Saturday, December 24, 2011

don't be afraid of this baby!

Solemnity of Christmas
Mass at Midnight
St. Frances Cabrini Church
Hoxie, Kansas
24 December 2011
Daily Readings

We might be more afraid of babies today than Herod was at the birth of Jesus.  Granted, Herod had some reason to be alarmed.  There were signs in the heavens that this new child had armies of angels in his corner that could make even the most fearsome armies of Caesar panic.  Still, Herod was afraid of a baby.  He felt threatened by a helpless little baby!  But what about us?  Are we afraid to be changed by the baby Jesus tonight?  Have we truly come here tonight not out of fear or indifference, but out of love?  We have to admit that sometimes we are changed more by the society that we live in than we are by the newborn Jesus. 

We live in a society that seems to spend more energy manufacturing or aborting babies than in seeing children as the miraculous gifts that they are.  We spend more time arguing about the redefinition of marriage and the family than in forming young people capable of the sacrifice of marriage that will make the babies that will secure our future more secure themselves. The same societies that are smart enough to build ever more impressive smart-phones are not smart enough to stop contracepting and sterilizing their economies and themselves out of eventual existence.  Herod might have been afraid of a single child.  We are in a society afraid to admit that babies are our future, and to welcome them accordingly.

Perhaps this battle first fought by Mary and Joseph, to find a place to have a baby, will be the defining struggle of our generation.  Being born in 1974, one year after Roe v. Wade, abortion in the civil-rights struggle of my generation, the struggle for the the right to be born,a battle that has yet to be won in favor of the baby.  Yet this struggle goes hand in hand with finding a real definition of what a human person is, and this is a question that our society gets more and more confused about.  We know a lot more stuff than we used to, but we are getting dumber at being able to say what a human person is.  That is why the celebration of Christmas, the welcoming of the baby Jesus into the world, is the best chance the world has to remember what it is in danger of forgetting - who we really are. 

We have a saying that to forget where you came from is to forget who you are.  How a societytreats its most vulnerable like her babies is a sure sign of whether that society still knows and serves the dignity of human persons or whether human persons are becoming less and less valuable.  For us personally, to be able to see ourselves, and to remember where we came from, when we hold a newborn child, is the key to remembering that a human being becomes a person precisely when he is recognized, remembered and loved.  And this simple but profound and irreducible definition of a human person is more evident when we are vulnerable, dependent and poor; in short, when we are like a baby.  To remain a human person, to remember who we are  by remembering where we came from, is to always be able to see ourselves as poor, vulnerable, and dependent, like a baby.   To remain focused on the one thing that matters - that we are created in love, that love is our constant calling, and that love is our perfection in heaven, is to remember that as we go through life, that to stop being a child - poor, vulnerable and dependent, is to forget who we really are.  This my friends, is what the Christmas mystery has to continually re-teach the world.  It is how the Christmas mystery gives the world hope, by teaching us that babies are the key to everything.

Tonight in this sacred liturgy we welcome no ordinary child, but the Christ child, into our lives.  We simply go through the motions, and pretend that God is close to us, unless we truly adore this Christ child, which means to literally and really 'fall in love' with this new baby.  Christmas takes its name, of course, from Christ's Mass, and it is at Mass only when we receive this beautiful person of Jesus into our lives in the most perfect way imaginable.  It would be absurd then to base my definition of a good Christmas by any other standard other than what happens to my heart, when I receive the Holy Eucharist on this holy night, for to take the Lord Jesus under my roof, into my body and soul, is a more intimate experience than holding the this baby in our arms. Which of us, even the most crusty of us, could hold the baby Jesus in our arms, to have the privilege given to Mary, his mother,and fail to fall in love with him.  The Eucharist is nothing less than this privilege, and is perhaps even more, as the baby Jesus first born poor and in the cold humbles himself even more beautifully in the Eucharist so he can truly be here tonight.  We simply go through the motions, then, if we think that our experience here tonight is any less dramatic than what happened on that first holy night.  .

Jesus' perfect closeness to us at Mass is the reason that we can never give up on trying to be close to each other, and the perfect gift we receive here tonight is our reason to keep giving.  We gather at the darkest hour of the darkest night of the year to welcome with incomparable faith and joy Jesus who is the light strong enough to scatter every darkness.  The birth of Jesus from a virgin mother is the sign that the first creation of everything out of nothing by the virgin Father has reached its completion in Jesus, the new Adam.  Because he takes on our nature in the incarnation, our nature is capable of elevation to real participation in eternal, uncreated reality.  We rejoice on Christmas because we live in the fullness of time, when nothing is impossible for a God who never stops wanting to fall in love with us and be married to us, when the re-creation of the world is really taking place whenever a human person is not afraid to be visited by Jesus.  The angels tell the shepherds - do not be afraid!  We know deep down that we cannot afford to let this Christ's Mass pass with fear or indifference.  If I resist Christ at this moment when he makes himself perfectly irresistible, when will I ever receive him?  If not now, when?  Living in a world that is oftentimes afraid of babies, may I not be afraid to fall in love again, and to be visited and changed, by this most irresistible of babies, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laying in a manger.  Amen.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Never forget where you came from

4th Sunday of Advent B
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
18 December 2011
Daily Readings

I have four brothers.  They are all pretty good hunters.  I am not.  I decided a few years ago, after about four hours of conversation about hunting, during which I had nothing to add, that if I was going to be an active member of this family, that I needed my own hunting stories, that I had better at least go buy a shotgun and some camouflage.  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  And I've enjoyed the last couple of years hunting with my dad and brothers and extended family. I don't get to hunt very often, but the times I have, have been great.  In a way, it is remembering where I came from.  I grew up on the plains of western Kansas.  That's an important thing to know about me, and an important thing for me to remember about myself.  It's important no matter where you're from.  I'm 37 years old now, and I've traveled all around the world, but the one question that remains the same, no matter how old I get or how many people I meet, is the question - where are you from? 

This question, if we care to look at it, is of greater value than just being a conversation starter.  It can be that, and it can be fun to see how small the world really is, by comparing people that you know and places you've been.  It's a good way to meet people, talking about where you're from.  Yet the question holds a deeper value, a spiritual value you might say.  Knowing where you're from is important to knowing who you are.  Forgetting where you're from is the equivalent of saying that you don't know who you are. 

Enter the story of David, who after his many heroic accomplishments enjoyed a great amount of wealth and security, and a nice cedar house to dwell in, yet felt guilty that the ark of the covenent dwelt in a tent.  For a moment, David felt more secure than the Lord.  Boy was he wrong.  For a moment David thought that he was in a position to do something for the Lord, and forgot until corrected by the prophet Nathan that the Lord still stood ready to do something for David.  The Lord reminded David of where he came from and who he was, Jesse's smallest and least significant shepherd boy.  The Lord reminded David of all that he had done through David, with David and in David, and promised again what yet was to be accomplished, if David would only stand at the ready, and not pity the Lord.  The Lord reminded David that not all that much had changed.  He was still the Lord, and David was still David, that poor shepherd boy, if only David would remember who he was and where he came from.  David needed reminding that it was the Lord who chose David, not vice versa.

Enter Mary, who as we hear in today's Gospel, inherits the great promise made to David and his posterity, who while still a little helpless girl not unlike the insignificant shepherd boy David when he was first chosen, is made greater than any good king like David or any imperfect king like Caesar ever was or ever will be.  Mary is great because she remained poor, vulnerable and dependent.  When the angel greeted her, Mary was as poor, vulnerable and dependent as the day she was born.  Mary had not great worldly victories that we know of.  She was a nobody.  She was no great religious figure.  She was young in a culture that valued age and a woman in a culture that offered women little security apart from men.  Yet because she remained poor, vulnerable and dependent as the world sees, Mary was always aware of the most important thing:  she knew who loved her the most and who she loved the most.  That is what we learn from Mary.  For those of us called to communion, not isolation, for those of who who have love as our origin, the reason we are here instead of not here, who have love as our constant calling, the reason we keep going instead of quitting, for those of us who have love as our perfection in heaven, where the deepest desires of the heart promise to be filled, we need to learn from Mary how to stay centered on this one question we can't afford to get wrong.  Who loves me the most and who do I love the most?  This question is best answered when we are poor, vulnerable and dependent - it is in these circumstances only that we have the chance to learn the most important thing we have to learn.  It is in these circumstances only - poor, vulnerable and dependent, that we learn where we are from and who we really are.  Nobody remained in these circumstances more perfectly than Mary.

David was disappointed that the Lord dwelt in an unworthy tent.  Mary remembered what David forgot, that she was most unworthy, and had nothing to offer the Lord, which is why she welcomed the Lord under her roof more perfectly than David.  David, for all his greatness and accomplishments, still saw the Lord as dwelling over there, under the tent.  Mary surpasses David in listening to the angel declare - the Lord is with you.  He is under your tent.  She received the Christ child, then, not as the world receives him, not as you and I receive him, with fear or indifference, but with joy and expectation. 

Thank God, then, that Mary is the first member of our Church!  Thank God that she is with us.  For we are not poor, nor vulnerable, nor dependent.  When we look at the Christ child we rarely see ourselves, and even more rarely remember who we are or where we are from.  But Mary is with us!  She is on our team!  She is the last and greatest Advent prophet, and she will prepare room in Her Church for the coming of the Lord.  We are not ready for Christmas, but she is.  So let us be with her, and pray that her Fiat might find an echo in us.  Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

real rejoicing

Gaudete Sunday
11 December 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say rejoice!  The Lord is near!

Welcome to Pink Sunday.  Gaudete Sunday.  Rejoice Sunday.  We light the pink candle.  We turn the corner toward Christmas.  We rejoice for one reason, and one reason only.  The Lord is near.

The joy proposed to us Christians on this 3rd Sunday of Advent is a distinctive joy.  It is available here, and nowhere else.  It is not the joy of improved external circumstances.  It is not the joy of having things outwardly go better for us.  It is not the joy of beating Ohio State or hiring Charlie Weis.  No, as great as things like that are, and as thankful as we might be for such blessings, we rejoice today for a different reason, and for one reason only.  The Lord is near.

Today's joy is born of knowing that since for our Lord, a thousand years are like a day, that we have no right to expect a gift like Jesus Christ to come into the world, and yet we rejoice because we know for certain that he is coming.  We rejoice that he is coming not later, but now.  We rejoice that he has come, that he is coming, and that he will come again.  Those of us who sit in darkness have no right to anything but to sit in darkness, yet we rejoice that those of us who sit in darkness have seen a great light.  We have no right to take Christmas for granted, but have every responsibility to imagine a world without Christmas.  We have a duty to wonder if the Lord has not come to visit us if we would have long ago given up on visiting each other with His redeeming love.  For this reason, taking nothing for granted, we rejoice.  And we rejoice for one reason only, the Lord is near.

The coming of the Lord into the world brings something that nothing else can bring.  He alone through whom all things were made, has the power to remake everything.  This does not mean, as we have come to realize, that everything is about to go my way, or that things will turn out the way I think they should.  No, it means something else - that an outwardly imperfect world is being made perfect from the inside out.  Starting with the smallest and going to the greatest, the world is being made perfect from the inside out, and so are we.  This is the joy, the distinctive joy, the incomparable joy, that we are invited to contemplate and enter into.

It is a joy that perdures whether or not I am outwardly ready for Christmas, whether or not finals week goes the way I think it should.  It is a joy of knowing that there is one active inside of me that does more than I can ever do, one more interior to me than I am to myself who loves where I could never love myself, one closer to me than I am to myself who takes away any excuse I have not to be close to others.  I rejoice, because the Lord is near, and he is ready to visit me, and to change my life from the inside out.  I rejoice, then, because His coming brings nothing but joy, love and peace to my life, and that by his coming I am about to change more than I have ever changed before.  I rejoice  in this new hope, as surely as I can know that holding a newborn child can melt my heart.

John the Baptist as the greatest prophet tells us with great alarm that there is every chance that we will miss the Lord's visit again this year.  Because the Lord wishes to visit us beginning as a vulnerable child, we have every reason to expect that he will visit me at my weakest and most vulnerable point, at my smallest point.  It will take a pure faith, a faith unadulterated by the pride of sin and a faith uncluttered by the desire for things outwardly to go my way, in order for me to recognize the time of my own visitation.  St. Johnthe Baptist tells us that there is no option but true repentance from the depths of our heart.  For if we do not say with our Lady in her Magnificat that 'he has looked upon the lowliness of his handmaiden' then we are sure to miss Christmas again this year.

As St. Paul urges as well, let us look east and make ourselves as ready as we can be.  Still, we rejoice not that that we are ready, not that we can ever be ready, but because He is ready.  We rejoice for this reason, and this reason only.  He is ready.  And the Lord is near.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The United States, consecrated to Mary of the Immaculate Conception at her beginning

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
8 December 2011
Daily Readings

Hail Mary, full of grace!  This is the angel's greeting to Mary, before Mary had any clue of what was about to happen, before she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceived Jesus in her womb.  Already, before any of that, the angel says Hail Mary, full of grace.  This astonishing statement should make us wonder - when did she become full of grace?

Today's Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception answers this question of when Mary became full of grace.  Our Church, comtemplating the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary for the first two millenia of Christianity, defined with theological precision and certainty in 1854 the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that every Catholic can and must believe that Mary was conceived without sin, that she was full of grace from the first moment of Her conception.  This truly is theology at its very best, the faith of the Church seeking to understand the mysteries of revelation, even if it takes 1800 years to arrive at this understanding.

Defining Mary's sinlessnes from the first moment of her conception gives us a clue that God's plan from the beginning was not to use Mary in a minimum kind of way, like a temporary employee.  The angel's greeting was not - Hail Mary, who will be full of grace from the moment of Jesus' conception to the moment of His birth, or to the moment of his presentation or baptism.  No, his greeting was already Hail Mary, full of grace, before she conceived in her womb.  This clue that Mary was always full of grace, adopted by God in Jesus Christ not at baptism but at conception, to be holy and blameless before him, should tell us to expect what we have come to know about Mary, that if she always was full of grace, she will always be full of grace.  That grace that we celebrate today at the moment of her conception will not run out at the birth of Jesus, but will move Mary to say yes not only to the Annunciation, but yes to following her son to the foot of the cross, and yes to accepting the new mission to be the mother of all those destined for eternal life.

We will celebrate Mary, mother of sorrows at the cross, Mary, mother of the Church at Pentecost,  and Mary, Queen of heaven, on other occasions, showing that we know Mary once full of grace always is full of grace and always will be full of grace.  Today we celebrate precisely and simply that we know when Mary became full of grace.  It was at the moment of her conception, that God gave the merits of her Son's redemption to her, mysteriously preserving her from original sin.  This gift to Mary should make us excited to receive the same incomparable gift, and we are challenged in this Advent season to follow her example of making room in our hearts first for the coming of the infant Jesus in the flesh, the mystery of the Incarnation.

Aside from Christmas Day, today's Solemnity is the highest ranking non-Sunday celebration in the Church's United States calendar.  We never move this solemnity of our Lady, and never abrogate it.  For Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception is the patroness of the United States America, and shame on us if we do not have a devotion to her under this title.  Lacking evidence of any other apostle making it to the shores of our great land, we recognize in Our Lady's gracious beginning in the womb of her mother Anne, the conception of the Church here in the United States through the Immaculate Conception of Mary, who is the apostle of the apostles.  Believing that Mary herself planted the faith here, and knowing that the first bishops of our country went to Rome with great joy for the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Rome in 1854, eager to consecrate our country to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, we see from the beginning the special destiny of the United States and our Church to be a light to all nations through recourse to Mary.  In honoring and loving her, we honor and love her Son, who is so pleased that we know and love the one whom he knows and loves the best.  In consecrating ourselves and our country to her, we more closely imitate him,who rejoiced to always be completely dependent upon Mary as the Eve of the new creation.  In honoring her today, we become better disciples of him, who came into the world happy to dwell in the womb and nurse at the breasts of Mary, full of grace.  Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

true drama

2nd Sunday of Advent
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
4 December 2011
Daily Readings

There is great anticipation at KU right now regarding the university's next football coach.  The coaching search is dramatic.  It is urgent.  Sheahon Zenger is the prophet, hitting the road like John the Baptist, trying to sell the KU job.  He is working like crazy until he finds the next coach for KU, the one who will gather more people Saturday after Saturday than any other person at the University.  The one who will be responsible for generating income from thousands of alumni through football.  Whether or not you are a football fan, or agree with all the attention football gets, this is the reality . Every day that we go by without a new coach, is a day lost, a day that perhaps someone else will hire the coach that we need.

Remember the results of the last election, when President Obama was elected?  Remember the anticipation and the dramatic coverage.  The whole world was watching!

Advent desperately tries to get us Christians back into this mode of anticipating great things, and being alert for the coming of one much greater than President Obama or the next KU football coach.  St .Mark writes the first Gospel, perhaps from Rome, where St. Paul and St. Peter had just been executed for their faith, and announces that the one the Israelites have long awaited, the Messiah, and quite certainly the one who has the power to redeem the heart and life of every human person, has arrived.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has arrived!

Advent begs us to enter back into the dramatic first moment of the world's creation, for the coming of the Messiah means precisely this, and more.  As dramatic as the moment of our birth was, exchanging the world of our mother's womb for the infinitely bigger world in which we now live and move and have our being, and as dramatic as the moment of our death will be, when we will once again exchange the smallness of this world for the mystery of that reality that lies on the other side of death, even more dramatic is the moment which you and I now share.  This is the urgent message of Advent.  The coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, among us is a moment even more dramatic than the moment of our conception, the moment of our birth, or the hour of our death.  For the moment in which we now live is the moment of recreation, a revolutionary creation even greater than the first creation bringing everything out of nothing.  The second creation is greater than the first, for the entry of the Lord of the universe into the time and space of a single human nature is a more improbable creation than the creation of everything from nothing.  This second creation is greater than the first, because the second creation will definitely overcome the enemies of life and love that hold sway in the world as we know it, but in the new heavens and new earth, there will be no wasteland of sin nor desert of death.   As great as this first world is, we still live in enemy territory.  The good news of the Gospel is that the exodus has begun.  That is why we praise God with full-voice; not only for the beauty of this world, but because the revolutionary re-creation of the new world has begun in Jesus Christ our Messiah.

The prophet Isaiah and St. Peter and St. John the Baptist are three powerful voices begging us to feel in our bones our need for this Messiah, for one to come and recreate and redeem the parts of us that are already dead, the wasteland of our sinfulness, the desert of our lost hope.  They remind us to repent, for no one welcomes a savior if he thinks everything is ok.  The prophets beg us out of the sleepiness of thinking everything is good enough as it is.  The prophets beg us not to give in to complacency, and not to be deists, who think that because this moment of recreation that we are in is taking thousands of years that the Lord is not close.  St. Peter reminds us that for the Lord, a thousand years are as a day.  We are in the dramatic moment of recreation whether we believe it or not.  The prophets implore us to be as afraid of the Jesus who was born so helplessly in Bethlehem, and who waits for us even more vulnerably in the Holy Eucharist, as we are of the Jesus who will come in glory and rule with his strong arm at the end of time.  To be a Christian means to live the drama of Advent, between the time of Jesus' first coming and his last, in the kingdom of the already and not-yet.  But make no mistake, the Advent prophets tell us convincingly that the moment in which you and I now stand, is as dramatic a moment as there ever was or ever will be.  The moment of re-creation, a moment greater than ever has been or ever will be, has arrived.  Jesus Christ has come among us, bringing with him a baptism of the Holy Spirit andof  fire.  Our passover from the land of the enemy to his kingdom is at hand.

Do not be lulled into thinking the Lord is delayed.  Just because the moment of his recreation has begun in the smallest of ways, just because you can block him in tonight's Eucharist be failing to prepare a way to your heart, does not mean that He is not here.  Just because we can choose to fill our lives with things other than Him, does not mean that tonight's moment of the Eucharist does not contain the power to recreate you into everything you always promised yourself you would be.  Whether you like it or not, He is here, and He is ready.  The recreation of the world has begun, and we are in its dramatic moment.  Prepare in the your heart, then, a highway for our God.