Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Restless Silence

Jeremiah 33.14-16 Psalm 25 1 Thessalonians 3.12-4.2 Luke 21.25-28, 34-36

More than any other season during the church year, the season of Advent knows what the world is really like. Advent knows that our hearts are restless – that the anxieties and stresses of our daily lives make it hard for us to find true peace and joy. Advent acknowledges that our bodies are weak – that we so easily indulge in earthly pleasures because we think these things will make us happy or fulfilled. Advent recognizes that our souls are tired – that the quest for God and love and purpose in life is hard, sometimes too hard to continue. The season of Advent is filled with anxiety and restlessness, the very emotions that so often mark our daily journeys. Whether it’s broken relationships or failed dreams, financial challenges or physical ailments. Life is incomplete – something in us is not quite right – and our hearts are drowsy trying to figure everything out.

But it doesn’t stop there. Just as Advent recognizes the restlessness of our lives, it offers a remedy. This season gives us four weeks to prepare our hearts to welcome once more Christ, the Son of God. Four weeks to walk with John the Baptist and Mary and Elizabeth, who lived not for themselves, but only to point the way to the Messiah. Four weeks to learn once more how to love – not just the people around us, but first and foremost, God himself. Four weeks to take a step back from whatever it is that causes us anxiety and place our lives in the hands of God. If we enter into Advent with open hearts and minds and ears, then the prayers and Scripture and songs and events of these four weeks can transform our lives – they can help us make Christ the focus of all we are and all we do. These four weeks can shed light into the darkest places of our hearts – if only we will let Christ shine and get out of his way.

So how do we do this? How do we open our hearts and journey toward Christmas so that it is not just another holiday but a transforming experience? The first and most important step is silence. More than anything else during these four weeks, we are called to find and embrace silence. In silence, we learn the truth that we do not control our lives. In silence, we can surrender our goals, our dreams, and our desires to the God who made us. In silence, we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit who gives us hope and guidance. In silence, we come to know ourselves as God knows us, and we see how much we are loved. In silence, we can have an intimate conversation with God, and the anxieties of this world can melt away. That’s what Advent is all about – making a place for God in our hearts. Waiting – watching – in silence, because it is only when we can shut out the noise of this world that we will be able to hear the still, small voice of God who casts away our anxieties and gives us peace.

Friday, November 27, 2009

One Holiday at a Time

Homily for Thanksgiving Day
Isaiah 63.7-9 1 Corinthians 1.3-9 Matthew 7.7-11

Last week, I had a chance to do a little shopping. Everywhere I went, the stores and the malls were decked out for Christmas: trees and wreaths were set up, glittering ribbons and ornaments filled the aisles, and Christmas music was playing over the sound systems. And in most places this had been going on for a few weeks already. But there was one exception. One department store in a mall where everything else was decorated for Christmas stood out. There were no festive trees or wreaths, no garland or holly. Instead, at each entrance to the store, there was a sign. The sign read: “Our halls will not be decked until November 27. Because we think it’s good to celebrate one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.”

How easy it is to combine all holidays into one 8-week-long celebration, from the beginning of November until the beginning of January. Certainly there are things that all of these celebrations have in common – they’re built around family and friends, they often involve spending time together at a good meal, they help us celebrate what we have in life. But on the other hand, it is good to keep them separate. What we celebrate today is different than what we celebrate on December 25. On that day, a month from now, we will celebrate the birth of the Son of God, we will remember the shepherds and the magi and the gifts they brought to Jesus, and we will reflect on what we can give back to God. Today’s celebration is similar, but it is different. Today, we are thankful for the concrete blessings of our daily lives. Today, we are thankful for the spiritual and material gifts we have been given by God, family, friends, and country. Today, we are thankful for the opportunity to gather as a community for prayer. Today, we are thankful for the freedoms that we enjoy in this nation. Today, we are thankful for the faith that sustains us day by day. The food, the football games, the family gatherings may be important – but they are all secondary to the primary purpose of this particular holiday – simply to give thanks.

And then, taking one holiday at a time, after today’s celebrations are over, we can take our grateful hearts and prepare them to receive Christ, the Son of God. After we have given thanks for our blessings, we will be in a much better position to celebrate Christmas well, to welcome Christ into our hearts, and to make him known in the world. It all starts with simply being thankful, and that deserves a holiday all to itself.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The End of the World: Fear or Rejoicing?

Homily for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Daniel 12.1-3 Psalm 16 Hebrews 10.11-14, 18 Mark 13.24-32

December 21, 2012. On that date, just a little more than three years from now, the Long Count Mayan Calendar ends, according to some scholars. And since the ancient Mayan people have predicted so many world events so well, then these same scholars tell us that something cataclysmic will happen to the world on 12-21-12. There are different opinions of just what will happen. Some say that a meteor will hit the earth, others that there will be a massive solar flare from the sun that will burn our planet. Some look to the earth’s core erupting through volcanoes, others to global warming or a modern-day plague. But whatever it is, things will never be the same – many are even saying that this will be the end of the world. Or so it is in the movie 2012 that was released this weekend. So they say in the dozens of books on the topic at any local bookstore. And so it is on the thousands of websites that are counting down the days to the end of time, offering for sale all kinds of things that may help you survive the great tribulation. On December 21, 2012 – are you ready?

Of course, there is no credible scientific evidence that the world will end on December 21, 2012. And if you know anything about history, the end of the world has been predicted hundreds of times, often giving exact date for earthly destruction – none of which have come true. But for us who are Christian, Jesus is very clear on this issue. He talks openly about the end of time, about a great tribulation, about the earth passing away. It will happen. But when will it happen? In the words of Jesus himself, “of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13.32). No one will know. So what’s with many people’s obsession with predicting the end? Especially for Christians, many of whom seem to have forgotten these very clear words of Jesus?

It seems to me that it’s all about fear. There is a part of most people that is naturally afraid of what we don’t know, of what we can’t predict, especially when it comes to something as scary as the end of the world. We’re quite happy with things the way they are, thank you very much! Even if our lives aren’t perfect, most of us would rather live an imperfect existence than have it taken away from us in the blink of an eye. What exactly we’re afraid of might be different in each of us – some are afraid of losing what they have, some are afraid of the unknown, some are afraid that they have not had enough time to live a good and holy life, some are even afraid to meet God. That fear can easily transform itself into an obsession with trying to figure things out; even if we don’t believe that the world will end in 2012, we can easily become fascinated by the two simple words: what if …

But if we go back to Jesus, just like we always should, then we’ll find that the end of time is not something to fear. Because, when it does happen, the Son of Man will come in the clouds, he will gather all his people to him so that they might live with him forever. The end of time is not the end of existence; it is the beginning of our eternity, an eternity with God, a new heavens and a new earth that will far surpass in greatness everything we have ever known or experienced. It will be a day to rejoice, not a day to be afraid, because God is in charge, and with God there is only goodness, and hope, and love, and peace.

So will the world end in 2012? Jesus Christ is just as likely to return to earth then as he is today or on February 6, 2714. Of that day or hour, no one knows. But he will come, when we least expect it. He will come in glory, he will come in peace, he will come to make all things new. And it will be a day of great rejoicing. Are you ready for that?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Life is changed, not ended"

Homily for All Souls Day
Isaiah 25.6-9 Psalm 23 1 Corinthians 15.51-57 Luke 23.44-46, 50, 52-53; 24.1-6a

This past Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to concelebrate at a Memorial Mass at St. Paul’s Hermitage in Beech Grove, on the southeast side of Indianapolis. St. Paul’s is a retirement and health care facility operated by the Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery. My grandmother is currently a resident there, and other family members have lived there over the years. Following the Mass, everyone was invited to process to the cemetery on the grounds where the Benedictine Sisters from that monastery are buried. As we walked toward the cemetery, my mind was taken back to the last time I processed along the same path, to the day more than eight years ago when we accompanied the casket of my great-aunt, Sister Mary Edwin Wuertz, on the way to her burial. On that summer day in 2001, the procession to the cemetery was accompanied by a tradition of the Benedictine sisters. Along the way, one of the sisters chanted the name of each member of their community who had died and was buried in the cemetery we were walking toward. After each name was chanted, everyone sang the response: “Pray for us.” It was a community litany of the saints, invoking the prayers of the holy Benedictine women who had gone before us into eternal life. As the procession reached the cemetery itself, the name of the sister who had just died was chanted, and we all responded the same way: “Pray for us.” That same ritual accompanies every funeral procession at Our Lady of Grace Monastery.

Today, we do something very similar here in our own parish church. Over the past year, since last year’s All Souls Day, fifteen members of our parish have died and been buried from this community. In a few minutes, we will hear their names read out, and we will respond to each name, “We lift you up.” The names and the words may be different than those used during a procession to the Benedictine sisters’ cemetery. But the idea is the same. And for us gathered here in this church, it’s not just about those whose names are read in our parish litany. Many other family members and friends, both near and far, have died over the past year and in years gone by, and they are remembered as well. On All Souls Day, we remember more than anything else that we are all part of one communion of saints – that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a connection – a communion – with those who have gone before us in death and await us in eternal life. As we pray in the funeral liturgy, in the moment of death, “life is changed, not ended” (Preface of Christian Burial I). Today is the only day during the church year when we have the option of hearing the account of both the death and resurrection of Christ in a single gospel reading. But, today especially, those two events must go together. Christ’s death has no meaning without his resurrection – his rising to new life destroyed the sting of death and opened for us the gates of heaven. And so it is for us – we cannot contemplate our own death or the death of a loved one without also trusting in the promise of resurrection. Life does not end at the moment of death, it is changed into a new and eternal life, a life that we hope to share one day with those who have gone before us. Today, we pray for these men and women who have passed from this life to the next, and we also ask them to pray for us; that we may be made worthy to share the promise of eternal life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Stewardship of the Saints

Homily for All Saints Day, Year B
Revelation 7.2-4, 9-14 Psalm 24 1 John 3.1-3 Matthew 5.1-12a

St. Isidore of Madrid and his wife, St. Mary de la Cabeza, were farmers, diligently working the land where they lived as peasants in central Spain. They had one son who died very young, and had no children after him. Each day, before they went to the fields to work, Isidore and Mary would go to Mass at the parish church in their village. Their fellow farmers regularly accused them of neglecting their duties because of the time they spent in church. But this did not stop them; their faith came first, and their time spent in prayer guided everything else they did in their lives.

St. Rene Goupil studied medicine in Paris, France. When he heard that a group of Jesuit missionaries was traveling to the New World to minister among the Native Americans, he offered to accompany them in order to provide any necessary medical care along the way. He worked at a hospital in Quebec, Canada, and accompanied a Jesuit priest, Fr. Isaac Jogues, on his missionary journeys. Rene’s faith and medical skill went together; while ministering among the Hurons, he was once seen making a sign of the cross over a child’s head, a sign some of the Native Americans mistook for some kind of curse. He was captured, tortured, and eventually killed, becoming the first person martyred for the faith in North America.

St. Katharine Drexel was born in Philadelphia. Her father was a multimillionaire and the business partner of J.P. Morgan. Very early in life, Katharine and her two sisters were taught the importance of sharing what you have with others; several times a week, their mother would open up their kitchen to anyone who wanted to come to receive food and cooking supplies. When their father died in 1885, Katharine and her sisters inherited the family fortune, about $15 million dollars; today, the inheritance would be worth about $250 million. Six years later, Katherine began a missionary religious order to operate schools for African American and Native American children. Over a period of 60 years, she used more than $20 million dollars of the interest on her portion of the family fortune to open these schools and provide a Catholic education for children throughout the United States.

The example of these three saints can certainly inspire us. But today’s All Saints Day celebration is not just about them. Today, we remember and recognize all the nameless saints, the holy men and women of every age whose lives mirrored the life of Christ, whether they have officially been canonized by the Church or not. Today we remember St. Isidore the farmer and his wife St. Mary, who took time each day to go to Mass before work; but we also remember the elderly woman from our community who was confined to her home and could not attend Mass regularly but who spent her days praying the rosary and asking God’s blessings on her family, friends, and community. Today we remember St. Rene Goupil who used his skills as a doctor to minister as a missionary among the Hurons; but we also remember the retired teacher from our community who would volunteer his time each week to teach in his parish’s faith formation program. Today we remember St. Katharine Drexel and the gift she made of her inheritance in order to open schools throughout the country; but we also remember the married couple from our community who didn’t make a lot of money but still recognized that everything they had was pure gift and shared their treasure with others as generously as they could.

All Saints Day is about everyday Christians just as much as it is about the larger-than-life Christian witnesses who lived centuries ago. Because we are all called to be saints, we are all called to be holy, to make our lives a living expression of Jesus Christ, the one who came to serve, not to be served. We are all called to live the Beatitudes, to be poor in spirit, clean of heart, meek and merciful. For when we are like Christ, then we pray and hope that we will be made worthy to share the joy of the saints in heaven.