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.

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.

Gardening Kingdom

  We often hear this phrase, “The Kingdom of God ''.  We even pray, “Thy Kingdom Come”.  This “Kingdom” was the hallmark of Our Lord...