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.