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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

On this feast of the Holy Family, we are presented with examples of those who lived a faith-filled life. First, we have Abraham, who not only believed that God would give him a son in his advanced age, but also trusted that God would resurrect Isaac after sacrificing him as God asked. Second, we have the example of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who truly allowed their faith to influence their lives, both individually and as a family. By the example of the Holy Family, we are shown how to live a family life full of faith.

Some might argue that the Holy Family sets up an impossible example to live by. After all, Jesus is the Son of God, it's easy for him to have faith. Likewise, Mary is the sinless Virgin who was visited by an angel. Of the three, only Joseph is closer to what we would consider “normal”, but even he had an angel appear to him in his dreams. How can we live up to that example? It does seem an impossible task, but we're not called to follow them perfectly, only to the best of our abilities. The important aspect that we need to take away is that the Holy Family lived their faith. Instead of merely talking about believing in God, they practiced their faith in their daily lives. Their faith was a priority to them, not merely an addition to their lives.

Travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem was not merely a brief jaunt. They likely would have traveled 100 miles each way, depending on the trade route they chose to use, at a time when travel was by foot or pack animal. It may have taken them 5-6 days, nearly a week, to get between the two towns. This was not a journey to be taken lightly, and we know through the Gospels that they made this journey several times while Jesus was a child.

While these pilgrimages would have occurred occasionally, we can be sure that the Holy Family prayed together on a daily basis. Jewish custom gave several prayers that were to be prayed throughout the day. At some times in the day, the family would pray some of the Psalms together. There were prayers before and after meals, much like Catholics pray the traditional blessings at meals. Prayer was an important part of the Holy Family's life, and this carried over into Our Lord's ministry. Whenever he would come to a decision or difficulty, he would pray before acting, a good example for all of us.

Living the faith as a family means more than weekly Mass attendance and praying the blessing before meals, as important as those practices are. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Lumen Gentium, called the family a “domestic Church”, and encourages parents “by their word and example, [to] be the first preachers of the faith to their children.” (LG 11) The greatest example parents can give to a child is to live their faith without being preachy about it, but still being willing to talk to the child about matters of faith. Parents need to be willing to teach about the elements of the faith, and to learn for themselves if they don't know the answers.

All too often, we see young Catholics who go through Confirmation and High School youth group, but never practice the faith after leaving home. In many cases, the faith was not practiced at home, outside of weekly Mass attendance performed grudgingly, and was never seen as a priority by the children. When the time came for the children to make their own decisions regarding the faith, it was dropped in favor of something they see as a higher priority.

Sometimes children will fall away from the practice of the faith in those families who have made the faith a priority. While this is always hard on the family, it shouldn't be an occasion of doubt or anger towards the faith, but is a challenge to the family to live the faith all the more. The family is encouraged to pray for the children who have fallen away, and to be open and welcoming so that the children may feel drawn back into the practice of their faith.

The Holy Family is held up as the example of how to live with faith in God as a family. Through their example and intercession, may families grow in the practice of their faith and be united by that faith.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Homily for Christmas

In our celebration of Christmas, we're presented with a great irony. We've gathered this morning to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the humble surroundings of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, but the irony of this celebration is that this innocent, sinless infant, this helpless child, came to Earth and was born to redeem guilty, sinful humanity from its sins.

Some of the most beautiful artwork in the history of Christianity was created in reflection on the birth of Christ. Icons, statues, paintings, music, and volumes upon volumes of writings have been dedicated to drawing us closer into the mystery that surrounds Christmas, that the second person of the Trinity would humble himself to take on human flesh and human nature. The amount of material that has been written on the Incarnation of the Lord would probably fill this church and there is still more to be written. Some of the greatest thinkers and artists of all time have pondered on Our Lord's birth, and we are all the richer for the results of their labors.

Even with the beautiful imagery that surrounds Christmas, we would miss the whole point of His life if we were stop our reflection with just His birth. He came to Earth for a reason, and we miss that reason if we focus solely on His Nativity. As the readings today show, we cannot look at the cradle of Our Lord without seeing His Cross. It's not by mistake that the second reading brings up the salvation that Our Lord gained for us through His death on the Cross. From before even the first moment of His existence on Earth, Our Lord's life was dedicated to becoming the Sacrifice that atoned for the sins of humanity. Even with the light from the star which guided the three magi, the shadow of the Cross fell on the manger and followed him throughout his entire life.

Everything Our Lord did and said, especially during his three years of Earthly ministry, was oriented towards our salvation. Even when he was just a infant, having to be smuggled out of Judah for Egypt due to the death sentence placed upon all the infants by King Herod, his life was to be lived in atonement for our sins. The Holy Family's escape to Egypt and later return to Galilee is often seen as Our Lord taking the salvation history of the people of Israel into his own life. Instead of merely participating in the important festivals and rites that commemorated events within Jewish history, Our Lord lived them symbolically through the events of his life.

This provides for us the example of how we need to live our lives as Christians. We need to take on our own salvation, make it an important part of our lives. We need to live every moment as Christians, not just the hour a week or less that we dedicate to Mass attendance. If we truly believed what we profess in the Nicene Creed, we would make our lives conform to our Christian belief, and not the other way around. As the Cross overshadowed Jesus' whole life, it should also overshadow ours as well.

If more Christians were willing to live this way, our world would be dramatically transformed. Through the examples of our lives, people would be flocking to become Christian. Unfortunately, right now much of what non-Christians see of Christianity is the sins of those who profess to believe in Christ. It's not uncommon to turn on a TV show and see the Christian as a hypocrite who publicly professes to follow Christ, but is hiding something contrary to his preaching. While this happens all too often in the real world, the fact that the media has picked up on it should be a warning for us that this is a problem we need to face.

As Christians, we need to recommit ourselves to following Christ, and not worrying about what the world believes. Before we can work on the culture, however, we need to get our own house in order. We need to refocus ourselves on the teachings of Jesus, and make regular reception of the Sacraments a priority in our lives. When we are willing to humble ourselves and commit our lives to the Cross, only then will the world be transformed.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

In our Gospel today, we see the fulfillment of a hope. For nearly a thousand years, almost from the time of King David, the Jewish people were hoping for a new king, a Messiah, who would conquer the Gentile occupiers. This Messiah would rule over the people of Israel, and they would live in great prosperity and peace. Although he was not what they expected, Jesus' first coming fulfilled the hope of Israel for a new king to rule over them. His second coming will be the fulfillment of our hope for salvation.

I think most of us know the story presented in the first reading. King David had all but subdued the enemies of the Israelite nation, and now the kingdom of Israel was in peace. The Ark of the Covenant was still in a tent, as it was during the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, while David resided in a palace made of stone and cedar wood. King David wanted to build a home for God among the people of Israel, as they were no longer nomadic and had no need to wander the countryside looking for places to set up camp. If the people of Israel were to live in Holy Land, the temple of God should also be a stable place within the city of Jerusalem.

It was not in God's plan, however, that David be the one to build the temple, but David received the promise from God that his kingdom would last forever. He was promised a descendant who would call God his father, and God would call Him son. The coming of Our Lord not only fulfilled this promise to Israel, but created a new hope for all the nations.

King David wished to build a house for God in Jerusalem so that He would live among his people on Earth. It wasn't until David's son, Solomon, was ruling the kingdom of Israel that David's wish for a house of God came to fruition. The Israelites viewed the Temple as more than just a mere symbol, but as truly where God resided here on earth. The Israelites were the chosen people of God, and He lived among them in the Temple.

When Our Lord came to Earth as a fulfillment of the promise to David, he didn't descend to Earth on a fiery chariot, but chose to live among us silently. For the first nine months of his existence on Earth, Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, was truly the House of God, the first dwelling place of Jesus. Just as the Temple was the dwelling place of God among the Israelite people, Our Lady became the dwelling place of God among all the nations. The hope of the people of Israel is now the hope of all peoples.

We often don't understand what it means to have hope. Sometimes we use the word 'hope' as a synonym to 'wish' or 'desire'. We might say something like, “I hope it's not cold tomorrow,” or a child might say, “I hope I get a video game for Christmas.” In contrast to this common view, Mary shows us what it truly means to have hope in God through her openness to His will. Her hope was not a vague wish or desire, but was a complete and total trust in God's promise to His people.

Because of Mary's hope in God, the hope of all of Israel rests in her womb, silently waiting for the day in which He is to be revealed to the whole world. Patience is a virtue that many of us lack, myself included, but this season is one of patience. We're patiently waiting for the celebration of Our Lord's birth, but we're also patiently waiting for His return. Just as Our Lord was born at the proper time, He will return at the proper time.

This patience should flow from our hope in His promised return, as hope is essential to being a Christian. We must hope that Our Lord will be with us during times of difficulty or times of joy. We hope that those we love will be with Him in Heaven after their deaths, and we hope that those newly born and baptized members of our families will grow up knowing and loving Him. Most importantly, we hope for that day when he will return again, and lead us all to the Promised Land, nomads no longer. Now, however, we wait with anticipation and hope for the celebration of His birth on Christmas. Come, Emmanuel!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Unthinkable, then Illegal

Right now, it appears that the Pro-Life movement is doing some very serious and necessary soul searching. Pro-life groups are trying to figure out how to handle a majority pro-abortion government here in the United States. Many pro-lifers seem to be getting discouraged, as 36 years of pro-life legislative work may go up in smoke literally with the stroke of a pen. If any time in the history of the pro-life movement is ripe for a new approach, this is it.

The main problem with trying to end abortion in the United States is that too many Americans don't view abortion as unthinkable. They may never have one, they may strongly discourage others from getting one, but it's not held up as something that must never happen in a civilized society. Homicide and rape are unthinkable; even embezzlement from a corporation is considered beyond the pale.

In contrast to homicide and rape, abortion is seen as something that is a "woman's right", a private issue between her and her doctor. Because abortion is seen as a right, it's viewed as distasteful (for the most part) but essential to maintain. Of course, this is somewhat of a generalization, as there are very strong pro-life advocates who oppose abortion for any reason, as well as pro-abortion advocates who see no reason to ever limit abortion. It's safe to say that most Americans fall within a very large gray area between the two positions, but many Americans support some form of abortion rights, even if only for cases of rape or incest.

This leads to the problem with trying to legislate away abortion: it is highly unreasonable to expect that most Americans -- and their elected officials -- will ever support making what is viewed as a human right illegal. It just won't happen. To overcome this inertia towards the culture of death, those of us who are involved in the pro-life movement have to make abortion unthinkable before it can be made illegal.

This is not without precedent. The pro-life movement has long compared the fight to end abortion with the civil rights movement with culminated in the 1960's, with good reason. The civil rights laws that are on the books now were not able to be passed until a major percentage of the United States population found the concept of Jim Crow laws unacceptable. While there is still lingering racism within the United States, it is nowhere near the extreme levels that existed even up to the 1940's and 1950's. The civil rights movement was successful thanks in big part to its use of powerful imagery on national television, radio, and newspapers. Many of us who grew up in the period following the civil rights marches have heard the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King and seen video recordings of marchers being blasted by firehoses and attacked by police dogs. These sounds and images contributed in no small part to the success of the civil rights movement.

For the pro-life movement, we need to get our message out as loud and clear as the civil rights message. One difference, however, is that we don't have most of the mainstream media on our side, so we will have to work harder to get that message across. It may take a lot of determination, some major failures, and many more small successes, a ton of prayers, not to mention a lot of time, work, and money, but we will be successful. We have to be. The future unborn generations are counting on us to succeed.

To accomplish our goal of ending legal abortion, I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. Yes, I'm speaking in the first person plural here. I'm throwing in my commitment to this work here and now. I've been involved in the pro-life movement on a local level over the past 9 years, including participating in the Crossroads Pro-Life walk in 2003, and I'm recommitting myself to seeing the pro-life movement succeed, not only in Montana or in the United States, but throughout the world. This does need to be an international effort, ending abortion in those countries where it is legal and keeping it illegal where it has not been legalized.

The work that we need to do will encompass far more than I can cover in one blog post. To this end, this is the first post of what I hope will be a roadmap that we as pro-lifers can use to advance our cause and end legalized abortion in this country. I don't want this to be a monologue on my part, so please consider this a discussion. Feel welcome to post ideas and thoughts in the comments section, or post your ideas on your blog, if you have one, and send me the links so they can be added to the discussion. I know I won't think of everything, so I welcome any and every bit of input I can get.

For now, I'm leaving the comment boxes unmoderated. This may be a risk, but it's one I'm willing to take if it will lead to open discussion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

50 years of work in the Holy Land

Catholic Relief Services reflects on nearly 50 years of work in the Holy Land.

As part of the seminary pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we had the opportunity to visit a couple sites that have received assistance by CRS. In particular, we went to a rural community near Hebron where CRS built a community center and some very basic housing for the farmers. Due to politicial issues within the Holy Land, the houses provide little more than shelter from the weather and a place to rest, but those who received these houses were very grateful. Also, the community was very proud of their community center, which gave them a space for a medical clinic and other resources.

If what we saw in the Holy Land is representative of everything CRS does, they are doing great work and very worth supporting with our donations.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Homily for the Third Sunday in Advent

We've hit the midpoint in Advent. Only two more weeks until Christmas, and it seems like the whole country is focused solely on preparing for Christmas parties, gift-giving, and merriment. Every other show on TV seems to be a Christmas special, and all the old favorite Christmas songs are being played on the radio over and over again. It's almost enough to make us look forward to Christmas Day so that it'll be over.

While it's easy to get overwhelmed by the constant barrage of Christmas cheer in the media and around town, we should be having a different reaction, one of rejoicing and anticipation. During this season of Advent, we've been preparing for the celebration of Our Lord's birth, but we're also preparing ourselves to welcome Jesus when he returns again. God wants us to approach this season with great rejoicing, as we are encouraged in today's Entrance Antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.” Now, we don't frequently hear the Entrance Antiphon, since we often choose to use a hymn instead for the opening procession, but it is a part of the prayers of the Mass, often chanted with a Psalm or other Scripture verses.

Today's Entrance Antiphon brings us the popular title for this Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for rejoice, the first word in the antiphon, and is an encouragement for all of us to rejoice in the Lord, because He is coming. We usually wear bright colors when celebrating special events, thus the rose colored vestments in exchange for the ordinary purple of Advent, as today is a day of rejoicing along with our preparation for Christmas.

The reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah shows us why we should approach this season with rejoicing. He says that he “rejoice[s] heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.” Isaiah was proclaiming the return of the people of Israel to the Promised Land after being removed by conquering armies, and like Isaiah, we have been wrapped in a robe of salvation. At our baptism, we were wrapped with that robe, symbolized by with white clothes of purity, and we entered into the Body of Christ and were given the promise that if we remain faithful to God, we would receive the gift of salvation.

Much as the people of Israel may have succumbed to despair during their long period of captivity, it's easy for us to despair when wrapped in the anguish, sorrow, and struggles that frequently come with life on Earth. To us, Isaiah says that God will “make justice and peace spring up before the nations.” Ironically, as we're experiencing bitter cold weather with lots of wind and blowing snow, Isaiah presents to us the image of the new Spring growth. Just as it seems impossible to imagine the first warm days of Spring during these cold days, it also seems impossible to imagine what life will be like when God reigns over the whole world as king. We know, however, just as the warm Spring will come and melt away the cold and snow, God's reign will come, enveloping us with his love and mercy.

Today, let us join the Blessed Mother Mary in her song of praise which we sung in the Responsorial Psalm. Let us “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” and “[rejoice] in God [our] savior.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

In 1792, the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, dedicated the newly formed nation to the patronage of the Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, a patronage which continues until this day. It's fitting, therefore, that our nation's capital contains the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a large and very beautifully decorated church dedicated to Our Lady. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Washington DC, I highly recommend taking several hours and visiting this beautiful shrine. Along the sides of both the main upper church and the basement are over 70 chapels dedicated to honoring Our Lady in her various titles.

With all the images of Our Lady that are present in this shrine, it's striking that the most noticeable image which a visitor sees upon entering the upper church is a large mosaic of Our Lord in the dome over the main altar. While it may seem out of place in this shrine dedicated to Our Lady, it is the exact point of both the shrine and the feast we celebrate today: through the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we see the saving grace of Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross.

When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, then a young woman living in Nazareth, he had been sent to present to her the news that she was to become the mother of the savior of the world. While God the Father had chosen Mary to be the mother of His Son, He respected her free will enough to give her the opportunity to accept or reject His divine will. Her acceptance of God's will meant that His plan of salvation could go forward. To prepare Mary for her role as mother of the second person of the Trinity, God was able to apply the effects of Jesus' death on the Cross to her from the first moment of her existence. Before she could bear the fully-divine, fully-human Son of God, she had to be made pure with no stain of sin.

Those of us who have been baptized have received this same gift of Christ's salvation, but we are still affected by the stain of sin on our souls. We are still tempted by sin, and we still fall into sinful behaviors. The Blessed Virgin Mary is held up as the example of what we hope to be one day. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, we have been chosen in Christ “to be holy and without blemish before Him.” All of us who remain in unity with Our Lord will one day have the stain of sin washed away for good, and will be as pure and spotless as Our Lady. We look forward to that day when we will be able to stand before Our Lord and His mother washed clean from sin. Until then, we ask Mary to intercede on our behalf to her son in order to prepare us for that day when we will see him face to face.

Mary, the Immaculate Conception, pray for us!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Homily for the Second Sunday in Advent

There always seem to be some groups who attempt to predict the date the end of the world will come. The Jehovah's Witnesses are up to about their fourteenth or fifteenth try. Some thought that it was going to be New Year's Day, 2001, at the start of the new Millennium. Others looked at the Y2K bug as a portent of the end of civilization as we know it. Now, groups are saying that an ancient Aztec calendar ends in the year 2012, a prediction of the world ending during that year.

As Christians, we would be well advised to not listen to these “prophetic” groups. St. Peter in our second reading tells us that we don't know when Our Lord will return. Instead, he compares the Second Coming of Jesus to a “thief in the night.” As anyone who has had their house or car broken into knows, it's impossible to predict when a thief will decide that your property needs to become his. If we knew, we would take steps to stop him before he could even make the attempt. Because we don't know, we make preparations to prevent anyone from even thinking about trying. We make sure that our doors are locked and windows are secured. We make sure that our house and cars have alarms which will scare the thief away if he does attempt to break in. In short, we do everything we can to secure our possessions and prepare for the thief's arrival. As Christians, we must likewise prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, even if we don't know when he'll return.

To help us understand the necessity of preparing for the coming of the Lord, we are given the example of John the Baptist. John knew that Our Lord was coming, even before his birth, as we see when Our Lady went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. He also knew that he was called by God to be the precursor to Jesus' ministry. Much as an introductory speaker gets the audience ready for a major speaker, John was sent to prepare those who were under the Old Covenant for the coming of the Messiah and the New Covenant. St. Mark tells us in his Gospel that John fulfills the promise of the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading, that one will be sent to “prepare the way of the Lord”. John realized that this was his role, and he fulfilled it, even pointing his disciples to the Lord. We still use his words today in the Mass: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Like John the Baptist, we are also called to be precursors to Christ. Instead of proclaiming his imminent arrival, as John the Baptist did, we are called to proclaim to the world the Second Coming of Our Lord, in which he will “judge the living and the dead”, as we say in the Creed. Our role is different than John the Baptist's, as we can also proclaim what Jesus has done, both 2,000 years ago when he lived on Earth, and in our lives today. Not only can we testify on what He has done for us as individuals, we can also share the Gospel which he proclaimed, the Good News of salvation, freely offered to all.

As John the Baptist was sent to prepare the Jewish people under the Old Covenant for the coming of Jesus and the New Covenant, our proclamation of Jesus' Gospel must prepare the whole world for Our Lord's return. We are called to convert the whole world to Christ, but we must do it with true love and respect of all humanity. Force and intimidation is out, we can't bribe people to become Christian, but must evangelize by our way of life. We must strive to live as Christ lived. We have to be willing to give totally of ourselves, our time, our skills, our possessions, even our very lives, for others. Instead of merely giving lip service to our faith, we must live what we believe. We must allow our actions to speak louder than words.

As we continue in this time of Advent preparations, getting ready for the celebration of Our Lord's birth on Christmas Day, may we prepare not only for the earthly celebrations that surround Christmas, but also for the Heavenly celebrations in the world to come.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Songbird + Magnatune add-on = Great Music. Currently listening to Bach's "Mass in B Minor". Beautiful!