Friday, December 24, 2010

Mass at Dawn: Connecting to Christmas

Just give me a second here. I want to check my Facebook page.

Sorry for the interruption. Now as we gather on this Christmas morning… Oh sorry, someone just tweeted me.

Oh all right. Although at least one out of every fourteen people in the world has a Facebook account, I don't. And the only tweets I hear come from the birdbath in the rectory garden. I just wanted to get your attention!

Still, the movie "The Social Network," was definitely my favorite film of 2010. The picture is built around what one film critic calls "a melancholy paradox": a student named Mark Zuckerberg invented the social-networking internet site Facebook that now has more than 500 million members. But Zuckerberg himself "is so egotistical, work-obsessed, and withdrawn that he can't stay close to anyone."

Mark Zuckerberg is a peculiar fellow, if the film is to be believed, but he'll certainly go down in history for connecting people.

Facebook is just the most visible of the slew of modern ways of staying connected that started with e-mail, moved to instant messaging, texting, blogging, and then in the past eight years social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace, and of course Facebook.

Like much else in the modern world, these media are a mixed blessing. They allow families and friends to stay in touch despite great distances, and at little cost. But studies show that social networking has antisocial consequences for many.

One thing's for sure: social networking offers Christians both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is obvious: used wisely, these media allow the Gospel message to be spread in a highly effective way. The Vatican offers a virtual library on its excellent website, while our own Archdiocese not only has a website but a Facebook page and a channel on YouTube for videos. You can even "follow" the Archdiocese on Twitter, the service that sends short updates to cell phones. The BC Catholic has its own website, and a blog called "the Busy Catholic."

And similar sites specifically for young people are hosted by the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry.

The Archbishop thinks these media are so important that he's asked us to hand out cards with the archdiocesan website on them as a way of welcoming both visitors and regular parishioners to the Church's on-line presence this Christmas.

Even our own parish got into the act: we put an ad in the North Shore News this week promoting the website, which features the Archbishop of Washington DC talking about Christmas.

But all of these electronic developments—exciting to some, scary to others—are nothing compared to the challenge that faces each one of us this morning. Are we here to "connect" to Christmas?

Are we like Mark Zuckerberg, whose Facebook friends are more virtual than real? Or are we like the shepherds who want a face-to-face encounter with the child Jesus?

And the biggest challenge of all: are we opening our hearts like Mary did, so that God himself can communicate with us?

The Gospel this morning shows us how to connect with Christmas. The shepherds lead us in the way of action: "Let's go!" they say. "Let us go to Bethlehem." It's the road we also must take to meet Jesus—not in a dream world, not in theory, but in the concrete circumstances of our lives. We need to ask ourselves right now "Where should I be heading? Where concretely is Jesus waiting for me?"

The opening prayer for this Mass reminds us that Christmas has consequences: "Father, we are filled with the new light by the coming of your Word among us. May the light of faith shine in our words and actions." For some this means meeting Jesus in what Mother Teresa called "the distressing disguise of the poor." For others it's an invitation to turn away from sin and self-centeredness.

For each of us, connecting with Jesus requires persevering in prayer, like Mary did. We need to ponder the message of this day in the depths of our heart. Can we find ten minutes behind a closed door to let ourselves treasure what we have heard and seen this day?

It's possible, of course, that there's no door you can close today in the middle of your hectic family celebration—there's no real chance at home today for contemplating the mystery of the birth of Christ. We have an answer to that problem: with the bulletin you'll receive a brochure that offers twelve ways of celebrating spiritually during the traditional twelve days of Christmas between now and the Epiphany.

They are delightful suggestions that would help almost anyone deepen and prolong the joy of Christmas. They are simple ideas that will, in the words of our Prayer After Communion, "increase our understanding and our love of the riches revealed" in Christ.

Thinking, serving, celebrating—these are all ways we "connect" to Christmas. Even websites and social media can connect us to the message of good news and salvation, and draw us closer to the kingdom where God reigns. Yet the ultimate connection is with Jesus Himself, and for that there is no substitute for the Mass. At every Mass the Lord fulfills the promise of salvation, pours out His Spirit on us, and communicates Himself to us. He becomes our Friend in a personal and intimate way that no social network can begin to touch.

So let us hasten to Bethlehem every Sunday, to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen today.

A blessed and happy Christmas to all, especially to Rob and Mary and family, since he inspired this blog in the first place!

Midnight Mass: Don’t Swap for Trinkets

Christmas arrived early at our house. The entire staff of St. Anthony's School came to dinner at the rectory last week and exchanged Christmas presents.

But the gifts came with a catch: they were almost all tacky. There was a Scotch tape dispenser shaped like a high-heeled shoe, a miniature set of bowling pins shaped like nuns, and similarly bizarre items.

If you were lucky enough to get a gift that wasn't in bad taste, you quickly lost it, since the complicated rules of the game allowed people to swap their present with one that had already been opened by someone else.

And while I was out in the kitchen, the teachers managed to hide the worst gifts all over the rectory. I can't open a cupboard without finding items that make the dollar store look like Birks Jewelers! If you forgot to buy a gift for someone you really don't like, see me after Mass and I'll offer you a wide selection!

But even tacky clouds have a silver lining. The gift exchange got me thinking about tonight's homily.

Because it struck me that in real life we sometimes reverse the rules of the teachers' gift exchange: we swap the most precious gifts for things or experiences that are of little or no value at all.

We give up the best for second-best, or even for the worst of all.

Tonight the light penetrates the darkness, and delight confounds despair. So why do I swap the light for the shadows, or joy for passing pleasures that can only weary and weaken me?

I don't know the answer to that question; it seems to make no sense to turn from the gentle light of Christ towards the harsh glare of the world and its foolish ways. But even if I don't know why we humans tend to prefer the darkness to the dawn, I do know this: the birth of Christ at Bethlehem is the answer to the violence, misunderstandings, addictions, fears, and hopelessness of our world.

Perhaps I should be more direct: this holy night offers each of us lasting freedom from the violence, misunderstandings, addictions, fears, and hopelessness that stop us from being "the best version of ourselves."

Let's be clear on this. Christmas is not kid stuff. St. Paul tells us that God has saved us, redeemed us, and purified us for himself. Christmas is the source of the grace and strength we need to live lives "that are self-controlled, upright and godly."

In modern jargon, Christmas empowers us. The light that shone through the night sky over Bethlehem now shines in our hearts—a light that warms us with the knowledge of God's love, and a light that heals us with the power of his mercy.

This simply can't be reduced to a children's story. Think for a moment of the dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners. After more than two months underground, ingenious human efforts brought the 33 captive miners to safety. No wonder it made headlines around the world.

But imagine the headlines if the rescue tube that brought up the miners had been used instead to deliver a rescuer. What would we have thought if someone had said, okay, I'll use the hole you've drilled to go down and join the men? I'll stay with them underground and help you figure out how to get us up again.

Now that would be a headline. But Christmas is far bigger news—that God came down to earth to share our danger, our isolation, our ills and our pains. And he came with a rescue plan that cannot fail if we're willing to follow it.

This is the "good news of great joy" that the angel announced to the shepherds as they shivered with fear. Good news, they said, for all the people. For you and me, in our unique struggles, worries and sin.

The good news offers a way out. Isn't that what Isaiah proclaimed when he said that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light?

The good news offers a way out of addiction and despair. Isn't that what Isaiah meant when he said the yoke and rod the oppressor has been broken?

There will be a few moments of quiet time after the homily; I invite you to look into your heart for dark spots that need the light to shine on them. Let light penetrate the darkness, and let delight confound despair.

God invites us tonight to accept the gift he offers us and to reject all the tawdry and tacky substitutes the world proposes.

Certainly, that's a tall order in the middle of the night. So please take home a bulletin—it comes with a pamphlet that suggests ways of celebrating the traditional "twelve days of Christmas," marking each day between now and the Epiphany in a different way.

This holy night deserves our full-hearted response and the brochure can help us make it in concrete ways.

Let us walk in the light of the Lord's love revealed at Bethlehem. Whatever our situation, we are loved by Him. Our first and last thought this day should be that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pour Out Your Spirit (Advent 3.A)

I had a visit last week with my friend Father Benedict Groeschel, who is the most popular spiritual writer and speaker New York has produced since the days of Fulton J. Sheen. At 78, he has survived a heart attack, a stroke, and being run down by a car. With his cane and grey beard, he looks every inch the wise old man.

When Father Benedict asked how I'd been doing since our last meeting a year ago, I said "I'm doing fine, though I'm not as holy—or as thin—as I'd like to be."

He slowly leaned forward in his chair and replied, "Welcome to the club!"

Few of us, whether saints or sinners, are satisfied with ourselves. We make and break promises to ourselves, we slacken off, we don't feel we're making any progress. It can be disappointing or even frustrating.

Today's first reading can help. Isaiah paints a picture of an arid desert blooming with flowers; then he calls us to forget our spiritual arthritis and to jump with joy. It's a positive and hope-filled vision. But the prophet keeps us guessing—where do we find this strength and energy? What's the source?

I got part of the answer from my friend Heather who was in Palm Desert with her husband while I was shivering back East. She e-mailed me pictures from her holiday: photos of palm trees, swimming pools, and lush and beautiful fairways. It was almost enough to make me want to play golf!

But the background of some of the pictures showed the brown and bare slopes of the San Bernardino mountains—a reminder that every drop of water and every blade of rich green grass came from irrigation. Palm Springs advertises itself with the slogan "Like no place else." The truth is, without massive irrigation, it would literally be "no place."

There's the key to defeating the dryness of our spiritual lives—we need to be watered. My soul is a desert that won't flower unless it's soaked: Soaked by what Isaiah calls the rain of righteousness that pours down from heaven (45:8). His words are used in the entrance antiphon for next Sunday's Mass, the ancient verse Rorate coeli that calls the skies to open so that our Saviour might appear on earth.

It's the exact opposite of self-help. St. James says the farmer needs the early and the late rains to produce his crop. Positive thinking and even hard work will get him nowhere if the rain doesn't fall. So too with us: we need to be watered by God's Spirit if the dry soil of our lives is to be made green and fruitful.

By the way, there's something in this text that youth and the elderly should pay close attention to: St. James says both the early and the late rains are needed—in other words, the fields need water in both the autumn and the spring. We need the outpouring of God's Spirit at every stage of our Christian lives: the very elderly can bloom spiritually with God's help, just as the youngest can produce abundant fruit even at the beginning of their faith journey.

And it's all because God does the work! St. Paul says to the Corinthians: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow." (1 Cor. 3:6) We see the same thing in today's Psalm: It is the Lord who keeps faith, it is the Lord who gives food, it is the Lord who sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, and who raises up all who are bowed down. Not me, not you, but God.

So why do we try so hard when God wants to take over?

I suspect it's partly because we're impatient. We want results now. We want to lose ten pounds in ten days—at least I want to! We cram for exams, and we look for quick and easy returns on investments. Yet St. James says "Be patient!" Like farming, spiritual growth does demand work; the lazy farmer is a poor famer. Jesus said as much when he told us that as we sow, so shall we reap. But the rain from heaven is absolutely necessary, and neither the farmer nor the Christian can be successful without it.

Balancing patience, expectant faith, and personal discipline is a great challenge… too much for one homily or one Sunday. Let's focus on expectant faith as we pass the half-way mark of Advent: what could better than to ask God to pour out his Spirit as we prepare for Christmas?

Surely we all know that even our very best efforts can't ransom captives or make the desert into a garden. Only God can do it—and He will do it, if we ask. That's what St. Peter promised on the first Pentecost, using the words the Lord had spoken through the prophet Joel: "I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity" (Acts 2:17).

I'm not suggesting some vague prayer for spiritual progress. We need to ask specifically, individually, and confidently for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. Do it after Communion today, or before bed tonight. Do it walking in the rain, or on your knees at night. Or get up half an hour early tomorrow and pray at the kitchen table in the dark. Let's all pray this week for the "living water" that Jesus promised the woman at the well; let's pray for a spring of life within that will irrigate our dry hearts and make them green again.

Perhaps you've never prayed such a big prayer before. Maybe it seems too bold or too much for you. Try it anyway, and see what happens.