Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God

Normally on the First Sunday of Christmas we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but since this Sunday is New Years Day, we defer to the celebration that is traditional to the 1st of January, which is the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

Our first reading comes from the book of Numbers.  The book of Numbers, a second re-telling of the Exodus story (after Leviticus), takes its name from the census that was taken of the Hebrew people, one at the beginning of the Exodus, and one at the end.  This passage, from the early part of the book, is the priestly blessing given to the people of Israel, and remains a popular blessing to this day.  On the occasion of celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary, it reminds us that Mary was beloved of God for being willing to take on the task of bearing and raising his son.  While our Psalm reflects this same blessing, the refrain, “My God bless us in his mercy,” reminds us of the mercy God has for his people.

Our second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In this passage Paul is summarizing the Christmas story… how God sent his son to redeem us.  Not only that, but through our relationship with Christ, we also become sons and daughters of God, our Father, and heirs to the Kingdom.  This was the promise of the savior, a promise that could only be fulfilled through Mary’s “yes” to God.

Our Gospel from Luke continues the Nativity narrative from where we left off at Christmas (from the Mass at Midnight and then at Dawn).  As we enter the passage the shepherd arrive to see the child in the manger, and we are reminded how Mary kept all these events in her heart.  Then, at the appointed time, according to the Jewish customs of the day, the child is circumcised and given his name… the name the angels gave him before he was conceived: Emmanuel, Yehoshua, Jesus, all of which translate to “God Saves.” 

Final thoughts:

During the Christmas Season we normally celebrate the Holy Family on the 1st Sunday of Christmas, the Epiphany on the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, and the Baptism of the Lord on the 3rd Sunday as the final day of the Christmas season.  But since Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, with New Years Day the following week, our usual celebrations have been moved to other dates.  This year we celebrate the Holy Family Friday, December 30th.  The Epiphany, a major feast, follows as usual on the 2nd Sunday, January 8th, but then The Baptism of the Lord follows the next day on Monday, January 9th.

So why all the changes this year?  Simply put, certain Liturgical celebrations take precedence over others.  This is not as unusual as you might think, since a number of Liturgical celebrations follow particular dates (like Christmas falling on December 25th) whereas other celebrations always fall on a particular Sunday (like Easter).  Believe it or not, there are actually certain rules for what is celebrated when, and why.  Not only that, Bishop’s councils and even local bishops have some latitude on what and when to celebrate certain solemnities and to designate which are Holy Days of Obligation. 

While this can be confusing for a lot of the people in the pews, and aggravating for some Liturgy Coordinators, there is some method to this calendaring madness.  But rather than stressing over what we celebrate when, I think it’s best to follow the advice of Jesus:  Just roll with it.  Or perhaps more accurately:  Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Nativity of the Lord

It is fairly well known that the word “Christmas” is derived from the Middle English “Christ’s Mass.”  While this name for the holiday still resonates with most people today, this name, along with many of its modern traditions are derived from England and English speaking countries.  But even though the name is fairly modern, the purpose of the celebration, giving recognition to the birth of Jesus, or the Nativity, goes back to the early 4th century.  In pagan Rome, it was not unusual to celebrate the birthdays of their gods.  The early Christians, therefore, in an ironic twist, took this opportunity to celebrate the day when our God was born into this world as a man.  To this day the celebration of the birth of Our Lord remains a major feast day, but the Church has begun to abandon the old Middle English name for the holiday in favor of a more accurate translation of the old Latin name for the feast:  The Nativity of the Lord.

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:1-25 or Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 9:1-6
Psalm 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

Isaiah 62:11-12
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:15-20

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
Hebrews 1:1-6
John 1:1-18 or John 1:1-5, 9-14

As you can see, our readings for the Nativity of the Lord will vary depending on which Mass you attend, an though the overarching theme still has its focus on the birth of Christ, each set of readings has its own unique theme.

If you attend the Vigil Mass, our readings remain reminiscent of those we heard during Advent with the theme of prophesy being fulfilled.  In fact, our Gospel is from the same passage in Matthew which we read this last Sunday on the 4th Sunday of Advent, only in its long form where we hear the genealogy of Jesus (if the priest of deacon reads this optional text).  Our first reading from third Isaiah takes on an urgency that cannot be ignored when he says, “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent…”  In our second reading Paul is so filled with the Spirit he walks into the synagogue and proclaims Jesus as the heir to David.  Our theme lets us know that the signs are obvious, God has promised a savior and this savior is Emmanuel… Jesus.

If you attend Midnight Mass, our readings focus on the moment of Christ’s birth.  Our Gospel from Luke gives us his well known narrative as we hear how Mary gave birth, “wrapped him in swaddling cloghes and laid him in a manger.”  This is the Nativity… the spirit of Christmas, and our other readings share in the joy.  Our first reading going back to first Isaiah proclaiming that “the people in darkness have seen a great light.”  Our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus reminding us that “the grace of God has appeared,”  Jesus, in the flesh, to save us all.

If you attend Mass at Dawn, our readings pickup the story from where we left off at Midnight Mass.  From Luke’s Gospel, the angels have just left the shepherds who were in the field.  Inspired by the angel’s message, they say to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place.”  They are moved with amazement and must seek out this child.  Our first reading, bouncing back over to third Isaiah proclaims with excitement, “your savior comes!” while our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus proclaims “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of an righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”  Our readings take on a simple humility that makes the birth of Christ an intimate and personal experience.

If you attend Mass during the day of the Nativity, our readings take on a much loftier tone (if not somewhat esoteric for the average listener attending Mass on Christmas Day).  Here our Gospel consists of the poetic and deeply theological opening stanzas from John’s Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  As is typical for most major feasts, the high Christology of John’s Gospel helps us to see the majesty in these events.  Similarly our first reading from second Isaiah takes on a majestic tone as he proclaims “Your God is King!  Hark!  Your sentinels raise a cry, together they should for joy.”  In our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the tone settles down a bit by reminding us all the ancient prophecy has become clear… that this savior is more than just an angel, but is above the angels taking his seat at God’s side.

Final thoughts:
Regardless of whichever Mass you attend to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, one message is clear:  Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of prophecy, come to us in the most humble of ways.  But it is a bittersweet holiday as the destiny of this little infant is to die on a cross for our sins.  This is love.  The love of a God seeking to understand his children.  The love of his Son willing to lay down his life to save us.  The love of the Holy Spirit that carries through each one of us as we share the joy of that moment of Jesus’ birth.  God’s love incarnate.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Need for Religious Literacy... For Everyone

Jesuit Father James Martin posted this article on his Facebook page yesterday:

Academics and Journalists Unite Against Fake News

This article from America magazine (the Jesuit news magazine for which Fr. Martin is an editor and contributor) focused primarily on this latest craze of "fake news."  No, not the type of "fake news" that Jon Stewart raised to high art on The Daily Show, but rather how people are now digesting "news" from outlets of questionable repute, and how even major news outlets are using these same questionable sources without the necessary fact-checking and analysis which was a hallmark of journalism for decades.  What this discussion on "fake news" also revealed is how many journalists, and journalism itself, is so poorly informed on religion and the key elements of different religious faith traditions.

This isn't just a problem for journalism, its a problem for our whole society.

To be fair, misinformation about religious traditions other than one's own is as old as human society.  In most cases, this wasn't much of an issue because the vast majority of communities shared (or at least participated in) the same religious traditions.  And because these communities were relatively small and closely knit, catechesis (for lack of a better word) was successfully accomplished among families in these communities.  But when one of these communities came into conflict with a neighboring community, most likely with different religious practices, this would play into the conflict.

Now at this point many historians will tell you that "religion" has played into many a bloody conflict.  But we need to be careful how we understand this.  Yes, differences in religious tradition have played into many wars, but as any good junior high or high school history class will teach you, wars and conflicts are created for a variety of reasons of which religion is only one catalyst.  Very few conflicts are solely due to religious differences.  Even the Crusades, which could mistakenly be seen as purely religious, had any number of other issues including control of the economy, land, resources, and politics of the disputed regions.  In these cases "religion" serves more as a communal battle cry and recruitment tool for each side.  But I digress...

Even as the world has grown and populations migrated, religious traditions and catechesis remained community based.  Even in the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries we saw these immigrants gathering in communities of similar geographic and religious experience, and for the most part, keeping to themselves.  Mind you, that didn't eliminate suspicions between these different communities, particularly between American Protestants and (largely immigrant) Catholics.  But even in those days of mistrust and misunderstanding (again, not entirely motivated by religious differences), these individual ethnic and religious communities managed to keep their own enclaves well catechized as to what they themselves believed.

But then the world changed.

It started after World War II, with massive reallocation of resources and the people who went with them.  Economic prosperity and opportunity broke apart these once tight knit communities and families.  The "neighborhood" became the suburbs, with an increasingly diverse population moving in all around.  Church, in large part, retreated from the "neighborhood," with their large tracts of suburban housing and their designated plots for new churches, and into the home.  It became rare for your next door neighbor to also be one of your fellow parishioners.

This kind of diversity wasn't all bad.  In fact, it can be an opportunity to learn from each other, and grow in some knowledge and appreciation of each other's religious traditions.  But at the same time, with catechesis moving from the neighborhood into the home, individual families were now more dependent on each other for that catechesis.  And in a world that continued to grow more complex and diversified, more of the burden was placed on families that were not as sufficiently prepared to bring in and maintain Church in the home.  Where in past generations the grandparents, extended family, and other neighbors would supply much of the needed catechesis, the new "nuclear family" was left without those resources it needed to keep Church alive in the home.  Catechesis was outsourced... left in the lap of "CCD" and "religious education" classes at the same time the changing economics of Catholic Education pushed more families to public schools.  What was left was a large number of Catholics that were less catechized and less invested in the parish community.

If that were not enough, now add in the social revolution that started in the late 20th century (and is still unfolding today) where many people and families don't even associate themselves with a particular religious tradition.  And worse those that do align themselves religiously, not only lack a fundamental understanding of their own faith, but are completely ignorant when it comes to other faith traditions and religions.

Now add in the Internet.  Here's a tool that allows instant access to knowledge and information, including about the world's religions.  You would think this should serve as a great library or university for everyone to learn about these other religions, and for some, it does.  Unfortunately, for the vast majority of others, it has devolved into a community of individual "clubhouses" where only those of like mind (informed or not) tend to gather.  Not only is this increasing isolation, but it spreads and breeds misinformation.  This is where we find ourselves today.  Divided and ill-informed.  Need proof?  Have a look at the PBS Newshour report on a 2010 Pew Research survey (What Americans Do and Don't Know about Religion). 

When I was in high school, an all boys Catholic high school run by Capuchin Franciscans, I had the absolute pleasure of taking a comparative religions course.  It was a required class for all juniors.  After 10 years of teaching us the Catholic faith, the school felt is it was time to broaden our knowledge.  And contrary to some pre-Vatican II thinking, being exposed to other faiths did not serve as a recruiting tool for those faiths.  Rather, as I have seen over and over again, the more we learn about other faith traditions the stronger we become in our own Catholic faith.  While this class was only able to give us the very basics of Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Islam, it did open us to a wider world of understanding, not only better preparing us for college, but for living in a world that was becoming more diverse.  It is but one of the many things for which I am eternally grateful for my Franciscan education (even if it took me years to acknowledge my inner Jesuit).

So what are we to do?  There was a time when main stream journalists and journalism were able to provide readers with informed, non-biased reporting on religion with an accurate understanding of certain religious beliefs.  Sadly, however, the state of journalism has devolved as journalists themselves have grown increasingly ignorant of religion and religious traditions.  In a certain way this whole situation makes sense... writers must lean heavily on their own knowledge and experience.  In days past when newsrooms were filled with men (and a too few women) of various religious faiths, they could serve as informed and accurate sources of information.  Today, as newsrooms have gotten a lot smaller, and reporters less educated and experienced in religion, reporting has become, well, an intellectual embarrassment.  Nothing stirs the wrath of my pen more than when some article purports to tell me what Catholics believe when they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, not only because they're not Catholic themselves, but they are relying on sources that are less reputable than others to "learn" what they need in order to prepare their reports.  It's one of the reasons I remind our catechumens and adult learners regularly to be wary of what the secular media reports when it comes to Catholicism.  There are any number of good Catholic news outlets available, in print and online, to get a more accurate, more nuanced report of current events in the Catholic realm.

Besides making use of Catholic media to better educate ourselves about our Catholic faith, we also need to broaden our knowledge and understanding of other faiths.  That starts by understanding how our Catholic tradition is unique among the worlds religions.  We Catholics take for granted that we have an established leadership and hierarchy.  No other major faith tradition in the world can point to one person and say this is our leader.  We take for granted the nature and the structure of the Magisterium and we tend to project that understanding onto other religious traditions when in reality no such continuity exists.  Religion is sectarian... with all variety of flavors and leaders all professing to be Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, etc.  Many would argue that Christianity is the same, with its many Protestant sects, but our Catholic experience tends to gloss over that fact.

The sectarian nature of religion isn't anything new.  In fact, it's as old as religion itself.  The Gospels themselves are rife with the conflicts between the various sects that make up the Sanhedrin.  Once we acknowledge this sectarian nature, we go back to the basic truths... those elements of the faith they all agree upon.  It's how we Christians approach all ecumenical discussions... start with what we share, and then work our way closer to those issues where we have disagreements.

Use credible sources.  Believe it or not, Wikipedia is probably one of the best places to start.  There are also any number of Catholic publishers that have material on comparative religion and other religious traditions.  St Mary's Press offers some good selections.  Our own offers a guide for Catholic educators on "understanding Islam."  In the secular press there's also a lot of reputable resources like the Idiot's Guide... series to help you learn more (the Idiot's Guide to Catholicism is a masterpiece).

So after all this, what is my point.  It's this:  We all need to be better informed.  Not only do we need to become more literate about our own Catholic faith, but we need to gain some understanding of world's other major faith traditions.  We need to leverage the many legitimate sources of information to become better acquainted with the world around us.  We need to find the courage to step outside of our personal comfort zones and be willing to learn something new.

Only when we open our minds can we truly open our hearts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent

Throughout this season of advent we have been focused on the ancient prophecy of the coming of a messiah, and how in Jesus we have the fulfillment of that prophecy.  This Fourth Sunday of Advent is no different as we read more about what to expect with the coming of this savior:

Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Romans 1:1-7
Mathew 1:18-24

Our first reading is again from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  This week we go back to an earlier time where King Ahaz is in trouble.  The Assyrian Empire is on the move.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel is under threat and King Ahaz of Judah is concerned that Jerusalem and his kingdom are next.  Rival forces are converging on Jerusalem so Isaiah is called by the Lord to go and meet with Ahaz and begs him to stand firm in his faith in the Lord.  Ahaz, on the other hand, is more comfortable putting his trust in the might of the Assyrians.  Our passage this Sunday picks up the story.  The Lord is upset with Ahaz, and is trying to give him one last chance to repent… to “ask for a sign from the Lord your God.”  While God sees this as an opportunity for reconciliation, Ahaz doesn’t take the bait, which causes God to get angry (…is it not enough for you to weary people…”), and in a show of power, tells Ahaz that “as a sign” a virgin will give birth, bear a son, and name him Emmanuel, which means “God Saves” (which is “Yehoshua” in ancient Hebrew, or “Jesus” from the Ancient Greek).  This is a power play between Ahaz and God… with God saying, “If you can’t trust me, I will send someone who does.”  Our Psalm follows through on that sentiment as we sing, “Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.”  If we put our trust and faith in the Lord above all others, we can’t lose.

Our second reading from the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Here Paul states unequivocally that in Christ Jesus we have this long promised messiah… a descendant of King David, but a king that belongs to everyone, including the Gentiles and the beloved people of God in Rome.  Perhaps equally important is how Paul describes himself to this Roman Church… as “a slave of Christ Jesus,” a sentiment that many of these early Roman Christians understood well.  By Paul placing himself as a slave to the Gospel, he also clearly establishes understanding that no one of us is above another, except for the Lord.

Our  Gospel from Matthew then goes on to explain the birth of Jesus, using those very same words prophesied by Isaiah in our first reading.  It’s no coincidence that Matthew made this connection to the original prophecy.  We need to remember that Matthew’s original audience was Jewish.  As such, a Jewish audience would know and remember these words from Isaiah, and Matthew is quick to make the connection from that older prophecy to that of Jesus.  This is typical of Matthew, drawing on the words of the prophets to reinforce his evangelization, to show his Jewish followers that Jesus is indeed the one who was foretold would come.

For us Christians, it is a reminder for us both of Jesus’ immaculate conception, and Joseph’s willingness to accept this calling.  It needs to be noted that Joseph, by Mosaic Law, did not have to accept Mary after learning of her pregnancy, and was well within the Law to have her stoned to death.  Not only was he willing to spare her shame, he willingly accepted God’s messenger and took her into his care.  This act of compassion is a sign of the Kingdom of God that is to come, and reminds us that our duty is to serve one another.

Final thoughts:
The length of the season of Advent is a function of the calendar.  Depending on which day of the week December 25th falls determines how long the final week of advent will be.  Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year we get to experience a full fourth week of Advent (as opposed to when Christmas falls on a Monday, as it will next year, where we go from the Fourth Sunday of Advent straight into Christmas the next day).  This extra-long Advent gives us a chance to slow down and ponder what it means to have this ancient prophecy fulfilled, and how this child Jesus was a King in the most unexpected of ways, coming into the world in the most humblest of ways.

Looking around the neighborhood I can see signs of this extra-long Advent.  What a difference a week can make!  Everyone seems a little less rushed.  Where houses are normally brilliantly lighted and decorated right after Thanksgiving, many didn’t get their lights up until this past weekend.  Stores are busy, but they don’t seem to have the level of panic that I’ve seen in years past.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for this opportunity to experience Advent a little while longer… and taking advantage of this extra full week to ease into the bustle of the Christmas season and the new year that is to come!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It's About Time: Marriage Formation

File this under "It's About Time!"

I was reading through the daily email I get from the Angelus, our updated Archdiocesan newspaper and multi-media platform.  In today's email there was a link to an article entitled, "Why Does Catholic Marriage Prep Fail?"

This article, discussing how our current process of Marriage preparation falls far short of forming young couples for the vocation of a Sacramental marriage, referenced another very good article entitled, "Synod Fathers Call for Ending Pre-Cana in Favor of More Intensive Marriage Preparation."

Finally!  Our Church leaders are speaking out about the sorry state of marriage preparation!

If you follow this blog, you no doubt came across my posting from this past September:

In the months since, however, I've come to realize that the problem is even worse than I thought.  By way of example, let me walk you through a recent experience:  A young couple came to me one evening during one of our regular Adult Faith Formation sessions.  "Joe" was a Baptized Catholic who wanted to get Confirmed.  His fiance "Beth" was already fully initiated in the Church.  Let's forget for the moment that they just dropped in without calling ahead or making an appointment (file this under "these kids today...").  Beth wanted to make sure Joe could receive Confirmation before their wedding.  "OK," I ask, "so when is the wedding?"  I figured it was likely a date in the Spring that likely was before the Bishop was due to come, but Beth tells me that they didn't yet have a date.  I think to myself, "how refreshing... no worry about perceived deadlines" (see my previous blog post on Marriage and Confirmation).

Since they didn't yet have a date, I asked them where they were going to get married.  Beth (who did most of the talking) said they didn't know.  "So," I ask, "you haven't talked with a priest yet?"  Beth said, "No," but that they weren't in any rush to do the Church wedding."  Not in a rush... how refreshing, I'm thinking.  But then she continues telling me that they weren't in any rush because they've "already scheduled the civil ceremony."  Wait... what?  Then out loud I said, "Wait... what?" Beth then explained to me how (they thought) they needed to do a civil marriage ceremony before doing the church ceremony.

Now let me pause for a moment.  Is this true?  NO.  At least, not any more.  Today all you need to get is a civil marriage LICENSE (typically from the County or the State offices), but you do not need to have a civil marriage ceremony.  But that wasn't always the case.  I remember my mother telling me about how she and my dad needed to do their civil wedding just before their Marriage in the Church.  In the State of New York, in the year 1960, in order to be considered a valid marriage, it needed to take place in the presence of a judge.  Apparently a church minister did not have the authority at that time to preside over a licensed marriage ceremony.  It's not something my parents ever talked about regularly... just one of those things my mom would mention when we were young kids looking through their wedding album.  So on the face of it, Beth's statement wasn't a complete shocker.  On the other hand, ordained ministers have had the authority to perform marriages in the State of New York and just about anywhere else in the United States for the past 40-50 years. 

So back to Beth and Joe.  Apparently the plans for this civil marriage have all been made and was going to happen in three weeks.  OK... forget about Confirmation for Joe, now we've got an even bigger issue...

This young couple, Beth, a Confirmed Catholic, and Joe, a Baptized Catholic, planned to get married, but had not thought to talk with a priest before making any other plans.  The thought never even crossed their minds.  This isn't just a matter of a young couple's ignorance, or of the ignorance of these two families, this is a failure on the part of the entire Church! Here a young couple has decided to get married in the Church, but neither they nor anyone around them was knowledgeable enough about the marriage process to know what needed to be done.  After all, on the cover of just about every Church bulletin I've ever read says that anyone looking for Marriage needs to contact a priest at least 6 months before hand and before anything else is planned.  Clearly there are a lot of people here who haven't been to Church in a while.  They knew enough that Joe should be Confirmed (preferred, but not required... again, see my previous post), but they didn't know that the first thing they should do before making any marriage plans was to talk with a priest.

I was stunned.  Literally stunned.  I didn't know what to tell them other than they needed to talk with a priest, any priest, as soon as possible. Not only was this couple misinformed about how marriage works within the Church, but their plans for Joe's Confirmation are also at risk.

As someone who has been working with the RCIA for almost 20 years, I'm well aware of the issues that can present themselves when people who are already married, or have a previous marriage, seek to receive the Sacraments.  It is complication that needs special attention.  Sometimes it's just a matter of bringing their existing marriage into the Church.  Sometimes, however, they need to go through an annulment process, which in the best of cases can take a year or more.

So here's the problem we have with Joe wanting to get Confirmed.  If he goes through with the civil wedding, that act creates a "sacramental impediment."  A Catholic getting married outside the Church becomes a "grave matter."  In essence, a mortal sin.  While the Church, technically, does not recognize the civil marriage, the fact that Joe entered into this civil marriage prevents him from being in a "state of grace" sufficient to receive Confirmation (or any other Sacrament).  How does Joe fix this?  He needs to bring his civil marriage into the Church before he can receive Confirmation.  It's ironic... Beth and Joe came to me thinking that Joe had to be Confirmed before they could get married in the Church.  But now, if they proceed with a civil wedding, Joe won't be able to be Confirmed until their marriage is brought into the Church.

But that's not the saddest part of this whole story.  The saddest part is that this is a story at all.  We as Church have done a very poor job of catechizing the world about what Marriage in the Church really means.  This isn't a lesson just for Catholics, but a lesson for everyone.  The whole world needs to understand that Marriage in the Church is a life-long vocation, just like Holy Orders, and needs the same level of discernment and a more comprehensive formation process.  At the very least, both Catholics and non-Catholics need to learn that anyone who intends to get married in the Church MUST talk first with their parish priest... or any priest or deacon, BEFORE making any other plans.

Young Catholics today don't understand the medieval structure of the body Church.  Our highly mobile and connected society lets them think that they can just go to any Catholic Church to address Sacramental issues.  The idea of the "cafeteria Catholic" has now morphed into a false understanding of a "cafeteria Church."  That they can go to any parish and receive whatever Sacrament they want.  What they don't understand is the communal nature of our faith and how the parish plays in integral role.

A parish is first and foremost a community of believers, and it is the Pastor's duty to serve and form that community.  The pastor owes the community his service, and in turn the community owes him their fealty (in true medieval fashion).  There is no such thing as a "lone Catholic."  As I am fond to point out during our Adult Formation sessions, there is a dual nature to our faith.  It is both personal and communal.  You cannot be Catholic without having a personal relationship with God, nor can you be a Catholic without celebrating that relationship in community with others.  This dual nature lives in the Mass itself, where we gather as community to give thanks and praise to God, but wherein also we individually receive the grace of the Eucharist.  The Mass requires both the priest and the assembly to be valid.

This communal aspect of our faith goes all the way back to Abraham.  Like tribal Israel, we belong to group of believers.  Our parish is our Christian family.  And like a family, our Pastor is our chief shepherd.  In days past people were born, raised, and lived their lives in the same parish.  In some communities that's still the case.  And all our Sacramental needs were taken care of by that community and that pastor.  But here in the United States and other parts of the developed world, our modern society tends to value individualism over community, and our highly mobile and migratory population lessens our connection to a particular parish community.  Be that as it may, in our spirit of community, it remains the duty of our pastors to make sure his community's members are all properly catechized, prepared, and formed to receive the Sacraments... any Sacrament.  Even though it is the Bishop who is the ordinary minister for Confirmation, the pastor still must attest to their preparation and readiness.  This isn't unusual... even candidates for the seminary must have a recommendation from their pastor.

When we live our lives outside of community, outside of the parish, we miss the opportunity to be formed by that community.  Even important lessons that we should be learning from our immediate family can be supplemented through the larger parish community.  It really does take a village.  But that's not happening.  With tools like the internet, people have developed not only a false sense of community, but very often a false sense of informed knowledge.  Social graces and facts have given way to raves and unverified assertions.  But I digress...

I'm relieved that our Church fathers have seen fit to reexamine how we are forming young people for marriage in the Church.  And we the Church need to make our voices heard as to how best to accomplish this in our communities.  At the very least people need to recognize that a Sacramental Marriage in the Church is something that needs serious discernment.  Coupling and marriage in our secular society has become something that is selfish and convenient.  We Catholics see it as something much more and much greater.  And we need to make sure everyone understands what that means.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent

Patience.  Good things are coming, and are almost here, so Rejoice!  This is Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin “to rejoice”), the Third Sunday of Advent.  We celebrate that we are now past the halfway point of the Advent season.  For this one day we put away the violet color of Advent and bring out the Rose colored vestments and décor.  We light the rose colored candle in our Advent wreaths as we joyfully count the remaining days to Christmas.  Our readings remind us of the good things to come, but good things only come to those who wait…

Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10
Psalm 146, 6-7, 8-9, 9-10
James 5:7-10
Mathew 11:2-11

Our first reading, again, is from Isaiah.  Here the prophet sings of the great things to come, and the land itself will rejoice and bloom.  Isaiah goes to great lengths to paint us this glorious picture of Zion, but we must also recognize that this picture of salvation comes as destruction stands waiting at the gate.  King Hezekiah has the Assyrian forces knocking on his door, so in desperation he turns to the Isaiah to ask for the Lord’s help.  While the Lord rebukes Hezekiah, he also shows mercy to his people, reminding them of the glory that comes with the Lord.  Our Psalm reflects that glory, with the promise of food, health, and protection as we sing “Lord, come and save us”

Our second reading is from the letter of James.  James, who is leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem is addressing his letter to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” in other words, to those early Jewish Christians who have communities beyond Jerusalem.  Many of these early Christians are getting concerned that Jesus hasn’t yet returned as was promised, so James feels the need to give them some reassurance.  He tells them that just like a farmer must be patient for the rain, we too must be patient for the coming of the Lord.

Our gospel from Matthew We continues with the story of John the Baptist.  Now much later in Matthew’s narrative, John is in prison.  Perhaps sensing his own death to be coming soon, sends his followers to see if Jesus is indeed the one of whom he foretold.  Jesus tells John’s followers to report back what they have seen and heard, then turns to the crowd to speak of John as the one who was foretold, reminding them that John’s was that voice in the wilderness to announce the coming of the savior.  Not only does this message give John the comfort he seeks shortly before his execution, but it helps the people to see the legitimacy of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, the Messiah promised by God.

Final thoughts:

On this Gaudete Sunday we are joyful that our patient, vigilant waiting for the Lord will be fulfilled.  We know this because the prophets have told us.  Prophets like those we heard from in our readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah, James, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself.  We too are also called to be prophets.  By virtue of our baptism we too are anointed priests, prophets, and kings.  It is our duty as Christians to speak out for what we know to be true… if not by our words, then certainly by our actions.  We are joyful this Sunday because we’ve heard the promise of the Lord, and our trust in the Lord tells us that these promises will be fulfilled.  Just be patient.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent

The Messiah is coming… Emmanuel.  How do we know this?  Prophets through the ages have been telling us and their scribes have been preserving those words so that we can recognize the signs.  Our readings for this coming Sunday give a picture of who this deliverer will be, who he’s come for, and how we should respond:

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Romans 15:4-9
Mathew 3:1-12

Our first reading is from the prophet Isaiah.  Here he describes for us a vision of the ideal king… the one who will “fear the Lord” and be a just judge; whose words will be his only weapons and whose reign will bring universal peace.  It will be so glorious that all the nations will seek it out.  To our Christian ears, this “shoot of Jesse” (King David’s father) sounds very much like Jesus himself.  But wait… This passage dates back some 720 years before Jesus.  Sometimes when we get a prophecy like this we need to pause and remind ourselves that Isaiah wasn’t speaking specifically about Jesus, but rather, about the qualities the messiah would possess.  Often it is our 20/20 hindsight that allows us to recognize Jesus in this prophecy.  It also helps us to consider where Isaiah was coming from when he said this.  In this case, the previous chapters just before this verse consist of a long and scathing oracle against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Kingdoms that have turned their back on God.  Isaiah is prophesying that there will rise a new king who will love the Lord and serve as the “ideal” king.  Our Psalm reflects this sentiment as we sing, “Justice will flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.”

So, our first reading tells us who this new king will be so we can recognize him when he comes.  But for whom will this new king be coming?  Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us.  First, Paul reminds us to be attentive to the scriptures, because these provide us instruction, endurance, encouragement, and hope.  Then, using those same scriptures, reminds us that Jesus, the prophesied new king, came not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles as well.

Now that we know who this new king is coming to serve, what must we do to prepare?  Our Gospel from Matthew has the answer.  In this Sunday’s passage we are introduced to John the Baptist… the unconventional messenger for this unconventional new king.  John’s message?  “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand!”  Just as Isaiah was trying to teach the people of Israel and Judah to change their ways and turn back to the Lord, John is reminding the people of Jerusalem (including the Pharisees and Sadducees in attendance) that they much repent of their sins.  It’s decision time, where the wheat will be separated from the chaff.

Final thoughts:

John’s message can be terrifying… leaving us to fear that we will be the chaff sent into the fire.  But John’s message isn’t one of fear, but of hope.  We all have a chance to bear fruit in this new Kingdom of God.  We can all save ourselves from the unquenchable fire.  All we have to do is repent.  To prayerfully examine our consciences, admit where we have made mistakes, and take action to get right and stay right with God.  And it’s an invitation open to everyone!

While I often bemoan the fact that our secular world has confiscated and mutated our traditions of Christmas, I also hold out hope that the true message of Advent and Christmas will come through all the clutter… the message that Christ came for everyone, and salvation is open to all who are willing to follow.

Monday, November 28, 2016

1st Sunday of Advent: Follow-up...

As I noted in the commentary for the 1st Sunday of Advent, this is a season of penitent reflection, a time for us to slow down and consider if we are ready to meet Christ when he comes again.

Seems I'm not alone in that thinking.  Here's some links I'd like to share:

From the online Catholic news magazine Crux:

From  the online forum "For Her":

From Matthew Kelly's Dynamic Catholic ministry, there's Best Advent Ever

And lastly, from America Magazine:

On some of the outer fringes of Protestant Christianity there has been this growing movement to "Take Back Christmas."  They are understandably frustrated with how our secular society has taken over this uniquely Christian celebration and turned it into something completely different.

I don't think we Catholics have ever felt we've lost the Christmas in this same way.  Why?  Because we've always had the Season of Advent.  Celebrating Advent allows us the time we need to reflect, taking time to prepare both our souls and our homes.  Christmas will still come, just as it did in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and we know the celebration will last a full 12 days (plus-or-minus on the new Liturgical calendar).  So we know there's no rush.  No need to feel pressured.  No reason to feel offended by something we didn't feel was lost.

There is a rhythm and a purpose to our Liturgical calendar, reflective of the highs and lows of the seasons.  Right now as Fall gives way to Winter, we celebrate the end of the harvest and prepare our homes for the cool bluster of winter.  What better time to thank God for his blessings and prepare our spirits for his coming again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

1st Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday Advent marks the beginning of the new Liturgical year.  The green vestments and décor of Ordinary Time are put away, replaced with the purple vestments and décor of Advent.  Like Lent, Advent is a season of penitent reflection.  While our secular culture sees this time as the beginning of a frantic holiday season, we Catholics are asked to slow down, take a step back, and prayerfully consider if we are ready for the coming of Christ… that is, his second coming.

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:37-44

Our first reading comes from the second chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah.  The book of Isaiah is one of the longest of all the prophets, and spans a period from before the Assyrian attack on the Northern Kingdom, all the way through (and long after his death) to the end of the Babylonian Exile.  This Sunday’s passage comes from the beginning of Isaiah, showing us a vision of Zion… the ideal, Heavenly Jerusalem where God reigns and his people serve as an example to all nations.  It’s place here a the beginning of Advent reminds us of both what is expected of us, and what we can look forward to.  While this is indeed a glorious vision, Isaiah’s purpose in showing this is to remind the kingdoms of Israel and Judah of how far they have fallen from God’s graces.  Without a change of heart, the promise of Zion could be lost.  That promise of Zion is echoed in our Psalm when we sing, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”  If this Psalm sounds familiar, it should.  We sang it last week for our celebration of Christ the King.  Now it serves as a bridge between the old year and the new.

In our second reading, the often poetic Paul doesn’t mince words in this excerpt from his letter to the Romans.  He flat out warns them that the time of Jesus’ return is at hand, and that they need to behave accordingly.  He specifically warns against “desires of the flesh.” and the sort of behaviors we often associate with the excesses of the Roman culture.  While it is unlikely that the behaviors Paul warns against were rampant, they were still very prevalent in the metropolis that is Rome, giving Paul cause for concern.  Thus he wants remind this young Christian community that a life following Jesus requires that one look outward to a life of service, not inward to a life of self-gratification.

This takes us to our Gospel.  As we start the new Liturgical Year our Sunday Lectionary (the book of readings selected for all Masses) goes back to Cycle A with an emphasis on the Gospel of Matthew.  This week's passage gives us a very vivid image of the Judgment Day.  Matthew, who's audience was primarily Jewish, makes use of the stories and characters in the Hebrew scripture not only in to help them draw a connection to Jesus with the stories and traditions that are part of their cultural identity, but to also show them that Jesus is indeed the Messiah... the chosen one foretold by the prophets.  In today's Gospel he draws on the memory of the story of Noah, asking them to remember what a terrible day it was when the flood came and why.  Jesus is warning his disciples that such dark times could come again for those who are not prepared for his return.  Those who do not "stay awake" and live their lives for God are at risk of losing their souls.  It is a very challenging reading, particularly as we prepare for the Holiday season... but this is what Advent is all about... asking ourselves if we are ready for Jesus' next coming.

Final thoughts:

For as much as our secular culture has embraced the idea of “Christmas,” the fact remains that they’ve gotten it all wrong.  For our secular culture the “Christmas Season” begins the day after Thanksgiving with “Black Friday...”  with everyone rushing around shopping and preparing for holiday gatherings.  All too often all this creates feelings of stress and anxiety culminating with Christmas Day, after which they can relax and put everything away.  Brothers and sisters, that’s not us.

This isn’t the “Christmas Season” for us.  Right now, this is Advent.  A time for prayerful reflection.  A time to examine our souls and ask ourselves if we’re ready to meet the Lord when he comes again.  A time for us to slow down and reflect.  For us the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th, with a celebration of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, and carries us through the New Year and all the way to Epiphany on January 8th… so don’t you dare start putting away those decorations on December 26th.

Christianity has always been counter-cultural.  We walk to a different beat… the heart of the Lord.  So why not try these ideas:
  • Celebrate Thanksgiving in all its fullness.  Thanksgiving, after all, is what lies at the heart of the Mass.  Go to Thanksgiving Day Mass.  Celebrate with family and friends.  Eat well and offer thanks to God for his blessings on us.  More and more this celebration gets marginalized, seen not so much as a chance to take time off with family, but marks the starting line of the shopping season.  Instead, avoid the stores, and spend it with loved ones.
  • Don’t rush into the Christmas decorating.  There is no rule that says you need to turn your home into a winter wonderland overnight.  Prior to World War II and Vatican II most Catholic families didn’t put up their Christmas trees until Christmas Eve… after the Advent wreath was put away.  Advent is a time of preparation, so use the full 4 weeks of Advent to slowly bring your home into the Christmas season.  For example, it’s my family’s tradition to wait until the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) to get our Christmas tree.
  • Celebrate the Christmas Season to the fullest.  Go to a Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve or at Midnight.  Keep those decorations up all the way through Epiphany.  Use the time off to visit with family and friends.  Don’t think of Christmas as one day that needs to go off perfectly, but think of it as a series of gatherings, over a few weeks, allowing you to spend time with those you love.
Preparation for Christmas doesn’t mean shopping and planning parties.  Preparation for Christmas means getting our spiritual house in order.  The celebration of the Nativity is a remembrance of our Lord coming into our world, as well as a reminder that he will be coming back.  So take a moment to put aside the commercial aspects of our culture and consider if you’re ready to meet our Lord when he comes again.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monday Morning Quarterbacking - Christ the King

Monday morning quarterbacking.  That long standing tradition during football season where people gather around the water-cooler on the Monday after the big game that weekend to provide their own analysis of the outcome.  Why not do that with Church?  So, here we go... Christ the King.

Now first I have to admit that the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe happens to be one of my favorite feast days.  Not only does it give a regal close to our Liturgical year, but it stands as a testament to the truth behind the journey we've been on for this entire Liturgical year:  That it is God who is above all others, and all of us others are equal to no one else but God.

This isn't a new idea.  In fact, it is a pretty consistent theme throughout all of scripture, and it is in those moments when we forget this lesson that we find ourselves, as a people and as a society, getting into trouble.  We forget that God is our king, and we start elevating others into positions of authority over us.  Eventually human weakness gives way to tyranny, which sparks a revolution that itself eventually gives way to tyranny.  Such was the case when Pope Pius XI sought to refocus our attention back to Christ as our one and only king.

As I noted in my posting for this past Sunday, the world was still recovering from the first World War.  Populist revolutions were sweeping the globe, tearing down long established models of governance and economics.  Unfortunately the tyranny of the monarchs they deposed was eventually replaced with even more tyrannical governments and despots, demanding above all else allegiance to their country and their rulers.  In his 1925 encyclical letter Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI called us all to remember that above all else, it is Christ alone to whom we owe our allegiance.

During the homily for the Mass I attended, we were reminded that we needed to put Christ rightfully first in our lives.  We were reminded that there are many false gods calling us away from a healthy relationship with Christ... including wealth, celebrity, and our sense of self-importance.  That we are all equal under Christ, and we are all called to serve on behalf of Christ.  I'm sure there were many other homilies like this, but I have to wonder, how many were really listening?  How many were able to see the importance of this celebration?

Which takes me to the next section of my Monday morning quarterbacking... recognizing the truth when we hear it.  Or perhaps more accurately, recognizing the voice of God when we hear it.

When catechizing on the subject of prayer, I often tell people that if we want to hear God, we need to listen.  But here's the thing we need to recognize... we don't always know what voice, or who's voice God will use to get his message to us.  Chances are we're not going to hear God from a burning bush.  Instead, we need to be open, not only in our own heads, but to the world around us.

Take this morning, for instance.  Normally on the way to work I will be listening to NPR's Morning Edition, or when I need a break from the chatter I'll turn to Classical Music KUSC.  Every now and then, however, I just need an escape, so I'll turn to KROQ's Kevin & Bean show for some mindless humorous banter.  This morning was just such a morning...

During the 9:00 AM “Show Biz Beat” segment with Ralph Garman, Ralph was talking with Kevin and Bean about last night’s Kanye West concert in Sacramento where during the opening set, he stopped the music and went on a rant about how all these people were seemingly against him (Beyonce, Jay Z, Hillary Clinton, the media, etc.).  After his tirade he just walked off the stage, and shortly later it was announced that the remainder of his concert tour had been cancelled.  This incident got the hosts talking about Mr. West's apparent egomania, which got them talking about some larger issues.  Then the conversation turned to this:

Ralph (to Kevin and Bean):    Megalomania is running rampant in this country.  It’s like some sort of epidemic.  As if there’s a virus going… it’s the zombie apocalypse, but instead of The Walking Dead, we have "the walking arrogant."  It’s nuts!  I think we are descending into an era of self-worship that is going to be the downfall of our society.  I think we had no idea when selfies and... and social media and all that started that it would lead us down to a path of complete isolation and complete self absorption to the point where everything else is irrelevant but me and my feelings and what I want.

Bean:    I don’t think you’re exaggerating, Ralph.

Ralph:    I don’t think I am either.  I’m deadly serious about this...

Bean:    ...and when people write the history, as particularly of the 2016 election, they will say a part of the problem was that no one wanted to be exposed to anybody else or their ideas.  Everybody just wanted to stay in their own lane and screw the other guy.  And that’s partly how we ended up where we’re at.

Ralph:    ...and win at all costs:  The costs of the facts, the costs of other people, the costs of the country.  I need to win because I love me.

I was looking for some lighthearted fluff to get me through the morning commute, but somewhere along the way I heard the voice of God calling me back to our celebration of Christ the King.

Mind you, this is a very secular morning drive time show designed to give us humorous banter in-between their alternative rock playlist.  Yet when the truth comes across it's like hearing the prophet Amos railing against the kings of Israel and Judah.  This went far above party and politics (because it can be applied to both sides this past election season).  This went straight to the truth... that we have become so focused on ourselves, we have forgotten the bigger picture... that we are called to be humble and to serve one another, and that we all answer to a higher authority.

You never know when or where you might hear the voice of God.  I hope we're all listening.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The growing battle for our very souls...

I am a Catholic, and I am a catechist.  I live my faith as best I can, but I am also a person "of this world."  I have a regular, secular career that helps support my family (including their Catholic school tuition and my catechetical hobbies), and I engage in activities and relationships outside the Church.  For the most part my life in both these worlds have found a harmonious balance... that is, being able to engage in a secular society without compromising my Catholic faith.  There are times, however, where this can be a challenge, and sometimes we need to recognize that we are in a battle for our very souls.

This morning the following advertisement arrived in my email:

"Lust can be rationalized."  Think about that for a moment... "Lust can be rationalized."

I looked at this advert, and I was dumbstruck!  It stopped me in my tracks.  Once I regained my mental composure, the first thing that came to my mind was, "this is what we're up against."

Don't get me wrong... I get what the advert is trying to say.  I like cars, so it's no wonder that Jaguar would like to sell me one.  I also get the joke... of sorts... that those who long for a luxury vehicle can enter that market at a lower price-point than they might have thought.  So, I get it.  But underneath this attempt at humor is exposed the devil himself.

Even though we live in the secular world and can take advantage of its many gifts, we also need to recognize that this same society feeds on our turning away from God.  For all its good intentions, our society is unfairly balanced against those whom God taught us to protect... widows, orphans, foreigners... in essence, the poor. 

This isn't new, brothers and sisters.  Sure, we all know the Beatitudes, but this protection of the marginalized goes all the way back to Moses.  All of us in catechesis know that Jesus' greatest hits were just covers of the best of the Mosaic Law.  God's expectations of us have never changed, Jesus just made it simpler for us to understand:  Love God.  Love one another.  From 10 Commandments down to 2.  But I digress...

Our society today thrives on feeding our desires.  Not so much for those desires that are noble and selfless (though our society does give a grudging respect for those things), but more for those that are selfish, wanton, and base.  We are shown things like luxury cars and then are convinced that "we deserve it."  We covet financial and social success and epitomize those who have achieved it, even willing to overlook how in achieving that success (or perhaps because of it) they have taken advantage of or even abused others to get there.  We are taught to measure success by how much money someone has made or how much celebrity they've achieved instead of what they've done for others.

To make matters worse, this particular advert shows up in what our society has dubbed the "holiday season."  What was once a minor Christian celebration of our Lord's birth has been co-opted and mutated into something that is commercial, secular, and unrecognizable.  Even now, before we've had a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving, the radio is playing Christmas music, decorations are going up, and retailers are lining up to sell us whatever they've convinced us we need to have.  Secular Christmas bears little resemblance to our Advent expectations for the second coming of Christ.  And don't get me started about those who pack-up all the decorations on December 26th... when we Catholics are technically just beginning the celebration of this 12 day long (give or take) Christmas season.

Again, don't get me wrong... I enjoy the holiday season, even if our secular brothers and sisters haven't gotten it quite right.  The challenge for us is to learn how to recognize the devil, and when we see him, to fight against him.  And he can be so prevalent during the holiday season!

For me the advert above serves as a notice to all of us who profess a faith in Christ.  Lust cannot be rationalized.  It should not be rationalized.  To even contemplate that it can invites us down a path that leads us away from God.  Mind you, I'm not an absolutist by any measure... I fully understand what Pope Francis said several weeks ago when he was teaching seminarians and young priests that they needed to recognize that our lives (the lives of those whom they are called to shepherd) are lived "in the middle."  That gray area between right and wrong.  I'm always teaching my adult candidates and catechumens that my job as a catechist is to give you the tools to help you "navigate the gray."  We know what's right, we know what's wrong.  But our lives are not black and white.

God meets us where we're at, and we're given the opportunity to follow.  Similarly, however, the Devil meets us where we're at, and tries to lead us down his path.  And our society has so many options to meet the devil and have him lead us astray.  I'm not saying you shouldn't buy a Jaguar or other luxury cars or other luxury items if you can afford them.  But I am reminding everyone that they need to keep everything in perspective.  If you're lusting for a luxury car... you need to check that lust at the confessional door.  There are so many other things that are more important.  All our actions, both in the secular world and in our religious lives need to reflect the priorities that Christ taught us:  Love one another.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

This Sunday we close our Liturgical Year with the Solemnity of Christ the King.  I can think of no better time than now, especially after such a divisive election season, for us to remember that it is only in Jesus Christ to whom we owe our allegiance.  This celebration was created in response to the growing nationalism and secularism of the early 20th century.  It was Pope Pius XI who instituted this feast in his 1925 encyclical letter Quas Primas.  At the time the world was still recovering from the first World War while revolutions in Russia, China, and Spain were sparking continued unrest.  All over the world citizens were calling into question the their models of governance and economics.  It would seem today the world is in similar turmoil, calling us once again to recognize that above all else, we serve Christ.

2 Samuel 5:1-3
Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
Colossians 1-12-20
Luke 23:35-43

Our first reading from 2 Samuel where we hear of Israel’s anointing of David as their king.  As we read this particular passage in the context of Christ the King, our focus shouldn’t be so much on David as is it should be on the connection of Jesus to the House of David.  The prophecy has been that the deliverer, the messiah, would come from the house of David.  This connection then makes Jesus a legitimate heir to the throne and brings God’s promise full circle.  This emphasis on the “House” of David is mirrored in our Psalm as we sing “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.”

That vision of kingship continues with our second reading as Paul explains to the Colossians an understanding of sacred authority.  The people of that early church struggled with the idea of “who was in charge.”  It’s an issue we face regularly in our human experience.  Rather than claim himself, or any of the Apostles as leaders of the Church, Paul refocuses our attention to the fact that it is Jesus to whom we owe our allegiance… it is Jesus whom we follow as our one and only king.

We turn then to our  Gospel which will be our final visit from Luke for some time.  In this Sunday’s passage he gives witness to Jesus on the cross.  Hardly an image of kingship.  It is in that moment we are reminded his Heavenly throne came at a cost, but was through his suffering, death, and resurrection that God gave Jesus dominion over the earth (and indeed the Universe).

Final thoughts:
The early 20th century brought with it both great advances and great turmoil.  The industrial revolution shifted the world’s economy from agriculture to industry, bringing with it both horrendous working conditions and marvelous advances in international trade and travel.  I look at those times and reflect on how our early 21st century shares a lot in common.  The birth of the digital age brings with it many of the opportunities and pitfalls of the industrial age.  Today’s division between rich and poor are driving populist and nationalistic movements not unlike those seen 100 years ago.

I think Pope Francis, in his wisdom, saw much of this turmoil growing, so to help re-center the people of God, he declared the Jubilee Year of Mercy as a reminder that we need to approach each other as Jesus would: with love, mercy, and forgiveness.  And now that the Jubilee year is coming to a close, and those special pilgrimage churches will be closing their Jubilee doors, this celebration of Christ the King serves as an important reminder to continue in that mission of mercy as we recognize Christ as the one true King.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

As we near the end of our Liturgical year, our readings take us to “the end of days.”  Jesus is in Jerusalem and he knows the end is near.  Our readings this week remind us that even in the face of adversity we must persevere if we are to gain eternal life:

Malachi 3:19-20a
Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
Luke 21:5-19

We open with a reading from the prophet Malachi, who’s name literally means “my messenger” in Hebrew because the author feared retribution.  In this short passage the prophet gives us a view of post Exile Jerusalem, dating to around 445 BCE (around the same time as the Prophet Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem).  Here the prophet warns what will become of “evildoers” while there will be justice for those who “fear the Lord”.  This was a time of great spiritual upheaval in Jerusalem.  God loves his people, but the prophet finds that love is not being reciprocated.  It’s been almost 100 years since the joyful return from Exile, and the populace has forgotten what it means to “serve the Lord.”  Malachi message is a harsh reminder of what can happen when one turns away from God.  Our Psalm offers support to those struggling to keep true to God as we sing, “The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.”  That even in the face of adversity, our loyalty to the Lord will not go unrewarded.

Our second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians explains how everyone should earn their keep, using their own time with them as an example.  Though not directly tied to our theme, the idea of justice still rings true here:  there’s no such thing as a free ride.  A community depends on everyone doing their fair share with all due civility toward each other.  Paul finds that he must remind some of those in Thessalonica that they would do better attending to their own chores rather than minding the business of others.

Our gospel from Luke then gives us a rather pessimistic (but all too true) picture of what is to come.  Picking up the narrative a short time after last week’s gospel (with Jesus being questioned by the Sadducees about the resurrection) we have Jesus standing with a group of people as they admire the richness of the decor of the Temple.  Jesus then turns and says that “all you see here” will be destroyed.  It’s a dire warning describing dire times to come.  His warning is a cautionary tale, both for his contemporaries and for all subsequent ages.  We know that at the time of the writing of this Gospel that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is a matter of history, so this story serves to reinforce the truth Jesus spoke at the time.  But stories like this, similar to those from the book of Revelation, are meant to tell the people that while all signs point to hard times ahead, eternal salvation still remains for those who stay true to the Lord.  And while these authors were focusing on specific moments in history (the fall of Jerusalem, the fall of Rome), these stories also speak to a much larger reality:  That none of this will last forever.  The people in our gospel were marveling at the beauty of the stones in the Temple, but Jesus was reminding them that none of this would last forever.  That even the mighty stones of the Temple would be thrown down.  Everything we build here on earth will eventually be torn down, be it through gentrification, civil unrest, terrorism, natural disaster, or the decay brought on through the passage of time.  Even our very lives here on earth are temporary, and there will be times when our loyalty to the Lord will be tested.  But this isn’t meant to frighten us so much as it is meant to give us hope.  Jesus says, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives, ”  reflecting what we heard from the prophet Malachi as he said “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” for those who follow the Lord.

Final thoughts:

It never fails… whenever there is some kind of trouble in the world there will always the prophets of doom to tell us these events are a sign of the “end times.”  And some of them can be pretty convincing, often praying on our ignorance of scripture and our natural fear responses to convince us to give ourselves (and our money) over to their ministry, all in the name of Christ, of course.  Mind you, these wayward brothers and sisters learned from the best, as our own Catholic tradition once used this same sort of fear as a method of conversion and obedience.  To those critics I like to call their attention to 1 Corinthians 13:11

“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things."

I like to think that our Catholic faith tradition has grown past the gospel of fear and embraced the reality of God’s love and mercy.  We’ve learned to read and understand the scriptures.  We’ve seen empires rise and fall yet the Holy Spirit still holds us together.  We seen history seeming to repeat itself over and over with growing devastation yet we can still count on God’s love when we turn to him and live our lives as Christ taught us.  But while we’re no longer ruled by fear, we still need to keep ourselves spiritually prepared for hard times when they come, but if we stay true to the Lord, he will see us through and grant us eternal justice.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

The afterlife.  The Apostles Creed teaches that we believe “in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”  The Nicene Creed substantiates that belief when we profess that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”  These beliefs are integral to our understanding of God and the nature of our souls, but yet we still can have some doubts.  Our readings this week help us to lay some of those doubts to rest:

2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
Luke 20:27-38 or Luke 20:27, 34-38

Our first reading is a from 2 Maccabees, a book written about 100-150 years before Christ.  This week’s passage tells the story of a Hebrew family being tortured and killed by their Greek Seleucid overlords.  The reading shows their valiant desire to keep God’s law, which in itself is noble, But that’s not the point of the story.  Yes, being willing to die for one’s faith is a powerful story of courage amid adversity, but what is it that helps them to find that strength?  According  to the text, it is the promise of resurrection… that there is a better life awaiting us after this one.  Our Psalm reflects the adversity faced by this family at the hands of their tormentors, yet their trust the Lord will hear their cry as we sing, “Lord, when you r glory appears, my joy will be full.”

Our gospel from Luke continues with this subject of the afterlife.  For the past few months we’ve been traveling with Jesus as he makes his long journey to Jerusalem (and his eventual crucifixion).  In our story this week, Jesus has finally reached the city of Jerusalem where the various factions have lined up against him and have been actively engaging him in an effort to find fault in his teaching.  In this week’s gospel it’s the Sadducees who confront Jesus wherein they try to debate him into a corner on his teachings of the afterlife (a premise not accepted by them, in contrast to the Pharisees).  Although it seems like Jesus is ducking the question, he is in fact confirming two solid beliefs… First, that God is a god of the living, not the dead, and therefore we must have life after death.  Second, that life after death is so radically different that the rules that bind us on earth simply don’t apply.

To round out our readings we continuing our journey through Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians.  Here Paul acknowledges that the parousia so anxiously awaited for has been delayed, and as such we need to continue to persevere in our Christian life.  The community has been struggling due to some false teachings they received about the “end times,” which Paul is now trying to correct.  He encourages them to find strength in the Lord which will help them guard against the evil one, and that the Lord will direct their hearts.

Final thoughts:

Our belief in the afterlife was not something that came in an instantaneous revelation.  Rather, it was an understanding that grew and evolved over time as our relationship with God grew and evolved.  Many of the great prophets eluded to the concept of life after death, but it wasn’t until the writing of the book of Maccabees that we see an established understanding of the resurrection.  In fact, by the time of Jesus, not all the different Jewish factions held this belief, and even today there are many who doubt that there is anything that awaits us after our life on earth.

We Catholics, however, have come to the understanding that our lives are much more than our corporal existence on earth.  A belief that is made clear by Jesus in the Gospels.  That the immortality of our souls has us joining with the communion of saints.  Yet like the Sadducees Jesus was conversing with in this week’s Gospel, we have a tendency to see God through the lens of our human limitations.  On the contrary, God is infinitely more than we can possibly imagine, and since we, his creations, are made in his image and likeness, we too can look forward to life everlasting.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Justification.  What does that mean… in a Catholic sense?  According to the Oxford dictionary, it is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.”  In other words, to be seen as being right (or justified) by God.  How do we do right by God?  Some people have some definite opinions when it comes what they think is considered doing right by God.  Still others say that our mere faith in Christ justifies us before the Lord.  As always, let’s see what our readings have to say on this topic:

Wisdom 11:22-12:2
Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10

Our first reading comes from the Book of Wisdom.  Similar to the Book of Sirach (which we heard last week), the Book of Wisdom is newer (dating to about 50 BCE), and comes from the Jewish community in Alexandria instead of Jerusalem.  What makes Wisdom stand apart from Sirach, however, is its perspective as from a people who are being oppressed.  Within the 100 years between the writing of Sirach and Wisdom, the geo/political winds had changed, with the Greek Empire in collapse giving way to the rise of the Romans, and setting up the conflicts that eventually blossom in the New Testament.  During the writing of the Book of Wisdom, the Jewish people in Alexandria are suffering, a feeling to which early Christians can easily relate.  From this standing as a people feeling persecuted, it’s easy to understand their need to reach out to God, and the Book of Wisdom delivers.  Our passage this week shows the depth of God’s love for his people and his creation.  By this passage, it would not be unreasonable to say that our mere existence, as God’s creation, is enough to be justified.  That does not mean however, that we are without fault.  Even so, because we are God’s own, he is patient with us, giving us time to turn away from sin and return to Him.  The joy we feel at God’s willingness to take us back is echoed in our Psalm as we sing “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”

Our second reading begins a three week study of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Though not intentionally related to our theme, this opening passage has Paul reminding us that we should not be “shaken or alarmed” with regard to the second coming of Christ.  The community in Thessalonica is concerned about news they have heard and read from those not associated with Paul or the other Apostles.  This is not unlike the fear stoked by many others today with their predictions of the end times and the rapture.  As Catholics, we embrace the coming of Jesus.  We don’t fear it.  This is the message that Paul wants to convey to the Thessalonians… that through our faith, we are justified.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are justified.  Those doing their best to live as Jesus taught have nothing to fear, because as the Book of Wisdom has taught us, God’s “imperishable spirit is in all things, ”and can “loath nothing” that He has made.

Our Gospel this week is another story unique to Luke.  You may recall last week’s Gospel where we heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Many of Jesus’ detractors often criticized the company he kept, spending time with what they considered the dregs of society (tax collections, prostitutes, the sick) who in their eyes are unworthy of his attention.  Jesus, however, recognized that these people too are justified in the Lord, and if anything  are in more need of this “good news” than others.  The story of Zaccheaus in this week’s Gospel is just such a story.  Zaccheaus was the Chief Tax Collector and a wealthy man.  If that were not enough to alienate him from the rest of the people, we are also told that he was “short of stature.”  Yet something within him made him eager to see Jesus as he was traveling through town.  In order to get a better view, he climbs a tree.  Jesus, in seeing this, stops, recognizes him, and invites himself to stay with him.  The crowd grumbled about this, seeing Zaccheaus as unworthy of this honor, yet Jesus sees this as an opportunity to reclaim one more lost sheep… an opportunity that leads to his salvation.

Final thoughts:
So… who among us is justified in the eyes of the Lord?  Our readings would seem to indicate that we are all justified before God for the shear fact that we were created by God.  But is that enough?  No.  Like the perfect parent, God stands ready to forgive his children, but that forgiveness can only be offered to those who ask… those willing to turn back to the Lord, recognize him, and seek to do better.  Just like the Pharisees, however, our society will often judge certain classes of people as being unworthy of this great gift.  But Jesus goes out of his way to remind us that even those who might seem unredeemable are in fact those who are in most need of hearing what he has to say.  For you see, Jesus teaches us that no one is to be marginalized, for we are all created by God, infused with the Spirit of God, and all worthy of redemption.  All they need do is ask.  All we need to do is give them that chance.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Are young men today being marginalized?

This week's Angeles has a great article by Bishop Robert Barron:

In this article he sees some trouble with our "you-go-girl" culture.  Without marginalizing how our culture is encouraging young women to "do it for themselves," is it possible we're marginalizing our young men?  Please read this this article and see what you think...

My mother was a strong woman.  As a member of the Silent Generation, she was sandwiched in between the Greatest Generation who fought WWII, and the Baby Boomer Generation who fought the social revolution.  Actually, as an "in-betweener" myself, I can relate to her situation, sandwiched in between those same Baby Boomers who seem to rule the world, and the Millennial Generation who are taking over the world, leaving us Generation X'ers in a social void.  But I digress...

My mother was somewhat ahead of her time.  Outgoing and single when being outgoing and single wasn't appropriate for a young woman.  When her father became too ill to work due to heart disease she quit college and went to work... but not just any job, as a secretary in that boys club called Wall Street.  She and my father didn't get married until they were 27... very late by 1960 standards.  And even after their marriage her personal strength played out as my father, a merchant marine engineer, was often away at work for months at a time (bringing new meaning to the phrase, "wait until your father gets home") leaving a household and eventually 5 children to tend on her own while he was away.

Needless to say, being raised by a strong, progressive woman gave me a unique perspective on women that many of my peers didn't have.  And being the second eldest son, much of the work around the house that a father would normally do would fall into my lap, as would helping to care for younger siblings as I got older.  Changing diapers was nothing new for me when my own children were born.  Doing the cooking, the laundry, the dishes, the household cleaning were all second nature for me.  Between my mother and the Boy Scouts, my development of these and many other life skills played into my own craving for self-sufficiency and being able to take care of myself.  Needless to say, my experience, both growing up, and in my own marriage today, seem to be outside the norm.

Bishop Barron makes some very astute observations about how young men today are feeling marginalized by these media stereotypes.  Need proof?  Just look at any Disney princess movie.  Where are their fathers?  There are only two choices… either they’re dead or they’re helpless buffoons.  It’s great to show that girls know how to get it done, but as a middle-class white male, I also feel somewhat offended by this portrayal of men as being unable to take care of themselves (or being dead), or worse, being portrayed as the worst version of male privilege (I’m looking at you, Gaston!)

It is an unfortunate reality that many young people, both yesterday and today, are not taught a full course load of basic life skills.  The old stereotype of a first year college student not knowing how to do laundry, or not knowing how to cook a basic meal.  And the media, from TV sit-coms to feature films, from the dawn of their day through to today, still mine these tired stereotypes for comedy.  Years ago this could be directly attributed to defined socio-economic rolls in society, but why does this happen today in our supposedly enlightened society?

First, we have to recognize that the pull of these old social stereotypes still exist, especially in our immigrant cultures.  Add to this the more modern phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” and self-esteem education we have a recipe for building an entire generation bereft of domestic and self sufficiency skills… particularly among boys.  They go from being pampered by mom, then by their girl friend, then back to mom, and onto other female relationships that essentially have them going from one care-giver to another well beyond the time where they should be caring for themselves (which should be by age 12 if you’re doing it right).  So is it any wonder that our young men are feeling less than adequate?

So how do we fix this?  Bishop Barron is quite right when he suggests that we need to throw in an “at-a-boy” just as much as we should encourage our girls… but it has to go farther than that if we are going to break the chains of perceived gender roles and roll back the schools of “modern parenting” if we are to teach these young men how to manage on their own… to teach them the skills they need to take care of themselves and provide them the opportunities to exercise those skills.

There is no question that today’s young men must bear the consequences of male privilege that have prevailed throughout all of recorded history.  It’s no wonder they’re feeling less than stellar about their current situation.  But as they say, the first step to recovery is to first recognize the problem.  And while today’s young men may not be the perpetrators of male privilege, they must first recognize that this has been the long standing situation, and how that situation has lead to some social injustice.  Education is the key to understanding this and provides the foundation for supporting a change in the status quo.

The next thing to getting past this malaise is for them to have confidence in themselves, as people.. as contributing members of a larger society.  More often than not, it is a lack of confidence that makes them feel less than adequate.  Here again, education, training, and building experience, both in domestic and non-domestic trades will help them see that they are capable of taking care of themselves, which leads them to be in a position to care for others.

I see this a lot with young fathers.  Many of them not only recognize the need to be involved in the car-giving of this new infant, but they genuinely want to take part.  Unfortunately many new mothers, or the mothers of new mothers, will shoo them away because “they’re not doing it right.”  In this type of environment how long do you think it will take for them to cede all child care responsibilities?  In too many cases, the women in our boy’s lives must give them the opportunity to do it themselves.

By teaching our boys (and all our children) good domestic skills, there is also one very important benefit that cannot be overlooked:  It helps them build empathy.  Empathy for those whose job it is to care for others:  From hotel maids, to restaurant servers, to car mechanics, to gardeners, to school teachers, to coaches… the list just goes on and on.  Without empathy we can all too readily marginalize others, which Is not what God intended.  Instead, God felt it important enough that he sent Jesus to this world so he could see firsthand what our lives were like.  And it is that empathy leads us to the mercy of Christ.