Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fulfilled in your hearing! (Sunday 3C)

Today’s Gospel records the shortest homily Jesus ever gave; perhaps the shortest homily anyone ever gave: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus prepared this perfect homily for at least 40 days—this visit to his hometown synagogue follows his time of fasting in the desert, during which he conquered the devil’s three temptations.  And before that, he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

It goes to show you what every good preacher knows: short homilies take much longer to prepare than long ones.

How carefully Jesus must have chosen the passage from Isaiah that describes his mission! The angels must have held their breath hearing its precision that Sabbath day in Nazareth, if only angels had breath to hold.

No speech in Shakespeare, no thundering ovation by Churchill can match the drama of those words “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If the congregation in the synagogue that morning even dimly understood what they’d just heard, they’d all have fainted.

Which brings us to the question: do we understand what Jesus said to them? Because surely he says it to us as well: the ancient promises of God have been fulfilled for all time, for us no less than for the people listening to the Lord in Nazareth.

If you’re not sure how to answer: consider a simpler question. Does your faith bring you more freedom or less? Does it liberate or limit you?

The fact that Christian life demands discipline and sacrifice leads many people to identify it with repression or even oppression of the human spirit. Even some believing Christians secretly—or not so secretly—think life might be simpler, even better, if they didn’t believe.

Contrast this with the words of Isaiah that Jesus makes his own: “he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”

Who is Jesus speaking about? Who are the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed?

Without doubt they are the people in Mother Teresa’s home for the dying, the inmates in maximum security prisons, the visually impaired in countries where this condemns them to isolation and poverty, the people in countries with unjust dictators.

But equally, Jesus is speaking about you and me.

You and I can be poor without needing money: Mother Teresa often reminded the West of the poverty of loneliness.  She said that one of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.

You and I can be prisoners without being in jail. In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul warns of becoming slaves to sin; Jesus himself tells us that no-one can serve two masters and that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.'"

And of course addictions are a form of slavery, robbing us of the freedom and dignity that we’re meant to have.

Physical blindness no longer is the curse it once was, thanks to wonderful changes in social attitudes and technology. But being blind to our faults, blind to our blessings, blind to the goodness of others—this lack of vision is terrible and terrifying.

We can be oppressed through no fault of our own—oppressed by misfortune, injustice, and ill health, especially when life seems to pile on one setback or grief after another.

Jesus is talking about all of this when he preaches to us, here in church today. He stands, as it were, in front of this congregation and says “I am here to bring good news, liberty, sight and freedom.”  In one word, Jesus came to bring salvation.

Pope Paul VI explains this in his encyclical on Evangelization in the Modern World:

“… Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him. All of this is begun during the life of Christ and definitively accomplished by His death and resurrection. But it must be patiently carried on during the course of history, in order to be realized fully on the day of the final coming of Christ, whose date is known to no one except the Father.” [n. 9]

Salvation is why the Father sent the Son; and salvation is why the Church exists.

But we must see salvation as more than a theological abstraction. It is something we need, a blessing now not just at the end of our days. And it is something everyone needs.

Pope Paul wrote that proclaiming the Gospel “to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.

Only by grasping personally the gift of salvation, and the freedom it brings, are we able to grasp the mission and the message of Jesus. But at the same time, we understand that this gift is for everyone. There’s a universal need for salvation and sharing it with others is a service. They don’t do us a favour by coming to the Alpha Course: we do them a favour by inviting them.

We’re not inviting our friends, family members and co-workers to Alpha so that our parish will grow or our families be more united—we invite them because they need the Gospel.

But even those of us who truly experience the blessings of faith—turning to God readily in our trials, finding his help in time of need—may not completely understand how and why we are called to share this blessing with those around us.

To help us share the faith wisely and well, the parish is offering a half-day course next month called, appropriately enough, “TheShy Catholic Conference.” A gifted layman, Graham Osborne, will present the course after the 11 a.m. Mass on February 17. Those who attend will be better equipped for their baptismal mission—but at the same time they’ll better understand their own faith and the gift they’ve already received in Christ.

The great assembly described in our first reading is a model of what we are becoming as a parish: people who listen to the Word of God with attention and joy, both in church and with the help of our excellent adult faith formation and catechetical programs.

Let us pray that we too respond with humble “amens” to what we hear, in action as much as words.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wise Stewards: Epiphany.B 2013

At Christmas generous parishioners brought me shortbread, soda bread, chocolates, wine, cookies and cake. Next year my doctor suggested that I ask for a gift card from Weight Watchers—or perhaps for gold, frankincense or myrrh, since they have no calories.

Christmas brings out the generous spirit in people. Partly gift-giving is a natural way of celebrating, but I like to think that it’s also a supernatural response to God’s gifts to us. The wise men were like good stewards, offering time, talent and treasure in homage to the newborn King: they made the sacrifice of a dangerous journey, they used their knowledge of the stars to find the way, and they gave him gifts that were precious and sincere.

Stewardship in our parish may be less dramatic and less demanding, but it follows the same pattern: countless good stewards in our community offer gifts fit for a King: gifts of time, of skill and ability, and of financial sacrifice.

Stewardship is a year-round reality at Christ the Redeemer, but it’s particularly visible at this time of year. You’ll find an insert in the bulletin that tells the beautiful story of your charity to the needy last month, so well coordinated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The bulletin also reports your generosity to the Christmas collection, which can make the difference between the parish ending the year in the red or in the black at this time of steady expansion in our programs and evangelization efforts.

But there are many individual stewardship stories the bulletin doesn’t tell—like the parishioner who refinished the hardwood floors in the rectory and then refused to be paid, or the parishioner who made and designed the new hymn boards so that we’d have something more attractive than money could buy. Or the parishioner who buys and delivers fresh fruit to the rectory every week of the year.

Whether it’s Christmas, Epiphany or any ordinary day, our parish is blessed to have so many men and women who recognize the gift they have received in Christ, and who want to give back generously to Him.

How do we all become people like that? How do we develop into wise men and women who understand what it means to offer time, talent, and treasure in homage to the newborn King?

It’s a crucial question, because only those who give truly receive; only those who surrender become free; and only those who make a difficult journey truly see the Lord and experience the radiant joy of his presence in their lives.

Today’s Gospel has the answer. The story of the wise men from the East shows us three very different attitudes to Christ; the one we choose determines the path our lives will follow. And as the poet Robert Frost wrote, the road we choose makes all the difference.

The first path is the path of fear. This is Herod’s attitude. He fears losing his position to a rival King. He fears what he does not know and cannot control. Herod’s insecurity drives his response to the news of the Messiah. He rejects the truth that could have brought him the deepest peace and embarks on a disastrous trail of lies and murder.

None of us here are murderous tyrants, but we can still be tempted to fear Jesus. He can challenge our selfish ambitions and drives. He can seem to be an obstacle to the life we want. Who Jesus really is can frighten us to the point that he’s as threatening to us as he was to Herod.

The second path is the way of indifference. Look at those experts whom Herod consults. They are religious—they know the Scriptures well and give the right answer to Herod’s question. But it makes no difference to their lives.  The chief priests and scribes aren’t going to ask the wise men for a place in the caravan; they’re not interested in seeing for themselves whether the Messiah has been born nearby.

We too can be tempted like that: not really to deny the Lord, but to refuse to do anything much about him. We subscribe to faith but not to the demands of discipleship; we’re in what Pierre Berton once called “the comfortable pew.”

Happily, there is a third way, and the three kings show us where it leads. Their attitude is one of readiness: they are ready to be inconvenienced, ready to meet the Lord where he is and not where they want him to be.

Those three really were “wise men”: wise enough to know that their material goods of gold, frankincense and myrrh had a place in God’s plan and could do greater things in His hands than in theirs. Wise enough to know what they didn’t know, and to open their hearts to search for the truth.

We need the feast of the Epiphany to complete Christmas. It inspires us to leave our comfort zone and get moving on the road that takes us to the life Christ came to bring: “a beautiful life, a life of steady progress in faith, hope and charity, a life of child-like trust in God and of solidarity with our brothers and sisters.”*

All this and more waits for us if we can rediscover the awe and wonder of those wise men from the Orient. As Matthew Kelly has written, “The story of Jesus Christ is the most powerful story in history and has directly or indirectly influenced every noble aspect of our modern civilization. But amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it is easy to become distracted and distance ourselves from this story.”

In his book RediscoveringCatholicism, Matthew Kelly prays that we can rediscover “the spellbinding power of the Gospel when it is actually lived.” He hopes that we can rediscover what it means to strive, for only by striving to live the full Christian life will we once again “capture the attention and intrigue the imaginations of all people everywhere.”

The Epiphany is the story of wise men who weren’t afraid to strive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence  that the subtitle of Kelly’s book is “Journeying Toward Our Spiritual North Star.”

* This quotation, along with other ideas in my homily, comes from Le Letture Bibliche delle Domeniche: Anno B, by Cardinal Albert Vanhoye, SJ.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Blessed New Year (January 1.2013)

You can’t say enough about Mary,” wrote St. Bernard of Clairvaux. But of course he never promised a four-minute homily on her feast day.

When I promised on Sunday such a short homily for today, I hope I wasn’t being disrespectful of Our Lady; I was only following the instructions of my first pastor—who might even have told me that three minutes was enough preaching on New Year’s Day.

The fact is, four minutes is enough for four points that can help us start 2013 off in a solid spiritual way.

The first point is that God is the source of all our blessings. That’s obvious from the first reading. Equally obvious is the fact that we should ask for his blessing: the Lord tells Moses to instruct Aaron, who is a priest, to bless the people. Priests and people alike are to pray for God’s blessings, as we do today at the beginning of this new year.

The second is that we should give thanks for the blessings we have received. The psalm we have just heard asks God to bless us, but it also rejoices in the blessings already received: “for God, our God has blessed us.” Thanksgiving is a crucial part of Christian life, not only as another year begins but also as one ends.

Yesterday’s National Post printed letters from people who wrote about the things that bring them joy or gratitude. Five letters mentioned faith—Catholic faith specifically in two of them. But one writer said “I have nothing to be grateful for. Cigarettes are expensive and the [Montreal] winters are long and harsh.”

The third point that today’s wonderful readings bring to mind is this: the blessing of all blessings is the Son of God, born of Mary, born of a woman so that the whole human race might become adopted children of God.

How easily we can pass over St. Paul’s words “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” The verb ‘redeem’ has lost its power today: we redeem airline points, or store coupons; or maybe a disgraced politician tries to redeem himself.

But Paul is speaking of buying back a slave; he is talking about freedom. All because Mary, a human being like us, is truly the mother of God’s only Son.

Finally, the Gospel invites us to join Mary in contemplating Christmas. What does this annual event mean to our lives—what difference does it make, what changes does it demand? Together with Mary—inspired by her and helped by her—we ponder what we’ve heard these past few days. We allow the reality of Christ’s birth to penetrate our hearts as it did hers, even to the point of pain.

From such beginnings will a blessed new year emerge—a year when we draw closer to God who has come so close to us, a year we entrust to God’s providence and Mary’s motherly care.