Sunday, January 31, 2010

Talk to CCO "Meet the Movement" Dinner in Saskatoon

What a joy to be in Saskatoon—even in the winter! You won’t hear any complaints from me about this cold weather, since the anxious organizers of Vancouver’s Winter Olympics have asked me to bring some of it back with me. With the temperatures we’ve had lately they may have to add water skiing to the program.

There are many reasons why I am happy to be in Saskatoon, including old friends and my soft spot for the birthplace of Catholic Christian Outreach,the movement that brings us together tonight.

But there’s a special reason why I’m delighted to be in this fine city tonight: a man I much admire and whom I count as a friend has just been named your bishop. Monsignor Don Bolen was in Rome during my studies there a couple of years back and we had some very happy times together.

He is a man of prayer, a scholar, and a much-respected ecumenist. He is modest in manner and profound in thought. And besides, he is one of the best cooks I’ve ever met! This may be the first time in the history of the Church that a bishop will be more in demand as a host than a dinner guest!

I can also tell you that working in Rome didn’t take your new bishop very far from his Prairie roots. As you know, bishops are expected to have a coat of arms. During the past few weeks, I have been helping the bishop-elect with this fussy job, and I suspect that it’s made him a bit uncomfortable. The first sign of that came as we discussed the elaborate tasseled hat that goes on the top of the coat of arms of a Catholic bishop.

“Are you sure I can’t use a Saskatchewan Wheat Pool baseball cap?” he asked.

The appointment of Bishop-elect Bolen means that I have met more than forty years worth of your bishops, starting with Bishop James Mahoney, who was a regular visitor to Vancouver. If I hadn’t missed Bishop Klein in between, I could have boasted of meeting 65 years worth of your bishops, since when I lived in Toronto I met Archbishop Philip Pocock, who became Bishop of Saskatoon in 1944.

Mentioning Bishop Mahoney and that long line of bishops reminds us of the stirring theme of this special evening: “A new generation of builders is needed to build brick by brick the city of God within the city of man.” The builders of the past have left a legacy; Bishop-elect Bolen inherits that legacy, and will build upon it.

The diocesan bishop plays an indispensable role in the local Church. Sometimes I wonder whether the very “democratic” age we live in doesn’t lead us to take the office of bishop for granted. Some of the statements made by the Second Vatican Council are startling; the constitution on the Church says that Jesus willed that bishops, as successors of his apostles, “should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world.” (LG 18)

In that same dogmatic constitution, the council declared that “bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person.” (LG 21)

The council does not mention the role of Christ the Carpenter! This too is a bishop’s role; bishops must be builders too.
But what can a carpenter build alone? A chair, perhaps, or a table. Great undertakings—houses, buildings, cities—require many builders; various trades and skills are all put to work in a common enterprise, with lasting results.

So it is with the Church. The great plan of Christ—the plan of the perfect mind of God—provided for an army of builders, the baptized. Bishops are not invited but commanded to respect the duty and right of all the baptized to collaborate actively in building up of the Mystical Body of Christ.

This seems obvious enough to most of us, but let’s not forget it wasn’t that long ago that many Catholics saw the priests, Sisters and Brothers as the construction crew for the City of God. Why this was is a matter for historians—it may simply have been that Christian cultures had laid such strong foundation that fewer brick-layers were required.

Now—I don’t need to remind you—those foundations are crumbling. Strong fortifications of social consensus on moral values lie in ruins. In some respects, Western culture has been shaken by an earthquake no less devastating than the one that levelled so much of Haiti. Just when it was needed most, the witness of the clergy and religious was weakened by the twin demons of dissent and infidelity.

I mention Haiti quite deliberately. Earthquakes are dramatic; social changes are more subtle and rarely produce the shock and dismay that greeted the disaster in Haiti. But the destructive force of social change, when sin is at work, can be just as great. Internet pornography, acceptance of abortion, attacks on the family—these and many other forces have come in waves.

But God, whom Augustine called “ever ancient, ever new” always shows a way to those who wish to remain faithful. He is the master rebuilder of ruins, and the architect of future fortresses. And he has already begun this work, even as the enemy’s shells continue to land.

Having prepared us by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, having inspired the young by the wisdom and person of Pope John Paul, God has called a new generation of builders for the Kingdom through Catholic Christian Outreach.

You know you’re here because we ask for and need your support. But please know what you are supporting—not some kind of youth group, not a chaplaincy program, not even a movement, really. You are supporting the rebuilding of Christian culture in our time; you are supporting the construction of the City of God.

Many of you, I know, have given generously to the relief of Haiti. We were moved by the sight and sounds of those trapped in rubble, or waiting helplessly for medical help. Our donations will not, however, help those people—they need help now, and governments are providing it. The outpouring of support will be directed to building some kind of infrastructure so that from the ruins can emerge a viable society.

There’s a parallel with your support for CCO tonight. You are not so much donating as investing—investing in the future leadership for our parishes, schools, and families. Of course I want you to be excited about what’s already happening—six full-time CCO missionaries on the campus of the U of S, and 63 CCO staff from coast to coast, with full-time missionaries on eight campuses.

I have to tell you that CCO may be a university student movement, but that’s only its launching pad. Our experience in Vancouver is that CCO is like yeast, leavening the whole diocese, extending its influence well beyond the campus through special events open to all.

Of course I want you to feel hopeful about what is already happening, but also to sign up for a future that will see the Church become ever more vibrant and alive in Canada.

Monsignors may indeed be crosses for their bishops, but the young people who have dedicated themselves to the work of evangelization are their crowns. Young people aren’t the only ones that CCO touches; well, even bishops have been given fresh heart by the energy and awesome love for the Church—and for her priests and bishops—that CCO displays.

Older people—I reluctantly add “like myself”!—are saved from discouragement when they balance the problems we face with the optimism of these young missionaries. Parents who had given up on the Church’s ability to speak to their kids in these confusing times find hope in the movement.

There are more than a few people who may even have given up on the younger generation, like the boss who interviewed someone for a job and asked whether he had any special talent or ability. The young applicant said “Sure I do. I got a prize for making a YouTube video and also topped the standings in three computer games.”

The interviewer said “That’s very impressive, but we need people who are smart during office hours.”

“That was during office hours,” the young man replied.

That sort of stereotype doesn’t fly when you meet the focused and effective staff of Catholic Christian Outreach.

Well, I think it is time that I draw my talk to a close—get me going on CCO and it’s hard to stop. I don’t want to set myself up like I did last Sunday, when I had an unusually long homily. Towards the end, I said “I could go on and on” which tempted one of the teenaged servers to say quietly “you already have!”

But as a loyal Vancouverite, I can’t end my talk without a final mention of the Olympic games, just 13 days away. The founder of the modern Olympic games, Baron de Coubertin, chose the Latin motto Citius, Altius, Fortius—Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

We haven’t heard that motto a lot as Vancouver prepares for the games. A lot more common is the Olympic slogan “Go for the gold.”

Much as I like Latin, I like the idea of going for the gold. And so do the churches of our area—they’ve formed an organization called “More than Gold” to offer the world what they’re calling “radical Christian hospitality” during the games. The name echoes the words St. Peter spoke to a lame beggar at the gates of the temple: “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

CCO goes for the gold—striving for the same excellence and dedication that marks the Olympics. CCO does not dilute or dumb down the Gospel or the demands of discipleship. The Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance, the Magisterium, the importance of daily prayer—CCO calls students to all of these once they have heard the basic Gospel message.

Tonight, I invite each of you to go for the gold by supporting the young men and women who carry the torches that will light the way for the future of our Church and country.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Participating in the Liturgy: Showing We Care (2nd Sunday Year C)

It looks like the H1N1 panic is subsiding, although there’s still talk about a second wave this winter. Be that as it may, a parable about an epidemic should hit home these days.

And Matthew Kelly tells a good one in his book Rediscovering Catholicism. The parable begins with an incurable illness that spreads around the world. But this illness is not the flu, and not even SARS: everyone infected dies. And the infection spreads fast.

In fact, the future of humanity is at stake. This imaginary pandemic will wipe out the world if a vaccine can’t be found.

The world is plunged into panic and then despair. But all of a sudden there’s a ray of hope: scientists discover they can make a vaccine if they can find someone whose blood has a certain antibody. Everyone is urged to get their blood tested immediately at the closest hospital.

And so a mother and father head downtown with their five year old and join the lineup to give blood. Almost miraculously, excited doctors come running out of the lab shouting a name: it’s the five year old.

The news is so wonderful everyone is laughing and crying and praying at the same time. But then a doctor takes the mother and father aside.

“May we see you for a moment? We didn’t realize the donor would be a child. We had no idea. We need all his blood to save the world; the blood donation will cost his life.”

The parents make the unimaginable sacrifice of their son to save the world.

Now if the parable stopped there, it might help us understand the sacrifice of God’s only Son a little better. But Matthew Kelly isn’t finished telling the story.

A few weeks later, there is a public ceremony to honour the boy whose death saved the world. It’s a ceremony that should make the opening of the Olympics look like nothing.

But what happens? Lots of people don’t bother to show up. Some of those who do come arrive late. Others sleep through it. Still others won’t take a seat at the ceremony.

Matthew Kelly wonders how the parents of that little boy would feel when they saw this. Wouldn’t they want to jump up and say “Excuse me! My son died for you. Don’t you even care? Does it mean nothing to you?

And he wonders whether God might want to say the same to us—to us who come here to church to honour the Saviour of the world. To us who come to Mass late, or leave early, or fail to participate in the liturgy.

Let me make something clear: I say “us” for a reason. The parable should make us all squirm. I’m not often late for Mass, except when caught in the confessional, and I never leave Mass early, but I have lots of reasons to squirm when I think about how often I come to the altar without taking some time to pray and focus, when I think about the distractions I allow to interfere with celebrating the liturgy.

The first reading today shows us how people of faith participate in liturgy. And—since we’re all in this together—the reading also shows us a priest doing his job well.

The first thing you notice is that the people are gathered into an assembly—a congregation. People aren’t coming and going—they’re assembled for a purpose. The community that has gathered to hear the Word of God and listen to Ezra preach have returned to Jerusalem after the exile of the Chosen People had ended.

They’ve come back to a city that needed rebuilding—but they themselves need rebuilding, as a community. That’s what this assembly is about. Funny how some things never change—when it’s over, Ezra tells them to eat the fat and drink sweet wine: it’s like an invitation to coffee and donuts after Mass. And he reminds them to share with those in need, just as we’re doing today.*

The group that’s gathered at the Water Gate isn’t exclusive. There are men and women, young and old alike. Ezra is reading and preaching for anyone old enough to listen with understanding, which includes children. Showing the same respect for the young, the Church requires them to attend Mass every Sunday from the age of seven onwards. Parents have a solemn duty to ensure their children are able to fulfill that sacred obligation.

The liturgy described in the reading lasts for at least two days. We have it easy, don’t we—even though the occasional homily seems to go on forever, we’re rarely in church for more than an hour. That’s something to think about when we feel the Sunday obligation is a burden. An hour is a remarkably brief period in which to do something so important. If we can’t manage it every week, maybe it’s time to stop and really think about the pace at which we’re going, or about the priorities we’ve established without even knowing it.

After all, it was Jesus himself who asked the apostles “Could you not watch one hour with me?”

Enough about the liturgy itself—let’s look at the people who are taking part. Notice first what they did when Ezra began to read: they stood up. Just as we do at the Gospel reading at every Mass; and it means the same thing today that it did then: “We’re ready to listen. We’re taking this seriously.”

The reading also tells us that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law.” They were listening.

Listening and hearing are two different things. I hear the music playing in the mall, but I’m not listening. Listening requires engaging our minds—paying attention, in other words.

I heard a story about a priest who taped one of his homilies so he could listen and try to improve his preaching. As he played it back on Sunday night, he fell asleep in his chair.

Fair enough; some homilies take more work than others. But what is our basic attitude to them—do we see them as penance, as entertainment, or as God-sent help to understanding the scriptures? The priests in Jerusalem were preaching for a purpose: so that the people might understand the reading. Sometimes our attitude to the homily reflects our attitude to God’s Word. Do we see it as living and active, able to change us, able to instruct and guide us?

If we come to Mass with open ears, like the congregation listening at the Water Gate, we might be surprised at what God has to say. And we might be keener to hear what the homilist has to say to help us understand and interpret the Word. As regards bad homilies, let me ask you: what would you usually prefer—a well-delivered speech on something you weren’t interested in, or a poorly-delivered one on a topic that really fascinates you. Most of us would choose the bad speaker on the good topic, wouldn’t we? Sometimes our reaction to the homily reflects low expectations of the Word of God as much as it does low expectations of the homilist.

Enough about homilies, or this one will be longer than Ezra’s. In fact, enough about Ezra; let’s look at the people in his congregation. They are model participants in a liturgy.

When the priest says the opening prayer, they say Amen, just like we do. But it’s pretty clear in the text that their response is from the heart—they actually say “Amen, Amen!” and they lift up their hands. Doesn’t sound like their amen is a rote response.

How many of us know what “amen” means? How many of us, for that matter, know what “alleluia” means? If we don’t know what these words mean, how can we mean it when we say or sing them?

Both words are Hebrew words. Although our first reading is a translation, “amen” is exactly what they shouted out at the Water Gate all those centuries ago. It means “certainly,” though the Greek Bible translated it as “so be it,” which is what some of us were taught in school. What it doesn’t mean is “yeah, I guess so,” or “okay.” It’s an acclamation, a thumbs-up to what’s just been said.

Alleluia means “Praise the Lord.” When we sing Alleluia before the Gospel, we praise God for the Good News. We open our hearts in gratitude for the Word that nourishes us. We should meant it when we sing Alleluia! How sad to be praising the Lord with our lips and not with our hearts.

The most striking part of this Jewish liturgy some 2500 years ago is the people’s posture. Not only do they lift their hands, they bow their heads right to the ground. Their bodies make a statement about their hearts.

Our bodies continue to play an important role at Mass. We don’t just come to Mass with our souls; we worship with body and soul. That’s why there’s so much standing and kneeling in the Catholic Church: we're convinced the body matters a great deal.

One of several things we say with our bodies at Mass is “we’re one.” It’s unfortunate that there are several points at Mass in our parish these days where we aren’t united in our posture, with some standing and some kneeling—but we’re not going to address that until the bishops make a final decision on some new directives from Rome. I know just what will happen if I ask everyone to stand or everyone to kneel: a month later the bishops will choose a different option and we’ll have to change again! So for now we wait patiently—but it’s good we're bothered by the different practices we see around us. The fact that people are complaining about it says we do notice how important it is to express unity through gesture and posture, which "both expresses and fosters the spiritual attitude" of the congregation. (GIRM n. 20)

Our bodies also speak a language of reverence. It is strongly recommended that those coming to Holy Communion should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Sacrament--usually a slight bow, or the sign of the cross.+

Kneeling, in particular, shows reverence, as does bowing at the name of Jesus and folding our hands in prayer. Overall posture can say a lot, especially when you’re up on the altar. Slouching and fidgeting says “I’m not really into this.”

When we won’t find a seat at Mass—one problem, at least, that I never have!—we speak a language of disconnectedness. Just lately there are more and more people who like to stand along the wall. What does that say? What would it say at a theatre, a dinner party, a speech—in fact where would you stand against a wall except in church?

I make no judgment about individuals and their motives, but I know what the sight if people standing when there are empty seats makes me feel. And it’s not just me: the members of the parish pastoral council have asked me to speak to you about their concerns around this and other issues. The number of people who are regularly late for Mass has become so high, especially at the 5 but also at the 10, that I have made this a long homily partly to be sure the whole congregation hears this part!

Always being late for Mass—and leaving early—hurts both the person who’s late and the others in the congregation who are disturbed by the late arrival. Someone who is late has not, obviously, spent a few moments preparing peacefully for Mass; someone who leaves after Communion has not, obviously, spent quiet time in Thanksgiving.

Again I stress that I am not judging individual cases. If your four-year old throws up as you open the car door to drive to church, you’re going to be late. But if he does it every Sunday you’d better see a doctor—or maybe an exorcist!

And if you are an obstetrician on call, and your pager goes off at Communion time, you’ll have to leave early. But if it goes off every Sunday at Communion time, you need a new pager—or another obstetrician in your practice.

This is tough to preach about folks, because obviously some people are going to take it personally. Our dedicated ushers have been startled by some of the harsh responses they’ve been given when they’ve offered people a seat. We’d all be happier if I preached about something that doesn’t hit home with anyone—I love the story about the young evangelical preacher who was sent to Kentucky and preached about the evils of gambling. The chairman of the church council promptly reminded him that he was near the home of the Kentucky Derby and that many of the congregation depended on horse racing for their livelihood.

The next Sunday the minister spoke on the evils of smoking. Again the church elder came to call, and cautioned him that the church was located near tobacco farms. So the following week the fervent young preacher condemned alcohol, only to be told that Kentucky had many distilleries.

Finally, he asked the chairman, “Well, what can I preach on?” The man said “Witch doctors.”

“Witch doctors?” he asked. “Why witch doctors?”

“Because there’s not one of them within a thousand miles,” was the reply.

Sadly, the church is full of people who need to be a bit unsettled by the example of Ezra’s flock bowing to the ground in worship, and I include myself. Of course they didn’t have to worry about turning off their cell phones.

We do need to think about things as basic as that, even as a matter of common courtesy. Respect for others also requires we work at maintaining a reverent silence in the church before and after Mass, so that those who are praying are not disturbed. The building is noisy because of the foyer, but noise outside is different than noise inside. Visiting with fellow parishioners is a good thing, but it should take place outside the body of the church. In addition to showing respect for others, silence in church is a sign that we recognize God present in the Tabernacle.

I could go on and on—in fact, you could say I already have! We don’t really need a list of every single thing that works against good liturgy and authentic worship; if each of us just takes a few moments to ask ourselves what we need to do to make this day holier to our Lord it would do the trick. For me, it’s calming down before Mass and staying focused during Mass, for someone else it’s giving up their favorite perch leaning against the wall. For many, it’s a once and for all decision to get to Mass ten minutes ahead of time: that decision would lessen stress, allow time for prayerful preparation, and… guarantee you a seat.

Sometime soon I’d like to talk more about preparing for Mass, but I’ll just end today with a powerful quotation from the Catechism that says it all in a nutshell:

"The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father's will … [which are] the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward." (n. 1098)

We’re gathered here to honour the only Son of God, who died to save us from the most mortal of all epidemics, the plague of sin. We do care—I know we care. But let’s do all we can to show it—to God, and to one another.

* S. Joseph Krempa, Captured by Fire, Cycle C, p. 78.
+ Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum, n. 11.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: Where Was God?

Where was God when disaster struck the poorest nation in our hemisphere? When a catastrophic earthquake shook a people already miserable due to poverty and social unrest?

Did the editors of the National Post have a point when they wrote “God may have abandoned Haiti”?

Ever since the tragedy, people have been asking how God can permit such awful suffering. It’s a question no preacher should duck this Sunday.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church certainly doesn’t duck the question. It states frankly that “The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it.” (n. 164)

The Catechism calls the question pressing, unavoidable, painful and mysterious. (n. 309)

Small wonder that the suffering of the innocent—and the prosperity of the wicked—has raised questions long before Christianity.

Certainly the author of the Psalms isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions: why do the just suffer and the arrogant prosper? Does God know what’s going on? (see Ps 73:11) But he prays about it, and gets a few good answers. First of all, the wicked are in a precarious place, and they may fall any moment. We only see a snapshot of God’s justice. Today’s winners may be tomorrow losers.

Secondly, both Job and the Psalmist suggest that the experience of God’s personal love can actually outweigh suffering. The Psalmist says “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps 73:26)

And of course there’s the answer God gives to the prophet Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.” (Is 55:9) I can translate this poetic verse into plainer language: I’m God and you’re not. So don’t always expect to understand me perfectly. As St. Augustine says ”if you understand him, he is not God.”

These three points—the risky position of the prosperous, the consolation that God gives to those who suffer, and the mystery of God himself—are important pieces of the puzzle. But they don’t fully answer the question of why an all-powerful God allows the innocent to suffer.

That’s partly because there is no easy answer. Not only is there no easy answer, there’s no one answer. The Catechism points this out clearly, and by doing so it gives us the Christian answer to the anguish and confusion that believers feel when they see God allowing evil to exist.

Here’s what the Church tells us: “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question.” Only the whole story: “the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God … , the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance.”

Now that explanation is quite a mouthful. But the Catechism boils it down to less than two dozen words that can really help us resolve the problem. It’s so important that the whole sentence is in italics: There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

That’s why the people who have already concluded that God has abandoned Haiti are probably not believers. Yes, it’s true that Christianity has no pat explanation for why God allows natural disaster; we don’t have a neat argument for a letter to an editor. What we have is an entire religion that explains the problem of pain and suffering—beginning with the pain and suffering of its Founder. Those who cannot understand why God allowed his only-begotten Son to suffer will not easily grasp how he can allow the same to happen to others.

There is also the related question of why God didn’t create a world so perfect that this sort of thing could not happen. A world where innocent and desperately poor people would not be afflicted by the devastation we have all seen on TV and in the papers.

You can’t deny that he could have done so—his power has no limits. But the Catechism—a treasure of wisdom, both human and divine—says that God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, chose “to create a world ‘in a state of journeying” toward its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan, this process involves both the constructive and the destructive forces of nature.” (n. 310)

Now do I pretend to understand that completely? I certainly don’t. But there’s one piece of the puzzle that I understand very well, because I have seen it over and over again. That’s the fact that God, in his providence, can bring a good from the consequences of an evil. God can even bring good from a moral evil: In the Old Testament we see it when Joseph uses his position at the Pharaoh’s court in Egypt to save his family from starvation. If the same brothers he rescues hadn’t sold him into slavery he wouldn’t have been anywhere near Egypt.

In the New Testament, of course, we see how the greatest of all evils—the murder of God’s own Son—brought the greatest of all goods, our salvation. (n. 312)

The working of God’s providence doesn’t turn evils—moral or physical—into good. But we have all seen how often good comes from a tragedy, how suffering can transform selfish people, or how illness leads someone back to faith. Families can be divided by misfortune, we know, but just as often united.

All of this demonstrates what St. Paul says in the 8th chapter of the Letter to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Look at how Paul begins: “We know…”

This isn’t a teaching that comes from on high; Paul wants to connect with our experience. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” It’s what we’ve seen in our families, our parish, and our society. We’ve seen it in war time, when acts of enormous courage and selflessness occur in the midst of conflict and carnage. We know.

But because we know, we have a duty. One of the reasons that things work together for good is that God’s people do God’s work. God isn’t a one-man show; he uses us to accomplish his purposes.

Most of you know the popular story about the soldier in World War II who came across a statue of Our Lord where the hands had been blown off. He put a little sign in front that said “I have no hands but yours.” Perhaps he knew the poem that St. Teresa of Avila had written hundreds of years earlier:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
… Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

And there’s one last piece of the puzzle. To carry out his plan—his loving plan—God uses his creatures. He uses us. He is present in Haiti when we make him present. We know God has not abandoned Haiti... because we have not abandoned Haiti.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of the Lord: Opening Our Christmas Gifts

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Just when the decorations are coming down, the Church offers us a first reading straight out of Advent.The real Christmas trees have been carted away, the artificial ones boxed up, but here we are listening to words of Isaiah straight out of Handel’s Messiah. The Church can’t seem to let go of Christmas just yet.

There’s a good reason for this: we may have forgotten to unwrap some of our gifts. This season can’t pass until we’ve opened them. Otherwise we’re putting gifts away with the decorations—or, even worse, letting them go out with the recycling.

They are gifts that Christ was born to bring. Those gifts were the real purpose we celebrated Christmas.

Pastor Rick Warren has sold millions and millions of books, and most of them have “purpose” in the title. The reason for his success is obvious: All of us want to know “why”; we long to know the purpose of our existence. And even more, we want to know what God’s purposes are.

Not surprisingly, he has written a book called The Purpose of Christmas. It could easily be subtitled “What did God give you for Christmas?” What does Christ’s birth really mean to my life and yours? What are the actual consequences of Christmas?

Rick Warren writes that the angel answered these questions on the first Christmas night, proclaiming three purposes for the birth of Christ: celebration, salvation, and reconciliation. You remember what the angel told the shepherds: “Do not be afraid... I am bringing you news of great joy... to you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

Celebration, salvation and reconciliation. We find those same three purposes in today’s three readings.

The prophet Isaiah gives us something to celebrate: comfort—release from our inner prisons of anxiety and despair. Deep and lasting comfort that soothes the fear of being failures and frauds. Our sentence has been served and the penalty has been paid: Jesus our brother has brought freedom from all that oppresses us.

In prophetic words that the Gospels will place on the lips of John the Baptist, Isaiah promises that the rocky road of life will be smoothed out, and that we’ll see the most wonderful thing imaginable: the glory of God. And what’s more, we will see it together; we’re not alone any more—our isolation is ended.

No longer scattered sheep, we are held in the arms of a Shepherd who leads us, feeds us, and—when necessary—carries us.

If this doesn’t make you feel like celebrating, head to your CD rack or iPod and listen to Handel’s Messiah. Handel’s music for Isaiah’s words is triumphant, joyful music. (I asked the choir to sing the Messiah for an Offertory hymn, but when they said I would have to do the solo parts I changed my mind.)

The second difference Christmas makes is the most important: salvation. St. Paul says that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. He has redeemed us from all iniquity—paid our ransom, bailed us out from our captivity to sin. Christ has purified us—washed us from the slime that coated us and clings to us. In the plainest of terms, Paul says “He saved us.”

One of the sad things about language is that it gets a bit tired over time. To say that we’re saved is almost a cliché. I saw a cartoon where someone is asked “Are you saved?” and replies “No, I’m Catholic.” In another, the pastor is preaching on finances and tells the congregation “I want you good people to understand that the cost of salvation is going up like everything else.”

But leave clichés aside, and think about a world without Christ. Better still, think of yourself without Christ. I worry about the wrong things I’ve done and said since my last confession; what would it be like if I had to think about the wrong I’ve done and said since childhood? The little piles of regret and shame I sweep away in confession would quickly become mountains too big to move... and big enough to crush.

Think of the black hole that was all that awaited the dead. Or if you were an old-fashioned pagan, think of the wrathful, merciless and capricious gods who dwelt on high.

Salvation put an end to all that. Christ saved us from sin and from ourselves. From addiction, selfishness, and despair. From guilt, bitterness, resentment. And from the biggest fear of all, death itself. Christmas saves us from all that.

That’s not all, though: Pastor Warren’s little book reminds us that Jesus not only saved us from something, but also for something. We’re not only saved from evil, we’re saved for good. We’re saved in order that we can live fulfilling lives, helping and healing our family and friends, building a better world.

Warren says nothing compares to the thrill of being used by God for a great purpose; it’s why we were created; and it’s what we were saved for. It’s no surprise that his book The Purpose-Driven Life is one of the best-selling books in history.

Perhaps we’re wondering when God handed us these wonderful gifts? We didn’t see them under the tree. Today’s feast gives a one-word answer: baptism.

It’s no coincidence that we wind up the Christmas season with the Baptism of the Lord, because baptism is how God delivers the gifts that Christ brought down to earth. Baptism is what makes Christmas real in our lives. Our baptism is what gives us the confidence to celebrate; it’s baptism that stamps us with the salvation I’ve been talking about.

But like the other gifts we receive, the gifts that come at baptism—and confirmation as well—need unwrapping. Half the bishops in the world tell kids that at confirmation. But that’s just an easy turn of phrase; accepting and living our baptismal gifts takes more work than tearing off some wrapping paper. That’s why Rick Warren’s third point—and a third theme of our readings this morning—is that Christmas is a time of reconciliation.

Christmas without commitment is what the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Rejoicing without reconciling isn't authentic. St. Paul won’t let us get away with it. Our second reading begins “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all” but it continues, “training us to renounce impiety and world passions.” The gift of salvation is ineffective without reconciliation: while we wait for the second coming of the Saviour we are called “to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.”

But what God expects, he also makes possible. We are baptised not only with water, but with the fire of the Holy Spirit. It’s a fire that purifies and consoles; a fire that makes a difference.

Today would be good day to ask ourselves a simple question: Did Christmas 2009 make a meaningful difference in my life?

If it did not, we might go a step further and ask: Does my baptism make a meaningful difference in my life?

After baptizing a group of children on this feast last year, Pope Benedict said that Christ’s entire mission was to baptize us in the Holy Spirit, to free us from the slavery of death, and ‘to open heaven to us.’ Christ, the Pope said, came to bring us the true and full life that overwhelms us with joy—which is just what happened when he baptized those children.

If our life doesn’t seem true, and full, and if joy has no place in our life of faith, perhaps we are sleeping giants, with gifts received at baptism and confirmation lying dormant, just waiting to be released and discovered.

St. Paul says that since the Spirit has been poured out richly on us, the absence of rebirth and renewal in our lives may signal a need for personal reform—a need to turn away from sin and self-indulgence. But just as often, spiritual dryness invites us to pray that our baptism makes more of a difference in our lives, that it has more of an effect in our lives.

Let’s end by listening to Pope Benedict express this invitation: “Let us discover, dear brothers and sisters, the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit; let us be aware again of our baptism and of our confirmation, sources of grace that are always present.

“Let us ask the Virgin Mary to obtain a renewed Pentecost for the Church again today, a Pentecost that will spread in everyone the joy of living and witnessing to the Gospel.”

With that prayer in our hearts we can finish the Christmas season knowing that the best gifts of all haven’t been put back in the cupboard for another year. We can start a New Year with a new purpose: discovering in prayer and service the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Epiphany 2010

The other day a good friend asked me which door to the Church I use. My answer, of course, was the front door. I don’t even have a key to the back door.

“Oh, I didn’t mean the doors of the building,” he said. “ I meant which door to the Church itself... the duty door or the joy door?”

He had been thinking about his life of faith, and had figured out that a sense of duty rather than deep joy was the main driving force. When I thought over his question, I decided that the door I use most of the time—or the door God had opened for me—was the joy door.

Let’s get something clear from the start: there’s nothing wrong with the duty door. My friend is a marvelous Catholic, and I really admire his dedication to the faith and all he does for the Church and his family. But when we talked it over, we both had to admit that the joy door is really the better of the two.

Which door did the wise men take to Christ? The poet T.S. Eliot seems pretty sure it must have been the duty door. His Christmas poem Journey of the Magi doesn’t make their trip sound too joyful:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.

With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Fortunately, we have more than a poem to tell us the story. Our Gospel today shows the ‘joy door’ thrown wide open for the wise men at Bethlehem; in fact, St. Matthew tells us “they were overwhelmed with joy.”

This shouldn’t surprise us, because it’s just what Isaiah prophesied many centuries before. The Lord’s dawning not only draws nations and kings to Him, it makes them radiant; it thrills and brings rejoicing. Nothing less than overwhelming joy could have fulfilled the prophetic promise.

The Magi may have arrived in obedience, but they depart in delight. They entered by the duty door but they leave by the door of abiding joy.

On this great feast of Epiphany, let’s ask ourselves “Which is my door to Christ?” The door of dutiful obedience symbolized by the Sunday obligation, which gets us to Mass when we’d rather be sleeping in? Or the door of joyful worship, that fills our hearts with energy as we head to church?

As I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with the duty door. It represents important values like discipline and perseverance. But the glory the Lord revealed to the nations at his coming, the glory that abides in His Church today—is joy itself.

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” St. Paul writes, “Again I say rejoice!” The apostle is emphatic. To meet Jesus is to know deep and lasting joy—not so much a feeling or a sense of pleasure as a basic disposition. (The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 577).

Christian joy isn’t based on what happened to us today; it’s based on what happened at Bethlehem for all time. And as I said a few weeks ago, such joy doesn’t depend on good fortune but on faith that Christ has come in to the world.

Isaiah invites us to lift up our eyes and look around so that we might truly see. Today’s feast is the perfect time to take stock—look at the manger, focus on the altar, that we might really see what’s happened for us and continues to happen. The light that’s shone, symbolized by the star at Bethlehem, can make listless Christians radiant. The kings paid homage with symbolic gifts so that we might pay homage with joyful hearts.

If it’s been just a dutiful Christmas, let’s ask the Lord to open wide the door of joy for us: today, and every day of the year ahead. Once opened, it’s a door that no discouragement or difficulty can close.

[The icon is by Steve Knight, art teacher at our school; it graces the cover of this week's bulletin.]

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mother of God

Last week my father joined the ranks of heretics—for about ten minutes. Please don’t tell him I told you!

He was reading the local paper and came across a letter to the editor from a Protestant minister who was responding to a recent article on Mary. The minister was debunking the title “Mother of God.” Mary was the mother of Jesus, he admitted, and Jesus was God, but that doesn’t make her the mother of God, since God can’t have a mother.

Mary, the letter concluded, can only be called the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God. This argument, Dad concluded, made good sense.

“And so it does,” I told him, “Except for the fact that the Church decided the matter once and for all at the Council of Ephesus in 431 by affirming Mary as the Mother of God, as she had been called as early as the year 180.”

“You just signed on for the Nestorian heresy,” I told my father with a grin.

In celebrating Mary as the Mother of God today, we join the Church of the ages in doing two things. The secondary thing is honouring our Blessed Mother. But the primary thing is professing her Son as true God and true Man.

A parishioner is reading a book by Mark Shea, a former Protestant, that reminds us that all four of the Church’s infallible teachings about Mary—her divine Motherhood, her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, and her assumption into heaven—“all illuminate or protect something crucial about Jesus and/or us.” [Mark Shea, Mary, Mother of the Son, Volume Two: First Guardian of the Faith, p. 17]

My first pastor told me never to preach more than five minutes on New Year’s Day, and I have followed his rule for more than twenty years. But if you would like to read more of Mark Shea’s detailed treatment of the dogma that Mary is Mother of God, and its many consequences, do check out his website.

For now, we can focus on one simple fact: knowing Mary as truly God’s mother leaves no room for doubting that Jesus is true God and true Man. Knowing Mary as Mother of God means knowing her Son as the Word made Flesh…the central truth of Christmas.
And thus Mary “doesn’t just protect the Son of Man, she protects all of us.” [p. 53]