Thursday, December 21, 2017

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 24, 2017

Homily for Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2017
Tabernacled Among Us

            There was once a man who was obstinately against the Christian faith – he just couldn’t understand how God could ever become man. His wife continued to invite him to church every Christmas and Easter, but he refused, figuring he didn’t believe any of this Christianity stuff, so why should he go to church?
            It was a dark and snowy Christmas Eve when his wife and kids went to church, leaving this man alone in his house after dark. All of a sudden, he heard several loud thumps on his window. He looked out into the snow, and was surprised to see that a dozen birds had accidentally flown into his window, looking for shelter from the snow. They looked cold, dazed, and injured, so his heart was moved with pity for them and he tried to give them a refuge from the cold night.
            He quickly went to his garage and opened the garage door, but the birds refused to come in. He spread straw and sawdust on the floor, but still the birds didn’t come in. Going to his cabinet, he found some birdseed, which he sprinkled on the floor with a trail leading to the birds. But the birds, startled by the man, started to scatter in the snow.
            The man came outside, trying to usher the birds into the garage, but they were terrified and ran further away. Frustrated and saddened, he said to himself, “If only I was a bird like them, I could lead them to safety! I wish I could speak their language and tell them not to fear, to tell them that they could get out of this darkness! If only I was one of them!”
            All of a sudden, he realized he was describing what God did at Christmas. He fell to his knees in the snow and accepted Christ into his life.
            The Incarnation – God taking flesh – is what sets Christianity apart from every other world religion. All other religions are man’s search for God, but Christianity is God’s search for man. He is the one who took the initiative; He is the one who called out to us when we were lost, alone, afraid, dead. He took on flesh to show us what God was like. On our own, we would never have been able to know who God is. Yes, creation gives us a glimpse into His goodness, and we can know a few things about Him. But it’s like the difference between seeing a single painting of Leonardo da Vinci versus actually meeting him. The painting reveals a lot, but it is so much richer to meet the Artist face-to-face.
            When Gabriel explains to Mary how this great miracle of the Incarnation will come about, he uses an interesting phrase. He says that the “power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That has so many connections to the Old Testament, particularly to the Ark of the Covenant. While the Israelites were wandering the desert, they had a tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept – this tent was called the “Meeting Tent” because it was where God met with Moses and spoke with him face-to-face. Whenever God would appear in the Meeting Tent, a cloud of glory (called the Shekinah) would descend upon the tent and overshadow it, so that Moses could converse with God.
            Here we see Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant – the sacred covenant that would be sworn upon the Cross – who is overshadowed by the glory of the Lord. Her womb would be the place where God and humanity met once and for all. Now, in Jesus, God and man could no longer be separated, because God became a man. There was no way for God to disown the human race, because He is now one of us!
            In John’s Gospel, John says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But a better translation would be that He “pitched His tent” or “His tabernacle” among us. We do not need to go through Moses to speak to God in His tabernacle, His meeting tent – in Jesus Christ, particularly in His Word and in His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we are able to meet with Him!
            This is why we call Him “Emmanuel” – God with us. How comforting to know that God is with us! He never promised to make our life easy and pleasant – He promised to be with us. How powerful that can be!
            One of the most difficult times in my life happened on December 14, 2012. I was assigned in St. Mary’s in Bethel, which is the next-door town to Newtown. On that fateful day when 26 innocent lives were taken in the Sandy Hook shooting, pretty much my entire parish was affected. Almost every parishioner knew someone in Sandy Hook. That whole day, all of the clergy at St. Mary’s were busy comforting our parishioners. We had a powerful prayer vigil attended by several hundred people. We couldn’t take the pain away, but we could show that God was with us in the midst of the tragedy.
            That whole day, I had been texting back and forth with Fr. Luke Suarez, a good friend of mine who was the parochial vicar at St. Rose of Lima in Newtown. He had been down at the firehouse in Sandy Hook, meeting with police officers and families of the victims. I let him know that if we could do anything, we were at his service.
            About ten o’clock at night, he called me and asked if I would get the other priests and come down to the firehouse in Sandy Hook. We went, unsure of what we would encounter there. I remember being so nervous that I couldn’t stop shaking as we drove the seven miles to the scene of the tragedy. When we got to the firehouse, the police chief split all of the clergy up into teams with social workers and cops so that each team would visit the house of one of the victims to give them the official declaration of death and to comfort the family.
            I was chosen to go with a heroic cop and psychologist to the home of Jack Pinto, one of the six-year-olds who was killed in the shooting. I have never experienced anything quite like that grief. We went into the home, hearing only loud cries and lamentations. We sat with the family for an hour – what could we say? What words could bring comfort in a situation like that? It is there, sitting on the Pintos’ floor, that I felt more closely than ever before what it means to say that God is with us. I couldn’t take the pain away. I couldn’t find words to heal a void that still aches to this day. But we could love them. We could sit with them in their sorrow. We could be there so that they weren’t alone.
            And so it is with God. We like to think that God’s job is to take away all of our suffering and pain. But He never promised that – rather, He promised that He would enter into our pain with us and be there at every moment. He is Emmanuel – God with us. He has so tightly united Himself to humanity that we can claim Him as one of ours – a union so tight that it will never be broken.

            If you’re looking for God, you don’t have to look far. He was in a crib, because He was truly human like us. He was on the Cross, because He wanted to redeem us and set us free from our sins. He remains in His Word to enlighten our minds; He remains in the Eucharist to fill our bodies and souls with grace. He is not far. He is Emmanuel. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Third Sunday of Advent - December 17, 2017

Homily for December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent
What’s His Name?

            When I was growing up in Maryland, there would be a man who we would sometimes see walking by the side of the road or in church. He wore robes and sandals and carried a bible. He would often come to church and worship with us but the strange thing is that he had no name. He was not a homeless vagrant, but rather a man who wanted to live radically for the Lord, so whenever we would ask him his name, he would say, “Just call me ‘What’s His Name’.” He never told us his real name, because he figured it wasn’t important – he didn’t want to be the center of attention. He just wanted to point the way to Jesus.
            John the Baptist is similarly evasive when people ask about him. Who are you, they wonder? Elijah? The Christ? The prophet? “The Prophet” refers to what Moses tells the Israelites in Deuteronomy – that God will raise up a prophet like Moses who will speak with Moses’ authority. They then ask, “Well, who are you?” And his answer only points the way to Jesus – John exists only to “prepare the way for the Lord.” His entire identity is for making known Jesus’ identity.
            Who are you? Who do you introduce yourself to be? Often we find identity in our professions – I’m a firefighter, I’m a lawyer, I’m a cop. Sometimes we find identity in who our friends think we are – I’m the funny one, the athletic one, the well-read smart one. Sometimes we find identity in other things – our bank accounts, the new shoes we have.
            Is that how God thinks of you? Does He think you’re the funny accountant with the great car? Or is He interested in something more intrinsic?
            Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, took on flesh so that we could become adopted sons and daughters of God. God became human so that human beings could be filled with God’s divine life in grace.
            Our deepest identity, then, is not what we do or what we have, but who we are and who we are becoming. Who are we? Sons and daughters of God, princes and princesses of the King of Heaven and Earth, souls created for an eternal destiny with Him in Heaven.
            The truth is, if we live for any other identity we will end up empty. Our identity must be who we are as new creations in Christ. Any other identity will come to an end! If we find our identity in our job, we will someday retire. If we find our identity in who we are with our friends, then who are we when we are alone? If we find our identity in our possessions or money, those things cannot last forever!
            I remember reading an interview with Cal Ripken, the great Hall of Fame shortstop for the Orioles. He was planning to retire after the 2001 season and he was saying to the reporter, “Every year since I was five years old, I always looked forward to next season, next season…and now there is no next season…” He was clearly saddened about retirement as anyone would be who loves their job, but is it also possible that he had embraced his identity as a baseball player too closely? When that comes to an end – when all of our false identities come to an end – what is left?
            Our identity in Christ remains. This is the one thing we can cling to that will never change. You are His. You belong to Him. You are His disciple.

            When they asked John the Baptist who he was, he simply pointed to Christ. May we do the same.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent - December 10, 2017

Homily for December 10 & 17, 2017
Second & Third Sunday of Advent
Prepare The Way

            When we talk about Advent being a time of preparation, we are not preparing for Christ’s coming at Christmas. That already happened two thousand years ago. We are rather talking about the two other ways that Christ comes and will come – He comes to us in the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, and He will come again at the end of time.
            St. Theresa of Avila was speaking with one of her other nuns who was saying to her, “Wouldn’t it be great to actually see Jesus? I would love to hear His words and touch His cloak!” The saint responded, “But you do hear His words – every time you read Scripture. You do touch His Body – every time you receive the Eucharist.” It’s true – although we do not physically see Him, we still see Him sacramentally. The very same Body who was born in Bethlehem, worked in His father’s carpentry shop in Nazareth, walked the dusty streets of Galilee, was nailed to the Cross and rose again, is the exact same Body that we receive in the Eucharist.
            So to say Advent is a time of preparation is more than just purchasing gifts and baking cookies for Christmas – it’s about preparing our souls to receive Him in the Sacraments.
            A holy mystic named Catalina once had a vision at Mass where she saw Jesus in each Eucharistic Host. She noticed that when the priest held up the host to give to people, Jesus would have different reactions. For some people, Jesus was excited and overjoyed to enter them. But other times, when the priest held up the host, Jesus was reluctant and even repulsed to enter them. She heard in her soul, “This is the difference between holy souls and lukewarm souls. Jesus is eager to enter a soul that is prepared for Him, but reluctant to enter a soul that loves Him little.”
            And the preparation that is necessary is to remove sin from our soul. John the Baptist, who in today’s Gospel comes to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, and the first thing he does is call people to repentance. His baptism is an outward sign of their inward repentance. John knows that for people to have saving faith in Jesus Christ, they must first turn from their sins.
            So, I challenge you this Advent to come to Confession. We have two weeks left of Confessions every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday at this parish – surely we can make time! Maybe it’s been years, or even decades since you’ve been. Maybe you’ve stayed away because you have a big sin you can’t bear to confess, or perhaps you had a bad experience in confession that has kept you away. Maybe you don’t think you need it. But regardless of the reason for staying away from Confession, this Advent we must come to Him with hearts free from sin. I guarantee that no one who approaches the Sacrament of Confession will regret it! Rather, there is such profound freedom in laying down our messiness – the big stuff, the little daily stuff, and everything in between. One of the greatest joys I have as a priest is watching the relief, joy, healing, and freedom wash over people when they have made a good and holy Confession.

            I mentioned, though, that there is one more way in which Christ will come – in glory at the end of time. This, too, requires forgiveness for sins. It is better to confess your sins in Confession when we encounter Christ as a merciful savior than to have your sins laid bare when Christ comes as a just judge. Do not wait – Confess this week or next week – so that we truly will be prepared when Christ comes to us in the Eucharist and in glory at the end of our lives!