FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT 2019

I confess that I sometimes make resolutions and too soon after discover how weak and fragile they were. I suspect that I may actually be saying to myself, “Relax! You’re never going to change. This is the way you are. The world won’t end because you’re not perfect. You adjust to other people; allow them to adjust to you…”

That attitude, that act of giving up, of surrendering, has destroyed countless relationships and weakened as many more. It has kept persons who love each other very much from experiencing the unity and harmony that are meant to increase in good times and in bad. It has denied them the joy of witnessing the resurrection that can follow the little “deaths” they endure together on their shared earthly journey.

A disagreement, a violent argument, a misunderstanding can for the moment seem to blot out the love between two persons. They look at one another with near-hatred and wonder how affectionate feelings could ever come back. But if the situation that resulted in such misery is carefully and calmly analyzed by the two of them, and if each is open to alterations in behavior, the apparent death of love gives way to resurrection and the love becomes stronger, purer, and more unselfish than before.

I’ve chosen this approach at the start of Advent because our relationship to God is essentially defined by our relationship to other human beings, especially those who are closest to us and those who are the most disconnected from us. The Jesus whose birth we are memorializing continues to come to us in the person of others.

Of course, we are weak and inconsistent, all of us, to one degree or another. And yes, we are creatures of habit, most good, some bad. We do find it extremely difficult to make significant changes in our patterns of behavior, especially with those we are most intimately bonded to. Yes, we do tend to make peace with a wounded relationship because it seems much too hard to change what needs to be changed, and we are discouraged by our long history of failure.

Human nature, as far as we know, has remained pretty much the same down through the ages, even though our interpretations and understanding of life have constantly evolved. For example, we wouldn’t today blame God for our sinful ways, as the people of Isaiah’s time did. They asked, “Why, O Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts…?” This kind of talk expresses the ancient belief that everything that happens on earth is ultimately, not merely permitted or experienced by God, but actually caused by God – an idea that, unfortunately, still exists among us today in some quarters.

But in general we see things much differently. We know that we have free will, but that we are never alone. The presence and power of the Creative Spirit are in and with us always. Because of that, we can go beyond our human limitations and experience love whose depth and resilience we could not possibly achieve on our own.

On this, the first day of a new liturgical year, Advent again summons us to anticipate the coming of Christ into every aspect of our lives, something that cannot happen unless we allow and welcome it. He is at the door, knocking and waiting for our response.

As we soon celebrate another colorful Christmas, I do hope that we can all say that, as he entered our world two millennia ago, so has he, by our wanting and willing it, moved deeper into our personal lives during these weeks of Advent preparation.

I wish you a happy journey to the stable!

33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

(A bit out of order. This should have been posted before the Feast of Christ the King…sorry about that!)

In only two weeks, we will remember that 40 years ago, three Maryknoll Sisters and a lay female associate of theirs were murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard in Central America. I have remained in touch with the family of one of the sisters, Ita Ford, during these intervening years; in fact, I had the treasured privilege of celebrating Mass in one of their homes shortly after her martyrdom.

Why do I tell you this? Because it instantly came to my mind this past week in answer to the question I asked myself as I first read the gospel excerpt appointed for today. I refer mainly to Jesus’ predictions concerning persecutions, betrayals, and deadly violence reaching into the sanctity of our hearts and homes. And I asked myself,
“What in the world has this got to do with us today???”

But it is true, and always will be, that pledging to follow Jesus, as those sisters did, and as you have done in your life of loving devotion to others, and trying to make our lives more & more to resemble his, will sometimes be costly to us in one way or another. It may be that we must deny ourselves a certain pleasure that we know a disciple of his is expected to forego. Or it may instead be our forsaking a promotion or a reward in return for which we must violate our Christian conscience.

Besides, I think that imitation of Jesus in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday existence, while it most often may bring respect and admiration from others, may just as likely cause us to be ridiculed and rejected even by some of our closest friends and relatives.

If and when that happens, we’ve got to remember that Jesus foresaw that it would, asked us simply to persevere, and promised us that by being so faithful we would be securing our lives.

Most often, as I experience it, it’s a private matter, unseen and unknown to anyone other than the few persons involved in the matter at hand. It’s a quiet, for a time unsettling, struggle between “selfish self” and principled conscience. There’s nothing dramatic or sensational about it; it’s a matter of conscience that can be fully satisfied if we make what appears to be the right and reasonable choice. It’s a normal part of our loving friendship with Jesus, in which we never need fear rejection or punishment.

The salvation that Jesus promises us is not a free pass through or around all mental and physical suffering; it is rather the assurance that no matter what we must occasionally endure, the prize that awaits us is infinitely beyond our wildest imaginings!

Christ the King, 2019

Among the many attributes and titles that the past 21 centuries have attached to Jesus is that of King – even though, I think it is safe to say, he would not have chosen the title for himself. Remember that he rejected entirely the suggestion from his early followers that he be crowned their king. That did not at all fit into his plan to serve God simply by starting a person-to-person reform movement within his beloved Jewish religion — a reform, a purification, that would, like a benign infection, eventually change the whole world for the better.

Today, as we celebrate the annual feast of Jesus King of the World, we have some astonishing new material to work into the mix: the lifestyle, the words, and the actions of our remarkable Pope Francis. Shortly after he became pope, while being interviewed by a Catholic magazine and hearing the interviewer keep calling him “Your Holiness”, he said, “Please, call me Frank.”

Can you imagine any king, contemporary or ancient, inviting such familiarity? No way! This pope knows that he is a frail human being just like the millions of us whom he has been ordained to serve. He made that clear when, on his first public appearance, he asked us all to pray for him and to bless him. He did not begin by saying that he would bless and pray for us, as if he regarded himself as a special channel of divine grace and power. No, he was instead admitting his imperfect humanness and his constant need of help from others. What a refreshing new style of leadership that expresses. And how well it paints for us an image of the real Jesus, in contrast to the glorified versions of artists and the devout down through the ages.

Kings don’t wash other people’s feet; they leave such menial work to their slaves and servants. No earthly king says that he has come to serve and not to be served. Jesus presented himself always as the servant of others and invited his followers – expected them – to be the same.

It seems to me that the purpose and the desired effect of our observance of this Christian feast day is that we not merely honor Jesus as in some sense our king, but that we extract from it direction and inspiration for our own lives. And I’d add to that that we should look around for signs of a lessening of power exercised over others and an increase of compassion and love instead.

My first action of every day is to go through the New York Times in search of news of just such kindness. Years ago a west coast football coach was quoted as saying “I’m going to treat these players like they were my sons.”

The grammar’s bad, but the message is terrific. No humiliation, no degradation, no brutality. Just acting as a human being is meant to act toward other human beings. Maybe there’s a rare time & place for the merciless drill sergeant; I haven’t made up my mind about that as yet: I see reasons pro & con. But human dignity and human potential, I think, must always come first.

In that regard, Jesus – whatever title we may want to give him – is our infallible guide. Gentleness, compassion, patience: these are the real strengths of the Christian, the follower of Jesus, King of the Universe. Those strengths are much harder to muster and employ than the knee-jerk reaction of brute force in any of its forms.

32nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

The homily that I’ve worked on over the past few days is yielding gladly to the following piece,  that I received last year at this time. I thought you’d like to read it again—or for the first time.

GOD LIVES UNDER THE BED

I envy my brother Kevin, who thinks God lives under his bed. At least, that’s what I heard him say one night.
He was born 30 years ago, mentally disabled as a result of difficulties during labor.

Apart from his size (he’s 6-foot-2), there are few ways in which he is an adult.

He reasons and communicates with the capabilities of a 7-year-old, and he always will. He will probably always believe that God lives under his bed, that Santa Claus is the one who fills the space under our tree every Christmas, and that airplanes stay up in the sky because angels carry them.

I remember wondering if Kevin realizes he is different. Is he ever dissatisfied with his monotonous life?

Up before dawn each day, off to a workshop for the disabled, home to walk our cocker spaniel, return to eat his favorite macaroni-and-cheese for dinner, and later to bed.

The only variation in the entire scheme is laundry, when he hovers excitedly over the washing machine like a mother with her newborn child.

He does not seem dissatisfied. He lopes out to the bus every morning at 7:05, eager for a day of simple work.

He wrings his hands excitedly while the water boils on the stove before dinner, and he stays up late twice a week to gather our laundry for his next day’s chores.

And Saturdays – Oh, the bliss of Saturdays! That’s the day my dad takes Kevin to the airport to have a soft drink, watch the planes land, and speculate loudly on the destination of each passenger inside. ‘That one’s goin’ to Chi-car-go!‘ Kevin shouts as he claps his hands. His anticipation is so great he can hardly sleep on Friday nights.

And so goes his world of daily rituals and weekend field trips. He doesn’t know what it means to be discontent. His life is simple.

He will never know the entanglements of wealth or power, and he does not care what brand of clothing he wears or what kind of food he eats. His needs have always been met. He never worries that one day they may not be.

His hands are diligent. Kevin is never happier than when he is working. When he unloads the dishwasher or vacuums the carpet, his heart is completely in it. He does not shrink from a job when it is begun and he does not leave a job until it is finished. When his tasks are done, Kevin knows how to relax. He is not obsessed with his work or the work of others. His heart is pure.

He still believes everyone tells the truth and that promises must be kept and when you are wrong, you apologize instead of argue.

Free from pride and unconcerned with appearances, Kevin is not afraid to cry when he is hurt, angry or sorry. He is always transparent, always sincere. And he trusts God.

Not confined by intellectual reasoning, when he comes to God, he comes as a child. Kevin seems to know God – to really be friends with God in a way that is difficult for an ‘educated’ person to grasp. God is his closest companion.

In my moments of doubt and frustrations, I envy the security Kevin has in his simple faith.

It is then that I am most willing to admit that he has some divine knowledge that rises above my mortal questions.

It is then I realize that perhaps he is not the one with the handicap. I am. My obligations, my fear, my pride, my circumstances – they all become disabilities when I do not trust them to God’s care.

Who knows if Kevin comprehends things I can never learn? After all, he has spent his whole life in that kind of innocence, praying after dark and soaking up the goodness and love of God.

And one day, when the mysteries of heaven are opened, and we are all amazed at how close God really is to our hearts, I’ll realize that God heard the simple prayers of a boy who believed that God lived under his bed.

Kevin won’t be surprised at all!

From: Kevin’s Different World by Kelly Adkins

https://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/truelifestories/ithappenedtome/9c4034.html

31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

It was 42 years ago this week that I returned to my home parish in Clifton, New Jersey, to participate in the funeral Mass of the 19-year-old daughter, Barbara, of a high school classmate of mine. She had been killed by a heavy board blown off a roof of a tall building in New York City.

Only days later, Father Francis English, 79 years of age, was murdered by men who had gone to rob his house of money he had been long collecting for the poor.

Barbara had most of her life ahead of her, still to be explored and lived. The obvious direction of her life was straight and true and full of promise and colorful possibility.

Father English had lived a long life of kindness and service to others and loving conversation with his God.

Neither one should have died, one by accident, one by human malice and greed.

Barbara’s father, my classmate Joe, walked to the microphone at the end of the funeral Mass and spoke four sentences, the last of which told us, “In this too, I know that God loves us and that his mercy is forever.”

At the funeral Mass for Father English, Bishop Lawrence Casey said that Father English would be saying, “Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. Pray for yourselves.”

We mustn’t waste any opportunity to grow as human beings, especially when unusually challenging events like these occur. Can the readings selected for this Sunday of the year have greater meaning for us who in some way or other have shared in deaths like the two that I have chosen to highlight today? I do hope so.

Today’s first reading from the Hebrew Book of Wisdom is particularly meaningful to us moderns who can become rather cocky over our ever-increasing power over nature. What once terrified our ancestors we now control with the touch of a button or the flick of a switch. But the holy book reminds us that in the end, it is God alone who creates and maintains all that is.

In the second reading, speaking to his newly baptized Christian friends in Thessalonica, Paul urges them not to speculate too much about the next coming of the crucified and risen Jesus, but instead to live each day according to his teachings as closely and as faithfully as they can — and to leave the rest in the hands, the mind and the heart, of God.

And in the Gospel we are once again baffled by Jesus’ strange responses. Notice that this little guy Zacchaeus is no model of spirituality! He can’t be, and he doesn’t claim to be, sinless or virtuous: he doesn’t say, for example, that he gives half his wealth to the poor. He says he will give to the poor, after this encounter with Jesus. And Jesus believes him, trusts him! And Jesus goes on to say that salvation has come to this sinner’s house — because he was repentant.

So, it isn’t our storing up of merits over the years of our life that makes us holy in God’s sight; it is mainly our admitting our failures time after time after time and asking for forgiveness as we pledge again and again to do better.

Our God, we learn, judges us, not by the score of our good deeds and our sins, but by our unfailing determination to get up after each of our sins and resolve to do better.

30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

What we just heard must be one of Jesus’ best loved and most popular stories. But it may also be that very few people understand the subtle truths that it contains. It’s obvious that Jesus is setting up a contrast between two persons and wants us to dwell on the differences between them in the way they pray. His objective? That we learn how to set straight our relationship with God.

The pharisee has a lot to recommend him. He does much that’s right and good. He fasts, he tithes, he does not commit sinful acts of injustice and dishonesty. But something has happened in his life that spoils all the rest: the love of God, that he once may have enjoyed in gratitude and humility, has turned into love of himself.

The good things in his life, both material and spiritual, he has come to think of as his possessions, his creations, his achievements, forgetting that all of them are pure gifts of God. And how much of what he has — his education, his culture, his attitudes, his disposition, his health, his skills — did he get from others, beginning with his parents? Probably most of it. Yet, he has developed such self-importance that he thinks it’s his own efforts and ingenuity that are the cause of it all.

The gift of reconciliation, of being right before God, that he could have received under other conditions, he can’t get because he’s too busy cataloging his possessions. He can’t get what he doesn’t have room for.

And the tax collector — despised by his own people for the dirty government work he does at their expense, unworthy even in his own eyes, stuck in a corrupt system he doesn’t have the guts to get out of — goes to the temple as open as an empty pail, wanting, needing and having plenty of room for God’s free gift of righteousness. And Jesus says he gets it!

St. Luke, who passes on this story of Jesus, is teaching us that prayer isn’t merely an expression of our faith in God: it is our faith in action. Prayer is our relationship with God: the way we pray is the way we are with God. Could that be why St. Paul says we should pray constantly? Is that another way of saying that we are meant to be relating to God all the time? I think it is. Maybe the truth of the matter will never be better expressed than it was in the old catechism: “Prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God.“

Of the two men that Jesus describes to us today, whom do you more resemble in the way you pray? Whatever the answer must be, let it lead you into deeper relationship with the God who is the core of your being and the source of everything you are and will ever be.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2019

Once in a while, not always, one common theme can be found in the three readings assigned to a particular Sunday. Today appears to be one of them: even a cursory perusal of the three passages reveals the main idea of perseverance — not giving up or losing hope, instead waiting patiently for divine assistance, even expecting it, when things seem to be going from bad to worse.

Today’s Moses story from the Book of Exodus can be seen at first as a bit of superstitious folklore, with far too much emphasis placed on those weary arms of the ardently praying Moses that had to remain in a raised position in order for the Israelites to get the better of the enemy. You can be sure that this is pure fable, sacred fiction concocted in the collective imagination of a people who had a very keen sense of the living, active, protective presence of God in their lives.

But once we’ve succeeded in recognizing the fictional aspects of the ancient account, we are able to appreciate its essential message, which is that this is a people with an invincible confidence in their unseen God.

Whether the bible stories are regarded as literal fact or as fictional carriers of truth — or as a mixture of both — there is still work to be done if we are to grasp their unadulterated message. What I’m referring to in today’s texts is the possible — but incorrect — interpretation that God has to be softened, so to speak, by our relentless pleading. That is what so many people believe as they say dozens, even hundreds, of prayers, thinking that they are thereby breaking down God’s resistance and eventually winning a hearing from the divine ear — the very sort of absurdity that gives otherwise true religion a bad name.

Where did such a notion come from? I’ve always thought we ourselves created it by what we did to our parents: “Please, Mommy! Please, Daddy! Please, please!!” Some of us are still employing the very same tactic today, dealing with God as we dealt with our parents.

The bible stories, because they were written by persons even more primitive than we are, perpetuate the same childish characteristics. But there is no more reason for us to deny that the bible contains myth than there is for us to deny that it is also lacking in scientific and historical truth. We are a developing race!! We look back to our ancestors in the faith with respect and gratitude — and we hope that we will do as well with today’s limited knowledge as they did with theirs.

But, back to today’s scripture lesson: we are reminded that it is not in coaxing or incessant petitioning that we gain God’s assistance in the problems and prospects of our lives; rather, it is by our unwavering conviction that God is only loving, kind, intimately present and infinitely wise. It is for us to wait, to do what we can toward the attainment of good, and to anticipate the creative action of our compassionate God.

The most perfect prayer we can offer is our patient, confident, expectant waiting.