Thursday, January 21, 2016

Zig Zag

Seeing how God works through the minority
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
          As a Christian, do you ever feel a little out of step with the world around you? That is, when everyone else goes “zig” do you tend to go “zag”? Archbishop Fulton Sheen captured this concept by saying, “God always works through the minority, never through the majority.” You might almost say that God prefers “the minority report” rather than “the majority report.” Recently, I conducted an informal survey of when people took down their Christmas decorations. Do you know what day the majority of people took down their trees and tinsel? It was December 26. Does that seem a little odd to you? Well, it should! Why? Well because Christmas – that special season in the church calendar – only begins on December 25, and that season doesn’t end until today, the Baptism of the Lord. So, I want you all to run home right now, put your trees back up, and don’t take them down until tomorrow, AFTER Christmas is over! But do you see what’s happening? The majority of people get it wrong, but the minority of the people get it right. God always goes with the minority report.
          In the gospel today, we see a similar phenomenon unfolding. The majority of the people are excited about John the Baptist, and they “all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” That was the majority report. But John answered, “I baptize you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That was the minority report.  Why?  Well, because only John recognized Jesus. Which one was right? Surprisingly, it’s the minority, not the majority. You see, time and time again, when it comes to seeing how God works, when it comes to sensing spiritual matters, the majority misses the mark, while the minority is spot on. Only the minority recognized the Son, the one in whom the Father was “well pleased.”
          Have you made your New Year’s Resolution yet? If you haven’t, don’t worry, you’re still in the majority of people who haven’t done that yet either! The majority of people procrastinate! But this year, instead of going after the usual suspects, the usual resolutions like “losing weight” or “exercising more” – which the majority of people will try to do – try to be more aware of the minority report. When you see the majority of the people go “zig,” then you should try to go “zag.” Let me give you some examples.
          When you see someone sitting alone and ignored by others – at work, or in school, or even at church – then go and spend time with them. That’s the minority report, that’s where God works and something spiritual happens. When you see people consumed with consumerism and spending money only on themselves, then go and spend money on others, especially the poor. When the majority “zigs,” you should “zag.” In helping the poor, you’ll see the minority report: something spiritual and the hand of God. When all your friends go to the movies and see Star Wars, but you decide to go to the Adoration Chapel to see Jesus, the real Star of the real Wars. In church, you’ll find the minority report, the spiritual and the divine. When everyone else wants to be the president or a pop star, but you think about being a priest, you’re thinking about the minority report. When most of the culture is chasing sex, drugs and rock and roll, but you’re chasing chastity, poverty and obedience, you’re really chasing the minority report; you’re chasing God and his grace. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “God always works through the minority, never through the majority.”
          One day, a smart and ambitious young man named Richard Rich approached St. Thomas More for advice about what career to pursue. Richard really wanted to go into law and politics; he wanted to be popular and prestigious. But St. Thomas said, “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher – maybe even a great one.” Richard asked sourly, “And if I was, well, who’d know about it?” More answered, “You, your pupils, your friends, God – not a bad public, that.” Not a bad public, that. You see, Richard wanted the majority report, but More recommended the minority report. Which career do you think that Richard finally settled on? I’ll give you a hint: Richard would have taken down his Christmas lights on December 26th, too.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Lunch for Lions

God’s love changes burdens into blessings
1 John 4:19–5:4
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. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
          Sometimes people see the life of a priest as an intolerable burden. Seeing that we are celibate and do not get married, my friends say, “Fr. John, how can you be a priest??” And I sometimes look at my married friends and think, “How can you be married??” What is it that makes a burden to one person feel like a blessing to another person? Well, the difference is love. Because I love being a priest, I don’t feel celibacy as a burden. Because you love your spouse – or you did in the beginning! – you don’t feel married life as a burden. The same goes for children. I was at a family’s home recently with lots of children, and they were running wild. The mother said to me, “I bet you’re glad you became a priest!” I replied, “Oh, no, you’re children are lovely.” In the back of my mind, I thought: “Yep, in one hour I will be at home watching Sports Center and drinking a beer.” Obviously, children can be a burden at times for parents, too, but that burden feels more like a blessing to them because of love. You see, love changes burdens into blessings.
          In the first reading today, St. John tries to make this same connection about love. He writes, “For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments.” Now comes the key line, St. John concludes, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” I’m sure that some people in the first century thought that being thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum was a little burdensome! But John would reply with a smile, “Not if you have the love of God.” The same goes for celibacy, and for marriage, and for wild children. You see, what makes the difference is love. Like the old adage says, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Love can change burdens into blessings.
          My friends, do the commandments of God feel like a burden to you? Is it hard to be a Christian and always do the right thing: to be a celibate priest, to stay married for 50 years, to be lunch for the lions in the Coliseum, to turn the other cheek when someone offends you, to help someone in need when you don’t feel like it, to be patient with someone who’s being a jerk, to avoid taking short-cuts, to pay your taxes!? Well, if you’d like all these burdens to feel more like blessings, you need more love. And I don’t mean just any old love, but the love of God. So, pray for that love.
          I say this prayer every day: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love” – and I don’t mean the Kindle Fire tablet that’s available from Amazon! -- “Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.” You see, the Holy Spirit IS the love of God, and when he kindles the fire of his love in you, burdens begin to feel more like blessings.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Short Cut to Wine

Embracing science and miracles
Mark 6:34-44
When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.” So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied.  And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate of the loaves were five thousand men.
          Do you believe in miracles? That’s okay, you don’t need to raise your hands. I’m kind of skeptical of miracles, too. You’re at that stage in your life where you’re skeptical or doubtful of a lot of other things besides miracles, I bet. I once read a book by C. S. Lewis which helped me believe in miracles but still hold on to my scientific skepticism. The book is simply called “Miracles” and I hope you’ll read it one day.
          Lewis calls Jesus’ miracles a “short cut.” That is, what God the Father does over the course of years and decades, Jesus does much faster, in the blink of an eye, and it looks like a miracle. Like Father, like Son. Listen to Lewis’ explanation of turning water into wine. He writes: “Every year, as part of the natural order, God makes water into wine. He does so by creating a vegetable organism that can turn water, soil and sunlight into a juice which will, under the proper conditions, become wine.” (After you turn 21, you’ll appreciate this a lot more.) Lewis continues, “Thus, in a certain sense, God constantly turns water into wine, for wine, like all drinks, is but water modified.” Now Lewis applies this to Jesus, saying: “Once, and in one year only, God, now incarnate, short circuits the process: makes wine in a moment: uses earthenware jars instead of vegetable fibers to hold the water. But uses them to do what he’s always doing. The miracle consists in the short cut.” You see, once I saw that Jesus is not violating the laws of nature but only making them go “fast forward,” I saw that science and Christianity are not mutually exclusive; you can hold science in one hand and miracles in the other hand, and you don’t have to reject either one. I hope this will help you hang on to your faith, even as you learn more and more science in school.
          This is also how Lewis explains the two miracles in today’s gospel: the multiplication of the loaves and fish. In a slow and methodical way, God the Father is always taking a little bread – grains of wheat – and making a lot of bread. But Jesus uses a short-cut – he does a miracle – and speeds up the process in today’s gospel and feeds thousands. This is kind of like how your parents used to text using a flip phone – slowly! – and you text much faster using voice texting. The same goes for the fish: what the Father does slow and steady, the Son does fast and furious. Here’s my point, “the miracle consists in the short cut.”  Keep that in mind.
          Boys and girls, have you felt that tension between your faith and your studies? I hate to tell you this, but that tension will only grow stronger and become unbearable. Do you have older siblings in college or in their 20’s, who have stopped going to church? I’m not judging anyone, but I do want you to understand why they don’t go to church anymore. Science has trumped their faith, and they’ve let go of their faith and cling only to science. Or, maybe they, too, have learned about a “short cut to wine” and don’t really care about science or religion! Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe in science? Or, do you believe in both?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Islam 101

Understanding Christianity and Islam
John Adams, the second president of the United States, famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Interestingly, Adams uttered those lines while defending British “Red Coats” falsely accused of massacring colonials in Boston. Like Adams, many people today would like to put aside “wishes, inclinations and passions” when it comes to Islam and Muslims. We’d like to know just “the facts” about this fascinating faith. If you have that spirit of John Adams, then you’ll enjoy an article entitled “What Catholics Should Know about Islam” by Dr. Sandra Keating. You can access that article at, under the tab “Beliefs and Teachings.”
Here are some of the things you’ll learn if you take the time to read it. (1) Who is Muhammad, and how and why and when did he start Islam? (2) Which is the best term for the followers of Islam: Muslims, Moslems, or Moors? (3) How many wives did Muhammad have, and more importantly, why did he have so many? (4) What’s the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, or is there any difference? (5) Is Sharia Law compatible (or can it even co-exist elsewhere) with the U.S. Constitution? (6) Why is the Qur’an (Koran) not like “the Bible for Muslims”; indeed, why is the Qur’an more like the Person of Jesus Christ is for Christians? (7) How many Muslims are there today, and why is Islam the fastest growing religion in the world? (8) Were the Christian Crusaders crazy to wage war to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims; what were they thinking?? (9) What’s the deal with making Muslim women wear the “burqa” in public, and other social strangeness? (10) What is the best Christian attitude toward our Muslim brothers and sisters, even if they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood?
My friends, you’ve finally found an article without an agenda on Islam! Pope Benedict (quoted at the beginning of the article) said: “The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity. The defense of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of civilization.” In other words, can’t we all just get along? So, bring out your bark-o loungers and learn about burqas. Grab a cup of coffee, or better yet, pour a glass of wine.

As-salamu alaykum (peace be with you)!

Myrrh Christmas

Welcoming the unpleasant gifts
Matthew 2:1-2, 10-12
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.” And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
          So, did everyone enjoy their Christmas presents? I know one priest in the Philippines who was so excited about his Christmas present that he took it to Christmas Eve Mass. It was a hover-board, and he rode it during Mass while singing a Christmas song. Did you see that video on Youtube? Do you know what happened next? He got suspended by his bishop for being irreverent at Mass. Don’t you dare tell the bishop about my Yoda voice at Mass – Fr. John might be taking a little unplanned vacation. On the other hand… Last week, I read a small book called “The Ultimate Gift” about another unusual present. A very rich man, named Red Stevens, dies and leaves his wealth to his greedy and selfish relatives. But to one nephew, Jason Stevens, he leaves “the ultimate gift.” That gift consists of teaching Jason over the course of 12 months that the best gift is not money, but rather the gift of love and the gift of laughter, the gifts of friendship and gratitude, and even the gift of problems, and the gift of work. These gifts bring true meaning to life and make life rewarding. At one point Jason disgustedly cries, “Why couldn’t he just leave me money like everybody else??” A friend replies, “He loved you too much to do that.” You see, gifts given with love are not always the ones we would wish for, but they are always the best gifts for us, the ones we need the most.
          Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany, and three magi or wise men come bearing gifts for Jesus, the new-born King. We’re all familiar with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But do you know what they mean or symbolize? Obviously, gold means Jesus is a king, the frankincense means he’s a priest (like priests use incense at Mass), but the myrrh means Jesus will be sacrificed, a saving victim for his people. Myrrh is an ointment used to embalm people after their die. I’m sure the Baby Jesus looked at the third magi who brought the myrrh and felt like saying, “Why couldn’t he leave me money like everybody else??” But the wise man “loved Jesus too much to do that.” Indeed, of all the gifts he received that first Christmas, the myrrh was the most valuable because it prepared Jesus for his ultimate destiny: death on the cross, just like Red Steven’s gift for his nephews was worth more than millions of dollars. Sometimes the most unwelcome gift is the most valuable one.
          Did you know that down in the South, there are many churches known as “answer back” churches. When the preacher says something, the congregation naturally replies. One Sunday, a preacher was speaking on what it would take for the church to become better. He said, “If this church is to become better, it must take up its bed and walk.” The congregation said, “Let it walk, Preacher, let it walk.” Encouraged by their response, he went further, “If this church is going to become better, it will have to throw aside its hindrances and run!” The congregation replied, “Let it run, Preacher, let it run!” Now, really getting into his message, he spoke stronger: “If this church really wants to become great, it will have to take up its wings and fly!” All shouted, “Let it fly, Preacher, let it fly!” The preacher got louder: “If this church is going to fly, it will cost money!” The congregation answered, “Let it walk, Preacher, let it walk.” That congregation gave the preacher an unwelcome gift. But don’t you give that gift to me.
          Now, let me pose my original question to you again: “Did everyone enjoy their Christmas gifts?” Let me ask it ask it another way: did you get a gift that you did NOT enjoy because it was unexpected or unwelcome? And I don’t mean just at Christmas, but throughout the year, whenever someone gives us something that we don’t particularly like. My friends, I would suggest to you that those unexpected, unusual and even unpleasant gifts, like Red Stevens’ gifts of “work” and “problems,” are in fact the best gifts of all. I was counseling a father recently, who was struggling with shouldering the responsibility of raising his children. I suggested to him, “Maybe the times you said ‘no’ to your children – which probably made them unhappy – were the times that helped them the most, even more than the times you gave them what they wanted.” The unwelcome gift was the best one. In a documentary on Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, he apparently did not allow his children to have their Iphones or mobile devices at the dinner table, but rather he insisted on family conversation: that they look at each other and talk to each other. Steve Jobs was like the wise man, who he gave his children the gift of a little myrrh – Myrrh Christmas! – helping them to die to their desires. Have you heard of Ethan Couch, the teenager who killed four people while driving drunk? He convinced the judge not to convict him because he suffered from “affluenza,” meaning he suffered from too much privilege stemming from his family’s wealth. Of course you don’t have to be a teenager to contract “affluenza,” to be selfish, spoiled and slovenly. I mean, who gives the gift of “myrrh” at a baby shower?? That would be someone wise, someone who wants to inoculate that baby against “affluenza.”
          As we begin the year 2016, we ask God to bless the coming year. And I’m sure he has lots of blessings in store for us this year. Those blessings will come in all shapes and sizes and colors. But don’t be surprised if some gifts aren’t exactly what you would have expected or wished for; but they will be exactly what you needed. Maybe the best gift that Filipino priest got for Christmas this year was not the hover-board, but rather the suspension. Myrrh Christmas!

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

World Religions 101

Seeing the difference between Christianity and Islam
1 John 3:1-2
Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
          This will probably be the most controversial homily I’ve ever delivered. That’s why I’m preaching it here at Christ the King instead of Immaculate Conception. That way, Fr. Babu has to clean up the mess I make, and I can just ride off into the sunset! I’d like to point out one major difference between Christianity and Islam. This is something I learned listening to Scott Hahn, who you may know was a Presbyterian pastor but converted to Catholicism and now teaches theology. He explained that at the core of Christianity is something called “divine filiation,” or becoming a child of God. The more technical Latin term is “filii in Filio,” which literally means “sons in the Son.” That is, God became a child of human beings, so that human beings could become children of God. Now, that may sound rather commonplace to us Catholic Christians; we take it for granted that we’re all children of God. Duh, what could be more obvious?!
          But that phrase, Scott Hahn went on to explain, would be blasphemous to most Muslim ears. Why? Well, because Islam holds that Allah, God, is uniquely and utterly One, and there is no one else like him in the entire universe. Therefore, to say that a human being is a child of God would be to suggest human beings enjoy some level of equality with God, just like your children enjoy the same dignity as you, their parents. More colloquially, we would say, “Like father, like son,” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” But a true Muslim would cringe at any such comparison between the Creator and creature.  In Islam, the relation between God and man is not that of Father-and-son, but rather more like Master-and-slave.
          Now, I don’t say this in order to pick on Islam, because it’s also true for most non-Christian religions, including Judaism. The reason the Jewish scribes and Pharisees were so annoyed by Jesus was he kept calling himself “the Son of God.” In making that claim, Jesus was asserting equality with God. That’s why we read in John 5:18, “For this reason the Jews tried all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.” Have I painted a stark enough picture for you? Have I at least gotten your attention? Good.
          Because it’s really only against this rather bleak religious backdrop that we can hear how astounding sounding the second reading is today. St. John writes: “Beloved, see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And so we are.” Boom! My friends, there is the whole gospel message in a nutshell: “we are children of God,” “filii in Filio.” The Son of God became a son of man, so that sons of men could become sons of God. (Please pardon the sexist-sounding language there – the comparison is clearer and more poetic that way.) In other words, divine filiation is at the heart of Christianity, even if that causes heartburn for most other religions, especially Islam.
          Let me tell you a little joke to lighten things up a bit here. A young man found out that he would inherit a fortune when his sickly father died. So he decided he needed a woman to enjoy it with. One evening, he went to a singles bar where he spotted the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her natural beauty took his breath away. He approached her and said, “I may look like just an ordinary man, but in just a week or two my father will die and I’ll inherit $20 million.” Impressed, the woman went home with him that evening. Three days later, she became his stepmother. So, sometimes, the whole father-son scenario goes south; who knows, maybe the Muslims are right! (That’s a joke.)
          The real reason I’m here today is to talk about Trinity Junior High, but I wanted to create a context in which to highlight the value of our school. Of course, we insist on high academic standards, strong moral behavior, service to the poor, and deep religious faith. But why do we do all that? Because we believe what St. John said, “Beloved, see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. And so we are.” Sadly, this core conviction is something that the rest of the world does not share, not even many religions. This is why we demand so much from Trinity students (because they are children of God) – just like you demand more from your children than you do from the neighbors kids. This is why at Trinity we treat each person with infinite respect and dignity, and why we will not tolerate bullying or discrimination. We are absolutely convinced that each person is a child of God: whether they are male or female, whether they are black, white or brown, whether they are American or immigrants, whether they are cowboys or Indians (like me!), whether they are Catholics or Muslims. Heck, we believe Muslims are also children of God, even if they wouldn’t say so of themselves.  This is what we teach our students at Trinity Junior High.
          I’d like to make two requests of you today. First, would you consider sending your children to Trinity next year? Now you know the conviction that is at the core of everything we teach. And second, would you support us financially in the second collection today? If you’d like to learn more, we’ll have Dr. Karen Hollenbeck, Zach Edwards and Mike Charlton available after Mass handing out brochures. You know, before a teacher ever stands in front of a class and opens his or her mouth to explain math or science or economics, he or she has already formed an opinion about the bright eyes staring back at them. A teacher either sees his students as sons, or as slaves, or as something else. Every teacher at Trinity sees every student as a son or daughter of God, even if the son only wants to inherit his father’s $20 million.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Bullet-proof Baby

Overcoming our divisions at Christmas
Luke 2:8-14
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
          Many years ago when I was a new pastor, I had to do a multi-million dollar construction project. (What else is new??) Without a clue where to begin, I traveled to Little Rock to seek advice from my mentor, Msgr. Gaston Hebert. And I’ll never forget what he told me. He said, “John, it’s really very simple. First, make sure the project is something the parish really needs. Second, make sure it’s something the parish can afford. And third, ask people to give as generously as they can.” And then he leaned over to me and almost whispered, “But here’s the secret. On all your marketing brochures, put as many pictures of the cutest kids and the most beautiful babies you can find in your church! No one can say ‘no’ to a beautiful baby or a chubby child.” You know, Hebert didn’t become a monsignor for no reason. I have never forgotten that advice, “No one can say ‘no’ to a beautiful baby.” Have you ever noticed how differently people act around a baby? Magically and mysteriously, a baby tugs at our heartstrings and alters our attitudes, and we become a little more child-like ourselves.
          In the gospel today we hear about another instance of employing the same marketing strategy: show the world a beautiful baby! The angel announces to the shepherds: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Why in the world would almighty God become a helpless little Baby? Because like Msgr. Hebert, God, too, knows that the best poster child for a project is precisely a “Child”! But God wasn’t looking for money for a building project; he was looking for living stones (that is, you and me) for the construction of his kingdom. And God knows nothing grabs our attention like a beautiful little baby. In the presence of a Baby – especially the Baby Jesus – hearts melt and hopes rise, and eternal kingdoms are created. Folks, this is basic “marketing 101” whether you’re in heaven or on earth: “no one can say ‘no’ to a beautiful baby.”
          Have you ever heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914? Believe it or not, this really happened. Here’s the way the History Channel described it: “Shortly after World War I began, along the western front, on Christmas Eve, 1914, German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines. At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s land, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ in their enemy’s native tongue. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers.” The account continues: “The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum pudding and sang carols and songs. There was even an undocumented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.” Now, what could make battled-hardened soldiers drop their weapons and sings songs and exchange presents? Only the thought of a beautiful Baby can, that is, the Christmas Baby named Jesus. You could say that this was a bullet-proof Baby! You see, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a glorious glimpse of the grace of this Holy Day. The angel announced: “On earth peace – PEACE! – to those on whom his favor rests.”
          My friends, is there anyone with whom you need to call a “Christmas truce of 2015”? You know sometimes, we end up fighting a kind of trench warfare with others that’s every bit as belligerent and brutal as World War I. I don’t just mean the wars we fight against Al Qaida and the Taliban and ISIS, but also the battles that blaze in our own backyards and in the back of our hearts; with our kids in our kitchens, with our friends in our high schools, with co-workers in our offices, and yes even with Christians in our churches. You know, I love the Norman Rockwell paintings of funny and festive family gatherings during the holidays. But many people often think, “The only thing better than seeing family come, is seeing family go!” We can’t wait for family to leave, because sometimes, the hardest people to love are the people you live with. So, this Christmas Day, let me give you the same advice Msgr. Hebert gave me, and let me invite you to turn your eyes to a beautiful Baby, and let him melt your heart to love others again. You know, if German and British soldiers who were trying to kill each other, could drop their weapons and exchange presents of cigarettes and plum pudding for one day, couldn’t we put aside our wars and woes for one day and show a little compassion and care for those we fight with? Don’t worry, tomorrow (December 26) you can go back to killing each other.
          You see, a beautiful Baby is a powerful thing. It can help you raise millions of dollars. It can help you find living stones to construct a Kingdom. It can help you find peace in the middle of a war. And it can help heal your hurting heart. Here’s the best marketing strategy in the whole world: “no one can say ‘no’ to a beautiful baby.” What could a bullet-proof Baby do for you?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Other Woman

Never losing our husbands and sons
1 Samuel 1:24-28
In those days, Hannah brought Samuel with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and presented him at the temple of the LORD in Shiloh.  After the boy’s father had sacrificed the young bull, Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said: “Pardon, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD.  I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request.  Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.” She left Samuel there.
          Let me ask you a very deep spiritual question. If your son decided to become a priest, would you be happy or sad about it? Well, since you’re sitting in church, you’d probably answer, “Of course, I would be delighted!” But deep down, in your heart of hearts, wouldn’t you also feel a twinge of sadness? I think that’s very natural and normal. My parents love the fact that I’m a priest today, but they were NOT thrilled when I told them that back in high school. Like most parents, my mom especially, they thought they would lose me forever and would never see me again, and they’d see my brother and sisters and the grandkids all the time. But the reality is exactly the reverse! I will always live in Arkansas and can go home at the drop of a hat, and celebrate Mass with my parents. I sometimes take a selfie with mom and dad and send it to my siblings with the caption, “Don’t worry about coming home, mom and dad’s favorite child is here.” You see, when you make a sacrifice for God, he always rewards you a hundred times over, even on the human level, even on the heart level.
          In the readings today we see two women who reap the same rewards of sacrificing their sons but gaining much more in return. Hannah goes to the temple to leave Samuel there to be raised by Eli to be a great prophet. It was clearly a huge loss to Hannah, but because Samuel never married, Hannah never really lost him. Samuel could come home and take selfies with his mother! Mary in the gospel sings, “The Almighty has done great things for me” by making me the mother of Jesus. And even though Mary saw her Son sacrificed on the Cross, she never “lost him” because she never had to share his affections with another woman by marriage. Mary was never a mother-in-law. It’s hard to describe the beautiful bond between a priest and his mother – and much harder between the first Priest and His Mother – especially if the priest never gets married.
          By the way, did you know the Diocese of Little Rock is starting a new diaconate program? I want to encourage you men to consider it. We are blessed here at I.C. to have several dedicated deacons, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling more men to that special ministry of service. It’s easy to come up with reasons not to enter the program: “I am too old,” or “I am too young,” or “I am too busy,” or “I am not holy enough.” If that’s what’s holding you back, you don’t know our deacons very well! There are no “perfect candidates” for the diaconate, only men with willing hearts and lots of God’s grace. Just look at Jesus’ first twelve followers. And I would invite you wives also to encourage your husbands. Why? Well because like Hannah and Mary, you will never lose them. What do I mean? Deacons make a promise that if their wife dies, they will never remarry. You will never have to share your husband’s affections with another woman.
          Ladies, next time you take a selfie with your son or with your husband, ask yourself: would you like to see another woman in that picture with her arms around them? I didn’t think so.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Strangely Perfect

Seeing blessings in the small and strange
Micah 5:1-4A
Thus says the LORD: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.
          You know, sometimes we have a tendency to write off people because they are a little strange, or kind of small, or maybe even a little scary. Have you ever done that? I know I have. Let me tell you about the last time I did that. Last Saturday we had our annual pilgrimage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and about 450 people walked 5 miles from Van Buren, down Midland Ave., to Immaculate Conception Church. Just imagine all these short, brown people, singing loudly and praying the rosary, walking with a huge statue of Mary on our shoulders – talk about small, strange and scary!
          About halfway along the route, a white American lady joined us, but she was acting even MORE strange than we were. She was reading aloud from a small, blue Gideon Bible she clutched in her hands, and occasionally pointing at the sky with a terrified look on her face, as if something horrible was about to happen. Sometimes she would laugh out loud, and at other times she would cry uncontrollably. We didn’t know what to make of her; she scared us! Eventually, she ran through the pilgrimage procession and down a side street, and we never saw her again. Later, a psychiatrist friend of mine explained that she probably suffered from schizophrenia and was really no harm to anyone. Watching her read the Bible I wondered: how did I know she didn’t understand what she read? Heck, how do I know she didn’t understand the Bible better than I did?? I realized that Jesus, the Word of God, symbolized in that little blue Bible, came on earth for everyone: for schizophrenic people, for little brown Hispanic people, and even for little brown Indian priest people. Even though I didn’t understand a word that schizophrenic lady said, she preached an unforgettable sermon to me on the love of God.
          In the first reading from Micah, we see something else small and strange that turns out to be a big blessing, namely, Bethlehem. Listen to the prophet Micah, who prophesies, “You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small (too small!) to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler of Israel.” I am sure that no one in the first century gave Bethlehem a backward glance; certainly not as the birthplace of the Messiah.  And yet Bethlehem is precisely the place of God’s greatest blessing: the birth of his Son. Do you know what the word “Bethlehem” means? Literally it means “house of bread.” You see, the eternal Bread of Life would be born in the “house of bread” and feed the world. How strange! How perfect! You see, when we dismiss the small and the strange, we also miss the mighty and miraculous.
          You know, the more I get to know our current bishop, Anthony Taylor, the more I grow in respect for him. Last week at a meeting, he told us priests a funny story about his own father. When the bishop was a young boy and his family attended Mass, his father would always come home mad. There were two priests at their parish, a foreign priest with a thick accent and an American priest. If the foreign priest had the Mass, his father got mad because he could NOT understand what he said. If the American priest had the Mass, his father got mad because he COULD understand what he said! And what impression do you think that left on the little bishop? You might think he’d grow up and make sure priests said things that people liked. Right? Wrong! Don’t forget the first rule of preaching: a good preacher should always comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable! And so today Bishop Taylor warmly welcomes priests from Africa and India and Mexico. Why? Well, because there is an abundance of priests in those countries. But that’s not the only reason. It’s also because the bishop knows that God works in mysterious ways. When you dismiss the small and the strange – even if they are small and strange priests that you can’t understand, like I dismissed the schizophrenic lady – you have also missed some of God’s best blessings.
          Take a moment to ask yourself: who are the small and strange people in my life who I tend to write off and ignore? Are they like the schizophrenic lady, who are kind of odd or who don’t quite fit in? Are they priests whose homilies you dislike because you can’t understand them, or maybe because you CAN understand them? Are they the poor or the prisoners, the homely or the homeless, the immigrants or the Muslims, the Iraqis or the Indians, an ex-spouse or an ex-convict, your former pastor or your future president? My friends, when Jesus Christ came to earth his very first friends were the lowly and the least, who lived in a back-water town called Bethlehem. And if we want to call ourselves “Christians,” then who should our friends be?
        In 1848, Cecil Alexander wrote the poem called “All Things Bright and Beautiful” to help us see God’s blessings in all things, especially in the small things. Listen carefully:
All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens, Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly, And ordered their estate.
He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell,
How great is God almighty, Who has made all things well.
The next time you are tempted to dismiss or ignore someone because they are a little strange or kind of small or even a little scary, look again.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

My Favorite Things

Finding the fun in our faith
Zepaniah 3:14-18A
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has removed the judgment against you he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
          How would you characterize your Christianity? Is your faith a cause of happiness and humor, or are you more of a “Debbie Downer”? You know, some people are perpetually solemn and somber about religion, and they feel you should never smile – much less laugh – in church. Do you think it’s appropriate to laugh in church? Let’s see.
          An 85 year old couple had been married for 60 years and they both died together in a car crash. They had been in good health the last ten years mainly due to her interest in health food and exercise. When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion with a beautiful kitchen, master bath and Jacuzzi. The old man asked, “How much will this cost?” St. Peter replied, “It’s free, this is heaven.” Next Peter took them to a championship golf course behind their house. The man asked again, “What are the green fees?” St. Peter said, “There are no fees, you play for free.” Next they entered the club house where a long buffet featured gourmet food from all over the world. Again the man inquired, “How much to eat?” St. Peter said exasperated, “This is heaven; it’s all free!” The man continued, “Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?” St. Peter said, “That’s the best part, you can eat all you want and you never get fat and never get sick.” The man looked squarely at his wife and said, “This is all your fault. If I hadn’t eaten all those blasted bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago!” So, don’t take those bran muffins so seriously. And don’t take your spirituality so seriously that there’s not a little fun in your faith.
          The third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” The word “Gaudete” is Latin and it means “All of ya’ll, rejoice!” But notice that hidden in the middle of the word “rejoice” is the word “joy.” In other words, if our Christian faith is characterized by anything, it should be a joyful faith. If you’re not a joyful Christian, you’re not living your faith fully. That’s why the prophet Zephaniah writes in the first reading, “Shout for joy, O Daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” That is, let joy be a part of your faith; it’s okay to crack a smile and even to laugh in church. This Sunday we light a pink candle on the Advent Wreath: I mean, how seriously can you take a pink candle??
          The hardest place for me to bring Christian humor and happiness is the hospital, but I’ve learned that’s where it’s needed the most. Of course, illness and suffering are serious and should be treated with appropriate sensitivity. You know, when people see me walking down the hall of a hospital, their eyes get big, thinking I’m like the Grim Reaper, going to give someone the Last Rites before they die. And sometimes I am! People clear out of the hallway and walk close to the walls, so they don’t touch me. It’s great. But do you know what I’ve realized? A little levity and a light-hearted touch bring a lot of peace to the patient. Sometimes the last thing the patient wants is to talk about their illness; they would love for someone to tell them a good joke about an old couple that goes to heaven! Don’t take your bran muffins too seriously; and don’t take your suffering too seriously, either. Why? Because Jesus always brings a little joy, too.
          My friends I don’t want to minimize how tough and troubling life can be. Lord knows life is hard. But I also don’t want to maximize it, so that we lose sight of the joy of Jesus. Do you remember the musical, “The Sound of Music”? Julie Andrews sings, “My Favorite Things” when the children become frightened by a storm. She sings, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” And what were her favorite things? She goes on, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, Brown paper packages tied up with strings, These are a few of my favorite things. Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles, Wild geese that fly with the moon their wings, These are a few of my favorite things. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, Silver white winters that melt into spring, These are a few of my favorite things.” Let me ask you: what would be a few of your favorite things? Careful now, be sure that’s something you can think about in church! Again, I am not trying to minimize the misery, but I do want to maximize the mirth!
          Pope Francis’ very first, major encyclical was called “The Joy of the Gospel.” Here’s my favorite line from that document, the pope writes: “This is the joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God our Father: ‘My child, treat yourself well, according to your means…Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment’ (Sir. 14:11, 14).” Listen to that line again: “Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment.” In other words, have a crisp apple strudel instead of that blasted bran muffin. That’s the meaning of Gaudete Sunday. And that’s the meaning of Christianity.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Christian Camaraderie

Learning to cherish different denominations
Matthew 11:16-19
Jesus said to the crowds: “To what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’  But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”
          One of the most charming things about living in the South, but also one of the most challenging things, is the diversity of Christian denominations. Even though we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we are not immune from sibling rivalry. Let me illustrate this. A man arrived at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter asked, “Religion?” The man said, “Methodist.” St. Peter looked down his list and said, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” Another man arrived at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter asked, “Religion?” “Catholic,” came the answer. “Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” A third man arrived at the gates. “Religion?” asked St. Peter. The man said, “Jewish.” “Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” The man said, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?” St. Peter explained, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they are the only ones here.” When I was younger I used to be scared and suspicious of other Christians; as I get older I learn more and more from them. You see, for me sibling rivalry has turned into sibling respect; competition has matured into camaraderie.
          In the gospel today we see two men who seem to represent two denominations, and seem to be competing with each other, at least in the eyes of the on-lookers. They are John and Jesus. John’s message sounds very Protestant: repent of your sins and no drinking. After all, why else would John be called “the Baptist”? Jesus, on the other hand, loves to go to parties and drink, a clearly Catholic way of life! The real mistake, of course, is to imagine that these two attitudes are opposed to each other, instead of a harmonious and holistic way of life. In other words, a truly Christian life integrates seasons of sacrifice and self-denial together with times of celebration and thanksgiving. Sibling rivalry must evolve into sibling respect; competition into camaraderie.
          You know, we have different seasons in the Church calendar year, like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. I would suggest to you that some of those seasons have more of a “Baptist spirit,” like Advent and Lent. Why? Well, because these seasons emphasize repentance of sins and sacrifice. Other seasons, however, sound more “Catholic,” like Christmas and Easter because of their celebratory spirit. But the point is that the truly mature Christian sees what’s good in everything, what is the best in all worlds, and integrates them into his or her own discipleship. The main mistake we make is when we think, “We’re the only ones here.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Math Morons

Understanding the Immaculate Conception
          When I was in school, my worst subject was always math. How many of you hate math? But I could spell any word you could throw at me and I loved to read. But my older brother was the exact opposite: he was a whiz at math, but he couldn’t spell his way out of a wet paper bag. So, naturally, I thought I was smart and my brother was a moron. But now that “math moron” is senior vice president of Walmart, and I’m a Catholic priest. So, who’s the real moron?
          Now, I believe that most Catholics are poor in math, too, because 99.9 % of Catholics don’t know what the Immaculate Conception is. And the reason they don’t know is because we can’t do math very well. Under your chair you will find a note card and pencil. Would you take a moment and write on the note card what the Immaculate Conception is? Please use a full sentence, beginning with “The Immaculate Conception is…” Now, you can put the cards and pencils back under your chairs. If you were to ask most Catholics that same question, most of them would answer that is when Jesus was conceived in his mother’s womb, that is, in Mary’s womb. But that is exactly wrong. That is NOT the Immaculate Conception, and the reason we don’t know the right answer is because Catholics are math morons.
          Let’s do some quick math computation. When was Jesus born? We know that was December 25, Christmas. That’s not the birthday of Santa Claus, that’s the birthday of Jesus. And we know a baby is in the womb of its mother for nine months. So, if Jesus was BORN on December 25, when was he CONCEIVED in Mary’s womb? That would be nine months earlier, on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, that is the Conception of Jesus. So, if today – December 8 – is not Jesus’ conception, whose conception is it? It’s the Conception of Mary, in her mother’s womb, that is, in St. Anne’s womb. So, if Mary was conceived on December 8, and she was in the womb for nine months, when was she born? That would be September 8, the feast of the Birthday of Mary.  So, now you know what the feast of the Immaculate Conception is (the conception of Mary), and more importantly, you know what it is not (the conception of Jesus).
          Boys and girls, some of you are good at math and hate spelling, while others are great in spelling and hate math. Some of you can spell the words “Immaculate Conception” but don’t know what it means, but others know exactly what it means – because they can do the math – but can’t spell it. Today on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I hope you’ve gotten better at both, and now you can become a priest AND senior vice president of Walmart.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Bus Driver

Making spiritual sense of mass shootings
Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the regionof Ituraea and Trachonitis,  and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,  during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
          Let me ask you a question: how do you feel these days? I don’t know about you, but after hearing about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California last Wednesday, I felt like someone has just punched me in the stomach. Again. And my stomach has been in knots ever since. And apparently, I’m not alone in feeling like this. On December 3, the New York Times asked its subscribers this question, “Do you worry about mass shootings?” Here are a few of the responses.  26 year-old Damien said, “Anytime a colleague or friend is let go from a job, I’m afraid they are going to come back into my office and shoot up the entire office.” Ever feel like that? 17 year-old Andrew answered, “I am tired of being scared. I want to go to college next year and feel safe, but I don’t.” Any young people feel that way? A proactive professor said, “I am a teacher. I constantly rehearse in my mind what steps I would take to protect me and my kids from a shooter.” And 58 year-old Paula said, “I think about it anytime we are in public, particularly in crowds. I no longer feel safe anywhere.” Do any of these comments capture how you feel these days?
          And then a really low blow came when the New York Daily News – a liberal leaning paper – touted the headline, “God Isn’t Fixing This.” God isn’t fixing this. Basically, they were accusing conservative politicians of hiding behind pious platitudes – like “let’s pray about this” – instead of enacting tighter gun legislation. But however off the mark that headline was, haven’t you also sometimes wondered, “Why DOESN’T God fix this??” And to top it all off, we’re in the middle of Advent, a time of hope and joy and especially peace! But peace is the last thing we feel. I don’t know about you, but it sure doesn’t feel much like Christmas time to me. Does it to you?
          In the gospel reading today we see John announcing the coming of Christ to begin his public ministry, and those days didn’t feel very “Christmasy” either. The gospel begins by introducing the key characters who would play pivotal roles in the birth and death of John and Jesus. We hear about Caesar, who took the world-wide census, and about Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands of guilt. There’s Herod who would have John beheaded in prison, and Anna and Caiaphas who conspired to crucify Christ. In other words, the first time Christ came into the world, there was corruption and greed in government from top to bottom, and I’m sure many people felt exactly the same as those subscribers to the New York Times; people were scared. And one or two pundits in Palestine in the first century surely must have said, “God isn’t fixing this!”
          But John the Baptist came to preach a different message. He said, “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” That is, in spite of the worst that the world can throw at us, God’s plans and purposes will not be thwarted. You see, John’s message rang through the mountains of the Middle East and boldly proclaimed, “GOD IS FIXING THIS!” Or, as our Evangelical friends like to say, “When you’re down to nothing, God is up to something!” In other words, God’s plans always prevail, but they do so often in humble and hidden and hum-drum ways, and you need the eyes of faith to see them. Otherwise, all you see are terrorists and mass shootings.
          I’m a big fan of the sit-com called “Seinfeld.” Now, that show is not fit for most of you, so you should not watch it! Only priests can watch it. (Just kidding.) Arguably one of the best episodes ever was when Kramer saves a lady’s pinky toe after it’s been run over by a street-cleaner, then he fights off a mugger on a bus, and then actually drives the bus to the hospital. In the middle of his story, Kramer dramatically declares, “Jerry, the bus was outta control!”  Remember that line?  You know, a lot of people may feel that way today, thinking, “Our country is out of control!” or “Our world is out of control!” But do you know what I always tell people who feel like their life is out of control? I remind them, “The Holy Spirit is still driving the bus.” The Holy Spirit is still driving the bus. Why do I say that? Because when the Holy Spirit is driving the bus, John’s prophecy comes true: “The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” In other words, when the Holy Spirit drives the bus, it doesn’t get out of control, because the Spirit’s driving makes the road straight and smooth.
          May I share with you a few places where I see the Holy Spirit driving the bus? Well, 2,000 years ago, the Spirit was driving the bus when a baby was born in Bethlehem, and Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem. Yes, he was driving back then. But I see the Spirit driving the bus today too in a pope who preaches love for the poor. I see the Spirit driving the bus in husbands and wives who forgive each other and try to save their marriages. I see the Spirit driving the bus in young people thinking about becoming a priest or nun. I see the Spirit driving the bus in parents who make sacrifices to send their children to Catholic schools. I see the Spirit driving the bus when a mother chooses to keep her baby rather than get an abortion. I see the Spirit driving the bus when Catholics choose to go to Mass instead of staying home and watching football or go hunting. I see the Spirit driving the bus in a teenage girl who asked for a priest to come see her in a mental hospital, and now comes to Mass every Sunday.
          You see, it takes the eyes of faith to see how the Spirit is driving the bus. If you look through the eyes of faith, you’ll see how “God is fixing this.” Otherwise, you’ll just dramatically declare, “Jerry, the bus is outta control!” What do you see?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Grecia’s Dance Move

Learning to think win-win
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.
          Last week Grecia Gonzalez taught me the dance move for one of the seven leadership habits.  Can anyone tell me which habit that dance move refers to?  It’s the fourth habit, called “think win-win.”  Who can describe to me what that habit means?  In any situation where there are two sides – like two friends, or a teacher and student, or a husband and wife, or priests and parishioners – try to make sure both sides win, not just one.  This habit makes sure both parties feel they “win” something, not just one person.  The opposite of this habit would be the mentality that thinks, “my way or the highway!”  “I don’t care if you win or not.”  This habit is an essential ingredient for any recipe for a long-term relationship.  If you want life-long friends or a life-long marriage, it helps to “think win-win.”
          In the gospel today we also have two sides – Jesus and two blind men.  Whenever you have two sides, try to “think win-win.”  Now, how did the two blind men “win” in that relationship?  They “won” by being healed by Jesus.  And how did Jesus want to “win” in that relationship?  He asked them to keep their healing a secret.  But what did they do instead?  They did not “think win-win”; instead they thought, “it’s my way or the highway!” and so they hit the highway and told everyone what Jesus did for them.  They did not learn Grecia’s dance move of how to “think win-win.”  How do you think that made Jesus feel?  Do you think Jesus felt like he “won” in that relationship, too?  Probably not.  Those two men probably did not become Jesus’ disciples.  If you want a relationship to last a long time, “think win-win.”
          Boys and girls, let me tell you the secret to mastering the “think win-win” habit.  In any relationship ask yourself, “what can I give to the other person?”  That’s what the two blind men failed to ask themselves.  They should have asked, “What can I give to Jesus so He wins, too?”  Our most important relationship is with God, and if we want that friendship to be long-lasting, we have to “think win-win.”  We have to learn Grecia’s dance move.  What are some ways God can “win” in our relationship with Him?  We can pray every day.  We can go to Mass on Sunday.  We can read the Bible.  We can pray the Rosary.  You see, the fourth habit to “think win-win” helps you have relationships that are life-long, and one relationship that can even last forever.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sweaty Shoes

Understanding Catholic veneration of the saints
          We Catholics believe in something called “the veneration of the saints,” but this practice is hotly criticized in many quarters.  Some people accuse Catholics of worshiping mere mortals by our admiration and adulation of the saints.  We set up their statues, we revere their remains, we extol their exploits.  But is this any different from the attention and accolades people shower on sports superstars today?  Recently, I saw the NBA basketball player Stephan Curry give his tennis shoes to a young fan after the game.  The little admirer clearly considered those shoes a “second class relic” of Stephan Curry.  In case you don’t know, a second class relic is something that has touched the body of a saint.  That little fan will display those sweaty shoes somewhere prominently in his house and he will proudly tell every visitor how honored he was that Curry actually stopped to look at him, and even gave him his shoes.  Don’t you think that little boy believes he was very blessed at that moment?  And yet, no one accuses the little basketball fan of worshiping Stephan Curry.  That would be silly.  So, too, is it silly to accuse Catholics of worshiping the saints, even though we proudly display their relics and feel blessed to be in their presence.
          Today, December 3, we celebrate the feast of St. Francis Xavier.  I feel a special fondness for Francis because in the sixteenth century he brought a renewal of Catholicism to India, my native homeland.  I’m sure his zeal to re-evangelize India played some part in my vocation to be a priest.  You know, if I got hold of his sweaty tennis shoes, I’d display them proudly in a prominent place in my rectory!  Indeed, the relics of St. Francis are strewn all over the world.  His body is in Goa, India, or most of it is, I should say.  His right arm is displayed in Rome, at the Jesuit church called “Chiesa del Gesu.” And his hand is in Japan.  Does all that sound macabre to you?  Well, it’s not much different than retiring Michael Jordan’s number or putting signed jersey’s in glass cases, as I’ve seen in the homes of sports enthusiasts.  In other words, Catholics consider saints worthy of admiration, but not worthy of adoration; the first we gladly give to saints and superstars, the second we give only to God.
          Of course, to focus on sweaty shoes and right arms is really to miss the point.  People truly worth admiring never want you to focus on them, but rather, they want you to see how God works in your life and to magnify Him.  I suspect Stephan Curry hopes his shoes inspire that little boy to play basketball better, just like St. Francis’ hand and arm should inspire us to do things to glorify God who gave them to us.  You see, Catholic veneration of the saints is not really about the saints, but about God.  And to miss that point would be deeply disappointing to the saints.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Christanity Done Poorly

Addressed to students at Trinity Junior High School
          Boys and girls, G. K. Chesterton, one of the great Christian writers of the 20th century, once famously said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” Now that sounds counter-intuitive and strange because we should try to do things as well as we can, and not poorly. But Chesterton’s point was that some things in life we have to do ourselves, even if we mess them up, even if we do them poorly; and he gave the two examples of “writing your own love letters” and “blowing your own nose.” Even if we do these things poorly, we should do them ourselves, they are worth doing.
          To this category I would also add Christianity. If I can paraphrase Chesterton, he might have said, “Christianity is worth doing even if it is done poorly.” In other words, you don’t have to be perfect to be a Christian. Rather, Christianity is for the imperfect, those who do things poorly. Of course, we want to do things better tomorrow than we did them yesterday. But Christianity is for those brave souls who write their own love letters even if they sound awkward, and blow our own noses, even if we still have “bats in the cave.” “Bats in the cave” is how a teenage friend of mine once described snot in your nose.
          This is why confession is an essential ingredient of Christianity; confession means that Christianity is worth doing even if it is done poorly. When we mess up – and we all mess up, even Mr. Edwards who everybody thinks is perfect – we can go to confession and try again. Today as you go to confession, try to think of at least 3 sins you’ve committed. Think of one sin against God, like missing Mass or failing to thank Him for your gifts. Think of one sin against others, like disobeying your parents or lying to friends, or copying homework or cheating on a test. And think of one sin against yourself, like abusing your body with alcohol or smoking or eating mostly junk food. Everyone has three major relationships – with God, with others and with ourselves – and that’s where we are most prone to do things poorly, but these relationships are still worth “doing.”
          Please join me now in saying this brief Act of Contrition. We all learn different versions of this prayer, so here’s one everyone can remember. Wherever you are in the school right now, just repeat after me, “Oh my Jesus, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.” That’s short enough for anyone to remember.

          Let me conclude with another quote by Chesterton. He said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” And why do we not truly try Christianity? It’s because we don’t want to do it poorly; we want to do it perfectly. But the truth is that “poorly” is the only way to do Christianity; everyone does Christianity poorly. So, now go blow your nose, and get those bats out of your cave, and I’ll see you in confession.

Your Sign

Entering into Advent, season of signs
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Jesus said to his disciples: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,  for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen,  stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand. “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.”
          The world we live in is full of signs. Now, most of the time we’re looking for the signs, but surprisingly, sometimes the signs are looking for us. Did you ever hear of those “Here’s your sign” jokes by Bill Engvall? The jokes are about handing people who say the most obvious things a sign that reads, “Stupid.” (Sorry for saying “stupid” in church.) For example, Bill explained: “One day, I was driving along in Texas and I got a flat tire. So, I pulled my truck over into one of those side-of-the-road gas stations. The attendant walks out, looks at my truck, looks at me, and I swear he said, “Tire go flat?” I couldn’t resist. I said, “Nope. I was just driving around on four flat tires and the other three just swelled right up on me!” And not cracking a smile, the attendant nodded and said, “Yep, they’ll do that.’ Here’s your sign!” In other words, signs teach us a lot about the world around us, but some signs also teach us about ourselves, that’s we’re not the brightest bulb in the box! And I would suggest to you that the most important signs are the ones that teach us something about ourselves, something that we usually cannot see.
          In the gospel today Jesus is also talking about signs. Now, these signs will tell us something about the end of the world, but more importantly, they will also give us an insight into ourselves. Good signs always do. He says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on the earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright.” Jesus goes on to add: “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is close at hand.” In other words, the cataclysmic signs of the end times will also be a sign about us – whether we’re ready or not ready, whether we’re smart or stupid, whether we’re saints or sinners. You see, the most important signs always tell us something about ourselves; these are the real “signs of the times,” and we must learn to read them and understand what they teach us about ourselves.
          A blind boy sat on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet. He held up a sign which said, “I am blind, please help.” There were only a few coins in the hat. A man was walking by. He took a few coins and dropped them into the hat. Then he took the sign, turned it around, and wrote some words on the back. He put it back so that everyone walking by could see the new words. Soon the hat began to fill up. A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy. Later that day, the man who had changed the sign returned. The boy recognized his footsteps and asked, “Were you the one who changed my sign? What did you write?” The man answered, “I only wrote the truth. I said what you wrote but in a different way. I said, ‘Today is a beautiful day, but I cannot see it.’” Both signs told the people the boy was blind. The first sign simply said the boy was blind. The second sign told the people how lucky they were that they were NOT blind. In other words, the most important signs always tell us something about ourselves, usually something we are blind to.
          Folks, God sends us signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, but we also send signs to him, through our actions and choices, we use a kind of “sign language” that God knows how to read very well. For instance, we can tell our doctor we only drink one or two glasses of wine a week, but God sees we’re throwing back martinis every day. Now that was hard for me to say because I love a good martini! We can tell our boss we put in 8 solid hours of work each day, but God sees that we’re wasting time on Facebook, Pinterest and Fantasy Football. People tell me, “Fr. John, we love coming to I.C. Church!” But God knows you’re still registered at Christ the King and St. Boniface! Busted. We tell ourselves our prayer life is a priority, but we leave Mass early so we can beat the Baptists to brunch! We tell our wives we love them but we don’t help around the house or compliment their cooking. We love our husbands, but we’re quick to criticize them and rarely praise them. You see, God knows how to read these “signs of the times,” this sign language we’re using to speak to him all the time. We’re constantly saying to God, “Here’s your sign.” But God is not the stupid one.
          My friends, today we enter into the season of Advent, which is really a season of signs. We see signs in the bright star leading the Magi, in the wreath burning with purple candles, in the virgin giving birth to a Baby Boy, in the angels singing, “Gloria to God in the highest!” And what is the greatest sign of Advent? It is the final Sign, the primordial miracle, the Incarnation itself, God becomes a man and dwells among us. You know, Pope John Paul II never got tired of repeating that Jesus Christ came into this world not only to tell us who God is, but also to tell us who man is, and who woman is: to show us the depths of our depravity but also to call us to the heights of holiness (Redemptor hominis, 8). You see, the most important signs always tell us something about ourselves, something that we usually cannot see.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Big Moocher

Learning everything comes from God
Luke 17:11-19
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed.  And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.  He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?  Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”  Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”
          Let me ask you a question: “What do you have that you have not received?” What do you have that you have not received? That’s actually a question St. Paul asks in 1 Cor. 4:7. For example, Trinity Junior High is loaded with talented students, but where did they get those gifts and abilities? Where do Dalton Thomas and Abby Neas get their basketball skills? How is it that Tommy Caldarera and Patrick Jones are such brainiacs in Quiz Bowl? Where did Maggie Schoenfeld learn to play the drums like that? Why is Jayson Toney such a natural actress. Notice I said “actress” and not “drama queen”! How did Sai Bathina get 2,000 AR points at Christ the King last year, and set the school record? How did Regan Christian learn to tumble like that as a cheerleader? And how did Coach Branch grow that beard – I think there are squirrels and chipmonks living it now!
          You see, ten years ago, you didn’t know you could do any of those things, but now you’ve found a gift. Who gave that to you? Ultimately, it comes from God, who made you in his image and likeness, that is, he made you “God-like,” and entrusted you with special gifts and talents. And when someone gives you a gift, what do you say? Well, if you are a human being, and not a barbarian, we say, “Thank you.” I would suggest to you that those two words – thank you – are among the most important words in the English language. Why? Well because they show that we recognize that what we have comes from someone else (namely, God), and that we are grateful.  “Thank you” are two very human words.”
          In the gospel today we see someone who knows how to use those special words, “thank you.” Jesus heals ten men suffering from leprosy, but only one returns to say “thank you.” He came back to Jesus and said “thanks” because he knew that he had received something very special from someone else. The other nine were “barbarians” who do not know their gifts come from God, so that they can be “God-like.” In other words, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who know their gifts come from God, and those who don’t; the first are human beings, and the second are barbarians. And you can tell the difference between the two by who says, “thank you.”
          Boys and girls, I spend a lot of time writing “thank you notes.” Do you know why I write so many thank you notes? It’s because I am a big moocher. What is a moocher? A moocher is someone who depends on others to take care of him. For example, I go over to your house to play your Wii video games. I go to your house and watch your Netflix movies. When I come over, I drink your parents’ beer and wine. I eat your food at supper. But I also realize that pretty much everything I have comes from someone else, and so I should say “thank you!” a lot! Boys and girls, the longer you live, the more you realize that every molecule in your body and every second in your life is a gift from God; everything you have you have received from Someone else, namely, God, and you should say “thank you.” You see, from God’s perspective we’re all a bunch of big moochers!
          You know that another name for the Mass (our Sunday service) is the “Eucharist.” But does anyone know what “Eucharist” literally means? It comes from Greek and means “thanksgiving.” The reason we go to church every Sunday is to tell God “thanks” for everything we have and are. Do you know what percentage of people go to Mass every weekend? It’s about one out of ten.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!