit. Hence they are called, and are indeed, the children of God."

Jesus died and rose from the dead to defeat death, to save all of us from our sins. But what He does today makes it possible for us individually to be one of his people. Baptism is the beginning of our journey of faith. Jesus' seemingly unnecessary decision to be baptized by John, someone "not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals", is actually the beginning of OUR journey of faith.

Personally I was baptized at the age of twenty so I do remember receiving the sacrament, especially how hard it was for my godfather to hold me over the baptismal font. But for most of us, christened as babies, it's good that we celebrate today to remind us of the promises our parents made for us. This is what we ask the parents who present their child for the sacrament. "You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him up to keep God's commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking? At this point the parents answer, "We do."
Then we ask the godparents if they're ready to help the parents in their duty as Christian parents. They answer "We do." Then the deacon or the priest says "The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents and godparents to do the same."

Then we have a reading or two, maybe a homily, some prayers and then the actual baptism. But before we bring out the water, we ask the parents to renounce sin and to renew their own baptismal promises. We tell the parents, "On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring her up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives her is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in her heart.

"If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Jesus Christ. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized."
Then the baptism takes place, we say a couple of more prayers, the family takes a lot of pictures then everyone adjourns for a nice lunch.

Even if you don't remember your own baptism, you probably remember your kids' or your grandkids'. Maybe you've been a godparent a time or two. So you're probably wondering why I'm giving you this baptismal instruction. As usual, I'm taking the scenic route to make a point. Also, I want to make a disclaimer. If I've baptized your child and you're sitting here in church today, what I'm about to say doesn't apply to you. You get it. You're following up on the promises you made that day for yourself and your baby. Congratulations!

But often, too often, after the baby is baptized, after the parents and godparents have said they clearly understand what they're undertaking; after they promise to raise him or her in the faith, after everyone has renewed their baptismal promises, WE NEVER SEE ANY OF THEM AGAIN! Like I said, there are a lot of exceptions which give all of us hope. And sometimes we baptize kids whose grandparents are in the parish but who live somewhere else. They want to have the kids baptized in their home parish. My son and daughter-in-law are in that group. I've baptized my two grandkids here, but their parish is in O'fallon, MO. It's understandable that that happens sometimes. I'm not talking about them either.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Baptism is a big deal. It's a big enough deal that Jesus had Himself baptized, even though He didn't really need it. He did it for us. But too many of us don't take it seriously. A lot of babies get baptized because the grandparents insist on it, even if mom and dad haven't seen the inside of a church since their wedding day, if then.

Some parents don't really have a clue of why they're doing it, but they know that they were baptized, and their friends kids are getting baptized, so they'd better call the church. After all, christening pictures are always cute and they don't want to be left out. A lot of the time they're more interested in what the baby's going to wear, sometimes something really old that they wore for their own baptism, what they're going to have for lunch, and those all-important pictures.

The Church says that parents are the first and most important teachers and I agree with that 100%. It's up to us to bring our kids up in the faith. As a lot of us know, we aren't always successful. Sometimes they go their own way. Then it's up to us to pray them back. But I promise, if we don't lead them by our example, taking them to mass every Sunday, taking them to PSR or Catholic school, if we don't pray with them and for them, then our chances of success are a big, fat zero.

But, even if they are no small people in your life, it's good to remember our own baptismal promises. To remember that we rejected Satan and all his works and empty promises. It's good to think about the words of the Creed that we'll recite in just a few minutes. Not to just recite it along with everyone else, but to actually think about what we're saying.

We're talking about our immortal souls and the immortal souls of our children. Jesus did much more than His share to save us, but we have to do our part, too. Remember what God the Father said in today's Gospel. "You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased." I don't know about you, bit I'd like to hear those words myself when I meet Him face to face.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Feast of the Holy Family

The Feast of the Holy Family

"And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and in favor before God and man." 

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family.  In just a few hours we've miraculously jumped from Jesus' birth to his twelfth year.  And when you think about it, this single line is about all we really know for sure about His growing up.  He got older.  He got smarter.  And God and the people loved Him.

So why don't we have any detail about His growing up years?  Apparently he lost His earthly step father during that time because we never hear anything about Joseph after this.  We know Jesus worked in the carpenter shop because in those days the kids always worked in the family business..  But that's about it.

He might have been a studious kid since he was able to amaze the teachers in the temple with His questions and His answers.  On the other hand, He was the Son of God.  He's been here since the beginning.  Remember, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be."  Young Jesus may not have been studious at all.  When the teachers were talking about God, they were talking about Him. 

We know that when Jesus began His ministry at the age of thirty, He walked all over the Holy Land, so He must have been in pretty good shape.  Maybe He was a child athlete.  Maybe He played soccer or whatever games they played 2,000 years ago.  He could walk on water.  That would have made Him a pretty good golfer. Or, maybe the greatest joy in his life was to be in the carpenter shop with Joseph, helping him to make furniture.  We just don't know.

We heard this morning from the book of Sirach, and from Paul's letter to the Collosians how families are supposed to act.  But those are general things.  Sirach speaks to us about children honoring their fathers and mother's authority over them.  Sons are to take care of their fathers when they're old.  I especially like the part that says, "Grieve him not as long as he lives.  Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him."  In other words, don't make fun of Dad when he can't find the car keys.

Paul's letter contains a passage that still causes controversy today.  "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and avoid any bitterness toward them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged."

Some members of the female persuasion really get their dander up whenever they hear this one, but you have to take the whole passage in context.  Before the wives be subordinate part Paul tells the Collosians to "let the peace of Christ control their hearts."  He tells them to be thankful.  He tells them to "let the Word of Christ dwell in them richly, as in all wisdom they teach and admonish one another"   He says "Over all these put on love, that is the bond of perfection."

In other words, we should be like Christ.  Every single one of us, male or female, is subordinate to Christ.  But that doesn't mean that Christ is some kind of dictator, telling us what to do, making our decisions for us, or making us feel small.  If that were the case, then Paul's advise would be pretty bad.  Nobody wants to be treated that way and none of us has the right to treat someone else that way.  But, as the passage ends, Paul admonishes husbands to "love their wives and avoid any bitterness toward them."  Again, husbands, we should try to be like Christ.  He's the Son of God, the only God/man to ever walk the earth, but there's no record of His ever treating anyone with anything but love, even those who would finally end his earthly life.

Paul's telling the Collosians, and us, that life is a two-way street.  In a society where women and children were treated as possessions, Paul's words were controversial but not in the way that some people might think today.  The husband may be the head of the house, but he's not a king or a dictator.  He is to act with love and without bitterness.  Wives aren't slaves.  Men follow the Golden Rule.  Treat them with care.

Kids, be obedient to your parents because that makes God happy.  But fathers shouldn't provoke their children.  Again, practice the Golden rule.  This was radical thought in the days of the Roman Emporers.

So, knowing all this, we have to assume that life around Jesus' house must have been pretty nice.  But we still don't know what a day in the life of the young Jesus was like.  Maybe we're not supposed to.  We have plenty of guidelines in the scriptures.  We heard two of them today.  But for the basic, day-to-day things that go on in our homes, we're pretty much on our own. 

Let's think about that for a second.  Every human being is unique and different.  Every family, made up of these individual creatures is even more different.  Remember the old Armour Hot Dog commercial, "Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks.  Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox?  God made us that way and He values our differences.  If we knew that Jesus was a straight A student, or that Joseph came home from work every day and read the Torah for three hours, or that Mary was the best cook in Nazareth, would that set a standard for us that we might not be able to meet?  

 If Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are the Holy Family, does that make the Simpsons the "unholy family"?  Or are they just different.  As dysfunctional as they might be, Homer and Marge are doing the best that they can.  Bart isn't much of a student, but he has a good heart and tries to be better, but he is who he is.  Homer loves Marge.  There's no doubt about that.  He may do a lot of things wrong, but there's never any bitterness toward her.

The Flanders next door may seem like the holier family, the more perfect family, but are they really?  There does seem to be some hypocrisy in the Flanders' holier-than-thou attitude and Homer and Bart usually see through it.  Only God knows what's in our hearts, even if we happen to be cartoon characters.  [By the way, did you know that, by actual count, the Simpsons have had more episodes involving God, church, and morality than any show in the history of television?  It's true.  You can look it up.] 

So, maybe God has chosen not to reveal the details of Jesus growing up years so that we don't try to be something that we're not, so we don't become discouraged because we don't measure up.  Maybe Joseph was like Homer.  It couldn't have been easy to be  the only person in the family who could sin.  Or, maybe he was like Ned.  Or maybe, probably,  he was somewhere in between.  We don't know.  And since we don't know, each of us can imagine that we're the best dad, or mom, or son, or daughter that we can possibly be.  And you know what.  If we can practice what our readings tell us today, we will be.

So, as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we can also celebrate our own families.  God made each of us and He put us together in families.  Families are the basic unit of our society.  Without them, everything would come to a screeching halt.  Our secular society may make fun of families or try to convince us that a family is something that it's not.  Movies and TV may try to tell us that traditional families are a thing of the past.  But they aren't.  God made the world.  He made Adam.  The very next thing He did was to make Eve; not so Adam would have some one to play cards with.  He made her so that the human race would grow.  He didn't make five or ten Eves so Adam could have a harem.  He made one woman for one man and told them to "be fruitful and multiply."

That's how families came to be and that hasn't changed in all this time.  Whether it's  Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Homer and Marge Simpson, or Mike and Jan Buckley, we're all holy families, each in our own way.  Thanks be to God.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Third Sunday of Advent-Gaudete!

Personally, I have a policy of not taking a man seriously when he's wearing a pink dress.  But in this case, I guess I have to make an exception. 
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday.  The word gaudete is Latin for Pepto Bismol.  It reminds us not to eat too much fruitcake or we'll be sick for Christmas.

Seriously, gaudete means rejoice.  We wear the pink vestments to emphasize our joy, the same reason we light the pink candle.  As Paul wrote to the Phillipians, "Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again:  rejoice!"  It's just eleven days until we celebrate the birth of the Son of God.

So, what are we supposed to do?  That's the question that the people ask John the Baptist in today's Gospel.  And he gives them some pretty good advice.  If you have two cloaks, give one to a person who has none.  Do the same with your food.  He tells the tax collectors not to take more than is prescribed and he tells the soldiers not to practice extortion, not to falsely accuse anyone, and to be satisfied with their wages.

Luke tells us that the people were "filled with expectation."  That's where we're supposed to be.  We're waiting for Jesus to come and we know it's just a few days away.  Gaudete!  Rejoice!  "In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace."

So here we are; faithful Catholics.  We want to do the right thing.  We really do.  We want to uphold the traditions of the faith.  We want to spend the Advent season getting ready for Jesus' birth.  We call this season Advent.  For us, the Christmas season BEGINS on December 25.  For the secular world the Christmas season begins sometime right after Halloween and ENDS on December 25. The season we call Christmas, they call the end of the year clearance. 

 We try to keep one foot in each world.  And sometimes it's a real challenge.  We want to spend some time each day in quiet prayer but between work and shopping and baking and Christmas parties and visiting with family and friends, sometimes there just doesn't seem to be enough time.  We want to share our extra cloak with someone who doesn't have one, but by the time we get around to it, it's Christmas Eve and we've missed our chance.  With all the expense of the season, it's hard to be satisfied with our wages.  Heck, in this economy we may not even have any wages to be satisfied with.

Movies like a Christmas Story or It's A Wonderful Life remind us of how Christmas used to be.  The story of Ralphie and his beloved Red Ryder BB Gun reminds us of our own childhoods when things were so much simpler.  The movie doesn't say where Ralphie's old man worked, but we know he had a job because the Bumpus hounds attacked him every evening when he came home from work.   Everybody had a job.  That's just the way it was.  George Bailey's struggles with Mr. Potter and the Clarence the angel's reminder of all the people he's helped in his life is more of a morality tale, but the message holds true today, maybe even more so than in the 1930s.

Of course, the best Christmas story of all is the one that we'll tell here on December 24 and 25.  It's a story of peace and love, of hope and joy.  We'll have to get out extra chairs on Christmas Eve.  That's how powerful the story is.  It plays to standing room only crowds in churches all over the world.  Even though we know it well, we still long to witness it again, year after year.  Even in the midst of all the commercialism, even in the depths of an economic recession, the real Christmas story reminds us of what we're really about and what a great gift God gave us when He sent us His Son.

No matter how much we struggle to balance the anticipation of Advent with the secular world's craziness, we know that He's coming to save those who believe in him, and that includes you and me.  With less than two weeks to go, I hope we can all get our heads on straight and focus on that wonderful gift.  That doesn't mean we can't also focus on gifts for our loved ones.  After all, we can't actually give Jesus a gift.  He's God.  He has everything He needs.  But I know it pleases Him to see us giving gifts to the ones we love in His name. 

It doesn't have to be the biggest, most expensive gift in the world.  If you have the money and you want to give your deacon a flat-screen TV, that's great and it would be much appreciated.  But a simple "Merry Christmas" would be more than enough.

Speaking of "Merry Christmas", maybe Advent isn't time to talk about pet peeves, maybe deacons shouldn't even have peeves, pet or otherwise.  But I do have one or two and one of them involves the words "Merry Christmas."  We've gotten so politically correct that people are actually afraid to use that magic phrase, especially in the world of business.  I think the pendulum may be swinging back our way, but you still see and hear "happy holidays" and "season's greetings" taking the place of the "MC" words. 

I was at the South County mall the other day and I happened to walk past Santa's outpost.  I noticed a sign near his chair that asked parents not to take personal photos from the area where the professional photographer works.  That's OK.  They're there to sell pictures and that's what pays for Santa's visit.  But at the end of the sign it says "happy holidays!"  You're there to get your kid's picture taken with Santa Claus.  If you're reading the sign he or she is probably sitting on Santa's lap!  I don't think you're going to be offended by the mention of Christmas.  Give me a break!

Today (yesterday) is (was) the first day of Hanukkah.  As a Christian I'm not offended if someone wishes me a Happy Hanukkah.  In fact, I would consider it quite an honor of someone of the Jewish faith offered me that kind of greeting.  After all, my boss is a Jewish carpenter.  In the same spirit, I don't think most non-Christians are offended by our wishing them a Merry Christmas. 

Here's what I suggest you do.  When someone in a store wishes you "Happy Holidays" smile and answer "Merry Christmas", with the emphasis on the word Christmas.  Being something of an agitator about this, I've been doing it for years.  It never fails that the person will answer back, "Merry Christmas."  Isn't it a shame that a Christian person working in a store has been instructed not to share a Christmas wish with a Christian customer at this time of year?

Maybe if enough of us take this outlandish step, retail employees and their bosses will take the hint and end the hypocrisy.   Wouldn't that make this a more wonderful life?  It's a little thing, but it reminds us what the season is really about.  Sharing our joy of the coming of the Savior with a stranger is a kind of prayer that enriches our lives and the lives of those we meet.  We can be modern-day John the Baptists.  And isn't that what Advent is all about?

Gaudete!  Rejoice!

PS.  Check out this video on YouTube.  It's great!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizeable crowd.  The blind beggar called out to Jesus, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”  Some of the people traveling with Jesus told the beggar to get lost.  “Don’t bother Jesus.  He’s with us.  He doesn’t have time for the likes of you.”

What does Jesus say?  “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’”  He didn’t call the blind man himself, he asked the disciples to call him.  Do you see the difference?

I want to tell you about two people, one at the end of her earthly life and one at the beginning.  I went to a funeral today (yesterday).  Mary Geeran, wife of deacon Bill Gearon, passed into eternal life on Thursday morning.  These are two incredible people.  Some of you probably know them.  They’ve been teaching marriage preparation in Saint Louis for a very long time.  If you’ve ever seen the Archdiocesan marriage prep video, they’re the elderly couple that are featured in the film. 

Bill and Marry have touched the lives of thousands of young people through marriage prep.  The thing that makes them special is that they have taken Jesus words to heart.  When they were married sixty years ago this coming New Year’s Eve, right down here, in front of this altar, they became one.  They were the epitome of the oneness that comes from the sacrament of marriage.

Until just a few years ago, when their health made it impossible, Bill and Mary led the first year retreat for deacon candidates and their wives.  That’s how Jan and I got to know them.  They have inspired a lot of deacon couples by their oneness and their spirituality.  “Jesus stopped and said, call him.”  Bill and Mary said “yes” to Jesus more times than anyone could possibly count.

The other person I want to talk about is a little child who was at 10:30 mass last Sunday.  The family was sitting in the last row so I couldn’t see if the child was a boy or a girl.  But at the Consecration, when the server rang the bell the child yelled out, “That’s a bell!”  Of course it didn’t stop there.  There were several other comments about the bell.

I couldn’t see the parents either, but being one myself, I can imagine them trying very hard to stop the monologue.  But remember what Jesus said about little children.  Wasn’t this little one really speaking for all of us?  After all, the reason we ring the bell is to call attention to the miracle that’s happening on the altar.  I know, it happens all the time.  It happens at every mass at every Catholic Church in the whole world.  But it’s still a miracle.  Like the little child, shouldn’t we be filled with joy? 

In our responsorial Psalm today we sang, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”  As you sang those words, were you really filled with joy?  Was your mouth filled with laughter?  Was your tongue rejoicing?  “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad indeed.” 

Remember, Father and I can see you from up here.  I’m not going to point fingers and I don’t want to offend anybody, but some of you weren’t looking all that joyful.  But, hey, you can see me too and I know I don't always look all that joyful either. For one thing, I’m a terrible singer.  But God doesn’t care. After all, I sing with the voice that He gave me. He wants to hear your voice, no matter how bad you think you sound.   I promise I'm going to try to do better.

But what about the people sitting around you?  Don’t worry about them.  They’re just as concerned about how they sound as you are.  They’re not even listening to you.  If they are, and if they’re thinking about how bad you sound then they’re not really focused on God, are they?

I was on retreat this week with the Monks at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.  They sing everything.  They're in Church eight times every day singing their prayers.  What an awesome way to express their love of God.

But we’re singing those words in church, surrounded by people who are also in church.  It’s good for us to sing the words, to remind ourselves that the Lord has done great things for us.  But aren’t we preaching to the choir?  When was the last time you told someone outside of church how glad you are?  Do our non-church-going family and friends look at us and think, “I want what they’ve got?”  Or do they look at us and wonder why we bother going to church when it doesn’t seem to be doing anything for us? 

If we saw someone going to the same doctor week after week and never seeming to get better, would we want to go to that same doctor?  We’d probably go to another doctor, or maybe not go to a doctor at all.  We might try alternative medicine, or acupuncture, or voodoo or anything rather than go to a doctor who doesn’t seem to make people better.  Some of us even turn to alcohol or drugs.  Or maybe we’d just stay sick, thinking there’s no hope.  

Today is Priesthood Sunday.  This year is also a Year for Priests.  So today,  we really have a double celebration.  We have a God who loves us so much that He not only sent His Son to die for us on the cross, but He made it possible for pathetic creatures like you and me to actually walk out of here with Christ’s body and blood inside of us, thanks to our Priests.  With his hands and his voice Father Gary is about to act in persona Christ, in the person of Christ, to give us the greatest gift of all.  For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to pass that up.

We’re like cell phones that lose their charge after a few days.  Plug them in for a while and they’re good as new.  Only, instead of electricity, we’re recharged with the actual physical presence of our Lord.  What a gift!  No wonder we’re filled with joy...............  Or are we?...............  And if we are, do we let it show? 

Jesus showed all the human emotions during His earthly life.  He was happy and sad, joyful and even angry.  In His short three-year ministry he attracted thousands of followers.  Today His disciples number in the millions.  When do you think He was most successful in gaining converts?  When He was turning the money changers’ tables over in the temple, or when He was speaking joyfully about His kingdom in heaven?  Here’s a hint.  Pick door number two.

So doesn’t it make sense that if we’re going to make converts or to get fallen-away Catholics back into church, we have to show them what’s in it for them?  To show them what’s in it for them, we have to remember what’s in it for us.  Don’t you imagine that we’re a lot more effective when we come out of mass with a smile on our faces?  Aren’t we better disciples when we approach evangelization in the spirit of sharing something wonderful that’s happening in our lives?  Doesn’t that spirit make our lives better?

When Jesus told the disciples to “Call him” He knew that He was going to do something wonderful, something miraculous for the blind man.  He was going to give him back his sight.  But Jesus has a lot more to offer than just one of the five senses.  He offers eternal life.  Knowing that, shouldn’t we be chomping at the bit to share that gift with everyone? 

I know you may be thinking “That’s easy for you to say.  You just came back from a retreat.  Everybody gets fired up after a retreat.  But this is real life.  Times are tough.  It’s just not that easy.” 

I get that.  You’re right.  I am fired up after a week with the Monks.  But isn’t it true that this a place of peace too?  There’s not a thing that happens in a monastery chapel that doesn’t happen right here at St. Bernadette.  The mass is the same.  It’s the same God.  We just live a different life-style. 

I don’t want to use the word “escape” because you can’t escape your troubles, even in Church.  But this is the place to ask God for help and to receive the power of the resurrection through the Eucharist.  Our time on earth is very short.  With God’s help we can get through anything, knowing that what God has planned for us when we leave this life is beyond our wildest dreams.  I don’t know about you, but I want to share that with everyone I know.

There are some people that Jan and I love very much who have fallen away from the faith.  We both pray every day that they’ll come back.  But today’s Gospel, especially that one six-word sentence, made me realize that we’ve been doing it all wrong.  God’s answer to our prayer, and the answer to any of your prayers if you love someone who’s not practicing the faith, is right there.  “Call him.”  Or, “call her.” Jesus healed the blind man after the disciples called him.

It seems so simple.  We have to speak for Jesus.  We have to call others to the Church, whether they’ve fallen away, or if they’ve never been here in the first place.  If we can get them here once, then it’s up to the Holy Spirit, working through you and me here in Church, to get them to come back again.

I’m going to give you some homework.  During the next seven days, pray that God will give you whatever you need to bring someone either to the Church or back to the Church.  Whatever that is, whether it’s the courage to speak up, or the right words to say, or an inner sense of peace that others see and want for themselves, God will provide it if you ask Him.

Then, when He answers your prayer, invite someone to Church.  If necessary, offer to pick them up and bring them with you.  Maybe you can bribe them with the promise of a trip to Waffle House after mass.  Be prepared for the possibility of a negative response.  If that happens, start over.  Get on your knees and say, “OK, God.  That didn’t work.  What else do you have?”

Just so you don't think that I'm just blowing smoke, I took my own advice today (yesterday).  There are three people attending mass this weekend that haven't  been to church in quite a while.  Why?  Because I asked them.  I asked for God's help and He gave me the courage and the grace to approach these three people and invite them to come home.  Whether they come again next week is up to them and to God.  If they don't, then I'll have to ask God to help me again and I'll ask them again.  Meanwhile, I'm thanking God for this first step for them and for me.

Don't get me wrong.  I take no credit for this.  It was God working through me because I followed Jesus' instruction.  Maybe that's why I'm a little more joyful than usual today.  Knowing that God can work with such inadequate tools gives me faith that He has even better things in store for all of us.

So, keep trying.  Eventually the person may come to mass with you just to get you off their back.  Once they’re here, it’s up to God and the rest of us to get them to come back.  Remember that short six-word sentence:  "Jesus stopped and said "call him."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

28th Suday in Ordinary Time

Murphy was circling the block trying to find a parking place.  He was already late for an important meeting and he was starting to panic.  He raised his eyes toward the sky and said, "Lord, if you help me find a parking place, I promise to give up drinking and to go to mass every Sunday."  Just then, a parking spot opened right in front of him.  He looked up and said, "Never mind Lord.  I found one myself."

All things are possible for God, even if we don't always give Him the credit.

The readings today definitely give us a lot to think about.  In the first, from the Book of Wisdom, Solomon tells us that riches are nothing compared to Wisdom.  He says that gold is like sand and silver is no more than mire.  He even tells us that he prefers wisdom to light.  Our lectors' workbook tells us that the word wisdom, Sophia in Greek, at this time in history meant prudence for making intelligent decisions regarding life.  Wisdom was a guide for following the will of God in the way you lived.

By the way, the word Sophia is a feminine noun.

Notice that Solomon says he prayed and prudence was given him.  He pleaded and the spirit of Wisdom came to him.  Even today we sometimes hear the phrase "the wisdom of Solomon."  But he admits in this reading that he, himself wasn't wise.  The spirit of Wisdom came to him only after he pleaded with God. 

I know a lot of people who think they're "wise".  Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, a lot of people who've received the sacrament of Holy Orders, that would be priests and deacons, think that the sacrament somehow confers wisdom.  Or maybe they think that the Church only ordains the wise.  Either way, they're very impressed with their own "wisdom".  Or maybe I should say we instead of they.  It's an easy trap to fall into.  But as Solomon tells us, Wisdom is a spirit and it's a gift from God.  Education doesn't equal wisdom.  If anything, too much education may be the enemy of wisdom.

Remember the definition of Wisdom from the Lectors' workbook,  it's a guide for following the will of God in the way you live your life.  Being able to recite Church Law from memory isn't wisdom.  Keeping a copy of the Catechism on your coffee table doesn't show that you're wise.  Being well-versed in the changes that are coming in the mass isn't wisdom.  You can be smart  and lack wisdom.  You can definitely be rich and lack wisdom.  Jesus tells us that in today's Gospel.  In fact He tells us that it's harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

But, getting back to Solomon, here's what he says at the beginning of Chapter 7, just ahead of today's first reading:

"I too am a mortal man, the same as all the rest, and a descendant of the first man formed on earth.  And in my mother's womb I was molded into flesh in a ten-months period--body and blood, from the seed of man and the pleasure that accompanies marriage."  The reason he says ten-month period is that in Biblical times, they used a different calendar.  Ten Biblical months equals nine of our current months.  Remember that Mary visited Elizabeth when Elizabeth was "in her sixth month" and baby John jumped for joy?  All you moms know that you really feel the baby start to move around about the fifth month.  Elizabeth's sixth month would be five months today.  But I digress.  Back to Solomon.

"And I too, when born, inhaled the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; wailing, I uttered that first sound common to all.  In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured."   Remember, he was royalty,   He was well taken care of."  For no king has any different origin or birth, but one is the entry into life for all; and in one same way they leave it.  Therefor I prayed and prudence was given me......"

In other words, I put my tunic on one leg at a time, just like you do.  But instead of focusing on the wealth and power of the family I was accidentally born into, I prayed for prudence and God gave it to me.  I pleaded for Wisdom and the spirit of Wisdom was given to me.  What's your excuse? 

In modern terms, who's wiser; the "learned" preacher who stands up here week after week spouting what he thinks are "words of wisdom" or the young couple who struggles and does without the things their friends have so they can send their kids to a Catholic school?  Who's really following the will of God in the way they live their lives? 

Don't get me wrong.  The Church ordains priests and deacons to many things and one of them is to preach the Gospel.  We all believe we're following the will of God.  But it's easy to forget that the faculty to preach is a gift, as is the spirit of Wisdom.  My job is help you follow the will of God.  It's not my message.  It's God's message.  And there's a BIG difference!

The spirit of wisdom is an amazing gift!  But if you think you have it and you really don't, or if you do have it but you think it makes you smarter or holier than anyone else, you're just going to make a fool out of yourself. 

Last week we asked you to contribute to the formation of future deacons.  Over the years the program for diaconate training has gone from just two years of classes to eight.  That's why the formation program needs our financial support.  It's an expensive program.   I was right in the middle.  It took me five years and I paid for everything myself.

 We all need as much training as we can get because life is getting more complicated by the day.  But, I know some very good deacons who would never make it through today's program.  It's very difficult.  But, all those years of expensive classes won't give anyone the spirit of wisdom unless they plead for it as Solomon did.

Here's a very simplistic example of what I'm talking about.  Let's say you're married and things aren't going as well as you would like.  You decide to talk to a minister.  An educated priest or deacon will walk you through all the necessary steps for obtaining a declaration of nullity.  He'll have all the forms and he'll help you fill them out.  A priest or deacon who's been blessed with the spirit of wisdom will do everything he can to help you save the marriage.  If that doesn't work out, then he'll get out the forms.

That's the kind of Wisdom Jesus displays in today's Gospel.  The young man seems to have led a good life.  He follows the commandments.  But when he asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life, he's shocked at the answer.  "Sell all your stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow Me."  And the young man went away sad.  It's up to our imaginations to tell us if the man did as Jesus suggested.  The Gospel doesn't tell us.  Then Jesus  tells the disciples that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. 

But then He seems to contradict Himself when He says that "All things are possible for God."  What is He saying?  Is it impossible for a rich man to get into heaven or not?  Don't we need rich people to help pay for things like the Seminary Campaign?  If no one is rich, who's going to feed the poor, the government?  No, that's not it.  If we're all poor, then the government won't have anything to tax and they won't have any money either.  Jesus was poor.  He depended on the generosity of others to survive during his earthly life.  Somebody had to pay for all those dinners He was always having.  Even at the last supper, Jesus and the disciples were eating the passover meal in someone else's house, eating someone else's food.  Apparently their host hadn't given away all his stuff.

He says "All things are possible for God."  If that's true then maybe a camel can pass through a needle's eye and a rich man can get into heaven.  Fortunately for most of us, this isn't a big personal problem.  We're not rich and we don't own camels.  That means it's easier for us to get into heaven, right?  I'm not so sure. 

We should all follow Solomon's example and beg for the Spirit of Wisdom. 

I think Thomas Merton had the Spirit of Wisdom.  I know I've used this before, but I'm going on retreat to his monastery next week and I think this prayer reflects a lot of wisdom and fits nicely with today's readings.

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.