Jan 13, 2019

Inside Water

Ritual And Reality...  

When we talk about the baptism of the Lord, what immediately comes to mind is a church baptism – typically a baby, parents and godparents. 

The word baptism hears “to dip, immerse in water”. When St. John was baptizing people in the river, he was using the water as a symbol of cleansing. Those willing to leave behind their old lives, repenting of their offenses against God, could now formally recommit themselves to God and they could “see” their sins being washed away down stream.  No, of course, they did not literally “see” their sins floating away down the river or dissolving in the water.  But the ritual was very important.  

Rituals seek to communicate what sometimes words cannot. We remember the event of a ritual. It helps us place something that is personally important for our interior lives, within the timeframe and history of our public life. 

For any ritual to be authentic, what is being communicated visibly must be genuinely happening invisibly within our heart and souls.  That’s the difference between a ritual and a performance.  In a simple performance, we learn our lines, we understand our role and do what we are expected. And after the performance is over we go back to the same type of life we were living before the play.  

However, when we perform a ritual, we seek to express publicly through our actions, what is happening invisibly to our souls. Whether we can understand it or not, our senses tell us that the ritual communicates something that is authentic, meaningful, sacred.

Christ was sinless. He did not need to have his sins washed away. He didn't have any.  Why then was be baptized? Did he just go through all the motions? Was it just a performance? No.

Consider the crowds of people who came to the waters seeking to turn away from sin and wanting to express this by having their sins symbolically washed away.  Consider that this was taking place in the desert, and that the villages upstream were using this river for water, for washing, for laundry and also for waste disposal.  Now you are downstream. What color would that water be when it reached the desert? How clean would it be?  Now consider that this water was being used to symbolically wash away sins. Not only at this stage was the river unhygienic, but also because John was using it to baptize, the water was symbolically polluted with sins, the sins of the whole world.

Now consider what Christ does. The Son of God, the embodiment of all purity and innocence, freely steps into, immerses himself into the dark and murky waters of our sins – he is literally “up to his neck in it!”.   In order to save us from our sins, Christ dives into the deadly waters to free us, to takes upon himself all the sins of the world, so that he would make safe the waters for us and we can emerge alive.

Unlike our own baptism which, when you think about it, is accomplished almost in an instant – we could say it happened in a “splash”, Christ’s baptism is a tsunami - it’s powerful, it generates waves that spill out in every direction through time and history, into the past, the present and to the future and beyond – a shockwave that rattles even heaven itself!

A Christian is someone who has been immersed with Christ into his life, death and resurrection. This is ritually communicated through our baptism.  But the waters of baptism can become stagnant and foul.  For this reason, when we turn back to God, our heavenly Father sends his Holy Spirit to breath upon the dark and deep waters of our souls, stirring our heart to repentance.  Through the sacrament of Confession, Christ in his love and mercy, filters out our sins and infuses oxygen once again into the waters of our baptism.

Keep the waters of baptism fresh, clean and full of life.  Express this with the simple ritual of blessing yourself with holy water every time you enter the church.  Fill up a bottle with holy water from the baptismal font and mark it as such. Every time you feel vulnerable to sin use it.  Have it close by when you are in danger. Bless yourself with it before you close your eyes into the darkness of sleep.  

Water is the most natural of all the elements, used by God himself in a ritual to communicate the most supernatural gift he offers us, the cleansing of our sins and the abundance of life in abundance. With God’s grace, let us keep this precious and life-giving gift fresh in our lives, free from the pollution of sin and safe from the decay of death and darkness.

Jan 1, 2019

New Year of Grace 2019

Mary, Mother of God:

As we are still within the Season of Christmas, the enduring image of the baby Jesus remains very much with us. It is "captured" in the manger scene before us. Indeed, for a whole week, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the ox, and the donkey haven't moved one inch! They seem to have frozen in time as they gaze into the crib where the child has been perfectly positioned as if someone has pressed the pause button. Rather than listening to the conversations, real or imagined, that take place inside the Bethlehem stable, or listening to the music of angels in the background, we are allowed instead to meditate on the relationships between each of those present.

Today, at the beginning of a New Year, we reflect on the most natural relationship a baby can have with anyone. We see this again and again in the enduring image of Mary holding the Christ child, close to her. Mary's femininity can never be divorced from her motherhood - bringing this child into the world is what every cell in her body has prepared for.

Even though her arms cradle the little child, God's Word that has now become Flesh in Jesus does not speak in sentences, sermons or soundbites. At least, not for now. This baby must first be nurtured, fed, loved, allowed to grow strong in earthly wisdom and strength to become the world's savior. This does not happen overnight nor within a vacuum. It begins within the natural embrace of this holy mother and child and the trust that deepens and evolves between them.

But this is not just the natural trust between a mother and her child. It is a divine trust as this child is the physical embodiment of "God with us". God does not simply use Mary as a means to enter into our world. That would make Mary simply a surrogate. Instead, God entrusts himself, his physical well being to her. God trusts her with Himself. He allows Himself, as a small and vulnerable child, to be subject to her, to be influenced by her, to be taught by her.

Under her supervision, the Son of God will learn to pray in the Jewish tradition and how to read the Sacred Scriptures. Under her watchful eye, the Son of God will learn the social skills to engage with other children, families, elders, friends, and strangers. God allows Himself to be mothered. In doing so, God trusts Himself and His whole plan of salvation for humanity completely to Mary's motherhood and in doing so allows her to cooperate in our salvation.

For each of us who are baptized, our baptism is not a simple membership status in the Church.  Through baptism, we take upon ourselves the image of Christ himself. We become Christ to others, to the world. We are not self-made Christians. With so many influences around us, before us, in front of us, each providing so many lessons of how to live the Christian life, let us not forget that Christ is not an orphan child. He is the Son of God the Father and the Son of Mary His Mother.  

And if we are likewise to grow and mature into the image and likeness of Christ by God’s grace, will not Mary's motherhood also extend to us because she sees her son in you and me, and she loves him still, she loves us too. If God can trust her motherhood, what stops us allowing her to be also our own mother, to reach out to us, to hold us and teach us as she taught her Son - how to pray, how to listen, how to walk, and how to speak and proclaim the message of salvation to the waiting world.

Dec 31, 2018

Oh Boy, Oh Man!

From Baby to Boy to Man:  

Of course, with the celebration of Christmas is still permeating the air and the image of the baby Jesus still glowing in our minds, today's celebration of the feast of the Holy Family fast-forwards 12 years. Much can happen in a few days!

Having lost sight of him for a few days, all of a sudden Joseph and Mary are shocked to find Jesus standing up and talking to and questioning the elders in the temple - not as a child, but as their equal, and he does so with authority. Mother is confused and even naturally upset, having probably worried for those three long days with heartache about what could've happened her "baby". But baby, he is no more.

Notice what mother says to him "son, why have you done this to us?" What brought about the anxiety in the hearts of Joseph and Mary?  I suspect because they knew that one day, he would reveal himself to the world as the Messiah. And Mary knew in her heart her son, in doing so, would have to suffer and even make the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of the world.  But to do so at only 12 years old? Her mother's heart and instinct would not allow this - not yet.

However, Jesus now speaks to her, not with baby talk, but as an adult to his mother and so, without any hint of rebellion, but with clear headedness he says, "why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father's house?”

Jesus, aware of his identity, is now able to articulate clearly who his true father is - not Joseph (although his role was as a father figure, and a very good one). The young Jesus becomes acutely aware of his heavenly Father. We are told that Joseph and Mary do not understand this answer. Remarkably, Jesus did not try to wrestle himself away from the natural instinct for Joseph and Mary to protect him. In fact, we are told, "he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them." And this is often the greatest challenge children must always make – obedience. Not blind obedience or out of fear of punishment, but obedience out of respect and honor for our parents – for God did use them as his instruments to bring us into this world and to keep us safe.

Obedient still, the young man Jesus could now be confident, for he was also holding tightly to the grip of his heavenly Father's hand. Mary must have understood this. She does not interfere, but simply ponders these entire things in her heart. Jesus is no longer her little boy.

But what about Joseph? Interestingly, once Jesus clearly is able to articulate his relationship with his true Father, we never hear of Joseph again. He has fulfilled his responsibility to his own manhood and as a father figure -- as a guardian and a protector for the boy has become a man. Intellectually and psychologically, Jesus knows who he is and what he is. And, in his rite of passage from boyhood to full manhood, so we are told: "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age in favor before God and man”.

To follow Jesus is to allow him to show us his Father whom he presents to you and me as "Our Father". Through this Holy Mass, we are invited right into the midst of it. Through our baptism, our heavenly Father sees his Son in you and in me. In the Spirit of Jesus, we call out to God without intimidation or fear, "Abba-Father", and gathered around the Altar, our family life is restored through the sacrifice of Christ our Lord. And where the family of the Lord is, be it in the stable of Bethlehem, the house of Nazareth, at the cross on Calvary, or the upper room on the day of Pentecost, our mother Mary is there.

Dec 24, 2018

Oh Holy Night

Christmas Eve:

Over the years Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day has become more and more popular. This is not just the case for those who might be visiting the church as part of the holiday season. Christmas Eve attracts more and more people - much more than those who would regularly attend church even on Sunday mornings. So, why the packed church on the evening before, rather than on the actual day of Christmas itself?

Off course the cynic, the Scrooge or Grinch might say that it’s because people are practical, pragmatic and tend to take the path of least resistance - get it done and get it over with! (Now, some of you might remember the Church Lady from the old SNL. She would, if she was here, look around at the congregation tonight and say that most of you are here simply because it is more "con-veee-nient!)

But rather, there is something in our natural instinct that calls us to Christmas Eve, which, dare I say it, is a little lost in the morning. There is, instead, something I think deeply holy, profoundly sacred about this evening regardless of our practical intentions. If you thought you were simply coming here this evening to avoid coming in the morning, you have been fooled. We all have been fooled, fooled by God himself.

For the most part, God is hidden. He is hidden in darkness. He has to be. Why? Because if, in the morning you are on the road and God in all his glory and majesty, was walking down the street and you saw him in broad daylight, you would probably freak out, slam on the breaks - you would probably cause a traffic accident, there would be chaos, the world would stop - there would be panic and confusion.

In the same light, if, during the day, you are at home, or even at work, and then you glimpsed outside and all of a sudden in broad daylight there was a face pressed up upon your window looking in at you! In an instant reaction of fright, you might scream or shout. No. God’s nature is never to frighten us.  And even if we walk through a valley of darkness, we are not to be afraid? Why? Because of the promise of the approaching dawn of a new day. That promise brings us here tonight.

That is why for most of us, the evening time is sacred. It is sacred, even though it is dark outside. It is in sacred darkness when we see it as a gift to, in some way, be grateful that we survived the long hours of work and busyness. The evening darkness is sacred because we are full of anticipation of what might unfold when the morning comes. For God always promises us a new day, be it short or eternal.

And that is why, I believe, Christmas Eve, like the epic vigil before Easter Sunday morning, resonates in our hearts. It is because our souls are wired to anticipate the light of a new day that will spill over into eternity.

This anticipation always begins in darkness. Somewhere between evening and morning, God takes us by the hand and leads us forward, not back. In the darkness of the night, God showed Abraham stars too many to number. Abraham looked forward with hope. In the darkness of the night, God prepared his Chosen People to leave Egypt for the Promised Land. Freed from Pharaoh, they now looked forward with hope. In the darkness of the night, God spoke to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, as the child she was pregnant with was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph wakened in the morning filled with new hope.

My dear friends, on this Christmas Eve, I do not want to put on a make-believe holiday program on for you, for I fear that might produce too much artificial light and one-time wonders.  Instead, everything we do here this evening is to prepare our soul for a new day that God promises for those who hope in him.

Do not be afraid of the darkness of the world. God entered that darkness, and in the darkness of a cave, hidden from the world’s view God looked out into the night with the eyes of a newborn baby and saw hope reflected in the eyes of a young virgin mother.

Do not be afraid of the darkness that might dwell within you. God’s mercy and kindness, like the light of the morning dawn, is gentle and patient and will show you the way forward.

Do not be afraid of the darkness that sometimes casts a shadow inside the church. With the sacred power that comes from the Mass and the Sacrament of Confession, we can stop the world spinning, if only for an hour on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. That’s a start.

So, regardless of what time each one of us was born, we look forward every year to celebrate, not a birth-night, but a birthday. And after nine months of darkness, finally, a birthday - the birthday of Jesus Christ the Light of the World, the promise, that after our evening rest when all our labor and work is done, a new and eternal day is approaching - the children, of course, know that too well.  With renewed hope and much anticipation we can say “Merry Christmas” - may you enter into the gift of a morning filled with joy and especially peace, for you, your family and loved ones. Forever and ever. Amen.

Midnight Mass

(Borrowing from Chesterton) historians point to the caveman as where the story of humanity begins to unfold. The crude paintings of ancient animals are often found on its walls, stretched by wasted charcoal and fragments of bits and pieces of a life of scavengers. But the second part of the history of humanity also begins underground. God also was a caveman. But this time, the pictures of the animals had come to life. The smell of waste becomes perfumed with incense. The creation of fire becomes a light eternal.

A paradox and a mystery: the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach out and touch the walls of a stable built into a cliffside. It is almost as if the Almighty, the architect of the universe, the mastermind begin all of creation, being born in a cave, an animal shelter that God who became small is actually playing a joke on us - we who are so intelligent, educated, scientific.  But God as a baby, as a child, throws us all off balance and instead of trying to figure out this new chapter in our human evolution intellectually, scientifically, even, dare I say, theologically, instead we have become attentive to sights, sounds, and wonders. For the picture itself of Bethlehem says a thousand words and speaks volumes.

The eyes of love and adoration of Mary as she looks into the tiny face of God placed in a feeding trough for an altar. Who is feeding who? Outside, within earshot, the echoes of a choir of angels chanting hymns of praise to shepherds, who could not sing back. And in the background, beyond the flickering lights, an impenetrable darkness symbolizes eternity before even light was itself created. Who can understand a place beyond space and before time? But only God, and he has come to teach us, through the babe of Bethlehem, the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the World who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen

Dec 21, 2018

God Expanding

The Evangelist St. Luke has told us through the pages of the Gospel, the experience of the pregnant Virgin Mary, who "went with haste into the hill country" (Lk 1: 39) to reach the village where her cousin Elizabeth lived with her husband Zechariah.

Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John the Baptist.  Mary, of course, is pregnant with Jesus - two mothers-to-be, and two unborn babies. There is the stirring of something profound, not only in their own family life but also in the salvation history of the people of Israel - indeed the world.

What compelled the young Mary to make a long journey through the hills to visit her older cousin, to forget herself, and to spend the first three months of her own pregnancy looking after Elizabeth? 

In the timeline of the Gospel, we have just listened to, Mary has only recently become pregnant – a pregnancy without ever being touched by a man. The breath of God filled her womb - “the power of the Highest overshadowed her (cf. Lk 1: 35) - she conceived by the eternal power of the Holy Spirit. In that secret and sacred space within her, a divine person, now infused within the building blocks of a growing, developing and evolving embryo, God has entered into the most intimate, and the most vulnerable place we have ever been.    

But, this is not just a biological miracle. God entrust Himself to the building blocks of life that Mary offers him through her body.  The intimate God, waiting to the born into the world, resonates from deep within Mary's womb, and from there throughout all her body. This young pregnant mother experiences the fullness of God’s love. But not simply for her. Through her, God physically reaches out gently towards every man, woman, and child who longs in the secret of their own heart to experience a love deeper than what we could ever desire or even dare to hope for.

It is the power of the physical presence of God within her, that compels the young Mary to "rise" and depart without hesitation (cf. Lk 1: 39) on that long journey to help her cousin. Mary does not think of herself, her own neediness.  The reaching out of God to humanity is now expanding from within her. Her divine child in her womb moves her. Her own immaculate heart, fully formed, has become joined to that tiny, beating sacred heart, as it’s best becomes stronger and stronger within her. Mary's natural instincts already of a mother and a friend have become united to her unborn baby's divine instinct reach out to bond with all humanity.  

When Mary arrives at the house of Elizabeth, St. Luke tells us that even the Virgin Mother Mary’s voice carried within it the divine frequency that was picked up by Elizabeth’s own unborn baby who leaped within her for joy. We enter into the unfolding of a drama, a sense that Mary’s physical presence holds within as if behind locked doors ready to be flung open, the God who can't wait to breathe our air, to touch our face, to be held in our embrace.

During these final hours of Advent in preparation for Christmas, a medieval mystic, St. Julian of Norwich, can prepare us for what is stirring. She connects divinity with the intimacy of motherhood as God takes our human nature. In doing so the “motherhood of grace” is conceived and nurtured, labored and nursed with the assurance that "…All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well".

Together with St Elizabeth and her own baby, John the Baptist, we too can rejoice at the presence of Mary when we say, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Lk 1:42). May Jesus Christ, the blessed fruit of the Virgin Mary's womb, bless our families and the neighborhoods of our parish as we get ready for Christmas.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
 The Lord is with thee.
 Blessed art thou amongst women 
 and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. 
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
 pray for us sinners, 
now and at the hour of our death.

Dec 16, 2018

Saint Scrooge

The theme of joy is very much echoed throughout the Church in her liturgy this Sunday. The Introit at the beginning of Mass tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. In the Opening Prayer, we asked God that we might “attain the joys of salvation”. The first reading tells us to “shout for joy”, while the Psalm adds its voice that we “Cry out with joy and gladness”.
On our part, Christian joy is spelled out in our eagerness to do something in anticipation of his arrival. We know that we are called to repentance and conversion. But there is that instinct to “do” something to spell it out in our lives. Often, when John the Baptist appears in the Gospels, we can easily be put off by his austere lifestyle, his frightening appearance, his stern voice. We might see him something of a Scrooge of sorts. However, in the Gospel, today, provides a very practical answer to that question, “What ought we to do?” John the Baptist recommends, instead of a massive outpouring of generosity, he advises ongoing, continuous simple charity. He reminds us that this is not the time to get carried away with extravagance and recklessness, which is never practical. Simple but genuine acts of practical charity are always within our reach every day. And at the end of a day when we should look back and count our blessings, likewise look back and count acts of charity especially to strangers and those whose path we cross, or who cross ours. It can be as simple as a courtesy to the driver on the road or to the attendant at the store - a helping hand, giving encouragement, going out of your way when you don't have to. Count your blessings every day, yes. But also count how many times you have blessed someone day. True acts of charity are practical and effective. That’s what we hear in the Gospel message this Sunday. Rather than Scrooge, John the Baptist is more like the ghost of Christmas past, present, and future. He reminds us not to look for special training on how to be more effective in our charity. Often, that’s an excuse to do nothing in the present. He reminds us not wait for a special grace from God to do something extraordinary in the future. We’ve already received that when we were baptized in the past. He reminds us not to wait for the annual end of year giving. For you may not even see the end of today. Charity is the spirituality of Christian good manners in every situation, in the here and now. Don’t be a Scrooge! Be joyful that you can presently make a difference in the here and now - and always through Christ our Lord. Amen

Dec 9, 2018

Estimated Time of Delivery

The Introit theme the Second Week of Advent says it all: "Behold the Lord will come!'  So that begs the question, "If he cares so much as to come all the way from heaven, and now that I have been given a head's up, what can I do today, to make sure that I have myself ready?"  

In a way, it's like, if you have guests from out of town coming to visit, or maybe you have someone in authority who is going to inspect your room, your dorm or maybe something you built. Knowing that the time is near, it would behoove us to take a look around, even look at ourselves in the mirror - to make sure we are presentable.

Look at it from this perspective. It is often our practice to inform someone that we are on the way. We almost seem compelled to text someone "I'm leaving the house now". Sometimes we might text the message, "I'm running late" or while driving and of course, only with a hands-free device, we might send a message saying, "stuck in traffic, be there as soon as I can".  

So sophisticated is the world we live in that, not only can we plot our journey through GPS, taking in live traffic conditions and estimating the very minute of our estimated time of arrival, we can now sit at home and receive updates on how many stops away is our package so that we can open the front door at exactly the same time as the delivery guy stops his truck.

Whereas we think that this is all very new and modern, a day will come when we will take all this type of technology for granted. We will probably be distracted by some new venture of "promise and progress".  But here's the point, God is way ahead of us in social media, text messages, tracking departures and deliveries. He's been doing it for thousands of years. We are the ones who are old school, behind the times, with a slow connection to the world around us.

Thousands of years ago, with an instant message that reached us from outside the universe, a text: "People of Zion, behold, the Lord will come to save the nations..." (Introit)  In other words, I'm leaving now and I will be there soon! And in the Gospel proclamation, we are given an alert, a notification. It comes to us, not as a signal, or vibrating buzz in our pocket, but in the person of John the Baptist who shouts out to us that God is coming, get ready to meet him at your doorstep.

But of course, after all the notices, alerts, notifications, messages, assurances of a guaranteed time of arrival, when he delivers on his word and stands at your door, the door behind which your whole life is lived, will you be waiting at the doorstep to greet him and invite him in? Will you post a note on your door tell to him that whatever you have, leave it will the neighbors next door? Maybe that delivery is still outside your door and you haven't noticed it, because you are so used to coming in and out of your life through the garage or the side entrance?

As we prepare for the Advent of the Lord - for the sacred signs and images around us point to his arrival, even in this hour - unlock the door of your life, open it, even just a little, dare to stand on the doorstep, talk in prayer to the messenger from heaven, and invite him in.  Or, if you need a little bit more time to get your house in order, there is a young pregnant girl I know who will gladly help you clean your home. And while she is with you, she will give birth at the appointed time, and God will have been delivered to you, right in the middle of your life, and you will hold him in your hands.

Inside Water

Ritual And Reality...   When we talk about the baptism of the Lord, what immediately comes to mind is a church baptism – typically ...