Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (A)
Good Clothes for Bad Weather
Picture: cc Ja-nelle

Sisters and brothers, these rainy days that we’ve been experiencing lately have reminded me of something someone said to me some years ago. At the time, I had recently moved from sunny Singapore to snowy Boston, and I might have been complaining a little about the New England winters. To which this person replied: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. What do you think, sisters and brothers? Do you agree with that statement? I’m not sure if I do. At least not entirely. Especially not when I think of people whose cars have been washed away by flash floods, or whose houses have been buried by mudslides. Most of us would probably agree that people such as these are victims of bad weather.

But still, the saying does contain some truth, doesn’t it? The other day, I heard the barista at a coffeeshop complain about how, because she had had to walk through the rain to get to work, her feet were soaking wet. Which led me to think of the other people I’ve seen walking in the rain in rubber boots. Unlike the barista, I’m quite sure that those people managed to keep their feet dry.There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad footwear.

And perhaps what is true about baristas wishing for dry feet is also true about families hoping for peace. Today, on this solemn feast of the Holy Family, we are all praying for peace in our own families. But what does this look like? Sometimes I think that a peaceful family looks like a boat that is sailing on calm seas, under a clear blue sky. There are no financial hurricanes to worry about. No stormy interpersonal conflicts to navigate. No temptations to resist. No separations or divorces. No misbehaving teenagers or negligent parents. No personal hang-ups or addictions. There is only smooth sailing in wonderful weather. Of course, this is not a bad thing to wish and to pray for for our families. But even so, we may ask ourselves whether this is the kind of peace that the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph enjoyed.

We all know the Christmas story well. We know all about the less than ideal conditions in which Jesus came to be born. Mary was found to be mysteriously pregnant before marriage, so Joseph had to accept a child that was not his own. Caesar had proclaimed a census, so Jesus had to be born while his parents were still on the road. The inn had no vacancy, so they had to make do with a manger in a stable. Then, in today’s gospel, we are also reminded of the very challenging circumstances that the Holy Family had to face immediately after Jesus was born. To escape the murderous intentions of Herod, they had to flee by night into Egypt. And even after Herod had died, and they could finally return to Israel, they had to be careful not to settle in a place that was ruled by Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons who was particularly cruel.

Especially by our modern standards, these are terrible conditions in which to raise a family. And yet, this is precisely the family that is being presented to us today as a model for our own families. What is so striking about this family – and a sure sign of its holiness – is not so much that it never experienced any tensions and trials, but that it never allowed itself to be torn apart by them. If anything, the sufferings that it had to endure drew the members of this family closer to one another. And perhaps the reason why the Holy Family was able to endure such bad weather so well, was because it was always wearing the right clothes.

Our second reading gives us a good description of what these clothes look like. Here, the Christian community of Colossae is being advised to wear spiritual garments of a special kind. Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.… And over all these put on love.… And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. Similar clothes are also being described in the first reading, which reminds us to keep the fourth commandment, to honor our parents and to care for them in their old age. Take care of your father when he is old... Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.

These are the same clothes that Mary was wearing when she said yes to that surprising and scary request of the angel Gabriel. Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. These are the same clothes that Joseph was wearing not only when he agreed to accept Mary as his wife and Jesus as his child, but also when, for their sake, he courageously embraced the life of a refugee. Above all, these are the clothes that Jesus was wearing when he declared: I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me (John 6:39) And when he proved it by laying down his life for us on the cross.

Today, what we learn from the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is that even though life may not always be smooth sailing, there are things we can do to keep the peace. And this lesson applies not just to our immediate families – our families by blood – but also to our extended families, our faith communities and, ultimately, the whole human family as well. Perhaps what the Holy Family is teaching us today is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

Sisters and brothers, what kind of clothes are we wearing today?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas (Mass During the Day)
Good News That We Can See
Picture: cc neubda

Sisters and brothers, do you like to receive good news? How do you feel when you do? I think it’s probably safe to say that around the middle of this past week, many of us had the experience of receiving good news of a special kind. On Wednesday, after enduring many days of dark gloomy skies and miserably wet weather, we finally saw the sun come out. And it felt really good, didn’t it? It felt refreshing and invigorating. The brilliance and warmth of the sun’s rays lifted our mood and energized us. It made us want to go outdoors again. There was a rush of energy that was the result of receiving good news in a special way. Usually we enjoy good news first with our ears. But this sunshine after the storm was something we felt on our skin. This was good news we could see with our eyes.

Good news that we can see. This is also what we are celebrating today. Good news that we can see. This is what we find in our scriptures. In the first reading, the prophet speaks of a day in the future when the sentries of Jerusalem will raise a joyful shout, because they will be treated to a very moving scene. They will see directly, before their eyes, the Lord restoring Zion. They will witness their friends and family members coming towards them from afar. They will see their loved ones finally returning home to Jerusalem, after having endured many difficult years in exile. And it will be a lovely and marvelous sight. How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring glad tidings. Not only will this be good news that can be seen, like the sunshine we had this week, it will also be good news that will energize and empower them. Although they were feeling gloomy before, they will now be moved to break out together in song. They will be given the energy to work together to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem.

Receiving good news that we can see. This is also what Christmas is about. And in a far more wonderful way. As the second reading tells us, although in the past God may have spoken consoling words through the prophets, now in Christ, God has spoken to us through his Son. In Christ, God has given us glad tidings that we can see. Except that what God shares with us in Christ is far more marvelous than any ordinary piece of good news. For Christ is the Word through whom God created the universe. Christ is the rising Sun that shines upon us with the warmth and brilliance of God. When we look upon the face of the Son of God, we see the delighted smile of the Father. In Christ, we see the marvelous good news that ours is a God who loves us and is on our side. In Christ, we see the incredible vision of a God who refuses to let us go, a God who wants so much to be with us that God’s Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Even more than good news, what we celebrate at Christmas is the coming of the Good God whom we can see. And if the good news of ordinary sunlight can refresh us, how much more will the glory of the Good God be able to energize and empower us. As we are told in the gospel: to those who did accept him, Christ gave power to become children of God.

But here is where we encounter something that may at first seem surprising to us. Today, our gospel also tells us that when the Good God comes to bring us light and life, instead of welcoming him with open arms, many reject him. He came to his own, we are told, but his own people did not accept him. But how could this be possible? How could people be foolish enough to reject good news? After enduring many days of bad weather, for example, who among us would reject a day of glorious sunshine? It doesn’t make sense, does it?

And yet, perhaps I must be careful not to be too quick to judge others. People may have many different reasons for rejecting good news. I need to realize, for instance, that when I speak about how much I enjoyed the sunshine earlier this week, I am speaking only from the limited point of view of someone living in a part of Santa Barbara that was left relatively unscathed by the storm. Here, the rain didn’t do the same damage that it did elsewhere. I wonder if I would still be saying the same thing, and feeling the same way, if I were living in the foothill community of Highland, in San Bernardino County, for example, where many homes had to be evacuated because of landslides. I wonder if I’d still allow myself to be energized by the sunshine, if my car had been swept off the road by flood waters, or my home buried under several feet of mud. Even if the sunshine could still energize and invigorate me under such difficult circumstances, it couldn’t replace my car. Nor could it rebuild my house. If I had undergone such traumatic experiences as these, I’m not sure that I would still be willing to allow myself to see and to enjoy the sunshine. I’m not sure that I would allow the good news of the sun’s rays to motivate me to rebuild the ruins of my own life, let alone the lives of others.

Even if Christmas is all about receiving good news that we can see, even if Christmas has to do with enjoying the brilliance and warmth of the rising Sun, it remains true that this is not always an easy thing to do. Even after having spent the four weeks of Advent preparing ourselves to welcome the Lord, there may still be various situations in our lives that make it difficult for us to recognize Christ and to rejoice at his coming. Not unlike an unfortunate victim of a mudslide, various experiences of darkness may prevent us from smiling at the sun.

And yet, it is especially for people in unfortunate situations that Christ came to dwell among us. It is precisely upon people living in darkness of some sort – people who have been suffering the worst effects of the storms of life – that the rising Sun wishes to shine. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Instead, out of the darkness, we see the brilliance of the Lord’s glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son. And here it is worth recalling that, in the gospel of John, the Father’s glory is most clearly seen when Jesus is lifted up upon the cross. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it well when he wrote:

The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the Person of Christ, however, it was His death that was first and His life that was last.… It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth.

In this Christmas season, then, if there are any among us still struggling with darkness, perhaps it is upon the glory of the Cross of Christ that we need to fix our eyes. For this too is part of the good news that we can see. This too is part of the Sunshine by which God wishes to energize us.

Sisters and brothers, on this glorious Christmas day, how might we rejoice more fully in the rising Sun? How might we better allow the Good News that we can see to energize us today?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

4th Sunday in Advent (A)
Through Doorways of Danger
Picture: cc bookgrl

Sisters and brothers, what do you do when you feel that your living environment is becoming more and more dangerous? What do you do, for example, if crime is increasing at an alarming rate in your neighborhood? Or if terrorists are continually threatening to attack your country? What do you do? How do you react, when danger comes knocking on your door?

Especially in this modern society of ours, it often seems that only one reaction is open to us, that only one response is reasonable. It often seems that when danger threatens, all we can do is to try to keep it out. And we do this by tightening security. In our homes, we buy and install stronger locks and more sophisticated alarm systems. For our country, we man check-points, and set up border patrols. At our airports, we use more sensitive scanners, and give travelers more intimate pat-downs. In our world today, it often seems that, when danger comes knocking, all we know how to do is to tighten security at the door.

Of course, in itself, security may not be a bad thing. If we were truly living in a dangerous neighborhood, we’d be silly not to lock our doors at night. But could it be that when we make the search for security our only response to danger, we may actually be creating more problems for ourselves? Could it be that, in our desperate attempts at keeping our doorways safe, we may actually also be keeping out other things as well, things that may be very dear to our hearts?

This is a useful question for us to ponder especially today, as the season of Advent approaches its climax. Throughout the past three weeks we have been preparing ourselves to welcome the Lord. And yet, in the response to our psalm today, we hear a call that may sound puzzling to our ears. Let the Lord enter, we are told. Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory. But why is it necessary to tell us this? When the Lord comes, of course we will let him enter! Of course we will open the door! Or will we?

Before we answer this question, it’s helpful first to pay attention to how God chooses to enter the lives of the people in our readings today. Both in the first reading and the gospel, we find someone standing in a doorway through which God wishes to enter. But not everyone lets God in.

In the first reading, the one answering the door is Ahaz, the ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz is facing a serious problem. The kingdom of Israel has entered into a military alliance with Syria. Together, these two armies from the north are threatening to invade Judah in the south. Ahaz’s kingdom is in danger. Yet it is precisely at this moment that the Lord tells Ahaz to ask for a sign. For some mysterious reason, God chooses to enter Ahaz’s life through the doorway of danger. But Ahaz is reluctant to open the door. He refuses to ask for a sign. He says he doesn’t want to test God. But perhaps he’s afraid of what the sign might say. What if it predicts his defeat and death? Better to opt for security. Better to keep the door locked. Even if it may mean shutting God out.

In the gospel too, God chooses to enter someone’s life through a doorway of danger. We know the story well. Joseph is betrothed to Mary. But before they live together he discovers that she is with child. And he is not the father. We can imagine how Joseph must be feeling. In addition to the shame that comes from knowing that his fiancee may be bearing another man’s child, there is also the danger that his reputation might be ruined by scandal. Even worse, the Law provides that someone in Mary’s situation should be stoned to death. All of which places Joseph in a dangerous position. Yet it is precisely through this risky doorway that God wishes to enter. It is exactly under such dangerous circumstances that God wishes to bring about the salvation of creation. An angel is sent to reassure Joseph. Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. Do not be afraid to open the door of danger, for it is God who wishes to enter in. Unlike Ahaz before him, Joseph obeys. And the prophecy is fulfilled. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Two people in similar doorways of danger. Two people with very different reactions. One is paralyzed by fear. The other finds courage. One remains obsessed with security. The other opens his heart and his life, and allows God to enter. But how is it, we may wonder, that one succeeds where the other fails? Perhaps the way they conduct themselves at the door is connected in some way to how they live their lives on either side of it. We know, for example, that both as a person and as a king, Ahaz had a very poor reputation. He is said to have lived a wicked life. He introduced and encouraged many idolatrous practices among his people. If such was his conduct in times of security, is it any surprise that he should find it difficult to trust God in times of danger? In contrast, in the gospel, we’re told that Joseph is a righteous man. Not only is he faithful to the Lord, he also respects and cares for his neighbor. Despite his shame at Mary’s pregnancy, he tries his best to find a way to save her. Even if he is afraid when God comes knocking – as anyone else in his place would be – he is able to trust God enough to open the door.

What then is the lesson that Ahaz and Joseph have to teach us today, sisters and brothers, if not that an obsession with security may well prevent us from allowing God to enter into our lives and into our world? And this is especially so because, whether we like it or not, God makes it a habit of entering through doorways of danger. We see this not just in  Ahaz and Joseph, but also, above all, in Jesus. As Paul reminds us in the second reading, Jesus was established as Son of God in no other way than through resurrection from the dead. Which is why, it is fitting that in our opening prayer just now, we prayed that the Lord might lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection. Our prayer is that we may allow ourselves to be led through doorways of danger into the safety of the kingdom of God. 

As we offer this prayer today, I'm reminded of someone who had suddenly found herself afflicted with a rare illness that paralyzed half her face. Recently, she wrote to say that through the long and painful process of recovery, she felt the healing presence of God. Through the dangerous doorway of her illness, Emmanuel came to meet her.

I’m also reminded of these words from a hymn written by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter. 

Christ come quickly, there’s danger at the door.
Poverty aplenty, hearts gone wild with war.
There’s hunger in the city and famine on the plain.
Come, Lord Jesus, the light is dying,
the night keeps crying: Come, Lord Jesus.

Sisters and brothers, through which doorways of danger does the Lord wish to enter into our lives today?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

3rd Sunday in Advent (A) (Gaudete Sunday)
Waiting, Watching and Wagging Our Tails 
Picture: cc tinou bao

Sisters and brothers, sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, when you walk along Downtown State Street, especially on a busy weekend, you may see something very impressive. Or at least I find it very impressive. You’ve probably seen people leaving their dogs on the sidewalk when they go into a store or a restaurant. Have you ever noticed how these dogs can behave so very differently from one another?

Some dogs just lie on the floor, put their heads on their paws, and look like they’re really depressed at having been left behind. Others are just the opposite. They get very excited and distracted by everything that’s going on around them. They sniff at the trees, the dustbins, and the people passing by. You just know that, if they weren’t on a leash, they’d probably be running off somewhere. Then there are also the really impatient and demanding ones, who won’t stop barking until their master comes out and gets them.

But, if you’re really lucky, you’ll come across a dog who behaves quite differently. This fellow doesn’t bark or make a fuss. It doesn’t give any obvious sign of being impatient. But neither does it get distracted. Nor does it look depressed. On the contrary, although this dog remains quiet, its full attention is focused on one thing. Its body is positioned firmly in the direction of the doorway through which its master entered. And if there is a glass window, the dog will be eagerly looking through it, scanning the interior, watching for its owner. But what I find most impressive of all, is that very often, even while it watches and waits, this dog will continue to express its happiness by wagging its tail. Imagine that: left all alone on a sidewalk, while its owner is off having fun, and this fellow not only keeps watching and waiting, it even continues to wag its tail when it catches sight of its master through a window. I’m not sure about you, but that’s really impressive to me, because it’s something that I find truly difficult to imitate. Being patiently watchful in a bad situation is difficult enough. But being joyful while you’re at it? I find that a really tough act to follow.

And yet that is precisely the kind of mood we are being invited to cultivate on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. As you know, today is also traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete: that’s the first word of the entrance antiphon that begins our Mass today. And it means: Rejoice! As you watch and wait for the Lord’s coming, rejoice! Even if you are finding yourself in a bad situation right now, rejoice!

That is the central message of our Mass today. And if, like me, you find this call more than a little difficult to answer, then it’s important that, together, we pay careful attention to what our readings are telling us. For, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the people in our readings are finding themselves in really bad situations. In the first reading, the people of Israel are living in exile, far away from home, in Babylon. In the second reading, the Christians whom James is addressing are undergoing some kind of persecution because of their Christian faith. And, in the gospel, for speaking out against Herod, not only is John the Baptist sitting in prison, but before long he will have his head chopped off.

Finding themselves stuck in these bad situations -- not unlike those dogs left all alone on the sidewalk along State Street -- it must be truly tempting for all these people either to give in to depression and despair, or to get distracted by everything that’s going on around them and to give up their faith in God.

But even as they continue to suffer, all of them are being asked to remain true and not to give up hope. Isaiah tells his people to make firm the knees that are weak, to be strong, to fear not! James tells his people to be patient, to make your hearts firm. And, in the gospel, Jesus promises the Baptist that the one who doesn’t take offense at Jesus will be blessed. But that’s not all. These people are not just being left alone to do the impossible. They are also being given instruction. A secret is being shared with them. A secret for obtaining the grace from God to stand firm, the grace to rejoice even in their suffering.

This is the same secret that those impressive dogs on State Street seem to know so well, as if by instinct. When it feels like you’ve been left behind, and you find yourself in a bad situation, how do you keep waiting patiently without giving up hope? How do you even find joy in the midst of your sorrow? Much depends upon where you look. If you put you head on your paws and stare only inward, at your own difficult situation, you’ll get depressed. And if you focus your attention only outward, on the many things that are going on around you, you’ll just get distracted. But if eagerly you keep looking forward, to the coming of your Master, if you carefully keep watch for signs of his coming, then perhaps you may receive the incredible ability, the unbelievable courage, to wag your tail.

So, in the first reading, although the people may feel as though they are living in a barren desert, the prophet invites them to look forward, and to work towards, a time when the parched land... will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice in joyful song, a time when the Lord will return them to their homeland, a time when sorrow and mourning will flee, when they will be crowned with everlasting joy. In the second reading too, although the people may feel that God has abandoned them -- that they have been left all alone on the sidewalk -- James reminds them to continue looking toward the Lord who is already very close. Even now, the Judge is standing before the gates. And, in the gospel, Jesus has a similar message for John. To the one who is experiencing such bad things in jail, Jesus sends news of the many good things that are already happening for those outside: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Sisters and brothers, when we look closely at our lives, deeply into our hearts, and carefully around our world today, it is likely that we will find much to feel sad about, and much to distract us from the Lord. But this doesn’t mean that we should just close our eyes and stop looking. What it does mean is that we should also look even more closely at the Lord who has come, and who is coming again, to make all things new, the same Lord who’s life, death and resurrection we are celebrating at this Holy Eucharist. We should keep looking for signs of his coming, in our hearts, in our lives, in our world.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. Today, even if we may be finding ourselves in a difficult situation, even if we may be feeling abandoned and alone, we are all being invited to rejoice.

Sisters and brothers, as we continue to prepare for the Lord who comes, how might we remain waiting, watching, and wagging our tails today?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

2nd Sunday in Advent (A)
Looking Beyond the Turkey
Picture: cc *clairity*

Sisters and brothers, as you know, Thanksgiving came and went a little more than a week ago. How were your celebrations? Was the dinner a success? And what is it that makes a Thanksgiving dinner successful anyway? Naturally, the food is a big part of it. Ideally, all the traditional items should be served: the yams and mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce and the gravy. And, of course, in the center of it all, there should be a generously stuffed, deliciously cooked, and delicately carved turkey. Every year, much effort and care goes into the preparation of these items. But isn’t it also true that far more important than the food that is served at the dinner table are the people seated around it? 

We probably wouldn’t consider our dinner a success if, for example, the guests were fighting among themselves over where to sit, or if they were quarreling and exchanging hurtful insults, or if they were angry and not speaking with one another. In such a situation, even if the turkey was cooked just right, the dinner wouldn’t be a success, because more than just the food, Thanksgiving also involves a particular spirit. It has to do with gratitude and hospitality. In a truly successful Thanksgiving dinner, the guests should be feeling grateful for their blessings, especially the blessing that each person is for the others. And this gratitude should move each guest to be willing to act also as a good host. Each one should be willing to make space for the others, space at the dinner table, of course, but also space in their hearts. If we are unable to do this -- to be grateful and to make space for others -- then a crucial part of Thanksgiving is lacking. And, however much time we spent in the kitchen, our preparations remain incomplete and unfruitful. We need to look forward to the next year for another opportunity to prepare a more successful dinner. And, hopefully, this time round, our preparations will go beyond the turkey.

Something similar might be said about our Advent preparations for the Lord’s coming. In our first reading today, the coming of the Messiah is likened to the growth of a new tree from the roots of Jesse’s family. Jesse, as you know, was the father of King David. And we are told that this new tree will be fruitful beyond belief. When he comes, the Messiah will bring justice and faithfulness. Like a good host at a successful Thanksgiving dinner, he will make space at his table for the poor. And his justice will lead to a profound peace. Natural enemies will live in harmony with each other. The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb. All creatures will learn to make space for one another, even to the extent of changing their eating habits and modifying their instincts for survival. The usually meat-devouring lion will learn to eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. But neither of them will get bitten. And the reason why all this is possible -- why no harm is done on God’s holy mountain, why every living creature is willing and able to make space for the others -- is because a new spirit will be moving over the land, just as the water covers the sea. This is the same Spirit that rests upon the Messiah himself. This is the divine Spirit who will fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord.

But in order to properly receive the Messiah and his Spirit we require preparation. And it is to this same preparation that John the Baptist is calling the people in the gospel. John is the voice crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Although many people respond to his call and are baptized in the Jordan, John makes it clear that fruitful preparation involves more than simply going through the motions of having oneself immersed in a river. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to be baptized, John warns them that they will only be sufficiently prepared to receive the Lord if they accompany the immersion of their bodies with a transformation of their hearts. In addition, they also have to produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance. Just as a successful Thanksgiving dinner requires much more than a well-cooked turkey, the Pharisees and Sadducees are being told that they have to look beyond the external ritual of water-baptism to the Spirit that should motivate it. Otherwise, in contrast to the fruitful tree in the first reading -- the one growing out from the roots of Jesse’s family -- their baptism will remain barren. And when the Messiah comes, he will lay an ax to their roots. They will be chopped down.

But how are they to repent? What kinds of good works should they perform? To answer this question, it may be helpful for us to recall who the Pharisees and Sadducees were. Elsewhere in the scriptures, we are told that they were deadly enemies of each other. They engaged in violent arguments over whether or not there is a resurrection from the dead. Also, the Pharisees’ strict interpretation of the Jewish Law led them to neglect and even to victimize the sick and the poor. It is understandable then that John the Baptist should call them a brood of vipers. Their stubborn clinging to their own prejudices gave them the tendency to bite people, as some snakes might do. In contrast to the cobras and the adders of the first reading -- the ones who left children unharmed even when they put their hands into their holes -- the Pharisees and Sadducees were unwilling to revise or set aside their own biases in order to make space for others.

If all this is true, then perhaps what the Pharisees and Sadducees need to do is the same thing that Paul is asking the Roman Christians to do in the second reading: May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus. Welcome one another, says Paul, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. In other words, learn to be hospitable to others -- both Jews and Gentiles alike. Learn to look beyond the turkey of your own prejudices and immerse yourselves in the Spirit of the Lord.

And perhaps this advice is appropriate not just for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but also for us. Some say that American society is becoming ever more polarized. Politicians, for example, often seem more concerned with towing the party line than with passing laws for the sake of the common good. Within our own Church, we often find it difficult to speak to one another across the lines we draw between conservatives and liberals. In our families and local communities too, we may sometimes find ourselves so focused on our own comfort that we neglect the needs of others. Even if we may be willing to gather around a table, we are reluctant to make space for one another.

Sisters and brothers, on this second Sunday of Advent, as we continue to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, how are we being invited to look beyond the turkey today?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

1st Sunday in Advent (A)
Rousing the Baboon Within

Sisters and brothers, some of us here may still remember the documentary from the mid-1970’s entitled Animals are Beautiful People. It contains a sequence showing how an African tribesman goes about catching a baboon. First, he finds a large anthill, in which he drills a small hole. Into the hole, he pours a handful of wild melon seeds. Then he hides nearby and keeps watch. The curious baboon sticks its hand into the hole and grabs the seeds. But, once it does this, its hand gets stuck. The baboon can, of course, release itself quite easily, if only it lets go of the seeds. But it doesn’t seem to realize this. It struggles mightily, but unsuccessfully, to get free, all the while holding on tightly to the seeds, until the tribesman comes over and captures it.

What is it about the baboon that makes it fall into the tribesman’s trap? We can't know for sure what its exact intentions are, but we can perhaps make a guess by observing the baboon’s actions. On the one hand, from its violent attempts to get its hand out of the hole, it’s clear that the baboon wants to be free. But it’s just as clear that it also wants to keep those melon seeds. It refuses to let go of them. What the baboon doesn’t seem to realize is that both these desires are in conflict with each other. To enjoy its freedom it has to relinquish the seeds. It can’t have both. By setting this trap, the tribesman has, in effect, presented the baboon with an opportunity to make a choice. It has to choose between freedom and a handful of seeds. But the baboon fails to realize this. Instead of choosing one or the other, it tries to cling to both. As a result, it ends up letting the tribesman choose on its behalf. Instead of seizing the opportunity that he gives it to make a choice, the baboon allows itself to be seized by him.

Similarly, according to our readings for today, when Jesus comes again at the end of time, we too will be given the opportunity to make a choice. In the first reading, we are told that the time will come when the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest mountain. Here, God’s peace will prevail. On this holy ground, weapons of war will be transformed into instruments of harmony and service. People will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. All we have to do to enjoy this peace is to climb the Lord’s mountain. Or, in the words of the responsorial psalm, all we need to do is simply to go rejoicing into the house of the Lord. This is the opportunity that Christ will present to us when he comes again. We will be given the choice to climb the Lord’s mountain, to enter into God’s house, to enjoy that wonderful peace that the world cannot give. Which of us will not want to do this?

And yet, although this may seem like an easy choice to make, in the gospel, Jesus warns us that things may not be so simple. When the time comes to enter God’s house, various things may hinder us from seizing the opportunity. For example, Jesus reminds us of the experience of Noah, in the book of Genesis, just before the Great Flood covered the earth. At that time too, the people were given an opportunity to make a choice. They could either survive the flood by joining Noah in his ark, or they could lose their lives in the waters. Quite surprisingly, not only did the people refuse to help Noah, they even laughed at him. And when the floodwaters rose they all perished because they were too preoccupied with the ordinary affairs of life. As Jesus tells us, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Although these things were not wrong in themselves, so caught up were the people in them that they were oblivious to the coming of the Flood, until it was too late. Not unlike the baboon in the documentary, when the time came to seize the opportunity to survive by entering the ark, the people instead allowed themselves to be seized by the waters and to be swept away.

All of which should help us to understand better what Jesus means when he tells us to stay awake! Clearly, he doesn’t mean that we should all stop going to bed at night. The baboon in the documentary and the people of Noah’s day did not get into trouble because they didn’t drink enough coffee. Their problem was their lack of awareness of their own deepest desires. The baboon let its craving for melon seeds frustrate its desire for freedom. The people of the Flood let their busyness with the affairs of daily living get in the way of their desire for survival. To stay awake, then, means to become more aware of what all of us really want in the depths of our hearts. It has something to do with realizing that, among our many desires, some are more important, more basic, than others. To wake from sleep is come to realize, for example, that freedom is more important than melon seeds, or, in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, that life is more than food and the body more than clothing (Matthew 6:25). Finally, to wake from sleep is to get in touch with that one deepest desire that we all have.

It is this same desire that St. Paul is talking about in the second reading, when he tells the Romans: it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. They must throw off the works of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. They must make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Instead, they are to cultivate their desire for the Lord, allowing everything they think and say and do to flow from this deep yearning. And this is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy, for example, to stay in touch with our own deep desire for peace, when we are still feeling the hurt that someone else may have caused us. It is not easy to remember that we really want more out of life than money and power, when everyone else around us seems to care for little else. It is not easy to remain connected to our desire to show compassion for those in need, when we ourselves may be struggling to make ends meet. To do all this requires preparation. Which is why we need this season of Advent.

During this time, we make a special effort to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Together, we carefully search our hearts to see if there are any desires that may be hindering us from choosing Christ above all other things in this world. Humbly, we examine ourselves, to see if there are any melon seeds to which we are clinging, and which may be hindering us from entering the peace of the Lord. 

And even as we do all this, we realize our own weakness. We recognize that all of us -- myself included -- need God’s help to stay awake. Which is why, as you will recall, in our opening prayer just now, we prayed that our heavenly Father might increase our longing for Christ our Savior, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence.

Sisters and brothers, when we look into our hearts and into our lives today, is there a baboon that needs awakening?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ The King
Partly Same Partly Different

Sisters and brothers, a young family has just finished watching a movie together in their own home. Mommy then walks into the dining room and is shocked to find little Richie eagerly licking the top of the dinner table. What are you doing?! she exclaims. Looking up innocently, Richie replies: In the movie, Forrest Gump said that life is like a box of chocolates. I just wanted to get a taste.

What do you think, sisters and brothers? Is life really like a box of chocolates? Then why does the thought of Richie licking the dinner table seem so silly? The answer is quite obvious. In the movie, Forrest Gump doesn’t say that life and chocolates are the same thing. The box of chocolates is used only as an analogy to help us to understand the real thing. That’s what analogies do. An analogy helps us to understand something because it is similar to it in some way. So, according to Forrest Gump, you can gain an insight into life by looking at a box of chocolates. In both cases, you don’t know what you’re going to get.

But even if they do share something in common, a box of chocolates and life are also very different in other respects. You can’t expect to experience a chocolatey taste when you lick a table. If you do, then you’ve mistaken the analogy for the real thing. And, instead of helping us, the analogy has become an obstacle. For the analogy to do its work, we need to pay attention not only to the similarities, but also to the differences. Only then can we truly enter more fully into the mystery of life. Otherwise, like Richie, we will only end up sliding our tongues on a piece of wood.

And it’s important for us to keep this in mind today, as we celebrate the solemn feast of Christ the King. For just as Forrest Gump uses a box of chocolates to help us gain an insight into life, today’s feast invites us to consider kingship as an analogy to help us enter into the mystery of Christ. Our readings do this by bringing together two images in a very striking way. In the gospel, we have the very painful and distressing image of Jesus dying on the Cross. After having been betrayed by his friends and tortured by his enemies, our beloved Lord is cruelly put to death between two criminals. What is really happening here?

To help us understand, the first reading gives us another image, from another time and place. On Mount Hebron, about a thousand years before the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary, David is anointed King of Israel. In the first reading, we have the coronation of a conquering king. In the gospel, the crucifixion of a convicted criminal. The image of David is presented to us as an analogy, to help us enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion, the same mystery we are celebrating at this Eucharist. But to benefit from this analogy we need to consider carefully both the similarities and the differences.

The crucifixion of Christ is similar to the coronation of David in that neither of these events happen by accident. Instead, it is God who uses what happens for the benefit of God’s people, to bring them peace. In the first reading, we are told that it is God who chooses David to shepherd my people Israel. Similarly, the second reading tells us that by Christ’s suffering and death, God transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Just as King David brings peace by unifying the twelve tribes of Israel, so too does Christ reconcile all things to himself. The crucifixion is also a coronation. The condemned criminal is also a king.

But we cannot stop here. To enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ, it is important that we also consider the differences between Jesus and David. First, they each bring a different kind of peace. In the first reading, David brings about a political peace that extends as far as the borders of Israel. In contrast, from John’s gospel, we know that Jesus does not come to establish an earthly kingdom (18:36). Nor is the peace of Christ limited to any one nation. As the second reading tells us, Christ’s peace extends to all creation. All created things, including even the angels, are part of the Kingdom of Christ.

And not only do David and Christ bring different kinds of peace, but the means that they use are also very different. The peace that David brings comes through the power of the sword. David had led the Israelites to victory in battle. In contrast, the second reading tells us that the peace of Christ is won not through the taking of an enemy’s life in battle, but by the shedding of Christ’s blood on the wood of the Cross.

We can also see another difference between the kingship of David and that of Christ when we pay attention to how David becomes king in the first reading. The elders of Israel accept David’s authority on behalf of the rest of the people. In contrast, in the gospel, the rulers of the people are among those who reject Jesus. We’re told that they even sneer at him as he hangs upon the Cross. The only one who acknowledges Christ as King is an outlaw. And notice how he does this. No one does it on his behalf. Humbly admitting his own sinfulness, the repentant criminal uses the Lord’s name to make a very personal appeal. Jesus, he says, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And Jesus grants him his request. Today you will be with me in Paradise. Unlike David's, the kingship of Christ cannot ultimately be accepted by others on our behalf. Each person must submit to it for oneself.

But having said all this, there is still a problem that we need to consider. As we said at the beginning, an analogy works by relating something we wish to understand to something we know already. So we try to enter into the mystery of Christ through the analogy of kingship. But some will argue that few of us know the meaning of kingship today. There aren't many kings left in the world. In this country, there is a President, but he is not a king. Even so, isn’t it also true that many of us still submit to kings of a different sort. Aren’t many of us ruled by things like money and power and fame? And isn’t this modern society of ours constantly trying to gain king-like control over things? With our machines, we try to conquer nature. With our medicines we try to prolong life and delay death. Even if there aren’t many kings left in the world, for better or for worse, aren’t we still very familiar with kingship? Isn’t this how many of us try to be happy?

All of which makes it important for us who are Christian to bear witness to the truth that these forms of kingship are not the real thing. At best, they are only analogies that might help us to enter into the mystery of Christ. But, for that to happen, we need to pay close attention to the ways in which the Kingship of Christ differs from them. Otherwise we will simply be the same and no different from everyone else. We will mistake the analogy for the real thing. And, like little Richie, we may even end up licking the dinner table in an attempt to enjoy the taste of chocolate.

Sisters and brothers, who is our king today?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Tanned or Toasted
Picture: cc mecredis

Sisters and brothers, do you like to go out under the sun? What happens to you when you do? I know some of us may very quickly turn red all over, like a boiled lobster. Their skin burns easily under the sun. Some others may tend to break out in freckles. Then again there are those of us who just develop a nice tan. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the very same sun can cause such very different reactions?

But the scientists tell us that, especially these days, because the ozone layer is being eroded by pollution, more of the sun’s rays are getting through. So whatever our skin type -- even if we have a naturally dark complexion -- it’s not advisable to be exposed to the sun for too long. Otherwise, the doctors tell us, in addition to sunburn, there is also a risk  that we might develop skin cancer. 

Still, whether we like it or not, we all need sunshine. Not only do our bodies require it to manufacture essential vitamins, but even our emotional health is connected to sunlight. We all know that in the fall and winter months, for example, when the days are short and the nights are long, people are more prone to depression. And, of course, many people think that having beautifully tanned skin can make us look healthy and attractive. All of which means that these days one thing is becoming ever more important: sunscreen. Whether or not we use sunscreen can mean the difference between a tan and a burn, between healthy skin and cancer.

Which may be a useful thing for us to keep in mind while we meditate on our readings today. As you know, we’re approaching the end of the Church’s liturgical year. Next week is the last Sunday. Today our readings invite us to reflect upon the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. The first reading gives us a striking image of what this will be like. The day is coming, we are told, when a new Sun will rise. And, like the one that we see everyday, this new rising Sun will cause different reactions in different people. For some, this Sun will be like a blazing oven. It will set them on fire. They will be burnt to a crisp. In contrast, others will find healing in the Sun’s rays. Instead of getting toasted, they will develop a nice tan. And there is a reason for this difference.

The first reading tells us that those who will become like burnt toast are the proud and the evildoers, while those who will be nicely tanned are those who fear the Lord’s name. But what does it mean to be proud, or evil, or to fear the Lord’s name? To answer this question it’s important to notice that the Sun in the first reading is not just any kind of sun, but the Sun of Justice. This is the same justice that we sang about in the responsorial psalm: The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice. More than just a keeping of rules and regulations, this justice involves people being in right relationship with God and with one another. This is the justice by which empty stomachs will be filled, hungry hearts satisfied, tear-stained cheeks wiped dry, and the weapons of war put away. So that at its coming the people will sing joyfully before the King, the Lord. And not just the people, but also the plants and the animals, and even the land and the sea. All of creation will rejoice. Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy before the rising Sun, the Lord who comes to rule the earth with justice.

And this then is also what separates those who will be burnt from those who will be tanned. The first group are considered proud and evil because they live lives contrary to God’s justice. Like those whom St. Paul criticizes in the second reading, these people consistently act in a disorderly way. They care only for their own comfort and their own satisfaction. They neglect and even oppress the poor. They promote conflict. In our day, they may be polluters of the environment.

In contrast, the second group, those who will find healing, have applied the sunscreen that is the name of the Lord. Only this is no ordinary sunscreen. It’s not just a lotion that one applies to the skin. Instead, like what we heard in our opening prayer, this protection is the truth that the Lord gives to us all to drink. More than shielding their skins, it also expands their hearts with the joy of his promises. It strengthens them to live according to the justice of the Lord. Not only do they care for those in need, but they also live according to what is written in the Prayer of St. Francis: where there is hatred, they sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

In other words, when the Sun of Justice rises, those will enjoy healing who are presently doing what Jesus tells us to do in the gospel. In an often cold and hostile world, they consistently give testimony, they bear witness, to the love and justice of the Lord. And they do this even at great cost to themselves. As Jesus tells us: they will seize and persecute you... because of my name. But the good news is that, when the Sun of Justice finally rises, their fidelity to the name of the Lord will protect them like sunscreen. Not a hair on their heads will be destroyed. Their perseverance will secure their lives.

Sisters and brothers, these at once consoling and challenging words are especially relevant for us today. As you know, on October 31, just two weeks ago, the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq was attacked by terrorists during Mass. 51 parishioners were killed, including two priests. Since then, other churches around the country have also been attacked. More Christians have spilled their blood. Some have lost their lives. And all this simply because they bear the name of Christ.

And what about you and I? Even if we may not be experiencing persecution to the same dramatic degree as our sisters and brothers in Iraq, we too are being called to continue bearing witness to the Lord’s name. We too are being invited to find ways in which, in our own lives, we can bear witness to the justice of the Lord. And not only does our world need our witness but, as our readings tell us, how we respond to this call will also determine what happens to us when the Lord comes again.

Sisters and brothers, when the Sun of Justice finally rises upon us, what would you rather be, tanned or toasted?