Sunday, December 29, 2013

Saving Father

“Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.” (Matthew 2:14)

The song is a masterpiece. It is the soul of a movie and of a man. Its lyrics are both simple and haunting. About halfway through the movie “Mary Poppins,” the magical nanny sings “Feed the Birds” to the children as they go to bed. The song tells the tale of the Bird Woman who sits at the feet of St. Paul’s Cathedral selling bread crumbs to feed the birds. The song reminds the children of the importance of small acts of charity and loving those that we sometimes pay no attention to. The Friday before Christmas, in what was possibly the only two hours of daylight we could spare in that week, my sister and I went to the movies to see “Saving Mr. Banks.” The movie tells the story of what it took to make our favorite childhood film “Mary Poppins.” It was an incredibly moving film as it goes deeper into the original author’s inspiration for this story of a nanny who comes not to save the children but their father. (I’m not spoiling anything. This revelation is in the trailer and is quite evident to anyone who saw the original film as a child.) Throughout the movie, I sat there being reminded of how excited my sister and I would get whenever “Mary Poppins” would be broadcast on TV in the pre-VHS days. As an adult and even more so as a priest, I grew to admire the film’s powerful story of the redemption of a father. Mr. Banks did not know his children, and you get chills when the score of “Feed the Birds” swells as he stands at the foot of St. Paul’s Cathedral where earlier that day he had denied his son the gift of charity in giving two tuppence to the poor bird woman. He slowly comes to the realization that his children and not his job or life of order is what he truly loved. Mary Poppins knew that the children did not need a nanny but a father and mother who loved them and protected them.

The last two Sundays we have heard of the extraordinary lengths that St. Joseph went through to protect Jesus and Mary. Today we hear of when he takes his family into Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod. Joseph is given to us as an example of a father who protects and guides his family. God had set him as head of the Holy Family which meant putting his needs aside and only being concerned with the needs of Jesus and Mary. That is what fatherhood truly is. We gaze upon the Holy Family in the Nativity scene in our church or in our homes and marvel at all the sacrifices that Joseph and Mary made to protect their Son so that he may grow in “wisdom and age (Luke 2:52)” to save God’s people.

As I contemplate these readings and reflect on the films I mentioned above, I ponder the role of fatherhood in my life. Joseph was a shining model of a father to Jesus who no doubt used the wisdom imparted to him by the carpenter in his public life. I too have a shining model of a father who always provided and protected his family and still does. Though I have no children of my own, I am called to be a spiritual father to so many and called to protect them by offering them the only thing I have: the saving message of Jesus Christ. They come for healing, absolution, comfort, and yet so many times I fall short. “No time” is the excuse I offer most often, lame as it may be, and that makes me no better than Mr. Banks in the movie who had no time for his children.  I have been called to be the head of this spiritual family, and more often than not, your small gestures, your love, and your prayers remind me of how truly blest I am to called "Father."  I spent some time yesterday morning sitting in this empty church and thinking about today’s feast of the Holy Family and asking St. Joseph for guidance. I want to be a better spiritual father, and I want my parishioners to be better fathers and mothers to their children. We have to make time to do simple things with them. Whether it’s just sitting next to them as they do their homework or taking them outdoors to do something fun (fly a kite!) or just being present is the best present you could give your children. “Feed the Birds” reminds us that our children will remember us for the little things we did or didn’t do, the small acts of love, the warm embraces, and the comforting presence we give them when we are around. Today’s feast challenges us to strengthen our families by being the best mothers and fathers we could possibly be by protecting our children and showing them, through our good works, the loving face of God.

Pray for our families.
Pray for our fathers.
Pray for our mothers.
Pray for your priests.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Unlikely Heroes

"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." (Matthew 1:20)

There is an overarching theme in all the stories leading up to the birth of our Lord. Both Joseph and Mary are told, "Do not be afraid" by the angel. Joseph who was a just man did not want to expose Mary, his beloved, to shame. He feared that divorcing her publicly would cost her her life as prescribed by Jewish law.  But the angel comes to dispel those fears. God is with them. God himself will dwell with them. In an instant, Joseph is cast as a central character in this drama authored by God himself as this poor and simple carpenter would become nothing less than the head of the Holy Family.  Only the Provident Hand of God could write this story, and thankfully, Joseph, like his wife, accepts this unique call.  Like all husbands to be, he probably had his plans for Mary and himself, but God had more extraordinary plans for this just man from Nazareth as he does for you and me.

All around us simple, "ordinary" people are doing extraordinary things.  Many parishioners will not rest this Christmas until every poor child has a toy and every poor family has a proper meal to celebrate the birth of our Lord.  Many will take communion to the sick on Christmas Day. Others will visit prisons.  Like Joseph and Mary, these are the unlikely heroes of Christmas.  All Joseph and Mary did was say "yes." God took care of the rest. We have to entrust ourselves to Providence and totally trust in Him to accomplish his good work in us.  We too are called to be unlikely heroes in God's marvelous plan. All we have to do is trust Him. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was going over this Bible text with our pre-confirmation class and told our young people that just like Joseph and Mary, each and every one of us was placed by God on this earth to do something extraordinary. One of my more intelligent students made a face and disagreed with me stating that some people are called to be ordinary, regular people and nothing else. I was saddened by such a pessimistic view of life at such a young age but gently reminded her that even she was called by the Lord to do something that nobody else couldn't. Only Mary was called to be the Mother of God.  Only Joseph was called to be the head of the Holy Family.  As we rapidly approach Christmas, we stare at the child in the manger and know full well what he would grow up to be and do for all of us.  Look inside your heart during these last days of Advent and ask the Lord what unlikely, extraordinary task he has in store for you. All you have to do is say yes...his grace will take care of the rest. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Jesus is Missing

“Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” (James 5:7)

This past Friday we started building the Nativity scene that greets parishioners when they walk into our church.  I always chuckle when I hear a child point out that Baby Jesus is missing.  Parents, and sometimes the priest, have to explain to them that we are waiting until Christmas when Jesus is born to put the figure of the Christ Child in the manger.  Some children agree while some don’t buy it because they see a Nativity scene that is incomplete and missing the very reason why it is called a Nativity scene: there’s a newborn child that is supposed to be the center of attention.  The missing Jesus in the manger is a wonderful lesson and image to prepare us during this Advent season.  Since this is a penitential season, we have to realize that Jesus is missing in so many aspects of our lives when he should be the center of our life and, well, our everything.

Today we celebrate Gaudate Sunday or the Sunday of Joy as we rejoice because we are drawing closer to Christmas.  As a priest, I am saddened when I see so many who live joyless lives because they are missing Jesus in their lives.  They think they’re happy when they fill the holes in the hearts with the things of this world, but they’re just fooling themselves because without Jesus Christ there isn’t true and authentic joy in our life.  Every Advent, my associate uses a beautiful prayer and meditation to light the Advent candles as Mass begins.  This morning’s meditation goes to the heart of the necessity of joy in our lives and it reads as follows:  “Today we light the candle of joy.  This should be the one [that reminds us that] joy is all around us—in the children, the lights, the music, the gathering together.  But how often do we let our preparations—or our memories—push joy to the side?  Joy is like an underground spring that wells up within us, but joy is also a choice, an attitude.  Like a muscle, it needs to be exercised.  So today we open ourselves to joy trusting that God has already planted it in us.  All we need to do is give it care and offer it to share.”
Of course God has given us cause for joy. That’s what we are preparing for this Advent because Christ is the cause of our joy!  If joy is missing in your life, it’s probably because Jesus is missing in your life as well just like he is missing from our Advent Nativity scene.  We gaze upon the manger and realize that we need this Child in our lives.  We need the joy the Newborn Christ gives.  So many walk through life like zombies in the darkness with no joy, no soul, all dead inside because sin has consumed them.  This is when we must recognize that this Child, small as he is, is far more powerful than any sin or any darkness that may be consuming us.  Just as a newborn child brings joy to any family, this Newborn Christ Child is the cause of our joy as a Church because he comes to bring light to the darkness and break the chains of sin once and for all.  We must be open to this joy.  As the meditation says, joy is like a muscle that must be exercised, and no matter what personal hardships we may be going through we must choose to be joyful because our Lord is more powerful than any problem we may have.  There’s an old saying that goes something like this:  “Show me the size of your problem and I’ll show you the size of our God.”  We must be a joyful people who walk with Christ wherever we go.  If he is missing from any aspect of our life, we still have 9 shopping days left to search for that missing Jesus who longs to reign in our hearts.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Shouting in the Desert

“It was of [John the Baptist] that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (Matthew 3:3)
There are two central figures that the Church offers us as models to guide us during our Advent journey: John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.  Today we would normally celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception where we honor Mary for being the one chosen by God and prepared by God to be the mother of the Messiah.  Mary is the mother of Advent as she shows us how to prepare our hearts, as she did, for the coming of Jesus.  We honor Mary because she was chosen by God, conceived without sin, and courageous in her submission to the will of God.
Last night, we celebrated this great feast here in the parish with the traditional Nicaraguan “GriterĂ­a” where we literally scream at the top of our lungs the cause of our joy.  People prepare altars for the Blessed Mother all adorned differently and with great fanfare.  They give out small presents to all who come to pray at their altar as a symbol of God’s generosity towards us and towards Mary.  The Almighty has done great things in her and in us, for she is the cause of so much joy. 
After celebrating Mass last night, I went out into our parking lot and blessed the 20 altars that had been erected by our faithful.  Then I donned a cassock and surplice and a white stole and went out into the streets of Sweetwater to bless the altars of the businesses around us and all the altars that were set up along the four blocks that the city had graciously blocked off for this feast.  I walked 8 city blocks and four blocks over from our church and back to greet everyone.  There were people everywhere as over 5,000 people gathered according to this morning’s newspaper.  Entire shopping centers were filled with people singing Marian hymns.  On the streets, people shouted “Long live, Mary!” to one another.  When they saw me approaching with a bottle of holy water in hand to bless the altars, they wanted to be blessed too.  (Thankfully, my DRE had packed an extra bottle that we just kept filling and blessing.) As I was surrounded by all these people, I was reminded of how Pope Francis has consistently told us over the last 9 months that we as priests must leave our churches and  go out into the streets to smell like sheep.  Many were there because of tradition, and they don’t usually go to Mass on Sunday, but they are Catholic and that are my sheep.  This is why I climbed onto the stage the city had built for the event (I’m not kidding: I invited myself up there and addressed the people without being asked), and reminded the people why they were there, why we love Mary, and that the Church was just down the street ready to welcome them with open arms.  I felt like John the Baptist in today’s gospel shouting in the wilderness to return to the Lord and make straight his paths.  It wasn’t so much a calling of the people to repent, but a reminder, an invitation, an embrace, even if it was through the simple gesture of sprinkling holy water, that the Church loves them and hasn’t forgotten about them.  They love Mary and the Church loves them.  From all over, people kept coming up to me to bless their children.  After I blessed each little toddler, I would ask if they were baptized.  Out of the dozens of little children that I blessed, not one parent told me that their child was baptized.  I implored them to come to the Church to baptize their children, and then I quipped to my DRE that next year I was going to bring a big bowl filled with water and just start baptizing kids in the street like the old missionaries used to do (you think I’m kidding?). 
What last night taught me, or reminded me I should say, is that the people of God are thirsty.  We as a Church have to do a better job of satisfying that thirst and indeed going out to where they are.  Those who are lost in the wilderness need to hear our voices and need to hear the cause of our joy.  There are so many people who can come back home to the Church this Christmas if you invite them, if you offer a kind word, or if you remind them of how much God and the Blessed Mother love them.  We are all called to be a John the Baptist and shout in whatever desert we may find ourselves in.  Look to Mary to prepare your hearts for Jesus this Advent season, and look to John the Baptist to help you prepare others to return home to Holy Mother Church this Christmas.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Light Rising From the Darkness

"Let us cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light."  (Romans 13:12)

Last night I was sitting in my hotel room on the Jersey side of the Hudson River saying my first Advent prayers.  Just across the river from our hotel proudly stands One World Trade Center or what some call the Freedom Tower. It was lit up with construction lights as it's in still in the process of being completed, but it was impressive nonetheless. Last year I saw half of the skeletal structure, now it is almost complete.  I couldn't help but draw parallels between the Freedom Tower and the season of Advent that we begin today.  There on that sacred ground, unspeakable darkness overshadowed lower Manhattan and our nation for most of the last decade.  Now the tower stands strong, as a testament to the determination and persistence of New Yorkers and all of us as Americans.  That tower is a reminder that evil deeds cannot define us a nation, and that where evil once triumphed, light now shines.  The World Trade Center now shines with all it's buildings around those two hallowed footprints, and soon a proud city and nation will dedicate One World Trade Center as a beacon of freedom, light and hope

As Christians, we begin this Advent season of light and hope longing for Christ in our lives.  As St. Paul tells the Romans, we must cast off all darkness, the darkness of sin, and clothe ourselves with the armor of light. This light is Christ.  We carry with us the hope of his coming.  We set our sights high, as Isaiah says, on the highest mountain.  And God indeed wants us to set our sights high.  Let us cast off excuses to live lives of holiness.  Let us put aside lives of sin and depravity  (St. Paul goes into great detail of what type of sins we must discard in the second reading) and dare to walk in Christ's marvelous light.  Do not be deceived by the allure of sin or by the need to go back to Christ with the same wounds,

This week, when I began to read Pope Francis' new Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel), he gives a beautiful message in his seond paragraph that in my eyes is tailor made for Advent:

Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. (EG 2)

Do not be afraid to repeat this prayer that the Holy Father gifted us with over and over again during this Advent season.  God doesn't mind how often we seek his forgiveness.  So arise, my brothers and sisters.  Now is the time to return to Christ and set our sights on nothing less than holiness.  Arise, "let us walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5)" and leave the ash heap of darkness behind.  Do not be afraid.