Saturday, December 31, 2016

So Much is Happening on January 1!


I was ordained less than a year when a friend told me about a priest thundering from the pulpit about people not attending Mass.

“What’s so wrong about that?” I asked innocently.

“Only that every single person he was talking to was already at Mass,” he replied.

It’s a good point. Not much use ranting to the people who are in church about those who aren’t.

When I was a boy, the requirement to attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation was front and center in Catholic life. Looking back, I realize how cleverly the Church reinforced holy days of obligation—the seven or eight weekdays when we had to go to Mass: if you went to a Catholic school, holy days were holidays! Going to Mass seemed a small price for a day without class.

That’s just a distant memory. Only two holy days of obligation are left: Christmas Day and January 1. If I were running things, you wouldn’t have the last remaining obligatory feasts only a week apart.

But, luckily for the Church, I’m not running things. Because today really does deserve its high place on the liturgical calendar. If you doubt it, just take a look at the three readings we’ve just heard.

The message of the first reading is pretty obvious. These beautiful words from the Book of Numbers invite us to seek the Lord’s blessing on the year ahead. New Year’s Day is the perfect time to pray for that, for ourselves, for our family and friends, and for our world. We should have this mind all through Mass today.

Notice also that Aaron’s prayer includes the blessing of peace. Since the time of Pope Paul VI, January 1 has been the World Day of Peace. Every year the Pope writes a message about peace; this year Pope Francis speaks about nonviolence, about “becoming nonviolent people” and “building nonviolent communities that care for our common home.”

That seems an impossible dream, since the Pope himself says that we are “engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal.”

How can it be possible to embrace Christ’s teaching about nonviolence in such a situation? The Pope answers that very simply: “Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.”

And so, today, we pray for peace.

The second reading and the Gospel both focus our attention on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God. God’s Son was “born of a woman” that he might truly be Son of God and Son of Man. God’s Son was “born under the law,” sharing our condition fully so that he might redeem us fully.

And the Gospel adds another important element to this day. It records the circumcision of Jesus, who according to the law was circumcised eight days after his birth. On this octave day of Christmas, this ritual of the old law marks the beginning of its end; Mary and Joseph obey the Mosaic Law, unaware that Jesus will fulfill it and make the ritual unnecessary.

We notice too that Jesus is given his name at his circumcision. St. Luke doesn’t explain the meaning of the name, but St. Matthew does. His Gospel reports the words of the angel to St. Joseph: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

So much on one day: the beginning and blessing of a new year; a day to pray for peace in our terrorized world; the truth of God made man so that we might become his adopted children; the role of Mary in this great mystery; the Holy Family’s humble submission to the old law; and finally the Holy Name of Jesus, revealing him as one who rescues and saves.

When January 1 falls on a Sunday, we tend to forget that it’s otherwise a holy day of obligation on the Church calendar in Canada. But when we look at all that’s happening, maybe we’ll make sure to be at Mass on Monday, January 1, 2018.

Talking at Rise Up About Attending Mass

You may have looked in vain for my Christmas homily.  I didn't use notes, so had nothing to post. All our celebrations went wonderfully, thanks to the very hard work of our choirs, sacristans, servers, florists, greeters, cleaners, snow shovellers, and countless others.

The week has been a busy one, thanks to the fact that CCO's annual Christmas conference was held in Vancouver this year. I spoke at a workshop this morning about the importance of attending Mass each Sunday; the post below is an excerpt from my talk.

I also attended a talk by the young Alberta Conservative MP Garnett Genuis and now I have a new hero, even though I have been a priest longer than he's been alive!  There's hope for the future with a man like that in Parliament.

Sunday Mass at St. Hugo the Awful parish is a dreadful affair.  The music is truly terrible, and the preaching is worse.  The church is unattractive, and the people aren’t friendly.
On the other hand Sunday Mass at St. Horace the Cheerful is a delight.  The music is well chosen and well performed.  The young pastor has nice curly hair, a wonderful toothy smile and a great preaching style.  The church is attractive and nicely decorated.
The experience of Sunday Mass at St. Hugo the Awful’s has been a great strain on Jeanette and John, a newly-married couple in the neighbourhood.  They don’t get anything out of Mass at all, anymore.  They’ve stopped going, in fact, except for Christmas and Easter and the occasional Sunday when there was simply nothing on television. 
It would seem that the solution is simple.  They must move to St. Horace the Cheerful parish, where once again Mass on Sunday would be everything it’s meant to be.
There’s only one problem.  The percentage of people in the catchment area of the dreadful parish who attend Sunday Mass each week is not an awful lot different than the percentage who attend the cheerful parish.  Young people seem to stop going to Mass in almost equal number in both communities.  The thesis that Mass is really awful and therefore people don’t go—has a hole or two in it.
So is the thesis that wonderful Masses bring crowds to church. With all humility, let me talk about my own parish.  I don’t have to brag about my own preaching, I can simply refer to the preaching of our assistant pastor, Fr. Paul Goo.  You can read his homilies on Facebook and see that they are engaging, interesting, and relevant.  Our music, I think, is second to none.
And yet, one by one I see young people either abandoning the Church, or, at the very least, no longer fulfilling their Sunday obligation with the regularity that Divine Law requires.
There are also a number of good families in the parish where a sports commitment will trump getting to Mass any time, and will certainly trump getting to Mass on time.
What’s going on here? To find the answer we have to look somewhere other than music and preaching and church decor.  Believe it or not, I even think it might even be found somewhere other than community.  I’ve read several fine books about parish communities that are just about as friendly and welcoming as the average family.  But although these parishes are undoubtedly stronger than those which don’t offer such a great experience, the fact is that I have yet to hear that the Kingdom has come in these parishes, or that their churches have sunk under the weight of the extra parishioners pouring in.  Just not happening.
So are you ready for my thesis?  I got the idea early one morning as I prepared to go to a funeral.  My thesis is that the most wonderful liturgy will not be sufficient to bring about faithful unflinching attendance at Sunday Mass—for the simplest of reasons.  No matter how wonderfully performed liturgy may be, it is essentially the same show week after week.
You may be a fanatic fan of Justin Bieber—heaven help you—but it’s only the craziest teenage girls who would be willing to see him every week for 50 years. 
If we go to Mass for the sensory or even intellectual inputs we will find ourselves quickly bored by the mere repetition.  After all there’s just so much you can do to make Mass different.  Most of the time it’s got to be more or less the same—certainly when you look at it over the course of many years.
My conclusion when I compared Mass with great stage plays, great concerts, and great speeches by orators is that our liturgy was never meant to be so externally attractive that people would go to Mass happily and eagerly each and every week without a much deeper underpinning of faith and commitment.
This is, I think, a very important point.  If we do not make a connection with Sunday Mass that is significantly more profound than the human attractiveness—or even the occasional good spiritual feeling—it will be much harder to persevere in the necessary—and I do mean necessary—commitment that a Christian must have to this sacred summit of Christian life.
Do you get what I’m saying?  I just want you to reflect about it.  Is there really anything other than eating that never grows tiring or tiresome over a lengthy period of repetition?  And even eating the same favourite food is a problem.
The problem created by repetition is why the Sunday service in many Protestant churches is so often changed up.  The secret of the enormous pastoral success of the American evangelist Amy Semple McPherson was that she managed to make every Sunday service quite different from the week before, even by driving up to the pulpit on a motorcycle.
Surely there is some divine wisdom in our liturgical tradition and relative uniformity.
We’ve all heard the breakup line “It’s not about you.  It’s about me.” If those who’ve stopped going to Mass because it’s boring want to say an authentic prayer, that’d be it.  Much of the time it’s not about the liturgy.  It’s not about the priest.  It’s about us—about our need for a deeper understanding of what really happens at Mass.
So there, at some length, you have my first point. Great liturgy and great preaching, or bad liturgy and bad preaching, are not what should decide our attitude to weekly attendance at Mass. We’ve got to look much deeper—at ourselves, and at the Sunday celebration itself.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Archbishop's Homily: Meditating on St. Joseph as Christmas Draws Near

 Archbishop Miller was to have celebrated Mass at our parish this morning with the members of the permanent diaconate communitydeacons, candidates, aspirants and their wives and children but the steady snowfall kept him (and many of our parishioners) away. When the Archbishop let me know he could not be here, I had the presence of mind to ask him to send me his homily. Given the weather, I intended to shorten it, but after realizing its richness and beauty, I delivered it word for word, and have never had so many requests for copies!

Here are the Archbishop's words:

         As the days of Advent dwindle away and Christmas comes ever closer  – just one week from today – and we remain largely consumed by Christmas shopping, preparations and parties, the Church offers us an opportunity, through today’s Liturgy, to reflect on the meaning what is happening all around us.
         Like the solicitous Mother she is, the Church constantly calls us back to the heart of things, not by belittling the “spirit of Christmas” that fills us, but by inviting us to ponder the more profound reasons for our celebration, the ultimate reason why Christmas is a time which kindles in believers and non-believers alike joy, generosity and renewed hope in a sometimes dark world.
         Our Christmas cards, stories and other ways of celebrating Christmas concentrate on the Mother and Child.  And rightly so.  Early representations in art of the Nativity, and many even today, place Joseph purposely in the background, perhaps to remind us that he was not the human father of Jesus.  He is portrayed as a kind of silent observer of the great Mystery of the Incarnation, of the Son of God’s assuming a human nature, rightly ceding center stage to Jesus and Mary.  Indeed, the Preface of today’s Mass tells us that in these last days before our celebration, we accompany Mary who bore the Saviour in her womb, in that beautiful phrase of the Preface, “with love beyond all telling.”  Yet, we cannot forget about Joseph, thinking about his role in the events surrounding the Birth of Christ and what he – the husband and guardian of the Child – means in the drama of the Incarnation.
         Fortunately, today’s Gospel lends us a hand in this regard with its account of what is often called “the Annunciation to Joseph.”  Unlike St. Luke’s better known account of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Nazareth, which we recall in the first joyful mystery of the Rosary, St. Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ conception puts Joseph at the center of attention. 
         Mary’s Pregnancy
         For this reason, therefore, let’s establish a kind of spiritual conversation with Joseph, to give him his due.  He can help us to understand and live to the full the great mystery of the upcoming feast.
         In Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, marriage was a sacred act, a sharing in God’s own faithfulness – as it remains today, even if this is increasingly belittled.  The marriage custom in the first century was that a young woman, at about the age of puberty, would be promised to a husband, usually several years her senior, in a marriage arranged by her parents.  Technically they would be “married,” though we would say “engaged,” but they would not yet live together as husband and wife.  Jewish Law was especially strict in insisting that the couple remain chaste, having no sexual relations, during this first stage of “marriage.”  The young woman would continue to live with her parents, and the young man go about setting up a home and securing an occupation so as to be able to support his wife once they would begin  living together as man and wife.
         When today’s Gospel opens, it seems as if Mary had broken the Law, at least as far as the townspeople could see: “she was found to be with child” (Mt 1:18) – but she had not yet taken up residence with Joseph.  Talk, undoubtedly sometimes vicious, about her pregnancy would have been inevitable in a village as small as Nazareth.  Along with Joseph they would have borne the brunt of malicious gossip.
         Joseph did not know how to deal with Mary’s “astonishing” motherhood.  Certainly he would have been troubled, and surely disappointed in Mary.  But he reacted to this unwelcome news like a man of exceptional tenderness and self-restraint “since he must have been free of that most tyrannical passion, jealousy.”[1]
         Joseph, certain that the child was not his, faced a dilemma.  If he wasn’t the father, who was?   In order to save his own reputation as an upright man, he could have demanded an inquiry.  But if Mary were to be accused of adultery, it would have meant her public shame.  However, “being a righteous man,” Joseph decided to “dismiss her quietly” (Mt 1:19); that is, he wanted to avoid a public inquiry which would have left her in an awkward and vulnerable situation.  Quite simply, he loved her.
         Joseph, at an undoubtedly dark moment in his life was willing to take the problem upon himself, letting people accuse him of being a loser, of refusing to take responsibility for the child he had fathered.  Joseph was not only kindly to Mary, like a good husband, he was willing to take the suffering of others upon himself, to do all he could to relieve the pain of a troubling situation.[2]
         But, as so often happens in all our lives, God intervened.  The Lord comes to our rescue.  Just as Joseph had resolved to quietly end the relationship (Mt 1:20), and while he was asleep and dreaming, we have the annunciation to Joseph.  The “Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Mt 1:20-21).
         The divine messenger announced to Joseph the mystery of Mary’s astonishing motherhood.  While remaining a virgin, she who was lawfully his “wife” has become a mother through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Moreover, Joseph was to give her Son, not his flesh and blood, his name: Jesus, which means “God saves.”
         It is to Joseph that the Angel of God entrusts the responsibilities of being an earthly father to Mary’s Son.  “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (cf. Mt 1:24).  “This just’ man, who, in the spirit of the noblest traditions of the Chosen People, loved the Virgin of Nazareth and was bound to her by a husband’s love, was once again called by God to this love.”[3]
         What does Joseph tell us?
         Joseph’s Trust in God
         Despite this divine intervention of “telling” him what was happening, it is not too difficult to imagine that Joseph was still puzzled, not yet able to take in the enormous meaning of the mystery of Mary’s motherhood.   .  He would barely have grasped the significance of what was happening in his life, upset from his planned trajectory of a fruitful fatherhood.  But he had faith; he trusted in the Lord.  And he showed that trust through his obedience.  Like his wife, Joseph showed a readiness of will, an interior “fiat” like hers, “let it me done unto me according to your will” (Lk 1:38) with regard to what God had asked of him through the Angel.[4]  As a couple they trusted in the Lord God.
         Recall, though, that Joseph’s trust in God, like that trust we are called to, is a response to God’s first entrusting himself to us.  Have you ever thought of that?  This is what we celebrate at Christmas: God’s entrusting himself to us as a needy Child.  He entrusted himself to a teenage girl’s body for nine months, and then he entrusted himself to a Mother’s care and to a foster father who probably never quite understood who he was or what he was about.  He then entrusted himself to his twelve intimate friends, his Apostles and disciples, one of whom sold him for silver and another who denied he knew him.  He entrusted himself to the Roman soldiers who crucified him.[5]
         If the Eternal Son of the Father, the One “through whom all things were made,” can entrust himself to us in the Child born in the manger, can we not also, like Joseph, entrust ourselves to him?
         And this trust in God does not mean we will be free from discouragement, lapses and falls.  Think again of Joseph.  Even if we assume that Joseph was happy with the prospect of being a foster father to this future Saviour of his people, things did not work out all that well.  In fact, just about everything got botched up.  Instead of security and comfort, he and Mary soon found themselves facing a treacherous journey during the last stage of her pregnancy.  They would have no suitable place to stay, no family or friends around. The earliest days would be full of fear and flight.  The first ceremony in the temple would be marred by the ominous prediction of Simeon that the Child Jesus would he rejected and his wife Mary would have her very soul pierced.
         After the early years of migration and displacement, even when the family finally settled down, there was more trouble.  The lad would he lost in Jerusalem and, after a three-day search, he would show up reminding them that he had another “Father” who made a greater claim on him.
         Still, Joseph is the model of the good provider, the protector, taking sorrow upon himself, and faithful.   He believed.  He trusted, even when it seemed as if things weren’t working out.  Whatever he may have felt, as an earthly father he must have died a thousand deaths caring for his wife and child, both of whom he had accepted in faith as belonging finally to One other than himself.  So it is with every true parent, every true spouse.
         Let us prepare ourselves, dear friends, to entrust ourselves with fresh hope this Christmastide to Jesus whom Mary carried in her womb and Joseph safeguarded with his silent strength.

✣ J. Michael Miller, CSB
Archbishop of Vancouver 

The icon of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus is the work of the gifted Canadian artist Michael O'Brien.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 35.
[2] Cf. Francis, Morning Meditation (18 December 2014).
[3] St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 19.
[4] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 2-3.
[5] Cf. Walter J. Burghardt, Speak the Word with Boldness (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1994), 11.