Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Anxious Advent

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B
Click on the Scripture citations for a link to the readings
Isaiah 63.16b-17; 64.2-7 Psalm 80 1 Cor. 1.3-9 Mark 13.33-37

In case you’re a visitor to our church and this is your first time here, I want to clue you in on something that all of our regular members noticed pretty quickly today: my chair is in a new place; for this season of Advent and Christmas, the presider’s chair is on a different side of the altar – and that one change throws everything off. The servers are sitting in a different place, the Eucharistic Ministers have new furniture to navigate, and everyone has to get used to things looking a little different. Now, this change is just temporary – just for this season – but it’s a great time to do it, because it’s not normal, it’s not what we’re comfortable with. It’s something new. And so is the season of Advent itself.

It’s sometimes hard to grasp what Advent is supposed to be about when the world around us has been celebrating Christmas for over a month now. Advent is a new beginning – it’s a time of preparation and waiting for two things: for the annual celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas and also for the return of Christ at the end of time. Advent helps us look at Christmas a little differently than the rest of our society, but it also helps us to prepare by recognizing the anxieties that we live in. Try to think of it this way. There is no issue that is more on people’s minds these days than the economy. No one is comfortable these days – we’re anxious, fretful, worried about what next month or next year will bring. It’s hard for us to live in the present, the right now. The security that we thought we had in our retirement account or savings plan is not there any more – and so we spend our time anxious about the future, our eyes straining to see what’s going to happen next. The biggest question that we ask every day is: when will all this end; when will the economy recover, and jobs be created, the stock market stabilize, and the anxiety be over? And we can’t wait for all that to happen. That is what Advent should feel like.

Think about it. Advent is not a comfortable season – the readings today challenge us in more ways than one. Isaiah is pretty blunt in speaking to God: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags.” Something is not right in our lives. Advent can be a reminder that we’re not comfortable, because we’re not perfect. But we want things to be better. We need to wake up and get our act together before we can welcome Christ’s birth with true joy. Advent helps us to recognize our anxieties, our worries – we don’t just go right to Christmas, because we need to prepare ourselves. But everything we do this season is oriented toward the future – Advent only makes sense when we preparing for something else – there’s a future out there for us, a future full of hope, and these days of Advent help to get us ready. Yes, Advent is a lot like an economic crisis – it’s not comfortable, it brings anxieties and worries, it’s oriented to the future, and if we really look at our lives, we might wonder how we can pull things together.

But there’s a difference between Advent and the economy. A big part of our economic worries is caused by not knowing what the future will bring or when things will get better – we hope things will get better, but we really don’t know. But with Advent, we do know what’s coming – we know that after four short weeks, we’ll celebrate Christmas; and we also know that, when the time has come, Christ will come back to bring the world to its completion. The future is set for us, and we know that it will be glorious. But it would still be too easy for us to skip Advent and go right to the celebrations. And that’s exactly what we need to avoid. Isaiah was right – we are sinful, “our guilt carries us away like the wind.” That’s where our anxiety and uncomfortableness come from. But Isaiah didn’t stop there, he ends his reflections by remembering that God, indeed, is our father, and that “we are all the work of [God’s] hands.” We don’t deserve Christmas – by ourselves, we are not worthy of the blessings that come from God’s birth as one of us. But Christmas will always follow Advent, because Christ’s birth is God’s gift to us. And Christ’s second coming is a sure thing – it’s not a question of what, but when. The anxiety and newness of these Advent days is not permanent – it’s only four short weeks. Christmas will come and Christ will come – but not yet. In the meantime, we wait and we prepare.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

No Mashed Potatoes

Homily for Thanksgiving Day 2008
This year, my family made a major decision that could forever change the landscape of our Thanksgiving Day table – we dropped mashed potatoes off the menu. Now, this decision was not an easy one to make – it actually took several years for everyone to agree that we simply had too many side dishes for one meal. And then, once we acknowledged the overabundance of side dishes, it was even more difficult to decide which one we could give up. And it was only after much discussion and bargaining that the mashed potatoes were chosen as the one side that we could do without – at least for this year. Maybe it’s just a sign of the general trend of our entire country right now – the need to cut back and make do with less. Or it could be part of a general realization that, just because we can have something, that doesn’t mean we have to have it. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much about what a mashed-potato-free Thanksgiving meal will be like.

Of course, we know that Thanksgiving Day is not really about the food. Today is a day to count our blessings, to remember the rich abundance that God has showered on us, and to direct our minds away from our own needs and desires and look instead toward God, the source of all our gifts. Today is a day to spend time with those we love – the family and friends who help to give our lives joy and meaning. And today is a day to remember others – to remember those who were with us for this holiday in past years, but who are separated from us now; but also to remember those in our community and in our world whose blessings are fewer in number than our own.

In the whole scheme of things, the meal is really secondary. This day would certainly have just as much meaning for us if there were no turkey or cranberry relish in sight, and it is part of our fallen human nature and our longing to be satisfied that we spend so much time and effort on the food. To give thanks in all things, as St. Paul calls us to do in his letter to the Colossians; to give thanks in all things does not have to happen around a dinner table, or even in the company of family and friends. To give thanks in all things is a way of life, a way of making decisions, no matter what the external realities of our lives bring us. To be able to know how to live in abundance and also to live in humble circumstances, to thank God in all things through our words and our actions, that is what it means to be a Christian. But the real blessing of this day is that an entire country of people – all 305 million of us – can put aside our differences and our anxieties, our fears and our dreams, to do one thing: give thanks. The real blessing of this day is that, when you strip away all the externals, we can all agree what it is really about. Today is a day to give thanks. Now that is a miracle that no amount of mashed potatoes could make happen.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"I was ill and you cared for me"

Homily for Christ the King, Year A
When he had his conversion on the road to Damascus, St. Paul saw a great blinding light and heard a voice from heaven, the voice of Christ himself: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This shocked man who had fallen to the road would have had every reason to be confused – it was true, he had been persecuting people, but he hadn’t persecuted Jesus; he had never even met Jesus. But when he thought about the voice from heaven, everything made sense. Saul had indeed been persecuting Jesus, because Jesus lives in the Church, he lives in those who follow him, those who believe that he is the Son of God; to be Christian is to be filled with Christ. When one member of Christ’s body suffers, Christ himself feels the pain; and when one member of Christ’s body rejoices, Christ too is filled with joy.

And so it is in today’s gospel. The least ones that Jesus talks about – the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned – these people who are the least of all and the most helpless of all are really Christ. When we care for them, we care for Christ; and when we ignore them, we ignore Christ. Part of the glory and wonder of the Incarnation is that Christ became one of us to share in everything that makes us human, and it is in our weakness and suffering that we are most human. To love people at their weakest – at their most radically human – is to love Christ, who did not avoid suffering and death even though he is the King of the world.

Today, our parish community comes together especially to bring love and healing to the sick. The Anointing of the Sick recognizes the presence of the Holy Spirit among us and asks that Christ, the Great Shepherd and Physician, may bring healing and comfort to those members of His Body who are feeling the effects of sickness or advanced age. Through this sacrament, the whole Church unites itself with both Christ and the sick to bring them together and hold them in prayer. To care for the sick is one of the most fundamental calls for all who follow Christ. For when one member of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer, and Christ suffers with us. And when one member of the Body of Christ is Anointed, the whole Church “supports [them] in their struggle against illness and continues Christ’s messianic work of healing” (Pastoral Care of the Sick, General Introduction, 98). For we are all members of one Body, joined together in Christ.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tour of the Church

Homily for the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Year A
It is an unusual feast, what we celebrate today, and especially because it rarely falls on Sunday. The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica is celebrated every year on November 9th, but it is only when that day falls on a Sunday that our entire church celebrates this feast. The last time was in 2003 – the next time will be in 2014. But this is a great feast to celebrate. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the Pope’s Cathedral – it is the church in Rome where the Holy Father has his cathedra, his bishop’s chair, from which he presides as Bishop of Rome. The church itself is important because it was the first Christian church built in Rome after Christianity became legalized in the fourth century. But we celebrate the dedication of this church not because of the building itself, but because it is a symbol of all church buildings. Over the main doors of the Lateran Basilica are the words: “Mother and Head of All the Churches of Rome and the World.” The Lateran Basilica is the most important church building in the world, and celebrating this one particular church is a way of celebrating all churches throughout the world.

Today, I’d like to take a brief tour of our church building. As we enter our church, we first encounter fonts of holy water at each of the doors. We bless ourselves with this holy water as a reminder of our baptism. Just as we entered the Church through baptism, we also physically enter the church building with a reminder of the water of new life. In just about any church, the largest area is dominated by seats for the community. A church building, first of all, is a place where the people of God gather together as a community to pray. The pews that make up the majority of our church are not just a convenient place to sit, but the large space they take up is a reminder that this building is a place of communal prayer. The pews in our particular church are surrounded by two things that can help remind us of what it means to be part of the Christian community. Our pews are surrounded by windows of colored glass that let abundant light into the building. When we come together as a community to pray, we are not in darkness, but in the light – a light that only Christ can provide. Our pews are also surrounded by the Stations of the Cross, one of the most common features of Catholic churches. These stations provide an opportunity to walk and meditate on the final journey of Jesus Christ – the journey to the cross, to the tomb, and ultimately to the resurrection. Our lives, too, are a journey – often, a journey through suffering – but always with Christ walking right beside us and leading us to new life.

The heart of any Catholic church is found in the sanctuary, marked off in our church by the raised, carpeted area here at the front of the building. The sanctuary contains the chair for the presider and the servers. It contains this reading stand – called an ambo – from which the Scripture is proclaimed. It is from this ambo that we hear God speak to us through the readings, the homily, and the general intercessions. On the other side of the sanctuary is the Baptismal Font. We are currently in the process of designing a new Baptismal Font which will be located in the same area as our current font but will be larger and permanent, allowing for both the baptism of infants and adults. At the back of the sanctuary is the Tabernacle, in which is kept the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated hosts which are used for communion to the sick and dying as well as serving as a focus for prayer. When we enter a Catholic church, there is always a candle lit – most often a red candle, like ours – next to the Tabernacle. This lit candle is a reminder that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved here in this church. When we enter the church, we genuflect in reverence to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament, and we treat this building as a place of reverence and prayer because we believe that Christ truly is present here among us.

But the most important of all the parts of a church building is the altar. It is on the altar that the bread and wine that we bring forward becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. It is on the altar that Christ becomes truly present among us, and it is from the altar that we are nourished by the Eucharist. The altar itself is meant to represent Christ. It is most often made of stone – like our marble – to remind us that Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone of the Church, the Living Stone chosen by God. More than anything else in this building, the altar is treated with reverence. When a church building is dedicated, the altar is anointed with the oil of Chrism. Candles are placed on its top, and a white cloth covers it as further signs of honor and reverence. At the beginning and end of every Mass, the priest kisses the altar. And when incense is used, it is the altar that is incensed.

But the Church is much more than the stone, metal, and wood that make up this building. St. Paul tells us that we are God’s building, that we are the temple of God. It is what takes place in this building that makes it a church. Here, in this place, we truly become the Body of Christ. Here, in this place, we are strengthened as members of a community, we receive the grace of the sacraments, and we offer our prayers to God as we move forward on the journey of life. Here, we are reborn in baptism and anointed with the Spirit; here, men and women are united as one flesh in the sacrament of marriage; and here, our beloved dead are sent forth into the arms of our loving God. And whenever we leave this building, we take a part of it with us. We take the words of Scripture, the fellowship of family and friends, the hope of new life, the grace of the Eucharist – we take all these things with us into the rest of the world. Because the dwelling place of God is not just inside these walls of sandstone; the dwelling place of God is in each one of us.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"There are no ordinary people"

Homily for All Souls Day, Year A
For most of us, there is nothing that is more real than death. There are few experiences that affect us as deeply and as long as the death of a loved one, or the realization that our own death is imminent. Part of the power of death is the loss, the void that it creates. But we also feel the depth of sorrow that fills our hearts, even if our faith tells us that those who have died continue to live. For us who remain in this life, the separation caused by death is very real indeed. And so, on this All Souls’ Day, the reality of death hits home. Today, we as a parish mourn in a particular way for the 25 members of our church community who have died in the past year, whose names will be read later in our liturgy. But today we also mourn for an unknown number of family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, who have made the transition from temporal life to eternal life, this year or any year. We mourn for the saints and the sinners, the rich and the poor, the known and unknown from all over the world who have crossed the threshold of death.

But today’s Feast of All Souls is not always what it seems. Because, really, today is not a day to talk about death; it is a day to talk about life. Today is not a day to honor the dead, it is a day to rejoice in the living. Because we Christians aren’t really into things that are temporary, or momentary, or fragile. As St. Paul reminds us, the death that we will all experience is transitory – it is just a moment, an event, not a lasting reality. Even the depth of grief and sorrow that we feel when someone close to us dies is a temporary feeling. The loss that pulls at our hearts can be painful, to be sure, but in the big picture, it is just a momentary affliction. Because death itself does not last. Our God is the God of the living, not the dead. As painful as death and separation can be for us, the witness of Christ leads us beyond death to life.

On this All Souls’ Day, we do mourn; but we cannot stop there. We Christians do not exalt death – we rejoice in life. We do not remember the dead as people from our past – we remember them for who they really are – people who are living still, for all eternity. To put it another way, the people put in our lives are not mere mortals – in the words of C.S. Lewis, “there are no ordinary people” (The Weight of Glory). We are all immortal – we are made to live, and to live forever. Whether our earthly life is cut off before it has a chance to live on its own, or we live to a ripe old age, we are all created to live forever – beyond the moment of death, we will live forever. Just think – we live among immortals; every person you ever encounter will live forever; and, if we take that realization seriously, then it comes with a responsibility. Again in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” If we know that every human being will live forever, then we must also know that each human life is holy and sacred. How we treat the life that is next to us, the very life of God that is present in each human being, how we live and how we help others live tells the world what it means to follow Christ. The true lesson of All Souls’ Day is this: there is nothing more important for us as Christians than to see God’s image in every immortal body and soul that is created, from the moment of conception until the moment when God decides that it is time to transition from earthly life to eternal life. We are made to live, and there is nothing more important than the life of God within us.

It is a burden heavy to bear, this gift of life, the weight of glory that lives in each human person. It is indeed a burden heavy to bear, because when we live – completely and authentically – when we truly live, we know that we do not walk alone. When we live as children of God, we carry the weight of the human race on our shoulders, those on this earth today, those yet to be conceived, and those who have already entered into eternity. The weight of life is a weight that will break the backs of the proud and crush those who trust only in themselves. But when we truly live, that weight is not an unbearable heaviness. For us who follow Christ, life is no burden at all, but the glory of God. The only sorrow that will last is the sorrow for a life that is not lived.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

We Believe in the Saints

Homily for All Saints Day, Year A
I think it is safe to say that all of the most important things we believe as Christians are celebrated today as we honor All Saints. We especially celebrate the what Christ teaches us about death, life, human identity, and our mission as Christians. Today, we celebrate our belief that death is not the end, that death has been conquered by Christ through his own death on the cross. The lives of the saints remind of the martyrs like St. Polycarp of Smryna who courageously accepted his own death because he knew that death was not the end.

Today, we celebrate what we believe is beyond death – the gift of eternity, the promised hope of the resurrection that God’s grace freely gives to us. The lives of the saints remind of the hope that was seen by people like St. Monica, who looked beyond the many sufferings of her home life to the glories of the other shore, the life that was yet to come.

Today, we remember what it means to be human, that we human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and that we are called to love one another as God loves us. The lives of the saints reminds of people like St. Katharine Drexel, who saw God’s image reflected in African-American and Native American children who were often ignored by the rest of society.

Today, we honor those men and women who have taken God’s gifts seriously and have shaped their lives according to what God has given them. The lives of the saints reminds of people like St. John Bosco, who used his talents as a performer and magician to draw children together in order to tell them about Christ.

And so it is that all the most important things we believe as Christians are celebrated in the Saints – the belief that death is not the end, that God has opened for us the gates of heaven; the belief that we are all made in God’s image and likeness, and that we are called to use God’s gifts to spread the gospel. But it’s not just about them – the men and women of the past whose lives have already earned an eternal reward – it’s also about us. Today, we ask for the grace to follow not our own way, but the way of Christ – that we, too, may be saints.