Holy Family

On this feast of the Holy Family, in our Gospel passage from St. Matthew, we hear how an angel told Joseph in a dream to get up and take the ‘child and His mother to Egypt’, because King Herod was seeking to destroy this new born King.  Perhaps we have come to romanticize the story of the Nativity of Our Lord so much, that we have taken much of the blunt reality out of the ‘Christmas story’.  We have so dressed it up with Kincaid-esque imagery and softened it to make it less alarming, that we often miss the harshness in the way this ‘story’ is played out in first-century Palestine, and the Middle East.  

This was not a case of Joseph responding to a cell phone call or ‘page’ in the night, bundling the family in the car and driving a couple of hours to the border.  Joseph’s immediate response to this message of urgency from the angel of the Lord should give us a more clear understanding of what is ultimately expected of each of us;  Joseph must wake them, gather what they can carry – which would not only include clothing, but food and perhaps cooking implements as well – and leave everything else behind.  Whatever they have accumulated in their modest home at that point has to be abandoned.  Whatever projects Joseph may perhaps be working on as a carpenter, or whatever clothing or fabric Mary may have been weaving for her little family – all of it has to be left right then and there.

It’s not as if the angel suggests they move over from the area outside of Jerusalem, perhaps to an hour or two away; they were traveling on foot, perhaps with a beast of burden like a small donkey – but it wasn’t as if they could race along great distances, covering a lot of territory in a short time.  The angel was quite specific; God wanted Joseph to take them to Egypt!  This journey, on foot, would have taken weeks, and was not a simple stroll down a flat garden path.  There were mountains and hills to climb, craggy and rocky roads to travel. 

But Joseph does it all, caring for and protecting his little family to the best of his ability; and why?  Because he knows the child ‘was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’.  He knows that protecting Jesus is the most important role that he could ever have been granted by God; the long-awaited Messiah, the promised One of God, the central figure of all of salvation history has been entrusted to his care for the time being. 

And Joseph, trusting in God’s providence and promise, embarks on this difficult and long journey.  No complaint, protest or argument is recorded for us – only a faithful response.

As people of faith, we too are called upon sometimes to defend and protect our King; we may have to explain our faith to others, or clarify the Church’s teaching on matters of social justice, or be bringers of peace in areas of conflict in our own homes.  We have all been granted a precious, precious treasure in being given a role in carrying the Christ-child into our own world.  It is not simply a position of honour – it is a position of trust.  We are entrusted with not only carrying Him into the world, but protecting that treasure.

 We do that through participation in the life of the Church; partaking of the Sacraments; spending time in prayer and reflection; feeding the poor and caring for the neglected and marginalized.

Often that is a difficult road to travel – especially in a world that is increasingly hostile to that faith; but it is road that in truth we must travel, in all its harshness and stark reality.

Because that is the road that our Saviour traveled, even as a little child, carried along in trust by his foster-father.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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Christmas Day 2013

When my children were small, they would say something at some point on Christmas day that I recall saying each Christmas when I was a little child myself; I wish it was Christmas every day…of course, at the time, my motivation was a little different, thinking of presents and lights and Christmas dinner….and I remember my parents telling me that if it was Christmas every day, then Christmas wouldn’t be special…that if it was an every day thing, it would become boring and routine….

In the mid 1990’s I served a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia, and was away from my family for six months.  My wife Kathi shared with me, how for several weeks after my departure, whenever she would ask one of our children to help set the table for a meal, they always set one place too many…a place for me, as if I was still there.  They got used to this difference over time though, and when I returned, for several weeks after, whenever one of them was asked to set the table, they set one place too few.  The routine had become ordinary for them; unless we reminded them of my absence or return in an extraordinary way by telling them directly how many places to set, they continued with the new routine.  I think we have all had experiences where we are so used to having things done a certain way, a routine, or having certain people around us, that we don’t quite appreciate them as much as we should perhaps, until they are no longer present to us.  Having family return for visits, particularly at this time of year, reminds us of how much we enjoy their company and miss that company when they return to their own homes or schools or jobs.

 

Sometimes we need the extraordinary event to remind us of the wonderful things we have in our ordinary lives.  So it is too during the time of Advent leading up to Christmas.  Over the last four weeks we have heard passages of sacred scripture talking about the ‘old routine’ of humanity, of the chosen people, of Israel waiting for the Messiah – with terms like ‘stay awake’ or ‘living in darkness’ as if the ‘old routine’ was one of disconnect or ignorance of God…

 

Today we hear from the Gospel of St. John, the words of the gospel’s prologue;  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God  All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being’

Here we have God with us through all of our short history, and despite speaking directly through His prophets and His inspired Word, His chosen people – all of humanity really, got so used to Him being in the background, that they completely forgot about Him….that He was always present to them…….and so in the fullness of time, God directly intervenes again in human history, and is born among us, in the person of Jesus, as a baby in a manger at Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, or as this Gospel says,

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory”

 

An extraordinary event to be sure…..but then aside from the shepherds that the angels announced the birth to in St. Luke’s Gospel, or the wise men who followed the star in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the birth of this child seems to have been largely ignored by everyone in Israel…in their midst, a very ordinary event, and everyone in Palestine went about their day-to-day business.

The fact that the gospels tell us nothing of Jesus childhood and young adulthood, points to the ordinary-ness of His early life on earth – He lived in a home, with his family, learned his step-father’s trade, was obedient to his parents, made a living…His presence in the ordinary that would not be noticed unless people looked more closely at this child from Nazareth. In much the same way, we too, can go about our lives, our ordinary day-to-day existence without seeing Christ’s presence among us, unless we take the time to look more closely for Him in the events and people that surround us. 

Why should we want to? Well, it speaks again to our understanding that from the very moment of our existence, our souls instinctively know that we are drawn to God, to the good, and that we can never be completely or truly happy until we are reunited with Him; and that was the whole reason for Christ being born among us as one of us; that in the person of Jesus, the Son, God was not content to sit in the background and wait for us to accomplish something we could never accomplish on our own; to return to union with Him;  the Word who waited from the beginning, would no longer wait, but was born as one of us; into our ordinary existence in an extraordinary way.

 

We have spent weeks preparing for this day in a number of ways, as various and unique as people gathered here.  For some it has been hectic, stressful – for others, a chance to consider faith and family – for still others a time to reflect over past joys or sorrows; yet in all these, the idea of preparing for the coming of the Lord, for Christmas, has been a part of our ‘routine’ now both in the sacred and secular worlds. 

It is important for us, though, to remember that the acceptance of Christ coming among us as one of us, is not the end of a journey, or the culmination of all this preparation;  really, it is a new beginning – a chance to renew our acquaintance with God in our midst in the person of Jesus Christ; a chance for a daily fresh start in the company and presence of this child of Bethlehem;  today could be a start for some, a renewal for others; of considering our prayer lives, of receiving Christ in the Sacraments; of participating in the life of the Church.  In January we will begin a program called Catholics Returning Home, and there will be further details of that in the bulletin.

We can either let Christ fade again into the background, as humans have done for centuries, or we can all use today as another start to bring Christ back into the foreground in our lives; to not let the fact that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen His glory,” become something we take for granted to the point of ignoring it, but something we celebrate and rejoice in and look to as a tremendous gift and source of joy that is given to each of us from God. It was St. Iranaeus who said; “The Word of God, Jesus Christ, because of His great love for us, became what we are, so that we may become what He is.”  And just what is that? That is becoming a child of God, completely united with Him in all things, entering into His glory.

 

And as children, when we say I wish it was Christmas every day; when we seek and find Christ our Lord each day in our own homes, or relationships, or workplaces or schools, then we really have kept Christmas alive every day throughout the year. It is on this wonderful feast that we recall that extraordinary entry of God into our humanity – that we look to this extraordinary event to remind us that He is ever present with us, in our ordinary lives;  that this extraordinary event becomes our ‘new’ ‘routine’.    And it is in this new routine, that we will not forget to include Him, that we will remember to set a place for Him at the table of our hearts.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

4th Sunday of Advent

It is perhaps one of the most common traits of being human, that we want to shape circumstances to work out in our favour.  Sometimes even when it comes to accepting God’s will in our own lives, we have an urge to place limitations or conditions on it – attempting to bend God’s will to ours. We have real difficulty with the word ‘obedience’ as if it means being ‘oppressed’, or being ‘put down’.

But this impression of the word ‘obedience’ is a fairly modern one; it is not the Christian view.  Another word should come to mind when we hear ‘obedience’

That other word is trust.  Trust that the God who has spoken to each of us in our lives wants only the best for us – union with Himself for all eternity – and that obedience to His will is how we open ourselves to this wondrous gift.

As we come towards the end of the season of Advent, we are reminded constantly in the media to get that one last gift – advertisers are in the last days of whipping us into a frenzy of buying and selling as the last remaining days before Christmas slip away.   Consider how many purchase things on the internet – a practice which is extremely common in our society.  Whether it is through some of the better know internet ‘marketplaces’ like E-Bay or Amazon.com, we are faced with purchasing goods from total strangers.  We don’t know the people we are ordering items from. We trust complete strangers in unknown locations with our credit card numbers, personal and financial information; and how do we know we can trust them?  Well, we look at their approval rating on the same web site – an approval rating that again is provided by complete strangers – how do we know we can depend on their ratings of trustworthiness?  And yet we have no problem giving these people access to our credit and personal information.

How is it that we find it so difficult to trust God….a God who has repeatedly intervened in human history to bring us back to Himself….a God who speaks to each of us directly, every day – if only we are willing to hear, and to listen to what He has to say to us.

Unlike the people involved in today’s Gospel, we have the benefit of hindsight, being given an insight into Christ’s birth well after the fact – remember the Gospels were written after Jesus resurrection.  In his particular account, St. Matthew is writing for a mainly Jewish audience; he stresses that even from before His birth, Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament – even quoting from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in our

first reading ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel ‘- ‘God is with us’  To St. Matthew, understanding and accepting Jesus as the Messiah is what we might call today a ‘no-brainer’.

But look at the circumstances surrounding our Mother Mary and St. Joseph leading up to Jesus’ birth.  St. Joseph is faced with making a decision on a matter that is beyond his understanding, and his practical experience.  His betrothed is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father of this child – the Blessed Virgin has given him, what we would all likely consider an implausible story.

We are told that St. Joseph was a righteous man – he was a good man, trying to do what he thought was ‘the right thing’ to secretly divorce Mary, rather than expose her to public scandal…in fact, given the law handed down from Moses in these circumstances, to publicly repudiate her as being ‘unclean’ and ‘unfaithful’, risked a penalty of having Mary stoned to death, killing her and the baby in her womb, effectively ‘wiping out’ what people would have mistakenly thought at the time was a visible sign of sin in their community.

There would have been a cost to Joseph as well to take Mary as his wife at this stage– if they remained in the same community, then surely people would realize that Mary would been pregnant when Joseph took her into his home.  The implications for Joseph in a first century Jewish town would have been serious – he would have been seen as weak in standing up in defence of the law, in other words, no longer ‘righteous’;  his ethics would come into question, and we cannot underestimate how greatly this would have affected a carpenter- a tradesman- in this setting; his livelihood depended on the good will of those in his community, and religious law and social interaction were completely intertwined.

Look at the magnitude of what hinges on Joseph’s decision.  Although God knows how history will play out, no one else does; salvation of the entire human race could hang in the balance – if Joseph goes with common sense and follows his own will, Mary will be sent away, and will have to raise the child alone in obscurity – that is, of course, unless the rest of the community finds out and Mary is publicly accused and attacked. We can imagine for just a moment all the angels in heaven watching, waiting- perhaps holding their breath, waiting to see what the response of St. Joseph will be.  This is high drama of cosmic proportions.

We are told Joseph was visited in a dream by the angel of the Lord who explained that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, a child who was to save his people from their sins.  He is told to take Mary into his home; and what is his response? 

Not to discount his dream as only a dream; but to obey God’s directions to him, to take Mary into his home as his wife;  from that moment , Joseph’s life is irrevocably changed – he will have to leave his home, eventually his country, to protect and raise Jesus as His own child…and yet he doesn’t respond with ‘okay God, I will do this for you, if you do this or that for me’ – he doesn’t try to work out a deal with the angel;  while we are not left with his words, we are left with his actions – actions which gave a straightforward ‘Yes’ – obedience to God’s will and setting aside even his personal preferences  – Joseph won’t even get to name this child ; this child’s name has already been chosen by God – Jesus.

When we encounter difficulties, or when we have any decision to make in our lives, we should always pray; ask God what he is calling us to do, and take the time to listen to His direction.  We can enlist the help of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, asking them to pray for us and with us in trying to determine just what it is in our lives that God is asking of us, and ask God to grant us the grace to follow that course in obedience.

At my ordination, when I knelt before my bishop and held my hands out together, the bishop placed his hands around mine and asked ‘do you promise obedience and respect to me and my successors’?  There was no ‘qualification’ in this question – it was a question which required a simple yes or no answer.

I can only speak for myself, but I expect the same is true for all the ordained:

I answered yes, because I trust my bishop to never direct or ask me to do anything contrary to what Christ commanded, to what Christ taught, or what God wills.

I could not answer yes if I had not been convinced of this in my heart…

It is the same when we consider what God asks of us especially during this time of Advent, as the celebration of Christmas draws so close.

Just like St. Joseph, we are each invited to welcome Christ into our own hearts and homes on His terms, not ours. 

God doesn’t give us a list of possible qualifiers: this is not something we can attach conditions to; The direction is quite simple and straightforward – “accept me and welcome me into your life, and your life will be forever changed “—and in obedience; in trust, we have the opportunity to respond “yes Lord, come into our lives, remain in our hearts. We believe you want only the best for us, and in trust we surrender our desires, and freely choose to follow your will.’

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

In our celebrations on this third Sunday in Advent, or ‘Gaudete Sunday’ we mark the occasion with rose vestments, or lighting a rose or pink candle on our advent wreaths.  The word ‘Gaudete’ comes from the Latin for ‘Joy’; and although we are in a penitential season, we celebrate with a sense of joy, recognizing that this time of advent, this time of waiting for the arrival of our Lord and Saviour is almost over.

It seems a bit out of place then, that we read from the Gospel of St. Matthew today, what seems to be a less than joyful event.  It is an episode in which John the Baptist, who is imprisoned, sends messengers to Jesus to ask if He is the expected Messiah.  This seems like anything but a joyful setting – John, in prison, sending his own disciples to inquire of Jesus, who John baptized in the Jordan, whether or not He –Jesus – is the one whose coming was foretold, who John has spent his ministry preparing the way for.

Jesus response, it seems on its face, doesn’t sound particularly reassuring.  He doesn’t answer directly – He tells these messengers to go back to John and tell them what they see; the lame walk, the blind have their sight restored, the dead are raised.  Wouldn’t it have been easier if Jesus had just said, “Yes, I am the Messiah. Go and tell John I am the one,”?

Don’t we ask the same question often enough as well?  When we try to discern our own path, or need something , wouldn’t it be easier if Jesus just answered ‘Yes’ and revealed Himself directly to each of us, giving us the answers we want?

If we reflect, though, we see the wisdom not only in Jesus’ approach to the question, but in the answer itself.  It is not only an answer of affirmation.  It’s an answer of hope.

Prior to Jesus, and even shortly after, there was a number of people who claimed to be the Messiah in Palestine.  Each of their movement’s goals were political and worldly in nature, and as each ‘claimant’ was either killed or removed, their followings disappeared as well.  It would have been easy indeed for Jesus to simply answer, ‘Yes, I am the Messiah’ to these visitors, but in a sense it would not have been very convincing for John.

Imagine his disciples returning to him in prison and saying, ‘We asked Jesus if He was the Messiah.  He says he is.”

On the other hand, imagine John’s disciples – people who were close to him and who he trusted – coming back to him and saying, “We went to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah, and we saw the words of the prophets fulfilled – the lame walk, the blind see, the dead are raised.”  These would have been the words of witnesses to events, and this information would have been far more convincing for John. We don’t know how many disciples were sent, but we know it was more than one, and according to Jewish law and custom, truth required the testimony of two or more witnesses.  This action of John’s disciples would mean the stories they were relating to him were true.

Even in prison, this would have been an affirmation for John that his ministry had been fulfilled; that the Messiah had indeed come; and that would have been a message of great hope – even in prison.

And from hope, we get joy.

Jesus may not give us the direct answers we all seek every day, all the time.  But if we take the time to observe – really observe – the world around us, we can find hints and signs of His presence and His movement all around us.  Even in the midst of great tragedies and disasters, we can see deeply moving moments of compassion, caring , support and heroism.  It is these things, these actions all around us, that are the most convincing signs that God lives and moves and acts in and through his children.

Even in a world that sometimes feels so dark, so sad and so troubled, there is that light that remains, as long as we take the time to see it.  However, it does no good to simply observe the working of Christ in our world.

Like John the Baptist’s disciples, we have to report it, to bear witness to it.

That witness allows us to share hope with others;  hope of the coming of Christ among us , living witnesses to His presence among us, and the truth of His love.

And in that hope, is tremendous joy.

Even if sometimes the answer seems indirect.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

We continue in our preparations for the great feast of Christmas, busying our selves with getting our houses decorated, buying gifts, organizing parties and menus.  And annually we hear proclaimed at Mass the readings and prayers which remind us that this indeed is a time of preparation, the season of Advent – but often we become so caught up in the preparation for the great feast, that we miss or skip over the period of preparation.

It’s as if we are taking a journey, and jump from the preparation directly to the destination; and if we were able to do that, we might find that when we arrive at our destination, there are some things that we forgot to pack, or some sights and signs that we missed along the way that were crucial to the entire experience

We hear it time and again, year after year; “we prepare during Advent for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas”.  On one level we are preparing to celebrate a period in human history when God directly intervened in human affairs to bring us closer to Him.  On a deeper level though, this season gives us an opportunity to consciously prepare our hearts to welcome Christ into them in a more personal and intimate way; to be ready to meet and receive Him each and every day, at any time.

And it is quite difficult to welcome Him into a space that is crowded with wants and desires, worries and frustrations, fears or anxiety – it is just as difficult for Him to enter a space that is filled with pre-conceived notions of our own ‘righteousness’ or our own ‘worthiness’ as if we are owed His presence within us as another ‘entitlement’.

This Sunday’s particular passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew is loaded with depth and meaning concerning that idea of a crowded heart, and the proper disposition of those who would turn to God, who desire to live a life of conversion.

Conversion, St. Augustine tells us, is a deliberate, intentional, continuous orienting or turning of ourselves towards God – that includes our words, our actions, our thoughts, but mainly our hearts.

True conversion requires true repentance.

To repent is not just simply a matter of feeling a bit of sorrow at having done something wrong or bad.  True repentance is an admission that in our own relationship with God we have fallen short of that closeness that we were all created for.  True repentance is admitting that there are things we have done or attitudes we have that keep us from that deeper union with our God, a God who loved us into existence and who waits to welcome us back into union; in the same way that we wait for the arrival of Christ in our hearts. True repentance is based on a desire to live out the two great commandments – to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The baptism in this passage administered by St. John was one of repentance (not to be confused with the baptism that Jesus will initiate, a baptism of adoption as a child of God, a new creation, wiping clean original sin)

This repentance was a public admission that a person was not in ‘right relationship’ with God, and desired to turn from their weakness, their broken-ness and turn towards God, to seek His face.  But the external symbolism of the ritual had to be a reflection of the inner reality that the person truly desired to move closer to God, and was prepared to change from within.

And this is where we see our eyes drawn to the point in this episode where the Gospel says some Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders, also come forward for baptism; but they seem to come separate from the rest of the people who have come to profess they are ‘sinners’, apart from the people who apparently are conscious of their ‘separation’ from God in their hearts.

St. John the Baptist is very harsh in his remarks to these leaders.

He calls them a ‘brood of vipers’ and goes on further to criticize those who claim their salvation is based simply on being a descendent of Abraham or of the Patriarchs.

It’s not sufficient for someone to say, well, I belong to this group or that group, and based simply on that membership, I’m good; salvation is assured to me – I’m in right relationship because of the people who have gone before me.

This promotes complacency and glorifies mediocrity; God loves us wholeheartedly, and asks that we return that love in kind, not in some mediocre way.

The stories that are handed down to us and the work of scholars seems to indicate that some groups of Pharisees and Sadducees were not really concerned with social justice for the poor and marginalized.  They were only concerned with social justice as it applied to them.  John wasn’t criticizing them for coming for baptism – he was apparently criticizing their lack of concern with justice for all people;  in essence, he was telling them if you want to come forward, come – but give some evidence by your works that you mean to reform your ways.

John takes particular aim at this attitude ‘we have Abraham for our father’.  He tells the all of those listening,” do not presume to say and believe that is enough.”  Feed the hungry, care for the poor and the weak, house the homeless, clothe the naked, uphold the suffering and oppressed; don’t simply come to participate in a ritual for outward appearances and go back to your old ways.

The Messiah is coming.  He will know His own.  And He will know them by their hearts and their actions.  And John speaks these words with a sense of urgency, with passion.

If we mean to enter into true conversion, true repentance, St. John says, then come to the waters.  But don’t do this for show, or to pretend to be righteous; change your life; change your attitude; these words from the Gospel are urgent words, and we should all hear them and read them and share them with great passion.

We all need to look at ourselves to see if we are bearing good fruit.  We cannot be complacent. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo; we need to be continually examining our own lives and relationship with God to see if we are bearing good fruit, and if not, then we need to ask ourselves what it is that preventing us from bearing good fruit.

But we need to be very honest with ourselves – sometimes even as harsh as the Baptist was when we examine our own conscience.   Sometimes we need to identify our own ‘brood of vipers’ within.

The Palestine Viper is a particular snake in the Golan Heights region of Palestine.  It is the most dangerous snake in the Middle East, highly venomous; but it is not that common.  However, this particular viper is often confused with other snakes which are quite harmless, non-poisonous, and only eat insects or rodents.

The secret here is in knowing that in the middle of all of these harmless, even helpful creatures, there is something quite deadly.

There is nothing more dangerous than something very harmful blending in with the harmless, so that its presence is unknown until it is too late.

An attitude of complacency toward God or even rationalizing that just because we call ourselves Christians means we are ‘good to go’ with God can be very harmful; without deeply examining ourselves and our attitudes, to see how close we are , or how distant we are from that right relationship with God.

We need to have a sense of urgency, in that desire to grow closer to God, especially during this Advent season; we need to honestly reflect on our relationship with God, as individuals and as a people.  We need to take time to consider what attitudes we might need to remove, or introduce into our hearts to prepare that place for the coming Messiah.

We can’t skip over this preparation; we need to be ready to meet Christ whenever and wherever He comes to us.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!