Thursday, December 24, 2009

Midnight Mass 2009

Almost everyone has heard the story of the first performance of Silent Night, the most popular of all Christmas carols. You remember—mice had chewed through the organ bellows, so it had to be played on the guitar that snowy Christmas Eve in Austria.

Unfortunately, Google plays the Grinch when it comes to this story. Apparently, the organ in the village church was so poor in the first place that it was only natural to accompany the carol on a well-tuned guitar rather than on an off-pitch organ.

There never was much of a story behind the most popular English carol, Joy to the World. The lyrics are by one of the greatest of all hymn-writers, Isaac Watts, a Protestant pastor who wrote O God Our Help in Ages Past and 700 other English hymns. The tune we know so well was written after Watts had been dead for many years, by an American composer influenced by Handel’s Messiah.

So why is Joy to the World so well-loved? You can’t say it’s particularly Christmassy: While the first line announces that "The Lord is come," those are the only words that relate to the birth of Jesus. There’s no mention of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the manger or the wise men. In fact, Isaac Watts didn’t even write the song as a Christmas carol.

Yet there’s a good reason why this carol captures the Christmas spirit. The reason is one simple word: joy.

Our Christmas scripture readings are simply brimming with joy. Start with the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light—a light that has shone in their deepest darkness. And what’s the result? Their joy is increased. They rejoice like harvesters hauling in the crop, they jump up and down like victors dividing the spoils of battle.

Perhaps you didn’t notice, but Joy to the World echoes our psalm tonight. “Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad” is pretty close to “let heaven and nature sing.” Even creation is joyful at the coming of Christ!

Tonight’s Gospel, most of all, places joy near the heart of the Christmas message. The angels themselves proclaim this: the birth of the Saviour is good news of great joy.

There’s really no way around it. We are invited to experience joy tonight. Joy that a child has been born for us. Joy that the crushing burden has been lifted off our tired shoulders. Joy at the message of peace that the angels have brought us.

But how easy it is to say this! And how difficult, sometimes, to live with joy, to find joy…

I’m facing a challenge tonight. When I told a friend that I didn’t really know what to say this Christmas, he said “tell us what it means to be joyful.” Tell us what it means for a Christian to experience joy in illness, in worry, in frustration, in unemployment, in disappointment.

Quite correctly, he knew that Christian joy can’t mean having no problems. We all have problems. Quite correctly, he grasped that Christian joy can’t be a feeling—since no-one’s ever suggested that Christ was born in Bethlehem so that we could walk around feeling peachy all the time.

So what is Christian joy, if it’s not just a good feeling? More to the point, how do we find it?

Scripture and tradition offer many answers to these questions, but I'll suggest just three of them tonight.

The first way we find joy at Christmas is just by knowing Christ is here. We’re joyful because we are no longer fearful; and we are no longer fearful because of Christ—Saviour, Redeemer, Healer, and bringer of peace. Christian joy is anything but unfocussed; it’s the fruit of faith and hope in God’s promise, fulfilled in the saving birth of Christ.

Imagine yourself as a child in the emergency room, aching from appendicitis. The school managed to contact your parents, and they arrive at your bedside. The pain is still there, but it’s now secondary to the marvelous, redeeming presence of Mom and Dad. That’s what Christian joy is like.

There’s joy, as Isaac Watts wrote, because the Lord is come.

The second answer is that serving others brings joy, regardless of our good or bad fortune. In the Catechism, joy is listed first among the fruits of charity (n. 1829). As Father Groeschel says, it is “the remedy that always works.”

Why is it that Christmas and charity are so often linked—even in the minds of people who do not know Christ? I think joy and Christmas are inseparable because joy and charity are inseparable. Wasn’t that the lesson that Ebenezer Scrooge learned the hard way?

Serving our neighbour at Christmas is itself an experience of joy. Ask any one of the families that has decided to spend time on Christmas Day or around Christmas helping serve meals to the poor or visiting the sick—and find me one that was disappointed by the experience.

There’s joy then, natural and supernatural, when we ‘prepare Him room’—by serving him in our brothers and sisters.

Finally, we find joy in thanksgiving. How can we celebrate Christmas without thanking God for His many blessings, including the supreme gift of His Son? Grateful hearts are joyful hearts—it’s pretty well automatic.

The third and fourth verses of Joy to the World are less well-known than the first two, but perhaps more important. Isaac Watts says “He comes to make His blessings flow” and “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”

Those blessings, those glories, and those wonders are more powerful than death. By living in thanksgiving we place our sorrows and losses in a scales, and see them far outweighed by joy.

A while back a sailing school established an annual award for bad navigators. The first winner was Christopher Columbus. The announcement read “Poor Chris. He started out not knowing where he was going; when he got there he didn’t know where he was; and when he got back he didn’t know where he’d been.”

No-one should leave church like that at Christmas. We have come to hear the angels’ message of great joy; we are gathered as friends, family, and fellow believers to experience that same joy now; and when we return home, we take with us a joy that can only grow as we share it with others in love and service.

Joy to the world! And joy to each of you: the Lord is come.

Christmas Morning 2009

Last week I appeared on stage for the first time in thirty years. And I won an award—the St. Anthony’s School Oscar for best supporting actor in the role of an innkeeper.

Of course there was only one nomination in the category. And it wasn’t exactly an Academy Award, although the statuette they gave me was made of solid chocolate.

Being asked to play the innkeeper in the school Christmas pageant was something of an honour, and I took it fairly seriously. I even started looking for my contact lenses, until I realized that since St. Joseph was wearing glasses I might as well too.

I’m not what they call in Hollywood a “method actor,” but I tried to get inside my character. What really was the innkeeper thinking that first Christmas night, when there was no place for them in the inn?

I’m pretty sure I know what St. Joseph was thinking after he’d given up knocking on doors before and decided a stable would have to do. I have a good idea what was going through Mary’s mind—she to whom the angel had spoken.

But what about that innkeeper?

I played the role twice, once at the matinee and once in the evening performance. The first time, I felt the innkeeper was an operator, taking advantage of the Nazareth yokels and offering them spaces no-one else would be willing to pay for.

The second time I felt he was a more sympathetic character, offering the only solution he could possibly think of to the poor couple.

We’ll never know what went through his mind, or what his motive was. The innkeeper exists only in Christmas pageants; he’s not mentioned in the Bible at all. But join me this morning in stepping into his shoes.

How do we feel about that tired couple looking for a place to stay? Do we have a place for them? What about their unborn child? Will we welcome Him?

I’m still wondering why I played the innkeeper once as a good guy and once as a bad guy. Is it because sometimes I welcome Christ and sometimes I don’t?

God himself was coming to earth. And still there was no room for Jesus in Beth¬le¬hem. Sometimes there’s no room for him in our hearts today.

Of course, there were other supporting actors playing roles much more important than the innkeeper—figures who really were there at Bethlehem. I was particularly impressed with the students who played the comical shepherds and the stately wise men.

Those are very important roles because it’s been said “there were only two classes of people who heard the cry that night: Shepherds and Wise Men. Shepherds: those who know that they know nothing. Wise Men: those who know they do not know everything.
Bishop Sheen says that “Only the very simple and the very learned discovered God” when they looked into the stable at Bethlehem. [Fulton J. Sheen, The True Meaning of Christmas.]

Which are we? The simple or the learned? Actually, it doesn’t much matter whether we know nothing, or know that we don’t know everything. What’s important is that we’re not know-it-alls—that we’re ready to learn the messages of Christmas.

It’s not that difficult, because Jesus is a great teacher. Even in the manger He is teaching us. Even before He can speak he has lessons for us.

What are these lessons?

Look first at the manger. It’s beautiful to look at here in the church, decked with cedar boughs and all, but you can’t get away from one thing: Jesus was born poor. Even all those many years ago, only poor people were born with no heating, no nurse—and with animals in the room.

He was born poor so that we would know that happiness doesn’t come from anything money can buy. He was born poor so that we would know what real riches are.

He was born without publicity, with only shepherds to join his family in welcoming his birth. He was born that way so that we would know that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are celebrities; he showed us how beautiful it is to be humble.

And by being born in that humble way, Jesus lets us get close to him—he makes sure there’s nothing to keep us away from him. Sometimes we know someone who lives in a much bigger house than ours, and it makes us nervous to visit them, or to have them visit us. Jesus makes sure we never feel that way about him.

Every detail of the Christmas story shows us how God is at work—if we look into the stable with wonder and awe.

Those shepherds are another detail. Why weren’t reporters the first people to know about the birth of Jesus? Well, you might say there were no reporters, but that’s only partly true. In every society there were people who were listened to.

But shepherds were not that sort of people. To be very honest… they slept in the fields with their sheep and they didn’t take a shower in the morning! Today we might call them “the great unwashed.”

But shepherds were the first to hear about Jesus—and from angels even!

Again, we learn something. Jesus came for everyone: the important people and the not-so-important people. People with class, and people with none, who needed a bath.

There’s almost nothing obvious about that first Christmas, nothing you’d really expect except the angels I suppose. Who were the first people to tell others about Jesus? Why those same unwashed shepherds! Not even the distinguished Three Kings.

God makes himself known to us in everyday people, everyday happenings. So long as we watch and listen, so long as we stay alert—he will let us discover Jesus, with us now, with us always.

We see Jesus in the symbols of Christmas: in the crib, in the beautiful flowers, in the tree which is green with life. We meet him in the Mass, where he becomes truly, really present to us, just as he was in the manger all those years ago.

And we meet him in others—sometimes in people who are lovely and gentle, like Mary was, and sometimes in people who are a bit rough, like the shepherds were.

If we want to know whether we’re really meeting Jesus this Christmas we might ask ourselves: how would I play the innkeeper—friend or foe, operator or rescuer? Can I find a place for Christ?

That question takes us to the central issues of conversion: room for Christ within our hearts, and service to Him in the world beyond.

When we make room for Christ, when we serve Christ in the poor and worried, and when we tell others what it means to know him, we have found Jesus—not wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but alive in our hearts this Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Cradle and the Cross (Advent 4, Year C)

The news media reported this week that a second-grader in the U.S. was suspended from school for drawing a picture of a crucifix when he was asked to draw something that reminded him of Christmas. Apparently the stick figure of Jesus on the cross was too 'violent'.

There’s more than enough in that story to inspire a homily on political correctness gone mad or, even better, on the new intolerance that respects any and every religion—except Christianity, and especially Catholicism.

But let’s leave that aside, especially since there’s a lot of fur flying over whether or not the story was exaggerated in the papers. Instead, let’s allow the youngster’s picture to teach us a powerful lesson that might change the way we look at Christmas. For the cross and the manger are far closer than we think: as the English writer and mystic Caryll Houselander wrote, “the passion of the Man Christ on Calvary is at once revealed and hidden in the Infant Christ in Bethlehem.”

The Letter to the Hebrews points us to this by putting the words of Psalm 40 [in the Greek version] on the lips of Jesus: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” The child that lies in the manger is already a sacrificial offering: he has come to die.

On Christmas Day our bulletin cover will be a beautiful icon of the Nativity by Steve Knight, the art teacher at our parish school. But if you look carefully, you will see that Mary places Jesus not in a manger, but on an altar. Elizabeth calls Mary blessed for her believing that what was spoken to her by God would be fulfilled. But the Lord spoke to her twice—once at the Annunciation, through the Angel, and later at the Temple, through the prophet Simeon. And what did Simeon prophesy? That Mary's son was to be rejected, and that a sword would pierce her own soul.

Although Simeon’s prophetic words were not yet spoken, they were being fulfilled even in the poverty of the stable. So we are not meant to visit Bethlehem without turning our thoughts—and hearts—towards Calvary.

Mr. Knight has not only provided the cover for our Christmas bulletin. He drew at my request this simple wooden manger. That Jesus was placed in a wooden crib at his birth and nailed to a wooden cross at his death inspired Caryll Houselander to write an astounding book called The Passion of the Infant Christ. She shows how the Cross casts its shadow on the manger scene that we tend to look at sentimentally rather than prophetically:

“On Calvary He was naked, stripped of His garments and of all that He had. He was naked and stripped of all that He had in Bethlehem. …

“On Calvary He was lifted up, helpless and held up for men to look upon. In Bethlehem He was lifted up, helpless, to be gazed upon. …

“By the Cross stood Mary, His Mother; by the crib knelt Mary, His Mother.

“At His birth He was called ‘King of the Jews.’ At His death He was called ‘King of the Jews.’ The claim to be King threatened His life in Bethlehem. The claim to be king cost His life in Jerusalem.

“In Bethlehem Christ slept His first sleep in His Mother’s arms; on Calvary, Christ slept His last sleep in His Mother’s arms.”

These are just some of the poetic comparisons Caryll Houselander uses to bind Christ’s birth in Bethlehem to His death on Calvary. But she doesn’t stop there. Christ came from the darkness of the womb in Bethlehem, and from the darkness of the tomb in Jerusalem; at Bethlehem there were angels in the fields and over the stable, while in Jerusalem they stood beside His empty tomb.

So not only Christ’s death but His resurrection is already unfolding in the dim light of the stable. A body has been prepared for him—the Word has become flesh—for a purpose which already has begun to be accomplished in the manger.

A simple image shows us the truth of what Caryll Houselander wrote. As you can see, Mr. Knight has drawn us a good solid wooden manger. But turn it just slightly—and the same planks form not a manger, but a cross.

Let us adjust our perspective on Christmas in the same way, looking at the big picture, the whole picture. Sentiment is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go to the heart of the matter. The mystery and the message of Christmas is not only Christ’s birth, but His suffering, death and resurrection as well.

[Note: I am still working at keeping my promise of some reflections on scandals in the Church. Thanks for your fine comments and patience!]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reflections on Scandal

I'm grateful for the very thoughtful comments posted on last week's short post promising further thoughts on scandal in the Church. I didn't get anything more written but will work on it as time allows. This week's homily is posted below.

It Doesn't Have to be Complicated! (Advent 3C)

I’ve just spent a week with some extraordinary people. On Monday, I attended a meeting in Toronto with the Catholic evangelist and author Ralph Martin, together with a number of other men and women who share his ministry of teaching and preaching the Gospel message with conviction and passion.

On Tuesday, I visited Msgr. Les Ivers, a classmate of mine who helped organize two papal visits to New York. We strolled through Manhattan disguised as tourists, only to hear a flock of happy and habited young Sisters skating on an outdoor rink shout “Monsignor!”—first at him, and then at me, since one of them is from North Vancouver. They were Sisters of Life, an energetic young community founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor.

On Wednesday I met Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He is a very imposing figure, and drew a great laugh when he said “there is one spot in the Cathedral crypt reserved for my predecessor, Cardinal Egan, and a spot and a half for me!” (When he was named Archbishop of New York, Archbishop Dolan was asked what the difference was between him and Cardinal Egan. “About sixty pounds,” was his quick reply.)

The occasion at which I met the archbishop was a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Fulton Sheen, perhaps the most impressive preacher ever to climb the stairs of the Cathedral pulpit or any other for that matter.

And on Friday I spent the day with my old friend, the spiritual writer and well-loved speaker Father Benedict Groeschel, frail but forceful after barely surviving being hit by a car some years ago. He is a rival to Archbishop Sheen as a powerful speaker and courageous witness to the faith.

Truly remarkable people who have done and are doing remarkable things to build up the Kingdom of God.

But where does that leave the rest of us? No-one’s offering me prime time on TV; I don’t have the gifts or even the energy of these champions of the Christian cause. How can I and how can you even begin to live the Gospel in a remarkable way?

In today’s readings, both St. Paul and John the Baptist give us simple answers to that question. They tell us that there’s no need to be extraordinary people to live the good news to the full in our daily lives.

Let’s look first at what St. Paul says. It’s simple enough, but I’d like to boil it down to a few verbs: Rejoice. Rejoice! (He says it twice!) Pray. Be gentle. Don’t worry. Be grateful. And you will have peace.

While I was away, a thoughtful parishioner e-mailed me something off the internet called “A Letter from Jesus about Christmas.” It was really directed at our American friends, who are quick to protest the political correctness that creates “Holiday Trees” out of Christmas trees and magically turned Starbuck’s “Christmas Blend” into “Holiday Blend” a few years back. We have the same problem here, but unlike the Americans we can’t be bothered to organize a protest or a boycott.

But the "letter from Jesus" showed very well the simplicity of His message. Here's what it said:

“It has come to my attention that many of you are upset that folks are taking My name out of the season.

How I personally feel about this celebration can probably be most easily understood by those of you who have been blessed with children of your own. I don't care what you call the day. If you want to celebrate My birth, just get along and love one another.

If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of My birth here is my wish list. Choose something from it:

1. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are afraid and lonely this time of year. I know, they tell Me all the time.

2. Visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to know them personally. They just need to know that someone cares about them.

3. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them. Tell them the story of My birth, and why I came to live with you down here. Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.

4. Pick someone that has hurt you in the past and forgive him or her.

5. Instead of worrying about what a store calls the holiday, be patient with the people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a “Merry Christmas” that doesn't keep you from wishing them one. Then stop shopping there on Sunday. If the store didn't make so much money on that day they’d close and let their employees spend the day at home with their families

6. If you really want to make a difference, support a missionary—especially one who takes My love and Good News to those who have never heard My name.

7. Here's a good one. There are individuals and whole families who not only will have no "Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any presents to give or receive. If you don't know them, buy some food and a few gifts and give them to the St. Vincent de Paul Society or some other charity that believes in Me and they will make the delivery for you.

8. Finally, if you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a Christian. Don't do things in secret that you wouldn't do in My presence. Let people know by your actions that you are one of mine.

Don't forget; I am God and can take care of Myself. Just love Me and do what I have told you to do. I'll take care of all the rest. Check out the list above and get to work; time is short. I'll help you, but the ball is now in your court. And do have a most blessed Christmas with all those whom you love and remember… I love you.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable quoting something from the internet in a homily—maybe I feel it’s too simplistic. But is that letter any more simplistic than what Paul wrote to the Philippians? Be gentle. Rejoice. Pray. Be grateful.

John the Baptist isn’t much fancier than the anonymous internet author either. Look at what he says: Share. Don’t cheat. Be satisfied with your pay.

And after I posted my homily on the internet, a friend e-mailed me to say that she would add two things to Jesus’ wish list. People could (a) send a card to a widower/widow. The first three years are pits of sorrow, she wrote from experience, especially after the first year when people think they’re healed and they’re not. And (b) strike up a conversation with a homeless person. It doesn’t have to be profound or paternal, just person-to-person, as you would with someone at a bus stop. Often our eyes don’t see them.

It sounds a bit like the book that came out some years back called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Now everyone knows that life isn’t always simple, and that there’s a whole to learn after kindergarten. But that’s no excuse for over-complicating Christ’s message, which He himself boiled down to loving our neighbour as ourselves.

If we don’t have the basics in place—justice, joy, prayer, and charity—we can’t expect to move forward with Christ in Advent. Those basics are what prepare our hearts to receive the peace that is God’s Christmas gift to each one of us.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Scandal and the Church

No homily this week--I am in Toronto for the annual meeting of the board of Renewal Ministries. But just before leaving I had a long conversation with one friend in Ireland and an e-mail from another. The e-mail got me thinking, not for the first time by any means, about scandal in the Church.

Here's what it said: "Am I just angry, or has the institutional church become a hindrance to the mission for which it is intended? I think I may join the calls for reform. We need bishops to be above all else preachers of the Gospel and shepherds of the people. It's time to acknowledge that it ain't gonna happen from inside the walls of a chancery office. We need to start looking at new models - or maybe old models, I don't know, but we definitely need a different model than the one we have at the moment."

It won't be easy, but I am going to try to respond--over a period of time--pulling together a number of thoughts I've had since the clerical abuse scandals first hit Canada at the end of the 1980s. The most direct response to what my friend said will come later, when I draw on the insights of one of my professors who has written extensively on the need to see "the institutional Church" as one with the "spiritual Church" or whatever you want to call it. But I want to approach this systematically first.

I propose to write (briefly, I hope) along the following lines:

1. the Old Testamant: the infidelity of the Chosen People does not negate the Covenant; the psalmist's laments.
2. the Gospel: the case of Judas; the weakness of Peter; the fact that Christ died to save the worst--knew the worst.
3. New Testament: Paul's account of sexual immorality in the first communities; the Epistle of Jude.
4. scandal in the early Church and dissolute Popes in the Medieval Church.
5. Lumen gentium 8 and Gianfranco Ghirlanda's reflection on its analogy between the Church and the Incarnate Word.
6. Organizational behaviour: the current controversy in the RCMP, Watergate.

As you can see, I think that we need Scripture, ecclesiology, Church history and a bit of sociology to make sense of these dreadful things, along with some psychology (an area where I probably won't dare to tread).

I warn my readers--all eleven of you--not to expect a whole lot, but I guess a blog permits some random thoughts developed over time. But since I will be spending time this week with both Ralph Martin and Father Benedict Groeschel, both prophetic voices in the Church, I may well be inspired by their wisdom. In the meantime, one can only join Isaiah in his lament "O my people who have been threshed, beaten on my threshing floor."