Sunday, January 13, 2019

13 JANUARY 2019

          Saint Luke gives no details of the actual baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.  However, it is clear that the Word made flesh, whose birth we have been celebrating during this Christmas Season, had been immersed in the same muddy and sinful waters as the rest of us.  After emerging from the waters, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus is engaged in prayer.  As he is praying, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove.  This is the same Spirit that hovered over the watery chaos of the world at the beginning of creation.  This is the same Holy Spirit who caused the conception of Jesus in his mother’s womb. 
            Then Jesus then hears a voice from heaven declaring, “You are my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.”  As the only begotten Son of God, Jesus will exercise his ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will reveal his true nature by teaching, healing, and working miracles.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will give himself as the good shepherd of Isaiah’s prophecy and become the Lamb of God sacrificed for our salvation.  After his saving death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, this same Holy Spirit will come upon the Apostles at Pentecost and form the infant Church.
            It is most fitting that we end the Christmas Season by celebrating the Baptism of the Lord.  This feast reminds us of the critical importance of our Baptism.  When we were baptized, we were grafted onto Jesus Christ.  In fact, some people refer to Baptism as being “christened.”  That is what happens to us.  Our identity is intimately tied with that of Jesus Christ.  We become God’s beloved sons and daughters.  When infants emerge from the waters of Baptism, they are anointed with Chrism, the sacred oil that emphasizes their identity with Christ.  Eventually, the baptized are confirmed with Chrism, sealed with the Holy Spirit to live our baptismal promises to point toward Christ, dwelling in our midst, as John the Baptist had done.
            As God’s beloved sons and daughters, we depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us in living as people truly grafted (or immersed, to use a water imagery) onto Jesus Christ.  That is why our Baptismal Font can accommodate the baptism by immersion of both adults and infants (not a hot tub!).  In writing to Titus, Saint Paul quotes a confession of faith used at a baptismal liturgy.  He reminds Titus that being grafted onto Jesus Christ is a pure and simple grace.  Titus does not earn that gift.  He does not deserve that gift.  But once grafted onto Christ, Titus works with the power of the Holy Spirit to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in an age that of lawlessness.
            The same is true for us.  We became God’s beloved sons and daughters at when we were baptized.  But that was only the beginning.  The rest of the Sacraments flow from Baptism.  We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at Confirmation to empower us to live as Christ.  We are fed by the Eucharist to nourish us for our mission.  When we break our connection with Christ or damage it through sin, the Sacrament of Reconciliation reconnects us with Christ.  When we experience sickness, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick heals us.  Those of you who are married receive strength to live your commitment, as do we who live the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
            During this Christmas Season, we have been reminded that Jesus took on human flesh and dwells in our midst as God’s beloved Son.  Today’s feast sends us out as God’s beloved sons and daughters to recognize the Lord’s real presence in the Sacramental life of the Church.  In recognizing that real presence, we can more readily cooperate with the Holy Spirit in making that presence more evident in a world filled with lawlessness and darkness. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

6 JANUARY 2019

          We know very little about the mysterious Magi who appear in the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  We conjecture that they are the kings mentioned in Psalm 72 (our Responsorial Psalm today) who have traveled from Persia (modern day Iran).   We presume that they are astrologers, interested in studying the heavenly bodies.  We count them as three individuals, because they bring three gifts to the newborn King.  Over the centuries, artists have been intrigued by their story and portrayed it in plays, poems, songs, and religious images.
            What we do know about them is that they are not members of God’s Chosen People.  The Jews would regard them as unclean pagans.  They are spiritual seekers who have seen news of a remarkable birth in the natural signs of the stars.  They have traveled far to reach Jerusalem, where they presume that proper king would be born.  They seek advice from the present king, Herod, who consults the chief priests and scribes.  The religious leaders cite Micah's prophesy pointing to Bethlehem.  With this revealed quote from Scripture, they complete the final seven miles to Bethlehem, where they find the child.  Their gifts express the truth about this child:  gold signifying that he is a king; frankincense identifying him as God; and myrrh pointing to his role as a suffering servant who will die for the sake of all.  Changed by this encounter, they return home by a different route, knowing that God had been seeking them all along.
            Like the Magi, there are many spiritual seekers today.  Some of them are probably members of our families.  They tend to be sincere young people who see themselves as spiritual but not religious.  They are seeking to find God through many different means – through communing with nature, studying world religions, pursuing philosophy, or by relying on their own instincts.  We are gathered for Mass today, because we know the importance of being religious.  We know what the Magi discovered.  Despite their efforts to seek God, it was God who was seeking them all along.  Saint Matthew understood this point in writing his Gospel and emphasizes God’s universal call to respond to the Good News of the Gospel.
            At this time in our parish, we are finishing the work of our five year plan, which many of you have helped through responding to our parish survey.  We hope that the plan will give practical guidance to improve our work to help people see the value of being religious.  When spiritual seekers come to us, we must avoid the insecurity of Herod, who was threatened by someone he perceived as a rival.  We cannot dismiss them like the priests and scribes, who were so smug that they did not follow through with their own advice in studying Scripture. 
            The prophet Isaiah wrote to people living in darkness.  They had just returned from fifty years of exile, and they were living in the poverty stricken ruins of Jerusalem.  Isaiah challenges them to look beyond the darkness to recognize the glory of the Lord shining through them.  We must do the same.  We too dwell in darkness:  the darkness of a world broken by war, hatred, and racism; in a nation torn apart and by angry partisan divisions; and in a Church plunged into darkness by the revelations of failures by priests who violated the trust of those entrusted to their care and by bishops who did not address the issue.  Isaiah insisted that his people trust in God’s promise, even when the results of that promise were not visible.  This Feast is called Epiphany, because that word literally means “to manifest”.  God kept his promise by manifesting himself in the birth of a child in the manger.  Our task is to help those who are seeking God to understand that God has been seeking them all along.  We hope that they can see the value of being religious.  Enlightened by the Word of God and fed by the Eucharist, all of us can complete the final few miles of the journey to encounter the Lord dwelling in our midst.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

30 DECEMBER 2018

          A friend recently told me of losing his son.  He was standing in line in the basement of Saint Jude Parish in Fort Wayne with his two year old son, Kevin, waiting to say goodbye to the departing pastor who was being transferred to Saint Pius.  His wife, Laura, was at home with their new born son, David, who was only a few days old.  As he was waiting in line talking to friends about the excitement of being a new dad, Kevin separated from him.  In a moment, he was completely out of sight.  A flood of panic engulfed him.  He said that it was like a punch in the gut.  A thousand thoughts went through his head as he frantically searched for him.  One of those thoughts was that his wife would kill him if he came home without their son.  Even in that short time, he felt that he had been a total failure as a parent.
            Joseph and Mary lost their twelve year old son for more than a few moments!  Only parents can imagine what thoughts must have gone through their heads as they searched for their son for three entire days.  In their frantic search, they too must have felt like complete failures.  The Father had entrusted them with the long awaited Messiah.  Now they have lost him.  When they finally find him after three agonizing days, his response is less than consoling.  His mother asks him why he has done this to her and his father.  Like a typical twelve year old, he wants to know why they have been looking for him.  He tells them that he must be in his Father’s house.
            In this only story told about the childhood of Jesus, parents who have lost children can take consolation that this happened to the Holy Family.  They can identify with the precocious child who eagerly embraces a formal education in the faith.  But there is a much deeper level here.  Some thirty years later, Mary would lose her son again for three days, buried in a borrowed tomb.  She would experience again what she and Joseph experienced in Jerusalem.  Confronted with loss, she would have no idea of how things would turn out.  When she would find him in the Mystery of the resurrection, she would understand better the words he had spoken, not about his step father Joseph, but about his Heavenly Father.  In quoting the response of the twelve year old, Saint Luke deliberately uses ambiguous words.  A literal rendering of the Greek text would be that he must be “about the affairs of my Father” or “in the house of my Father.”  In other words, Jesus understands from a very early age that he has a very intimate relationship with the Father, and that he needs to be trusting and obedient to his Father’s will.
            Saint Luke tells us that Jesus went down with Joseph and Mary to Nazareth and was obedient to them.  He learned to trust and obey his Heavenly Father by trusting and obeying Mary and Joseph in their human family.  They would teach the precocious child and answer his questions as he would continue to grow in wisdom and age and favor.  He would learn to listen to them, much as he had listened to the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem.
            This is the task facing every one of our families today.  None of our families are perfect, and none of our families are without sin and failure.  But, we all have aspects of holiness in our families.  Like the holy family of Nazareth, we can form our children in the ways of faith and teach them how to be obedient.  Obedience does not mean blindly doing what we are told.  It used to irk me as a kid when I would ask why, and my father would respond, “Because I told you!”  The word “obey” literally means to listen.  As we enter into the New Year, we can all take advantage of new opportunities to listen.  We will listen to the Word of God at Mass and also in the adult education programs we will be offering this year.  If we listen and teach our children to listen, we can learn as a parish family how to trust the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus.  They can learn that dying to themselves will open the way to rising with Christ to others.

Monday, December 24, 2018

25 DECEMBER 2018

            For centuries, the descendants of Abraham looked for an anointed king who would fulfill the promises made to King David.  When David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, the prophet Nathan assured him that the Lord would eventually dwell in his house, in his lineage, and not in a physical building.  On Christmas, the Scriptures remind us that promise was fulfilled in the birth of Christ over two thousand years ago.  At that time, those who saw themselves as the movers and shakers of that day were busy doing what rulers like to do.  The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, decided to take a census and count how many subjects he had.  King Herod and his cronies were consolidating their rule and marginalizing their enemies. 
            The promised child was not born in a royal palace or in a sacred temple.  He was born in a stable in a tiny village south of Jerusalem.  His birth was not proclaimed by royal decree.  It was announced by angels to shepherds.  When we see this scene acted out in Christmas pageants, we see the shepherds as quaint and innocent people dressed in colorful bathrobes with towels wrapped around their heads.  However, the truth about shepherds is not that romantic.  They lived on the fringes of society.  Without a permanent residence, they moved with their flocks to find green pastures for grazing and sources of water.  The local people did not trust them.  When I was pastor at Saint Paul of the Cross in Columbia City, the parishioners helped me understand the actual status of shepherds.  Every summer, the city closed down the main street for a weeklong celebration.  Carnival workers swarmed into town, turning the main street into a carnival with rides and all kinds of attractions.  During the year, no one in Columbia City ever locked their doors.  I did not lock the doors of the rectory, because people would open the back door and put wonderful produce on top of the washing machine.  But everyone locked their doors during Old Settlers Days, because the carnies were in town, and no one trusted them.
            It was to this group of shifty characters that the birth of the Messiah was announced.  They responded and found the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, the feed trough for cattle.  This encounter profoundly affected them, causing them to leave glorifying and praising God.  What they experienced changed their lives.  We have no idea how long this change lasted.  I may sound cynical.  But I wonder if this transformation quickly wore off, and they returned to their devious ways as quickly as our Christmas trees are thrown on the curb. 
            We gather for Christmas not just to remember what happened a long time ago.  We gather today, because the Mystery of God dwelling in our midst is a present reality.  His birth was just announced to us in the Word of God proclaimed here.  We encounter the Lord in the Eucharist, remembering that Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”  We are like the shepherds in the sense that we can be shifty and devious at times.  We are not always faithful.  We are not worthy of so great a gift.  And yet, we encounter him just as the shepherds did and are drawn into the Mystery of God taking on human flesh.
            We have no idea whether or not the shepherds’ lives remained transformed.  Instead, it is now up to us.  We leave this church glorifying and praising God like they did.  We go back into a world filled with darkness – wars, terrorist attacks, bitter divisions in our country and Church and families, natural disasters, human tragedies, and the reality of death.  God has taken on our human nature, so that we can be transformed into God’s divinity.  Once we believe this message, then we can more readily see the signs of God’s love and goodness in a broken world.  Then we can become instruments of that transforming love ourselves and live the Christmas mystery long after our Christmas trees have hit the curb!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

16 DECEMBER 2018

          At a very basic level, today’s Gospel presents us with a heart-warming scene.  An elderly woman and a young woman have conceived children in unusual circumstances.  The young woman goes in haste on a difficult journey from the backwater village of Nazareth to the hill country north of Jerusalem. When the young mother arrives at the home of the older mother, they embrace and give one another support.  Over the centuries, artists have portrayed this intimate meeting in beautiful ways.  At Saint Pius, we offer the “Elizabeth Ministry” to offer support and help to mothers who are experiencing any difficulty with childbirth.
            At a deeper level, the four characters have much to teach us about faith.  Elizabeth reminds us of the promise made the King David centuries before.  God had promised David that a savior would eventually come from his lineage.  Discouraged by years of not being able to bear a child, Elizabeth realizes that only God can bring new life.  Mary represents God’s amazing grace in doing something completely new.  Within the womb of Mary dwells the child conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit and who fulfills the promise made to David in ways no one could ever have expected.  As King David had danced with joy in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant being carried into Jerusalem, so John the Baptist dances in his mother’s womb in the presence of Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant carrying the eternal Word of God in her womb.
            The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Christmas is much more than having warm and sentimental feelings about a newborn baby.  The Letter gives us an insight into the divine conversation between the Father and the Son about the nature of sacrifice.  Throughout the Old Testament, human beings initiated ritual sacrifices that attempted to bridge the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings.  People would bring something very valuable to the Temple – a newly born lamb, or a calf, or the first grains at harvest.  They would present them to the priest, who would destroy the gift and burn it.  The believer would then pray that this external offering would represent an internal desire to be in union with God.  The Father points out that he does not want all those sacrifices, initiated by humans.  The Father is not a bloodthirsty tyrant who seeks repayment for sin.  Rather, the Father initiates reconciliation by giving what is most valuable to him:  his only begotten Son.  The Son responds that the Father has prepared a body for him, so that he can do the Father’s will to become the scapegoat that takes upon himself the sins of the world. 
            We celebrate the Mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas, because the Incarnation is the first step toward the other Mystery of the death and resurrection of the Lord later in his life.  The adult John the Baptist will dance again and point to him as the Lamb of God.   Jesus, one with the Father, identifies with the vulnerable and, quite literally, takes on the role of the scapegoat to turn the social shaming system of scapegoating upside down.  As the Lamb of God, he will be sacrificed to accomplish what all previous sacrifices could not accomplish:  union with God.  Both Elizabeth and Mary invite us to trust in God’s plan. They are true disciples.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognizes the Lord and tells Mary how blessed she is to carry that child.  Mary, in turn, models for us what we do at every Mass.  She has listened carefully to the Word of God.  She gives praise and thanks for what God has done for her.  She responds in faith to the Word of God and goes in haste to be of humble service.  Imitating the examples of these two incredible women and asking their intercession, we prepare ourselves to renew our faith that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and dwells among us.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

16 DECEMBER 2018

          Zephaniah was not a prophet who looked at the world with rose colored glasses.  In his short book, Zephaniah clearly saw the pain and suffering caused when his people turned away from their Covenant with God.  He wrote vividly of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians as the consequence of the sins of his people.  Yet, today Zephaniah tells Mount Zion (on which is built the Temple) and Jerusalem to be glad and exult.  Despite the pain and suffering endured by his people, destruction and desolation are not the last words.  God has forgiven their sins.  God is in their midst, and God will bring them victory.
            There is no doubt that Saint Paul was familiar with the writings of the Prophet Zephaniah.  He too had known the consequences of his sins.  He had been guilty of murdering the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  As he writes to the Philippians from the darkness of his prison cell, he too knows desolation.  He has come to believe that the prophecy of Zephaniah had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  The body of Jesus had been destroyed on the cross and sown into the grave.  But Paul has come to believe that this crucified Messiah had been raised from the dead and sits at the right hand of the Father.  For that reason, he tells the Philippians to rejoice, because he is convinced that the risen Lord is near.
            That is why we wear rose vestments and light the rose candle today.  Our waiting to celebrate the first coming of the Lord is almost over.  Christmas is just over a week away.  Our waiting for the second coming of the Lord is not over.  We continue to wait for that coming at the end of time and at the end of our lives.  No matter what difficulties we may be facing, the Lord is near and is in our midst, even in the darkest moments of our lives.
            Calling to mind the second coming of the Lord during this Advent Season might cause us to be fearful, because we know neither the day nor the hour of the Lord’s coming to us.  For that reason, the words of Saint John the Baptist are so important.  He is the voice crying out in the wilderness to tell his contemporaries that the Messiah is coming.  His urgent message to them is to repent, to change their lives, so that they can receive him.
            In responding to his call to repentance, the crowds ask questions.  They ask what they should do.  He responds to most of them by telling them to share more generously with those who have nothing.  He responds to the tax collectors by telling them to stop cheating people and collect only what is prescribed.  He responds to the soldiers by telling them to stop bullying people and be satisfied with their salaries.   
            To us, waiting for the second coming of the Lord, he gives the same message.  He also gives us a way to repentance.  The risen Lord is truly present in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and is waiting for us to turn more completely to him now.  Our Advent Penance Service is scheduled for Tuesday evening at 7:00, with seventeen priests available for individual confession of sins and absolution.  I recommend this communal option, because there is strength in numbers.  Besides, you will never see some of these priests again on the side of the second coming.  Later in the week, we will offer many other times for individuals to receive the Sacrament.  In either case, we offer a valuable tool:  a written examination of conscience.  It is sometimes tempting to approach the Sacrament with the attitude that there is no sin in my life.  The examination proposes objective questions to consider in our lives of faith.  Reviewing this examination provides specific ways in which we need to cooperate with the Lord’s grace and make necessary changes to meet the Lord when he comes.  Through the Sacrament, the Lord gives us his mercy, which is a cause for rejoicing always!

Saturday, December 8, 2018


          Saint Luke has a keen sense of history.  He writes his Gospel to distinguish the period of Jesus Christ from the period of Israel, God’s chosen people.  He writes the Acts of the Apostles to tell about the history of the Church, begun with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  We see his keen sense of history in today’s Gospel, when he cites the timing of this event in the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar.  The seven leaders are the superstars of his day.  The Roman emperor rules with an iron fist, and all citizens understand the consequences if they try to escape his fist.  Pontius Pilate is in charge of the Roman Empire in Galilee, while Herod is in charge of Galilee.  His brother Philip is the wealthy and corrupt leader of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias is enjoying his fame in Abilene.  Annas and Caiaphas are the powerful members of the priestly class who manage the Temple in Jerusalem.  Beginning with the most prominent and ending with the least, he uses the number 7 to say that the time has been fulfilled.
            But the Word of God does not come to these movers and shakers.  The Word of God comes to a strange son of an insignificant priest who takes his turn serving in the Temple.  The Word of God does not come into magnificent palaces.  The Word of God comes in the desert, that barren wasteland where there are few distractions and where everyone can roam freely without being stopped by guards at private palaces.  Having received the Word of God, John does not tell people to trust in the ability of their leaders to make their lives easier.  Instead, he invites them to step into the waters of the Jordan River and repent.  He invites them level the mountains of pride and arrogance and materialism.  He invites them to fill in the age old depths and gorges where there has been a shortage of justice and obedience to God.  He demands a complete change of heart, because the Messiah is coming.
            That same Word of God comes to us today.  Like the crowds who came to listen to John, we have stepped away from the sights and sounds of the “Holiday Season” to enter the barren desert of Advent.  John reminds us that the Lord is coming again – at the end of time and at the end of our lives.  He warns us to be prepared for that coming, because we do not know when it will happen.  Instead of trusting that the promises of the superstars of our day will save us, and instead of embracing the lifestyles of the rich and famous, he calls us to become more intentional members of the Kingdom of God, which is in our midst.  Wealth and status do not determine our worth.  Our worth is determined by our relationship with Christ.     
            John calls us to examine the priorities in our lives to make a path for the Lord’s coming.  We need to level the mountains in our lives.  Mountains can take the shape of accumulating possessions, or building up our good names, or putting obstacles to those who have offended us.  Valleys also need to be filled in.  Valleys can take the form of not putting aside enough time for personal prayer or failing to do the works of mercy or creating divides for enemies. 
            The best way to level mountains and fill in valleys is to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  A good examination of conscience reveals those mountains that need to be leveled and those valleys that need to be filled in.  To quote the Prophet Baruch, all of us have allowed ourselves to be carried away from Christ by embracing the enemies of sinful bad choices.  The Lord’s mercy carries us back, carried aloft in glory as on royal thrones.   G.K. Chesterton noted that humanity has been slowly drifting away from God.  When that happens, we find nothing but “cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that do not solve.”  John the Baptist points to the One who does cure, the One who does bless, and the One who offers the ultimate solution.  He calls us to level the way for his coming.