Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Early Network of Love

"Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another..." (Col 3:12-13)

This past week after Christmas, I wandered into a neighboring parish and walked in to pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. The lights were off except for one spotlight over the tabernacle.  Now since I've served at this church before, I turned on the dimmer over the sanctuary where the manger was.  I spent a few minutes in quiet all alone in the church then a father walked in with his two small children. Without prompting, his daughter, who could not have been more than four, walked up to the manger, knelt down, and stretched her tiny little body to give baby Jesus a kiss.  I smiled because she could only have learned this at home from her family.  This is what we celebrate today: the gift of family. This gift of family is so important to God that he chose to be born into one. 

Not much is known about the life of the Holy Family and their time in Nazareth except what he hear at the end of today's gospel: "And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man (Luke 2:52)."  It is there where Joseph and Mary molded him into the man we would read about later in the gospels. In 1964, during a homily on the Feast of the Holy Family, Pope Paul VI said: 
"The home of Nazareth is the school where we begin to understand the life of Jesus - the school of the Gospel. First, then, a lesson of silence. May esteem for silence, that admirable and indispensable condition of mind, revive in us. . . A lesson on family life. May Nazareth teach us what family life is, its communion of love, its austere and simple beauty, and its sacred and inviolable character..."
Now the last thing we think of when we think of family life is silence. Yet, it is in the silence of the house of Nazareth that Jesus learned how to be a just man like Joseph, where he learned to pray like his mother, and where he forged that unbreakable bond with his Heavenly Father.  God places us in a family to learn from one another, to grow together in holiness, and to help each other achieve salvation. That is why the words of St. Paul to the Colossians in the second reading are so important when it comes to family life because we do need compassion, humility, gentleness, and patience.  If we exhibited more of these sacred traits then our families wouldn't be in the dire straights they are today and as a result society wouldn't be suffering as it is because of the deterioration of the family.  Pope Paul said it well 48 years ago when he said the family had a sacred and inviolable character. We cannot let family be redefined by society nor can we let it's importance be minimized by society. 

Every summer, I sit with one of my former students to talk about life and pretty much everything under the sun.  He has a brilliant mind and like most of my former students in college or graduate school struggles with his faith, has his doubts, but tries to live a good life because he comes from a very strong family that has molded him into the man that he is today.  Our talks are marathons that can stretch on for hours, and it is somewhat humbling to go toe to toe with a former student to argue about morality, theology, and philosophy.  One day, the subject of family came up, and he gave me this simple, modern, yet wonderful definition: "[Family] gives you the moral foundation you will use to navigate the world before you have the capacity to develop your own...[this] early network of love makes adult life in society possible."  Moral foundation.  Early network of love. I felt like telling him: "you are not far for the kingdom of God."

We must look to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as our moral foundation of what our families should be like and as examples of the ultimate network of love. It is that love that gave us so wonderful a Redeemer.  May we imitate constantly their example so that society may be overwhelmed by the love that emanates from our homes and from the silence of Nazareth.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Is There Room For Jesus?

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

What a glorious Christmas!  I am so thankful to be sharing it this year with family and with my new parish family as your pastor.  This year I am particularly thankful because for the first time in years I was able to have dinner on Christmas Eve with my family.  We had a joyous time because in the center of it all was the love of family and at the center of the love of family is Jesus Christ.  On that holiest of nights centuries ago, the warmth of the family is what kept our Lord warm, and we feel that warmth here in church as we gather to celebrate more than a birthday.  We are gathered to celebrate God’s marvelous gift to us in his Son and to hear the ancient Christmas story told again.

We are struck by the simplicity and the depth of Luke’s account of the events surrounding Christ’s birth, of God’s coming into the world.   Pope Benedict XVI reflected on this during his Midnight Mass homily:

“Again and again the beauty of this Gospel touches our hearts: a beauty that is the splendor of truth. Again and again it astonishes us that God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms. It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you, and that you are trying to assert yourself in the face of my grandeur. So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.”
What struck me from that paragraph is that God became a child who “trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms.”  Imagine that?  God trusts us.  He loves us so much that he humbled himself to the point of becoming a vulnerable little infant totally dependent on humanity.  God dependent on humanity: this is love!  Totally surrendering himself to us so that we might love or might “dare” to love him.  But now the Holy Father touches upon a rather innocuous verse that goes to the depth of what Christmas and the life of the Christian should be about:
“I am also repeatedly struck by the Gospel writer’s almost casual remark that there was no room for them at the inn. Inevitably the question arises, what would happen if Mary and Joseph were to knock at my door. Would there be room for them? And then it occurs to us that Saint John takes up this seemingly chance comment about the lack of room at the inn, which drove the Holy Family into the stable; he explores it more deeply and arrives at the heart of the matter when he writes: “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (Jn 1:11)... do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for God. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking?”
Yes, the question of God is no longer urgent because we simply do not have time for him.  I’m always dismayed during Christmas Eve and Christmas of how people try to “squeeze” Mass in between their plans of unwrapping presents or dining as if Jesus is somehow an afterthought on his own birthday!  If you are celebrating someone’s birthday, wouldn’t it be tops on your list to see the guest of honor?  But do we have room at the inn?  Do we have room in our hearts, in our homes, and in our lives for Jesus?  Not just on this day but every day.  The Holy Father touches upon the irony that we surround ourselves with so many time saving gadgets yet there is less and less time for God in our lives.  (We use those same gadgets every year to send every one on our contact lists a rather impersonal two word “Merry Christmas” greeting without much thought behind it because it would take too much time to actually send a personalized greeting or pick up the phone to call those you love.)  Mary and Joseph needed to make more and more room for God because they basically surrendered their entire lives for Jesus and placed him at the center of their lives.  As Christians, we are called to do the same.  We are called to be like the shepherds who upon hearing the joyous news from the angel went in haste to see the Lord with what the Pope called “holy curiosity” which leads him to wonder:

“In our case, it is probably not very often that we make haste for the things of God. God does not feature among the things that require haste. The things of God can wait, we think and we say. And yet he is the most important thing, ultimately the one truly important thing. Why should we not also be moved by curiosity to see more closely and to know what God has said to us? At this hour, let us ask him to touch our hearts with the holy curiosity and the holy joy of the shepherds, and thus let us go over joyfully to Bethlehem, to the Lord who today once more comes to meet us.”

In this Year of Faith, we pray for this “holy curiosity” so we may grow more in our faith and in the joy of knowing that this manger scene symbolizes how much God truly loves us.  So on this Christmas, I leave you with two questions to ponder during this holy season:  What space does Jesus Christ occupy in our lives?  And when was the last time we went “in haste” to encounter God?  If the world only knew what those shepherds discovered on that holy night in Bethlehem.  If the world only knew the joy that comes from placing Jesus Christ in the center of our lives. 

For today a savior has been born for us.
Peace on earth
Good will to men.
Merry Christmas.
Amen. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Finding Peace

He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.” (Micah 5:3-4)

One of the greatest joys of my priesthood is when I get a phone call from a couple that I have recently married and hear the wonderful news that they are expecting a baby. They are joyful yet cautiously nervous because while they are thrilled that a child is on the way, they are uncertain of what the future might bring. This is where we find ourselves today just two days away from Christmas. We are joyfully expecting the birth of our Savior, but we are nervous about obligations and family dinners and last minute shopping and gift wrapping and making sure everything will be ready for Christmas. I could’ve made that last sentence longer and added more things to the Christmas to-do list, but I just wanted to underscore that we get too anxious for such a wonderful holiday. We get so worked up that when Christmas morning greets us, we lack the peace that surrounded Bethlehem on that holy night. So that is what we should pray for these last two days of Advent: peace.

I’m not talking about peace on earth. I’m talking about interior peace; that peace that penetrates our hearts and makes its presence felt by all those who come near us. We have all been in the presence of a person who radiates peace. Why can’t we be that person? The Virgin Mary was the bearer of Peace himself when she arrived at Elizabeth’s home. She greeted Elizabeth and that greeting, that peace, that Presence she carried in her womb made Elizabeth’s unborn child leap for joy. Both Mary and Elizabeth were blessed by God on high and carried remarkable children who would transform the world. They rejoiced in their blessings. Do we? Have we taken the time this busy season to count the great things the Almighty has done for us? Do we consider ourselves blessed like Elizabeth and Mary did?

Since the beginning of Advent, I’ve been talking about the things that distract us from what is truly important this Christmas. We work so hard to make each Christmas so special for our families, which is admirable, but at what cost? If we approach Christmas with a prayerful and peaceful spirit, we will give our families far more than anything we will find under the tree. This Child has come to shepherd us. He has come to lead us from darkness to light. Prepare his way, for he has come to bring us a gift that is fleeting: the gift of peace. As the prophet Micah tells us: he shall be peace. May that peace overwhelm us the next few days so that we may welcome this child and share his peace with the world.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What Should We Do?

“The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10)

On this Sunday of joy in which we light the rose colored candle to signal that Christmas is drawing nearer and nearer, we gather to listen to the words of Scripture.  The people gather around John the Baptist “with great expectation” thinking that he is the Christ asking “what should we do?” because they long for salvation.  St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always, and in the first reading from the prophet Zephaniah we are told to shout for joy and sing joyfully because the king, the Lord, is in our midst.

The Book of Zephaniah is a small book towards the back of the Old Testament that only has three chapters.  Yesterday, I was discussing the first reading with a priest friend of mine as we were exchanging homily ideas and he told me to look at the first verses of chapter 3 (we start reading from verse 14 in today’s reading.)  The first verses strike a far different tone:

Ah! Rebellious and polluted, the tyrannical city!  It listens to no voice, accepts no correction; In the Lord it has not trusted, nor drawn near to its God. (v. 1-2)”

(Read that verse and think of our world, our nation right now…I’ll come back to it later.)

Verses 8 and 9 say: “Therefore, wait for me—oracle of the LORD—until the day when I arise as accuser; for it is my decision to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, in order to pour out upon them my wrath, all my blazing anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth will be consumed.

For then I will make pure the speech of the peoples, that they all may call upon the name of the Lord.”

When I read those 4 verses, I told my friend that I did not want to focus on the wrath of God on this Sunday that is supposed to be dedicated to joy.  But I was thinking like humans do and not like God.  We think of wrath and we think of violence and destruction, but God’s wrath aims to restore and purify.  As my friend pointed out to me, “After the wrath of God there is restoration.  The world may show us a wrath that is not God’s [since] God’s wrath is passion for restoring what has been broken or people who have turned away from him.  [Therefore] if God wants to restore what is broken…then what we see in Connecticut, Oregon, Arizona, Virginia Tech, [Aurora], and everywhere else, we must trust that God WANTS to restore, but more importantly, we must TRUST that God is ever present in our world.”

And there it is…

It may seem difficult to see God in this world when we see what happened in that small town in Connecticut on Friday, but somehow, like we did in 9/11 and all those tragedies listed above, we must seek Him amidst the horrors of this world because ultimately our hope comes only from above.

There is only one solution to what ails this nation.  His name is Jesus Christ.  Now more than ever we must allow Christ to be born in the hearts all men and women.  Yes, there are no simple nor immediate solutions to this recent wave of shootings.  We simply pray and turn to Christ.  This one in particular struck a very raw nerve for me as it did for all of us because it involved children.  And in my anger, my confusion, and in the heat of the moment I vented, like most of us do, on social media.  I made comment, a very simplistic comment at that, about ridding guns off our streets because when something bad happens you want to point the finger at something or someone. (I took it down because it sparked a furor the likes of which I’ve never seen on my page and was diverting attention from the fact that we needed to pray for the victims and for these children and their families.  Yet, a part of me wishes that some of these people where as passionate about the Gospel as they are about their guns.)  I know this issue is very complex and reaches farther than just mere gun control but wouldn’t we all want to live in a world where arms and violence did not exist.  But like I said, it’s not that simple.  I’m just a priest that likes to keep his eyes and his dreams fixed on heaven praying that we may experience some of that paradise down here.  The only solution is to center our lives, our culture, and most importantly our families on Jesus Christ.  He must reign in each and every one of our hearts so that we can slowly start to transform this culture of death that glorifies violence, and like the first verse of the third chapter of Zephaniah said, transform a city, a nation, a people, and a culture that does not hear the voice of God nor draws near to him.  Yet God himself wants to renew and restore this very people.  He wants to restore and re-create each one of us so that we can radiate with the love and the joy of his only begotten Son.

So we come back to the question that was asked of John the Baptist:  “what should we do?”  In a word:  repent.  That was the central message of John as prepared the way of the Lord.  We repent by letting God’s holy wrath overwhelm and cleanse our hearts of all impurities so that we can be bearers of his joy just like Mary was the bearer of Joy himself: Christ the Lord.

Even though we approach the altar of the Lord with heavy hearts this Sunday, we must not let anyone take away the joy that Christ has given to us and that we so eagerly expect this Christmas.  We mourn as a nation, but we also pray for our nation that we may return to the Lord so that we may never experience this sorrow again.  Accept the invitation the Lord is offering you to be cleanse your heart in the sacrament of confession this Advent so that we may be ready to receive Him with hearts restored and renewed this Christmas.  Then we will be able to spread his joy one person at a time and slowly start turning our nation back to God.  Our world, now more than ever, needs this joy, needs repentance, needs this Jesus.

Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Even Elves Should Point To Jesus

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. (Luke 2:3)"

This week I discovered that elves are taking over Christmas. On my day off, I started looking at all the pictures my sister had posted on Facebook about how elves had taken over her home to make sure that my nephews were behaving before Christmas. Every night they report back to Santa who's been naughty and who's been nice as well as decorate the house or do something crazy while the children sleep. As I was looking over her picture (there was a new one posted every morning), I started noticing that a lot of our friends were doing the same thing and that apparently Miami has been overrun by elves! Now, while I enjoy all the beauty and the wonder of Santa and the beautiful traditions that we have during this time of year that capture a child's imagination as it did mine once upon a time, I did notice that none of the elves were preparing for the birth of Jesus. So I took to Facebook to point that out. My sister and I had a good discussion about it because she likes to keep the same Advent/Christmas traditions that my mother kept, but when she saw me complaining about the elves, she jokingly posted on Facebook: "You're being a grinch." To which I replied: "No, I'm being a priest" because everything during this blessed season should point to Jesus. Even little elves. The marvel of social media is that everyone could see the discussion I was having with my sister and others which was good because it got my point across. The next morning everyone was sending me pictures of how the elves woke up by the nativity scene in the house or by the Advent wreath. If an elf can make a child ask a questions about Jesus then why not? Everything we do should point to Christ

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we are presented with the figure of John the Baptist. Here was a man who spent his entire life pointing to Christ even while in his mother's womb. He is the one who deflected attention away from himself by saying that he should decrease so that Christ could increase. His words, his actions, and his martyrdom pointed to Jesus Christ. As you look around your homes this Advent season, ask yourself if all those decorations are pointing to Christ. Some might finds this figure cheesy, but I've always bee transfixed by the little figurine of Santa kneeling before the newborn Christ. Why? Because my mother had it in our house when I was a kid, and it hammered the point home to me that even the big red man himself knelt before this child because after all Jesus IS the reason for the season.

I have spent much of this past week meditating on how everything we do must point to Jesus. Even in the menial actions of our every day life, we must point to Him. I was also meditating upon this as it related to the Mass when one of our seminarians sent me this quote from Pope Benedict XVI: "If the centrality of Christ does not emerge in the celebration, then it is not a Christian liturgy!" If everything we do points to Jesus, then we will begin to see the Divine in everything around us or begin to transform everything around us to point to the Divine.

I write this homily, which I preached last night to the team, while sitting in my hotel room in San Francisco. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the United States with its amazing architecture and beautiful vistas. I spent my day yesterday touring all the important tourist stops in the city, but nothing beat the sunset I saw over the Pacific Ocean. That in and of itself pointed directly to God. It was in a place to the west of the city right on the Pacific called Cliff House. The beach starts right there as the cliffs give way to the dark sand of the west coast , and as you gaze off towards the ocean, there are these two rocks formations that rise out of the water. The currents bring the waves crashing up against these rocks in so many directions that it creates a symphony of the sounds of nature unlike anything I've ever heard. That was my soundtrack as I watched the sunset on what was a truly beautiful fog-less day in the city by the bay. I have seen many sunsets in the Florida Keys and the Gulf Coast, but for me there has always been something special about wanting to see the sun set on the Pacific Ocean. Maybe because I know that there isn't any land beyond the horizon for thousands of miles or maybe it's because Andy Dufresne painted such a magical picture of the beautiful blue of the Pacific in the "The Shawshank Redemption." It was even more beautiful than what Andy described to Red. Why? Because everything around me, including my parents who I was blessed to have with me, pointed to God. Only God could create something this beautiful and this wondrous. But even that sunset pales in comparison to the masterpiece he created on that night in Bethlehem that we are preparing to celebrate. May we be able to see the hand of God all around us this Advent season, and let everything we do and everything that surrounds us point to Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Great Expectations

“The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” (Jeremiah 33:14)

Advent is a season of great expectations.  From the moment Thanksgiving ends, sometimes sooner, we start making all these grand plans for Christmas that we cannot possibly accomplish. Of course, these plans are material or secular and will not lead us any closer to Christ.  This is why we begin a spiritual journey today to concentrate on what is truly important during this blessed season. Yesterday, I read a quote from priest I befriended on Facebook that read: "Our beloved Church "shocks" us with the scandal of the color violet while the rest of the world clothes itself in red and gold so that, on the final day, we will not be shocked to find ourselves dressed in something less glorious than God's own light and love." We spend way too much time worried about the material aspects of this season to the point that it stresses most people out. I see so many frustrated faces during what should be the most joyous time of year.  The “hustle and bustle” of this season should bring joy and not stress. 

So how should we approach this season of Advent?  I was exchanging texts with a priest friend of mine yesterday morning and he sent me another great quote:  “If we do not pray with the graces which Advent offers in the experiences of emptiness, then, I am afraid, Christmas will be a celebration of disappointing emptiness."  And that's why so many people stress out during these holy days.  Their eyes are fixed on what is not important.  Today we have the opportunity to empty our hearts of all things that are not of Christ; to fix our eyes on him and not get distracted by all the secular trappings of this season. Look at our altar.  All you see is a purple cloth on the altar and pulpit and then the Advent wreath. That's it!  We begin this journey towards Christmas with our altar reflecting where our hearts should be at: preparing to be filled by Christ. Slowly but surely the Advent wreath will get brighter and the altar will get more festive as we approach the coming of our Lord.  But we must begin with empty hearts, humble hearts, contrite hearts that will be receptive to the light of Christ.  If our hearts are already filled with unnecessary distractions then we will feel emptiness this Christmas like a child that didn't get everything he wrote on his list to Santa or The Three Kings.

The days are coming, Jeremiah reminds us, when God will fulfill his promise to us and send us a right and just man. He is Christ the Lord!  He calls us to be right and just as well.  He also tells us in today's gospel that when he comes again to "stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand (Luke 21:28)."  So with empty hearts we approach this altar as we implore our God to fill our hearts with the joy of this season. May our eyes be fixed on what is essential: the coming of the Christ child. Only then will we be able to truly rejoice this Christmas and celebrate with hearts full of light and love.