God Is with Us

Homily, Christmas Day

I have many fond memories of Christmas as a kid, having trouble sleeping over the excitement of the new presents the morning would bring, or wanting to catch a glimpse of Santa or the reindeer. Having nine kids in the house, my parents never had a lot of extra money, but they always saved enough to make Christmas really special for us. I know that to a lot of you I still look like a kid, but my Christmas this year was very different from what I remember when I was younger. Instead of having any trouble sleeping, after serving the midnight Mass and lying down for a few hours, I had to drag myself out of bed to celebrate this Mass at 7:30. Kids seem to have an easier time entering into the Christmas spirit, but as we grow older, we spend a lot of our time just trying to recapture something of what we experienced at Christmas in the past. I know that not everyone has such fond memories of childhood, and even for those who do, chasing sentiments and memories can end up being pretty futile if we’re not also and always seeking to deepen our appreciation and relationship with the Child sent from God Who was born for us so many years ago. We have to look to the meaning of that first Christmas if we want to not just look back fondly but be able to look forward to many Christmases to come.

We’ve all gathered 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 was the gift He gave us? 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 perfect 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 not do so alone. We will be 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. And so the question we still face: Is God enough for us, is Jesus the One we’ve been longing for, or are we still looking for someone else, for something else, to try and fill us? Jesus still 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, God who will stop at nothing to bring us back to Himself, and may we always desire at all times to live and die with Him.

Recognizing Christ in Disguise

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. Growing up as the youngest in my family, pregnancy was a fairly foreign concept to me for a long time. But with eight older siblings, I now have 16 nieces and nephews, and two more on the way. About three years ago, we had a sort of visitation of our own here in Sioux Falls. 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, who were all pregnant at the time, decided to run the 20 miles of the bike trail around Sioux Falls. Now I like to go running in my free time, but the farthest I’ve gone in one run is less than 10 miles. But apparently, three of my nieces have gone a lot farther, even before they were born.

Sometimes, it’s still difficult 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 inside 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 or try to harm us, to see Christ even in our enemies?

A few years ago there was a movie that came out about St. 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, in those who seemed to have nothing and no one. She always liked to summarize the Gospel on one hand, with five words, “You did it for Me. Whatever you did for these, the least of My brethren, you did it for 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, when we stand before Him on Judgment Day.

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 meet? 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 is God calling us 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, to the needs of many others who have found no more room at the inn. 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, 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, in personal prayer, and in the poor that she served every day. She lived with her eyes wide open, in her own words, “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.

Blessing of an Elevator

Unofficial adaptation of the Blessing of Means of Transportation

Introduction

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
R./ Amen.

May the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, be with you all.
R./ And with your spirit.

Christ, the Son of God, came into the world to gather those who were scattered. Whatever facilitates our assembling as a community of faith and draws us closer together, therefore, is in accord with God’s plan.

Let us, then, call on God to bless those who have worked on this project and to protect with his gracious help, our Lady’s powerful intercession, and the watchful care of his holy angels those who will make use of it.

Proclamation of the Word of God

Brothers and sisters, listen to the words of the holy Gospel according to John:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him,
“Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” 

Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” 

Jesus answered and said to him,
“Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” 

Nathanael answered him,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Jesus answered and said to him,
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”    

The Gospel of the Lord.
R./ Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

(En español)

Hermanos, escuchen las palabras del Santo Evangelio según san Juan:

Cuando Jesús vio que Natanael se acercaba, dijo:
“Éste es un verdadero israelita en el que no hay doblez.”

Natanael le preguntó: “¿De dónde me conoces?”

Jesús le respondió: “Antes de que Felipe te llamara,
te vi cuando estabas debajo de la higuera.”

Respondió Natanael: “Maestro, tú eres el Hijo de Dios,
tú eres el rey de Israel.”

Jesús le contestó:
“Tú crees, porque te he dicho que te vi debajo de la higuera. Mayores cosas has de ver.” Después añadió: “Yo les aseguro que verán el cielo abierto y a los ángeles de Dios subir y bajar sobre el Hijo del hombre.”

Palabra del Señor.
R./ Gloria a ti, Señor Jesús.

(As circumstances suggest, a brief Homily may be given.)

Intercessions

Let us join together in prayer to the Lord Jesus Christ,
who is the way for us to reach our eternal homeland, saying:
R./ 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, you become one of us and willed to live like us;
grant that with you always at our side, we may walk gladly
along the paths of your love, let us pray to the Lord…
R./ 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, you went from town to town
preaching your Gospel and healing the sick;
may you still pass along our streets and highways
and with your compassion give us strength,
let us pray to the Lord…
R./ 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, you became a companion to your disciples
on the road to Emmaus; bless us on our journeys
and warm our hearts by your words, let us pray to the Lord…
R./ 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, when you ascended into heaven,
you showed the way for us; bear us up in our earthly pilgrimage,
so that we may have a dwelling place in your Father’s house,
let us pray to the Lord…
R./ 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, you gave us to your Mother to be her children;
through her intercession make our journey safe,
so that some day we may see you and for ever rejoice with you,
let us pray to the Lord…
R./ 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Now let us pray with confidence to the Father in the words our Savior taught us: 

Our Father…

Prayer of Blessing (With hands outstretched)

Lord our God, you walk on the wings of the wind
and the heavens declare your glory.
For the rejoicing and consolation of all your creation,
at the end of her earthly life, you assumed
the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heavenly glory.
Through her intercession, grant, we pray,
that this elevator will serve to spread your praises
and contribute to the well-being of those who use it.

Through your blessing + may its passengers
more easily gather for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist
and the prayers and praises of your People,
and be sent to proclaim the Gospel over all the earth.
Through Christ our Lord.
R./ 
Amen.

(Sprinkling of those present and the elevator with Holy Water)

Concluding Rites

The Lord be with you.
R./ 
And with your spirit.

Bow down for the blessing.

May the God of all consolation order your days in his peace
and grant you the gifts of his blessing
.
R./ 
Amen.

May he free you always from every distress
and confirm your hearts in his love.
R./ 
Amen.

So that on this life’s journey you may be effective in good works
rich in the gifts of hope, faith and charity,
and may come happily to eternal life.
R./ 
Amen.

And may the blessing of almighty God,
the Father, and the Son, + and the Holy Spirit,
come down on you and remain with you for ever.
R./ 
Amen.

Go in peace.
R./ 
Thanks be to God.

Excerpts from Book of Blessings (Catholic Book Publishing: 1989)
and The Roman Missal, Third Edition (International Commission on English in the Liturgy: 2010)

The Joy of the Gospel

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 people often tell me that I should smile more, it still feels very strange or even creepy to me to smile at other people for no apparent reason. I’ve also determined—and the Mass in the Chapel at 6:45 during the week has confirmed—that I’m not really a morning person. It’s not until about 9 am that I start to hit my stride. If you do ever see me smiling a lot at 6:45 in the morning, please call someone, as I will probably be in need of immediate medical attention. In general, I find that I can communicate most of what I want to express just by using my eyebrows.

Our Scripture readings today beg the question, 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? What keeps us from surrendering to the great mercy of God and rejoicing in the Lord always because of the startling love that he has for each one of us? I think for most of us—myself included—it’s our fear that holds us back. Now this could be the fear that something in the way we live our lives will have to change, that following Christ and belonging to Him will make demands upon us and upon our behaviors. And even if we manage to overcome this first fear, and we’ve come to a point of really wanting to change, to turn over a new leaf, there is also the fear and hopelessness that nothing in our life will really be able to change, that no matter how many times we go to Confession, we’ll always be coming back with the very same sins, in similar numbers.

The first fear that I mentioned, the fear of needing to change and to give something up in order to follow Jesus, this fear comes 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 of not really being able to change 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 are filled with expectation and 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 is very simple and practical: act with mercy. In whatever small ways you can, in your homes and communities, in your schools and workplaces, act with mercy and act with justice. 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? We worry about how our hair looks while passing someone struggling to stay warm on the side of the road. John also tells them, stop cheating and manipulating others, and “be satisfied with your wages.” Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

Act with mercy, act with justice, 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. We find that being rid of our sins is no real loss, but the lifting of a burden and recovery after a long sickness. Our own weakness will no longer be an obstacle, as God perfects His power in us and shows us how ordinary men, women, and children can become great saints. We can all do small things—every day—with great love, to begin to change our own hearts, our own families and neighborhoods, to make Christ present in the world today.

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.” Today, we pray for the grace to really try, once more and continually, to commit ourselves to the Gospel way of life, to works of mercy and justice, 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 through us, that all may come to experience and express the joy of the Gospel, the very good news, that indeed, the Lord is near.

Wax On, Wax Off

December Message to Priests and Deacons of the Diocese, as Master of Ceremonies

As we reach the darkest days of the year with the longest nights, we are no doubt grateful for electricity and the many advantages it brings over burning midnight oil. I remember the few times as I was growing up that the power went out in Elk Point, back before everyone had flashlights on their cell phones. It could be a hassle, to say the least, especially if it happened during the night or early morning, resetting whatever alarm you had been counting on to wake you up. For most of us who grew up with street lights in town, it can be difficult even to imagine the sort of blackness and complete absence of light that used to be part of everyone’s regular experience. Even just one flame of a small candle gives off an impressive amount of light when it’s the only source.

The light of candles has long played a prominent role in the celebration of the Christian liturgy and devotional life. During this season we have the Advent wreath that many families still light in their own homes. One of the most disappointing things in visiting churches in Rome was to see so many devotional candle stands replaced with electronic lights made to resemble candles, activated by dropping a coin in or by pressing a switch. Bad idea. Much of the appeal of lighting devotional candles just comes from the opportunity to handle an actual flame, at least that was always the case for me. The Exultet of the Easter Vigil is one the greatest compositions in the Church’s liturgy, sung in praise of the Paschal candle, which of course represents Christ Himself and hearkens back to the pillar of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea and through the desert.

A few practical reminders: even when we have sufficient light from other sources, at least two wax candles near the altar are required, in normal circumstances, in the celebration of the Mass. Up to four or six can be used to show greater solemnity, seven if the bishop is the celebrant. At least four candles should be used when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed inside the monstrance. The amount of beeswax used in the composition of candles is no longer specified. “It should be noted that while an oil lamp may be used to indicate the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle (see GIRM, no. 316), the U.S. bishops have never given permission for the use of oil lamps at the altar,” even when these have been made to resemble wax candles (April 2018 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship).

St. Anselm of Canterbury explained some of the symbolism of candles. The wax represents Christ’s pure Flesh, received from His Immaculate Mother. The wick stands for His human soul. The flame is His divinity. So as we see the candles of the altar consumed and growing shorter over time, we should be mindful of the sacrifice of Christ made present at every Mass, Christ consumed completely out of love for us and in obedience to the Father. God grant that we, too, might be wholly consumed by His divine Love—as we approach Christmas—and become light to those around us in a darkened world.

Overcoming Habits of Sin

Homily, Advent Sunday 2C

Of all the sports I got involved with back when I was still in school, I would have to say that basketball was always my favorite to play, even though I probably wasn’t the best at it. And of all the sports I played, basketball was also one of the most demanding and most clearly disciplined. Every undesirable action had a clear consequence. Every missed free-throw, every missed layup, every stolen ball or intercepted pass corresponded to a certain number of laps at the end of practice. And if we weren’t hustling, running as fast as we could during practice, we would have more running to do at the end. Every undesirable action had a clear consequence that would be felt, in order to motivate greater effort, mental toughness, building skills and virtues.

I’ve been wondering lately whether we don’t make much progress in our spiritual lives because we don’t make use of any clear plan involving real consequences. Discipline, training, from which we get the word “discipleship” is a good thing in just a very basic sense, and if we think what it means to be an adult is to finally be without discipline, we’re really missing out on a lot of opportunity for continued growth. If discipline is just a tool for parents to train their children, or for coaches to train athletes, if we’ve lived a very undisciplined life just because we don’t have someone actively on our case or breathing down our necks, we’re likely to have lots of hills and valleys, winding roads that need to be straightened out in us.

Scripture often talks about the need to receive the discipline of Wisdom, the training that comes from the Word of God. Jesus Himself tells us to take His yoke upon us and to learn from Him, to be trained by Him. So when it comes to our sins and habits of sin, perhaps things that we’ve struggled with for years and years, do we have any real plan to work against them? To level those hills and fill in the valleys of our own words and actions? When we’re dealing with real disorder in our hearts, with strongholds of sin and evil spirits, we’re not gonna make any progress just playing patty cake, wishing away our bad habits. Moving hills, filling in valleys, and straightening roads doesn’t happen with just ‘positive thinking.’ It takes digging, dragging, working, and being held accountable. We need to allow ourselves to really feel the consequences of our sins so that we’ll learn to avoid them.

What does this look like? Let’s say there’s one sin in particular you want to really work on overcoming. Maybe it’s gossip and detraction or bullying, maybe it’s eating or drinking too much, maybe it’s pornography or using our time at work for things unrelated to our work, maybe it’s missing Mass on Sundays or days of obligation. Whatever it is, you decide not only that you’re going to go to Confession regularly—to be accountable to God and His Church, and to receive the grace and strength that come from God—but you also decide that you’re going to take on an additional penance whenever you fall into that sin. Something that you will actually feel, something that will make you uncomfortable, an actual inconvenience.

So maybe you give up your favorite food for the following three days. Or you don’t use the Internet on your phone for three days. Or you wake up early, or go to bed early for the next three days, or do a certain number of pushups or sit-ups, whenever you fall into the sin that you are trying to overcome. If we really stayed consistent with imposing these consequences on ourselves, do you think it might motivate a change in our behavior? Now to keep ourselves consistent and following through on our resolutions, it is extremely helpful, if not essential, to have someone else checking in with us, keeping us accountable. And they don’t necessarily need to know what behavior or sin we are trying to overcome, but just to hold us to the consequences that we’ve chosen.

Any progress in overcoming sin in our lives is made possible by the grace of Jesus Christ who offered everything on the Cross for our salvation. But grace is not magic. Grace does not do violence to our human nature. It calls for real cooperation at every level of our existence, including the fundamental benefits of discipline and training, imposing consequences that we actually experience as negative and difficult things, when we find ourselves continuing to choose what we should not choose. As we continue this Advent season, Jesus offers us His yoke to refresh us, His discipline and training to set us free. What are we really willing to do to prepare the way of the Lord, to truly repent and turn our backs on the sins that have enslaved us? Come, Lord Jesus. Come and set us free.