The Seventh Day of Christmas

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Even though the Catholic Church year began on November 30, the first Sunday of Advent, we all live and work according to the secular calendar making this the last day of 2009.  Some of us might say “good riddance”, and rightly so.

The New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day tradition in the US is to look back on “the year that was”.  We’ll hear the best songs of 2009 on the radio and TV will bombard us with “best of” and “worst of” lists of every imaginable kind.  Today and tomorrow might be a good time to compile our own “best” and “worst” lists for 2009.  Then we can make our plans for the new year.

How can we avoid the “worsts” in 2010 and how can we improve on the “bests”?  It’s certainly a worthwhile exercise as long as we remember one thing.  The first step of any improvement plan is to include God in the planning and in the execution.  No matter how many lists we make, or how many self-help books we read, if God isn’t included we’re unlikely to succeed.

So, to you and yours, a heartfelt prayer that 2010 may be the best year of your life to be followed by many more that are even better. See you next year!

Happy New Year!

The Sixth Day of Christmas

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Today’s reflection is a little bit different, but I thought it was worth bringing up.  Today’s Gospel contains an interesting statement, especially for Catholics.  Luke writes:

There was a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.

We believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin.  Remember that in Matthew’s Gospel earlier this month he wrote:  “He had no relations with her until she bore a son.”   Some would say that this passage means that she did have relations after “she bore a son”, which is a convenient but inaccurate understanding of the word until.

Anna lived as a widow “until she was eighty-four.”  Logic and common sense tell us that Anna died at eighty-four, not that she remarried at eighty-five.

Often the words of scripture require interpretation.  We have to look at the use of certain words in Biblical times, even going back to the original Greek and Hebrew for clarification.  For those of us who aren’t skilled at foreign languages, we can still look at the customs of the day or just plain old common sense to understand what God is telling us through His inspired Word.

“Until” tomorrow, have a blessed day.  [Hmm, I wonder if that means that I hope tomorrow isn’t a blessed day.  I’m just sayin’…..]

The Fifth Day of Christmas

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On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…….five golden rings.

True ministry goes far beyond the giving of gifts.  It requires the giving of self.  That is the way of Him who did not cling to his priveleges, but emptied himself to share our struggles.  When God’s way becomes known to us, and practiced by us, hope emerges….

Henri Nowen, Gracias!  A Latin American Journal

What he’s talking about here is real hope, hope in the Lord.  Not the cheap, empty, political hope that politicians promise as a means of winning elections.  This is the sure hope of a life in paradise after an earthly life following the teachings of Christ.

As the secular world stumbles forward believing that Christmas is over, we continue to revel in the true hope promised by the Son of God.

The Holy Innocents

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Imagine a political leader so self-absorbed yet so insecure that he chooses to kill all the babies in his kingdom to ensure that he kills the one who would be king.  That’s exactly what Herod did when he heard of the birth of the Messiah.  In spite of the fact that Jesus came to bring peace, Herod wanted Him dead.

Of course his plan failed.  Joseph fled with Mary and Joseph, not returning until he heard that Herod had died.  Sadly unknown numbers of innocent children perished in the process.  Today we celebrate all those tiny souls who were martyred.

We’re horrified at the thought of killing so many children even though we kill thousands of unborn children every day in the United States.  Maybe we should reflect today not just on the first Holy Innocents but also on the modern-day Holy Innocents, thousands of whom will be sacrificed today.

Those first Innocents were martyred to save the life of Christ, a noble purpose for sure.  Thousands of babies who will die today are martyrs to the convenience, selfishness, and uncontrolled lust of selfish moms who can’t be bothered with raising another human being.  How sad.

The Feast of the Holy Family

You may want to grab a cup of coffee.  This is a long one, or

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“And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and in favor before God and man.” Growing up a Baptist, we read this sentence as, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” from the King James version of the Bible.  I had to memorize that when I was in grade school and I still remember it.  Unfortunately it about the only Bible verse I remember from those days.  I also can’t remember where I left my car keys, but that’s another problem.

Today is (the vigil of) the Feast of the Holy Family.  In just a few hours we’ve miraculously jumped from Jesus’ birth to his twelfth year.  And when you think about it, this single line is about all we really know for sure about His growing up.  He got older.  He got smarter.  And God and the people loved Him.

So why don’t we have any detail about His growing up years?  Apparently he lost His earthly step father during that time because we never hear anything about Joseph after this.  We know Jesus worked in the carpenter shop because in those days the kids always worked in the family business..  But that’s about it.

He might have been a studious kid since he was able to amaze the teachers in the temple with His questions and His answers.  On the other hand, He was the Son of God.  He’s been here since the beginning.  Remember, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” Young Jesus may not have been studious at all.  When the teachers were talking about God, they were talking about Him.

We know that when Jesus began His ministry at the age of thirty, He walked all over the Holy Land, so He must have been in pretty good shape.  Maybe He was a child athlete.  Maybe He played soccer or whatever games they played 2,000 years ago.  He could walk on water.  That would have made Him a pretty good golfer. Or, maybe the greatest joy in his life was to be in the carpenter shop with Joseph, helping him to make furniture.  We just don’t know.

We heard this morning from the book of Sirach, and from Paul’s letter to the Collosians how families are supposed to act.  But those are general things.  Sirach speaks to us about children honoring their fathers and mother’s authority over them.  Sons are to take care of their fathers when they’re old.  I especially like the part that says, “Grieve him not as long as he lives.  Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.”  In other words, don’t make fun of Dad when he can’t find the car keys.

Paul’s letter contains a passage that still causes controversy today.  “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and avoid any bitterness toward them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.”

Some members of the female persuasion really get their dander up whenever they hear this one, but you have to take the whole passage in context.  Before the wives be subordinate part Paul tells the Collosians to “let the peace of Christ control their hearts.”  He tells them to be thankful.  He tells them to “let the Word of Christ dwell in them richly, as in all wisdom they teach and admonish one another”   He says “Over all these put on love, that is the bond of perfection.

In other words, we should be like Christ.  Every single one of us, male or female, is subordinate to Christ.  But that doesn’t mean that Christ is some kind of dictator, telling us what to do, making our decisions for us, or making us feel small.  If that were the case, then Paul’s advise would be pretty bad.  Nobody wants to be treated that way and none of us has the right to treat someone else that way.  But, as the passage ends, Paul admonishes husbands to “love their wives and avoid any bitterness toward them.”  Again, husbands, we should try to be like Christ.  He’s the Son of God, the only God/man to ever walk the earth, but there’s no record of His ever treating anyone with anything but love, even those who would finally end his earthly life.

Paul’s telling the Collosians, and us, that life is a two-way street.  In a society where women and children were treated as possessions, Paul’s words were controversial but not in the way that some people might think today.  The husband may be the head of the house, but he’s not a king or a dictator.  He is to act with love and without bitterness.  Wives aren’t slaves.  Men follow the Golden Rule.  Treat them with care.

Kids, be obedient to your parents because that makes God happy.  But fathers shouldn’t provoke their children.  Again, practice the Golden rule.  This was radical thought in the days of the Roman Emporers.

So, knowing all this, we have to assume that life around Jesus’ house must have been pretty nice.  But we still don’t know what a day in the life of the young Jesus was like.  Maybe we’re not supposed to.  We have plenty of guidelines in the scriptures.  We heard two of them today.  But for the basic, day-to-day things that go on in our homes, we’re pretty much on our own.

Let’s think about that for a second.  Every human being is unique and different.  Every family, made up of these individual creatures is even more different.  Remember the old Armour Hot Dog commercial, “Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks.  Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox?  God made us that way and He values our differences.  If we knew that Jesus was a straight A student, or that Joseph came home from work every day and read the Torah for three hours, or that Mary was the best cook in Nazareth, would that set a standard for us that we might not be able to meet?

If Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are the Holy Family, does that make the Simpsons the “unholy family”?  Or are they just different.  As dysfunctional as they might be, Homer and Marge are doing the best that they can.  Bart isn’t much of a student, but he has a good heart and tries to be better, but he is who he is.  Homer loves Marge.  There’s no doubt about that.  He may do a lot of things wrong, but there’s never any bitterness toward her.

The Flanders next door may seem like the holier family, the more perfect family, but are they really?  There does seem to be some hypocrisy in the Flanders’ holier-than-thou attitude and Homer and Bart usually see through it.  Only God knows what’s in our hearts, even if we happen to be cartoon characters.  [By the way, did you know that, by actual count, the Simpsons have had more episodes involving God, church, and morality than any show in the history of television?  It’s true.  You can look it up.]

So, maybe God has chosen not to reveal the details of Jesus growing up years so that we don’t try to be something that we’re not, so we don’t become discouraged because we don’t measure up.  Maybe Joseph was like Homer.  It couldn’t have been easy to be  the only person in the family who could sin.  Or, maybe he was like Ned.  Or maybe, probably,  he was somewhere in between.  We don’t know.  And since we don’t know, each of us can imagine that we’re the best dad, or mom, or son, or daughter that we can possibly be.  And you know what.  If we can practice what our readings tell us today, we will be.

So, as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we can also celebrate our own families.  God made each of us and He put us together in families.  Families are the basic unit of our society.  Without them, everything would come to a screeching halt.  Our secular society may make fun of families or try to convince us that a family is something that it’s not.  Movies and TV may try to tell us that traditional families are a thing of the past.  But they aren’t.  God made the world.  He made Adam.  The very next thing He did was to make Eve; not so Adam would have some one to play cards with.  He made her so that the human race would grow.  He didn’t make five or ten Eves so Adam could have a harem.  He made one woman for one man and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.”

That’s how families came to be and that hasn’t changed in all this time.  Whether it’s  Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Homer and Marge Simpson, or Mike and Jan Buckley, we’re all holy families, each in our own way.  Thanks be to God.

Saint Stephen

saint stephen

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Remember the song, Good King Wenseslaus?  It begins, “Good King Wenseslaus looked out, on the feast of Stephen.”  That would be today.  December 26, the day after Christmas.

In her wisdom, the Church has scheduled this feast on this particular day.  Yesterday we celebrated the birth of the only person ever to come down from heaven and become man.  Today we remember the first person to leave earth and go to heaven as a martyr.

Saint Stephen is particularly important to me as he was the first deacon.  The Apostles were trying to take care of everything in the new Church and they were having a hard time of it.  The Greeks were grumbling that their widows weren’t being served properly.

So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.  Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Stephen would be put to death, by order of Saul of Tarsus who would later become Saint Paul.  As they told us often in formation for the diaconate, “Stephen was doing just fine until he opened his mouth.  Then they stoned him to death.  Let that be a lesson to you.”
But the real lesson, I think, is that there’s no gain without risk.  As disciples of Christ, we have two choices.  We can remain quiet and do little to help our brothers and sisters obtain eternal life, or we can take the risk of speaking out.  It’s unlikely that we’ll be stoned to death in the twenty-first century, but we still take a chance of offending someone.  But isn’t that a risk we have to take?

Christmas 2009

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I do want to give you an update on something I told you a couple of weeks ago.  Regular parishioners know that I’m kind of militant when it comes to the secularization of our Christian traditions like replacing the greeting “Merry Christmas” with lame substitutes like the politically correct “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings”.  I got more positive comments on that homily than anything I’ve ever said.  I’m glad that so many of you agree that you’re not willing to have your traditions stripped away by a handful of anti-Christian whiners.

The other day I was walking through Dillard’s and I heard someone yell “Merry Christmas, Deacon Mike!”  It was  one of our parishioners.  I smiled the rest of the day.

[pause]

As I look out at all of you sitting here on this night, I can’t help wondering what you’re thinking about.  Some of you are here because Christmas is a holy day of obligation.  Some of you are here out of habit.  Some of you are here to keep peace in the family.  But we’re all here to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  So, what can I say, in less than half an hour,  that will somehow add to your celebration of Christmas?    It’s a humbling responsibility.

I’ve told some of you this before, but I rely on the Holy Spirit to give me something to preach about.  I pray for the right words and He always responds.  It’s easy to miss the message if I try to be too clever, or too funny, or if I try to put too much of myself into His message.  Of course, this being Christmas Eve, I wanted something special to talk to you about, but that tiny word “I” kept getting in the way.  This isn’t about me.  It’s about you and that little baby lying over there in the manger.  The baby that grows up to be that man nailed on the cross.

God works in mysterious ways and He gave my answer while I was eating breakfast Thursday morning at Waffle House. I love Waffle House.  In fact, we’ll probably go there tonight after mass.  Anyway,  I had just come from communion service so I was wearing my deacon shirt.  A customer, a total stranger,  came up to me and asked me if I’d pray for the ladies behind the counter.  He said that they work very hard and could use some prayers.  I said of course I would.  But that got me to thinking.  As you and I sit here at mass, celebrating the birth of our Savior, a lot of people are working.  Everybody doesn’t get off on Christmas.  Waffle House will be open all night.  In fact they tell me that Christmas Day is their busiest day of the year.   People who work at convenience stores, doctors and nurses, radio and TV people, a lot of them have to work to provide essential services for the rest of us.  Policemen are patrolling our neighborhoods and fire fighters and paramedics are at the station, ready to respond to an emergency.  They definitely deserve our thanks, and our prayers.  So, if you happen to come across someone today or tomorrow who is working, be sure to thank them and bless them for being there for you.

Special thanks and prayers have to go out to the men and women who aren’t just working, but who are far from home serving in the military.  It’s early morning in the middle east so those men and women have already begun their work day.  Having a National Guard base, a national cemetery, and a VA hospital right in our backyard is a constant reminder of their service and sacrifice so that you and I can be here worshiping on this winter night.

But, back to Waffle House.  As I was thinking about the people who are working tonight and tomorrow, I also thought about the customers.  I’ll bet a lot of lonely people end up at places like the House, or Denney’s, or any of the other places that never close, especially late at night.  As we sit in our warm church, surrounded by family and friends, there are a lot of people who have nowhere to go.  All  they want is a warm smile, some human companionship, and a hot cup of coffee.  It kind of reminds me of a certain young couple who were looking for a place to stay so that the wife could have her baby sheltered from the night.

C’mon, deacon.  Are you saying that Waffle House is like the manger?  Are you comparing the birth of the Lord to eggs and hash browns?

In a way, yes.  Tonight while you and I are nestled all snug in our beds with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, thousands of our fellow human beings will be serving as the inn keeper, giving shelter and companionship to lonely people all over the world.  Isn’t that what this night is all about?  Jesus could have come on a golden chariot surrounded by angels singing a magnificent song.  But He didn’t.  He came into the world the same way you and I did, born of a woman.  The Son of God, the Word made flesh, came as a tiny baby, born on a pile of straw in a cow barn.  He gave up His place in heaven for thirty-three years because He loves you and me.  How awesome is that?  He suffered the indignity of being born in a stable, working in a carpenter shop, and then dying a cruel death, just for us.  Yet, all that awsomeness came to us in the form of a tiny baby and hardly anyone even noticed.

The world was in a mess.  We needed help.  But instead of sending His adult Son, ready to preach the Gospel, He decided to wait thirty years while the baby grew up and became a man, experiencing all the same things that every human experiences.  Why would He do that?  If you want me to tell you, you’ll have to come back this weekend for the Feast of the Holy Family.

For now I’ll just say that Christmas is a joyous time, a spiritual time, and a time to get together with family and friends.  At least it’s supposed to be.  It doesn’t happen that way all the time for everybody.  Sometimes work, military obligations, obligations to spouses’ families, sickness, and even death keep us apart.  But that shouldn’t dampen our holiday spirit.  By showing up in Bethlehem on that Holy night, Jesus showed us that there’s someone we can ALWAYS rely on; someone who never lets us down.  He’s there for us no matter what.

Besides, this sentimental Irishman believes that there will be miracles happening tonight, even at places like Waffle House.

I’d like to close with an Irish Christmas blessing:

The light of the Christmas star to you

The warmth of home and hearth to you

The cheer and good will of friends to you

The hope of a childlike heart to you

The joy of a thousand angels to you

The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.

Merry Christmas