Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Christmas Message is NEWS (Christmas 2017)

Pastor Rick Warren, the author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, has become the go-to guy for a clear message about Christmas. His book The Purpose of Christmas sums up this glorious event in three short sentences:
·      Christmas is a time for celebration.
·      Christmas is a time for salvation.
·      Christmas is a time for reconciliation.
He says “Regardless of your background, religion, problems, or circumstances, Christmas really is the best news you could get. Beneath all the visible sights and sounds of Christmas are some simple yet profound truths that can transform your life for the better here on earth and for forever in eternity.”
But those words—and those truths—still need to be unpacked on this Christmas morning. We could say that the gift needs to be unwrapped.
I wasn’t sure where to start. But then I came across something the Archbishop of Canterbury said when retired in 2012. Dr. Rowan Williams predicted that his successor will need to preach “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
Well, that’s what I’m doing this Christmas. In my left hand I have the Lectionary with these glorious readings about the birth of Christ.
And in my right hand, I have the Saturday edition of The Globe and Mail.
Somehow or other several stories and photos in the Globe—a very secular paper—made me think about the purpose and message of Christmas, in different ways.
 First, there was a picture of five gowned youngsters from the choir of Salisbury Cathedral in England.  The caption noted that Christmas has been celebrated in that cathedral for more than 750 years—a welcome reminder of the beauty of our Christmas traditions, of the joy of listening to choirs singing, and indeed the joy of just being in church.
Isn’t it great to be here this morning?  Too many of us connect church with obligation, when the right word is celebration. That’s one of the joys of Christmas Mass—almost no one comes out of obligation: we’re drawn here by a celebration.
There was also a story about immigrants to Canada and the strength they find by going to church. Newcomers from China are becoming Christians at the same time as Christians are giving up on church.  Some of the most growing congregations—Protestant and Catholic—are Asian.
The article quotes a twenty-one year old woman attending Simon Fraser who has found “strength, commitment, and faith within the rapidly-growing student club at the university.”  Many of us have heard stories from Catholic Christian Outreach about campus converts, more than a few of them immigrants.
And there are also many such stories right here in our parish. Strength, commitment and faith are nurtured in this community as we gather each week to worship.
Elsewhere in the paper I read the story of an Edmonton man who leapt on to subway tracks in the face of an oncoming train to save a man who’d fallen off the platform.  The article described him as “a humble hero—just what the world needs right about now.”
Certainly we need all the heroes we can get, but as I read the story I kept thinking that a Christian society wouldn’t be quite so astonished by self-sacrifice.  A secular newspaper dared not mention the example of the one “who gave Himself for us,” as St. Paul described Christ in our second reading, but that’s who I thought of.
The central fact of Christmas is the gift of our salvation.  The headline in the paper read “A humble hero breaks through the compassion deficit.”  That’s a mouthful but it almost describes what Jesus did.  He gave Himself up for us in the supreme act of compassion that we call salvation or redemption. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah describes that as shining a light into the darkest corners of human life.
A couple of pages later the paper tells the story of the tragic deaths of a Toronto couple who were known for their philanthropy.  But some details of their lives seemed almost as tragic as their deaths; fabulously wealthy people who foreclose on the family homes of relatives can’t have been very happy.  The deceased man is quoted as saying “Everything comes down to ego.”
One of the messages of Christmas is that ego is far from everything; indeed it is close to nothing and never brings joy. None of us is the center of attention this morning—we’re focused on a helpless child, come to save the world and to reconcile us to Himself, and one another.
Celebration and salvation lead to reconciliation. The Opinion section of the paper contains a full-page discussion of forgiveness by two people.  One of them writes about the man who murdered her father when she was eleven years old. The other is a man who spent four months in a notorious prison in Iran.  It’s a dramatic discussion, but there’s no clue as to whether printing it now was connected to this season.
Yet reconciliation and forgiveness are a big part of Christmas.  Isaiah gives us a wonderful string of titles for the Child who has been born for us, for the son given to us: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Everlasting Father.  But none touches our hearts half as much as the name “Prince of Peace.”
A need to be reconciled—to forgive and be forgiven—robs us of peace. But the Prince of Peace invites his followers to love even enemies, and to let go of the hurts we experience, especially in our families.
Maybe I shouldn’t say Christ invites us to forgive—in fact, he commands it. Isaiah refers twice to the authority given to this Child and he points out the connection between obeying that authority and endless peace.  The more we respect God’s authority, the more we will have peace.  The more he reigns the more peaceful will his kingdom be.
An article written for the Globe by a prominent lawyer is headed “The rule of law still matters.”  The author looks at some recent criminal trials and concludes that Canadians must become more alert to the foundations and importance of our criminal justice system.
That’s true enough.  But what matters more is that Canadians become aware of the foundations and importance of the justice system that God has established for our lasting good. Natural and divine laws are intended to increase, not diminish, our joy. God’s authority is a gentle yoke that frees us from the burden rather than imposing one.
God appeared among us to bring salvation and reconciliation.  But both of these require that we respect his laws—otherwise what are we doing calling him wonderful, mighty, and everlasting?
The grace of salvation, St. Paul says, offers us training in these laws.  Training in self-control and in virtuous living.  Salvation not only redeems our sin but purifies us for good works.  One of the gifts God gives us is the guidance we need to live the good life.
The Gospel today is a more familiar Scripture passage, with its tender images of Mary and Joseph and their newborn in the manger.  But the Gospel too has a very unsentimental aspect.  There was no room for them at the inn, just as there is no room for so many refugees and migrants today.  The family our parish has sponsored to come to Canada remains stranded in Kenya, twelve of them spending another Christmas in a two-bedroom house, sharing one meal a day.
Even the angel’s words are not sentimental.  The angel begins “Do not be afraid.” Why? Because the shepherds are terrified.  How many of us are afraid of one thing or another?
Fear is not conquered by sentiment or by the pretty pictures on a Christmas card.  Fear is conquered by faith—by believing that a great light has shone into the darkness of our world and of our hearts.  The child who has been born for us is called Jesus, because that means ‘saviour.’  Only he saves us from our fears and failings.
Rick Warren’s three-word summary is worth memorizing: Christmas is a time for celebration.  A time for salvation.  And a time for reconciliation. Celebration. Salvation. Reconciliation.
But we can’t be satisfied with just one of the three.  Not even with two.  Most of you walked into church this morning in a spirit of celebration. But we should be sure to walk out carrying the free gift of salvation.  Because that’s what Christ came to earth to bring.
Nor should anyone leave burdened by unforgiveness. God forgives us, even when others won’t. And he gives us the grace to forgive others, even when we think we can’t.
Amidst the news of the world’s crises, the Globe and Mail did manage to remind me of some happy memories before I folded up the paper. There was a full page story about Stuart McLean, the writer and storyteller who died in February. It talked about his delightful Christmas stories, which I’ve enjoyed so much over many years on the CBC.
In Stuart’s fictional world, the article said, “People are prone to make mistakes, but destined to be forgiven.
“Community, friendship and love always have the upper hand.”
But in the real world that’s not always so. How blessed we are that God always has the upper hand—that the birth of the Christ Child announces that we are not only called to forgive but destined to be forgiven.
That’s the message of salvation and reconciliation that gives the deepest meaning to our Christmas celebration—and the message of Jesus, who shines light and hope even in the deepest darkness.

God Has a Plan: So Should We (Advent 4B)

One of my favourite expressions is “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

God, as we know, cannot fail. And in case we didn’t know, the readings today remind us that He does plan. 

We find His original plan for our happiness in the Book of Genesis—a plan that our first parents upset by disobedience. Both today’s first reading and the Psalm give us a glimpse of Plan B, of God’s plan to establish a Kingdom, an eternal Kingdom where the Son of David will reign.

David—the traditional author of the Psalm—celebrates the divine plan of which he is a part, although he does not fully understand Nathan’s prophecy: its full message comes clear only far in the future.

St. Paul tells us—many centuries after the time of David and Nathan—that the mystery which was kept secret for long ages is now disclosed and made known to all nations.

The hidden plan is now announced to the world.

But first it had to be announced to the woman who was to play a central part. The angel keeps no secrets from Mary: he makes it clear that her child is the One of whom Nathan spoke to David. He is the One who fulfills God’s promise, who completes God’s plan.

Even the name of Mary’s child reveals the plan: Jesus comes from the Hebrew verb “to save.” Luke doesn’t take the trouble to point it out, but when Matthew’s Gospel records the angel’s message to St. Joseph, it says “You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

So my question today is a simple one: if God has a plan, shouldn’t we? Doesn’t his perfect plan of salvation call us to some planning of our own?

We’re not going to have an angel announce God’s plan to us—we already know it. But don’t we need to be ready with our response as Mary was?

I come back to that saying I like so much: if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Have we found some concrete ways of planning our response to the mystery unfolding before us?

A friend e-mailed me a few Christmases ago to describe his life in December….“endless rounds of office Christmas parties, former classmates’ Christmas parties, former office mates’ Christmas parties, business partners’ Christmas parties. He said “I am literally exhausted already and am spending this morning just relaxing and answering some of my emails.”

(I’m glad he finds answering e-mails relaxing… I wish I did!)

With all that accompanies Christmas, we can’t afford not to plan. In the first place, of course, we need to plan what Mass to attend tonight or tomorrow—resisting the temptation to “fit it in” as an afterthought, arriving in the pew frazzled from a last-minute hunt for a parking space.

In second place is a plan to pray. Can we find fifteen or twenty minutes to read one of the Gospel passages about the birth of Christ, and sit with it?

Husbands and wives could read the texts aloud and sit in silence, or pray with them as a family. I often think of Archbishop Exner’s family— at the table every year they would read St. Luke’s Nativity story before Christmas dinner. Why not plan on that? It certainly won’t happen spontaneously if you don’t.
A surprising number of people manage to attend both Midnight Mass and a morning Mass on Christmas. They are not, to be sure, the parents of small children! But what a way to put Christ at the center of this increasingly secular day. Of course, it takes a bit of planning.

Carving out some time for God before you carve the turkey may seem too much for you. But the angel tells us that nothing is impossible for God, who will surely help those people and those families who want to put Him first this year.

Let’s plan on it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Semper Sunday? (Advent 3B)

Ever have one of those weeks when everything goes right? When each day's better than the day before?

They don't happen to me very often, and rarely around Christmas. But that's the kind of week I had.

Every call center picked up on the first ring. The bank offered to refund an outrageous service charge almost before I'd finished explaining the problem. All the little annoyances of life... weren't.

In the bigger picture, our big night on Tuesday was a great success. The gym was full of people listening to jazzy Christmas music and a powerful message about the purpose of Christmas. And the first three people in the door were all responding to our ad in the North Shore News.

The Archbishop was here yesterday for Mass and a party with the deacons, candidates and their families. For a second time in a week, a major event went wonderfully. He was, as always, deeply grateful and really impressed with our choir--who volunteered to sing at Mass--and dedicated servers.

Ten out of ten, all around. What a way to prepare for Gaudete Sunday, our Advent liturgy that focuses on rejoicing.

But as the saying goes, this isn't my first rodeo. It wouldn't take much to throw me off my horse of happiness and get me grumbling again.

Just by accident, that takes us to St. Paul. Today's entrance antiphon, from which Gaudete Sunday takes its name, since that's the Latin word for rejoice, quotes his words "Rejoice in the Lord always."

In today's second reading, the Apostle says it again: "brothers and sisters, rejoice always."

Dear friends, if I ever become Pope, I am going to rename Gaudete Sunday. I will call it "Semper Sunday," because semper is the Latin word for always--and I think always is the key word for us today.

It's easy to rejoice when all goes well. It's easy to give thanks when things turn out right. But let's be honest--how often does that happen? And who needs to be told to rejoice in good times?

St. Paul says always in both these texts--the entrance antiphon from Philippians and the second reading from First Thessalonians, adding "give thanks in all circumstances." Rejoicing isn't a reaction, it's an action, a decision to view the world with gratitude and with trust that God will make all things work for our good, as the Apostle says elsewhere.

This fundamental attitude of  living every day with joy and thanksgiving, was beautifully captured by a priest in Concord, Massachusetts who blogs an inspiring prayer or poem every day. Here's his litany for Gaudete Sunday this year:

As we light this third candle, let's pray for JOY.  It may be that our joy may be muted by personal burdens or news of the troubled world in which we live.  Still, it's at just such times that only the healing and peace of Christ can give us a glimpse of the joy he brings, in season and out of season - even and especially to hearts burdened with problems, grief and loss...

Pray for the joy Christ's coming brings us...

Pray for the joy Christ's coming gives us... 

Pray for the joy Christ's coming promises... 

Pray for joy that survives our personal tragedies...

Pray for joy that heals the wounded soul... 

Pray for joy that gives us strength... 

Pray for joy that brings us hope...

Pray for the joy the lonely long for...

Pray for the joy the grieving thirst for...

Pray for joy to mend a broken heart... 

Pray for joy that only peace can bring...

Pray for joy that lifts the heart... 

Pray for joy that laughs in sorrow...

Pray for the joy that's born of faith...

Pray for the joy that others give us...

Pray for joy to offer others...

Pray for the joy that each of us needs...

Pray for joy...


Sunday, December 10, 2017

God Wants to Comfort (Advent 2B)

When was the last time you were comforted by a homily?

I’ll bet you can’t remember. Most of the time, we preachers instruct or challenge rather than comfort.

For that matter, when was the last time you were comforted, period? Only children get comforted on a regular basis, if you think about it.

But comfort is front and center in our first reading today. God commands Isaiah to comfort his people—to speak tenderly to a forlorn and battered group of Jewish exiles in Babylon.

So it seems to me that we need to look for comfort this morning—to find in the Word of God, and in this Advent season—the comfort God wants us to receive.

But let’s first look at Isaiah’s text in its historical context. God isn’t comforting the exiles in some touch-feely way: he’s promising them a return to their homeland, a return to Judea and Jerusalem. Cyrus the Great will soon arrive on the scene, bringing liberation to the Jews exiled by Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus will be God’s instrument and make it possible for them to return to Israel and rebuild the temple that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed.

This is not only a promise of homecoming but a gift of forgiveness. The Jews saw their long exile as punishment. Now that’s over and done. No wonder God says it twice: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Truly this second Exodus is a double comfort—the restoration of Jerusalem, and the forgiveness of sins.

The prophet also speaks a double message of comfort and consolation to us, gathered in prayer on the second Sunday of Advent. In the first place, Christians are all exiles on earth, wherever we live. In his first letter, St. Peter calls us aliens and exiles. No less than the Jews in Babylon, we need to be comforted by the promise of a return to our homeland. As St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven.”

We might not feel like exiles—in fact, we can feel pretty comfortable on earth. But our longing for heaven is behind the nagging question that bothers even the most successful among us: is that all there is?

Our sense of exile disturbs us when we least expect it. I stumbled across a local Christian blogger, who told the story of how the perfect vacation reminded her that this life is not sustainable. She wrote “We are all toiling away. We get stressed and overwhelmed. We are all aging and breaking down. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Even a month of time off does not solve these problems.

“All a month of time off seemed to do was tempt me with something unattainable: a life of leisure and security. This is not to be ungrateful in any way! I am so, so, so amazed and thankful to have had such a wonderful time away with my family. But man, I do so wish it could be more lasting. Maybe eternal.”

There’s a Christian who wants God’s comfort—the comfort that promises our true and final liberation, the absolute and eternal freedom brought about by the coming of Jesus, our Redeemer and Messiah.

And notice that Isaiah mentions that the penalty has been paid—not only for Israel’s unfaithfulness, but ours. I've often seen stories in the paper about people convicted of crimes they committed many years ago, and think how awful it must have been for them to wait for the day their wrongdoing was revealed. But Christians have the comfort of knowing that their penalty has been paid.

This first comfort, the promise of salvation, is certainly the most important of all—it anticipates the words of the Christmas Gospel, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”

But God wants his promise of comfort to reach all of us, whatever our needs or emotional state.

And so Isaiah tells us that “the Lord God comes with might.” Our God is powerful, and his arm is strong. Even Our Lady rejoices in God’s mighty arm in her prayer we call the Magnificat: she calls God “the Mighty One” who has “shown strength with his arm.”

If the comfort we need is a sense of protection by someone much stronger than we are, God is there.

Sometimes, though, we need a different kind of comfort—the kind a child gets after a skinned knee or a bad dream. Here, too, the Lord is promising consolation: the gentle protection of a shepherd who scoops up a frightened lamb. Prayer is a door to that kind of divine tenderness.

Whatever our individual need, let’s decide to accept real comfort from God this Advent. It takes some effort, but it’s well worth it.

In his podcast this weekend, Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that we’re not the key players in God’s plan—God is. God’s like a helicopter pilot who wants to land. All he needs is a clearing in which he can set down.

Our Advent mission is just to clear the ground so that God can do what he wants to do—to comfort, console and save us.

To do this, we may have to deal with a mountain of attachments, Bishop Barron says. Attachments are earthly goods we imagine to be ultimate goods—wealth, power, success, “all the things that beguile the ego.” We knock down the mountain of attachment by putting these things in their proper place. In other words, we detach ourselves from the hold they have on us, perhaps by some simple Advent penance targeting something we like to think we can’t live without.

Or we may have valleys of indifference—indifference to God expressed by not praying, sloppy attendance at Mass or indifference to the needs of others. We fill in those valleys by spending some quiet time with God. No-one was ever comforted while racing around. There are wonderful on-line prayers, meditations and other resources; one of the easiest ways of listening for a consoling word is by reading one of the Mass readings every day.

Let’s think of levelling those mountains and filling in those valleys not as an Advent chore, but as preparing the way for comfort and consolation, especially during this hectic season that can threaten to overwhelm us at many levels.

Advent’s our time to come to come back from exile.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christ the King: Our Parish Feast Day

The parish welcomed joyfully Fr. Juan Lucca, who had spent a summer with us as a seminarian, to offer Mass here for the first time, and to be the guest preacher on our annual feast day. 

Dear Msgr Smith and Fr. Giovanni, and dear parishioners of Christ the Redeemer,

It is a joy for me to celebrate with you your parish feast day! It’s a wonderful occasion on which to remember all the good work this parish has done over the past year and all your generosity to the poor.

And as you come to the end of the liturgical year it is also a good opportunity to remember and give thanks to God for all the good work you were able to do for the poor as a parish community. I am a living testament that when I was a seminarian here, this community did indeed feed the hungry! Myself! Except for the time Msgr. pretty much banned me from his fridge because I ate something I wasn’t supposed to…  Fr. Giovanni, if this ever happens to you, remind our dear Msgr. of today’s Gospel… “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”

Today we mark the last Sunday of the liturgical year by celebrating Jesus Christ as universal King. As you can remember all the gospels as of late have been parables about the end of times, how we need to be ready with our oil, how we need to invest our talents for when he comes, and today we hear Jesus’ last discourse in his public ministry, “the final judgment”, where he will sit and separate the sheep from the goats, those who have followed him and those who have stubbornly rejected his call to love.

Many people no longer believe in hell… and what is more distressing, many no longer believe in heaven. But Jesus Christ has made it very clear to us, especially these last few Sundays, that heaven and hell are true realities and that we are currently picking a side by the way we live out our life. In the last three Gospels, it hasn’t been murder, or stealing or some outrageous crime that has stopped people from entering the kingdom… it has been sins of omission, a lack of preparation and a failing to live out the Christian calling. In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes our love for the poor a condition for entering the kingdom of heaven.

The second Vatican council says that all of us here have the same two calls, the universal call to holiness, and the universal call to evangelization. In other words, we all have the calling to (1) reach heaven and (2) to lead others into heaven. It is not an option, it’s a commanding call. These two calls originate from our two greatest commandments, to love God, to live holy lives, and to love neighbour, to bring them the message of good news. Jesus really does make 'love of neighbour' a necessary component for love of God. God commands us to live lives of fraternal love now so that we may be able to lead lives of divine love for all eternity.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta based her ministry on this Gospel. She called it the five-finger gospel… You. Did. It. To. Me.

The other day at the cathedral a drunk man had pretty much stripped himself of his clothes because they were all wet and he was trying to dry them on the radiators… I got a call that there was this man stripping in the church so I ran over and immediately lost my patience with him… I told him... this is a church! Have you no shame? and I hurried him to the back rather brusquely and told him to leave…

Well, that evening was the first time I did Lectio Divina for this Sunday’s Gospel and it got me thinking… Jesus equates the love we show to the least of our brethren to the love we show him. When I say mass, I am most attentive that not even one particle falls to the ground. I protect the host so that nothing happens, so that I can give God, present in the sacred species, the utmost reverence I can give. When I prepare the chalice I do likewise and cover it, and dress it and make it beautiful, to give him glory…
And it dawned on me, Jesus wants me to treat the poor at the cathedral like the sacred vessels of the altar, they are people who hold in themselves (just like the chalice and the paten) the very person of Jesus Christ.

We have an invitation from Jesus who is the universal king to rediscover his presence in the darkest corners of our humanity. In fact, he tells us that there is where he will be and that we will be judged by how much love we show him in these poor and broken vessels of his, which he calls “the least of mine”. It's not only the homeless and the penniless that Jesus is speaking about… Mother Teresa put it very well… she said, “being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody... I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat”. And in another place, she says, “Never worry about numbers, help one person at a time and start with the person nearest you”.

Whom has Jesus placed in our lives now? Whom has he bonded us to in love? Through whom does Jesus demand love in our lives?

As we approach this Eucharist, as we see the chalice and the paten, let us ask our Lord to give us the patience and the ability to see all of our brothers and sisters as holy, as worthy of our love and devotion, vessels of God’s love poured out for us, to treat them with reverence and respect, knowing that Jesus Christ is present within them, waiting to be loved, waiting to catch our gaze.

Just as faith is the only thing that allows us to see that the bread becomes the body of Jesus and that the wine becomes his blood, so let us now ask, as we prepare these gifts, for the faith to see the divine and universal king, living and abiding in the broken hearts of the people God has placed in our lives, so that we may lead them closer to heaven by the concrete love which we show them.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Humility the Antidote to Hypocrisy (31.A)

My great-aunt Dorothy lived to be almost a hundred years old by guiding her life according to a mysterious source of wisdom known as "they."

For instance, "they" say that eggs are bad for you.  And so, at 95, Aunt Dorothy decided to stop eating eggs.

Not that "they" is always right.  "They say coffee keeps you awake," she told me once, "but it's not true.  I never drink coffee yet I often have trouble sleeping."

Every once in a while "they" is completely off the wall, but there's no convincing Dorothy.  And of course it's pretty hard to refute an anonymous authority.

You and I might be too sophisticated to put much stock in what "they" say, but I'll bet almost every one of us likes to think about what "they" do.

Take today’s readings.  About whom are the first reading and gospel speaking?  Why "them" of course.  It's clear: the first reading is about Jewish priests, and the Gospel's about scribes and Pharisees.

Whew, that was close.  I'm not Jewish, or a scribe, or a pharisee.

But... oops.... I am a priest.  Maybe this passage is about priests, about religious leaders.  Not about them, but about me.  Perhaps I should preach about the faithlessness of the clergy, about hypocrisy and ambition in our ranks.

But there's two problems with that.  The first, of course, is that the betrayal of trust by a small number of priests and religious is something we've been dealing with for years, something that doesn't really need yet another analysis, however tragic and important that issue is.

But the second problem is that, for everyone except me and Father Giovanni, a homily about priests would be about "them."  They do this.  They don't do that.  If these texts are mainly to correct and instruct priests, they should be read on retreat, or in the breviary, or the clergy newsletter.

What's really important, in my view, is that each of us hear the Word as it applies to us, not to "them," not to others.

And these readings do apply to us: in a special way to us priests, certainly, but fundamentally to every baptized soul.   Because in baptism we are all called to a share in Christ's priesthood, just as by original sin we all have a share in whatever is was that made it easier for the scribes and Pharisees to preach faith than to practise it.

Today's liturgy puts before us those two scary H-words: humility and hypocrisy.  It challenges us to take a long and a hard look at ourselves.  Are we walking the talk?  Is our religious faith getting translated into daily life?

Today's scriptures offer caricatures of hypocrisy.  Priests who are so corrupt that they cause spiritual harm to their people.  Religious leaders who glory in social prestige and strut with self-importance.  Those things are easy to spot.  But what about the subtle, more pernicious, more soul-destroying kind of hypocrisy?  That's where we need to worry.

Some years ago, a newly-appointed member of the US cabinet urged the American people to "watch what we do and not what we say."  Unfortunately for him, the American people took him at his word and he went to jail.

But the credibility gap--the gap between our words and our deeds--is not just a danger for clergy or politicians.  I once knew a woman who attended Mass faithfully, donated regularly to the Church, and who ignored entirely the emotional and practical needs of an elderly relative living eight blocks away.  Is this not more dangerous than a fondness for titles or the seats of honour at a banquet?

Every once in a while we diagnose hypocrisy in a flash.  Like a bolt out of the blue I realize "my golly, I've got to do something about those long tassels on my phylacteries."  Much more often, we diagnose hypocrisy by self-examination, by reflection, by honest and prayerful thought.  We need to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit without having our defences in place.

But the diagnosis isn't the cure.  The antidote to hypocrisy is humility.  That's why today's psalm is crucial to God's message to us this Sunday.  It's about humility, the virtue that authenticates and orders all others.

You might call humility the DOS or the Windows--the operating system--of the spiritual life.  You can be filled with faith, hope or love and yet live in spiritual chaos if you take pride in these accomplishments.

I read once of an English archbishop sitting next to a nobleman at dinner who remarked “Your Grace, that chaplain of yours is a very extraordinary man."

The archbishop agreed, adding "Had he but the gift of humility, he would be the most extraordinary man in Europe."

We are all called to humility, not only because it is essential to authentic spirituality, but mostly because it is essential to the imitation of Christ—Christ, who did not cling to his equality with God but took the form of a slave, as St. Paul wrote.  And in the Gospel Jesus tells us directly: learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.

Today's psalm is the prayer of a humble person.  But if we make it our own, if we pray these words with expectation, we will eventually make the psalmist's words our own.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Deliver the Invitations! (27.A)

We’ve all heard today’s Gospel story before and we think we know the message:  It’s not a good idea to turn down an invitation.  It’s even a worse idea to kill the guy who delivers it.  But if you do show up, follow the dress code.
Okay.  We probably know more than that.  Indifference to God’s call is a bad thing.  Rejecting God’s call is a worse thing.  And if we don’t want to come to his wedding banquet, God will find others who do.
Those are important lessons, and it would be good to ask ourselves whether we’re the ones who laughed at the invitation, the ones who killed the messengers, or whether we are wearing the wedding robe of obedience to God’s commands or not.  But just for today let’s take a very different look at the parable.
Let’s not focus on the king—we know that’s God our Father—or on his son—we know that’s the Lord Jesus.  Instead let’s take a look at the slaves, the servants who obeyed the king’s command to deliver invitations to this important wedding banquet.
Those servants had a simple enough job at the beginning.  They were first-century couriers.  And yet the task turned dangerous and they ended up dead.
The next batch of slaves faced a far greater challenge.  In the first place, the routine assignment was now perilous.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t end up like the first group, dead.  But more than that, they now had to recruit guests for the banquet; that’s a much more demanding undertaking.
Can we put ourselves in the shoes—or sandals—of these servants?  Before you answer that, another question: can we see the banquet of the son as much more than a wedding reception?  Might we see it as the feast of rich food prepared by the Lord of Hosts for all peoples, the banquet that celebrates the destruction of death and the end of tears and sorrow?
Because if we believe that the Lord has prepared a table for us—a feast of fellowship here on earth and a wedding banquet in heaven—then the commission to invite others becomes crucial and urgent.
In earlier times, and today in other places, the brothers and sisters we call martyrs were willing to face a murderous response from those they invited to the wedding banquet of the Son of God.  Are we now ready to be sent out to the main streets of North and West Vancouver to extend an invitation to both good and bad, so that the wedding hall will be filled with guests?
I’m not sure why it is quite so difficult to convince Catholics of the urgency of this duty.  It’d be fair to say that the priests of fifty years ago were more successful convincing people they would go to Hell for eating meat on Friday than I am convincing you that sharing the Faith is not just for some but for all—a requirement for every serious Christian.
What I’m doing wrong, I’m not sure.  But I can’t blame the choice of Sunday readings.  Last week Jesus told us “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.”  He gave this dire warning directly to the chief priests and elders to whom he was speaking, but I think he is giving it to us, to us Catholics, today.
Where do you find a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom?  You can start by visiting an Evangelical Protestant church.  Well, I’d rather you didn’t do that, to tell you the truth!  But check out their websites and see their focus on evangelizing, on sharing the Gospel with the people they meet in every circumstance.
The website of one of these congregations has the bold statement “We exist to make Jesus known.”  That’s a perfectly good summary of the thousands of words written about the Catholic Church in the documents of Vatican II.  But can we honestly say this is how we feel about our parish?
Yet if we don’t exist to make Jesus known we don’t exist at all.  And if you don’t want to make Jesus known then you don’t know Jesus.  Sorry, but that’s the truth.
We used to have great excuses as Catholics.  We had lots of children, they all came to church, and then they had lots of children, and they all came to church.  What’s more, people thought Catholics were strange so nobody wanted to become a Catholic unless they married one.
Those excuses are all gone and the situation is clear.  Once the current wave of immigrants from Catholic cultures has fully assimilated we will be forced to confront the truth: either we share the Gospel with the countless un-churched people we know, or we prepare for empty pews and—worse yet—live as half-hearted disciples barely worthy of the name.
But the best excuse of all was simply that Catholics didn’t know how to share our faith.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stood on street corners, the Mormons knocked on doors, and the Evangelicals cornered you on a plane.  We sure didn’t want to do that, so what could we do?
Really, that excuse was a good one.  We didn’t know what evangelization meant or how it worked, so how could we do it?
Well, now you know.  Those excuses just don’t fly now that at least three Popes and three Archbishops of Vancouver have called each of us to a missionary identity.
Those excuses don’t fly in a parish where there are three distinct opportunities to share your faith without standing on a single street corner or knocking on a single door.  Three distinct opportunities that are non-threatening, enjoyable, and easy.  Three opportunities in three weeks.
You heard about them last week and the silence was deafening.  Just a handful of enquiries and signups.
I’m not scolding, just reporting because it’s not too late.  There’s two days before the Alpha film series starts on Tuesday night, and the Discovery Faith Study has flexible startup dates beginning this week. 
The Path to Life discipleship retreat will be held on Saturday November 4, so that’s a bit further down the road—however the speaker is so well known that people from outside the parish will snap up every ticket if you don’t purchase your tickets after Mass today.  I say ‘tickets’—meaning one for yourself and one for the friend, family member, or neighbour you’ll invite to join you.
I realize some of us still struggle with the word evangelization.  We really don’t know what it means or demands of us.  Forget about your old ideas.  Forget about knocking on doors.  Forget about asking your golf partner “Are you saved?”  And forget about people on television asking for money.  Evangelization just means sharing the Gospel.  And at Christ the Redeemer Parish on Sunday October 15, 2017 it concretely means inviting someone to one of these programs—or just coming yourself if you think you’re the one who needs evangelizing.  Many Catholics do.
I certainly can’t force anyone to deliver these invitations—I’m not a king and you aren’t slaves!  Although I do have to tell you that one of our young parishioners delivered several hundred invitations to homes in the neighbourhood.  (I was very pleased when he texted me to say that no one had seized, stoned, or beaten him.)
But if you’d like to take the Gospel literally, there’s a box of these leaflets sitting on the information table in the foyer.  You could put some in your apartment foyer or ask your kids to put them through mailboxes on your street, as long as you don’t live in the immediate area of the church, which we’ve covered.
It’s up to you.  But, looking back to last Sunday’s Gospel, if we do nothing the Kingdom of God will be taken away and given to a people that produces the fruits God expects from true disciples.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

At Thanksgiving, Share the Blessing of Faith!

My mother hated custard pudding when she was a girl. But that was the dessert my grandmother served at lunch one school day, and Mom wouldn’t touch it.

“You’re not going back to school unless you eat,” my grandmother threatened.

Mom held out until she knew she’d be late, and finally downed the pudding, hating every mouthful. Pleased with this, grandma told her to say grace after meals and get back to school.

After a brief pause, Mom prayed “Almighty God, we give you thanks that the custard didn’t make me sick. Amen.”

That’s a reminder on Thanksgiving weekend that gratitude comes in many forms.

I heard about another grandmother who was so thankful her four grandchildren were coming to stay with her for a week that she put a hundred dollars in the collection on the Sunday before they arrived.

At Mass the next Sunday, after they’d gone home, she put in two hundred.

As I said, there are many different kinds of gratitude.

For some things, our gratitude is immense, for others it may even be lukewarm. We have big blessings and small ones, blessings that are pleasant and even some that are painful. And we have blessings that we realize, and others we don’t even know.

It’s too bad that “count your blessings” has become something of a throwaway line. When the famous composer Irving Berlin was having trouble sleeping, his doctor told him to try counting his blessings. Berlin turned that into the song “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)” for the movie White Christmas. But counting your blessings is a serious business, not a cure for insomnia.

In fact, counting our blessings is a Christian duty. If we don’t know what we’re thankful for, we’re not really thankful. St. Paul tells us clearly in today’s second reading that prayer and thanksgiving go hand-in-hand. In one phrase, “Do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

And in case we miss the importance of his advice, the Apostle tells us what will follow this kind of prayer: the peace of God. The peace that every heart seeks and needs.

One of the simplest of all formulas for daily prayer is called the ACTS methods. It’s so simple that I even found it in a book called Christian Prayer for Dummies! ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. The four letters capture all three of Paul’s directives, and of course adoration—giving God praise and honor for who He is—must be the start of all prayer.

But today let’s focus on thanksgiving, and not only because of the calendar.

Could we spend some time this morning thanking God for something that we might not come to mind when someone asks “what are you thankful for?”

If that question comes up at dinner tonight or tomorrow—as it should—our first answers are usually our family, our friends or even the food, because we can see these blessings as we look around the tale.

How many of us would answer “my faith”? Yet surely faith is a greater blessing even than family, friends and food.

Today’s readings really help us think seriously about this. The prophet Isaiah sings us a love song from God, whose love for us is compared to the owner of a vineyard planted and tended with exquisite care.

Jesus is obviously using the very same image in his parable. A landowner who builds a fenced-in vineyard with its own wine press and watchtower has done all he could possibly do to ensure a great harvest.

How could such loving care lead to ruin and bloodshed? Obviously human sinfulness is at the heart of it, but I suggest a lack of gratitude is the first cause of the failed harvest in the first reading and the murderous actions in the Gospel parable.

How can someone neglect or reject something for which they’re grateful?

Happily, there’s no-one in Church this morning who rejects the landowner’s Son, the Lord. But the scriptures warn us not only against rejecting God’s gift of salvation but also of neglecting it. Neglecting the Kingdom of God can be almost as bad as rejecting it.

Today, we need to put God’s gift of salvation—and the peace it promises—at the top of the list of things for which we’re thankful. But not in the half-hearted way my Mom prayed after her unhappy lunch. If we’re not sure how thankful we are for faith, today’s a day to ask what we can do about that.

If you want to know what you really think and feel about your faith, here’s a simple test: have you shared it lately? Are you willing to share it? Because there’s a natural human instinct to share what we love with those we love.

Notice I’m not asking you—yet!—to share your faith with strangers. We have enough family and friends around us, especially this weekend. Do we have enough gratitude for God’s gifts to share them?

This isn’t one of those rhetorical questions you can hear in a homily and forget about by the time we say the Creed. No, today we’re all of us challenged to answer that question—to test how seriously we thank God for faith—through action.

In the next four weeks, our parish offers three ways to share what you love with those you love.

First, the Alpha Film Series. This immensely-popular program starts on Tuesday, October 17. It offers eleven weeks of great videos and non-judgmental conversation, served up with dessert. Alpha is a basic introduction to Christian faith, suitable for just about everyone from atheists to agnostics to fallen-away Catholics. (Although unless you are one of those, you can’t come alone—bring someone along.)

Second, around the same time, we are launching the Discover Discipleship faith study. It’s suitable for everyone, especially those who have already done Alpha. Many small groups will meet at convenient times. The Discovery faith study comes to us from CCO, which has used it to lead university students—a tough crowd—to know Jesus. Now we’re using it for all ages. And since Discover Discipleship is only a six week-program, it may suit those who can’t find the time for Alpha.

Finally, we are again hosting the Path of Life Retreat. On Saturday November 4, the dynamic Jake Khym will be with us to repeat his wonderful all-day presentation. It was a sell-out last year, so I am hoping that many of you who attended will have the enthusiasm to invite others. Tickets go on sale next week.

I am praying that by the end of Thanksgiving Day, every parishioner will have invited one person to one of these three events.

1-2-3. Check the bulletin or website for all the details. And check your heart for the willingness to replant the vineyard today in gratitude for all that God has done for you.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Xavier Jesudoss Royappan, 1962 - 2017

Nearly 13,000 kilometers from here, in the city of Chennai, stands the beautiful church of St. Joseph. It is a picturesque building of a distinctive design. It was Father Xavier’s pride and joy. Many times he spoke to me with great pride about that church, which he and his parishioners built with more love than money.

We might call St. Joseph’s church Father Xavier’s monument. But we’d be wrong.

If you’re looking for his monument, look around you. Look around you in the church this morning. Look at the parishioners—young and old—of Christ the Redeemer, whose lives he touched with his simplicity and gentleness. Looking at this congregation I can almost feel the beating heart of our parish family.

Look at his fellow Pallottine priests, confreres in the religious community he served as a formator and a promoter of missions. And see the diocesan priests, from the North Shore and elsewhere, who valued his fraternal warmth.

We even welcome representatives from Sacred Heart Parish in Terrace, where his passing has already been commemorated last week at Mass celebrated in a full church by the Bishop of Prince George.

Here is the true monument—the true memorial—of a priest who lived the Beatitudes with grace and conviction. This living monument, of course, of flesh and blood, is earthly while the reward of his labours—as Jesus has just told us in the Gospel—is in heaven.

We hear the Beatitudes read fairly often at funerals, but today they strike us with a particular force. In the first place, although Father Xavier was legitimately proud of his accomplishments both in India and in Canada, he had a purity of heart and a poverty of spirit that always gave the due credit to God.

A priest can preach effectively about virtues like charity or patience but the only homily he can really give on purity of heart and poverty of spirit is the witness of his life.

We also heard Jesus say “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Now I suspect there were Pallottine seminarians who didn’t think their prefect was particularly meek, but in his parish ministry he was unfailingly humble and gentle and kind.

And his meekness was the specifically Christian variety, not to be confused with being obsequious or unassertive. One day a large trailer pulled into the parking lot carrying a cow as an educational experience for our students at St. Anthony’s school–a bunch of city kids. Being a city kid myself, I ran back to the rectory and I urged Father Xavier to come over to the school to see the cow.

“A cow? A cow? I’m an —I'm not crossing the parking lot to see a cow!”

He was certainly merciful, especially to me. I found it too much to preach on the Sunday before he died, so Father Giovanni gave the homily at all the Masses. We heard the Gospel where Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times. Because I was so emotional when I announced his illness at the start of the nine o’clock Mass, Father Giovanni in his homily said “You can see how much Monsignor loves Father Xavier. But living together for so long they must have had their fights.”

I promptly interrupted him from the chair, to exclaim “Father Xavier and I never fought”—which is more than I can say about Father Giovanni!

Although all the Beatitudes fit this peaceful and righteous man, the one he was called to live most fully was “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The tragic death of his sister Nirmala Maria, a young religious who had just finished her training as a surgeon, was his own moment to join Jesus on the Cross. It was, I believe, the time when he lived Christ’s priesthood most fully.

The most intimate thing Father Xavier ever said to me came one day when we were talking about his sister’s death. “For six months,” he said, “I could barely offer Mass.”

But he did offer Mass. He did find the spiritual strength to believe that those who mourn will be comforted. He did find the courage not to grieve as those who have no hope.

He was able, along with the rest of his heartbroken family, to move through that darkness with faith in the Resurrection of Jesus and in the resurrection of those who have died in Christ.

Of course we are here today to pray for the repose of his soul, but if I can ask one thing of you this morning it is this: do pray especially for his mother, who has had to face two such terrible losses.

Today, as the first reading says, is our time to mourn. But it is also our time to embrace—to embrace one another and to embrace the consoling and encouraging word of God. It is what Father Xavier himself did and it is what he would have us do.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Stewardship = Discipleship

Welcome to Christ the Redeemer’s final Stewardship Sunday! You are also welcome after Mass to our parish’s last-ever Stewardship Fair.

Don’t be alarmed—we haven’t given up on stewardship. Far from it—I just returned from the annual meeting of the International Catholic Stewardship Council and I’m as keen on stewardship as I ever was.

But the more I listened to the committed and talented speakers at the stewardship conference the more convinced I became that stewardship is really just another name for discipleship. 

As our parish intensifies its commitment to forming intentional disciples I think we should remind ourselves that the only goal of our stewardship of time, talent, and treasure is the dedicated following of Jesus Christ.

And so, next year, you can look forward to the first annual Discipleship Fair!

The day our conference ended another took over the hotel. It was for young computer wizards and part of it was what they call a “jobs fair”—a bunch of companies sponsoring booths offering employment opportunities.

Our Stewardship Fair is a lot like that. It’s not advertising the great things we are doing in this parish—it’s inviting you to great things. Today’s Gospel shows how God puts each of us to work at different stages in our lives. One of the most committed volunteers in this parish is almost ninety; another one of the most active and generous parishioners is more than sixty-five years younger.

The amazing generosity of the Lord of the vineyard is something to celebrate—but we mustn’t forget that all the labourers did some work. There’s no parable about God’s generosity to those who do nothing at all.

So do visit the gym after Mass and listen for a voice that says “you also go into the vineyard.”

I need to keep this homily short, but I do want to offer a prayer that I heard at the conference in Atlanta. It’s printed also in the bulletin, but one of the things I learned at the conference was that only half the people take a bulletin and only half of those actually read it!

My parish is composed of people like me. I help make it what it is. It will be friendly, if I am. It will be holy, if I am. Its pews will be filled, if I help fill them. It will do great work, if I work. It will be prayerful, if I pray. It will make generous gifts to many causes, if I am a generous giver. It will bring others into worship, if I invite and bring them in. It will be a place of loyalty and love, of fearlessness and faith, of compassion, charity, and mercy, if I, who make it what it is, am filled with these same things. Therefore, with the help of God, I will dedicate myself to the task of being all the things that I want my parish to be. Amen.