Four Years

After this weekend, I will leave my first assignment as a priest and move to a new one.

This has proven to be a lot harder and more painful than I would have imagined going into it. Life at St. Mary's parish (and St. Mary's Central), along with being the chaplain to St. John Central High School has effected me in ways I never anticipated.

Because my new assignment is so close to wear I grew up, the most common comment I hear from people here is, "at least you'll be close to your family." It's true, that is a great benefit that I am looking forward to; however, I do feel like I am leaving some family here as well.

The people of this parish and these schools have welcomed me into their homes and their lives. They've treated me like family and that is something I will never forget.

Fr. Chillog has welcomed me as a housemate and taught me so much about what it means to be a priest.

My priesthood will be forever shaped by the four years I've spent here and I can't thank all of you enough.

I love you. I'll miss you. And I'll pray for you.

We will always be connected in Jesus. That love never ends.

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Death is Not The End

There is a particularly moving scene in the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, that came into my mind when I was preparing for this weekend. Gandalf, the wizard, and Pippin, the hobbit, are trapped in the city of Minas Tirith. There is an enemy army beating at the gate, not many of the city's soldiers are left to fight, and there seems to be no hope for these two characters.

Pippin says, "I didn't think it would end this way." Gandalf replies, "End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."

"What? Gandalf? See what?," Pippin asks, and Gandalf answers: "White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."

It's a beautiful exchange and it strikes me every time I've seen it - and it has been many times! Pippin is afraid of death; Gandalf comforts him by saying, "death is not the end." Then they prepare to fight what may be their last battle.

Our readings today give us the same message: though we will suffer in the world, and we can't escape death, there is hope. It's a hope that comes from our faith in Jesus Christ.

Our first reading, from the book of Wisdom, tells us that death is not God's creation. The whole of creation is inherently good and God made humanity to share in his eternal life, "but by the envy of the devil, death entered the world."

Sin, starting with the sin of Adam and Eve and going all the way to us today, is the cause of our separation from the life of God - and there is nothing we can do to change that. But Jesus can.

Our gospel reading features two people with profound faith.

First, we meet Jairus, the synagogue official who comes to Jesus because his daughter is at the point of death. He asks Jesus, "come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live." We'll return to him in a moment.

One the way to Jairus' house, Jesus encounters the hemorrhaging woman. She had been suffering with this bleeding for 12 years and everything she had done to fix it had only made it worse. She has complete faith, however, that Jesus could help her. She touches his cloak and is immediately healed.

When Jesus finds out who had touched him, he tells her, "your faith has saved you." It wasn't some kind of magic, it was faith in the person of Jesus. She believed that he could heal her.

After this encounter, Jesus hears that Jairus' daughter has already died. Rather than apologizing to Jairus that he was too late, he tells Jairus, "Do not be afraid; just have faith." and they continue on to his home. Jesus ignores the people who mock him when he arrives. He goes in and says, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!" And she does.

Jesus performs many miracles in the gospels. These two events show something important about his ministry. Neither of the miracles were done to gain a big crowd of followers; they happened because someone had faith. The woman believed Jesus could heal her; Jairus believed Jesus could save his daughter. It was that faith that allowed Jesus to enter into these moments of suffering and even death and bring new life.

What does this have to do with us today?

We live in a complicated, broken, and sometimes discouraging world.

People suffer and die everyday - and not just because of disease or natural disasters, but at the hands of other people. Christians, our brothers and sisters, are being killed because of what they believe in.

Our culture is rapidly changing in many ways. Family, the foundation of civilization, is being attacked on many fronts - and I'm not only talking about the legalization of same-sex marriage. There is also the widespread evil of pornography; the lack of family life; people abandoning any sort of faith life because it does not fit into their schedules.

It is so easy to be discouraged - for me too! How do we go on in a world like this?

It is only with faith in Jesus.

I'm not talking about some kind of abstract "sure, I believe in God - I go to church, don't I?" faith. The only thing that will carry us through the struggles of this world and our fear of suffering and death is a real, living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

I can tell you what I've told you many times before, that we do this through the sacraments, through prayer, and through service to others. Those are the sources of life that we cling to as Catholics.

But today, I think we all need to hear the message of this gospel story: Jesus can walk into our despair, chaos, and even death, and say to us, "arise!" No one and nothing else can do that - no political body, no movement, no leader, not even our best intentions. Only Jesus can save us from the death of sin, so we must constantly turn back to him.

Let go of anything that holds you back. Jesus is the only way.

When we come to the end of our life, what will matter is our relationship with him.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity: Doctrine and Relationship

Last week we finished our celebration of the season of Easter with Pentecost. We're back to Ordinary Time, which will last until the beginning of Advent at the end of November.

But, first we celebrate two special feasts: today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity and next Sunday is Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Both of these feast days are about doctrines of our faith: what we believe. That shouldn't lead us to think that they are just boring theological ideas. What we believe flows from the great love that God has for us, and today's feast of the Trinity is about the most important thing in the universe.

We start out in our first reading with Moses speaking to the people of Israel. He is reminding them of what God has done for them in freeing them from slavery in Egypt. "Did anything so great ever happen before?"

Moses is right in telling them they should be astonished because it is an astonishing event. God didn't just tell the Hebrews, "I'm your God and I want you to worship me," - he saved them. He revealed Himself as a God who loved them and would provide for them. He didn't just prove that He was more powerful than the gods of Egypt or another nation - He said they don't exist.

The Lord is God and there is no other. That is the foundation of the Jewish faith. There is only one God and He has revealed Himself to His people.

Then we fast forward to our Gospel reading and Jesus makes some startling statements.

First he says, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me." That's a claim that only God could really make.

Then he tells the Apostles, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Not only does he claim the power of God, but Jesus names three persons in whose name they will be baptizing.

All of this, along with Jesus' words throughout the Gospels and the Holy Spirit speaking in the other Scriptures of the New Testament have shown the Church that God is revealing Himself in a deeper way.

What we call the Trinity is simply God showing that He is a relationship. The Father and the Son give themselves in complete love and the Holy Spirit is that bond of love between them.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a relationship of love - and that love is what created the universe and created us. God didn't need other people to give Himself to - He is self-gift. He didn't need anyone to love because He is love.

The fact that we exist shows us that God, who is perfectly fulfilled and complete in Himself, chose for us to exist because He wants us to participate in that love.

In our second reading, St. Paul tells us that we "did not receive a spirit of slavery" but "a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, 'Abba, Father!'” Abba is the intimate word for Father that Jesus used - and through our baptism we have the privilege, the grace to share that intimate relationship with the Father.

The doctrine of the Trinity is so much more than a complicated idea. It's so much more than trying to explain it with the leaves of a clover or whatever analogy that we come up with. It is the hope that we all share as Christians. We aren't serving a God who sees us as slaves but a Father who wants to adopt us as His children.

With Jesus as our savior and our brother, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are being invited into eternal communion with Our Father.

5th Sunday of Easter: Without Him - nothing.

We all long to be independent.

It starts at an early age. Little kids will scream, "No! I'm doing it!" when someone tries to help them. As we get older and especially in our teen years, we want to distinguish ourselves from our parents and our families. We want to make decisions for ourselves.

Even when we come into adulthood, there is always that need to "be our own person" - to take care of ourselves and set the course of our own lives.

Anytime that we're sick - even with something as simple as a cold - we hate not being able to do what we want to do. One of the most frustrating things about being in the hospital is having to rely on other people for everything.

People face that challenge in the later parts of their life as they find they can't do everything they used to be able to do. Others have to help, and that can be frustrating.

We long for that independence - and it's a pretty normal part of human life. We should learn to be our own person, to make the choices that matter for us.

But that desire can also be a serious obstacle in our spiritual lives. It's easy to settle into a version of Catholicism where we think, "As long as I do all the stuff I'm supposed to, I'll be good with God."

Jesus tells us something in today's Gospel that should really shake us to the core. Every time we find ourselves feeling proud or independent - not needing help from anyone - we should remember these words:

"... without me you can do nothing."

Let those words sink in - "without me you can do nothing."

If we take that truth to heart, then our whole world needs to be changed. As much as we'd love to see ourselves as strong, independent people, Jesus tells us that that road is doomed to failure.

Our faith is not just a list of things to do, that, if we just have the willpower, we can accomplish on our own. Our faith is about union with God.

Remember that. It's the most important thing I'm going to say today and I need to hear it too: Our faith is about union with God.

But what does that mean?

Jesus gives us a great image to understand it: He is the vine and we are the branches.

A branch only has life as long as it is connected to the vine. Everything it has, it's very existence, flows from that vine. If a branch decided to separate itself, it might seem to be alive for a little while, but eventually it would wither up and die.

Our relationship with Jesus is that close - to the point of being one living thing, we are His body. So if you are feeling lost. Or if your life seems to lack meaning; it's time to look at your relationship with the vine and ask yourself: "Am I trying to do this on my own? Am I trying to be my own source of life?" Any attempt to have a life without him is doomed to frustration and ultimately to failure.

So how do we stay connected to Jesus? How do we stay attached to the vine?

There are all the standard (and extremely correct) answers: the Scriptures, prayer, and the sacraments. Those may not be surprising answers, but they shouldn't be: they are what Jesus gave us so that we could be united to Him.

One thing in particular should stand out: the Eucharist. Jesus spoke these words that we heard today in the context of the Last Supper. Within that event where he gave His apostles His body and blood for the first time, he tells them and us that to be alive and bear fruit, we must be united to Him.

There is no closer union to Jesus than what we do here at Mass. He becomes a part of us so that we can become a part of Him.

---

"Without me you can do nothing."

Hearing that shouldn't discourage us. It should wake us up.

Despite our human tendency to struggle for independence, we are made to be in union with God - and it's only in that union that we can be fully alive.

We must stop trying to do this on our own, stop fighting an endless battle that we can never win, and give everything we are to the God who gave us everything.

Good Friday of the Lord's Passion

We are right in the middle of the most sacred time of the Church year - right in the heart of it - and it's tempting to want to skip to the end - just like at Christmas.

There is always the temptation to get past all the suffering and death, and get to the good stuff - celebrating, candy, ham!

But tonight, we have the opportunity to sit with our Lord in the very darkest depths of suffering - the darkness of human sin. On this Good Friday we see the result of all our selfishness, pride, and greed. We see that sin has a price - and, before we celebrate because we have a God who loves us enough to pay that price Himself - we stop and take a hard look at how much that cost.

Look at the crucifix - that is love.

That isn't a distant God who winds up the world and then abandons it. That isn't a God who just came to teach us to be nice to each other.

Our God went right into the pit of despair that we made by our sins. Think about the story of the Passion that we just heard: the whole range of sin is on display. Jesus is betrayed by his friends; there is political and religious corruption; he is condemned though dishonesty; and, in the end, unconditional love was met with torture and death.

His suffering wasn't just the horrible physical pain inflicted on him that day - it was the weight of our sin, yours and mine. He took the full consequence of our rejection of God on Himself.

That is our God and that is what love looks like - sacrifice. "Without sacrifice, there is no love." (St. Maximilian Kolbe) If we are to have life, it is only through the cross - by laying down our lives out of love for God and love for our neighbors. 

One of the last things Jesus said from the cross was, "I thirst."

Yes, he was almost definitely physically thirsty after all his suffering. And he was also ready to drink the last cup of wine for the Passover meal, completing the sacrifice that we receive in the Eucharist.

But Jesus' greatest thirst was for us. He desires our love to the point of death, and he desires us still. He is thirsting for us now.

Let's sit with that love and that thirst. Let's look at the cross, remember what he suffered for us, and say to him:

"Here I am, Lord. I'm not yet perfect, I'm not as holy as I can be, but I believe in your love. You died out of love for me. Please help me to live out of love for you."

[Readings]

1st Sunday of Lent

I love the image of Jesus going into the desert.

He was about to begin his public ministry - to embark on the road that would lead him, ultimately, to his passion, death, and resurrection - and he took time to prepare.

The desert is a place where you are separated from civilization - it's distractions as well as its comforts. It is a place to be alone, with yourself and with God. In the desert, everything is stripped down to the essential: survival is what matters and anything that you don't need should be abandoned.

Jesus entered the desert to prepare for his mission. We enter the desert of Lent to prepare ourselves to celebrate what he did.

In just over a month, we will remember and celebrate the most important events of our faith. It is precisely because of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection that we call ourselves Christians. As much as the world would like to label Jesus as just a good teacher, without these central mysteries - without his sacrifice and rising from the dead - the message of Jesus is meaningless.

And so we go into the desert of Lent.

We go in, knowing that we are not perfect; that we do things that hurt our relationship with God and with other people. We enter this season incomplete. There are parts of ourselves that we haven't given to the Lord.

As baptized Catholics, we all have a relationship with God. We've been adopted and freed from original sin. Unfortunately, none of us stay that way. We give in to temptation and reject the God who has welcomed us into his family.

Lent is a time to go back to the innocence of baptism. It's a time to start again.

In our first and second readings, we heard about the flood and how Noah represented a new start for humanity. Baptism is the flood that has freed us from sin and given us a new beginning with God. And even though we have, in big ways and little ways, turned away from that gift, we always have the chance to turn back.

That's what we can experience in this Lent.

Don't just use it as a time for self-improvement - do something that will join you closer to God.

The Church has always recommended prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as the "basics" for how to have a good Lent. If we increase those three things with the intention of focusing on our relationship with God, we will come to Easter with a deeper faith and an experience of God's love.

We also usually pick something to give up - a sacrifice. Whatever that thing is, do it with an intention of love. Give up that good thing to remind yourself of the Truly Good Thing - God. Even offer it as a sacrifice for someone else so that you can share the love of God.

Lent is our yearly opportunity to take stock of where we are spiritually and then focus on that for a period of time.

We all have room to grow and Lent is a gift given to us by God so that, together, we can seize that chance.

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time: An Urgent Message

The readings that we hear every Sunday at Mass come from the Bible, obviously, but they are arranged in a book called a lectionary - a book of Bible readings set up for every day of the year, with all the seasons and feast days that we celebrate.

It's all set up around a three-year cycle - so if you went to Mass everyday for three years, you would hear most of the Bible (and they say Catholics don't read the Bible!).

This year, we are in the second cycle of the lectionary, Year B,  and in this year, we focus on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels - it only has 16 chapters (so it might be a good place to start reading, if you want to get into the Bible), but in that short space, we feel an incredible sense of urgency.

Mark tells the story of Jesus with action: Jesus does one thing, then immediately he goes and does something else. He's healing people, then he's casting out a demon, and, before you know it, it's over and Jesus has risen from the grave. Mark uses the Greek word for "immediately" 42 times!

That sense of urgency comes through in all of our readings today, but it's also an urgency for us - to repent and follow Jesus.

We start out with Jonah.

Many people know the story of Jonah and the giant fish that swallowed him when he ran away from the mission God gave him; but this reading is the more important part of the story.

Jonah was sent to Nineveh - a city that was a great enemy of Israel. Jonah, after his time in the fish, goes and announces that the city will be destroyed in 40 days. He doesn't offer any hope or a way out. What happens, though, is a surprise - they repent and turn to God, the true God. God does not destroy them.

Now, it's common, even for Christians, to see a huge divide between the loving God of the New Testament and the supposedly angry God of the Old Testament - a God who destroys people who  disobey Him. But we should always remember: God has the right to destroy those who disobey Him. He made everything, including us, simply because He wanted to - out of love. He doesn't owe us anything.

However, God is merciful, even in the Old Testament. He sent Jonah to give the people of Nineveh a chance - even if his messenger didn't think there was a chance of success. They repented and turned back to God.

Jonah's words of warning, though, aren't the final word.

God sent the fullest message of His love and mercy in the person of Jesus - His ultimate Word. And Jesus' word isn't only one of warning - it's an invitation: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

It's still a message of repentance - telling us that our sins will destroy us - but it also shows what repentance leads to: not just survival, but being welcomed into the Kingdom of God. That is the Gospel, the good news.

God desires to save ALL of humanity and our cooperation with that desire starts with our repentance and following Jesus. In those first disciples, we see the urgency of the message: they drop everything and follow Jesus immediately.

There are two important lessons here:

First: nothing, nothing, that holds us back from following the Lord is worth keeping - no position, no relationship, no security - if it holds us back, we must drop it.

Second: The first disciples followed Jesus immediately and we should too.

There will always seem to be plenty of time - "I'll get serious about my faith someday when I really have the chance." That is a lie. The time is now. We don't know what time we have. As St. Paul says in the second reading, "I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out ... For the world in its present form is passing away."

Believe me, I know all about procrastination. I can't think of too many school papers from high school through seminary that I didn't start the night before. I don't encourage that. It leaves you tired, stressed, and angry. Putting off our faith - our relationship with God - has far more serious, eternal consequences.

Act now. Choose God now.

Get to confession and start praying.

The Kingdom of God is at hand for us.

Epiphany: A growing light

I have a complicated relationship with waking up in the morning.

On most days, I would say that I really hate it. I'm naturally a night person, so I stay up later than I should and then struggle to get out of bed when my alarm goes off. That's another thing I really can't stand: my alarm.

Over the years, I've tried many things to get better at waking up and, just recently, I've tried something new. I bought an alarm clock that wakes you up with a light that gradually gets brighter and brighter over about 30 minutes before you want to wake up. It's based on the idea that the sun is what is supposed to tell our bodies that it's time to get moving.

I've only tried it for a couple mornings so far, but it's an interesting experience to wake up to - what amounts to - the Sun glowing from your dresser (click here for a small demonstration).

Today's feast of the Epiphany of the Lord made me think of all this because epiphany means "to shine upon" and that is what we hear about in today's readings: God shining upon humanity; but it doesn't happen all at once. Like the sun or like a glowing alarm clock, God revealed his light to the world gradually.

Isaiah the prophet, in our first reading, speaks of a time when the glory of the Lord will shine on Jerusalem - that God's light will guide even the Gentile nations to worship him with the people of Israel.

Our Gospel shows us the very beginnings of that prophecy being fulfilled in the story of the magi from the east. We know next to nothing about them, but they followed a light that lead them to the true Light.

Jesus' coming into the world is already bearing fruit: the covenant that God made with Israel is now drawing all of humanity together to know, love, and worship the one, true God. As St. Paul writes in our second reading:

"It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

God is for everyone and extends the invitation to a relationship with him to everyone.

That goes for us as well.

We are all here because we are following Christ - probably not perfectly, but we are all works in progress.

There is always more, though. The light of Christ has appeared in our lives and we must let it penetrate every corner of ourselves. All of us have dark rooms and closets that we would rather stay hidden, but a relationship with God means letting him into all of those spaces - letting him be present with us even at our most shameful or embarrassing.

Don't be afraid to let Christ's light brighten the parts of your life that don't totally belong to him.

That alarm clock - that I hope will make me better at getting out of bed in the morning - it brightens gradually, slowly filling the room with light. God did the same thing: gradually revealing himself to the world and only showing his fullness with the coming of Christ.

That light can be blinding, but the more we stay with it and open ourselves to it, the more we will see - not just of who we are, but we will see God who loves us enough to show us the way to him.

My Favorite Christmas Music

Since the Christmas season only begins on Christmas, I thought I would share with you the Christmas music that I go back to year after year. I didn't always like Christmas music - there were points where I would say I really hated it - but that changed when I found Christmas songs performed by bands and artists that I already liked. Now I have a selection of music that I look forward to breaking out every Christmas. They are not all religious songs, but through beauty, they all point me towards the truth of Christmas.

Relient K - Let It Snow, Baby ... Let it Reindeer

It was Relient K's first Christmas release, Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand, that first gave me hope for Christmas music. This was a pop-punk band that I loved making some cool Christmas music. Then they released Let It Snow, Baby ... and added a few more songs.

For a great Christmas song in their classic pop-punk sound, I recommend "12 Days of Christmas":

They also have some great songs that are a little more serious. Both "I Celebrate The Day" and "Merry Christmas, Here's to Many More" are favorites of mine.

Sufjan Stevens - Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold

After intentionally ignoring him for a while - due to friends insisting that I must listen to his music - I became a big-time Sufjan Stevens fan a few years ago. I've devoured almost everything he's recorded and his two Christmas collections are among my favorites.

Both collections are gigantic, so you'll find some amazing songs but also lots of short bits of noise and strangeness - but that's ok because that's just Sufjan. These two "albums" hold a special place in my Christmas catalogue and that was confirmed when my siblings and I got to see Sufjan on his Christmas tour a couple of years ago. The song that summarizes that experience for me is "Christmas Unicorn" - one of the longer and weirder Christmas songs he's done, but amazing to see live. Standing right up against the stage for that show was amazing.

It's hard to pick just a few favorites from these collections, but here are a few that standout for me: 

- His renditions of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "Once In Royal David's City," and "Joy to the World" (either one, actually).

- Some interesting originals: "Come On! Let's Boogie to the Elf Dance!," "Sister Winter," "The Midnight Clear," and "Christmas in the Room." 

Deas Vail - For Shepherds and Kings EP

This little collection of Christmas songs from Deas Vail stands out for me especially for this rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I love the ukulele, I love the whistling, I love the beat, I love it all.

The Oh Hellos - The Oh Hellos' Family Christmas Album

After falling completely in love with The Oh Hellos' Through the Deep, Dark Valley, how could I say no to a Christmas EP from this amazing band? Everything I loved about their music came through in the Family Christmas Album.

It's made up of four movements that all tie together, so you should just listen to the whole thing. My favorite movement is part 2: "Begin and Never Cease."

 

Honorable Mentions

Here are a few other Christmas selections I really enjoy:

The Civil Wars - "Tracks in the Snow" (Not explicitly a Christmas song, but definitely a winter one.)

Coldplay - "Christmas Lights"

Five Iron Frenzy - "You Gotta Get Up"

And finally, it's become a tradition with my siblings and some friends to get together to play music around Christmas. It's called the Christmas Sing-A-Long EXPLOSION (at least on Facebook). So here is one of the songs we did. It's not a Christmas song, but it is one of my favorites. There are six of us playing/singing, but you can only see three:


Christmas 2014

Jesus was born into a world without instant communication.

We are so used to being able to reach almost anyone at any time that we can take for granted that Christ - and Christianity - did not have those tools. But our faith exploded out of the Middle East, across the Roman Empire, and out into the rest of the world.

That happened because of a proclamation. The good news of Jesus was proclaimed by his disciples wherever they went and their preaching opened the hearts of people who would be touched by the Holy Spirit and become disciples themselves.

In Christian theology, there is a term for this initial proclamation of the gospel: kerygma. Kerygma is a fancy theological word for preaching the basic message of Christianity: that God has come among us and, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can be saved. It was that powerful message that changed the world.

But it didn't just start when Jesus began preaching. It happened even before John the Baptist began preparing the way for Jesus.

The proclamation of the good news that our savior has its roots in the Old Testament. In our first reading, we heard from the prophet Isaiah that God himself will come to save his people.

As we prepared for Christmas, our Mass readings looked at the stories of people like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who was visited by the angel Gabriel to announce that his son would prepare the way for the Messiah.

Then Gabriel visited Mary with even bigger news: that she would be the mother of the Son of God. Before she ever saw his face or heard his voice, Mary became the first disciple of Jesus - welcoming him into her very self.

Now, tonight, we hear the story we've heard so many times about the birth of Jesus; and even in these events, the Gospel is being proclaimed.

Joseph and Mary did not travel to Bethlehem so that the birth of Jesus would be world news. They were forced by the order of an emperor, thousands of miles away, to make this difficult journey. Not only did they have to deal with the birth of Jesus away from their home, but at that moment, they were homeless. There wasn't any hospital, there wasn't even a room in which they could stay.

Jesus was born anonymously - a stranger in a town that wasn't his own. He couldn't preach an eloquent sermon - he could only cry; but with his birth, God's message of love to the world was being proclaimed and people are coming to follow him.

The first are his mother Mary and his foster-father Joseph. They've both had messages from an angel preparing them for this moment, but now they are a family spending their first night with a newborn baby in a cave. Their journey will take them into exile in Egypt and finally back to their home in Nazareth where they will be responsible for raising the Son of God. 

They followed Jesus.

Then the angels bring the message to the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem. I love that the first words they speak to the shepherds are, "Do not be afraid." That tends to be what angels say to people when they appear in the Bible - "Do not be afraid, I have good news ..."

They say that because their presence and the glory of God must have been overwhelming. We've made them into beautiful men and women with wings in robes, but seeing these creatures was an experience the shepherds couldn't be prepared for; but when they hear the news - "a savior has been born to you who is Christ and Lord" - they become disciples of this baby whom they've never seen before. They make their way to worship the Lord.

In the coming days, we'l hear the story of the magi who came from the east, seeking the Lord.

Once again, Jesus' birth calls out to all humanity: this is the savior, come and follow him.

That is the message that God speaks to all of us tonight.

We've heard this story. We've seen nativity scenes all of our lives. We've celebrated Christmas every year.

It doesn't matter: we have the chance, once again, to hear the good news and follow the Lord. We have the chance to choose to live as a disciple of Jesus.

Think about all of these people who sought the Lord and found him in a manger. From that moment on, their lives were different. All of Jesus' disciples  - starting with Mary, and later the Apostles and all those who followed him around the countryside hearing him preach, all the way through the history of the Church where men and women centered their lives around Jesus, and coming down to us in this church tonight - we are called by God to make Jesus Christ the most important thing in our lives.

That's what it means to be a disciple. To be transformed and entirely focused on Jesus.

It is only then that the birth of Jesus will take place in our hearts.

Let's make that commitment tonight. Even if we've celebrated Christmas many times, it can have a new impact on our faith if we renew our relationship with the Lord and leave this church committed to living for him.

From the very first moment of his existence on earth, Jesus has been proclaimed and disciples have come to follow him. What will you and I do, this Christmas, to be better disciples of Jesus Christ? How will we allow him to be the center of everything that we are and do? How will we allow him to transform our lives.

We celebrate the birth of Jesus because it is the beginning of our rebirth - when God frees us from slavery to sin and brings us into a relationship with himself, one that starts here on earth, but takes us into eternity.

To Be A Disciple

I'm currently reading Sherry Weddell's much discussed Forming Intentional Disciples. I'm still just in the beginning, but reading the first couple chapters have caused me to ask a question - one that Weddell will probably get into later in the book, but one that I wanted to answer for myself:

"What is a disciple?"

It seems, even to me, like a question that we don't need ask. We're Christians, we're disciples of Jesus - what's so complicated about that? Well, the book is about the difference between being a cultural Catholic or a casual Catholic and truly being a disciple of Jesus.

Well, as I reflected on what I had read one night, I thought about what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus when he was walking around the Holy Land two thousand years ago.

Those disciples didn't just check in with Jesus once a day or once a week. They lived with Jesus. Where he went, they went. Where he slept, they slept - even outside. They ate with him, they walked with him - every part of their lives revolved around this man.

What's that mean about discipleship for us?

It means that being a Christian, is much more than checking an attendance box. Being a Catholic is something we should choose. We become Catholics at Baptism, but it's our choice to cooperate with that grace, every day, to live as a disciple that lets our baptism bear fruit in our lives.

Let us allow our encounter with Jesus to affect every part of who we are.

God expects something of you.

Homily notes for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

What I want to say today may be a little scary, but it's something we all need to hear. I'm saying it to myself just as much as to you.

God expects something from you.

That's the what we hear about in today's Gospel.

This parable comes in the context of Jesus speaking to his disciples about the Second Coming - when Jesus returns at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. In the story, Jesus tells us about a man who, before going on a journey, entrusts his servants his servants with his treasure. Now, when we hear the word "talent", we think of the ability to sing or paint or throw a football, but the talents in this story are coins that represent a large amount of money. Even having one talent means having a significant amount.

Jesus is that man going on a journey. After his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving the Church with the promise that He would come back again. Before he left, though, Jesus gave the Church a mission. As the Gospel of Matthew puts it: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)

The man in the story gives different amount to each servant, as the gospel says, "according to his ability." He entrusts his possessions to his servants with the expectation that they will do something with them; and he knows these servants so well, that he gives them exactly the amount that they can handle.

Jesus entrusted the Church with great treasures. He gave us the sacraments, he gave us his teaching, and he gave the Church the authority to use those treasures - to forgive sins, to make Him present in the Eucharist, and to apply His teachings to every age in which the Church exists.

But He also entrusted treasures to us individually. While Jesus maybe using the word "talents" to mean money in the gospel story, this is where we get our use of the word. For us, "talents" have come to mean abilities and skills given to us by God - gifts that we must cultivate if we want them to bear fruit.

If you want to be a musician, you have to practice. If you want to be a great actor, you must rehearse. To be a writer - go write; to run the fastest - you have to be running all the time. Even people who seem to be born with some gift must take that talent and make it grow. If we don't put our talents to use, they fade away.

This takes us back to what I said in the beginning: God expects something from you.

He expects you to make use of the gifts that he has given you - for His glory, for your own good, and the good of others. He has given us our own individual talents, skills, abilities - whatever you want to call them - for a reason. We have them, so that we can use them. To hide them away, or to ignore them out of fear of failure is to reject God's gift for you.

The servant who simply buried the talent given to him could have had many motivations: was he afraid of failing? Was he envious of the other servants and the talents they were given, so he buried his out of spite? Did he assume that his master gave him that treasure just to hide it?

Whatever reason that servant had, we know what the result is: he loses what he had.

How do we want to be greeted when we meet Jesus face to face: "well done, my good and faithful servant" or "you wicked, lazy servant"? There's a pretty clear answer.

Now, if all of this makes you nervous - if it makes you think "what could I possibly do? what could I offer to God?" then I want you to think about my favorite saint, St. Therese of Lisieux. When she looked at the great saints who were missionaries and martyrs - things she desired but could never achieved - she realized that God would not inspire her to desire holiness if it was not possible for her to achieve. She said, "in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint."

God has given each one of us exactly what we need to fulfill our purpose in this life. Let us take the gifts that God has given us - big ones and small ones, obvious ones and hidden ones - and use them with great love.

Jesus expects His disciples to bear fruit in their lives. Let us be the servants who take the treasures He has given us and let them grow.

Above Politics - on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There will always be a temptation for us as humans who live in the world, to see earthly power as the only thing that truly matters. It happens when we think that political action or military force is the only way to truly change things. That temptation also shows up when we start to see the Church, the family Jesus founded, through our own political lenses.

Our readings this weekend teach us that only God is all powerful and that our first allegiance must always be to Him.

Our first reading requires a little history to explain. From about 598 to 587 BC, many of the Jewish people were taken from their home in Judah and forced into exile by their Babylonian conquerors. They were taken to Babylon where they lived as captives for about fifty years. Then Cyrus, the king of Persia who we hear about in the reading, came on the scene. Persia had grown powerful enough to defeat the Babylonians and, in 538 BC, the Jews were allowed to return home.

All of this is the history, but, as God tells Cyrus through the prophet Isaiah, it was He who had the real authority. "It is I who arm you, though you know me not ..." Cyrus may have been a powerful king, but it was only with God's guidance that he gained that power, and God used Cyrus to free His people and continue His plan of salvation.

In Jesus' time, the Jews are under the authority of a new earthly kingdom - the Roman Empire. It's in the context of that oppression, that the Pharisees think they can get Jesus into trouble. By asking him, "should we pay a tax to the Romans or not?" they are hoping to get Jesus to fall into one of two traps: if he says not to pay the tax, he is resisting the Romans who can arrest him. If he says they should pay the tax, he is betraying his people and siding with the enemy.

Jesus' response is a perfect one. He doesn't fall into their trap, but teaches them an important lesson. Their question presumes that it's the earthly kingdoms that matter, but Jesus calls all of us to recognize that the Kingdom of God is the only one that lasts forever.

"Repay to God what belongs to God" goes far beyond taxes. What truly belongs to God? What has he given to us? Our very lives. Everything we are.

We owe God all.

When we are tempted to think on the merely natural level - of governments, power, riches, weapons - we should remind ourselves that the we are part of something supernatural. By the grace of God, we are given a life that goes beyond this world.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

St. Helena was the mother of the emperor Constantine, the emperor who made it legal to practice Christianity.

In the 300s, Helena traveled to the Holy Land to find relics from the life of Jesus. When she arrived there, she found a Roman temple on the traditional site of Jesus' burial and had it torn down so that a church could be built there.

In the course of the excavation, three wooden crosses were found at the site. Thinking that one of them might be the cross of Jesus, Helena came up with a test. A woman who was close to death was brought from the city. Nothing happened when she touched the first two crosses, but when she touched the third one, she was healed. Helena believed that she had found the true cross of Christ and brought pieces of it back to Rome where it was venerated. The Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was built on the spot and was dedicated on September 14th. That is why we are celebrating this feast day and wearing red vestments, something pretty rare for Ordinary Time.

We continue the veneration of the cross like St. Helena. Every year on Good Friday before Easter, we reverence a bare cross on the night when we remember Jesus' passion and death.

Crosses are found throughout Christian art; we wear them as jewelry around our necks; we make the sign of the cross before we pray. For the Church, the cross has become a sign of hope and life.

For the Jews of Jesus' time and for the very first Christians, it symbolized something very different. The cross meant torture; it meant oppression - a sign of the way the Romans kept the people they conquered under control. The cross was the most notorious way to die.

Jesus died on a cross. He lowered himself to that horrible death. As St. Paul wrote in our second reading, "he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross."

Jesus had humbled himself in becoming one of us. He humbled himself even further by suffering and dying like one of us. But to die on the cross was to embrace the lowest state he could choose. All the cruelty, hate, violence, and selfishness of humanity was on display at the crucifixion. To save us from that, Jesus embraced the cross.

And he transformed it.

Just as the the people of Israel were healed by looking at the image of the very serpent that had poisoned them, we are healed by the very destruction brought about by our sins.

When we stand before the cross, we acknowledge our weakness. In the face of Jesus' humble sacrifice, all of our rejections of his love are shown for what they are.

For the past few weeks, I've been listening to this band from Columbus, Twenty One Pilots. The bridge of one of their songs is the same line repeated over and over: "We're broken people." Imagine a whole concert hall of young people singing that together: "We're broken people."

That is what we do at the beginning of the Mass when we say the Confiteor and "Lord, have mercy." We come before God and say, "Yes, we're weak and imperfect" and he still embraces us. Jesus suffered on the cross out of love and that same love accepts us even though we're not perfect yet.

We are broken people; but Jesus comes into our brokenness, our weakness, and our sinfulness, and makes us sons and daughters of God.

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: All Along the Watchtower

"You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel."

That's the Lord's message to Ezekiel.

And what does a watchman do? He keeps his eyes open for danger; he watches from a tower to look out for anything or anyone that could harm the city. If an enemy was coming, the watchman would see them a long way off; and the city would be ready when trouble came.

A prophet, like Ezekiel, does this in an even deeper way. As our first reading says, he speaks God's word to the people of Israel. When they stray from their relationship with God, he warns them. He calls them back to the Lord who loves them and has provided for them.

That is the role of the Church as well.

Throughout history, the Church has always called anyone who will listen to a relationship with the Lord. That is incredible news! But it also means challenging what is sinful in the world and that will never make you popular. Look at the prophets: they suffered, some of them were exiled or even killed. 

When the teachings of the Church contradict what the way we'd like to live, our natural inclination is to reject them; but everything the Church teaches today flows from what God has revealed to us, starting in the Old Testament, fulfilled in Jesus, and handed down by the apostles and their successors.

That prophetic duty is given in a particular way to the official teachers of the Church: the pope and the bishops. They, along with the priests that help them, have been charged to teach the Faith at all times whether people accept it or make fun of it or reject it. It is a pastor who loves the people entrusted to him who will be able to speak hard, unpopular truths.

And why would the Church do this? Why say to the world things that will almost definitely be rejected? Why would we do the incredibly awkward thing Jesus tells us to do in the gospel today?

There are two good reasons:

First, because sin is harmful to us. It's not just wrong because a rule is broken, but it hurts us because it cuts us off from God.

Second, because of love.

In our second reading today, Paul says that all the commandments can be summarized as, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." That is the driving force behind everything God does - and we should be able to say the same for ourselves.

Love impels us to bring others to God. It also impels us to recognize the areas in our own lives where we reject God.

Sin, even the so-called "private" ones in our own heads, affects the whole Church because we are connected as the Body of Christ. That means that reconciliation - with God, the Church, and each other - builds up the whole body.

Let us courageously proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world and just as courageously apply it to ourselves.

 

Note: the title of this post comes from, what I think is, one of the best songs ever written. I think of it whenever I hear today's first reading. Here's Bear McCreary's excellent version:

 

Media Report #1

I don't want to make a habit of going a whole month without posting, so here is a collection of things I'm enjoying right now. This will be a recurring feature on the blog.

 

Reading: The whole Harry Potter series.

I loved these the first time I read them all and just felt it was about time to revisit them. Rowling creates a fantastic world that just sucks you in and, no, reading these books will not turn you or your children into Wiccans. There so much good in these stories for those who are looking.

 

Listening: Vessel by Twenty One Pilots

This album contains so many things that I really love to hear in music: clever lyrics, great drumming, occasional screaming. What has made me listen to it for the past couple days is the duo's willingness to just make the kind of music they want to - it's pretty tough to categorize.

These lines from "Holding On To You" sum it up for me:

Lean with it, rock with it,
When we gunna stop with it,
Lyrics that mean nothing, we were gifted with thought,
Is it time to move our feet to an introspective beat,
It ain't the speakers that bump hearts, it's our hearts that make the beat.

 

Also Listening: RelayFM

Sometime last year, I started listening to podcasts. I've grown to love the medium and now there about five of them that I listen to weekly (usually while driving or while getting ready in the morning). Three of those come from RelayFM, the network recently started by Myke Hurley.

 

Watching: Cool Hand Luke

The only reason this movie intrigued me a few nights ago is because there is a cool band that uses the title for their name. The movie, turns out, is pretty powerful and well worth watching.

18th Sunday: Come and Eat

Some of the most important moments of our lives take place around meals. 

After we're baptized, receive our first Communion, and are confirmed, we celebrate with a reception. Our weddings are celebrated with a big meal. Even our funerals usually conclude with a luncheon. 

The big holidays and holy days are all celebrated with meals: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. And all of these meals have special rites to them - from almost universal things like eating turkey at Thaksgiving, ethnic celebrations like wigilia, and family traditions. 

And we can't forget that almost all these occasions are also celebrated with the Mass - where the food and drink we receive are Jesus himself. That's the Catholic way: when we get married, there's a Mass; when we graduate, there's a Mass; when someone dies, there's a Mass.  

This is also the way that God marked important occasions with the people of Israel. When he led them out of Egypt, they ate the Passover meal. When he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, they offered sacrifices and then Moses and the elders ate a meal in God's presence. As they traveled through the desert, God provided food in the form of manna (mysterious "bread from heaven") and quail - until the reached the promised land and could eat the food that they grew and raised.

Our first reading from Isaiah describes what Scripture scholars call the messianic banquet - meaning a meal in the new age, when the Messiah had come and restored Israel. In that reading the prophet talks about a meal where not only do you get what you truly desire, what truly satisfies, but you get it for free, as a gift from God. In this meal, God will renew the covenant that he made with David and extend it to all the people.

As we can see, this image of a meal is significant in God's plan of salvation.

With all that in mind, we come to the gospel and the story of Jesus feeding over five thousand people. There are several layers to this story.

First, we see Jesus' care for the people. They had followed him into the wilderness without thinking of what they would eat or drink. They wanted to be with Jesus - and Jesus takes care of them.

In this he leaves us an example: Jesus takes care of those in need, we should do the same.  

The second layer is connected with the story of the Israelites in the desert. In both stories, the people are in the wilderness without food; then God provides miraculous bread and another kind of food (in Exodus, quail; here, fish), and the food that they received was enough to feed everyone. In the gospel story, there is even food left over.

Jesus is being portrayed as the new Moses. He has come to lead God's people to freedom, but in an even more important way. Likewise, the meal that Jesus provides points to an even greater one.

Jesus came to free humanity from sin, and gives us a meal that is not just bread, but his very self.

That's the third meaning of this story. The messianic banquet, the meal in which God makes a covenant with us for all time is the Eucharist. I'm sure you all heard the familiar words in the gospel: Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples.

It is in the Eucharist that God makes a covenant with us, and, unlike the manna in the desert or even the bread that Jesus gave the crowds, the Eucharist does not just nourish are bodies, it feeds our souls.

I know I've preached about this a lot, it feels like a hundred times, but we can never overestimate the importance of the Eucharist. The Church teaches that it is the source and summit of our faith. It is everything, because it is Jesus.

That's why it is so vital to make it an absolutely essential part of our lives. It doesn't matter if we're busy, or if we're on vacation, or if we're not excited about it - get to Mass. I'm preaching to the choir a little bit, because you're all here, but it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves how important this is.

When we receive Jesus we are saying once again, "Amen, Lord. I believe in you, I love you, and I want to live my life for you." There is nothing more important.

Today, as you receive the true bread from heaven, open your hearts and ask Jesus to make his home there. Ask him to transform you through the gift that he gives freely and generously.