Jan 13, 2020

Holy H2O

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 4, 2020

Follow that Star



At the center of the Lord’s Prayer, in the “Our Father” as we commonly call it, one line connects everything - everything that exists. That one line is “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus was born and before he grew up to teach us the words of this prayer, the ancient people from the East understood this. Whatever happens in the heavens is reflected on the earth - “on earth as it is in heaven.” During a time when there was no city lights, air pollution, nighttime flights or communication satellites, they looked into the night sky with wonder and amazement, tracing invisible lines between stars, linking them together into patterns and shapes they could recognize as points of reference. 

On the other side of the heavens, today an astronaut looking down upon the darkness of the earth sees all our artificial light clustered around towns and cities. From the space shuttle looking down upon the earth at night, you can likewise identify countries, capitals, coastlines and oceans by the glowing light we emit by our metropolitan cities and vast networks of roads and highways. But we do not see the light “on earth as it is in heaven”. 

When the ancient civilizations looked out from the darkness of the earth, they beheld all of God’s creation in all its purity and harmony, its order and predictability, its beauty and its majesty. And when they noticed something different, an anomaly, something that wasn’t there before, this new point of reference, they knew that this new light in heaven would reflect a new point of reference on the earth. A new light shone out from heaven for the whole world to see. A new reference point for all humanity would exist at a particular point, at a particular place, at a particular time on earth as it was communicated by heaven. 

The Magi, the “three wise men”, or the “three kings from the orient”, as we now call them, only after they allowed an event in heaven to communicate to them, did they turn their attention to an event that was likewise occurring on the earth. By triangulating the heavens and the earth to the Holy Scriptures of the Chosen People, they are eventually able to make their way to Bethlehem and worship God enfleshed as a baby, as they had worshiped God clothed in the immensity of the cosmos. 

Although there are countless meditations we can make on the event we hear spoken to us through today’s gospel, (I have listed ten of them on the previous blog entry), based on these present reflections, what can we take away today in the light of this Christmas Mass of the Epiphany?

The starting point of any reflection on how God communicates to us as the wise men have shown us, begins by taking our gaze away from the artificial light produced by our own inventions, be it as grand as New York at night or the light emitted from the screen of our cell phones or computers. Look out beyond the horizon of the earth towards the heavens, to the immensity of God’s entire creation. Rather than trying to capture beauty through a lense to be uploaded to an artificial cloud and held together by a network of electronic signals, stop regularly, straighten your neck and look up, see and take in through the gift of your natural senses, all the natural wonders of the world and all creation.

Reflect on what God is saying, communicating to us through his language of light and darkness, of shapes and patterns, of movement and sounds, what is visible and what is invisible to us. 

Then bring it all together into what we do here and now in this sacred place, the light of candles, the clouds of incense, the pattern of movements, the listening of harmonies, the shapes of images, the color of language, the tenderness of touch, the hint of aromas. 

This is not trying to make sense of chaos. There is no mixed signals here. In the same way as we have heard in the gospel “And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was”. Everything in creation leads us to this actual place of reference where God is to be found. Through the sacrament of the Eucharist His dwelling place is here among us on earth as he is in heaven. 

May our sacramental encounter with Christ, give glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

Interstellar


The event described in the Gospel underscores the far-reaching effects of God's grace rippling out in every direction from that one central event that began in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus Christ.

Like the many points that shine out from a star, tfollowing ten points (or some of them) are worth some reflection. Each one of them could be expanded into various homilies. However, the final point might serve as the one simple premise, the "real homily" I believe everything must first be built upon. To that end, I hope there's something for everyone!

1.  With the direct intervention of God in human history, nature herself cannot remain silent. The star announced the birth of Christ. An eclipse of the sun and an earthquake proclaimed his death. A garden welcomes his resurrection. God speaks to us through nature and its elements. This could be a homily on our respect for God's creation.

2. As nature likewise groans for salvation, so does all humanity. As a people who live in darkness longs for daylight, the Epiphany of the Lord fills us with hope and optimism that a new day dawns for humanity. This could be a homily on the aspirations for justice and freedom and the Herods of our day who oppose it.

3. We are very familiar with the picture postcard of the three wise men and the iconic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  This could be a homily on the nature of Christ as King, as God, as the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sins of the of the world.

4.  The mysterious magi, who they actually were, what lands did they really come from? Their arrival on the scene of the birth of Jesus reveals the countless multitudes of peoples, nations, and cultures searching for God. This could be a homily on multiculturalism and universal salvation.

5.  The events of the Epiphany demonstrate that the chief priests and scribes knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out, even concerning the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But they are unmoved, and the birth of Christ seemed uninteresting to them. Unlike the Magi, they missed the clues and obvious hints God had prepared them for. This could be a homily discerning the signs of the times.

6.  We are likewise presented with the theatrics of Herod who pretends to want to find Christ so he can pay tribute to the newborn Messiah. This could be a homily on the dangers of false devotion and trying to appear to be holy but instead wanting to keep everything the status quo.

7.  What the Magi found at the end of their journey following the star was no doubt a surprise they did not anticipate nor could they have predicted. This could be a homily on the need to journey outside our comfort zones and to be open to the God of surprises.

8.  When the Wise Men encountered the Christ-child and were later warned that Herod was out to destroy the newborn, they could have offered to take the holy family back with them to their own kingdoms, giving them protection and offering the child a place in their best schools of the orient. This could be a homily on how God's ways are not necessarily our ways, despite our best intentions and objectives.

9.  The Gospel story of the Epiphany is full of biblical codes and prophecies, astronomical readings and calculations.  As interesting as it all is, the goal of our Christian Faith is not to provide quick answers and remedies, or scientific proofs or explanations. This could be a homily on the relationship between faith and reason.

10.  Finally, when the Magi arrived in God's little house, what did they see and experience there and then? They saw a helpless but adorable newborn baby lifted up out of the rags by an exhausted virgin mother and a young nervous husband. The Wise Men could only but gaze in wonderment, even joyful astonishment. They instinctively bowed to the ground in profound and humble adoration - no questions asked.  

And now the "real" point of the homily in the context of the Eucharist!

Before we extrapolate and theorize the theological, social and global consequences of the manifestation of Christ to the world, maybe it is worth reflecting that the kings of the orient and shepherds of Bethlehem have in common, that is, what the intellectual and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, the employer and the employee, the native and the foreigner, have in common - amazement that God's plan of salvation very simple - it's right before our eyes. Let's not complicate it too much. 

Every Sunday we are allowed to come face to face with the Son of God lifted up for adoration from the bedrock of an altar through the veil of the Eucharist. His divine personality is hidden from us behind the simple and unassuming "garments" of bread and wine, and after Mass, secured in our midst within the protective embrace of a loving tabernacle, a golden manger. Likewise, we too bow to the ground, in profound and humble adoration - no questions asked - only prayers and whispers of thanksgiving and petition.
 
Instead, in quiet amazement of how easy it is for the humble and the unassuming, and how difficult it is for the proud and arrogant, let's start off together - on bended knee before God's presence in response to the invitation, "O Come let us adore Him!"

Dec 24, 2019

Christmas Rising


On behalf of the clergy who serve the parish church of St. Margaret’s, we extend to you the best wishes of God’s blessing for Christmas and for the new year ahead. It is good to be able to do this, not only to those who worship here every Sunday, but also to our families, visitors and neighbors and in particular those who are serving and attached to Camp Penelton and have made North County home, even if only temporary. A welcome to all who cross our threshold. The church is big enough for everyone. 

I have seen people come and go. I have watched babies grow up to adulthood. During my 27 years as a priest I have baptized over a thousand, heard the confessions of many more, prepared hundreds for marriage and buried as many in anticipation of their resurrection from the dead on the final day. 

One of the essential roles of a pastor is to join the dots together among those I serve. To connect each person, through the sacraments of the church, to God - so that we might know him intimately, hear is voice and cooperate with his grace, that is his plan for our eternal life in a new world restored where the heavens and the earth will rejoice in a life giving relationship of harmony and order. 

Towards that eternal goal, we can not make it up as we go along. To do so is a lonely road and often leads to despair. For that reason, we need relationships, friendships, meaningful work and a way of making sense of suffering and even death. 

Do you have a family that you love and also love you? Some of us do. Some of us don’t. God entered into our world through a particular family. He allowed himself to become small and vulnerable, to be mothered by Mary and protected by Joseph. Compared to God, we are all small and vulnerable. But because God is with us through Jesus, allow Mary and Joseph to see the child of God in you. Do that, and we will see each other as brothers and sisters. 

Do you have friends you are close to, to whom you can open up your soul?  I’m not talking about your phone, or a network of online acquaintances. When you have genuine joy, there is someone who sees it written in your face and rejoices with you. Or when you are worried or lonely, they can feel it in you and are not afraid of stepping into the darkness with you. Some of us do have genuine flesh and blood friends. Some of us do. Some of us don’t. That is why the church community exists, why Christ said where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there, establishing his friendship with us around this altar and building up a fellowship between believers under this roof. 

Do you have work that you pursue, that not only pays the bills but allows allowing you to be a better person, a fulfilled individual? Can you see how you are able to contribute to the flourishing and happiness of the community, our society and even the world?  Christ began as a carpenter, but he used his trade as a tool in his everyday life, repairing what is broken, strengthening what is weak and securing what is unstable. Let Christ teach you not only how to work for a living but also how to bring your gifts and skills to build a structure of life and living that sees you rise from the dead every morning with gratitude for the gift of a new day. 

Are you afraid of pain, suffering and even death? Of course we all are! But that is our animal instinct and we will do everything simply to survive the moment, and will react with anger when a wound is exposed. But we are more than that. And we know that also in our heart of hearts. Our flesh and blood, from its first moment of existence, has been infused with a soul, a divine character that longs, not simply to survive for a moment.  We crave for life, not in different world beyond the stars, but the fullness of life here and now. God became a baby, a teenager, a young person, an adult human being, within a family he loves, with friends he reached out to, using the limitations and the opportunities of every day to communicate hope and healing, showing us that, through him and with him, life is worth living for, working for, suffering for, even dying for. 

So tonight, on Christmas Eve, go to sleep. And tomorrow, rise from the dead with Christ and live a new day, for God has visited this world through the birth of Jesus Christ, who lived, suffered, died and rise from the dead. He lives and forever and ever. So must you. 

Dec 22, 2019

Right or Left


Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it.  This law of physics also applies to making decisions. It's like coming to a stop sign at an intersection. Do you go right, or left? The longer you delay, the more cars line up behind you - you feel the pressure. What do you do?  But doing nothing also has consequences.

To help put this into context, the "baby boomers" might recall It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart being shown how the present world would be if one wast not born. The Generation X might recall Groundhog Day, waking up repeating the same day where every action has repercussions. Generation Y might remember the iconic words, "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland". Maybe it's too early for the millennial generation to realize the impact of every choice, action and decision! Time will certainly tell, whether we are around to tell of it or not.

This is not a hypothetical exercise. We wrestle with consequential decisions throughout life and even every day. Where do I send my kids to school? Which university do I attend? What career should I follow? Do I follow orders? Should I get done on one knee and propose? Do I hit the send button on this text message or email? 

Take our leading character in today's Gospel - Saint Joseph.  How will he respond when he receives news that his intended bride, Mary, is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father? He is free to wash his hands of her and leave Mary to her public shame and embarrassment. He is free to reluctantly marry her, since the invitations have been sent out and the reception paid for.  He is free to have access to the religious laws and have the village elders decide the case.

However, Joseph is described by the Scriptures as a “righteous man”. To be righteous is essentially to be in right relationship with God, in right relationship with God’s world, to be in right relationship with those God has placed around us. Whatever the circumstances, his choices and decisions, like the patient fine tuning of a stringed instrument, Joseph profoundly respects the necessary tension of grace.

Even before an angel of God appeared to him in a dream, Joseph had divorced himself of anger, jealousy or any indignation. He kept his passions in check. He didn't “fly off the handle”. He was determined to conduct himself with restraint, patience, and discretion - not for his own sake, but for Mary’s. Not wishing her to be exposed to harm, Joseph had reached a certainty in his conscience that he must break off the engagement. But he would do so quietly. Maybe, he concluded, this would give Mary the necessary time to find a safe place to have her child in secret without drawing any attention.

In the ordinary, everyday circumstances of life, what Joseph decided to do was commendable, to his credit. But what he did not know, was that Mary’s pregnancy was anything but ordinary. Joseph was not in a position to understand the uniqueness of Mary’s pregnancy. It was impossible for him to do so. 

Although he was not quick to judge and never asked God for a sign, Joseph was given one. The very same angel who had secretly spoken with Mary, informed Joseph in the secret of his conscience, of the “big picture”. He now could put Mary’s virginity into its correct context and see the whole chain of events from the unique perspective of even God himself!  Joseph had wrestled not with his emotions or with the village elders. Unconsciously, he wrestled with God. Yet, as difficult as it was, God did not harm him. Instead, God taught Joseph how to cooperate with grace - how to dance with grace.

As we draw nearer to the Christmas festivities, our focus always leads us to Jesus and Mary and God’s message of salvation for the whole world. We might often times feel overwhelmed by the mystery of God, even confused as to where we find ourselves within His plan. Maybe there are times we feel we have to go it alone. But St. Joseph is there to accompany us in our trials and uncertainties and to teach us how to patiently turn our wrestling into dance! All in good time, St. Joseph will come to eventually hold Christ in his hands and embrace the divine child in tender and holy union. May our preparation for the Sacraments of encounter with God lead us likewise along this same path to Bethlehem.

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 word “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.

Holy H2O

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