30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Every weekend the Church gives us a set of readings; usually one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, a Responsorial Psalm and a reading from one of the four Gospels. They’re considered to be a set. They all go together and, in the bigger picture, each week’s readings build on what’s gone before. There are three sets of readings, years A, B, and C. We’re about to finish up year B.

The Church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, this year on November 29 and the various readings take us through the life of Christ. It’s all very orderly, in fact the majority of the year is called “Ordinary Time” because the weeks follow one another in an orderly fashion and they’re numbered using ordinal numbers, in other words, first, second, and so on.

Father and I aren’t free to choose the readings we want to use. We may have certain favorites, but we can’t just throw them in willy-nilly, whenever we feel like it. The entire three-year cycle of readings, divinely inspired, works together to deliver God’s message, week-after-week, year after year……. assuming we’re paying attention.

With all the readings in the two big books, the Lectionary and the Book of the Gospels, sometimes a single word or two conveys an important message and if we miss those small messages we miss a lot.

Today’s Gospel is a good example. We’re all familiar with the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man. The blind man calls out for help. Jesus asks him what he wants, a rhetorical question since we know Jesus already knows what the man wants, and the man says, “Master, I want to see.”

Jesus grants the man’s wish. Another miracle performed by the Son of God. But if we just focus on the miracle, we may miss something important. We have to pay close attention to the last two sentences of the story. Jesus says, “’Go your way’ your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way.” See what happened there. Jesus told the man to go his way, but the man chose to follow Jesus.

Jesus didn’t play “Let’s make a deal”. He didn’t say He’d heal the man in exchange for his everlasting gratitude. He didn’t attach any strings to the healing. He healed the man out of unconditional love. Yet the formerly-blind man was so grateful that he chose to follow Jesus instead of going his own way.

In this week’s bulletin, the Stewardship Thought for the Week talks about miracles. It says, “Many people think that miracles don’t happen anymore.  But, if you focus on the positive, not the negative, focus on your blessings instead of your hardships, miracles will seem common. I absolutely believe in miracles and I hope you do too. They happen all the time. Some are big. Some are small. But they happen.

Jesus restoring the blind man’s sight was a miracle. But the fact that the blind man happened to be in the right place at the right time is also a miracle. He could have been sitting on the other side of town and would have never had the chance to approach Jesus. There wasn’t something like the Saint Louis Review that tells us every week where Archbishop Carlson and Bishop Rice are going to be during the next seven days. Jesus just kind of “showed up” just like He does today.

The man WAS blind, so it’s not like he saw Jesus coming! Just the fact that the blind man was in Jesus’ path is a miracle in itself.

I think the lesson for us today isn’t so much about miracles as it is about how we respond to our blessings. Jesus told the man to go HIS way. But the man chose to go JESUS’ way. Every one of us is blessed in countless ways. We have our life. We have our health. We live in the greatest country in the world. Each of these things is a gift from God. We don’t deserve all these blessings but we receive them anyway. Do we respond to these gifts by following Jesus, or do we choose to go our own way?

Obviously we’re all here today, so we are following Jesus for at least one hour per week. The real question is, “What do we do with the other 167 hours per week?” Do we earnestly pray for the wisdom to understand God’s will? Do we mean it when we say, “Thy will be done”?   That IS how Jesus told the Apostles, and us, to pray.

I’m going to close with a prayer. It’s one I’ve used before. It’s by Father Thomas Merton from the book “Thoughts in Solitude”. It reminds us that we’re all blind in our own way, maybe even more blind than the man in the story. If you like the prayer, there are cards like this at the entrances to the chapel. If you think the pray is too long, then maybe the blind man’s prayer is more appropriate for you: “Master, I want to see!”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in act please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen!

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time–God’s Plan

Today Jesus tells the disciples that it’s harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle—a shocking statement, especially if you happen to be rich like the young man in the story.

I think we would all agree that it’s impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Is Jesus saying that it’s impossible for a rich man to get to heaven? No, I don’t think so. I think what He’s saying is that it’s impossible for a rich man, or a poor man for that matter, to get into heaven on his own. Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions and to FOLLOW JESUS. That’s the answer.

In the first reading, the writer says, “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

I was on retreat this week. One day I was in my room working on a project and was really getting nowhere. I decided to shift gears, take a break and do something else for a while. I took a look at today’s readings. Hmmm. “I prayed and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

So I prayed. I asked God for wisdom then I picked up my pen and finished what I had been working on. It seemed to flow from nowhere. What had been impossible for me was easy for God. And I know this! It’s happens to me all the time. But I usually let my ego get into the way of asking God for help. I think I can do things on my own.

If you and I want to get into heaven, to pass through that needle’s eye, then we have to spend time in quiet prayer. God will tell us what to do if we just listen. He’s told us so over and over in the Scriptures, and I imagine all of you have experienced this in your lives.

We sometimes hear God referred to as a “Higher Power”. I think we can all agree with that, but do we act like we believe it? A friend of mine described it like this. “Higher Power” means that God is up here (hold one hand higher than the other) and we’re down here. But is that how we treat Him? Maybe we treat Him more like an assistant. We make our plan then we ask God to make it happen. (Reverse the hands.) We treat Him like He’s our equal or even our inferior. This is what I want to do. God, make it happen!

Isn’t it better to ask Him to show us His plan and to give us the grace to make it happen? Maybe His plan is better. In fact, there’s no question His plan is better. His plan is ALWAYS better. But we like to think we know more than He does.

Didn’t Jesus tell us to pray to our Father, “THY WILL BE DONE”? We say it all the time then proceed to try to do it our way. Face it. Whether we like it or not, God’s will is the only will that matters.

Last week Father Paul delivered an excellent homily, one of the best I’ve ever heard. He challenged us to avoid talking about one another behind the other person’s back. I sat over there thinking, “Way to go, Father!” “Right on!” “You tell ‘em!”

Then, before I had even left the chapel I caught myself gossiping. It wasn’t twenty minutes later! It’s very simple. I’m a flawed human being. So are you. We’re never going to make ourselves better. We need God’s help. The remarkable thing is that He will give it to us, IF WE ASK. He will make us better.

We have to do an honest evaluation of our faults. Then we have to lay those personality defects before God and ask Him to help us. I am who I am. You are who you are. God made us this way, so He can’t be too disappointed in how we turned out. We can never be afraid to go to Him and say, “Lord, help me to be the best me that I can be.”

 

The rich young man told Jesus that he followed the Ten Commandments. I think most of us do too. But that’s not enough. We need to do more and the power to do more comes from prayer.

Here at Saint John’s we’re surrounded by images of great saints. They’re here to inspire us; to give us something to emulate. But we’re not them! We shouldn’t try to be them. God made each of these saints one time. There’s no need for another. He made each of us for a reason and His wish for us is that we be the best version of ourselves we can possibly be.

That’s what we should pray for. If we humbly ask God to make us the best version of ourselves we can possibly be, then if we shut up and listen to what He tells us, then we have a chance to pass through that eye of the needle.

“I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.”

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Gospel is the famous story of Jesus and the disciples on the way to Cessarea Philippi according to Mark. Jesus asks the disciples “who do people say that I am?” They others give give Him a variety of answers but Peter says “You are the Christ.”

The story goes on that Jesus tells them He must be killed and rise again on the third day. There’s a line here that I love. “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.” Good old Peter, he’s my hero. He always manages to say and do the wrong things. Who the heck rebukes Jesus? Peter has just said that Jesus is the Christ, now he has the nerve to rebuke Him? He’s calling the Son of God a liar?

Of course Peter pays for his foolishness, just like he always does. Jesus calls him Satan. “Get behind me!” He says. I imagine that Peter knew he’d made a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. If he was Homer Simpson he would have said “Doh!” But it was too late. I think we can all relate. How often do we say things and right away we realize we’ve made a mistake. But once the words are out there, the damage has been done.

On the other hand, Jesus tells him that he’s thinking like a man and not God. But, what did Jesus expect? Peter was a man. Jesus was God. It seems reasonable that Peter would think the way he did.

If we look at Matthew’s Gospel we find the almost identical story with one difference. In Matthew’s telling of the story Jesus also calls Peter Satan. He also tells him that he’s thinking like a human being. Everything is almost exactly the same. Almost.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Jesus acknowledges the fact that Peter has been blessed with knowledge that he couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Isn’t the same thing true for us? We can read all the Scripture we want. We can listen to all the learned Christian speakers of this time and all the time before. But the idea that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, is the Messiah, the Son of God, doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical. Nothing like this ever happened before or since. Peter’s understanding comes from faith, just like our understanding comes from faith.

Jesus has built His Church on the Rock, Peter. He built it on faith. Peter wasn’t a smart man. We see throughout the Gospels that he was always messing up, saying the wrong thing. That gives you and me hope. Because, in the end, after Peter cut off the Centurian’s ear; after he denied he even knew Jesus, not once, but three times, after the resurrection He told Jesus, not once, but three times that he loved Him. And each time Peter told Jesus he loved Him, Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep. In other words, “Lead my Church.”

Week after week you and I come to church. We hear the readings and the homily. The message doesn’t change. Jesus was the Son of God. He performed miracles. He told us to love one another. But when it’s all said and done, there is no proof that He was who He said He was. We have to have faith. Like Peter, these truths are revealed to us by Jesus’ heavenly Father.

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus left us has to move within us or the Bible is just a nice story book written thousands of years ago. If that Spirit isn’t working within us, then we might as well be reading from the Book of Mother Goose.

Sometimes you have to wonder why Jesus didn’t surround Himself with the best and the brightest. Why did He choose tax collectors and fishermen? Why did He pick the Apostle who seemed the least likely to be a leader to be the head of His Church? It’s simple. He did it to give hope to you and me. If these twelve guys could build a church that would grow into the millions of members, they had to have help. And while we aren’t called to judge anyone, we have to feel pretty good about our own chances when we look at the men Jesus chose.

Through baptism and confirmation, we receive that same Holy Spirit. Every one of us is able to spread the Gospel just as well as Peter and the others did. That’s what we’re called to do every single day. All these saints that we venerate in this beautiful church did it, even though most of them were far from perfect Christians. They inspire us to do the same.

So, when we read the Scriptures, when we look at all these men and women whom the Church has declared to be saints, we’re inspired by the words and deeds of these holy people. But we also realize that we have the same opportunity to share the Gospel as they did. And, when we realize that they had the same faults and failings that we do, we have the hope that we can do what they did. We can use the talents and gifts that God has given us and be examples of faith to others.

When we’re tempted to remain silent, maybe afraid that we’re going to look foolish if we speak up, we need to remember that, even in the beginning of the Church, God chose flawed human beings to deliver His message to other flawed human beings. That’s His plan for humanity. You and I are just as much a part of that plan as Peter, or the other Apostles, or any of these saints.

What an awesome God we have! And what an awesome opportunity we have to tell the world about Him through our words and our actions!

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

We have an interesting set of readings today. In the first reading Moses tells the people “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your Fathers, is giving you.”

He goes on to tell them that if they observe the laws carefully, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the other nations. This was a tall order. The halakhah, or Jewish law, contains 613 individual laws covering every aspect of life; what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t eat, what you can and can’t wear, how to groom yourself, how to do business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and how to treat God, other people, and even animals.

The halakhah was a handbook for Jewish life and Jews were expected to observe it, as Moses tells them today. These laws are still in effect and many, but not all, Jews follow at least some of them. Whether a Jew eating a ham sandwich is destined for eternal damnation is a question that’s open to debate. But probably not, any more than you and I are going to hell for eating that same ham sandwich on a Friday during Lent.

As Christians, we believe in both Testaments, Old and New. Obviously we wouldn’t have an Old Testament reading as part of most masses if we didn’t believe it. But, look at today’s Gospel. Jesus contradicts Moses! He and His disciples didn’t follow Jewish dietary law. They were eating without purifying their hands, among other things that the scribes and Pharisees are more than anxious to point out.

Jesus responds by calling them “hypocrites”.

Jesus was a faithful Jew. He knew the Scriptures and the halakhah, all 613 laws of it. What’s the deal? What happened between Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel? What changed?

Maybe I can clear it up a little bit. When we were children we had to follow a lot of rules. We couldn’t cross the street without holding Mom or Dad’s hand. We didn’t have the experience or the maturity to make good decisions to keep from getting hurt or killed.

We had rules about when we got up and when we went to bed; when to clean our rooms and when to take a bath and brush our teeth. It’s a parent’s job to teach us how to live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I had more than 613 rules to follow as a kid.

But as we grow and mature, we have fewer rules. We learn to look both ways before we cross the street. We don’t have to hold Mom or Dad’s hand anymore. We learn that if we want to have friends, there are certain rules of hygiene that we have to follow.

Don’t get me wrong. If you leave here today and head up Lafayette Avenue and the light is red, you’d better stop. Not so much because it’s the law, but because there’s liable to be a car coming up Tucker that’s going to cream you if you don’t stop because he has the green light. Traffic laws are there for a reason and we should all follow them to protect ourselves and others.

So, what’s that got to do with today’s readings? The people of Moses’ time were spiritually immature. They needed a lot of rules. But after a few thousand years, God decided that we needed something else. We needed a Savior. He sent us His Son.

Rather than insisting that we wash our hands before meals, Jesus came to offer us something much simpler, and at the same time, much more difficult. He said that nothing that enters us from the outside can defile us. What defiles us is what comes from within. “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within.” Get rid of those things and you’ll be pure whether you wash your hands or not.

So, what happened between Deuteronomy and Mark? Jesus happened. He came to form a new covenant. Love God. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would Jesus do? “Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends.”

Instead of a giant book of laws, we have wall hangings and bumper stickers. It’s all very simple. But in many ways it’s harder than the original Jewish law. Under the old covenant, you could look at the laws and know what you had to do. If you could follow instructions, you could be a loyal and faithful Jew.

You and I have to make decisions. What does “love your neighbor” mean. Does it mean I have to be his best friend? Or does it mean that I just have to tolerate him? When I see a beggar in the street, do I have to give him all my money, or just some of it? Or can I just pass him by, knowing that he’ll probably spend any money I give him on booze or drugs? Is it up to me to make that call? It’s just all so confusing.

But, if we’re going to have freedom, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re easy choices. Sometimes they’re hard. But the New Covenant gives us free will. We can eat that ham sandwich without a guilty conscience, even though a salad might be a better choice.

Of course, we still have laws. We have those pesky traffic laws. But a speeding ticket isn’t going to send you to hell.

We have Jesus’ words in Sacred Scripture and that’s all we really need. There are thousands of books that have been written trying to tell us how to be good Christians. But one book is all we really need. Hopefully we all have one. It’s called the Bible. A friend of mine calls it B-I-B-L-E; Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

Also, don’t forget that Moses told the people that they must follow the law to “take possession of the land”. Jesus wasn’t interested in land. He was interested in saving our eternal souls. He gave us a very simple code to follow. “Love God. Love thy neighbor.” That’s it.

He left us with one very important decision to make. Do we want to be Pharisees or do we want to be disciples? It’s up to us.

Closing Churches

Over at Fr. Z’s blog there an excellent post concerning the closing of churches.  It seems that Saint Ann Church in Buffalo was slated for closing.  The building needed $12 million in repairs and the local bishop made the decision to tear it down.  The parishioners appealed the decision to Rome and the Vatican’s response was “Not so fast.  The needed repairs aren’t enough of a reason to close the place.”  Clearly this decision  to overrule the local ordinary will have an impact on all potential church closings.

I find this decision very interesting because my current assignment, Saint John Nepomuk Chapel in Saint Louis, currently celebrating our 160th anniversary, was once on the closing list, but was spared, primarily because of its historical significance.  Saint John’s was founded by Bohemian immigrants in 1854.  It was the first Czech Roman Catholic church in the New World.

Screen shot 2014-02-10 at 4.38.09 PMUrban flight and the building of not one, but two interstate highways in the middle of the neighborhood meant that thousands of Czech immigrants moved out of the area.  Our church, which was once one of the largest in the Archdiocese now has just over 100 registered families.  On a good weekend we may have 100 people attending our two masses.

In 2008, rather than close the church,  Saint John’s was downgraded from a parish to a chapel.  We have no geographical boundaries so our membership comes from all over the Saint Louis area.  The pastor at the time became a chaplain and when he retired the decision was made to put a deacon in charge.  I am the second deacon to hold that position.  One important part of my job is to get priests to celebrate the two weekend masses, a task that seems to be getting more difficult every week.

Another part of the job is to find the money to keep things going.  Our current church building was built in 1897 after a tornado destroyed the previous structure.   Our church is one of the most beautiful in the Archdiocese.  Thankfully our current Archbishop, Robert Carlson, recognizes the value of the older churches (of which Saint Louis has many) and doesn’t seem inclined to close any of them.  The model of deacon as director will, no doubt, be adopted at other churches as the number of priests declines.

Father Z ends his post by saying, ”

“If you want something to happen, you have to work for it and pay for it.

Free exercise of religion isn’t free.  We have bills to pay.  If YOU want something – A, B, C… whatever – and you are unwilling to pitch in and put sweat or money or both into it, you will lose it.”

Ah, there’s the rub.  Many of our members are seniors living on fixed incomes.  Their ability to supply “sweat or money” ain’t what it Saint John Nepomuk Chapelused to be.  It’s a well-known fact, based on Pereto’s principal, that 20% of the people contribute 80% of the work and 80% of the money.  We rely on existing investments and the revenue from weddings and fund raisers to pick up the slack.  But, as we draw down the investment cash we put a limit on the number of years we can survive.    Plus our small pool of workers can only cook so much goulash before they get worn out.  Its also worth noting that some of our best workers have gone on to their reward in the last few years, a trend that will also continue.

So, the obvious answer is to evangelize–get more members.  But there are some big obstacles to overcome.  Ethnic churches seem to be declining everywhere.  In the early 20th century Saint Louis was made up of large ethnic communities with ethnic churches and schools.  A young Czech girl was likely to marry a Czech young man.  Ditto for the Irish, the Germans, the Italians and other ethnic groups.  Following World War II, when young men returned from the service (God bless them!) they began settling in the suburbs.  While they may have continued to attend their “home” church for a while, they sent their kids to neighborhood schools where they met other young people of other nationalities.  Now a Czech girl was likely to marry an Italian boy.  With each new generation their ethnicity was weakened.  Driving all the way downtown to attend a Czech church wasn’t that important to them.

So why not evangelize in the neighborhood?  That seems like a logical solution.  But again, nothing is ever simple.  Our neighborhood, once known as “Bohemian Hill” is now called Soulard.  It’s an urban area that has been rescued from decline and there are a lot of houses that have been renovated and there are also a number of condos.  There are also a lot of bars and restaurants.  When you mention “Soulard” to most Saint Louisans the first thing they think of is Mardi Gras.  Soulard holds the second biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.  Frankly the young people who are moving into the area aren’t coming so they can be close to a church, even though there are five Catholic churches in the area.  The church-going Catholic has a lot of choices.  Meanwhile the neighborhood is crowded most weekend nights with partiers.

So, what’s the answer?  I wish I knew.  If the Vatican is discouraging the closing of churches, more city parishes are going to find themselves in the same situation.  I’m hoping that some readers will have experience with successful turnarounds.  If you have, I’d love to hear from you.  What works?  What doesn’t?  How do we use our resources to spread the faith and to save these beautiful churches?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Breaking News!

From the Wall Street Journal:

Amid controversy over “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson’s remarks about gays and blacks to GQ magazine, A+E Networks issued a new statement late Friday afternoon that said after consulting advocacy groups and the Robertson family, the network decided to resume filming the show this spring with the reality star.

How about that!  The network has listened to it’s Christian viewers (and others who love their right to express themselves) and reinstated Phil Robertson.  This is a major victory for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ and are sick and tired of seeing Christian values pushed aside.

But, not to worry, there will be another assault on Christianity from another quarter before long.  Let’s all pray that those of us who were upset about Phil-Gate will continue to stand up for our Lord and Savior, and for anyone who is denied the right to express their religious views.

 

Saint Stephen

Today, December 26, is the feast of Saint Stephen.  Stephen was one of the first deacons (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6).  He is the patron saint of Catholic deacons.  He was also the first martyr.

You’re probably familiar with the song, “Good King Wenceslas“.  “Good King Wenceslas  looked down, on the feast of Stephen.”  The song continues on to tell us that the King went out to help a poor man who was gathering firewood on the King’s property.  Instead of running him off, the King went out and helped the man.  That’s one of the reasons he was called “Good King Wenceslas”.  There was another Czech King Wenceslas, but he was anything but good.

It’s good to recall that the writer of the song thought it was important to mention that this happened on Stephen’s feast day.  It’s also important to remember that the story took place on the day after Christmas.

Happy feast of Stephen!

Christmas 2013

This is the homily I gave on Christmas Eve at Saint John Nepomuk Chapel.  For those not familiar, Saint John’s is an historic church in South Saint Louis.  The church was founded by Bohemian immigrants in the 19th Century.

 

veselé Vánoce!  ‘null-ig hun-a dit’!  Merry Christmas!  That’s Czech because of who you are, Irish because of who I am, and American because of who we all are.  However you say it, I want to wish all of you the very Merriest Christmas ever.

 

What a thrill it is to stand up here in front of such a large crowd.  Imagine that once-upon-a-time the church was filled like this all the time.  But, while the crowds here may not be as big as they once were, we’re still here and that’s a mighty blessing from God.  Beginning next week, we’ll be celebrating our 160th anniversary of worshipping our God at the corner of Lafayette and 11th street.

 

Frankly there are a lot of people who would have bet that we’d never make it, but here we are.  Since 1854 we’ve survived the Civil War, two world wars, a tornado, urban flight, and two interstate highways.  Generations of Bohemian immigrants built this church and today a melting pot of ethnic heritages, including an Irish deacon, are keeping it going.

 

Obviously we have a lot of visitors here this evening and we thank you for being here.  I know it’s an annual tradition for many of you to come home to Saint John Nepomuk to celebrate this greatest of all nights.  Vitame Vas!  Welcome!  Please keep us in your prayers the other fifty-one weeks of the year.  Of course, you’re welcome to come back any time.  In fact, we have a lot of exciting things planned for 2014 and we hope you can join us again for some special celebrations.

 

Christmas is a time when we all look back.  We look back to that night 2,000 years ago when Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to give birth to a very special child; a child the angel promised Joseph who would save His people from their sins.

 

Many of us look back and remember loved ones who have gone on to the next life.  We can’t help but think about our parents and grand parents who were with us in Christmases past but who aren’t physically with us today.  But we know, because of what that special Child promised us, that they’re with us in spirit and they live on in our memories.

 

As a relative newcomer to Saint John’s, I often think about the thousands of members of our church family who have gone before us.  Sometimes, when no one else is around, I like to come here and pray, and to think about all those people who built this chapel, not once, but twice.  I think about the sacrifices they made so that they, and we, would have this beautiful place to worship.

 

As Catholics we share in a two-fold mission.  We want to get to heaven.  That’s what Jesus wants for us.  He wants us to be with Him for eternity.  But our greatest mission isn’t just to get to heaven.  Our greatest mission is to take others with us.  We’re called to share our faith with others.  Our predecessors here at Saint John’s did that by making sure we’d have a beautiful place to worship.  Many of them gave everything they had.

 

When the cyclone destroyed their church in 1896, many of them quit their jobs so they could give their time to rebuilding.  And these weren’t wealthy people.  But they had their priorities, and their first priority was to rebuild God’s house.  Of course they did it for themselves, but they also did it for us.  Let’s never forget that!

 

If you’re visiting us this afternoon, I’ve placed index cards in each pew.  Please take a moment to put your name, address, and email address on one of them and place it in the collection basket.  We’ll put you on the mailing list to keep you up-to-date on our Jubilee events.  You can help us keep the memories of those great people alive.

 

In know, that’s a bit of a long infomercial, but let’s get down to business.  We’re here tonight to celebrate the miraculous birth of our Lord and Savior.  We all know the story.  God came to earth to live as a man and to die for our sins so that we could be saved.  Just think about that!  He’s God.  He created the universe.  He had all the power and all the glory yet he chose to become one of us.  What kind of God would do that?  The answer is a God who is all about love.  He created us, but He wasn’t one of us.  He knew that the best way to reach us was to walk among us.  He would come down from heaven to take us back with Him.

 

But why did He think it was necessary to come as a tiny baby?  Why did He have to humble Himself to be born in a stable, to live among us, then to die a horrible death at the hands of His enemies?  He could have come on a golden chariot with an army of angels.  He could have come in the glory that He deserved.  After all, that’s what the Jewish people expected.  That’s what they still expect.  And they’re right!  He will come in glory when He returns.  But, as they say, God works in mysterious ways.  In His wisdom He chose to be born of a woman just like you and me.

 

We have free will.  That’s part of the deal.  He wants us to love Him because we want to, not because we have to.  To paraphrase Father Thomas Merton, one of the great Catholic writers of the twentieth century, God never gives us the whole answer.  If He did, we’d have no choice but to believe him.  That would be the end of free will.  He just gives us part of the answer, leaving us to fill in the blanks.  We fill in those blanks with something called “faith”.  Faith is when we believe in something that can’t be proven.  For centuries philosophers have tried to “prove” the existence of God and failed.  A + B = C is a human concept.  It’s just math.  But A plus something that we have to accept on faith equals C is a divine concept.

 

 

Jesus was a miracle worker.  Tonight we celebrate the miracle of His birth.  He was born of a woman without the help of a human father.  He continued to work miracles up to and including His rising from the dead.  He still works miracles today.

 

And so, we come together today, in this beautiful church to celebrate His birth.  We listen to the music, we hear His words, and we thank Him for loving us enough to become one of us.  Salvation isn’t just for the rich and famous.  It’s for everyone, including you and me.

 

Ironically, the days leading up to Christmas can be the most hectic and frustrating days of the year.  We’re bombarded with commercials for stuff that we just have to have.  We have cards to send, parties to go to, and a long to-do list of things that just have to be done.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  Now, at least for one day, that’s all behind us.  Silent night, holy night is more than just a song lyric.  It’s what it’s all about.

 

My friend, Father Bruce Forman, leads a group called the “Young Catholic Musicians”.  Each year they put on a Christmas concert of music and narration on the birth of Christ.  It includes my favorite lines about Christmas.  Because of the census, Bethlehem was filled with people.  Some of them were very important businessmen, politicians, and Jewish leaders.  With all those VIPs in town, why did God chose to announce the birth of His Son to shepherds, the lowliest members of society?  The answer is simple and profound.  “God speaks to those who sit quietly and listen.”

 

That’s my wish for you on this Christmas Eve.  I pray that you’ll take time out to just sit quietly and listen to God.

veselé Vánoce!  ‘null-ig hun-a dit’!  Merry Christmas!

 

 

4th Sunday of Advent

(This is my homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent)

Today  is the fourth Sunday of Advent.  All the candles on the Advent wreath have been lit.  Now, it’s time to take the wreath down and decorate the church for Christmas.  Father and I will hang up the purple vestments until the first week of March when Lent will begin.

 

For the past three weekends we’ve been hearing about John the Baptist and his ministry of preparing the way of the Lord.  Remember Jesus called John the greatest man ever born of a woman.  But He promised us that the least person in heaven would be greater even than John.  We have hope because that includes you and me.

 

But today the Gospel takes a different tone.  There’s no mention of John.  Today’s story is about Mary and Joseph.  It’s a critical story because it gives us some insight into what these two people had to do to fulfill their part in salvation history.

 

The angel of the Lord has visited Mary and told her that she would bear a son.  In Friday’s  Gospel reading from Luke the angel tells Mary, “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him 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.”  As we all know, Mary told the angel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”

 

Now, Mary was engaged to Joseph.  When Joseph realized that Mary was pregnant his first impulse was to “divorce her quietly.”  Remember, things were much different in Mary and Joseph’s world than they are today.  In our world unmarried mothers are not scorned.  They’re not ashamed of their situation and some even brag about it.  Famous people, especially members of the Hollywood crowd go on talk shows and talk openly about their pregnancies.  They are proud of what they’ve done and don’t seem the least bit concerned about their sinfulness.  But for about the first 1,900 years of the Christian era, being an unwed mom wasn’t something to be celebrated.  It was the cause of great shame and embarrassment.

 

So, it’s not hard to understand how Joseph felt.  Mary had brought shame on herself and on him.  Guys, put yourself in his place.  What would you have done?  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man”.  He was “unwilling to expose her to shame.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would have been as gracious as Joseph.

 

But the angel appears to him in a dream and explains what’s going on.  Mary has conceived through the Holy Spirit.  Her son will save His people from their sins.

 

The experts tell us that Mary was young, probably a teenager.  Joseph was older.  Imagine what his friends and family must have said.  “It serves your right, Joseph.  You decide to marry this young girl and she turns up pregnant.  What did you expect?”  Think about the gossip.  But, he ignored the taunts of his so-called friends and did what the angel told him to do.  I’m sure he spent a lot of time in prayer.

 

So here we have two ordinary people who’ve been asked to make huge sacrifices so that the prophet Isaiah’s words would be fulfilled:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”

 

Joseph, being a “righteous man” and a devout Jew, surely was familiar with Isaiah’s prophesy.  Surely he and Mary spent a lot of time talking about what was about to happen.  Maybe they both had planned on having a big family.  Maybe Joseph had big plans for his carpentry business.  If they were engaged, they must have spent a lot of time talking about what their lives would be like as a married couple.  But all that changed in an instant.  And today we thank God that they were willing to give all that up for the greater glory of God.  If either one of them had said no 2,000 years ago, our lives would be very different today.  By agreeing to God’s plan they set things in motion that would change the world forever.

 

You and I also play a part in God’s plan.  Even though we will probably never be recognized by the world, every time we say yes to God’s plan, we start a chain-of-events that changes the world.

 

Is there anyone here who’s never seen It’s a Wonderful Life?  It was on TV last night.  George Bailey was given a wonderful gift.  He gets to see what his world would have been like if he’d never been born.  Of course it’s fiction, but it’s definitely a story that should make us think.  What would our world be like if we’d never been born?  What little things have we done that have changed other people’s lives?  Chances are, like George, we have no idea.  God does great things through ordinary people and things.

 

If you’ve been following the news this week, you know about Phil Robertson.  He’s been attacked for stating his Christian beliefs.  And the whole thing has had some remarkable results.  There’s a Facebook page called “Bring Back Phil Robertson”.  In just two days it’s received more than a million “likes”.  Americans are standing up for their faith (and Phil’s) in amazing numbers.  God is working a miracle with something as simple as a duck call.  It’s a beautiful thing to happen just a week before Christmas.

 

My recent blog post on Phil-gate has had more hits than all my previous posts put together.

 

I could stand up here all day and talk about things that have happened in my life that can only be explained by God’s intervention.  He put the right person in the right place at the right time to give me something that I needed.  Maybe it was something they said.  Maybe it was something they did.  But, God’s hand was in it.  I know all of you could do the same.

 

So, as we prepare to celebrate the greatest event in the history of mankind, it’s good to reflect on today’s story.  Two ordinary people from a very small town said yes to God and changed everything.  That’s what Christmas is about.  That’s what our Catholic faith is all about.  Christmas is a time when we focus on a great miracle.  But miracles happen every day.  We may be the catalyst for a miracle and never even know it.  Thank you Mary and Joseph for saying “yes”.

 

 

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

Merry ChristmasAlright, it’s time for my annual rant.  When are Christians, who happen to be a majority in the United States, going to stand up and defend the faith.  Here we are, getting ready for the birth of Christ, you know, the guy who let Himself be crucified to save us from our sins.  There has never been a greater sacrifice, yet we’re allowing non-Christians deny us our celebration of this greatest day.

First, many  of the largest retailers refuse to recognize Christmas, even though they have no problem selling us tons of stuff.  Signs and ads proclaim “Happy Holidays”, “Seasons Greetings” and other politically correct nonsense while refusing to wish us a Merry Christmas.  Next we have the relatively new phenomenon of “Black Friday” creeping into Thanksgiving.

Of course, the government has joined in the fun by refusing to allow Christmas displays on public property, though that’s been kind of hit-and-miss.  Some places allow it.  Some don’t.  But the attack are getting more serious and at the same time more ridiculous.  Here are just two examples posted by Tod Starnes of Fox News.

Georgia School Confiscates Christmas Cards.  For years the teachers at Brooklet Elementary School have posted Christmas cards outside their classrooms…..until this year.  School administrators have removed the cards calling them “offensive”.  After all some of them contained the word “Christmas” and some featured Nativity scenes

Next, homeowners in Orange County, CA have been ordered to remove their outdoor Christmas lights.  One community is known for their light displays and draw visitors from great distances, similar to “Candy Cane Lane“, here in Saint Louis.  The county claims the lights are “an obstruction” and violate local ordinances.  Give me a break!

Abraham Lincoln once said that America wouldn’t be destroyed by outside forces, but from within.  Complacency is our greatest enemy.  Every little attack on our faith that goes unchallenged adds to the total religious persecution that we’re experiencing right here in the once God-fearing United States.  We need to wake up!  Don’t just accept anti-Christian persecution.  Don’t say, “Oh, it’s just one school.”  or “Hey, it’s just one neighborhood.”  Speak up.

When a store clerk says “happy holidays” smile and say, “Merry Christmas.”  Maybe you don’t like to make a fuss.  Maybe you don’t want to embarrass someone else (or yourself).

Tell it to the Guy hanging on the cross.