Merry Christmas

You’d think that it would be easy to preach on Christmas. After all, the Church does a lot of things very well, but we don’t do anything better than we do Christmas. On this day we do all the things that people expect from the Church. We have bells, and incense, and lots of candles. We have special music and larger crowds than on any other day of the year. If a stranger would walk in here today he or she would know that something pretty special is going on. The homily should be a piece of cake.

But one thing you have to realize is that we really have three different groups of people here today. One, we have our “regulars”. You’re the people who come to Saint John’s week after week. You know me. Hopefully you know where I stand on things. You’re the ones that are easy to talk to.

Second, we have family and friends who normally attend mass at another church but you come here on Christmas because of your family tradition, because you consider this a special, holy place. For you my task is to make you glad you came and maybe to convince you to come back more often. That’s a little bit more of a challenge.

Then there’s the third group, the 600 pound gorilla that no one wants to talk about. You’re the ones who only come to mass once or twice a year. Hopefully I can give you a message that makes you want to kick your Catholicism up a notch; to become more active in your faith.

So, what should I talk about? I thought about it and prayed about it, then the Holy Spirit said to me, “Hey dummy, why not ask someone who’s coming what they want to hear.” That’s what I did. The answer I got was eye opening. She said, “Talk to us about our lives. Tell us what all this means to us.”

You know, when you live in “church world” like I do, it’s very easy to get caught up in theology. It’s also tempting to show off what I know about the technical parts of the faith.   But on this day, when we celebrate the birth of our Savior, you don’t want to hear that stuff. After all, God didn’t send us a scholar, or a theologian, or a liturgist, He sent us His Son. He sent Jesus to be born as an ordinary human infant in the poorest of circumstances. When He began His public ministry, Jesus’ message was simplicity itself. “Love God. Love your neighbor. Do what I tell you and you will be saved.” He left the details up to us. He didn’t tell us to follow Him one day a year. He calls us to share the joy of Christmas every single day.

At Christmas time we’re bombarded with requests for help. It seems like the phone at home never stops ringing. The local paper reminds us every day of the “100 neediest cases.” There are bell ringers everywhere. That’s because charitable organizations know that we’re more generous this time of year. But Jesus doesn’t call us to love our neighbor every December. He calls us to love our neighbor every single day of the year.

It’s not easy. We live in a very secular world and frankly, that world is a mess. Here in Saint Louis, we’ve just had another officer-involved shooting and more protests, even on Christmas eve. In just a few short months, the tiny town of Ferguson has become a household word, not just locally, but around the world. Other words in the news, North Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan all remind us of how unstable our world really is. Yet here we are, in this church in South Saint Louis, joining with millions of Christians around the world, celebrating the birth on one little child, more than 2,000 years ago. That says a lot about us.

In the midst of the greed-fest that the secular world has attached to this day, we’re taking time to remember the one who can save us from our sins. If there is ever going to be peace on earth, it begins here. As the prayer of Saint Francis says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Our challenge is to take the feelings we associate with Christmas and keep them going every day. That’s what Christmas means to each of us. That’s how it should affect our lives.

There has been a Catholic church on this corner of 11th and Lafayette for 160 years. Generations of people have sat where you’re sitting, coming together to worship and to praise God, not just on Christmas, but throughout the year. In it’s heyday, this church was the largest parish in the Archdiocese. But times have changed. Our lives are full of distractions and temptations. Many former parishioners have moved away. Today just one in three Catholics attend mass regularly. If you only attend Saint John’s on Christmas, and maybe Easter, you may think that the chapel is full like this every week. Sadly, if you come back in a few weeks, you’ll find that there are maybe 30 to 40 people at a mass.

In this troubled world, it’s almost impossible to continue this “feeling of Christmas” without attending mass regularly. One of Christ’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of His Body and Blood. Many of us take great care of our bodies, some better than others. We visit the doctor. We take vitamins. We exercise. We try to watch what we eat. Most of us get annual flu shots. That’s just common sense.

But how well do we care for our spiritual selves? The Eucharist is our spiritual vitamin. By ingesting the very Body and Blood of Jesus, we recharge our souls giving us the strength to resist temptation. You might say it’s a spiritual flu shot. Another way to strengthen our spiritual selves is through prayer. Catholics are known to be praying people. We learned the main Catholic prayers, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and others when we were children. Here at Saint John’s we have a special devotion to the Infant of Prague. We pray to Him after every mass, as we will today. I’m convinced that these prayers to the Infant whose birth we celebrate today have sustained this community through many trials and tribulations.

Blessed Father Cyril heard the Infant say that “if you pray to me, I’ll take care of you.”   There are cards in the pews containing Father Cyril’s prayer. Normally we ask you to leave them, but today I’m inviting you to take one home with you and get into the habit of saying the prayer daily. I promise you won’t be disappointed in the results.

To close, I’d like to go back to the original question, “How does the birth of Christ impact our daily lives?” God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to save us from ourselves. The Son left us with very simple instructions. “Love God. Love your neighbor.” How you demonstrate that love is up to you. It sounds simple, but in practice it can be very difficult. Face it, some of us aren’t very loveable. It’s easy to love those who love us. The hard part, the real challenge is to love those who don’t love us or maybe even hate us. That’s what Jesus did. If we love Him, can we do any less; not just today, but every day of the year?

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4th Sunday of Advent

In our first reading today, the Lord gives Nathan a fairly long message to deliver to David.  He makes David a series of promises ending with “your throne shall stand firm forever.”  Remember, this is the same David who had one of his men killed so he could have the man’s wife for himself.  David’s closet was full of skeletons.  But here’s God telling him that he’s going to be a mighty king and that his kingdom will last forever.

 

Even in David’s time, everybody knew that no kingdom could last forever.  It’s still true today.  But the Lord wasn’t talking about an earthly kingdom.

 

Fast forward to today’s Gospel, Luke’s famous telling of the Annunciation.  It’s a beautiful story and one we’ve all heard many times.  Right in the middle of the story the angel tells Mary “the Lord God will give him (meaning Mary’s unborn Son) the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

There it is again; “The promise of a never-ending kingdom”.  We know today that the angel is talking about a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one.  Poor Mary doesn’t know what to think.  Her response is, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

 

I want to stop here for just a minute.  When I was first in formation for the diaconate, about fifteen years ago, I went to a two-day workshop on the Gospel of Luke.  The speaker was Father Eugene La Verdier, an expert of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke.  He spent the entire first morning talking to us about this Gospel passage.

 

Obviously I can’t tell you everything he said, but the gist of it was this.  Everything about Mary was small.  She lived in a very small town, Nazareth which was part of a very small province called Galilee.  To the people of Jesus’ time, Nazareth was kind of a back-water place, definitely not the kind of place that would give birth to the Messiah.

 

Then there’s Mary herself.  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s still a virgin.  In Mary’s society women were definitely second class citizens.  But married women at least had the prestige of their husbands.  Unmarried women were the lowest rung on the social ladder.  Aside from the biology of the thing, the idea of a young, single woman, a nobody in the Jewish society of that time, giving birth to such a mighty king was unprecedented.  “How can this be since I’m no more important than a good donkey or camel?”

 

Remember that Mary was engaged to Joseph.  Surely she intended to have children.  The idea that one of them might become a king was far-fetched but not impossible.  Her response only makes sense if we look at it as a sign of humility. “How can someone as lowly as me give birth to a king?”

What I’m suggesting to you is this.  The Son of God was born of a woman; an unmarried woman from a small, insignificant place.  The idea that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God was outrageous.   But Mary was chosen by God.  Jesus was the only person in history to have chosen His own mother.  He didn’t choose someone wealthy.  He didn’t choose someone powerful.  He didn’t choose a queen.  Any of those choices would have made it much easier for Him to perform His ministry.

 

He chose Mary.  He chose Mary to show you and me that with God anything is possible.  He chose her to give us encouragement.  If this lowly girl could be His mother, then you and I shouldn’t be afraid to tackle anything.  He chose her to show us how we should respond to God’s call just as he chose David to be a mighty king in spite of his past sins.

 

You and I may think we can never change the world. We’re just not important enough. Or maybe we think we’re too sinful. But the stories of David and Mary prove that we’re wrong. In just a few days we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior. It’s not just a day revolving around gifts and food. It’s a day to remember that Jesus was born for us; to save us from our sins. It’s a day to ponder our part in salvation history. What can I do to repay such a remarkable gift? What does God have in mind for me. It’s a day for us, just like Mary, to say, “Let it be done to me according to your will.”

 

Time and again you have shown your generosity to others. Your response to our Christmas gift drive was outstanding. As you celebrate your own Christmas, take a moment to remember that some poor child is having a merrier Christmas because of your donated gifts.

 

After mass today (tomorrow) we’ll decorate the church for Christmas. We’ll have more poinsettias than ever before thanks to the generosity of our members who donated to our flower fund. Our Christmas visitors will be very impressed.

 

During the year you’ve helped with other collections for those less fortunate than we are. We may be a small community, but together we get things done. That’s what discipleship is all about. In the coming year, I hope that we can all work together to spread the Gospel to more people. There are plans in the works to build our attendance and to increase our revenue. Saint John Nepomuk Chapel has a special place in the hearts of people all over Saint Louis and throughout the nation and the world. We recently received a check from a lady from Florida, a non-Catholic lady by the way, who heard about our broken window and wanted to help.

 

There’s a Czech organization in Cleveland that sends us a check every year for Christmas. We regularly have visitors from other cities who attend mass here. You may not be aware that we often give tours to out-of-town groups visiting Saint Louis.

You and I are part of God’s plan. He has something He wants each of us to do. It’s up to us to respond, like Mary. In a few minutes we’ll all say together, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

 

1st Sunday of Advent

Today we begin the holy season of Advent, the beginning of the Church year. It’s a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord. It’s a time of waiting and watching for the coming of our Savior. It’s should be a time of prayer. Unfortunately we live in a world that doesn’t always let us do what we know in our hearts we should do.

 

Businesses urge us to spend, spend, spend; to shop ‘til we drop. Our friends, families, and employers all want to fill our calendars with parties and other gatherings. For many of us who have secular jobs, the end of the calendar year can be the busiest time of all. Where are we supposed to find the time to pray? Where are we supposed to find the time to reflect on the meaning of this holy season? What are our priorities?

 

Modern society tells us to be rugged individuals. We can do anything. President Obama’s campaign slogan was “yes, we can.” Nike tells us “Just do it!” Over the past few days we’ve seen countless images of people who feel that it’s their right to just take what they want and to damage others’ property. Someone, for whatever reason, thought it was OK to vandalize our church. Sometimes, it just seems so hopeless. What are we supposed to do.

 

Well, the season of Advent calls us to prepare; to get ready for a savior. What does that mean? It means that we can’t save ourselves. We need someone to save us from our sins. We can’t do it alone. As Father Robert Barron says, “Our greatest challenge this Advent is to realize just how much we need Jesus.” If we’re not aware of how much we need a savior, how can we really prepare?

 

In the first reading the prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, O Lord, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.” This was the mindset of the people before the coming of Christ. They KNEW they needed a Savior and couldn’t wait for Him to get here. Isaiah goes on and reminds us that even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have withered like leaves and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” We can’t buy our way into heaven by doing good deeds.

 

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May He not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’.

 

Maybe that one word, “watch” should be our mantra for the next four weeks. Watch for the coming of Christ. Watch your own thoughts and actions. Are they what Jesus would want you to do? Watch out for your family and friends. Are they preparing for His coming, or are they so caught up in the secular aspects of the Christmas season that they’ve forgotten the “reason for the season”? You do realize that that’s not just a catchy phrase?

 

For Advent we decorate the church in the color purple. It’s not a happy color. It’s not a joyful color. It’s a color for introspection. It’s a color for meditation. It’s a color of peace. It’s here to remind us that “ordinary time” is over. This is a special season. It’s not business as usual.

 

It’s kind of ironic that all the unrest happening in our city is happening during this holy time. There are a lot of angry, frustrated, and confused people here in Saint Louis and in other cities. Even though most of us are not involved with the situation in Ferguson, even though to many of us it seems like it’s very far away, we all have feelings about what’s happening. What you personally feel is between you and God. Maybe it’s good that this is happening at this particular time. By focusing on the message of Advent, maybe we’ll all be more inclined to be patient and forgiving.

 

Remember that there are two things going on in Ferguson and elsewhere. First, there are people who are genuinely concerned about the relationship between themselves and law enforcement. We’re all descended from immigrants and many of our ancestors were subject to the same fears as people of color are today. Where you and I may see a police car and be grateful that they’re here to protect us, I know my Irish ancestors didn’t share that feeling. The term “paddy wagon” was coined because that’s what the police used to round up the Irish.

 

Saint John Nepomuk church was built here on Bohemian Hill because the residents of the city in the nineteenth century didn’t want “foreigners” in their neighborhoods. That’s why there’s such a concentration of ethnic churches here on the south side. Fear is a strong emotion and it causes people to do things that they might not normally do. While we don’t share that fear with our African American brothers and sisters, it’s important that we try to understand it.

 

The second thing that’s happening is criminal activity. Looting and burning businesses has nothing to do with fear. It’s all about greed and opportunism. In fact, these thieves and vandals apparently don’t fear law enforcement. They just want free stuff. Their actions do nothing to further the cause of peace and justice. They just make it worse. It’s important for the rest of us to recognize the difference between the two groups and not lump them all together.

 

I’ve put a memo in the bulletin this week from Archbishop Carlson. I hope you take time to read it. We should all be proud that our Archbishop seems to be one of the only voices of reason among our local clergy. Tuesday night while Ferguson was burning, the Archbishop was leading a prayer service at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish. For some reason, the local media seemed to ignore what was happening there, probably because a reasonable man, speaking from the heart about the issues that divide us doesn’t make for exciting TV, especially when just a few blocks away there was so much more action.

 

It’s too bad that most people didn’t get a chance to hear his remarks, because, frankly, they made me proud to be Catholic. Among the things he said was this, “Violence destroys what it claims to defend.” You can find the video online. I urge you to find it and watch it.

 

Discrimination is the work of Satan. Because of original sin, it’s something that’s plagued us since the beginning of time. Whether it’s Jews and Muslims, whites and blacks, or Catholics and protestants, we all seem to have a need to hate someone to make us feel better about ourselves. While our Bohemian founders were discriminated against by the so-called “native Saint Louisians” (who had been immigrants themselves just a generation earlier), the animosity between Catholic Bohemians and non-Catholic Bohemians was just as bad if not worse. Some of you may remember that it hasn’t been that long since a Catholic belonging to the Czech hall was a cause for excommunication. Today the various Muslim denominations can be bitter enemies. And don’t get me started about the “troubles” between Catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland, which is even more ironic because most of them don’t go to any church at all.

 

As we begin the Church year, I hope you’ll join me in praying for the gift of understanding just how much we need a Savior. We’re prisoners of so many things; money, prejudice, power, prestige, addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, that we desperately need a savior. Every twelve-step program begins with the realization that we’re powerless to overcome these things alone. We need a higher power and we must turn our lives over to Him.

 

That’s what Advent is all about.

O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel.