Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Epiphany Homily - January 4, 2015

Homily for Epiphany

January 4, 2014

Herod’s Double Life


            Studying history makes me absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit is in charge of this church of ours. The Renaissance was a rough period for the church – many of the popes were very corrupt, such as Pope Alexander the Sixth, who fathered four children as pope and ended up bankrupting the Vatican for his various projects, even though he was happy to make anyone a bishop for the right amount of money. Here was this man, who on the outside was supposed to be a man of God, but who in reality was totally corrupt. He seemed to have no regret for his evil – he famously said one day, “God gave us the papacy – let us enjoy it!” Hey, what can you expect from a Borgia. And yet, despite his corruption, the Church continued on, guided by the Holy Spirit.

            But even today, the challenge for Christians is to not live a double life. I mean, what made King Herod such a despicable character in the Gospel? I think it was because he was so duplicitous. He told the Three Kings that he was excited to worship Jesus, when in reality he wanted to kill Him. Herod wanted to be seen as a good man, a follower of God…when in reality he was a power-hungry murderer.

            On the other hand, we have these three wise men, who were genuinely interested in getting to know the Lord. Look at the sacrifices they make to come to visit Jesus – they travel hundreds of miles, and give Him these valuable gifts. These three kings were authentically interested in having a relationship with God.

            So who are we – the Wise Men, or Herod? We can be tempted to live a double life, too. We come here on Sunday, praising Jesus with our lips, but then we leave here and we curse and gossip with those same lips. We say we believe in Jesus, but then when He says something difficult like “stay faithful to your marriage vows”, we disobey Him. We say our faith is important, we say we’re spiritual people, but won’t spend ten minutes a day reading Scripture. We pray our prayers, but then are racist or prejudice against people who are different from us.

            But the goal of the Christian life is to practice in our lives what we profess to believe with our lips. I remember at one parish where I was stationed, we had a youth group night about the Mass, presented by the high schoolers to the middle schoolers. So six high school students got up and told the middle schoolers what they loved about the Mass. As I was watching this presentation, I realized that five out of the six had not been to Mass that weekend. So afterward, I said to one of those high school kids, “Wow, that was a great talk. So which Mass were you at this weekend?” He stared at me blankly, before bowing his head, ashamed, and saying, “Ok, Deacon Joe, you got me. I didn’t go.”

            As a friend of mine used to say, “I can see right through you, plastic man.” Our goal is not to be someone who lives a double life, being a Christian in one area of life but having a secret life on the side. There is a virtue we should strive for – the virtue called integrity – which means being the same person in public as you are in private. We should be a Christian in our workplaces, our schools, our families, online. If you have a double life – if you are struggling with a secret sin, addiction, or if you are professing to be a Christian today but not willing to live it tomorrow, then you need to repent of this and seek to live an authentic Christian life.

            I love what the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne said about living a double life: “No man can have two faces: one for public and one for private. He will soon forget which one is which.” We will never be at peace if we are two different people – a Christian on Sunday but a pagan on Monday. No, to have that deep peace, we need to be striving for Christian holiness every day. We may not be perfect, but so long as we are striving every day, and really giving a real effort – like the real effort the Wise Men gave – then we will find our inner peace.

            The temptation to be Herod is within all of us – to say we believe in Jesus but then live like we don’t. Don’t give in to such a temptation – be a man or woman of integrity.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Holy Family - December 28, 2014

Feast of the Holy Family

December 28, 2014

On the Family


            One of my favorite Christmas traditions is to watch The Christmas Carol, the old Charles Dickens story about Scrooge. When I was in high school I was in that play, and ever since, I have enjoyed the story. It’s an interesting contrast between Scrooge – this friendless miser who is tremendously rich but miserable – and his employee, Bob Cratchet – who is poor, and works hard, but is deeply happy. What’s the difference between Scrooge’s misery and Cratchet’s happiness? I think the difference is that Bob Cratchet has a family. He is able to endure his poverty and difficult job because he is motivated by love for his family.

Family. The word can evoke so many emotions for people. For some, it is a place of peace, security, and love. For others, it provokes anxiety and stress. But what was God’s plan for the family?

            The family was meant to be the “domestic Church”. In other words, this is the place where we grow in holiness the most. Families should be communities of faith, hope, and love – like mini-churches! Think about it – in our families, we first learn about the love of God for us through the love our parents have for us. We also learn about virtues – good character traits – in the family: virtues such as patience, forgiveness, self-sacrifice…all of these are played out in the family.

            I think sometimes a great definition of family is: “Those people, related by blood, who you would do anything for…except take out the trash!” It’s precisely in the everyday life of the family that we learn how to love with true self-sacrificing love. Yes, taking out the trash can help us grow in holiness if we do it out of love…and so our families – as crazy as they can be – are the method through which we can become saints!

            The family is the fundamental building-block of society. Society is made up of families – therefore, as the family goes, so goes society. When families are weak and divided, when they break up easily or are “redefined”, then society itself becomes weak and divided and corrupted.

            I realize that nowadays, in 2014, especially in this community, there are not a whole lot of intact families left. Many families have suffered the pain of divorce or abandonment. And I do not intend to judge anyone who lives in a family that has been broken – please understand that God has great compassion on all those whose family situations are difficult.

            But God has intended, from the beginning of time, for a family to be a husband and a wife, united in marriage, with their children. When we start breaking up the family structure through divorce, or when we try to redefine it to be a union of two persons of the same gender, we not only harm the family but society as well. If someone were to try to build a brick house but kept using bricks that were broken, or tried to use Styrofoam instead of bricks, the house wouldn’t be very sturdy, and at a certain point if enough solid bricks were missing, the whole house would collapse. In the same way, if we try to build a solid society on broken families, it won’t work. Society will be weakened, and eventually collapse.

            So how do we build a happy, holy family in the modern world? Here are three suggestions to strengthening your family life for 2015.

            First, make God your first priority. That is shown in many ways – making sure than nothing else gets in the way of Sunday Mass, praying together daily as a family, having religious articles such as crucifixes and saint statues in your home, teaching your children their religious education, and coming as a family to other spiritual opportunities such as Stations of the Cross or Eucharistic Adoration. When God is the bedrock on which your family is built, then nothing can ever shake your family.

            Second, eat dinner together every night as a family. A series of studies looked at the effect of eating meals together as a family and they found that children whose families eat together have better social adjustment, less delinquency and drug use, less psychological problems, and a better overall sense of well-being than those who do not eat together regularly. The daily dinner gives families a chance to truly communicate, to get to know each other. I’m convinced that’s why God made us with the need to eat three times a day – so that we can have three opportunities to get to know each other better. So if you want a happy, healthy family, make sure that dinner is eaten together as often as possible, at least five times per week. If you’re too busy for this daily ritual, then you’re just too busy, period.

            Finally, learn sacrifice. It has been said that “family” is an acronym which stands for “Forget About Me – I Love You.” Families only work when each member is more concerned about the others than about themselves. That means that kids have to seek to obey their parents, even when it’s difficult. That means that spouses have to put the other first. Sacrifice is the purest form of love.

            Now, I know that families are very messy, and no one’s family is perfect. But what can we do in this new year to strengthen our families? All of us have family – even if we are widowed and alone, we hopefully have extended family that we can reach out to, or neighbors who are families for us. Let’s do our part to build up happy, healthy, holy families!

Christmas Homily 2014

The Inn Thing


            All of us are so familiar with the Christmas story that I don’t need to repeat it. We know the major cast of characters: Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, the wise men and King Herod. But there’s one character who never gets any attention: the innkeeper. You know, when Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem and there was no room for them in the inn, think about the innkeeper – who was he?

            He was just doing his job, trying to keep his business running during a very busy time. I’m sure in the hustle and bustle of trying to check in all the hundreds of guests to his modest inn, he had no idea of the great gift that would be born in his backyard that night. Which is kinda sad if you think about it – here’s a man who had the chance to be a part of the most amazing event in history – the birth of the everlasting Son of God, the Savior of the World. And he missed it because he was just too busy.

            How many of you here this evening/morning would say that your life is busy? I think that’s especially true in this holiday time. The Christmas parties, the shopping, the baking, Christmas cards, on top of everything else that’s usually going on – it tends to get crazy! If I had to take a wild guess, I would guess that 95% of people in this church who sent Christmas letters this year used the word “busy” in their letter. Modern life can get crazy at times!

            But what are we missing because we’re just too doggone busy? I think sometimes our relationship with God is a casualty of our busy lifestyles. We’re just running around all day, trying to taxi our kids from one activity to another, trying to finish all of the errands and check off our to-do list, and by the time we crash into the sack we have had no time to spend with God all day. Or our weekends are so filled with good things – sports, volunteering, community activities – that we miss out on that opportunity to nourish our relationship with God at Sunday worship?

            And that, ultimately, is why Jesus Christ was born – to bring us into a relationship with God. God is invisible, and His love is invisible – and that’s why we needed a visible, tangible Person to bring us into relationship with Him. Jesus Christ is God’s love incarnate, and He lived – and died – so that we could know of the depths of His love.

            But that love requires a response! Jesus isn’t just a historical figure who lived and died and then hasn’t been heard from since. He lives forever – and it is still possible to have a personal friendship with Him!

            For a lot of people, 2013 has been a tough year. Financial stress, maybe a health scare, a government shutdown, global crises – there’s always something that can stress us out. And I’m not going to claim that a relationship with Jesus is going to make all of our problems go away – but I am going to claim that He gives us a strength to get through the crises. Maybe even more importantly, he gives us a new perspective and a new meaning to them, because a relationship with Jesus Christ allows us to see that this world is passing and most of the things that stress us out aren’t going to matter much in eternity. We were created for God and for eternal life with Him, and this life won’t make sense at all until we have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

            I’m reminded of a young girl from our parish who was so excited last year to tell me what she wanted from Santa Claus. She was literally jumping up and down as she was in line to greet me after Mass one Sunday in December. Finally when she got to me she jumped up and down and said, “Guess what! Guess what! Guess what I want for Christmas!” So I asked her, and she exclaimed at the top of her voice, “A pink bible!” She was so excited to go deeper in her relationship with Jesus that the greatest gift she could ask for was a bible. But of course it had to be pink, otherwise it wouldn’t do.

            What a great gift, to have that relationship with God through Jesus Christ! If you’ve never begun one, today’s the perfect day to do so. Simply turn to the Lord in the quiet of your heart, and ask Him to come in. Offer your life to Him. Ask Him to forgive your sins. Invite Him to dwell in your heart. He will come.

            I just keep coming back to that innkeeper. Ya know, it has never been the “inn” thing to be a Christian. It’s demanding - it demands our entire life, given to Him. It’s not “cool” – to live for Jesus Christ and not for our selfish motives. It takes time and effort that’s in short supply in our busy, stressed-out lives. But it also offers the greatest treasure possible – a life with meaning, inner peace, and eternal life. Don’t be like the innkeeper, so busy with life that he misses out on the most important thing of all – a relationship with God.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 21, 2014

Advent 4 – Level 1

December 21, 2014

On Grace


            Have you ever met someone famous? I really haven’t. I’ve gotten to within five feet of St. John Paul II, but that was it. Didn’t get to shake his hand. I did a quick survey on Facebook, to see if any of my friends had encountered a famous person. A friend of mine was telling me that she was hugged by Henry Winkler at Pepe’s Pizza…now that is an encounter to remember! Another friend got to shake Mother Teresa’s hand. That’s pretty cool!

            But what it someone famous – maybe Payton Manning or Drake or Lionel Messi or someone like that - came to you and asked to have dinner at your house? I know if it was someone that I really admired, I’d go all-out and clean the house from top-to-bottom, and fix one heck of a dinner. Even though it would be a lot of work to prepare, it would definitely be worth it.

            So King David in the first reading is equally excited to have the Lord dwell in a house. He’s all set to build a temple, when the Lord says to him through a prophet, “I don’t want a house that you build – that’s not where I desire to live.” Okay, so, Lord, if you don’t want to live in a temple, where do you desire to live?

            The answer finally comes in the Gospel. The angel Gabriel greets Mary with these mysterious words – “Hail, full of grace!” What does this mean? It means that Mary’s soul is the dwelling place of God – and her body will be as well when Jesus is conceived.

            So God’s desire is not to live in a temple, or a tabernacle, or a house – no, God’s desire is to dwell in our souls through grace. Yes, He is truly present here in the tabernacle in Church. But He dwells here only to make it easier for Him to dwell in the temple of our soul through grace.

            Grace. There’s that word again. What is grace? Here’s a very simple four-word definition of grace: grace is God’s life within us. Let that sink in for a minute. If you were chilling at home one day and you hear a knock on your door, and you open it and you find that Jesus is outside, saying, “Hey, can I come in and hang out? Maybe do dinner with you?” We’d be thrilled beyond belief. We’d probably be speechless. Hopefully we’d open up and let Him in. That’s what Mary had done – she was the dwelling place of God from her very first moment.

            We too become temples of grace – of God’s divine life – at baptism. We increase grace through prayer and the Sacraments, and the only way we can lose grace is through serious sin. So it is my prayer that all of us here are temples of grace – that God’s divine life dwells in us.

            Okay, pause for a moment. Are we excited yet about God’s grace? I know it seems like some kind of abstract idea, but it’s absolutely amazing when we consider it! Grace is what transformed us from slaves of sin to sons of God. Grace is what allows us to call upon God anywhere – because He dwells in the temple of our souls. Grace makes us, you and I, sinners – into saints!

            You know, when Jesus was about to be born, there was no room for Him in an inn. He had to be born in a stable. Jesus is still looking for a home – is your soul prepared to receive Him? Have you swept clean your soul in confession? Have you prepared it through prayer? Have you welcomed Him through a desire to live a holy life and become a saint? Or would you be embarrassed to have Jesus come into your soul because it’s dirty with sin and impurity?

            This Christmas, as we prepare to give and receive gifts from family and friends, give Jesus the gift of a pure soul – and prepare to receive the awesome, incomprehensible riches of God’s grace.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent - December 14, 2014

Homily for December 14, 2014

Advent 3

Rejoice in the Lord Always


            At one parish where I was stationed there was a kid named Neil who was in our youth group. He was always smiling – and I do mean always. He was probably the happiest person I had ever met. Finally one day when we were tossing a football I asked him, “Neil, why are you so joyful?”

            He replied, with his customary smile, “Because that’s what Heaven is going to be like!”

            Pretty perceptive for a teen, I’d say. You know, Mother Theresa once said, “Joy is the unmistakable sign of the presence of God.” And today’s readings all encourage us to rejoice! In fact, that is what sets the third Sunday of Advent apart from all others: in the middle of what should be a season of penance and repentance, we take a Sunday apart to focus on rejoicing. That’s why the color we wear (and the color of the candle on the Advent wreath) is rose instead of purple. We even call this Sunday a different name: “Gaudete Sunday” which means “Rejoicing Sunday.”

            But I don’t know about you, but some days it seems hard for me to rejoice. The Christmas season can be a stressful one for many people – in addition to our daily busyness, we have the added pressure of shopping for Christmas gifts, planning parties, and sometimes seeing the dreaded in-laws. There are days when the stress of Christmas – and just the stress of daily life – can sap our joy. So how do we stay joyful in daily life?

            Well, the secret is that this is no ordinary joy. In all three readings that speak about joy, it says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” We’re not rejoicing because we scored a great deal on a big-screen TV. That kind of happiness fades quickly. We’re rejoicing because we have a friendship with Christ. We’re rejoicing because we know that our God is madly, passionately in love with us personally. Being happy about things that go right in our lives is fine, but ultimately it doesn’t last. But when we focus on the one thing that does last – being in love with God – this never changes and we cannot lose it!

            So often, our mood is based upon what happens to us. I know that I, myself, am a pessimist by nature. But that means that we’re kind of at the mercy of our circumstances – so we win two bucks on a scratch-off lottery ticket and we get happy, but then our boss yells at us and we get down, but then our kid gets a good grade on his test and we get happy once more, but then we find that the dog made a mess in the house again and we get frustrated. If we allow our emotions to be ruled by something as changeable as the circumstances of our daily life, then we’ll be up and down more often than a see-saw!

            But God wants for you abundant joy – joy that is deeper than just the circumstances of daily life. At the core of this joy is the realization that we are His beloved Sons and Daughters. Now, it’s a struggle to keep this joy when things are crazy or busy or stressful in life…but keep remembering that all things – even the frustrating things – are passing, and that God’s love for you never changes. Cling to this, and we will be able to rejoice always in the Lord!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent - Dec. 7, 2014

            I was doing some research on the Internet the other day, and I came across an interesting legend about the great Saint Boniface and the origins of the Christmas tree. He was pretty much the first missionary to preach the Gospel to Germany, which at that time in the 700s was still pagan. In fact, they worshipped many pagan gods, one of whom was the powerful god of lightning, Thor. Their worship of Thor was centered around a large oak tree dedicated to him.

            So Boniface wasted no time in going head-on with this pagan god. As many of the Germans were worshipping the Oak of Thor, he walked right up and started to chop it down. Naturally, the Germans were horrified, completely expecting Thor to come down in a bolt of lightning and destroy them all. They were saying, “Uh…Boniface…maybe you don’t want to do that…uh…Boniface?”

            Well, naturally the tree fell down, and no lightning struck. So everyone was stunned. Boniface simply turned around to face them and challenged them, saying, “Where’s your god now?”

            So all of a sudden the Germans were convinced that the God of Boniface was the one true God. But old habits die hard, and they begged Boniface to still give them some tree that they could honor and dedicate to the True God. So Boniface gave them an evergreen tree and told them, “This tree stays green year-round, symbolizing Christ as your never-ending life.” And they all lived happily ever after.

            When I was reading this story though, Boniface’s words stuck in my head. Where is your God now? Maybe it’s because so often people say that in the darkest of times.

            Like what the Jews were going through at the time of Christ. They were being oppressed, completely ruled by these pagan Romans who were taxing the stuffing out of them. Sure, they had heard from their fathers about this distant God who had brought them out of Egypt, but what now? Where was their God then, hundreds of years later, amidst suffering and despair?

            He was in a manger. A completely unexpected place for the God of the universe, but that humility showed the depth of His love for humanity. It wasn’t that God had deserted us – no, He wouldn’t do that – but He was in a place that people least expect. A feeding trough for animals. That’s where we find our God. In fact, we call Jesus “Emmanuel” which means “God with us”.

            Fast-forward two thousand years. People still suffer with illnesses, fear, concerns and cares that wear upon us. This world is broken like never before. Where is our God now? Has He deserted us?

            No, on the contrary. Our God is as close as the Scriptures we read, as close as the prayers we pray. Our God is not some god who lives in a far-off Heaven, but one who wants to be involved in the messiness of our lives. When we turn to Him in our hearts, He has promised that He would hear.

            And the time is now. He has been knocking at the doors of our heart for too long – will you let Him in, and begin a real relationship with Jesus Christ? St. Paul tells us – the night is far spent, the day draws near – now is the time, because our God is not distant but drawing close, close in the manger, close in the Eucharist, waiting to be welcomed into our lives. Some of us are afraid to welcome Christ because we think our lives are too messy. We think, “Let me get my life in order, then I’ll become a faithful follower of Christ.” But Jesus isn’t afraid of the mess – He became man, entered this messy world with all of its chaos and problems, and brought hope to a broken world – the hope that God really is with us. He can do the same with your life – enter the messiness that is your life (and mine), abiding with us when we face our challenges and problems, and bringing hope by His presence. The time is now – invite Him in!

            Where is our God now? Behold, He stands at the door of your heart and knocks – our God is Emmanuel – God with us.