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!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Homily: Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph - Year B

Readings: Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128; Col 3:12-21; Lk 2:22-40

From the very beginning the Church has consistently taught that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that the Incarnation is God coming into the world as one of us. In His humanity, the Church teaches, Jesus is like us in all things except sin.

And yet, over the centuries, many have tried to make Jesus into someone or something He isn’t. Indeed, most of the heresies that plagued the early Church focused on the identity of Jesus, as the world tried to answer the question Jesus asked His disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” [Mk 8:27] And now, 2,000 years later, people are still giving the wrong answers.

I once heard a television preacher say that Jesus possessed complete knowledge of all the sciences. “Jesus, the man,” he said, “was Einstein, Newton, Pasteur, Curie, Hawking…all the great scientists of the world rolled into one, and then multiplied by a thousand.” He went on to state that “Jesus was the most knowledgeable of doctors, for how else could He have cured all those people? How else could He raise the dead to life?”

I couldn’t help but think: well, if that’s the case, he could hardly be human, like us in all things.

And then, moving toward the other extreme, one of my theology professors once stated that the humanity of Jesus prevented Him from grasping that He was divine. Indeed this theologian taught that Jesus didn’t realize He was the Son of God until the Resurrection. What a surprise that must have been! And, the professor taught, because Jesus, in His humanity, was unaware of His divinity, none of those Gospel miracles really happened.

The real problem for the preacher and professor is that the Incarnation is a mystery, something beyond human understanding, and that just bothers the heck out of them. They can’t accept that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. They can’t understand how Jesus can be truly the Son of God and yet became a man and our brother.

That they’re unable to grasp the mind of God is unacceptable to them, so they manufacture a Jesus they can accept…one, of course, that conflicts with everything the Church teaches.

As the Second Vatican Council stated: “The Son of God…worked with human hands; He thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart He loved” [Gaudium et Spes, 22.2]. And yet that human will, “does not resist or oppose but rather submits to His divine and almighty will” [Council of Constantinople III: DS 556].

The Church gives us today’s feast of the Holy Family to remind us of Jesus’ humanity, to remind us that the family is the first church, the domestic church. Yes, Jesus chose to enter into the world as an infant, just as helpless as you and I once were. He didn’t place Himself above us. He didn’t reject the human story but entered directly into it, sharing our humanity, our flesh and blood, our physical mortality.
Although a divine person, He accepted everything that came with His humanity, all the messiness, all the ordinariness, all its limitations. In His humanity He accepted these limitations, and as Luke tells us, would “advance in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” [Lk 2:52]. And He did all this within a human family, a Holy Family under the care and love of Mary and Joseph.

In today’s gospel passage Luke relates the events surrounding the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. According to Jewish law, a firstborn son belonged to God. And so, 40 days after his birth, parents would present their son in the Temple, in effect, buying him back with a sacrifice. And for poor Jews, like Joseph and Mary, it would be a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons. On that same day the new mother would also be ritually purified. Indeed, the feast was originally known as the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.

Here we see the Holy Family, a Jewish family, living under God’s Law, doing as the Law prescribed. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God, accepts that His mission is rooted in God’s revelation, expressed in the Law and the Prophets. It’s there, in the Old Testament, that God’s plan of salvation is first revealed; a plan fulfilled and brought to completion by the Incarnation.

And so Mary and Joseph enter the Temple to fulfil the law. There they are greeted by old Simeon who amazes them with what he reveals. Simeon welcomes the infant Jesus with open arms and in Him sees redemption of the entire world: “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” [Lk 2:30-32]. He then gives Mary a taste of the sorrows she will experience, for a sword will pierce her heart.

Mary and Joseph then encounter Anna, a prophetess who lived in the Temple, who goes on to reveal more about their child. And just as Jesus advances in wisdom and age and favor, so too does the Holy Family advance in holiness.

But we should also realize that the message of Simeon and Anna is a message for every family. Holiness is nurtured first in the family. In the midst of all the chaos that surrounds any family there are glimpses of God’s presence, moments of grace when God reaches deep into the clutter of our lives and hands us a present that we never expected.

When my mother died, our elder daughter, 6-years-old at the time, told her mother, “Don’t cry, Mommy. Grandma is with Jesus now, happy in heaven.”

In moments like this God ignores all the barriers and debris that we place between ourselves and our redemption and reminds us that we are called to holiness. In those moments, sticky hands are transformed into instruments of grace and stories of the playground and classroom, or the words of a child to her mother become words of wisdom. In those moments, ordinary events take on new meaning and the dinner table can become like an altar.

In my family, those moments didn’t come when the six of us were kneeling piously in church. They were never captured on film or video. No, they were elusive -- sudden and unexpected. And sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, they came in the form of words that amaze.

Yes, Mary knew her Son was special. What had the angel said? “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High… the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” [Lk 1:32, 35]. But to hear this and more in the Temple from these two holy ones…this too was something she would long ponder and cherish.

This visit to the Temple is a story that strikes a chord in every new parent who has wondered and worried about the future of their child.

It’s a story for every mother who has looked into the face of her newborn, the face of innocence, and prayed that God would help her raise that child to holiness.

It’s a story to remind us that as parents we will experience disappointment, sorrow, and sometimes great tragedy…but in the midst of it all we will encounter Emmanuel, God with us.

It’s a story to remind each of us of the depth of God’s love for us, that He calls us to His open arms with forgiveness and mercy.

It’s a reminder to parents that holy moments of discovery and growth are often sudden and unpredictable.

It’s a reminder that God calls us into families — not just to protect us physically, but to nurture us in faith and love, to prepare us for a journey that leads only to Him.

It’s no accident that Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor, and did so in the midst of a family.

It’s no accident that God used that Holy Family — as he uses our families — to reach deep into other people’s lives, to bring them the light of Christ.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and He came as a child born into a family. By doing so, He sanctified the family, making it an instrument of holiness, and reminding us of the awesome obligation we have to protect it.

For the family today is under attack from virtually every quarter. We seem to have stopped investing in children, and now just invest in things. This is the great temptation for us who live in our affluent Western societies with their contraceptive mentality, societies that see children not as our future, but as competitors who threaten future affluence, as things that take something from us.

This is the same mentality that, 45 years ago, Pope Paul VI predicted would lead to increased marital infidelity, a general decrease in morality, especially among our youth, a lack of respect for women, and the continued erosion of respect for human life at all stages. How right he was!

Today, on this beautiful feast of the Holy Family, let us pray for our families, that we may grow together in holiness, love and mutual respect.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph – pray for us.

Homily: Christmas Vigil - Year B

Readings: Gn 49:2, 8-10; Psalm 72; Mt 1:1-17______________________________

People often wonder why the Church includes this Gospel passage, this rather long genealogy, in tonight’s liturgy. It does seem like a strange selection doesn’t it? All those names scattered across the generations from Abraham to Moses, then on to David and Solomon, then to the traumatic exile of God’s People in Babylon, and finally to Joseph and Mary and Jesus Himself.

Yes indeed, it might seem a bit odd to have us listen to all those names on the night we celebrate the birth of our Savior. After all, isn’t the name of Jesus enough? Isn’t it enough to know that Jesus is the Son of God? Is it really necessary to tell us about these human ancestors spread out over the centuries from the time of Abraham?

Well, actually, yes! It is.

You see, Matthew is simply saying, “Welcome to God’s family! -- because Jesus’s family is also our family.” Tonight we not only celebrate Jesus’ birth, but we also celebrate our own spiritual roots, deep roots that stretch back nearly 4,000 years to Abraham, our father in faith. You can trace that spiritual lineage from the priest (or deacon) who baptized you, through the bishop who ordained him, all the way back to the apostles and to Jesus Himself. And then you need only turn to these opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel and follow the path all the way back to Abraham.

And do you know something else? You and I share these roots. That’s right – we all have that same family tree. What a gift this is! It’s one of the key messages of the Gospel, a message that takes us deeply into those spiritual roots, and binds us in a living connection with Jesus Christ Himself.

Each of the four Gospels begins by telling us who Jesus is, but each tells us in a different way. Mark, in his usual Sergeant Friday, just-the-facts-Ma’am approach, begins by saying: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” Yes, Mark wastes no time identifying Jesus.

Luke’s a bit more subtle. He takes half a chapter before he finally gets to Jesus, and then he lets the angel Gabriel do the honors: “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

And John? He echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis and proclaims the eternal divinity of the Logos, of Jesus, the creative Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

But Matthew is different. Writing to a Jewish audience, he offers them a very Jewish family tree of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. He begins by proclaiming: “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” These are titles any Jew would recognize, for these are Messianic titles. At the very start, Matthew is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the chosen one. Then, filled with the Spirit, he presents us with a family tree, one generation after another…right here in the very first verses of the New Testament. It’s as if God can’t wait to tell us all about His family.

Realize first that Matthew didn’t intend his genealogy to be complete. And his Jewish readers would know this too. No, Matthew wants to make a point. He wants his readers to understand and accept Jesus’s messianic roots. And so he divides his genealogy into three sections of 14 names, or 6 sections, each with 7 names.

To the Jew 7 and 14 symbolized completion or perfection. And so Matthew completes his genealogy with the first and only name in the 7th group of 7: the name of Jesus. For a Jew this was as perfect as you could get.

Although some of these names sound a bit strange to us, they’re all real people and offer a glimpse into the entire history of God’s People. As we run through that list of names we encounter every aspect of human life, and not just the good parts, but also murder, treachery, incest, adultery, prostitution…

We also meet five women, something rarely encountered in ancient genealogies. The last of these is Mary herself, but the first four – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – are all Gentiles: 2 Canaanites, a Moabite, and a Hittite. Yes, Jesus’s family wasn’t so purely Jewish, was it? Those Gentiles among His ancestors highlight the fact that He came from all of us, and for all of us.
It was also a family of sinners. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to fool her father-in-law, Judah, and ending up giving birth to his twin sons. Rahab was a prostitute, and yet a faithful woman. And Bathsheba? King David watched her bathing from the roof of his house, invited her in, seduced her, and had her husband killed, so he could marry her. Solomon, their son, started right with God, but eventually joined his many wives in worshipping idols.

Some members, like Mary and Joseph, are extraordinary; others, Ruth and Josiah, are faithful; some, like Manasseh and Rehoboam, are despicable; others, like Eliud and Azor, are anonymous, nondescript, men about which we know nothing.

Welcome to my family, Jesus tells us, welcome to my world. It’s the world we encounter when we open the Bible and realize how forgiving our God is.

Yes, Jesus’s family is a human family and like most human families, has its share of saints and sinners. But from this, we learn that God’s plan was accomplished through them all, and that He continues to work through us, His people.

Notice, too, the genealogy relates father to son, father to son, father to son…except at the very end. Matthew completes the genealogy with the words: “Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” For Matthew doesn’t declare Joseph to be the father of Jesus. Jesus, the Christ, is born of Mary, the virgin, with God as His Father.

Again, what a gift – to be members of God’s eternal family! Indeed, what a gift all of Revelation is!

Do you realize how blessed we are to be Catholic Christians? What we believe and how we worship are not things we’ve concocted. For Christianity is really a revelation rather than a religion.

Christianity is God’s Word and Work, not something we came up with. It’s not a collection of man’s feeble attempts to placate some higher power. It comes totally from God Himself. We believe God revealed Himself to us through all those many generations that Matthew enumerates in his genealogy. It’s a Revelation that runs from Abraham to Moses to David through all the prophets and eventually to Jesus Himself – Who is the fulfillment of it all. Yes, it’s a revelation that reaches its climax in the Incarnation when Mary gives birth, as Matthew describes it, to “Jesus, who is called the Christ.”

You see, brothers and sisters, it’s all a gift. As St. Paul asked the Corinthians: “What do you possess that you have not received?” The answer, of course, is “Nothing!”

And right there at the top of the list of God’s gifts, is that which we receive through our Baptism: the gift of adoption. We became sons and daughters of the Father, part of the Family of God. And so we can join Jesus on that same family tree described by Matthew. We become heirs and can inherit the fruit of the promises God made to Abraham and to all those who followed him.

But as members of God’s family we must behave as any good son or daughter would behave. We must live in a way that honors the father, in a way that doesn’t dishonor the family.

Another great gift that comes out of this adoption is the privilege of eating at the table of the Family of God. Yes, we can take part in the Eucharistic Feast, the Mass. And what a gift this is! For here, at this altar, Jesus Christ, gives Himself to us, body and blood, soul and divinity, and allows us, the members of His family, to join Him in the most intimate way imaginable. Here, as we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we also join each other in a unique Communion.

Pope Benedict wrote that “Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us His Body and makes us one body, forever remains the place where the Church is generated, where the Lord Himself never ceases to be found anew; in the Eucharist the Church is most completely herself – in all places, yet one only.”

Eucharist – the word itself means thanksgiving – is like a great family dinner, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners all rolled into one… and yet far more wonderful and fulfilling.

Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God! These roots are deeper, stronger and longer lasting than any human family roots. Indeed, they’re so strong they’ll carry us all the way to eternal life.

Tonight, as we rejoice in the birth of our Savior, let us also rejoice that our names are written in heaven, as members of the family of Jesus Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Navy Beats Army Once Again

West Point's football team gave Navy a bit of a scare today but Navy pulled away and once again beat Army (for the 13th consecutive year). Naturally, I am pleased. And in anticipation of next year's game: Go Navy, beat Army!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Homily: 1st Sunday of Advent - Year B

Readings: Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; Psalm 80; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37

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.

Mark tells the Gospel story without suspense. He 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” [Mk 1:1]

“The beginning,” Mark tells us, the beginning of Christ’s appearance in the world, a beginning that points back to another beginning, to a beginning of creation with God. From the first verse of Genesis – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” [Gen 1:1] –  to the first verse of John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” [Jn 1:1]

Yes, the Word has an eternal beginning in God; and the Gospel has a beginning in time in the world. This, Mark tells us, is the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News the entire world longs to hear. In the Gospel we have the answer to humanity’s long-pondered question: Why are we here?

God answers through the words of His Son, 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 Mark tells us this Jesus is more than that, more than the Messiah; He’s the Son of God Himself.

Yes, indeed, Mark doesn’t waste our time, but lets the cat out of the bag right from the very beginning: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From there Mark moves inexorably toward Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, toward the Cross and the journey Jesus makes along the way.

But Mark also focuses on another journey: the journey of the disciples as they move from cluelessness, to misunderstanding, to failure, betrayal, abandonment, denial, guilt, and finally to understanding, acceptance and obedience. Yes, you and I often find ourselves on that same journey. And it’s in the midst of this journey where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel passage from the 13th chapter of Mark.

It begins with a command: “Be watchful! Be alert!” [Mk 13:33] and ends with the same command: “Watch!” [Mk 13:37] Responding to His apostles, Jesus had just told them a little about the last days, the time of fulfillment when He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. But no one – no man or woman, no angel, not even He, in His humanity, knows the day or the hour – only the Father [Mk 13:5-32].

Jesus then relates a parable in which the “when” is far less important than how we prepare for it. Listen again to His Word:

“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 – but long 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” [Mk 13:10] That’s our task as we wait: to proclaim the Good News, God’s presence among us, and to proclaim it to everyone. How much Gospel proclaiming have you and I  done lately?

And while we do His work, we’re also to watch, because we won’t  know when He’ll 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” [Mk 13:35-36]

Jesus actually gets specific 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 -- watching, waiting. One of them, though, isn’t watchful, but leaves early that evening. He rejects Jesus’ gift to His Church at that first celebration of the Eucharist. He leaves to commit an act of betrayal.

Later, in the garden, as Jesus prays deep into the night, He invites His remaining disciples to watch and pray with Him. It must have been near midnight. But they, too, succumb to weakness and are unable to watch. Each time He returns from prayer Jesus finds them asleep. And it’s then that 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 the cockcrow…Who can forget the fateful cockcrow that marks the threefold denial of Peter? 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 for the challenges of faith.

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’re without Him.

Brothers and sisters, let’s make this Advent a time of finding, a time when we celebrate God’s coming among us. In Advent 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 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. Our time should be less and less our possession and more and more God’s time, so that when He needs us, when He calls us, we shall be ready.

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 each day.

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

Come Lord Jesus!