09 December 2016

The drama of the village drunk in the crèche at St. Peter's

Two of my friends are currently visiting the Eternal City and were surprised by the presence of what appears to be the local village drunk passed out among the sheep in the crèche (the Nativity scene) displayed this year in St. Peter's Square:

When asked to explain his presence in the Nativity scene, my first reaction was one of renewed gratitude for being back in the United States of America, even with the bitter temperatures, where such scenes are absent from our Nativity scenes.

As a general rule, Americans tend to prefer their Nativity scenes to be quaint, pleasant, and charming, almost absent of any real discomfort the Holy Family would certainly have experienced. We have sanitized, if you will, our imagining of Christmas morning to fit nicely with the lyrics of "Silent Night" (a song I've never really liked).

When Saint Francis of Assisi first requested permission of Pope Honorius III to re-present the Birth of Jesus, his biographer, Tomaso di Celano, tells us the Poverello wanted "to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass" (First Life, XXX.84). While we have tended to shy away from these hardships, the Italians have taken to displaying the Birth of Jesus in the context of everyday life in all of its normalcy.

Certainly it might be argued the Italians sometimes take this too far (as they do with many things), but nobody likes drama as much as an Italian, and what could be more dramatic than the village drunk in the Nativity?

This dramatization of the early hours of Christmas morning, while distasteful to American sensibilities, may be intended as a stark reminder of the reality of our sin and the very reason the Father sent his Son to be born of the Virgin. As I preached yesterday"the message of our sinful condition, then, and of our salvation from it in Christ, lies at the heart of the Advent message; to ignore this salvation from sin and death, is to rob Christmas of its beauty, of its wonder, and of its joy."

Perhaps the presence of the village drunk can help us appreciate anew our fallen and sinful condition and our sheer dependence upon the merciful love of God.

08 December 2016

Homily - 8 December 2016 - The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Dear brothers and sisters,

Every good parent or teacher makes use – from time to time – of an uncomfortable question to point out the wrongdoing of a child or pupil. Is this not what the Lord God did today when he “called out to the man and asked him, ‘Where are you’” (Genesis 3:9)? It cannot be held that God did not know Adam’s physical location; to make such a claim of the omniscient Creator would be absurd. It is, rather, as Saint Ambrose says: the Lord poses “not a question, but a reproof.”[1] It is as if God asks of Adam, “From what condition of goodness, beatitude and grace … have you fallen into this state of misery? You have forsaken eternal life. You have entombed yourself in the ways of sin and death.”

The Church’s tradition calls this forsaking of eternal life the original sin by which

man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of original holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God,” but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God.”[2]

It is this same forsaking of eternal life, this same original sin, that each one of us has inherited from Adam and Eve, our first parents. This is why Saint Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men have sinned” (Romans 5:12).

If we spend even a small amount of time considering our own sinfulness, we know the effects of this original sin all too well. “It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin.”[3] It is this inclination toward sin from which each of us suffers and why Saint Augustine famously called us walking fomes peccati, walking tinderboxes of sin.[4]

This seems to us a strange message to hear as we find ourselves in the midst of our preparations for Christmas. We expect to hear a more hopeful and joyful message, forgetting that “oft hope is born, when all is forlorn.”[5] The truth of our fallen and sinful condition lies at the heart of the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31). When Gabriel spoke to Saint Joseph, he told the husband of Mary to name her child Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

The Archangel’s announcements to both Saint Joseph and to Holy Mary come as the great and long-awaited prophecy which the Lord God said that vile and wicked serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers” (Genesis 3:15). Christ Jesus, the offspring of Mary, the second Eve and whose Birth we celebrate at Christmas, struck at the serpent and defeated him with the weapon of the Cross. This is why Saint Paul says “as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). The message of our sinful condition, then, and of our salvation from it in Christ, lies at the heart of the Advent message; to ignore this salvation from sin and death, is to rob Christmas of its beauty, of its wonder, and of its joy.

Today we celebrate a foundational aspect in the life of one of those whom Jesus saved from sin as we give thanks to God for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was not until 1854 that Mother Church finally defined what had long been held and believed by the faithful when Pope Pius IX solemnly declared, “the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, was, by a unique grace and privilege of Almighty God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”[6] Because of her role as the Mother of God and in order to prepare a worthy ark for the Word made Flesh, “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was persevered from all stain of original sin and by a special grace committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.”[7] It is this preservation from original sin and from its effects that the Church calls Mary’s “previent grace,” the grace given to Mary before her acceptance of the divine plan because she accepted the divine plan.[8] Mary, then, “is not merely the greatest of the saints but something altogether different and unique.”[9]

You and I, of course, have not been so graced. The Lord still calls out to us, asking, “Are you trapped in the imagined godlikeness that the serpent falsely promised you?”[10] His simple question, “Where are you?” is really an invitation for us “to make admission of [our] faults” and be reconciled to God so we might lift our eyes towards him and gaze upon the beauty of his face.[11]

Like Adam and Eve, we are often hesitant to admit our sin to the Lord; we hide from him and so deprive ourselves of his presence. But the Lord, in his infinite mercy, does not abandon us; rather, he sent his Son, born of the Virgin Mary, to call out to us, “From what condition of goodness, beatitude and grace … have you fallen into this state of misery? You have forsaken eternal life. You have entombed yourself in the ways of sin and death. Let me lead you forth into the kingdom of light” (cf. Colossians 1:13).

Mary shows us how to listen to the call of the Lord, how to give a generous response to him, and how to entrust ourselves entirely to the Lord’s loving mercy so that we might no longer live in a miserable condition. In these days of Advent, she calls us to place ourselves “within the orbit of her holy life.”[12] She desires to enfold us within the mantle of her love and to look upon us as our Mother (cf. John 19:27). It is within the orbit of Mary’s holy life that the disciple of Jesus wishes to enter; “here he wants to dwell, to breathe, to become quiet, and to receive comfort and strength to continue his life with renewed courage.”[13] Let each of us strive to wait with Mary so that we might welcome her Child when he comes and say with her, “May it be done to me according to your word” and live a life “holy and without blemish before him” (Luke 1:38; Ephesians 1:4). Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, De Paradiso, 14.70. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. I: Genesis 1-11. Andrew Louth, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 84.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 398. Emphasis original.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Continentia, 3.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings, 5.9, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 859.
[6] Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 411.
[8] Roman Missal, Prayer Over the Offerings of the Mass for Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
[9] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer. Leopold of Loewenstein-Wertheim, trans. (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press), 155.
[10] Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, 2.26.1. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. I, 84.
[11] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 17.22. In ibid., 85.
[12] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying, 159.
[13] Ibid.

07 December 2016

The forgotten winter weakness

Because of my studies in Rome, this winter is effectively the first winter I have known in two years and eleven months. I cannot say that I have missed winter. There were, of course, times I was chilly in Rome, but never a time I was cold enough for my eyes or ears to hurt when I stepped outside.

A good part of my dislike of winter, though not all of it, stems from my arthritis which is mostly aggravated by the cold and damp. Aside from keeping the joints warm, there is not much that can be done about this.

When I popped over into the church this morning to unlock the doors and prepare for the 6:30 a.m. Mass, I had to laugh at my own frailty and my slow adjusting back to life in winter.

I awoke this morning feeling well-rested (thanks to a new space heater that keeps my bedroom toasty at night) without any joint pain or soreness, for which I was grateful. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I nearly collapsed straight down as I genuflected to the Eucharistic Lord. Though my joints this morning are not sore, my body is weaker than I realized, a result of what I call the winter weakness, something I had apparently forgotten about. As my right knee went down, requiring my left knee to bear my weight, my left knee decided to go down, as well. Fortunately, I realized what was happening quickly enough and was able to use my arms to slow my descent, making for a somewhat graceful collapse as I laughed aloud.

As you go about your day and encounter people who might be moving more slowly than you would like, try to be patient with them; they might have the winter weakness and their bodies may not be moving as quickly as they would like (this is something I have to remind myself of in the summer months when I feel mostly well). I find that my body is not quite ready to move the way I would like it to until about 10:00 a.m. now, when the winter weakness wears off. Being an early riser, this gives me some five hours to move about with greater care and at a slower pace than normal, and more opportunities to laugh at my own frailty while pondering the Lord's goodness to me.

06 December 2016

Why is Saint Nicholas the patron of children?

As part of my ministry as Parochial Vicar of St. Agnes Parish, I try to visit each of the grade school classes at least once each month. Sometimes I can do so, and sometimes I cannot.

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of visiting with one of the third grade classes who asked me to talk to them about Saint Nicholas, today being his feast day.

I began, of course, with the biographical basics, that he was Bishop of Myra and how he gave generously to women so they could have dowries. I then told them about Saint Nicholas' presence at the Council of Nicea, which the St. Nicholas Center describes as follows:
Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. Arius forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully.

As Arius vigorously continued, Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear what he believed was essential being attacked. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked. It was unbelievable that a bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. They brought Nicholas to Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his presence, in this case, the bishops themselves must determine the punishment.

The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop's garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.

Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared,* asking, "Why are you in jail?" "Because of my love for you," Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night.

When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop's robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed. Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.
The children, of course, were surprised when I told them that Nicholas hit Arius in the face, but they seemed more surprised at what Arius taught.

Arius famously spread his heresy with something of a jingle that sang, "There was a time when he [Jesus] was not." The surprise - and even shock - of the children at this line surprised me.

I asked them why Arius' words bothered them so much and they told me it meant that Jesus could not be with us all of the time. When I pressed them a bit further, they told me that if what Arius said was true, it meant that Jesus is not the Son of God. These third-graders are right, of course, and have greater theological sense than most adults today. Perhaps this is also why Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, among others.

04 December 2016

Islamic State Ongoing Updates - December 2016

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9 December 2016

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1 December 2016

Homily - The Second Sunday of Advent - 4 December 2016

The Second Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

In these days, we make use of the color violet – which we usually call purple – because of its long association with a spirit of repentance and royal majesty. Advent is marked by a joyful penitence because we await with eager expectation the coming of Christ our King. Our hearts are joyful because we know the Lord is coming again in his glory, yet our hearts are also filled with trepidation because “with the breath of his mouth he shall slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

The Lord will not judge us as we so often judge others, which is cause for joy; he will not judge us on our appearance or on what others say about us, but on the measure of our love, which is cause for trepidation (cf. Isaiah 11:3). Justice shall indeed flourish in his days because he is himself the Sun of Justice, the Radiant Dawn to whom we look, “his dwelling shall be glorious,” and in his light all things will be revealed (cf. Malachi 3:20; Isaiah 11:3-10). This is why we must heed the words of the prophets Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord [and] make straight his paths” (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3).

We prepare his way when we repent, when we turn from our sins and turn again toward Christ. This is the very message of the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)! The Baptizer does not make a mere suggestion, but speaks a word of command; he speaks in the imperative, saying, metanoeite, a word that means “to change one’s mind or perspective.” John “is calling for a complete change in thinking and conduct – [a] decisive, fundamental change of direction in one’s life.”[1]

Saint Bonaventure tells us John the Baptist “admonished us to prepare ourselves according to the threefold excellence of [Jesus’] qualities,” saying:

First because [Jesus] is the wisest master, we prepare ourselves as disciples longing to believe the master, who teaches through the submission of the intellect. Second, because he is the most powerful king we prepare ourselves as dutiful servants to obey the commander in carrying out actions. Third, because he is the most just judge we prepare us as penitent men to respond to the judge by correcting shortcomings.[2]

This is the proper task of these days of preparation for the great solemnity of Christmas; everything else is secondary.

The people responded in great numbers to John’s call to a complete turnaround in life because they recognized him not simply as a prophet, but as the prophet – indeed, the last of the prophets – who heralded the coming of God himself. They recognized this in three ways: in his preaching, in his clothing, and in his location.

In that passage gloriously rendered in Handel’s Messiah, Isaiah said, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah: ‘Behold your God’” (Isaiah 40:9)! When he pointed to the Lord Jesus near Bethany, John the Baptist cried out, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)! He went on to say, “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34). The people also recognized the great prophet had come in Saint John’s clothing. They knew the great prophet Elijah “wore a garment of haircloth, with a belt of leather about his waist” (II Kings 1:8). The Lord God also revealed through his prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 [3:23]). Even the location of John’s preaching signaled a moment of great importance, for it was at the River Jordan that the Lord healed Naaman of his leprosy, where Elijah was taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot, and through which the Lord led his people after their wandering of forty years into the Promised Land (cf. II Kings 5:1-4, 2:1-11, and Joshua 3:1-17). Later in his ministry, Jesus made the connection between John the Baptist and the return of Elijah explicit when he said, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:13-14; cf. Matthew 17:10-13).

Recognizing the truth of John’s words, they streamed toward him to receive his baptism “as they acknowledged their sins” (Matthew 3:6). We, too, need to hear the call of the Baptist to acknowledge our sins and confess them to the Lord; we, too, need to repent and reorient our lives toward Jesus; we, too, need to make the decisive, fundamental change to believe, to serve, and to follow Jesus in all things. By doing so, we prepare the way for him and make our hearts worthy of becoming glorious dwellings for the Lord. We must remember that “if the way of interior dwelling is not prepared well, Christ will not come to us nor will we be able to meet Christ.”[3] We spend so much time and energy preparing to receive and welcome our family and friends into our homes, and rightly so; but how much more time and energy ought we spend preparing our souls to receive the Divine Guest!

We best prepare the home of our hearts for him by hastening to the confessional to make a good confession of our sins. When we do so, he removes whatever keeps us from him. In the honest and humble confession of sins, the Lord’s justice flourishes, his peace is felt, and we are strengthened by his love to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” (cf. Psalm 72:7; Matthew 3:8). Beg the Holy Spirit, then, to help you examine your conscience, to reveal your sins to you, your failures to love, and to help you make a worthy confession of your sins; if you open your heart to his promptings, he will lead you to be reconciled to the Lord and to his Church so you can look with wonder upon the Face of him who is love together with all who are his friends. It is only when we are reconciled to the Lord and to one another that can we truly await the coming of the Lord with the joy and eagerness proper to this season of Advent.

A few days ago, I met with a young couple to begin preparing them for their marriage. At one point in our conversation, they asked if I would hear confessions after their wedding rehearsal. They asked this because they want to enter the sacrament of marriage cleansed of their sins to be able to reflect the love of Jesus to each other and to the world. It was a beautiful and humble request, one I will be very happy to honor. How I wish we would all imitate their example in these days of Advent to prepare our hearts to be worthy dwellings for the Lord when he comes!

Saint John warns us today that “even now the ax lies at the root of the trees” and that “every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down” (Matthew 3:10). A great error has emerged today and is present in the minds of too many people. This error says something like this: “God is great. He knows us, so sin does not count; in the end God will be kind to us all. It is a beautiful hope,” but it misses something rather important. It forgets that “both justice and true guilt exist. Those who have destroyed man and the earth cannot suddenly sit down at God’s table together with their victims. God creates justice. We must keep this in mind.”[4] We must remember that, as Pope Francis reminds us, “everyone, sooner or later, will be subject to God’s judgment, from which no one can escape.”[5] This is why Saint John warns us today that the Lord’s “winnowing fan is in his hand” (Matthew 3:12) and why he calls us to repent. His call to repentance is one of hope, because the same Lord who comes to “strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth” also comes with “faithfulness [as] a belt upon his hips” (Isaiah 11:5).

Let each of us, then, prepare the way of the Lord by entering the confessional to cast off all that is unworthy of Christ and so live fully, truly, and joyfully as we await the blessed coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, of him who is our only true and lasting hope. Amen.

[1] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 62.
[2] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 7. In Works of St. Bonaventure: The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure. Timothy J. Johnston, trans. (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2008), 104.
[3] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 11.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Rome, 7 February 2008.
[5] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 19.

29 November 2016

A few words at the Capitol City Nativity Blessing

This afternoon I was present in the Illinois capitol building for the annual Capitol City Nativity Blessing, at which I was invited to say a few words, the text of which was as follows:

Capitol City Nativity Blessing

As we gather around the crèche displayed in this Capitol building, it is as if we have heeded the call of those ancient shepherds who said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15). This “thing,” of course, is what the choir of angels announced to them, namely, the Birth of the Son of God and of Mary.

The reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore
Centuries later, though many centuries before us, Saint Jerome – who heeded the cry of the shepherds and moved to Bethlehem to be near the place where the Lord Jesus was born - once cried out in frustration, “Oh, if only I could see that manger in which the Lord was laid!”[1] A very good grumbler, though a holy one, he went on to complain, saying: 

As a tribute of honor, we Christians have now removed the mud-baked [reliquary] and replaced it with a silver one; but the one that has been removed is more precious to me! Silver and gold are appropriate for the pagan world: the manger of baked mud is more fitting for the Christian faith.[2]

Pilgrims who visit the relic of the manger now housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome know something of what Jerome complained as they peer in between the sparkle and shine of the silver and gold to behold the wood of the manger.

The chapel at Greccio
Centuries after Saint Jerome, and yet still centuries before us, Saint Francis of Assisi also desired to heed the cry of the shepherds and see the place where the Lord Jesus was born and the manger in which he was laid. Moreover, he wanted to help others do the same. This is why in 1223 he asked Pope Honorious III for permission to fulfill his desire “to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass.”[3]

Nearly eight centuries later, Catholics are still erecting Nativities in their homes, churches, and in public places so everyone who looks upon them might spiritually go to Bethlehem with the shepherds and see the manger in which the Lord Jesus was laid. Happily, this tradition is now embraced by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, as well, who join us in using statues both small and large to envision what those shepherds beheld that caused them to return to their fields “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” as a way to enter more fully into the mystery of the Lord’s Birth (Luke 2:20).

It is curious to note that Saint Francis requested two additions to our Nativity displays that neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark mention in their Infancy narratives. These, of course, are the ox and the ass. Why, then, did Francis want them included? Many centuries before Saint Francis, Saint Jerome, and well before the Birth of Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).

The ox and the ass seem to ask all who pass by, “Do you know your Master? Do you understand and know his love?” They call us to ponder the tremendous love God displays for us in his Incarnation and to recognize that “God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us, and continue to work through us.”[4]

Let us pray, then, that everyone who looks upon this crèche and manger, ourselves included, might know their Master, allow themselves to be touched by and understand his love, and by imitating this self-less love, allow it to work through them in all they say and do.

On behalf of the Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki, Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, I thank you for your efforts here today and for the public witness of your faith, and I wish you a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

[1] Saint Jerome, Homily on the Nativity of the Lord, 31. In Advent and Christmas with the Church Fathers. Marco Pappalardo, ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010), 52.
[2] Ibid.
[3] In Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84. In Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles. Catherine Bolton, trans. (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva), 80-81.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 December 2005.

The desire of prophets and kings

The Lord Jesus says to his disciples today, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it" (Luke 10:23-24). What was it these prophets and kings desired to see and hear?

The Prophet Isaiah said, "I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him" (Isaiah 8:17). King David prayed, "Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your merciful love" (Psalm 31:16)! The prophets and kings, then, longed to look upon the face of God and to hear his voice.

This desire to look upon God's face runs like a thread through all of the texts of the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments. After Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a group of Greeks approached the Apostle Saint Philip and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus" (John 12:21). Does not this same desire reside deep within our hearts, as well? Do we not also wish to see Jesus, to look upon what kings and prophets desired to see?

We know that this desire will be granted to us with the Second Coming of Christ Jesus, which we now await with eager expectation in these days of Advent. Saint Paul says, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (I Corinthians 13:12). The Apostle Saint John says, "they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads" (Revelation 22:4).

With the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Lord God has indeed revealed his Face to us in Jesus the Christ. This is why Jesus said to  Saint Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The ancient desire of prophets and kings to see the face of God has been granted in the Son of God and of Mary.

What is more, the Lord Jesus has left us a foretaste of the Beatific Vision of his Holy Face on a piece of byssus, once housed in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and now housed in the Basilica of the Holy Face in Manoppello:

This Face is the desire of prophets and kings. Knowing that this Face is our deep desire, as well, the Lord, in his merciful love, he has left an image of his Face for us, to gaze upon, to marvel at, and to ponder until he comes again in his glory with his angels (cf. Matthew 25:31). It is this veil that the Apostle Saint Peter found in the tomb (cf. John 20:6-7). When he looked upon this handkerchief, Saint John "saw and believed" in the Resurrection of the Lord (John 20:8).

Let us, then, in these days of Advent, cry out to the Lord with the words of the hymn, "O Come, Divine Messiah":
Dear Savior, haste!Come, come to earth.Dispel the night and show your face,and bid us hail the dawn of grace.
O come, divine Messiah;the world in silence waits the daywhen hope shall sing its triumphand sadness flee away.
May the Lord come quickly. May he not delay. May he grant us the full vision of the beauty of his Face!

27 November 2016

Homily - 27 November 2016 - The First Sunday of Advent

The First Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The older I get, the more I dislike winter. I have never enjoyed the cold temperatures, or the ice and snow, but what I dislike the most is the weeks and months of darkness, which feels more oppressive with the passage of years. A few days ago I was sitting at my desk in my office in the rectory trying to clear out the e-mail inbox, when I happened to look up and outside through the window. It was about 6:00 in the evening and utterly black. A tremendous yawn overtook me and I yearned for the return of the sun because I was ready to crawl back into bed. Perhaps you’ve been there, too.

Sadly, the sense of an encroaching darkness is not only to be found in the natural world, but also in the hearts of men and women. We sing in our carols that this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but how did many seek to enter into the joy of the season? With self-absorption and violence. As Americans, we have willfully allowed the national holy day of Black Friday to become the highlight of the year and rob families of their loved ones when we are supposed to give thanks together for our common gifts. If we are honest, this is a natural progression stemming from the day when we, as a society, decided that Sunday was no longer to be a day dedicated to God and to family.

I once worked in a toy store as the Parental Video Game Adviser at a time when the Friday after Thanksgiving was known as Green Friday because many stores took in more than half of their annual income that day. Now that day is known as Black Friday, supposedly because stores now begin to operate in the black instead of the read. Still, I cannot help but wonder if this change in name is not somehow related to – or indicative of - a change in our hearts, a change not for the better.

To understand what I mean, consider the following events that all took place in these United States of America in connection with Black Friday shopping: a man was shot dead and a woman injured in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas because the deceased told another man to stop grabbing a woman by her hair; two people were shot in Chattanooga, Tennessee after an argument about merchandise broke out in a mall; one man was killed and another wounded in Atlantic City, New Jersey while standing in line outside a store waiting for the “door buster savings;” a man was shot dead in Reno, Nevada because of a parking space dispute; another man was killed in Memphis, Tennessee while shopping in a mall; and customers fought over washcloths selling for $1.60 in Bainbridge, Georgia and broke out in a brawl.[1] Is this the joy of the season? Is this what it is all about? Is this really the most wonderful time of the year? Does this not show a darkening of our hearts?

In the midst of the darkness of these days, I find myself repeating a line J.R.R. Tolkien gave to Aragorn at Helm’s Deep: “Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.”[2] The ancient Christians prayed looking toward the east; even in their homes they would look out an eastward facing window when making the sign of the Cross and saying their prayers. They did so in the confidence of the return of “the one Morning Star who never sets,” Christ Jesus, “who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity.”[3] They looked to the east because they knew that dawn is ever the hope of men. They looked not simply the dawning of a new day, but for the dawning of the coming of the Lord Jesus with his angels; they lived in eager expectation of his coming and sought not to be caught unawares lest he come as a thief in the night. Can the same be said of us?

This season of Advent, then, has as its chief aim two purposes: first, a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, and, second, a preparation to celebrate his Birth at Bethlehem. The temptation today is to anticipate too early Christmas Day at the expense of our spiritual growth. In many families, the Christmas tree and the Nativity set have already been raised and will be taken down shortly after Christmas dinner, in stark contrast to the liturgical year, which celebrates Christmas beginning not until Christmas Day and continues through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year the ninth of January.

It seems we have forgotten this rich season that calls us to wait, to be still, to ponder, and to hope for the dawn. The Church “raises its gaze to the final goal of pilgrimage in history, which is the glorious return of the Lord Jesus” and, recalling Jesus’ “birth in Bethlehem with emotion, it bends down before the crib. The hope of Christians is directed to the future, but always remains well rooted in a past event.”[4]

Too often we lose sight of both of these directions – the future and the past - in the hustle and bustle of worldly life and are caught up in the present. Advent calls us to step beyond this busy-ness, to contemplate anew the great love of the Lord Jesus who “shall judge between the nations and impose terms on many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

Our communal neglect of Advent in favor of the maddening greed of Black Friday “seems especially disturbing – for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.”[5] We find ourselves surrounded by

More Christmas trees.  More Christmas lights.  More tinsel, more tassels, more glitter, more glee – until the glut of candles and carols, ornaments and trimmings, has left almost nothing for Christmas Day. For much of America, Christmas itself arrives nearly as an afterthought: not the fulfillment, but only the end, of the long Yule season that has burned without stop since the stores began their Christmas sales.[6]

Is this not what the Lord Jesus warns against when he tells us that we also “must be prepared, for at an hour [we] do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24:44)?

It is too easy for us to give in to the temptations that surround us, to focus on the commercialism and materialism of the culture in which we find ourselves, and ignore this season of grace in which we should be stirring ourselves from our faithlessness and from our sluggish spiritual sleep (cf. Romans 13:11). We must instead focus on Jesus, on keeping his commands by loving God and neighbor in every circumstance, and prepare to meet him when at last he comes to judge the living and the dead.

If you have done everything that was asked of you and are prepared for it, then you have nothing to fear, but if you have not, then look out! Paul is not trying to frighten his hearers but to encourage them, so as to detach them from their love of the things of this world. It was not unlikely that at the beginning of their endeavors they would be more dedicated and slacken off as time went on. But Paul wants them to do the opposite – not to slacken as time goes on but to become even more dedicated. For the nearer the King is, the more they ought to be ready to receive him.[7]

So long as there is yet another dawn, there is time for us to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).

Let us, then, keep these days of Advent well, not in the anticipation of the gifts we will exchange on Christmas Day, but in gratitude for the gift of the Lord’s mercy given us in his Birth at Bethlehem and in expectation of his return in glory. Just a few days ago, His Holiness Pope Francis gave us a bit of wise fatherly advice. He encouraged us to spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, with the Eucharistic Lord present in his tabernacle, and to make a simple prayer: “You are God; I am a poor child loved by You.”[8]

If we make this prayer our own, the Lord will help us remember the many ways we have failed to love both God and neighbor. With these sins in our minds and hearts, we can enter the confessional and entrust ourselves again to God’s merciful love. We will leave the confessional with a lightened and joyful heart and “the dawn from high shall break upon us” (Luke 1:78). Then, this will truly be the most wonderful time of the year.  Amen.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings, 3.7 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 524.
[3] “Exultet,” Roman Missal.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 27 November 2005.
[5] Joseph Bottum, “The End of Advent,” First Things (December 2007), 20.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 23. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. VI: Romans. Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 321.