Sunday, January 13, 2019

Some Church Fathers on the Baptism of the Lord

I spent a delightful hour and a half with our grade seven class on Friday afternoon, walking through the various parts of the Mass. By dismissal time we'd only got to the Eucharistic Prayer, but they were so keen that questions kept coming even after I promised we'd get together again.

Their interest and enthusiasm wasn't a huge surprise–many of them are faithful altar serversbut I sure didn't expect the reaction when we came to the homily.

I joked that this was the part of the Mass no-one really liked. There was an immediate chorus of objections. The students assured me that they enjoyed the homilies at Mass.

“We like listening to the homily, one student said, “…especially when you tell a joke.

Okay, perhaps their reasons aren't entirely spiritual, but I was encouraged anyway.

I talked with the class about the challenges of preaching. I asked them to read the short note about the homily in the Sunday Missal, which they all had in their hands.  It says “The Holy Spirit speaking through the lips of the preacher explains and applies today's biblical readings to the needs of this particular congregation.

No-one understands the differences in age groups like elementary school students, unless it's elementary school teachers.  Grade sevens are worlds away from grade twos, and worlds away from grade tens.

So I asked the young people to think about how a message that applied to them could apply to their younger brothers and sisters. Or to their parents or grandparents.

They quickly understood that it was close to impossible to hear a homily every week that would be meaningful to them.

And that’s true for all of you, of every age.

Every week the preacher must decide, to some extent, to whom he is preaching. How simple or how complex a sermon, how challenging or consoling, how serious or light.

On this great feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I decided it was time to aim very high, to take a page from the books of the greatest preachers of all time, the ancient Fathers of the Church.

In the days leading up to the Baptism of the Lord, the Liturgy of the Hours–the book of psalms and prayers and readings that a priest must pray each dayhas been filled with awesome thoughts we rarely share at Mass because of their complex theology.

And yet these were sermons preached to ordinary people in Rome, in Turin, in Constantinople. People who, for the most part, had less education than we have.

So let’s listen to some of the most beautiful words ever spoken about the mystery we celebrate today.

Let’s warm up with Saint Hippolytus, a priest in Rome in the late second and early third centuries Even then, not that long after the time of Jesus, people could take for granted familiar things, annual feast days and well-known stories from the Bible, so he speaks of wonder we should feel. Hippolytus says:

“That Jesus should come and be baptized by John is surely cause for amazement. To think of the infinite river that gladdens the city of God being bathed in a poor little stream of the eternal, the unfathomable fountainhead that gives life to all men being immersed in the shallow waters of this transient world! 

“He who fills all creation, leaving no place devoid of his presence, he who is incomprehensible to the angels and hidden from the sight of man, came to be baptized because it was his will. And behold, the heavens opened and a voice said: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’”     

St. Maximus, the bishop of Turin, in Northern Italy, died sometime during the first two decades of the fifth century. He lived during the discouraging age that witnessed the Roman armies retreating before the barbarians.   Nonetheless, over 100 of his homilies survive. They were so moving that they were passed down through the centuries as models for medieval homilists to follow.

Here’s what St. Maximus said almost 1500 years ago:

“This feast of the Lord’s baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord’s birthday, during the same season, even though many years intervened between the two events.

“At Christmas he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him.

“The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations.

“That is why the Lord Jesus went to the river for baptism, that is why he wanted his holy body to be washed with Jordan’s water.

“Someone might ask, ‘Why would a holy man desire baptism?’

“Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.

“For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.”

That last sentence really holds the key what we’re celebrating today, so let me repeat it: Christ is the first to be baptized… so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.

Finally, let’s give the last word to Saint Gregory Nazianzen, the Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century.  St. Gregory’s teaching was so profound and accurate that he’s one of the few teachers in the history of the Church known as “the theologian.” What he preached is not complicated at all—but it certainly is challenging:

“Today let us do honour to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist.

“He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven.

You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendour, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.”

The texts above, and many others, are available from called The Crossroads Initiative, a splendid website maintained by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio (a/k/a “Dr. Italy”). The biographical information I’ve used is also taken from the site’s page for Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

The beautiful image above, “Baptism of the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell, comes from the website of the Sisters of Charity of New York, which also offers a short but inspiring meditation on today’s feast.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Offering Our Gifts (Epiphany.C)

Our assistant pastor is Italian.  Very Italian—I have the parmesan cheese bills to prove it.

Father Giovanni delighted the congregation Christmas Eve with his beautiful rendition of “Tu scendi dalle stelle,” a carol as dear to Italians as Silent Night is elsewhere in the world.

But I didn’t catch him humming or singing it in the house. What I did hear as he moved about the rectory was “pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.”

On one hand, “The Little Drummer Boy” is no match for “Tu scendi dalle stelle.” For one thing, the Italian carol was written by St. Alphonsus Liguori in 1732, while the popular American song was written in 1941by Katherine Kennicott Davis, a music teacher and classical composer.

On the other hand, there’s a depth of meaning in “The Little Drummer Boy” that helps to explain why it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers, famous from The Sound of Music and committed to sharing Christian values in song.

The story of that little boy with his drum lights up one of the many aspects of today’s great feast of the Epiphany. Certainly the Epiphany is a gem that sparkles from many different angles, including the revealing of Christ to all nations, the Magi’s gifts that symbolize a priest, a prophet and a king, and the star that shines in the world’s darkness. But in this morning’s Gospel we also find the call, the invitation, to imitate the Wise Men in bringing gifts to Christ our Lord.

We might have some trouble imagining how first-century astronomers toting gold, frankincense and myrrh can inspire and challenge us. But the little drummer boy has the answer: we give what we have. We bring to God what he has already given us.

If he has given us musical talent, we can imitate the drummer literally. If he has given us material prosperity, we can offer God our financial treasure, as one of the Kings did at Bethlehem.

But those are just the obvious gifts. The most tone-deaf Christian, the poorest Christian, has gifts fit for a King. We talk often, of course, of time, talent and treasure. This starts to sound like a slogan, yet “time, talent and treasure” represents precious gifts that everyone can offer to God in homage.

Nowadays, there’s no question what’s most precious to most of us: time. Let’s not forget that the Magi had offered their time before they presented their symbolic gifts. St. Matthew says the wise men came from the East, not the neighborhood. T.S. Eliot was on the mark when he emphasized the difficulty of the trip in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” It begins “A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year/For a journey.”

We offer Christ our precious time whenever we pray. We pay homage to him whenever we spend time with the poor, the lonely, the sick, or the inconvenient. We adore him when we find time to come early to Mass, or serve at Mass, or set up for Mass, as our sacristans do each and every day. We kneel down before the mystery of Christ when we spend time patiently teaching children the faith, either as parents, grandparents or volunteer catechists.

Like the drummer boy, we offer back to God whatever talent he has given us. Music may be the most obvious talent, but this parish community is able to worship well also because of those who decorate the House of God, inside and out, and who offer gifts of counsel and administration through service on the parish pastoral council and the finance council.

And during the month of January, we will be asking more parishioners to take on leadership roles in the parish as we review various ministries and rotate and renew our dedicated volunteer base.

Treasure may come last in our list for a reason—it can be the least difficult gift to give. However, gold is first on St. Matthew’s list—perhaps because it was the gift most fit for a king. And if gold is what we have, gold is what we can give. Great good is done by your financial generosity to the Church, to charitable works, and even to individuals you know to be in need.

Time, talent and treasure is a fine way of thinking about what we can offer God in the year ahead—to adore him, thank him, and honour him. As I’ve said, no-one lacks some gift we can lay before Jesus in homage.

But that’s not the whole story. There’s something more and something greater—two things, in fact, that are well beyond time, talent and treasure.

The first thing we can offer God is ourselves. By choosing firmly the path of sacrifice and discipleship we literally give him all we have. By offering God the daily joys and sorrows of family life, of our work, of our health, of our anxieties, we recognize him as King of our lives and the Lord of our world.

The second thing we can offer God is himself. This is the most precious offering of all. The gifts we lay before the altar are as nothing compared to the gift that’s on the altar: Christ himself, offered in the Eucharist to the Father.

The Offertory prayer at Mass today sums up this truth. We will ask God to accept the gifts of his Church, in which are offered “not gold or frankincense or myrrh, but he who by them is proclaimed, sacrificed and received, Jesus Christ.”

Saturday, December 29, 2018

'A Home Away from Home' for the Eternal Son of God (Holy Family.C)

Last Christmas we gave away hundreds of copies of a book about Christmas by the popular author Scott Hahn. It was called Joy to the World and subtitled “How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does).”

After Christmas, I didn’t hear one single comment—as near as I could tell, nobody read it.  This annoyed me, until I realized that I hadn’t read it!

So last night I spent some time with the book, and I came across a wonderful passage I’d like to read for you. Here’s what Scott Hahn writes:

“Salvation arrives by way of the family—the Holy Family. The household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph became a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God. It was an outpost of heaven, an image of the Trinity in the world. ‘We may say,’ said St. Francis de Sales, ‘that the Holy Family was a trinity on earth which in a certain way represented the Holy Trinity itself.’...”

“So God took his place in a human family—and invited you and me to find our place as well. He made a home for us in the Church,” which St. Cyprian called “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Hahn continues: “And our own homes, too—our Christian homes—also share in this awesome gift of Christmas.”

And he gives the last word on the subject to Pope Benedict: “God had chosen to reveal himself by being born into a human family and the human family thus became an icon of God! God is the
Trinity, he is a communion of love; so is the family despite all the differences that exist between the Mystery of God and his human creature…” (Angelus address, December 27, 2009)

A modern scripture scholar, two saints, and a Pope—all saying the same thing: that our families, like ourselves, are created in the image and likeness of God.

Such lofty thoughts could be enough of a homily on the Feast of the Holy Family. But they need to be brought down to earth somehow, which is what this morning’s Gospel does.

Because there’s a risk of comparing our families to the Holy Family; almost all of us object “wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like my family”—especially at Christmas, when one end of the dinner table called President Trump the Saviour of America and the other started throwing rolls while chanting “We love Justin!”

We need the story of the boy Jesus in the temple to understand how our families can be icons of the Trinity when they’re not perfect. The Holy Family was the perfect family, but it was definitely not exempt from suffering.

Certainly sin was not the cause of their suffering, but it’s often not the cause of ours either. Illness, mental and physical, misfortune of every kind, and the pain of innocent misunderstanding are part of family life. Does this blur the image of the family as an icon? Not unless you can explain away the terrible anxiety we encounter in this morning’s Gospel.

The family of Nazareth was not always the happy family, any more than our families are.  But it was always the Holy Family, in whatever adversity it faced.

Today God invites us to follow the surest path to both happiness and holiness: obedience to his commands. Faithfully following God’s law does not spare the family suffering and sorrow, but it steers it away from sin, the only ultimate sorrow.

If we live daily life according to God’s plan, revealed to us clearly in his Word and in the teachings of the Church, each of our families—however imperfectly—can become a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God.

The modern icon of the Holy Family is by Michael O'Brien. Learn more about this remarkable Canadian author and artist here. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas - a Lifeline and a Love Letter

If you have elderly parents, or are elderly yourself, you’re probably familiar with the alarms worn around the neck or on a bracelet. Someone living alone can summon help at the push of a button.

(I hasten to add that I have no personal experience with this, since my mother certainly does not accept the label ‘elderly’!)

I was taking Communion to one of our seniors the other day, and while I was there a technician came in to fix one of those alarms. As he worked in the other room, the parishioner leaned forward, pointed to the device around her neck, and said “I wouldn’t push this thing to save my life – they come and take you to the hospital!

As I left her apartment, still smiling at her conspiratorial comment, my thoughts turned to Christmas. It struck me that many of us are like that feisty lady. We wear Christianity around our neck, even pay to maintain our subscription, but we wouldn’t rely on it to save our life.

The Scriptures for this holy night challenge us to think again. What’s the point of a lifeline if we don’t use it?

And there’s not much doubt that the Christian story is about a first responder who comes to our side whenever we ask, not to drag us off to somewhere we don’t want to go, but to pick us up off the floor, dress our wounds, and heal our wounded hearts.

The prophecy of Isaiah in our first reading, the words of St. Paul in our second, and the Angel’s message in tonight’s Gospel all confirm that Christmas is not only good news, but the best news.

Isaiah was writing some 2700 years ago, but he was speaking no less to us. If you know nothing of deep darkness, you have my hearty congratulations; but most of us have spent time in that place of gloom whether through failure, rejection, depression, or just the inevitable disappointments of life that can weigh us down.

Look what he promised – light that overpowers the darkest night, exultant joy, justice, righteousness, and most of all, peace. Not as a reward for good behaviour, but as sheer gift, the gift of a child born for us.

St. Paul sums up this marvel in a few words: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” And he hints at the next chapter in the story, referring to Jesus Christ as he who gave himself for us that he might redeem us and purify us. You’ll have to come back at Easter to celebrate that joy in its fullness.

And finally, the Angel’s proclamation. It is “good news of great joy for all the people” because it fulfills the hope of the ages, again bringing that gift most of us crave most of all: peace. A peace, as St. Paul says elsewhere, that the world cannot give.

How is it possible to reduce the birth of Christ to the background to our celebration of Christmas? Are we looking at the alarm button of faith, of prayer, of hope, as an ornament rather than an invitation to summon precisely the help we need and, if truth be told, want in the depth of our hearts?

If we have turned aside from tonight’s true message, it’s perhaps because we have not heard it proclaimed fully through the Word of God. It reminds me of a story from something that happened when I was a young teenager. One or two of my siblings and I were in my parents’ room watching their TV while my father was organizing his bedroom drawers.

He’d dumped out the contents of one large drawer onto the bed. The only thing that looked interesting was a bundle of envelopes tied up with a red ribbon.

“Can I look at this?” I asked my father. “Sure,” he said in a distracted way, concentrating on something else.

So one of us kids undid the ribbon and pulled out the contents of the first envelope. We read aloud, “My dearest Jane…” at which point my father turned around, grabbed the bundle and hastily put them away. It was his love letters while courting my mother!

Our Heavenly Father does not object to us reading his love letters. In fact, the Bible is one long love letter from God to his children. And so we’re going to end our time of reflection tonight by listening to the Father speak to us in the words of Scripture, opening our hearts to the love made visible at Bethlehem.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Second Sunday of Advent.C

A belated post of my homily for the second Sunday of Advent. 

A few weeks back, Bishop Mark Hagemoen of Saskatoon was staying with us at the rectory. He arrived fresh from a hike on Mount Harvey, with some absolutely stunning pictures of the view he had enjoyed.

Since the hike was nearby on the North Shore, and the views were really magnificent, I asked him if I’d be able to manage it, if I took it slow.

The athletic bishop paused. He took a breath. He said, kindly, “… no.”

I had to admit that some great adventures are beyond my reach.

And that’s how many of us feel about the heights of the spiritual life. We’re not up for the climb; it’s for the holy folks, the religious types. But we’re not keen on the valleys, either—when we’re low, we lose sight of God and his goodness.

On this second Sunday of Advent, God’s word tells us we can manage, even if we have to take it slow. The prophet Baruch says that “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low.” To use a modern expression, God Almighty has levelled the playing field so that every one of us can walk safely into the light of his glory.

By the time of John the Baptist, the Romans had established themselves as the greatest road builders of the ancient world. Travel between key points became faster and easier, uniting the Empire—which is why we say “all roads lead to Rome.” 

Jesus came to pave a sure way to the Father, a road on which to travel all the way to heaven. But although the path is sure, we need to walk it; he warns that the road that leads to destruction is broad and many take it.

What could possibly lead someone to take that road, when there’s a road to life that has been made smooth and straight for us?

The prayers at Mass today give us a good answer.  In the opening prayer, the Collect, we pray “Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son,” while in the prayer after Communion we pray that God “teach us to judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven.”

In other words, we get sidetracked by our daily concerns and distractions. The way of the Lord is clear enough, but we take detours of our own choosing. If we take them often enough, we lose the way.

Advent is a time to reorient ourselves. When former President George H.W. Bush's family announced his death last week, they used the code word “CAVU,” an expression used by pilots that stands for “ceiling and visibility unlimited.”

Advent is a time to seek that kind of clarity in our lives—to ascend above the busyness and preoccupations that cloud our vision of the things of heaven.

Today’s readings show us that lifting up our hearts is not a chore but a joy. Baruch speaks tenderly, comfortingly.  His prophecy should clear away fear and doubt, because his words are already fulfilled by the coming of Christ and by His saving work. It’s true, Christ will come again, but His first coming has already leveled the hills of despair and darkness and revealed to us the glory of the Lord.

The prophecy is fulfilled in us when we open our hearts to the tenderness and mercy of God. How do we do that? In hope-filled prayer. It’s in our prayer that the Lord comforts us, feeds us, gathers us, carry us and lead us.

My friend Vernon Robertson says that prayer begins as a duty, demands discipline, but will eventually lead to delight.So there are three steps to take in prayer this Advent: first, taking the duty seriously.

If we fail to pray at all, we’re definitely not on the road that’s been prepared for us. The second is to stick with prayer in a disciplined way, praying even when we don't feel like it—avoiding the detours of distraction. The third is allowing prayer to delight us.

We need to expect more from prayer: often, though not all of the time, God will surprise us with consolation and delight. We need to take texts like this one from Isaiah into a time of prayer so that the full Advent message of hope and comfort penetrates our hearts.

Much of the time, of course, we need to accept that even a smooth road has some bumps, and to persevere in prayer even in the middle of the pre-Christmas rush.

With even a minimum of duty and discipline, prayer in Advent can delight us. More important still, God who began a good work in us at our baptism will bring it to completion in the Kingdom Heaven.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Christ the King: Our Parish Feast Day

Early on a Saturday morning, a middle-aged pastor was on the golf course preparing to tee off. (Since I don’t golf, you know the story’s not about me!) He was playing alone so he was glad when a stranger asked if he could join him for the round.

After they’d finished 18 holes, the stranger said, “I really enjoyed playing with you. Would you like to join me again tomorrow morning?”

The pastor replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I work on Sunday mornings.” Puzzled, the stranger asked, “What on earth do you do on Sunday mornings?” To which the pastor replied, “You know, I’ve been asking myself that question for years.”

I can tell you one thing about that pastor’s parish: the parishioners don’t know what they’re doing on Sunday mornings, either. Because we all need to know what we are doing at Mass if this community is truly to be what God wants it to be.

There’s no secret what that is. The Book of Revelation tells us today in language that’s both glorious and perfectly clear: Jesus “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”

There in a dozen words is my identity, your identity, and the identity of this Eucharistic assembly. We are called to be a kingdom of priests. It’s not even something new, because even in the Book of Exodus the Lord tells Moses, “the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”.

So we’re not only a people ruled by a king, the Lord, but also a royal people called to reign with him (cf. Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, p. 47).

We celebrate Christ’s unique kingship on the Solemnity of Christ the King—both the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel invite us to be his loyal subjects. But on our parish Feast Day, the readings also point us to the wonderful truth that “we will also reign with him” (cf. 2 Timothy 2:12).

Thus, the kingship of Christ has enormous consequences for each and every Christian, because we have a share in it. Here’s what the Catechism says: “Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.” (CCC, 783)

We cannot speak of the kingship of Jesus without speaking of the kingdom. Even to scholars, it’s a mysterious concept and yet Jesus gave the kingdom of God the first place in his preaching. If you open your Bible to the first pages of St. Matthew, you will find that he begins his ministry with the words, “repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.” In Mark, the Lord’s first words are “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Isn’t it obvious that the Kingdom of God demands our attention? Not just this Sunday but every day. We can’t celebrate Christ the King without celebrating the kingdom of Christ. And we need to celebrate the kingdom of Christ as our inheritance and our destiny. Speaking in some sense to all of us, Jesus promised the apostles at the Last Supper “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom.”

Many of us speak easily of ‘going to Mass’. How wonderful it would be if we could find a nobler way to describe what we do on Sunday! Although the ministerial priesthood differs essentially from the common priesthood of all the faithful, we all exercise our royal priesthood at Mass. Jesus did not say, “do this in memory of me” only to the ordained priest, but to all of us. We obey his command together.

In the same way, since Jesus also gave us a share in his kingship, we exercise that together. How do we do that? The same way he does: by serving others. As Fr. John Jay Hughes writes, “A religion that is limited to obtaining blessings for ourselves with few consequences in daily life, is not the religion of Jesus Christ.”

Our parish community embraces Christ’s mission with energy and generosity. We serve the poor, prisoners, the young and the old. Our strong commitment to evangelization is nothing less than a commitment to building God’s kingdom on earth.  Dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, our parish offers Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of all God’s children.

We celebrate all of this today as we gather to worship and honour Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. It’s no accident that this solemn feast ends our liturgical year and points us to the day when he will return at the end of time. As members of a ‘royal nation of priests’ we are called to live amid the darkness of our world in the light of what we heard in the second reading: “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.”

Today let’s look at the big picture of Christ the Redeemer Parish. Last night’s Feast Day Fiesta had to be one of the most delightful parish events in our history—and not just because we got to see Father Giovanni dressed like the lead guitarist in a mariachi band. Last evening gathered us together as a family, as friends, and as a community. It surely strengthened the bonds that unite us.

But as we gather for Mass, we go deeper still and ask “what on earth are we doing on Sunday mornings?” We are a family of faith, to be sure. But we’re much more; we’re a kingdom of priests, serving our God and Father as we give him glory in this Eucharist, building his kingdom together as we serve our brothers and sisters in love.

John Dennis Crede Webster, R.I.P.

I had the painful privilege this morning of celebrating the funeral Mass for my brother-in-law Dennis, the husband of my middle sister, Nancy, and father of my niece Kimberly.

The liturgy was attended not only by his sister Jean, her husband David Topham and their three children, but by his three step-siblings who converged from various points on the globe to be with us.

My homily attempted to connect the events of Dennis's life, as narrated in Jean's printed eulogy, to the scripture readings chosen for the funeral.

Here, first, are Jean's words...

As I sit here at three in the morning in the quiet of my home in Victoria, I would like to tell you a little bit about my dear brother, a wonderfully kind and gentle man.

Dennis was born in Nairobi, Kenya on March 27th, 1950 to Dennis and Renee Webster. When Dennis was two years old our father died of cerebral malaria.

Because our mother was not well and unable to look after us we were sent to Wales to live with my grandmother. After our grandmother died in 1956, Dennis and I were brought to Canada by an Aunt and Uncle (Joya and Ouvry Roberts).

Dennis attended three schools, Athlone and St. Georges in Vancouver, and Vernon Prep in Vernon. Dennis found school challenging but as he said to me recently “I just drew on some inner strength and got through it.” During his teenage years Dennis loved swimming and reading, and was endlessly taking things apart and putting them back together again – a skill that served him well once he became a home owner and had to fix appliances, cars and stereo systems.

After leaving school Dennis worked on a number of ranches in the B.C. Interior. However, ranching was not for him so he decided to join the Canadian Army. Again calling on his 'inner strength' he got though Basic Training and spent five years in the army, during which time he spent six months in Jamaica.
In 1974 Dennis left the army and did a number of jobs in Edmonton before returning to Vancouver where he got a job at Commercial Electronics installing stereo equipment – a job he loved because he could indulge two of his passions: stereos and music.

Dennis had always harbored a desire to drive big rig trucks and so during his time at Commercial, having inherited some money, he gave himself driving lessons and succeeded in obtaining a Class 1 License – no mean feat.

While working at Commercial he joined a cycling club where he met his future beloved wife Nancy. They were married on August 27th, 1988. Not only did Dennis gain a wife he also gained a wonderful family who loved and supported him. On January 21st, 1991 Kimberly was born and so now their little family was complete. Dennis told me on numerous occasions that Kimberly was 'the light of his life'.

It was Nancy who encouraged Dennis to apply to be a bus driver with B.C. Transit. His application being successful, Dennis was to spend the next 27 years as a bus driver for B.C. Transit, a job he loved.

In 2016 Dennis retired from bus driving and he and Nancy moved to their lovely new home in New Westminster. They purchased wonderful new electric bikes and Dennis spent many happy hours exploring new places and visiting many treasured friends.

The last few months for Dennis were difficult and challenging on so many levels but as he said to me the day before he died “I just have to call on that inner strength.” And he did - the courage and strength that he showed to all of us was an inspiration to us all.

He was so greatly loved by so many of us, family and friends and this wonderful, kind, and gentle man will be sorely missed by all of us who knew and loved him.

Go in peace and with my blessing, dear brother.


Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Msgr. Rossi’s gracious welcome. He has long been a true pastor to Dennis, Nancy, and Kimberly.  It’s most fitting that we celebrate my brother-in-law’s funeral in his parish church. Dennis was certainly attached to St. Michael’s—he insisted on coming here to Mass even after he and Nancy moved just two blocks away from another parish.

Dennis had a real bond to this community and was proud of his connection to the Knights of Columbus here.

The readings we’ve just heard come from three very different books of the Bible, but together, they tell the spiritual side of the story that Dennis’ sister Jean has beautifully recorded on the final pages of this funeral booklet.

Jean wrote, “The last few months for Dennis were difficult and challenging on so many levels.” Although he did not suffer long in the final stretch of his illness, he suffered much, which is why the first reading, from the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, gives voice to his experience.

There were certainly days when Dennis had no peace and may have felt bowed down with pain. But we can only really understand this in the way the author of Lamentations understood his own struggles.

Kimberly just read us ten verses from this unfamiliar Book of the Bible, traditionally seen as the Prophet Jeremiah’s meditation on the problem of affliction. But there’s something remarkable about those ten verses: the lament is four verses long, while the Prophet’s statement of hope – a dramatic turnaround – is six.

In the midst of pain, Jeremiah takes hold of himself and recognizes that the love of the Lord does not come to an end, and that God remains faithful in even the darkest times.

Nancy and Kimberly and others who spent time with Dennis during his illness know very well that he struggled to remain afloat emotionally and spiritually. I think that’s normal. But ultimately, he confronted the negative reality of his suffering with a positive outlook that inspired me very much.

By the time of our family Thanksgiving dinner, it was becoming obvious that Dennis was losing the battle against leukemia. He asked if he and I could talk so we sat together downstairs while dinner was being prepared. In that conversation, I learned what Dennis was really made of. He did not deny the gravity of his situation, nor give up hope; realistically, he reflected on the blessings of his life, speaking with gratitude for his wife and daughter, and all the good things he had enjoyed.

More recently, when his pain increased, Dennis was less mellow about this situation. But, when he was anointed with the oil of the Sacrament of the Sick, he continued to believe that affliction did not nullify the Good Shepherd’s care for him and God’s desire to lead him to green pastures and living water.

Jean tells how she and her brother were uprooted as youngsters, travelling through three countries before finding a permanent home in Canada. That was not easy for Dennis. The Letter to the Hebrews helps us make sense of his dislocation with the memorable words “here we have no lasting city”.

Here we have no lasting city, precisely because, as St. Paul says in another important text, our homeland is in Heaven (cf. Philippians 3:20). Dennis has not been uprooted this time, but repatriated.

Twice in his life, Dennis spoke to his sister about how he called on inner strength to face his difficulties. It was inner strength that helped him cope with boarding school, and the day before he died he told her he drew on that same strength.

What was the source of that strength? It’s not likely that a lonely boy turned to St. Matthew’s Gospel to find it. And yet God freely provides comfort and rest, whether we ask or not. In the Gospel we’ve read, Jesus thanks the Father for revealing hidden truths even to children. As we read elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, our Heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask him. (cf. 6:8)

God is the God of peace, the great shepherd of the sheep who helped Dennis to bear his yoke. The inner strength Dennis spoke about reflected his character, refined by hardship, but it came ultimately from a loving Father who watched over him throughout his life’s journey, giving him the grace of a loving wife and a lovely daughter. It came from a Christian life in which he worshiped faithfully and was strengthened by the Sacraments.

That loving Father speaks today to each of us, but particularly to Nancy and Kimberly, among the many others who mourn Dennis’ passing. We are entitled, like Jeremiah, to four verses of pain and sorrow. But let’s be sure to pray six verses of hope and gratitude for all Dennis was and all the blessings he received.