Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Cast your cares on Christ, at Christmas!

Dr. Tim Kostamo is an esteemed parishioner, a devoted husband and father of four, and a respected orthopedic surgeon. But he has spent time in jail.

How he landed behind bars has a great deal to teach us.

The year was 1977. Tim had remarkable parents, deeply devout Protestant missionaries from Finland. They were the kind of Christians who knew God was talking directly to them when he said, “Go preach the Gospel to all nations.”

And so, they turned their minds and hearts to a place, not far from Finland, where the Gospel was not preached: the former Soviet Union. They became missionaries to Communist Russia and bravely smuggled Bibles hidden in the floor of their camper.

To avoid suspicion – and perhaps to save on babysitters – their children came along. The Kostamos ran a number of successful missions delivering the Scriptures to Russians hungry for the Word of God.

Until one day, when they were betrayed. The border guards knew just where to look and found the store of hidden Bibles. Immediately, the whole family was locked in a Russian jail.

And the discovery of the Bibles was not the Kostamos’ greatest worry. Tim’s mother was carrying the address list of the Christians and converts to whom they were going to deliver the Scriptures. She knew it would bring great persecution and imprisonment to everyone on the list if it fell into the hands of the Russian authorities.

Aided either by the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the memory of spy movies – or both! – Mrs. Kostamo pretended to be violently ill and dashed to the washroom before the guards could grab her. As they pounded furiously on the locked bathroom door, she ate the list.

Back in the cells, her children were drinking polluted prison water and Tim fell wretchedly ill.

But things were still worse for Mr. Kostamo. He was interrogated for four days without sleep or food. His captors told him he faced a lifetime in the Gulag, the infamous Soviet forced-labour camps. When the questioning finished, his interrogators said he would never see his family again. They offered him one chance to say a quick goodbye.

It was the most desperate situation imaginable. Tim’s father did not know where to turn, even how to pray, in the face of such terror.

Suddenly, Tim’s three-year-old brother piped up. He quoted a verse of Scripture, from the first Letter of St. Peter: “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Such words from the mouth of a little child seem miraculous enough. But what happened next is harder still to explain. Mr. Kostamo went back to the cell and announced to the guards that they had no authority over him.

And they let him go.

That prophetic promise from a three-year-old brings to mind the words of Psalm 8: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have drawn a defense against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger” (8:2).

But who among us wants to count on a three-year-old in time of crisis? And is there any family here whose children grew up so steeped in Scripture as did the Kostamos?

Tonight we celebrate the fact that a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that authority rests upon his shoulders (cf. Isaiah 9:6).

This child does not quote the Word of God; he is the Word of God. And the Word he speaks has authority and power. Power to lift burdens, power to break prison bars of addiction and despair, power to shatter the iron rods of oppression of every kind.

I don’t know about you, but my fine Catholic family did not take missionary trips into the heart of darkness. I didn’t grow up living the faith with such high stakes. So how can we claim a share of the power that delivered a family from prison, restored the health of a very sick youngster, and made sure such a dreadful experience did nothing to dampen the evangelizing zeal of Tarmo and Eila Kostamo, who continue as pastors and missionaries to the present day?

On this Christmas night, I offer a one word answer. Trust. The verse from First Peter, “cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you”, can be translated in several different ways. All of them invite us to trust in the face of our fears, be they great or small. The plainest translation, the Jerusalem Bible, says simply, “unload all your worries unto him, since he is looking after you”.

What better day to put our trust in God than the day he has shown himself to our eyes in the unthreatening form of a child?

Trust is more than the decision of a moment. It’s an attitude to God and his providence that deeply affects our relationship with him. After early childhood, trust is rarely instinctive. We learn to trust. We pray to trust. We practice trust.

In our Christian tradition, trust is linked with faith, and particularly with hope. We may trust confidently, and yet, always, there is still an element of the unknown; otherwise, trust would be the same as utter certainty. It’s not. St. Thomas Aquinas calls trust “a strengthened hope”.

In his Letter to Titus, St. Paul tells us that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. He makes it clear, though, that there is more to come, and that we must hope for it. We must wait for it.

And while we wait, we can grow in trust.

Tim Kostamo gave us a great gift by letting me share his family’s story of trust and deliverance with you tonight. The parish would like to give you a small gift that might help you grow in faith as his family did, whatever the challenges you are facing now, or may face in future.

It’s a “Litany of Trust” written by the Sisters of Life, a young religious order who vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life. The prayers on this little card help us to ask Jesus to deliver us from the things that bind us, and to place our trust in his promises. The Litany is simple, but prayed sincerely and often, it has power to change our hearts.

It’s unlikely any of us will get locked up for smuggling Bibles. But most of us are bound by one thing or another. And all of us need to place our trust in God’s promises if we are to have the peace that the Angels proclaim on this holy night.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Limping Along in Hope (Advent 3A)

Many of you know that we have an orthopedic surgeon in the parish. I’m old enough to find that rather comforting.

After the men’s prayer group on Friday, I told him about some pain I’m having and asked if he had time to give me a new hip before Christmas. He sent me to physio, without even bothering with an X-ray. So much for healing the lame!

I was thinking like a modern man—in a rush, worrying about the worst, looking for results, fast.

And sometimes I think the same way when it comes to my spiritual arthritis. I’d like a quick fix for all that ails me, from my worries to my weariness; I’d like my prayer life to stop limping along.

Isn’t that what Jesus was offering us when he healed the lame and gave sight to the blind. Didn’t he say that anyone who asks, receives?

Well, yes.  And no. The readings for this second-last Sunday in Advent are a crash course in understanding God’s promises and living in the hope they will be fulfilled for us—and in us.

Let’s start with the second reading, from the Letter of James. I can’t seem to get away from the orthopedic angle, because my favourite commentary says the letter shows “a beautiful understanding of the Christian life and provides a strong support for all those limping painfully along the path of perfection.” [Kelly Anderson, “James,” in James, First Second and Third John, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, p. 1]

That’s a good summary of all the readings we hear this morning—they’re intended to give strong support to all of us limping along the discipleship path.

James, in particular, gives us practical advice. It’s advice we can take home with us this morning and apply in the real-life situations we’re facing. It starts with just two words: “Be patient.” The advice is simple, but it needs unpacking.

Christians need patience, the patience of a farmer who can’t do a thing about the weather. Mainly, we need the patience that comes from hope—the supernatural virtue that keeps us focused on what God has promised, not how we’re feeling.

This kind of hope is not just a positive attitude but a gift from God himself. The Catechism says it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to pray in hope. [CCC 2657] And there is no hope greater than the hope of the Lord’s coming—the expectation of Christ's return. James makes that clear: “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

When was the last time you took heart in the fact that this world is passing away? But that’s what St. Paul tells us (1 Cor 7:31). Do we confront crises, disappointments, losses, and worries by telling ourselves that the Kingdom of God is near? That’s what Jesus said more than once.

Should we therefore never worry, never acknowledge our pains and losses, and pretend to ourselves that life is always rosy? Of course not. A trial is a trial. Jesus himself told us that in this world we will have troubles. But this world has the last word on nothing, on nothing at all.

St. James’ practical Biblical teaching on patient endurance, rooted in hope, is supported beautifully by our first reading from Isaiah. The prophet paints us a picture—or maybe I should say writes us a poem—that lifts our spirits wonderfully. His words tell us what hope looks like and feels like.

Hope, Isaiah shows us, is something beautiful. And, of particular importance today, something joyful.

Without denying the reality of sorrow and sadness, Isaiah’s vision invites us to live our lives with joy. That joy is rooted in patience and hope, as we’ve seen, but also in trust. The second reading is a prophetic promise that the desserts of our lives will bloom. It’s a promise we need to think about when we’re not struggling, so that we can claim it when times are tough.

We might say that Isaiah is giving us the Technicolor version of my favourite verse from St. Paul, Romans 8:28—“all things work together for good for those who love God.”

St. James tells us to strengthen our hearts.  One of the ways we do this is by reflecting on the Word of God, especially texts like these.

Today’s Gospel is less poetic and less practical than our other readings, but it’s even more important. It ties everything we’ve heard into Christ himself. It’s not just the coming of the Lord that’s near—the Lord is near. His coming is proclaimed by John the Baptist, but also by his deeds of power. The arrival of the messenger signals the coming of the kingdom of heaven; the age of the prophets comes to a close because the final age is here.

Those of us facing illness in our families or in our own selves can look at the healing miracles with envy. Why so many miracles then, and so few now?

We need to answer this question if we’re to live in the hope and joy presented in the liturgy today, and to be patient in the Christian way—not as stoics who deny suffering nor as atheists who deny miracles. Although there’s more than one answer, the heart of the matter is this: the miracles worked by Jesus are part of his preaching: as the Catechism says, they “bear witness that he is the Son of God.” (CCC 548)

The healings reported to John in his prison cell didn’t tell him that Jesus was kind, or helpful, or even powerful. The news told him that the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled; the eyes of blind had been opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The news assured him that the desert, where he had begun his preaching, had begun to bloom.

We can accept the same assurance. Not a promise of a miraculous end to all our troubles, but a certain hope of final victory, eternal joy, and a kingdom that has no end. So let’s quit limping and run confidently towards Christmas.

O my God, let me never forget that seasons of consolation are refreshments here, and nothing more; not our abiding state. They will not remain with us except in heaven. Here they are only intended to prepare us for doing and suffering. I pray Thee, O my God, to give them to me from time to time.

Shed over me the sweetness of Thy Presence, lest I faint by the way; lest I find religious service wearisome, through my exceeding infirmity, and give over prayer and meditation; lest I go about my daily work in a dry spirit, or am tempted to take pleasure in it for its own sake, and not for Thee.

Give me Thy Divine consolations from time to time; but let me not rest in them. Let me use them for the purpose for which Thou givest them. Let me not think it grievous, let me not be downcast, if they go. Let them carry me forward to the thought and the desire of heaven.

St. John Henry Newman

Prayers, Verses and Devotions (Ignatius Press, 2019)