Sunday, December 25, 2016

Liberated by a Child

“You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as people make merry when dividing spoils. For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed…” (Is 9:2-3)

We gather in darkness for this Midnight Mass, and the darkness that envelopes this night is symbolic of the darkness that looms over the world that the light of Christ comes to conquer.  All this month as went through Advent, I kept hearing from people: “I can’t wait for this year to be over.”  It’s as if the same dark cloud that constantly follows poor Charlie Brown has been following us all year.  People calling that loved ones or they themselves are sick, in hospitals.  As Christmas was approaching, people were not, well, rejoicing.  So when I sat down with these readings this morning to pray over them, the second and third verse of the first reading from the prophet Isaiah jumped out at me.  We have been wandering around burdened by sin, by the darkness of the world, by the news on television, by turmoil in our own families, and we just haven’t had the chance to let in even a sliver of light from up above. 

Well that ends tonight, for we gather to behold a Virgin and her husband adoring a newborn baby.  In the silence of that holy night, the light of the manger overpowers any darkness and brings us hope.  We don’t have to wait for the New Year to start anew, for this child calls us to something new tonight.  All our cares have vanished, all our burdens seem lighter, and darkness is overcome by the light from Bethlehem.  Notice the shepherds in the fields that first Christmas night.  They were afraid when the angels appeared.  They were out in the fields with the flocks to protect them and probably thought any noise was a threat to the sheep entrusted to their care.  Yet the first thing the angel says to them is “do not be afraid.”  No need to worry or be anxious, for something extraordinary has happened: our God has come to save us.  He has become a little child.  And as the angel told Joseph: “he will save his people from their sins.”

So tonight we gather to embrace hope.  We gather to embrace this child who has come into our lives to save us.  We gather to rejoice because light has conquered darkness.  The Lord has “smashed” whatever burden we may be carrying.  And when we leave those burdens and that darkness behind, what are we left with?  We are left in silence contemplating this transcendental scene: “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.”  As Pope Francis said in Midnight Mass last year: "So when we hear the story of the birth of Christ, let us be silent and let the Child speak." In becoming a baby, our God becomes helpless to free us from our helplessness.  This is the wonder of Christmas.  So many times I’ve been in a hospital when family and friends have babies and I see how those babies change lives.  Now this baby, this divine child, comes to change all lives.  Darkness is no more.  Our Light has come! We are filled with abundant joy for “today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

And a Little Child Will Guide Them

“Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

Nothing much makes sense in today’s readings.  As I was meditating on them this week, I was reminded of the Netflix TV show “Stranger Things” and the whole concept of “The Upside Down.”  I don’t want to explain the concept any further to not spoil this really cool show, but in the readings today things appear to be upside down.  We have wolves and lambs and calves and lions coexisting peacefully.  This morning I was preaching to the children and I was reading this passage to them of these animals together, and after each pairing of animals I would ask if they could coexists.  Some little ones kept repeating that they would “fight”.  They used the word fight about three times to describe the relationship between predators and prey, which saddened me that our children were so accustomed to violence in our world.  Our Lord comes as the Prince of Peace (a messianic title also used by Isaiah) to usher in an era of peace, to restore creation to what God had intended it to be in the book of Genesis. 

So how do we get there? John the Baptist, the great figure of Advent, appears in the desert in today’s gospel and the first word he utters is “repent!”  I asked the children if they knew what “repent” means and one little boy told me: “it’s turning away from sin…it’s turning away from the dark side to the light.”  (The Dark Side!  Imagine my delight with a Star Wars reference.  This inevitably led to about three minutes of discussion with the children about the redemption of Darth Vader which was totally unplanned and awesome, but that’s what you do in children’s homilies: you let little children guide you!)  So John asks us to repent and to make straight the path of the Lord.  Why make straight?  The problem with the path from our hearts to God’s divine will is that this path is much like Red Road here in Hialeah: too much construction and too many obstacles.  Red Road just three blocks from here is a headache to traverse.  Imagine those obstacles impeding our Lord from entering our hearts.  The thing is that Jesus won’t force his way into our lives.  We have to make straight his path, we have to remove the obstacles, and we are the ones that need to repent.  Remember that in the nativity, people sought out Jesus, and this is where we are this Advent.

Jesus comes to make all things new and it begins with our hearts.  We see all these animals peacefully coexisting in this beautiful passage from Isaiah.  The commentary from this passage says: “The peace and harmony even among carnivores and their natural prey in this description suggest a paradisiac aspect of the reign of the new king. (NAB)”  We long for that kingdom.  It is the kingdom that John announces in the gospel.  Now it is up to us to follow through on our prayer in the Our Father when we say “thy kingdom come.”  And the beauty of Christmas as we seek out Jesus is that we’re not looking for strong and mighty kings.  All we’re looking for is a Little Child to guide us.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A New Advent

For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12)

Something or rather someone is coming.  Something new is happening.  Advent literally means “coming” in Latin, and we begin this Advent with something new, something unexpected, something that is affecting many of us and that we’re still trying to make sense of.  Around 12:45am on Friday night/Saturday morning, I knew I had to scrap my homily for this weekend because something had changed.  I felt like this massive cloud that had been hovering over my family for five decades had finally been lifted, and we were finally given room for hope.

A little background:  my grandparents and parents fled Cuba during the Freedom Flights in the summer of 1968.  They went through many hardships, and left many loved ones behind.  I have family members from Havana to the eastern province of the island that I have never met.  When I was born 7 years later, my grandparents and parents instilled in me three great loves: love of God, love of Cuba, and love of this country who took them in with open arms.  With the love of Cuba came stories of what they left behind.  I could see pain in my grandparents’ eyes when they talked about their homeland and the tyrant who forced them to leave the land of their birth.  Hope gave way to resignation.  Faith was always present, but I’ll never forget an animated conversation my two grandfathers and my father were having 30 years ago.  They were talking about this man who had taken so much from them, and my father reached the conclusion that the Cuba they left behind no longer existed.  That was 30 years ago. One by one, my four grandparents started dying.  Each time I lamented that they never returned to see their homeland free especially my maternal grandmother who worked so hard to keep our family here and there united even with 90 miles of shark infested waters that separated us; waters that one of my cousins traversed in a raft during two weeks in which we didn’t know if she was dead or alive.  And like my grandparents, I buried so many patriots who longed to see their homeland free.

So how did I feel during those early Saturday morning hours?  I wept.  I felt empty that my grandparents weren’t there for that moment.  I didn’t celebrate that a man was dead.  I kept thinking about my grandparents and all the victims of this man who have suffered so much.  I had been waiting for this day my whole life thinking that I would feel unrestrained joy.  What I felt was relief, I guess, that this dark cloud was gone.  I felt hope.  The hope that should fill every Christians but a hope that I felt was fleeting for our people for far too long.

We begin this Advent, this preparation of the coming of the Lord Jesus, with this new feeling of hope.  We hear the prophet Isaiah today talking about the mountain of the Lord being established as the highest mountain.  These are the things the Christian should dream about with Christ by our side.  Dreaming that the impossible may soon become possible suddenly does not seem so insane.  So we put the darkness behind us and walk towards Christ’s wondrous light as the wise men did two millennia ago.  Salvation for us, and I firmly believe, salvation for my people “is nearer now than when we first believed” as St. Paul tells us.  Night is advanced.  The day is close at hand.  Christ is coming to reign in our hearts.  He does not come to oppress but to liberate us.  He comes to show us the way to the Father.  But as the gospel reminds us, we must be awake for at an unknown hour the Son of Man will come.  So it is with the end of times, and so it is when our time comes.  And for one man, his time has come, and as it will be for all of us, he must be judged by our Lord and not by us.

In the meantime, we embrace the dawn that is fast approaching.  Night is advanced.  Day is close at hand.  We pray for all those who have suffered over the last half-century, for all those imprisoned, drowned, assassinated, beaten, or incarcerated souls and for all those families that have been divided.  As our Archbishop reminded us in his homily last night, the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba unites us all and stays close to her people and brings them closer to the heart of her son.  She is the model of hope as we dare to hope again.  And finally, she is the one who teaches us that great Advent prayer which takes on new meaning this day:  “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

100 Thanks 2016

100 Thanks 2016

So much to be thankful for this year that I don’t think 100 was enough.  The Lord has been good to us, and because of his goodness we should always have a grateful heart.  As always, here are the 100 things I am thankful for this year:

  1. My Lord
  2. My Lord calling me to the priesthood
  3. My Lord allowing me to joyfully serve for almost 15 years as a priest
  4. My Immaculate family
  5. Being pastor to such a remarkable parish
  6. My mother who prays for me
  7. My father who continues to teach me
  8. My sister who continues to allow me to spoil her
  9. My brother who looks down on me from above and I know prays for his big brother
  10. My brother in law simply because he loves my sister
  11. My oldest nephew who has his father’s looks but his uncle’s wit ;)
  12. My middle nephew who I think is smarter than I am
  13. My youngest nephew who I KNOW is smarter than I am
  14. Everyone who prays for me
  15. All my many, many, many, many, many cousins
  16. My best friend
  17. All my friends
  18. My Friday night crew
  19. My brother priests
  20. Pope Francis and his call for mercy, mercy, and more mercy
  21. My school
  22. My students
  23. The health of a precious little girl called Zoey who continues to shine with God’s love and joy
  24. Having to say “hello” 50 times when I walk down the hallway when I hear “Hi Father Manny” said 50 times from my students who walk by me
  25. Friday religion classes
  26. 8th grade Thanksgiving lists
  27. Reading the 8th grade Thanksgiving list at Mass the day before Thanksgiving
  28. Pre-school playgrounds
  29. Teachers and their enduring patience
  30. Secretaries
  31. Business Managers
  32. Carnival Committees
  33. Carnival Committee meetings during Carnival
  34. Seeing my carline become a massive tailgate party during Carnival
  35. Super Bowl tailgates
  36. Fourth of July fireworks tailgates
  37. America: the ever evolving dream and great project
  38. Democracy with all its beauties and warts
  39. Our military and first responders who protect us
  40. Having spent five season as the Team Priest of the Miami Dolphins
  41. New York
  42. Yankee Stadium
  43. Broadway
  44. Former students on a Broadway Stage
  45. Former students performing in the Macy’s Parade (two years in a row!)
  46. Former students who live in New York and make time to have dinner with me
  47. Former students who make me travel for their weddings (I complain and then have a great time)
  48. Former students who are old enough now to offer me advice and wisdom
  49. The Florida Keys
  50. Kountry Kitchen breakfasts
  51. Florida Keys Sunsets
  52. Florida Keys Fishing
  53. Captiva
  54. Captiva fishing from the beach
  55. Rome Sweet Home
  56. Walking through the Holy Doors of all four Papal Basilicas this Holy Year
  57. Tablaos in Barcelona
  58. Pata Negra
  59. That Chapel in Montserrat
  60. Baths in Lourdes
  61. Walks in Nice
  62. The color of the water in Monaco
  63. San Damiano
  64. The peace of Assisi
  65. Beholding the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano
  66. The view of the Adriatic Sea from Monte Sant’Angelo
  67. Facebook Live from Europe
  68. The unexpected long walk from the Vatican to St. John Lateran
  69. The voice of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square during the Angelus
  70. Lunch in the Borgo Pio
  71. Gelato in the Piazza Novona
  72. The pain of the Scala Santa
  73. Actually sleeping on a Transatlantic flight
  74. The anticipation to walk in the Lord’s footsteps in the Holy Land next summer
  75. The Canonization of Mother Teresa
  76. Dancing partners
  77. That my sister still doesn’t let me lead
  78. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah
  79. My music director playing Rhapsody in Blue…in its entirety…on the piano…from memory
  80. Newborn babies
  81. Baptizing those newborn babies
  82. Watching those babies grow up to receive First Communion from my hands
  83. Watching those babies grow up to be Confirmed
  84. Waiting for the day when I get to witness the marriage of a child I baptized
  85. Or witness them become a priest or religious…now that would be something
  86. The intersection of Island and Mariner
  87. The friends that I call family that I don’t see often enough but still hold close to my heart
  88. Second moms on an island somewhere not too far away who I haven’t seen enough this year
  89. That they still pray for me
  90. That their children still seek my counsel
  91. Spending those last few hours with a dying child of God who is moments away from eternity
  92. Commending their souls to the Father
  93. Rescuing a soul from the depths of sin through the Sacrament of Confession
  94. Being rescued myself by God’s infinite mercy
  95. That God still loves us in spite of our sinfulness
  96. That perfect moment of silence after receiving Communion at Mass
  97. That after almost 15 years of being a priest, I still get nervous before each Mass
  98. That the Spirit is always with me to guide me, inspire me, and embrace me
  99. That Mother Mary looks over me
  100. That I am undeservedly a priest of Jesus Christ who gets to bring Him to you and you to Him

Happy Thanksgiving!