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.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Homily: Advent - December 18

Readings: Jer 23:5-8; Psalm 72; Mt 1:18-25

Don't you just love the language of Jeremiah?
"I will raise up a righteous shoot of David...This is the name they give him: 'The LORD our justice'" [Jer 23:5,6].
 And then the words of Psalm 72:
"He shall govern your people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment... the lives of the poor he shall save... And blessed forever be his glorious name; may the whole earth be filled with his glory" [Ps 72:2,13].
These words, this Word of God, like the entirety of the Old Testament, point to one thing: the coming of a Savior. Yes, the revealed Word of God points to the incarnate Word of God, a revelation that is fulfilled in today's Gospel passage from Matthew.

St. Joseph's Dream
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy tracing 2,000 years of the human ancestry of Jesus from Abraham to Mary. But then Matthew's focus changes. No longer does he look down on Israel through the long lens of history. Now, quite suddenly, Matthew entered the lives of two people in the little Galilean village of Nazareth. And just as suddenly, these two lives, the lives of Mary and Joseph, were changed by the Word of God, a Word that echoed throughout the entire created universe.

In Luke's Gospel the angel announces this Word to Mary, a Word she accepts into her very being. Indeed, her womb now becomes the center of that universe. But in Matthew we witness another annunciation, this time in a dream to Joseph, who responds in full obedience. Yes, Joseph, goes on to protect, to name, to decide, to renounce, to nurture, to accept all that God reveals to him...for Joseph is a man of deep faith.

But did you notice, in both annunciations, the angel's appearance begins with the words, "Be not afraid"? The angel wouldn't have said those words unless fear was present. And its presence is understandable.

God was entering into these two lives in an incomprehensible, a fearful way, in a way that even today, after 2,000 years of theological study and speculation, we still don't fully understand. For the Incarnation is a mystery, the manifestation of the revelation to Joseph: "and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'" [Mt 1:23]. But what a promise this is! Brothers and sisters, God is with us!

When we see the world shrouded in so much darkness, like Joseph we can trust completely in the light of Christ to guide us, for God is with us. When we experience deep discouragement in our lives, when we're overcome by fears or worries, when the challenges seem too great to face, we need only recall God is with us...for we are not alone.

Like Joseph, we need only accept God's presence. Turn to Jesus today and let Him enter your heart. Push aside the obstacles that you and world place in His path. 

Pope Francis wrote that many today act as if God doesn't exist.  A "practical relativism", he called it, "a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost." 

Say no to selfishness. Avoid the pragmatism that transforms us into mummy-like creatures - lifeless beings who deny the reality and the hope of Jesus Christ.

In the pope's words: "Our faith is challenged to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds...Say yes to a new relationship with Jesus."

This is our Advent call: to open our hearts to Jesus' coming today, in the midst of our darkness, often a very personal darkness. If I let him love me, forgive me, tell me I'm not alone, then I can face any challenge with hope, even when our union with Jesus leads us to the Cross, we are with him on the path to eternal life.

"Come, Lord Jesus," into our hearts today.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Doggone Disciples

Did you hear about the dyslexic, agnostic insomniac? He stayed awake all night wondering if there was a dog.

Okay, it's an old, tired joke, but it popped into my still half-asleep brain a few early mornings ago as I walked through our neighborhood accompanied by our dog, a little Bichon Frise named Maddie. She's an interesting little creature. Generally predictable in her behavior, every so often she surprises me by doing something unexpected.

Ready to Walk!
For example, it's not unusual for us to spend five minutes walking only 100 yards. Like most dogs, Maddie investigates the world largely through her remarkable sense of smell. Our neighborhood is home to many dogs and a few cats, but it's also the habitat of squirrels, rabbits, possums, armadillos, and even the dreaded coyote. And each one of these critters leaves a scent behind as it roams the streets and passes through the yards and common areas. Maddie, of course, must investigate these residual odors, every single one of them, which apparently linger for days. Since it's one of her few pleasures in life, I usually let her sniff. Sometimes we'll walk for an hour, but cover only a mile.

But the other morning, as Maddie completed her examination of a small shrub, she suddenly snapped to attention and focused on a woman approaching us. This isn't unusual behavior since Maddie enjoys meeting people and often sits down on the sidewalk to await their arrival. But this woman was more than 100 yards away, and Maddie wasn't sitting patiently but was shaking, almost dancing, with anticipation. As the woman neared, Maddie's excitement only increased. When the woman arrived, Maddie sat down and looked up at her expectantly. "She remembers me," the woman said with a laugh and reached into her coat pocket to retrieve a treat. That's when I remembered and understood.

Over the years we've encountered this woman perhaps three, maybe four times, and each time she gave Maddie a treat. She bakes little doggie cookies and takes them with her on her morning walks. I, of course, had forgotten her, but not Maddie. She recognized this woman from a distance and knew exactly what awaited her.

Now this was all very interesting, but not particularly surprising. After all, dogs have excellent memories. It was what followed that amazed me.

While Maddie enjoyed her treat, the woman continued her walk at a brisk pace. By the time Maddie realized her benefactor had left us, she was 100 yards away and moving quickly. So Maddie began to follow -- no sniffing, no glancing left or right -- focused entirely on the source of this good. For the next half-mile we moved as we have rarely moved before -- Maddie in the lead, tugging at the leash the entire time. We had almost caught up with her when the woman turned into her driveway and entered her home. Maddie stood still, staring intently at the house as if she were committing it to memory.

Later, as Maddie continued her walk home, once again sniffing and watering the flora, I considered what I had just witnessed. This little dog continues to teach me, and this time she offered a lesson in discipleship.

I thought of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho who sat by the city gate hoping for a miracle. Take a moment to read again this wonderful passage from Mark's Gospel [Mk 10:46-52]:
They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me." And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me." Jesus stopped and said, "call him." So they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take courage; get up, he is calling you." He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see." Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you." Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.
Blind Bartimaeus Leaps to His Feet
Like Maddie, as she awaited the arrival of the one who would provide her with nothing but good, Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was about to pass by and could hardly control himself.

He called out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me." Yes, filled with the Holy Spirit, he called out repeatedly, loudly, and enthusiastically. Bartimaeus knew that Jesus, and only Jesus, offered what he thought he needed to be whole: his sight.

Maddie recognized the one who approached and knew her desire would be satisfied. Unable to speak, she simply danced for joy.  

Bartimaeus received his sight and is told, "Go your way, your faith has saved you." With that, Jesus continued on His journey to Jerusalem where He suffered the death that would save of all humanity.

But did Bartimaeus go his way? No, he followed Jesus on The Way. More important than his physical sight was his spiritual sight, and this, too, he received from Jesus. Before he met the Lord on that dusty road in Jericho, he was blind, unable to see the way he was called to travel...but afterwards? He dropped everything, including his beggar's cloak, and followed the Lord with the total abandon of the true disciple.

Maddie preaching (or yawning?)
As I hurried along behind Maddie, her little legs moved by a determination to follow the one who had rewarded her, I thought of Bartimaeus and realized that my little dog, like everything that enters my life, is a gift from God. And from her I can get a glimpse of true discipleship in action.

I came to appreciate that the disciple must ignore the world's distractions, all those enticing things that sprout up on either side of the path we are called to follow. When Jesus issues the call and says, "Follow me," the true disciple responds with singular focus. This isn't easy in today's world, a world in which we compartmentalize our lives, a world that encourages us to keep our faith private. But the disciple is called to "Go, make disciples of all nations...", something that can't be done in private.

As a dog, Maddie lacks all those human inhibitions that conspire to keep us from displaying and proclaiming our faith to the world. She simply decides that the good she seeks is greater than anything else the world can provide, and she just goes for it! Would that you and I could be so focused, so determined to follow Jesus on the Way.

Friday, December 8, 2017

California's "Thomas" Fire

If you've been following the news out of California, you have no doubt heard of the "Thomas" fire, which had its point of origin just a mile or so from Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, California. So far it has burned well over 100,000 acres, all the way to the coast near Ventura.
The "Thomas" fire -- from downtown Santa Paula
To ensure the safety of the college's faculty and students, the college was evacuated several days ago. But remarkably, even though the fire began at the edge of TAC's property, and almost surrounded the school, TAC has been spared. I am convinced this is the result of the prayers of thousands who have stormed heaven on behalf of the college, its faculty and its student body.
The fire: from TAC campus, before evacuation
TAC is an exceptional school, a solidly orthodox, Catholic college where the students study the works of the world's greatest thinkers and writers, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Descartes, from Euclid to Newton to Einstein, from Shakespeare to Austen to Joyce. The TAC classroom is not a lecture hall; rather it offers a venue in which the students learn from and share each other's thoughts and ideas as they study the works of the great minds of the past. Our elder daughter, Erin, graduated from TAC in 1993, and I can think of no better college for a young person who wants a solid education that will prepare him for life and further education.
Thomas Aquinas College Campus
As I recall, the school was once threatened by a fire during my daughter's time there. I remember her telling me that, as the fire approached, faculty and students took part in a Eucharistic procession around the college's property, praying that God would protect the college from the ravages of the fire. He did.
The fire: in the hills above TAC
Please pray that TAC remains unscathed; and pray for all those now threatened by the many fires raging through Southern California. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Homily: Monday, 1st Week of Advent

Readings Is 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Mt 8:5-11

I'm often amazed...people, things, situations, encounters - a lot of these amaze me.

A few weeks ago, during my stint as hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who told me he was dying and wanted to go to hospice. I expressed my sorrow at his situation, but he just smiled and said, "Oh, no, this is a good thing. I'm 83. God gave me a good life, and it's time to go home." I'll admit I was amazed. It's not often you encounter someone who faces death with such deep faith.

I'm amazed when I look up at the night sky and try to contemplate the unimaginable vastness of the universe and the complexity of God's creation. And then I look at myself and realize that I, along with every other person God created, represent the very pinnacle of creation: created in God's own image and likeness, and created out of love. That too is amazing.
I'm amazed when I encounter someone who professes to be a Christian, but lives as if God doesn't exist.

Yes, I am easily and frequently amazed.

But it must have taken a lot to amaze Jesus. Indeed, in the Gospels, only twice is Jesus described as amazed.

Once, while Jesus was visiting His hometown of Nazareth, Mark tells us: "He was amazed at their lack of faith" [Mk 6:6]

The second instance is in today's passage from Matthew when Jesus encountered exactly the opposite: the Roman centurion's remarkable faith.

It was especially remarkable because the centurion was a Gentile, not a Jew. And not just any Gentile: He was an officer in the occupying army of Rome. Most Jews would have despised him.
Although Jesus had numerous encounters with Gentiles, He instructed the disciples to avoid them. As Jews, still being formed as disciples, they were not yet ready to take the Good News to the world. It's only later, after Jesus' death and resurrection, when, in anticipation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, He commanded them:
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations..." [Mt 28:19]
But throughout His public ministry, in anticipation of this great commission, Jesus began to show them what discipleship is all about. All their biases and hatreds - whether religious, ethnic, cultural, political, personal - they all had to go. You can't make disciples of those you despise.

In today's passage, Jesus shocks His disciples. When speaking of the centurion, He says:

" no one in Israel have I found such faith" [Mt 8:10].
Yes, Jesus tells the crowd, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are with God, not because they were Jews, but because they were men of faith, just like this centurion standing here before Me.

What Jesus sees, what amazes Him, is the centurion's tender concern for his servant, his humility in the face of spiritual power, and his faith, the kind that can move mountains. He is a man of discipline, a man familiar with the application of worldly power, but he also recognizes that such power has its limits. His trusted servant is dying; neither he, nor Caesar, nor any other human can do a thing about it.

So he comes to Jesus. But he comes not to a mere man, but to One he calls "Kyrie" - Lord.  Yes, in his humility this man of earthly power recognizes the divine power of his Lord.
Jesus need not humble Himself by visiting the house of a Gentile. He need only say the word. Indeed, the centurion knows that the house of man cannot contain God - only the Word can contain God.

This understanding causes the centurion to look upon the very Word of God and say those words we repeat as we adore the Eucharistic Presence at every Mass:

"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed" [Mt 8:8].
He left his home searching for the Word, for the Divine Presence, searching for the God Who was actually in search of him, calling him.

The centurion was a man of compassion and common sense, but it was his deep faith that amazed the Lord.

Brothers and sisters, this is what Jesus seeks. His gaze rests on each one of us, begging us to grasp the gift of faith He offers. He calls us to a deep fiery faith, the kind that burns away all the layers of worldly bias and hatred and materialism, that shatters all the obstacles with which we surround ourselves.
Let's begin Advent trusting that the Lord wants to respond to our need, knowing that the Word of God can heal and renew us, recreate and refashion us. Out of our spiritual poverty, but filled with confidence, let us pray "Come Lord Jesus" [Rev 22:19]