Thursday, January 29, 2015

Motivational Speaker

Inspiring each other to holiness

Hebrews 10:24-25
 Brothers and sisters:  We must consider how to rouse one another  to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Mark 4:21
 Jesus said to his disciples, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?

             One of the perennial problems all people face is motivating others to action, to inspire people to do something they would not otherwise attempt.  For instance, a young man tries to inspire a young lady to fall in love with him (I gave up on that a long time ago!).  Parents must motivate their reluctant children to eat their broccoli.  And pastors have to get their congregations to come to church.  A recent Pew Research Poll said about 30% of Catholics attend Mass on Sunday; we’re doing much better here at I.C. – we’re up to 35%!!  In fact, there’s an entire industry of “motivational speakers” to address precisely this problem.  I always remember the Saturday Night Live parody of a motivational speaker by Chris Farley, who “lived in a van down by the river.”  Of course, his life and behavior completely undermined his self-improvement speech.  How do we motivate others?

             This is exactly the question that the Letter to the Hebrews poses.  It says, “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.”  In other words, motivation is also a Biblical motif.  In the gospel, Jesus gives us the best way to inspire others, namely, by our example.  He asks rhetorically, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” That is, what matters most in motivating is our actions more than our words, and avoiding Chris Farley’s character who believed: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

            It’s kind of funny, but some people look at me as a motivational speaker!  A lady will come into the church office and ask, “Father John, can you come talk to my teenage son?  He’ll listen to you.”  Or, a man will come in and ask, “My wife is driving me crazy!  Will you come speak to her?”  I want to ask them: “Do I look like I live in a van down by the river???”  So, instead of trying to change the troubled teen or the wild wife, we talk about changing ourselves – both my visitor and me – so that we can be a lampstand giving light to all in the house.  You see, our example of patience, temperance, prayerfulness, cheerfulness, humility and courage do much more good than countless motivational speeches.

             I have a dear friend who doesn’t drink alcohol and she doesn’t drink coffee and she doesn’t watch Saturday Night Live.  She has motivated me to be more temperate than hundreds of theology books and thousands of fiery sermons.  Thank you for being my lampstand.  And not my motivational speaker.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Talk about Taxes

Avoiding arguing from authority
 Mark 4:1-8
 On another occasion, Jesus began to teach by the sea. A very large crowd gathered around him  so that he got into a boat on the sea and sat down. And the whole crowd was beside the sea on land. And he taught them at length in parables,  and in the course of his instruction he said to them,  “Hear this! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,  and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. And when the sun rose, it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots.  Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it  and it produced no grain. And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit. It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” He added, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”

             One thing I learned from studying St. Thomas Aquinas was that the argument from authority is the weakest form of reasoning.  Of course, that’s what I just did, isn’t it, by invoking the authority of St. Thomas for that statement!  One day, John Adams was preparing a speech and asked his wife, Abigail, to read it and see what she thought.  She noticed he quoted a lot of people in the speech, and observed: “You don’t have to quote great men to be a great man.”  In other words, state your case clearly and concisely and avoid arguing from authority.  Have you ever argued with your kids and in frustration finally blurted out: “Because I said so!”  How did that go over?  Like a lead balloon, I bet.  Even children know that the argument from authority is the weakest, especially your authority.

             In the gospel today, Jesus shows us another way to argue, really the best way to teach, namely, through parables based on people’s experience.  You remember the parables about sewing clothes, and herding sheep, and paying taxes – everyone has that experience!  So today, Jesus' point percolates through another parable, scattering seeds and waiting for the harvest.  At some point, we’ve all seen seeds either grow or not grow because of weather or predators.  You see, appealing to common human experience is the best way to persuade people, to teach them.  Now, to be clear, Jesus was the one Person who could have blurted out, “Because I said so!” -- Jesus is the source of all authority -- but he resorted to that only rarely.  Jesus preferred to preach and persuade through people’s experience, and avoided arguing from authority.

             When we take experience seriously – both our own and other people’s – we learn a great deal.  Experience is a wise teacher; sometimes she's brutal, but she's always the best.  This is the great appeal of Pope Francis.  His teaching is not so elevated and erudite that only philosophers and theologians can understand, but rather it’s accessible to all because he takes experience seriously.  He also wants to learn from other people’s experience – even from that of immigrants and divorcees and homosexuals – because there’s something we need to learn from their experience.  When you speak to your children, share your own experiences: of going to school, about dating, landing your first job, and of course about paying taxes!  And don’t worry if your experiences are successes or failures, some of the most important lessons we learn at the hands of defeat.  “You don’t have to quote great men in order to be a great man.”  That was said by Abigail Adams; it's okay to quote great women.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Reign in Hell

Choosing to gaze upon Jesus

Hebrews 10:1-2

Brothers and sisters: Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come,  and not the very image of them, it can never make perfect  those who come to worship by the same sacrifices that they offer continually each year.
 Mark 3:31-35
The mother of Jesus and his brothers arrived at the house. Standing outside, they sent word to Jesus and called him. A crowd seated around him told him, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” But he said to them in reply, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

             Joyce Kilmer, the American poet, is only remembered for one poem – he was a one hit wonder, like people who only write one book.  The poem was called “Trees,” and many students memorized it in grade school.  Can you recite it with me?  “I think that I shall never see, A poem as lovely as a tree.  A tree whose hungry mouth is prest, Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray.  Upon whose bosom snow has lain, Who intimately lives with rain.  Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”  Catchy, ain’t it?  Kilmer wants to contrast poems, which are just clever conjurings of our contemplation (our imagination), with trees, which are real and true and solid.  The difference between a poem and a tree is the same as the difference between a shadow and the tree that casts it.  Maybe that’s why Kilmer wasn’t very good at poems: why stare at the shadow when you can gaze upon the real thing?

             Today’s Scriptures also caution us about confusing the shadow with the reality.  Hebrews says, “The law has only a shadow of the good things to come and…cannot make [us] perfect.”  That is, the law is like a shadow, but Jesus is the Law on two legs, the Law-giver himself, the reality, who alone can make us perfect.  Stop staring at the shadow and gaze upon the real thing.  In the gospel, Jesus’ family stands outside the house waiting for him, and he asks, “Who are my mother and brothers?” And he answers his own question, like I do at school Mass because I’m afraid of what the kids might say!  He says, “For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  In other words, human families are like a shadow of the divine family – those who do God’s will.  Don’t confuse one with the other; keep your eyes on what’s real, not its shadow.

             Joyce Kilmer is not the only one tempted to write poems instead of look at real trees – we all tend to live in the make-believe world of our minds instead of in reality.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “We all begin to believe our newspaper clippings,” and think we’re smarter or holier or more beautiful than we really are.  And if we don’t believe that about ourselves, we certainly think that about our children!  We take the shadow over the reality.  Satan, the tragic hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost, said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”  And he would boldly go on to declare: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”  He preferred the shadowy hollows of hell to the sunlit heights of heaven.  Ask yourself today and everyday: “Do I choose to stumble in the shadowlands of my imagination, or rather choose to gaze upon Jesus, he who alone is the way, the truth and the life?"  It’s a choice we face every day.

             “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”  Be careful: you may be a poet and don’t even know it.

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

A High Premium

Welcome and Invocation at Grandparents’ Day

            My parents taught me to place a high premium on making other people feel welcome.  When someone comes into your home, they said, you put them at ease and relaxed, rather than make them feel uncomfortable or awkward.  We found this same warm welcome when we first arrived in the U.S. at the local Catholic school, St. Theresa’s in Little Rock.  I started there in 5th grade and immediately felt like part of the school family, even though “I probably talked with an Indian accent like this," like the guy "Raj" from Big Bang Theory.  Even though I’ve lost my accent, I haven’t lost the friends I made at that Catholic school; they are still my best friends today.

             You will find that same warm welcome at every Catholic school, especially here at I.C.  The original meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal,” or put more practically, it means “where everyone is welcome.”  Yesterday at brunch, I sat with our new family from Japan, Mr. and Mrs. Kurihama.  The dad, Ryuuichiro, explained that his name, “Ichiro” means “first born son.”  Then he asked me, “Do you know the New York Yankees?  They have a player named ‘Ichiro.’  But the funny thing is that he’s the second son in that family, not the first.  We don’t think he’s really Japanese!”  So, now you can impress your friends at cocktail parties – and that’s just another benefit of Catholic schools!  I hope the Kurihama’s feel like family in this Catholic school in Fort Smith, just like the Antony’s felt like family in that Catholic school in Little Rock.

             We’re happy to kick off Catholic schools week by welcoming our grandparents: we want you to feel at ease and relaxed.  You’ll be pleased to know that your grandchildren attend a school that places a high premium on people feeling welcome.  “Catholic” doesn’t mean cookie-cutter conformity, where everyone looks and acts the same, but rather a rich diversity, as wide as the whole world itself, welcoming Indians and Japanese and Japanese wanna-be’s.  Let’s pray:

             Heavenly Father, you sent your Son into the world not to save a few people, but to save many.  Indeed, “you desire that all men and women be saved,” (1 Timothy 2: 4).  Bless all Catholic schools that they be a concrete expression of your universal love, where everyone feels warmly welcome.  We ask this through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.”

The Good Stuff

Finding the good stuff in church
Hebrews 9:11-14
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be,  passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands,  that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary,  not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own Blood,  thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes  can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed,  how much more will the Blood of Christ,  who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

             Where do you find the proverbial “good stuff,” where you live life at its fullest and finest?  Some suppose it’s found on a quiet beach, watching the waves, others at a Disney vacation, wearing Mickey ears, still others say it’s when you bag a 10-point buck.  Kenny Chesney sings about a man who walks into bar and says, “I’ll have the good stuff.”  But surprisingly, the bartender doesn’t reach for the whiskey or gin, and replies, “You can’t find that here.”  He explains, “Cause it’s the long first kiss on a second date, Momma’s all worried when you get home late, And droppin’ the ring in the spaghetti plate, Cause your hands are shakin so much.  And it’s the way that she looks with the rice in her hair. Eatin burnt suppers the whole first year, And askin for seconds to keep her from tearin up.  Yeah, man that’s the good stuff.”  In other words, you don’t find the good stuff at the bottom of a bottle, but at the bottom of your heart, when you fall in love.  Love is the good stuff.

             The first reading from Hebrews also answers the question about where you find the good stuff.  Hebrews says, “Christ came as the high priest of the good things that have come to be.”  Jesus is the high priest of the “good things,” that is, of the really good stuff.  And I’m sure there’s some Protestant church out there called, “The Church of the Good Stuff.”  Protestants have all the catchy names!  But Hebrews goes on to explain that this spiritual good stuff is really Jesus’ Blood, that “cleanses our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.”  The good stuff – really the best stuff – is Jesus’ Blood, always waiting for us in the Eucharist, where we worship the living God, under the form of bread and wine.  You see, Catholics find the good stuff not in a local bar, but in their local parish, where they walk into Mass every Sunday and say, “Give me the good stuff.”

            My favorite line in the Mass comes at the end of the 3rd Eucharistic Prayer.  Yes, there are 4 different Eucharistic Prayers, some shorter, some longer.  It’s not always the priest’s fault when Mass goes long!  The last line of the 3rd Eucharistic Prayer reads, “May we praise and glorify you for ever through him from whom all good things come.”  At that moment in the Mass the good things, the good stuff, sits at my finger tips.  I have a dear friend who started going to Adoration for an hour a week when her life was most hectic.  Her husband complained, “How can you go to Adoration now when you don’t have any time?!”  She replied, “Now is when I need to go to Adoration more than ever!”  She knew where to find the good stuff.  In the early Church, Christians were accused of being drunkards because people smelled wine on their breath early in the morning.  Those accusations were exactly true: they had gone to Mass and received the Body and Blood of Christ, and were drunk on the Holy Spirit.   They knew where to find the good stuff.

            Chesney ends his song like this: “When you get home she’ll start to cry.  When she say, ‘I’m sorry,’ say ‘So am I.’ And look into those eyes so deep in love. And drink it up.  Cause that’s the good stuff.”  You know, we drink some pretty good stuff at home, but we drink the best stuff here at Mass.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Flash and Hulk

Treating names with love and respect
Mark 3:13-19
Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles, that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons:
He appointed the Twelve: Simon, whom he named Peter; James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.

            When I was in grade school, we used this little saying a lot.  We said: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  What do you think that means?  It means that if you call me a name that doesn’t hurt as much as hitting me with a stick or throwing a stone at me.  But is that true?  Does it hurt when someone calls you a name?  Of course it does, it hurts me, too.  And calling someone a name can hurt more than breaking their bones.  We should always be very careful with the names we call people.

            Sometimes, we can use nicknames in good humor and in fun.  You may know that Fr. Jason Sharbaugh, the pastor of St. Boniface Church, lives at the rectory with me.  He’s a good friend of mine, and we have nicknames for each other.  He calls me “Flash” because I like to run on the treadmill a lot, and I call him “Hulk” because he likes to lift weights a lot.  You don’t want to see him when he gets angry.  Sometimes, we sit around and wonder who’d win if Flash ever got into a fight with the Hulk.  How many of you think Flash would win?  How many of you think that Hulk would win?  Of course Flash would win!  Flash could punch Hulk in the nose and run away before Hulk knew who hit him!  But we should always use nicknames with love and respect, never as a way to hurt someone.  Our nicknames show that we are good friends.
             In the gospel today, Jesus calls his 12 apostles, and gives some of them nicknames.  Do you know how many apostles Jesus gave nicknames to?  Only to three of them: Simon, James and John.  What was Simon’s nickname?  It was Peter, which in Greek means “Rock.”  Jesus would build his Church on the rock of St. Peter.  Jesus gave Simon that nickname as a sign of his love for him.  What nickname did Jesus give to James and John?  They were called “Sons of Thunder” because of their impetuous personalities, and because Jesus loved them.  Jesus did not give nicknames to the other 9 apostles.  These three – Peter, James and John – would be Jesus’ very closest friends, and those nicknames were a sign of his love and affection for these three apostles.

            Boys and girls, the names we use for other people are precious and we should treat their names and nicknames like we’re holding gold in our hands.  For example, one way you show respect to adults is by calling them by their last name: “Mr. Mondier,” “Mrs. Frala,” “Mrs. Blentlinger,” “Fr. Antony.”  To call an adult by their first name is disrespectful and hurtful.  I sometimes mention people’s names in my homilies, but I always do something before I use their name.  Do you know what it is?  I ask their permission. A person’s name is precious and I should treat it like gold.  I asked Fr. Jason Sharbaugh if I could talk about him this morning before Mass started.  He said to tell you that Hulk would definitely beat Flash in a fight!  Always treat people’s names with love and affection, even their nicknames.

            “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  That’s a catchy grade school saying.  But it’s not true.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Apologia Mafioso

Praying for an end to abortion
Hebrews 7:25—8:3
          Jesus is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them. It was fitting that we should have such a high priest:  holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

            I’m going out on a limb here, and want to suggest there’s something we can learn from mafia movies. If you can see beyond all the money-laundering, and murders, and mafia hit men – and that’s not easy to do! – you find a hidden treasure, namely, an unbreakable and beautiful family bond. That’s why Luca Brasi paid Don Corleone a touching compliment when he said: “Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your home on the wedding day of your daughter. And may their first child be a masculine child.” I wish I had a better Sicilian accent! And that’s why the worst sin that Michael Corleone ever committed was the execution of his brother, Fredo. Michael even has to go to the pope to seek forgiveness. You see, in the world of the mafia, they get a lot of things wrong – pretty much everything – but they do get one thing right: family always comes first. To care for your family is noble; to harm your family is unforgiveable.

            In the first reading, the Letter to the Hebrews says that for God, too, family always comes first. Listen to this line: ‘For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.” In other words, there’s something higher than human laws (and even higher than Old Testament Levitical laws), and that is family life. And Jesus comes to teach us that family always comes first, not only on earth but also in heaven, where he is the eternally begotten Son of God. As Luca Brasi wished, “May your first child be a masculine child.” Scott Hahn went so far as to say God is the truest family, while our human families are like shadows of the divine family. He wrote, “God is not ‘like’ a family. He ‘is’ a family. From eternity God alone possesses the essential attributes of a family, and the Trinity alone possesses them in their perfection” (First Comes Love, 43). In other words, family comes first on earth, but even far more so, Family comes first in heaven.

            This is why the Church has designated today, January 22, as a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. As you know abortion became legal in the U.S. on January 22, 1973 with the Supreme Court decision “Roe vs. Wade.” This past Sunday prolifers gathered in state capitals to pray for respect for life, especially that of unborn babies. My friends, I am convinced that protection of the unborn is not just one issue among others of equal weight and moment, but rather THE foundational issue facing our country and our culture. Why? Put simply: we have not made family come first. We have created human laws that can trump a higher law, namely, that unbreakable and beautiful family bond. But what's worse is that abortion strikes not only at the heart of humanity, but also highly offends heaven, where Family always comes first. Today, we pray fervently for the repeal of laws that allow abortion, and heaven prays for that, too, and so does Luca Brasi.
Praised be Jesus Christ

Me and Melchizedek

Praying for our priests
Hebrews 7:1-3
Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything. His name first means righteous king, and he was also “king of Salem,” that is, king of peace. Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.

             Do you know who is the first priest mentioned in the Bible?  It is a mysterious and mesmerizing figure named “Melchizedek.”  In fact, I was so captivated by him that I wrote my master’s thesis paper in seminary about him, and the title of it was: “Who the Heck is Melchizedek?”  My thesis director was not impressed.  Surprisingly, Melchizedek appears at the beginning, middle and close to the end of the Bible: in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and today in Hebrews 7.  Scripture scholars hotly debate his true identity and they have yet to reach a consensus.  But the one thing scholars cannot do is ignore him.  Why?  Because in those three places – Genesis, Psalms and Hebrews – Melchizedek comes in contact with Father Abraham, King David and finally Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Any serious student the Scriptures has to answer the question, “Who the heck is Melchizedek?”

             Let me tell you what Melchizedek means to me.  Hebrews says, “Without father, mother or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.”  I learned two things from that passage: (1) priesthood is a higher calling than family life, and may even require you to sacrifice family life in order to be a priest.  So, for me, celibacy makes sense in light of Melchizedek.  And (2) priesthood is a full-time job, not a 9 to 5 gig where you punch the time clock.  Indeed, a man who is ordained will be a priest even in heaven.  You see, there will not be marriage in heaven (Mt. 22), but there will be priesthood in heaven.  And I can’t wait!  We priests will still get a paycheck but we won’t have any work, since there won’t be any sinners in heaven!  And that’s why I wear my Roman collar almost all the time and everywhere I go.  Why?  Because Hebrews says, “You are a priest forever” – at a Razorback football game, at a local restaurant, while drinking beer, and everywhere else.  When I was ordained, my mom told me, “Son, always wear your collar.  It’ll keep you out of trouble.”  What did she know that I didn’t know??  My mom knew the answer to the question, “Who the heck is Melchizedek?”

            May I ask you a favor?  Would you please pray for us priests?  I know you already do, but don’t slow down!  I have a dear friend who prays her rosary for me while she’s at Adoration.  My mom worries about this priest; Mother Mary worries about all priests.  Pope Francis always concludes his talks to people with the plea: “Please pray for me!”  Why pray for priests?  Because Melchizedek has set the priestly bar pretty high for us, indeed, as high as heaven!  But we priests remain fully and feebly human, at the end of the day, we’re just knuckle-draggers, like the rest of men, in need of salvation as much as anyone else, maybe more so.  This is why Archbishop Fulton Sheen titled his autobiography, “Treasure in Clay."  The treasure is Jesus; the clay is the priest.

            Who the heck is Melchizedek?  He is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, and he’s also the model for all priests.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

A Jesus Job

What would Jesus do?
 Gospel MK 2:23-28

As Jesus was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.  At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”  He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?  How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions?”  Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.  That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

                I'm sure you've heard the phrase "What would Jesus do?" It can be a very helpful rule of thumb in making daily decisions as a Christian, but it can also be a little misleading. It is true that we should be "imitators of Christ" as Thomas a Kempis wrote, but that doesn't mean we can do everything Jesus did, nor should we.

Maybe this analogy will help. One day Scott Hahn was out for a jog and saw a man mowing his lawn. He was being pestered by his small son, who was pushing his toy mower, constantly getting in dad's way. Scott Hahn decided to circle the block to see how dad would solve the dilemma. When he came back around, he saw that dad now had junior in one arm, and was pushing the mower with the other arm.  Junior, however was beaming because he had both hands on the real mower and, with eyes wide open and a huge smile, believed he was really mowing the grass. Don't you wish junior would feel like that when he's 13 years old and mowing the grass??  So, while we can be imitators of Christ, that doesn't mean we do exactly the same thing he does, nor can we.

                Today's gospel provides another example of something that's just "a Jesus job."  It's the Sabbath and Jesus allows his disciples to do more work on the Sabbath than is allowed by picking head of grain to eat. Now, the Pharisses are correct that such an action violated the Sabbath rule of rest. But Jesus says, "The Son of Man (meaning himself) is lord even of the Sabbath." In other words, Jesus is asserting that he is equal to his Father, who originally made the Sabbath statute, and so he can make an exception to the rule. However, Jesus was not advocating that his apostles have that authority. You see, some actions belong uniquely and solely to Christ and he cannot abdicate them, while we, for our part, cannot imitate them. Some things are just "a Jesus job," not ours.

                It is crucial that every Christian catches this distinction every time we ask, "What would Jesus do?" Just because we imitate Christ doesn't mean we are Christ, and enjoy all his authority. For instance we sometimes hear of "cafeteria Catholics," who pick and choose what they like in Catholicism, as if we were the one establishing the "First Church of Father John." That is not what WWJD means. Other people suffer the "Messiah Complex" feeling they alone can save others, and know what's best for others. Know any meddling mother-in-laws like that? What's our biggest excuse for not praying more? We say, "I'm too busy; too busy saving the world." Sorry to break this to you, but Jesus already did that, and that is just "a Jesus job," not ours.  WWJD means we should imitate Christ, but it does NOT mean we ARE Christ, and hijack prerogatives that are purely his. And that, by the way, should open our eyes really wide and put a huge smile on our face.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Listen Up

Listening with love to others
1 Samuel 3:3B-10
Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.” “I did not call you, “ Eli said. “Go back to sleep.” So he went back to sleep. Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. “Here I am, “ he said. “You called  me.” But Eli answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.” Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

             Which do you think is harder: speaking or listening?  Now, most people would say speaking is harder, especially if you have to get up in front of a large group of people; that absolutely terrifies some people.  While listening, on the other hand, is easy because you just have to sit there like a bump on a log.  Right?  But I disagree.  I am convinced that it’s much harder to listen than to speak.  For instance, there are several people here who’ve already fallen asleep listening to this sermon, because it’s just too hard to listen any longer!  One day a Sunday school teacher asked her students who were about to go over to church: “Why should we be quiet in church?”  Little Johnny answered: “Because people are sleeping.”  So, good night, sleep tight.

             But sometimes even when we do try to listen attentively, we don’t catch what the other person is saying.  When I was a small boy I remember watching T.V. with my dad.  Whenever a commercial would come on, he would shake his head in disgust and say in our Indian language, “Aleh kalipikiah.”  That means, “They are just playing with people”; they are not telling you the whole truth about that product.  In other words, listen carefully and don’t always believe everything you hear.  By the way, that’s also why the volume mysteriously goes up on your T.V. during commercials – have you noticed? – they know it’s hard to listen, and so they basically yell at you to keep your attention.  Now, this is rather embarrassing, but last week I received a letter from a young man I had counseled years ago in another parish.  He wrote: “Father John, I’ve finally been able to forgive you for the way you treated me.  I was at a point in my life when I needed some compassion and care, but you just corrected me rudely and walked away.”  You see, he needed me to listen to him rather than speak to him, but I took the easy way out.  I wrote back to him and apologized for not listening with love.  But that’s the life of a priest: people sleep when we wish they would listen, and they listen when we wish they would sleep!  You see, listening is always harder than speaking.
             In the first reading today, someone else struggles to listen well, little Samuel.  Three times he hears God calling his name and three times Samuel runs to the wrong person, he runs to Eli.  Finally, Eli realizes God is calling Samuel, so he advises him: “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for you servant is listening’.”  Like my father taught me how to listen well by his phrase, “Aleh kalipikiah,” (don’t believe everything you hear) so Eli taught Samuel how to listen well, how to hear God speaking.  He taught him to “listen up” – literally to listen upward to heaven, from where God was speaking.  You see, it’s always hard to listen well, but it’s hardest of all when we try to listen to God, whom we can’t even see.  We have to listen up.

             Now, sometimes, listening well can be humorous.  A second grader came home from school and said to her grandmother, “Grandma, guess what?  We learned how to make babies today.”  The grandmother, more than a little surprised (as you can imagine), tried to keep her cool.  “That’s interesting,” she said, “How do you make babies?”  “It’s simple,” replied the girl.  “You just change the ‘y’ to an ‘i’ and add ‘es’.”  Baby...babies.  Now, you know how to answer your kids when they ask you, “How do you make babies?”  But you see, that was a smart granny: she knew it’s better to listen rather than to talk, otherwise, you might say too much!

             Do you know what I believe is the single greatest problem that married couples face?  I am convinced that it’s not lack of money, nor is it troubles with intimacy, nor is it who gets to operate the remote control.  The single greatest challenge is learning to listen with love.  Do you know why?  Because it’s HARD to listen; it’s always easier to speak.  And what do we do when our spouse doesn’t listen well?  We become like T.V. commercials and yell at the other person, figuring if we just said it louder they will listen better.  By the way, how’s that working out for you?  Yeah, not so good.  I am convinced that 99% of all marriage problems could be solved if both parties learned to listen to the other person with love.

             I believe this is also our single greatest obstacle in our relationship with God: we don’t know how to listen to him with love.  When we kneel down to pray, what do we do?  We immediately start talking.  We think: surely what I have to say is far more important and interesting than what God has to say!  But the great doctor of prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, taught that as you mature in prayer, you experience something called “the prayer of quiet,” where you speak less and less, and listen more and more.  Imagine for a moment being able to sit down with supper with anyone who’s ever lived.  I would like to have at my table Abraham Lincoln and Joan of Arc and Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron (I’m kinda sweet on Charlize Theron).  Now, at that supper, do you think you would do all the talking, or do you think you would shut up and listen to what they might say?  Well, that’s the prayer of quiet: when you realize whom you’re sitting in front of and that your company has far more interesting things to say than you do.  We should shut up and listen up.

             One of the most eloquent eulogies ever delivered was for Julius Caesar after he died given by his friend, Mark Antony.  (Of course, he was an “Antony”!)  He began with these immortal lines: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”  He asked them to “listen up,” and they did because they loved him.  That’s a “loan” we should be eager to make in all our relationships – to listen with love.  So, for those of you who stayed awake during this homily, thank you for lending me your ears.  You can have your ears back now, so you can lend them out later when you listen to your spouse, or when you listen to God, or when you listen to your child who, by the way, knows “how you make babies.”

             Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winning Friends

Wanting what Jesus wants
 Mark 1:29-31
On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.

             I always love it when the reading from Mark chapter one comes up because I get to tell my favorite Fulton Sheen joke.  The archbishop asked, “Do you know the real reason why Peter denied Jesus three times?  It was because we read in the gospel of Mark that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law.”  If you didn’t get that joke, it’s because you’re not married.

             But that gospel pericope raises some important questions.  For example, why did Jesus cure Peter’s mother-in-law?  Which leads to another question: why didn’t Jesus cure everyone in Galilee who was sick that year?  That, in turn, raises another, broader question about Jesus’ miracles in general.  Why didn’t Jesus just snap his divine fingers and feed all the hungry people in the world, and clothe all the naked people, and stop all the tsunamis and hurricanes before they caused untold death and destruction?  You know, it’s very interesting to investigate why Jesus did what he did, but I think it’s far more pertinent and perplexing to ponder why DIDN’T Jesus do so many other great things that he could have done?  At root, we’re asking: why did Jesus bother to do anything at all??

             I think Dale Carnegie can help us understand the mind of our Master.  One of the principles he propounded in his famous book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was this.  He said, “if you give people what they want, they will give you what you want.”  For instance, if I give you a short sermon on Sunday, you’ll put more money in the collection plate.  See how that works?  So, Jesus gave us what we wanted: he healed the sick, and he fed the hungry, and he raised Lazarus from the dead.  But the real reason he did all that was to awaken in us a desire to give him what he wants.  And what does Jesus want?  Well, that’s not some great
mystery – he says it a thousand times in the gospels: he wants us to love each other.  That's all that Jesus wants.  You see, all our Lord's healings and miracles and teachings were to motivate us to want what he wants, namely, to love each other.  That’s the reason why Jesus did what he did – like heal Peter’s mother-in-law – but more importantly, that’s the reason why Jesus didn't do what he didn’t do, like all the other miracles.

            In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury, a great theologian, wrote a penetrating book called, “Cur Deus Homo?” (Why Did God Become Man?).  Well, the answer to that question is easy.  God became a man to give us what we want, so that one day, we would give him what he wants.  God became a man in order “to win friends and influence people.”

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Myth Busters

Flying to heaven with faith and reason
 Hebrews 2:6-7
              What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor, subjecting all things under his feet.

 Mark 1:23-25
               In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!”  Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

             Sometimes, I find the Bible baffling, don’t you?  My Protestant friends would say that’s because I’m Catholic and don’t actually READ the Bible.  As they taught us in grade school: “reading improves comprehension.”  But my struggle with Scripture is a scientific skepticism, where I need everything empirically verified before I believe.  It seems you first have to sift through the chaff of mythology and magic before you get to the golden wheat of truth.  Take, for example, today’s gospel, where Jesus expels demons.  Did that really happen?  Or, what about the first reading from Hebrews talking about angels?  Aren’t those just stories to help children sleep at night?  The great Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann said we must first “demythologize” the Bible in order to read it right.  That is, get rid of the myth and magic and you'll understand the Bible better.

             I feel very much like Indian Jones (don’t all guys??) whose friend Marcus Brody warns him about searching for the Holy Grail.  Indy says, “What are you trying to do scare me, you sound like my mother.  I don’t believe in a lot of superstitions and hocus pocus.”  By the way, do you know where the phrase, “hocus pocus” comes from?  It’s making fun of the Latin words of the Consecration at Mass, which are, “Hic est enim Corpus Meum” (This is my Body).  If you say that really fast, it sounds like “hocus pocus.”  To Indiana Jones, the quintessential Americ
an man, taking things on faith feels foolish.  Indy was the original “myth buster.”

             On September 14, 1998, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote arguably one of his key encyclical letters, but which sadly, got little publicity, called “Fides et ratio” (Faith and reason).  Listen to this seminal starting sentence: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth.”  The imagery makes the implication clear: using only science (reason) to know the truth is like a bird trying to fly with only one wing.  Americans who seek the truth aided by science alone won’t get very far of the ground.  Marcus Brody (soundling a lot like JPII) wisely replies to Indy, “The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.  But if you want facts, Indy, I have none to give you.  At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.”  And that’s how you fly to the heavens: using two wings: faith and reason, science and spirituality, mythology and mathematics.  Otherwise, you’ll never get off the ground.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Morning Smiles

Loving the neighbor we see
1 John 4:19–5:1

Beloved, we love God because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

             Have you heard the saying, “Seeing is believing”?  It’s kind of a strange saying, isn’t it, because why do we need to believe in something sitting right before our eyes?  Belief is for things we cannot see.  And yet there is a sense in which that maxim is true, that is, seeing some things helps us believe in other things.  For instance, seeing the unfurled American flag waving in the wind makes many Americans believe in freedom, which we don’t see.  Seeing a baby’s smiles – their morning smiles are the best! – makes us believe in innocence, which we cannot see.  Seeing the rosary makes us believe in the tender love of Mother Mary, whom we cannot see; or maybe it just makes us fall sleep, but we sleep in her arms.  So, seeing is believing while we walk in this world, where we behold but the shadows of things whose true splendor is saved for heaven.  On earth, we must see in order to believe.

             In the first reading today, St. John tells us there’s one very special thing that we see that makes us believe, not so much in freedom or innocence, but in God himself, namely, human beings.  St. John writes, “Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  In other words, St. John draws a clear connection between people and God, so that seeing one should make us believe in the other; more importantly, so that loving one should lead us love the other.  Now, there are a few people whom we see that don’t make us believe in God, in fact, they make us think of the opposite, like seeing Adolph Hitler, or Al Capone, or the Ole Miss football team.  Nevertheless, God said in Genesis, “Let us create man in our own image and likeness” (Gn. 1:26).  In other words, God made man his “signature shadow” in this world, so that seeing another person, we would believe in God.  This is what St. Irenaeus meant when he said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  On earth, we must see to believe; and we must see to love.

             In 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.  He said with courageous conviction: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”  Man, that guy could preach!  Martin Luther King also had to “see” a dream in order to “believe” in brotherhood, and he invited all Americans to dream with him.  You all are at Mass today, so I assume you love God.  Right?  Good.  But do you love your neighbor, even if he’s African American, or an illegal immigrant, or your mother-in-law, or maybe you are the mother-in-law (!) or even an Ole Miss football player?  You cannot love the God you don’t see, while failing to love the brother or sister you do see.  On earth, we must see in order to believe; and we must see in order to love.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Fear Itself

Ordering our fears rightly
Mark 6:47-51

When it was evening, the boat was far out on the sea and he was alone on shore.  Then he saw that they were tossed about while rowing, for the wind was against them.  About the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea.  He meant to pass by them.  But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost  and cried out.  They had all seen him and were terrified.  But at once he spoke with them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”  He got into the boat with them and the wind died down.  They were completely astounded.

                Is fear always a bad thing?  Some people think so, like those who boldly wear those baseball caps that read, “No Fear!”  Or Spencer Johnson who asked in his famous book Who Moved My Cheese? this rhetorical question, “What would you do if you had no fear?”  And yet, some fear is good to experience.  A friend of mine was having trouble getting his kids to brush their teeth before bed.  One day, he drove them into a rough neighborhood and introduced them to some people whose teeth had rotted because of drug use.  He told them that’s what happens when you don’t brush.  One of his kids grew up to be a dentist.  So, not all fear is bad.

                The problem with fear, however, is that we fear the wrong things.  We’re afraid of spiders and snakes and long sermons at daily Mass (!) but we don’t fear spiritual evils, like mortal sins, like gluttony and gossip and greed.  My favorite philosopher is Josef Pieper, who talks about an “ordo timoris,” a hierarchy of fears.  He writes, “The Christian asks what is really and ultimately terrible; and he is concerned not to fear things which are not really and ultimately terrible” (The Christian Idea of Man, 26).  So, some fear is good (like avoiding cavities), but spiritual fears are even better (like avoiding sleeping in Mass); fear sins more than snakes.

                In the gospel today, Jesus walks on water in the middle of the night in a storm and reprimands his timorous apostles saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid!”  So, was Jesus advocating having absolutely no fear?  Was he sporting a baseball cap that read, “No Fear”?  No, not at all.  He meant don’t fear physical dangers more than spiritual ones.  You see, the apostles’ “ordo timoris” was upside-down; they feared storms more than sins.  Remember when Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear the One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna” (Mt. 10:28)?  Fear sins more than storms.

                In his first Inaugural Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But he also wisely went on to clarify what kind of fear he meant, by adding, “They concern, thank God, only material things.”  In other words Roosevelt had his “ordo timoris” right-side-up; the country needed to fear spiritual difficulties more than material ones.  That speech was one crucial condition for the country to come out of the Great Depression, because Roosevelt reminded us what to fear.  If properly ordered fear lifted our country out of the Great Depression, what could properly ordered fear do for you?  Let me ask you again, is fear always a bad thing?

Praised be Jesus Christ!

That's the Ticket

Loving like hell to get into heaven
1 John 4:7-10

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only-begotten Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

             One of the most vexed questions of all human history is who will be saved, who will make it to heaven; just like we’ve been asking in college football all year: “Who’s in and who’s out??”  The Jewish people in the Old Testament believed they were “God’s chosen” so only they would be saved.  Christians argue over whether only Christians will be saved.  There are many Christians who doubt that Catholics will be saved, and I am one of them!  I’m not sure I’ll be saved!  By the way, doesn’t it send a cold shiver up your spine when your pastor wonders if he’ll be saved - what does that mean for you guys?  I’ll never forget a brief conversation I had with a grocery store cashier shortly after Pope John Paul II died.  He noticed my Roman collar and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”  I replied, “Yeah, he was one of the good guys.”  The cashier was apparently wan
ting to cheer me up, so he added, “Well, there’s one Catholic that’s going to heaven!”  I smiled and said, “Well, I hope there’s room for two Catholics up there.”  Nowadays, people wonder if their family pet will go to heaven.  Brother Richard Sanker, who taught at Catholic High, said, “If for you to be happy in heaven, you need your dog there, then your dog will be there.”  Notice, he said that your dog will be in heaven for YOUR happiness, not for his.  The modern mentality knows that all dogs go to heaven, but are not sure if Pope John Paul II will.

             Today’s reading from the first letter of John seems to weigh in on this issue as well.  John the Seer says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.”  Now, obviously, the Bible says a lot of other things about salvation, too, but one key ingredient is love.  In other words, if there’s one crucial condition to get into heaven, it is love.  If you don’t have love, you don’t get in.  Whatever else you have on your resume, love is the only credential that counts in heaven.

            Throughout history there’s been an undercurrent of thought called “apocatastasis.”  It’s the idea that eventually everyone will be saved, and that ultimately there will be no hell.  I think anyone who can pronounce the word “apocatastasis” should be saved.  Now, in contrast to apocatastasis – universal salvation – the Catholic Church soberly says, “The teaching of the church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035).  In other words, just like heaven is a possible destiny for us, so, hell is a real possibility, too.  But the good news is that the same ticket gets us into one and keeps us out of the other, namely, love.  You see, the Bible and the Church don’t teach that everyone will be saved, but they do teach that everyone has a shot at salvation, even Pope John Paul II.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hardly a Snack

Seeing the God of small things
Matthew 2:1-6

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod,  behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,  “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled,  and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,  for thus it has been written through the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

            Let me ask you: is “bigger always better”?  We certainly hear that slogan touted a lot, especially by us Americans.  For instance, men love big trucks with HEMI engines because bigger and faster is obviously better.  Women love 8-inch heeled shoes because being taller is much better.  And we enjoy watching T.V. shows that boast, “Go big or go home!”  Someone sent me this riddle recently: Who's bigger: Mr. Bigger or Mr. Bigger's baby?  The answer is Mr. Bigger's baby.  Why?  Because he's just a little Bigger!  (Aw, come on, you know you'll tweet that after Mass!)  Have you seen the rectory, the house where the priests live, lately? Talk about big!  I was giving a group of people a tour of the rectory, and showed them the spacious bathroom and enormous shower of the pastor.  One person commented, “Don’t you think it’s a little strange that you don’t have a door on your shower?”  I replied, “You know, the day I need a door on my shower is the day I ask to be transferred out of I.C.!”  So, even American priests believe bigger is better.

            Scott Hahn tells the story of Cardinal John Wright who worked at the Vatican for 10 years.  Hahn writes this, “[Cardinal Wright] was a theologian of great subtlety and wit.  An outsized and corpulent man – in other words, he was a big guy – he knew how to use his size to make a rhetorical point.  Once while talking to a group of seminarians  he observed, ‘Why do so many people insist on calling the Mass a banquet?’  He paused and rested his hands on his belly, [and said] ‘It hardly seems a snack to me,’” (Consuming the Word, 146).  I wonder if Cardinal Wright ever drove through Amarillo, TX and took a turn at the 72 oz. t-bone steak.  Everything is bigger in Texas, they say, because clearly, bigger is better.  Right?

            In the gospel today, however, God displays a decisive predilection for the diminutive, for what’s small and seemingly insignificant.  That is, God believes that smaller is better.  Here are 3 examples just from today’s gospel.  First, God leads 3 Magi from the East by the light of a small star, a star most everyone else missed, especially King Herod, who should have been watching for it.  Second, the scribes tell Herod that the Messiah will be born in a small, backwater town called Bethlehem, which no one thought about.  Listen to the prophesy, “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah (apparently, everyone thought they were the least!); since from you shall come a ruler to shepherd my people Israel.”  By the way, do you know what the word “Bethlehem” literally means?  It means “house of bread,” which is perfect, because that’s where Jesus, the Bread of Life, would be born, where he who is “hardly a snack” would become the main course of the heavenly Banquet.  And here’s the third example from the gospel: Jesus comes as a tiny Baby, humble, vulnerable, insignificant and ignored, which is exactly how he would died.  You see, to us Americans all this would seem absurd, where's the red carpet, where's the glamor and glitz?  But that’s exactly how God prefers to act, and a careful reading of the Bible will show this is how he operates throughout the entire Scriptures.  For God, less is more, smaller is better and the weakest will rule the world.  Unlike us Americans, God doesn’t charge in with “shock and awe” but uses instruments that seem banal and boring, which most people miss: welcome to the Catholic Mass!  You see, that's why the Catholic Mass is banal and boring, and something most people miss!  Remember how full the church was at Christmas?  “Why do so many people insist on calling the Mass a banquet?  It hardly seems a snack to me!”

            Do you know what is the single greatest gripe that people have against God?  It’s that he doesn’t answer our prayers.  I bet you have complained about that; and so have I.  We ask for signs to know what to do, we ask for healing for cancer, we ask to pass a test or to get a job.  I ask for people to give more money in the collection!  And what do we hear from heaven?  Holy crickets chirping, in other words, nothing!  But is it because God ignores us or is too busy to bother, or worse, because he’s punishing us?  No, not at all.  He’s always answering our prayers – I believe he answers them even before we utter them – but we miss his answers.  Why?  Because we’re looking for shock and awe answers, but God give us a little Baby in Bethlehem.  We want a 9 course meal with a 72-ounce T-bone steak, but God sends us something that’s hardly a snack.  You see, our problem is we believe bigger is always better, but that’s not what God believes and that’s not how God behaves.  We have to recalibrate our Catholic sensibilities and see God working in small and subtle ways.  That’s the lesson the Feast of the Epiphany tries teaches us every year by directing our attention to a small star; that's how God works.  It’s a lesson we Americans have a long way to go to master.

            Several years before I arrived at Immaculate Conception, there was a parishioner here named Jack Shields.  Like several other faithful parishioners, Jack and his wife Jean attended daily Mass at 7 a.m. daily and devoutly, never missing daily Mass, rain or shine, sleet or snow.  He was so zealous about attending Mass every day that one day Msgr. Galvin, the former pastor, asked him, “Jack, why do you go so faithfully to daily Mass?”  Jack answered Msgr. Galvin, “Monsignor, I’m afraid to miss Mass.  I can’t live without the Eucharist, without receiving Jesus in Holy Communion every day.  Communion is everything to me.”  For some people the Bread of Communion is more important that life itself; because it is the Banquet of eternal life.  For other people the Bread of Communion is hardly a snack.  What is it for you?

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Key to the City

Loving our brothers and sisters
Luke 2:16-21

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

            I have a big announcement to make!  Are you sitting down?  I have found the key to the city of Fort Smith!  No, Mayor Sandy Sanders didn’t give me an official key to the city; rather, I know now how to unlock the mystery of this town.  The key is this: learn the people’s maiden names!  You see, once you learn maiden names, you quickly realize that everyone is related to everyone else!  That’s why only highly trained people should gossip in this town, otherwise, you learn too late that the person you’re talking TO
is actually related to the person you are talking ABOUT.  I’ve been to several family’s homes who proudly display their family tree –the giant red woods of Northern California have nothing on these family trees!  I always try to make a mental note of the maiden names.  For example, I’ve learned that I don’t talk about the Wewers when I’m with the Meyers or the Reiths.  I should say something nice about the Seiters if I’m talking to the Fitzgeralds.  I never bring up any dirt on the Caldareras when I’m with the Hornungs, or discuss the Donaubauers when I’m with the McNally’s!  It’s too bad I was born in India – you can all talk about me!  Of course, there’s nothing bad to say.  Seriously, though, I do love Fort Smith and learning about our parish family.  We are a very close-knit community; we are not only a spiritual family related by baptism, but many of us are even related by blood.

            Today’s gospel contains one of those lines in the Bible that always makes me stop and reflect because it’s where Mary stops to reflect.  It reads: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”  You know, I always wonder: what was the content of Mary’s contemplation that day?  Think about it: she had just given birth to a Child who was the Son of God and her own Son, and suddenly all these strangers – shepherds and even kings – were coming to adore him.  I think part of her reflection was a glimpse that these strangers were also somehow her Child’s siblings.  This thought would grow stronger when, many years later Jesus would one day declare: “Who are my brother and sister and mother?  The one who does God’s will is brother and sister to me” (Mk. 3:35).  And it would become piercingly clear when Jesus would say hanging from the Cross: “Woman, behold your son” (Jn. 19:26), meaning look at John.  In other words, Mary began to see that if these shepherds and kings are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, then that would logically make Mary their mother!  Mary was sitting there that cold night in Bethlehem thinking the same thing I did shortly after I arrived in Fort Smith, “Dangit, all these people are related!”  You see, just like we are spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus, so we are also spiritual sons and daughters of Mary.  The classic phrase in Latin was, “filii in Filio” – sons in the Son.

            This was the spiritual content of Mary’s reflections and this is also the theological content of the feast we celebrate today, Mary, Mother of God.  In other words, precisely because Mary is the Mother of Jesus, she is also our mother, since we’re Jesus’ siblings.  In a certain sense, the key to unlocking the mystery of Fort Smith is also the key to unlocking the City of God, namely, realizing that everyone in the city is related to each other.  So what that practically means is that you can’t gossip about anyone in the City of God, because the one you’re talking TO is related to the one you are talking ABOUT.  Even if the one you’re talking about is me!  But more importantly, this means we’re a close knit community and we love each other, not just because it’s a commandment – because someone told us to – but because Our Mother would be very disappointed in us if we didn’t.

            You see, one and the same key unlocks both the city of Fort Smith and the City of God – and the key is to see how people are related to each other.  In both cities, therefore, just keep your eyes on the women, especially those women who are mothers.  And start learning some maiden names!

Praise be Jesus Christ!

The Church Lady

Appreciating the role of women
Luke 2:36-40
There was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.  She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.  And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

            I’m not a big fan of Saturday Night Live, but I must confess that I did rather enjoy the skit called “Church Chat” with the proverbial “church lady.”  Have you seen it?  It’s rather funny, with an elderly lady, dressed very conservatively, her hair wound tightly, who blames most of the world’s problems on Satan.  In every skit, she concludes by asking rhetorically, “Could it be…Satan?!”  Now, stop looking around the church to see if you can spot any church ladies here this morning!  The skit is obviously a spoof and not intended to be serious.  But every church can count among its congregation a good number of true “church ladies,” by that I mean women who dedicate themselves to prayer, to sacrifice, and to helping the needy.  How many men have become Catholic inspired by the example of a devout Catholic woman, often their spouse?  Our RCIA class is full of such men!  Anyone who thinks the Catholic Church discriminates against women because only men can be ordained priests needs to take a closer look at who’s really running the church.  The men may be the priests, but the women are doing everything else!  The church ladies are in charge!  And, in my humble opinion, that’s not such a bad thing.

            In the gospel today, we meet the original church lady in the Bible, Anna the prophetess.  After a 7-year marriage she became a widow and she dedicated herself to prayer and fasting.  It was this deep spiritual life that immediately disposed her to recognize who the child Jesus truly was, and she declares it to everyone, just like church ladies do today.  You see, Anna didn’t waste her time blaming Satan, she spent her time blessing God, and that’s what true church ladies always do.

            On August 15, 1988, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote an apostolic exhortation called “Mulieris Dignitatem” (Latin for, “The Dignity of Women”), in which he basically called every Christian woman to become a true “church lady,” in the best sense of the word.  The saintly pope described a true church lady as a kind of “perfect woman” and wrote, “The ‘perfect woman’ (cf. Prov. 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit.”  Now, listen to this next stunning sentence: “These ‘perfect women’ are owed much by their families, and sometimes by whole nations” (MD, 30).  In other words, women, especially these perfect women, have played a huge role in the history of the world, and in the history of salvation.  The pope sees Anna the prophetess as one of those “perfect women,” who inspire and strengthen others.  And, by the way, who are "these others" that these perfect women inspire and strengthen?  Could it be…MEN?!

            Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sleep Tight

Sleeping with the angels
Luke 2: 25-32
 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.   It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.  He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law  in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: “Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared  in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

            Do you have a nightly routine before you go to sleep, or as you prepare for bed?  Some people religiously brush their teeth and floss, others wash their face, I suppose women must have to remove make-up or put cucumbers on their eye-lids and curlers in their hair. Can you tell I’m not married?  Remember the T.V. show “The Waltons”?  Every episode ended with the Walton family’s nightly routine: they each said “good night” one by one, “Good night, John Boy,” “Good night, maw,” “Good night, paw,” etc.  We do the same thing at the rectory each night.  If you drive by about 10 p.m. you’ll hear, “Good night, Fr. Andrew,” “Good night, Fr. Pius,” “Good night, Fr. Jason,” “Good night, Fr. John Boy.”  We’re a very close-knit fraternity.

            Actually, what priests DO say as their last words of the day are recorded in today’s gospel, the so-called “Canticle of Simeon.”  When Simeon sees the Baby Jesus, he recognizes him as the promised Messiah, and says – really he sings – “Lord, now let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled; my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.”  In other words, once Simeon saw Jesus, he could sleep in peace – and ultimately die in peace – because bundled up in Jesus was every blessing for which humanity hungers.  Every night as Simeon fell asleep, he only needed to count one sheep, the Lamb of God, and all the blessings he brings.  And that is every priest’s nightly routine, and that helps him to sleep with the angels.

            My friends, do you have trouble falling asleep, or suffer from insomnia?  Sometimes, sleep aids are helpful, but I try to avoid them.  Instead, try counting the one Sheep, like Simeon did, and remember all the ways you saw God’s salvation during the day, that is, count all your blessings.  It’s funny how powerful prayer is as a sleep-aid.  When I lead the prayer at home with my family, as soon as I make the Sign of the Cross, my nephew makes this huge yawn!  That was just the Sign of the Cross, I’m afraid the Rosary would make the poor kid comatose.  So, after you brush your teeth, and wash your face, and put in your curlers, say a prayer like Simeon before you close your eyes, count the blessings and salvation you saw that day.  That will help you to sleep with the angels, too.

            Praised be Jesus Christ!