Sunday, December 20, 2015

What We Learn From the Small

"You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel..." (Micah 5:1)
When I opened today's readings for the first time this past week to read them, the word small for some reason kept jumping out at me. Today we gather on this last Sunday of Advent to celebrate, to rejoice in, and to remember that salvation came from a small town and from a small human being who also happened to be God.  That is the beauty and mystery of Christmas. The small, the meek, the innocent can teach us so much this blessed season.  This past week our school children doing their Nativity plays were so proud of the parts they played: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, kings, stars, and even the animals in the manger.  When I went around on Friday asking each kid what role they were playing, a first grader proudly asserted, "I'm the donkey!"  We all have a part to play in salvation...especially the small and especially our children. It's as if they understand Christmas on another level, perhaps they understand what we have forgotten as adults.
Mary, who calls herself the "little one of the Lord," visits her cousin Elizabeth in today's gospel, and their children  are the protagonists of the story while inside the womb.  An unborn child, John, is filled with the Holy Spirit and leaps for joy in the presence of the unborn Christ Child.  Yes, Elizabeth's words are powerful, as are Mary's words when she "proclaims the greatness of the Lord," but these two extraordinary women are only too happy to let their children teach us how joyful we should be this time of year.  This morning I brought the children up to the sanctuary to preach to them for the first time in a while and I shared with them the message of today's gospel.  I pointed out to them the empty crib of hay that laid at the foot of the altar and asked them what it meant.  One little girl very astutely explained that it represented our hearts that are preparing to receive Jesus this Advent.  This is why I love preaching children's homilies, especially around Christmas, because they "get it."  As I asked them if they were excited for Christmas, you could see the excitement and sense of wonder in their eyes, and not just for the upcoming presents, but they very matter of factly explained that it was because Jesus was coming. 
Towards the end, I stood up and asked their parents and all the adults the following question: Are we filled with the same child like joy as Christmas approaches? We should long to see our God as the shepherds did on that first Christmas night. If not, our prayer these final few days of Advent should be today's psalm response: "Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved." (Psalm 80:4)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent Miracles (Coming Home)

“The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.” (Zephaniah 3:15)

The following is the true story of something that actually happened during my homily this morning.  Almost a homily within a homily:

Yesterday morning, our Emmaus brothers and sisters went out to deliver Christmas trees and toys to poor families in our area.  They chose the families, but I sent them to a particular family that really needed our help.  Earlier this month, I sadly had to officiate the funeral Mass of a 12-day-old baby.  No matter how long you are a priest, these are never easy.  I sat down with the mother half an hour before the funeral started to talk.  I started noticing that her and her family had never been to church before.  We talked about the loss of her baby.  She had two other daughters and a son who were not taking it well as one can imagine.  As I started to think of her other children, I asked her if she had gotten them gifts for Christmas, but she said no and that she hadn’t even put up a Christmas tree.  I told her not to worry because the Church would take care of it as I prayed that our Emmaus brothers had one more tree on their list left to give which they did.  But as I talked to this mother, my mind kept wondering how she got here.  She wasn’t baptized.  Her children weren’t baptized.  She kept asking me how to pray during this time of crisis and if she was allowed to come to our church on Sundays.  “Of course you can!  Anytime! But I have to ask you: who told you come here today to offer this Mass for your baby?”  She responded without hesitation: “There was this woman in the hospital with me while I was recovering, and when she found out that I lost my baby she told me: `You have to go to Immaculate to give her a Mass.’” Imagine that!  One of our parishioners, from her hospital bed!, was able to send this family to our parish and in turn allowed us to give them a proper Christmas…
(It was at this point of my telling of this story during my homily that I noticed three people walking towards me down the center aisle which is usually blocked off by the ushers.  I looked up and it was this mother I had been talking about with her two daughters!  I froze!  I looked up, smiled, and said to the mother, “I was just talking about you!”  I open up my arms to give her and her daughters a hug.  My congregation and I were speechless.  This wasn’t planned.  This wasn’t scripted.  Right at the climax of the story she just happened to walk into the church.  As I embraced her family, the congregation erupted in applause out of sheer delight or maybe just astonishment of what had just taken place or maybe to welcome this family to their new home.  When they sat down so I could proceed with my homily, for the first time in all my years of preaching, I was speechless. I turned around and looked up to the crucifix and turned back to the people and told them: “You know that line in the movie Analyze This when Robert DeNiro turns to Billy Crystal and points to him and tells him: `You! You are very good!  You are! You’re good!” And so I turned to the crucifix and uttered the same lines to our Lord.  How else could I react to what had just happened. So I gathered myself and fumbled my way to the finish line with the rest of the homily I had prepared...)

Yea, I don’t know what to say after that entrance except that they are here because one of you was like John the Baptist and brought someone closer to Christ by inviting them to our church, and they did it from their hospital bed no less.  We are always, at every moment, called to invite others to partake in our Savior’s joy.  And this is what this Sunday is all about because today is Gaudate Sunday, the Sunday of Joy!  We are called to rejoice because Christmas is almost here.  And boy are we rejoicing this morning with what just happened!  A sister and her family have come home!  Now we must go and invite others to come home as well.  There is much joy to spread and we want everyone home.

Just the other day, I was home listening to Christmas music and Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” started playing.  Every year on the night before Christmas Eve, David Letterman would have Darlene Love on his show to sing this song.  I would stay up to watch it year after year as my pump up song for the following two days.  Each year on the show, they would add more singers, more instruments and Darlene Love would sing it with more gusto, until they did it last year for the final time and really brought the house down.  There’s a verse in the middle of that song that has been stuck in my head for the last few days which goes: “They’re singing Deck the Halls, but it’s not like Christmas at all, because I remember when you were here, and all the fun we had last year.”  It’s as if we’re about to have this big party and we don’t want anyone to miss out on the joy.  Please come home has to be our mantra these last few weeks of Advent. 

God is calling us home, but we have to make the first move.  We have to respond to his invitation that he sometimes makes through his chosen ones. We have to open our hearts.  But our hearts our cluttered and weighed down by sin.  As we are called to rejoice today, some of us with cluttered hearts have no room for rejoicing.  But the prophet Zephaniah reminds us in the first reading that the Lord is in our midst.  He is coming to save us from our sins.  So what are you afraid of?  Why don’t you allow him to transform your heart with his mercy?  You have an opportunity this coming Tuesday when we have our Advent confessions to wash you hearts clean of sin and unclutter them so we can truly rejoice.  God so wants you to return to him so that you can be filled with his joy.  It’s time to come home for Christmas.

(As I uttered that last phrase of the homily, I paused and turned to the congregation and said, “I feel like everything I said after this sister walked in with her family was just nonsense.  Not that it didn’t need to be said, but I probably should have just stayed quiet and sat down after she walked in when all of us saw just how great our God is.  Yet this sister is a living example for all of us that we need to come home to God this Christmas.)

One last thing: After Mass, I think more people may have approached this mother and her family than said hello to me outside.  I totally didn’t mind.  Today I saw the compassion of the people of God as they kept asking me if this family needed anything else this Christmas.  When I finally made my way to the mother after my parishioners welcomed her, the first thing she said to me was “Sorry I was late.”  I started laughing because God whisked her through those church doors at the perfect time. A true Advent miracle! The Lord has done great things for us and we are indeed filled with joy!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent Witness

"...and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3:6)

I have often preached that during Advent we must learn to always point to Jesus Christ through our words but primarily through our deeds.  This is what John the Baptist and what so many good and holy men and women do everyday.  We are called through our lives to make straight the paths of the Lord, to help prepare in the hearts of others the way of the Lord. People should see in us conduits, if you will, to growing closer to Christ, to getting to know Christ. We should be living examples and witnesses of the glory that is to come.

This past Wednesday, Pope Francis told a story that really moved me.  It was about an elderly missionary nun that he met during his trip last weekend to the Central African Republic.  Let's let the Holy Father tell the story:

At a certain moment, I met a Sister at Bangui who was Italian. One could see she was elderly: “How old are you?” I asked. “81” – “But not so much, two [years] older than me.” This sister was there since she was 23-24 years old: her whole life! And, like her, so many others. She was with a little girl. And the girl said to her in Italian: “Grandmother.” And the sister said to me: “But I, in fact, am not from here, but from the neighboring country, Congo, but I came in a canoe with this girl.” So the missionaries are courageous. “And what do you do, Sister?” “I am a nurse, but then I studied a bit here and became an obstetrician and I made 3,280 children be born,” she said to me. A whole life for life, for the life of others...this sister said to me that Muslim women go to them because they know that the sisters are good nurses and that they look after one well, and they do not engage in catechesis to convert them! They give witness then, they catechize anyone who so wishes. But witness: this is the great heroic missionary work of the Church. To proclaim Jesus Christ with one’s life!

Called to proclaim Christ with our lives!  How many of us do that? How many of us are as courageous as this religious sister to witness in a place that is hostile to Christians?  We have it easy.  We don't face those same hostilities, yet we sometime cower from just giving a nice Christian smile to a stranger.  One of great things that strikes me from this story from the Pope is the fact that the sisters minister to Muslim women without proselytizing, without overtly mentioning Jesus Christ.  They proclaim Christ with their witness.  They point others to Christ with their service, their ministry to all peoples.  This is what we must be during this Advent season: witnesses!  We must witness to the presence of Christ in our lives. We must witness that we ourselves are preparing our hearts for the coming of the Messiah.  We must witness that as Christians we are a joyful people, ready to serve all, ready to explain our faith to anyone who would ask.  This is how we prepare a way for the Lord.  This is how we make straight his paths. May we follow the example of this sister who ministers in relative obscurity in the Congo.  If we witness in the same way and with the same love then indeed "all flesh shall see the salvation of our God."