Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day 2012: We Are Family

This morning I repeated some of what I'd said in my homily at midnight--on the assumption that folks who attended that Mass weren't likely to be in church again at 9 a.m. But I changed the introduction, which I offer below.

Christmas mornings are my happiest childhood memories—though I’m not sure my parents enjoyed them as much as I did. They’d often be up into the wee hours assembling and wrapping presents, which was impossible to do so while the five kids were awake, but then they’d find us at the foot of their bed at six a.m., raring to go.

Although we were always keen to see what Santa had left us, we knew better than to go downstairs on our own. Every year, my Dad would put on his housecoat and go ahead to turn on the lights on the Christmas tree before we arrived in the living room.

I remembered all this at 7:30 this morning, as I donned my warmest bathrobe and slippers and ran across the parking lot to open the church. I wanted to sleep for every possible minute of the five hours between the midnight Mass and this one so I was prepared risk getting caught in that undignified get-up.

As I raced up the steps, words on the banner hanging outside caught my eye: “we are family.”  And all of a sudden, I thought to myself: “yes, we are.” Yes, by any definition and any measure, our community at Christ the Redeemer is a familyit’s not a slogan.

The same thing struck me at Midnight Mass last night. We begin with a procession to the crib, and traditionally the Baby Jesus is carried by a youngster. But by 11:30 there was no sign of a child the right age. The next thing you know, these two tall servers began to move through the crowd like a pair of Mounties looking for an escaped criminal.

Like the Mounties, they got their man—more precisely, a little girl. She came quietly, to be sure, but I wondered how she’d manage separated from her parents as we waited for Mass. I needn’t have worried: one of her captors sat beside her right up until Mass, and her face just shone as he paid her his full attention.

The kind altar server was just one of dozens of parishioners who gave their time and talents so that our Midnight Mass would be everything a Christmas liturgy ought to be. And, like his parents in the choir loft, he’s back on duty six and a half hours after he went home.

It’s no idle boast: we are family.  And so we mean it when we say 'welcome home!'

Last night at midnight we visited Bethlehem. But it was at Jerusalem that Christ completed the mission for which He was born. Our salvation dawned at Bethlehem, where the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared. But he saved us at Jerusalem, not because of any works or righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.

Isn’t that typical of a family? We belong because we belong, not because we somehow deserve it.

As the poet Robert Frost wrote,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas 2012: Welcome Home!

We are family: welcome home!

You may have seen those words on the banner outside the church; you may have heard them—or words like them—on television. For twelve days the Catholic Church of Vancouver has been saying “Catholics come home,” and we hope that some of you are here tonight because you heard that invitation.

Catholics come home. Home to your local parish? Certainly, for a family has to gather.

But tonight I’d like to welcome you home to a place far from West Vancouver. Welcome home… to Bethlehem. For there would be no Catholic Church, no church at all, if Mary had not given birth at Bethlehem, and placed her newborn in a manger for all ages to adore.

Some of us have wandered far from Bethlehem—far from the innocent wonder that we felt as children on this holy night. Caught up in the cares of adulthood, we have lost the ability to sing with the angels and to share the pure and holy joy of faith in God’s only Son, the Prince of Peace.

We’ve looked for relief from pain and found none; we’ve looked for freedom, only to become enslaved. Success promised us a happy future and delivered more strain and stress than we can handle.

Yet Bethlehem still beckons. The Christ Child still welcomes us.  It’s He—not an announcer on television—who says “welcome.” Welcome to the rough stable from which the brightest of all lights shines into our personal darkness, offering a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that is beyond all human understanding.

We are family as we sing with the angels and wonder with the shepherds—because the Son of God is Son of man, one like us, one of us. Precisely because He is our brother as well as our Lord, we are home at Bethlehem this Christmas night.

To those who may have forgotten how to wonder and to worship, to those who have lost the sense of peace, the Church says tonight “welcome home to Bethlehem.”

And there are other places to visit this night, other places to which the Church welcomes and invites us. Mary and Joseph made their way from Nazareth that first Christmas, and returned there to raise their child. Nazareth, Pope Paul VI said when he visited there, “is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel. 

 First,” he said, “we learn from its silence. …  The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers."

Second, we learn about family life.Nazareth offers a model of what the family should be. It shows us the family’s holy and enduring character and its fundamental place in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings.”

Finally,” Pope Paul concludes, “in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work…”  We learn of its demands and its dignity.

Tonight the Church welcomes us home to Nazareth, where we can see how husband, wife and children can withstand cultural and economic storms by living the truths taught in that holy home.

Tonight the Church says “welcome home to silence.” Welcome home to meditation and prayer that can still the chaos of this noisy world. Welcome home to a vision of your daily work that can give it deeper meaning and purpose, and ease some of its burdens by transforming them.

Bethlehem and Nazareth. Enough homecomings for one Christmas? No, because the story isn’t finished. It ends in Jerusalem, and to this holiest of cities the Church welcomes us as well.

At Jerusalem, the same Christ we celebrate tonight completed the mission for which He was born. There, He broke the rod of our oppressor; there He snapped the bar that had been laid across our shoulders, yoking us and weighing us down. There He broke the bonds of sin and death—freeing us from the darkest of all our fears—because there He rose from the dead.

The Church welcomes us home to Jerusalem because what Jesus accomplished there he did for us. It was our flesh He ransomed, in our flesh He rose.

In fact, when we say “Catholics come home”  most of all we are saying “come home to Jerusalem”—to the heavenly Jerusalem of which each Mass is a foretaste. Each Sunday the Mass takes the believer as close to the risen Saviour as you can get this side of heaven. Is it any wonder that we hope you will share this miracle with us every week?

I offer Mass at an altar—an altar being from ancient times a place of sacrifice. But it is a table, too, and we miss the baptized who are not around the table, just as you will miss those who aren’t with you at dinner tomorrow, especially if some family conflict or misunderstanding is the cause.

Finally, this journey to sacred places on this holy night must take us to Rome.  Not without reason you’ll see the majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica on our Catholics Come Home banner. Jesus, of course, never saw Rome. It represents for us something different than Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.

Rome is the center of unity for Catholics. It’s where the truths Jesus taught are preserved from error and where we have a visible sign of His continuing presence as our teacher and guide. It’s a historical place where the perfect life of Jesus meets the imperfect lives of his human followers. Rome has seen some of Christianity’s finest moments, and some of its worst; saints and sinners have followed St. Peter, the first Pope—reminding us that Jesus chose ordinary people, not angels, to carry on his mission.

When we say “welcome home” to Catholics who have been away for a while, we’re not welcoming them to a perfect party.  We say “we are family,” and so we are. But a priest friend of mine often remarks that we are a messy family—just like those we’ll join for Christmas dinner. Uncle Fred, who drinks too much, and Aunt Mildred with her nasty put-downs.  And maybe even Cousin Harold, who just got out on parole.

A messy family, to be sure. But a family that is at home in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, and one that will help you find a welcome in the heavenly city when your days are over.

We are family. Welcome home.

Advent IV: Charity at Christmas

I’m sorry, but you missed the homily—at least the best part of it.

As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and the rows of bags and boxes that filled every inch of available space in our hallways preached a sermon about Christian care for our brothers and sisters this Christmas.

I’ve never seen such an outpouring of generosity in any parish, although I’m told our Christmas miracle is repeated in many churches, Catholic and otherwise. And of course your generosity didn’t just donate groceries: there was a lot of hard work involved in sorting and delivering them. Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society spent more time at church this week than I did!

The sight of the Christmas hampers made me grateful for the Christian commitment and charity of our parishioners, particularly the tireless workers from our parish St. Vincent de Paul Society. But at the same time, they reminded me that the Church does something important when it invites other members of the local community to join us in reaching out to those who need support at Christmas. 

It’s likely that the folks at Whole Foods who donated enormous amounts of food and those at Safeway, who provided fifty bags of groceries, include people of different faiths or none. Yet they responded to the spirit of the season in partnership with us, and surely will themselves be blessed for sharing this initiative with us.* The Church’s mission is not only to help those in need but to help people know that they need to help.

No finer example of this exists than Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin. Pregnant herself, Mary knows what it must mean to the much-older Elizabeth.
While this first meeting between the coming Lord and his future herald has rich meaning for us, today I’ll just emphasize the fact that charity was at the heart of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth.

Moved by the same Holy Spirit who prompted Mary to make such an arduous trip, we share the call to do good in response to the gift that Christ is to each of us at Christmas

But let’s never forget that ‘man does not live on bread alone.’ We must offer the world more than food for the body: every hamper that went out was a message of God’s love for the recipient.

Even more specifically, we want to share with everyone around us the hope that Elizabeth shared with Mary: blessed are those who believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

The current Catholics Come Home campaign is a most effective way of sharing that message. Let’s not wait for the so-called “poinsettia and lily” Catholics to show up on Christmas—let’s invite them and make them welcome.

Ask the Holy Spirit to show you whom to call today with an invitation to Mass on Tuesday. 

On a practical note, I can tell you who you should probably invite first: the family members who have no particular gripe against the Church, but who just got out of the habit of coming to Mass. I was fascinated by a magazine article that explained how Barack Obama was reelected president despite very low approval ratings and much opposition. The campaign, it would seem, didn’t try to change anybody’s mind about him or his policies. Instead, the strategy was to get the people who weren’t against the president to get out and vote.

So don’t start with your Uncle Henry who hasn’t been able to stand Catholics since a priest’s dog bit him at 12. But pray for him, too, and listen for the Spirit's prompting.
* Here's the full story:
The St. Vincent de Paul volunteers prepared in total 151 hampers.  We received groceries from our own parishioners and students from St Anthony's, St Pius X and Holy Trinity schools.  Safeway Supermarkets donated 50 bags of groceries whileWhole Foods donated a significant amount of foodstuffs (over 1200 pieces alone).  In total there was close to 7,000 kilos of groceries donated in total.

Hampers were distributed to 9 individuals, whose names we received through the office; and through various parishes (on the North Shore: St Paul's, 20 hampers; St Stephen's, 20 Hampers; Vancouver: Sts Peter & Paul, 20 hampers; St Pat's, 32 hampers; Directions Youth Centre, 5 hampers; Sancta Maria House, 9 hampers.  Forty hampers, with Iraqi-specific food items, were prepared and given to Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Surrey for the Iraqi refugee community there.  Some of the monies donated were used to purchase bulk foods for the Iraqi refugees (rice, sugar, lentils, chick peas).  In addition to the 40 hampers we also brought out a further 200 lbs of chick peas, 40 kilos rice, 48 litres olive oil, 48 kilos flour and some gently used children's winter coats). The SSVP there along with the Iraqis will be able to distribute this as needed. $500 in gift coupons were given to Sacred Heart parish downtown and another $100 to a CTR parishioner.

We had well over 50 volunteers helping to prepare and a further dozen to deliver the hampers. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Voice in the Wilderness! (Advent 2.C)

On Tuesday I mentioned to a very active member of our parish that the Christmas dinner planned for tonight had been cancelled due to poor ticket sales. “Oh,” he said with a look of surprise, “Were we going to have a parish Christmas dinner?”

Twice he’d walked past a table with flashing lights and volunteers in Santa caps. Twice he’d almost have knocked over another volunteer standing at the door wearing flashing lights! And he’d taken home a bulletin featuring a full-colour Christmas tree decorated with knives, forks and spoons—not to mention hearing announcements from the pulpit.

You have to agree that communication in the digital age is sure not easy! I almost wonder whether anyone would notice if the hills really were made low and the valleys filled up.

However, the last time I looked both our local mountains were still standing, and Lynn Valley didn’t fill up overnight. So how will the prophetic voice be heard in the modern wilderness? How is the path to be made smooth for the countless men and women who need the salvation that John the Baptist proclaimed at the top of his voice?

Let me start to answer the question by reminding you that fifty years ago television was called a “vast wasteland” in a famous speech.  What could be more fitting, therefore, than to proclaim Christ and his promise of salvation on television—which is even more of a wilderness today than it was fifty years ago?

Starting this week, commercials inviting Catholics to come home to the Church will air on all the local stations—except, of course, the CBC. (It’s frightened by religious messages, even when they’re paid for.)

These advertisements aren’t like the ones you see for soap. If people like an ad for Tide, they’ll just head off and buy it. The Catholics Come Home ads are more like those for cars—they plant a seed, but in most cases it will take a real person—a salesperson—to sell the car.

Catholics Come Home gives each of us a relatively easy way to invite friends and family back to church. You can ask them if they saw one of the commercials on TV and start a conversation that ends with an invitation. You can send a link to one of the ads by e-mail—they’re all on the web—or put it on Facebook if you’re young enough.

But most of all you can pray. You know the words of the Psalm—unless God builds the house, the builders labour in vain. We’re not selling soap, or cars, but the salvation promised by God. The commercials are a spark which we must fan, but the fire that will warm hearts comes from the Holy Spirit.

In our second reading today, we heard St. Paul tell the Christians at Philippi of his confidence “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” God’s good work in your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbours and friends, began at their baptism. If they have stopped participating in the life of the Church, how will it reach completion unless we call them home?

Every great enterprise begins with a first step.  The first step is to make a list of those near and dear to you who have left the Church.  Then begin to pray for them daily as you ask God to show you the next step. It might be an e-mail; it might be one of the attractive “We Miss You” brochures that offer a personal invitation.

I’ve heard too many stories from sad parents whose children join them in church only at Christmas. Let’s stop feeling helpless in the face of the secular society that has led so many away from the Church—many of them with no beef against the Church, just distraction, confusion or busyness.

With God’s help, it can change. But God will look to us, as he looked to John the Baptist, to be prophetic voices crying out even in the spiritual desert that surrounds us.