God’s Human Family

Homily, Holy Family C

Many of you know already that I come from a fairly large family. I am the youngest of nine kids in my family, so you can readily imagine that it was not always easy for my parents to keep track of all of us. One of my older brothers was left at our grandmother’s house on two separate occasions. I don’t think my brother minded too much, though. My grandma probably just fed him cookies until we were able to come back for him. Another time was much more like today’s Gospel. I was probably 4 or 5 years old at the time, and we had all come to church one Sunday. At that age, I usually found that the best use of my time in church was to sleep, so I laid down in our pew and closed my eyes. When I opened my eyes again, all the lights were off, and I was the only one in the church. Eventually, someone from my family came back to get me after they received a call from someone who thought they recognized one of the Schmidt kids sitting on the curb outside of the church. 

I share these stories with you because I think we all have similar stories in our own families, times when things didn’t go quite right or according to plan, when you didn’t have the perfect parents, perfect siblings, or even when we ourselves were not the perfect sons or daughters. If there ever was a perfect family, it would have been the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but in today’s Gospel, even they are not free from tension and anxiety. St. Joseph was Mary’s husband and served as the legal father of Jesus, but Jesus also knows his heavenly Father and wants to stay a bit longer in his Father’s house before returning to their home in Nazareth. 

If you think your family has nothing in common with the Holy Family, take a closer look. St. Joseph and Mary had to learn, often through trials and sufferings, what it would mean to raise this Child of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph is warned in a dream to take Jesus and his Mother and quickly flee into Egypt to protect the Child from those who sought his life. Joseph and Mary had to work hard to provide and care for their family. They had to put up with the rumors and gossip surrounding Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Jesus had a human family with human struggles and human love. Jesus accepted everything that is authentically human and raised it up in his divinity. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus accepts the tensions of human relationships, showing his human Mother and St. Joseph that his divine relation to his heavenly Father is what is most important. But Jesus also returns with them to their home in Nazareth, where he works hard at carpentry with St. Joseph for most of his earthly life. He works to balance his responsibilities to his human family while always keeping his eyes fixed on the face of his eternal Father. We can learn from Jesus and the Holy Family how to balance the various things in our lives that compete for our time and attention. They can help us to evaluate our priorities and to readjust them when they become skewed as we try to balance faith and prayer, family and friends, school and work, the things of time and the things of eternity. 

Most of us get caught up in the things of this passing world. We see things with a human perspective, but we fail to see the bigger picture. We fail to realize that the things we experience every day and the people we come in contact with are signs that are pointing us to God; the human is meant to lead us to the divine. Even the tensions and anxieties, the conflicts and feuds that can arise give us another opportunity to renew our commitment to one another, to grow in love and patience, and in the hope of all being gathered one day into the eternal dwellings of God, into the family of his Saints, whose fellowship we already share through this Eucharist. The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph remain with us always, to help us through any difficulty and to rejoice with us in the mercies of our heavenly Father, which always exceed even the best of our human families. May the Holy Family strengthen our commitment to one another, our love for each other, and help us to keep that eternal perspective, always seeking the face of our heavenly Father in the midst of our daily activities. 

What did Jesus bring?

Homily, Christmas

When I was a kid growing up, Christmas was always a very exciting time for me as I looked forward, with great anticipation, to opening presents and seeing all the new stuff I would get. Now I know I still look like a kid, but I think I’ve finished growing up because I haven’t gotten any taller for quite some time. Christmas doesn’t have quite the same feel for me as it had back then. This year was the first time I didn’t even make a Christmas wish list. But I hope I’ve grown over the years in my understanding and appreciation of the real meaning of Christmas.

We’ve all gathered here to remember and to celebrate the first Christmas, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but have you ever wondered why it was such a big deal? What difference does it make? Why base our entire numbering system of years on this one event, so that everything in history happened either before Christ or in the year of our Lord? What did Christ bring us at that first Christmas? What did Jesus bring? In the history of God’s chosen people, the throne of David sat empty for almost 600 years. For 600 years the Jews waited for the return of their king. They awaited the Messiah, the Son of David who would deliver them from everyone who made them suffer, the Christ who would establish a kingdom of peace and justice. But what did the Jews get for Christmas, those many years ago? A tiny, helpless Child, born into poverty, unable to wield a sword. A Boy at age twelve who submitted to the authority of his parents. And finally, a carpenter, a teacher, a healer, but ultimately a Man unwilling to defend even himself, let alone the Jewish nation, when He was accused before their Roman rulers. A Man betrayed and abandoned by His closest friends, to suffer a most shameful torture and death on a Cross, at the hands of the Roman oppressors that He was supposed to conquer. 

This is how many saw Jesus at the time of His death. A disappointment, a failure, not the one they had been looking for. This is still how many people see Jesus today. He came two thousand years ago to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, but two thousand years later, the world doesn’t seem all that different. There is still war, conflict, sickness, suffering, terrorism, the taking of innocent life, and countless crimes and injustices, and in many places there is more now than in the time before He came. So what difference did Jesus make in history? What did Jesus bring? 

Jesus brought God. Jesus brought God into our weakness, into our suffering and pain, into our sickness, into our joys and into our failures, into our work and into our relationships; Jesus brought God into every human experience. Jesus brought God into the world and into human history to purify it of sin, of its turning away from Him, and to let us know that we are never alone, that we belong to Him, that God has chosen us for Himself and longs to be with us forever. Jesus brought God into our suffering and death to let us know that He suffers with us and that our suffering has meaning with Him, and that death is not the final word, but that Jesus, the Eternal Word of God made flesh, is the first Word and the last Word, the beginning and the end, and that His life and love for us and with us is stronger than death. We will rise again with Him.

In becoming human, Jesus has invited us to live with God. We will still suffer, we will still die, but we will do so with Him by His grace, and we will rise again with Him on the last day. God’s gift to us this Christmas is the same as at that very first Christmas. God gives Himself to us. We exchange gifts at Christmas to remind us of this greatest gift in human history. God gives Himself to us. Is God enough for us, or are we still looking for someone else, for something else? Jesus brings God to meet us in this Eucharist, Jesus who is Emmanuel, God-with-us. May we receive with joy the God who comes to save us, and may we always desire at all times to live and die with Him. 

Open Your Eyes

Homily, Advent Sunday 4C

Today, Mary who is pregnant with Jesus, sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is further along with John the Baptist. I grew up as the youngest in my family, so pregnancy was a pretty foreign concept for me for a long time. But with eight older siblings, I now have 11 nieces and nephews, and two more on the way. We recently had a visitation of a different sort here in Sioux Falls. A month or two ago, a few of my brothers and their wives and families came to see my sister’s new baby, and three of my sisters-in-law, including the two who are pregnant, tried to run 20 miles around Sioux Falls. Now I like to go running in my free time, but the farthest I’ve gone at one time is less than 10 miles, but apparently some of my nieces and nephews have gone a lot farther even before they were born. 

It’s still sometimes hard for me to tell for sure when a woman is pregnant. When my sister was pregnant, she would tell me that I need to get better at blessing the bellies of pregnant women who come up for Communion. But then I always think back to high school, when one student—not me—kept asking one of our teachers for her due date, long before she was ever pregnant. So I’m not going to try to guess or keep track of who is actually pregnant as you come up for Communion. I’d be happy to give your baby a blessing if you ask me before or after Mass. 

In today’s Gospel, Elizabeth was better informed about Mary’s pregnancy, though she did have some help from the Holy Spirit and from John’s leaping in her womb. Elizabeth recognizes Mary as the Mother of her Lord as soon as Mary’s greeting reaches her ears. How attentive are we to the presence of Christ in those around us, in those whom we see and hear every day? Are we able to rejoice at the presence of Christ even in those who annoy us, who, even deliberately, provoke us and try to harm us, even in our enemies? Many of us were able to see the movie about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta called “The Letters.” Mother Teresa became a great saint because she was willing, in faith, to see Jesus in those around her, especially in the poor. She always took very seriously the scene of the Last Judgment from Matthew’s Gospel and the words of Jesus, “Whatever you did for these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” Whatever small gesture of concern and encouragement, any bread given to the weak and hungry, or water given to the thirsty, care to the sick, or even a smile given to the lonely, to the outcast, or to the dying would be remembered by Jesus as given to himself. 

Do we have the eyes of faith to recognize Jesus this Christmas, even where he is most hidden? Not just in the manger scene, but in every person that we see? Not just in joyful Christmas songs, but in the trials and sorrows that come our way, or in the sufferings that we see others enduring? And what are we being called to do for Jesus in these more difficult situations? How are we being called to receive the Infant Christ this Christmas, to care for and nurture him in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Don’t close your eyes to the needs of our brethren. Don’t close your eyes to the pain in your own heart, to the pain—so often hidden—in those around us. Allow the light of Christ to pierce the darkness of your heart, to shine through your smile, through your words of encouragement, through your listening ear. 

Mother Teresa lived a remarkable life of prayer and work, seeking the face of Christ primarily in the Eucharist at Mass and personal prayer and in the poor that she served every day. She lived with her eyes open, “seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, all the time, and his hand in every happening; this is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. Seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.” May God continue to open our eyes to the presence of Christ in this Eucharist and in every human being, near and far, seen and unseen.

Mercy Leads to Joy

Homily, Advent Sunday 3C

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” You may have noticed by now that I am not the most expressive or energetic person in the world. I have a very German ethnicity, and even though many people have often told me that I should smile more, it still feels very strange to me to smile at other people for no apparent reason. Fr. Cimpl has commented that I don’t really seem like a morning person, so I was trying to come up with the hours of the day when I really hit my stride. I think we determined that it is somewhere between the hours of 9 and 11 am or 6 to 8 pm, so just a few hours or so each day. I tend to be reserved, but I hope that as you get to know me and speak with me, I will find ways of expressing to you how happy I am to be here, how excited I am to be a priest, and how much peace and joy I have in belonging to Jesus Christ.

What keeps us from experiencing and expressing authentic Christian joy? What keeps us from realizing the very good news that the Lord is near, the Lord is close to those who call upon him, very close to the brokenhearted? During this past week on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we began this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Through Pope Francis, Jesus is inviting us during this Year of Mercy to take another look at God’s greatest characteristic, his infinite mercy. To consider in a new way how God is constantly seeking us out with infinite desire, stooping down, not only to our level, but even below us, as Jesus endures the greatest sufferings and descends even into death so that he can lift us up with him into eternal life. Jesus is inviting us to know with renewed faith that God who gives us his own Son in this Eucharist will give us every other good gift with him.

What keeps us from experiencing the infinite mercy of God, and rejoicing in the Lord always because of the mind-blowing love that he has for each one of us? For many of us, myself included, it is our fear that holds us back, the fear that something in the way we live our lives will have to change, or perhaps even the fear and hopelessness that nothing in our life will be able to change, that no matter how many times we go to Confession, we’ll always be coming back with the same sins. The first fear is from a lack of conversion and our attachment to our sins. We grow comfortable with our sins. They’re like pets that we make a place for in our homes, that we feed and play with, and we make excuses for them when they soil the carpet or bite us or those around us. We’ve grown attached to our sins over the years, and we’re not sure we could do without them. The other fear comes from a lack of faith and from our own weakness. Even though we’d like to be rid of our sins and sinful habits and the destructive behaviors in our lives, we’ve tried before and made very little progress. Why should this year or this Confession be any different? We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re not really capable of that kind of change, that kind of commitment and response to God’s grace. We’ve convinced ourselves that holiness is not really within our reach. 

In the Gospel today, countless people come to ask John the Baptist, “What should we do?” What should we do to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ? His answer: act with mercy. In whatever small ways you can, in your homes and communities, in your schools and workplaces, act with mercy. Share your clothes and your food with those who have none. What are the ways in our lives that we have worried too much about appearances, while neglecting the genuine needs of those around us? John also tells them, stop cheating and manipulating others, and “be satisfied with your wages.” Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Act with mercy, even when you’re not feeling merciful, and your heart will begin to change. Our fears and attachments will fall away as we begin to experience the joy of a life lived for God and for one another. Our weakness will no longer be an obstacle as God perfects his power in us and shows us how ordinary men, women, and children can be great saints. Recently, some have been asking about what our response as Christians should be to terrorism. If we want to see a more merciful world, we need to stop waiting for someone else to act with mercy. It needs to start with you and with me, today and every day. We need to commit ourselves to works of mercy. Only then will our hearts truly change, and our culture and world follow suit.

So what is your experience? Do you experience Christian peace and joy? Or is your experience more often marked by anxiety, anger, and sadness? Have we ever truly striven to follow Christ everywhere, even when it becomes difficult? G.K. Chesterton is quoted as saying, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” During this Year of Mercy, we pray for the grace to really try, once more, to commit ourselves to the Gospel way of life, to works of mercy and a renewed search to experience the Lord’s mercy in our own lives, that even if we’ve been away from Confession for years and wouldn’t even know where to begin, we’d put aside our fears and give God another chance to change us, another chance to change our hearts and to change our world, that all may come to experience and express the joy of the Gospel, the very good news, that indeed, the Lord is near. 

Get in the Game

Homily, Advent Sunday 2C

In the past ten days, I’ve assisted at my first two weddings as a priest. One of the options for the first reading at a wedding is how God made Eve to be Adam’s wife. One story I’ve heard is slightly different from what you’ll find in the Bible. So in the beginning, when God made Adam but before he had made Eve, God was discussing his plans with Adam, describing what his new wife would be like. She’d be beautiful, gorgeous, and she would never age; she’d do all the cooking and cleaning around the garden without complaining at all; she’d never talk back to him or argue or disagree with Adam about anything, but she’d just go along with whatever he thought was best. Now as God described this woman to Adam, you could tell that Adam was getting excited, but he was also starting to feel a bit skeptical. So Adam spoke up and said to God, “That all sounds really great, but what is it going to cost me?” And God said, “Just an arm and a leg.” Now Adam thought for a moment, then he said, “Well, what can I get for a rib?”

Now if you’re like me, and probably like most of humanity, we kind of just sit back and wait and wonder, “Okay, God. What do you have for me today” or “What do you have for us this week?” We usually see ourselves as on the receiving end of the prophet’s message. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is preaching repentance, and we are his passive listeners in the crowd. We’re waiting to be moved. We’re waiting to get something out of the Mass or to get something out of the season of Advent, but we haven’t really thought much about what we are being asked to give. One of the insights in the discussion of the New Evangelization is that mission, going out and proclaiming Christ to the world, is essential to the Church’s identity, essential to the Christian’s identity. In other words, we cannot be who we are meant to be as a Church, and we cannot be who we are meant to be as Catholic Christians, if we are not actively spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Each one of us is called to have a prophetic role, to see ourselves in the place of John the Baptist and not just one of the crowd, and until we start to take that seriously and actually get in the game, we won’t really understand our own faith. If we are just in maintenance mode, trying to just preserve what we have, we actually lose what we had. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the sake [of Christ] and of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Get in the game. Share the good news of Jesus Christ with someone, with anyone. There are still lots of people in our own country, in our own circle of friends, in our own pews and pulpits who have not yet heard the Gospel or heard the Gospel in a convincing way. And if we are waiting to be fully convinced ourselves before we share with others, we may never be convinced. 

Often, it is only through seeing how the Catholic faith brings new life to others that we are renewed in our own faith. This has been my great privilege and experience in assisting with the RCIA program on Thursday evenings. I was a cradle Catholic, always going to Mass and never really being away from the Catholic faith for a significant time. Many of those who attend RCIA are seeing the Catholic faith with new eyes, and what they see and notice about the Catholic Church helps me to appreciate these aspects of our faith in a new or renewed way. The readings this week are all about renewal, returning home from exile, sowing in tears and reaping joy, Paul’s prayer for the Philippians that our “love may increase ever more and more,” to prepare a way for the Lord, to make the winding roads straight and the rough road smooth once more. We rediscover our own faith and we make room for Jesus in our own hearts when we share him with one another. This is the call of Pope Francis to go to the peripheries, to those who feel excluded, to those who have been excluded, because those are the ones that Jesus went to, those were the ones who were able to respond to Jesus with wounded, but open, hearts.

During this Advent season, each one of us is called to be renewed in our mission, to prepare the way for the Lord, not just for ourselves but for many others. Water that sits too long in one place becomes stagnant, so the Christian who stays too comfortable will start to decay. We are meant to be fountains of living water, overflowing with life for the world. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Strengthened for your mission by Jesus himself in this Eucharist, spread his love and peace to all parts of the world, starting with the person right next to you. Get in the game, and proclaim Christ in your thoughts, words, and actions, and you will never be the same. 

Still and Silent Winter

Bulletin Article, Advent Sunday 2C

The earth sleeps under a blanket of white. When I was little, winter was always my favorite season, and I loved the snow. When I had to start shoveling sidewalks and trying to drive on icy roads, I thought again about whether winter was so great. For a while, I think my favorite season changed to autumn, but there’s always something about winter that is particularly peaceful. A number of years ago after a big snowfall, I remember walking down the middle of the streets in Elk Point in the early hours of the night. The sidewalks were still buried in snow, and there weren’t many vehicles out anyway. Everything was so silent and still, street lights lighting up the white snow. I felt like I might have been the only living thing out of doors. Just God and I in all the world. I’ve always found the snow and even the darkness of these days helpful for prayer and reflection and just sitting and watching in silence. Advent is a season of peace, of waiting, of keeping vigil, and the approach of winter seems to foster that anticipation of Christmas joy. 

When I was in Rome studying with some Australians, it struck me that the Church calendar was really designed for the Northern Hemisphere. Australians are used to having a barbeque and going to the beach on Christmas because it is summertime down under. And while we usually have the new life of spring budding to represent to us the resurrection of Easter, Australians are entering the cool of autumn instead. Christmas was quite deliberately situated shortly after the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere because that is when, after so many days of darkness, light begins to make its return into the world. Daylight hours begin to lengthen once again as we celebrate the birthday of Christ our Light, who entered our world as a tiny baby in Bethlehem.

With all the frantic activity that goes along with this season, with Christmas shopping, Christmas concerts, Christmas plays, I hope you’ll make the time to really enjoy the graces of the Advent season. Sit by a fire and just watch the flames dance. When it starts snowing, just take five minutes (or more if you can spare them) to watch the flakes fall from the sky to decorate the earth. Take a break from your breakneck pace of life to just be, to be in the present, to be in the presence of God. Take the time to realize that the world is not going to end if you don’t actually get all twenty things done that you needed to get done today. Go to Confession to give the darkness of your sins to God so that He can be the light of your life. We get less than four weeks of Advent each year. Let’s take advantage of the season to really grow in how much we watch, how much we listen, how much we are really attentive to the needs of those around us rather than our own fleeting desires. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Let’s give God the time and opportunity to change our hearts.

Enjoy the snow!