Saturday, December 29, 2018

'A Home Away from Home' for the Eternal Son of God (Holy Family.C)

Last Christmas we gave away hundreds of copies of a book about Christmas by the popular author Scott Hahn. It was called Joy to the World and subtitled “How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does).”

After Christmas, I didn’t hear one single comment—as near as I could tell, nobody read it.  This annoyed me, until I realized that I hadn’t read it!

So last night I spent some time with the book, and I came across a wonderful passage I’d like to read for you. Here’s what Scott Hahn writes:

“Salvation arrives by way of the family—the Holy Family. The household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph became a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God. It was an outpost of heaven, an image of the Trinity in the world. ‘We may say,’ said St. Francis de Sales, ‘that the Holy Family was a trinity on earth which in a certain way represented the Holy Trinity itself.’...”

“So God took his place in a human family—and invited you and me to find our place as well. He made a home for us in the Church,” which St. Cyprian called “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Hahn continues: “And our own homes, too—our Christian homes—also share in this awesome gift of Christmas.”

And he gives the last word on the subject to Pope Benedict: “God had chosen to reveal himself by being born into a human family and the human family thus became an icon of God! God is the
Trinity, he is a communion of love; so is the family despite all the differences that exist between the Mystery of God and his human creature…” (Angelus address, December 27, 2009)

A modern scripture scholar, two saints, and a Pope—all saying the same thing: that our families, like ourselves, are created in the image and likeness of God.

Such lofty thoughts could be enough of a homily on the Feast of the Holy Family. But they need to be brought down to earth somehow, which is what this morning’s Gospel does.

Because there’s a risk of comparing our families to the Holy Family; almost all of us object “wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like my family”—especially at Christmas, when one end of the dinner table called President Trump the Saviour of America and the other started throwing rolls while chanting “We love Justin!”

We need the story of the boy Jesus in the temple to understand how our families can be icons of the Trinity when they’re not perfect. The Holy Family was the perfect family, but it was definitely not exempt from suffering.

Certainly sin was not the cause of their suffering, but it’s often not the cause of ours either. Illness, mental and physical, misfortune of every kind, and the pain of innocent misunderstanding are part of family life. Does this blur the image of the family as an icon? Not unless you can explain away the terrible anxiety we encounter in this morning’s Gospel.

The family of Nazareth was not always the happy family, any more than our families are.  But it was always the Holy Family, in whatever adversity it faced.

Today God invites us to follow the surest path to both happiness and holiness: obedience to his commands. Faithfully following God’s law does not spare the family suffering and sorrow, but it steers it away from sin, the only ultimate sorrow.

If we live daily life according to God’s plan, revealed to us clearly in his Word and in the teachings of the Church, each of our families—however imperfectly—can become a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God.

The modern icon of the Holy Family is by Michael O'Brien. Learn more about this remarkable Canadian author and artist here. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas - a Lifeline and a Love Letter

If you have elderly parents, or are elderly yourself, you’re probably familiar with the alarms worn around the neck or on a bracelet. Someone living alone can summon help at the push of a button.

(I hasten to add that I have no personal experience with this, since my mother certainly does not accept the label ‘elderly’!)

I was taking Communion to one of our seniors the other day, and while I was there a technician came in to fix one of those alarms. As he worked in the other room, the parishioner leaned forward, pointed to the device around her neck, and said “I wouldn’t push this thing to save my life – they come and take you to the hospital!

As I left her apartment, still smiling at her conspiratorial comment, my thoughts turned to Christmas. It struck me that many of us are like that feisty lady. We wear Christianity around our neck, even pay to maintain our subscription, but we wouldn’t rely on it to save our life.

The Scriptures for this holy night challenge us to think again. What’s the point of a lifeline if we don’t use it?

And there’s not much doubt that the Christian story is about a first responder who comes to our side whenever we ask, not to drag us off to somewhere we don’t want to go, but to pick us up off the floor, dress our wounds, and heal our wounded hearts.

The prophecy of Isaiah in our first reading, the words of St. Paul in our second, and the Angel’s message in tonight’s Gospel all confirm that Christmas is not only good news, but the best news.

Isaiah was writing some 2700 years ago, but he was speaking no less to us. If you know nothing of deep darkness, you have my hearty congratulations; but most of us have spent time in that place of gloom whether through failure, rejection, depression, or just the inevitable disappointments of life that can weigh us down.

Look what he promised – light that overpowers the darkest night, exultant joy, justice, righteousness, and most of all, peace. Not as a reward for good behaviour, but as sheer gift, the gift of a child born for us.

St. Paul sums up this marvel in a few words: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” And he hints at the next chapter in the story, referring to Jesus Christ as he who gave himself for us that he might redeem us and purify us. You’ll have to come back at Easter to celebrate that joy in its fullness.

And finally, the Angel’s proclamation. It is “good news of great joy for all the people” because it fulfills the hope of the ages, again bringing that gift most of us crave most of all: peace. A peace, as St. Paul says elsewhere, that the world cannot give.

How is it possible to reduce the birth of Christ to the background to our celebration of Christmas? Are we looking at the alarm button of faith, of prayer, of hope, as an ornament rather than an invitation to summon precisely the help we need and, if truth be told, want in the depth of our hearts?

If we have turned aside from tonight’s true message, it’s perhaps because we have not heard it proclaimed fully through the Word of God. It reminds me of a story from something that happened when I was a young teenager. One or two of my siblings and I were in my parents’ room watching their TV while my father was organizing his bedroom drawers.

He’d dumped out the contents of one large drawer onto the bed. The only thing that looked interesting was a bundle of envelopes tied up with a red ribbon.

“Can I look at this?” I asked my father. “Sure,” he said in a distracted way, concentrating on something else.

So one of us kids undid the ribbon and pulled out the contents of the first envelope. We read aloud, “My dearest Jane…” at which point my father turned around, grabbed the bundle and hastily put them away. It was his love letters while courting my mother!

Our Heavenly Father does not object to us reading his love letters. In fact, the Bible is one long love letter from God to his children. And so we’re going to end our time of reflection tonight by listening to the Father speak to us in the words of Scripture, opening our hearts to the love made visible at Bethlehem.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Second Sunday of Advent.C

A belated post of my homily for the second Sunday of Advent. 

A few weeks back, Bishop Mark Hagemoen of Saskatoon was staying with us at the rectory. He arrived fresh from a hike on Mount Harvey, with some absolutely stunning pictures of the view he had enjoyed.

Since the hike was nearby on the North Shore, and the views were really magnificent, I asked him if I’d be able to manage it, if I took it slow.

The athletic bishop paused. He took a breath. He said, kindly, “… no.”

I had to admit that some great adventures are beyond my reach.

And that’s how many of us feel about the heights of the spiritual life. We’re not up for the climb; it’s for the holy folks, the religious types. But we’re not keen on the valleys, either—when we’re low, we lose sight of God and his goodness.

On this second Sunday of Advent, God’s word tells us we can manage, even if we have to take it slow. The prophet Baruch says that “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low.” To use a modern expression, God Almighty has levelled the playing field so that every one of us can walk safely into the light of his glory.

By the time of John the Baptist, the Romans had established themselves as the greatest road builders of the ancient world. Travel between key points became faster and easier, uniting the Empire—which is why we say “all roads lead to Rome.” 

Jesus came to pave a sure way to the Father, a road on which to travel all the way to heaven. But although the path is sure, we need to walk it; he warns that the road that leads to destruction is broad and many take it.

What could possibly lead someone to take that road, when there’s a road to life that has been made smooth and straight for us?

The prayers at Mass today give us a good answer.  In the opening prayer, the Collect, we pray “Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son,” while in the prayer after Communion we pray that God “teach us to judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven.”

In other words, we get sidetracked by our daily concerns and distractions. The way of the Lord is clear enough, but we take detours of our own choosing. If we take them often enough, we lose the way.

Advent is a time to reorient ourselves. When former President George H.W. Bush's family announced his death last week, they used the code word “CAVU,” an expression used by pilots that stands for “ceiling and visibility unlimited.”

Advent is a time to seek that kind of clarity in our lives—to ascend above the busyness and preoccupations that cloud our vision of the things of heaven.

Today’s readings show us that lifting up our hearts is not a chore but a joy. Baruch speaks tenderly, comfortingly.  His prophecy should clear away fear and doubt, because his words are already fulfilled by the coming of Christ and by His saving work. It’s true, Christ will come again, but His first coming has already leveled the hills of despair and darkness and revealed to us the glory of the Lord.

The prophecy is fulfilled in us when we open our hearts to the tenderness and mercy of God. How do we do that? In hope-filled prayer. It’s in our prayer that the Lord comforts us, feeds us, gathers us, carry us and lead us.

My friend Vernon Robertson says that prayer begins as a duty, demands discipline, but will eventually lead to delight.So there are three steps to take in prayer this Advent: first, taking the duty seriously.

If we fail to pray at all, we’re definitely not on the road that’s been prepared for us. The second is to stick with prayer in a disciplined way, praying even when we don't feel like it—avoiding the detours of distraction. The third is allowing prayer to delight us.

We need to expect more from prayer: often, though not all of the time, God will surprise us with consolation and delight. We need to take texts like this one from Isaiah into a time of prayer so that the full Advent message of hope and comfort penetrates our hearts.

Much of the time, of course, we need to accept that even a smooth road has some bumps, and to persevere in prayer even in the middle of the pre-Christmas rush.

With even a minimum of duty and discipline, prayer in Advent can delight us. More important still, God who began a good work in us at our baptism will bring it to completion in the Kingdom Heaven.