Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christmas with mom

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
31 December 2013
Christ the King Parish Topeka
Daily Readings

Here we are at Mass again.  Well, at least some of us.  Holy Days are more messed up than ever, and too many Catholics have given up on figuring it out or attending.  I'll hear some confessions about missing the Holy Day, but not too many.  Most Catholics don't realize that to have a good Christmas, which means to really worship the mystery of the Incarnation, and to fully contemplate the beauty of God's love taking on an irresistible form in the baby Jesus, that we are obliged to attend Mass 4 times in the 12 days of Christmas - Christmas, Holy Family, Mary the Mother of God, and Epiphany. We actually go to Mass more - much more - during Christmas than we do during Easter, though Easter outranks Christmas liturgically.

When we talk about our obligation to attend Mass, especially on Holy Days, we are saying that this faith that we possess, especially in the miracle of Christmas, is way too precious to take lightly, or to celebrate individually. We have to keep coming together as a team, as a family, to encounter this mystery together, and to extend and deepen our Christmas celebration, so that the season doesn't collapse and end too quickly.  So we are here again, at least some of us, to stick through Christmas together, and we'll be back again Sunday to celebrate Epiphany. Today on the 8th day of Christmas we contemplate Christmas with our Lady - with our dear Mother, the one through whom God decided to begin his 8th day of creation.

There is nothing wrong with our entering tonight as well into the optimism that accompanies the dawning of a new secular year.  Our new year began as Catholics in Advent, when we started to look East for the light of Christ to be born in the darkness.  Yet the secular New Year is also a day of hope, and of course we should intensely ask God to bless us all with a prosperous new year.  It is a great tradition for Catholics to read the Holy Father's World Day of Prayer for Peace message, issued every January 1st, as we pray for an end to the violence and injustice that rips through our world and destroys the hope of so many.  We pray through Christ, the Prince of Peace, for a flowering of peace in our world in the new year.   There's nothing wrong with raising a glass, in fact I'm quite sure I will do so myself, and to toast the new year.  That is part of the reason we are here too.

Yet it's not as important as our gathering to continue to say Merry Christmas!  We don't merely ask God to bless the passage of time tonight, but we stand in awe of the mystery of the eternal God entering into time.  The Christmas mystery is much more exciting than the dropping of a ball in Times Square.  So we give it due attention, and more attention, on this 8th day of the octave of Christmas, as we celebrate the 8th and best day of creation begun with the yes of Mary, the mother of God.

One thing we can say for sure is that none of us is going to have a better Christmas than Mary.  Her Christmas is always the best Christmas.  Hers is always the perfect Christmas.  So we draw as close to Mary as we possibly can, especially today.  None of us will have a more intimate experience of receiving Jesus into our hearts, nor contemplating what his birth means and what changes in us when we behold his face, than Mary, our Mother.  So she has a special day on the octave of Christmas.  She has her own day, when we remember that there is no Christmas without the yes of Mary.  We celebrate her as our exemplar, knowing that we are closer to her by nature than we are to Christ  For us, then, her children, to have the best Christmas means precisely to draw as close to Mary as we can, because it's impossible to have the best Christmas without sharing in her Christmas.  So we turn to her and ask her to intercede for us as we continue to drink in the richness of the Christmas mystery, and especially we seek her motherly intercession and to have her immaculate heart as we receive Jesus in the Eucharist at Christ's Mass!.

Today we celebrate her specifically under the title of Mary, mother of God.  Mind you, this is even more than saying Mary is the mother of Jesus.  For she is mother not only of Christ's human nature, but mother of his whole person. God himself, and all of God, not just a part of God, entrusts himself to the yes of a human person, to the yes of this beautiful woman.  We say something mind-boggling then - that Mary, a human person like us, is mother of a God who is a Father but who has no Father.  God, and all of God, could not honor motherhood any more than that, nor make it more sacred.  So today's is Catholic mother's day, and a mother's day like no other.  We contemplate Christmas with Mary, the mother of God!  Good God!  It blows me away.

But our Catholic mother's day doesn't end there.  No, from the cross, Mary receives the additional vocation of being our mother, the mother of the Church, and the mother of all of adopted into the family of Jesus.  Just as none of us entered life in this world except through a mother, so even moreso God chose in the order of redemption that we would all be completely dependent upon the intercession of Mary if we are to receive the greater gift of eternal life.  In precise imitation of God we are willing to be completely dependent upon Mary, and to be totally devoted to her, never moreso than at Christmas.  So we celebrate Mary as the mother of God, but with no less joy on this real Catholic Mother's Day that Mary is our mother too, and that we will receive the greatest Christmas grace by entrusting ourselves totally to her today.   Amen.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

family over everything

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
29 December 2013
Christ the King Parish Topeka
Daily Readings

Families are changing. They're changing fast.  Divorce and remarriage.  Reproductive technologies.  50% of children born out of wedlock.  Smaller families.  Same-sex marriage.  The delaying and foregoing of marriage.  Fewer young people going to Church and preparing hearts, minds and bodies for the sacrament of marriage.  I don't list these factors to rant or to judge.  Only to mark how quickly the family is changing.  Most likely, several of these factors have already changed your family.  There are new and emerging definitions of family life, and there is no going back.  There was a time when every family was expected to conform to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph that we celebrate today.  For many, that day is long past. Family is being defined as much today by innovation rather than tradition.

Yet we need family more than ever.  That never changes.  There is a lack of love in our world, and specifically the intense and unique and life-giving love that is at its best within families.  We can't live without families. We know that.  Our attempts to redefine what family means shows that no one is willing to give up on family.  Blood is thicker than water, and the shedding of Jesus' blood is the sign that he loves families, and wants his body the Church, to be a family, real brothers and sisters to each other.  So this homily is not at all about disparaging the emerging definition of the family, nor judging any family or any person whatsoever.  Jesus is mercy, and woe to us if we are not merciful in imitation of him, loving each other beginning at our weakest points. The Church is not in the business of judging families.  But woe to us as well if we shy away from holding up the example of the holy family as a family that can inspire and change every family for the better, no matter what their situation.  In promoting the holy family as a model, we are not trying to go backward, but to bring the beauty and depth of the Catholic experience, teaching and tradition, to bear on the modern family.

Again, there is no room in this homily, nor in any of our hearts, to disparage or judge any person or family whatsoever.  Jesus, of course, was not afraid to enter into the reality of the human condition, including our messy families.  He loves us and visits us exactly where we are.  He himself was conceived in potential scandal, and born out in a barn, and was in danger and on the move.  Jesus was not born in a palace in conservative security.  His birth didn't follow an ideal script.  In this beautiful Christmas season when families come together as closely as possible, and give to each other, we must allow Christ, the reason for Christmas, and the one who entered into family life himself, to visit our families.  What an gorgeous and important Feast this is for us to contemplate and celebrate in this magnificent Christmas season, the Feast of the Holy Family.

In celebrating and promoting the holy family in such an intense and beautiful way today, we do not judge or compare families, but say something true that to fail to learn from the holy family is to give up on our own families.  For the concept of a family has to begin somewhere.  We can't make up the concept of family or pull it out of the air, and if the word family can mean anything, then eventually it will mean nothing. That is a risk we can never afford to take, that the word family would mean nothing. For the sake of our own well being, and that of our families, and for the Church and the world, we need our families to be stronger and stronger, and we need to draw inspiration from the holy family.  We cannot live without family, and human persons will not flourish without strong family life.  As goes the family, the basic building block of society, so goes the dignity of the human person, the fate of the Church, and the destiny of the world's peoples. The example of the holy family is something we fail to celebrate, then, at our own peril.

Starting with Joseph, then, we must celebrate that unlike Herod, who was a baby killer, killing even his own sons out of fear and suspicion, Joseph was a family defender.  Our culture is in desperate need of more men like St. Joseph.  In imitation of Christ, who shed his blood out of his love for his bride, the Church, and her children, so also the best that exists in every man is his ability to make others holy by the way he sacrifices for them.  Most men today are unprepared and lack the desire for such a mission.  As women have become more accomplished in society, men have not risen to to the challenge, but have shirked from it, and we have let our boys do this.  Trust me, I recruited seminarians for six years looking for men like St. Joseph, and they were hard to find, and when I did find one, the ladies who wanted to marry the same guy were not happy.  We need more men who in obedience to a mission greater than themselves, desire to be holy husbands and fathers.  This is not sexist.  Even on the most liberal of college campuses, where women are outperforming men and its not even close, still almost 100% of women desire think it is a guy's role to propose marriage, and to take initiative and leadership in the family.  I submit that we have a culture that allows the killing of its own babies, because we have too many men who like Herod are afraid of babies and family, and who fail to defend, and who shirk from their true vocation.

In the interest of time, the ladies will get a pass today. But that's ok, because the ladies will get a full homily all to themselves this week as we gather on the Holy Day of Obligation to celebrate the motherhood of Mary. Suffice it to say that you women as a hundred times more important than the guys.  God saved his best creation for last, and it was his plan to remake our world beginning with the yes of a woman, our blessed Mother.  Short sermon for you today, ladies . . but stay tuned.  See you this week.

Finally to children, who we hear in the scriptures are not to be spoiled brats, but are to be obedient to their parents.  We live in a culture that is way too afraid of children, where children are seen too much as an intrusion into the freedom of adults and a drain on finances, when in reality every healthy culture focuses not on adults, but on children, and every healthy economy sees children as its greatest resource!  Societies that have stopped having children, and there are many from China to Europe and beyond, are doomed economically and socially.

Although the holy family only had one child because of the perpetual virginity of Mary, still they are an example of sacrifice and generosity in having children.  Joseph and Mary were less focused on what fit into their plans, but were open to God telling them that there is a child he knows and loves and desires that is wanting to be born.  So perhaps especially if children come in a way that we cannot control, like Jesus coming into the holy family, and having children entails the risk of submitting ourselves to a plan much different and bigger than we would choose for ourselves, like the holy family, perhaps especially then we are not to be afraid of having more children. Mind you, I'm not promoting irresponsibility here, only generosity and sacrifice in imitation of the holy family.  There are prudent reasons for having children and not having children.  Yet oftentimes the families with the most resources financially and emotionally and spiritually are having the fewest children, and we as a culture are too afraid of children.  We do ask too much how children affect us, rather than asking whether there is a child that God desires to bring into the world through us.  The question faced by the holy family is always the most important one.  With all sympathy to those working through the terrible pain and disappointment of not being able to have their own children, and with deep respect and appreciation for those parents making heroic sacrifices to raise the children they already have, sacrifices that as a priest I will never personally make, still I want to say that the example of the holy family should inspire us all to be more generous and sacrificial in welcoming children into our world.  It is a fact that very few people regret having more children.  I promise never to complain about a noisy church filled with children - I'm smart enough to know that's good for business!   Christmas especially is a time to focus on children, and woe to us and to our families if we focus on ourselves instead.

A final time, lest anyone get me wrong, this homily is not about judging any person or any family. Woe to me if I would do that.  There is way too much judgement in the world, and not enough love. Yet in holding up the example of the holy family, we are doing just that, trying to bring more love into the world, and especially the special and unique love that can only be experienced in our families.  If we fail to celebrate and defend and promote the values of the holy family, we are literally killing ourselves and our children.  There is no way around it.

I'm not saying that we have to go backwards to the way families used to be, or that family life will ever be the same. I'm not even saying it should be.  I'm saying that every human family, and especially the real ones to which you and I belong, the imperfect and messy ones, can strive to be a holy family, by seeking the will of God, by being capable of sacrifice, and by being unafraid to give themselves to a mission beyond their control or imagination.  The example of the Holy Family is less a measuring stick, and more of an inspiration.  In this holy season of Christmas, we must allow Jesus who loves our families, and wants to be at the center of our families, to visit our families in a powerful way.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

madly in love

Christmas Mass at Midnight (Readings)
24 December 2013
Christ the King Topeka

O come let us adore him!  Christ the Lord!

To adore the Christ child, to truly adore Him, means that we have come tonight together to fall in love again. We have come to adore.  To adore is to fall madly in love, completely in love, hopelessly in love, with the one who shows himself in the circumstances of Bethlehem to be desperately in love with us.  For the scene of Bethlehem is too absurd for a lukewarm response . . God is ridiculously in love with us, and would do anything to reach our cold hearts.  How can we truly visit Bethlehem and not walk away with a new heart? The biggest and most invincible person imaginable, the Word through whom all things were made, the one to whom the entire universe is but dust, shows his ultimate power in allowing himself to be made small.  Irresistibly small.  Helplessly small.  Poor, vulnerable, cold, naked, hungry.  Our Lord desperately wants to break through our fear and indifference, and to show us how desperately he is in love with us.  We recognize and celebrate this at Christmas in a more beautiful and intense way than at any other time of year.  Christ in the circumstances of Bethlehem shows he loves everything of what it means to be a human person, in taking on all of our nature, even the weakest parts.  He shows what it means for him to fall in love with us.  Desperately in love.  so if we have come to do anything less that to adore him, to fall madly and hopelessly in love with him, so much so that we can never return to who we were before, then we are still living in fear.  Do not be afraid, the angel tells Mary!  Do not be afraid, the angel tells Joseph.  Do not be afraid, the angels tell the shepherds!  Do not be afraid of this baby!  Do not be afraid to let him touch your heart in ways you never have before!  God loves you!  He loves every circumstances of your life.  He loves you desperately and completely and exactly right where you are at this moment!  Do not be afraid to receive Christ into your heart tonight, and to fall in love with him too!  O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Christmas perhaps more than any other night of the year is the night we rediscover what it means to be a human person.  It is a night to keep things simple.  It is a night to remember that to forget where you came from is to forget who you are!  It is true that living through our smart phones, we become capable of so much more.  Yet our culture is at constant risk for forgetting what a human person is in his very nature and simplicity.  A human person is sacred, and exists not as a means to an end but for his own sake.  A human being becomes a person precisely and only when he is known and loved and desired and protected, and this definition is more evident whenever persons are poor, and vulnerable and dependent upon others.  We know deep down that to become a human person is not to grow up and to get the freedom of intelligence and will to create our own reality, as good as these are for many people.  No, to be human is to enter into the adventure of discovering reality, and this happens whenever we turn and become again like children.  To be human is to never run away from remaining poor, and dependent and vulnerable, so that we never run away from love as our origin, love as our constant calling, and love as our perfection in heaven.  The Christ child shows us that human persons are at their best, and the power of love in us the strongest, when we find a way to make ourselves small, when we give ourselves away in love, when we sacrifice so that at every moment of our lives we are able to fall in love, to be in love, and to stay in love.

The sign that appears in Bethlehem tonight is the true and perfect face of divine love.  The ultimate source of love, God himself, takes on a human face, so that we might no longer fear to fall in love with God. For to seek the face of God, the source of love and life, is to begin to truly live.  The sign of a baby born of a virgin mother means a new creation has dawned on the earth, a creation stronger and meant to last longer than the first creation of the universe by a virgin Father.  The sign of Bethlehem means that the original creation of everything out of nothing is giving way to a creation that starts at nothing and grows to everything.  Jesus appears in Bethlehem as small as possible to show that this world will be remade beginning with the weakest and most vulnerable.  To belong to his kingdom is to participate with him in healing the world from the inside out, by making ourselves small.  Tonight it is essential that we turn and become children again.  For the kingdom to which we most want to belong begins with children.  It starts small but ends big.  It is born in poverty but ends with riches. It begins in vulnerability but ends in strength. It allows itself to be touched by death but ends in everlasting life.  The sign begun in Bethlehem is still gaining strength 2000 years later.  The Roman kingdom that feared the coming of the Christ child has long since returned to dust.  Yet Christ's kingdom begun as a helpless baby born to poor parents in a  barn in the middle of nowhere, is still gaining strength, and celebrates Christmas with exceeding joy throughout the whole world!

It would be enough, wouldn't it, to come tonight to adore Christ in the manger, to fall in love with him in this way, and to judge my Christmas by what happens to my heart as I contemplate Bethlehem.  Yet God did not stop at Bethlehem, and neither can we tonight.  We celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation with special intensity tonight, with the most intensity we can muster, and yet ultimately we are here to celebrate more.  We are here to celebrate Christ's Mass.  Christmas takes its name not from the scene at Bethlehem, but by what happens on this altar.  For as small as Jesus made himself in being born of the virgin, he makes himself even smaller, and more vulnerable,a and more beautiful to fall in love with, as he allows himself to be born on this altar for us.  It is only at Mass that we receive Jesus in the most perfect way imaginable, only at Mass that we truly go to Bethlehem, and with Joseph allow Jesus to come under our roofs, and with Mary to allow him to be conceived in the deepest recesses of our heart.  If we can imagine what would happen to our hearts and minds if we had the intimate experience of our Lady of seeing the face of Jesus for the first time, and holding him in her arms, and how we would fall in love with the most important baby ever born into the world, so much moreso should we fall in love with Christ in the Eucharist, for Jesus humbles himself even more beautifully, and travels again an incomprehensible distance, to be born on this altar tonight.  The meaning of Christmas, then, the true meaning of Christmas, the precise and original meaning of Christmas, then, is what happens to our hears and minds and lives when we receive Jesus at Christ's Mass!  For what happens right here, right now, is no less dramatic, is no less a falling love, than what happened on that most holy night.  Jesus' perfect closeness to us at Mass is the reason we must never give up on being close to each other.  His perfect gift at Christ's Mass, is the reason we must never stop giving ourselves away completely every Christmas.

Do not be afraid now, my dearest friends, of Christ who comes to you in his Mass, in this Eucharist.  If we resist him now, when will we ever receive him?  Do not be afraid!  We know that we cannot let this Christmas, this moment, this gift of a time, pass with fear or indifference.  If not now, when?  Let God fall in love with you in the prayers we are about to say together.  Let yourself fall in love with him again.  Do not be afraid to fall in love, to be visited and changed, by this most irresistible of babies, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger!

O come let us adore him!  Christ the Lord!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

with Joseph through Mary to Jesus

4th Sunday of Advent A
21/22 December 2013
Christ the King Church Topeka
Daily Readings

Joseph comes a few days before Christmas to save us.  Might I guess that your Advent has been like mine?  Busy.  Crazy.  Distracted.  It would be more accurate for me to say that I'm surviving Advent, and the Christmas preparations.  I'm worried about how everything is going to come off this year, and no, I'm not done shopping.  It's been a beautiful and holy season, don't get me wrong, and many gorgeous exchanges have already taken place, with more to come.  But by this point in Advent, we should have the heart and anticipation of Mary. We should be right with her in her anticipation of giving birth and seeing the face of the most important child ever born, the world's greatest hope and light.  We should be yearning to see the face of God in the Christmas mystery with her heart, or as they preface at Mass tells us, with love beyond all telling.  But I'll be honest with you.  I'm not there.  I wish I was.  But I'm not there.

We know, of course, that we are all more like Mary, than Jesus.  We are imitators of Christ, his beloved and fervent disciples. We try to take on his thoughts and his heart, and to fulfill his command to love just as he does.  But we stink at it.  All of us.  We're not very good at it at all.  At least we have an excuse.  He has a divine nature joined to his human nature.  We don't.  We're just human. We're sinners.  That's all.

So Mary comes to our rescue, and we are devoted to her because we are closer to her by nature, and we are to first imitate her if we are to have any chance of imitating Christ.  We have to receive Jesus before we can act like him.  Mary teaches us this, and we will never be a better disciple than Mary.  So we can entrust all of ourselves to her, and be totally devoted to her, with confidence that she is the surest path to her Son.  Mary is like us.  She has a human nature that can be transformed and elevated by grace.  There is no better preparation for Christmas than to ask our Lady what it is like to give birth to a Savior, and we are to imagine with her what would happen to our hearts and our lives if we were to hold the helpless and vulnerable yet the most powerful person and the light of the world, in our arms.  That is perfect preparation for Christmas.  But we stink at that too.  Let's be honest.  Or I'll be honest for you.  I'm not like Mary. Not even close.  I'm closer to her than to Jesus, but I am neither immaculately conceived nor full of grace.  I'm full of a lot of other stuff.  My pride, my plans, my business, my stuff.  I'm full of it, but just the wrong IT!  I wish I could say differently, but I am not humble or courageous or faithful enough to allow Jesus to be conceived within me, and to visit me from the inside out.  I fear that kind of intimate visit from the Lord, and what that would mean for me.  So I'm not ready for Christmas like Mary.  I wish I was.  But that's not my Advent.

Now Joseph . . . now there's a guy that I can relate to.  Today we hear the beautiful story of Joseph's dream announcing that his wife had been chosen to be the virgin mother of the long-awaited Messiah.  Joseph of course had to think there was no bloody way this could be true! The promise of the Messiah had waned not grown stronger since the time of David.  Why now?  Why her?  Why me?  What are the odds?  Yet Joseph responded in faith.  We see his beautiful heart, for it was his right to have Mary exposed for conceiving out of wedlock, but out of love for her and God he goes not around but beyond the demands of the law, and is willing to get out of the way so that God's plan can move forward. Yet as he learns, he is a part of the plan. He is a big part.  He is to be the foster father, and to take Mary and Jesus into his home.   Joseph responds in faith, and is known here and throughout the Gospels as a righteous man who finds a way to do the right thing, oftentimes with incomplete information and understanding! Joseph, neither perfect in nature like his son, nor full of grace like his wife, finds a way to do the right thing.  Now that's someone we can relate to, and strive to be more like.

I'm being honest with you.  If the angel Gabriel came to me like he came to Mary, and asked me to allow Jesus to be conceived in the deepest recesses of my being, I would be scared out of my mind.  I'm not like her.  I love her.  I want to be like her.  But I'm not.  But if that angel appears to me in a dream, when I didn't have my legs beneath me to run, then maybe I would listen.  Maybe I would say yes.  Probably not, but maybe.  At least there would be a chance.  Maybe I don't have the courage, humility and faith to allow Jesus to visit the most intimate places of my heart this Christmas, but like Joseph, maybe I can at least let him and Mary move into my home.

I want to have the very best of Christmases, don't you?  Don't you want this one to melt your heart, to help you believe in yourself and others and the destiny of our poor world?  If so, let Joseph save your Advent preparations.  He is like us.  We can go to him. With Joseph, through Mary, to Jesus!  Let's not be afraid to go to Bethlehem, dear Christians!  Let's come with clean hearts and pure minds and great anticipation to celebrate that God is truly with us!  With Joseph, through Mary, to Jesus!  Rise, let us be on our way!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

hope and patience

3rd Sunday of Advent A
14/15 December 2013
Christ the King Topeka
Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I say rejoice!  The Lord is near!

I hope I haven't let you down this morning, in not finding a pink vestment, or rose, if you will.  I searched high and low in the sacristy, but Fr. Pete must have been one tough hombre who was not about to wear pink, or spend a buck on a pink vestment, no matter what the liturgical books say.  Or, maybe he just loved your rose vestment so much here that he took it with him to Overland Park.  I'll let you decide.

A rose vestment, if of course, optional for Gaudete Sunday.  But rejoicing is not!  Christians are to be known always and everywhere for their joy, but especially as we turn the corner toward our full celebration of the Christmas mystery!  We are not to be anxious about shopping days or preparations, most of which the men here haven't even started anyway.  No, our deepest spiritual attitude and emotion is to be joy, because the Lord is near to us. Christmas is close. Christmas which means the world's being able to see the incomparable and long awaited and long promised gift that is the Christ child, the gift of a baby that alone brings a light to shatter the darkness of the world and makes possible the realization of the deepest hopes and desires of mankind.  We are to rejoice, then, for his traveling into the world is the reason we will travel to see each other.  His being incomparable gift is the reason we will give to each other like crazy in this holy season.  His being close to us as an innocent and vulnerable child is the reason we draw close to each other.  Rejoice, then, again I say rejoice!  The Lord is near!

Our readings today are chock full of hope, for the Lord's coming means the establishment of a new creation that is distinctively better than the first creation, for the new creation is one that cannot be destroyed, one that cannot be touched by sin and death, for the new creation begins with the conquering of sin and death, and grows from there.  Hope is the theological virtue by which we place our trust in the establishment of a new creation that begins small but can only grow, a creation that begins in weakness and vulnerability but slowly but surely gains strength.  Hope is the theological virtue by which we see how one baby born at the darkest hour of the darkest night in the middle of nowhere while the whole world was asleep, can lead one day to the redemption of the world from the inside out, and the mysterious but sure building of the kingdom of heaven that will last forever.

You see, hope is different than optimism.  I'm optimistic that KU's basketball team will get it together, and do what they most often do, win the Big XII and make the Final Four.  I'm optimistic that things will go their way.  Two of my brothers are not, at least in our conversation this week.  They're pessimistic, thinking that the freshman won't get it, and the season might be sub-standard.  Either way, we'll know who is right by March.  Optimism and pessimism pertain to how things break for us in this world. We either think things are going to get better or worse.  And we find out who is right over time.

Yet hope is the theological virtue that is one of the deepest and distinctive marks of a Christian, a virtue that God pours directly into our hearts so that we might be more like him and see things as he does, is different than optimism.  Hope is not on a timeline, and is not dependent upon outcomes easily measured.  In fact, hope can grow even in the worst of external circumstances, when things do not go my way, when the breaks are against me.  Even in this environment, hope can grow, as we see that God wants to begin remaking his creation beginning with the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, and where sin and discouragement have set in. That is where God most wants to visit, and hope knows that He cares and is coming to remake the world in those precise places where optimism can make no difference.

Hope is like planting a seed then, with patient perseverance, that God's kingdom is being born all around us, through relationships, and charity, and service, and vulnerability, and dependence.  Hope can see in Jesus' decision to start by healing the sick and teaching the dumb, people who were powerless to change anything, the establishment of a kingdom that starts tiny can only grow.  Hope can see that even though Jesus could have healed this way for a thousand years and never healed enough or made the world perfect, that His decision to use his power not to form an army or control politics, but to make himself small as possible, choosing to remake the world from the inside out, beginning with the weakest, is God beautiful and sure way of establishing a kingdom that will never be destroyed again.

Hope sees all these things, and presses on no matter how long it takes the promise to take root and have its effect.  Living in hope is not easy, however.  Even John the Baptist who did what he was supposed to do, and allowed himself to be arrested and to decrease so that Christ could increase, maybe had a second thought from prison.  Is this really working?  Is the one I baptized, the one I told everyone would strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and burn the chaff and baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire - is this really his plan?  To make himself smaller and smaller - to give himself away in love to the least in the world?  Will this plan really work?  It was a good question, and our hope can sometimes be damaged by our lack of patience and vision.

That is why we have to begin Christmas by asking precisely how the Lord wants to visit me, and what the Lord's coming means personally for me.  Our deepest rejoicing comes from knowing I have prepared a new space and a new highway in my life for the Lord to visit me.  Our best rejoicing is that the Lord is not coming at Christmas to rearrange my life or tell me what to do, but he is coming to visit me as a helpless little baby, as one who alone has a chance to break through my defenses, as one who makes himself tiny and helpless and irresistible, so that I might let him into the deepest recesses of my heart, that I might allow him to heal me and redeem me from the inside out.  We rejoice because the pattern of redemption that begins in my own heart, is the pattern that will one day surely redeem our world.

Are you personally ready for such a visit on Christmas Eve? If so, rejoice!  Again, I say to you rejoice!  The Lord is near!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

in the way

2nd Sunday of Advent A
8 December 2013
Daily Readings

We're in Jesus' way.  John the Baptist, the greatest prophet who ever lived, couldn't be any clearer.  We're the problem.  Our egos.  Our plans.  Our stuff.  Our sins.  It's all in the way.  We're in the way.

John the Baptist is the greatest prophet that ever lived because he paved the way for more than a message from God, he paved the way for THE message.  He announced not a word, but the coming of THE WORD, after which none other need ever be spoken.  He prophesies not just a word a person - THE person foretold by every other prophet - the person who alone can set things aright, the person who alone can heal a broken world from the inside out - the person who alone can strike the ruthless with the rod of the mouth, AND at the same time make the baby play by the cobra's den.  John the Baptist thus appears as a crazy man, eating locusts  - screaming like an idiot in the middle of nowhere,  being more dramatic than any other prophet, doing anything he can to break through our deafness and complacency - because his message is the most urgent and most important of any message ever spoken.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight his paths.

John the Baptist in calling out the scribes and Pharisees calls out any of us who translate the Lord's coming into something manageable for ourselves.  He calls out any of us who might let this Christmas go by without a radical change taking place within us, for the Lord's coming can never mean anything else, never mean anything less, than letting ourselves be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.  The Lord's coming can only mean radical self-conversion.  It is either him or us - there is no compromise.  The Lord is not someone we can fit into our lives.  The Lord is not coming to improve our lives, like a new diet, or a workout plan, or an investment strategy, or the perfect gift at the perfect price.  No, the Lord's coming cannot be watered down or equivocated or translated into a chance to tinker with our lives.  The Lord's coming is not another special offer like the thousands of others we are bombarded with at every turn.  Preparing for the Lord's coming can only mean a complete re-orientation of our lives.  Making room for him means our life is no longer about us.  John the Baptist couldn't be clearer.  It is either about him, or about us.  We either make room for him, or we don't.  There is no happy medium.   It cannot be both.  For the Lord baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, and whatever is not worthy or ready for him, will be like chaff that is burned.

Repentance, then, is key to the prophecy of John.  Specifically, during this season of consumerism, and its promises of fulfillment through buying the perfect gift, the prophecy of John reminds us that we will not allow Christ to come into our lives if our lives are already too full, too full of our our pride and our own stuff. If we are focused on a new toy, then we won't receive him.  If Christ is to move in, then everything else has to move out.  Our gift-giving during Christmas, then, must not be a distraction or replacement for welcoming Christ, but must be an expression of making room for him.  The goal is to be as generous as we can be and to give as much as we can without expecting anything in return, so as to make room for the one gift that matters, the coming of Christ himself into our lives.  There can be no replacement in Advent for making room for the coming of the Lord, no excuses for not being able to receive him with empty and clean hearts on Christmas Eve.  Our practices of giving our stuff and our money away in this holy season, alongside a good confession, are the sure spiritual practices that help us to get ready.

The preaching of John the Baptist asks us to look forward to the coming of the Lord on Christmas Eve, and to ask ourselves most honestly what would have to happen between now and then for me to make the most room I have ever made for the coming of the Lord. When I receive the Eucharist on Christmas Eve, will I allow myself to be visited in a more powerful way than I've ever allowed myself to be touched by the Lord before?  What has to happen in Advent for me to allow myself to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and with fire?  Amen.