Friday, December 28, 2007

Holy Family

Holy Family
A cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Reading II. Colossians 3: 12-21
Gospel. Matthew 2:12-15, 19-23 (flight into Egypt).

It is appropriate that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. Not only do we continue the narrative of the infancy of Christ but also at no time do families come closer together than at Christmas. However, there is a dark side. We all know that the Christmas season can strain and test family relationships.

Today's first reading from the Book of Sirach can be summed up in the great commandment to "honor thy father and mother." It would do us well to pay close attention to Sirach's words. He tells us that the authority of a father and mother come from God, and that it is ingrained in all of us. We would call it today a part of our genetic makeup. To depart from this practice violates our very nature and will only result in bitterness and unhappiness.

In our time when so many of our parents can no longer take care of themselves, the words of Sirach are more important than ever.

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life.

In our culture the roles of father and mother have come increasingly under attack. Television and movies usually portray fathers as ignorant simpletons or as brutal abusers. This only reflects a culture where men casually urge their girl friends or wives to abort their own children. That men should act as guardians and protectors of their wives and children is now regarded as old fashioned and laughable.

Nevertheless, that was precisely the role that Joseph played in today's story of the flight into Egypt. Warned of the danger facing his little family, "Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt." The danger was real. Although we skip over the passage in today's reading, Matthew tells us that the madman King Herod had every male child under two years of age in Bethlehem and its nearby towns put to death. We still call this the slaughter of the "Holy Innocents."

The role of father and mother is also the central theme of our passage today from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. How are we to understand this reading especially that controversial passage where St. Paul says, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."

We could say that Paul, like so many of his contemporaries, was a "sexist" who thought that women were second class citizens. You could also say that since Paul never married, he knew nothing about the actual relationship of a man and a woman in marriage or the way they would arrange responsibility in a household even then.

However, you could also say that Paul was dealing in this section with a very practical problem that had arisen in the early Christian churches, especially among the Gentiles. It would appear that the new faith was especially attractive to women. Scholars tell us that in pagan families it was often the woman who first converted to Christianity, and then subsequently brought their husbands and families into the fold. This is not unusual even in our time.

However, there were cases where the husband would not convert, and women in this situation wondered what to do. Should they stay with their pagan husbands or should they leave? Paul always urges them to remain faithful to their marriage vows. He knew that there was no social safety net for these women outside of marriage but he also argued that they would be better able to bring their husbands and families to believe by remaining married.

Finally, I think you could say that St. Paul is preaching a revolutionary new doctrine here. For a minute, let's concentrate on his advice to the men. "Husbands, love your wives." It is hard for us to realize that in the ancient world, love of a husband for his wife was not the ideal. Our idea of a young couple falling in love and dedicating their whole lives to one another was an alien idea in the ancient world. At that time and for centuries after marriages were arranged between families. A young woman or girl might only meet her future husband, often an older man, for the first time at their engagement. A woman was little more than a child bearing machine. If she could not bear children, her husband was obligated to divorce her. As far as romantic feeling or sexual pleasure was concerned, a man usually found that outside of the bonds of matrimony.

Despite today's popular opinion, Christianity elevated the role of women not only in society but also in the eyes of her husband. St. Paul understands the teaching of Christ to mean that Christian men must give up their whole lives for their wives and families, a rare thing in any time. Look at the first part of today's reading. St. Paul is telling the Colossians and us to put on virtue in the same way we would put on a suit of clothes. The relationship in a family should consist of "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." A family built on these virtues won't have to worry about who's the boss.

Today's feast is not just about "The Holy Family" but its about making our families holy.

And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,...



























































































































































































































`

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas

Christmas


Christmas Vigil
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).

Christmas Midnight
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).

Christmas Dawn
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).

Christmas Day
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).

There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.

All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.

In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event.



In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.

Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.

When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.

Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.

In today's Masses the story begins. We'll hear the rest of the story in the weeks and months to come.

Monday, December 24, 2007

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent
A cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 7: 10-14
Reading II. Romans 1: 1-7
Gospel. Matthew 1:18-24 (the virgin shall conceive).

In one of his epistles St. Paul said that his brother Jews wanted or needed signs before they could believe. He, of course, had received a great sign himself when the Risen Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. We are no different from the Jews of the time of Christ. In fact, in today's world we probably require signs even more than they did. Unless something extraordinary happens, it is hard for us to believe.

On this last Sunday of Advent the first reading is about a sign. The ruler, Ahaz, is told by Isaiah, the prophet, to ask for a sign. When Ahaz refuses to make such a demand of the Lord, Isaiah gives him a sign anyway. It is the famous prophecy:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

Although these prophetic words were spoken more than 600 years before the birth of our Lord, St. Matthew clearly sees their fulfillment in today's gospel. He even quotes the passage from Isaiah and tells us that the story involving Mary, and Joseph, and the Child was meant to fulfill the prophecy. However, instead of naming the Child, "Emmanuel" the angel who appeared to Joseph instructs him to name the child, Jesus or Jeshua.

What is the signifiacance of these names? We know that throughout their history the Jews have been reluctant to use the name of God. Whether this was due to reverence, awe, or fear is hard to say. It is hard for us to imagine this attitude today, but if we think of the way in which we would hesitate to call a respected teacher by their first name, we can get a little sense of their feelings.

Instead of naming God, they chose to refer to His activity in the world. Thus the word, "Jesus" literally means, as Matthew tells us, God saves. Similarly, the name, Emmanuel, means God is with us. The birth of the Child will mean that God has entered our world in a special way. He will become one of us and from that day forward we will be able to call Him by his real Name, and even call Him brother. He can no longer be viewed as distant or unapproachable. We cannot imagine Him as some angry old man in the skies waiting to throw lightning bolts at us when we step out of line. God is Love, and Love comes into the world at Christmas.

Just like th Jews of yesteryear we too need signs. Maybe there is nothing special about them. Maybe we just fail to recognize them. Maybe, we can just point to the signs expressed in Charley Brown's Christmas song.

Christmas time is here.
happiness and cheer,
fun for all that children
call their favorite time of year.

Snowflakes in the air,
carols everywhere,
olden times and ancient rhymes
and love and dreams to share.

Sleigh bells in the air,
beauty everywhere,
yuletide by the fireside
and joyful memories there.

Christmas time is here;
we'll be drawing near;
oh that we could always see
such spirit through the year,
such spirit through the year.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

3rd Sunday of Advent

3rd Sunday of Advent
A cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10
Reading II. James 5: 7-10
Gospel. Matthew 11: 2-11 (none greater than John the Baptist).

In earlier times the third Sunday in Advent was known as "Gaudete Sunday" because the entrance prayer or "Introit" began with the Latin words, "gaudete in domino semper." Translated the phrase means "rejoice in the Lord always." Today, as it has always done, the Church injects an element of joy into the penitential season of Advent. In many churches the priest will put aside the purple vestments which signify sorrow and penance, and put on rose colored vestments, a symbol of joy. The Church is asking us to look ahead to the glory of the coming of the Savior on Christmas.

Certainly, the reading from the prophet Isaiah strikes an upbeat and exultant note. He sees the dry parched earth blooming with new life. He uses words like glory and splendor to describe the once barren land. Men will also be transformed by the Lord. Hands will be strengthened; and weak knees will become firm. To the fainthearted, he says, "Be strong, fear not! Then Isaiah proclaims the famous words which are echoed in today's gospel.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Isaiah and John the Baptist are the two great prophets associated with Advent. Last week we saw John in the midst of his mission to prepare the way of the Lord. John had said that, "the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals." These words were from chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel and were spoken at the beginning of our Lord's public life.

Since that time a lot has happened. By the time we get to today's reading from chapter 11 of Matthew's gospel, Jesus has himself been baptized by John, given the Sermon on the Mount, worked many miracles, and called His own disciples to His side. This is why Jesus, in answer to John's question, "are you the one who is to come?" repeats the words of Isaiah about the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor. By this time John is in prison, his mission over, and he is soon to be executed.

John had said that he wasn't worthy to carry our Lord's sandals, but Jesus claims that John is the greatest of all the prophets. In fact, our Lord says that "among those born of woman there has been none greater than John the Baptist."

It's common for religious artists to portray John as kind of a strangely dressed wild man shouting at people in the desert. Yet a little later in this chapter of Matthew's our Lord makes the startling claim that " it was toward John that all the prophecies of the prophets and the Law were leading, and he, if you will believe Me, is the Elijah who was to return." The Jews believed that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the return of the great prophet, Elijah, who had been taken up into Heaven in a chariot of fire.

Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus takes time to reflect on John and his prophetic mission. After John's disciples had left to bring the good news back to him, Jesus "began to speak to the crowds about John." He asks them why they went out into the desert to see John. What did they expect to see. "A reed swayed by the wind?" "Someone dressed in fine clothing?" He asks them the same question that He asks all of us this Advent. "Then why did you go out." What are we looking for?

Here we are only two weeks before Christmas. What are we looking for this season? What do we want for ourselves and our loved ones this Christmas? Why are we going out to the malls and the shopping centers? Aren't we all trying to find happiness? Aren't we all trying to cast away fear and darkness and bring some joy and light into our lives? Look at the way we light up our houses, look at the music we hear coming over the radio.

I've just read an article by a man who is a well known lecturer, TV personality, and author. He has a beautiful wife and son and is extremely successful. Yet he wrote, "I am almost 60. Time flies and it scares me. I don't want to die. I like being in good health. I don't want to be sick and have wires and tubes and scalpels in me. I like having enough money. I don't want to be old and poor. I sat in my car...shivering in fear. And then it struck me. I spend too darned much of my life in fear. I always have. You can't imagine how much of my life I have thrown away by being a slave to fear."

Today's second reading is an excerpt from the Letter of St. James. We rarely encounter the letter of St. James in our Sunday readings but this short epistle should be required reading for all of us this season. James calls upon us to put away fear. He echoes the words of Isaiah.

Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.

He tells us to be patient, and not to complain. This is good advice in any season. We live in the richest society on the face of the earth; even our poor are better off than billions of people on the rest of the earth. Yet our newspapers and television tell us that there is so much unhappiness and complaining in our society. Today, however, let us look forward to the coming of our Lord on Christmas and put away our fears.

Gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

2nd Sunday of Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent
A cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 11: 1-10
Reading II. Romans 15: 4-9
Gospel. Matthew 3: 1-12 (John the Baptist appeared).

Today's first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. In fact, all the Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah. He along with John the Baptist are the voices of Advent. Today's reading contains perhaps the most colorful and famous passage found in all of the prophetic writings. It is the story of the "peaceable kingdom" where

the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid...

Now we usually think of the prophets as foretelling the future, and it is true that Isaiah presents us with a picture of a new world to come. However, the special talent of the Old Testament prophets was their ability to describe with brutal accuracy the wrongs of their own day.

If we listen carefully, we can see that Isaiah is contrasting the rule of the future King with the actual state of things in his own time. He complains that people, especially those in authority, judge things solely by appearances and not by principle or justice. They make up their minds by hearsay. Neither the poor not the land's afflicted receive justice or mercy. The ruthless and the wicked prevail. If the future King will rule with justice and faithfulness, it is clear that the present rulers do just the opposite.

As a critic of his own times, Isaiah gives us an introduction to the great New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. In today's gospel, St. Matthew tells us that Isaiah's famous lines refer to John.

A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.

Like Isaiah, John is a critic of the leaders of his own time. Although people were coming from all over to be baptized in the Jordan, John lashes out at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the leaders of the Jews, for their hypocrisy. Archaeologists tell us how important ritual bathing or baptism was to the Jews at the time of Christ. The frequent washings were not just to cleanse the body, they were also meant to purify the soul.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John's baptism, he calls them a "brood of vipers" because they have no true repentance for the wrongs they have done. They think that it's enough to go through the ritual washing of the body without a thought to a subsequent change of their behavior. He tells them that their status as leaders of the community and descendants of Abraham means nothing unless they "produce good fruit as evidence of ... repentance."

What is good fruit? We can go back to Isaiah's list. We should not judge others merely by appearances. We should avoid deciding merely by hearsay. We should treat those less fortunate than ourselves with fairness and compassion, and not take advantage of them because of their circumstances. We should avoid ruthless and wicked behavior. Is our society any different than Isaiah's?

When John speaks of repentance, he is talking about looking over our lives and taking stock of who we are and where we are going. Advent is a perfect time for us to do so. It is the beginning of a new year so to speak. For centuries the Church has advised us to examine our conscience. In particular, such a review might examine a dominant fault and work on ways to correct it, or it might consider a particular strength or virtue and consider ways to increase it.

Even though the phrase may sound strange to us today, the idea is not outmoded. At the end of each year business people are advised to look back on the past year and consider what worked and what didn't work. They spend hours examining their strengths and weaknesses. For the upcoming year they are urged to prepare a business plan where they will work on developing their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.

Athletes do the same thing. Every week coaches spend hours examining game films to see what they did right and what they did wrong. Whole practices are devoted to making the necessary corrections and incorporating them into next weeks game plan. Why do we spend so much time preparing for games but so little time preparing for the game of life?

When it comes to the most important things in our own lives we fail to examine our conscience? As the old saying goes, people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. What did we do wrong last year? How did we hurt ourselves and our loved ones? Can we begin now to rid ourselves of bad or destructive habits?

On the positive side what strengths or virtues do we possess? What can we do to build spiritual muscle memory so that good behavior becomes easy and natural to us? The word virtue merely means a good habit, while a vice is a bad habit. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and concentrate on the good. In today's reading from St. Paul's letter to the Romans he speaks of the quality of endurance. We are in this life for the long haul and must be prepared to go the distance.

The biggest criticism against Christians today is that we are no different than anyone else. Rather than being a light to the nations, the darkness in our society seems to be overwhelming us. We don't have to go about wearing our religion on our sleeve but in our homes, our schools, and in our businesses we should be producing good fruit. We don't need laws and judges to bring Christ back into Christmas. All we need is for Christians to act like Christians.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Immaculate Conception

` The Immaculate Conception

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Pope did not declare this doctrine out of the blue. It was promulgated only after years of study on his own part and on the part of learned scholars; centuries of debate among some of the greatest theologians in the Church; and almost a millennium of popular devotion to Mary on the part of the Church faithful.

Although immediately accepted by the faithful, the doctrine was a source of controversy in the time of Pius IX and today remains an obstacle to ecumenical efforts. Before we can discuss the doctrine and its meaning we have to clear up a basic misconception. The Immaculate Conception does not refer to either the conception of Jesus in Mary's womb or the subsequent birth and delivery of Jesus. In other words, it should not be confused with the virgin birth. Nor does it refer to Mary's own birth. She herself was begotten like any other child. Simply, the doctrine affirms the preservation or freedom of Mary from original sin from the first moment of her conception.

To understand the meaning of the doctrine we have to examine the concept of original sin even though in our time the notion of sin, especially original sin, has fallen into disfavor. Today the only sin our culture seems to recognize is smoking. Concurrently, the very notion of evil has fallen into disfavor. Until the September 11, 2001 tragedy
the only people we were likely to recognize as evil were Nazis or people who behaved like Nazis. For our purposes then let us use the word imperfect rather than sin or evil. Instead of calling ourselves sinful or evil, let's just think of ourselves as imperfect.

To say that we have not been preserved from original sin means that all of us are merely imperfect--something few of us would deny. Where did this notion come from? Theologians and philosophers throughout history have tried to deal with humankind's imperfection. Some have called it the problem of evil. You can pick up a newspaper on any given day and never fail to be shocked by the evil in the world. War, terrorism, murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft of all kinds, lying and deceit on every level of society, all confront us daily. Where does it come from? Who or what is responsible for the world's imperfection or evil?

It is safe to say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the origins of evil were to be found in each of us. As Shakespeare said, the fault lies in us, not in our stars. In this tradition it is clearly understood that there is something wrong with our nature. Although created in a state of perfection or good (another word for perfect is good), mankind has fallen into a state of imperfection.

In the story of Adam and Eve we find an attempt to explain the problem of evil. God is good; God is perfect; and His creation had to be good. It had to be perfect. Yet, when the biblical authors composed the Book of Genesis they lived in a world as full of evil and imperfection as ours. And so we have the story of the temptation and fall of our first parents to explain how we have all inherited a fundamental flaw, a kind of genetic defect. It had to come from our first parents because it is observable in all of us.

Long before Sigmund Freud wrote of the "ego" and the "id" and the psychic warfare that goes on in all of us, biblical authors life St. Paul and St. James alluded to this "psychomachia" and called it the source of all evil. What are the effects of this psychic or spiritual warfare? Basically, we have a divided nature--we lack integrity in the true sense of the word. We have knowledge of both good and evil. We can admire Mother Teresa but at the same time know that we are capable of understanding and committing the worst crimes that we read of in the newspapers. There but for the grace of God go we!

What is the cure for our imperfection? How can we attain perfection? As the song says, "We've got to be taught. We've got to be taught not to hate and fear but to love and trust. Our first teachers are our mothers and fathers; then our extended families; then our customs and traditions, chief of which is our religion with its guidelines or warnings
which we often mistake for rules and regulations; and then our governments and their laws that are supposed to keep us at peace with one another. This is why these institutions are so important and why when they become corrupted or perverted there is literally "hell to pay." Jesus always called himself teacher and promised that if we would follow Him, peace would be with us.

A few hundred years ago this Judeo-Christian tradition of original sin came under serious attack during the period known as the "Enlightenment" that immediately preceded the French Revolution. Philosophers during that period came to believe that human nature was perfect, that man had begun as a kind of "noble savage" who had become corrupted by human social institutions. For the intellectuals and the revolutionaries who followed them the source of evil was not in man but in institutions like motherhood, fatherhood, the family, religion, government, and the rule of law. In particular, they singled out the Catholic Church with its sacramental system, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass. They sought to destroy these institutions and build a new perfect society based on reason rather than on custom, superstition, and ignorance. Despite over two hundred years of horror and bloodshed these "enlightened" ideas live on today, and those institutions that are the sole protector and defender of mankind are still under attack by those who cannot accept the idea of original sin.

Ironically, those who do not believe in original sin unwittingly believe that they and the rest of mankind must have been conceived immaculate. The only person that they will not allow to have been immaculately conceived is Mary. On the other hand, for those who do believe in original sin and accept its corollary, the need to attain perfection or redemption, Mary is the Immaculate Conception.

If we view Mary in this way then her role takes on new meaning. The Church has always regarded her as the new Eve free from the knowledge of evil. We believe that through God's grace she was created without that fatal division in her being. She had integrity and she knew inner peace not war. This is why the angel at the Annunciation called her full of grace. This is why her assent at the Annunciation was so meaningful. She who through her nature could know no pain or suffering was asked to experience all the pain and suffering that a mother could know. At the Presentation Simeon said to her that this day "your soul a sword shall pierce." Since we've also forgotten the meaning of the word "soul" today, modern translations say that her "whole being" would be severed. Imagine a person created without flaw or imperfection living among us.

In the Gospels the Apostles represent us with all of our faults and failings. Some were silly, some were vain, some doubted and disbelieved, and even St. Peter denied the Lord three times. They were what we are. When the Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, however, it was saying that Mary is what we once were and could be again through the grace of her Son, Jesus.


Francis P. DeStefano

Sunday, December 2, 2007

1st Sunday of Advent, A

1st Sunday of Advent
A cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 2: 1-5
Reading II. Romans 13: 11-14
Gospel. Matthew 24: 37-44 (stay awake!).

A few years ago three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic story, "The Lord of the Rings," enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. Issued in three successive years around Christmas time, they were a box office smash. The third in the series, entitled, "The Return of the King," won the Academy arard for "Best Picture." Most of us know by now that both the three volume book and the films tell the story of a great journey or adventure undertaken by a group of men, elves, dwarves, and the now famous hobbits.

The adventure begins however in a smaller book of Tolkien's called "The Hobbit." In that book this particular hobbit is woken out of a quiet peaceful afternoon nap by a violent knocking on his door. To his amazement he is told that he must rouse himself out of his comfort and complacency and embark on a dangerous adventure whose end is far from certain. In the course of the adventure he will find that there is more to life than he ever dreamed, and that there is more to himself than he ever dreamed.

Isn't it odd that the word "advent" is contained in the word, "adventure"? Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas, it is a time for all of us to consider how far we have progressed on the great adventure of life. Let's consider the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He sees whole nations and peoples climbing the Lord's mountain. In famous words he portrays a vision of a far off world completely different than the one we know.

They shall beat their sword into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

Before we reach this new world the old world must pass away.

This is the reason why Advent, the season which marks the beginning of the Church year, has traditionally begun with readings reminding us of the end of the world. In today's gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus refers to the people before the great flood. He says that like us they were going about their daily business without a clue of what was in store for them. Our Lord's advice whether it be the end of the whole world or just the end of our own little world is the same. "Stay awake." By "awake" He means be ready, be prepared to set out on your journey.

So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

Advent has always been regarded as a season of preparation. Why is it that we prepare for everything in life but often fail to prepare for the most important thing in life? What football team would go into the weekend's big game without practicing all week? What will they practice? Why, the very same formations and plays that they expect to use when they are put to the test. During the week they will also be in the weight room preparing their bodies for the blows to come. On game day they will put on their protective gear or armor. Only a fool would go into such combat improperly equipped.

In business it's much the same thing. Salesmen practice their presentations before facing their customers. They learn how to anticipate and overcome every objection. In politics look how even the presidential candidates go through rigorous prepping and role play before debating their opponents.

How should we prepare for life's great adventure? Let's see if we can come up with a list of things to do this Advent season they will help us on our way. First, let's take St. Paul's advice and avoid destructive behavior.

let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealously.

Wasn't it sad to read in the paper that two of our local Catholic universities led the state of Connecticut in arrests for drunkenness? It was even sadder to read the article about the young woman at a midwestern university who drank herself to death while at a frat party. The paper reported that she was just one of many who would die a similar death this year. I know that television glamorizes this type of drinking but what is so glamorous about falling into an alcohol induced coma in a frat house or an office party?

We can all think of ways to "throw off the works of darkness," but St. Paul also urges us to "put on the armor of light." There is no better way to do so this season than by increasing our attendance at Mass. Certainly, in this season when we should all be looking forward to the coming of Christ, he comes to us in each and every Mass. Besides Sunday Mass we will celebrate the great feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a true Holy Day of Opportunity.

Finally, I can think of no better way to counter the stress and anxiety of this mad shopping season than to attend daily Mass during Advent. You will find a half hour of peace and tranquillity every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. You will get an opportunity to reconcile yourself with God and your neighbor when you recite the Kyrie Eleison, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. You can offer the kiss of peace to your friends and family. You can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given you, and then you can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King

Christ the King
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Samuel 5: 1-3
Reading II. Colossians 1: 12-20
Gospel. Luke 23: 35-43 (the good thief).

Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. Pope Pius IX instituted the new feast after a devastating world war which saw millions killed and empires fall. The Kaiser of defeated Germany was forced to abdicate his throne; the Tsar of Russia was deposed and executed by angry revolutionaries; the Austrian empire--the heir to the Holy Roman empire which had lasted for over a thousand years--was broken up into a number of small states; and the Turkish empire, which had ruled the Middle East for over 500 years, was also overthrown, an event which led to the anarchy in that area which persists even today. Even though the English monarchy survived the war, the mighty British empire was mortally wounded.

At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ. The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year. Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading presents us with David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

You shall shepherd my people Israel
and shall be commander of Israel.

In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Ever since the time of King Henry the Eighth, the kings and queens of England had acted as head of the Church of England. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

Today's readings present us with Christ our King. In St. Paul's letter to the Colossians we hear that God has "delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." He enabled us to enter the Kingdom "by the blood of His cross." In other words we have a shepherd king who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

In today's gospel from St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year dying on the cross. The crowd is jeering at Him and the soldiers taunt, "If you are King of the Jews, save yourself." Even one of the criminals dying next to Him reviles Him. How fitting it is that our whole cycle of readings ends this year with the "good thief," who only asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

All year we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. We started in January when Jesus was forced to leave his home town of Nazareth after preaching in the synagogue. We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and the miraculous cures and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

Let's end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the last words in our gospel when the King turns to us and says,

Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with Me in Paradise.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Wisdom 11: 22-12:2
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 1: 11--2:2
Gospel. Luke 19: 1-10 (Zacchaeus, come down).

The Book of Wisdom was written in the century before the birth of Christ. One commentator calls it "a precursor of the message of mercy that Jesus taught." Today's passage certainly bears that out. It is a hymn to a merciful Lord.

But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook peoples' sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made...

This is a central idea in both the Old and New Testaments. God is Good, God is Love, and His creation can only be full of good and love. Where we find imperfection or evil in the world, it is only because of our own doing. Nevertheless, despite our failings, the God of mercy and love is always open to us who turn to Him.

St. Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the "Gospel of the Great Pardons." Only a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week it was the parable of the tax collector who went home "justified" because of his humble prayer, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." A parable is just a story but this week we have the story of a real tax collector, Zacchaeus.

Remember that tax collectors were hated by the Jews and regarded as sinners because they did the dirty work of the Roman conquerors. The Romans knew better than to try and tax conquered people themselves. They gave out franchises to local leaders. A tax collector like Zacchaeus would advance a large sum of money to the Romans for the right to collect taxes from the local people. Once he collected more than he had paid the Romans, it was pure profit and his to keep.

Besides its spiritual message, St. Luke's gospel is a model of historical accuracy. We certainly can believe him when he tells us that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, was a wealthy man. The Jews despised men like Zacchaeus not only because they cooperated with the Romans, but also because they enriched themselves at the expense of the oppressed.

The gospel account of the conversion of Zacchaeus is sketchy but we can imagine what happened. Seeking to catch a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus climbs a tree only to be called down by Jesus who informs him that He intends to stay at his house. Like so many people who came face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus is instantly converted. He received our Lord into his house "with joy." When people grumble that Jesus is going "to stay at the house of a sinner," Zacchaeus is so moved that he offers to give half his wealth to the poor. He even promises to think back over his entire career and repay anyone he has wronged four times over.

The conversion of Zacchaeus means that he realizes that he doesn't need all his wealth and possessions once he has found our Lord.

Our Lord pays Zacchaeus one of his highest compliments. He calls him a "descendant of Abraham." It's not that Jesus is calling Zacchaeus a Jew, that would merely be pointing out the obvious. He is saying that the tax collector is acting as a Jew is supposed to act. He is giving to the poor, he will be fair in his dealings with others, and he will make restitution if he has harmed anyone. Anyone who acts this way is a true "descendant of Abraham" no matter what his occupation.

A vocation is a calling. The word comes from the Latin word, "vocare" which means "to call." It is the root of the words, "vocal" and "voice." Sometimes we use it in a very limited sense of religious vocation. In earlier days we used to speak of vocations to the religious life, the married life, and the single life. It's clear though that in the scriptures we all have a vocation and that none of them are unworthy or ignoble.

In St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, he prays for that little community of believers. He prays that "God may make you worthy of his calling." He also warns them not to be alarmed or distracted by thoughts about the end of the world. If we are true descendants of Abraham we need not worry about such things. All we have to do is conduct our affairs honestly, keep busy following our own vocation in life, and realize what constitutes real wealth.

There is a famous passage in the Book of Revelation which reminds us of the story of Zacchaeus. It is the passage of Jesus knocking at the door asking us to let Him into our homes and lives. The passage is addressed to those of us who have become comfortable and materialistic.

You say to yourself, 'I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything
I want,' never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too."

Even so, He offers us a chance.

Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him.

There is a famous painting of this scene but if you look closely, you will see that there is no knob on the door. It must be opened from the inside.

Monday, October 29, 2007

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 35: 12-14
Reading II. 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
Gospel. Luke 18: 9-14 (Pharisee and the Publican).

Last week we heard the parable about the widow whose prayers were answered because of her persistence. Today, we also deal with the question of whose prayers will be answered. In today's first reading from the Book of Sirach we are told that God "hears the cry of the oppressed." "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal." How unlike our own society where the largest donors are the ones who get the most attention from our leaders.

In today's passage from St. Luke, our Lord addresses a parable "to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." It is the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. Let's look at the Pharisee's prayer first.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--
greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.

I'm not a big fan of video games but I know that some games require the player to get past a number of obstacles of increasing difficulty before reaching the treasure or final goal. However, at the very end there is often a obstacle or monster that can't be passed or killed. Just when you're almost home, you're zapped or killed and you have to start all over again.

These games are very much like life itself. For just like the Pharisee we can spend a lifetime overcoming obstacles. Look how he got past obstacles like greed, dishonesty, and adultery. He's even disciplined himself by self sacrifice. He fasts and gives a large part of his wealth to support the temple. Still, he is faced with the greatest obstacle, the unpassable monster, Pride. He is not an evil man. He is a good man. But his success in overcoming all these little hurdles has made him proud or self-righteous.

It's really sad when we see such pride in our leaders, whether they be politicians, businessmen, educators, entertainers, or athletes. It's even sadder when we see it in our religious leaders who should know better. However, pride is not just limited to the high and mighty. How many ordinary families have been torn apart by a word or gesture that hurt someone's feelings. Once the wound has been inflicted and the backs have stiffened, pride sets in and prevents any reconciliation.

How often do we see ordinary Christians, for example, acting as if they were better than anyone else? Isn't it easy for us churchgoers to say, like the Pharisee, "thank God, I'm not like the rest of men."

A parable is not a true story. Our Lord just uses parables to make a point. Remember that tax collectors were despised by the Jews. It wasn't just a natural aversion to taxes. It was common knowledge that tax collectors enriched themselves unfairly and dishonestly. Moreover, they were regarded as traitors since they were doing the dirty work of the hated Romans. Here is what our Lord says about the prayer of the tax collector:

But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

How many of us say this kind of prayer? I don't mean that we have to consider ourselves evil like Hitler. I just mean that in the words of the immortal Clint Eastwood, "we have to know our limitations." We have to realize that we are fallible, not infallible--that our ideas and opinions might be wrong or in need of correction. In fact, the great antidote to pride is humility and the practice of obedience is the best way to achieve humility.

For children obedience to parents is a necessary first step in developing humility. There is nothing worse to see than a prideful, willful child who treats his or her parents with contempt. Just think how much nicer life would be if teenagers practiced humility and obedience. How many of today's marriages break up because husbands and wives cannot defer to each others authority. Finally, even our senior citizens find it hard to surrender their authority to their children who must take care of them in their old age.

It might seem that in today's second reading St. Paul is showing a little bit of pride. We must know that when he wrote the letter to Timothy, Paul was in a Roman prison awaiting his impending execution. He is looking back on his life and says in all humility that if he has achieved anything, it was all due to the Lord "who stood by me and gave me strength." This is one of my favorite passages in scripture. Paul affirms that he has given his own life in doing the Lord's work.

I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith."

Hopefully, Paul's words will be ours when we look back on our lives.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Exodus 17: 8-13
Reading II. 2 Timothy 3: 14-4:2
Gospel. Luke 18: 1-8 (pray always).

There was no more deadly enemy of the Jews at the time of the Exodus than Amalek and his tribe. In those difficult days of wandering in the desert it was either kill or be killed. Perhaps that explains the bloody and warlike tone of today's first reading. However, we have this reading today because it provides us with an example of persistency in prayer which coincides with today's Gospel account from St. Luke.

Today's parable, as St. Luke tells us, is about "the necessity to pray always without becoming weary." Earlier translations talk about the necessity of praying so as not "to lose heart." Our Lord makes it clear that if even dishonest and evil people give in to persistence, why wouldn't we expect our heavenly Father to hear our prayers?

Will not God then secure the rights of His chosen ones
who call out to Him day and night?

What does our Lord mean by prayer? A few weeks ago the disciples asked, "Lord, teach us how to pray." We know that Jesus cautioned us to avoid useless multiplication of words in prayer. He seemed to like his prayers short and to the point.

Scholars tell us that even the "Lord's Prayer" is a condensation of a number of much longer Hebrew prayers into their real essence. In it we begin by recognizing our right relationship with God. We pray that God's will be done--not ours. When we pray for our daily bread, we acknowledge that everything we have comes from our Father in Heaven. We ask forgiveness for our wrongs and promise to forgive those who have wronged us. Finally, we ask for help in avoiding temptation and evil.

Of course, Jesus always makes it clear that it is the faith of the person and not the words that makes a prayer effective.

In the last few weeks He has given us a number of examples of short but effective prayers. Two weeks ago He said,

When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'

Believe it or not, this is a prayer. In it we recognize our dependence on God and recognize our obligations to Him and our fellow man.

Last week the ten lepers only had to cry out, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" to be cured of their horrible disease. To the one leper who returned to thank Him, He said, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Next week, we will hear the famous story of the tax collector who went to the temple to pray.

But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

We will see next week that our Lord makes it clear that it was the attitude of humility expressed by the words of the tax collector which caused his prayer to be answered.

Faith is the primary ingredient in prayer but St. Paul in his letter to Timothy insists that faith is based on the Word of God. Timothy was ordained by Paul and put in charge of his own local community. This letter is important because Paul is instructing the new bishop in his duties. Above all, Paul urges Timothy to be persistent and not to lose heart. Timothy, like many of us, learned the faith from his parents and grandparents. Paul tells him to "remain faithful to what you have learned and believed."

Although Paul's words are addressed to a church leader, they are appropriate to all of us. Our prayer life will be sterile if it is separated from Scripture for all "scripture is inspired by God."

For most of us the best way to be persistent in prayer is to attend Mass every Sunday, and daily if possible. The Mass is not a private or individual prayer but the prayer of the whole community of faith. If we look at it closely, we will see that it is a collection of prayers all based on Scripture. We begin in the Confiteor by recognizing our own weaknesses and faults. After hearing the proclamation of the Word of God, we offer our own petitions to God and bring our offering to the altar as a symbol of thanksgiving for all we have received. Before Communion we pray together the Lord's Prayer. In the Agnus Dei we ask the Lamb of God to have mercy on us just as the lepers did. Then we say with the priest the great prayer derived from the words of the Roman centurion, "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed." Finally, at Communion we receive our true daily bread.

I am not saying that we should neglect traditional prayers like the Hail Mary, or the Rosary or the various litanies. All of these are profoundly scriptural. But we should avoid the mindless repetition of words. The greatest of prayers is still the Mass and the basic reason for attending is so that through all the troubles and trials of life, we will not grow weary and lose heart.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Kings 5: 14-17
Reading II. 2 Timothy 2: 8-13
Gospel. Luke 17: 11-19 (the ten lepers).

Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world. In the Gospels we have a clear picture of the roads of Palestine, particularly those near the entrance of the towns, haunted by lepers, who would hold out their dreadful fingerless hands to awaken the pity of those who passed by, but who would only succeed in terrifying them by the horrible "lion's mask" that the disease sets upon the sufferer's face. Sometimes it happened as in today's gospel that these wretched people would go about in troops.

There was no cure for leprosy. The only remedy was to cast the leper out from society. The leper was to go bareheaded, wearing special clothes; he was to live far away from towns and villages, and whenever he came near a healthy person he was to call out in a loud voice, "unclean, unclean." It is no wonder that the disease was considered a spiritual as well as a physical malady.

Today's first reading as well as the Gospel both deal with a miraculous cure of the dreaded disease of leprosy. In the reading from the Book of Kings we have the recounting of the famous story of Naaman, the Syrian warlord, who traveled to Palestine to find the prophet Elisha and was finally cured by bathing in the waters of the river Jordan.

Today's reading is not so much concerned with the cure of the foreigner, Naaman, but with his response to his cure. Discovering that "he was clean of his leprosy," Naaman with his whole retinue returned to Elisha and offered thanks to God for literally saving his life. "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel."

Luke's gospel account today is also concerned with the response of the lepers that Jesus cured. All year we have been following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Here in chapter 17 Jesus is traveling through Samaria and Galilee when a group of ten lepers calls out to Him. "Jesus, Master, have pity on us." In most of the miracles in the gospels someone asks Jesus for help, and then He either says or does something to effect a cure. It's always clear that the faith of the petitioner is the most important element in every miracle.

In this case, since lepers were not even allowed to get near any healthy person, Jesus responds to their act of faith by curing them from a distance. He merely asks them to follow the rules and show themselves to the priests of the village in order to get a kind of certificate of health. Just as in the first reading the emphasis here is not on the miraculous cure but on the response of the one leper who returned to Jesus after his cure.

And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him.

Just like Naaman this man was a foreigner. Jesus remarks on the gratitude or thankfulness of the Samaritan as opposed to the ingratitude of the nine other lepers.

Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?

What is the importance of thankfulness? Ironically, when we say thank you to someone, it does us more good than the person we are thanking. Psychologically or spiritually it is very important for us to acknowledge that we have received help and that everything we have received is not necessarily due to our own efforts. Gratitude is better than ingratitude. A grateful person is healthier than an ungrateful one.

Thankfulness to God for all He has given us is especially important. The central part of our Catholic faith is the Eucharist. The word "Eucharist" is derived from a Greek word which literally means thanksgiving. We could just as properly call it Holy Thanksgiving. In other words, every Sunday we have an opportunity to join with our community in bringing up our gifts of thanksgiving to the altar. Now don't we realize that this offering of thanks means more to us than it does to the Lord? Does the Creator of all things need our coins and dollars? Remember when we were children we would give our mother or father a little trinket for their birthday. They didn't really need it but they accepted it with joy because it was a token of our love and appreciation. For us it meant that we had a loving father and mother. What a source of consolation!

Today we live in the wealthiest society on the face of the earth. Even our poor have a standard of living that would be the envy of others living in other parts of the world. And yet there are disturbing signs. Who can deny that there is so much unhappiness in our country today. Millions of people are taking anti depressant medication. Just the other day the newspaper carried a story about the increasing use of anti-depressant drugs among teenagers.

Could it be that our unhappiness is related to a failure to give thanks. Why do so many people feel like spiritual lepers, unloved and unwanted? Parents no longer require their children to give thanks at meals, or even to attend Mass. Either we are pitiable creatures who feel we have nothing to be thankful for, or we have become a society of ingrates.

In either case we are in trouble whether spiritually or mentally. St. Paul says in today's second reading, "if we deny Him, He will deny us." One of ten lepers returned to give thanks. Is our percentage any better today? But to that one our Lord said,

Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2: 2-4
Reading II. 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14
Gospel. Luke 17:5-10 (Increase our faith).

Today's first reading from the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk could well have been written in our own time. His words are the words of a desperate man surrounded by a world full of danger. Look at the words he uses--violence, ruin, misery, destruction, clamorous discord. We only have to glance at the headlines in our daily newspapers to see the same words. Even the fictional shows on television or in the movies are full of destruction and violence.

It makes us want to cry our to God to stop it, to put an end to the suffering of humankind. For others, it makes them even doubt the existence of a God of Love. Nevertheless, the ancient prophet Habakkuk had a vision of a time of peace and happiness. He says, "the just one, because of his faith, shall live."

Isn't it interesting that today's gospel account is also about faith. All this year as we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem, the evangelist has been talking about faith. In today's reading the apostles ask our Lord to "Increase our faith." His answer is surprising. He says,

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

Jesus knew that the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds and so he was telling the apostles and us that even the tiniest bit of faith was more than enough. We really need to look for something else. He then reminds them about how most people would treat a servant.

Few of the apostles had servants and few of us have servants today. Nevertheless, we all expect good service from those we deal with especially from those we pay. When we go out to dinner, we expect good service from the wait staff. When we go shopping, we expect to be waited on courteously and efficiently? We expect tradesmen to arrive at our homes on time and to do good work. We expect our financial advisors to give good and honest advice. We expect our doctors to be there when we need them. When all these people do their work, won't they be compensated?

Our Lord is telling us not to worry about faith but to serve one another.

So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'

What commandments did Jesus have in mind. We know that He spoke of two great commandments--To love the Lord, your God, with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself." But to be more specific, let's look at the famous Ten Commandments.

The first three deal with the love, and gratitude, and respect we all owe to our Maker, and they certainly include keeping holy the Lord's day. The rest deal with our relationship with our neighbor. This is what we are commanded to do.

We must honor our father and mother. This command is so important for children, teens, and young adults but it only increases in importance as our parents age and become dependent on us. We must not kill, but Jesus told us that anger was just as bad. Not only should we not commit adultery, we shouldn't even think of it. Stealing is out of the question but this would also include loafing on the job when we should be working. How many hours do we spend each workday playing Solitaire on the computer or sending personal or junk emails?

The commandment about bearing false witness would also cover all forms of lying. Lying breaks down the bonds of trust between our friends, our neighbors, and our associates at work. When it is practiced by politicians, it creates a general distrust in government that is like a cancer in society. Finally, we are told not to covet or desire our neighbor's spouse or possessions. Jealousy, lust, and envy will destroy us and our neighbor.

In other words our daily work and the way in which we do it is our faith. We must live our faith. Whatever our station in life, we have been put here for a reason. St. Luke continually talks about service and stewardship.

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy is addressed to Timothy as a priest and bishop but it is also addressed to all of us. It is good advice as we practice our faith. When Timothy was ordained, he received the same Spirit that we all received at Confirmation.

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.

Life will not be easy and will not ever get easier. The violence, destruction, and ruin that Habakkuk saw will always be with us in one form or another. But Paul, himself in prison for his Faith and about to suffer execution, tells Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God."

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14
Reading II. 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son).

All three readings today deal with those who have strayed away from the true path to happiness. In the first reading from the Book of Exodus, the whole people of Israel have lost faith in their God who had rescued them from captivity in Egypt, that land where they had become shamefully depraved.

The most famous story in the Bible is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This story is so moving and powerful that the Church returns to it over and over again. We have already heard it this year in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of Springtime. Now we have it as the Liturgical year is drawing to a close.

It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked his critics which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."

Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."

Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?

Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat
to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
to him you slaughter the fatted calf."

Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy tells of another who strayed. It is Paul himself. "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant." Paul never tires of calling himself the least of the Apostles.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.

Paul believes that his own life is an example of the way God acts as a loving parent who is always ready to welcome us home.

God is Love. We can turn our backs on Him and go astray but He can never turn His back on us. Too often we think of God as an angry old dictator ready to zap us whenever we step out of line. Today's reading from the Book of Exodus gives us the image of such an angry God but there is also a hint that even in those early days Moses believed in a God of mercy and forgiveness. Certainly, we can never think of God as an angry patriarch after reading our Lord's parable of the Prodigal Son.

The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was led astray and converted by them. Isn't this tragic story true today? How many of our children have squandered their spiritual inheritance upon leaving home. Isn't it sad that so many will discontinue their religious education once they go to High school? Many will cease attending Mass right after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. By the time they graduate from college, so many will be confirmed agnostics or atheists. As someone once said, "When people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything." They have given up the beauty, the wisdom, and the inheritance of 2000 years.

We can only hope and pray that when they come to their senses in some foreign land, we will be ready to receive them back without bitterness or rancor, and with open arms.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Wisdom 9: 13-18b
Reading II. Philemon 9b-19, 12-17
Gospel. Luke 14: 25-33 (carry his own cross).

Today's first reading is from the Book of Wisdom and naturally it's subject is wisdom. In the last few weeks the Church has been offering us the virtues as guides on our journey through life. A couple of weeks ago it was Faith. Last week Humility. This week we have Wisdom. While all the virtues are gifts of God, we have to practice them regularly to stay in spiritual shape.

Wisdom is not intelligence, or book learning. We all know that sometimes the smartest people are not necessarily wise. Indeed, people with no learning at all can often be very wise. Wisdom is the virtue that helps us distinguish right from wrong in any endeavor. It will also help us in making the most important decisions in our lives. Wisdom often means looking outside of ourselves for guidance. Today we regularly turn to doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors for advice in matters of their expertise. We know, as it says in today's reading, that "the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans."

St. Luke's gospel which we have been using all year deliberately follows our Lord on His journey to Jerusalem. Every week we have been urged to accompany Him on this journey. Now as we approach the end it should not surprise us that the road is getting more difficult the closer we get to our goal. It will take a different kind of wisdom for us to find happiness. How many times do the gospels remind us that our ways are not necessarily the Lord's way.

Two weeks ago our Lord told us to be prepared to enter by "the narrow gate." Last week we were advised to "humble ourselves." This week our Lord indicates that if we want to stay afloat, we will have to throw everything overboard:

anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.

Not just possessions but also our most dear attachments.

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.

What can we make of statements like these? What kind of advice is this? Right before Jesus turns to the crowd to utter these statements, He told another little parable about the goal of life's journey. This parable was about a man who gave a banquet and invited many to the banquet but they all had excuses for not coming. They were preoccupied by their own affairs. One had just bought a farm and had to go see it. Another had bought some oxen and had to take them out for a test ride. The last said, "I have married a wife, and therefore cannot come."

These refusals angered the man and led him to invite "the poor, and the crippled, and the blind, and the lame." All these were not tied down with possessions and attachments. He even went out into the highways and byways to fill the banquet hall. Wisdom tells us that only if we get our priorities straight will we find true happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

Both of the examples of practical wisdom that our Lord gives us in today's gospel are as appropriate today as ever. Instead of a man building a tower, we could talk of one taking on a load of debt which he would not be able to handle when interest rates rise. Don't we wish that our leaders and politicians would behave like the king in today's gospel who used foresight and wisdom before committing his men to battle?

Is it possible that our Lord is being just as practical when He asks us to renounce all of our possessions in order to find true happiness in our journey through life?

Today's second reading from the letter of St. Paul to Philemon gives us another example of Wisdom. This letter is unusual in that it is not addressed to a community of believers but to an individual. Philemon like most well to do Roman citizens was a slaveowner. Slavery was a common and totally acceptable practice in Roman society. The Romans believed that it was better after conquering a people to enslave rather than kill them. Slaves were very valuable possessions in the ancient world.

Apparently, Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves, had run away. Either before or after his escape, he had converted to Christianity and somehow had managed to meet up with Paul in prison. In today's reading we see that Paul sends him back to Philemon but urges him not to punish Onesimus but to give him his freedom. In giving up his slave, Philemon will gain "more than a slave,' but a brother in Christ.

It was our Lord's constant teaching that since we all have the same Father in Heaven, we are all brothers and sisters. We know that we are supposed to see Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. Paul echoes this teaching when he says to Philemon about Onesimus, 'welcome him as you would me." From that time on it would be increasingly difficult for Christians to own slaves. It is true that there would be resistance to this "wisdom" but Paul's little letter to Philemon would be a constant reminder to Christians of the "un-wisdom" of slavery.














































































































































































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Monday, September 3, 2007

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24a
Gospel. Luke 14: 1, 7-14 (take the lowest place).

In today's readings we have some of the scriptural sources for that most important of all Christian characteristics--humility. The reading from Sirach sets the tone:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.

In last weeks gospel our Lord said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Today He tells the parable of the guests at the wedding banquet who were choosing the places of honor for themselves, but who then had to shamefully take a lower place.

Every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

The word "humility" comes from the Latin word "humus" which literally means dirt. It reminds us of the words said on Ash Wednesday, "Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return." In Medieval Church art the virtues were often depicted along with their contrasting vices. For example, Chastity was paired up against Lust, and Temperance was paired up against Gluttony. Humility was, of course, always contrasted with the greatest of the vices, Pride.

Now, what is Humility? The readings today suggest that this virtue has to do with knowing who you are and acting accordingly. Sirach says, "What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not." Or as Clint Eastwood said in one of the dirty Harry movies, "A man's got to know his limitations."

All the virtues are meant to be practiced each and every day. Virtues are good habits in the same way that vices are bad habits. Like other habits the more we practice them, the harder it will be to break them. For example, the more we lie, the harder it will be for us to tell the truth. In the end it will be virtually impossible to tell the truth. In the same way, the only way to avoid Pride is to practice Humility.

How do we do that? I'd like to start by giving an example from History. Although Monasteries are no longer a key part of our culture, they were for over a thousand years a major factor, if not the major factor, in the development of Western Civilization. Most monasteries evolved from the Rule of St. Benedict, a Roman nobleman of the 4th and 5th centuries. A Rule just means a set of regulations or laws that everyone in the monastery agreed to live by.

The Rule told them when to get up in the morning, when to work, when to study, when to pray, when to eat, and when to sleep. We might be shocked at this idea, but most of us have adopted some kind of rule for ourselves. We get up at the same time each morning, eat the same breakfast, read the same newspaper, and so on. Ideally, by adhering to the rule the monk was practicing humility. He was following the words of our Lord, "not my will, but your will be done."

I'm not saying that we have to enter a monastery to practice humility. Sirach gives us some practical tips.

The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.

The first line about the "mind of a sage" indicates that we should appreciate the wisdom of those who might have the knowledge and experience to instruct us. Our parents and grandparents are the first ones who come to mind here. It is a sign of the pridefulness of our age that we don't think that we have anything to learn from our elders. Teachers come to mind next. I recall reading about a woman who became a millionaire even though she never made more than $60000/ year. She attributed her success to the example of her elementary and high school teachers.

Someone once said that since we have two ears and one mouth we should do twice as much listening as talking. What a dream? At most business conferences I have attended, the participants have been more interested in talking about themselves and their ways, than learning from others. Invariably, the top producers are the ones who talk least about themselves.

The giving of alms was a cornerstone of Sirach's Jewish faith just as it is a cornerstone of our Christian faith. Just as Christ gave Himself up for us, the giving of alms is a giving up of a little bit of ourselves for others. It is the ultimate act of humility. For the medieval monks their doors were always open to the poor.

Today's second reading reminds us a little of the scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion finally approach the great and powerful wizard after completing their mission. They discovered that they didn't need the wizard after all. By practicing virtues like prudence, loyalty, courage, and humility on their journey, they found their brain, their heart, their courage, and their way home.


































































































































































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Sunday, August 26, 2007

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 66: 18-21
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13
Gospel. Luke 13: 22-30 (the narrow gate).

In today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah we have an image of an almost limitless line of people streaming toward Jerusalem, God's "holy mountain," a symbol of Heaven. The Lord says,

I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.

Today's gospel reading from St. Luke gives us the same picture.

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

You may recall that we have been in the third or "C" cycle of readings since the year began. In this cycle most of the gospel readings are from St. Luke's gospel. From the beginning it has been St. Luke's intention to depict our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. All year Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing, and working wonders on His way. Today's reading begins this way:

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as He went and making His way to Jerusalem.

All along the way He has been asking His people, including us, to join Him on the journey.

Despite the vast numbers of those who will enter the Kingdom, there is a hint in both readings that some will not make it. There is even the strong suggestion that among those who will not make it are those who might have thought that they had it locked up. Isaiah says that the Lord will go outside the ranks of the "chosen people" to strangers in distant lands who "have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory." This reminds us of the parable where Jesus speaks of a King who, after the invited guests failed to show up, had to go out into "the highways and byways" to find guests for his banquet.

The message of today's gospel is equally clear. The master of the house has locked the door and some will be left out. This parable refers to the Jews, especially the Pharisees, of our Lord's time. They will see Abraham and the prophets at the great banquet but they, themselves, will fail to be admitted. Now, whenever Jesus speaks to the Jews and Pharisees we should realize that He is also speaking to us. For just like our Lord's contemporaries we also run the risk of being locked out of the banquet.

Now we shouldn't get the impression that Heaven is a kind of walled fortress that is almost impossible to enter. When our Lord compares it to a banquet, He means that it is happiness. He never says that we have to wait until death to find happiness. We can start the journey right now. In fact, it will be fatal to delay.

Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.

It's hard to know exactly what He means by "narrow gate" but let's consider the words, "strive" and "strong." As He does on so many other occasions, Jesus says that concentrated effort along with constant preparedness is necessary to find happiness.

His saying brings to mind the Olympic games which will be taking place next year. Of all the athletes how many will be strong enough, fast enough, or skilled enough to reach the victor's podium? Talk about a narrow gate! Just think of all the athletes who will not even be eligible for their country's Olympic trials. Think about all those who will then fail to qualify at the trials. Finally, when they get to the Olympic games many world class favorites will falter and fail to realize their dream.

Whether winners or losers we know that all the participants will have put in incredible amounts of time and effort in pursuit of their goal. Even though TV cameras will only highlight the efforts of a few favorites, all of the athletes must believe in sacrifice and self discipline. At the last Olympics, for example, one young runner said that he had dreamt of the Olympics since he was nine years old, and had dedicated his whole life to getting there.

However, when it comes to our own lives, why are so many of us couch potatoes? What do we do to prepare ourselves for the great events that we will face in life's decathlon. Today's second reading is about discipline, the constant training and practice that is required to face life's hurdles and trials.

all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.

How many of us in our business and professional careers go to countless workshops and seminars in order to strengthen and develop our skills. We learn and practice these skills in order to improve our performance. Yet, how often do we fail to apply these skills to our own personal quest for happiness? If discipline and self-sacrifice work in sports or business, why shouldn't they work in our personal journey?


























































































































































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Sunday, August 19, 2007

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10
Reading II. Hebrews 12: 1-4
Gospel. Luke 12: 49-53 (to set the earth on fire).


In today's first reading from the Book of Jeremiah, we find the prophet in deep trouble. Now we must remember that the Old Testament prophets were not fortune tellers speaking of future events. For the most part they pointed out and complained of improper behaviors on the part of the people. Not only were such behaviors bad in themselves, they were bringing all kinds of hardships upon the people. Of course, no one likes to hear such criticism, especially the leaders of society.

Jeremiah was perhaps the most outspoken of all the prophets. We still use the word "Jeremiad" today to indicate a particularly outspoken and critical speech. Is it any wonder that Jeremiah was taken by the leaders of the city and thrown into a cistern to be left for dead? After all, the city was at war and Jeremiah was blaming their bad fortune on their immoral and unjust behavior.

Today's Gospel presents us with a picture of our Lord in a Jeremiah mode. It is one of the hardest passages in scripture to read and comprehend for it shows our Lord in a way that jars our sensibilities. It seems to be so uncharacteristic. He says,

I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!

Then He says.

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.

How can this be? All along, we have thought that His mission was exactly to bring peace on the earth. Isn't our goal unity, rather than division? From this passage alone it will be very difficult to answer these questions. It might help us to go back and read the entire 12th chapter of St. Luke's gospel.

The Gospel of St. Luke is basically an account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tortured, and put to a cruel and humiliating death on a cross. In chapter 12, however, the teachings and healings of Jesus have attracted large crowds. He warns his disciples that this popularity is not necessarily a good thing. The leaders of society will plot against Him just as they did against Jeremiah. They too can also expect to be drawn before the magistrates and be persecuted. But He also tells them not to worry because their heavenly Father will be with them.

Jesus tells them, "do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on." He reminds them of the "lilies of the field." "Consider how the lilies grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these." Finally, He says,

Sell what you have and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that do not grow old, a treasure unfailing in heaven, where neither thief draws near or moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."

Characteristically, Peter interjects, "Lord, dost thou speak this parable for us or for all alike?" Of course, He is speaking to all of us. He is urging us to get our priorities in order. Are we paying too much attention to the things of this world? Here we are in America, the richest country in the whole history of the world, and we seem to be so profoundly unhappy. We have so much food that our most serious illness is obesity. We spend hours shopping for clothes but will never think we look good enough. Every day we seem to agonize over the gyrations of the stock market, the real estate market, or the energy market. And still He tells us not to worry or be afraid.

Is it any wonder that many will not be able to accept such teaching or follow such an example? The teaching seems so impractical. How can we not care about food, clothing, money, jobs, and careers? I don't think that Jesus was asking us to shirk our responsibilities but He was urging us to get our priorities straight. As individuals we will all have to decide what brings true happiness.

Our choices can divide us from our families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. The teaching of Jesus was really counter-cultural in His time, and it is still counter-cultural in our time. His disciples suffered and died to follow His teaching. Martyrs, both known and unknown, have suffered and died ever since. Most of us will not be asked to die for our Faith but all of us will experience some degree of suffering in just leading our daily lives. Someone once said that everyone in church is there for a reason.

In our second reading today from the letter to the Hebrews we are told to take Jesus as an example.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,
in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.




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