4th Sunday Advent (Year B)

As a society we seem to have lost our sense of amazement, of wonder. Sometimes, when I have watched a large aircraft – like a 747- take off, I consider how I may or may not understand the scientific principles of thrust and aerodynamics and lift that can bring this aircraft up off the ground and into the air; but whenever I see one of these large planes actually leave the ground, I am always amazed that something so big and so heavy can actually fly.

That sheer delight at looking around us, at all of the marvels and movements and sights and sounds in our world seems to be reserved to very small children; the simple; the unsophisticated.

And yet, wonder is one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We might know it by other names – awe, or fear of the Lord.  But that sense of awe, a truly deep sense of the greatness of the work of God in our own daily existence, is something that perhaps as a people, we tend to diminish, to repress, or even belittle. But wonder can lead to a sense of innocence and purity, which in turn leads to humility, which in itself opens us to a deeper sense of trust that with God all things are possible; and that there is wonder in everything around us; everything is a gift from God.

Sometimes we forget how much we depend on the goodness of God, and how often God has worked in and through our own lives.  And when we forget that, we lose that sense of wonder.

A very wise and dear friend once told me, “Grace is remembering; sin is forgetting.”

It  sometimes helps us to be ‘put in our place’ to gain a proper perspective, and to approach in humility and gratitude, the truly amazing gifts that God pours out on us, both individually and as a people of faith.

Take for example our first reading, relating how King David wanted to build a temple to house God; the God of the desert who had travelled with the children of Israel, and whose ark containing the law was kept in a tent – David reasoned that if he was the king and lived in a palace, then he would use his royal ‘greatness’ to build something great for God.  But it was God, speaking through the prophet Nathan who said to David, ‘you’re forgetting something here…I’m God; I have given you and your people everything that they have; and while you may be a king, you are still one of my creations – what kind of a house could you possibly build for me? What kind of structure could you make that would contain the Almighty – the Eternal – the Creator of All?”

Although well intentioned, the danger in what David proposed was that in building a structure to ‘house’ God or ‘contain’ God, was that – human nature being what it is – there might be a temptation for David to think that he ‘owned’ or could ‘claim’ God; as if somehow humans could control or direct God.  What may start as an attitude or gesture of thanksgiving and praise – could just as easily slide into arrogance and pride.

Contrast that attitude with the response of Mary in St. Luke’s Gospel; when told by the angel that, although a virgin, she would conceive and bear God’s Son, she didn’t propose conditions, or bargain with the angel – she didn’t try to constrain God’s action or attempt to place restrictions on how and when God should or could act in her life;  her response was simply, “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word,”

Mary in her simple, humble response illustrates for each of us, the attitude of trust and thanksgiving that we are all encouraged to adopt in our own spiritual journey; we are invited to deepen our sense of wonder at God’s work in our lives and to see in that how truly everything we have and are is a gift, freely given by a God who holds nothing back in His love for us.

This particular time of year provides us with constant reminders of the giftedness of God’s love in the Incarnation of His Son; it provides us with reminders, particularly in the faces of children, of the wonder and beauty in things that perhaps as we have grown into adults, we have taken for granted and lost a sense of amazement at.

But the season of Advent, particularly these readings, also serves to remind us that even if we have lost that sense of wonder and gratitude at all that God has done for us, it is never too late to recapture it, to revive it; to open our hearts to it.  Because as the Angel said to Mary, ‘nothing will be impossible with God”.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Advent 2nd Sunday (Year B)

Here we are in the second Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation for the great feast of Christmas. Yet it seems as if our secular culture has already moved ‘into’ Christmas season and hasn’t given a thought to Advent being a season in itself. Perhaps we have done the same. In our Gospel from St. Mark, quoting the prophet Isaiah in pointing to St. John the Baptist; a voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”

We spend this time preparing; and that preparation takes all kinds of forms – shopping and baking and decorating and visiting; or maybe we spend time reflecting on the Christmas story, of that little manger in Bethlehem.

The difficulty in leaping into Bethlehem, though, unprepared, is that we may miss Advent, and the entire point of God coming among us, as one of us- as ‘Emmanuel’. In the secular we think about our shopping carts – in the sacred we think about Bethlehem; and whether we realize it or not, these two points of focus can have something in common.

Often this time of year, those who have the means to shop, do so filling their carts or baskets with all kinds of treats and desserts and ‘junk foods’ to celebrate with – yet, if that’s how we shop, then there is little or no room in the cart for the things we really need; foods that are nutritious, healthy and necessary. In the same way we can consider the Inn that was noted in St. Luke’s gospel narrative; the Inn where there was no room – no room to accept the Holy Family, no room for Mary to give birth to her son, no room for Jesus.

This is not a judgment on the innkeeper or the shopper; it’s more an invitation to reflect on the ‘fullness’ of an inn that was accommodating travelers, or a shopping cart that’s filled with ‘junk’; an invitation to reflect on what ‘preparation’ during Advent really means.

If our hearts are filled with anxiety or anger, with worry and distress; if we need to seek mercy or to show mercy; if we need forgiveness or to forgive; if we seek compassion or are asked to be compassionate, this is the time of year most ‘geared’ towards seeking that disposition in our hearts.

A heart that has no room for justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness or compassion has no room for Christ, just as the Inn at Bethlehem had no room for Him – much the same as an overstuffed shopping cart full of ‘extras’ has no room for what is truly necessary.

Perhaps we can spend a bit of time in this season of Advent, emptying out those shopping carts that are our hearts, that accumulate and gather pain and sorrow, grief and anger, and letting them fill with the things that we need the most; maybe we can open up the Inn of our hearts, asking those more difficult guests like impatience and selfishness, pride and ignorance to leave, so that there will be room for the One whose arrival we claim to be preparing for in the first place; Christ our Lord.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

28th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

Many of us in Canada are preparing to gather with family to celebrate this Thanksgiving weekend; and for many, this celebration centres around a feast; we enjoy the bounty of the harvest of all kinds of food; we share that feast with those we love; we express gratitude for the many ways in our lives in which God has blessed us. When we are really conscious of the many blessings we have received, it tends to instil in us a true and honest humility; a humility that recognizes that everything we have – all our abilities, our talents, our successes – everything, comes from God. And that makes us deeply grateful.

A spirit of deep gratitude is one of the themes which is woven through the parable Jesus teaches in today’s passage from St. Matthew’s gospel. It is the parable of the wedding feast, put on by a king in honour of his son.

That gathering for a banquet, for a very important feast is a symbol that Jesus uses quite frequently in the gospels. The metaphor of a banquet is often used by Jesus to describe the kingdom of heaven – of being invited to intimately share the life of God. But unlike other places where He uses the wedding feast example, Jesus uses very extreme language in this parable – and the behaviour of those invited and the reaction of the king seem ‘way over the top’ – killing servants, burning cities, destroying murderers and so on…

The parallel Jesus draws to the treatment of the prophets of the Old Testament is very clear; but the reason He uses such extreme, even shocking language, is because He is stressing how important, even how urgent it is for those who are called by God to enter into that intimate relationship, to make certain they come to that ‘feast’ with a deep sense of gratitude. When those invited refuse the invitation, even going to extremes to do so – making excuses and rejecting and abusing those who speak God’s Word – they show their lack of gratitude for being invited by the king to this very special occasion. When the king opens that invitation wider, and sends his servants to gather everyone – complete strangers –the banquet hall is filled. The king doesn’t seem to be concerned whether it is his ‘A list’ of guests who fill the hall or the ‘B list’ – the hall will be filled one way or the other. But the parable doesn’t end there. There is one guest who is in the banquet hall, but is not wearing a wedding robe – is not ‘properly attired’ for this occasion; it is an insult to the honour of the host; for this insult, this person is cast out from the banquet; again, harsh language, but the message is pretty clear here, that ‘something ‘is expected of those who enter into this ‘banquet’ – this ‘ honoured’ place in that relationship with God.

If we are to share in this banquet, then we are to honour the Host. As Christians we do this by loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves; and we can only genuinely do this when we are truly grateful to God for having called us to Himself, and truly humble recognizing that everything we have comes from God and we could do nothing without Him in the first place. If we think we are entitled to God’s blessings, or somehow God owes us His gifts because of who we are, then we are neither humble nor grateful.

We celebrate that relationship, that heavenly feast each time we celebrate the Mass; and at the heart of the Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist – a word which means ‘Thanksgiving’. It’s all about gratitude- truly humble gratitude, recognizing that everything is ‘gift’. Even the Mass, when we commemorate Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, is a gift to us from Christ himself.

Receiving the very body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ within ourselves – as Catholics, He is that gift – more than anything else that we will give thanks for this weekend- Christ is that gift, for which we are most truly thankful.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

4th Sunday of Advent

It’s easy, if we are watching and listening to any of the mass media – internet, radio, television – to get drawn into this sense that Christmas has been occurring for the last three weeks!  It’s as if we get caught up in the lights and parties and gift exchanges as the definition of Christmas itself, and skip completely over Advent, over this time of preparation and waiting for the Lord to make Himself known.  But children, they sense and know that we aren’t quite there yet.  There are packages to open – things that are hidden – that in some way signal that the time has arrived.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that the opening of gifts on Christmas Day is the principle point of the celebration; but the image of the concealed or hidden gift is helpful in considering today’s passage from St. Luke’s Gospel.

Reflecting on the infancy narrative in St. Luke, it becomes apparent how often it is through the ‘unseen’ that the influence of the Holy Spirit is most often felt, and how often it is through the little and hidden that the message of God’s great love is communicated.

When Mary has her encounter with the angel Gabriel, it does not say anywhere that she ‘saw’ the angel – only that she heard his message.  Imagine being in Mary’s situation; very young yet faithful, being presented with this news of her imminent pregnancy, and how it will fit in with God’s plan of salvation for all people – and only hearing a voice!  And yet, she is ‘full of grace’ and responds without hesitation, ‘be it done to me according to your word’! What great trust!

Later, when Mary visits Elizabeth, as we heard today, it is the unseen, unborn St. John the Baptist who leaps for joy in the presence of the unseen, unborn Jesus! This ‘leap’ signals the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Elizabeth who announces Mary as the ‘Mother of my Lord’!  Such bold courage to proclaim such a thing, with no visible evidence!

As Christians, we are to be present to that same Jesus who is also unseen – hidden in the eyes of the world; yet visible to those who look with eyes of faith, charity and compassion. (Some of you know of my connection to the Lay Missionaries of Charity in Canada as their National Spiritual Director – they are part of the family of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta)  Blessed Teresa had an expression she used often, referring to Jesus as being present in the ‘distressing disguise of the poor’ ;  she meant that Jesus was truly present in all of the poor – materially, socially, spiritually – the poorest of the poor, wherever they may be. But it was a disguise – a ‘being hidden’ unless we looked with eyes of love and trust to truly recognize His presence among us.

It is that same trust and bold courage instilled by the Holy Spirit, and illustrated by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth in the gospel, that moves each of us to find Christ in that ‘distressing disguise’.  Most importantly though, it is through the grace of that same good God, that we are given the strength to trust and boldly proclaim Him in our actions and our words.  That is the real gift – the gift of Jesus – that is the true gift this time of year.

The commercial message of this season, while sometimes entertaining, is quite clear; the happiness of the one receiving a gift is dependent on that particular gift.  We have to be careful here; careful that we don’t slip into believing this message in our own hearts, that somehow happiness – ours or another’s depends on something or someone; on temporary circumstances, opportunities, privileges or even power.  We ‘buy into’ the big yet subtle lie, that happiness comes from temporary things; but even our rational minds tell us temporary things can only bring temporary happiness, and then we need to endlessly search for more, and better and bigger things to bring us more temporary happiness.

The message of our Faith is equally clear though; the only way we can receive permanent, lasting happiness, is with the One who is permanent and lasting – and the only One who is permanent and lasting, is God.  The same God who created everything from nothing, and whose great love we celebrate with the approaching feast of Christmas – this great love that has the Lord of all things setting aside all of this greatness and splendor to enter into our existence in the most humble and helpless way – as a baby born in poverty in a small insignificant village; ‘hidden’ like a special, longed-for gift.

An unopened or hidden gift can cause excitement, even in the anticipation of opening it; hopefully as we await the celebration of the ‘hidden gift’ that is God-among-us, Emmanuel, we will all be open to that same Gift-Jesus- being revealed to us each day in the needs of those around us; and that understanding this ‘hidden gift’ is in our midst, we will be filled with just as much excitement and anticipation as we approach Him in our daily lives.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…O, O, O this is exciting…

I can still remember the excitement as a small child, counting the days until Christmas. As that wondrous day drew closer, the excitement increased exponentially, building up to an almost constant state of ‘butterflies’ in my stomach. That anticipation grew from a mental thought and expanded to become a physical response; the ‘waiting’ became something that involved my whole being!

That waiting and excitement was something that abated somewhat over the years, until I was introduced to praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The collection of psalms and readings, petitions, antiphons and prayers was something that eventually would become integral to my daily routine and spiritual journey (and of course would become an obligation – though a happy one – through ordination).

Praying through the Liturgy of the Hours tracks a rhythm and flow throughout the liturgical year; it provides a whole new dimension to one’s daily routine and is a reminder that at some point, somewhere in the world, someone is constantly praying for all of us. But what has that got to do with excited anticipation?

Because as of December 17th, when praying the Evening Prayer of the hours, we enter into seasonal antiphons to introduce the prayer, The Magnificat, with what are referred to as the ‘O’ Antiphons. For an explanation of these ‘O’ Antiphons, Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, does an excellent job here

When I enter into those’O’ Antiphons, I am filled now with that same wonder, excitement, and yes, I have to admit, ‘butterflies’ reaction as these signal the approaching feast of Christmas. But they mean much more than the countdown to a date on a calendar. They are a reminder to me of the many aspects of the graces, gifts, and the wonder of the One who loved us all into existence – the One who emptied Himself completely to enter into our own human condition; to restore that image and likeness with which we were created.

We celebrate the feast and commemorate His coming among us as one of us at a definite point in our human history; we anticipate His coming among us each and every day in those we encounter in our daily lives; we rejoice in His presence to us in His Sacraments and His Church; we excitedly look forward to His return, to the time that we will each gaze upon Him and see Him ‘face to face’.

That’s what the ‘O’ Antiphons do for me – and I hope, if you are able to begin celebrating in prayer the Liturgy of the Hours, that they will do the same for you, with the grace of God.

And I hope they give you ‘butterflies’ too!

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Third Sunday of Advent

When is enough, enough?  How much do we need to have before we have accumulated all we desire? 
This Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Luke continues with the ministry of St. John the Baptist as he prepares the people for the coming of the Messiah.  His discourse recorded for us contains a list of instructions to different people from different walks of life; exhortations to them to help them be ready for the coming of the Lord!

To those who have, he says, give – ‘whoever has two coats must share with those who have none…’ and to share food with those likewise who don’t have enough to eat.  This instruction is more a ‘positive’ act of charity -giving from one’s abundance to those who lack.

On the other hand, we have the ‘negative’ actions – not taking from those who have simply because we can. To soldiers, he says, be satisfied with your pay – don’t try to take from others through threats or accusations things that don’t belong to you. To tax collectors, he says, don’t take more than what is owed. In both of these examples, people who are in positions of power are told not to abuse that authority for personal gain; they are to accept the wages of their station and respect the rights and property of those under their authority. 

This is a clear lesson for all of us who seek the Messiah – who are preparing particularly this time of the year – to meet Jesus in our midst.   An attitude of satisfaction with what we have is crucial.  To constantly want more, and to take it by any means open to us, including threats or by force, is never ‘okay’.  It is most certainly not the mark of one who sincerely seeks a relationship with Christ.

Likewise, the giving of alms is not just a good idea – it is a requirement of those who hope to approach the Lord at His coming. To support our brothers and sisters in need simply because they are in need is a hallmark of a true disciple of Jesus.  It is no credit to us if we support those we ‘like’ or have similar political or social inclinations towards.  We need to support each other in any way that we can, in keeping with the Gospel.

Sometimes that support is material – at other times, it is not quite so concrete. I’m talking about prayer.  It may not seem to be a tremendous undertaking, but it is no less important. Authentic and sincere prayer is critical for those who claim to be following in the footsteps of the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord in our world.

I can’t conclude without considering the horrendous events that unfolded on Friday in Connecticut at the Sandy Hook elementary school, with the violent and tragic deaths of so many children, and their teachers. 

While we have so many questions and emotions to express, I would like you to consider, at least for the next few moments, supporting our brothers and sisters in the midst of this tragedy in the only way that we can at the present time; in prayer.  This is a time of mourning, and a time of grief.  There will be plenty of time for commentary and analysis later – for now, we hold up the souls of these little ones, their families, emergency service responders, and the people of that entire school community in prayer.  We can only watch, wait with them, and pray.

It may not seem like much in a material world – but consider that at the Cross, there was another mother who witnessed the terrible suffering of her Son at the hands of violent men. Mary was powerless to stop them, and so she did what she could; she watched and waited and prayed. 

And that was enough.

She continues to pray for all of her children, and so we join her in praying for our suffering brothers and sisters in Connecticut.  In imitation of Mary we move towards imitation of her Son.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Second Sunday in Advent

The opening prayer, or collect, for this Second Sunday of Advent Mass asks, ‘Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son…’.

What a wonderful request that is when we take the time to really consider it; that  God, from whom all grace and goodness flows, is being asked that any who ‘set out in haste’ to meet Jesus, not be slowed down or obstructed by any undertaking of their own making.  How appropriate for this time of year, a time of year in which our culture is so preoccupied with buying and getting and having; asking God to help quiet our hearts and minds enough so that we will not be ‘hindered’ or blocked as we hurry towards Christ!

We’ve come to a point where, even amongst entire Catholic families, attendance at Sunday Mass has become just one in a series of ‘activities’ to be taken into consideration when drafting our calendars for the week.  There may be other things to do on a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening for that matter) that would conflict – sports activities, recreational events, meetings, dinners, brunches, etc.; we make up our list of ‘activities’ by priority, and skip the ones that we can to make way for the more ‘important’ things.

Sadly, that often means that attendance at Holy Mass becomes just another ‘activity’ and quite often ‘loses out’ in terms of priority and gets dropped from the ‘to do’ list on Sunday morning.

But what greater priority can there be than gathering as a family – as a community of believers – to give thanks and praise and worship to the One who gives us everything – even the opportunities to have busy schedules and a lifestyle that permits us the luxury of having ‘priority lists’ of activities.  God gives us 168 hours in a week – how could the cost be so great to us of giving back just one of those hours on that one day weekly?

The Gospel today from St. Luke recounts how St. John the Baptist, (quoting from the book of the prophet Isaiah) is the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’,” – for people of faith (and I really believe it doesn’t matter how latent and lax a faith practice becomes) we all have our own inner ‘St. John the Baptist’ crying out in our own spiritual deserts to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.  Advent is a reminder to us of the need to open up our hearts, shake the dust from them, clear some space for the Lord to once again take up residence!  When we feel that calling, and respond, there is an increase from within of a sense of importance, or priority , of ‘haste’ – and the more we surrender to that sense of priority, the greater that sense becomes.

But it all starts with ordering our ‘priorities’ honestly, and looking to the One who fills us with so many good things that we can even have a ‘to do list’.  It all starts with accepting that grace to set aside anything that ‘hinders’ us in setting out ‘in haste’ to meet Jesus in our daily lives, and in all of those we encounter.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!