Friday, December 26, 2014

"Christ's Mass" (Christmas Morning)

We have a full church this morning, a great joy to see!

Any time this many people gathers in Canada, it’s a fair bet that we have folks from many different parts of the world. Just looking at our own regular parishioners I recognize some who come from France, Mexico, Germany, Poland, and Korea, to name but a few.

I can only speak a few of the languages used in our parish, although I am famous for my fine pronunciation of ‘thank you’ in Korean! But I do know that Spanish speakers greeted each other this morning with Feliz Navidad, and the French with Joyeux Noel. The Italians will have exchanged Buon Natale, and others will offer a greeting in words I can’t pronounce! (I did attempt to express Christmas greeting in German, but after someone said I’d just wished him a frolicking vineyard, I quit trying.)

Anyway, my point is that only English speakers will use a word anything like ‘Christmas.’ All those other greetings are about the birth of the Saviour. The various words—even Noel—derive from the Latin word for birthday.

I never thought about the importance of this until my dear friend Sister Josephine Carney pointed it out in a talk she gave earlier in the month. The English name for our joyful celebration is formed by the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Mass’—and what a wealth of truth may we find there! Because the birth of Christ simply cannot be separated from the entire story of our redemption.

As St. Augustine wrote “the only Son of God was to come among men, to take the nature of men, and in this nature to be born as a man. He was to die, to rise again, to ascend into heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father, and to fulfill his promises among the nations.”

In other words, Christmas without the Cross is a two-dimensional celebration deprived of its deepest meaning and purpose.

We might also say that Christmas without Christ’s Mass is a past event when God wants it be a present event.

We had a visitor the other day who isn't Catholic; at lunch she told the story of how she found herself unexpectedly at Mass--she'd tried to use the chapel at her university as a quiet place to think about a paper she was writing—on time travel! We all got laugh out of this, but our seminarian Larry turned to the young woman and said “actually, you were in just the right place to think about time travel, because the Mass does not repeat Christ’s death on the Cross, but makes it present, right here and now.”

What Larry said about the Cross could be said about Christmas: when we celebrate the Eucharist the Lord is again made flesh for us as he transforms the bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Christ is present, right here and now.

We say that every Sunday is a little Easter since each week we recall the saving mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection, but I don’t think it’s stretching a point too far to say that every Sunday is also a little Christmas.

The Church offers us a different set of readings for the Masses at midnight, dawn, and during the day. I was told early in my priesthood to stick with the midnight Gospel because everyone wants to hear the Christmas story, complete with angels and shepherds. Fair enough. But there's an important reason not to miss the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, which is the text given for Mass during the day. As Father Xavier said in his Christmas homily, the account of Christ's birth in Matthew and Luke gives us the what, while John's Gospel offers us the why of Christmas.

The Word became flesh to make God--and his love--known to all, to bring light into the darkness of our world and of our lives.

John writes that Christ gave those who believed in him “power to become children of God.” That’s quite a Christmas present! Power to become children of God!

How does this power come to us—how do accept this gift?

The obvious answer is through faith, since John says “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

But the next question is more specific—how do we “receive,” how do we “believe”? This, of course, calls for action. Which is why, in part, the parish offers everyone here a Christmas gift, a book on prayer. Prayer is the conversation that nourishes faith. I hope you’ll all take a book with you after Mass: it is short, but it offers eternal wisdom and lasting joys.

To answer the question we must also go back to what I said a few moments about the Mass. It, too, is prayer, but of a unique sort; the Eucharist is where we encounter God’s power at work in our lives; it is where we can travel to Bethlehem, to Nazareth, and ultimately to Jerusalem and Calvary.

Christ’s Mass is where we experience his first coming and await his second; it is where we meet him, no longer as a helpless infant, but as the Risen Lord. It’s wonderful that we’re together this morning looking at Jesus in the manger, but it is far more wonderful that we gather each week to celebrate the difference he makes in our lives—peace in place of anxiety, certainty in place of confusion, and hope instead of fear.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Midnight Mass: The Stable our Shelter

For many years generous parishioners have put up the manger scene that stands outside our church tonight. But last year someone either stole the wood used for the stable, or else it was carted off during our spring cleaning. I hope that was what happened, otherwise I’d have to tell you the story of how the Grinch stole the Christmas Crib.

Our carpenter was not defeated by the loss of his lumber. He used much more substantial boards to build this year’s stable—I almost wondered whether he had been reading about the Church’s recent commitment to seismic upgrades!

I’m not sure you’d want to take shelter in that stable during an earthquake, but the sight of its sturdy roof did get me thinking: the humble stable at Bethlehem is a safe place and a sure refuge for all of us. Mary and Joseph were turned away from the inn but they make space for us beside the manger.

We are welcome there—because we are family. Jesus is our brother, truly God but truly human. He is no less our brother because he is our Saviour; he could not be our Saviour if he were not our brother.

God in human form may seem impossible to grasp, or it may seem a truth without consequences. Yet Pope Benedict XVI told young people at World Youth Day “the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.”

What happiness are you seeking? That is a good question at Christmas. We long for happiness because that’s how God made us. And surely by revealing himself in the flesh God intended to fulfill our deepest longing.

Of course the happiness that Christmas brings to the Christian is not the “holly jolly” feelings we hear in seasonal songs. It is the deep kind of happiness that can survive external challenges, whether bereavement, unemployment, family problems, or illness.

How does that work? It works by assuring us that there is One who understands how we feel, knows what we fear, and walks where we walk. In the plain words of the gifted Protestant preacher Rick Warren, “Jesus knew what it was like to feel pain and be under pressure. Jesus became what we are, so we can become what he is.”

There’s the reality of Christmas: God humbled himself to share in our humanity that we might come to share in his divinity. There’s a purpose to all of this. By becoming man Jesus allows us to become part of His great work of salvation.

As partners in his mission, we can unite our sufferings with Christ’s; we can find meaning in failure; we can be free of the fear of death itself; even as we work out our own salvation we can help to save others.

Gazing at the Christ child, we must allow our hearts and minds to take flight in joy. What has happened is beyond the power of the most beautiful Christmas carol, but perhaps the words of St. Augustine do some justice to this holy night.

St. Augustine says that we have reached the time of the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And what were they? Augustine says “eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the Angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after resurrection from the dead, no further fear of dying.”

The great fourth-century preacher added “it was not enough for God to make his Son our guide to the way; he made him the way itself that we might travel with him as leader, and by him as the way.

“Therefore, the only Son of God was to come among men, to take the nature of men, and in this nature to born as a man.”

Statues of the infant Jesus often show him with arms outstretched. To his parents these were the arms of a helpless child, but to us they are arms that encircle and console us, bringing healing and strength. The divine embrace holds us up in every situation, drawing us toward the light in any darkness.

The prophet Isaiah is more eloquent than the angels tonight. They speak of good news and of great joy, and of peace among all those who find favour with God. But Isaiah seems to know us better than the heavenly host: we have walked in darkness, we have lived in a land of deep darkness, and on us light has shone.

We were burdened and oppressed, and are now free. The child born for us today has authority over all the powers and dominions before whom we once quaked. He has authority over violence, addiction, sickness, depression, fear, and anxiety. He brings peace to the anxious, and hope to the despairing.

Tonight the child of Bethlehem opens his arms to us, and invites us to take shelter beside him, beneath the sturdy roof of his Church.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Prophetic Writings Make Christ Known! (Advent 4B)

Every so often, a funny email makes the rounds, listing all the things that have disappeared since the fifties—things like 45 rpm records, whitewalls and so on.

But the other day I saw a list of things that have vanished since the seventies, or even the eighties—things like floppy discs, phone books, long distance charges, film, and typewriters. Those things are closer to home for me, though I don’t miss any of them.

Still, I’m more than a little worried that one day the list will include things I’ll really miss. How long before letters disappear? For the younger parishioners, I’m talking about a communication written on paper, with ink, and delivered by mail, in an envelope.

If letters disappear it’ll be far more significant than the loss of film or floppy discs. They’re modern inventions that became obsolete, but we’ve been writing each other letters for thousands of years and it will be a great loss if we stop.

I just don’t see how emails can compete with real letters. My dear friend Mark, who has moved from North Van to London to Washington to Singapore, decided we were starting to get out of touch and that he wanted to do something about it. So in June he wrote me a letter from Abu Dhabi and announced he was starting a new tradition: he would write me from every hotel in which he stayed during his globetrotting travels with the World Bank.

Since then I have received letters from Beirut, London, Perth, East Timor, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, Myanmar, Jakarta, New York and several places I can’t pronounce. Fourteen letters in six months.

Could email ever compete with that?

Of course I wanted to follow the new tradition myself, so I decided I would write Mark from every hotel in which I stayed. Unfortunately, I promptly discovered that neither the Motel Six nor the Days Inn provides hotel stationery for its guests. I did manage to send a couple of notes on those little pads they give you beside the phone.

Now why am I telling you all this? Certainly the fact that Mark and his wife and children are here at Mass this morning was what got me started. But the point I want to bring home is this: letters matter a great deal.

In the first place, a big part of the New Testament is made up of letters—there are 21 of them, thirteen from Paul and eight from others. Paul’s letters alone make up about a quarter of the New Testament. Our second reading today is taken from a letter he wrote to the Christians in Rome around the year 55.

St. Paul writes to the Romans to instruct them about many aspects of Christian truth—from sin through grace all the way to salvation. Along the way, he teaches something that we modern Christians tend to take for granted: the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament by the coming of Christ.

The text we heard this morning is one breathless exclamation of praise to God, a single sentence that comes at the very end of the letter. But notice how Paul describes God—as the One made known to all nations through the writings of the prophets.

With the coming of Christ, the prophetic scriptures of what we call the Old Testament, once the sole possession of the Jewish people, are now addressed to all the world.

The prophets did not speak their own words, but God’s. Although their writings are not in letter form, we might well think of them as timeless letters from God—letters written in the course of many centuries, dealing with many things. But no Old Testament prophecy was more important than the promise of the Messiah.

Advent is a time to reflect on the unbroken line of communication between God and his people that culminates in Christ. On the first Sunday of Advent, the prophet Isaiah gives voice to the hope of Israel when he says to the Lord “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

On the second Sunday, Isaiah tells the people to prepare for his coming—to make straight a highway for God. As Handel set so perfectly to music, every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” as “the Lord God comes with might.”

In the Gospel for that Sunday, St. Mark introduces John the Baptist—the last of the prophets—with Isaiah’s words, clearly intending to show that the prophecy is being fulfilled.

Last Sunday, Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy anticipated the mission of Jesus, who read exactly this text about binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to captives as he stood in the synagogue at Nazareth, fulfilling it as he spoke.

Why are the Old Testament prophecies so important? The main reason is this: “The New Testament represents the fulfillment of the words and oracles of the prophets…” [Scott Hahn, ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary, 736].

Simply put, “The prophets of old spoke words that have come to pass.” Isaiah alone is quoted or paraphrased nearly one hundred times in the New Testament [ibid.].

We must understand, of course, that the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the New is not some kind of fortune telling, in which we “prove” Christianity by showing that exact details of future event were predicted in precise detail. Seeing Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Christ strengthens and affirms faith; it certainly doesn’t provide or replace it.

Prophecy and promise are closely connected. In the rich relationship between Old Testament and New, we can see how God keeps his promises—in his way, in his time.

Echoes of Isaiah should sound in our hearts at Christmas, when we gaze on the scene at Bethlehem and recall his prophetic word to Ahaz: “Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (cf. Is. 7:14) Today's Gospel reading directly refers to the fulfillment of this divine promise.

Finally, at one of the Christmas Masses we will listen to another New Testament letter that sums up everything I have said. In its very first verse, the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes to us no less than to his original audience: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”

There may come a day when pens run dry and my friend Mark can’t find a sheet of paper to write on; but the Christmas message is timeless even if a future generation only understands electronic communication. We can always tell them that Christ is a love letter to the world that arrived precisely when God hit “send.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Comfort and Quality: Living in the Truth (Advent 2B)

When I went to Chicago in August, we had reservations at the Comfort Hotel. At the last minute, we got moved to the Quality Inn.

I was very disappointed--given the choice between comfort and quality, I'll take comfort every time!

Comfort makes us think of soft beds, good food--we all have our comfort food--and maybe a shoulder to cry on. So when God tells Isaiah to comfort his people, it sounds like great advice for a preacher.

But wait a minute. A second glance at the reading makes me wonder just how "comfortable" the prophet's message is.

There's sure a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," as the rock and roll hit from the fifties went. Valleys are filled in, mountains are flattened, and there's a highway built through an uninhabited stretch of land.

Later in the reading, Isaiah tells us that God comes with might. Certainly God is a shepherd. But he is a mighty shepherd, with an arm that not only caresses the sheep but drives off the wolves.

Have you ever noticed how Psalm 23 says "your rod and your staff--they comfort me"? The shepherd has two tools in his hand: a crook to guide the flock, and a club with which to fight off the wolves. Divine comfort comes from divine power, not divine "niceness."

I thought about this last week when I was back East for a meeting in Toronto and short break in New York City.  Everyone was preparing for Christmas: a beautiful and sentimental day of kindness and good will.  But there was not much sign that anyone was preparing for Christ.

We sometimes talk as if Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas.  It's not.  Advent is a time of preparation for Christ. Christmas is comfortable.  Christ is not.

There's no doubt that today's readings offer us some comforting words. We even like to sing some of them in the hymn "Like a Shepherd."  He feeds his flock, and gathers the lambs in his arms. We need that comfort to deal with life's losses and trials.

But we can't let the comfort get in the way of the quality--the whole, true Gospel message, which is not entirely gentle. I think that's why we have St. Peter's stirring words about the end of the world, a time that no Christian knows but no Christian can ignore. We know very well that the last day will not be comfortable, as the heavens pass away and the earth dissolves.

Preparing for Christmas means decorating our homes, buying gifts and--last but not least!--making a good confession.  But preparing for Christ means "leading lives of holiness and godliness." It means waiting in hope.

It's early enough in Advent for us to make the shift from thinking about Christmas to thinking about Christ. John the Baptist isn't a Christmassy figure in the least and his message today is the one word command that Jesus himself issued at the start of his ministry: repent.

If you're someone who writes reminders to yourself on Post-it notes or in your smart phone, you might want to put that one powerful word somewhere you'll see it often.  Repent: it's a blunt word, but it only means opening our hearts to the Lord who opens his arms to us.

When my Dad used to go away on business trips, he always brought back gifts for his five kids.  Later in life I thought it must have been a lot of work to find something for each of us; but a few years later my Mom said that she often bought the gifts in advance and had them ready for him to hand out on his return.

As I mentioned, I just got back from Toronto. When I go away, I always come back with a gift for the parish--nothing you can unwrap, but some resource or wisdom that's was shared with me on the trip.

This time, the gift came from one of the great leaders of our Church. He was speaking in private, so I won't name him.  His insight was this: there are two great deceptions that Satan is using to attack Christians today.

The first is that God is so merciful that nobody will be lost. Of course we need to know about God's mercy, but that's so we can repent and accept that mercy. But today many people resist his mercy because they think they don't need it.  We're all happily on our way to heaven! The problem is that Jesus never said anything of the sort.

The second deception is about those sins that keep us out of the Kingdom of God. With the help of feel-good psychology, we no longer worry about personal sin, even the most serious. Folks are deeply concerned about the environment but not about their own moral decisions.

These are uncomfortable truths. But these are the valleys that must be lifted up, and the mountains that must be laid low. The highway that leads to God is the truth--the truth that Jesus revealed, in all its fullness, in all its power.

Comfort does not come from compromise. It comes from repenting of our sins, and accepting the Lord’s tender mercy.

Comfort and quality go hand in hand when we live in the truth about God's love and about God's plan, preparing in hope for Christ's return.