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.