Love is not an abstraction

download (3)As a child, I was a typical boy made of frogs and snails and all that. I looked for worms in puddles, climbed trees in the park until my hands were covered in pine sap, and messed around in the creek looking for fish. I didn’t spend a lot of mental energy on concepts like, “being presentable,” “not destroying the house,” or being, “neat and tidy.” So I would come home from a long day of tackle football and toss off my shoes before eating all the food in the house. Instantly, from where ever she was in the house, my mom would sense a disturbance in the force and within thirty seconds she would find those shoes, take them, and place them neatly side-by-side on the stairs. Now that I’m an adult I find myself doing the same sort of things. I totally get it, the satisfaction of a pair of shoes exactly in the right place. It used to drive me crazy, though, because I’d look for my shoes and they weren’t where I left them. Looking at it in retrospect, this is one of those funny little quirks that makes her who she is. It’s a fact I know about her because I love her and lived with her for a long time.

God places all these interesting people in our lives, and I’m going to guess that most of us, just maybe, have a few funny habits that drive the people around us crazy but, as we get to know each, the quirks grow on us and become endearing. Hopefully, I get to stay at Epiphany for a really long time, and we’ll grow old together, and you’ll know all the hidden weird stuff about me, I mean beyond the really, glaringly obvious weird stuff about me. If we were all exactly alike, that would get boring very quickly.

You might be sitting there saying, “Yeah but you don’t know my wife, she never turns off the lights when she leaves a room! I can’t live like this anymore!” They say that 90% of being a dad is walking around the house and turning off lights. What we don’t always appreciate about those people in our lives who have these, let’s say, unique personality traits is that they present us with a great opportunity. And I don’t simply mean that we’re Catholic so offer it up as penance, even though that is a valid response, but the opportunity is more then clenching your teeth and getting through it, as if we’re superheroes for tolerating anyone who is different than us. These people in our lives actually help us achieve our destiny.

We know that we are not placed upon this earth to acquire material things, or become famous, or seek pleasure because none of these things lasts beyond death, and it’s fairly obvious that we are suited for an eternal existence. We naturally seek out eternal qualities like beauty, truth, and goodness. These are virtues that pull us out of everyday, moment-to-moment concerns and focus us on a far greater reality. We feel most alive when we’ve just heard a gorgeous piece of music, or seen a great athletic accomplishment, which is beautiful in its own way. And more than any other time, we feel most alive when sharing the virtue of love. Love is a quality that extends well beyond this universe. It exerts a gravity all its own, bending time and space. If you’ve received an email from you, you may have noticed a Latin phrase in the signature. It’s a quote from St. Augustine, “Pondus meum amor meus/My weight is my love.” Everything finds its true weight. A rock drops to the ground, a fire rises to the sky. A person who falls into sin and selfishness sinks to the depths, but a person who loves is lifted up to heaven.

Love cannot remain abstract. It doesn’t work to slap a bumper sticker on your car that says, “Let’s all love each other,” and consider it a job well done. It doesn’t work to show up at mass, check the box for attendance, and convince ourselves that, because we are Christians who come to church, that we are automatically loving God and neighbor. There has to be follow-through. We learn to love by loving real people, our family, friends, co-workers, waiters, random cashiers. Real people are magnificent and encouraging and fun to have around. They can also be odd, frustrating, and disappointing. We all certainly are imperfect. But this is the opportunity we create for each other, to learn how to love, to overlook flaws and forgive grievances, to be generous and sympathetic, even how to learn to love the things that drive us crazy. Let’s say, theoretically, your kids always leave the dryer door open and that makes the little light inside stay on. And let’s say, theoretically, that you have even gathered them together for a serious instructional session on how to close a dryer door, and yet that dryer door is still open at least once a day and the little light is on. Over the years, when approached with love, even that annoyance mellows into an endearing family story.

Okay, I need to actually reference a Scripture. The prophet Isaiah says, “For the LORD delights in you…and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.” In other words, God knows you as an individual, and he loves you as an individual. Our Lord places himself upon the Cross not for the abstract concept of humanity – he dies for you. He wants to share a life with you, just like a husband with a wife.

St. Paul says, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit,” meaning that we are concrete, unique people. The Holy Spirit deals with each of us differently. Abstraction is a way of avoiding having to actually be good, to actually practice the virtue of love. What we must keep in mind is that God has placed this person in front of me right now. This is my mission field. This is my opportunity to know this person, to love this person. Each moment is ordered towards divine fulfillment. Each decision we make matters. Each person matters.

Notice what St. Paul says, that through the individual gifts of each person we are drawn into the unity of the same divine reality. We are knit together into a family. The specific calling of Christ involves us in a much larger, universal calling. We proceed from the wedding at Cana to the Wedding feast of Heaven, from Adam to Christ, from individual acts of love into the divine embrace, from the liminal space of this specific historical moment and into the grand vastness of eternity. The small act takes on eternal significance, but we cannot reverse the order of operations.

You are placed exactly where God wants you. Don’t be anxious, don’t wish you were somewhere else. Love the people around you, look deeply and see how very special they are, and make every action a gift of love united with the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

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He is fetched in the storm of his strides

downloadBelieve it or not, water is fascinating. I looked up a few facts about it. For instance, hot water freezes faster than cold water because of something called the Mpemba Effect, which is not something we learned about in seminary. Water has an electric charge that makes it stick to itself, which is why it forms into droplets. This stickiness explains how trees are able to exist, because as the water evaporates out of the leaves, the exiting water at the top literally pulls new water up out of the ground and into the trunk. Without that, trees would dehydrate and die. Every liquid in the world contracts and gets smaller and more dense when frozen, except water, which expands, gets lighter, and then floats. If it didn’t, then ice wouldn’t form at the top of lakes and rivers. Instead, they would freeze solid and we’d probably all run out of fresh water and die.

Water also exercises a certain attraction for us spiritually. Where do we all go for vacation? To a place with water. The sea, the beach, a cabin by a lake. Poems are written about water, songs about the sea, paintings of the ocean. Our Lord says over and over, “I am the living water.” It is a beautiful, mysterious thing, water is, providing us with life.

But it is also dangerous. I lived on Cape Cod for a while (with a bunch of retired Harvard grads, they taught me to hate socks). Cape Cod is where Jaws was filmed, and there’s an island just off the cape, Monomoy Island, that is full of seals. You’d go by on a boat and they’d all be out on the shore crawling all over each other and barking, high-fiving with their fins because they were so happy to have the island all to themselves. They loved it there because the Atlantic Sea, as it runs down the coast from Newfoundland and squeezes between the cape and Nantucket, it rises up onto these massive shoals. The water runs fast there – it’s kind of like putting your finger over the end of the garden hose – and the striped bass would come up into the shallow water to feed and then the seals would hunt them. It was great, except for one, little problem. You know what likes to eat seals? Great White sharks. The sharks start stalking every beach in town. A bigger concern, to me at least, is jellyfish which sneak up on you and they’re all transparent and weird. Don’t get me started on jet-skis, which have been my enemy ever since my parents convinced me to get on one and it promptly capsized. Jet skis are my enemy. Fear of the ocean is called Thalassophobia. There is no word yet for fear of jet skis.

The ocean is endless horizons, tidal waves, storms, and whatever prehistoric monsters are lurking in the deep. The ocean is a habitat for which we are not properly fitted. If God wanted us to hang out in the middle of the sea, he would’ve given us gills. In Hebrew poetry, the sea is a metaphor for death, of slipping into the deep with mountains of water covering you over. The great flood bring death to creation. During the exodus, the people walk through the Red Sea in a foreshadowing of baptism, protected by God from death and brought safe to the far side. The poetic background makes the miracle of Our Lord walking on the water a fascinating study. He conquers death and through him the human soul will arise and walk.

Water is a two edged sword, bringing both life and death. This is exactly what we have in baptism – a death, and a birth. We bring our babies and it’s so cute and the baby always gets mad at me and cries when I pour the water on his head, but don’t let that confuse the fact that it is a moment of life and death.

Baptism changes the shape of our souls so that we have a capacity to receive the Holy Spirit. The old man is dead, the new man has met Jesus Christ in those waters and is brought into being. Think about it, the God who is infinite, who has no boundaries, no limits, majestic beyond imagination, that very same God, through the grace of baptism, dwells within you. This is a miracle.

In 1875, there was a steamer called the Deutschland that was broken up by a storm near England and everyone aboard drowned, including five Franciscan nuns. The priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem about it in which he asks God, “Is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?” In other words, is the shipwreck God’s way of bringing in the wheat and gathering up his saints. Remember that the seed must die before it springs to life. For those nuns, the tragedy of the shipwreck was a baptism.

Shakespeare uses the theme of a shipwreck for his very last play. The Tempest is based on the readings from the season of Advent, a season that looks both backward and forward, to both death and life. The tempest in the play is a sort of death to the limitations of time, a death to the old life, and an introduction into eternal life.

Through baptism we no longer live for this life alone, we live for the next life. What responsibilities does a baptized Christian have? The old desires, ambitions, and goals must die along with the old man. The new man is, before all else, a disciple of Jesus. This demands obedience, humility, trust, faithfulness, and sacrifice. It means to carry about the crucified Christ within you, always dying to self, always living for him.

We all die. It’s a fact that defines our lives. There will be an end, and it will not be easy. We can fight it, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t matter, sensationalize it on television, but it is part of who we are. Hopkins knows it, writing, “I am soft sift/In an hourglass.” The saints all know it, and are agreed on this point, the secret to living a happy life is to enter into an early death, the death of baptism, through which the soul is reborn in the fire-hearth of love.

Shakespeare is wise when he writes, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful.” God asks great sacrifices of us, that we die to our old ways. This death happens in baptism but the death throes continue as sin rattles about in its desperation. So we have our moments, our troubles, depression, aimlessness, feelings of inadequacy, wondering if you’re a good parent, a good person, arguments, alienation. Through it all, remember that you are baptized. You have been given the precious gift of new life, and the mercy of Jesus reaches to the very depths of death itself in order to lift us up. His love outrides fear, and the Son of God is fetched in the storm of his strides.

A theology of travelling

shapeimage_1I’ve been thinking recently about my annual retreat. Each year, Catholic priests are required to go on a five-day spiritual retreat. It’s like the Church is our mother and she’s forcing us to eat our broccoli. There’s something about physically removing to another place that mentally and even spiritually opens up new doors. I do all my best note-booking and meditation while on retreat. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. There’s always a day or even two where I’m unplugging, trying to drain the white noise from my ears, reorienting myself less toward what I have to do that day and more toward how it is that I want to be, who I want to encounter, what thoughts I would like to think. Deacon James, God bless him, and I appreciate it so much, asks me once every couple of months if I’ve scheduled my retreat yet, and I know he’s going to keep asking until I do. It isn’t that I don’t want to go, it’s that I look at my to-do list, the difficulty of getting priests to cover masses for me while I’m gone, simply missing being here with my Church and family, I know it’s just five days but stay with me here, I’m a very sentimental person. What I’m meaning to say is that there is a certain cost to traveling; the logistics, the money, the planning, and maybe worst of all is missing the place you’ve been and then falling into a bit of a melancholy after arriving back home.

Life is funny. We want to be gone when we’re home, and we want to be home when we’re gone. I went to a church summer camp for a week when I was maybe nine or ten years old. The first night I was there, I got so homesick I almost cried. At the end of the week when I’d arrived back home, I almost cried again because I wanted to be back at the camp (Don’t tell people these embarrassing stories I share with you all, I’ll deny I ever said it). If you’ve ever felt like this, or like there is so much you want to do and accomplish, people you want to see but there isn’t time, places you miss, memories that cause a twinge of bittersweet reminiscence, being at a funeral and grieving even though in your intellect you know that your loved one is in eternity waiting for you, if you’ve ever watched a really good movie and were sad that it was over, or read a book and got legitimately upset because there were no more sequels in the series, you are experiencing one of the limiting factors of human existence.

We cannot be home to all of the people and places for whom we want to be home, and this causes us pain. Scripturally speaking, we have left the Garden of Eden behind but we are not yet in our Heavenly dwelling, or we might say that the Kingdom of God is already here but is also continuing to arrive in its fullness. We feel the tension of that condition of already-here-but-not-yet.

You may notice that in Church we walk a lot. At every Mass, the priest processes from back to front in a symbolic journey from the world to the heavenly sanctuary. When I extend my hands at the Eucharistic prayer and the bells ring for the first time, it marks a supplication to the Holy Spirit to process from the heart of the Holy Trinity down upon the gifts of bread and wine. In Jerusalem during the time of Christ, there were frequent Temple processions on feast days, and even before that, the Israelites marched in procession through the desert on their way to the promised land. The Israelites processed around Jericho before its walls fell. In rural communities, there may be a procession to bless the fields. There are often processions in honor of various saints throughout the year, we do one for St. Lucy every December here at Epiphany.

I still remember going to the Cathedral for my first Corpus Christi procession. It was blazing hot. We walked down Lindell road and paused in a parking lot where they had the shrine set up, and we all knelt down on the blacktop for prayers. I thought my kneecaps were going to explode. I was about to give up when I looked over and there were all these little old ladies calmly kneeling. This was before I knew that Catholic ladies are made of steel, and I thought that if they could do it so could I. My knees still hurt today. The point is, we process because it is a physical way of expressing that our lives are a journey. We dwell between heaven and earth, and ever since we walked out of the garden of Eden we have never stopped walking. It is tiring, and uncomfortable, and our knees hurt, but before we give up, we lift up our eyes and see the hope that inspires our pilgrimage.

Hope is the air we breathe, and as we steadily walk towards our goal it is true freedom to have hope and to know why we are walking in the direction we walk, who it is that we are hastening to meet. The Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel says, “… freedom is a conquest, always partial, always precarious, always challenged. … the freest person is the one with the most hope.” When it comes to the Christmas story, the Magi are icons of hope and freedom. Nothing holds them back as they leave behind their kingdoms, the comforts of home, friends, family, everything that defines their past and their limitations. They set their eyes firmly upon that miraculous star and follow it unrelentingly to the source of ultimate hope. They walk, and bring gifts, and bow down before the Lord of the Universe. These Three Kings initiate a procession that continues throughout history. They represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit and the logic by which all of creation is returning to Christ.

At the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we are led to a revelation of this great truth – The heart of the world is Jesus Christ. We seek him out and bring our gifts only to find that he has sought us out first and offers the greatest of gifts, the gift of himself.

How is God calling us onward? What steps are we taking to follow that star to the side of Christ? We always have two options: We can either wander off the path and stagnate or we can continue the journey, no matter how challenging. In the end it is all so simple. Christ is born and the universe shouts and shakes, for God himself is born. We keep him steadfastly before our eyes, leaving all else behind to follow in his footsteps.

What makes a family holy

download (16)Every year right after Christmas, families with small children descend into chaos. The kids are blitzed out of their minds on Christmas cookies and climbing on everything, toys are everywhere, you can’t walk through the living room without running a gauntlet of legos just waiting to stab you in the foot, batteries are everywhere and strange noises come from the toys in the middle of the night and make you think a criminal is downstairs robbing you blind. Kids start fighting over toys, because even though they’ve just received a whole treasure trove, they’re jealous of whatever brother or sister has that they didn’t get. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

When we’re here at mass, my favorite thing is to see what amazing thing one of the kids will think up during mass. I was here once and saw a kid throw a ball into the back of the head of the person in front of them while everyone was kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer. I hear kids singing the Sanctus at the top of their lungs, which is amazing, by the way, and a testament to how well children’s choir is working to teach the kids to participate in the Mass, but it still makes me laugh. Last week, during every single Mass, a baby started crying. I loved it. I can see, though, how it might stress out parents and make them question how they got to this point in their lives.

And this is just the stress of a family with small children. Families that are primarily made up of adults come in all shapes and sizes, and extended family can be a cause of conflict when we get together at the holidays and remember past quarrels or hurt feelings. Because family is the people who know us best, it hurts the most when we let each other down.

So, what do we do when family becomes a source of stress instead of a joy? Or today on this feast of the Holy Family, we might ask, what, exactly, makes a family holy?

We get lots of advice in our scripture readings. St. Paul, for instance, begins by addressing us as his brothers and sisters and placing his advice in the context of a family. Be compassionate, he says, don’t hold grudges, respect each other, pray together. In other words, cultivate virtue with each other. This is good advice for any family or for any human relationship in general, but what makes it an avenue towards holiness? In what way is it more than a list of good qualities that even non-Christians can practice?

The key is in the very first thing that St. Paul says to “Put on,” these virtues. So, the image is that of placing them upon ourselves like clothing. Elsewhere, the Scriptures talk about clothing ourselves in Christ, or clothing ourselves in the armor of God. It is a way of imitating Jesus and mingling our identity with his. It is a way of allowing the Holy Spirit to settle upon you and soak into your skin, of being filled up with his power and grace to not only try your hardest to act in a virtuous manner within your families but to actually allow Jesus to become the focal point of your family and the way that you interact with them. This is what makes a family holy, to invite God into it and let him be the center.

Take St. Joseph for an excellent example of what makes a family holy. Joseph, as the father, is hard-pressed in his task to protect his wife and child. He first trusts his wife-to-be in a very difficult situation and he becomes a foster-father of a child not his own. From the beginning, his new little unusual family, who have the craziest home-birth story I’ve ever heard, are in danger. Herod is out to get them, so he must protect them by traveling to Egypt. Think about travel today and how hard it is with young children, the constant bathroom breaks and fighting and boredom. Now imagine taking that same trip on a camel. Joseph was a great father. Perhaps most importantly, he obeyed God, because he knew that putting God first was the only way for his family to not only survive but to thrive. The most important thing parents can do for their children, or that children can do for their parents, or that any of us can do for each other is to obey God. Obey God in your own life, obey God as a family. Put him first, allow him to clothe you and make you holy, and then make that holiness a gift to the ones you love.

There is so much pressure out there to do certain things for our children: sign them up for this, or that, and get them in the extra sports leagues and extra classes, to not force religion on them, etc. When it comes to maintaining a strong, happy family, all that advice is wrong. The world wants your children to become high earners in the economy and to become machines that buy products; God wants your children to be happy. Those two goals don’t always overlap. In The Temple, Mary and Joseph trust that their son, the 12 year old Jesus, is in the right place. He is obeying God his Father and living a life of holiness. This brings him to a place of sacrifice, and his presence there means he is lost to his family, but the anguish, as real as it is, is a mark of obedience. The business of God is more important than anything else. This points us to the fact that our families can be a place of trial. We are with each other not only during triumphs but also during tragedies. The Bible doesn’t romanticize it, but a family that suffers together, and follows God together, and obeys him above all else, that will be a strong family.

It doesn’t matter the mess or chaos that surrounds a family. If we fall in love together with God, he will be our strength. He is the source of our love, and as we learn to rely on him we will grow closer to each other. That is what makes a family holy.

How 3 different Christmas masses all tell the same story

download (14)Not all of you have the privilege of coming to all four Christmas masses here at Epiphany like I do – I’m so lucky – So you may not know this, but there are four distinct Christmas Masses, each with different readings and prayers. First is the Vigil Mass. A vigil is an anticipation of the actual feast day itself, but it participates in it. Next, we have the Midnight Mass, or if you’re old and weary like I am, the 10pm Mass. On Christmas Day itself is a Mass at Dawn, or if you’re too tired from claiming you went to Midnight Mass the night before and you’re desperate for a cup of coffee before trying to sing or talk in front of other people, we scoot that back a teeny bit to become the 8am Mass. And then we have the actual Christmas Mass during the Day, which we celebrate at 10:30.

Various traditions place the birth of Jesus at midnight, which is where we get the Midnight Mass from. It is called the “Angel’s Mass,” because it focuses on the announcement of the angels to the shepherds. The shepherds, remember, were in the fields with their sheep. It would have been pitch black except for the stars in the sky and perhaps a fire burning low. They may have been asleep or keeping a quiet, tired watch over their flock when, suddenly, the night sky was made as bright as day as angels in all their plenitude burst forth from their invisible hiding places in the fabric of the universe. They tumbled and burned like flames of fire and their glory quickly overwhelmed the inky blackness. I imagine that the shepherds would have been absolutely stunned.

The opening prayer for Midnight Mass highlights the contrast between the darkness of night and the light of Christ. We pray:

“O God, who have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light, grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may also delight in his gladness in heaven.”

Christians have always liked to have Mass at dawn, because the sunrise is such a perfect metaphor for the resurrection of Christ. Perhaps this is why Catholic writer GK Chesterton refers to the “sacrament of the sun,” because Our Lord is the light by which we see everything else, by which everything else in the universe makes sense. We believe in Jesus like we believe in the sun, because by his light we awaken, and it is only through the Faith that we break free from a sort of primordial slumber and live a life fully awake to the beauty that surrounds us. The early Christian churches always faced east so that the light would come streaming in through the windows during Mass in the morning and, if it was timed just right, rays of light would pour through the stained glass and illuminate the Blessed Sacrament. The priest, as a humble servant, stands facing east right along with everyone else and gazes at the splendor of Jesus as he holds him aloft.

As we gaze upon Jesus today, we imitate the shepherds, who after they encounter the angels immediately strike out to find the baby Jesus. There at his crib they kneel down and adore him as the sun is rising in the sky. This is why the Mass at Dawn is called the “Shepherd’s Mass.” As the sun steadily rises above the horizon, the shepherds go out and tell everybody the good news, bringing spiritual light to a dark world. The opening prayer talks about this new light, and we pray,

“Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, as we are bathed in the new radiance of your incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illumines our minds, may also shine through in our deeds.”

The twelve days of Christmas come to a close at the Solemnity of the Epiphany, which marks the moment the Magi finally arrive at the side of Christ. These Magi were said to be kings, and yet they kneel before Jesus, the true king. The final Mass celebrated at Christmas is called the King’s Mass. It is an invitation to us all to worship the King of Kings, though whom we have been restored our human dignity. The opening prayer focuses on the profound mystery of the Incarnation. We pray,

“O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

So you see how, if you were to participate in each and every Christmas Mass, two things would happen. First, you would get really tired of hearing me tell the same terrible jokes. Second, you might notice that there is a definable, narrative structure

We are caught up in a great story. A true story. God came to find us and rescue us, and a simple step in his direction, a prayer offered up in a moment of desperation, making a confession after 20 years of absence, wandering into Church on a random morning, that’s all he needs from us. A tiny, halting, unsure gesture in his direction and he will be there.

Life is not one moment after another with no coherence or meaning. It is a search for the mysterious key to the meaning of birth and death, an opening up of the heart to the fragile beauty that surrounds us like angels in the night sky, the discovery that each and every blessed thing positively hums with the indwelling of God’s creative activity, that he is the King and Lord towards which everything is oriented. What is the meaning of Christmas? It is the meaning of the whole of existence – Jesus Christ.

Your life is written into his story. Your life has a logic to it, an unfolding to a climactic event, and that moment, that marked moment by which your story is defined and given meaning, that moment is the arrival of the infant Jesus, who has taken on human flesh. He has become what we are, so that we might become like he is.