Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Deacons Now a Part of Parish Life at CtR!

I haven't been able to post a Sunday homily for a couple of weeks. Two weeks ago we had fourteen of the sixteen new permanent deacons with us at Mass, and one of them preached; last Sunday I was so enthusiastic that I preached without notes.

But speaking of deacons... one of the newly-ordained preached last Saturday at the morning Mass, which the eight men now preparing for the permanent diaconate attended together with their wives. Deacon Henk Luyten, a high school principal, gave such a bracing homily that I asked if I could post it here. 

The gospel for the day was this short and rather shocking passage in Mark:   

Jesus and the disciples went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Here below is what Deacon Luyten shared with us. He began by thanking the parish for being so welcoming and supportive to the permanent deacons, candidates, and spouses.

            Before reflecting on our readings this morning, I would briefly like to take the opportunity to thank you personally and on behalf of all the deacons for your support and prayers. I started my journey of discernment and formation in your community some four years ago and I am now happy to be back with you to help Monsignor Smith, your pastor, in continuing our program with these fine candidates. You have sacrificed much, especially with Monsignor’s absences while he was with us. We are grateful to you and the entire Archdiocese for your support during our formation. I would ask a further favour, that you please continue to extend your warm welcome and pray for both the deacons and the candidates and our families. Again, thank you.

In this morning’s Gospel we find Jesus so busy preaching, healing and casting out demons that he doesn’t even have enough time to eat. The well behaved young carpenter who had spent most of his life living quietly surrounded by his relatives in Nazareth had suddenly become the leader of a band of twelve itinerant preachers, vagabonds to some, attracting huge crowds wherever he went. Leaving relatives and neighbours, he made his new home in a stranger’s house in a strange town, Capernaum, with fisherman and tax collectors as his new friends. When his family finally discovered this, they concluded he had gone out of his mind and set out to restrain him and perhaps bring him home. They were scandalized and embarrassed by his actions, not able to understand the changes in their native son.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose memorial we celebrate on Thursday, had a very similar experience, he was born into nobility and his mother had great expectations for his success in the world. Yet Thomas resolved to leave his family and join the Dominicans against the wishes of his mother. His family also thought him “out of his mind” and his brothers “restrained” him by imprisoning him in the family’s castles. But Thomas did not give in and regardless of apparent scandal to his family, set about to following his passion to the glory of God and us all.

We might ask what motivated Jesus and later Thomas to make such radical decisions, to give up so much, even to tear their families apart in times when family was the most important thing in life.

Jesus himself gives us the answer a few verses later in Mark’s Gospel. When he is told his mother and brothers (and sisters) have arrived asking for him, he responds, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Doing God’s will, carrying out one’s mission, is decisive in the Kingdom of God. And doing God’s will very often looks crazy to the world.

Jesus teaches us a valuable lesson here. We often encounter people in our communities and even families who appear to be doing crazy, even scandalous things in our eyes or those of others. How do we respond when a daughter whom we expected to enter a prominent career or provide us with grandchildren suddenly announces that she wishes to enter a religious order? Or when a good friend suddenly tells us that he is contemplating the priesthood? I myself was surprised by the few good friends who told me that I was “out of my mind” to become a deacon at this point in my life.

And many don’t just respond this way to religious vocations but also to other countercultural behaviours such as virginity, natural family planning or even marriage, where friends and family react with “you must be out of your mind” when we or our brothers and sisters are attempting to do the will of God.

We must not allow ourselves to fall into this trap of demanding that “our own will be done”. Let us commit ourselves today to follow Jesus and do at least one thing; offer a sacrifice, support a vocation, whatever it may be, in which we too might be called “crazy” in the service of God.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Baptism of the Lord

Blessed John Henry Newman was a man who comforted Protestants and Catholics alike during an era of dried-out theology and who tenderly invited his countrymen to hear an authentic message about God and the love he has revealed in his Church.

I’m reading a good biography of this saintly scholar, whose careful study of the teachings of the ancient Church led him to embrace the Catholic Church, abandoning the beautiful Anglican tradition that he loved so much. His bold decision brought comfort to some but conflict to many.

Newman is a reminder that comfort and tenderness—which must be hallmarks of Christian preaching, as the were of his—can only go so far. When the claims of truth conflict with our settled opinions or personal desires, the truth will hurt.

God, we know, comforts his people, just as he calls the prophet to do in our first reading. St. Paul calls the Father “the God of all consolation,” which some versions translate as “the God of all comfort.” Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Jerusalem together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and we see him comforting his disciples on the night before he died. The Holy Spirit, of course, is called the Comforter.

In other words, it is right and good that the words of Isaiah should comfort us —that we should hear God speak tenderly to our tired hearts, our confused hearts, even our sinful hearts.

And we can claim as our own the great gifts that St. Paul talks about in the second reading: salvation, a share in the inheritance of Christ, and, in the end, eternal life.

The astonishing fact that even Jesus was baptized brings our own baptism into sharp focus; and the Gospel promise of a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire makes us recall our confirmation. It’s easy today to feel thankful for the graces we received in baptism and conformation, and to renew the commitment that both sacraments require.

All of which could make for a good—and short—homily on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

But John Henry Newman would never have given such a homily. Feel-good preaching was not his way of bringing the comfort of the Gospel to the men and women of his time; he wanted them to know the whole story, to have the complete picture of the Christian life. And so he asked, in a famous sermon, what difference all this good news makes to our lives.

That is a challenging question.

Let me rephrase it. Would you live differently if you were not baptized?

Newman’s answer was, to put it mildly, pessimistic. “I really fear…” he said, that “it will be found that there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, and pursue, if Christ had not died and heaven were not promised to us.”

That’s a bit tough. But throwing cold water on comfortable folks is a kindness, a sort of tenderness—a way of reviving a drooping spirit.

In another sermon, Newman tackled an even tougher question he heard people ask: why it is necessary to be holy to get to heaven? We are weak people, why are God’s standards so high? If God’s really merciful, couldn’t he have saved us without demanding holiness? Baptism alone ought to be enough.

Newman says that we really have “no right to ask this question. Surely it is quite enough for a sinner to know that a way has been opened through God’s grace for his salvation, without being informed why that way, and not another way, was chosen by Divine Wisdom,”

He further explains that eternal life is God’s gift, and undoubtedly he can set the terms on which he will give it.

There are Protestant churchgoers who doubt the necessity of baptism for salvation but who believe in the need for holiness; there are Catholics who are convinced of the necessity of baptism but who don’t quite believe in the need for holiness.

Newman tried to convince both groups of the ancient and unchangeable truth. He knew that doing what God demands could be hard at times—which is why his toughest sermon on baptism ends with a note of comfort: as we work at holiness, he preached, “it is our comfort to know… that we are not left to ourselves” but have the Holy Spirit to help us.

“It is a comfort and encouragement,” he said, “to know that God works in us and through us.”

We recognize today that we are all beloved sons and daughters of the Father; let us resolve, with his help, to do what he expects.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Epiphany: Taking Christ Seriously

In his Christmas homily, our newly-ordained assistant pastor compared the Christmas story to the latest Star Wars movie. He certainly had the congregation’s full attention—even the folks who knew little about the film got a chuckle when he revealed that I fell asleep half way through. (The movie, not the homily!)

But what if we turned things around and tried to explain today
s Gospel to visitors from another galaxy?

You’d probably have no trouble holding their attention
they'd know a whole lot about stars, and a star plays a central role in this story. The hero of the story seems to be a man called Herod—a fine fellow who takes stars seriously. And since the visitors know a little English from galactic grade school, they figure we might even get the word ‘hero’ from ‘Herod.’

I don’t need to remind you, of course, that Herod is actually the villain of the story, not the hero—unless there’s an extra-terrestrial or two in the congregation, we all know the real reason for his interest in the Christ child.

And yet I wonder whether we might learn something if we paid Herod some extra attention this morning.

Evil despot though he was, Herod got one thing right: he took the Saviour’s birth seriously. Dead seriously: he wanted to kill Christ.

Hatred, of course, is the wrong response to the Lord of Love. But it makes more sense than indifference. It’s more logical than apathy.

C. S. Lewis very famously wrote that you can shut Jesus up as a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But you cannot speak nonsense about His being a great human teacher, for Jesus has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

In other words, there are two very logical responses to the birth of Christ: one is Herod’s, the other is that of the Wise Men. Scorn him or adore him; but do not ignore him.

The Epiphany is our invitation to take Christmas seriously—to pay homage to God not only with our lips but with our lives as well. And if you think about it a little, the three Kings give us a very good example, starting with the fact that their homage was neither cheap nor easy. The gospels are vague on the details, but T.S. Eliot dramatizes them powerfully and believably in his poem The Journey of the Magi:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Eliot describes all the hardships, from lazy camels to overpriced hotels. ‘A hard time we had of it’ observes one of three Kings.

Nothing has changed: the path of discipleship today will not always be convenient; we’ll have a hard journey sometimes if we follow that star.

And when we arrive and find ourselves standing before God, we may find it’s been an expensive trip. The three Kings do not arrive before Christ empty handed, and neither should we. Have we brought gifts this Christmas, or only received them?

Of course He doesn’t want gold, or frankincense or myrrh from us, but he wants the best of what we have. Our time, talent, and treasure are the only sincere ways we have of offering homage to the One who gave us everything in the first place.

With respect to time: Have we decided to give more time to prayer—which is the homage of our hearts—as a joyful response to God? Is it time to reorder our priorities between work and home?

As for our talents: Have we considered whether we are doing enough to serve others, our church, and our community? 

As for treasure: Do we see Christ still naked and helpless in places in the world that need our material support? Are we generously giving to support the Church’s mission at home and abroad? The answers to such simple questions may reveal whether Christmas has really touched our hearts—whether we’re taking it seriously.

The Epiphany is called in some Catholic cultures the feast of the three Kings. But we mustn’t forget that there are four kings in the story: three Kings and Herod. But there are no bystanders, no-one who sees the star and goes back to an ordinary life. Shepherds and Wise Men alike are filled with joy.

If Christmas has passed like a blur, let’s slow down today and gaze at the star that fills the night sky over Bethlehem—a star that guides, invites, and challenges us to believe.