Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Come, Holy Spirit (Advent edition)

Tuesday of the 1st Week of Advent
29 November 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

Today's prophecy from Isaiah, a classic Advent prophecy, focuses on the gift of peace that the coming of the Son of man will bestow.  Peace will be a gift from the one who has the fullness of God's Spirit.  Isaiah prophesies the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, which will be poured into the human nature of Jesus as the Father's gift to His Son.

One of the most profound prayers of the Christmas season is for peace.  The Holy Father always prepares the World Day of Prayer for Peace message for January 1st during the Christmas season.  To pray for peace in the Christmas season means a recognition that a real and lasting peace of which Isaiah speaks will be the fruit of the Lord's coming.  It will be God's gift to a world.  We have been through enough New Year's resolutions ourselves to know that unless the Lord gives the gift, in vain do we labor.  So too for mankind.  We see over and over man's ability to make great progress on many fronts, but so often we get dumber as quickly as we get smarter.  Moral progress and technological progress do not go hand in hand.  It is not a smart thing to create the ability to destroy ourselves, and yet that is what we do.  We may hope for human solutions toward peace, and work sincerely toward them, but asking for peace in the Christmas season teaches us that we are wise to ask for peace as God's gift, for our ability to receive peace is greater than our ability to produce it.

Perhaps today is a good day for us to meditate on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christmas story and Christmas mysteries.  The Holy Spirit who overshadows the great Advent prophets, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, can also help us listen to them.  Advent invites us to start again at the beginning, and to recognize that before the Holy Spirit can sent us out at Pentecost, He must prepare a fertile ground in our hearts for the Lord's coming.  Come, Holy Spirit, and with your seven-fold gifts descend, and prepare your Church to celebrate the mystery of the Lord's incarnation.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

God get down here!

1st Sunday of Advent B
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
27 November 2011
Daily Readings

Advent challenges God to do something. This is the prayer of the Israelites who are suffering the Babylonian exile. God get down here. God do something! God be true to your promise to be our Father. What kind of Father are you anyway? Have you forgotten about us God? God quit hiding your face. God get down here now and do something for us.

How different is this prayer from Isaiah than the prayers we usually say to God? What do we say? God give me more time. God keep your distance and I will get around to what's important. Forget about me God, so I can go about my own business.

Advent is waking up to the reality that the only thing scarier than God messing with our lives, with God coming closer, is God keeping his distance. That is truly terrifying. For God keeping his distance does not bring us relief and freedom, it brings terror and the slavery of our own limitations. Advent is waking up to the reality that deep down, we want God to come closer, to come sooner. Advent is praying God to come as close to us as we are to ourselves, and actually meaning it.

Why do human persons go extreme? Why do we watch UFC fighting, love watching football players crash into each other, love sky diving and horror movies? Not everyone loves these things, but behind them lies the human passion for living on the edge. Why do we do this? Why do we not seek security above all things? Why not be as conservative as possible, since life is worth conserving? It is because we all know that to stop living radically and vertically, to stop living on the edge, is to fall asleep. It is to die an early death. Indeed, only those who are near death can tell others what it means to be fully alive.

Advent fights against this temptation to fall asleep when life is only really starting, to give up on ourselves by settling for less. Advent in the liturgical year corresponds to nightfall, when we are tempted to think the day is over and things are done happening. Advent says no way. Just as scientists look for smaller and smaller particles to unlock the mysteries of the universe, just as the one possession that will determine the fate of the KU basketball team this March depends on what they learn in practice today, so also for us the spark that will light our spiritual lives on fire, and enable us to be a saint, depends upon our not letting ourselves fall asleep, not allowing the darkness to cave in on us. When we are tempted to think that there are no new sparks in our lives, Advent tells us to stay awake. Be ready. We do not know the hour when the Lord is coming.

Advent is the choice we make between intensifying our life or falling asleep. Advent is the difference between thinking our best moments are behind us, versus knowing that our biggest conversion is still ahead of us. Advent is knowing that when the Christ child was born in the dark town of Bethlehem at the darkest hour of the darkest night, only those with the purest faith were awake to see it.

Advent is knowing that the only way to really see if we are alive is not diving out of an airplane, or seeing Paranormal Activity 3. These might work for a second. But if we really want intensity, and want to live life in the most radical away, living on the edge moment to moment, instead of just giving up and falling asleep, we will invite God to come closer, and to come sooner, and actually mean it. Dare to stop asking God for more time and more space. Instead, ask him for the opposite. Ask him to be your coach, your friend who believes in you more than you believe in yourself, your accountability partner who refuses to let you fail. Dare him to mold you intoa saint at a faster pace than the self-improvement plan you are currently on. It might sound terrifying, but consider the alternative. Who want to fall asleep, and give up, when life is only beginning?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The king who lays down his life

Solemnity of Christ the King
20 November 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

Michael Jackson.  Elvis.  Simba.  Lebron.  There are lots of kings out there.  We love them.  We love anointing kings who are unstoppable within their temporal kingdom.  But we also love to bring them down.  In a country that was founded by the desire to topple a king, we probably take more pleasure in seeing kings fall than in anointing them.  Paterno, Gill and Pinkel are all under fire, though for different reasons.  Mubarak, bin Laden, and Qaddafi are tyrants and terrorists toppled in the Arab spring.  Lohan and Kardashian are under fire in the tabloids.  Anointing and toppling leaders in politics is perhaps America's greatest pasttime of all.  It's embarrassing really, how much time and energy we devote to anointing kings, and how much pleasure we take in seeing them fall.  Most of us get too caught up in it, to our own shame.

Today's solemnity ends the liturgical year for us by trying to set things straight.  There is only one king.  There is only one whose reign is unstoppable, whose kingdom extends beyond the time and space of the universe, only one kingdom that is so universal and eternal that legions of angels rejoice in proclaiming its glory.  That is the kingdom of Jesus Christ our King.  Whenever we say the name of Jesus, the name of the one who saves by shedding his blood for his subjects, we proclaim him to be the Christ, the anointed one.  Jesus Christ.  Jesus the Lord.  Jesus our King.  Today's feast proclaims with incomparable joy the reality of a kingdom that not even a king with the power to launch a nuclear weapon can destroy.  It is a kingdom founded on truth and love, on justice and peace.  To this king alone belongs the power to judge the world, as today's Scriptures state clearly.  It is to this king alone, that every knee should bend, in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.  (Ph 2:10).

The incomparable power of this king, however, lies not only in His ability to rule and to judge and to dominate, but in its opposite.  The Lord cautioned the Isralites that earthly kings are sinful and dangerous, but when they still insisted that someone by anointed to rule over them, the Lord turned their sinful wish into a blessing, into a promise of a king who would rule longer than any king before or after.  Yet the king that was sent was mysterious beyond imagination, a king recognizable only by the eyes of faith, a king born out in the cold,a king who rode into his capital city on a donkey,  a king who forewent a secret service or army, and instead handed himself over to the hands of his enemies, and at his weakest moment was mocked as Ieusus Nazarenus Rex Ieudaeorum.  This is how the Lord himself came to rule, by showing that the greatest power a king could show is to give himself over in love to those who hate him.  This power alone is a power greater than the power of the Big Bang that created the universe, for this power of sacrificial love is the ground of all reality, and is the foundation of a kingdom of love and truth, justice and peace, that alone is universal and eternal. 

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive the scroll and break open the seals (Rev 5:9).  It is our King's ability to lay his life down in love, to be the lamb who was slain, that is the foundation of his judgment of the world.  The sacrifice precedes the judgment.  The mercy which is the heart of God is why we proclaim our King to be most worthy on this great solemnity.  Worthy is the lamb.  Worthy is our King who was not afraid to be a lamb.  This king is to be praised and adored above all forever.  Amen.  This solemnity must be for us a solemnity of the highest praise, when we forsake all our false kings and idols, and proclaim the Lord to be the King who alone is worthy.  Jesus is not proclaimed king today because he is like any earthly rule that came before him; he is proclaimed king because he is the new and eternal definition of what a king really is. 

You didn't see this on the mainstream media, but Pope Benedict, that old man with just a few acres of territory and an annual budget less than that of a single American university like Harvard or Notre Dame, an old man who has no army, outdrew both President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, and Prince William, whose wedding to Princess Kate made him the most popular this year.  Both men outdrew the Pope on tv, but I was there when our old and frail Holy Father drew 2.2 million to Madrid for the World Youth Days, the largest crowd in the world this year.  I was there, and I saw it, a small glimpse of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is more vast and powerful and eternal than any nation or kingdom on this earth ever was or ever will be.  Let us pray with earnest for our Holy Father and his brother bishops, who are so unworthy of the task of governing and shepherding and making visible this kingdom of Jesus Christ, so that people may believe in it and belong to it.  Let us help them by taking up the kingly identity and mission given to us at our baptism, for as long as we help build the kingdom of Christ, the Lord shares the dignity of his kingship with us.  By virtue of our baptism, we are kings, so let us act like kings after the example of Jesus Christ.  Let us forsake the temptation to anoint anyone, or to delight in the downfall of anyone, whose kingship is not rooted in the kingship of Jesus Christ.  For he alone is worthy of our anointing and our loyal and obedient service, and no one can be a king, unless they belong to Him, the king of kings, and the Lord of Lords, forever and ever.  Amen. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

quit hoarding your faith

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A
13 November 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

A good wife is invaluable.  Those guys who are called to marriage do well to 'marry above yourself' as they say.  A good Catholic man seeking a holy wife has the deck stacked in his favor.  There are more women in college than men these days, and women are naturally more receptive in the things that belong to God.  Men perhaps have it too easy these days.  There was a time, so I hear, when a man would have to pursue a wife with reckless abandon to have any chance at all.  Courtship, especially on the part of men, has lost so much of what made it beautiful.  It's too casual these days.  There is a real need to teach men how to be men, and how to desire a holy wife.  At any rate, that is not what the reading from Proverbs is about.  It is about the treasure of being a holy woman, a woman who fears the Lord.  Her life is incomparably fruitful.  The proverb is to be a great encouragement to any women called to marriage, that being holy will pay off with great dividends.  A favorite facebook posting of mine shared among women is that a woman is to be so holy that any man has to meet Christ and fall in love with him if he is to have any chance in meeting her.

Today's Gospel flies in the face of the current protests against income inequality.  The protests are legitimate.  The economic system fails many people, by putting the poor at great risk of losing what they have, and insulating the rich from the risks that they take.  The economic system does not place enough economic decisions in the real economy in the hands of real people.  It's important that injustices and corruption be addressed.  It shouldn't surprise us, however, that the economy, while it is the #1 concern of politicians, is not the top concern of our Lord.

After an initial unequal distribution of talents, Jesus makes it worse by taking the last talent from the lazy servant and giving it to the richest.  Talk about redistribution in the wrong direction.  From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.   Before you capitalists out there rejoice too much that Jesus agrees with a free market survival of the fittest, people are paid what they're worth mentality, need I remind you of all the times Jesus cautions about trusting in wealth, and God's preference for those who are poor.  Jesus is making a different point here.  Faith buried is faith lost.  Divine life that is not given away is divine life that is wasted.

That is the same as saying that a faith that is merely private is not faith at all, that seeking a faith in God that works only personally for me is making God in my image, not being receptive to the greater gifts He wants to bestow upon his bride, the Church.  If you ask me whether I would rather be spiritual or religious, I would say I would rather be religious every time.  Despite the trappings and sinfulness of institutional and organized religion, of which many are rightfully suspicious, sharing faith with others and living faith with others and believing in God together is the only way that faith can exponentialy grow.  If I horde my faith for myself, it is worth nothing.

John Paul II referred to this as the 'law of the gift.'  Your faith in God will grow precisely to the extent that you give it away.  This also pertains to evangelization and living the grace of our Confirmation, for by that grace we are all filled with the Spirit to the point of overflowing, and yet too often we try to control that Spirit and find the minimum we can do.  Lest this law of the gift become too generically understood, the Holy Spirit is the teacher who shows us precisely how we can make Jesus Christ and his redeeming love more present and real in the exact circumstances of our lives.  There is a mission given to us that has been entrusted to no one else, a vocation that we ignore to our own peril.  To make it more precise, none of us should have as our goal in life just being good enough to get ourselves into heaven.  This is pathetic thinking.  No, our goal is to be holy enough to bring one other person with us to heaven.  The difference between the former and the latter is like night and day.  How easily do we settle for mediocrity when we are thinking about only our own salvation?  Yet if we were all working for the salvation of another, the world could not contain the fire.

Let us pray for our Catholic students at KU.  So poor is the catechesis we have given them, so little have we taught them about the real grace of confirmation, how pervasive is that pressure to keep one's faith private, that easily 90% of them do not have a real chance to invest the talent of their Catholic faith into their vocation as a student at the university.  These students deserve our encouragement, support and constant prayers, for they are in real danger of having what little faith we have given them be taken away.

Finally, a word about Joe Paterno.  He is a Catholic.  His wife is the main patronness of the Catholic student center at Penn State.  As you know, he is not an abuser, but is accused of enabling an absuive assistant coach.  There have been many parallels drawn, and perhaps you have done so yourself, to the sexual abuse scandal within the Church.  In response, let us pray fervently for all victims, that they will have a chance to find healing and live happy lives in which they can trust in God and in their fellow man, and give and receive love which is the right of every human person.  Let us thank God as well, that as painful as these situations are, that it is more painful for them to remain in the dark.  I can tell you as a pastor that the scourge of sexual abuse unfortunately extends far beyond churches or youth organizations or even universities.  It is worst within our poor families, where oftentimes there are people trapped and secrets hidden for generations.  Let us pray that even as we learn more about this scourage in the most painful of ways, in seeing children hurt unnecessarily, that millions of Americans will learn that when they have a chance to stop abuse, they will, and that slowly, but surely, this scourge once hidden in darkness will be shattered by the light.  Amen. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

waiting in joyful hope

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
6 November 2011
Daily Readings

I've never met anyone more impatient than me.  Well, perhaps my dad.  For him, when he told us to be ready for Church at 9:40am, he really meant 9:20.  Whenever he arrives early at something, he wonders why everyone else is late.  So I get my impatience honestly.  For example, as soon as I calculate a route on my Google or Garmin navigator, I am driven to get there earlier than the calculated ETA. I'm passionate about beating the clock.

Being bad at patience makes it difficult to be a Christian.  We all know this, because most of us confess it.  We lose patience in all kinds of situations.  Mostly we lose patience with other people, which usually is a sign that we are frustrated with our own progress toward becoming saints.  The abbot at St. Meinrad where I went to seminary said holiness is the art of learning how to wait. He was right.  Anyone who has tried to 'hurry up' the road to sanctity realizes that it backfires every time.

There is one time in life where I like waiting however.  One time I get a kick out of it.  It is waiting for the bride to come down the aisle on her wedding day.  Maybe it's mischievous for me to say this, but I always tell the bride during rehearsal to wait as long as possible before coming down that aisle.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a priest who spends hours tinkering with the wedding liturgy, trying to get everything just right.  No, I'm one of those priests who would rather say a funeral than witness a wedding, because people are more prayerful at funerals.  I usually spend as little time as possible at a wedding rehearsal.  Yet this is one thing that I always mention.  I tell the bride to wait before coming down the aisle.  I tell her to make us wait, and to make us wait a long time.  I tell her that just when you think you can't wait anymore, to wait some more.  Make us think that perhaps you will not come, that you've changed your mind.  That is good for all of us. By this time in the wedding ceremony, I'm standing next to the groom who is waiting to receive his bride.  I want his faith and confidence tested at this moment.  He shouldn't be too overconfident going into the wedding.  What is more, the moment when his bride seems delayed gives me the occasion to tease him mercilessly.

In a modern wedding, the ceremony normally takes place in the bride's church, and waiting for the bride is the penultimate moment in the wedding ceremony, second only to the exchange of vows.  In today's first reading from the book of Wisdom, wisdom herself is personified as feminine, as a bride searching for someone to dwell with, as a bride searching for her groom.  The Gospel we have from Jesus complements this search of bride for groom, by emphasizing the other side of the equation - the groom going to meet his bride.  Unlike modern weddings, it is the journey of the groom in the Gospel, the arrival of the groom, that brings the suspense.  In Jesus' time, and thus in his story, it was the groom's duty, not the bride's, to make the final journey, and the people waited for his arrival at the doorstep of the bride.  As we hear in the Gospel, it was the role of the bridesmaids not to dote on the bride, and to get her ready, but to wait for the groom, and if he arrived at night, to light his way and show him safely through the night to his bride.  What we have in the Gospel, a time when there were no streetlights or flashlights, but only torches, is a much more dramatic scene, a bridegroom coming at night at an unexpected hour for his bride, than any drama I can create by asking the bride to wait an extra 30 seconds before coming down the aisle.

We have arrived at the point of the liturgical year when it is important for us to get better at something at which we are especially bad - waiting.  It is a specific kind of waiting that we are to foster, an expectant, joyful waiting, a dramatic waiting, rather than a passive resignation of waiting because we cannot do anything about it.  The apocalyptic readings of the end of the liturgical year will give way to Advent, and we will be challenged in both seasons to engage in active, joyful anticipation of the Lord's coming, by activating our faith, not passive, neglectful waiting characterized by the foolish virgins.  St. Paul was perhaps unlike us too ready for the Paraousia.  In his letter to the Thessalonians, he has to admit that because some Christians have fallen asleep in Christ before his second coming, that the bridegroom is apparently delayed.  Yet Paul still can't imagine that he would see death before the return of the Lord.  Where Paul is perhaps too eager, too confident in the Lord's return, we instead are too unprepared, overconfident that time is on our side. 

With the coming of the Lord at each Eucharist, his perfect coming and yet such a humble coming that without the activation of our faith, we will surely miss his coming, we have the perfect litmus test to see how wise or foolish we really are.  At the end of the Lord's prayer, the priest prays that the Church 'waits in joyful hope, for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.'  Right before receiving the Eucharist we pray that our readiness for the Lord to come at the end of time, whether this be during our lifetime or not, is dependent upon how ready we are for the bridegroom's coming in the Eucharist. May we be more ready, and be found waiting in joyful hope, to activate our faith at the reception of each Eucharist, as we end this liturgical year, and turn again in Advent toward the light that scatters every darkness.  Amen.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The adventure of a lifetime

Solemnity of All Saints
1 November 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

I've been able to do some amazing things in my life.  4 World Youth Days with the Popes, including in Paris where I got to meet John Paul II in person, and celebrated Mass with over 2 million people.  I've concelebrated with Pope Benedict on the field at Yankee Stadium.  The day I was ordained a priest was incredible.  I have been to South Africa to the World Cup.  I've celebrated Mass near the tomb of St. Peter in Rome.  I've climbed 14ers in Colorado with friends.  I was in Lawrence for the 2008 national championship.  And my latest thrill - I was at Arrowhead last night for the miracle victory over the Chargers.  That place was wild.  Absolutely nuts, like Mass street in 2008 - only with costumes.  It was an amazing thrill and so much fun to be there.  It was like I had died and gone to heaven!

However, I would have to say that as grateful as I am for these moments, I am not living my life checking off a bucket list.  This is no way for a Christian to live.  Although there are thousands of more things I would like to do and people I would like to meet and places I would like to go on this earth, I don't really have a bucket list.  There is really only one thrill that I have set my heart on, and that thrill is this.  When the saints go marching in, oh when the saints go marching in, oh how I'd like to be in that number, when the saints go marching in. 

I'm not talking about Drew Brees touchdowns, of course.  Not those saints.  And I don't mean to bring to mind the Mardi Gras debauchery that this jazzy tune about the saints sometimes arouses.  No, I am talking about the real thing.  The only remaining thrill that I need to experience, the only one I desperately want to experience, is to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.  The only thing I want to feel is what it's like to die and go to heaven. 

The promise of heaven, my friends, has to excite us, because what has been promised to us in heaven is so beautiful that we will not be able to look away from its beauty.  What has been promised is without compare in this world, for even the most beautiful and perfect moments of our lives pass away, but in heaven they will not.  There is something wrong with us if we cannot get excited about this promise, if we impoverish heaven to nothing more than bonus time to an existence we already know.  Heaven is not overtime.  Heaven is no longer measured, so the perfect moments do not pass away.  No, heaven is promised to be something quite different.  For eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned upon man, what God has in store for those who love him. 

The saints who we celebrate today on our solemnity teach us how to love heaven, and in so doing, they are able to bring heaven to earth, and to live today as we will live forever.  The saints teach us that being with God forever in heaven will hold no value in our lives if we do not enjoy being with God now.  Our bucket list will always be more important to us than seeking the kingdom of heaven, if being with God now does not excite us.  The saints teach us how to love God in our real earthly circumstances with all our heart and mind and strength, and in contemplating heaven they learned how to live outside the measurements of time and space.  Saints in a spiritual way always grow younger by contemplating heaven, because in heaven you don't get older.  In desiring heaven, saints learned how to turn the clock off that makes perfect moments of our lives fade and pass away, and instead found the key to making every moment perfect by being fulling present to that moment.

This is why we are called to love heaven.  Not because it will afford us more time to complete our bucket lists, but because heaven is the constant self-forgetfulness that makes ecstatic moments possible.  The perfect moments of our lives are those moments when we lose our sense of self in the midst of something bigger than ourselves.  Sin is nothing more than trying to make ourselves more important than the reality present to us, it is trying to assert self-importance when self-forgetfulness is the path to real freedom.  Death is the just punishment for sin, for it puts an end to the sinner's ability to grow older and older and older by making life smaller and smaller and smaller through our own measurements.

Again, what makes the perfect moments of our lives so great is that we forget about ourselves.  This is what love is, to throw away our own will.  This is why a saint does not need a bucket list.  A saint knows how to forget himself habitually, and is able to put away his calculator and stopwatch, and instead is able to be perfectly present to the reality in front of him.  Saints learn to do this by loving heaven, where things are not measured. 

Halloween is such a fun holiday because it gives life to the idea that we can become whomever we want to be.  Although pagan and immature on the surface, Halloween's tradition of costuming points to a desire deep within to become something we are not.  That desire, I submit to you, is to become a saint, to become our best selves and everything we ever promised ourselves we would be.  The saints are those friends of ours who when faced with every circumstance and rationalization that we face, still continued to that great adventure of life that in losing our lives we will begin to truly live.  We should remember on All Saints Day that becoming the saint we were meant to be is an adventure that makes our bucket lists look silly.  They key is not to have many perfect moments in life, but to become a saint who knows how to make this moment perfect.  Amen.