Dec 14, 2019

Prison Talk

Third Week of Advent. 

Advent 3a

The theme of this third week of preparation for Christmas is captured by the work “rejoice”. It is captured in the opening lines of the Mass, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”  These are the words St. Paul wrote to the church community he had founded. Now, we can imagine him encouraging them to rejoice, writing these words to them while sitting on the beach while the sun is setting, maybe a drink in his hand, reminiscing about all his achievements, and his successes. He was sitting in a dark prison cell. He was chained to a wall. He was compromised, his life was in danger, his friends and coworkers had abandoned him. He was alone or at least cramped in with criminals, cheats and robbers. And he is writing Christmas cards full of cheer and best wishes? Rejoice? Does his own words ring true? They do, from his perspective, if we consider what he says immediately after. “Rejoice, for the Lord is near”. 

Paul’s focus was not on how he was treated by those around him, his admirers or his retractors. He was not concerned about how he was verbally treated by those in authority, by false witnesses or traitors to the cause that landed him in his dark place. He could rejoice in his prison because he knew that the Lord was near. His focus was on Jesus. 

This must have been the same for John the Baptist. We see him in prison also. No early Christmas release for him. Likewise, John the Baptist is not rattling his chains, mocking his jailers or kicking up a storm, and he was very well able. No, instead his focus was on the messiah being near, close by. And even though he instinctively knew his life and his mission was severely compromised by the brutality of King Heriod, John the Baptist, in his crazy sort of way, rattled his chains to the music that the Lord was near, bringing healing and freedom to those who, although free in the world, where being liberated from their own personal prisons.

And there we have it. During these past weeks I have been busy here and there traveling through North County visiting parishes helping with confessions. It’s hard work, but not really for me. It’s hard work when people prefer their prison cell that gives them excuses to be angry, lonely, self absorbed. All I can do is offer them the keys.

In the sacrament of confession and particular the sacrament of the altar that we prepare for now, even though I am only too aware of my own limitations, my spirit can not be damped in a cold wet cell. I for one, join with my other two cell mates, St. Paul and St. John the Baptist and call out, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.

Dec 7, 2019

Never Black & White

At this time of the year, with preparations underway for the Christmas festivities, the holiday lights that adorn some of our homes of course only make sense when the sun goes down and it's dark outside. The usual string of lights often serve to draw our attention away from scrapes and scratches on the door, the streaks on the glass of the window and the dead leaves in the gutters that, thank God, nobody sees, unless they are up a ladder! 

As beautiful and charming as the holiday lights are and a welcome delight to see, communicating to the outside world a hint of warmth and festive cheer, they do not always reflect that same ideal spirit working behind the scenes. At times, the lights are on, but nobody’s home!

Maybe this is why the images painted by the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading are so beautiful to imagine - the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, the calf and the young lion grazing together guided by a little child - but we know instinctively that’s not going to happen anytime soon. 

And even on this side of the aisle the adornment of this sacred space, the particular colors we choose, the placement of the candles and lingering waft of incense, are all very visible to our eye and stimulate our senses to look upward and beyond. But sometimes they too can betray the hidden tension, the struggles and challenges we often live with in the secret of our heart and souls.   

Light and darkness are not always opposed to each other. Sometimes, they actually compliment each other, work with each other, making visible subtle details, texture, adding shape and dimension of what might otherwise be presumed as flat and uninteresting. The interplay between light and darkness, even in our own lives, defines our heart and soul - our character. 

To help tease this out, the prophet John the Baptist takes center stage in the Gospel this Sunday. To the untrained eye one might think of him as an uncompromising short of guy.  Far from it! It is unfortunately sometimes easy, if not convenient, to build up an image of a holy man in “black and white” terms, for then I have already made up my mind. I have a readymade excuse just to listen to his words without reflecting upon the deeper meaning of what he is saying to me. 

With God’s grace, what is in my conscience, in my soul, awakened, aroused when I not only listen, but take time to reflect on his message? Maybe my own arrogance has allowed me to see only what I want to see and hear only what I want to hear! When we allow blogs, internet sites and commentaries to tell us how to think about the world, society, politics and even church, we can loss easily our ability to reflect, to listen and even to learn.

But there is something quite tender in the message of John the Baptist. Whereas we can use stones to build up great structures to protect ourselves, or use stones to throw at people, John the Baptist reminds us that God can also use these very same hardened stones - and turn them into children! What does that say? God seeks to transform the hardened heart into a complex and intricate heart of flesh - for it is a heart humble and contrite He will never turn away. 

But finally, because we need, not a tug of war, but instead a sacred sense of tension in our hearts, John the Baptist provides us with an image of a mighty axe that seems poised and ready to do its job. Yet even while bringing it so near in a mighty swoop, it stops short, inches away from the root of the tree, as if frozen in time. Maybe that is because God’s grace comes to us, not like a lightning bolt to tear us apart but rather like an unquenchable flame that we can warm up to gradually - allowing it to comfort, as well as slowly cleansing us of all our impurities outside as well as inside.  

So, let us ask God to rescue us, even from ourselves, by finding a hidden way into our hearts and souls so that, with His grace, we might judge wisely the things of earth in all their goodness while holding on to the things of heaven that are eternal.

Seize the New Day

For hundreds of millions of years, God gently allowed the universe to quietly awake and gently stretch out - reaching out to touch heaven itself.  And yet, He who created time, never fails to see it all - the past, the present and the future, even in its final glory and beauty.

But we are often caught in a blind spot - time and time again, seeing our lives and world as a continuously repeating rhythm of coming and going. It sometimes feels like we are caught in a hamster’s wheel, unable to escape or fearing that it will eventually wear out, becoming dislodged and sending us head-over-heels.

So, during this Holy Season of Advent, the message we should hear loud and clear and never forget, is “Trust in God’s grace to break free and make a run for it! His hand is stretched out. Grasp it!”. (cf. Collect for First Sunday of Advent)

At the same time, He knows our fears, our anxieties and the burdens we carry. God doesn't force us to make the jump. He does not throw on all the lights at once. That might overwhelm us. We might freeze in fear. Instead, like the gentle colors of dawn, He gives us the necessary time to carefully wake up.  But be warned; if you hit the snooze button, you’re back on the hamster’s wheel!

Maybe like the chirping of birds that we hear first thing in the morning as they greet the approaching new day, God likewise provides us with various messengers. They are like coaches, mentors, who from their high place first signal to us the approaching light. These early morning messengers alert us to get ready, to prepare for our run towards our heavenly goal.

Our first guides this morning are the prophet Isaiah, a psalmist and St. Paul. Isaiah asks us to enter into the vision of a new day that will lead us on a journey to a place where the earth will touch heaven. The psalmist is our day-planner showing us the path and where the day will lead us.  But in that morning hour when you are tempted to stay in bed and dream upon these beautiful visions, St. Paul, in the second reading comes knocking on the door calling out with a note of urgency, “Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour for you to awake from sleep!”

Christ reminds us through the Gospel, that we should treat every day as our only day- a day that will point us, without fear, to a day that will never end.  That means that this Holy Season of Advent is not simply four weeks every year to remind us that Christmas is coming. Advent begins every single morning as we open our eyes - that gentle dawn of the morning is God’s quiet invitation to break free from an old, repetitive day that alone should be put to rest.

We began the “Advent” of this Mass, by calling upon the refreshment of God’s mercy, like wiping away the sleep of sin that blurs our vision of  the glory and beauty of the world. We have listened to the sound of His voice through His early messengers. Now, in this Holy Eucharist, let us be ready to meet Our Lord face to face, for He comes to save the day.

Nov 24, 2019

The Wrong People

Imagine, if you would that you went to sleep one night. And when you woke up, you found that there was a completely new government in place, with faces and names of individuals you have never heard of before. Imagine, you look outside, that despite all the familiar landmarks, buildings and stores, you notice that all the street names have been changed, there is a different flag flying and shops are no longer carrying brand names you had always been familiar with. But no one seems to mind, everyone seems to be at peace with it or don’t even notice. Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination.

If so, all of a sudden you get a new boss you know nothing about and they make immediate policy changes in the workplace. Or maybe you relocate to a new home in a different state or even a foreign land, and the way of life you were so accustomed to live doesn’t translate in this new environment. What if you had been attending this parish church for all your life and now had to attend the only church in a new town where everything was different? Or you arrive at St. Margaret’s one Sunday, and there’s a new pastor, with a different accent, a different way of doing things and who had a full head of hair!

Think, not about all these scenarios. Reflect upon how you would respond if a revolution of sorts, took place all of a sudden. Maybe you say, “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later”. Maybe you might be in shock, angry and frustrated that your whole world has been turned upside down. Maybe you’ll just go with the flow and accept that nothing can stay the same forever. Or, perhaps, you might retreat into your own world of memories of times past and nostalgia for the “good old days”. 

Today we mark the end of the church year with the celebration of Christ the King. What have we learnt during this past year of attending Mass, engaging in the prayers, reflecting on the Scriptures, entering into Holy Communion with Christ?  Has anything changed in your life, will anything be different, has your way of looking at God, the world, changed? Many of us don’t know how to truly answer that question honestly because for many we are creatures of habit, masters of predictability, custodians of tradition and security.

One thing we, as Catholics, are so familiar with is the crucifix. We have grown up with it. It’s attached to our rosary beads, hangs on our wall, adorns the top of the altar, is the point of reference when we come into the church. But if we were to see an actual crucifixion for the first time, it would make your stomach turn. It would haunt you, disgust you, traumatize you. You would see your world differently, your relationships would be affected, your involvement in society would change, your appetite, your personality, your value system would all turn upside down. And it should. You would never be the same again, and you should never be the same again. But are you?

While the world is sleeping or while everyone is going about their daily rhythm of life, for a long time Christ has been patiently provoking each and early one of his disciples to change their attitudes about him, about God, about the world, about all things familiar. His life was all about preparing this world for a new kingdom, a new structure of relationships in a new kingdom. Everything we have been familiar with, he stands it on its head, offering us an ever new and always challenging world order if you dare look closely at him from the consequence of him being crucified on the cross by a hostile people. 

Christ, the embodiment of God with us, made friends and hung out with all the wrong people. He preached dangerously to all the wrong people. He warned the wrong people about judgement day. He offered forgiveness to those who were seen as all the wrong people. From the cross he offered a place in paradise to someone society presumed did not deserve it. In short, our Savior was crucified by the right people for saying the wrong thing to the wrong people! 

When he rose from the dead, and showed himself to his disciples, their world changed, everything changed. Nothing would, could ever be the same again. And they entered into this new way of existing in the world with the hope that a new Kingdom is coming. If we think it is the wrong time, the wrong place and we are the wrong people who should be hearing this message, look again at Christ on the cross, and hear again the words he spoke as if for the very first time. And when we make his words he taught us to say in the Lord’s Prayer, consider if your heart is ready to bravely embrace a new world to wake up into. 

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

Nov 16, 2019

Mind the Gap

33rd. Sunday. Luke 21:5-19. -

Unlike summer, when we begin our cruise towards the winter, our physical activities typically begin to slow down but not our minds. As the nights become longer many of us try to take comfort during the extended evening hours by browsing the internet, following sports or watching movies or late night shopping as if there is no tomorrow. And you never know, maybe there won’t be! When our lives are lived in darkness, it’s often difficult to look forward with hope. When we look out at the world and see nothing but bad news, conflicts, fighting and angry words, it’s difficult to see beyond it all to look forward to Good News. 

Consider the Gospel we have just heard. For the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, the temple of Jerusalem, was to them what might be to us here this beautiful church, or what the whole church has seen throughout the centuries in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We have also in our national popular imagination the iconic Capitol buildings, the White House, the Washington monument. The British have Big Ben, the French, the Eiffel Tower. End of the world scenarios depicted in futuristic books and movies can have us imagine them being blown up, destroyed, crumbling into masses of rubble. We often react with morbid fascination of such a storyline from the comfort of our armchair. 

But what if it did happen? Would our world crumble around us and all hope for the future vanish? When something or someone around whom our lives have revolved disappears from our view or is obscured by fighting, destruction or even death, darkness seems to triumph.  “Give us this day our daily bread” we are taught to pray. But our survival instincts can often turn us into scavengers competing with each other, picking apart the leftovers. Our need for God becomes as great as the feeling of God’s absence. 

We are very well practiced preaching about the God of the oppressed. We do not seem to be well versed in preaching about the God of the depressed. It’s that dark valley that all of us, at some point in our lives find ourselves forced to travel into, especially when trying to cope with the pain of something or someone we love and live for being taken away or no longer recognizable. 

Our Lord tells us that we will inevitably experience this dark moment in our own lives, our family lives, even in the life of the church. What does he say to us?  His answer is simple, difficult because it often goes against our natural instincts, but is it nevertheless simple, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives”. 

Is that it, just hang in there? Yes, but as Christians we do so with a “secret” knowledge. As dark and as painful as the destruction and toppling of the shaffolds that often keep our lives manageable, there will be, at the right time, a resurrection and restoration. This is not just our Christian faith. It is the hallmark of Christian hope, not founded on the belief that things can only get better. It is founded on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new Samson who stands ready to topple all our man made temples, shelters and securities. So, make sure the world comes crashing down around you, and not upon you. Christ needs us to help him build a new world and from it, as the first reading reminded us, “there will arise the sun of justice and its healing rays”.

Nov 10, 2019

Looking Forward, not back

Today’s Sunday Homily was based on the final line from the Creed: 
“I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”

Essentially I blended together the two homilies below, for All Saints and All Souls with a bit of a twist - that instead of leaving this world and going to heaven, heaven comes to us allowing us to rise from the dead on that final unending day and renew the face of the earth with the coming of the Kingdom of God. 
Christ has risen from the dead, and following him all the saints (in the right order). We’ll want to depend on them for help to walk towards the Lord, learning to walk again in a new light. Only those who prefer darkness, sleep during the day refusing to draw open the curtains they keep firmly closed tight. That’s the difference between eternal light and eternal darkness - night and day. 

All Saints

What does the future hold for us?

When we think of our personal future, what we often naturally reflect upon is our job opportunities, our family life or even our investments and retirement some day. 

What does the future hold for our world. We might be optimistic thinking about new technologies, better medicines, treatments, even an eventual cure for cancer. Maybe we don’t see much of a future because of concerns  we might have about the way our society is evolving, our awareness of greater violence, increasing harm being inflicted against human dignity and God’s creation. 

One way or another, we often say that the future belongs to us and our children. But, realistically it doesn’t! Only the present belong to us, the here and now. Now is always the time to do good and avoid evil, to love God and our neighbor and to be grateful and give thanks to God for all the gifts he gives us through all of his creation. 

So what is our future destiny? That depends on how we are united to God’s will on here and now on earth as it is in heaven. 

This is where family and friends help and connect us. 

Christian disciples always hope for the best. Not simply for ourselves, but for each other. And not simply for the living, but also those who have died. Dead or alive, a Christian is called to be a saint, to reach our future destiny to be completely one with God through Jesus Christ, in mind, in body and soul - to be lacking in nothing. 

Have those saints who have gone before us achieved that destiny, those saints whom he church prayer to, particular saints that we might have a particular devotion to such as St. Margaret, St. Francis, St. Therese, etc.? We look to them as part of our extended family and within our circle of friends. Have they crossed the finish line as we hope we will one day?

In fact no, not yet? Our favorite saints are lacking something. They are lacking their physical bodies! Their bodies and their relics are still here on earth. Is that what our future destiny holds for us?

For example, entombed in this altar are the relics of St. Benno and St. Cyril. Upon this altar I have placed bone fragments from the body of St. Anne, St. Bonaventure, St. John Macias, St. Anthony Claret and St Maria Goretti. Not so long ago, the preserved heart of St. John Vianney came to this church for a few hours. Is this the final destiny for all the saints, both living and dead - to be entombed in marble, encased in glass or to be buried in the depths of the earth? No! Heaven forbid!

We believe in the resurrection of the dead, the physical and glorious resurrection of the dead body to a new life and a new kind of existence through the power of God. Our common future destiny is to, one day (and what a day that will be), after all our work work is done, to rise from the dead with all the saints of heaven and earth, and together as family and friends to be counted among them. 

“Oh when the saints come marching in. Oh when the saints come marching in. I want to be in that number, when the saints come marching in.” (And remember they march in, they do not float or fly in!)

In this Holy Eucharist, may our partaking of the glorious resurrected body and blood of Christ, who is for us the medicine of eternal life and the anecdote to immortality, not only raise our spirits high, but also our minds, bodies and soul towards that day of his coming when we too will rise from the dead together and step into a new world as saints in a new creation. 

All Souls

We remember those who have died. Even now, we make them present in our minds. If we have loved them in life, they are to us not ghosts or spirits. We remember them in the context of a relationship. This occurs when we perhaps look at photographs, when we go down memory lane, when we relive in our mind events, celebrations, a conversation, even having an argument or something we can never forget. 

This is what eulogies attempt to do. Remember when…..? Sometimes we share with others a memory. Sometimes two or three may share particular experiences from different perspectives. We see our loved one with the fresh eyes of another. And there are memories that are, for us a deeply unique, secret in a way that only you can appreciate.  Sometimes our best memories are awakened when we are alone and reminiscing of days past. 

But where are they now? Are they in heaven? Do they live in our hearts? Are they simply no longer here? 

Suffice to say, those who have died, they now rest in peace. And resting in peace is something that we all do after a long day’s work. We all deserve our rest at sometime in our lives. 

Each one of us, after the sun has set and our own work is over, we too will rest from all our labors, rest from all our anxieties, our worries – rest from the work of daily life and living.

And for those who have now taken their final rest, what we call death, they are at peace, until that great day at some unknown time, when the Son of the eternal day will dawn upon us all. And when that day comes, all who have died in Christ and lived for him will not be afraid when we awaken and with sleepy eyes behold our creator and our judge.

So what is our prayer for our faithful departed, our loved ones who have died? Even though we may remember our sins, our Christian hope gives us confidence that we should never be afraid of God our Savior, not to be afraid of the judge of heaven and earth. He is the good shepherd who comes to lead his flock through the valley of darkness to the green pastures of everlasting life. Together let us follow him. 

So until that final day comes, may we and our departed family, friends and loved ones always rest in peace and hold on to that hope we have in Christ of eternal life. 

Nov 2, 2019

Tree Hugging

Luke 19:1-9

Zacchaeus was a businessman, a very rich and lucrative businessman. In fact, he was the CEO of a consortium of debt collectors, money launderers and profiteers, despised by the general population, entertained by the rich and famous.  In practice, popular opinion polls would have overwhelmingly suggested that Zacchaeus worshiped a false god and should be shunned by hard-working, simple and honest folk! Add to this, Our Blessed Lord reminds us that it is difficult for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Difficult, yes, but not impossible!  So, how was this man, rich in the eyes of the world, to become rich in the eyes of heaven? Before we start pointing fingers and drawing conclusions as to who such an individual might be, let us be clear. Zacchaeus is you and me!

The first thing we will notice is that Zacchaeus - if he was to encounter Christ, even by chance - he knows he has to get away from the crowd.  

How easy it is for all of us to hide in the crowd at times, to hide behind layers of walls, hide behind or positions, even lost in an online anonymous crowd of statistics and made-up usernames.  Christ himself would never let anything outside of Himself, the crowd or popular opinion to dictate to Him who He was. He would never allow the crowd to force Him into giving His life.  Often, He would retreat to mountaintops, and quiet places to pray. And He would encourage His followers to do likewise - to get away from the crowds, our laptops and smartphones! How long do you think you could survive without wifi???

You see, it really doesn’t matter if you see yourself as big or small, standing out for attention or just going with the flow. The crowd, the herd mentality, has a habit of obscuring our view of the immensity of God's love for each and every unique face in all humanity.  Here in the Gospel, a well intentioned crowd was blocking Zacchaeus from seeking Christ.  

Our Blessed Lord does not want to be treated like a celebrity. He is not in the crowds signing autographs and posing for selfies. He is searching out for sinners - sinners who want to hear His voice, His words of mercy and who want to experience forgiveness and healing.  Caught in the tsunami of a crowd going in every direction, how does God draw out the sinner?

In many cases, it happens in the most unexpected way. Sometimes it just does not make sense. It can even appear foolish, twisted and bizarre.  Does Zacchaeus need a dramatic experience of grace to propel him up a tree so he can glimpse heaven, if only from a distance? Of course not. But underneath his visible effort, God’s invisible grace is at work lifting him up and out from the clutches of the fast moving world – God’s grace is working with him in his gradual detachment from the clutches of the world.

To all appearances, this little rich man, in order to experience mercy, up in a tree - it seems comical, even foolish.  But is it really?  It equally seems foolish on the part of God, that He would send His Son and put Him also on a tree. And from that tree divine mercy would be communicated to the world, even if the crowd responded by laughter or mockery.  And if we have to climb a tree to see our Blessed Lord, let us climb the tree of the cross and not be afraid to look foolish doing so.  For it is upon the wood of the cross that Christ offers His body and blood in sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. 

Also like Zacchaeus, we are not stuck up the tree forever, lost in the darkness of its branches! When we hear the voice of Him who will eventually tell us to come down, we know that we will have passed through our own Good Friday and into the day of the Resurrection. Salvation has come to our house!

Now this is not simply symbolic language. It’s a template for our own conversion. Conversion is not a simple one-minute exercise or an hour long ritual. It is continual, drawing us deeper and deeper into the love and mercy of God.  And it is often a continuous battle. There are times when we are glad to get away from the crowd.  There are times when we are caught up in it again.  There are times when we try to detach ourselves from the things of this world. There are times when we find it hard to let go.  There are times when we have found great comfort and strength in the cross of Christ. There are times when, because of fear and embarrassment, we have abandoned Christ on the cross.  There are times when we have joyfully trusted that He will catch us when we fall. There are times when we have kept our eyes closed and allowed our fear and sins to paralyze us.

How does the story end? Christ invites Himself into our homes, into the messy circumstances of our lives. But on our part, we have to always make sure that the door is open and there is a place and space for Him in our home, a home that may be messy inside but it keeps the crazy crowds outside.

And if we find ourselves like we do now, gathered around this altar surrounded by sinners and with the world outside thumping at our door trying to get in our mind, know that each one of us has already caught the attention of Christ's mercy. From here, whether He's invited or not, He wants to go home with you today, regardless if you have your home tidy or in disarray. Remember, the first home Christ had was a manger, a stable!

The Sunday Mass we celebrate today, opens the door.  Allow Christ to pass through the crowd and enter into the sanctuary of your home. And as our guest, let our response also be mercy - mercy especially to those, who because of our rash opinions, we have often deprived, one way or another, of their God-given dignity that no one can rob. This way we lift up everyone to that opportunity for human virtue that God's grace promises to every sinner.

Prison Talk

Third Week of Advent.  Advent 3a The theme of this third week of preparation for Christmas is captured by the work “rejoice”...