Feast of the Holy Family

 

Isn’t it remarkable that in just a few hours we’ve jumped from the Birth of Christ to His being twelve years old?   But the Church thinks it’s important that, in light of Jesus’ birth, we reflect on the importance of our families.

 

You know, Jesus didn’t have to be born into a human family. He could have just appeared as an adult. He could have ridden into town on a magnificent white horse surrounded by an army of angels. He was God. He could do that. In fact, that’s what many people expected. But that wasn’t His plan.

 

Jesus had to be born into a family. He had to experience what our lives are like. He also had to be an example to all of us of how we should behave. In the first reading, from the book of Sirach, the author tells us “God sets a father in honor over his children’ a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.” He goes on to tell us that “whoever honors his father atones for his sins.”

 

That seems reasonable, and as a parent, I think it’s good advice. Sirach also tells us that a son should take care of his father when he gets old, even if his mind fails. I especially like that part.

 

We really don’t know all that much about Jesus’ growing up, but as a Holy Family, we have to believe that Jesus knew and followed Sirach’s teaching. I imagine it was a little touchy for Joseph to exercise authority over his Son who also happened to be God, but the Scriptures don’t give us any of the details about that, and it may be just as well.

 

Then we have today’s Gospel. Jesus is twelve. Anyone here who’s ever been a parent of a twelve-year-old knows they can be a little difficult to handle. They’re almost teen-agers but they’re still kids. They definitely think they know more than their parents, and in Jesus’ case that was probably true, while Mom and Dad still think of them as children.

 

So they take Jesus to Jerusalem for Passover. When it’s time to go home, Jesus decides to stay. It’s a whole day before Mary and Joseph realize that He’s missing. In a panic they rush back to Jerusalem trying to find Him. AND IT TAKES THREE DAYS! Can you imagine losing your child for a total of four days??? What a nightmare! Poor Mary and Joseph. Not only have they lost their only child, they’ve lost the SON OF GOD! For a devout Jewish couple, their fear must have been unbearable.

 

But, then they find Him and Mary says something that seems very mother-like. “Why have you done this to us?” Not, “Oh thank God, we found you”, but “Why have you done this to us?”

 

Jesus’ answer about being in His Father’s house must have been very painful to them, especially to Joseph. Jesus’ actions in the Gospel seem very contrary to what Sirach tells us in the first reading. Apparently, even for the Son-of-God, twelve was a difficult year. Every kid, whether it was 2,000 years ago, or today, has a tough transition to go through. Jesus, being who He was, still must have had a hard time growing up sometimes. This feast of the Holy Family shows us that every family has its issues.

 

Is there anyone here who hasn’t seen the movie “A Christmas Story”? It’s one of my all-time favorites and it runs on cable continuously Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Every year I watch it at least once, usually more than once. I love it because it reminds me so much of my own childhood, even though I never had a Daisy BB Gun. (My mother told me, “You’ll shoot your eye out”.) I also didn’t have a little brother. But the family dynamic, the atmosphere in northern Indiana, and all the rituals that surround Christmas are so similar to north Saint Louis in the fifties that I can’t help but relate.

 

There’s absolutely nothing religious about this movie. In fact, the producers seem to have gone out of their way to exclude religion. There’s never a Nativity Scene. Jesus’ name never comes up. It’s a strictly secular story that just happens to take place at Christmas time. But the Parker family fits Sirach’s model perfectly. The father is the head of the house. The mother has authority over Ralphie and Randy which is confirmed by “The Old Man”. The boys respect both their parents, even whey they’re trying to get away with something.

 

In the movie Ralphie is nine years old, not quite as old as Jesus in today’s Gospel, but nine-year-olds have their issues too. His reaction to the leg lamp is priceless, exactly what you would expect from someone his age.

 

There seems to be a similar message in this movie and in today’s readings. Every family, even the Holy Family, has its problems. Like they say, “kids will be kids” even if the kid is the Son of God. Parents aren’t perfect, even the Blessed Mother and Joseph. Things don’t always turn out the way we plan them. The humanity displayed by the Holy Family gives all of us hope.

 

Coming so soon after Christmas, this feast shows us that ecstasy can turn into disaster in the blink of an eye. One day we’re celebrating the birth of Christ, the next day He’s gone missing. Isn’t that what our lives are like sometimes? The Holy Family handled this catastrophe and went on with their lives, just like we have to. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are role models just like all these saints that are depicted here in our chapel. We study their lives to learn how to live our own.

 

Now that all the chaos of the secular Christmas celebration is past, we have the Holy Christmas season to relax and reflect. The Christmas decorations will remain in church for a while to give us time to reflect of Jesus birth without the distractions that get in our way leading up to Christmas. Let’s let the Holy Family be our example and our guide. “Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in His ways.”

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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”.

 

 

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent

You know that when the characters in Scripture talk to one another, they’re also talking to you and me.  Today’s Gospel is a good example of that.  In the very last line Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

 

Think about that for a second.  Mary is blessed because she believed.  Doesn’t that apply to us?  Aren’t we blessed when we believe.  Think about the famous passage; John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave* his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

 

Mary believed.  And you know what?  She gave her only Son too.  You have to think that Mary, like all young women and men, had plans for her life.  There’s no mention in Scripture of Mary having any friends, but you know she did.  They probably giggled and talked like all young girls, planning what their lives would be like.  But Mary was blessed because she believed.

 

How was Mary blessed?  She was blessed to have only one Son who would leave home at the age of thirty and in three short years would be humiliated, tortured, and executed.  The first inkling she would have of all this was when she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple.  Simeon told her that her heart would be pierced.  I don’t think she planned on that.

 

Mary was blessed to never be intimate with her husband.  Blessed Mary, ever virgin.  That had to be an adjustment for Mary AND Joseph.

 

The Holy Family was forced to flee to Egypt and live in exile while Herod tried to find Jesus and kill Him.  Then when they were settled into their new home, the angel came and told them to go back.  Another blessing?

 

Remember when Jesus was twelve years old?  Mary and Jesus took Him to the temple and lost Him.  It was a big caravan and Mary thought He was with Joseph and Joseph thought He was with Mary.  All of us who are parents have probably been separated from one of our kids at one time or another.  Total panic!  Imagine how Mary must have felt losing the Son of God.  I guess that’s another way she was blessed.

 

The point of all this is what it means to be blessed.  We may have a tendency to think of the blessings of this world.  And that’s ok.  I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife, four great kids, and four and a half great grandchildren.  Those are major blessings but they’re also worldly blessings.

 

The blessing we’re all looking for is the blessing of eternal life.  That’s the big one and it doesn’t necessarily come from worldly blessings.  In fact, one man’s blessing may be another man’s curse.  The guy who lives in the big house with the $2,000 suits and the Mercedes Benz in the garage may be miserable.  And, the things he did to get all that stuff may be what keeps him out of heaven.  Blessings we create for ourselves aren’t blessings at all.  Blessings can only come from God.

 

On the other hand, the guy who lives in the mobile home in Jefferson County and drives a beat-up pickup truck, but who goes to church every Sunday and shares what little he has with others is probably on the express train to eternal life.

 

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

 

Here’s the thing.  If we believe anything the Lord tells us then we have to believe everything the Lord tells us.  If anything He says isn’t true then He’s a liar.  And if He’s a liar, then we can’t believe anything He says.

 

In just a matter of hours we’ll begin to celebrate the birth of the Savior.  God sent His Son to save us from our sins.  In His three short years of earthly ministry Jesus gave us some instructions.  His instructions were much simpler that the hundreds of Jewish laws that the people were used to.  Basically He told us to Love Him and to love one another.  He told us He had come to build a Church and Peter would be the rock; the foundation.  He left the Apostles to run the Church.  He told them, “Whoever hears you, hears Me.”  That’s this thing we call the Catholic Church.  He left us the beatitudes and the golden rule.  He left us the Lord’s Prayer.

 

So, as we get ready for the celebration of the greatest event in the history of the world, the almighty God being born as a human baby in a manger in Bethlehem, let’s take Elizabeth’s words to heart.  We may be blessed with great families, or good looks, or great minds.  We may be blessed to live in a nice house and drive a nice car.

 

Or, maybe not.

 

But we’re all blessed with the ability to believe what the Lord has told us.  Whether we believe or not is up to us.

 

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”