All posts for the month December, 2016

January 1, 2017 Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Numbers 6, 22-27 + Psalm 67 + Galatians 4, 4-7 + Luke 2, 16-21

St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

There is nothing more tiring to me than being around someone we would call a “know it all.” At the same time, I get very impatient around people who see the world in black and white, and need to have and to know the answer to every question. Their behavior gets positively neurotic if they don’t get answers. They either begin to think that there is something wrong with them, or they get fixated on something and can’t settle down and go on with life not knowing.

All of this is brought to my mind on this feast by the woman who is put before us. It might bother and upset some whose devotion and images of our Blessed Mother would suggest that she was somehow all-knowing in her openness to God’s plan; but I don’t think she was, and I think that the scriptures back me up. The fact that she wondered and pondered what all this meant is important for us. There is an old tradition that suggests that the information Luke has about the birth of Christ and about his mother came from Blessed Mother herself who may have told him what he reports. None the less, when Luke tells us that she “pondered” all these things in her heart, I think he is saying that she did not have it all figured out, and so went on with her life in spite of that fact. To me, this is one of the greatest lessons she teaches us. It is a great gift.

Having a crises of faith over something that happens when you do not know why or wonder if God is really with and for us is the point. She did not know what that angel’s message meant. She did not know what was going on with those Shepherds, and later she did not understand what Simeon was talking about that day they presented the child in the Temple. She just believed in the providence and love of God. She simply trusted that God’s will and God’s plan whatever it was would be best. She kept all these things in her heart Luke tells us. That does not mean she understood and knew what was going to happen next. For her it was a matter of believing that even through events she did not understand God was with her.

Thomas Aquinas said that reason cannot grasp the ways of God, and so if something does not seem reasonable, it does not mean that God is not involved. In fact, trying to impose reason upon God and God’s acts is really nothing more than a power-play since knowledge and understanding often goes with power and control. We do not have to know what God is doing or why things happen. Faith and trust in God allows us to move on and move forward in life with the assurance that even though I do not understand, God does.

This is the first thing we can learn from Mary, the Mother of God. There will be more, but the first lesson this mother teaches is a lesson on trust that springs from faith. Even though we may not understand, and even though we may not be able to explain things that happen, we remain faith-filled and humble before the mighty works of God.

The Greek word that is translated as “ponder” suggests a kind of interior conversation, a dialogue that seeks to comprehend and put pieces together. It seems to me that this is, for most of us, a life-long project during which we acknowledge that God’s ways are not our ways. Mary teaches us to believe as she did that God is in charge of all things, and lack of comprehension does not keep us from life, from faith, and most of all from hope. As we celebrate the mother today, so we also celebrate the Son nothing less than an opportunity to share in divine life which is a mystery that like Mary we must ponder in our hearts.

Nativity of the Lord December 15, 2016

Isaiah 9, 1-6 + Psalm 96 + Titus 2,11-14 + Luke 2, 1-14

St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

Christmas is a feast of the heart. It reveals to us the very and true heart of God. At the same time, it reveals what the human heart can become. It causes us to open our hearts and begin to live. What makes us human is not so much the ability to think as it is the ability to love.

If you take the time to think about it, and what better time to do that than this very hour, we are here because of love and a gift of love. It is the gift of God’s only son that we celebrate today. The importance and the value of this gift is the fact that there is and was only one Son. We did not get an extra or a spare. We did not get an imitation or a reproduction. We go the only one. This is the kind of gift that only a lover can give to a loved one. Yet there is even more to it than that. How this gift came to us matters as well.

God’s only Son could have come in power, but he didn’t. If he had come that way, we might have reason to be afraid or threatened. We would have reason to feel small or weak. God’s only Son could have come in wealth, but he didn’t. If he had come that way, it would have made us aware of our own poverty, and so we might have become envious which damages the human heart. As the story goes, he did not come in power and in wealth. He came in weakness and poverty. His weakness makes us aware of our own strength, and his poverty makes us aware of our riches.  His poverty awakens us compassionate bringing our hearts to life. It was the poverty of the Child Jesus that opened the treasures of the Magi, and the poverty of Jesus challenges us too with an opportunity to open our hearts.

I want to share with you a little story that gave me these thoughts. Frank O’Connor was an Irish writer. With that name he certainly wasn’t from Romania! His autobiography is called: “An Only Child.” In it he tells about a Christmas when Santa brought him a toy engine. It was the only gift he received. His mother took him to visit the sisters at the local convent Christmas afternoon, and he took his engine along to show the sisters. While there, one of the sisters took him to see the crib in the convent chapel. As he looked in he became upset that the Child Jesus was there without a single present, and he knew how the child Jesus felt, the sadness of having been forgotten. Turning to the nun, he asked why? The nun said to him: “His mother is too poor to buy presents.” At that, even though his own mother was so poor there was only one present for him, in a reckless act of generosity he climbed into the crib scene with his toy engine and placed it in the arms of the baby Jesus showing the baby how to wind it up because a baby would not be clever enough to know things like that.

It seems to me that Frank O’Connor’s story and his experience is both the story of God’s love and then our own. God has climbed into the crib with us, and God has shown us how to love, how to forgive, and how to make peace which we do seem clever enough to know on our own. He has shown us how to repair what has been broken by sin and restore us to our rightful place, Paradise. It is our story too because it tells what the human heart can really accomplish when it is brought to life – the fullness of life which me might call, grace.

So we have today a feast of the heart. The feast of God’s heart opened to give life where there is death and light where there is darkness; a feast of weakness and poverty. It is also then, the feast of the human heart made human by love and made divine by grace. It is a feast that awakens us to our riches and the power we have with them to give life and hope, light and joy to those who are forgotten and sad.

Isaiah 7, 10-14 + Psalm 24 + Romans 1, 1-7 + Matthew 1, 18-24

December 18, 2016 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

He was a dreamer, this man the church puts before us just days before we will gather to celebrate the birth of this child called, “Emmanuel.” A man of few words. In fact, he is a man of no words. The Gospel never records anything he said, but it is rich with the record of what he does. The Joseph that Matthew gives us is a just and righteous man in love. He is a man of faith strong enough to believe that God might do something he never imagined. In the Joseph of Matthew’s Gospel, we see a man who faced a dilemma when the demand of justice was at odds with mercy. Does he assert the justice of his rights and dismiss her, or does he show mercy and take Mary into his home?

The Jewish/Christian community for which Matthew prepares his Gospel would have made an immediate connection with an earlier Joseph, the son of Jacob, who saved his family from famine in Egypt because of dreams. Both of them would meet their God in dreams that revealed how to protect and how to save their families. In fulfilling the instructions of the angel, Joseph gives the child a name common for those days; a name that means, “God saves.” In doing so, Joseph claims this child as his own.

With nothing to say, Joseph has plenty to do. From the few verses of scripture devoted to him, we can glean some extraordinary wisdom from this fearless and courageous man. He was obedient because he listened. When the will of God was revealed he took off for Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rampage. When the will of God was revealed again, he went back to a safer place in Galilee far from his first home settling in a place often ridiculed by others called “Nazareth”. No pride in this man. One thing mattered, his vocation to protect and provide.

The limited knowledge we have of him leaves us to see someone who is selfless whose only thought was protecting and providing for Mary and Jesus. His devotion to the life of his family comes before all else. This loving and faithful man leads by example. He teaches us the truth that we all know: “Actions speak louder than words”. He works to provide, and in so doing, he sanctifies labor and gives the work of human hands a dignity that can make work a path to holiness when it is work done for others.

In Joseph we find a real leader, but not the kind of leadership we often see today. He is just because he does the right thing. He is righteous because he is right with God. This man who leads his family is attentive to God, and the last we hear of him is a story of a faithful father leading his family to Jerusalem for prayer at the Temple, and then he is gone with nothing more said about him. But this is enough to lead us to Bethlehem next Sunday.

Joseph can lead us there when we become just and righteous, when we learn from him the kind of obedience that means listening to God’s word and will. He can lead us there when we practice the kind of selfless love that leaves us focused on this one he named, Jesus. He can lead us there when our actions are more powerful than our words, and when we work more for others than for ourselves. Once more Joseph will lead us to the Holy Place where the Word of God becomes the flesh of human life, where the one they called the “the carpenter’s son, born in a wooden tough, will begin to work with wood from which and with which he will save his people.

Isaiah 35, 1-6, 10 + Psalm 146 + James 5,7-10 + Matthew 11, 2-11

December 11, 2016 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and John sits in a prison from which he will not escape alive. You can almost sense the frustration or the maybe the doubt of John and his disciples who have come to Jesus with that question. In more simple terms, the question is not so much about the identity of Jesus as messiah, but more about what kind of messiah he really is. “Where is the fire?” is what they really want to know.

In Isaiah 34 there is described a saving God of vengeance and anger, of harsh judgement and destruction who wields a mighty sword dripping with blood withering figs and vines slaughtering oxen and bulls. Then in Isaiah 35 there is another description that suggests a God who comes to strengthen the feeble, make firm knees that are weak, open the eyes of the blind. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and people will come to this God singing with joy and gladness. Sorrow and mourning will flee.

The issue that is addressed at this critical moment is, “Which one is it going to be?” Which kind of God is to be revealed and how will his presence be known: by angry violence and harsh judgments or by a gentle healing touch drawing people in joy and in peace? In that conversation with John’s disciples, the matter is settled. It will not be vengeance and anger, fire and the sword. It will be mercy and peace. People will not flee in fear of God, but come running in joyful song. John would have had it one way. Jesus will have it another way, but these verses, clear as they are, do not seem to have settled the matter quite yet.

There are still some who do not quite seem to get what Jesus has come to reveal, who still do not understand or believe that this God promised in Isaiah 35 is the real God not the one some had hoped would come and destroy all the unfaithful. Today they are the ones who look at violence and tragedies and become angry demanding to know, “Where is your God?” or “Why doesn’t God do something about that?” Failing to understand that our God is the victim hanging on a cross, that our God is suffering too in, with, and through anyone who is hurt, in pain, and suffering. They are the ones who use religion to justify their intolerance, alienate those who are different and condemn anyone who does not agree with their opinions or their interpretation of facts. They want a God who is made in their image, hard of heart and quick to judge. Jesus will not have it so.

Jesus reveals a God who suffers, who is slow to anger and quick with mercy. Jesus reveals a God willing to wait for an ungrateful wayward son to come home without changing the locks or barring the door. Jesus reveals a God whose grace and love embraces a Samaritan woman, tax collectors, and responds with compassion to an enemy Roman centurion whose servant is at death’s door. This then is a God who forgives while being nailed to a cross, a God who stays on that cross to set us free pouring out his life that we might live.

With this God we can face every disappointment, tragedy, and test of our faith without fear, for we are not alone. “Blessed is the person who does not lose faith” says Jesus. Sometimes bewildered, numbed, and powerless by terrorism, war, and genocide we wonder where God is, and hear again, “Blessed is the person who does not lose faith.” Scandalized and hurt by the grave sins against children by people we have trusted; we hear again the words: “Blessed is the person who does not lose faith.” Parents have seen their children give up the practice of the faith in spite of having given them encouragement and good example. For them it is a great pain, and great sadness. They must hear again: “Blessed is the person who does not lose faith.”

Faith is a fragile thing. We must not be surprised when doubts arise within us. Even the greatest man born of a woman felt the same way and experience some doubt. God does understand this world and all that can happen within it. Yet, Blessed are we if we do not lose faith in Jesus, and twice blessed are we, if like Jesus, we can show forth that faith in love and in mercy.

Genesis 3, 9-15, 20 + Psalm 98 + Ephesians 1, 3-6, 11-12 + Luke 1, 26-38

 December 8, 2016 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

There are two women in tradition that were conceived without sin. Did you ever think of that? One’s name is “Eve” and the other’s name is “Mary.” This day invites us to think about the difference between the two of them and decide which one we shall be like.

Sometime back when I was pastor of a parish with a large school I dropped in to speak with one of the seventh grade classes, and we got around to talking about vocations. I asked one of the girls what she would do if God were asking her to be a sister in a religious order. She was very honest with me and said: “I would say, no.” Unfortunately, I did not find her response too unusual. Most young people at that age and up would probably say the same thing. Yet her response made me a little sad. So I asked another question: “Why not?” Her answer was just as honest. “I am afraid that I won’t like it.”

Now think about her answer. “I am afraid – that I – won’t like it.” The words “I” and “afraid” suggest that her happiness is dependent upon herself not upon God. There is this disturbing implication that she believed that her fulfillment in life was all about her and not up to God. Isn’t this exactly the problem with Eve? She thought that her fulfillment and happiness would be based upon what she and Adam did with no thought about God’s wish or will. The two of them could not have what they wanted, so they took it thinking that their fulfillment and their happiness rested upon themselves rather than upon what God wanted to provide them. That kind of thinking is challenged today by this feast and this other woman who shows us a different way. Dependent upon God, trusting in God, open to God’s will and God’s call in her life she was not afraid that she wouldn’t like it. Eve however ended up being very much afraid – so much so that she hid from God.

There is so much of Eve still in this world. There is still too much fear witnessed by that young girl’s response to my question. Too many people respond to opportunities that God’s providence provides by saying: “I am afraid that I can’t do it.” “I am afraid that I am not qualified.” “I am afraid that I don’t know how.” “I am afraid of failing.” There is something missing here, something that Mary found by grace, the belief that nothing is impossible with God. With that we see the difference between the two women. One tried to live on her own, doing her own thing. She ended up hiding in fear. The other woman lived full of grace, which means, full of God, and she became fearless giving courage and hope to anyone willing to look carefully at what God wants and asks of us.

Isaiah 11, 1-10 + Psalm 72 + Romans 15, 4-9 + Matthew 3, 1-12

 December 4, 2016 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

The world is full of promises from politicians to preachers. It is full of promise breakers and promise keepers too. One of the consequences of this reality is cynicism, and there are more than enough cynics to go around. Cynicism and Catholicism do not go well together. Our faith, resting on the kind of hope the readings today put before us, makes no room for the cynic. Cynicism is the enemy of hope. The cynic always refuses hope saying things like: “Things will never change.” “It’s no good.” “It has always been this way.” This kind of thinking comes easily requiring nothing from us, no trust, no effort, and always no love.

I think that one of the reasons John the Baptist was such a hit in his day attracting so much attention from common folks to those in power was that he stirred up hope. He took people to a place called “hope.” All of us spend a lot of our lives waiting and hoping for a lot of things. It is impossible to live when one is completely without hope which is what leads people to take their own lives, no hope. Hope is as important for our souls as bread is for the body. Hope is the mark of a true believer. It is a virtue that like any other virtue must be practiced and strengthened by action. For us who follow the way of Christ, hope never means just sitting back and waiting for things to happen. Believers make a difference in this life, and so we believe that our efforts are worthwhile. We work hard with the gifts we have in the confident hope that something will come of our efforts.

The great thinker, poet, and playwright, Vaclav Havel, stirred the dreams of the Czech people after the fall of communism. He once said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.” He understood that Hope is not the same thing as optimism which is the expectation that things will get better no matter what. For us Hope is the trust that God will fulfil God’s promises in God’s way and in God’s time. People of hope live in the present moment with the knowledge and the trust that all is in God’s hands. This kind of trust is the consequence of hope for those who believe.

This world suffering from so many broken promises and disappointed by so many promise breakers longs for what this season offers, hope. Great leaders are people of hope. They do not need to know what the future will look like. They simply do what is right in the present trusting that God will care for the future. It is enough to know that there is a faithful God. We are about to celebrate God’s promise kept. That’s what Christmas is, the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us, stay with us, and restore us to our innocence. What can bring light into the darkness of this world is new people which makes the call of John the Baptist so important, – repentance. It means changing our lives, because changed people will bring about a changed world.

St Paul speaks of that change so clearly today. He brings it down to simple reality. Treat each other in the same friendly way Christ has treated you. It’s easy to be critical and quick to judge, to be intolerant of the faults of others. If we did what Paul proposes, we would make the world, or at least the corner of it where we live a more hopeful place. It is our mission and our responsibility to keep hope alive and set an example. When all is said and done, this world can never fulfill our deepest hopes. Only God can do that. Meanwhile, we live in a place called “hope” that enables us to keep one foot in the world as it is, and the other in the world as it should be.