Monday, December 19, 2016

A Personal Christmas

Seeing how every vocation is born in God first

Luke 1:5-25 
Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.” Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.  But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”

          One of the special joys of working as chaplain at Trinity Junior High is helping our students discover their vocation. Teenagers begin discovering their talents, skills, interests, and yes, also their weaknesses, and ask themselves: “What should I do with these?” “Why am I here on earth?” “What is my purpose in life?” And I urge our students to remember the first rule of discernment, namely, your vocation is not first and foremost your vocation; it is God’s vocation for you. That is, our vocation is always born in God first, it does not originate in us. I recently received a Christmas card with a very catchy line, but one that contains a profound spiritual truth. It read: “When man reaches for God, we call it religion. When God reaches for man, we call it Christmas.” You could also re-write that somewhat to read: When you discover your vocation, you discover your own “personal Christmas,” that is, how God is reaching out to touch and transform you. Every vocation is a Christmas vocation.

          In the gospel today we see the angel Gabriel has little patience for those who do not accept their vocation from God. He tells Zachariah – high priest that year, no less – he will be a father even though both he and his wife are elderly and barren. Zachariah, quite reasonably, replies: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel then reminds him of the first rule of discernment: your vocation is not your vocation; it is God’s vocation for you. In other words, this is not about you and what you can do for God, but about what God can and will do for you. This is not religion; this is Christmas. Every vocation is a Christmas vocation, a personal Christmas.

          My friends, it is not only Trinity students and Jewish high priests who have to figure out their vocation; so do you and so do I. It is something we have to discern throughout our whole lives, again and again. And so don’t forget the first rule of discernment: your vocation is not your vocation; it is God’s vocation for you. Here are three simple steps to seeing God’s vocation for you. First, don’t ask the question: what do I want to do? Rather, ask: what does God want me to do? Hear the difference? Discernment is not about figuring out your will; it is about learning to do God’s will. Second, study the patterns of Scripture, like today’s readings about Manoa and Zachariah. If an angel appears to you and reveals God’s will, try not to question it. And third, don’t worry it if seems beyond your ability. A vocation is not about what you will do for God, but about what God will do for you. And remember how the angel assured Mary, “Nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).

          Folks, Christmas is just around the corner, on December 25th. But in a sense, Christmas is always just around the corner, every time we try to discern our vocation. Why? Because every vocation is a Christmas vocation: less about us, and all about God.

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Fertile Myrtle

Opening our hearts to the blessing of babies

Isaiah 7:10-14 
The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Then Isaiah said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

          A beautiful baby is a curious creature. Sometimes it brings out the best in us, and at other times, it elicits the worst from us. I’ll never forget my brother’s description of his feelings when he held his first-born son for the first time in the delivery room. At first he felt unbelievable joy and gratitude (that was the best feeling). But a moment later, he was overwhelmed by fear and responsibility, and a deep sense of helplessness to meet that challenge (that was the worst feeling). That’s what one friend described as “induced maturity” – where you suddenly grow up and mature into a responsible man. You instantly become less lazy and self-centered and instead try to be more patient and persevering. That’s how babies make us better.

          Babies also have this two-fold effect on priests: bringing out the best the worst in “men of the cloth.” For instance, babies can inspire a vocation to the priesthood. When I was pastor in Springdale, I would visit my brother on my day off. By that point they had 4 small children. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize that God knew exactly what he was doing calling me to be a priest! I always left his home at peace in my priestly vocation because I was heading back to my peaceful rectory! But sometimes babies bring out the worst in priests, especially when they start crying in Mass. Some babies are born with a remarkable sense of timing; they know precisely when the priest is about to begin his homily, and it’s just then they choose to cry and carry on. I know one priest who would actually stop his homily and wait for the baby to stop crying before he continued. Babies can bring out the best and the worst even in us poor priests.

          The Scriptures show us that the birth of Jesus was no exception to this pattern: a baby forced people to choose between faith or fear, between joy and jealousy. In the first reading King Ahaz has given up on God and doesn’t even hope for an answer to his prayers. As he says sardonically: “I will not tempt the Lord.” That sounded pious enough, but he was only a pious fraud; he had no faith. Isaiah tells him a baby will be born to a Virgin so that the king might experience a little “induced maturity,” and have more faith and less fear. The Baby could bring out the best in Ahaz. In the gospel St. Joseph hears that his fiancĂ©e, Mary, is pregnant and he is filled with fear. But thanks to the angel, his fear is turned into faith. The Baby would bring out the best in Joseph. Of course, we all recall ruefully how King Herod ordered the murder of all male children under 2 years old, to try to eclipse the star of the new-born King. The Baby brought out the worst in Herod. The Christ-Child, even though his life had barely begun – indeed, while his birth was only an ancient prophesy – served as a sign of contradiction, bringing out the best and bringing out the worst in people. Babies tend to do that: they teach us a lot about ourselves.

          My friends, let me ask you to ponder this question today: how do you react to the news of a baby? Does it bring out the best in you or the worst in you? Consider these examples. Some couples, who have waited for years in the hopes of having a baby, are ecstatic with joy when they finally get pregnant. On the other hand, I know one woman, who calls herself “Fertile Myrtle” (because she gets pregnant if her husband just looks at her too long) and she’s terrified she’ll get pregnant again. Teenagers and unmarried couples who engage in sex always fear the prospect of pregnancy: a baby would be bad news! Some tragically turn to abortion as their only way to deal with the shame and to save face. Some people point to over-population as a world crisis and blame too many babies, laying the blame at the tiny toes of babies, and seeing them as “little threats to the rain forest.” On the other hand, Mother Teresa once beautifully said, “Saying there are too many babies is like saying there are too many flowers.”

          I suppose some will see my concerns as casting aspersions down from an ivory tower, since I have never had any babies of my own. They complain: “They don’t know nothin bout birthin no babies!” Nevertheless, the 19th century novelist, Goethe, insightfully indicated to those who “praise experience exclusively,” that “experience is only half of experience” (quoted in For the Love of Wisdom, Josef Pieper, 16). In other words, we can know the truth of things not only by living them (experiencing them), but also through faith. Faith allows us to learn things under the shining light of the Gospel, the Good News about a Baby born in Bethlehem.

          Folks, in exactly one week, we will celebrate the birthday of the most beautiful Baby to ever grace the human race, namely, the Baby Jesus. But in Luke 2:34, Simeon prophesies that not all would celebrate his birth, predicting, “Behold, this child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” Baby Jesus would bring out the best and the worst in people: some would rise to new heights of grace, while others would tumble into disgrace. As we prepare to celebrate the birthday of the King of Kings, let us open our hearts to the blessing of every baby that crosses our path, even if your name happens to be “Fertile Myrtle.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Letter to Women

Understanding the immense dignity of women in God’s plan

Luke 1:39-47
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

          Sometimes certain people criticize the Catholic Church saying that we fail to respect women. Have you heard such comments, or maybe even made similar remarks yourself? Let me give you a few examples of these complaints. Some say that since the Church does not  allow women to become priests, this is a clear affront to women’s dignity. Obviously, there are no female bishops or popes, a fortiori. Others feel that the Church is too traditional in her views of marriage and family because the Church supports the man as “the head” of the household, following the archaic teaching of St. Paul in Ephesians 5. Wives and mothers are second class citizens in the home. Finally, some go so far as to say that even God discriminates against women because he made only women able to get pregnant and endure child-birth, while men sit comfortably in the waiting room, smoking cigars. Apparently, the Church does not dispute this, so she must be in favor of it.

          Today we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and when we glance at Mary we see that such criticisms are baseless. They are false. I would suggest to you that Our Lady of Guadalupe proves how the Church honors and respects women more than everyone else. How exactly? First, this feast demonstrates how a woman is greater than any priest, bishop or even pope. In 1531, when St. Juan Diego opened his tilma (his cloth poncho) before the astonished eyes of Bishop Zumarraga and the incredulous prelate laid his eyes on the miraculous image of Guadalupe, what did he do? He knelt before her. He understood he was in the presence of someone who ranked higher than a Catholic bishop, namely, a woman. Secondly, even though many Catholic men fail to respect women who are their spouses at home, Catholic churches today are filled to the rafters with men on the Feast of Guadalupe. They come before Our Lady of Guadalupe, a woman, and beg for her prayers, they respect her deeply. Third, Our Lady of Guadalupe was pregnant when she appeared in Mexico, and precisely that pregnancy helped the indigenous Aztecs to abandon their practice of human sacrifices and believe in the true God. Think about it: how often does a pregnancy today help young husbands and wives to give up selfish pursuits and begin to attend church regularly and believe in the true God? In other words, pregnancy is not a curse but a blessing from God because it makes a woman into a walking miracle, in her womb is the cradle of life.

          Let me conclude with an excerpt from Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Women,” from 1995 where a pope acknowledges the vital role women play in human history, even more than popes. The pope-saint wrote: “Progress usually tends to be measured according to the criteria of science and technology. Nor from this point of few has the contribution of women been negligible. Even so, this is not the only measure of progress, nor in fact is it the principle one. Much more important is the social and ethical dimension, which deals with human relations and spiritual values. In this area, which often develops in an inconspicuous way beginning with the daily relationships between people, especially women and family, society certainly owes much to the ‘genius of women’.” And the pontiff adds who stands at the pinnacle of this pyramid of the feminine genius, namely, Mary. He writes: “The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’ and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration” (italics in the original, no. 9).

          My friends, if God were ever to write a letter to women, it would be called “the Blessed Virgin Mary.”  She is God’s final word about women, and all he intended them to be.  By the way, she would also be God’s “letter to men” about women, for that matter. The Catholic Church always esteems women more than anyone else.

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Antichrist in Fort Smith

Preparing for the coming of Christ at the ground level

Matthew 17:9A, 10-13 
As they were coming down from the mountain, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said in reply, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

          Many years ago, I read an apocalyptic novel – meaning it treated of the end times – which was a real page-turner, called Father Elijah. It’s about a Carmelite monk whom the pope calls out of his monastery on Mt. Carmel for a special assignment, namely, to stop the Antichrist. I thought to myself: hey, that’s just like me. I was a Carmelite for three months and there are plenty of antichrists here in Fort Smith! Just kidding. If you’re looking for a good Catholic novel – but one also with sound spiritual lessons – I highly recommend Father Elijah.

          Well, last year, the same Canadian author, Michael O’Brien, wrote a sequel called, Elijah in Jerusalem. In an interview he gave after the publication of his second novel, he said something surprising. He observed: “The Apocalypse must not be viewed as a purely symbolic mega drama enacted as high theater sometime in the safely distant future. When the foretold events actually occur, they will be experienced at the ground level by all kinds of people, in a variety of subjective ways” (National Catholic Register, October 19, 2015). O’Brien’s use of the phrase, “ground level,” caught my attention. In other words, O’Brien suggest the “end times” won’t unfold in best-selling novels and block-buster movies, but in our own lives, in our daily choices, in carrying our cross, in loving our neighbor, in going to Sunday Mass, that is what is meant by “at ground level.” That is, Father Elijah is not only in Jerusalem, but he’s also in Fort Smith.

          In the gospel today, Jesus tries to teach the apostles the same sober lesson – where to look for Elijah. The apostles ask as they descend from Mt. Tabor and having witnessed the Transfiguration: “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answers: “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things, but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him as they pleased.” Luke goes on to add that the apostles understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist. Like Michael O’Brien, Jesus teaches that Elijah’s job is not only to announce an apocalypse at the end of time, but also one “at ground level,” in our hearts and in our homes. Sadly, and all too often, we miss Elijah when he comes.

          My friends, what does all this tremulous talk of the end times have to do with us today, with you and with me? Well, drawing our attention to the end can also offer us a chance for a new beginning. We can look at our lives differently, we can evaluate our relationships in a new light, we can re-order our priorities in a more properly Christian way. Advent is supposed to be a season of intense spiritual preparation for Christmas, it is “the season of Elijah.” In the Catholic lexicon, the terms “Advent” and “Elijah” are virtually interchangeable.

          But like the people in the gospel, we miss Elijah, too. We miss Advent and go straight to Christmas. Have we not already “decked the halls with baughs of holly”? It’s Christmas everywhere you turn. Are we not already attending parties and exchanging presents? How many children believe Christmas is more about Santa Claus than about Jesus Christ? How many people will take all their decorations down the day after Christmas? But that’s when the Christmas season has actually just begun! Just like Jesus said, “Elijah (or we can substitute “Advent”) has already come and they did not recognize him.” And that’s how the antichrist always works, always “at the ground level,” at the level of our hearts and at the level of our homes. You see, there are antichrists in Fort Smith. But fear not, Elijah is here too: happy Advent.

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Whistler’s Mother

Learning to love Mary like Jesus does

Luke 1:26-38 
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.

          What if you had the chance to draw or design, conjure up or create the perfect woman: what would she look like for you? Can I tell you what my perfect woman would look like for me? Don’t tell the bishop, okay? She would be about 5’ 6” tall, have long black hair, high cheek bones, a radiant smile, and eyes that dance when she laughs. She would be a woman who is purposeful, passionate and pensive. She would be resourceful and religious; she’d be humble and holy. And she’d also be from India. Do you know who I just described? It’s my own mother. I have a sneaking suspicion that the first woman a man falls in love with is his own mother (in an innocent way, of course), and she thereby becomes the standard by which all subsequent females are measured in that man’s mind. You see, for every man, his mother is always the first person whom he places on the pedestal of the ideal woman.

          Do you know what is one of the most famous pieces of American art known world-wide? It’s actually the portrait of a mother. In 1871, the American-born painter, James Whistler painted his own mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. That portrait has become so popular it is hailed as “an American icon” and as “a Victorian Mona Lisa.” One day, Whistler was complimented on the portrait of his mother, and he answered, “You know how it is; one tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can” (quoted in Fulton Sheen’s, The World’s First Love, p. 16). The first woman Whistler ever saw and then loved was his own mother, so naturally, he would paint her as nice as he could!  Wouldn’t we all do that for our own mommies?

          Today we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Many Catholics miss the message of this feast by a mile: they think it’s about Jesus’ conception, but they are wrong. Today is about Mary being conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. By the way, that’s why the four-story convent building next to our church of the Immaculate Conception is called “St. Anne’s.” St. Anne...the Immaculate Conception... Ohhhh, I get it now!

          But let me suggest another way to probe deeper into the meaning of this feast: try to see it as Jesus creating his own mother. Jesus was the only Son in history who had the chance to do that, since he is God. How do you suppose he would have designed her? Would she have any unsightly physical blemishes, or would she suffer from any defects of character, or would she display any moral failings? Not at all. Indeed, he would make her perfect – “immaculate” that is, free from all stain or sin – from the first moment of her existence, from her “conception.” If you had a chance to do that for your mom, would you do it? I know I would! And I know Jesus would, and therefore I know he did.

          That extraordinary out-pouring of saving grace upon Mary at the first moment of her conception – because Jesus did save his mother: he saved her before she sinned, not afterwards, like the rest of us – is the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception.” This is why the angel Gabriel, upon first greeting Mary in today’s gospel, says with a holy hush: “Hail, full of grace!” In other words, Mary is so full of grace that there is no room in her for sin.  My friends, if you and I – we who are far from pure or perfect – would make our mothers as beautiful and breath-taking as we could, how much more would Jesus do that for his own mother? You see, what Whistler did for his mother with painted canvas, Jesus did for his mother with a perfect conception.

          The real beauty of this feast consists not only in Mary being Jesus’ mother, but also in that she’s our mother, too. How is that possible? Well, by baptism, we are adopted into God’s family and we therefore become Jesus’ little brothers and sisters and so we can call Mary our own mother. That means we should have a living relationship with Mary – we should talk to her, listen to her, learn from her, love like her, just like Jesus did during his earthly life, and as he still continues to do in heaven. Personally, I pray the rosary every day. It’s my way to keep in touch with my spiritual mother. Other people have a medal of Mary they wear, or a statue of Mary at home, or a rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror of their car. Maybe all you can do is say a Hail Mary when you wake-up, and a Hail Mary before you hit the hay. Find your own way to make Mary your mother. Why? Because her Son, Jesus, made his mother (and our mother) as perfect as a person can be, and like very good man, Jesus “made his own mommy as nice as he could.”

          Let me end this homily with how Dante draws to a close his Divine Comedy, namely, with an ode to Mary. Dante does with poetry what Whistler did with paint: they both place a mother on the pedestal of the ideal woman (and don’t miss all the impressive ironies).  Dante writes: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, Humbler and higher than all other creatures, Fixed aim and goal of the eternal plan.” The Florentine poet continues: “You are the one who lifted human nature, To such nobility that its own Maker, Did not disdain to be made of its making.” In other words, when God sat down to make the perfect woman, he made Mary.

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Outta-Control Bus

Letting the Holy Spirit drive and direct our lives  

Isaiah 35:1-10  
The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you.  
          Have you ever had to encourage someone going through an especially hard time, try to lift their spirits? Perhaps the person just learned they have cancer and feels devastated; they can almost see the specter of death. Or, maybe a friend has just lost a job – which happens sometimes too regularly in Fort Smith. One of the worst tragedies is divorce and the deep sense of failure and guilt it brings. Maybe someone has lost a loved one – family or friend – in an accident or sudden death. What words or what wisdom could console a person feeling such a shock? It doesn’t really seem like anything sounds good enough.   

          A good friend of mine lost her sister to cancer. It was a grueling experience feeling hope at times with different treatments, but ultimately dealing with death. But through it all, she grew stronger in her faith, and now she is convinced that God has a plan for everyone’s life, even when they die early. She often reminds me (a priest) of that fact when we talk, saying, “God has a plan, John.” It’s amazing how consoling those words can sound to my ears. I’ve put that advice into my own language, and I like to say, “The Holy Spirit is still driving the bus,” that is, he’s driving the bus of our lives, and the bus of the universe.   

          This is the point of Isaiah’s prophesy in the first reading today, namely, “God has a plan.” Isaiah prophesied around 742 B.C. to 701 B.C, and maybe even all the way to 687 B.C. when according to tradition, King Manasseh had Isaiah executed by having him sawed in two. But this was one of the worst periods of Jewish history, with the Assyrian’s capturing the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deporting the people into slavery. And Babylon was waiting in the wings to destroy Judah in the South and haul the rest of Israel into slavery and captivity, the famous “Babylonian Captivity.” And what is Isaiah’s message to the people in this terrible time? Basically, he gave them my friend’s advice: “God has a plan.” He writes: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication, with divine recompense he comes to save you.” In other words, yes, you may have to suffer greatly, but God has a plan in all this: the Holy Spirit is still driving the bus. The people did not lose hope, even when they lost everything else.   

          My friends, the day may come – no, the day WILL come – when we have to face our own crosses and failures and sufferings. What will you do on that day; how will you respond? Some people lose their faith in such moments, feeling as if God has abandoned them, or worse, feeling as if God is punishing them. But I believe something else is going on, that is, God is helping us be more holy, to know and to love his Son, Jesus even more. After all, when have you prayed the hardest: when all was well, or when everything was going you-know-where in a hand-basket? But my point is in all such moments the good and the bad, God has a plan for your life. Nothing that happens is outside of his loving embrace and control, that’s called providence.

          I don’t know if you watch Seinfeld. But in one episode, Kramer (the guy with the wild hair) is recounting a wild ride he took on the city bus, and he exclaims, “Jerry, the bus was outta control!” Well, for a Christian, the Holy Spirit is driving the bus, and it is never out of control.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!   

Catholic Fire-Water

Seeing that all contraries can coexist in Christ

Matthew 3:1-12  
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”   

          Few couples are as incompatible and contrary as the elements of “fire” and “water.” One cannot tolerate the other. Either the water will completely extinguish the fire, or the fire will burn so hot that the water will eventually evaporate and be no more. These two contraries cannot coexist. Let me demonstrate this rather obvious opposition between fire and water with a little humor.   

          A physicist, an engineer and a mathematician were all in a hotel sleeping when a fire broke out in their respective rooms. The physicist woke up, saw the fire, ran over to his desk, and began working out all sorts of fluid dynamics equations. After a couple of minutes, he threw down his pencil, got a graduated cylinder out of his suitcase, and measured out a precise amount of water. He threw it on the fire, extinguishing it, without a drop wasted, and went back to sleep. The engineer woke up, saw the fire, ran into the bathroom, turned on the faucet full-blast, flooding out the entire apartment, which put out the fire, and he went back to sleep. The mathematician woke up, saw the fire, ran over to his desk, began working through theorems, lemmas, hypotheses, you-name-it, and after a few minutes, put down his pencil triumphantly, and exclaimed, “I have proven that I can put out the fire!” He then went back to sleep. The moral is: if the water does not win, then the fire will; these contraries cannot coexist.   

          But when water and fire are sublimated – raised up and elevated and absorbed – and become Christian symbols, they lose all their animosity and ferocity; indeed, they transform from bitter foes into best friends. How does that happen? In the gospel today, these two elements of water and fire stand as symbols for the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus, respectively. Listen to how John himself puts this: “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In other words, what is still separate in John and Jesus – namely the baptism of water and the baptism of fire – will become united in Christian baptism when the fire of the Holy Spirit is called down up on the baptismal water, which then become “Catholic fire-water” and is poured over the baby’s head, and a new child of God is born. You see, every Christian is born of water and fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit. This is a small glimpse of the power of the Prince of Peace. In other words, Christ’s peace heals all divisions and all divorces and all difficulties: there are no contraries in Christ.  

          Isaiah in the first reading, employs lively examples to explain this same peaceful purpose of the Messiah, saying: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb” (the wolf won’t eat lamb-chops anymore!), and “the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (that means the leopard won’t order fried goat off the menu!), and “the calf and the young lion shall browse together” (meaning no center-cut rib-eye for the lion!), and “the baby shall play by the cobra’s den” (even if that baby is Indiana Jones who was scared of snakes!). In other words, Jesus’ coming ushers in a new era of peace, where even two mortal enemies like fire and water live together in harmony, swimming hand-in-hand in the font of Christian baptism. You see, Christ’s peace re-organizes and re-orders things at the deepest levels of reality, where no physicist or engineer or even mathematician can fathom. But to the eyes of faith, it’s clear that there are no contraries in Christ. 
          My friends, Advent is the season to prepare for Christmas, the birthday of the Prince of Peace. And the best preparation is to foster peace where strife and discord abound: to tame the lions, the leopards and wolves that want to devour peace in our hearts. So, let me ask you: Is there peace in your conscience, or is there war? Have your sins and guilt been forgiven in the sacrament of confession? How long as it been since you’ve been to confession? Making a good confession is a far more important Advent activity than grabbing deals on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. Are there other people with whom you are not at peace: a boss, a co-worker, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, a pastor?? How many of you are here because you don’t like the pastor at some other parish? How many people are not here because they don’t like this pastor? Make an effort this Advent to reconcile with that person. That’s the work of the Prince of Peace, because in Christ there are no contraries.  

          What about with the world – are you at war with the world, with God’s creation? Do we look at the world as its “masters” or as its “stewards and caretakers”? A couple of weeks ago, I visited Buddy Spradlin, who has a ranch in Oklahoma and enjoys hunting. But he explained that when the Native Americans hunted and killed the buffalo, they made use of every part of the animal. They lived in remarkable harmony with creation, never taking more than they needed, and always using whatever they took. My dad recently told me that the coconut tree – which is very plentiful in Kerala, my home state in India – is so versatile that every piece and every part of it can be used for something, not just the coconut. All Indians have an intense sense of stewardship of creation. Are we at peace with our planet, our “common home,” as Pope Francis calls it?  

          My friends, the coming of Christ can make even eternal enemies like fire and water into the best of friends. Let Jesus also bring peace to wherever there is war and waste in your life; let him tame the lions and leopards and wolves in you. 

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 

Stanley the Sooner

Letting our faith in Jesus change us completely

Matthew 9:27-31 
As Jesus passed by, two blind men followed him, crying out, “Son of David, have pity on us!”  When he entered the house, the blind men approached him and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I can do this?”  “Yes, Lord,” they said to him. Then he touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.” And their eyes were opened. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread word of him through all that land.

          In the gospel we hear about two men who were blind, but they were healed of their blindness because they had faith in Jesus. Now, boys and girls, what exactly is “faith”? Well, faith is believing in Jesus so much that it changes your life. Just look at these two blind men. Before Jesus healed them, he asked them: “Do you believe I can do this?” He was testing them to see how much faith they had. It was enough faith for a miracle! Sometimes, our faith leads to a miracle, but that’s only one way our faith changes us. Let me tell you about another way that faith can change your life.

          Today Pope Francis declared that Fr. Stanley Rother died as a “martyr,” which means he died because of his love for Jesus. He had THAT much faith – which is a lot more than those two men in the gospel. Fr. Stanley is from Oklahoma – so he was a Boomer Sooner – and in 1968 he went to Guatemala (a country in Central America) to help the poor people there. At that time, Guatemala was undergoing a bloody civil war, and lots of people were being killed. The archbishop of Oklahoma City told Fr. Stanley to come back to Oklahoma, where it was much safer. But do you know what Fr. Stanley answered the archbishop? His answer was very beautiful and it was filled with faith. He replied: “Should the shepherd run away when the sheep are in danger?” So, he stayed in Guatemala, working with the people. Then, on July 28, 1981, soldiers came into the rectory and killed Fr. Stanley and 13 other people in the small town of Santiago Atitlan. Now, I don’t tell you this story to make you sad, but rather to show you how faith in Jesus changes your life. Fr. Stanley had so much faith that he loved Jesus more than his own life, and now he’s a saint in heaven.

          Boys and girls, that’s all good and fine for the two men in the gospel and for Fr. Stanley, but what about you, and what about me? Do we have any faith, and does that faith change our lives? Do you do anything differently because you believe in Jesus that you would NOT do if you did not believe in Jesus? Maybe you eat your vegetables because you believe in Jesus, maybe you play with a child who doesn’t have friends because you believe in Jesus, maybe you do your homework because you believe in Jesus, maybe you go to Mass on Sunday because you believe in Jesus. We might NOT do these things if we did not believe in Jesus. Can you see how your faith is changing your life?

          It’s because I believe in Jesus that I became a priest – faith has completely changed my life. It’s because Mrs. B and your teachers believe in Jesus that they teach in a Catholic school – they sure don’t do it for the money! Faith changes their life. It’s because your parents believe in Jesus that they send you to a Catholic school. Faith changes their life. Boys and girls, today I want to teach you the definition of faith: believing in Jesus so much that it changes your life. And the more you believe in him, the more it will change you.

          Praised be Jesus Christ! 


Creating harmony between our language and our life  

Matthew 7:21, 24-27  
Jesus said to his disciples: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.  And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.  And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”   

          I’ll never forget the most shocking religion class I had in high school. Fr. George Tribou, our principal and our religion teacher, walked into class one day, closed the door, and let fly a string of expletives and curse words that would have made a sailor blush. He threw out every curse word in the book, from the “f-bomb” to “G-D” to every other imaginable 4-letter word you’ve ever heard. And when his unholy tirade was finally over – and every boy’s jaw was on the floor – he looked at each of us as sternly as death and said, “Now, you’ve heard all these words in this school. I never want to hear these words said in this school again.” And we all responded weakly, “Yes sir.” Fr. Tribou knew well that you sometimes have to use a sledge-hammer to teach a lesson to teenage boys. 
          Now, the opposite of an expletive is a euphemism. Does anyone know what a euphemism is? It’s when you substitute an innocuous or harmless word in the place of a more offensive or unpleasant one. For instance, instead of saying someone has died, we say they “passed away.” Instead of saying she is “crippled” we say she has a “disability.” Instead of saying the military uses “torture,” we call it “enhanced interrogation.” Rather than say the horse was “euthanized,” we say politely it was “put to sleep.” Some people don’t say the lady “gave birth to a baby,” they say she had a “visit from the stork.” You can also use euphemisms instead of expletives, like “shoot,” and “dang,” and “fudge,” and “gobshite” (used in the place of BS).   

          In the gospel today, Jesus warns his followers to avoid both expletives and euphemisms. That is, steer clear of all forms of exaggeration, and let your speech be both clear and clean. We read in the gospel today: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father’.” Some disciples mistakenly thought that as long as we call out to Jesus with a lot of emotion and energy, he’ll love us and save us, just like some people think using an expletive will make other people listen to me and like me. Rather, let your language and your life be consistent; let there by harmony between your words and your works.   

          Recently, I’ve gotten to know Frank Falleur, an older man who is dying of cancer. He’s the grandfather of one of our Trinity students, Walker Catsavis. I visited Frank last week and he told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Father, I’ve learned to be a man of my word. If I say I’ll do something, then I’ll do it.  People know that about me and they can count on me.” Frank Falleur does not need to use any expletives or euphemisms. He only says what he means and he means what he says. That’s what Jesus is talking about today.   

          Boys and girls (and this message goes for teachers and staff and priests, too!), what is the quality of your lexicon (a lexicon is a person’s vocabulary)? I hope you don’t fire off a string of expletives like Fr. Tribou did. But I also hope you don’t need euphemisms to disguise your desire to use expletives if you could. But euphemisms are at least a step in the right direction; but there’s something even better. You see, we often use employ expletives because we feel our own words are too weak and carry no conviction – they need the support and strength of a four-letter word. Instead, be a man of your word, a woman of your word – like Jesus and Frank Falleur – and let your lexicon and your life be in perfect harmony.  
          Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” In other words, you don’t have to shout or use expletives when your actions do all of the talking.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hopeless As Hell

Seeing the grace and hope in every situation  

Isaiah 11:1-10  
           On that day, A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A Spirit of counsel and of strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.   

          I have a firm conviction that there are no hopeless situations. That is, I believe no matter how bad, or how sad, or how dark or how depressing life gets, there is always hope. Why is that? Well, because I am convinced there is a grace – a spark of goodness and of God – in everything. I absolutely believe this.   

          To test this theory, let’s look at the most hopeless place of all, namely, hell. Who can forget that famous inscription above the doors to hell that Dante reads before entering hell in the Inferno. It states, almost as if the doors were talking to us: “Through me you pass into the city of woe: Through me you pass into eternal pain…Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” I remember one friend in seminary who posted those words above his dormitory door, “Abandon all hope!” But is even hell without hope? One of the great theologians of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, argued that we can have a “reasonable hope” that all will be saved. Notice, he did not say that everyone will in fact be save, indeed, some may not, but it is not unreasonable to hope for that. Why did he say that? Well, because there is grace everywhere, so there is hope everywhere. Even Dante, when he entered beneath those dark doors, did not abandon all hope – he emerged on the other side a holier and more hopeful man.   

          In the first reading today, we see the root of all our hope, namely, in the prophesy of Isaiah. The prophet foretells: “On that day, a Shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” Isaiah is predicting the future Messiah, of course. But notice the imagery is one of virtual hopelessness – a lifeless stump – like the admonition on the gates of hell, “abandon all hope.” And yet Isaiah did not abandon all hope. Why? Because there is grace everywhere, thanks to the coming of the Messiah. You see, with the coming of Christ, “hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed,” as Alexander Pope poetically put it. With Jesus, there is always hope.

          My friends, I offer this message to you when you face supposedly hopeless situations. Please know there is a grace in every moment, and that grace should give you hope. Sometimes we feel we have sinned so much God will never be able to forgive us, maybe we’ve even procured an abortion. That’s why the pope let priests for give abortions: so people feel like there’s always hope. Some people struggle with same-sex attraction, or a family member does. They feel it’s hopeless to remain a good Catholic under those conditions. I say don’t give up hope, keep trying to do the right thing. When a Catholic gets divorced, they feel marriage is hopeless and want to give up on love. But I believe there is a grace in every moment, even the moment of divorce, a grace that helps us grow closer to Christ. Perhaps your children have stopped going to church and Mass. Don’t give up hope: even if they are not searching for God, God is searching for them.  Maybe you are terminally ill and feel hopeless; there is grace in the suffering, too.

          In other words, it’s not only on the doors of hell that we read the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Those words are ubiquitous. But even more ubiquitous is grace and goodness and hope. Here’s the whole quatrain from Pope: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed: The soul, uneasy and confined from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.” Christians never abandon all hope.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Closet Christians

Opening all the doors in our hearts to Christ  
Matthew 8:5-11  
           When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.”  The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”   

          I have a curious custom whenever I bless someone’s home. When I bless a house, I bless the whole house, including closets, and bathrooms, and attics. Some people’s eyes become the size of saucers when I say that. Do you think that’s why I don’t get invitations to bless homes anymore? But I quickly explain that blessing a home means inviting Jesus into every corner and crany and closet of your home, which is really a symbol of inviting him into every corner of your heart. Sometimes we’re afraid to let Jesus see our closets where we hide our still un-Christians lives and our un-Christians loves. We are not ready for Jesus to rule and be king over everything.   

          In his homily this past Sunday, Bishop Robert Barron probed deeper into making Christ’s kingdom more complete. He asked these provocative questions: “Is your private life ordered to God and his purposes? Is your professional life attuned to the worship of God? Is your family life under the aegis of God?” (Don’t worry, I had to look up the meaning of “aegis,” too.) He went on: “Does your mind belong to Jerusalem? See what I’m driving at? Your mind seeks all sorts of things; your mind is preoccupied by all sorts of things in the course of the day. Is it above all preoccupied with the things of God, or is your mind filled with a lot of trivial matters?” In other words, Bishop Barron is pointing out all the “closets” in our hearts where we do not want Christ to enter. We are “closet Christians.”  
          In the gospel today a Roman Centurion also hesitates to let Jesus inside his home. You all remember the context: what the soldier says is actually an act of extraordinary faith. Indeed, Jesus praises him for it by announcing to all his hearers: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” So, the solider is to be commended for his faith. But I believe we would be remiss if we concluded that the Centurion’s faith was therefore perfect. He still had more work to do: to grow in that faith, to build a real and lasting relationship with Jesus, to become Jesus’ friend, to become Jesus’ disciple. His great statement of faith was a tremendous first step; but his journey with Jesus had just begun. In other words, his reluctance to have Jesus “enter under his roof” sounds a lot like today’s Catholics afraid of letting me bless their closets. The Centurion, too, was a closet Christian.   

          My friends, ask yourself today, like Bishop Barron did: what are the closets I don’t want Christ to see and save? Sometimes we tend to leave our faith on the front steps of the church as we leave Mass, and live like everyone else the rest of the week. Our un-Christian closets could be called “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.” Some people don’t invite Jesus into their intimate life as spouses. We hear the slogan, “Keep God out of the bedroom!” Our sex-life becomes an un-Christian closet. Here in the United States we have built a wall of separation between Church and State, and we believe religion does not belong in politics. This past Friday I baptized Daisy Northey, the granddaughter of Senator John Boozman. Afterwards, he invited me to say the prayer before the U.S. Senate meets in session. Senator Boozman doesn’t want the U.S. Capitol to be an un-Christian closet.   

          On October 22, 1978, the newly-elected Pope John Paul II delivered his first homily as the Holy Father. He said basically what I say when I bless a home, he said: “Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power, open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man,’ He alone knows it.” Folks, Jesus already knows what’s in your closet.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!  

Pillars of the Earth

Discovering the roots of our own personalities and purposes  
Luke 21:34-36  
          Jesus said to his disciples: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

          Traumatic events and experiences tend to leave an indelible and enduring mark on the rest of our lives. Even if we forget them, they don’t forget us: these mini-milestones shaping our thinking, our choices, our history and our destiny. Did you ever read the historical fiction book called Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett? It’s one of those books that’s hard to put down once you start reading. It’s about the building of a cathedral in a fictional town of Kingsbridge in the 12th century. The Catholic Church is not often shown in a positive light, but one character shines our impeccably, namely, Prior Philip, the stern but saintly abbot of the monastery, the real cornerstone of Kingsbridge.  I often fancy myself the Prior Philip of Fort Smith.

          We learn how Philip’s own past has shaped his present. When he was 6 years old, his father – simply called “Da” – came home from battle. The family lived in Wales. But their house was invaded by English soldiers who killed both of his parents. But before Philip met his own demise, he was saved by an Abbot named Peter, who took Philip and his brother to the monastery to be raised as monks. But the trauma of witnessing his parents’ brutal murder also awakened a monastic vocation in Philip. He never wavered about being a monk, and he was always very compassionate toward children in need. You see, “Pillars of the Earth” is not only about cathedral pillars, but also about the “pillars” of each person, the foundational experiences that profoundly impact our lives.

          I hope this doesn’t sound too irreverent, but I think we can also see some “pillars” in Jesus’ own particular past, and how they influenced him. Now, Jesus is fully God and fully man, so it’s never an “apples to apples comparison” with him. Nevertheless, can you recall a particularly pivotal point in the Jesus early life? Shortly after Jesus was born, King Herod ordered the murder of all baby boys two years old or younger. This caused the Holy Family to flee into Egypt, and they stayed there as refugees for four years, until Herod died. How did those four formative years shape the psyche and sensibilities of the little Savior? That topic would be profitable for your meditation. But my point is that experience did become one of the “pillars” of Jesus own human life. It may have awakened an awareness that everything in this world passes away and to prepare for the next world. Hence, in the gospel today, the 33 year-old Jesus says – not so surprisingly – to his disciples: “Be vigilant at all times and pray you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” In other words, just as Prior Philip’s personal pillars were the foundations of his future, so, too, Jesus’ own past shaped his future.

          My friends, today let me invite you to pry into your own past and to find your own pillars. Take time in silence and solitude to remember your childhood experiences – you may have forgotten them, but they have not forgotten you! Did your parents die or get divorced when you were young? How did you feel about that? How did you deal with that? I often reflect on the lasting impact of moving to the United States from India when I was just 7 years old. I am convinced that experience of losing all I knew – my friends, my school, my language, my home – planted the seeds of a priestly vocation: I wanted to hang on to Something (God) and to Someone (Jesus) I would never lose. In other words, traumatic experiences can also have beneficial effects: like for Prior Philip, and for Jesus, and for me. They can be moments when God’s grace bursts into our life shining his light and love. Ask yourself today: What are the pillars of my own earth?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thanksgiving Lamb

Putting aside our differences when we share a meal  
Revelation 18:1-2, 21-23; 19:1-3, 9A  
I, John, saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth became illumined by his splendor. Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.”   

          I’ve been pastor of Immaculate Conception for three full years now, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love to come to your homes for supper. And the reason I do that is so we can get to know each other, love each other, and help each other love Jesus more. Moreover, I’m convinced that’s exactly what happens when you share a meal with someone, in a word, “communion” happens. As the old adage goes: “the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” We touch each other’s hearts, and Jesus touches our hearts. Now, one priest I know disagrees with that dictum. He says: “the only plate that touches my heart is the collection plate.”  
          To be completely honest, I have not always been so successful at securing suppers like I am today. I’ll never forget the first time I wanted to eat a supper with a layperson. I was in eighth grade and had this huge crush on a pretty little blonde girl. I called her and asked her if she’d like to grab something to eat at Taco Bell. And her answer sounded a lot like Meghan Trainor’s new song, she basically said, “My name is ‘No,’ my sign is ‘No,’ my number is ‘No.’ You need to let it go, you need to let it go.” That’s exactly what she said. So, it’s taken me many years to finally perfect this rare talent to go to lay people’s homes for supper, and I’m pretty good at it now. But you see, sharing a supper with someone is always an expression of love, and by the way, that’s exactly why that little blonde girl said, “no.”   

          In the first reading today, St. John says that the very last supper we will ever share – because it’s the supper that lasts forever in heaven – will likewise be an infinite expression of love. We read in Revelation: “Then the angel said to me” – that is to St. John – “Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” In other words, the end of time and the business of eternity will be the celebration of a shared meal. But not the sharing of any ordinary meal, but a “wedding feast,” the perfect love feast between two people madly in love with each other. My favorite picture of any wedding is where the bride and groom feed each other with a little bite of wedding cake. Have you seen such pictures? That always gives me flashbacks to feeding that little blonde girl a little bite of bean burrito. But notice John’s vision is not just the wedding feast of two people, but also the wedding feast of the Lamb, that is, the wedding feast of Jesus. In other words, the best shared suppers always brings us closer to each other and closer to Christ.   

          Today our country celebrates Thanksgiving Day. And what is the perennial and perfect sign of this celebration? It is fireworks? No. Is it gifts wrapped under a tree? No. Is it brightly colored eggs? No. Thanksgiving is symbolized by a shared meal as an expression of love. Historians typically trace back the first Thanksgiving to 1621, when a meal was shared between Pilgrims and Native Americans after their first harvest. In attendance were 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. When invited to that meal, no one said, “My name is ‘No’.” And because the Pilgrims were also Puritans (meaning Calvinist Christians), they no doubt invoked their Savior Jesus Christ in prayer. Meals always express love for each other and for Jesus.   

          My friends, as you sit down to your own Thanksgiving meals today, I pray you also feel true and tender love for each other and for Jesus. Sometimes family gatherings can be strained with tension and turmoil. Old wounds and un-buried hatchets come out. Misunderstandings between in-laws and out-laws resurface. Divisions, disagreements, divorces, and even deaths can cloud and rain on an otherwise joyous occasion. But today, like the Native Americans dropped their tomahawks and the Pilgrims put down their muzzle-loaders, so too may your families forgive and forget any past problems, and sit down at the table to share your love for each other and for Jesus.   

          And as you trim the turkey today, try to look forward to that “last supper” that will last forever in heaven. There, we will feed each other like a bride and groom give each other wedding cake – or feed each other with bean burritos, as the case may be  – and there Jesus will feed us with his love, at the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” At that Thanksgiving supper, we will share Lamb with one another, and not turkey.  And when you’re invited to that last supper, don’t answer, “My name is ‘no’.”  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Devil’s Due

Learning from our enemies to be wise  
Luke 21:5-11  
           While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”  He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!   

          Yesterday, Mrs. Marsh sent an email announcing the up-coming debates. The topics of the debates sounded intriguing, and when I saw which students were lined up on the opposing sides, I wondered who’d win the debates. Let’s take an informal survey and see what you think. One topic was entitled: “Cell phones should be allowed in school,” a very vanilla subject that no one cares about (that’s called sarcasm). Just listen to who’s on which side and then I’ll ask you to raise your hands to vote on who will win the debate. On the affirmative side (meaning they will argue cell phone should be allowed in school) are (please stand): Seth Martin, Faith Rossi, Jayson Toney, and Abby Vargas. On the opposing side (meaning they will argue that cell phone should not be allowed in school) are (please stand): Reiter Ahlert, Tristan Do, Blaine Stites and Matt Stites. Now, remember a debate is not a bar-room brawl, but about intelligence and insight; it’s about brains not about brawn. Raise your hand if you think Seth, Faith, Jayson and Abby will win. Now, raise your hands if you think Reiter, Tristan, Blaine and Matt will win. I thought the same think, too.

          Now, why do we have debates at Trinity Junior High? Is it to confuse our students so they don’t know what’s right and wrong? Is it to undermine the values their parents teach at them at home and make them even more rebellious? Is it to teach our students to reject authority and embrace anarchy? Is it to make you lose your Catholic faith? No, of course not. Rather, it’s to teach you to think. And a sign of a serious student is to know not only what YOU think, but also what OTHERS think; and even to respect their opinion even as you disagree. Unfortunately, the recent presidential debates demonstrated the exact opposite: disagreement with great disrespect. The Buddhist say: “My enemy, my teacher.” My enemy can teach me not only what they think but also help me to cherish more my own opinions.   

          In the gospel today, Jesus invites his apostles to learn the ways of their enemies, to get inside their heads, like you do in a debate. He says: “See that you are not deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!” In other works, do not blindly believe everything that everyone says; do not be deceived. Rather, think critically and ask WHY people say and act in a certain way; learn from your enemy. Your enemy may teach you that “That guy is crazy, don’t follow him.” Or “She has a lot of hurt in her heart, she’s just venting.” But first you must understand your enemy, you must learn from him.   

          One of the brightest brains in the Catholic Church was St. Thomas Aquinas (some think he was the smartest ever). In his opus magnus called Summa Theologica (summary of theology), he would list the top three opposing arguments before he stated his own opinion. He basically said: “Here are all the reasons why I may be wrong,” before he said why he was right. He gave the devil his due. That kind of deference and respect made St. Thomas’ own opinions irresistible and irrefutable.   

          Boys and girls, in junior high school you’re beginning to form your own opinions and ideas about the world, about people, and especially about yourself. The great question that haunts you in your sleep: “Who am I??” But before you believe what anyone says or reject them, listen and learn from them, especially if they look like your enemy. Sometimes, your parents can look like an enemy, sometimes Coach Meares and Coach Yarbrough look like your enemy, sometimes Dr. Hollenbeck and Fr. John look like your enemies. Or, even the Catholic Church feels like a foe. But before you turn your back on them, do what St. Thomas did: list the three reasons you may be wrong and your enemy may be right. Let your enemy be your teacher. If you can learn from your enemy, you’ll not only be very smart; you’ll also be very wise.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Amazing Race

Seeing all people as extraordinary and amazing
Lk. 23:35-43 
           The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”  Even the soldiers jeered at him.  As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”  Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”          
          People are amazing.  And I’ve met some pretty amazing people in just three years here at Immaculate Conception.  I’ve learned that what makes someone amazing is that they see things differently, and they see things that other people cannot see.  For instance, Eileen Teagle can see things I cannot see.  When I first arrived here as pastor, I wanted to arrange the furniture and pictures in my office, and I personally would have just shoved everything up against the walls and hung the pictures close to the ceiling.  But someone suggest Eileen would have a better idea, and she did, making my office warm and welcoming – and heck now I never leave my office!  Eileen sees things that others miss. 

          Another extraordinary individual is Ben Keating.  He plays the trumpet so well that he’s applying to the prestigious music school in New York City called “The Julliard School of Music.”  Ben doesn’t just see music as notes on a page, but music for him is alive and sensual and it dances and it laughs.  On the other hand, the only thing I can play is the radio.  Have you ever heard of Zane Chunn?  He has won virtually every award both nationally and internationally for cowboy mounted shooting.  He rides a horse and simultaneously shoots pistols and rifles at targets and he does it in lightning speed.  And by the way, Zane is only 19 years old.  Zane sees what other riders miss, they literally miss it!   

          Can I brag for a moment on Russ Bragg (pun intended)?  Lots of men love to grill steaks and burgers and hot dogs.  But I don’t know anyone who has a smoker like Russ does: his smoker is about the size of the north entry of the church!  Russ sees cooking differently from other men: he sees it as a service to others.  Last week I talked with Lawson Hembree and asked him to make a donation to Trinity Junior High because his children attended that school.  He explained that his family would likely help, but first he wanted to teach his children the importance of philanthropy.  He’s worried that the next generation, the so-called “Centennials” (that’s what they’re calling the generation that’s following the Millennials), don’t appreciate the need to give to charitable causes.  Lawson sees money differently, not just as a right for me but as a responsibility to you.  Amazing people see the world differently from the rest of humanity. 

          In the gospel we meet another amazing man, the Good Thief, who was crucified alongside of Jesus.  He, too, sees what others miss.  According to Church tradition he is often referred to as St. Dismas. What is amazing about Dismas is his ability to see who Jesus really was, namely, a king.  As he hangs on the cross on Jesus’ right side, he says to our Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He saw Jesus entering his own kingdom like a conquering hero on a white horse, and St. Dismas wanted to be part of that parade.  But just like Eileen and Zane and Ben and Russ and Lawson, Dismas sees what others missed.  The rulers didn’t see Jesus kingship; the soldiers just jeered at him; even the other thief only mocked Jesus asking for a miracle.  You see, St. Dismas was given the gift of faith and he saw that, what to all the world looked like a common criminal, was really the King of kings about to enter his glory. 

          But I believe that faith not only helps us to see who Jesus really is – a king – but it also helps us to see who each other really is – a child of God.  I don’t know if you watched the presidential debates.  Most of it was pretty pathetic and puerile. But there was one brilliantly beautiful and blissful break.  At the end of the second debate, a spectator asked both candidates: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”  Everyone in the audience exploded into applause (so they had to say something nice).  Hillary answered that she respected Trump’s children and obviously their own success says a lot about Trump himself.  For his part, Trump said, “She doesn’t quit.  She doesn’t give up. I respect that.”  What a wonderful question that was!  The spectator was really asking: can you see each other with the eyes of faith?  Can you see anything good in each other?  Can you see each other as children of God?  And for a fleeting second (it was just a second), they could see each other as a child of God, like St. Dismas could see Jesus as the Son of God.  Amazing people see things that others miss. 

          My friends, people are amazing.  And I’m not only referring to Eileen and Zane and Russ and Lawson.  But I mean everyone on earth, and each person without exception.  And if you’re having trouble seeing that, then I suggest you ask God for more faith.  Why?  Because faith helps you not only to know who God is, but it also helps you to know who man is.  Faith shows you that all people are amazing.  So, let me ask you: is there anyone that you think that is not amazing?  Do you think your former boss who fired you is not amazing?  Do you think your ex-spouse who divorced you is not amazing?  Do you think your elderly mother who blames everything on you is not amazing?  Do you think Donald Trumps is not amazing?  Do you think Hillary Clinton is not amazing?  Do you think I am not amazing?? (Don’t answer that last question.)  Yes, people are crazy and selfish and wicked and lazy and sinful.  But they are still a child of God, and Jesus still suffered and died on the Cross for each of them, too.  Jesus thinks each one of those people is pretty amazing, amazing enough to die for. 

          Have you ever watched that reality television show called “The Amazing Race”?  I’m not a fan of reality TV shows, but this one intrigues me because it’s not just a race to see who completes all the challenges and comes in first.  It also introduces the contestants to the world’s cultures and peoples, and by extension, introduces the television audience (you and me) to others cultures and languages and customs.  When I think of the title of that show, “The Amazing Race,” I don’t just think about a trek across the world, but I also think about a trek across humanity.  In other words, the most “amazing race” is really “the human race.” And with a little more faith, you could see that. 

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hair in Heaven

Living on earth by the standards of heaven
Revelation 10:8-11  
          I, John, heard a voice from heaven speak to me. Then the voice spoke to me and said: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went up to the angel and told him to give me the small scroll. He said to me, “Take and swallow it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will taste as sweet as honey.” I took the small scroll from the angel’s hand and swallowed it. In my mouth it was like sweet honey, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then someone said to me, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.”   

          Boys and girls, I have some important questions for you today, so put on your thinking caps! But first I want to tell you one question that people often ask me. They ask: “Fr. John, how old will people be in heaven?” Do you know how old you will be in heaven? Let’s do a quick survey. Raise your hand if you think you will be ten years old in heaven. Now, everyone knows that Mrs. B is 39 years old, so raise your hand if you think you’ll be as old as Mrs. B in heaven, that is, 39. Well, do you know what the best answer I’ve heard to that question? St. Thomas Aquinas said we will be 33 years old because that’s how old Jesus was when he went to heaven. My point is that our age on earth and our age in heaven will be different. That’s good news for us old guys!   

          Now, let me ask YOU some questions about heaven. Will there by Americans in heaven? YES! But it won’t really matter if you’re an American, and we won’t do the Pledge of Allegiance in heaven. Will there be Mexicans in heaven? YES, but it won’t matter if you speak English or Spanish. Will there be Cubs fans in heaven? YES, but there will not be any goats in heaven, so relax. Will there by Razorback fans in heaven? YES, that’s why it’s called “Hog Heaven,” but no one will need to call the hogs there. Will there by Republicans in heaven? YES, sorry Democrats. Will there be Democrats in heaven? YES! Sorry, Republicans. All these people will all be there, but it won’t matter if they are Mexicans or Republicans or Razorbacks. They will all love Jesus and they will all love each other, and they will all be 33 years old.

          In the first reading from Revelation, which Fifi Coleman read so nicely, it said: “Keep on telling what will happen to the people of many nations, races, and languages and also to kings.” What St. John means is tell people what heaven will be like and how they will love each other in heaven, so they can love like that on earth. You see, thinking about heaven helps us to know how we should live on earth. We have studied the “seven habits” here in school. Does anyone know what the second habit is? It states: “Begin with the end in mind.” That’s what St. John was saying, too: the end is heaven, so start thinking about heaven and that will help you know how to behave on earth.

          Boys and girls, I want you to measure your earthly behavior be heavenly standards, how things will be in heaven. For example, I’ve got a bald spot on my head. Have you noticed that? But I don’t worry about it. Do you know why I don’t care about that? Because I will have tons of hair when I get to heaven! Like I did when I was 33 years old. I’m trying to let how things will be in heaven guide how I behave on earth. Here’s another example. After the election some people said mean and hurtful things about people from Mexico. Will people talk like that in heaven about each other? No, of course not. So, we shouldn’t talk like that on earth, either. Boys and girls, one reason I love this school so much is that we’re trying to teach you that heavenly standard to live by. I’m so proud of Mrs. B and the teachers and staff who try to model that.

          How old will you be in heaven? Will you call the Hogs in heaven? Will Fr. John have hair in heaven? Think about these questions, and try to live your life by the answers.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!