Thursday, December 28, 2017

You Stupid Darkness

Lighting the candle of Christ instead of cursing the darkness
Luke 2:1-14 And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 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."

              In 1960 John F. Kennedy gave a speech accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party to run for president of the United States. In that speech he used a wonderful phrase that maybe you’ve heard before. He said: “We are not here to curse the darkness but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” As you know, Kennedy was elected later that year and became the 35th president of the United States in 1961.

                Now, not everyone agrees with that proverb to light a candle instead of curse the darkness. In one of the Charlie Brown comic strips, Charlie Brown runs into Linus who is carrying a candle at night. Charlie Brown asks him, “What’s this?” Linus answers: “I have heard that it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Charlie Brown replies, “That’s true, although there will always be those who will disagree with you.” In the last frame we see Lucy yelling at the night sky: “You stupid darkness!”

               Now, when God is the one who faces the darkness, which of those two do you think he does? Well, the Scriptures record two dramatic instances when God did face darkness and what he did about it, at the moment of the “old creation” and the moment of the “new creation.” The first instance occurred in Genesis chapter one. We read in verse two: “The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” This condition of dark, formless abyss in Hebrew is called the “tohu wa-bohu.” What does God do when confronted by the tohu wa-bohu”? He does not say “You stupid darkness!” No. Rather, in verse three we read: “Then God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” That is, like President Kennedy said in his speech, God prefers to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

               The second instance occurred in the gospel narrative we just heard describing the first Christmas, the moment of the “new creation.” Do you remember when the Baby Jesus was born? It was at night, and that wasn’t by accident. St. Luke records: “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” (emphasis mine). In other words, Jesus is born at night because he is the Light that has come to dispel the darkness just like his Father did at the beginning of the old creation. Again, notice that God does not yell, “You stupid darkness!’ at the tohu wa-bohu. He lights a candle, the light of Christ. This is why Catholics traditionally attend midnight Mass – and usually sleep through it! – because it highlights (pun intended) how God deals with the darkness: not with a curse, but with a candle.

                By the way, have you noticed how God does this every year? Think about it. When do we celebrate Christmas every year? Obviously, on December 25. And when is the daylight shortest – the shortest day – during the whole year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere)? It is December 21, called the “Winter Solstice.” In other words, every year we taste a little of that primordial tohu wa-bohu, that “formless darkness” that covered the earth in the beginning. And once again, God says dramatically “Let there be light!” He sends his Son, Jesus as a candle lit in the darkness, and every day after December 25, the light gradually increases. In other words, every year, nature itself reminds us how God scattered the darkness both in the “old creation” and in the “new creation,” by lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness.

              My friends, sooner or later we all face our own tohu wa-bohu, that is, we confront moments of darkness, despair, discouragement and doubt. We may be tempted like Lucy to yell, “You stupid darkness!” and I admit, it’ll probably feel pretty good when you do. But we should also remember what God did in those two epic moments when he faced the darkness: he lit a candle; he sent the light of Christ to dispel the darkness. Always ask yourself: what can I do to bring the light of Christ into this dark situation? Perhaps you can say a prayer, maybe you can give someone a hug, utter a word of encouragement or hope, share how you’ve faced your own struggles in the past, just let people know they are not alone, remember how hardship contributes to holiness, etc. Now, the one thing you are not allowed to do is to say, “Go talk to Fr. John, he’ll take care of your spiritual darkness!” No, this is your job as a child of the light. As our Evangelical friends are fond of repeating: “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” The extremity of our darkness is God’s opportunity to light a candle.

             I hope this doesn’t sound too audacious to say, but I am convinced that because you are a child of God, you too can say with confidence and conviction, “Let there be light!” with your words and your actions and your attitude and thereby scatter the tohu wa-bohu that surrounds you and that envelops those you love. You will be practicing the family pattern of behavior – like Father, like Son. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Asset of Poverty

Letting the poor teach us how to be spiritually rich
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.

             I’ve already opened some of my Christmas presents, and I have to tell you about the most unique gift I’ve received. Someone sent me fifty different lottery tickets that were the “scratch off” kind. Have you seen these? Maybe they felt a little less guilty about buying them because they were gifts for a priest! One was called, “Win It All!” (but I didn’t win anything), another “Holiday Cheer,” (which didn’t make me very happy) a third kind was “Fast Money,” (but it was very slow money), and the last one was called “Lucky Numbers” (but mine were very unlucky). I don’t know how much they spent on fifty lottery tickets, but I won a grand total of $27.50. So, I think I’ll take half of today’s collection and buy as many tickets as I can, and see if I’m “feeling lucky” like Clint Eastwood said. I’m sure the bishop won’t mind at all.

              Now, what do most people say they will do with the money if they win the big jackpot, say a million dollars? Most people have told me they will donate half of it to the poor. Little do they know that after Uncle Sam takes half of it in taxes, they’ll only be left with half the jackpot. Nevertheless, there is something noble and well-intentioned in thinking about helping the poor. Our love and concern for the needy should always be paramount, especially when we realize how blessed we are. However, here’s the sad fact about scratch off lottery tickets. About three out of four tickets are bought by people with below average incomes, that is, most lottery tickets are bought by the poor. In other words, you may give half of that money back to the poor, but three quarters of that jackpot was given to you by the poor in the first place. Winning the jackpot isn’t the best way to help the poor.

             In the gospel today, God shows his own predilection for the poor, how he loves them, and we need to learn to love the poor like he does. God sends his angel to Mary, who was arguably the poorest person in Israel in virtually every respect: socially, economically, politically, legally and even personally. Socially, she was unmarried and so considered more like property than a person. Economically, she had no possessions and too young to own anything in her own name. Politically, she was a woman, so she would never wield authority or power outside the home. Legally, being unmarried meant she didn’t have the protection of a husband and no standing in court. And personally, she had no life experience, she admitted to the angel Gabriel, “I have no relations with a man.” Mary was poor in every sense of the word.

          Only in one sense was she “not poor,” namely, as Gabriel explained: she had “found favor with God.” In other words, God loves the poor, and that love is precisely what makes them rich, and being loved by God makes them richer than all the billionaires in the world combined. And the poor are able to receive God’s love for them because they don’t have anything to distract them like material possessions. Because Mary had nothing else to clutter up her life, she had plenty of room for God’s love. In a sense, you could say Mary’s greatest “asset” was precisely her “poverty.”

                My friends, may I suggest to you that our love for the poor should have an entirely new orientation and motivation (not just buying more lottery tickets and promising to give half to the poor)? What do I mean? Well, our love for them should not be motivated by false feeling that they only need us; but rather, by the clear conviction that we also need them. Indeed, we need them more. To be sure, we need to help the poor with our material resources, as Jesus explained in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, etc.” But no less urgent – in fact more so – is what the poor can provide for us: a greater openness to God’s love and mercy. We have to learn from the Blessed Virgin Mary that our greatest asset may surprisingly be our poverty. That’s when we win the predilective and preferential love of God. Why? Well, because there is less stuff to get in the way of his love.

                 It is in this sense that I invite you to understand the need to have a wheelchair ramp in our church. The handicapped are also “poor” not economically-speaking, but physically-speaking, and they need our help. I believe that assisting those who cannot climb steps will also be a criterion of Matthew 25, even though it is not explicitly stated: “I was handicapped and you built a wheelchair ramp for me.” But I would suggest to you, that we need them even more than they need us. How so? Well, we need them to teach us how their “physical poverty” becomes a “spiritual asset” opening them to God’s love, like Mary’s poverty opened her to God’s love. In other words, we need them to have better access to the church, not just for their benefit, but for ours! You could almost put it this way: the poor are like “spiritual financial advisors” who can help us attain that great asset of poverty.

                My friends, what do we celebrate at Christmas? We celebrate that God became a man and dwelt  among us. True enough. But we also rejoice that God became a poor man, indeed even a helpless, vulnerable Baby born in a barn – poor in every sense like his mother was – in order for him to embrace as fully as possible our own poverty. Why would God do that? The Catechism answers: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (Catechism, 460). And by the way, that kind of wealth is worth more than winning all the lotteries in the world.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Always a Bride

Grasping the Church’s deepest identity as the Bride of Christ
Luke 1:57-66 When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John."  But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him."

           Have you heard the common expression “always a bridesmaid, never the bride”? It means you’re always the “runner up” but never the one who wins the prize. This expression doesn’t just refers to weddings, but to any individual who fails to achieve their ultimate goal, like an NFL football team that never wins a Super Bowl. The poor Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills have made it to four Super Bowls but never won. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride: because they’ve never worn the Super Bowl “ring.”

            This phrase can also be applied to men in a wedding with a little modification. We might say, “always the best man, never the groom.” I served as the best man in my brother’s wedding many years ago before I was ordained as a priest. I was given only one job in the wedding, and it was a crucial one. I was the keeper of the rings, and after the vows were exchanged, I was to hold the rings while the priest blessed them. Well, I could tell my brother was nervous, so I thought I would help him relax by playing a practical joke on him. When he turned to me for the rings, I pretended that I couldn’t find them in my pockets, and wore this alarmed look on my face. I thought my brother was going to punch me in the face, so I quickly pulled out the rings. I mean, what’s the point of a wedding without a little drama?

            In the gospel today, we see this is the exact role of John the Baptist: always the best man, never the groom. His father, Zachariah, declares his name will be John. You’ll remember this was the same Zachariah who was struck dumb by the angel Gabriel for questioning his message. But after he names him “John,” Zachariah’s tongue is loosed. The gospel states: “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What then will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him’.” In the gospel of John (the Evangelist) 3:29, John the Baptist himself answers this question about his identity, saying: “The best man, who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete.” In other words, St. John the Baptist could say like no one else in all human history, “Always the best man, never the Groom!” But that was also John’s greatest joy: to announce the coming of Christ, the coming of the Bridegroom.

              But this analogy or metaphor, like all analogies, also sort of “limps” in that it is not entirely accurate. Why? Well, because at the end of the day – indeed, at the end of all days – we are not meant to be a bridesmaid, but rather the Bride, the Bride of Christ, the Church. Listen to how the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Church’s deepest identity: “The Church is the spotless bride of the spotless Lamb” (Catechism, 796). In other words, we could say the exact opposite of that old expression is truer than the expression itself: “always a bride and never a bridesmaid.” I hope this might give some comfort and consolation to all women who are without a husband: to single women who have never married, to widows who have lost their husband, to divorced women, even to those who are married but still feel very alone, and even a nun in a convent. You are not doomed to be forever “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” That is not your fate, because that is not your faith.

              What we celebrate at Christmas is not only the birth of our Savior, but we also celebrate the birth of our Bridegroom. Why? Well, because we are never just a bridesmaid, but we are always the bride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hidden Homilies

Being attentive to the signs drawing us closer to God
Isaiah 7:10-14 The LORD spoke to Ahaz: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, 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 men, 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.

            I’m afraid that my homilies maybe becoming stale lately. Why is that? Well, more and more people are sending me “homily helps.” One person sent me some jokes by email saying, “Maybe you can use one of these in your homilies” apparently, my humor needs a little help. Another person said, “Come see this children’s movie with us, perhaps it will come in handy in a homily.” Other people recommend books I might be able to quote in a homily. Apparently, several people think I need some help with my homilies! And these people are right, the homilies can stand some improvement and I welcome their homily helps.

             But I also enjoy the fact that people are beginning to see that there’s a sort of homily hidden in everything. That is, everything in creation can be used as a sort of catapult to help the creature get closer to the Creator. A homily helps Christians to grow in their faith using story-telling and pulpit-pounding, examples and illustrations, metaphors and megaphones. People who send me homily helps are unwittingly understanding what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “analogy of faith.” The Catechism urges, “Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By ‘analogy of faith’ we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (Catechism, 114). In other words, in all of creation, especially with the articles of faith, we find an inner coherence, a deep connectivity, that allows us to more between one and the other, and ultimately of God. Put it simply there is a homily hidden in everything.

            In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah offers King Ahaz a little homily help, too. He says on behalf of God, “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be as deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” By “sign” Isaiah meant the analogy of faith, where all creation serves as a super sign ready to catapult the creature into the arms of his Creator. There is a homily hidden in the nether world as well as high in the sky. But Ahaz turned down isaiah’s homily helps. Nevertheless, Isaiah says: “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” In other words, the greatest homily help in all human history would be the Incarnation, where God would become a man, the Word world became flesh, in the womb of a Virgin. King Ahaz needed some homily help as much as I do, it seems.

                My friends, today try to catch the hidden homilies all around you, that is, as the Catechism said, “Be attentive to the analogy of faith.’ First and foremost pay attention to the simple but significant signs of the sacraments: bread and wine, water and oil, male and female. The sacraments can catapult you from creation to the Creator. Be attentive to the stories of the saints: their struggles and sacrifices and successes – which also serve as hidden homilies that can strengthen your faith and virtue. Be attentive to the Bible, the great drama of the love story between God and humanity in two great Acts – the Old Testament and the New Testament – that also brings us in closer contact with the Creator. Be attentive to meals and marriages, to babies and birthdays, to songs and suffering, to pains and problems. Why pay attention to all these things? It’s simple: because there’s a homily hidden in everything, and you don’t have to come to Mass to hear one.

              Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great 19th century Jesuit poet wrote in his celebrated poem, the Grandeur of God, these lines: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God, it will flame out like shining from shook foil.” I want to thank all of you who have sent me homily helps lately, because you have shaken the foil of the world for me.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Stand and Look

Patiently looking, watching and waiting for the Lord
John 1:6-8, 19-28 A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, "Who are you?" He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, "I am not the Christ." So they asked him, "What are you then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." So they said to him, "Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?" He said: "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord,'" as Isaiah the prophet said."

         Recently, I’ve gotten to know a retired cardiologist here in Fort Smith named Dr. Taylor Prewitt. Have you heard of him? A few months ago, he asked me to help him in a major campaign for Methodist Village, and so naturally, a little later I asked him to help me in a major campaign for Trinity Junior High School. He gave me a nice donation, and I said a nice prayer for him on my rosary. I’ll let you figure out who got the better end of that deal. Dr. Prewitt did, of course!

             Last week he graciously gave me a copy of a book he’d written, called A Towering Stack, which is his review and reflections of seventy-eight books he has read over four years. Apparently, retired cardiologists have a lot of time on their hands! The first book he reviewed was on appreciating art, entitled Always Looking, by John Updike. Dr. Prewitt observed that Updike has a talent for looking at art with profound patience, even lingering to look at pieces that may appear ugly to others, and he is richly rewarded for his patience. Prewitt writes: “The casual visitor [to a museum]…merely glances (as I sometimes do) at works that are not immediately appealing. Here we are reminded by a professional in another field the rewards are there for the taking for those who are willing to stand in place and just look. You don’t always have to wrestle with the angel” (A Towering Stack, 4-5). Remember how Jacob had to wrestle with an angel in Genesis 32 before he earned the blessing? In other words, patiently looking enables you to penetrate below the surface appearances of things and glimpse the greatness hidden underneath.

             In the gospel today, we see another instance where patient looking would have paid huge dividends. The opening pages of John’s gospel begins with a question about the identity of St. John the Baptist. John the Evangelist’s literary artistry paints the John the Baptist as a mysterious figure: living alone in the desert, feasting on locusts and honey, dressed in camel’s hair and a leatherbelt. John didn’t exactly cut the figure of a priceless work of art in the eyes of the Jewish leaders. They were tempted like Dr. Prewitt said, to “merely glance at works that are not immediately appealing.” And so it’s no surprise that the same Jewish leaders impatiently interrogate John, asking, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” You can almost hear their impertinence tience and aggravation. John only gives them an indirect answer: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’.” In other words, learn a little patience, look, listen, repent of your sins, and wait on the Messiah. If they had looked patiently, they too would have reaped “the rewards [that] are there for the taking for those who are willing to stand in pace and just look.” But they were impatience and impetuous and the missed both the Messiah and his forerunner. You do not always have to wrestle with the angel to receive the reward.

         My friends, if there’s one virtue that should characterize a Christian’s attitude and activity during Advent, it is patiently looking, waiting and watching, almost as if you’re walking slowly through the halls of a museum, where marvels and mysteries meet us around every corner. But unfortunately, we usually experience the exact opposite this time of year: rushing from one party to the next, trying to beat the traffic like a NASCAR driver, running to red-tag sales like sharks seeing blood at a feeding frenzy. Because impatience dominates our lives leading up to Christmas, we too might miss the Messiah like the Pharisees did because we could not “simply stand in place and just look.”

              You might wonder: what exactly should we patiently look at? Well, may I suggest the lesson that Dr. Prewitt learned himself, namely, as he said, how “the casual visitor…merely glances (as I sometimes do) at works that are not immediately appealing.” That is, don’t be so easily dazzled by the blinding lights, and the towering Christmas trees, and the beautifully bound gifts, that you fail to stop and also look at what might not seem as a priceless work of art: at the poor and at the homeless, at the paralyzed and at the uneducated, at the mentally ill and the elderly. Indeed, if the innkeeper in Bethlehem had not been so busy, he might not have turned away the poverty-stricken Holy Family who knocked on his door at midnight. And didn’t the Magi from the East have to teach the professional priests in Jerusalem how to find Jesus that first Christmas, like a Methodist cardiologist taught a Catholic priest in Fort Smith how to find Jesus today? Practicing a little extra patience this Advent leading up to Christmas will reward you richly because you will be able to find the Christ Child in unexpected places and in unlikely people, those are his favorite disguises. Don’t just give God a sideways glance.

             Dr. Prewitt concludes his first review on appreciating art by advising: “Sometimes you can just stay in place and keep your eyes open until you receive your blessing. It’s right there in front of you” (A Towering Stack, 5). Not bad theology, for a Methodist.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Art of Listening

Practicing listening well in conversations
Matthew 11:11-15 Jesus said to the crowds: "Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear."

           The hard part of any conversation is listening rather than speaking. To be sure, speaking, too, has its own challenges and requisite skills, and it’s not easy either. But I am convinced that it’s harder to listen because people have a propensity to speak rather than to be silent. For example, some of you may already have stopped listening to this homily. Even though your eyes and ears are open, your mind may be wandering and wondering whether you will have sausage or bacon as a side for your scrambled eggs for breakfast after Mass.

            This past weekend, Fr. Matt Garrison celebrated the English Masses here. Several people said they enjoyed his homily, and they even quoted him saying that I had gone to Barling because I had tapped everyone for money here at I.C. That was a great line, but do you recall what else he said? We often don’t hear (or remember) the important things that someone says to us. Before I preach at Mass, I whisper this little prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, help me to say what Thou woulds’t have me say. And help them to hear what Thou woulds’t have them hear.” Why? Well, because you have the harder part of the bargain of preaching; you have to do the listening. And I pray the Holy Spirit will help you hear well, not so much what I’m saying, but what He’s saying to you through me.

            In the gospel today, Jesus also knows the hard part of a conversation is listening. He explains that John the Baptist is Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, who all the Jews believed would return to announce the coming of the Messiah. But then Jesus adds this curious little line, saying: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” Now, presumably everyone present that day had two good, functioning ears. But Jesus knows it takes more than ears to hear; it requires attention and effort to focus on what someone is saying and really catch what they’re saying. Jesus knew some of his listeners were wondering what to have for breakfast that day.

             In your conversations with people today, try to practice the art of listening well. Let me suggest a few skills that may improve your ability to listen better, and make it easier, and even more enjoyable. Listen not only to what people say verbally with their words, but also non-verbally, with sign language. When you pay attention to body language – a smile or a frown, crossed arms or nervous twitches – you are sort of “listening with your eyes.” We all know we can listen with your ears, but did you ever think you can also listen with your eyes when people speak to you? Another skill of good listening is asking probing questions, like “How did that make you feel?” Or, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Is there anything I can do to help you?” That demonstrates to your interlocutor that you’re really listening and paying attention. Listening well is invaluable in conversations with your spouse, with your children, with your parents, with your friends, and even with God.

              Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, the great doctor of the Church and the fearless reformer of the Carmelite Order. Carmelite spirituality is essentially one of a heightened and holy listening to God, to develop a spirit of deep silence so that we don’t miss anything God says, verbally or non-verbally. Carmelites follow the advice that Eli gave to the young prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:10, who said when God spoke to him: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And by the way, have fruit with your eggs, not bacon or sausage.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Best Rest

Loving the Lord and living easy and effortlessly
Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said to the crowds: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

           Are you ready for your Christmas break? I bet you are. You have worked very hard this semester, and I’m very proud of you. It’s hard to go to a Catholic school because our expectations for you are high – as high as heaven! – so I’m not surprised if you feel like saying, “Man, I need a break!” Today, I want to talk to you about taking a break, getting some rest, but also about how to find the best rest. First, I want to mention three places we try to rest but don’t always find real rest. Then, I’ll describe the only way to find real rest. And since this is a Catholic priest talking to you, you can already probably guess what I’m going to say, that real rest can only be found in Jesus.

           Now, a lot of people think they’ll find the best rest when they sleep, or when they’re on vacation or when they finally retire from their jobs. And of course people do rest somewhat in sleep and vacations and retirement; those are good things and give us some rest. But they’re not the best rest. How many of you love to sleep? But have you ever tossed and turned in your sleep? Sleep promises rest but it cannot always provide the best rest. Many of you will go on vacation during Christmas break. Raise your hand if you’re escaping from the Fort this Christmas. But how often after a vacation do you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation? Vacations can be exhausting, and so that’s not always the best rest. What about retirement? People can’t wait to retire from their jobs!  But then after they sit at home for a couple of weeks they go stir-crazy, and decide to come work here at Trinity Junior High! Isn’t that right, Mr. Hines, Mr. Charlton, and Coach Vitale and Coach Dickinson? In other words, you don’t find the best rest in sleep, or in vacations, or in retirement.

           In the gospel today, Jesus tells us that the best rest is found in him. And I love how he puts it. He says to his disciples (which includes us), these comforting words: “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Trinity students say: Hey, he’s talking to me; I’ve been laboring and feel burdened! But what kind of rest is he talking about? Will he let us lean our head on his shoulder and let us take a nap? No. Rather, he’s talking about loving him as our Lord and Savior, and when you love someone, nothing you do for them feels like work anymore. Have you heard the truism that goes: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”? In other words, when you love Jesus, nothing you do for him will feel like work, discipleship will feel easy and effortless, and that’s the best rest.

           A friend of mine said to me recently: “Man, I could never be a priest. That’s too hard!” I replied: “That’s because I love Jesus more than you do.”  I was just kidding, because I’m sure my friend loves Jesus a lot, too. But I do know that when I love the Lord, the sacrifices of celibacy and so forth seem effortless to me. William Blake, the 18th century British poet, wrote: “How sweet I roam’d from field to field, / And tasted all the summer’s pride, / ‘Till I the prince of love beheld, / Who in the sunny beams did glide” (Blake, “How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field.”) That is, in finding and loving Jesus, (the prince of love), do we find the best rest. Why? Well, because when you love what you do - especially when you love Love itself - you’ll never work a day in your life. You’ll have found the best rest.

           Boys and girls, if you want to find the best rest, don’t be fooled by sleep and vacations and retirement. Those are sort of “false prophets” of true rest; rather, fall in love with Someone or something and you’ll never work a day in your life. If you want the best rest, look for love. Is there anything you love to do? I was so sorry to miss the Agatha Christie murder mystery you performed recently, “Murder at the Vicarage.” I heard rave reviews. Do you love acting? Last night the band performed a Christmas concert. You guys did great. Do you love to play a musical instrument? Several weeks ago, I mentioned to Zander Lelemsis that he was really fast in cross country, but he replied: “Yeah, but I’m really looking forward to basketball.” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, Zander, but it sounded like he really loves basketball. Maybe your passion is history or science or writing. But my point is this: find something that you love to do, and you’ll never feel like you have worked a day in your life. Your life will have been almost effortless.

           So, boys and girls, I hope you get some rest on your Christmas break, maybe a vacation, maybe catching up on some sleep. But if you desire the best rest, then fall in love, especially with Jesus. Jesus says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” When your life is led by love, it will feel easy and effortless. That’s the best rest.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sacred Highway

Learning the name of the spiritual street we grow up on
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. A highway will be there, called the holy way; No one unclean may pass over it, nor fools go astray on it. No lion will be there, nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk. Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.

        One of the first things a child learns is the name of the street he or she lives on. I still remember the name of my home street, called “Dellwood Drive” in southwest Little Rock, that’s where I grew up. Can you remember the name of the street you grew up on? Now, why is it important to know that street’s name? Well, because if you get lost one day, one of the first things the police officer who finds you will ask is, “What street do you live on?” That way, they can get you back home safely. You should always remember the name of the street you live on so you never get lost.

        In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah also talks about “God’s Sacred Highway,” which is where all God’s people live, their home street, you might say. Listen to how lovely this road is. Isaiah writes: “A good road will be there, and it will be called, ‘God’s sacred highway.’ It will be for God’s people; no one unfit to worship God will walk on that road. And no fools can travel on that road. No lions or other wild animals will come near that road; only those the Lord has saved will travel there.” Do you know what road Isaiah is talking about? Well, he’s actually talking about a “spiritual street” where God’s people walk because that’s their home street, and that’s where they live. Boys and girls, I want you to think of this center aisle of this church as that main street of God’s sacred highway. When we walk down this street, we come to our spiritual home and we receive God’s blessings.

          Now, I want to see if you can guess two very important times when people walk down this spiritual street to get God’s blessings. First, I need two volunteers: a girl from first grade and a girl from sixth grade. The first grader will carry a basket with flower petals and toss them out, while the sixth grader will don this veil and carry these flowers while she walks behind her. When does someone walk down this spiritual street to get God’s blessing doing those things? It’s when they get married! That’s why we don’t get married on the beach or in a barn. God’s sacred highway is the spiritual street inside the church. Sadly, some people walk down the wrong roads in life.

          The second time we walk this spiritual street is when we’re actually carried down this street. I need some more volunteers: a second grader and six boys from fifth grade. The second grader will lie on this table and we’ll place a white cloth over him and the six boys will stand, three on either side, and roll him up the center aisle. When we get to the center aisle the priest uses incense to show that the soul is going up to heaven, just like the incense goes up to heaven. When does someone get carried down this spiritual street for the last time? That’s is at our funeral. It’s always so sad to me when people die and they don’t have a funeral in a church. They missed the turn to get on God’s sacred highway.

          Boys and girls, it’s important to know the name of the street you live on, so if you get lost, you can find your way home. But it’s also important to remember the name of the spiritual street where you grow up, namely, God’s sacred highway, here in this church. Why? Well, because it’s very easy to get lost in life, because you forget who you are, and where you came from and where you’re going.  But when someone finds you and asks you where you live, you’ll be able to say: “My home street is God’s sacred highway,” and you will return to church.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!

Water and Tears

Entering into the on-going conversion of Christian life
Mark 1:1-8 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: "One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

           An elderly priest was speaking to his young associate priest and said: “You had a good idea to replace the first four pews with plush bucket theater seats. It worked like a charm. The front of the church always fills up first now.” The young priest nodded, the old priest continued: “And you told me adding a little more beat to the music would bring young people back to church, so I supported you when you brought in that rock and roll gospel choir. Now, our services are consistently packed to the balcony.” The young priest said: “Thank you, Father.” The elderly priest added, “But I’m afraid you’ve gone too far with the drive-thru confessional.” The young priest protested: “But Father, my confessions and the donations have nearly doubled since I began that!” “Yes,” replied the elderly priest, “And I appreciate that. But the flashing neon sign that reads, “Toot and Tell or Go to Hell” cannot stay on the church roof.”

             That young priest needed to work on his delivery a little bit, but his heart was in the right place. That is, confession forms a critical part of the Christian life, which is a life of on-going conversion, in order to become more like Christ. In other words, it’s never just “one-and-done” for a follower of Christ, but rather we must relentlessly beginning again and again. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts that young priest’s sentiments into more profound parlance, saying: “Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. The second conversion (italics in the original) is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church.” Then the Catechism includes this stupendous saying from St. Ambrose, adding: “St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, ‘there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance’” (Catechism, 1429). In other words, confession is like a second baptism, but in this case the holy water is not flowing from a fountain, but the holy water is flowing from the eyes, signaling sorrow, contrition and conversion. You gotta admit: “water and tears” sounds a little better than “toot and tell.”

             In the gospel today, St. John the Baptist appears in the desert; he is the precursor of Jesus, but he is also the precursor of that young priest. Why? Well, because John the Baptist comes preaching two things: baptism and repentance, that is, “water and tears.” Listen to how he distinguishes his own ministry from the ministry of Jesus, he says: “I have baptized you with water; he (meaning Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, John will baptize with water, but Jesus will baptize with fire, with the fire of the Holy Spirit, that fire that fuels the second conversion, that on-going purification that takes our whole life. And what conversion we don’t finish in this life, will be our homework when we face the fires of Purgatory in the next life. But it will be the same fire of the Holy Spirit that cleanses us there as it does here. Toot and tell, water and tears, baptism by fire of the Holy Spirit, all these things indicate on-going conversion of the Christian to be more like Christ.

             I’m very grateful to Fr. Matt Garrison and Fr. Peter Le for the opportunity to celebrate Masses here this weekend and speak about Trinity Junior High, and ask your help in a second collection. There are so many things I could say about how wonderful Trinity Junior High is, but I just want to highlight one thing, namely, Trinity students have to go to confession twice a year, in Advent and in Lent. And I gotta tell you, I’m never more proud of them than when they go to confession. That may sound like an oxymoron: why be proud of someone when they confess their sins and stupidity?? But how proud and pleased was the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15, who ran to meet him and hugged him and dressed him in royal robes before the young man could even utter his confession? Multiply that by a million and you get a glimpse of how pleased God the Father is when we go to confession. Why? Well, it’s simple: that is when we are experiencing the second baptism, the holy water of tears, the fire of the Holy Spirit purifying our hard hearts of pride and lust, of laziness and vanity, of greed and gluttony, of envy and jealousy and anger.

              Here’s the really beautiful thing, though, about Trinity. We welcome students of all religious traditions to our school, and even those who may profess no faith at all and don’t believe in God. But sometimes even those students who are not Catholic feel the need to tell someone about something weighing on their hearts. That desire, too, is prompted by the “fire of the Holy Spirit,” and they, too, want to “toot and tell.” In other words, confession is not some exclusive property of Catholics, but rather a healthy part of any honest and genuine spiritual life. No wonder the “confession of sins” is the fifth step of the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. That step states: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Trinity students are not alcoholics, but they go to confession because it is simply sound spirituality, healthy for the human heart. I would be remiss if I didn’t add we’re blessed with three Catholic elementary schools – Immaculate Conception, St. Boniface and Christ the King – where this same baptism by the Spirit occurs because they, too, have to go to confession.

              As we enter more deeply into the Advent season, remember that it is never simply “one-and-done” for Catholic Christians. One baptism is not enough. Yes we are baptized with water at our birth, but we must also be baptized with tears in a second conversion, a conversion that takes the rest of our lives.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

All Generations

Loving Mother Mary because she is absolutely lovable
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.

         Today, I want to tell you why all Catholics love Mother Mary: why we pray the Rosary, why we walk in processions with her, why we name churches for her, why we name our daughters “Mary” and “Maria,” and why no Catholic church is without at least one statue or painting of her. Mary even predicted in Luke 1:48, that “all generations would call me blessed,” that is, from the age of the apostles to the aborigines in Australia, absolutely all Catholics love Mary. Why?

           Well, there are two basic reasons. The first is because Mary is our spiritual mother, and everyone loves their mother, right? Raise your hand if you love your mother; I’ll raise both my hands because I really love my mother. I recently came across two definitions of “mother,” the first a little silly and the second a little more serious. The first definition read: “A mother is a person who does the work of twenty. For free.” And then it said below: “See also, masochist, loony and saint,” meaning all moms feel that way at times, too: masochistic, loony and saintly. The more serious definition read: “A mother is a person who loves unconditionally; a character builder and heart healer; the maker and keeper of wonderful memories; a person much loved and greatly admired.” Raise your hand if that describes your mom. Mine, too. That’s the first reason Catholics love Mary: those two definitions fit Mary to a “T” because she loves us like that on a spiritual plane, as a spiritual mother.  Catholics love our Mother Mary.

             The second reason we love Mary is based on the feast we celebrate today, the Immaculate Conception. What does that mean? It means that Mary was “immaculate,” without stain of sin, from her conception in the womb of St. Anne, her mother. Now, let me be clear: this is not because of anything she did on her own, but rather because of what Jesus would do on the Cross. In other words, the Immaculate Conception was a sort of “retroactive grace” that saved Mary before Jesus was even born. When you’re God, living in eternity, you can do things outside the normal sequence of time and history.  It’s good to be God!

            You might be thinking: big deal! Who cares if you’re immaculately conceived? Well, here’s the big deal and why this matters: sin has a sort of double-whammy effect: sin makes it hard for you to love others and sin makes it hard for others to love you (you become less loving and less lovable). That’s why sin is so bad: it is the polar opposite of love. So, if you are sinless (like Mary), that means you are absolutely lovable: you can love others perfectly and others can love you perfectly. That’s why Mary said, “All generations will call me blessed.” I am immaculately conceived, and sinless, and therefore, I can love you and you can love me. That’s the second reason all Catholics love Mother Mary because we can love her and she can love us perfectly.

              Let me give you a taste of how “all generations will call Mary blessed,” by sharing how I pray the rosary. I pray each decade of the Rosary in a different language, and today, I would like you to hear the Hail Mary in five languages: Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and Malayalam.

            First Greek: “Χαίρε Μαρία, κεχαριτωμένη, ó Κύριος είναι μετά Σου, ευλογημένη Εσύ μεταξύ των γυναικών, και ευλογημένος ο καρπός της κοιλίας Σου, ó Ιησούς. Αγία Μαρία, Θεοτόκε, παρακαλει για μας τους αμαρτωλούς, τώρα και στην ώρα του θανάτου μας. Ααμήν.”  That’s how Greek Catholics love Mary.

             Second, Latin: “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”  That’s how Catholics in the Roman Empire loved Mary.
Third, Spanish: “Dios te salve, Maria. Llena eres de gracia: El Seńor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres. Y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre: Jesús. Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amén.”  That’s how Catholics in Mexico love Mary.

              Fourth, French: “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâces, le Seigneur est avec vous; vous ętes bénie entre toutes les femmes, et Jésus le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni. Sainte Marie, Mere de Dieu, priez pour nous pécheurs, maintenant, et a l'heure de notre mort. Amen.”  That’s how Catholics in France love Mary.

                Fifth, Malayalam: “Nanma Niranja Mariyamme, Swasthi. Karthaavu Angayodu koode, Sthreekalil Angu Anugrahikka pettaval aakunu. Angayude Udharathin Bhalamaaya Eesho nugrahakkipettavan aakunu. Parishudha Mariyame, Thamburante Amme, Papikalaaya Njangalkku Vendi, Epozhum Njangalude Marana Samayathum Thamburanodu Apeshikaname. Amen.”  That’s how Catholics in India love Mary.

            Now you know what it sounds like when “all generations call Mary blessed,” she who is immaculately conceived and therefore absolutely lovable.  That’s why all Catholics love Mary.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Justice League

Living in a society of possible gods and goddesses
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 love a good superhero action movie, like Superman or Batman, or Wonder Woman. But what I have never understood is why you need more than one superhero to save the world, like in the recent movie, “Justice League,” which teams up five superheroes. Clearly, Superman can defeat mankind’s enemies single-handedly, and so can Batman and so could Wonder Woman. So, doesn’t it seem like overkill to have a movie like “Justice League” where we need Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to save the world? These are the things I stay up late ruminating on and cause me to lose sleep.

        And I’m not alone. Do you recall that memorable dialogue between Hurley and Charlie in the television series LOST where they argue over who’s faster, Flash or Superman? Charlie states: “You’re insane mate, Superman can fly around the plant in the blink of an eye!” Hurley retorts: “Dude, if we’re going by a pure footrace, Superman would get dusted by the Flash.” Charlie counters: “Well, why would the Man of Steel agree to a sodding footrace?” To which Hurley matter-of-factly answers: “Uh, for charity, and Flash would totally win, cause he can vibrate through walls and stuff.” How can you argue with logic like that? Nevertheless, the one question superhero movies never address is: Why do you need more than one superhero? Isn’t Superman enough? People like me (and Hurley and Charlie) just instinctively answer: the more the merrier.

          Today is the feast of St. Ambrose, the holy and wise bishop of Milan, Italy. And we might pose the same question to our Catholic faith: isn’t one saint enough, or to raise the stakes even higher, we could probe: isn’t Jesus Christ enough to save mankind? Indeed, I would suggest to you that this question is precisely what lurks behind many Protestant objections to Catholicism. Why more than one Superhero, namely, Jesus Christ? Why do Catholics insist on the veneration of Mary and the Saints? Well, to be sure, Jesus’ work of salvation is alone sufficient and enough. But like a master painter does not stop with one masterpiece, but displays his genius in countless works of art, so Jesus’ grace and glory are displayed in countless masterpieces called the saints up and down the centuries. Or to change the metaphor: just like we see how beautiful light is when it is refracted through a prism, emitting a rainbow of colors, so the saints refract the love of Jesus in every age. You can love the Lord more when you see his legacy in the life of his saints.

           St. Ambrose lived between 340 and 397 AD, but like the Justice League, he was surrounded by other superhero saints. Ambrose taught and mentored St. Augustine (one of the greatest minds of the Church), Ambrose counseled and comforted St. Monica (Augustine’s mother), Ambrose debated with St. Jerome, the fiery translator of the Bible. And it’s not any different today, because we are surrounded with spiritual superheroes like St. Teresa of Calcutta, Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. John Paul II, and Blessed Stanley Rother. We might ask: why all these saints? Isn’t this a little overkill? Isn’t Jesus enough to defeat all the enemies of mankind? Indeed he is. But deep down Christians instinctively know it is precisely Christ’s glory and greatness that’s refracted in the lives of his saints; and the more the merrier.

          By the way, I am convinced that C. S. Lewis must have been a superhero action movie fan, too, when he wrote his famous essay, “The Weight of Glory.” He said: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” My friends, it is not only in the movies that we meet superheroes; they are all around us, if only we had the eyes of faith to see them. Then, we, too, might say, the more the merrier.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Look, Deer!

Giving our full attention to God and getting to heaven
Mark 13:33-37 Jesus said to his disciples: "Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'"

         Look, deer! Have you ever used that trick to distract your children when they are being quarrelsome? I’ve done that as a joke while driving my nieces to school and I point out the window and yell, “Look, deer!” They stop fighting and arguing because another novelty has grabbed their attention. How hard it is to truly get someone’s full attention today with all our daily distractions.

          Young people often have one “ear-bud” in their ear, while the other one hangs limp over their shoulder, meaning they’re giving you only half their attention (if that much!). Marketing experts say a customer has to hear your message at least seven times before they’ll remember it. Why? Well, because people are bombarded with advertisements and we’ve grown deaf to them. That’s why television commercials have louder volume than the television shows, because the commercials are yelling, “Look, deer!” to get us to look at their products instead of others. Our attention is a precious gift and we should give it fully to those whom we love, but everyone clamors for it.

          Let me share three ways to get people’s attention, spiritually-speaking, namely, by silence, solitude and suffering, and this is especially helpful during Advent. First, silence. When I say the words of consecration at Mass, I say them very slowly…and…deliberately. This…is…my…Body… The long, silent pauses peaks people’s attention better than yelling does. Second, solitude. Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American philosopher, wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived (Walden, 59). Thoreau sought solitude so he could give his full attention to nature and learn her lessons, and not be distracted. And third, suffering. C. S. Lewis, the 20th century Oxford professor, said, “Suffering is the megaphone God uses to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain, 91). Do you know some of the best times for a priest to talk to people about God? It’s when they are suffering, in the hospital, or in prison, because God has finally gotten their full and undivided attention. They’re lying in bed looking up to heaven.

          In the gospel today, Jesus is fighting the same battle to grab people’s attention, and awaken them to spiritual realities. We read: “Jesus said to his disciple, ‘Be watchful! Be alert!’ You do not know when the time will come.” And indeed, most of the people at the time of Christ did not know the Messiah was walking in their midst already, standing right next to them. Why did they miss him? Well, because they were distracted by the cares and concerns of daily life: waking and sleeping, buying and selling, marrying and divorcing, living and dying. But I would suggest to you that it was really their lack of silence, solitude and suffering kept them from giving their full attention to spiritual things. By the way, that’s precisely why St. John the Baptist hung out in the dessert: there in the dessert you find plenty of silence (no cell phone service), tons of solitude (except rattlesnakes), and untold suffering (it’s hot!). John’s whole life was designed to grab people’s attention and direct them to the Messiah, Jesus. John’s prophetic purpose, you might say, was to say to the world, “Look, deer!” But in this case, the deer was actually a Lamb, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. How hard it is to get people’s attention spiritually-speaking.

          I’m very grateful to Fr. Patrick Watikha for the chance to celebrate Masses here at Sacred Heart, and to share a little about Trinity Junior High, and ask your help in a second collection. If you want to know the toughest group of people’s attention to get, it’s 12, 13 and 14 year olds! I feel a lot like Jesus and John the Baptist and have to yell, “Look, deer!” a lot. And by the way, you guys have done a superb job here at Sacred Heart with your youth program: you’ve gotten their attention.
There are so many things I could say about the value of Trinity, but I think I can summarize it all in one sentence. The goal of Trinity Junior High is to prepare our students not only for Harvard but also for Heaven. In effect, we want to turn their attention not only to earthly success but to ultimate success by obtaining eternal life. We want to say, “Look, heaven!” We do this by helping them experience a little silence, solitude and suffering.

            This past week our students went on a retreat off campus, one class at a time. The retreat was conducted by Bryan and Karena Charlton, who have a long history of youth ministry. They inspired the students, they laughed with the students, they helped the students to sing and do skits. But they also brought them into the chapel and told them to spread out far from each other and to listen to the meditative music. In other words, they experienced a little of Henry David Thoreau’s solitude and silence, because they “front the essential facts of life” and they began to hear the voice of Jesus.
We also teach our students suffering every day because we make them wear dreaded uniforms instead of designer clothes, and they have strict rules about no cell phones, and haircuts, and clean language, and respect for teachers and adults, and they have homework, and they pray in Latin! This suffering is not going to kill them, but it is going to make their life harder. Maybe like Lewis predicted: “Suffering will be a megaphone and rouse a deaf teenager!” Our Evangelical friends like to remind us: “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Through silence, solitude and suffering we prepare Trinity students for Harvard and for Heaven.

            Let me conclude with one of John Donne’s popular “Holy Sonnets,” a poem called “Batter my heart three person’d God.” Donne wrote: “Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend; / That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.” In other words, Donne was distracted by the thing of earth, and needed God to use stronger and louder means to get his attention. He needed God to yell, “Look, dear!” – spelled “d-e-a-r.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sign Up

Understanding the sign language of God’s love
Luke 21:29-33 Jesus told his disciples a parable. "Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

       When our sixth graders graduate from I.C. school, a group of them sing a song entirely in sign language. It’s fascinating to watch because they don’t utter a word, and my favorite part of the graduation. But did you know that we are speaking sign language all the time, every day? For instance, every morning, you come to school and four students use sign language to keep you safe and not get run over by a driver who’s half asleep. They hold a long pole with a flag that says “STOP.” If that pole is sticking out into the street, what does it mean? It means you may cross safely because the cars should stop. But if the students tuck the pole behind their back, what does that sign mean? It means don’t cross; the cars have the right of way. Every morning, you are reading sign language and it is keeping you safe.

         Teachers use sign language in class all the time, especially when they are frustrated and perhaps a little irritated with you. Do any teachers give you the “evil eye” when you’re in trouble? I’ve given the evil eye and received it! Or, some teachers start counting very slowly backward: three…two…one. What does that sign mean? It means “be quiet,” and “pay attention.” Good teachers use sign language and they don’t have to use words to tell you important instructions.

          Many years ago I visited with Bishop Sartain at his home in Little Rock, while he was still the bishop of our diocese. I was a priest and felt privileged to spend time with him one evening, and just talked and talked.  It was getting late, and I was enjoying our visit, but every few minutes, the bishop kept yawning. I thought he was tired, so I better talk about something really interesting to keep him awake.  But what do you think he was trying to tell me by that sign language? He was tired, but he was also gently trying to communicate that it was time to wrap up our conversation and for me to go home. Even though I was a priest, I was still learning sign language. People often tell us things without using words.

          In the gospel today, Jesus tells us that God the Father speaks to us through sign language, rather than yelling at us from the clouds. He says we already understand some signs, like those in nature. When a fig tree sprouts leaves, we know summer will come soon. Obviously, Jesus never lived in Fort Smith. But then Jesus teaches them another sign, namely, the Temple, and its destruction, will mean the end of the Old Testament world. In the year 70 A.D. General Titus, the great Roman general, leveled Jerusalem and the great Temple, and effectively brought the Jewish religion of the Old Testament to a climactic conclusion. That was also the sign that the Kingdom of God would commence, the Age of the Church. God used a sign to tell us this tremendous transition was occurring, but we have to understand sign languages. God doesn’t always speak to us through words.

         Boys and girls, today I want to teach you how to read three signs so you can improve your knowledge of “sign languages.” The first is colors in church, beautiful signs of God’s love. Today, I am wearing “green,” but it is the last day for green. What time of the church year is “green” a sign for? That is Ordinary Time. This Sunday, the priests will wear “purple,” which is a sign for the beginning of which season? That is Advent. Does anyone know what color we will use at Christmas?  I’ll give you a hint: it’s not “red,” that’s for Santa Claus. The color for Jesus’ birthday is “white.” Pay attention to the colors in church and you’ll learn an important sign language. The Church does not always teach us through words.

         The second sign is tears, a very powerful sign. When someone sheds tears and cries, what does that mean, what is it a sign of? It often means that a person is sad, like I cry if an eagle swoops down and grabs one of my chickens. But do people cry when they are happy, too? People cry at weddings because they are happy; the tears are signs of joy. I cry when people give me giftcards for Christmas, so you might see me cry, too. Watch for the sign language of tears and see if you can understand what someone is trying to tell you, even when they don’t use words.

         And third, is signs of nature, which Jesus also talked about. When the world (our planet Earth) is sick, it gives us signs that we need to take better care of it. I have a cousin who lives in New Delhi, India, and he likes to run marathons. But sometimes the pollution is so bad he cannot breathe and he has to wear a mask like doctors wear in surgery. What is that mask a sign of? It usually means that someone is sick, and in this case it is our common home, the Earth. The world doesn’t use words, so it is speaking through us through sign language.

         Bishop Sartain taught me that a yawn means I need to stop talking and go home. When you yawn in my homily, I know that means to stop talking and finish Mass. Sign language is a powerful way to communicate.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Beautiful Feet

Walking in the footsteps of Jesus carrying the Good News
Matthew 4:18-22 As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

             Do you have beautiful feet? What a strange question! But I believe it’s also a very spiritual question. How beautiful are your feet? Several years ago I was listening to a series of talks by Christopher West, a modern theologian who has popularized Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” At one point West abruptly declared: “I have beautiful feet!” That got my attention. He quickly explained what he meant, adding: “Yes, I have beautiful feet. Remember how Scripture says, ‘How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news’?” (Rom. 10:15). West went on to explain effusively that the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is very good news; indeed, it is some of the best news for a world deeply confused about the meaning of sex. The world has preached a lot of “bad news,” and West was bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

              But I would suggest to you that you do have beautiful feet, but they may not be spiritually beautiful. What do I mean? Well, how often and how enthusiastically have we shared all kinds of “good news” without hesitation or fear of rejection? After reading a gripping novel, we rush to tell all our friends and buy them that book for Christmas; we unreservedly recommend this or that restaurant and suggest items on the menu; we tell everyone, “Man, you have to go to this concert!” or “You’d be a fool to miss this art exhibit!” In all those instances, we, too, have beautiful feet because we are convinced we are carrying good news; only it’s not the Good News of Jesus Christ. Our feet are not spiritually very pretty.

              In the gospel today, we hear the footsteps of the two most beautiful feet in human history, namely, the feet of Jesus himself. Jesus’ feet carry him to share his Good News with the first apostles, Peter and Andrew, James and John. If those four apostles had looked down to glance at the Nazarene’s feet, they would have been blown away by their beauty. Why? Well, far more important than recommending a restaurant, or reading a book, or running to an art exhibit, Jesus brought the Good News of salvation. What the world is waiting for.

              The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes us to the heart of why we should share the Good News, that is, God’s love. We read: “The Lord’s missionary mandate is ultimately grounded in the eternal love of the Most Holy Trinity…The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son and their Spirit of love (Catechism, 850). In other words, Jesus’ traversed the infinite distance between heaven and earth to share the Good News of God’s love, so we might be partakers of that love. Those beautiful feet walked a long way for love of us.

              My friends, when you get home this evening and take off your shoes, and take a moment to examine closely your feet. Those hard working feet cover a lot of ground in a given day: to work or school, to the grocery store or hauling children to piano practice or soccer games, and maybe even to a hospital or to a cemetery or maybe even to church occasionally! As you study your toes and arch and ankle, also ask: “How beautiful are my feet spiritually-speaking?” In any instance or with any encounter, did I share the Good News of Jesus Christ? I don’t mean you have to walk around with a Bible or a rosary around your neck or always post spiritual ferverinos on social media. But does your life of piety, your penance, and your personal virtue make people stop and think of Jesus? Sometimes, the most effective evangelization occurs without ever uttering one word, because your feet do the walking and the talking.

              By the way, I was looking at my own feet the other day, and I thought, “Man, I really need a pedicure – I have some ugly feet!” But if you want really beautiful feet – as beautiful as Jesus’ feet – just share the Good News with the world.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Death Crawl

Trusting in God’s grace with a promise of perseverance
Luke 21:12-19 Jesus said to the crowd: "They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

             Did everyone enjoy the retreat last week at St. Michael’s? One of the most moving parts was the short video Bryan Charlton showed from the movie, “Facing the Giants.”  In the brief clip, the players doubt they will be able to defeat a rival high school called Westview, and even Brock Kelly, the team’s captain, doubts the team. That’s when Coach Grant Taylor decides to demonstrate the team’s true potential with an exercise called “the death crawl.” Coach Taylor blind folds Brock and places another player on his back and challenges him to crawl on hands and feet (no knees touching the ground) and makes him promise to give his absolute best. The whole team is dumb-founded when Brock actually carries Jeremy the whole length of the football field, 100 yards. Brock was able to do more than he believed because he promised to give his absolute best.

             Robert Browning, the 19th century Victorian poet, wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or, what’s a heaven for?” (from poem “Andrea del Sarto”). In other words, always attempt more than you think you can achieve, and you just might accomplish more than you thought possible. Indeed, if you go back and watch the whole movie, you’ll see that the very underdog Shiloh Christian Eagles win the state championship that year.

            In the gospel today, Jesus sounds a lot like Coach Taylor encouraging his apostles who are about to “face their own giants.” He says: “They will seize you and persecute you, they will hand you over to synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.” But he goes on to assure them, like Coach Taylor did, that if they promise to give their very best, they will achieve more than they ever imagined. Jesus says: “By your perseverance you will secure your lives,” by which he means they’ll make it to heaven: to “secure your life” is to secure eternal life. Robert Browning wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or, what’s a heaven for?” No one can attain the high hope of heaven without God’s grace and the promise of perseverance on our part, to give our very best.

            Let me suggest three areas where your reach should exceed your grasp, and where you should attempt what seems impossible. The first is in how you take care of your body. I have a friend who doesn’t believe in taking medicine for most of her aches and pains, but rather she teaches her children to eat healthy – plenty of fruits and vegetables! – because the human body has enormous potential, far greater than we often realize, just like Brock discovered he had greater strength when he carried a 160 pound man 100 yards. My nephew, Noah, who ran cross country and track at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, always said: “Your body will only perform as well as what you put into it. Eat well every day.” Noah ran on the Har-Ber track team holds the state record in the “four-x’s.” Your body can achieve more than you believe it can, but only with God’s grace and a promise of perseverance on your part, to give your very best.

            Secondly, your reach should exceed your grasp in academics. You may struggle in a certain subject, like math or history, or science or Spanish. But don’t give up on your mind and promise to persevere in your studies. Scientists universally agree that human beings only tap about 10 percent of their mind’s true brain power, which means you could do 90 percent more than what you’re achieving academically today. In high school, I hated studying French: “Sacre bleu!” I couldn’t wait to be done with it. But I’ve discovered God has given me a gift for foreign languages, like God had given Brock the gift of leadership, and now I pray the priest’s prayer book, “La Liturgie des Heures,” in French every day. Your mind has far more potential than you can imagine, and you can reach that potential only with God’s grace and a promise of perseverance on your part, to give your very best.

           Thirdly, in human relationships, especially as boyfriends and girlfriends. In the Bible, when God created the first person, Adam, he observed: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). But how to be “together” with another person is not so easy either; we often mess up relationships. But just like you have to learn how to take care of your body, and you have to learn a new language, so, too, you have to learn how to love others. Sometimes when a relationship fails to work out, we are tempted to say, “All boys are jerks!” or “All girls are drama queens! I’m going to be a priest!” But don’t give up on relationships; God did not create you to be alone.  Nevertheless, the great joy of a fulfilling friendship is only possible with God’s grace and a promise of perseverance on your part, to give your very best.

              St. Augustine said: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest  adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” Now that’s reaching for something beyond your grasp.

Praised be Jesus Christ!