I’d like to begin this homily with a simple questionnaire. Don’t worry—it’s anonymous! I got it on the internet!
(In fact, I got it from a wonderful site that my readers would do well to visit: A Concord Pastor Comments. The author of the blog, Father Austin Fleming, is as much a poet as a preacher, and his meditations are exquisite and inspiring; he also posts audio of his homilies. You can sign up to have something in your in-box each morning. )
Check all that apply:
(a) I knew that February 14 was Valentine's Day…. but I had no idea it was Ash Wednesday, too!
(b) I knew that February 14 was Ash Wednesday…. but I forgot!
(c) I remembered that February 14 was Ash Wednesday…. but I was too busy to get to church.
(d) I went to church on Ash Wednesday.
(e) I went to church on Ash Wednesday and have been faithfully praying, fasting and serving the poor for three days now.
(f) I went to church on Ash Wednesday…. but haven't thought much about it since….
(g) I think I've already given up on Lent this year.
No matter which one(s) you checked, you can be sure of 5 things:
1. The Lord loves you...
2. The Lord welcomes you to the season of Lent...
3. The Lord has something in mind for you this Lent…
4. The Lord wants to help you make this a season of growth, a springtime of peace within you...
5. The Lord isn't going to give up on you this Lent!
I got those from the internet too! But I assure you that all five of these things are found in the scriptures we’ve just heard.
God’s love and care for us is clear even in the story of Noah and the Ark. One word jumps out from these seven verses in the Book of Genesis: covenant. Five times God speaks to Noah about the covenant he is establishing. And five times God speaks to us, promising that the covenant with Noah is a covenant with all humanity, with all future generations.
For several years our parish rallied around what we called the Covenant of One. Each parishioner was challenged to promise God one extra hour of prayer, service, and wages—to share more generously their time, talent, and treasure. But the Covenant of One wasn’t ‘good resolutions’ like we make at New Year. It was our response to the covenants that God has made with his people, from the time of Noah and Abraham and Moses, to the New Covenant in the Blood of Christ.
Everything we do—in Lent and at all other times—we do because God loved us first. We don’t earn his love, even by prayer, fasting, and serving the poor. He loves us when we keep our Lenten resolutions, and he loves us when we don’t.
The Lord welcomes us to Lent. Lent is really an invitation not a demand. We welcomes us to journey toward Easter as brothers and sisters, but he also welcomes us to walk with Him.
Seeing Lent as a long walk with Jesus can change our attitude to this season. I had a great 60th birthday, with one disappointment. My plans for a walking tour of Sicily with a dear friend fell through. I’d got very excited about it—not so much to see Sicily, beautiful though it is, but because having all the time I wanted to talk with a friend who’s a busy as I am really appealed to me.
As I said earlier, the Lord has something in mind for each of us this Lent. Ideally, he hopes we will use the traditional means of prayer, penance, and good works. These are proven paths to prepare for a great Easter. If all goes really well, we will experience forty days of blessing that can be summed up by the words of the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester, which many of us know also from in the musical Godspell: “to know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”
But if God has something in mind for each of us this Lent, he better have some ideas for those of us who ticked the wrong boxes in the questionnaire. If he wants to make this a season of growth, and a springtime of peace, I hope he has a plan B, at least for me.
Happily, the entire history of God’s covenant relationship with his people is a history of plan B—and plan C, and plan D, and so on. God was patient with the disobedience of his children while Noah built the Ark; he was patient with the disobedience of Israel—as we pray in the fourth Eucharistic Prayer: “Time and again you offered them covenants, and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.”
And now, in this final era, we are given the eternal covenant, the covenant into which we enter through baptism and which we celebrate with the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Whether or not you came to church on Wednesday, whether or not you broke your Lenten resolutions on Thursday, there’s nothing you can do that will make the Lord revoke his covenant.
When we get the video projectors installed in the church, I hope to show you a short film where a father says this to his young son, who’s been caught in a lie: “Nothing you could ever do would make me love you less.”
With his covenant, God says “Nothing you could would make me love you less.” But He also says that nothing we could ever do would make him love us more. We don’t use our Lent to impress Jesus but to share the forty days he spent in the desert—to imitate him because we love him as our brother, and trust him as our model.
This season of growth, this springtime of peace inside us, is not a burden but a blessing. If you missed the boat on Wednesday, or it sunk on Thursday, just remember “The Lord isn't going to give up on you this Lent!”
I began this homily with something lighthearted that I stole from the internet. But the internet is also has spiritual treasures for those who want Lent to be more than giving something up for a month and a half. I've been using a Lenten retreat called Journey to Jerusalem; it comes from the Institute for Priestly Formation but it's good for anyone. Bishop Robert Barron at Word on Fire offers a wonderful daily Lenten reflection.
The always-interesting Matthew Kelly and Dynamic Catholic continue to offer us a Best Lent Ever reflection every day, and as I've already mentioned, A Concord Pastor Comments is a daily joy during Lent and any time--and everyWednesday he posts a text from God!
The Lord has something in mind for you… that’s for sure.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Today is the World Day of the Sick, a good day to talk about some things that have been on my mind for a while.
Let me start with a true story from a hospital in Colorado. A chaplain was visiting an elderly African-American woman, her face worn by age and illness. They talked about coping with suffering.
The chaplain was young and didn’t have much to say to the old woman. He had studied theology, so he knew that only good things come from God, but he couldn’t explain that in a helpful way. But the patient had something to say to him.
Sitting up in bed with her shoulders bent over, she looked him straight in the eye and said: “People say, ‘God gave me cancer’. But that’s nonsense. There ain’t no cancer in God. How can God give me something He doesn’t have?” *
And there’s the first point I’d like to make today. Suffering does not come to us from God.
Even if the chaplain wasn’t as brilliant as his patient, the story also makes my second point: the pastoral care of the sick is important, and an important part of the Church’s mission. Suffering can lead some people to turn away from God, but they can grow closer to God if they are helped to meet Jesus in their suffering.
Suffering does not come from God, but it is used mightily by God to bring about good. As the YouCat Catechism says, when human suffering is united with the love of Christ, it becomes “part of the divine power that changes the world for the better.”
It also changes us for the better. If we believe the media, suffering is an absolute evil. And yet suffering is part and parcel of following Christ, who, St. Peter says, suffered for us so that we would follow in His steps.
Christians should not seek suffering, but when it can’t be avoided, it can become beautiful; it can teach us many lessons; it can unite us with Christ.
But we often need help to turn to God in times of illness. Embracing our suffering in union with Jesus is not exactly the first thing we think about when we’re in pain. We need spiritual support to make use of what we already know, or need to know, about how God works to bring good out of evil.
Pope Francis speaks of the art of accompaniment. Who needs spiritual accompaniment more than those who are gravely ill, and those who are worried for them? We need help in thinking clearly about our situation, so that we can pray properly.
The whole front page of the bulletin this week talks about what parishioners should do to ensure they have spiritual guidance and the blessing of the sacraments in times of serious illness. The practical side of it is nothing new to anyone of my generation, but perhaps younger Catholics have not been taught what to do when they or a loved one face illness; and maybe some of the older Catholics are forgetting what they’ve learned or just afraid to bother the priests for the sacraments when in hospital.
I’m not going to repeat what’s in the bulletin. But I will tell you that not letting us know you’re having surgery, not calling when a loved one has been rushed to hospital, is not only the wrong thing to do, it’s also no favour to the priests! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten back from Lions Gate Hospital only to bump into someone in the parking lot who asked me if I knew that Joe Blow had a heart attack last week – which, of course, means turning around and heading straight back to the hospital. Not to mention some unkind thoughts about Joe Blow!
And there’s my third point: the Church can’t help you to face illness if you don’t ask. We are not automatically informed when a Catholic is admitted to hospital like we were in the good old days.
Mary Kim, a lovely parishioner whose funeral I celebrated on Wednesday, got things right. She gives us an example of how Catholics should prepare for serious surgery and of the blessings that come to the sick from the sacraments of the Church.
Some weeks ago, Mary Kim learned that an illness she had dealt with for some time would require surgery. Well before her admission, I was called to her home, where she and I celebrated the sacrament of Penance. When we were finished, other family members joined us as she received the sacrament of the sick and Holy Communion. We prayed for her and with her using the lovely words provided by the ritual.
Sadly, the surgery did not go well, and her condition became grave. Immediately, the family called us and Fr. Giovanni went to the hospital to celebrate Last Rites with her. Please notice that the sacrament of the sick is not identical with the Last Rites as once it was.
A few days later, as death approached, I went to the hospital and said the powerful Prayers of the Dying by her bedside, joined by her husband and children. When it came time to celebrate her funeral, it came as the natural conclusion to a time of preparation and prayer.
Who in the Church today would want to miss these blessings because we prefer to remain in denial about the seriousness of our condition, because we don’t want to suggest the sacraments to a loved one, or even because we don’t want to bother the priests?
Nothing like pastoral care was offered to the lepers we meet in the Gospel this morning. The First Reading gives us a pretty ugly picture of the misery of leprosy and of the community’s fear of the disease. Isolation can be the worst part of illness or a hospital stay. We need the support of our communities—our families, our friends, and our church.
And we need to pray—and to pray with understanding. Let’s look at the meeting between Jesus and the leper in today’s Gospel. Although St. Mark says the man came begging Jesus, the leper’s words are a statement of faith: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
And Jesus gives the simplest possible response: “I do. Be clean.” On the one hand, we could read this passage and fall right into a trap. We might pray, “Jesus, if you want to, you can heal my cancer” and then become deeply unhappy that we’re not healed. Doesn’t he want to heal me, or my loved one?
I have spent years thinking about this. If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he continue the healing miracles that Jesus performed on earth? The answer to the question would take much longer than a Sunday sermon allows. But to put it simply, the guarantee of miracles on demand would mean the end of faith on earth. People everywhere would figure out that freedom from illness was the jackpot offered to every Christian.
I don’t want to be flippant, but the world would be stacked ten feet deep with people, because we’d all be praying our aged loved ones back from the brink of death every time they came close.
Jesus is still a healer. But in the first place He’s a healer of souls. His meeting with the leper is presented in the very first chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, at the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus uses healing as a way of proclaiming the Kingdom of God; they were not ends in themselves.
The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality points out that Jesus sets the pattern for Christian healing. There’s always two expectations: first, healing from the immediate illness or problem, and second, healing to bring about closer union with God in the circumstances of one’s life.
“The priority is always the health of [our] relationship with God, no matter what other kind of healing may be needed.” (pg. 467).
About ten days ago my niece, Ali, fell off a small cliff while hiking in Vietnam. Between the distance and the problems of communication, her parents spent a night of sheer terror unsure whether she would live or die.
As things turned out, her injuries were not life-threatening, and she was able to have surgery even in the provincial city near where the accident occurred. She’s now recovering in a very nice hospital in the capital, attended by a very, very, relieved father.
Needless to say, the Smith family did a lot of praying and it’s hard not say those prayers weren’t answered. But what would I be saying today if things had not gone well? Would I tell you that our prayers were not answered? Or would I just keep silent?
I’d like to think I would tell you my prayers had been answered whatever the outcome. I’d like to think I would tell you that God works for good in all things for those who love Him. And I’d like to think I would give priority to the health of my family’s relationship with God, no matter what other healing happened or didn’t happen.
Even now, I hope that I and my family will thank God more for the spiritual blessings emerging from those dark days than we do for the wonderful way things have turned out.
Pope Francis talked to priests on Wednesday about our homilies. He said “Please be brief … no more than 10 minutes, please!”
I almost never speak more than 10 minutes, so I don’t feel too bad that today’s homily is so long. It’s been a long time coming, because I’ve been getting more and more concerned about whether we are forgetting the help the Church can offer the sick.
Please read the bulletin carefully this week. Tell your family you want them to call a priest if you’re suddenly taken ill or have a serious accident. Don’t hesitate to ask for the sacraments before major surgery or if your health starts to fail.
But I do apologize for such a serious and lengthy homily! Father Giovanni could have made it funnier and shorter. At dinner last night he said “I’ve figured out that ‘the CtR way’ is to let the parish know when you’re in hospital—after you’ve been there two weeks. Or not.”
That may be the CtR way, but it’s not the Catholic way. We don’t deal with illness alone, but with the help of Christ and his Church.
*Nicholas Senz, “God Can't Give You What He Doesn't Have,” Catholic Digest, January/February 2018.
*Nicholas Senz, “God Can't Give You What He Doesn't Have,” Catholic Digest, January/February 2018.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
Recycling makes me nervous. I’m always afraid I’m putting something in the wrong box, especially in a public place. At least I don’t live in Japan, where you get a red sticker of shame if you don’t separate things properly—and in some places there are as many as twelve categories.
I’m particularly nervous about recycling my homilies. One of my professors did that in the seminary chapel. It must have been a good homily, since we all recognized it from four years earlier!
Today I’m not trying to fool anyone. If you were at the 11 or 5 Masses last Sunday, you’ve already heard much of what I’m going to say. But since most folks who come at 9 come regularly, I want you to hear the same message I gave to the rest of the parish.
It’s not because I’m completely ready to launch something new. But I feel the Lord is calling us to something new, and I need you to be thinking and praying about it.
The something new is called ‘Unbound’ ministry. I spent a week in California learning about it, and was very convinced—and personally blessed—by what I heard.
But before I could be convinced, there was something I had to get over. Unbound is a way to pray for deliverance. And I found deliverance a scary word.
It didn’t take long for me to sort out my problem with deliverance. I only needed two books: the dictionary and the Bible.
The dictionary made me realize that ‘deliverance’ is the noun for which ‘deliver’ is the verb. You know: “…deliver us from evil”—the words we use every time we say the Our Father. So unless the Our Father’s scary, praying for deliverance isn’t scary. It’s normal.
But even if it’s normal, we don’t really know how to do it.
Yet we all need deliverance—freedom from the things that oppress us, hold us back, or lead us to sin.
Let me give you an example. Every Catholic understands repentance. We repent when we sin. And we all try to resist temptation. We fight not to commit sin.
But there’s something missing. Let’s look at someone with a very short temper. It’s not a sin to have a short temper. When we start to get angry, we resist the temptation. If we lose our temper and act in anger, we repent.
But where did the short temper come from? What’s the source—and what can we do about it?
The retreat in California was led by Catholic layman Neal Lozano and based on his book Unbound: A Practical Guideto Deliverance. It says that we must, of course, repent of our sins. But we must also renounce the spirits—evil spirits, by definition—that lead us to sin.
Renouncing evil spirits is what many of us have been missing in our search for spiritual freedom.
As I said, having a short temper isn’t a sin. It’s only a sin when we fail to control it. But what if there’s a persistent spirit of anger that doesn’t go away even when we repent? And maybe there’s a spirit of pride that fuels our anger, or a spirit of fear. We don’t repent of those spirits, since in themselves they’re not sins unless we deliberately welcomed them—rather, we renounce them, in the name of Jesus.
Unbound presents five keys to praying for greater spiritual freedom. Renunciation is the one I found most remarkable. It’s like saying, “I’m done with that!” It means you are taking your life back, and you make no place for sin, deception, or the power of darkness.
And of course it’s straight out of the Bible, since St. Paul says “We have renounced secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:2). And it’s entirely Catholic, since at Baptism we say “I renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises.”
“Renunciation,” Unbound says, “is a declaration that you no longer agree with the lies that have been buried in your heart.”
Of course there’s more to it than that. We don’t renounce in our own weak name; we renounce in the name of Jesus.
I got back from the retreat convinced that virtually all of us need to pray for greater spiritual freedom. There were 42 priests of every shape and size and age and attitude on the retreat, along with one bishop, and I think every one of us were deeply touched by the teaching of Unbound.
Still, I didn’t intend to say anything to you after my one-week experience. I wanted to think, and pray, and read some more. But the Holy Spirit seemed to think otherwise: last Sunday, a day after I go back, the Gospel was about Jesus casting out unclean spirits.
Then this Sunday we have Job. He’s not a sinner, but boy he is oppressed by evil. He’s listened to a lie that many of us have heard as well: “I’m never going to see good again.” In modern words, “life is a drag and it’s never going to get any better.”
And what happens in today’s Gospel? Jesus is casting out demons again. Many demons.
I’m not identifying the evil spirits we need to renounce with the demons that possess people; that’s a rare thing indeed. But the Gospel clearly shows that Jesus heals not only physical ailments but spiritual and psychological ones as well.
I’m still putting the pieces together from the retreat, but I hope to share more about Unbound ministry down the road and that we can talk about finding greater freedom and peace in Christ by prayer with the five keys of Unbound.
I’ve put a summary of the five keys in the bulletin this week so you can see for yourselves what they have to offer.
Sunday, January 28, 2018
A year or so after she joined our parish, my mother said to me “Dear, you really should tell people what you’re doing when you’re away. Otherwise they’ll think your life is one big holiday.”
Which I’m sure was her way of telling me she’d overheard a parishioner saying my life is one big holiday!
So in the bulletin last Sunday, I was sure to mention why I was away last week. I said that I was on a priests’ training retreat about ‘Unbound’ ministry, an approach to deliverance and healing prayer based on Neil Lozano’s book by the same name.
I said that Unbound uses five keys to praying for greater spiritual freedom.
But I just took that off the Unbound website! I didn’t know anything much about Unbound; all I knew was that people I really respected, including a couple of bishops, praised it highly.
I’ve returned from the retreat convinced that virtually all of us need to pray for greater spiritual freedom. And I think that using the five keys of Unbound is a very good way to do that.
There’s no time for me to describe the five keys today, since I want to look first at our Sunday readings: all three of them connect with what I heard and experienced on the retreat. In fact, all the weekday readings last week reinforced what the retreat leaders were presenting—and reminded me that their teaching was solidly rooted in the Bible.
In the first reading today, we learn how God uses prophets. Although Moses was a giant among prophets, the Lord says his ministry will continue. It wasn’t Moses’ voice the people heard, but God’s. And God will raise up prophets and give them the words to speak.
And in the Gospel, we hear a word we don’t usually like to hear: authority! We usually use it in terms of governing authority, even in the Church. But in the healing of the man with the unclean spirit, authority means power—power to command, and power to heal.
We all know that priests have sacred power, the power to administer the sacraments. We all know that the Pope and bishops have authority, the authority to teach and to govern. Rarely do we talk about the power of each baptized person. And yet God has given all of us power and authority; it’s different from that conferred by ordination, but this power and authority are part of God’s plan for us.
Right after Mass I am going to baptize the baby of a young couple I married a couple years ago. Immediately after the baptism, I will anoint the baby and say: “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”
We’re all called to be prophets—to speak God’s words to others, in his name. And we’re called to be “ kings” who speak with authority—the authority of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, mindful always of the solemn warning God gives in the first reading to those who would dare to speak in any other way.
And we’re called in baptism to a common priesthood. It differs from the ministerial priesthood of the ordained, but it still imparts the power to bless in God’s name.
Although I was on a priests’ retreat, trained lay people often pray for others using the Unbound model, because it’s not based on the sacrament of holy orders but on the sacrament of baptism.
The authority and power each of us has can be used to help others find their way to freedom from the bondage of sin. But it can also be used for our own benefit—praying with Unbound helps us claim authority in the name of Jesus over the evils that torment us.
The scene in today’s Gospel is a dramatic one. Nowadays we keep our distance from the idea of unclean spirits. Forty-five years ago I saw The Exorcist, a movie that revolved around demonic possession. It’s taken almost half a century to erase all the misconceptions the movie created.
In fact, the Evil One is too smart to show his hand as clearly as the movie does, except in the very rarest of cases. Yet if we marginalize the role that evil spirits play in leading us to the slavery of sin, we fail to use God’s full authority and power over sin and evil. We fail to use the power of the name of Jesus, even though our Lord said that we can ask anything in his name. (John 14:14)
The Catechism says “By entering into the holy name of the Lord Jesus we can accept, from within, the prayer he teaches us: ‘Our Father!’ His priestly prayer fulfills, from within, the great petitions of the Lord's Prayer: concern for the Father's name; passionate zeal for his kingdom (glory); the accomplishment of the will of the Father, of his plan of salvation; and deliverance from evil.” (CCC 2750)
We’re all pretty good at seeking forgiveness. And God grants it readily. But what about deliverance from the evil that leads us to sin? From the lies we tell ourselves or the lies of Satan that we believe about ourselves?
Jesus wants us to be every bit as free as the man from whom he casts out the unclean spirit.
If all this seems a bit over the top, let’s look at the second reading. Paul is writing about anxiety. While the Gospel story of a man crying out in the voice of an evil spirit may be entirely beyond our experience, which one of us doesn’t experience anxiety?
Anxiety isn’t a sin. But a spirit of anxiety comes from the Evil One; anything that binds us from living Christian lives that are joyful and free comes from the Evil One. We need to use the power and authority that Jesus shares with us to unbind ourselves and others from all that oppresses us.
I’m still putting the pieces together from last week’s retreat. I hope that the Lord will make it possible for me to share more about Unbound ministry with the parish and to talk about the five keys. For now, today’s Scriptures get us started in thinking in the right direction: first, are we ready not only to hear but to speak God’s word to others? Second, do we acknowledge that anxiety—at home and at work—pulls us away from God? Do we recognize that it can be based on a lie leads us to sin and to doubt?
And finally, are we ready to pray for deliverance, to seek freedom in gentle ways that help and heal within the tradition of the Word of God and Christ’s Church?
If the answers to those questions resonate in your hearts, it may be time to talk more about Unbound ministry in our parish.
I gave a second homily on this retreat, You can read it here.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Our young adults have been among my greatest joys during the ten years I have been pastor at Christ the Redeemer.
The young men and women of this parish inspire me with their desire to know God, their commitment to the faith, and their willingness to bear witness in the hostile environments they encounter at work or school.
No fewer than three young people from our parish have become lay missionaries with Catholic Christian Outreach, while others have had leadership positions with CCO on campus.
But one thing has puzzled me: why have so few pursued the priesthood or religious life? Only one young man from the parish has gone to the seminary, and we’re still waiting for a young woman to enter a convent.
When I talk about this with our single young adults, I find that they are eager to do God’s will. They are completely ready to respond to his call.
Just one problem: deep down, many of them think that God is supposed to call them the same way he called Samuel in our first reading.
All they need is a divine voice in the middle of the night.
Well, I’m teasing a little—and I don’t want to make fun of our serious young people, because quite frankly we’re all a little unclear on how God calls us today.
And God’s call isn’t only about choosing to pursue a vocation to priesthood or the consecrated life. Every baptized person has a personal call—indeed, a series of calls—from God. One of the great challenges of Christian life is listening for those calls.
Like Samuel, we need to recognize God’s voice and open our ears as Samuel did, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
God wants to speak to every person here in the church today. No exceptions. Our relationship with him is a continuing conversation, not a one-time encounter.
Hearing God speak should be an everyday thing. Psalm 95 says “O that today you would listen to his voice!”
So how does that work? Most likely, it’s not going to be anything like what happened to Samuel, though it might be like Simon Peter’s encounter with his brother Andrew, where a family member or friend brings us God’s invitation.
But most of the time, we hear God’s voice by means of ordinary events. God spoke to me twice this week, once through the newspaper and once through the internet.
When I read in the National Post that the federal Government will not give summer employment grants unless an organization certifies it is not pro-life, I heard the Lord’s telling me to continue preparing myself and my parishioners for a new way of living as a Christian in Canada—as a citizen of an increasingly-hostile country.
And when I saw the socialmedia backlash against a couple who star in a home improvement show when they announced they were having their fifth child, I heard God asking me to start praying more and harder about how to build a Christian community in this parish with the strength to resist the world and its ways.
This way of hearing God’s voice is nothing new: in chapter 24 of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells the disciples to read the signs of the times when he teaches them about the end of the world.
Those who want to follow Christ in today’s world need to know where he’s leading, so we need to know the word he is speaking, Perhaps we should begin each day with the simple prayer Eli taught Samuel: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Listening, though, is not the whole story. We’re given another important short prayer in today’s Psalm: “Here I am… I delight to do your will.” When we know what God wants of us, we must be ready to do it—and not as a burden, but as a delight.
Let’s end with a look at the second reading, because it contains two important truths. First, God’s will includes very specific teaching about sexual morality—teaching that is challenged constantly in our secular society. And secondly, following that teaching is not supposed to be a burden but a source of delight.
It’s a big mistake to think Christian moral teaching is all about ‘thou shalt nots.’ St. Paul speaks plainly about the prohibition, of course—you can’t get away from that. But look at what else he says! Christians seek to be pure for a reason: because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Because we belong to God. Because we are a gift from God. That’s something beautiful, not something burdensome or repressive.
The two prayers we’ve heard today can be reduced to five words: speak Lord, here I am. That’s a good formula for discipleship generally, a good help to choosing a vocation, and can lead both young and old to make better moral choices as well.
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Pastor Rick Warren, the author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, has become the go-to guy for a clear message about Christmas. His book The Purpose of Christmas sums up this glorious event in three short sentences:
· Christmas is a time for celebration.
· Christmas is a time for salvation.
· Christmas is a time for reconciliation.
He says “Regardless of your background, religion, problems, or circumstances, Christmas really is the best news you could get. Beneath all the visible sights and sounds of Christmas are some simple yet profound truths that can transform your life for the better here on earth and for forever in eternity.”
But those words—and those truths—still need to be unpacked on this Christmas morning. We could say that the gift needs to be unwrapped.
I wasn’t sure where to start. But then I came across something the Archbishop of Canterbury said when retired in 2012. Dr. Rowan Williams predicted that his successor will need to preach “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
Well, that’s what I’m doing this Christmas. In my left hand I have the Lectionary with these glorious readings about the birth of Christ.
And in my right hand, I have the Saturday edition of The Globe and Mail.
Somehow or other several stories and photos in the Globe—a very secular paper—made me think about the purpose and message of Christmas, in different ways.
First, there was a picture of five gowned youngsters from the choir of Salisbury Cathedral in England. The caption noted that Christmas has been celebrated in that cathedral for more than 750 years—a welcome reminder of the beauty of our Christmas traditions, of the joy of listening to choirs singing, and indeed the joy of just being in church.
Isn’t it great to be here this morning? Too many of us connect church with obligation, when the right word is celebration. That’s one of the joys of Christmas Mass—almost no one comes out of obligation: we’re drawn here by a celebration.
There was also a story about immigrants to Canada and the strength they find by going to church. Newcomers from China are becoming Christians at the same time as Christians are giving up on church. Some of the most growing congregations—Protestant and Catholic—are Asian.
The article quotes a twenty-one year old woman attending Simon Fraser who has found “strength, commitment, and faith within the rapidly-growing student club at the university.” Many of us have heard stories from Catholic Christian Outreach about campus converts, more than a few of them immigrants.
And there are also many such stories right here in our parish. Strength, commitment and faith are nurtured in this community as we gather each week to worship.
Elsewhere in the paper I read the story of an Edmonton man who leapt on to subway tracks in the face of an oncoming train to save a man who’d fallen off the platform. The article described him as “a humble hero—just what the world needs right about now.”
Certainly we need all the heroes we can get, but as I read the story I kept thinking that a Christian society wouldn’t be quite so astonished by self-sacrifice. A secular newspaper dared not mention the example of the one “who gave Himself for us,” as St. Paul described Christ in our second reading, but that’s who I thought of.
The central fact of Christmas is the gift of our salvation. The headline in the paper read “A humble hero breaks through the compassion deficit.” That’s a mouthful but it almost describes what Jesus did. He gave Himself up for us in the supreme act of compassion that we call salvation or redemption. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah describes that as shining a light into the darkest corners of human life.
A couple of pages later the paper tells the story of the tragic deaths of a Toronto couple who were known for their philanthropy. But some details of their lives seemed almost as tragic as their deaths; fabulously wealthy people who foreclose on the family homes of relatives can’t have been very happy. The deceased man is quoted as saying “Everything comes down to ego.”
One of the messages of Christmas is that ego is far from everything; indeed it is close to nothing and never brings joy. None of us is the center of attention this morning—we’re focused on a helpless child, come to save the world and to reconcile us to Himself, and one another.
Celebration and salvation lead to reconciliation. The Opinion section of the paper contains a full-page discussion of forgiveness by two people. One of them writes about the man who murdered her father when she was eleven years old. The other is a man who spent four months in a notorious prison in Iran. It’s a dramatic discussion, but there’s no clue as to whether printing it now was connected to this season.
Yet reconciliation and forgiveness are a big part of Christmas. Isaiah gives us a wonderful string of titles for the Child who has been born for us, for the son given to us: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Everlasting Father. But none touches our hearts half as much as the name “Prince of Peace.”
A need to be reconciled—to forgive and be forgiven—robs us of peace. But the Prince of Peace invites his followers to love even enemies, and to let go of the hurts we experience, especially in our families.
Maybe I shouldn’t say Christ invites us to forgive—in fact, he commands it. Isaiah refers twice to the authority given to this Child and he points out the connection between obeying that authority and endless peace. The more we respect God’s authority, the more we will have peace. The more he reigns the more peaceful will his kingdom be.
An article written for the Globe by a prominent lawyer is headed “The rule of law still matters.” The author looks at some recent criminal trials and concludes that Canadians must become more alert to the foundations and importance of our criminal justice system.
That’s true enough. But what matters more is that Canadians become aware of the foundations and importance of the justice system that God has established for our lasting good. Natural and divine laws are intended to increase, not diminish, our joy. God’s authority is a gentle yoke that frees us from the burden rather than imposing one.
God appeared among us to bring salvation and reconciliation. But both of these require that we respect his laws—otherwise what are we doing calling him wonderful, mighty, and everlasting?
The grace of salvation, St. Paul says, offers us training in these laws. Training in self-control and in virtuous living. Salvation not only redeems our sin but purifies us for good works. One of the gifts God gives us is the guidance we need to live the good life.
The Gospel today is a more familiar Scripture passage, with its tender images of Mary and Joseph and their newborn in the manger. But the Gospel too has a very unsentimental aspect. There was no room for them at the inn, just as there is no room for so many refugees and migrants today. The family our parish has sponsored to come to Canada remains stranded in Kenya, twelve of them spending another Christmas in a two-bedroom house, sharing one meal a day.
Even the angel’s words are not sentimental. The angel begins “Do not be afraid.” Why? Because the shepherds are terrified. How many of us are afraid of one thing or another?
Fear is not conquered by sentiment or by the pretty pictures on a Christmas card. Fear is conquered by faith—by believing that a great light has shone into the darkness of our world and of our hearts. The child who has been born for us is called Jesus, because that means ‘saviour.’ Only he saves us from our fears and failings.
Rick Warren’s three-word summary is worth memorizing: Christmas is a time for celebration. A time for salvation. And a time for reconciliation. Celebration. Salvation. Reconciliation.
But we can’t be satisfied with just one of the three. Not even with two. Most of you walked into church this morning in a spirit of celebration. But we should be sure to walk out carrying the free gift of salvation. Because that’s what Christ came to earth to bring.
Nor should anyone leave burdened by unforgiveness. God forgives us, even when others won’t. And he gives us the grace to forgive others, even when we think we can’t.
Amidst the news of the world’s crises, the Globe and Mail did manage to remind me of some happy memories before I folded up the paper. There was a full page story about Stuart McLean, the writer and storyteller who died in February. It talked about his delightful Christmas stories, which I’ve enjoyed so much over many years on the CBC.
In Stuart’s fictional world, the article said, “People are prone to make mistakes, but destined to be forgiven.
“Community, friendship and love always have the upper hand.”
But in the real world that’s not always so. How blessed we are that God always has the upper hand—that the birth of the Christ Child announces that we are not only called to forgive but destined to be forgiven.
That’s the message of salvation and reconciliation that gives the deepest meaning to our Christmas celebration—and the message of Jesus, who shines light and hope even in the deepest darkness.
One of my favourite expressions is “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
God, as we know, cannot fail. And in case we didn’t know, the readings today remind us that He does plan.
We find His original plan for our happiness in the Book of Genesis—a plan that our first parents upset by disobedience. Both today’s first reading and the Psalm give us a glimpse of Plan B, of God’s plan to establish a Kingdom, an eternal Kingdom where the Son of David will reign.
We find His original plan for our happiness in the Book of Genesis—a plan that our first parents upset by disobedience. Both today’s first reading and the Psalm give us a glimpse of Plan B, of God’s plan to establish a Kingdom, an eternal Kingdom where the Son of David will reign.
David—the traditional author of the Psalm—celebrates the divine plan of which he is a part, although he does not fully understand Nathan’s prophecy: its full message comes clear only far in the future.
St. Paul tells us—many centuries after the time of David and Nathan—that the mystery which was kept secret for long ages is now disclosed and made known to all nations.
The hidden plan is now announced to the world.
But first it had to be announced to the woman who was to play a central part. The angel keeps no secrets from Mary: he makes it clear that her child is the One of whom Nathan spoke to David. He is the One who fulfills God’s promise, who completes God’s plan.
Even the name of Mary’s child reveals the plan: Jesus comes from the Hebrew verb “to save.” Luke doesn’t take the trouble to point it out, but when Matthew’s Gospel records the angel’s message to St. Joseph, it says “You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
So my question today is a simple one: if God has a plan, shouldn’t we? Doesn’t his perfect plan of salvation call us to some planning of our own?
We’re not going to have an angel announce God’s plan to us—we already know it. But don’t we need to be ready with our response as Mary was?
I come back to that saying I like so much: if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Have we found some concrete ways of planning our response to the mystery unfolding before us?
A friend e-mailed me a few Christmases ago to describe his life in December….“endless rounds of office Christmas parties, former classmates’ Christmas parties, former office mates’ Christmas parties, business partners’ Christmas parties.” He said “I am literally exhausted already and am spending this morning just relaxing and answering some of my emails.”
(I’m glad he finds answering e-mails relaxing… I wish I did!)
With all that accompanies Christmas, we can’t afford not to plan. In the first place, of course, we need to plan what Mass to attend tonight or tomorrow—resisting the temptation to “fit it in” as an afterthought, arriving in the pew frazzled from a last-minute hunt for a parking space.
In second place is a plan to pray. Can we find fifteen or twenty minutes to read one of the Gospel passages about the birth of Christ, and sit with it?
Husbands and wives could read the texts aloud and sit in silence, or pray with them as a family. I often think of Archbishop Exner’s family— at the table every year they would read St. Luke’s Nativity story before Christmas dinner. Why not plan on that? It certainly won’t happen spontaneously if you don’t.
A surprising number of people manage to attend both Midnight Mass and a morning Mass on Christmas. They are not, to be sure, the parents of small children! But what a way to put Christ at the center of this increasingly secular day. Of course, it takes a bit of planning.
Carving out some time for God before you carve the turkey may seem too much for you. But the angel tells us that nothing is impossible for God, who will surely help those people and those families who want to put Him first this year.
Let’s plan on it.