Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holy Families

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year B
Genesis 15.1-6; 21.1-3 Psalm 105 Heb. 11.8, 11-12, 17-19 Luke 2.22-40

On this Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I’d like to tell you the story of another family – a woman named Maria, a man named Luigi, and their four children. Maria Corsini was born in the mid-1880s in Florence, Italy. She was a military kid – her father was in the Italian army – and so they moved around quite a bit as Maria grew up. For a time, Maria attended a Catholic school, but her father had a disagreement with some of the nuns who ran the school, and so he withdrew Maria and sent her to a public school. She became a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross, eventually serving in both the First and Second World Wars, and she liked to write in her spare time on music and education. In 1905, Maria married Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi. He was a lawyer, working for the Italian version of the IRS, and together they had four children. Their family life was always full – sports, vacations to the ocean, large gatherings with an extended family. Friends used to say that their house was particularly noisy at mealtimes. But this family never let their pastimes and busy-ness get in the way of their faith – Luigi, Maria, and their children attended mass daily; they prayed the rosary together every night; and they regularly participated in all-night vigils and weekend retreats. Their lives were in no way extraordinary – but they were full of life, full of faith, and full of love. Luigi died of a heart attack in 1951, and Maria died in 1965. Less than fifty years later, in 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified the couple – they are now Blesseds Luigi and Maria, one step away from sainthood. They made history as the first married couple in the life of the Church to be beatified together, and to be beatified primarily because they lived the best married life possible. Pope John Paul said in the homily at their beatification mass that Maria and Luigi “lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.” They became holy as husband and wife, as parents, as children of God living through the regular ups and downs of life.

Sometimes we can look at the life of the Holy Family – the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – or even the families of the saints as being too perfect or too out of reach for us and our families. It’s true, our own families will never completely be like the Holy Family. But there are some lessons we can learn from their life in Nazareth that can shape our lives today, lessons that all holy families have learned through the ages. We can learn the lesson of silence – there are few words and few stories of the Holy Family recorded in Scripture. The silence of the gospels on the life of the Holy Family reminds us that we, too, need to find time in our busy lives for recollection, study, prayer, and reading. It is in silence that we grow spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. It is in silence that a family can learn how to communicate well. We can also learn the lesson of sorrow. Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart; even the perfect life of the Holy Family was not without pain and sorrow, all the way to Mary standing at the foot of her son’s cross. But from the right perspective, we can learn from our suffering and grow stronger because of it. And finally, we can learn the lesson of faith. Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to the Temple because that was part of their religious tradition. We are all called to do everything we can to make our faith the point around which our entire family life rotates. When a family prays together – in the home as well as in the community of the Church – it is much easier to find the strength and wisdom to live a family life that is holy.

Of course, the reality is not the ideal. There are countless ways that our families are not like the Holy Family. We know all too well the pain of broken families, the challenges of single parents, the struggles of mistrust, infidelity, and heartache. But, with God’s grace and with conscious effort, we can make our families holy, no matter what the family looks like. With a foundation in faith, we can live very ordinary lives in an extraordinary way.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Earth Meets Heaven

Homily for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year B
On Christmas Eve in 1943, a young German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. About a week before Christmas, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents. This is what he wrote: “Of course, you can’t help thinking of my being in prison over Christmas, and it is bound to throw a shadow over the few hours of happiness which still await you in these times. All I can do to help is to assure you that I know you will keep it in the same spirit as I do, for we are agreed on how Christmas ought to be kept. … For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. … That God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. For the prisoner, the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. … It will certainly be a quiet Christmas for everybody, and the children will look back on it for long afterwards. But for the first time, perhaps, many will learn the true meaning of Christmas.”

The true meaning of Christmas. Certainly, that is what we are all here to celebrate. It is a story we need to hear over and over again, because it never gets old, and it never loses its meaning. The story of Christmas tells of a child born this day who is much more than a child – he is God himself.

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.

(William Dix, What Child Is This, verse 1)

What we celebrate this day is truly life-changing and world-changing. The birth of Christ marked the turning point in human history – it was the beginning of an earthly life that would end in an empty tomb that had once held the body of a crucified man. But this birth was meant for the whole human race, too. The birth of this child marked the beginning of the end of death – for us; the beginning of the end of sin – for us; the beginning of the end of selfishness, pride, and anxiety –for all of us. The promise of this day is nothing less than the promise of heaven – God became man not to live as a child, but to show us how to get to heaven, to teach us how to love God and neighbor here in this life with one eye always fixed on the life to come.

And our eyes at last shall see him, though his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above:
And he leads his children on to the place where he has gone.

(Cecil Frances Alexander, Once in Royal David's City, verse 5)

And so what is the true meaning of Christmas? It’s the story of a child born in humble circumstances, born right in the midst of our poverty and suffering, born to live and die and rise from the dead in order to open for us the gates of heaven. On that holy night, earth and heaven were joined together – not just for a brief moment, but forever. And now, today, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, we can still glimpse heaven; we can reflect the eternal in the love we show to God and in the love we show to those around us. Today, we can still glimpse heaven in the gifts we give, not to one another, but to the one who came to save us.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb:
If I were a wise man, I would do my part,
yet what can I give him – give my heart.

(Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter, verse 4)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Gift of Heaven

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
2 Sam. 7.1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16 Psalm 89 Rom. 16.25-27 Luke 1.26-38

What do you want for Christmas? There are only a few days left, and I’m sure many of us have been thinking about this question for as long as the Christmas decorations have been out in the stores, or even longer. For kids of all ages, it seems like anything to do with the Nintendo Wii is right at the top of the list this year. For technology lovers, the iPhone is still hot, or the latest iPod – or maybe it’s a fancy new digital camera. Book lovers seem to be flocking to anything to do with the Twilight series, or perhaps the latest from the Harry Potter Franchise – The Tales of Beedle the Bard, or for the more serious minded, maybe a copy of The Last Lecture. But, of course, this year is a bit different than most years in recent memory. Not a few people in this country would simply like the promise of a good job this Christmas, or the stabilization of the financial markets. We want a bailout plan that works and a future that looks promising. And, of course, who wouldn’t throw in a wish for some real and lasting peace this Christmas, a peace that in many parts of the world - even in the land of Jesus’ birth - seems elusive. What do you want for Christmas?

Alas, come Thursday, most of us will find our wishes unfulfilled. Sure, we may get the latest Wii game or a new bestseller to read, we may get a restaurant gift card or some home-baked cookies. But the greater things in life – the things that would really make a difference in our daily living this Christmas – well, there’s not much time left for miracles. This Thursday will be a great diversion – it will be a chance to spend good, quality time with those we love, thankful for what we do have, grateful that Christmas comes every year, no matter what. We will sit with the poverty of our gift-giving, knowing that there is nothing that we could wrap and put under a tree that truly speaks of the depths of our love and gratitude for the people in our lives. But still, we wish there could be more. And, as Christians, we know that there can be.

For today, we sit with Mary, the young virgin of Nazareth, betrothed to a man named Joseph. Today, we sit with her as we hear the voice of an angel, announcing the impossible and heralding the coming of a gift that surpasses all others. He is the Prince of Peace, we are told – but he is much more than simply a peacemaker. He is descendant of David, but he is much more than any earthly king or ruler. Gabriel, the angel, tells us that this child is the “Son of the Most High,” and that he will rule over a kingdom that will never end. His name will be Jesus, which means the Lord saves, because he will lead us in the path to salvation, he will open for us the gates to eternity. The gift of this child is nothing less than the gift of God himself, living here among us and drawing us to him. The gift of Christmas is nothing less than the promise of heaven.

Does that change our Christmas plans? We will still gather with family and friends, we will still share the bounty of our lives around a table of good food, we will still exchange gifts as signs of our love. But because we’re Christian, because we take the message of God spoken through an angel seriously, all of that is secondary. The gift of Christmas, the promise of heaven, leads us here to pray. The gift of a little child calls us together as a people of faith to give thanks and praise, to worship as one Body of Christ, here in this place. The many gifts of our Christmas pale in comparison to the one gift that God offers. And when we come together to celebrate that gift, we really can glimpse the eternal; we can welcome a savior; we can celebrate the impossible – God made man.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

He is almost here!

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 61.1-2a, 10-11 Luke 1 I Thess. 5.16-24 John 1.6-8, 19-28

I hate it when people get confused. Everything thinks that I’m the one – but they couldn’t be more wrong. He’s very close – getting closer by the day. But it’s not me. I am not the Christ. I am not the Prophet. And I am certainly not Elijah. My name is John. And I am just a voice, a voice crying out in the desert, a voice calling for people to get ready for him – my cousin – the man they call Jesus.

Maybe they’re confused because I’m baptizing people. It’s definitely a powerful thing to do, to plunge a believer into the waters for the forgiveness of sins. But just because I’m the one calling these people to the water, that doesn’t mean that I’m the one forgiving sins. Only God can do that – I certainly can’t. I am not God. But he is here, and he’s not too far away.

Or maybe they’re confused because I quote from the Scriptures a lot. It’s true, I know the Scriptures well. I know that Isaiah’s prophecies are ready to be fulfilled. But I didn’t write the Scriptures. Those holy writers weren’t inspired by me – they were inspired by God himself, by the Spirit of the Lord. I am not the Spirit, but he, too, is not far away.

Or maybe they’re just confused because they’re impatient – and I can certainly sympathize with that. We want to know everything right now – we want God to show himself to us right now. It’s so hard to wait. But it’s almost here – the root of Jesse has sprung forth and is ready to blossom, the day of the Lord is dawning even as we speak. Our patience will not be in vain – the Christ will come, without a doubt. Even I can hardly take the excitement and joy of the anticipation!

And so, in the meantime, what do we do? Do we just sit around and wait? Well, we could – but there is so much work to be done. We have to get ready for this great day that is coming. We have to pray without ceasing, giving thanks and praise to God in all things. We have to listen to and obey the Spirit of the Lord, the one who will give us the wisdom we need to recognize him when he comes. We have to read the prophets and spread the good news – that the day is almost here! Our salvation is at hand! The long-awaiting Messiah is in our midst, the mighty Lord who does great things for us! When the time comes, I am ready to step aside and let him take control of the world; I am ready for the attention to turn away from me and onto him. Because he is the light, he is our Lord, he is the Christ. And even though I am nothing in his presence, I know that his coming among us will make us all holy and blessed. No, I am not the Christ – but he is almost here!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
Click on the Scripture citations for a link to the readings
Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11 Psalm 85 2 Peter 3.8-14 Mark 1.1-8

He was a man on the edge, this cousin of mine. And everyone thought that I was the wild one. I hadn’t actually seen my cousin in many years – my self-imposed exile had pretty much kept me away from all the many get-togethers of our extended family. Over the years, the desert had almost become like home for me, and after a while I didn’t even mind the diet I was forced to live on. This was where I needed to be, this was where God had called me. In the desert, the Scriptures were my daily companions, the prophets my closest friends. In the desert, I came to know Isaiah and Jeremiah and the others as well as I knew my own family. Besides, my people needed a shaking-up – we all needed to repent, we needed to remember God’s great covenant with his chosen people. After so many years in the desert, some people think I’d gone crazy. But sometimes we need the solitude to be able to listen, we need the quiet to remember who God is and who we are, and we need the isolation to figure our where we’re going. Yes, for me the desert is a good place – not because it’s dry, or hot, or rocky – but because here, there is nothing between me and God. But enough about me. It’s my cousin that you’re really interested in.

From the first time I met him, there was a connection – at least, that’s the story my mother told me. You see, I don’t remember the first time we met, because neither of us had been born yet. But my mother loved to tell the story of when his mother came to visit. She said she would never forget the feeling she had when I leapt in her womb when his mother approached. There was something special about this cousin of mine, there was a connection that was much stronger than blood. We grew up at the same time, but in different towns – he was in Nazareth, I was in the Judean hillside. We saw each other the most on the big pilgrimages to Jerusalem, when our whole family would get together for days upon days of prayer, teachings, and of course good food. And then God led me here, to the desert, and I didn’t see my cousin for a long time.

When you’re out here in the desert, and you can really talk with God, gradually everything about your life and the world becomes clearer. I know he’s going to find me one day, out here in the desert. I know he’s going to come and ask to be baptized. And when he does, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to think of him just as my cousin. You see, everything I’m doing out here is not about me – it’s about getting people ready for him. All this time out here in the desert has made me realize that one thing – nothing is about me. That might seem strange coming from a guy who’s by himself just about all the time, living out on the fringes of society. But it’s true. That’s what all the prophets have told us – there is a shepherd and Lord who will feed us and guide us away from ourselves – he’s the one we should think about. But even the desert itself has taught me – out here, the days all seem to run together; it’s easy to lose track of time. There’s only one thing that keeps me moving – there’s no way I could survive out here without God. And every time I see my cousin, there’s something about him that seems to change even time itself. Whenever I see my cousin, I remember that it’s not about me – it’s really about him. I’m just an ordinary man, perhaps living a little out-of-the-ordinary out here in the desert, but there’s nothing special about me. If you want someone who’s on the edge, who’s different – if you want to know someone who can give meaning and purpose and direction to your life, someone who can give comfort in sorrow and strength in adversity – if you want to know a forgiveness and love that is complete, then don’t look at me. Look at my cousin, our brother, and our Lord. Look at Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Because everything about me will come to an end. But everything about him will have no ending.