Saturday, November 27, 2010

Taking Care of Business (Advent 1.A)

Lee Kravitz was about my age when he was fired from his important job running an American magazine.

Although he saw it coming, his firing was a huge shock for the workaholic editor. He asked himself the question every unemployed middle-aged man asks: what do I do now?

He tells us how he answered the question in his book "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to do the Right Things." Lee Kravitz decided to use his severance pay to spend a whole year doing things he'd always meant to do, but never managed to accomplish—important things that had been set aside in his frantic life.

He looked up a mentally ill aunt he had once loved but come to ignore. He called on an old friend whose daughter had been ambushed in Iraq—and to whom he'd never managed to write a sympathy note.

Kravitz reached out to a friend he'd ignored for thirty years, despite having serious worries about his safety in Pakistan. He got in touch with a professor whose lectures had changed his life, but whom he'd never got around to thanking. He looked up a wonderful friend from university who had become a monk, and he worked to promote healing in his family by finding the truth about an ancient feud.

Notice that none of these things were making amends for wrongdoing—he was simply doing the good that he'd failed to do. He does make amends for a couple of things—a broken promise, an unpaid debt—but basically his year was spent doing the right things he'd always wanted to do.

It was, in other words, more of an Advent journey than a Lenten one. He wasn't doing penance, he was catching up on the things that matter. In Lee Kravitz's own words "We consign most of our most essential business to the bottom of our to-do list because we lack the time and energy to do the things that matter most in our lives well." But when he tackled the things that matter, he found that "great rewards will follow."

If this is true, it is true for believer and non-believer, Christian and non-Christian alike; Kravitz himself is Jewish.

But we Christians have not only special reasons but special seasons for doing the things that matter most. Advent and Lent are not only times of penitential preparation—they're our annual wake-up calls. Our time is now; we strive to live in constant readiness for the Lord's return. Christians don't need a mid-life crisis to make us to act.

All of us have "unfinished business," but there's no reason for it to pile up like a stack of unpaid bills. "You know what time it is," St. Paul tells us: "it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep."

Jesus makes the point even more directly: "Keep awake… for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."

Spiritual alertness is central to the Christian life. From the time of Jesus to the present day the Church has waited for his return. The manana approach—saying "there's always tomorrow"—will never lead us to the Kingdom. We live what is sometimes called "the sacrament of the present moment," the belief that God wants to be present to us now, in the immediate circumstances of our lives, and not tomorrow, or next week.

One way to live the sacrament of the present moment is to be aware that God is always with us—to stop and acknowledge his presence in and around us. But another is to take care of unfinished business, because Jesus taught us that doing good to his brother and sisters means doing good to him.

Advent is the perfect time for both. The nearness of Christmas translates easily into the nearness of Christ, if we stay clear of the season's excesses. And the nearness of Christ is a constant invitation to do the right things as the perfect preparation for his birth in our hearts.

Our call to action today is fundamental, and comes from the Word of God. But the extraordinary year of Lee Kravitz can at least inspire us to have an extraordinary Advent. We need to grab some paper and a pen before bed tonight, or together after supper, and write down three things we'd be sorry we forgot to do for others if the Lord came tomorrow.

Each of us will have a different list. For some it will be expressing overdue thanks, for others paying overdue debts. But for all of us the list can be a reminder that the only day we really have is today: we know that now is the time.

So let's respond to our Advent wakeup call by taking care of unfinished business… bringing peace to our family, our friends, and ourselves.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Christ the King (Year C)

A few years before he was overthrown in 1952, King Farouk of Egypt said "The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left—the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds."

He wasn't quite right. Although several kings lost their thrones in the second half of the twentieth century, at least one—the King of Spain—got his back.

But modern monarchs bear little resemblance to those who reigned in 1925, the year when Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King. Even if they had already lost most of their political power, kings were given enormous respect and deference. In most countries, they embodied the national spirit, and elaborate systems of protocol set them apart from ordinary citizens.

It is safe to say that no-one in 1925 would have imagined a future King of England producing an engagement ring from a backpack! Scandinavian monarchs doing grocery shopping or Belgian royalty on bicycles would have seemed equally odd. Life in palaces isn't what it used to be.

So what did Pius XI have in mind when he proclaimed this feast 85 years ago?

We don't need to guess, because the Pope answered that question in an encyclical letter (Quas primas).He starts by showing three reasons why Christ is already, and without doubt, our unique and eternal King.

First, because God's people had already acclaimed Christ as their King. He reigned in human hearts, because his mercy and kindness drew all humanity to him. Never has it been known, the Pope wrote, nor will it ever be, that a man was loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ.

Second, because we read throughout the Scriptures that Christ is King. Pope Pius gives numerous scripture quotations, including some we read on this feast in other years although none from today's Mass. He draws particular attention to the Psalms and the prophets, including the famous text from which Canada gets its national motto: "he shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."

And of course he quotes the angel's words to Mary announcing that she should bear a Son: "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father, and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

The third reason is that Christ is our Redeemer. By purchasing us at the cost of his own blood, Christ has a claim on us even through his sacred humanity. We owe obedience and loyalty to the one who has saved us.

But why did Pius XI feel it was important to give the Church this celebration at that particular time? Two reasons stand out clearly in his letter: because the world needed it and the Church needed it.

In 1925 the seeds of fascism, Nazism, and communism had begun to sprout. Atheistic ideologies rejected any role for God and the Church in human affairs. In his first encyclical after being chosen Pope in 1922, Pius XI had written "With God and Jesus Christ excluded from political life… human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation."

In his encyclical instituting today's feast, the Pope wrote "once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony."

The Kingship of Christ also rebukes the abuse of power by the State: it reminds rulers of the last judgment, where Christ, cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will avenge the insults paid to him and to his faithful ones; "for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education."

The political evils of 1925 are different than those of 2010, but the need for Christ's kingly rule is as great as ever, particularly as we confront the evil of abortion. The present Pope has asked the entire Church to join him this Saturday in a vigil of prayer for the unborn; our local Church will gather at the Cathedral at 7 p.m. If Christ were seated before us on his kingly throne, would he not command rather than invite us to be there? And would we obey?

So the world needs to know that Christ is King. But we who already know that also need this feast. The second reason Pope Pius gave for instituting it was for the good of the faithful. By meditating upon these truths, he wrote, we will gain strength and courage, and be able to form our lives after the true Christian ideal.

To my mind, here are the most stirring words of the entire letter: "If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.

"He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls."

Our minds, our wills, our hearts, our bodies. Does Christ rule over them? That's a question all of us might well think about today.

But perhaps it's too big a question for the moment. Let me focus it in light of what I learned at the priests' study week from which I have just returned. When I arrived for the study week, I thought we were going to talk about the new translation of the Mass which will arrive in a year or so. But the real subject was the Mass itself—what it means to celebrate worthily and well these sacred mysteries.

And looking ahead to our parish feast day, I realized that we cannot celebrate the liturgy well if we do not accept Christ as our Redeemer and King.

In recent years, it was fashionable to "take ownership" of the Sunday liturgy. Priests in some places changed things around to suit themselves or their parishioners. Myself, I did all in my power to avoid the famous accusation "But Mass is so boring!" We may have emphasized fellowship before and after Mass at the expense of silence and preparation; we may have come to Mass more like consumers than humble subjects of God's divine majesty.

Even the first translators of the Mass from Latin into English were encouraged to "take ownership" of the liturgical texts. Part of the ancient heritage of the Church got lost in the process, which is why we will have a new missal in a year or eighteen months.

But no changes will make the slightest difference unless we approach the Eucharist each Sunday in the way Pope Pius, and every Pope, has taught: in a spirit of holy joy that shows that we are Christ's subjects as well as his friends. As we prepare for a new missal with major changes in the Mass texts, I hope we can reflect together on how we ought to approach the Mass and how we ought to participate in it: with hearts, minds, wills and bodies all placed in obedient service to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Notice that even our bodies should speak a liturgical language of reverence and submission, whether we're in Church to pray alone or to participate at Mass. Each of us needs to try our best to make sure that in all the gestures we makethe sign of the cross in particularand in every posture we take—kneeling, sitting or standing—we are mindful of the royal presence of Christ.

But our bodies must reflect what is in our minds and wills. And here we face constant temptations to shove Christ off his royal throne, or at least to say "move over, I want a seat." We're educated, we read widely, and we live and work in a post-Christian culture. It's all too easy to claim authority for ourselves at the expense of the obedience we owe as subjects of Christ.

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, is the ideal moment to recommit ourselvesas individuals, and as a parish community—to his loyal service: to humble, faithful and reverent participation in the Mass, to generous concern for the least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and to obedient acceptance of what his Church teaches and commands in his name.

In the words of Pope Pius XI, let us bear Christ's yoke, not as a burden but with joy, with love, with devotion; that having lived our lives in accordance with the laws of God's kingdom, we may receive abundant good fruit; and, counted good and faithful servants by Christ, may be made sharers with him in eternal happiness and glory in his heavenly kingdom.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Things Come Out Right in the End (33.C)

You've probably heard me talk about Stuart McLean, and his CBC radio program, The Vinyl Café. The characters on the Vinyl Café, Dave and Morley, and their two kids Stephanie and Sam, are almost real to me, and their adventures make me laugh and sometimes cry. For me, they're as Canadian as maple syrup and Tim Hortons.

I've got tickets to see Stuart McLean in a couple of weeks, and I'm getting ready by listening to some Vinyl Café stores on CD. One of them tells how 11 year-old Sam managed to predict a couple of future events. Astonished by what were in fact nothing more than coincidences, Sam tells his best friend Murphy "I think I'm psycho."

(Being a good pal, Murphy's too polite to say "I think you mean psychic.")

In any case, the more Sam convinces himself of his power to predict the future, the more upset he becomes, until finally he goes to a storefront fortune-teller, Madam Nina, and confides his troubles. Madam Nina, who despite her exotic name wears jeans and a baseball cap, treats Sam kindly—most people in Stuart McLean's world treat one another kindly—and tells him not to worry.

"Things come out right in the end," Madam Nina explains.

But even for an eleven-year, at least one as smart as Sam, that answer wasn't enough.

"But what if things don't come out right in the end," Sam presses Madam Nina.

"Then it isn't the end," she replies.

And there, direct from your radio, is a fine homily on today's Gospel, and some pretty good advice besides.

Many of us think that our Christian faith should protect us from misfortune. We can come to see the main purpose of prayer as warding off disease and disaster; we pray that we, and especially our loved ones, will be spared trials and troubles—and even our prayer itself seems to bring out our fears.

Today's Gospel tells us that faith is not a guarantee against tribulations. Did the good people of London not pray during the Blitz? Did the people of Haiti fail to pray before the devastating earthquake? Are they failing to ward off cholera by more prayer?

Jesus predicts wars, earthquakes, and plagues. Even worse, he predicts the persecution and martyrdom of his closest followers. So where, exactly, do we get the idea that "things will come out right in the end"? Certainly not from today's Gospel.

Unless, of course, we believe that this isn't the end. That our personal pains, world-wide conflicts, and even natural disasters are all evils that Christ the Redeemer will overcome for us if we endure in faith and hope.

And of course we don't need to rely on the authority of Madam Nina. St. Paul tells us "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

Of course we're pitiable creatures if Christ has given us hope only for this earthly life—because we know how it ends. None of us escapes death, and to escape grief you must die before anyone you love, which seems a pretty poor solution to the problem. Either Christian hope extends beyond the grave, or it's a hope not worth having.

At this point I have to say that it's natural to worry about earthly things. If there are bombs overhead, or tremors underneath, they activate natural impulses of anxiety and fear. Naturally, you'll worry more about your husband's heart than his soul when he's getting an angiogram.

But the natural needs to be met by the supernatural. When wars break out, when disaster strikes, or when persecution begins, it's the cue for a Christian to take heart—to hear the words of Jesus, to repeat them in hope. "Do not be terrified… By your endurance you will gain your souls."

Dark days, whether they happen today, tomorrow, or at the end of the world, are not signs that God has forgotten us; they are moments to remember that God has forgiven us. They're not exceptions to the rule, Jesus tells us, they are the rule: "these things must take place."

They must take place so that Christ's victory can be revealed—revealed in our lives, and ultimately in His return in glory.

We don't need a storefront psychic to tell us that if things don't come out right in the end, then it's not the end. Christ our King tells us that and more: Not a hair on our heads will perish—for those who revere His name, the sun of righteousness will rise from even the deepest darkness, healing, restoring, and redeeming.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Remembering the Dead

Every year Remembrance Day reminds me of visiting the British War Cemetery in Rome. The British military has an interesting custom: it allows the families of fallen soldiers to choose a short inscription for their tombstone.

Some of those I saw were rather quaint. One read "Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Pat."

But one epitaph stopped me in my tracks. The tombstone read "One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord."

These are the dying words of Saint Monica to her two sons, one of whom was the future Saint Augustine. She told her children not to worry about where they buried her; she cared only that they prayed at Mass for her soul.

How wise the parents of that dead soldier! I have now forgotten his name, but for many years I prayed for him, and I will pray for him at Mass today.

For Catholics do not just remember the dead; we pray for the dead.

Prayer for the dead is one of the hallmarks of our faith. From its beginning, the Church has offered prayers for the dead, above all the Mass.

Prayer for the dead is motivated by two key Catholic teachings: first, the resurrection of the dead. If we do not believe that the dead will rise, if we do not have hope in the eternal reward, such prayer has no purpose.

Secondly, we pray for the dead because we believe in purgatory.

Purgatory is the name given to the final purification of those who die in God's friendship, but who are not ready yet to enter the joy of heaven. We believe that there is a process that cleanses those who are already saved, but who haven't quite the holiness needed to meet God.

It's not a bad thing to wake up in Purgatory! Father Benedict Groeschel says he looks forward to it!

He explains why by quoting the fine Anglican writer C.S. Lewis, who puts it this way: Imagine arriving at an important party in shabby clothes, without having brushed your teeth for days. If someone at the door gave you the chance to take some time to clean up and change, would you say "oh, no thanks, I'll go straight in and meet the host"?

But since we are members of the Body of Christ, joined in solidarity with one another, we can help one another during this time of purification. We can pray for the souls in purgatory, and they can pray for us.

More to the point: we must pray for the souls in purgatory; it is a duty we have in charity to all, and in justice to those who have done us good.

Last Tuesday was the day of days for praying for our dead and for all the dead, All Souls Day. Mass on All Souls Day was never a holy day of obligation, but churches were usually full. In fact, when I was a young priest, I used to complain that we packed the church for All Souls and left them half-empty on the glorious feast of All Saints the day before.

Well, we have no such problem at Christ the Redeemer: the church was half-empty both days! Even though I offered three Masses on November 2nd, as the rules permit, fewer than one in five of our parishioners attended in total, if you exclude the children who came to Mass with the school.

What does this say? That you are less devout than the parishioners of the past? I don't think so. That you are more busy?—well, that's for sure.

But after thinking about it for a few days, I think it says one thing most of all: we need to shore up one of the foundations of Catholic culture.

Notice I said culture; it's not about faith. There's probably no-one here who doesn't believe in the resurrection of the dead. Only a few have doubts about Purgatory. But we are no longer helped along by customs and a culture that made it easier to do the right thing in past years.

Good Catholics didn't ask "shall we go to Mass on All Souls." They didn't ask one another "Are you going to Mass on All Souls." For the most part they said "Which Mass?"

Again, it was never commanded by the Church; a rule wasn't necessary. A sense of duty led us to Mass on November 2nd.

If the importance of Catholic culture isn't clear to you, just think about poppies. Is there a law about wearing poppies? Is there a by-law that says we must be silent at 11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month?

Of course not. Our shared values and history direct us to act on a certain way on Remembrance Day… just as they used to do for Catholics on All Souls.

It's time to reclaim what we have lost, to rethink the lost decades when we've been trying too hard to be like everyone else—not standing out by heading to the Cathedral on our lunch hour on All Souls or Ash Wednesday, not arranging our social lives to accommodate great feasts or fasts, not doing things together as members of one Body.

The seven brothers who died sooner than violate the Jewish dietary laws against eating pork had faith; they believed in the resurrection. But they were also made strong by culture. They were united in belief with one another, and with their heroic mother—who, I'm sorry to say, gets cut out of the story this morning. In fact, when she was urged by the King to talk her youngest and last son out of his martyrdom, she took the opportunity to encourage him.

It wasn't only faith that kept those eight true to their beliefs when they were put to the test; they were strengthened also by belonging to a culture, a community of shared convictions.

The entire month of November is a month of prayer for our dead. Let us be united in mind and heart with the Church in heaven, the Church on earth, and the Church in Purgatory as we pray together for the faithful departed.

And may that prayer not only bring them closer to heaven, but us closer to them and stronger in our Catholic beliefs, customs, and culture.