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.

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20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The prophet Isiah lived in the 8th Century B. C., or about 800 years before Christ. Nearly 3,000 years ago he’s writing about racism. He writes that “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants” will be brought to the holy mountain. He says, speaking for the Lord, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

 

Remember, the Jewish people didn’t play well with others. Foreigners were the enemy. But here’s Isiah telling the Jewish people that foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will enter the heavenly kingdom. This was pretty radical stuff and you can bet that a lot of people didn’t like it.

 

Then we have today’s Gospel, where a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to have pity on her and to heal her daughter. Jesus ignored her. Again, the Jews and the Gentiles hated each other. Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Send this foreigner away. She’s bothering us.”

 

What Jesus does next is surprising. He tells the woman that He’s been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Do you think maybe He’s trying to teach the disciples a lesson? Maybe He wants them to see for themselves how wrong they are. He even calls the woman a “dog”. But this woman is no dummy. She says that even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.

Finally, Jesus praises the woman for her faith and heals her daughter.

 

Then we have our second reading where Saint Paul is writing to the Romans who are gentiles. Keep in mind that on most Sundays, our readings aren’t in chronological order. The first reading is usually from the Old Testament. The second reading is taken from the New Testament, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then we have the Gospel which usually falls between the other two readings in time.

 

Because the Gospel is Jesus’ words, it deserves the place of prominence as the last of the three readings. It’s like when you go to a concert, the headline act comes on last. The opening acts get the audience ready for what’s to come. It’s not a great analogy, but I hope you get the idea.

 

Anyway, Paul’s job is to convert them to the gentile Romans to the new Christian faith. He tells them, “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them…..For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” Like Isaiah, Paul is making a pretty radical statement. Again, the Jews and the gentiles hated each other. But here’s this new religion claiming that they’re all equal in God’s eyes.

 

See, racism isn’t new. Over the centuries, Jews have hated gentiles, then Muslims. There’s centuries-old animosity between the English and the Irish. And of course, today there’s the issue of black and white Americans.

 

The people who started this church were the victims of discrimination. When they came up the Mississippi River they weren’t allowed to settle in Saint Louis. Like the other immigrants, they were forced to locate outside the city limits. When word got out that the Bohemians were going to build this beautiful church, there were a lot of people who thought they couldn’t do it. Face it, a lot of people hoped they would fail. Who did these Bohunks think they were, anyway?

 

When my Irish ancestors arrived in America they were faced with help wanted signs that said, “No Irishmen need apply.” Newspaper editorial cartoons depicting Irish as monkeys were common. There’s even a term for anti-Irish, Hibernophobia. Here in Saint Louis, in 1854, the year our church was founded, there were anti-Irish riots.

 

You may not be aware of it, but there are people who hate us because we’re Catholic. Because Saint Louis is a fairly Catholic town, after all it was named after a Catholic saint, we don’t see as much of it as you might in other places, but believe me it’s there. I was shocked by some of the literature that was handed out here during Pope John Paul’s visit. It was pretty bad. Even our local media have an anti-Catholic bias that’s hard to overlook. You may not realize it, but every one of us has suffered some form of discrimination because of our faith.

 

We all have prejudices, some of us more than others, but we all have them. It’s only human nature for us to want to be around people like ourselves. But, that’s no excuse for hating someone just because they look different than we do, because they worship differently than we do, or because they have different political opinions than we do. There’s just too much hate in the world.

 

Muslims and Jews hate each other. Blacks and whites hate each other. Democrats hate Republicans and vice versa, so much so that nothing ever gets done.

 

You’ve probably figured out by now that what I’m leading up to is the situation in Ferguson. I have no idea what happened in the confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer who shot him. Nobody knows except the people actually involved. We have to trust the investigators who are trying to figure it all out.

 

What we do know is that there’s a tremendous amount of racial tension in Saint Louis and all over America. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse. The thing is, the government isn’t going to solve the problem. Maybe it can’t be solved considering that Isaiah wrote about it 3,000 years ago. But God calls us to love one another. That doesn’t mean that we have to hang out with people who make us uncomfortable, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be so antagonistic to each other.

 

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most of the people who’ve been trying to diffuse the situation in North County are ministers; black ministers, white ministers, Catholics and protestants, including our own Archbishop Carlson. With the exception of a few misguided souls who think that they’re above the law and entitled to just take the things that they want, nobody wants to see people get hurt. Nobody wants to see violence in the streets. People in North County, and all over the country for that matter, just want to live their lives in peace.

 

Jesus used the Canaananite woman to show the disciples how wrong they were to dismiss her just because she was different from them. Isiah said that the kingdom of heaven was for all. Saint Paul risked his life to take the new faith to the gentiles, even though he was Jewish himself. God is love. He doesn’t want to see His creation destroy itself with hate.

 

So, what can we do? The biggest thing we can do is to pray. We should pray for those who are victims of discrimination, whether it’s racial, religious, or philosophical. Churches all over the area have been holding special prayer services during the last few days. And, guess what? It’s working. Things are calming down. The violence has subsided. But until every one of us, black, white, or whatever, starts looking at others as God’s creatures, there will always be an undercurrent of hate and distrust.

 

We should also pray that God opens our own hearts to those who are different from us. Of course we have to use common sense and be vigilant for our own safety, but we have to accept the fact that just because someone looks different from us, it doesn’t mean they’re a danger. We all want the same things; peace, safety, a loving family, food on the table and a roof over our heads. We all want to live in a world where violence is a thing of the past. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. But I can sure pray for it and work for it. So can you.

PRAY FOR PEACE!