Dec 7, 2014

Mary, Immaculately Concieved

If God were able to choose whom He wanted as a mother, what standards would you expect God to have for that woman? This would be the actual person whose very DNA and cells would be the bricks and mortar of the physical body He would take.  From the very first moment of her existence, Mary, like humanity’s first mother, Eve, was created free from original sin. 

Within the sacred temple of her immaculate body, her womb would become the Holy of Holies, within which God’s presence would manifest itself in physical form, more and more for nine months until He was ready to show himself to the world as the baby of Bethlehem.

We are grateful that there was one among humanity, the Virgin Mary, who was immaculately conceived – one in whom we can depend on to offer God a perfect invitation to come and save us. And that she did, and still does.  That is why the angel spoke these words and we make them our own: Hail Mary, Full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Second Sunday of Advent

All of us have been baptized. And that only happens one.  Most of us have been confirmed. Again, that only happens once.  Many of us have received First Holy Communion.  That should not only happen once!

Through baptism, we become children of God.  That can’t be changed. 

When we are Confirmed by the Holy Spirit – have are, in a way, given a mission – a responsibility to make Christ known.  That mandate, those orders will never be changed.

What does change, are the circumstances and scenarios of our lives. We are engaged in so many different relationships, from those we have with our neighbors, our friends, coworkers and even those we meet along the way.  Yes, we might easily identify ourselves as Christians, because of our baptism.  But how do we be like Christ in every situation? 

We cannot be authentic and credible witnesses of Christ by the sacrament of baptism alone.  Even John the Baptist understood this.  Everything must point to the reality of Christ as our Savior.  Even though, we may be baptized and confirmed as Christians, we should never be satisfied simply with that fact that he is the “answer”. With a truthful examination of our hearts, especially through the sacrament of confession, we soon discover that we are always hungry, restless, with a yearning that will only be satisfied by God alone, and how we often replace Him with a substitute.

But this is not just our hunger for God. This is the hunger of the whole world.  Everyone looks for a messiah, waits for a savior.  And there are many false messiahs out there, and also many noble causes that many will hope will save the world. But our savior, our messiah is not demanding, pushy or forceful. Like the gentle dawn, Christ comes to us. He walks among us quietly, without us at time even noticing.

That is why we are here, and we need to be here at Mass every week.  We are hungry, restless for the coming of Christ.  We should always be hungry, always restless for Christ.  In the context of our Catholic faith, John the Baptist wets our appetite then, not for a great sermon, or for beautiful music.  Instead our souls long for Holy Communion with Christ, the Lamb of God.

Let us pray that having been baptized and confirmed as Christians, we may always find ourselves continually hungry for Christ and look to him only as the one who can teach and show us how to live Christian lives, not just for our own salvation and our soul’s fulfillment, but also for a salvation of the world that still waits and hungers for a savior.

Nov 29, 2014

The First Sunday in Advent

For hundreds of millions of years, God gently allowed the universe to quietly unfold according to his predetermined pattern. In the timeline of creation, it was only recently Adam and Eve and humanity leaped forward from their surroundings. The first book of the bible, Genesis, shows us Adam and Eve attempting to run, before they could walk. Because of their pride, we have, in a spiritual manner, been walking with a limp for tens of thousands of years.

However, God, who knows the past, present and future, secures his plan for our salvation by sending, at the appointed time, his Son to teach us, among other things, to "run again" towards our heavenly goal. As a “warmup” for hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, God sent messengers to coach and prepare humanity for his arrival. Preparation for the advent of God would be threefold.

1. Be cleansed of sin so that, when God approaches, we might be able to approach him.
2. We must desire to be saved and wish with all our heart to be rescued from sin and corruption.
3. We are duty-bound to provide the right environment for God, not just in our souls, but also in our lives and in the life of our society and culture.

During the course of the next four weeks, the Church assigns special mentors to help us, with God’s help, realize these goals. 

Our first guide is the prophet Isaiah. He spoke up against the corruption of society and culture and the loss of the sense of the sacred. The prophet Isaiah’s words are to help us build up an appetite for the holy, the divine and the sacred and recognize it in our midst.

We are reminded that God comes into the darkness of this world and the darkness does not understand him. Yet even if we find ourselves entangled by sin, our own darkness must reach out to the gentle light of the new dawn, and surrender to its rays. But this is not only an interior awakening of the soul. Christ comes to set free everyone, all society, from the chains and compulsions of sin and fear.

The Church, the Bride of Christ, begins a new year even as the days become darker. Our first prayer, the Collect, sums it all up. We prayed for the resolve to run more and more in the direction of Christ. We do so, when our actions must reflect truth in all our relationships. The more we initiate, with the help of God’s grace, good works in our lives, the more we become compatible to the things of heaven. The more we let go of darkness our lives, the more the eyes of our soul are adjusted to the approaching light of heaven.  

Advent teaches us not afraid to say to God, “Come”, come closer and guide our steps “as we walk amid passing things,” This Holy Season teaches us “to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures”. Once we have completed our journey through the shadows of the night, let our hope joyfully point us recognize our savior when we see him face to face when the final day does come.

Nov 24, 2014

Christ, King and Shepherd

We are in the middle of that slow transition from what we remember as the summer, to what we anticipate as winter. Some find this time of the year beautiful because of the sharp freshness of the morning chill, the changing colors of the leaves, the streaks of shadows across the ground, the orange flickering of the setting sun. Others hate this time of the year! It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s overcast and gloomy!   We either enjoy or endure it while it lasts.  One way or another, we know that as the curtain rises, the curtain will also fall. 

In the meantime, in our collective prayer at the beginning of Mass we asked God to set all of creation free from slavery.  This was so that it might be able to serve Him as He intended it to.  God did not bring about the whole of creation for the purpose of taking photographs of it. It is, instead, given to us as a kind of stage.  We are not destined to sit as spectators in the audience. We are the main actors, the participants in a divine drama that is being told and retold through constantly changing scenarios.

In this ongoing drama, Christ himself plays a part. However, He doesn't necessarily take the leading role, where we would all easily recognize that it is He.  Instead, Christ will play the part of the beggar, the one who is hungry, the sick person and even the criminal.  He knows His part very well, not because He has studied human nature and learnt His lines well.  Instead, when He comes to us as the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned man, Christ has allowed himself to be cast, not into the role, but to be cast into the real cruelty and injustice of this world to the point where He truly is hungry, He thirsts, He is crucified by this world.

Christ does this, not as the CEO of humanity, or like some undercover boss looking for ways to improve the effectiveness and quality of His enterprise.  Instead, Christ walks gently among us, connecting us with each other, showing us how to live together, work together, pray together, showing us how to take responsibility for each other, as a family should.  And before He will even attempt to lead us in the right direction, the first thing He does is offer healing for the injured and the sick. To get the flock through the winter, the shepherd has to make sure we are strong enough.  For this reason Christ the Good Shepherd offers healing of our souls through the Sacrament of Confession and strengthens us in our resolve by the Sacrament of own His Body and Blood in the Mass – the medicine of immortality.     

This is how we allow Him to reign over us, not afraid of His influence over us. For Christ to reign in our minds, it is important that we think with the Church, that we know the teachings Christ has given to her.  For Him to reign in our hearts, our desires must always be purified by His grace, that our disordered cravings and wants are disciplined and held in check. For Christ to reign in our bodies, that we allow His grace to literally move us – using our strength, our efforts and abilities to secure shelter for the homeless, comfort for the sick and hope for those imprisoned by the cruelties of this world. 

Yes, all things are passing - a time when all things will come to a conclusion and Christ will step out of the shadows and reveal himself in glory.  Until that time, let the prayer of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great nineteenth century convert and priest, guide us gently through the changing scenes and season:

“O Lord support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then Lord, in your mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.”

Nov 16, 2014

Thirty-Third Sunday

The Talents of St. Margaret

It happens every seven or eight years - when the parish gets to celebrate Saint Margaret’s Day on a Sunday. Even though she was born nearly 1000 years ago in Eastern Europe, a journey into the unknown she took as a young girl with her family to England and then as a refugee to Scotland, would have implications and bear fruit for many hundreds of years to come.  This parish, which bears her name, is a testimony, not to her greatness, but to her holiness, which is worthy of imitation.

Even though a thousand years ago, fashions were different, communications were slow, health care was herbal, politics were bloody and wars commonplace, human nature hasn't really changed.  The institution of the Church back then was often caught up in power struggles, scandals, intrigue and tugs of war between opposing ideologies and different spiritualities. Nothing seems to have changed here either!

Though Margaret became the wife of a medieval king who was a skilled warrior and military leader, she herself, as a queen, could have easily entered into the politics of her day, secured for herself a comfortable life, used her position to win favors and influence and be the envy of every onlooker.  But, instead, she was the example of the kind of disciple Christ spoke of when having been given five talents, gave back five more.  How? Was it because of her royal position and stately office? No.  Christ explains in the Gospel “Well done my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”

In a world where might and power and ideological influence over the minds and lives of others is often sought or even cherished, Christ is clear that we share in the “joy of God” by being faithful, first and foremost, in small matters. St. Margaret could have initiated great spiritual liturgies and workshops to which thousands could have participated. And maybe she did.  But what counted were those many hours she quietly and slowly read from the pages of the Bible, meditating on God’s Word and the Gospel Message.  

St. Margaret could have feasted on pheasant, she could have wined and dined with the lord and ladies of the Royal Court. And maybe she did from time to time.  But her personal affection for orphans, the poor and the destitute would see her open up the doors of her own kitchen to bring in the hungry, the starving and the homeless to her own table.

St. Margaret could have used her husband's position and resources to fund her own charitable causes or pet projects.  In fact, she did so. She had some beautiful churches built, monasteries and orphanages.  But it was her faithfulness to the sacraments and sacred vows of matrimony and her deep love for her husband that brought him closer to God and saved his soul.  It was her joy of motherhood that welcomed new life.  Her eight children would not simply number among future kings and queens. Some of them would also be saints, a credit to the influence of her gentle spirit of Christian holiness and virtue.

St. Margaret, not only familiar with the Gospel we have listen to today, would have also been familiar with the writings of St. Gregory the Great, pope at the beginning of the medieval period and whose influence eventually extended to the distant shores of England and beyond. I will conclude by quoting from his own reflections on today's portion of the Gospel. Not only would they have been applicable to the hopes and fears of a period in history sometimes called the “dark ages”, his spiritual insights into Christ’s words are also applicable to our world today.  

He says, “Whoever has love, receives other gifts as well. Whoever does not have love, loses even the gifts they appeared to have received. Hence it is necessary, my friends, that in everything you do, you be vigilant about guarding love.  True love is to love your friend in God and your enemy for the sake of God.  Whoever does not have this loses every good that they process.” (Forty Gospel Homilies)

May we, inspired by the Christian discipleship of St. Margaret, hold fast and protect that love we have received from God, to do little things well, sowing seeds of faith in the rich soil of our parish and family life.  And when the Lord returns, may we present to Him in due time and without fear, a rich harvest of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, dedicated husbands and wives, prayer-filled families, strong men, gentle women, a people holy and righteous in the Lord.

Nov 8, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

For the first 300 years, we did not have what we today generally call dedicated church buildings. Because there was active hostility towards Christians, Mass was offered in private homes, sometimes outdoors in remote locations, in cemeteries or any place that did not draw attention or public scrutiny.

In the same way as modern man, before going off to work might hit the gym, or stop in at the local coffee shop, the early Christians, in the early hours of the first working day (Sunday), before dawn would secretly disappear down alleyways and discretely enter, perhaps the side door, of someone's house or villa. And inside they might find fellow Christians all gathered round a wooden table, a makeshift altar. Voices would have been subdued, prayers whispered, the Mass offered as the sun would rise and first day of the week would begin. And as quietly as they gathered, quietly they would disperse.

Everything would change in the year 326 when the once pagan Roman Emperor Constantine was baptized a Christian by Pope Sylvester. In thanksgiving, the imperial place where it took place, was given to the pope to be used, not only for future baptisms, but also for the offering of the Mass and other sacraments. The Catholic Church was now out of hiding.  It had its first official building; it's first church building.  Dedicated to the Savior, this palace turned church, would become known as the Lateran Basilica  - Rome's first official church building, her first cathedral for the Bishop of Rome. Today we commemorate its dedication.

To allows us to reflect on the importance of a church building, as a sacred place where Christians gather to pray and to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. This is not just a building, a gathering place or worship space. This is holy ground. Throughout history, God would meet his people at a particular place, a location where He would reveal His love and His power.  Think of the place of the burning bush, or the meeting tent and eventually the Temple that would house the Ark of the Covenant. Even the manger of Bethlehem, was also like a little church were shepherds and kings would gather to worship the Christ-Child. Of course, there was also the room of the Last Supper, the place of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came down. Yes, our homes are important as sacred places where we pray secretly and as a family. But here, is our sacred rendezvous place where the whole family of earth and the family of heaven are united together in one supreme act of the offering of ourselves to God, through Christ.

Therefore, this is no simple building. Just over seven years ago it was dedicated to Christ. This building, in a way received all the sacraments of initiation that a person would receive. When the doors were opened, we walked an empty building.

Then the bishop blessed the water in the baptismal font, and then sprinkled the whole building with the holy water - the building was baptized! Then he took the Sacred Oil of Chrism and smeared it on the altar and on the walls. Fire was blessed and candles were lit and incense filled the air. The Church received her Confirmation. Then Mass was offered for the first time on to altar and all we're feed with the Body of Christ. Afterwards, the Sacred Hosts were placed in the open mouth of tabernacle - this church received, in a way, her first holy communion. No longer simply a beautiful building, but now, a sacred place, holy ground, here the presence of God remains. In a way, we are inside Christ's Body. The Altar - His sacrificial Heart. The transept - His body, His arms. We are the living stones, the members of the Body of Christ. And from His pierced Heart, His altar, Christ feeds and strengthens us with his own body and blood.

With this in mind, I am often tempted to think of this church as God's embassy on earth. Inside its walls, we become aware of our citizenship of heaven, of our longing for the new and eternal Jerusalem where all the saints of God look to as their true homeland. Outside of these walls, we are all God's ambassadors, speaking to the world on behalf of Christ and of the eternal values of the Kingdom of God. And at times, when we find ourselves in the midst of wars and conflicts, at times being shadowed by the agents of the evil one and in need to find a place of refuge, this church and it's grounds provide true sanctuary, a safe place, a holy place.

And even in the wee hours of the night, when the doors are locked and there is no one about, the candle above the tabernacle is always on duty, always standing guard, watching over the divine presence of Christ before it, like Mary watching over her child. What happens here, (this altar) and who remains here (the tabernacle) extends the territory of heaven to where we are now. 

Rev 21: 3   Behold God’s dwelling with the human race.
He will dwell with them and they will be his people,
and God himself with them will be their God.

All Souls Day - The Faithful Departed

On this day and during this month when we remember the souls of the faithful departed, our thoughts naturally resist thinking of death, our lives are often stubbornly focused on living and our goals are often set on working towards accomplishments.

Death is a consequence of sin. Though our physical nature is mortal, death was not part of God’s design for us. Therefore God, because He so loved the world, would even experience death and, in do ing so, would defeated it. The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave is now for us the prototype of what eternal life should be for each of us after our death. Every Sunday in the Creed we profess our belief in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.

However, life everlasting is not necessary heaven. It can be life everlasting separated forever from God’s sight.  “We can not be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves.” To die by our own free choice unrepentant, in a state of mortal sin (with a fixed attitude of active or passive rebellion against God) is to be cast into “Hell”. (cf. CCC. 1033).  

God will never force us to enter into heaven. Instead, as long as there is time, he provides continuous opportunities to walk in the direction of heaven. Not only do we bear the responsibility to get to heaven, we are also responsibility for the salvation or damnation of those whose lives we touch or influence. The choices we make for our children, the influences we have on our family, the impact we can make in our society will also be taken into account when we face our maker. Thank God, for us here and now, there is still time.

When we pray for the dead, for the holy souls, we acknowledge that our love is never wasted, that friendship and love can reach out over the dark expanse of death.  Out of this close bond of affection and love we pray for our dead, that as they approach the judgment seat of God, that they will not be afraid but trust all the more that God is a merciful God. And if they are judged worthy for heaven, we pray that before entering the purity of God’s presence, they may have the courage to let go of all attachments to their former lives. 

When we depart this world, even the memory of sin in our minds must be purged and our focus must be completely and freely directed towards God and God alone. This purging, we call “purgatory”. It is the final pilgrimage of the soul into heaven, in the gentle dawn of heaven’s light, the soul is cleansed and purged of imperfections. For in heaven there is no place for any lingering shadows.

Purification in preparation for heaven can be as painful as it is beautiful, like the blows of a sculptor’s chisel against the hard rough surfaced rock as the beauty is slowly reveled and defined. And we can take some of the hard knocks for them, the holy souls. In the economy of salvation, we can focus our own extra efforts to pray and make extra sacrifices for the holy souls instead of ourselves, to ease their pathway to heaven, to provide encouragement for them as they journey towards God. 
For this is the reason we live, in order to get to heaven – to look upon the face of God in Jesus Christ our Savior. 

Let us pray for our beloved dead that they will see God and rejoice in His presence forever. Let us pray for ourselves that as we approach the hidden Lord through the veil of the Sacrament of the Mass, that one day we will see Him face to face and with all our loved ones, whom we pray for in particular during this month of November. We do so because we know our love can reach beyond death to the shores of heaven itself.