Christmas is serious business

rorate caeli 2017
Our Rorate Caeli Mass at Epiphany, an Advent tradition stressing the seriousness and beauty of the Nativity

Year B Advent 3

GK Chesterton, who was a Catholic writer and journalist who did most of his work in the early 20th century, really, really loved Christmas. In fact, he wrote so many Christmas articles for the newspaper, along with entire plays and poems, that there’s an entire book now with a collection of just his Christmas-related writing, and that book isn’t even complete. He was interested in every single part of Christmas, such as why the turkey tastes so good or why Santa Claus seemed to have a benevolent attitude towards him even though he was such a terrible child.

In that sense, Chesterton is the patron saint for us because if anything Christmas has become even more of a focal point for our lives than it ever was before, even though as I read in a newspaper article the other day, the holiday is becoming more and more secular. This may surprise you to learn, but before massive corporations figured out they could sell us a lot of stuff around this time of year, before an army of Santas invaded every shopping mall in this fine land, celebrating Christmas was actually frowned upon. Mostly this scrooge-based denial of joy came down through the Puritans, who thought that all the revelry was pure Catholic superstition. There’s actually an interesting historical event that resulted from this cultural quirk. During the American Revolution you may remember how, on Christmas Day, George Washington rowed his troops across the Delaware River and made a surprise attack on a group of German mercenaries that the English had hired. The Germans, being good Catholics, were having a great feast, drinking beer, singing songs, and generally having a good time. Washington’s troops, though, didn’t particularly care that it was Christmas. The unready Germans were defeated.

The Christmas that we know and love today with all the traditions that have come down to us, was basically invented by Charles Dickens, the writer of A Christmas Carol. Chesterton comments on this phenomenon, saying that to the non-Catholic mind, all of the gravity and magic of Christmas is totally lost and so it needed to be rescued. This is so true, and we still see it today with the way some of these newer, secular Christmas traditions are fighting for prominence and many of them, let’s say, don’t have a whole lot thought behind them. There are people out there who at Christmas just watch a few movies and go shopping and that’s the whole holiday to them.

Chesterton writes about these watered-down celebrations, “People are losing the power to enjoy Christmas through identifying it with enjoyment. When once they lose sight of the old suggestion that it is all about something, they naturally fall into blank pauses of wondering what it is all about.” In other words, Christmas is not some random holiday so that kids can get a week off school and we can all watch Home Alone and eat cookies. This is to say, Christmas is about a very real event, an event that rattled heaven and earth and immediately curved the orbit of everything around. All of the sudden angels are singing in the sky, shepherds are kneeling by the cradle of a baby in adoration, the very stars in the sky hover in an unknown constellation and the magi are drawn out of their homeland across the desert to find out why. Christmas involves a lot of fun and kitsch and celebrating, but it is also serious business. The seriousness of it, in fact, is what makes it so joyful.

This an event that was prepared from the beginning of time, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This is the very prophesy that Our Lord as an adult would read in the synagogue to begin his public ministry. This prophecy proclaims the day of the Lord, that day at the end of time when Our Lord will return and set all things in order according to his justice. It is because of this entrance of God into our history that Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord.” The joy comes from knowing Jesus. John the Baptist has much the same message, saying that he is not the Messiah and that, when the Messiah comes, he will be greater than any prophet of human being who has ever walked the face of the earth.

The way we prepare for Christmas, our traditions, our prayers, our happiness, all of this revolves around that baby in the manger. Keep that in mind as you celebrate – the drama of what happened, the suspense of what is to come, the joy of the present moment. And then, go out and put up as many Christmas lights as you can, bake as many cookies as you can, put garland in every single nook and cranny of your house, and celebrate the birth your Savior.

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Is your soul the right shape?

Empty Rural Road Going Through Prairie Under Cloudy Sky In Charyn Canyon

Year B Advent 2

When I sit in that celebrant’s chair a sense of happiness settles over me. I’m so happy to be here, after all the years when I wasn’t sure I would be a priest again and all the struggles to be received into the Church, and here I am at Epiphany with all you beautiful people and I get to pray with you and we all get to be catholic.

That said – I’m starting to catch on to you all.

Last week, I started the homily by making a joke about how people who are already listening to Christmas music are probably crazy or something, and then during that same mass, a cell phone started playing Christmas music! Message received. Don’t even get me started, though, about how that same weekend at another mass during the consecration a cell phone stared playing that old, classic ring tone exactly at the moment I consecrated the Precious Blood and held the chalice up. If you want to be an altar server and ring the bells, just let me know! We’ll sign you up.

We priests are fussy, we want everything to go perfect, especially with liturgy. But often what happens instead is a little hiccup here or there. I read the wrong thing in the missal, or the altar boy forgets to bring the book over…I remember at the very first wedding I ever witnessed, I dropped one of the rings on the ground when the best man handed them to me. It made a sharp, pinging noise when it hit the floor and then kind of rolled around for a bit. It was super embarrassing. But you know what? That couple, who happen to be my younger brother and sister-in-law, are still happily married. So they survived. When we make little mistakes, too, we survive. In fact, that’s part of the joy of it, because we’re a family and families grow to love these little quirks about each other.

In the human soul, too, which comes out through the particular actions we choose to take – remember, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks – mistakes are made. These are more serious. The shape of the human soul can be imperfect, almost as if a child has drawn us and colored outside the lines. There are peaks and valleys there, right? I don’t know if any of you like GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, but there’s an episode in which he talks about how a particular object is “the wrong shape,” meaning that it had lost its purpose. CS Lewis is similar when he talks about original sin causing a person to become “bent.”

At one time in my life, I decided that I could frame up the walls in the basement of our house and finish the basement on my own. I didn’t even have a nail gun, and because I’m crazy, just went on ahead and hammered every nail by hand. Thousands of them. Occasionally, I’d strike one wrong and it would bend, and a bent nail is impossible to hammer into place.

The human soul, when it is bent, cannot fulfill its purpose. We are jars of clay, says St. Paul, made to hold a valuable treasure. We are fitted to a purpose, but because of original sin our souls aren’t ready. They’re not shaped right and cannot hold this great treasure, which is the presence of God himself in us, made possible by grace. When we’re baptized, the Church says that our souls are permanently changed, they are re-shaped by the Holy Spirit. What sin had bent out of shape, grace made straight.

If it was that simple we’d all be on easy street. But God isn’t content to simply call us holy – because he loves us, he also wants to make us holy, and unfortunately even after original sin is driven out we choose to continue to fill up the empty space with subsequent sins. The change God seeks for us happens from the inside out, and it is why we spend our lives battling against sin and seeking virtue.

There’s a tension that we all feel. We an finite creatures – we live and we die – but our souls are shaped for eternity. St. Augustine says that we are restless until our hearts rest in the divine. We are made by height and measure but God doles out his grace in limitless quantities. He’s like a fire in our hearts that we must carefully nourish and guard, because God is dangerous. He will turn our lives upside down. Be ready for it.

Make straight the paths of the Lord, is what St. John the Baptist cries. Why is this so important? Because Our Lord is coming by a straight path whether we have prepared it or not. If we aren’t ready for him, if our souls are crooked and bent, his advent will be a painful experience.

At the very beginning of his Divine Comedy, Dante writes, “At the mid-point of the path through life, I found/ Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way/ Ahead was blotted out.” In other words, he was lost. He didn’t know where to find the path, and he seemed to have lost sight of God. Over the course of the poem, he meets a guide named Virgil who is going to show him the way.

“Beyond the purging flames of which you tell—
In sight of Peter’s Gate, though that relief
Demands for prelude that I go through Hell.
And then he moved, and then I moved as well.”

Virgil pointed Dante on the straight path to heaven, but the path went first through Hell so that he could understand the gravity of sin, then through purgatory so he could see the way in which the saints were being made ready, and finally he stands gazing at presence of God in heaven. Making the path straight included repentance and penance. Are we willing to pay that cost?

Notice something interesting about our reading from Mark today, it is the very beginning of the Gospel. The good news about Jesus begins by asking us the same question. Are you willing to pay that cost? Are you willing to renounce your sins? Are you ready to straighten out your soul? Such is our path to salvation.

Prepare the way of the Lord.

Using Advent in a positive way to really be ready for Christmas

advent wreathYear B Advent 1

I want to take a poll. How many of you, by show of hands, have already started listening to Christmas music? Okay, everyone take a good look around at the people with their hands up. You can put them down now. Recently, there was an article on a news website quoting a psychologist who explains how listening to too much Christmas music is psychologically harmful. So, those people with their hands up? They might be crazy!

We all probably knew that, though.

There’s always this battle about Advent and Christmas, with the curmudgeons on one side, of whom I am a proud, card-carrying member, insisting that we’re anticipating Christmas too early and ruining it, and others who understand that we’re just grumpy and they love to decorate and can’t get enough of it. In actuality, this divide doesn’t need to exist, because Advent and Christmas go together very well. If you want to have the best Christmas ever, the way to do it is by taking Advent seriously.

It’s important to point out that when we say, “take Advent seriously,” it doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to put up a tree or talk about Santa or listen to Christmas music because it’s Advent and you’re breaking the baby Jesus’s heart when you turn on your Christmas lights tonight. Taking Advent seriously means much more than avoiding Christmas (which is why, with a lot of this, I say to each his own)

Advent, as is made clear by the Scripture readings and by my purple vestments, is a penitential season. But penance doesn’t mean a lack of joy. Penance is expectation and preparation, a way of making our hearts ready for the overwhelming miracle of Christmas. God shows up in the flesh and he wants to join us in our human experience, and love us, and hang out with us, and show us the way to Heaven. That isn’t a reality that we simply drift into by vegging out to Home Alone the day after Thanksgiving while eating leftover turkey. This is a reality for which we prepare our hearts.

St. John of the Cross wrote a poem called The Living Flame of Love, and in it he talks about how the human soul catches fire with God’s love in much the same way a log in your fireplace does. Many of us are wet logs that have been left out in the snow. We’re busy, we do chores, we pay bills, run errands. We don’t make enough time to pray, or for silence, or to read spiritual books. So, when we’re tossed on the fire, we sizzle and smoke but we aren’t ready to catch fire ourselves. In this scenario, Christmas kind of limps up at us and we don’t even notice its power and majesty. We should notice. Christmas should burst open, like all the great feasts of the Church, like the sun bursts from behind rainclouds. It should shock us and delight us. In the dark of night, a Savior is born, and our lives will never be the same.

We aren’t ready for it yet, though. Our Lord says watch and wait, but a soul that is soggy and unprepared will never catch fire. So what do we do? We throw ourselves into the fireplace, and allow God’s love like a flame to surround us. And as God envelops us, the soul becomes ready to catch fire, like a log that dries out and finally catches the flame. St. John says, “The soul feels its love to be increasing and growing in strength and refinement to such a degree that it seems to have within it a sea of fire which reaches to the farthest heights and depths…”

A few simple, practical tips for using Advent wisely.

  1. Make time for silence, we need this to feel human. If you have to, turn off the Christmas music for a bit. Our Lord arrives in silence and we are closest to him when we join him there.
  2. Spend time with your family. Make Advent crafts, bake cookies, reconnect with family you haven’t seen for a while. The Holy Family shows how love and human affection are part of God’s plan for us. Cherish your family and you will draw closer to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
  3. Forgive someone. Take time to reflect on the year, who it is that you are holding a grudge against, who you need to make peace with, even if only in your own heart. If that person you need to forgive is yourself, let go of the guilt. God doesn’t want you to feel guilty. He wants you to receive forgiveness, so don’t only forgive yourself, go to confession and say your sins out loud and allow Jesus to set you free from them. I particularly recommend coming to confession. We have 3 opportunities every week here at Epiphany, and I know that at St. Gabes they have extra opportunities all this month if their times work better for you.
  4. Finally, celebrate the season. Advent is beautiful. It has beautiful music all its own to appreciate. It has the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Advent candle wreath, the feast of St. Nicholas…we’re having a Rorate Caeli Mass here at Epiphany on Tue Dec 19 and I cannot possibly recommend enough that you come to it because it is beautiful. There is also the Advent Novena at the seminary and so many other traditions and ways to celebrate. By doing it this way, you don’t have to avoid celebrating Christmas too early, because Advent itself reveals its own joys and delivers us on Christmas morning at the cradle of Our Lord to adore him.

When Our Lord says that we must watch for his coming. He is talking about an active sort of watching, a preparation for a great event, an immersion into the divine flame of love. It is worth the wait.

Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved

The Mexican Martyrs and Christ the King

Miguel_Pro

Christ the King – The Mexican martyrs

When you think about persecution against Christians, perhaps you consider a time long ago when virgins were being fed to lions and Nero was fiddling from a tower in his palace while he gleefully watched Rome burn, only to later blame Christians like Sts. Peter and Paul and have them murdered. Maybe you remember a few weeks back when I talked about the English Martyrs like Edmund Campion, who were murdered by the government of Queen Elizabeth in the 17th century, but even that feels like a long time ago.

What if I told you, though, that more Christians were martyred for their faith this past century than have ever died before? Perhaps the most vivid example that we all probably remember is the Egyptian martyrs, who in 2015 were lined up on the beach and beheaded by the Islamic State? Perhaps it would surprise you to know that, even closer to home just over the border in Mexico, a widespread, intense persecution against Catholicism was conducted in the 1920s. We think of Mexico as being thoroughly Catholic, and that’s for the most part true, but the government there has at times been outright hostile to the faith.

At the time, the government was in the hands of a dictator named Plutarco Calles. He was a socialist, marxist atheist who hated the Church. He confiscated all Church property, including hospitals, monasteries, and schools. Priests were forbidden to wear clerics in public. They weren’t allowed to talk about politics even in private conversations. They weren’t allowed to seek justice in the Mexican courts and many of them were deported. Even to make a religious vow was criminalized.

The novelist Graham Greene writes about this time in Mexican history in his book The Power and the Glory. All the priests were gone and there was no one to hear confessions, or say Mass, or baptize the babies. The faithful were being starved of God’s presence. In the midst of this, Greene describes one priest who attempts to remain and clandestinely offer the sacraments. He slowly loses everything he has – his Bible, his cassock, his communion wine, to the point that he can no longer perform his sacramental duties. In the end he loses even his life.

Greene’s story is fictional, but the Mexican Martyrs were not. In fact, the very feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate today, was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a way of praying for the Christians of Mexico. The rallying cry of those who refused to let the government take away their faith was “Viva Christo Rey/Long live Christ the King.”

There is blessed Miguel Pro, of whom there is a heartbreaking photograph as he stands with his arms outstretched waiting for the firing squad to murder him.

There is Christopher Magallanes, who gave away his few possessions to his murderers, absolved them of their sins, and offered his life as an innocent sacrifice on behalf of the people of Mexico. He shouted from his jail cell, “I am innocent and I die innocent. I forgive with all my heart those responsible for my death, and I ask God that the shedding of my blood serve the peace of our divided Mexico.”

The events surrounding the Mexican martyrs gives new meaning to the words of St. John in his epistle, “If anyone acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” This world can be a beautiful and wonderful place, but it is not our home. Our home is with God in Heaven. Jesus lives in us and it is his life that is sovereign, his Sacred Heart that beats in time with ours, his wounded side that draws us through death and into resurrection. For the Mexican martyrs, this truth was clear – we must have God or we will have nothing. Pius XI says, “[God] must reign in our minds…he must reign in our wills…he must reign in our hearts…he must reign in our bodies.”

Christ is our King and it is he alone who died in our place to save us from our sins, he alone who gives our lives meaning. Meditate on these last, comforting words of Christopher Magallanes to his fellow martyr Agustin Caloca as they were about to be shot by a firing squad, because they’re encouraging to us as well on our sometimes difficult and challenging pilgrimage to heaven, “Be calm, my Son, only for a moment and then on to heaven.”

St. Miguel Pro, St. Christopher, and all the Mexican martyrs pray for us.

The Weight of Gold (and Divine Love)

Epiphany 2013

Today we talk about stewardship. I notice that the scriptures talk about money and stewardship frequently so it’s our responsibility to do so as well. I admit, though, that I had no idea that our Gospel reading today was about money, too, when we picked this date!

Let’s start by reviewing the stewardship brochure that we printed, thanks to our great office staff here at Epiphany, in the office to save money. You can grab yours right after Mass back there on the blue table or lobby and take a closer look (we’re trying to cut down on postage costs this year because, you know, stewardship), but I want to mention how your contributions have been used over the past year, what we’re excited about, and just how much you all have accomplished with your generosity. Basically, it’s broken down into sections of Time, Talent, and Treasure, which I’m sure you’ve all heard before. Time is your gift of prayer, talent is all the volunteer hours that make everything work around here, and treasure is our offertory. A healthy Church has all three.

Our budget was balanced last year, which is a good thing. The qualifier to that is we were in the black because of a few large gifts and our budget for this year is technically not balanced yet. For Epiphany, it’s all about mission, not need. I never want to stand up here and tell you what I think we need and beg and give you a guilt trip. I’d much rather extend thanks on behalf of the whole parish, remind you that this is God’s parish and it belongs to him alone, and that all of our offerings are pleasing to him. So many lives are touched through the people of this community – Our musicians bring beauty to our ears, which is essential to moving our hearts to contemplate God’s love and this year we have a new piano that sounds amazing, and our new children’s choir is fantastic. The kids are also learning the faith through VBS and PSR and so many other ways. Our support of LASM brings services to those in our neighborhood at the opposite end of the age spectrum. Our social justice activities are so encouraging to see – the thanksgiving dinner giveaway, adopting residents of Kasey Paige for Christmas, SVDP., our active pro-life committee. You stewardship makes all of this goodness, family activity, and beauty in our worship possible.

In the Gospel passage directly after the one we read for today, Our Lord assures us that when we care for others, we care for him. He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me.” The responsibilities of stewardship are connected with the way we serve Our Lord himself.

As for the parable of talents that we read today, let’s unpack it a bit.

The wealthy man entrusts a total of 8 talents to his servants. A talent is an ancient monetary unit, basically a large, round hunk of gold that weighed about 75lbs! I did the math (not something I learned in seminary). 8 Talents of gold is worth about 12 million dollars. This emphasizes just how much responsibility Our Lord is willing to entrust to us.

Note, though, that the faithful servants are each given according to their ability, one gets five, the other two, and the last gets one. God won’t ask of you what you cannot give. We cannot give what we don’t have, and the man who cares for the two talents is commended just as much as the man who cares for five. It’s also possible, though, that if you think you cannot give what God asks of you, perhaps you are undervaluing yourself, or perhaps God has more gifts to give you if you’re bold enough to take the next step.

We have to be clear about this, and this goes for any one of us, if we don’t return to God what he deserves, we are robbing him. We should also clarify that we’re talking about all forms of stewardship. For example, I frequently must accuse myself during confession of not giving to God the prayer that I owe him. I’m selfish with my time or find myself distracted. When I do this I rob him of the adoration that he deserves and I fail to care for those around me by neglecting to pray for them. Those who have money can give, those who have talents can volunteer, those with time can pray. Hopefully we all contribute to some degree or other to all three categories but we’re all different.

The parable of the talents has more secrets to reveal, though. Think about how heavy a talent of gold is – this weightiness brings to mind the heaviest weight of all, which is the weight of glory, the luminous presence of God that hovered over the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The heaviest weight is God’s love. It’s the heaviness of the infinite abundance of his mercy that descends upon us. It’s a paradox, though, because even though this responsibility can feel like a cross or a difficult yoke to carry, Our Lord say, “My burden is light.” In other words, his burden is one of love and in picking it up we find our happiness. In picking it up we discover that there is no ordinary person, each one of us is created by God and dearly loved by him. Each person has a valuable and irreplaceable contribution to make to the Kingdom of God. C.S. Lewis, in a homily called the Weight of Glory, says, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Or some of you may have seen my Holy Card from ordination, which is a quote from St. Augustine, “Pondus meum amor meus/My weight is my love.” What he means is that the soul does not remain unaffected by its love. It is transformed into what it loves. A soul that loves transitory, insubstantial things sinks down like a rock. A soul that loves heavenly things rise like a fire to heaven. The heaviness of the talents is a participation in the weightiness of the divine love. It is God’s gift to us.

All of that said, a few practical notes about how to use the stewardship brochure. Check it out. Be encouraged by it. If you are interested in any of the volunteer opportunities, go ahead and make a note of that and drop it in the offering basket next week or bring it to the office and we’ll get the information to you. Many hands make light work and we are definitely looking for an infusion of fresh volunteers, so please consider a way to become involved.

We do have a commitment card for planning your offertory giving for the year. That does not need to be returned to us, that’s for your personal use to think it through and make a commitment between yourself and God. The reason many of us fail to give isn’t because we aren’t generous, it’s because we don’t plan for it. Or, on the other side of the coin, some of us end up giving too much because we hear all these appeals and respond to them all. It’s best to decide what you want to give, make a plan, and stick to it. As your pastor, I want to say that I DO NOT KNOW who gives what or how much. I don’t really want to know and I don’t want that sort of thing to even cross my mind with how I treat you all. This is between you and God.

We also have a commitment card for prayer. Just like with money. It’s good to plan your gift of prayer, make a plan, and stay committed to it.

Okay, I think that’s enough from me. Today we’re celebrating the feast of St. Rose Philippine Duschesne, a wonderful local saint. I’ll leave you with her encouraging words about stewardship. She says, “We cultivate a very small field for Christ, but we love it, knowing that God does not require great achievements but a heart that holds back nothing for self…. The truest crosses are those we do not choose ourselves…. He who has Jesus has everything.”

St. Rose, patroness of St. Louis, pray for us!