Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Gift of Christmas

“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
“Jesus humbled himself.
He went from commanding angels
to sleeping on straw.
From holding stars to clutching Mary’s finger.
The palm that held the universe
Took the nail of the soldier.
Because that’s what love does.”
                                                --Max Lucado
I received this beautiful poem by the brilliant Christian author Max Lucado on a Christmas card last week.  I read it over and over again.  This is what love does!  When we stop to ponder what Christ actually did for us by becoming a child, it makes us look at the manger scene with more of a sense of wonder.  How can our omnipotent God become so fragile, so vulnerable?  This is not how one would envision the King of Kings being born.  Not under these circumstances.  Not in this place.  Yet there he is sleeping in the straw of a manger.  Our God, so powerful and mighty, teaches us humility.  He teaches us that to show the depths of love we must become vulnerable as well.  This is the mystery of Christmas:  the meek and the lowly are the ones that are favored by God, for in the silence of a stable in Bethlehem of Judea, the Son of God was born as a meek, little infant.  This child who will be our Savior, our Redeemer, and our King begins the masterful work of our redemption.  This is what love does indeed.  God becomes a tiny child so that we may become like Him.  There is no greater gift we can receive this Christmas. 
And therein lies another great mystery about Christmas:  God becomes gift for us.  On this day when we focus so much on gifts (and giving is good), God himself makes himself a gift for humanity.  When I was a child, we would always have our family manger scene under the Christmas tree and my mother would take great care that it wouldn’t be obscured by all the presents that would accumulate under the tree.  This divine gift that is the Christ child tends to get obscured by so many things.  We all have beautiful traditions at home for Christmas with food and gifts and family and friends, but all these traditions should point us back to the reason we gathered in the first place:  to Jesus.  So many times we let all the clutter of Christmas get in the way of why we celebrate.  At Midnight Mass last night, Pope Benedict said:  “Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.”  The shepherds saw past the great spectacle of the angels and knelt before this child.  Today we celebrate this Divine Infant who became gift for us so that we would learn to become gift for others.
Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Decision (The REAL Decision)

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  (Luke 1:38)

All of us are so excited about next Sunday.  We’ve been waiting so long for Sunday the 25th to finally come.  It seemed so far off just a month ago, but it is finally here.  Of course, I’m talking about the season opener for the Miami Heat and the quest to redeem LeBron James.  I joke of course, but I bring up LeBron James because last season he was saddled with an ill-fated television program he did where he told the world that he was “moving his talents to South Beach.”  This program was dramatically called “The Decision.”  Much hype and much media attention went toward the announcement of where a basketball player, yes a player, would play his game.  So much attention.  So much drama.  So much, well, nonsense. Let me list of a few more important life altering decisions that probably merit exclusive one hour television coverage:  when a young man or woman decides to serve their country and enroll in our armed services, when a young person decides to be a missionary or a relief worker in Africa, when a young man decides to leave the world behind and become a priest, when a young Virgin decides to become the mother of the Son of God.

There were no cameras present when Gabriel appeared to Mary.  There was no big headline the next morning.  Yet the decision that Mary made altered the course of human history.  All she did was say yes to God.  This was THE decision!  Our lives would be so simple if we always said yes to God.  Of course, none of us were born without sin like the Virgin Mary who was able to give an unconditional yes to God.  This young girl from Nazareth fulfilled the promise that God had made to David centuries before when he promised that his house would endure forever.  A simple yes was all it took to put into motion God’s greatest masterpiece and the redemption of humanity.  But we resist giving a simple yes to God.  It conflicts with our agendas, our way of life, and may cause us to radically change.  Mary knew what saying yes meant.  She knew it would be a difficult journey, but ultimately God would favor the one the angel calls “full of grace.” 

Even after saying yes to God, Mary would not have it easy.  She had to travel while VERY pregnant from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  According to Google Earth, that’s a 90 mile journey on the back of a donkey.  She had to give birth in the worse of conditions in a cold stable.  According to the Weather Channel, it’s going to be 41 degrees in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.  Even after her son’s birth, she had to flee with her husband and child to Egypt when Herod was killing the Holy Innocents.  She had to bury her husband.  And worse of all, she had to witness the brutal murder and crucifixion of her only Son.  Mary’s life wasn’t easy after she said yes, but it was sure full of grace.  Why?  Because it was filled with the presence of Jesus throughout her life:  the presence of the Divine.  This is what Jesus is offering us this Advent.  All we have to do is say yes like Mary.  Her yes was transformative because it not only changed her life but our lives as well. 

But no, we resist giving Christ an unconditional yes like his mother did.  We resist turning our lives completely over to him because the world will not let us.  The world lures us, seduces us, and tempts us with so many things that run contrary to God.  These are juicy little sins that come wrapped up like beautiful little presents that were gift wrapped at Macy’s.  We can’t surrender to the Lord like Mary did because we are still slaves to sin.  We are enslaved by vices and addictions.  We are seduced by drugs, alcohol, sex, money, fame, and power.  I believe I just described the life of the Kardashians.  And therein lies the problem.  We are seduced by people who claim to be celebrities even though they have no discernible talent, and our children seek to emulate them and consider them role models.  They watch their every move.  They comment about their latest fashion choices, boyfriend choices, and marital choices.  This is the trash the world has to offer us, and our young people are hypnotized by it.  If we claim to be Christians, if we claim to be followers of Christ, then we must reject this secular world that has no need for God and abandon ourselves to Jesus like Mary did.  We face decisions every day.  These decision may not be as transformative as Mary’s, but they are decisions between good and evil, grace or sin, living a life filled with God or living a life filled with sin.

It pains me when I watch our young people who were raised in good Catholic homes, went to good Catholic schools, and went to Mass every Sunday, turn their back on Christ because they have no need for him.  To use a Christmas analogy:  they have no room at the inn for Jesus.  They prefer living “party lives”.  They prefer temporary pleasures, worldly addictions, and believe that our faith has become antiquated.  So many young people that were raised Catholic, and many still call themselves Catholics, live lives of contradiction because the world tells them that whatever makes them feel good, whatever makes them happy, whatever brings them pleasure is okay.  Well it’s my mission as a priest, ordained to preach the truth to tell you my dear young friend, that it’s not part of God’s plan for you to be doing drugs.  It’s not part of God’s plan to “hook up” and have sexual relations before marriage with anybody who is willing and able.  It’s not part of God’s plan for you to get ridiculously drunk at every party just because everyone else is.  It’s not part of God’s plan for you to be living with your boyfriend or girlfriend before you get married just to see “if it works out” or because it is economically expedient.  Our young people are basically living lives of debauchery, and I sometimes wonder:  when is it enough?

God wants you to live happy lives.  God wants you to even have fun.  But you want happiness?  You want fulfillment?  You want a life that is full of peace?  Say yes to Jesus just like Mary did.  It is not the popular decision.  It may bring you ridicule, it may alienate you from so-called friends, but it will bring you a peace that you could not possibly imagine and it WILL make you happy.  In a few days we celebrate the birth of our Savior.  He wants to save us from ourselves.  He wants so badly to dwell in our hearts, but do we have room for Jesus this Christmas?  Mary’s heart was sinless, so she had more than enough room:  she gave him her entire heart.  This is why Jesus gave us his Mother as a model of faith.  We have so much junk stored up in our hearts, so much guilt, so much regret, so much filth, that even if He tried Jesus couldn’t possibly co-exist in our heart that is enslaved with the things of this world.  That is why we have one week of Advent left.  We have one week to empty our hearts for Christ (which is what confession is for) and create a suitable dwelling place for him this Christmas.  Tonight, my dear young people, the Lord is calling upon you, just as he called upon Mary, to make a very important decision.  Will you continue to be seduced and enslaved by the world or will you say yes to him?  For Mary and Joseph, saying yes to Jesus meant devoting their entire lives to him, putting him first in their lives, and despite hardship, they were rewarded with his Divine Presence all their days.  God has a plan for you just like he had for Mary.  Stop resisting it.  Free yourself from the world so you may have true freedom to live a joy-filled life with your Savior.  There may not be cameras or bright lights on you, but you have an important decision to make.  What will it be?  Will you say yes to Christ this Christmas?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Joyful People

“I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul…” (Isaiah 61:10)

This past Wednesday, my third nephew was born.  Any time a child is born there is great rejoicing in a family.  Isn’t this what Advent is all about? We anticipate the birth of a child who will bring us great joy as my nephew did for my family this past week.  When I received the first picture of my sister holding her newborn son, I had tears of joy well up because of this great miracle.  No matter how many babies I baptize, no matter how many nephews, godchildren, cousins are born into my family, each child is his/her own gift because they are a unique miracle, a gift given to us by God to bring us joy:  just like the Christ child who comes to bring joy to a world overcome by cynicism and despair.  How can one look at a newborn child and not feel joy?  How can one not feel joy during this season in which we feel the presence of the Christ child?

The Christian must be a joyful person.  This is a fact that cannot be reconciled or debated.  If we profess Christ as our Lord, then we must be people that are filled with his joy.  Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday in which we rejoice for we know that Christmas is almost here. The readings and prayers of the Mass today mention the words rejoice or joy no less than eight times so far.  We repeat it several times in the Responsorial Psalm which is Mary’s Canticle as she rejoices at what God has done for her and for her people.  It is indeed very easy to grow cynical and to let Christmas pass without being moved or without feeling some joy.  There are those among us who are genuinely going through some very difficult times because of health, loss of a family member, or financial difficulties that make it challenging to allow joy to enter our lives.  Yet this is the challenge of Advent:  to look past all the drama the world throws at us and allow ourselves to be overcome by Christmas joy. No matter what we are going through, we are called to look past all the negative stuff going on around us and embrace the hope that Christ brings.  As Christians, we cannot dwell or get stuck in what is going wrong in our lives.  Rather, we must rejoice with what is going right.  We must be a “glass half full” people that seek to spread the joy of being God’s children.  I read a beautiful quote this morning from Hilaire Belloc that says:  “Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.”  This quote reminds me of when Christ promises to be present where two or three are gathered in his name.  If Christ is present around those assembled in his name, then his joy must be present as well.  So do we spread the joy of Christ?  Or do we bring others down to the cynicism of a world that does not know Christ?  Our joy must be contagious!  John the Baptism pointed out in today’s gospel that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize.”  He was referring to the presence of Christ in our midst that we often cannot see because the world distracts us from his presence.  My friends, today we are called to rejoice for our salvation is at hand. Today we are called to rejoice because Christmas is almost here.  Today we are called to rejoice because, well, that’s what Christians quite simply are supposed to do.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Highway To Our Hearts

“A voice cries out:  In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!  Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”  (Isaiah 40:3)

Remember those Christmases when you were a child when you didn’t get the gift you wanted?  You kept opening present after present looking for that one gift that you wanted above everything else.  But alas, it was not under the tree.  You smiled half-heartedly playing with the toys that you received but were disappointed because you had just spent all of December expecting something that never came.  As adults, we still long for certain things.  Sometimes it's events.  For example, many young people long for the day they meet Mr. or Mrs. Right or finish college.  For parents, they may long for the day their kids finally graduate and leave the house.  For local sports fans, we long for our Dolphins to win the Super Bowl (sigh).  Most of these things may or may not happen, but yet there is still a hope that drives us.  

In today's readings, we see three instances where God's people expected something that never came.  (1) The first reading was directed to the Jews who were exiled in Babylon.  They longed to return to Jerusalem, and they eagerly anticipated the Messiah to be the one that would lead them back and restore Jerusalem to its glory.  They would eventually return to Jerusalem, but alas, the Messiah had not yet arrived and they found a city and a temple left in ruins that had to be rebuilt.  (2) In the gospel, we hear the preaching of John the Baptist announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah.  However, many expected a militant Messiah, as the Babylonian Jews did, who would lead them victoriously over the Romans and restore the glory of Israel as it was during the time of King David.  The Messiah did come, but it was not the Messiah that people had expected.  (3) The first Christian community kept hearing over and over again that Christ’s return was imminent, and they lived lives of joyful expectation.  However, like a disappointed child on Christmas morning, they didn’t get what they longed for.  Yet, they were still hopeful which should be the attitude of every Christian not only during Advent but throughout the year.

All of us long for many things.  These longings and wishes are particularly present around this time of year.  We long for happiness, peace, financial security, love, health, but unfortunately none of these things will magically appear under our tree on Christmas morning.  The only thing we can be certain that we will receive this Christmas is the presence of our Lord.  How we receive him is entirely up to us.  We hear the voice of John the Baptist in today’s gospel telling us to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths, but the Lord isn’t going to force his way into our hearts on Christmas Day.  We have to prepare a place for him.  We have to clear a direct path, a highway without obstacles or tolls if you will, so that he can totally take over our hearts.  And if we do prepare a place for him, he will be all that we need on that day.  A heart overflowing with the love of Christ has no need for anything else because it has all that it needs and desires.  This Advent season is a time of preparation, a time of filling in valleys and tearing down mountains to ensure that Lord’s path to our hearts is straight and direct.  When I was a child, I may not have found the present I wanted underneath the Christmas tree every year, but I did always find a little child lying in a manger.  I know now what I didn’t know then:  Christ is all I need this Christmas.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Starting Anew

"Yet, Lord, you are the Father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are all the work of your hand." (Isaiah 64:7)

There is so much that is new as we gather today for the Eucharist. The words of the Mass have changed. The decor of the altar has changed to reflect the season of Advent. Yet, the one constant that never changes is the presence of the Lord in this sacred place and in this celebration. It is this Lord that we prepare to greet this Advent season as we will celebrate his coming into the world to make all things new. We are surrounded by change, but the question we must ask ourselves today is, "Are we ready to change?"

The one image that I take from this week's readings is the image of the clay and the potter. As we begin this Advent season may we surrender to the loving hands of our Father who seeks to make something new. He wants to mold us and fashion us into the image of his Divine Son. But do we trust Him? Are willing to start anew? We spend so much time preparing for Christmas: decorating, partying, and shopping. But how much time do we spend preparing our hearts for the coming of the Lord. All those people that stood in long lines for Black Friday were in search of something that will not bring them happiness and will definitely not bring them closer to Christ. What Christ wants for Christmas does not come in a box, it's not for sale, and it can't be bought. All he wants is our hearts: totally and completely. That is why we must allow the Potter to mold and fashion our hearts to be a worthy vessel for the coming of his Son. We must surrender to the Father's will and be different people on Christmas Day than we are today.

The Lord is coming. What will he find on Christmas morning? The same lump of clay? Or something beautifully re-created by his Father that was surrendered into His hands? This Advent, surrender yourselves into the hands of a loving God and watch how he transforms your life into something beautiful and new.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

100 Thanks (2011)

For those that aren’t familiar with what has become a Thanksgiving tradition for me, every year I list the 100 things I am thankful for.  It’s fun, it’s introspective, and it reminds us that the heart of the Christian must always be thankful.  This year more than most, this day of thanks takes on special importance.  So in no particular order, here are the 100 things I am thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!

  1. My God
  2. My faith
  3. My priesthood
  4. My father
  5. My mother
  6. My sister
  7. My brother
  8. My brother in law
  9. My best friend
  10. My oldest nephew
  11. My youngest nephew
  12. My unborn nephew
  13. My cousins (all my cousins!)
  14. My extended family
  15. My friends
  16. My parish family
  17. My former parish families
  18. My quiet time with the Lord before the Blessed Sacrament
  19. Celebrating Mass
  20. Preaching
  21. Bringing comfort and anointing to the dying
  22. Bringing a soul back home in confession
  23. Witnessing the union of two souls in marriage
  24. Baptizing a child
  25. Laughing with a joyful child of God
  26. Crying with a mourning child of God
  27. Retreats
  28. My brother priests
  29. The hands that absolve my sins
  30. God's unwavering mercy
  31. Being tired after a long and fruitful day of ministry
  32. My St. Agatha students
  33. My St. Agnes students
  34. My St. Brendan students
  35. My MHOC students
  36. My St. Gregory students
  37. Lunchtime
  38. “Do you know my name?”
  39. My students' Thanksgiving lists!
  40. Random phone calls and texts from any of my former students
  41. Teachers
  42. Firefighters/Paramedics
  43. Our military
  44. Doctors and nurses
  45. Sign Language Interpreters
  46. The gift of speaking
  47. The gift of listening
  48. My health
  49. My faults
  50. Days off
  51. Hot water
  52. Home cooked meals
  53. Electricity
  54. WiFi
  55. No hurricanes
  56. Vacations
  57. Captiva
  58. Fishing
  59. Trips to the Key
  60. Stay-cations
  61. Phone calls from Connecticut
  62. The little girl (Eeeeeeagle!)
  63. Godchildren
  64. Compadres (i.e. my godchildren's parents)
  65. Visits from former parishioners (especially unexpected ones)
  66. Long talks with good friends
  67. Lunches at diners
  68. Scrubs reruns
  69. Seinfeld reruns
  70. Chuck
  71. Parks and Recreation
  72. Of Gods and Men
  73. Three game winning streaks
  74. Standing with the U
  75. Pinstripes
  76. Opening Day with my father
  77. Undeservedly being called Father
  78. Almost 10 years of priesthood
  79. Consecration
  80. Special rosaries
  81. Prayers from my mother
  82. Wisdom from my father
  83. Spoiling my sister
  84. Pride in my brother
  85. Rare moments that we're all under the same roof
  86. Naps
  87. Peaceful silence
  88. Sunsets
  89. The sounds of the ocean
  90. The comfort of Scripture
  91. The parable of the Prodigal Son
  92. The writings of Henri Nouwen
  93. The writings, life, and example of Blessed John Paul II
  94. The countless prayers of parishioners
  95. The intercession of Blessed Mother Teresa
  96. The intercession of my Blessed Mother
  97. The unconditional love of my family
  98. Miracles great and small
  99. My father’s health
  100. Being able to bow my head this Thanksgiving day with my father, my family, and my friends to say “Thank you, Lord!”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Servant King

"I myself will look after and tend my sheep." (Ezekiel 34:11)

I've been debating all evening whether to write a reflection because I didn't preach today.  It has been a surreal day for me to say this least.  But I just wanted to share a few thoughts with you my dear friends.

On this feast of Christ the King, there was one prevailing thought that I've been pondering the last few days especially as I look at the cross: "If Christ did this for us, what must we do for him?"  In today's gospel, Jesus teaches us that whenever we serve the least of our brothers and sisters we are serving him.  We have a King who taught us how to serve and who taught us that true power and greatness lies in service.  

There are so many people in our lives that live exemplary lives of service and who devote their lives completely to others without regard for themselves.   This is what our Lord did.  This is why the Father crowned him with glory:  because he "loved to the extreme."  These people in our lives who love and serve as Christ did serve as true models for us to change our selfish ways and live totally for the other.  We want to follow their example but so many times fall short.  This should not discourage us but rather inspire us to keep reaching for greatness.  More often than not, we will fall short of the example of Christ, but we still strive every day to be better Christians.  And if we are discouraged, all we have to do is listen to the first reading and psalm where our Good Shepherd promises to look after and tend to us.  Christ, our Lord and King, will lift us up for he has destined us for eternal glory.  And when we fall short, he places people in our lives that are living and breathing "alter Christus" in our lives.  The ones who personify service and love. The ones who would lay down their lives for us.  The ones who inspire us to be better Christians. They are the ones that lead us to the Lord, who show us Christ's true face, and who will one day share in Christ's kingship.  May we be found worthy to share in this kingship one day.  All we have to do is follow Christ and the example of those who reflect him in our lives through their service.  

Long live Christ the King!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Maximizing Our Talents

"Well done, my good and faithful servant...Come, share your master’s joy." (Matthew 25:21)
The beginning of my homily this evening totally depended on the outcome of this afternoon’s Dolphins game.  You see all year long many fans have been rooting for our home team’s demise in the hopes of getting a coveted quarterback out of Stanford University.  I never quite understood this mentality.  I could see the practical logic (somewhat), but how could you root against your home team?  How could you want your team to perform at a substandard level when it is filled with talented players?  I was overjoyed when the Dolphins won their first game last week, and yet I had friends arguing with me over the cause of my joy because in their mind we had just blown any chance at the first pick in the draft.  Since when does failure equal success?  It’s no secret that I celebrate Mass for the Dolphins the night before every home game.  These are proud and talented men who play and coach for this team with great passion.  They don’t know how to go at any other speed than full speed.  I must tell you that they were upbeat last night.  There was joy.  Today’s outcome seemed predestined because they were dancing on the sidelines at game’s end.  Yet I still got a text from a friend after today’s game telling me that this was bad.  Why?  Those who don’t give their best effort when they have been blessed with great talent will never be justly rewarded.  If you want further proof of this, I offer up the third servant in today’s gospel as Exhibit A.
The third servant had been blessed.  Sure he hadn’t been blessed with as many talents as the other two servants, but he was still blessed nonetheless.  Yet he chose to do nothing with what he had.  He feared his Master.  He feared success.  He thought it would be safer to hide what his master had given to him instead of putting it to good use.  The other servants were bold and put their talents to work.  Upon their master’s return they were justly rewarded with those words we all hope to hear one day in heaven:  "Well done, my good and faithful servant...Come, share your master’s joy." 
The truth is that there are many Christians like the third servant who fear putting their talents and knowledge of their faith to use afraid of what the world might say.  To bring it back to the Dolphins, a great majority of fans would’ve been happy to see them fail and bury their talents in the ground, but the team overcame adversity and strung together two satisfying wins because that is what they are supposed to do:  win!  Not next year, but now!  The Christian who buries his or her talent in the ground is in a way being selfish and not sharing the blessings the Lord has bestowed on them.  They are called to always share this talent:  not next year, but now!  Could you imagine if our musicians here never opened their mouths to sing or played an instrument for fear of failure?  Could you imagine if I, as a priest, never said yes to God because I feared getting up and preaching his Word to hundreds of people every week?  We cannot be afraid, and we cannot be content with mediocrity.  As Christians, we have to multiply the blessings the Lord has given to us.  If things don’t go our way at first, we keep on trying because the Lord is depending on us to spread his Good News through the abundance of talent that he has bestowed on each and every person in this church. We cannot be fearful of what the world has to say or how other people will react.  It’s time we started putting Christianity back in the mainstream and reject the notion that we have an antiquated and outdated faith.  We have to put our talents at the service of the Kingdom of God which is present in the here and now.  We have to multiply our blessings and share them with the world.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand and let the world transform us when we should be transforming the world with the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
We definitely have to bold like the first two servants and set the world on fire for Christ because that is what is required of every Christian.  To do less is to condemn ourselves to the same fate as the lazy and fearful servant.  We must be Christians of conviction that aren’t ashamed to say that we are Christian and to act like someone worthy of that name.  Moreover, we should be people that aren’t ashamed of saying with pride that we are Roman Catholic and that we uphold all that our Holy Church teaches and professes!  Of course, being bold and courageous for the gospel in this increasingly secular world is difficult, but we cannot be fearful and we cannot give less than what we have been blessed with.  To do so would be downright sinful.  If we fold in the face of adversity, as many fans want our football team to do, we will never experience the joy that the first two bold servants were offered by their master. Basically, it all comes down to this:  at the end of our life we will stand before the Lord and he will ask us if we maximized the talents and blessings that he bestowed on us.  May each of us share with the world what the Lord has given to us, so that we may one day hear those glorious words:  "Well done, my good and faithful servant...Come, share your master’s joy."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Staying Awake

"Therefore, stay awake, for you neither the day nor the hour."  (Matthew 25:13)

December 2, 1985.  It was quite possibly the greatest football game the Miami Dolphins ever played.  The undefeated Chicago Bears were coming into town to play on a Monday night and to steal our hallowed undefeated record from our franchise, but our golden boy quarterback and the best game plan Coach Shula ever devised crushed the Bears and sent them home with their only loss of the year.  It was one our franchise's finest hours...and I couldn't see it!  I felt the electricity as we travelled near the old Orange Bowl just hours before kickoff.  I was as pumped up for this game as a 10 year old could get.  But when my bedtime came around, my father pointed to my bedroom and sent me straight to bed.  I don't know how I slept that night, but I did and didn't find out who won until the next morning.  I still give my father a hard time about it to this day.

There are so many things that we miss in life because we fall asleep at the wheel, and we aren't alert enough to notice them especially in our spiritual lives.  If we go through the motions in life, it is almost impossible to see God's mighty hand at work in our life.  This morning when I preached to the children, I leaned in close to them and asked them if any of them had ever fallen asleep at Mass.  They were hesitant at first but eventually admitted that they had dozed off at Mass before.  Then came the money question:  I asked if their parents had ever fallen asleep during Mass. The kids jubilantly shouted "YES!" as their parents tried to hide.  We get distracted, we get bored, and we lose focus on what's important.  As we approach the end of the liturgical year, Jesus is warning us to stay awake, stay alert, and be ready, for we never know when he might come knocking at our door.  Obviously, Christ here is referring to his second coming, but there are so many other times where he tries to do great things in our lives but finds us sleeping or unprepared like the foolish virgins in today's gospel.  

Here's the problem:  we get lazy with our spiritual life far too often.  We don't nurture our soul.  We don't tend to our prayer life.  We get distracted by the external and don't make time for a God who always has time for us.  We are constantly moving on to the "next thing" without enjoying the present.  Just one day after Halloween, they started bombarding our airwaves with Christmas commercials even though it's still a month and a half away.  All of us are a week or two from complaining about being totally overwhelmed by the upcoming holidays.  We're putting the cart before the horse and the horse isn't even out of the barn yet.  We spend so much time planning for the superficial and the material that we do not concentrate on what we need in the present.  There will be plenty of time to prepare for Christmas.  We call it Advent.  Today, we have to focus on the here and now because Christ is present in the here and now.  Like the wise and prudent virgins, we must be sufficiently prepared spiritually for what lies immediately before us, and not be unprepared and get distracted like the foolish ones.  At this Mass, we should be thinking about how we can grow in our love for Christ, and not thinking about the week that lies ahead or what we're going to do after Mass.  We should come spiritually prepared to celebrate the mystery of God's love, and not look past this sacred hour, for around this altar is where our Lord does some of his finest work.  So stay awake my friends for the Lord is ready to do something wonderful in your life, and you definitely don't want to be asleep when it happens.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Being Called Father

“The greatest among you must be your servant.”  (Matthew 23:11)

I still remember the first time I was called “Father.”  I wasn’t even a priest yet.  My ordination was still nine days away.  I was visiting St. Agnes for the very first time and was being given a tour of my first assignment by the school bookkeeper and she kept calling me Father and introducing me to everyone as “Father Manny.”  I tried in vain to tell her that I wasn’t a priest yet that she could call me Manny, but she insisted because I was going to be a priest very soon and she wanted me to get used to it.  It was a little jarring at first being called “Father.”  It is for every newly ordained priest.  And even as I approach ten years of priestly service, when I stop and think about this, it is truly humbling and underserved.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “Call no one on earth your father.”  He does not mean this literally, for he is simply warning the disciples about the feeling of superiority that the Pharisees had gotten over all the titles they enjoyed being called.  For me, the title “father” has never made me feel superior, but rather been a challenge and a reminder of the incredible responsibility that the Good Lord has given to me in calling me to be his priest.  It is a challenge to be humble, selfless, and a servant above all else.  “The greatest among you must be your servant.”  Jesus reminds of us this in today’s gospel, but as a priest I was reminded of this on my ordination day when I lay prostrate on the cathedral floor.  Above all else, I must be your servant.

Last summer, I read great book by the biblical scholar Scott Hahn on the biblical origins of the priesthood titled, “Many Are Called:  Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood.”  I read it, providentially, on my first trip to Rome.  Dr. Hahn echoes the words of Jesus in today’s gospel that we have one Father in heaven, but what this great scholar said next really moved me:  “[God the Father’s] perfect fatherhood is a spiritual act.  Celibate priests are living and life-giving images of God the Father, as they beget new children for the kingdom through baptism (p.129).”  This week in his reflection on today’s readings, Dr. Hahn would finish that thought by saying:  “The fatherhood of…the Church’s priests and bishops, is a spiritual paternity given to raise us as God’s children.  Our fathers give us new life in baptism, and feed us the spiritual milk of the gospel and the Eucharist.”  Very challenging indeed when I stop to think about my call to mirror the spiritual paternity of God our Father.  It is a title that I do not take lightly, and I challenge all of you not to take lightly either because it reminds my brother priests and I of the humble service that we have been called to and all the spiritual children that have been entrusted to our care.

I have been thinking about this theme of spiritual paternity all week, and yesterday I texted several of my former parishioners from my first parish, young and old, and simply asked them:  “Why do you call me Father?”  I got some great responses from very humorous to very deep and moving:

-Because our children look up to you like a Father…because we respect the call your have answered to be a “Father”…Because your arms are always open like the “loving father.”
-Because you have gray hair and can be a pain like a father!
-Because it separates you from other people.
-Because you are a role model
-Because I can go to you to celebrate…look for advice, and cry on your shoulder for compassion.
-Because He chose you to be His reflection to all of us…you are called to model “Our Father” on earth.
-Because that’s what the church calls the priest therefore you are Father Manny
-Because you give me guidance, provide me with nourishment, chide me when I misbehave, and love me unconditionally.  Isn’t that what fathers do?

When I was reading these responses last night, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit.  I am a flawed human being who has been called by God to this extraordinary vocation of being a priest.  I know I have a lot to go when it comes to being a reflection of our Father in heaven.  There are days where priesthood is a joyful struggle as we try to make the Word of God come alive for a people distracted by the world.  It is difficult, but there is not greater life, for it is your prayers that sustain us.  We tend to forget that at Mass when the priest says, “This is my body which will be given up for you,” he is not simply repeating the words of Christ or dramatically re-enacting them.  He is acting the person of Christ and offering up his own life, as Christ did, for the people he is about to feed.  He is offering his own body and blood for the salvation of us all. 

I will end with a note that I got from one of you, my wonderful new parishioners, just yesterday morning.  This past week our pastor and other associate were on retreat so I was left behind to hold down the fort and offer up all the Masses during the week among other duties.  As you can imagine, I was exhausted at the end of the week, but then I picked up the note that simply read:  “Thank you for all the gifts of your priesthood this past week.  Because of you, we were able to receive Jesus every day.”

On this Priesthood Sunday, when so many of you thank us for being a priest, it is I who must thank all of you for allowing me to serve you at this altar and beyond as a priest of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You remind me every day, even on the difficult ones, of how richly blessed I am and how much I still need to go to be the perfect reflection of Our Father in heaven.  That is why on this day, and every day, I ask you:  never cease to pray for your priests.  And pray for vocation as well because you never know:  there may be a young man sitting in our midst that we will one day call “Father.”