Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Something New at Christmas

Look over there at our beautiful Christmas crib. Ever wondered where we got the custom of setting up a nativity scene in our churches and homes?

St. Francis of Assisi came up with the idea. In a cave in the Italian hill town of Greccio, the saint created a manger with hay and a live ox and ass. He then invited the townspeople to gaze at the scene while he preached about Christmas.

Maybe St. Francis was hoping the people would think tender thoughts about “the babe of Bethlehem” lying before them in the manger. But my guess is that he wanted them to connect the birth of Christ with their own lives—because these were people who had mangers and cattle in their back yards.

Almost 800 years later, Pope Francis is trying hard to connect the coming of Christ to our lives. With the same revolutionary spirit as the Poor Man of Assisi, the new Pope is doing something new in the world and in the Church. Are we ready for it?

I hope so, because Christmas is the perfect time for something new! Eighteen hundred years ago Saint Irenaeus wrote “By his coming, Christ brought with him all newness.” A month ago today, Pope Francis wrote that with this “newness” Christ is always able to renew our lives and our communities. His letter on the joy of the gospel reminds us that the Christian message will never grow old, even though it has had periods of darkness and weakness.

Pope Francis gets very personal in his letter. He says “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.

“No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.’”

Notice that: “no one is excluded.” How wonderful to hear those words at Christmas, when we often have people with us at Mass who may feel uncertain about Jesus and the Church.

The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Lk 2:10).

No one is excluded from the Lord’s joy! From the most pious to the most uncertain, the celebration of the mystery of Christ is an occasion of joy. The Holy Father specifically includes those who are grieving or who have to endure great suffering. He realizes of course that joy is not experienced or expressed in the same way at all times in life, especially at times of great difficulty.

The Pope says “I understand the grief of people, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.” Joy can persist through dark times if we believe that, “when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

So the joy of the Lord is for everyone. The Lord is for everyone—because he came down to earth for everyone.

But where do we go, where do we look, to find this joy—for surely everyone here today, from oldest to youngest, richest to poorest, wisest to simplest, longs for the joy that sets us free “from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.” Because many of us have discovered that pleasure is not the same as joy, and we long for something more than what we have.

The Pope’s answer seems simple: we find deep and lasting peace and joy by “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”

But for some of us, those words aren’t simple at all. Many things hold us back from such an encounter and we are not sure where to start. The angel gives us the first step in the words he spoke to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields that first Christmas night: “Do not be afraid.” How can a personal encounter proceed in fear?

And the angel takes us to the next step: “I am bringing you good news of great joy.” A key point of Pope Francis’ remarkable letter is that the Gospel is good news, not bad. Christians “should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet”—not as a people of rules, regulations and obligations.

Christ wants those away from him to return willingly—because they find the life he offers attractive.

Like any family, the Church has skeletons in the cupboard, feuds here and there, and all the misunderstandings that are inevitable when people live closely with one another. But like most families, she also offers a place of acceptance, nourishment, and growth.

Our parish family already strives to meet the many challenges Pope Francis has given us. It’s a community that reaches out to the poor while helping more affluent folks “to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith.” We show love for our seniors, tender care for our children, and take great interest in youth and young adults.

In the coming year, we will continue to examine parish life in light of this dynamic pontificate. So that our joy may be renewed and strengthened, we hope to listen to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and to let ourselves be transformed by the Spirit through a particular way of prayer heartily praised by both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. This prayer, often called by its Latin name of lectio divina, “consists of reading God’s word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us.” It is both simple and profound, and will build on the excellent Bible study courses the parish has offered over the years.

If you are an active parishioner, are you ready for something new? If you’ve been away for a while, are you brave enough to return during these lively times? Or if you are not yet a Christian, does the joy we’re talking about sound like something you want and need?

Don’t feel too bad if you’re not quite sure! Do you think that “the people who walked in darkness” were ready for that great light? And the shepherds were sure thrown for a loop when the angels showed up with their astonishing news. The gospels tell us that even Mary and Joseph took some time to absorb what God was asking from them.

God is always full of surprises, and he wait for us to catch up.

Pope Francis writes that “He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot yet achieve.”

Perhaps you’ll decide to take that step forward tonight—by a quiet prayer accepting God into your heart, or by a decision to come back to Mass next Sunday, or by a recommitment to speaking daily with God in prayer and allowing him to speak to you in Scripture.

It might be as simple as deciding to take and read one of the books we’re offering as a gift to our visitors after Mass.

Or maybe all you’ll do is take a good look at our Christmas crib, and try to connect what you see with the joys, sorrows and circumstances of your life.

But do not be afraid. The news is new, and the news is good—for each and every one of us.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Calming Down Before Christmas (Advent 4.A)

The week before Christmas is the busiest week of the year for me, and not everything went well. I couldn’t get half my work done, and even Father Xavier said he didn’t like my haircut.

And then came the delightful surprise of St. Anthony’s School Christmas Concert.

There were many of the traditional things you’d expect at a Christmas pageant—carols and adorable kindergarten students dressed as sheep and shepherds and all the rest. But in other ways, the pageant was unpredictable, and not just because we had a real live baby in the manger and a child dressed as a star that actually lit up.

What was really different were the serious and meaningful prayers said between each song, many of which were more Christian than Christmassy. I have nothing against the standard sort of Christmas pageant, but this more profound version was delightfully unexpected.

So when I looked at today’s Gospel, I couldn’t help but think: this is the unexpected version of the Nativity story. All the traditional things are missing—the manger, the angels, and the shepherds. We find those only in Luke’s Gospel, which we’ll hear at Midnight Mass and on Christmas morning.

Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ gives us instead a dream and a prophecy. At first glance, his version of the birth of Christ seems to have little in common with Luke’s. Yet there are some important similarities.

Both Matthew and Luke show us that the arrival of the Prince of Peace happens in the middle of turmoil. In today’s Gospel, St. Joseph is certainly in a desperate situation; it’s pretty clear how he feels. And in Luke’s Christmas Gospel, both Mary and Joseph are caught up in the chaos of a Roman census and find themselves homeless.

Both Matthew and Luke contain the phrase “do not be afraid.” In today’s reading, the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife; in Luke’s Gospel, the angel says “do not be afraid” to the shepherds who are frightened out of their wits.

There may be a few folks in church who face something as unsettling and scary as St. Joseph did—a family crisis, business worries, a major illness. Others are simply afraid about facing all that’s expected of us at Christmastime—to shop more, cook more, eat more and drink more than we really want.

Some of us have fears about Christmas Day itself—will a recent loss cast a shadow, making us feel worse than we already do? Will I be able to keep my cool when Uncle Fred starts his annual rant or will I stomp out of the house like I did last year?

Do we take these fears to God? Do we give him a chance to help? That’s what today’s Gospel invites us to do.

St. Joseph’s situation reminds us that there’s never been a time without turmoil, and that God meets us right in the middle of it. Sometimes if we slow down—and you sure can’t do much dreaming if you don’t—we might hear an encouraging word when we least expect it.

Joseph’s story also reminds us that a very good way to overcome fear is to step out in faith, to reach out in love. The angel’s message tells him not to be afraid to do what God asks, something bold and loving. That’s equally good advice for us.

During the last week or so, I’ve talked with some of the many volunteers who have been packing and delivering hampers for the needy. It’s not a scientific survey, but by and large they seemed to be more peaceful than the other parishioners I’ve chatted with lately. Maybe they’re just too busy to feel anxious! More likely, they discovered that just doing what God asks takes your mind off your fears.

I’m not sure what Pope Francis has planned for Christmas, but you can be sure it will be something more than Mass and a big dinner with the in-laws (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

It’s not too late to master our fear of inviting an awkward neighbour to dinner or sacrificing a bit more than we can afford to some charitable purpose. It’s not too late to take a cue from the elementary school concert, and to shift our focus from conventional traditions and expectations towards ones that are more profound and prayerful, like reading a Christmas Gospel at the table tonight or on Christmas Day.

We have a few days left before Christmas: let’s give God a chance to both calm and challenge us. The results of a few quiet moments might be more than we expect.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Did even John the Baptist have doubts? (Advent.3)

My friend Daphne writes a very successful blog about writing. I read it every week, partly to improve my writing and partly to keep up with her news.

Last week I was a bit shook up by the opening line of her latest article: “I have a new companion.” That was a shock, since she’s happily married, and no-one with three teenagers is crazy enough to get a dog.

But the next line explained things: The name of her new companion is doubt.

Daphne started thinking about doubt recently because the challenges of writing a book have made doubt her new best friend. She says that doubt walked shamelessly through her front door and sat down in the chair beside her desk.

Tackling the problem head on, she decided to look on doubt as a companion, and observe what it was up to. After a week, she began to feel about doubt the same way she feels about fear. “It’s an emotion. It’s neither good nor bad.”

Daphne advised her fellow writers to deal with doubt the way they deal with fear: not by ignoring it, but by paying attention to it.

I’m taking my friend’s advice today and paying attention to doubt—not my own, but John the Baptist’s. The things scholars say about today’s Gospel make me uncomfortable, because some suggest John was having a crisis of faith. And even if that’s true, who wants to talk about the Baptist’s doubts in the middle of Advent?

First let’s figure out why John might have been having second thoughts about the man he had hailed publicly as the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29) and whom he had baptized in the River Jordan.

It’s not hard to guess: Herod has locked John in a dungeon at the moment when his hopes were about to be fulfilled. Just when he expects the Messiah to reveal himself in power, John is out of action. Who wouldn’t start to wonder—to rethink his earlier convictions?

And so John asks a question that he had already answered. Are you the one? Or was I wrong?

“Most people prefer a simple answer to a simple question. It is fair to ask, then, why Jesus responds to John’s question with a news bulletin…” Why not a simple yes?

“Presumably, it is because Jesus wants to give John what he needs to steady his wavering faith.” [Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) 151]

Jesus gives John more than an answer: He reminds him of the signs and wonders he is working so that his identity as the Messiah will be made clear. But even more, he reminds him of ancient prophecies and shows how they are being fulfilled—“strengthening the Baptist’s faith by grounding it in the word of God.” [Gospel of Matthew, 152]

During this Advent season, the Lord wants to hear our questions too. Maybe we don’t ask “are you the one who is to come?” but we sure do wonder sometimes if he’s coming at all.

Even though I have no doubt that Jesus is the saviour, I find myself wondering if he’s my saviour.

Some prayers just don’t get answered. We feel more confusion than clarity. And some of us are even living in prison cells of our own making.

What does Jesus say to those of us who identify with John’s doubts?

It seems to me he sends us the very same message he sent to John. What have you heard? What have you seen? Face down your doubts with evidence.

Don’t rely absolutely on miracles. They’re not intended to replace faith. Who needs faith if every illness is cured by every prayer?

In the Gospels, miracles are not proofs but signs: “they point to faith, but they never compel faith… In asking John to consider the evidence, Jesus was asking his cousin what he asks of us: a free decision based on the evidence of his words and deeds, yet going beyond what they ‘prove’ in the strict sense.” [John Jay Hughes, Proclaiming the Good News: Homilies for the ‘A’ Cycle, 24]

And don’t rely only on the evidence from the time of Jesus. What do you see around you? Do the blind not receive their sight, when people are able to see through the shadows and recognize the light of truth?

Have you not seen a person crippled by anger or isolation begin to walk straight again when touched by the healing power of God?

Are lepers not made whole when Christians reach out to prisoners, to misfits, to those society wishes to forget? 

And do the poor not hear good news when parishioners spend countless hours boxing hundreds of Christmas hampers to distribute near and far? Do the poor not have the Gospel brought to them when our parish raises some $25,000 in a matter of days for the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines?

Do we not, in our own times, see signs that can ease our doubts and strengthen our faith? Perhaps the Church should sponsor something like what the schools do when a student “shadows” someone at their work. If you could spend a week with me, or any parish priest, you would be given the same encouragement that Jesus offered to John the Baptist.

Like the disciples told John the Baptist, I can tell you--looking back only a week or two--that the blind do see, the deaf hear, and lepers are cleansed; the understanding, generosity, forgiveness, love, encouragement, sacrifice and boundless charity that I see in my own parish at this time of year is good evidence that Jesus is the one who came and who will come again.

John the Baptist had it right the first time: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (Jn. 1:34)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A dream, not a complaint (Advent 2)

Nelson Mandela had a vision for South Africa free of the discrimination that had splintered his country during 46 years of racial segregation. In his first speech as president, he called on South Africans to “reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”

Martin Luther King also had a vision—a vision of justice in the United States of America. Almost thirty years before Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed: "I have a dream."

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Ten times, in fact, Dr. King spoke of his dream for America. In his speech, President Mandela spoke of the dreams of the heroes and heroines who had suffered and sacrificed for freedom.

While I was in Toronto last week, just before Nelson Mandela’s death, I had the chance to hear a talk from Father Tom Rosica, the head of Salt+Light TV, our national Catholic television channel.

Father Rosica made a powerful point about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King: 
He didn’t stand up and say “I have a complaint!” Though that would have been fair enough, since there was still plenty to complain about for black Americans in 1964.

The same is true of President Mandela’s inaugural address. He could have used it to condemn the architects of a great injustice; it could have been a litany of complaints from start to finish. Instead, he spoke of building a “society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

“I have a complaint” never moves hearts. Only dreams do. As Father Rosica said, “Saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. Nor will it change the Church. One has to lift up a vision of what is right, what is good, what is beautiful, what is holy and what it true. That is what brings about change and conversion.”

The Church knows this very well, and Pope Francis has reminded us several times that our preaching must begin with the joyful vision of the Gospel, not a focus on human weakness and shortcomings.

In particular, our Advent liturgy shows the importance of beginning with a dream. Each Sunday in Advent, the first reading is a prophecy pointing to the coming of a glorious Kingdom. Last week, Isaiah shared a vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s House, eager to know his ways and beating their weapons into farm tools along the way.

Today we read the prophet’s vision of the wolf lying down with the lamb, the calf and the lion, with a child playing safely with a poisonous snake. It’s a dream of a Kingdom of peace and safety, with a righteous Leader like none other.

Next week, Isaiah’s prophesies the dessert blooming like Butchart Gardens, and healing for the blind, the deaf and the lame.

And on Advent’s final Sunday, what seems the most impossible dream of all—a young woman will bear a son, who will be called Emmanuel, God-with-Us.

These visions of a redeemed world, of a peaceable Kingdom, might seem less practical than some of our Gospel readings for Advent, which call us to action. Last week, Jesus told us to stay awake and be ready. Today, John the Baptist tells us to repent. But we find the dream again in the Gospel for the third week of Advent, when Jesus himself speaks not only of healing for the blind, the deaf and the lame, but of the raising of the dead.

The Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent tells us about an actual dream—the dream of St. Joseph. But most importantly, it returns to that vision of Isaiah: the virgin who will bear a son named Emmanuel.

We cannot look at Advent—a time of preparation—without thinking of conversion, repentance, and our Christian duties. That’s why we have penitential services and special opportunities for works of charity and service; it’s why almost everyone finds time to get to Confession before Christmas and why so many are hauling groceries for the needy, donating to good works, and—in some cases—giving the poor the precious gift of their own time.

But all these good things must be fired by a dream—not by a complaint. We don’t help our refugee family because the Government’s not generous enough; we help them because we’ve caught the vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s House.

We welcome them, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, just as Christ has welcomed us—for the glory of God.

The vision of Nelson Mandela remains unfulfilled; South Africa still has grave social problems, some of them traceable to the evils of apartheid. The dream of Martin Luther King also has some distance to go before it is realized, as economic and social problems continue to weaken many poor African-Americans.

But a great dream is meant to last—it does not expire, and it continues to inspire so long as it is shared.

Christians have held on to the promise of Christ’s coming and to a new and perfect world for almost two thousand years. Advent is the time we renew our hope in what is to come, even amidst the imperfections we find in ourselves and in our world.

Any South African, black American, or Christian could begin a speech with “I have a complaint.” But only those who say “I have a dream” are likely to make a difference.

Of course we must be clear: Dreams come first, but deeds must follow.

To give the last word to Nelson Mandela, “Our daily deeds … must produce … a reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”

Daily deeds, driven by a hope-filled vision: there is a formula for a great Advent that will lead us to a joyful Christmas.