Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sisters and Brothers

(Holy Family, A)

The feast of the Holy Family deepens our appreciation of the Christmas mystery. This past week we celebrated the great miracle of our Lord’s birth, but that’s not the end. Part of the mystery of the Word made flesh is the mystery of our God being born into a real human family.

From the very beginning of creation God has shown his special love for the family. He put our first parents together and blessed their union, commanding them to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.” So rejoice in your dignity before God, you who are married. You are fulfilling the original vocation God gave to humanity, long before there was a priesthood or anyone had heard of religious life.

We celebrate today that God has blessed the human family with his own presence, making himself the child of two young parents. As we know, Jesus was only biologically related to Mary, both Joseph and Mary were his parents on earth. Think of the sublime humility of God! The same Word of God, through whom everything was created, makes himself subject to these two young people who were forced to have their child away from home, and, as we heard in the Gospel today, were not even able to settle down for quite a while. Life wasn’t easy for the Holy Family, and everyone knows that family life always has its anguish and challenges. But in this regard our membership in both our families of origin and in the families we ourselves found through marriage, these are schools of charity and dependence on God’s grace. In the prayer after communion we will express our desire that Holy Communion strengthen us to face these “troubles of life.”

Just as the Incarnation of God in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth sanctifies the humanity of us who have Holy Communion with him in this Eucharist, so the Lord’s presence in the Holy Family sanctifies our own families. We recognize this mystery in the prayer over the gifts for today’s Mass when we will pray that the prayers of Mary and Joseph “unite our families in peace and love.”

I think part of reason the message of St. Francis is so attractive and compelling is that he recognized God’s sense of the universal family of all creation. We Christians know that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, for it is in Christ that we are drawn into the one Sonship of Christ with God the Father. But St. Francis took this a few steps further. He preached to birds and called them his sisters. He even called fire his brother, praising the fire for being robust and lively. He called water his sister, praising for being precious, useful, and chaste.

The insight is simple. If everything that is comes from the one God that puts all creatures in the relationship of siblings. And so we are called to treat every fellow creature from our sister and brother humans to the animals and even to the plants and inanimate things with all of the love, loyalty and sometimes anguish and long-suffering that goes with being a family.

That’s what Francis meant when he called himself “brother Francis.” He wasn’t giving himself a fancy religious title, he was just saying that he was trying to be brother to every other creature he met.

And so let us pray today that the example and prayers of the Holy Family of Nazareth will help us to unite our own families in peace and love, and to learn to live as sisters and brothers to everyone, and indeed to all of creation.

Monday, December 24, 2007

In Nativitate Domini: Ad Missam in die

(Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the day)

Everyone needs a way to express themselves, an outlet for self-expression. It might be music or art or a hobby, or just a place and time during our schedules when we can relax and just be ourselves. It’s important. We need to express ourselves in order to be fully alive.

God is no exception. And I suggest to you that on this solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, we celebrate the feast of God’s self-expression. God is a Goodness so good and a Love so loving that it overflows. God overflows into a self-expression we call God’s Word, the Word that God speaks forth from the beginning of time. As John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” From the very beginning God has been a God of overflowing communication.

In the creation story we hear how God created the world through his Word. You remember, at the very beginning God said, “Let there be light,” and so it happened. And so it went through everything God created. God spoke, and the divine power of his Word made it happen. So let us always appreciate the creation around us, for it is the overflowing self-expression of the goodness of God.

But now, in the fullness of time, the same self-expression of God is born as one of us. We just heard it in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “And the Word became flesh, and his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

When we fall in love with someone, we want nothing more than to be close to them, to be near them. And what greater sign could there be of God’s love for us than God coming near to us as one of us? Indeed, my friends, the Incarnation of the Word of God, the appearance on earth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the revelation of God falling in love anew with the humanity he created.

The birth of Jesus Christ reveals to us, in our own humanity, what the love of God is like. And if you look over to the right of the sanctuary [to the Nativity scene and the big crucifix] it becomes very clear. Here we have the two most important images of what God is like: First, a baby born away from home, in the poverty of stable, to young, poor parents. Second, a grown man, dying on the Cross, breaking his body and giving his life for the life of the world. God comes to us not as someone grand and awe-inspiring and powerful, but as someone vulnerable and poor.

This baby born in poverty and this man being executed on the Cross, these are the revelation of God’s idea of what it means to be a human being. And as soon as we can learn just a little bit of that humility before creation and before one another, God will be able to save the world in no time.

Behold the humble God! Behold the God who, when he expresses his own heart of love, a poor baby in a stable and a condemned, humiliated man on the Cross come out.

And as we marvel at the humility of God in his birth among us in the Nativity, we marvel as well at the humble God who comes to us as our bread of life in this Eucharist. As he sanctified our flesh by being born in our humanity in, so he sanctifies us again by giving us his body as our true food from this altar.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Divine Names

(4th Sunday of Advent, A)

The birth of our Savior is near, and in our Scriptures on this last Sunday before Christmas we hear of two names that he will bear. They are “Emmanuel,” and “Jesus.”

Before we even reflect on the intense meaning of these names, we ought to appreciate first that a name for God is revealed to us at all. Yes, God revealed the divine name to Moses, “I am,” or “I am who am,” or “I am who comes to be,” but this is hardly a name in any sense we can understand.

But for us God now has a name: Jesus. It is the wonderful revelation that we have a God who can be called upon by name, with whom we can have a personal relationship. But it is also a scandal, for it is against the so-called “spiritualities” of this world. We don’t believe in a “supreme being” or a quote-unquote spirituality. We believe in a person, a human being who is the very Word of God made flesh, made one of us.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, God reveals to the sinful king Ahaz his intention to save us from our sins through a miraculous birth from a virgin. And the child to be born will be called Emmanuel. “Emmanuel,” literally, “God with us.” This is the beauty of the mystery we celebrate at Christmas—God is with us. God is not off somewhere in an abstract heaven that we don’t even really believe in. God is here, as close to us as we are to those we love and care for—indeed even closer.

“Emmanuel,” “God with us,” also means that God is for us. In Jesus Christ, God is on our side. Sometimes we act like God is a kind of landlord. If we behave ourselves and try to do good, he’ll let us live in his blessing, in his grace. If we’re careless and let ourselves become sinners, he’ll reject us. Not at all! God is on our side, and suffers with his own passionate desire for our salvation and happiness. God is for us, and wants to save and heal anyone who will accept him, saint or sinner.

The great birth we celebrate this week is our Emmanuel, God with us and God for us. And in our Gospel today, the angel of the Lord reveals his given name to Joseph. “You are to call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name we usually translate into English as “Joshua.” It simply means, “God saves.” And that’s the simplest version of the Christmas message we could have. A child is born, and his appearance on earth is the salvation God brings.

Think back to Jesus’ namesake in the Old Testament, the great Joshua who was Moses’ successor. Moses led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, but he never entered the Promised Land. It was Joshua who went before them, leading the people to conquer the land of Canaan so that they might take possession of the land that God had given them.

In the same way, the Savior who is born for us, Jesus Christ, leads into the promised land of grace and peace. In his divine humanity he will battle the forces of evil on our behalf in his temptations in the desert. He will cure diseases and lift from people the burden of their sin and guilt. And finally, he will break all our cycles of violence by taking all of our violence and hardness of heart to the Cross. Taking all of that evil upon himself, he gives us back nothing but the utter blessing and goodness of the new life of Resurrection.

That’s the God who is with us as our Emmanuel. And that’s the God who in his own heart of hearts, is the Savior, Jesus.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Renovation

(3rd Sunday of Advent, A)

Have you seen those shows on TV where they take an old mess of a house and renovate everything to make it fresh, new, and valuable? It’s a great fantasy because everyone, if they had a big pot of money, would like to re-do their kitchen, or a bathroom, or finish their basement, or something. It’s because we just love that feeling when things are new, up-to-date, shiny, and fully functional. It’s like when we were kids and at the beginning of the school year we had that new box of crayons. Everything had a sharp point, your favorite blue or green wasn’t missing, and the black one wasn’t worn down to a raggedy little stub. Or it’s like that feeling of stepping into a brand new car and driving it off the lot for the first time. Everything works, everything is clean and new, and you just feel cool.

We human beings, we crave that kind of experience. We love a fresh start, a new beginning. And this is the joy of the coming mystery of Christmas, for Christmas is a renovation, a new beginning, and a fresh start. This renovation is so much greater than a new kitchen or a new bathroom; it is the renewal of us ourselves. Our very humanity is renovated because, on Christmas, God himself is born as one of us.

The spiritual joy of Christmas is that the birth of Christ is for us the beginning of a new creation, of a renovation of our humanity.

Recall the very beginning of the Sacred Scriptures, when God was creating the heavens and the earth. How did God create? It was a kind of self-expression: “God said, “let there be light,” and there was light.” It is by his word that God creates. He speaks, and it comes to be.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, this same Word, this same perfect self-expression of God takes on our humanity and becomes one of us. The same Word through which God made the world now becomes a human being. The result: we are re-created because Jesus Christ, in his divine humanity joins us to the utter joy and peace of God’s own life, giving us a chance to be freed from all our anxiety, all our depression, all our spiritual illness, and all of the misery we bring upon ourselves with our sins.

The coming birth of Christ is the renovation, the re-creation of the world. This is what the prophet Isaiah was hoping for when he wrote those beautiful words we just heard about the land itself rejoicing and the desert blooming with flowers. This is the new beginning that Jesus himself was pointing out when he asks us in the Gospel today, “what do you see and hear?” And he points out all the signs of world in the process of healing and renewal: the blind and deaf can see and hear again, the sick are healed and the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news.

As Isaiah proclaims, sorrow and mourning have been scared away, having been put to flight by the joy that is on its way: the child that will be born, who is, for us, the beginning of a new creation, a fresh start, a renovation of our hearts.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Changing Our Minds

(2nd Sunday of Advent, A)

John the Baptist, the forerunner of the coming Lord, “appeared in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’”

“Repent,” he urges. The word we translate as ‘repent’ is the imperative, metanoeite. Metanoeite, which can be more literally translated as ‘change your mind.’ That’s our call as we enter into the second week of the advent season. We are to change our minds.

This isn’t like how we usually talk about changing our minds, like about which shoes we want to wear or what we want to watch on TV. It’s about changing our whole perspective, changing the way we look at things.

Why? It’s because the Lord is coming, and he sees the world from God’s perspective. As we hear today in the prophet Isaiah, “not by appearance shall he judge, not by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.” God has a very particular way of looking at the world, a perspective that wants to save and lift up the oppressed, the poor, and the hungry. God’s perspective brings a judgment on the world that will, as Our Lady says in her Magnificat, “cast down the mighty from their thrones.”

So as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we need to change our minds and bring our perspective around to the way God sees the world. For the judgment of God takes sides in human history, against the arrogant and the oppressors and in favor of the poor and the hungry.

So if we ourselves wish to come out favorably in the coming judgment of God, we too ought to get on the side of the poor and the oppressed. If we wish be among those who enjoy the new world of peace promised by the prophet Isaiah, where the “wolf will be a guest of the lamb,” and where there shall be “no harm or ruin,” we must change our minds, we must repent and get on the side of all those who suffer because of our sins and the sins of the world.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

You Have One New Message

(1st Sunday of Advent, A)

Let’s say you went home from Mass today and there was a message on your answering machine. So you go to listen to it and you hear,

“Hello, so-and-so, this is Your Lord Jesus Christ. I’d like to come see you, maybe talk about a few things. So if it’s o.k. with you, I’ll be by the house sometime on Wednesday afternoon.”

What would you do if you got this message? What would you do if the Lord himself was coming by to see you three days from now? Would you clean house a little bit? Would you go buy some good coffee or maybe bake a cake so that you had something nice to offer him when he comes? Would you try to bend your heart and mind back into a spirit of prayer, so as to be found watchful in prayer when the Lord comes? Would you make an extra effort to leave your sins behind as Paul recommends today in the second reading?

Brothers and sisters, this is what the season of Advent is all about. It’s a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. As the days get to be the darkest they will be all year, and as nature around us goes into its winter sleep, we ought to take the hint. It’s a time to quiet our hearts and minds and so make a space in them for the Lord to appear anew on earth.

As the prophet Isaiah proclaims today, in days to come the Word of the Lord shall go forth from Jerusalem and become the teacher of all nations. This is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, the Word whose birth as one of us we will celebrate at Christmas.

But it’s not like this Advent is a time of preparation for a coming of the Lord that’s only off somewhere in the future. The reason we try to pray and quiet ourselves down and prepare for the coming of the Lord is to help us to be aware of the coming of the Lord at every moment. Because God is eternal, the presence of God to us is always new. At each moment of our lives, the presence of God is a perfect Newness that is a holy desire to refresh and renew the world.

That’s why we pray, so that we might soften our hearts and minds and make them sensitive to the presence of God appearing anew at every moment. For God is born anew in each encounter we have with another human being—that other person made in the image of God and recreated according to the image of God’s son. Every time we see God’s creation—the moon and the stars especially at this time of year—we are invited anew to an attitude of wonder and of the praise of God the Creator.

So let us stay awake, as the Gospel recommends today. As Paul says, our salvation is closer than we previously thought. Indeed our salvation is closer than we can even imagine. For God comes to us in each moment, always planting seeds of wonder and prayer in our hearts. Let us quiet ourselves in prayer and preparation, so that we might come to notice and appreciate this ever-new Presence of God.

Let us begin again, for the first time, to prepare for the coming of the Lord.