Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Finding Jesus is Even Harder Than Finding a Zhu Zhu

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year C
St. Jude Catholic Church, Indianapolis, IN
1 Samuel 1.20-22, 24-28 Psalm 84 1 John 3.1-2, 21-24 Luke 2.41-52

I didn’t get one for Christmas, and I don’t really want one. But there’s no doubt that the Zhu Zhu pet was this year’s must-have Christmas gift. In case you’ve missed all the craze, the Zhu Zhu pet is an electronic hamster that advertisers claim to have all the things about hamsters that you want without any of the things about hamsters that you don’t want – like the smell, the mess, and the need to continually feed them and clean their cages. These little hamsters move around their habitat on their own, making over 40 different noises depending on what they find and how you touch them. They will even purr for you if you pet their head in the right way. And they’re cheap – only $10 retail. But as usually happens with these must-have toys, the real challenge of the Zhu Zhu pet is that they have been hard to find. Many parents and gift-buyers spent the whole month of December desperately searching for a Zhu Zhu. Stores sold out within minutes after getting new stock of the pets. And sometimes the only way to find one was being willing to pay as much as 6 times the regular price on E-bay or other online stores. The story of this year’s Christmas shopping season could easily be told as the story of looking for these elusive, electronic hamsters that seem able to think on their own. If only we would spend as much time looking for Jesus in our world as we did looking for toy hamsters.

Finding Jesus is not always easy. It’s not there he’s elusive, or hiding, or deliberately trying to avoid us. It’s hard to find Jesus because the distractions of the world and the failings of our human nature get in the way. Even Mary and Joseph had to look for Jesus. They were caught up in the caravan of relatives and neighbors from Nazareth and didn’t even realize that Jesus wasn’t with them. Remember, they were the Holy Family, not the perfect family, and for a few days their regular routine separated them from the center, the heart, of their family. Jesus was doing what he was meant to do, but even his parents had to search to find him in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem at the time of the festival. Jesus was not lost; but he had to be found.

And so it is for us. There are so many distractions around us and even in our own hearts that it takes effort to find Jesus. He is here, in this church, whenever we come here to pray. But he is also in our homes, in our relationships, whether they are holy relationships or broken relationships. He is in our schools and workplaces, our parks and malls, our sports arenas and courthouses. He is in our hospitals and nursing homes, our prisons and shelters. He can be found wherever we are. But we must look, we must look beyond the surface of people’s faces and actions, we must look deeper than required conversations about sports and weather, we must look inside the heart and soul of each person we encounter. For Mary and Joseph, the holiest family that ever lived, it took three days to find Jesus in the Temple. For most of us, it will take much longer. But don’t give up. The rewards of finding Jesus in our world today are so much more lasting and meaningful than the simple satisfaction of finding a Zhu Zhu pet hamster.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Gift for the Christ Child

Homily for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year C
What a journey it has been! For Mary and Joseph, their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary heavy with child, was treacherous and even dangerous. But they were not alone; their journey was guided by God. For the Church, the last four weeks of Advent have been a spiritual journey, working together as a community to open our hearts to welcome the Christ child once more. And for shoppers, the journey of the past several weeks has been a challenge of trying to find the right gift for the right person at the right price, all in the midst of the crowds and the traffic and the hustle and bustle of the season. And now, here we are – the long-awaited day has arrived, we find ourselves in the presence of Christ, our king, and the celebrations begin. In all the journeying of the past weeks, almost everything has focused on us or on our families; but Christmas is not really about us. In the rush of the season, we may wonder: what have we done in these days for the child born in Bethlehem?

The wise may bring their learning, the rich may bring their wealth,
And some may bring their greatness, and some their strength and health:
We too would bring our treasures, to offer to the King;
We have no wealth or learning, what gifts then shall we bring?*

One of the blessings that can be found in the midst of this year’s struggling economy is an expanded understanding of what makes a good gift. The jobs that have been lost, the salaries that have been cut, the retirement plans that have shrunk – while these things can change our plans and force us to make cutbacks in spending, they can also remind us that the best gifts cost little or no money at all. The phone call to a distant relative, the home-cooked dinner for a college student, the visit to a nursing home, the time spent together around the fire. These actions of love mean more than any amount of money can buy. And it is from these free gifts that we can look for one last gift, a gift for the Christ child, a gift we can find even when all the stores are closed.

We’ll bring him hearts that love him, we’ll bring him thankful praise,
And souls forever striving, to follow in his ways:
And these shall be the treasures, we offer to the King,
And these are gifts that ever, our grateful hearts may bring.*

Christmas Day comes only once a year. But each day, we are called to follow Christ, to return to him some small measure of what he has given us. It doesn’t take much, but it does take effort. Without any merit on our part, we have each been created in God’s image and likeness, we have been offered the promise of salvation – that is God’s gift to us. But it takes something else to be a Christian – we must make a return gift to God, the gift of our lives, our love, our time, and our actions. It’s a gift that we are called to give not just on Christmas, but on each day of the year.

We’ll bring the little duties, we have to do each day;
We’ll try our best to please him, at home, at school, at play:
And better are these treasures, to offer to our King
Than richest gifts without them; yet these we all may bring.*

What gift can you give to Christ, today and each day of the year?

*Verses taken from the anonymous 19th Century Christmas Carol “The Wise May Bring Their Learning.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Waiting for a Savior

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Micah 5.1-4a Psalm 80 Hebrews 10.5-10 Luke 1.39-45

She had been waiting for so long. She had been waiting for a child of her own and had almost given up hope in her old age. But she had also been waiting for a savior, a Messiah, who would bring her and her people hope and salvation. And now, word had come down the road that her kinswoman, Mary, was going to be visiting her. And so she waits for the visit of this dearly-loved woman. For Elizabeth, life had been marked more than anything else by waiting, hoping, praying. And all of a sudden, the time of fulfillment was at hand.

Most of us can identify with Elizabeth, at least with her experience of waiting – it seems like that’s all we do, sometimes. In a world of busyness and frantic work, we wait for times of silence and rest. When money is scarce and jobs are being lost, we wait for better times and the offer of a new job. When loved ones are off at war or at school or at work, we wait for them to come home again. When war and terrorism are all too real, we wait for peace. Most of the time, our waiting is fulfilled, and whatever it is we are hoping for or expecting comes to pass. But not always. There are times when the reliable income source never returns or the child who is gone from us never comes home. And we are faced with a new reality, one that we didn’t plan for and that we don’t really want. And even in this, we wait; we wait for things to get better.

Too often, we look to ourselves or other people to fill the void in our lives or solve the problems that we are facing. But it doesn’t always work. And when we realize that we are helpless to do anything about the situation we find ourselves in, the hopelessness and despair can seem too much to endure. But we are not meant to solve all of our own problems. We are not expected to be the savior of the world. From the day that Mary gave birth to her child, the waiting and the hopelessness of human existence came to an end. The ups and downs of daily living will always be with us, our lives will continue to be marked by both joys and trials; but the fruit of Mary’s womb, the child born in Bethlehem, can and will fulfill all our hopes and desires. If we put our lives in his hands, he will shepherd and guide us with love and compassion. If we abandon our plans, our dreams, our desires to his will, then our lives will be complete and fulfilled. If we can recognize Christ in each movement of our lives, then we will know with Mary and Elizabeth that the waiting of the world has come to an end. And in case we have forgotten or turned away from him, this week is an annual reminder: A Savior has been born for us. We are not in charge of our lives or our relationships or the world – He is, and He will not disappoint us. If only we focus on Him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rejoice in God's Blessings to the Church

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Zephaniah 3.14-18a Isaiah 12 Philippians 4.4-7 Luke 3.10-18

As Father Paul Etienne lay prostrate on the floor of the Cheyenne Civic Center this past Wednesday, a congregation of almost 1,500 people sang the Litany of the Saints, asking the prayers of all the Holy Ones for a man about to be ordained a bishop. When Father Paul rose from the floor, twenty bishops – including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, and our own Archbishop Daniel Buechlein – took turns laying their hands on his head. These bishops then prayed together an ancient prayer of consecration. And Father Paul Etienne became Bishop Paul Etienne, Bishop of Cheyenne and a successor of the Apostles.

With all that is going on in the world today, it is refreshing to have good news to share. Even as jobs continue to be lost and families continue to drift apart, even as celebrity scandals dominate headlines and brave men and women die while preserving freedom – there are reasons for us to have hope and even to rejoice. The forty-plus members of this parish who traveled to Cheyenne this week returned to southern Indiana to spread the news that God has blessed his Church. Those of us who witnessed the laying on of hands, the anointing with Sacred Chrism, and the handing on of the mitre, crosier, and bishop’s ring bring back home an experience of the Church universal and a reminder that God continues to provide ministers for his church. Like all Church ministries, the ministry of a bishop is not for himself – it is a ministry for the Church, it is a ministry at the service of the gospel. As best possible, a bishop is called to be all things to all people, in the name of Christ our Lord. Today we rejoice not because one man whom many of us know has become a bishop – we rejoice because God continues to call people to follow and serve him, we rejoice because God continues to shower us all with his grace and blessings, we rejoice because God continues to guide us on this earthly journey with the goal of joining him forever in heaven. This truly is good news, and reason to celebrate – God is with His people!

When asked to reflect on his own life and ministry as a bishop, Pope John Paul II began not with the day of his appointment or ordination; he began the story of his life as a bishop in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Christ celebrated the last supper with his apostles and gave them the responsibility of spreading the good news and celebrating the Eucharist.* From that Upper Room almost two thousand years ago, the apostles went forth to gather other people to their flock. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they baptized, preached the saving death and resurrection of Christ, and celebrated the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. As time went on, they chose others to share in their ministry, laying hands on men chosen as their successors. These immediate successors to the apostles continued that chain of succession unbroken, even to this week, when Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and his brother bishops laid their hands on the head of Bishop Paul Etienne, making him a successor to the apostles. These bishops in turn ordain priests to help in their ministry; they gather consecrated religious and lay people together to labor in God’s flock. And somewhere along the line, the gospel that was preached by the apostles and handed on in their time, and in all the ages past, that same gospel reached your ears and mine, and we too answered Christ’s call to follow him. And so the journey continues. Like John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit calls us to go into the wilderness of a world that does not know God and point the way to Christ, the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, the one who will renew us in love. Whether bishop or parent, priest or friend, married or single – we all share in that call. From the Upper Room in Jerusalem to the Cheyenne Civic Center to this very church to the streets of New Albany, the message of Christ has been handed on from person to person through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is truly good news - the work of Christ and his apostles continues today.

* Pope John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, Warner Books, 2004.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

From Caesar to Christ

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
Baruch 5.1-9 Psalm 126 Philippians 1.4-6, 8-11 Luke 3.1-6

Today, in the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama, in the land that is arguably the successor to the Roman Empire as the most powerful nation in the world; not many people remember Tiberius Caesar. He is little more than a name in the history books, a subject to be studied by a chosen few academics, and perhaps the subject of a statue or two in the city of Rome. Today, when Benjamin Netanyahu is Prime Minister of the State of Israel for the second time and Mahmoud Abbas is in his fifth year as President of the Palestinian authority, both people governing portions of the land of Judea and Galilee; Pontius Pilate and Herod are remembered by Christians, but not because of what they accomplished as leaders, but because of the role they played in the death of Christ. Today, in the tenth year of the presidency of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the successor in the land Philip the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Philip is only remembered as the brother of Herod the King. Historians have no record of the life of Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene. And in the fifth year of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the 264th successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome, the religious leaders Annas and Caiaphas are only remembered with contempt by Christians for their role of the death of Christ, and they are little remembered at all by their fellow Jews.

Most of today’s world leaders, like their predecessors of old, will be nothing more than objects of historical inquiry just a couple generations after their deaths. As it will be for most of us. Some people may have buildings or schools named after them, ensuring at least some longevity to their name; most of us will be remembered fondly by those who know us, by family and friends. But in two thousand years? Even the history books and the family stories and the genealogies will be mostly forgotten. The Caesers and the Herods and the US Presidents and the leaders of the world’s nations may leave a certain legacy, but eventually time moves on, other leaders and other civilizations arrive and grow, and the past simply becomes the past.

So what’s the point? Why go through life trying to make a difference in the world or in our families if we’re pretty sure that, not too long in the future, our names will be forgotten? But there is one name whose influence and presence has not diminished in two thousand years; one person whose life story continues to be told in great detail and whose birth and death are marked by billions of people each year. Not even John the Baptist or the apostles or the Virgin Mary have had anywhere near the influence of this one man. But that’s because he is not just a man, he is God himself. Even if they don’t realize it or publicly acknowledge it, all the people rushing around shopping and going to concerts and planning family get-togethers are doing so because of the birth of this one man. The name of Jesus will never fade away, it will never be relegated to history books, because it is a living name. And as long as there are people who take his name and make it their own – as long as there are people who become Christian in name and in action – Jesus Christ will never become an object of the past. A life well lived and remembered is one in which we take on the name of Christ, the only lasting name there is, making it our own and becoming his hands, his feet, his voice, and his presence in the world. Without Christ and his birth and death and resurrection, each of us would be forgotten. But through Christ, in many different ways known to God alone, we will live forever.