The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Busyness & Birthday Gifts for Jesus

I suppose we can all agree that the Christmas Season is certainly a busy time of the year; indeed, sometimes a bit too busy. So much of our busyness stems from activities and concerns that actually have little to do with the reality of Christmas. It seems instead to be driven by what Christmas has become. Our secular society has pretty well succeeded in its transformation of the Christmas holy day into the winter holiday. Perhaps the best measure of its success is the fact that just speaking the word "Christmas" in the public square is now the height, or rather the depth, of political incorrectness.

Of course, from a secular perspective, it makes perfect sense. The secular world generally measures the value of any nation by its economic health, and things haven't been looking too good lately. And so all of that holiday spending will do nothing but help a sluggish economy. Our secular society knows that if people focus too much on the religious aspects of Christmas, if they try to return the season to its original holiness, they just might question why they're spending all this money on so many frivolous things. And we certainly can't have that!

That very thought crossed my mind as Diane and I opened our few presents on Christmas Eve after the vigil Mass. I even took it a step farther and wondered when this tradition of giving Christmas gifts to each other actually began. Does anyone know? When you think about it, it's really a rather odd tradition. After all, I don't give my brother a birthday gift on my wife's birthday, so why do we give each other gifts on Jesus' birthday? How many of us even consider giving Jesus a gift?

Apparently, if my experience this Christmas is any indication, quite a few people did exactly that. For example, one of our daughters did. She and her husband gave us a goat! OK, we didn't actually get the goat, for which I am exceedingly grateful. No, they bought a goat in our name and the animal will be given to a poor family in Latin America. What a wonderful gift! But it's less a gift for Diane and me, and more a gift for Jesus. One need only read Matthew 25 to come to that conclusion.

But that's not all. Diane is the Thursday cook at our Wildwood Soup Kitchen, and so this year, with Christmas falling on a Thursday, she and I were up before dawn to get things going at the kitchen. Diane gave most of our regular Thursday crew the day off because so many others had asked if they could help. We ended up with about 25 people volunteering to assist during the six hours it took to prepare and serve the Christmas meal. And so, here are 25 more people who gave Jesus a wonderful birthday gift, the gift of their time and service.

And there are more. Art and Karen (I won't give their last name since they're the kind of people who prefer to stay well under the radar) took Diane to Sam's Club and let her spend over $900 for food to be used during the Christmas Season. In Art's words, "It's not from me. It's from Jesus." I know exactly what he meant by that, but it was also a gift to Jesus.

On Christmas Day some fellow volunteers, Ed and Rosemary, gave us $200 to buy some last-minute additions to the Christmas menu. And yesterday a retired priest friend, Father Bill, handed me a check for $1,000 to add to the soup kitchen kitty. A few days earlier a local company sent me an email through the soup kitchen's website and asked me to come by and pick up a check for $2,000. One of our drivers and his wife (in addition to the meals served in-house, the soup kitchen delivers over 100 meals daily) gave us a Christmas check for $500...and the list goes on and on.

Quite simply, all of these people gave birthday gifts to Jesus. They saw Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger...and some gave relatively large gifts, but many gave the modern equivalent of the widow's mite. Many of our guests, for example, folks who live in real poverty, quietly put a donation in the small wooden donation box at the soup kitchen. And in most instances, I know they gave from their need not from their surplus.

And so perhaps we need to realign our priorities at this time of year and do a little Christmas shopping for Jesus. I have no idea how much the average family spends on Christmas gifts, but if we all cut that spending in half and gave the saved half to Jesus as a birthday gift, I expect we'd end up doing an awful lot of good in the world.

And don't forget to praise God today and thank Him for giving you life!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI on Christmas

The Pope on Christmas. Here's a link to the Holy Father's address at his weekly audience -- December 17 -- in which he takes up the theme of Christmas as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our existence.

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The following is my homily for this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year B:

For children Christmas is always a time of surprises. Growing up in my family the surprises began when we returned home from church on the first Sunday of Advent. My mother would hang up advent calendars, and every day for the next four weeks we’d each get to open one of the little windows and be surprised by what was behind it. Ah, yes, we were simple little souls.

And what about surprise snowfalls, the ones we prayed for? How great it was to wake up to a world transformed by a thick white blanket.

My dad surprised us every year with a huge Christmas tree, anywhere from 12 to 18 feet high. But a tree like that was expensive, so Dad would wait until about a week before Christmas when the dealers would sell it at half price. And every year, just when we thought we’d never get a tree, he'd show up with an enormous one tied to the roof of the car.

Our mom would decorate the house with all sorts of wonderful things that had been in the family for generations. It was always the same, but a surprise nonetheless. And I can still remember my surprise when my parents decided I was old enough to attend Midnight Mass. I think I made it through the offertory. Then there was the surprise of Christmas morning. The opening of the presents. And not just our own, but watching my parents’ surprise as they opened the remarkably useless gifts we had given them.

Yes, Christmas has always been a time of surprises, and rightly so, because the Incarnation itself was a surprise. We even see this manifested in the Old Testament in some of the earliest hints of a Messiah. Today's first reading is a good example.

King David, experiencing a respite from warfare, starts thinking about how he's living in a splendid cedar palace, and yet God’s tabernacle is still housed in a tent; and so he decides to build a temple for God.But that evening, God speaks to the prophet, Nathan, and instructs him to "Go back to David and tell him he is not to build a temple for Me. Rather, I will build a house for him, and David's son will build the temple."

What a surprise this must have been for David. And what a house the Lord would build for him. For from that house, God promised to raise up an heir, a King of Kings."I will be a Father to Him," God tells David, "and He shall be a Son to Me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever…" Though David doesn't say it, much like Mary in the Gospel, his attitude is: "Do to me according to Your word; whatever You say, Lord."

But God had more surprises in store for His people. A thousand years later, the Jewish people, suffering under Roman occupation and rule, still cling to God's promise to David. God had promised them a king, so they watched and they waited, looking for the one who would rise up and restore Israel to its former glory. Perhaps they should have known better. For God had promised a kingdom that would endure forever, surely no earthly kingdom. But they believed what they wanted to believe.

Once again God takes the world by surprise and brings a very different kind of King into the world, in a way no one could ever expect. He chooses a poor, teenage girl, from a tiny village in a remote corner of occupied Palestine, a backwater of the Roman Empire. And to announce His surprise to the world, to reveal the mystery He had kept secret for endless ages, He sends His archangel Gabriel.

Talk about a surprise! Try to imagine how Mary must have felt.Suddenly, this humble young woman, barely out of childhood, is face to face with this magnificent heavenly being. And it's not a social visit.

"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."What is she to make of this greeting? "Full of grace," he calls her, no room within her for anything else but God's saving grace. For God has prepared the Mother of His Son for all eternity and made her unique among humanity -- sinless, immaculately conceived, the only vessel worthy of His Son. But Mary doesn't know this yet. Is she afraid? Probably. So Gabriel takes pains to reassure her, and calls her by name:"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." And with this any fear she might have experienced suddenly evaporates, overwhelmed by God's love for her.

Then the great surprise, the unthinkable, God's secret revealed at last -- not to prophets or kings or theologians, but to this simple, Jewish girl."You will conceive and bear a Son, and you shall name Him, Jesus -- Savior."

That's not all. God piles surprise upon surprise. "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of David his father, and He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end."

Now Mary, like any Jewish girl of the time, had been exposed to the Hebrew Scriptures -- the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms – and knew exactly what this meant: the thousand years of waiting were over. God's promise was fulfilled. But she was a virgin. So how can this be, she asks Gabriel.

His answer is even more startling than the question, an answer that reveals everything. Another surprise:"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."

It couldn't be clearer. She would bear God's Son. God's Son would be her son.The Father doesn’t command this of Mary. Rather, He gives her a choice, and awaits her answer. Not only God, but the whole world, the entire span of human history, awaits Mary’s answer. For in that decisive moment, God places the salvation of the human race, past, present and future, in her tiny hands. She need utter only one word to embrace the living Word of God in her womb.Her response, straight from the heart, brings a sigh of joy from all creation: “Let it be done to me according to Your word.”

It is a choice of total abandonment to God’s Will. Mary trusted and believed. She said “Yes” to God’s Word and acted on it.

And so, what does Mary offer us in these final days of advent? She shows us how to receive Christ, for He comes to us every day. He comes to us as He first came into the world, in poverty and powerlessness.

This is not pious rhetoric, but God's Word. Jesus comes to us in the hungry, the homeless stranger; in the sick, the imprisoned. Mary saw that even before Her Son proclaimed it. In her Magnificat, her song of joy after Gabriel’s glad tidings, Mary rejoices that God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.

The hungers of the human family still cry out to us: hunger for bread; hunger for freedom from persecution; hunger for peace; hunger for God.It's more than a human cry; it's a cry from the Gospel itself, from God's own Word. And as Jesus’ disciples, we have no choice but to listen to that Word and act on it in the circumstances in which God places us.

One thing is certain: God isn’t telling us to do nothing. Just as He gave Mary a choice, He gives us a choice, the same choice the Apostles made when Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”It's a choice founded on the certainty of God’s promise of eternal life. It's a choice founded on faith and hope, the hope of Jesus’ return when He comes in power and glory. For this is the other Advent we celebrate today.

The good news is in another promise: the promise of Jesus given to the Apostles at the Last Supper: “Whoever loves me will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

So, you see, brothers and sisters, Christ wants to dwell within us, to make us God-bearers like Mary, so we can carry Him to others.With Christ deep within you, and seeing Christ all around you, your life can become a ceaseless Advent, a visible sign to the world of His surprising love.All you have to do is join with Mary’s voice and say, “Whatever you say, Lord.”

And do you know something else? It’s never too late. He continues to call us to Him all the days of our lives…and He's full of surprises…for as Gabriel reminded Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.”


Friday, December 19, 2008

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Rest in Peace

Like many Christians, for much of my life I have plodded along doing what I believed, often mistakenly, to be God's will for me. Too often I discovered well after the fact that what I believed God wanted for me was instead what I wanted and nothing more. And so, each time, buoyed by one of these little revelations, I would try to make a "mid-course correction" to redirect my life along the narrow path. This, I think, is how life unfolds for most of us as we make our way to the hoped-for eternal life promised by Jesus Christ.

Among those little revelations I received was the realization that most of our activity as human beings is really not all that important. This, of course, contradicts everything that the world tells us. For example, companies go to extremes to convince employees that the work they do is not only critical to the continuance of the human race, but may also be their only true source of happiness. A few years ago, in a Saturday morning management meeting, the vice president I then worked for expressed his dismay that we did not all share his unbridled passion for our work and our company. He believed that nothing was more important and if we truly loved our work it would be the primary focus of our lives, worth investing 12 hours a day, six days a week...or more! Perhaps the only true response to such thinking is, "Get a life! Get an eternal life!" It's not our work that's important; it's God work. And it's God's work that we should be doing. Our work pays the bills. God's work paves the road to eternal life.

One person who devoted his life to doing God's work was Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., who returned to the Father last Friday, December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He was 90 years old.

In the course of a life, if one is fortunate, he may have the opportunity to meet some truly extraordinary people, people whom God has chosen to do extraordinary things. For me, one of those people was Cardinal Dulles. For years I had encountered him through his writings, and he probably influenced my thinking on things theological more than other man with the possible exceptions of Pope Benedict XVI and Jean Cardinal Danielou. Not only did I learn from Avery Dulles but I also truly enjoyed reading him.

And then, two years ago, I actually met him. Cardinal Dulles had come to our diocese to speak at a diocesan synod gathering, and before he spoke I had the opportunity to chat with him for about 15 minutes. As you can see by the accompanying photo, I was probably a bit more enthusiastic about the meeting than was the cardinal.

Actually, he was very kind. We chatted about our common experience as naval officers, about my time at Georgetown University, and about a recent article he had written for First Things. He proved to be everything I expected him to be: warm, pleasant, unassuming, and truly interested in the inane comments I made.

I will miss this remarkable man. I will miss his remarkable spiritual and theological insights. And the world too will miss Avery Cardinal Dulles, a man who devoted his life to doing God's work in complete loyalty to His Holy Church. What a blessing he was. May he rest in peace in the loving embrace of the Father.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent and a New Liturgical Year

Yesterday, the 1st Sunday of Advent, signifies the beginning of a new liturgical year. This year we change to Cycle B which will focus on the Gospel of Mark. The following is the homily I preached at the two vigil Masses at which I assisted...
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Happy New Year! That’s right. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year, a new liturgical year. But unlike January 1st, that other New Year’s Day, this New Year kind of creeps up on us, doesn’t it? Suddenly it’s Advent, and with Advent, everything changes.

Among the changes that come with the new liturgical year is the change to Mark’s Gospel. Last year was Matthew and next year will be Luke. But this year we’ll hear a lot from Mark.

One thing about Mark: He doesn’t waste words. He moves through the Gospel story almost breathlessly, powered by a sense of urgency, constantly reminding us of the high stakes involved. There’s little suspense in Mark’s telling of the Gospel story. He doesn’t keep us guessing, but tells us what it’s all about right from the beginning. Indeed, he opens his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This is the beginning, Mark tells us, the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News, the news that the entire world longs to hear, the answer to humanity’s long unanswered question: Why are we here? I’ll answer that question, Mark says…I’ll tell you through the words of Jesus the Christ, the Promised One. For that’s what He is, the Christ, the one promised down through the ages, the one promised to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David…

But Jesus is more than this, Mark tells us in those opening words. He’s not only the Christ, the promised Messiah; He’s so much more. He’s the Son of God Himself. And so Mark doesn’t waste our time, but lets the cat out of the bag right from the very beginning.

Mark moves inexorably toward the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. His focus is on the Cross and the journey Jesus makes along the way. His Gospel is really the passion story with a long introduction.

But Mark also focuses on another journey: the journey of the disciple as he moves from being totally clueless, from a complete lack of understanding, to misunderstanding, to failure, betrayal, abandonment, denial, guilt, and finally to understanding, acceptance and obedience. And it’s in the midst of this journey of the disciple where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel reading from the 13th chapter of Mark.

It’s a passage that begins with a command: “Be watchful! Be alert!” and ends with the same command: “Watch!” Responding to His apostles, Jesus tells them a little about the last days, that time of fulfillment when He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. He tells them, too, that no one – no man or woman, no angel, not even He, in His humanity, knows the day or the hour. But the actual time, he says, is unimportant. What’s important is how we prepare for it.

To make His point Jesus tells them a parable. But unlike Luke or Matthew, Mark relates the parable in a single verse: “It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.” That’s it – a one-line parable. Mark includes just enough to make his point: We are commanded to watch, to be ready…but not to wait in idleness. Each is to do his own work, the work of the disciple, the work that God asks of us.

And what is that work? Only moments before Jesus had told the disciples: “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations.” That’s our task as we wait: to proclaim the good news, God’s presence among us, and to proclaim it to everyone. And while we work, Jesus tells us, we are to watch…because we will not know when He will come again. “… whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

Jesus actually mentions some specifics here, doesn’t He? He uses the four night watches common in the ancient world: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning. It’s no coincidence that each of these times comes into play in the closing chapters of Mark’s gospel. It’s evening when the apostles celebrate the Passover with the Lord. One of them, though, isn’t watchful, but instead allows the attractions of this world to enter his heart and steer him away from Jesus. One of them leaves early that evening, rejecting the gift that Jesus gives His Church at that first celebration of the Eucharist. He leaves to commit an act of betrayal that will lead Jesus to the Cross.

Later, in the garden, as Jesus prays deep into the night, He invites His remaining disciples to watch and pray with Him. But they, too, succumb to weakness and are unable to watch. Each time He returns from prayer Jesus finds them asleep.

And during that same night – it must have been near midnight – Judas returns at the head of a mob and completes his betrayal. Once again the disciples are unprepared. In fear and confusion, they all forsake Him and run away.

And then there was the cockcrow…the cockcrow that shattered the pre-dawn silence and sounded Peter's guilt. Peter, the leader, the one chosen by Jesus to be the rock on which He would build His Church, the one so full of empty promises and bluster…Yes, Peter the rock is, at this point, still Peter the weakling. For Peter could watch only from the shadows, and overcome by fear, would repeatedly deny His Lord.

And finally, the morning, very early on that first Easter morning, the Risen Lord appears to the disciples and is greeted with disbelief…for they are still caught off guard; they are still unprepared to accept fully the gift of faith and its challenges. Yes, at first the disciples failed miserably at their halfhearted attempts to keep watch. But are you and I really any different?

While we’re having the time of our lives, the actual time of our lives is slipping away, bringing us ever closer to that moment when we will stand face to face before our God.

You see, time is God’s domain, His gift. None of us can predict what tomorrow will bring, not even the next hour nor the next minute. Time is God’s possession alone. In time, God encounters us and we encounter God.

Time holds the very presence of God. We need only open our eyes — our inner eyes — to find Him. God is always present, and there’s never a time when we are without Him. This is Advent, brothers and sisters, a time of finding, a time when we celebrate God’s coming among us. We relive His first coming, His Incarnation as one of us, a coming that leads ultimately to the Resurrection, an event that profoundly changed both time and history…an event that erased the line separating earthly time and eternal time.

Because of Jesus’ coming and living among us, we who exist in time also exist in eternity. And so time doesn’t just pass away; no, our time is the stuff of which our eternity is made, transforming us until we enter into the fullness of God’s presence.

Advent is meant to awaken us again to this truth. In the midst of our busy lives, Advent calls us to slow down, to recognize God’s presence, His continuous comings among us. Jesus’ words are so needed today: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”

Yes, rushing from one thing to another, when and where do we find the time to welcome the Lord into our lives? This is to what Advent calls us to do — to watch, to be alert, to wait with God, growing into His habitual presence. It calls us to recognize God’s presence in all that we do.

Advent calls us to use God’s gift of time wisely, to simply be: to be with God — to sit with God and to look at our lives through His eyes. When we allow God to be who He is within us…we can learn to know Him, not just know about Him.

Learn from the experience of Mary who each day pondered who Jesus was, what he was about. This Advent may we consciously choose to live as if God’s presence invades each of us, invades all men and women, invades all human experience, invades every part of God’s creation. When we jump out of bed in the morning (or perhaps crawl or groan out of bed) may we drink in God as we drink that first cup of coffee.

May we bring God with us into all we do that day.

May we truly live in God’s time, ever alert, ever watchful for His saving presence.

Come Lord Jesus!