Saturday, January 1, 2011

Epiphany: Rise Up!

My father was the best alarm clock I ever had. If I said "please wake me up at seven," he never forgot or got the time wrong, and unlike my battery-powered alarm, he never stopped ticking.

Of course there was a price to pay for such efficiency. He had an annoying tendency to knock on my bedroom door and say "rise and shine!" These are not words a teenager wants to hear. Rising's bad enough, but shining was out of the question.

But at the risk of annoying young and old, my message today is just that: rise and shine. Today we're challenged to respond to what we celebrated a week ago; the prophet Isaiah says it's now time to wake up and look at what's going on around us—something marvelous, something extraordinary.

Listen to those words of the prophet: they are an invitation to a deep and personal joy that he can barely describe. We will see and be radiant; our hearts will thrill and rejoice. We'll have wealth beyond measuring.

What does it all mean? I'd put it this way: If your Christmas was par for the course, it's time to change course. If you're not buzzing with the spiritual joy of this season, you need to arise—you need to look around and take stock. God's doing wonders all around us, and it would be a tragedy to miss out.

I'm saying this with some authority this Epiphany. I saw that star rising in the East, in Montreal to be exact! I was there with ten young adults from the parish attending "RiseUp," the annual Christmas conference of Catholic Christian Outreach, the university student movement. Without exaggerating, I can tell you that what I saw made me radiant, made my heart thrill, and my spirit rejoice.

Five hundred young people listened eagerly as powerful speakers proclaimed the Gospel without compromise. They lined up to be blessed. They lined up to go to confession. And they sang hymns of praise like a choir of thousands.

It was living proof, if any were needed, that the light truly has shone in the darkness. At a time of scandal, these students were spending their Christmas break praying and learning about Jesus; they filed past the tomb of the newly canonized St. André with the kind of devotion many think disappeared years ago; their faces, quite simply, shone.

I learned or re-learned three lessons during RiseUp. The first, of course, is that God never gets tired out! Throw a crisis of faith at Him, toss in a few wretched scandals, and He comes up with ever more abundant grace. Write off a generation, and then watch God renew and recharge them, raising up zealous leaders from the young themselves.

The second is that our faith cannot be—must not be—bland or routine. Our faith is glorious! Isaiah tells us that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. He wasn't talking to wise men, or shepherds, or people of his own time. He was talking to people of all time. We're standing in a blaze of glory. How sad to think we might pull on sunglasses of boredom or convention and lower our expectations until they become modest at best.

We shouldn't let the historical side of Christmas obscure its timeless aspect. Certainly the star shone over the manger in Bethlehem, but it shines in our hearts today. So where do we get the idea that this great dawning has turned into a pale sunset?

The young look for what's exciting, not predictable. Many of the young people I saw kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in Montreal were no less overwhelmed by the mystery than were the wise men at Bethlehem.

A third lesson is that God really does plan the Church to be a Church of all nations. CCO was started in Saskatoon by a couple named André and Angèle Regnier. But despite their names, neither Regnier is a francophone, and the movement was firmly English-speaking for 15 years. When CCO's board, of which I'm a member, began to discuss the idea of moving into Quebec, it seemed highly impractical—there is a difference in culture much greater than the language barrier. Yet the leaders of CCO couldn't ignore Quebec, and step by step—beginning by a brave move of the headquarters from Saskatoon to Ottawa—we have become a truly national movement.

An interesting footnote: for some years after Vatican II, Latin seemed to divide the Church. It was the focus of some who were very unhappy with modern liturgical changes. Now, it seems that Latin is again becoming a force for unity in the Church, judging by the way it allowed French and English students to sing the parts of the Mass in a common language.

CCO has one main purpose: to evangelize university students, and to teach them to evangelize others. Despite this focus, it has sent teams of students to China and Africa on mission trips. And missionary societies of priests, sisters, and laity were all represented at the conference, challenging the young to share their gifts even in distant lands.

You might be thinking that I didn't have time to reflect on the readings today and so decided to talk about "how I spent my Christmas holidays." Not true. My experience at RiseUp helped me live the mystery of the Epiphany, helped me pay homage, and allowed me to see the light that shines from the faces of those who behold the Lord.

But you don't need to have gone to Montreal to experience this, any more than you need to be in Bethlehem. Toss aside a narrow view of Christmas. Look around and be radiant—allow yourself to look deeply into what we're celebrating: true and lasting freedom from all that enslaves and oppresses, light that banishes the darkness of death and the fear of death, and a future full of hope.

And if you're a worried parent or grandparent, rejoice that the Church is always finding new ways to bring the light of Christ to your children, even in the toughest times. And rejoice that next year's RiseUp will be here in Vancouver!

Let's all take time today let our heartbeats quicken with the overwhelming truth of what Christ has brought to earth. And then kneel down and pay Him homage.

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