Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

Today we celebrate Christmas which is one of the most important days of the Church year. Christmas is the feast of the incarnation, the feast of God becoming flesh, the Nativity of the Lord. We celebrate God becoming man bringing salvation to all of mankind.

Though we as Catholics differentiate the Christmas season from the Advent season, culturally Christmas has become much more than a liturgical day. For us our Christmas Season begins today, but culturally the Christmas season has been going strong since the day after Thanksgiving. For the past 4 weeks we have heard songs about a snowman who comes alive, a reindeer with a glowing nose, and a drummer boy who had nothing to give but a song. For the past 4 weeks we have been baking cookies, writing and mailing Christmas cards, covering homes with brightly colored lights, attending Christmas parties, and greeting each other and strangers with good cheer and best wishes. Though, liturgically, Christmas begins today, that is not true of for us culturally. Culturally, Christmas is even now beginning to come to an end.

Considering the modern-day grandeur and scope of Christmas, its beginnings as a liturgical day and season is not easy to pinpoint. The early church was more concerned about the return of Christ than they were his beginning. In fact, the church celebrated annual feast days of Saints and martyrs before the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord became a tradition.

Though the actual date of the birth of Jesus is unknown, we do know that sometime in the late 3rd to early 4th century December 25 was selected as the Nativity of the Lord. Though still debated today, the theories as to why and how the early church came upon the date of December 25 are based on observable tendencies of the early church.
The early church had a high respect for symbolism. On the Julian calendar the winter solstice fell on December 25, and the symbolism of Jesus Christ, the light of world, coming on the darkest night of the year was not lost on the early church. The early church had a tendency to borrow from the world around them. It is possible that in an attempt to offset the influence of pagan festivals the early church selected the date to coincide with a harvest festival to the Roman god Saturn. Regardless of the specific reason as to why December 25 was chosen, we do know that the date of the Celebration of the Nativity of the Lord has not changed since the early 4th century when it was established.

Since then the traditions surrounding this day have been influenced by culture, both civil and religious alike. From Santa Claus, whose beginnings are found in the stories of the charity and the humility of a 4th century saint named St. Nicolas, to the Christmas tree, which emerged from 17th century Germany when pre-Christian traditions surrounding evergreens and lights melded with the early Christian tradition of a “paradise tree”. Christmas candles, window lights, luminaries, nativity scenes, los posadas, Christmas carols, mistletoe, holly, poinsettias, and Christmas pageants all came from a culture and a people from somewhere other than the 1st century, out-of-the-way, nowhere town called Bethlehem.

Even in my own family our Christmas traditions have evolved and morphed based on cultural and personal tastes. My Norwegian grandfathers would not have dared celebrate Christmas without oyster stew or lutefisk and lefsa, a Christmas tradition that my family gladly abandoned in favor of Red Baron Pizza and spring rolls. In my childhood home my brother and I opened presents on Christmas Eve. My wife, on the other hand, could not even conceive of a Christmas morning without the frantic unwrapping of presents.

To pretend that Christmas, the season, liturgical or otherwise, is not a wonderful, beautiful, fantastic hodge-podge made up of cultural, religious, and personal traditions would be to miss out on the very reason for this glorious day. That reason, that Jesus Christ, son of God, fully man and fully God, came to earth that ALL who believed in him may become children of God. The traditions of this season are what make this season truly unique and significant for during no other time of the year do we celebrate, what we celebrate this day, the way we celebrate it.

We celebrate hope, love, charity, and peace. We celebrate our acceptance of one another and tolerate those who we otherwise would not. It is not our traditions, customs, and practices that make Christmas so special, rather it is the fact that during this time of year, unlike any other, we celebrate that which we share in common…a desire for light in a dark world…a desire for peace and harmony with our fellow man… a desire for salvation and the hope that it brings.

Our challenge this day is not to defend our traditions from the culture around us, rather it is to share our traditions with the culture around us. Our traditions allow us to express the love, hope, charity and peace which were given to all of mankind as a gift, in the form of an infant. Our challenge is to share our hope, love, charity and peace with those around us, and to do so again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that, until the Lord comes again in power and glory.

We come to this altar to today in celebration. Celebrating that God came to us…that God is here with us…and that God will someday come again for us.

What should we do?

3rd Sunday of Advent
Gospel of Luke 3:10-18

“What should we do?” A question that rings close to home, does it not? Considering our current social, geo-political, and religious environments I am wondering how often we, here in this sanctuary, have asked ourselves, and each other, that very same question, “what should we do?” Considering St. Luke wrote these words almost 2000 years ago, I find it interestingly significant that the concern, confusion, and desperation of an ancient people has so much relevance and poignancy for us here today.

As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, John the Baptist, “a voice crying out in the desert (preparing) the way of the Lord,” was fervently calling a sinful people to repentance. They responded to his call and to his message of hope and, in today’s Gospel, they ask the question of the penitent, “what should we do?” A question that we too often have asked ourselves.

Speaking for myself, I will tell you that I do give the crowd in Luke’s Gospel credit for asking John the Baptist this question. Let me explain.

As a teenager I had both the privilege and the curse of working for my father. As the foreman for a large masonry company I had opportunity to spend every summer of my teenage years working for my dad as a hod-carrier. These summers were a privilege because I got to spend time with my father, the man who taught me how to work hard. These summers were also a curse because I got to spend time with my father, the man who taught me the meaning of hard work. The days were long and hot, the lifting was heavy, and the work was hard and always behind schedule.

I learned a lot of things during those summers. I learned it was best to not let anyone know that you were the boss’s son. I learned that not everyone appreciates a 16-year-old know-it-all, and I learned to never, and I mean never, ask my father, “What do you want me to do next?”

My father’s theory about work is simple; If you have time to ask what you should be doing, then you simply have too much time. Whenever I made the mistake of asking my father what I should be doing, believe you me, he made sure that I never had time to ask that question again.

I am not saying that my dad and John the Baptist have much in common, but when I hear John’s response to the question, “What should we do?”, I hear his reply in my father’s voice.

John does not soften his words or his message. He does not allow for excuses or rationalizations he very plainly and simply answers their question. He tells them to live differently and to do the right thing!

The crowd of people standing before John the Baptist were a people who were in fear of judgement. They were a people who were convicted by their sin. They were a people who were confused, and concerned, and desperately seeking guidance and direction. They were a people who had responded to the Good News and believed they could be saved from condemnation and eternal death. They wanted to know what they needed to do.

The challenge presented to us by today’s Gospel is to find relevance in the instructions of John the Baptist. Is it possible for us living here in this little corner of the world, in modern-day, in a period of time rampant with turmoil, confusion, betrayal, and mistrust, to find guidance and direction? Are the words of John the Baptist just as meaningful and beneficial for us today, as they were some 2000 years ago? Can we really find the answer to our question, “What should we do?”

Yes, I believe we can. I believe we can find relevance in today’s Gospel. And, yes, I believe we can find an answer to our questions, “What should we do?”

First, John tells us to turn our attention to those with the greatest need. He says, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” This Advent season, as we are preparing for the coming of our Lord, we should be taking stock of our abundance and from that abundance we are called to charity. For us, as believers in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, charity is not optional. Our blessed abundance is not for our benefit, rather it is for the benefit for those who are in need.

Second, John tells us to stop exploiting our neighbor and/or our position. His words to the tax collector and to the soldier are clear instructions to cease in taking advantage of another’s weakness or lowly position. A practice we often continue to this day when we continue to deny the rights given by God to all human being: the right to life and a right to those things required for human decency.

Thirdly, John tell us to turn our attention to the one who is coming. He reminds us that, “one mightier than (he) is coming… (who) will baptize… with the holy Spirit and fire.” Just like the crowds of people who ventured out into the desert to hear the words of the man who wore camel hair and ate wild honey and locusts, so too have we, the modern-day follower of Christ, allowed the strife, discontent, and disappointments of this life to diminish our hope. Now more than ever this world needs to hear the message which we have been commissioned to share. A message of hope, and joy, and salvation.

My brothers and sisters in Christ let us today take heed of the words of John the Baptist. Let us repent from our sin, cease our accumulation of more for the sake of having more, and facilitate life in our homes, our places of work, our church, and in our community. May we come before this altar today fully expecting the coming of the Lord and actively and enthusiastically engage in the building of his kingdom. This, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, may be the day we cease to ask, “what should we do?” and actively do that to which God has called us.

As we enter into this Advent season

Gospel of Luke 21:25-28, 34-46

So… I did it.  Yes, indeed I sure did.  I went down a convoluted shadowy path this past week.  A path crowded on all sidesby misguided conjecture and fraught with misinterpreted prophecies.  A path inhabited by men and women, Protestantand Catholic alike, who boldly and unabashedly proclaim to possess the knowledge of the “truth”.  A “truth” that they claim has been revealed to them through personal revelation and is only given to those who are the “true” believers. This “truth” they claim?   The knowledge of the dates, times, and events pertaining the Second Coming of Christ.

My friends, I am confessing that this past week of homily preparation was not one of joy.  As I prepared to embark upon this liturgical season of Advent, I was overwhelmed by the negativity I encountered on full display in the internet world topic of “the second coming of Christ.”  Advent is, according to the Norms of the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Missal, “a time of preparation…, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when… minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming…. “For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight.” 

Delight was definitely not a term I would use to describe my internet experience. For me, the deeper I went into the world-wide web of end-times prophecy the more discouraged, depressed, and disheartened I became.   Global war, environmental disasters, wide-spread persecutions, and apostasy are not the preferred themes of traditional Christmas songs and Hallmark movies.  Yet, in today’s Gospel in Luke, this 1stSunday in Advent, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about these very same catastrophicevents.

It is easy to read this Gospeland then allow the political, natural, and religious events of our current day to darken our expectant joy and diminish our faith and hope in the Second Coming of Christ.  Even today we offer our prayers to those individuals, families, and communities whose lives and livelihoods were affected by fire and earth quake. Yet, despite the turmoil and terrors, we are instructed in today’s Gospel to “stand and raise our heads” in the wonderful anticipation of our promised redemption.

So…how do we rectify this apparent contradiction?  This contradiction evidenced by today’s Gospel and its warnings of trial, tribulation, tragedy, and discord in the light of Advent, a season of “devout and expectant delight.” 

We must first come to understand who we are as Catholics and what we believe.

Who we are?  We are the body of Christ with Jesus as our head.  We are the Church and there is no separation of Jesus and his church.  The church was born on Pentecost and has continued, and will continue, throughout the rest of history until the Second Coming of Christ.

What we believe? We believe that Christ is present in his Church.  We are not “dispensationalist”, nor do we profess “millennialism”.  Each of these fallacies deny Christ’s presence in his church and profess that the church will be “raptured” before the second coming of Christ.  The catechism clearly confronts these false doctrines, stating that “the final age of the world is with us” and “that Christ’s reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled… by the king’s return to earth.” (CCC 670 & 671)

My friends, we are now currently living in the end times… the last days!

This reality, the reality that Jesus Christ, through his birth, life, passion, and death has allowed us to become the children of God, co-heirs to the kingdom, is the very foundation of our faith and our hope.  Our hope that as sons and daughters of God, the Almighty, we will receive the promise of God, eternal life in perfect in love with our Creator and with his creation.

Yet, in spite of our belief in the promises of God, and the hope which is produced, I believe we, as the church, the body of Christ, have become drowsy and have succumbed to the anxieties of life.  We have allowed fear and sin to exist in our lives, and in turn have become apathetic, or at the very least dismissive, to our mission as ordained to us by Christ.

Today, in this country, the greatest threat to life is not war, pestilences, or natural disaster it is self-harm.  A recently published study by the Center for Disease control reports that the life-expectancy rate in theUnited States has decreased continuing a 3-year period of stagnation and decline.  The main reasons for this decline in life-expectancy?  Suicide and drug over-dose.

Deaths from heart disease, the number 1 killer of Americans, have leveled off. Deaths from cancer and other serious illnesses are in fact declining.  Yet, the average life-span of an American is decreasing, not for lack in advancement of medical science, but rather to loss of hope.

We, as disciples of Christ, members of his body, his church, have the cure to such an illness.  For it is hope that flows abundantly from the well-spring of grace which has been given to us without merit or measure by God, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are his ministers of grace and communicators of hope.

As we enter into this Advent season preparing our homes, our places of work, and our community to celebratethe 1st coming of Jesus, let us commit ourselves to preparing also for his second coming by standing alert, awake, and ready to be the agents of hope in a world so desperately lacking.

A message of hope

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel of Mark 13:24-32

A message of hope. A message of hope cast in the shadow of tribulations, darkness, and failing foundations. A message of hope found in the leaves of a fig tree. A message of hope solidified by a promise. The promise that the Son of Man will come again in great power and glory. A message of hope that, at times, appears far off and distant, like a flickering flame in an overwhelming darkness. A light so faint and barely distinguishable, especially when the forces, influences, and currents of division and strife pull us away from the moorings of truth, and love, and peace. Today’s Gospel, my brothers and sisters, in spite of its imagery, illusion, and mystery is most indeed, a message of hope.

Today’s Gospel out of the 13th chapter of Mark is a portion, an excerpt, of an apocalyptic discourse Jesus had with his 4 disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Jesus, sitting on top the Mount of Olives overlooking the great Jerusalem Temple, issued warnings, predictions, described cosmic catastrophes, heavenly signs, and the future judgment of God. At the center of his discourse lies the foretelling that the Temple of Jerusalem will ultimately be destroyed. This event is specifically referred to in the Gospel as the “abomination of desolation.” A prediction that would have most certainly and most unequivocally caused worry and concern among his devoted disciples.

Ancient historical sources confirm that the utter destruction of the Jewish Temple did indeed occur. In the year 70 A.D. the Romans, in their campaign to quash the Jewish uprising and to regain control of the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and killed over 1 million Jews. An event that must have truly represented to those who had heard and remembered the words of Jesus as the “abomination of desolation” that he had prophesized.

Almost 2000 years later, we the modern-day disciples of Christ, still ponder the meaning and intent of his words and predictions. These words found in today’s Gospel, and similar apocalyptic New Testament writings, have been the source of mistreatment and the cause for manipulation by numerous false messiahs and false prophets. Throughout our history there have been countless evils and atrocities inflicted on humanity in the name of Christ and his imminent return. Yet, here we are here today, struggling to find value and meaning in these eschatological words of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel reading we are told that there will be tribulation. A forewarning of turmoil, struggle, hardship, and suffering. We are told that darkness will prevail, the sun and moon shall no longer offer their light, the stars will fail, and the foundations of heaven will be shaken.

We are also told that the Son of Man will come with great power and glory and he will gather his own “from the four winds” and from the “end of the earth to the end of the sky.”

We are told to “learn a lesson from the fig tree.” To learn and to understand that to everything there is a season and a time. We are to trust in the promise of our Lord and Savior believing that there is a time for the fulfillment and realization of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom which was inaugurated on Calvary and evidenced for all who believe by an empty tomb.

We are called to be watchful and on alert. Though that day and hour will indeed come, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, when God the Father will fulfill the promise and establish his new heaven and his new earth.

This is the message of hope which is found in today’s Gospel.

A message founded upon Jesus, the Son of Man.

We ask who is this Son of Man? A question that continues even to this day. As we search for an answer it is important to know that this title was not unique to Jesus. This term, the Son of Man, appears over 100 times in the Old Testament. In many instances this phrase functions as an idiom, meaning something like “human being” or “mere mortal”, and can be applied to individual men like the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.
In the Gospels, oftentimes Jesus speaks of himself in this way, to emphasize his full solidarity with humanity. Jesus is the “Son of Man” because he possesses a true human body and has the capacity for human activities like resting, eating and drinking, suffering, and even lying in a grave.

However, the expression “Son of Man”, in certain contexts, stretches beyond human limitations. In the Gospels, when Jesus refers to himself in this way, he is claiming a divine prerogative. As the “Son of Man”, he has the authority to forgive sins, suspend the Sabbath, judge men for their deeds, and is sent down from heaven. And, most specifically in today’s Gospel, the “Son of Man” will come down from above, in power and glory, and gather all of his elect, his chosen people, to himself. It is in him, the “Son of Man” in which rests all our hope.

Today, as we prepare ourselves to receive our Lord and Savior offered to us upon this altar, we are challenged to rely upon whom we have placed our hope. Our hope, in spite of the darkness, the division, the discord, and the discouragement which can so often extinguish the light, the light of the promise of Christ, must unequivocally and without exception rest in the yet to be realized truth that Christ will return and with him so does our vindication and reward. Yes, indeed, my brothers and sisters, today’s Gospel message is a message of hope.

All Souls Day

Historically, the custom of setting apart a special day for the intercession of the departed faithful on November 2, was first established by St. Odilo of Cluny in the late 10th century. From this monastery in France, the custom spread throughout Europe and was ultimately accepted by Rome in the fourteenth century.  Eventually, this tradition came to be known in the liturgy of the Roman Rite as “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed”, and is the reason why we have gathered here this evening; to pray for, and to come together as one, as the Body of Christ, with each other and those who have gone before.

The significance, relevance, and beauty of the reason why we are gathered here this day, for me, personally, became tangible on the day of my grandfather’s funeral.

On that day, sitting alone in the funeral home, with my grandfather’s body lying in the casket before me, I experienced the grace and beauty of the perpetual communion we share as believers in Christ.  A communion described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as, “All… who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together.”

Today, this most unique and significant day, we are reminded of the promises of Christ; “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life,” and, as, “(we) remain in (him), … (he) remain(s) in (us),” and, as the Church so beautifully reminds us in her doctrine, that “Christ mystically constitutes as his body those (persons) of his who are called together from every nation.”  In these promises we find the assurance and the hope that, “Believers who respond to God’s word and become members of Christ’s Body, become intimately united with him…and with one another.” CCC 790

This unity, with Christ, and with one another, and with those who have passed on before, form the Mystical Body of Christ, which we as Catholics, celebrate in our Sacrament and most specifically in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.  This unity, which bind us together in one body with Christ as its head, allows us to find comfort, peace, and most importantly, hope.  Hope that one day we shall ALL be gathered together in perfect harmony and joy.  This unity, which allows us to triumph over all human division, produces and stimulates a perfect charity allowing us all to “suffer when one member suffers” and rejoice when “one member is honored.”  This unity, which we publicly recognize today, in “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed”, enables our tears and sorrows associated with loss to be tempered by the joy and hope of our promised resurrection.

Today, we share our lists.  Our own personal list of names.  The names of our grandfathers, our grandmothers, our parents, and, sometimes, most regrettably, our children.  These names, the names of our family members, our friends, neighbors, and, sometimes, of people who we did not even know, are for us, precious mementos of those whom we cherished, and loved, and whose passing caused a inexpressible emptiness and void.

These names that make up our lists represent the best and worst parts of us.  They have become for us who yet live, our own personal ritual as we speak them in prayer and recall their faces in our thoughts and in our dreams.  These names, of those who have preceded us in our journey, and the hope in the promises of Jesus Christ which they represent, are for us both the cause of our anguish and the inspiration for our hope.

So, today, share your list.  Share you list with one another knowing and trusting that we are united, together in both sorrow and hope, as one in the Body of Christ.  Share your list in prayer, and together we will work, one with another, in lifting your sorrowful burden to the healer of all our wounds, Jesus Christ.  Share your list here in front of this altar as we celebrate the unity provided to us through the Body and Blood our Lord.  Share your list knowing in the confidence of the resurrection, that one day we shall ALL be gathered to him, our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.