Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

"And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." Jn 1:14

Those of us who have lived in the New York area most of our lives are very familiar with the New Year's Eve celebration that goes on each year in Times Square.  More than a million people begin gathering early in the evening and then wait for hours so they can watch the lighted ball drop exactly at midnight to celebrate a New Year.  Like any ritual, it is designed to help people begin again, to put aside the past and focus on the New Year just begun.  Many people use the occasion to seek reconciliation with family or friends. Even more make resolutions to change their lives so that 2012 will be better than 2011.

While we understand and appreciate the fun and hope of the night, the incredible statement we read in the first chapter of St. John's gospel, if only we take time to meditate upon it, can lift our spirits even more.  John writes,  "And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." These words remind us of something that is almost too powerful for us to fully appreciate. Despite the failure of the human community to honor God and neighbor consistently, despite our wandering from the path of justice and life, God loves us so much that God speaks the word that becomes flesh as the ultimate sign of God's undying love. God wants to be with us, to walk with us, to weep with us, and live with us forever. 

Most of us can get excited about a story or a movie that reminds us of the heroes who have lived among us. Reading about Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker, who spent most of her life providing soup and bread for hungry New Yorkers, or Mother Teresa who found a way to care for thousands of dying people in India "one person at a time," fills us with hope.  How much more excited ought we be when we realize how great and enduring God's love is!  Every day, God promises us, the Word will dwell among us as companion and friend, as guide and leader.  We are never alone, never in the dark, always in God's heart.  What a wonderful way to let go of 2011 and begin 2012. The only resolution we need to make for 2012 is to promise ourselves to take time each day to remember the promise of God's undying for all.

Today, let go of fear and open your heart to the indwelling of God in your lives and communities.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Holy Family

"The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." Lk 2:40

Wisdom is a gift usually associated with old age.  We expect and hope that we can go to our elders in faith, especially when we are confused or in need of affirmation, and absorb their wisdom and compassion. That is why it is so surprising to read in today's passage from Luke that Jesus, even as a child, was filled with wisdom.

On the other hand, perhaps it is not so surprising. For years, especially when I was more deeply involved in religious education, I watched children and marveled at their ability to focus on something, even in the midst of a very busy house, and enjoy themselves. Children are natural contemplatives. Their minds are not so filled with things to do or tasks to complete that they easily get distracted. Rather, they enjoy what is right in front of them and it is usually more than enough to satisfy them. When I encounter this gift in adults I call them wise, spiritual and compassionate, and I want to be close to them. Perhaps Jesus was like this when he worked alongside his father.

Children are also often filled with awe. A child's face at the beach as she runs along the shore or builds a sandcastle is wonderful, and watching a child as he enters a huge stadium is always fascinating. Quiet at first and full of joy, he looks around with awe and wonder at the vastness of the place imagining that someday he will play in place like this. Perhaps Jesus was like this when he first went to the temple.

Most of all, many children are naturally trusting and affectionate. Years ago a young couple, who brought their children with them when they served a hot meal to the hungry, spoke about how the poor seemed drawn to their children, because the little ones wanted only to help and did not judge them in their need. Perhaps Jesus was like this when he shared his bread with the crowds.

Today, ask God for the gift of childlike wisdom for yourself and your families.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thomas Becket, Martyr

"The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.'' Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot

Discernment of spirits is one of the most important tools adult Christians have.  To sift through many goods in order to determine what it is God wants us to do is slow, difficult, and painstaking, but without it we risk falling into the temptation to which St. Thomas Becket, an 11th century martyr, was subjected.

Thomas Beckett was canonized only two years after his martyrdom and has been memorialized not only in many biographies, but in T.S. Eliot's, "Murder in the Cathedral,"(2) and Jean Anouilh's,  "Becket." (3) Locked in a fierce political and spiritual battle with Henry II who, prior to his ordination, he served as chancellor, Thomas fled to France, lived as a Cistercian, and though every other bishop in England accepted the The Constitutions of Clarendon, which weakened both the authority of bishops and their relationship with the Roman Pontiff, Thomas refused on the grounds that he could not do the "right thing for the wrong reason."  As Eliot reminds us, Henry wanted Thomas to submit to his authority alone, but Thomas knew, as soon as he was ordained bishop, that he had to answer to a higher authority, and though he was buffeted by many temptations to conform to Henry's pleading for the sake of peace at any price, he resisted.

Although, in 1170, Henry II reached a compromise which respected Thomas' conscience and allowed him to return to Canterbury as Archbishop, the struggle continued. A short time after Thomas' return, Henry II died and Henry III, whom Thomas had helped raise as a child, was crowned King by three lesser Archbishops. Upon hearing this,Thomas, who as Archbishop of Canterbury had the exclusive right to crown the King, excommunicated them all. Furious, Henry III wondered aloud, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Interpreted as an order, several knights set out for Canterbury and after Thomas refused to go to Winchester and submit to the King's authority, he was assassinated in his own cathedral.

In the middle of the Christmas octave, Thomas' integrity challenges us all.  No matter what civil or ecclesial authority may want of us, adult Christians must discern what it is that God wants of them.  Obedience for the sake of avoiding conflict will eventually lead to more problems.  As adults, with the help of a spiritual director and a trusted friend or two, we must employ a careful discernment when we face decisions that do not fit neatly into legal categories, and we should not be afraid of this.  Thomas Becket's willingness to suffer martyrdom is a powerful reminder that we must always do the right thing, not simply to preserve our own independence or power, but for the right reason.

Today, ask God for the courage to submit to God's authority when making a difficult decision.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holy Innocents

"Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under." Mt 2:17

Today's feast is full of dread, hurt and rage. While for a moment the title of the feast can distract us by speaking of the slaughtered children as "innocents," it is the horror the parents of these children had to bear that bores a hole of unspeakable loss in our collective consciousness. Authentic faith demands that we stand and weep for those who lost their lives, and for their families who had to find their way in the darkness of senseless violence.

On Christmas day this year, those of us living in the Eastern United States learned of a terrible fire that took the life of three young children and their grandparents.  How will the mother of these children, who was asleep when the fire started and then unable to reach them because of the intensity of the flames, survive?  Is there anything anyone can say or do to bring her comfort and eventually acceptance? The overwhelming horror of this tragedy is too difficult to even think about, and the same must have been true for the parents of the children Herod murdered.

No doubt some of the aggrieved parents plotted revenge against Herod while others numbed themselves with work or wine or anything else to help blunt their pain, but there is no escaping the enormity of their loss, and rage always destroys everything in is path. For believers only the strength of the community of faith, which wraps us in compassion and carries us for a while, makes any sense. Not intended to deny or sanitize the loss, our prayer merely sustains those leveled by the insane act of a madman, and we throw ourselves upon God's mercy begging for help.

At the same time, the feast of the Holy Innocents forces us to think about the destructive ability we all have. Though it is difficult to admit, each of us has torn the life out of another by slander, calumny, or hurtful talk about their backgrounds, race, sexual orientation or culture. Acknowledging our personal and communal sin is the first step on the path to reconcilation. Only admitting our guilt without explanation or excuse allows those we have hurt to offer us authentic forgiveness.

Today, pray for the grace to see the hurt you have caused before asking forgiveness.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

St John the Evangelist

"We are writing this so that our joy may be complete." 1 Jn 1:4

Bickering, rigidity and unfettered competition can drain the life out of any community and leave it joyless, which is precisely what was happening in the community to which St John was writing his first letter. Struggling to understand how Jesus could be both fully God and fully human, some believers dismissed the mystery altogether by proposing that Jesus was not really human but only God in a human disguise.

The writer of John's first letter, however, takes a different tack. Trying to help the community see that the mystery of the incarnation could never be reduced to words, John encourages them to put aside their disagreements and serve others on behalf of the Gospel.  In this way, he assured them, they would begin to appreciate more deeply the mystery of God's presence in the world as they saw its "truth" living in those they served.

Trying to parse a mystery as deep as the incarnation, then and now, without charity, can only lead to division and disunity. Working together to witness to God's love by caring for the needy not only gives us the distance we need from struggling with the mystery in the abstract, it often leads to insight and acceptance beyond understanding.

This simple lesson is still true today. There are times that we get stuck inside our heads, especially when we are trying to convince others that our insights and opinions are correct and important. Perhaps if we followed St John's advice to help the needy when we are in turmoil, we might reach a more peaceful place. Care for those most in need often settles our spirits in ways we could never have imagined or articulated and brings us a kind of joy beyond words.

Today serve someone in need. Your joy will be overwhelming.

Monday, December 26, 2011

St Stephen - The Cost of Discipleship

It is always a shock to get up the day after Christmas to celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Though I understand the necessity of emphasizing the cost of discipleship, I wish we could wallow for a day or three in Christmas warmth before being overwhelmed by the horror of Stephen's death by stoning. But this is how it is.  We have enjoyed, even delighted in, the memory of Christ's birth, of God become human, and now we must face the reality of gospel life as most people encounter it. Witnessing to his faith cost Stephen his life and few speak more eloquently about this most challenging gospel demand than the 20th century Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis because he could not keep silent in the face of Hilter's atrocities, especially against the Jews.

In perhaps the most quoted passage of his theological and spiritual classic, The Cost of Discipleship(1) Bonhoeffer confronts his readers plainly and clearly. "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." While all of us might nod in agreement as long as it doesn't threaten our life, discipleship costs a lot. Bonhoeffer was hanged for cooperating with a German Resistance movement that believed the gospel demanded Hitler's removal from power, even if it meant asassination.

But Bonhoeffer did not coin the phrase "cheap grace."  While a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1930, Bonhoeffer heard Adam Clayton Powell, the African American activist pastor of the Abyssian Baptist Church in New York City's Harlem, rail against "cheap grace" when preaching about social justice and equality for black Americans. While Bonhoeffer did not speak highly of his theological education at Union Theological, he freely acknowledged that it was the witness of American blacks that radicalized him in action.

Discipleship, even on the day after Christmas, must be our first goal as Christians. Being a "good Catholic" does not simply mean obeying the dictates of the church hierarchy alone, no matter how laudable its teaching. Rather, discipleship demands that we seek justice for all despite the cost. Like Bonhoeffer, Jesus died because he confronted the leaders of the Jewish community who were more concerned about their own power than the freedom of all God's children. When faced with the abuse of power, in the church and world, the Gospel demands that we speak and act with and on behalf of the poor whose "cries" God always hears." (Job 34:28)

Today, filled with Christmas hope, ask for the grace to die for sake of God's reign.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Contemplation

"Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." Lk 2:18

Contemplation is a gift that allows us, like Mary, to ponder, to sift through, to accept everything that comes to us.  For Mary, who was a very young woman when she first heard that she would be the mother of the Messiah, is was a necessity. Without a commitment to quiet prayer and reflection, without the ability to live with ambiguity, without the willingness to let go of certainty, Mary would not have been able to hear the angel's request of her but because she had a contemplative attitude, Mary became the compassionate mother of all around her.

Think of Mary at the wedding feast of Cana.  Noticing that the young couple being married are running out of wine, she tells Jesus. Full of compassion, Mary is worried that they will be shamed by those who expect to celebrate for several days. Not having enough wine for everyone would have exposed them to harsh ridicule by their guests, and it is only Mary's persistence that wins the day.  When Jesus replies with a question of his own, "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" Mary does not hesitate. She ignores him and tells the waiters, "Do whatever he tells you."  Kindness and understanding trump the rigid rules of hospitality. It is never all right to shame people. What a powerful lesson for all at Christmas.

For many Christmas is not an easy, gentle family time.  For some families excessive drinking will blot out the joy. For others, finding a way to meld multiple families after a divorce will prove impossible, and when faced with the pain of shattered hopes Christmas often descends into loud arguments and further hurt.  Mary's ability to hear Jesus' hesitation and act on behalf of the beleagured couple despite her son's reluctance to help is a reminder to us that a quiet response, rooted in contemplation, is always more effective that a prolonged debate.

Christmas is intended as a time of overwhelming joy for all, but when the joy seems shallow, do not despair.  Remember Mary's willingness to move ahead with silent conviction.  Mary does the right thing. So can we.

Today, ask for the gift of contemplation.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Don't take God for granted.

"What, then, will this child be?" Lk 1:66

Sometimes, especially when we are busy, we take God, family, friends and faith for granted. We rush about internally and externally trying to get everything done, often enough out of pride. We want everything just right and will be disappointed in ourselves if it isn't. Perhaps that is why today's gospel is about John the Baptist's birth. John is the one who will "prepare the way of the Lord," in clear and unambiguous ways. Reform your lives, he will shout. Clean up your lives. Stop living as if nothing matters but your own safety and pleasure. Our task, John insists, is to sweep the roads, filling in potholes and smoothing out rough spots, so the Lord can enter human history, but  because we often forget this, John, like all good prophets, yells at us.

A few days ago, while working on a homily for Christmas, my computer beeped, alerting me that another email had arrived. Glancing down I noticed it was from an old friend so I opened it immediately only to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Shocked and alarmed, I put aside my homily writing and prayed for a few moments. The clutter of trying to write the perfect homily vanished quickly as I sat in solidarity with my friend. 

John the Baptist was right. I was living in a bubble as I prepared for Christmas and someone had to yell at me to stop. Almost immediately, as I cleared my desk and my heart, other friends came to mind. Two husbands whose wives had died this year, a woman struggling for years to get pregnant without success, a young couple with twins less than a year old and pregnant with another set of twins. 

Honestly, only when we push aside the frantic grasping after all manner of "stuff", do we realize that God is always with us, and it is only our willingness to pause in the middle of the mess that alerts us to the presence of light. Even as I prayed I for friends in distress, I also gloried in the birth of ababy to a couple who thought they would never have a child, and I rejoiced with 100's of people who work together with my brother, sister in law and their family to send out almost a thousand care packages to soldiers far from home at Christmas. As God's people we need to walk with the light of Christ through the darkness and fear within which so many live so that all will know God is our light in all circumstances. Only then will our joy be authentic and deep. Only then will be ready for the Christmas that happens everyday.

Today ask God not to be afraid of the dark.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Gift of Time

"Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home." (Lk 1:56)

Time is a precious gift and often our most important asset. Most of us have been trained since childhood to use time well, to organize ourselves, to be on time and to give our time to others whenever possible.  Unfortunately, too many of us have begun to hoard our time and make ourselves emotionally unavailable to people who need us to be present to them, especially in their confusion and anxiety.

Thank God, Mary was not like this.  Today's gospel reminds us that when she visited Elizabeth it was not for a few hours or days, but for "about three months."  Somehow this young woman was able to put her own needs aside to attend to the cares of her older relative who was pregnant for the first time, and in her compassion becomes a model for all of us.  Too often in North America, time is a commodity which we buy and sell, not a gift of God that allows us to share the Good News with our contemporaries.

Many years ago, I was at the airport in Detroit waiting to return to New York when a crowd of people began moving towards me very slowly.  With a small, bent woman at its center, and a dozen television crews filming her every move, only as the crowd drew closer did I realize it was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. How she managed to stop for the weary, many of whom were carrying small children,  astonished me. Surely, she would be late for her plane. Nothing seemed to faze her.  She walked at a steady, slow pace but refused to rush. Her actions lifted my spirit then and amaze me even more today knowing that she was struggling with a kind of spiritual darkness that occasionally made her question God's very existence, but which she did not let interfere with her public life and ministry.

With Christmas only a few days away, Mary and Mother Teresa remind us that we were created for others and that our lives are meant to "magnify the Lord" by the way we stop for those who everyone else passes by.

Today, stop, reflect, and pray quietly for the grace to give your time to others as a gift.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Do the Right Thing...for the Right Reason

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb. Lk 1:41

While Mary's visit to Elizabeth seems like a natural and kind response from a young woman to an older relative who is pregnant for the first time, it is much more than that.  In going to visit Elizabeth, Mary risked her reputation in the Jewish community.  Though Luke's gospel does not explicitly say that Mary traveled alone, neither does it say she went with anyone else, and the only women who traveled alone in  the ancient world were prostitutes. If indeed she traveled alone, we are presented with a young woman who was so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and so committed to her "yes" to God that she does not care what anyone else says about her.  When Elizabeth tells Mary that John the Baptist leaped in her womb when Mary greeted her, Mary knows even more deeply that her role, however muddy, is of God and she will not and cannot veer from the path set our for her.

In these last days of Advent, we are praying for an ounce of Mary's courage so that we might let go of our reputations, fears, reluctance and timidity to announce the Good News with power and joy.  God lives in us, dwells among us and will never abandon us.  Though we rarely have the clarity Mary enjoyed, we surely share her questions.  How can this happen, she asks the angel?  The answer Gabriel gives her is for all.  "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." (Lk 1:35) If we can believe this, not only will Christmas be different, our lives will be changed in ways we could never have imagined.  Begging us not to be afraid, God is inviting us to be transparent witnesses before the entire world of God's reign.  The work God wants to do in and through us is God's work, not ours.  Our fidelity to prayer, listening, service and love, especially of our enemies, will be God's sign of hope for all.  "Don't be afraid," the angel says, God's spirit is even now overshadowing you, making all things possible.

Today, on the darkest day in the Northern hemisphere, be a light for someone living in the shadows, not for your own satisfaction but for God's glory. Do the right thing for the right reason.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


"May it be done to me according to your word."  Lk 1:37

In a remarkable and evocative homily about Mary's response to the angel Gabriel, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, an 11th century Benedictine and reformer, speaks for us all in urging Mary to say yes to God and yes to us. Bernard asks Mary:
Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.(1)
Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Bernard's challenge to Mary is actually addressed to all of us. Advent is not a time to dally or delay, not a time for virginal simplicity. It is a time to say yes without fear.  God needs to be born in us again today, not tomorrow or in the New Year.  God depends upon us in our weakness, fear and sin to accept his hand and assurance that with God all things are possible. Unless we ask for the grace of going beyond our imagination, we cannot hope to arise, hasten and be open.  With God all these actions are not only possible but necessary and Mary's yes assures us of this.  May it be done to us according to your word!

Today, even if you are living in darkness, say Yes to God. The desired of all nations is at your door.

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Root of Jesse

"His wife was barren and had borne no children." (Jg 13:3)
"But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years."(Lk 1:7)

Barrenness is a particularly difficult burden to bear, and in the ancient world it was often seen as a punishment for sin.  Both the wife of Zorah, the father of Samson, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist were barren, and we can only imagine the pain they felt.  No doubt both women were familiar with the words of Jeremiah who tells us that Rachel wept inconsolably because she was barren.  For Jewish women not to have children meant they had no identity, no value, and no blessing from God.  Zorah's wife in today's passage from Judges isn't even named. How great then the joy of both women when, in their old age, God blesses them with children whose role in salvation history will forever help believers to appreciate the greatness of God who blesses us when we least expect it.

In these last days of Advent, the same is true of us.  Our roles in the ongoing story of God's love for the world, while sometimes muddy and confusing, are radically important to God.  God wants to speak through us, to announce good news, not only through the strengths and gifts we each have, but through our willingness to endure weakness and suffering for the sake of building God's reign.

In today's O antiphon, used at Mass and in the Divine Office, we hear God announce that from the root of Jesse, an apparently dead and useless twig, will spring a Savior before whom Kings will keep silence and through whom gentiles will know God.  We are God's people, the liturgy shouts, despite our sin and failure to live the Good News each day.  God will send us a gift in the form of a child to remind us that his Covenantal love will endure and blossom anew for all the world.

Though we may think of ourselves as barren and bereft of hope, God's vision for all the peoples of the earth will endure, grow and be fertile.  The gift of the Christ child is almost too much for us to bear in our darkness, and we can only thank God that its power is not dependent on us who so often see only our own weakness and the fragility of failure of others.  God will strip away our barrenness even when we are not ready because God is ready to change the world forever.

Today ask God to "fertilize" your heart, which so often seems barren, with the the hope only God can give.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"The LORD is with you." (2 Sam 7:3)

The 7th Chapter of II Samuel has always moved my heart.  David's relationship with God, even when he speaks to God through Nathan the Prophet, is so natural, so honest and open that it offers us a model for our own prayer.

David, caught up with his duties as King, suddenly realizes that in his hurry to defend and build up the faith of his people, he has forgotten to build a permanent and beautiful place for the Ark of the Covenant.  Even though Nathan assures him that he has nothing to worry about, David knows that he has forgotten something very important and God knows it, too. Nathan, in a dream that same night, is reminded that God has always been a companion to the Jewish people who were nomads for so long. God, like the people themselves, lived in a tent, a dwelling easily dismantled and moved to a new place when their goats and sheep needed new grazing land.  And God was happy to move, to be with his people, to assure them that the covenant he made with them would endure forever no matter where they wandered. Though shocking to Nathan, God insists that he does not need a lavish and permanent dwelling place, but is content to be among his people wherever they are.

In today's gospel, when the angel assures Mary that God is with her, we are reminded of God's caution to Nathan. Not only does Mary not have to build a dwelling place for God, she will be the new temple, the new tent of God as she carries the Savior in her womb for nine months in preparation for God's entry in the flesh into human history.  Alarmed and troubled at first, Mary hears God's assurance to her that the child to be born of her is a gift of the Holy Spirit and she has nothing to fear.  Her "yes" to being the tabernacle of God fills her and us with joy. God who makes all things possible is doing something new and wonderful in her and for us.  Although she could never have imagined the extent of God's promise, as the tent of God Mary would usher in a new covenant in which we as the body of Christ will give birth to the Lord each day by our love for one another and our commitment to building a just world. While we might build beautiful churches all over the world,  they are only the secondary homes of God.  God lives within and among us as God's people and once again God is happy to be with us in the new tabernacle of our own bodies and communities of faith.

Today, pray to be a worthy tent for God.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Jesus is Fully Human

"Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Christ, fourteen generations." (Mt 1 16-17)

Genealogies are always intriguing and revealing.  The genealogy of Jesus is no exception. Matthew is intent on helping his readers understand that Jesus came from the tree of David and is the Messiah whose coming was promised long before his birth. 

Furthermore, a careful reading of Matthew's genealogy counts four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Women were rarely mentioned in Jewish genealogies, and the one's mentioned don't fit the mold one would expect in the genealogy of Jesus. Tamar was abused and only conceived when she disguised herself as a prostitute in order to bear a child with Judah who rejected her.  Rahab is a prostitute and a non Israelite who should not have married an Israelite. Neither is Ruth an Israelite but Boaz who is the grandfather of David marries her. Finally, David spies Bathsheba bathing and is so overcome with desire for her, he has her husband Uriah killed in order to satisfy his own lust.  

All this is pretty messy stuff. Jesus has lots of "black sheep" in his family tree and the point of the scripture is that it doesn't really matter. Every honest look at the human family, and Jesus was really human, is full of failure, ambiguity and sin. That Jesus would be born of Mary, a virgin, is consistent with his genealogy.  There is no cause of scandal here, only rejoicing.  Jesus is like us in all things but sin. That Jesus wept over Lazarus's death, ached for the widow whose only son had died, and was drawn to the sick and the suffering reminds us everyday of his full humanity and fills us with hope for ourselves and our world.

Today, ask God for the humility to accept yourself and your family as you are.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Our inclusive God

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is 56:7) 

The good news of Jesus Christ is a message of hope for all peoples. Though we sometimes worry and fret about the state of the church, especially in a culture that more and more resists organized religion for a more generic spirituality, we should never let ourselves forget that the new covenant in Jesus Christ is the gift of a God who includes all people in his love. While understandable, since these are quintessential Christian celebrations, we sometimes forget, in the run up to Christmas, that the scriptures are forever reminding us that the child whose birth we celebrate does not belong exclusively to Christians, but is given in love for all people.

Again and again in the New Testament we hear this. John tells us that Jesus Christ will "draw all people" to himself, (Jn. 12:32) and Paul reminds us that, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28) Remarkably, Isaiah echoes what we think are inclusive terms found only in the New Testament. "For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." (Is 56:7) Still, as Christmas nears, it is tempting to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus as if he was ours alone.  Such has never been true and we will never really appreciate the wonder of Christmas until we find ways to celebrate that he is a gift for all nations and all people. A simple way to express this conviction is to let the joy we feel during Advent and Christmas shine like a soft light in our personal and family lives, and spread through acts of compassionate justice into the lives of those who are empty of hope.

Today, take some time to pray that the Good News of Jesus will seep, like water enlivening the roots of the tallest trees, into the hearts and lives of all people as a promise of salvation and hope for everyone.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"For he who has become your husband is your Maker...The LORD calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit." Is 54 5-6

Because it is impossible to adequately articulate who God is or how much God loves us,  the bible often uses images and metaphors to invite readers (and pray-ers) to use their imaginations in trying to understand and enter the mystery of God's presence and love. Today Isaiah suggests God is like our husband or wife, a remarkable attempt to draw us closer to the God who promises never to abandon us. Images like this can unnerve us, but that is not their intent. Rather, Isaiah wants to gently break down our easy, familiar categories of belief which can unwittingly lead us to take God and God's care for us for granted. When Isaiah speaks of God as our husband or wife he assures us that God is linked to us forever in a loving relationship of total commitment, even when we are in exile.  Although we might be separated for a while, God, like our wife or husband, will faithfully search for and find us no matter where we wander.

Because Christmas is the commemoration of God's remarkable and almost unthinkable decision to enter human history in a personal way, Advent is a time to search for new images of God that will help us be transformed by what we will soon celebrate. Think about all the rituals associated with Advent and Christmas.  The Advent wreath is traditionally made of evergreens which remind us that God's love is always green, always new, always fresh. Forming an unbroken circle the wreath also reminds us that God's love is never ending.  Lights on our Christmas trees further help us to remember that God is our light in every darkness and a beacon of hope for those who are lost or have been discarded by society.

All of this image changing takes time, however.  Unless we reflect deeply upon the mysteries of faith we uncover through rituals, images and metaphors, Advent and Christmas will pass us by like a flash of lightning, but will leave us unchanged.

Today, ask God to slow you down in order to make Advent a time of conversion and new life.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

St John of the Cross

"It comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be as well held as though it were stout. . . . And thus the soul that has attachment to anything, however much virtue it possess, will not attain to the liberty of divine union" The Ascent of Mt. Carmel

The importance of the life and writings of St John of Cross is increasing in recent years.  A man totally dedicated to the Cross, John understood how difficult it was for his contemporaries to let go of the things that comforted them, and he was clear that we will never attain authentic freedom unless we hand ourselves over completely to God. In a paradoxical way, his own journey, especially the imprisonment he suffered at the hands of his fellow Carmelites, make it possible for him to detach from everything.  For months he sat in a tiny cell in a Carmelite monastery, but rather than despair and pine for his lost freedom, he wrote poetry about God's unconditional love, some of which is considered today to be among the finest writing in the Spanish language.

For those of us living the the 21st century, so cluttered with information and technology, the question of letting go of everything is even more pressing.  Can we live without our computers, cell phones, and Ipads? Can we give the keys to our cars away? Can we learn to eat to live rather than live to eat? The questions just keep coming and they are like the legion of evil spirits that took possession of the Gerasene in Luke's gospel.  (Lk 8 26-38) While we might not have to be tied with chains to keep us from hurting ourselves or others, most of us, as St John of the Cross suggests, are like the bird "held by slender cord," and unable to fly.  We are so bound by obligations, work, and even family, trying to save the world all by ourselves, that we are not free to give ourselves to God in total trust and ask for God's direction. God wants to set us free from obsession and self absorption. We have only to give God permission.

Today, pray to be free of one chain that binds you so tightly you cannot fly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St Lucy

"When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him." Mt 21 31-32

Today's scripture and feast is a difficult one for me.  Perhaps like some of you, when I get involved in a heated argument, it often becomes more important for me to be right than in relationship.  I have struggled with this my entire life and it is not difficult for me to see myself among the Pharisees trying to convince everyone, without regard for the truth or what is happening right in front of me,  that Jesus is a charlatan.  That thousands are listening to John the Baptist announce that he is not the Christ and convincing even prostitutes and tax collectors that his message is from God,  the Pharisees suggest that prostitutes and tax collectors are poor witnesses and will do anything to feather their own nests. Failing to even consider the humility and honesty of John, especially when he points to Christ as "the one who is to come," (Lk 7:18-19) they risk their salvation for the sake of their fragile power within the Jewish community of Jesus' day.

The feast of St. Lucy only increases my discomfort.  After she rejects a proposal of marriage, the fellow she spurns "accuses" her of believing in the Christ, and even though she realizes the danger, Lucy acknowledges that indeed she is a Christian. When she refuses to recant her belief, she is martyred.  We know little else about her life, but the early church held her up, even including her name in the first Eucharistic prayer, because of her simple, direct an unwavering faith.  What a challenge she is to us.  Lucy knows who she is, will not equivocate about her faith and suffers death as a result.  Faith, Lucy's witness reminds us, is simple.  God gifts us with belief and the treasure is so real and so powerful that it is strong enough to sustain us in the face of death.  Simplicity, honesty and integrity are the fruits of a faith deeply valued and lived.  It is only when we complicate faith unnecessarily for the sake of our own comfort that we risking losing the most precious gift we will ever receive.

Today, pray to join St. John the Evangelist when he reminds us: "He must increase; I must decrease." Jn 3:30

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Lady of Guadalupe

"A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." Rev 19a

One of the great lessons of Advent and in the lives of the saints is that God comes to the humble.  St. Juan Diego, who has his own feast now after being canonized by Bl John Paul II, described himself to Our Lady of Guadalupe as, " a nobody, .. small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf."  How he wondered would a bishop believe that Mary sent him to request that a church be built in her honor?  After all, by his own account, he was a subsistence farmer and a nobody. 

Hearing his anxiety and fear, Mary assured him that if he took the flowers she gave him which were growing on the top of hill in frozen soil, the bishop would listen to her through him.  Indeed, when he brought the flowers to the bishop as proof of his own integrity and Mary's promise, the cloak with which he was carrying the flowers had an image of the woman who appeared to him.  The bishop was startled, his skepticism melted away, and he ordered that a church be built in Mary's honor and gave Juan Diego permission to receive the Eucharist three times a week, a singular privilege at that time.

St Juan Diego's story always warms us in our fear and anxiety. So too does Juan Diego's reluctance to meet Mary a second time. Because the beautiful lady requested that he go to the bishop and ask that a church be built in her honor, Juan Diego was hesitant about returning to the hill where Mary appeared to him. Learning that his uncle had fallen sick would cause Juan Diego to take a different road the next day and miss his meeting with Mary.  Mary, however, had other plans.  "The Lady" met him on the road to his uncle's home and Juan Diego knew that he could not escape the task set out for him.

Two things help us in this story.  While Juan Diego was given the privilege of more frequent reception of the Eucharist, he had to walk 15 miles to the nearest church. A faith filled life, though privileged, is never easy.   We need to work at it, and even when we try to escape from God, God will find us wherever we are.  God's love and confidence in us is always greater than our own. 

Today, ask God for the faith to see yourself as God sees you.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent

"Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing...Test everything; retain what is good." 1Thess 5: 16,18

A few years ago one of my grand nieces called and announced with great joy, "Uncle John, we're pregnant." Taken aback since the old fashioned me always thought of the woman as pregnant, not the couple, I hesitated just a moment before I said, "What wonderful news, Denise. You are such a great mother already. I know this child will be very fortunate to have you as a mom." 

Of course, Denise was right.  She was not pregnant alone, but it has taken me a while to get used to the language of the present generation.  No doubt saying "we are pregnant" includes the husband much more completely in parenting and calls him to a journey and responsibility that he shares from the moment of conception, and if the words take hold, this can only be good.

The same is true for us as a church.  Today, at the midpoint of Advent, we pause in joy and say: We are pregnant.  Though it might startle some, the Cistercian monk, Blessed Isaac of Stella, was very clear about this is the 11th century. Listen:
In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God's word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, as once virginal and fruitful.These words are used in a universal sense of the Church, in a special sense of Mary, in a particular sense of the individual Christian. (1)
Thinking of ourselves as mothers of Christ may be unusual and counter intuitive, but when we let the words settle in, it is wonderful.  The whole church is pregnant with Christ, yearning to give birth to him each day through our good works, service and worship.  Teresa of Avila reminds us,
Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.(2)
Though the challenge is daunting, when we reside in the joy of being pregnant with Christ, the mystery surrounds us and fills us with delight and hope.

Today, be joyful as a "mother of Christ."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Listening to Prophets

"They did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased...He was speaking to them about John the Baptist." Mt. 17: 12-13

All of us have people in our lives who get under our skin.  Almost anything they say makes us defensive and resistive. Though we cannot easily articulate what it is that disturbs us about the other person, it is very real and disabling. Often enough the person who annoys us at every turn is a mirror image of ourselves. If we find ourselves talking too much and not listening carefully enough to others, we resent it when others prattle on and seem not to hear the opinions of others.

On the other hand, it is good to remember that our personality gets under other peoples skin. Not only is this humbling, it can take the edge off our annoyance and calm our spirits.  It can also be the first step in recognizing and accepting this reality. When we obsessively try to figure out what it is about ourselves or others that bothers us, it is almost always fruitless. Rather than asking God for insight, we ought to asking for acceptance.

Clearly, John the Baptist got under the skin of the leaders of the Jewish community. To counter his influence, the Pharisees accused him of being too rigid, too judgmental for their tastes, They dismissed his blanket condemnations of their leadership and lifestyle as the ravings of a mad man. Although the Pharisees knew that prophets did not equivocate, were never disingenuous, had little patience with long explanations and silly excuses, they were determined to undermine John's role as a prophet by picking at his religious practices, manner of dress and diet. But Jesus saw through their ploys, and so must we. Advent is a time to fearlessly reexamine our lives and listen to the prophets all around us who want only to help us prepare for our our own rebirth at Christmas.

Today, pray for the gift of fearlessness.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Responding with the Heart

"Wisdom is vindicated by her works." Mt 11:19

Spiritual directors often speak of "resistances" to God's action in our lives.  Sometimes it is unresolved conflicts from the past that seem to block our submitting ourselves to God.  At other times, it is too much work , too much television or too much time in front of the computer. Part of my work, for instance, demands that I spend time reflecting on the daily scriptures, researching areas with which I am not familiar and actually writing this blog or a homily, but the computer cannot be my life.  Unless I take sufficient quiet time to remember God's enduring presence all around me, what I read, study and write will be like dry straw. Lacking a certain spirit, it will be unable to help lift people to God and urge them to live for God and do God's work.

In today's gospel text, Matthew uses the image of children playing a flute hoping that people will dance, but no one listens. Addressing the Jewish leaders of his day, Jesus suggests that their lives are full of "resistances" because they reject John the Baptist for being too strict about fasting and him for being too lax.  In other words, the Pharisees and teachers of the law are determined not to like or respect the actions of John and Jesus because their own power and religious observance is threatened or judged as less than authentic. 

Advent is a good time to examine our own commitment to faith and its practice. Have our prayers become routine, mumbled out of obligation quickly and with little heart?  Has our inability to stop comparing ourselves to others impeded our own progress in the spiritual life? As Jesus reminds his hearers: the wisdom of following him will be vindicated by our good works.  People will see in us the Christ who grounds us in hope or they will ignore our halfhearted attempts to appear religious.

Today, ask God to reveal how you resist his Word. Don't live a gospel life for show, but ask for the gift of authenticity.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary

"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Lk 1:27

Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, is the Patroness of the United States. Today's feast therefore, whose focus is Mary's sinlessness, is a good time to reflect and pray about the effects of being without sin. Sin often results from self absorption and self centeredness, but it is only when we are other centered that we reflect the glory of God and the holiness of Mary.

Think for instance about those times when you experience a deep freedom.  Nothing clutters your mind or your heart. You can listen without searching for an answer. You can respond without having to be right. You can give of yourself totally to another not because there is a reward for doing so, but simply because it is the right thing to do.  When we experience this kind of freedom, we touch a bit of what Mary knew as a way of being in the world.  To be born without sin, to be able to resist sin in all its forms, freed her to be Christ's mother and ours. What a gift Mary is in this regard.

Whenever I get a glimpse of authentic, uncluttered love I am always moved. I remember watching the Special Olympics a few years ago when one young man stumbled running around the track and two of his competitors stopped to help him before continuing their own quest for a medal.  Their action was so natural and so pure that I knew they were challenging everyone watching to reexamine their priorities. While being the best you can be is a worthy goal, the desire to win at any cost can destroy our integrity and belittle others.

Mary's arms, in so many statues and paintings, are always open to the world. Never closed and defensive, Mary's gesture of inclusiveness and service challenges us to seek justice for all upon which we can build a lasting peace. Especially for us Americans who can be seen as greedy and patronizing, Mary is an inviting figure of care for others before all else.

Today, ask for the gift of other centeredness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

St Ambrose of Milan

"My yoke is easy, and my burden light." Mt. 11:30

Every society that seeks good order among its members needs directives, laws and guidelines.  Speed limits, stop signs, and traffic signals make sure that cars and trucks proceed safely to their destinations while safeguarding the people on the streets and highways. At the same time, when rules seems excessive we chaff.  All of us can remember being funneled from three lanes of traffic into one for several miles only to find no one actually doing anything when we pass the work site. The safety cones, intended to protect workers from speeding traffic, only slow every one down.

Something very similar to this happened at the time of Jesus.  The leaders of the Jewish community took the Torah, which the rabbis often called a wall or a "yoke" around the life of the community to guide and protect it, and expanded it beyond its intended use.  Rules to regulate the sabbath, for instance, had become overwhelming. In addition to the general laws of sabbath which require Jews not to work, cook, carry things or require others to carry them, there are 39 categories of prohibited things one cannot do on the Sabbath.  Within these categories hundreds of other prohibitions had arisen making it almost impossible for the ordinary person to observe the Sabbath well. Jesus rails against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in this regard, accusing them of laying heavy burdens on people's shoulders and doing nothing to help them. (Mt 23:4)  The yoke of the law, intended to guide their behavior for the glory of God, was choking the spirit out of their hearts.

The gospel today assures Jesus' hearers that his "yoke" is easy.  Love God completely and love your neighbor as you love yourself will be a binding yoke of charity.  Believers who are committed to these simple directives will discipline themselves to develop practices that insure their fulfillment of the law.  Prayer, worship, study and service of others will be ordinary, everyday events in the lives of Christians.  The yoke of Jesus will free us from self absorption, fill us with gratitude and make us "doers" of the word, people committed to a life of transparent service as a sign of God's enduring love for the world. Properly crafted yokes are sanded smooth so that the animals wearing them hardly feel their presence unless they struggle to move away from their tasks.  Jesus' yoke is weightless if we live the gospel simply.

Today, ask to be free of the yoke of guilt and shame.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


"It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost." Mt 18:14

Not infrequently, a few of us friars, as a way to wind down after a long day, watch a nature show in the evenings.  Often, the program is about the hunting abilities of a particular breed of big cat, and it is always fascinating, if a little unnerving, to watch the animal as it isolates a young antelope or gazelle for its next meal.  Cunning and fast, it waits for the perfect moment before swooping in for the kill.  Sometimes the younger and smaller animal, sensing danger, is able to retreat to the safety of the herd and the cat slinks away in search of another more vulnerable target.

Jesus is talking about much the same situation in the today's gospel.  When a sheep, a naturally communal animal, drifts away from the herd, it is not only vulnerable, it loses a sense of who it is.  Sheep herders tell us that an isolated sheep might stop drinking and eating, threatening its very life.  Unless the sheep is led back to the herd it risks injury and death. That is why Jesus suggests that the "good shepherd" leaves the ninety nine who are safe when together, to seek out the lost stray.

Belonging to a community is essential for our humanity.  While there are times when we ought to be alone for prayer, reflection and rest, isolation is not good for us as humans and especially as Christians. Isolation eventually fills us with dread and foreboding and often makes us defensive and argumentative. Belonging, on the other hand, frees us from unnecessary anxiety and reminds us that even when we are struggling with a particular problem, we have an identity that gives meaning to our lives. We belong to Christ, the good shepherd, in whom is not only safety but salvation.

Today, stop and let Jesus, the Good Shepherd, find you.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hope at Every Turn

"The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song....Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water." Is 35, 1,6

The prophecy of Isaiah is wonderfully visual.  Reminding us that all creation "lives" in God, the prophet invites us to think of the desert drinking water gratefully and the mountains singing for joy.  God's love, Isaiah suggests, is so immediate and so full that one can taste it, smell it, hear and touch it. Working hard to help his sisters and brothers in exile not lose hope, Isaiah reminds them to focus on the simplest of God's gifts, their own senses, as a pathway to renewed life in the Spirit.

Unfortunately, in a society so glutted with visual images, we sometimes fail to appreciate the fulness of God's presence all around us, and the days before Christmas, in the name of love and self giving, often make our lives more obsessive, more hurried and much less human.  As Jesus says: "You have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear." While I realize that I am one of the fortunate few who is not compelled to buy dozens of gifts, nevertheless, it saddens me to think that the frenzy and rushing of preparing for Christmas can steal the most precious moments of the church year and strip us our ability to see beyond the physical. Advent can be a time that we so "stuff ourselves" with preparing food and finding the perfect gift that we don't really enjoy anything.

What would it be like, for instance, to take one minute each day to pause and picture the person for whom you are buying something happy, content, and faith filled.  It is not a difficult exercise, but I feel certain that if we gave members of our family an inexpensive gift and a brief note telling them how we prayed for them each day during Advent, they would treasure the note much more than the gift.

Today, think simple.  Live simply.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Comfort, give comfort to my people. Is 40:1

Prophets are fascinating people. Like all good leaders they warn us about dangerous paths we might be taking or reprove us when we fail to live up to our values, but they can also be incredibly gentle and consoling. The 40th chapter of Isaiah is like this.

The Jewish nation is in exile. Many have forgotten who they are and to whom they belong.  Others are finding ways to compromise with their captors as a way of staying alive, but are neglecting their religious obligations. Isaiah knows all this and decides that honey works much better than vinegar when people are lost and in pain.  Like the Samaritan who stops to help the fellow left for dead by robbers, he reminds his listeners that soon they will be home, among their friends and families and will be free to worship in Jerusalem. Don't worry, he seems to be saying, God is near and, "Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care."

Advent's scriptures are often like spiritual comfort food for me. Just as a big bowl of coffee ice cream can transport me back to childhood vacations with my family in Westport, Ma, Advent fills me with warmth and hope. As life was once simple and rich, so it will be again.  As we prepare to celebrate the Lord's birth, we are reminded that Christmas is not about the gifts we give and receive, but the incredible promise of God not to leave us orphans nor abandon us when we are in exile. 

Today, comfort someone who seems lost.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

St Francis Xavier

"The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest." Mt 9:8

Although the church has been proclaiming loudly for the last fifty years that every Christian must be a missionary, the message has been slow to find acceptance at the core of the Catholic community's faith life.  Too many of us, educated in faith before the Second Vatican Council, reserve the word missionary to those who like St Francis Xavier in the 16th century leave their homeland, cultures and families and travel around the world announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  While it is good to honor those women and men who have given their lives to cross cultural and overseas mission, the word mission simply means sent, and we are all sent at Baptism when we are reminded of Jesus' command to, "Go and make disciples of all nations." (Mt 28:19)

At the end of every mass, when the priest or deacon echoes the words of Jesus, saying "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord," it does not merely mean that mass is over and we ought to rush for our cars or the religious ed program or the nearest diner for breakfast.  Rather, it challenges us, having been renewed in our faith by sharing God's word and Eucharist, to bring the Good News to those who have never heard it, forgotten it or rejected it. Further, we are to do this without fear relying on the Lord to give us the words and personality that allow others to know that God has come to set us free from sin and self absorption so that together we can be the body of Christ on earth. Being a missionary means not only that we speak the gospel with words, we must become good news by the choices we make about lifestyle, work and the place of prayer in our lives.

Today, ask to be sent as you are to those who have never heard the gospel.

Friday, December 2, 2011


"Son of David, have pity on us!"Mt. 9:27

The word pity in English always makes me uncomfortable. It sounds patronizing, something one might show a defenseless enemy, but perhaps this is all the blind men in today's gospel account really want or expect. The blind would have viewed themselves as beneath contempt because of their disability. Everyone knew blindness was a punishment for sin, either your own or your parents.  Blindness made you into a beggar.  Unable to work, you would have to sit by the side of the road and ask people in their charity for food and clothing.

Not infrequently, we can feel like blind people.  A new illness strikes us or a family member and because we have little experience with which to deal with this new invader, we feel like we are groping in the dark for answers.  A rare form of cancer or a difficult to diagnose heart ailment strikes a friend out of the blue, and everyone begins scrambling to understand, to find a doctor, to get a second opinion, to choose a form of treatment, and all of this before acceptance, the key to spiritual health, has a chance to emerge with its healing hopefulness. At times like this, we yearn for someone to take pity on us. Pity is enough because it is concrete and understandable, but in the long run, we realize that Jesus offers us something much more empowering.  He offers us, not just a light in the darkness, but compassion.

Compassion, in English, implies something more heartfelt than pity.  It is the quiet presence a friend offers when we are lost, confused, anxious and doubtful.  It is rarely surrounded with a multiplicity of words.  Rather, it looks like an open hand extended to us with love and tenderness.  It is not condescending or judgmental.  It is the simplest form of love and lets us know that we are not something to be fixed, but someone who needs a companion and friend with whom to take the next step.

Today, offer a stranger compassion.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Knowing our Rocks

"For the LORD is an eternal Rock." Is 26:4

Sometimes we get confused about who or what our rock is.  Too often we rely exclusively on our knowledge, insight, wealth or experience as guides, and while all these tools are important and helpful, they cannot be our rock.  For a Christian there is only one Rock, the Christ of God, the one who was promised from the beginning, who came among us as a man and who continues to guide and direct us.  The Christ, our Messiah, is the fulness of God's love and the new Covenant. Keeping the memory of Christ's love fresh is a daily challenge.

When Jesus, in today's gospel, reminds us to build our house on rock, not sand, he invites us to use our  imaginations. Picture a house with four corners each of which is built on a rock, and ask yourself, in a transparent examination of conscience, what the rocks of your life are that others see in you.  To do this more simply, ask yourself what your passion is, how you spend your time, who you trust? Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, this reflective exercise almost always reveals some sandy spots.  For some it is an addiction to alcohol or other chemicals that obsess them. Others know this because our behavior, no matter how careful or hidden, gives us away. For others, their rock is success at any price, despite its effects on their family.  For too many, it is blindness to the world as it is, and for a few it is using prayer and religious devotion as an escape. None of these rocks last.  They crumble and our house begins to list and topple.

Christ is the house in which we live and Advent is a time to do ordinary maintenance on the foundation.

Today, pick one pillar and work at making it a cornerstone of your life.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

St Andrew

"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." Mt 4:19

What must it have been like to be the brother of Peter?  Having a sibling whose voice is often heard in the gospels and who not infrequently makes a fool of himself, might have been both intimidating and embarrassing. Could Andrew also have been a naturally quiet person who preferred to help others, someone who was always looking out for the less than strong?  One young man I know, a person in recovery, often says, with a soft smile: I am exercising my right not to have an opinion. Perhaps Andrew was like this since we hear almost nothing of his voice in the Gospel except to speak up when Jesus is looking for food to feed the crowds who are tired and hungry. Andrew is the kind of saint who wants to help his companions by attending to their ordinary, everyday concerns, but has little taste for the arguments they often had about how best to announce the gospel. 

The gospels also challenge us with Andrew's openness. Although a disciple of John the Baptist, as soon as he hear the Baptist say of Jesus, Behold the Lamb of God, he stops what he is doing and follows the Lord. What was it that caused Andrew and Peter to leave everything immediately when Jesus called? Although the text does not tell us, there had to be something about the power with which Jesus spoke and carried himself. They had what we might call today, a conversion experience, and though they might have been able to explain their actions, they knew that following Jesus was their vocation. 

In like manner, as Advent begins, it is good to remember our moments of insight and transformation and ask: What is it that continues to compel us to live the gospel, proclaim the gospel and serve others as gospel people? Often enough the answers I hear in answer to this question are simple.  Bill asked me to work on the parish picnic, they say, or Cheryl suggested that my skills as a facilitator would help a lot in the parish. These people are with us and among as as active parishioners because someone called them, just like Jesus called Andrew. As St Paul said to the Romans long ago. "How can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?" (Rom 10:13)

Today, consider asking someone to live the gospel by helping others.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Of Lions and Lambs

"Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them." Is 11:6

Is there any more hopeful passage in the Scripture than the 11th chapter of the Prophet Isaiah? Because there are days for all of us when nothing seems to work, not our personal lives, not our church lives, not our lives as Americans or our life in the world, it can seem impossible not to despair about the state of our souls and the state of the world. We have become defensive and greedy in our personal lives and in our country, and while our Congress quibbles over the best path for renewal, almost 1 billion people are hungry, most of them children.

That is when Isaiah is so helpful.  That wolves are guests of lambs and leopards lie down with kids makes us think that God not only can do anything, he will, if only we find a way to work together for the good of all. Remember that at the time of Isaiah the Northern Kingdom had already been captured and the Assyrian army was massed outside the walls of Jerusalem. The Jewish people were being threatened with slavery and exile, yet Isaiah, speaking for God, promises divine redemption despite the faults of God's people.

One of the things that impresses me about the parish of St Pius X, where I am presently living, is the number of young people who are involved in helping build the parish and contribute to the larger community.  In preparation for a recent harvest event, it was teenagers who did all the preparation and all the work. They baked, they arranged tables, they helped paint the littlest children's faces and cleaned up afterwards. Just as important, the priest friar who directs the teens stayed out of the way and let them lead. While it is clear that we have a long way to go as a church and nation, when we focus on the good all around us, hope blossoms, our attitudes change and the world seems more manageable,. We have only to turn to God again to begin our return from exile.

Today, look for a sign of hope in your family or community and celebrate it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beginning Again

"The poor are not alone in their distress; God is here to help." Office of Readgings

Last night there was a painful and troubling piece on 60 minutes. Called, Hard Times Generation: Families in Cars , it chronicled the lives of homeless children and families in Florida where one third of the 16 million homeless children live. Listening to children talking about the fear they have at night living in cars and trucks, often in poor neighborhoods, is sobering. 60 minutes found articulate, faith filled families with whom to speak, and while their testimony was graphic and clear, I kept thinking about the millions of other children who do not have the parental help, education or social skills to express their feelings in what the program called, the "hidden America."

One young fifteen year old, trying hard to normalize her life, almost casually said, "Yeah it's not really that much an embarrassment. I mean, it's only life. You do what you need to do, right." How hard this young woman is trying to accept what most of us would consider a hopeless life. How hard her dad is looking for work and loving his children each day. Somehow they are surviving and looking forward to a time when they will have their own homes again.

Listening to the program I was reminded of an antiphon from the Office of Readings for today, "The poor are not alone in their distress; God is here to help them." It is a good place to begin Advent. When we "listen to the cries of the poor," (Prov 21:13) and accept our own poverty of spirit, when we acknowledge how often we fail to live the gospel, and identify with those who are physically poor and homeless, we find God waiting and anxious to be with us in our aloneness. Standing, sitting, walking quietly at the beginning of Advent, full of gratitude and humility, allows us not only to see "hidden American," but the "hidden church," all those who live on the edges of our parishes and communities hoping we will notice them but not judge.

Today, as the ordinary days of Advent begin let us open our eyes and stand in solidarity with people everywhere who are hungry, homeless and lost.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent Begins

Sometimes we watch too closely, pay attention to too many details and get ourselves in trouble.  Not only to do we miss the forest for the trees, we get increasingly anxious about things we can’t control.  Parents sending their children to school for the first time often do this, and it can happen to me when I am on an airplane sitting on a runway, or trying to help a friend work his way through a troubling or difficult personal situation.  Both situations, while understandable and for some unavoidable, remind us of something wise people have said for a long time: Watch but don’t stare.

Watch but don't stare is good advice as Advent begins.  Advent is a time when the church, especially through the liturgy, encourages us to begin again, to let go of the past year, and enter the great mysteries of faith.  A simple way to do this is to read the Daily Scriptures throughout Advent   As we explore the history of salvation and prepare again to celebrate the birth of the God Man, the love God has for us, even when we sin, is never more manifest.

In today's text from Isaiah, the prophet asks God not to stare at his people and punish them. Rather, he suggests that God could have been more forceful in helping the Israelites remain faithful to the covenant. “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” I can only imagine God smiling at Isaiah's intervention. After all, the Israelites did not listen to God speaking through the prophets when they were warned to reform their lives.  But Isaiah doesn't give up. Rather, he acknowledges the sins of the people, admits that they deserve condemnation, and finally reminds God that he is the potter and we are the clay.  Surely, God must know that no potter ever discards her clay.  Rather, she reworks it and shapes into something new.  That is what Advent is all about, asking God to reshape and mold us into heralds of the Great King.

Today, remember that no matter how often you have failed, God is ready, even anxious, to welcome you back into his love. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Letting go

"Be vigilant at all times." Lk 21:35

Today is the last day of the liturgical year. It is a good day for an examination of conscience.

Several years ago I was asked to help hear confessions in a Spanish speaking parish. Although the majority of the people were from the Dominican Republic and loved having me in the confessional since they realized that I struggled to understand them, a few were from Mexico and had been catechized in a way that touched me deeply.  Each of the Mexican penitents began: "Father, I confess that God is good and has given me faith. I confess that God has blessed me with a wonderful family, and I confess that I have friends who support me and love me."

Only after beginning with this non traditional formula of "confession" which immediately reminded me of St. Augustine's Confessions, did they begin to ask pardon for their sins, again with an unique introduction.  "So Father, because God is so good and has been so good to me, I have been ungrateful and these are the ways."  Honestly, I delighted each time a person catechized in this way came into the confessional, and have used the same formula myself when celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation.

Thinking about these men and women occasions fundamentally important questions for us as people of faith: Have we been grateful enough for God's presence, understanding, compassion and forgiveness?  Are we full of gratitude to the God who never sleeps, never forgets us, and is always ready to welcome us home? Are we more worried about avoiding sin than doing good and fostering the good news in our families, communities and churches??

Today, thank God for the year past, ask pardon and begin again as Advent dawns.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Nature's Secrets

"Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near." Lk 21 29-30

Paying attention to nature is a simple path to insight and reflection.  Jesus often invites us into the mystery of God's ways in this manner.  Today it is the fig tree. Tomorrow it may be the farmer sowing his seed or the power of the sea in a storm.  Unfortunately, in a society as frantic as ours and as fascinated with technology, we often fail to appreciate the wonders of nature all around us, but we can change. For instance, we might consider intentionally shutting down our computers, cell phones, and  Ipads for half an hour a day, and take a slow walk. While it might be difficult to begin and stay faithful to a practice like this, eventually our bodies and spirits will yearn for the "breaks", the quiet times and the rest.

Life unfolds in patterned ways and cannot be rushed.  It takes nine months for a child to be born.  It often takes five years for an apple tree to produce fruit and those of us getting older know that we are very different people at 60 than we were at 20. The task for the Christian is to continue to enter life as it comes, not rushing or pushing, but accepting life on its terms, and attending to God's presence at every stage of life.

Today, wherever you are, pause for a few moments, breathe deeply a few times and look around you.  You might be amazed at the variety of ways God can speak.