Saint John of the Cross

Today’s readings

Today at Mass we hear from three prophets.  

A prophet, of course, is a person who helps us to see God.  And during Advent these prophets help us to see God coming to be born in us.  And we have to admit: lots of times we don’t see God.  We’re either too busy to notice God, or too wrapped up in ourselves to care about God, or just completely disinterested in the whole notion of God.  Sometimes we just don’t want to see God because we would rather be doing what we want to do and not what’s best for ourselves or others.  So it is good we have Advent and the prophets to help us see what we need to see.

We hear about three prophets today.  The first is the prophet Elijah, and we heard of him in today’s first reading.  His words were strong ones that zealously shepherded the Israelites through temptation and evil.  His prophecy was confirmed by mighty deeds, right up until the time he was take up in a whirlwind.  He was believed to be returning one day, and even up to the present day at major Jewish feasts, families will leave an empty place setting at the table for Elijah.  Jesus tells us that the return of Elijah was in the person of Saint John the Baptist, and he is the second prophet we hear about today, in the Gospel reading.

The third prophet we hear from today is Saint John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today.  Saint John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar who was called by God and by his friend, Saint Teresa of Avila, to reform the Carmelite Order.  The Carmelites had relaxed some of their rules over time, and had basically turned away from the life that had been envisioned when the Order started.  Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila founded a reformed Carmelite Order, and Saint John suffered for it terribly.  In those days, religious affairs were all tied up in the government of the nation, and so there was a lot of politics.  People didn’t agree with Saint John, so he was taken prisoner for over nine months.  Even when he was released, his fellow friars who didn’t agree with him went around to all the monasteries making trouble for him.  He was oppressed for his preaching of reform almost until the day he died.

Each of these prophets had been given a message by God.  Elijah and Saint John the Baptist called the people of Israel to turn back to God.  Saint John of the Cross called his fellow Carmelites to turn back to the ideals on which their Order was founded.  All of them suffered for their witness to the truth.  Prophets don’t usually have an easy life.  But if we will get past the politics and get over ourselves, we might hear from them a call that leads us back to God who will make us happier than we’ve ever been.

During Advent, we remember that Christ is always near to us, and we remember that we must always turn back to him and let him be born in our hearts once again, stronger than ever.  And so during Advent, we hear from the great prophets like Elijah, John the Baptist, and John of the Cross who are calling us to turn back to God and to prepare a way for Christ in our lives, in our hearts, and in our world.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

It’s so important to our spiritual lives that we be willing to be interrupted by the holy.  If we just keep doing what we’re doing, and never take notice of what God is doing, we miss out on some pretty wonderful experiences.  The apparitions of our Blessed Mother are holy interruptions, experiences that call our attention to what God is doing.

Appropriately enough, I think, we celebrate a second of Mary’s feasts in the space of just three days.  During Advent, we naturally turn our hearts in gratitude to Mary for her fiat that made possible our world’s salvation.  On Monday, we celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary; today we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe.  We celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe in part because she is the patroness of all the Americas, and so once again, a special patron for us.

A Native American author of the sixteenth century describes the story of our Lady of Guadalupe in today’s Office of Readings.  He tells us of a Native American named Juan Diego, who was on his way from his home to worship on the hill of Tepeyac.  There he heard someone calling to him from the top of the hill.  When he got to the top of the hill, he saw a woman whose clothing shone like the sun.  She told him that it was her desire that a church be erected on the hill so that all could worship her son Jesus.  She sent him to the local bishop to plead that cause.

The bishop didn’t believe Juan Diego’s story and sent him away.  He returned to the hilltop to find the radiant Lady once again, and she told him to tell the bishop that she, the ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God, sent him.  Again the bishop did not believe, telling him that unless he had a miraculous sign, he would not believe the story.

At that point Juan Diego’s uncle became quite ill.  Juan then set out for the local church to have a priest come to anoint his uncle.  He purposely took a route around the hill at Tepeyac to avoid seeing the Lady and being detained, since the need for a priest was urgent.  But of course, she met him at the side of the hill and spoke to him again.  She assured him that his uncle had already been cured and sent him up the hilltop to find flowers of various kinds.  He got to the top of the hill to find many Castilian roses growing there, which was odd for that time of the winter.  He cut them and carried them down the hill in his tilma, a kind of mantle that he wore for warmth.  She sent him to the bishop bearing the miraculous flowers as proof.

He went confidently to the bishop and informed him that the Lady had fulfilled his request for a sign.  He opened up his tilma, the flowers fell to the ground, but the great miracle was that the inside of the tilma revealed the image of our Blessed Mother, in the same manner as Juan had seen her on the hill.   The bishop built the church, and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, as she had referred to herself, has grown ever since.  You can still see the tilma, still bearing the image of Mary, at the shrine in Guadalupe today.  That’s another miracle, since it should have deteriorated all these centuries later.

During Advent we are blessed to have the saints interrupt us with the holy, pointing the way to Jesus.  None of them does this more faithfully than his very own mother, and so we are blessed to celebrate her feast today.  May Mary our mother and the mother of God, lead us one day to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.  Amen.

Advent Penance Service

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-26 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 3:1-12

How often do we all have sins that we would like to see go away and leave us alone already, but then go back and do the same things again?  We can’t just say, “oh, sorry” and then move on and never give our sins another thought.  But at the same time, we can’t dwell on them, either, or they’ll never leave us.  It’s a fine line we walk, for sure.  

Saint John the Baptist illustrates the issue.  At that time, it says that everyone was flocking to him: “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan.”  They heard his call to repent and embrace the kingdom of heaven.  But apparently, also tagging along were a large number of Pharisees and Sadducees, and John saw that their repentance was not genuine.  He demands that they all produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance.

And well does he demand this, because repentance has to look like something.  It has to be metanoia: a complete change of mind and heart, really a turning around to head in a new direction.  It can’t be doing the same thing time after time and expecting something new to happen – that’s not how it works.  It’s important to see that this metanoia does NOT imply hanging on to our sins and feeling terrible about ourselves because of them.  Indeed, to really turn around, you have to let go of what’s binding you: surrender and renounce the sin and accept the grace of forgiveness.

That’s a very Advent-y disposition, really.  Advent is a time of expectation of something new, something uniquely wonderful, something world-shattering and life-changing.  In order to really enter into Advent, we have to be willing to be changed ourselves, to have our world shattered, so that we can make a place for the wonderful gift of Jesus to be born in our hearts.

God’s presence doesn’t require much: a stable and an empty manger will do.  But if we’ve used the manger to store up our past sins and our impure desires and our fear of real change, then Christ can’t enter in and give us grace and mercy.  We have to, have to, have to turn around, head in a different direction, renounce our past brokenness, and clear out the way for Jesus to be born in us and change our everything.

Which is what brings us here tonight.  Please God don’t let us be that brood of vipers that wants to put on the act of repentance, but help us really repent.  Help us to turn around and head in the direction the star points out to us, which will lead us to your presence in our lives, every time.

Thanks be to God he never stops looking for that empty manger in our hearts.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Advent is a season of anticipation: God’s promises echo through the Old Testament, and in these Advent days, we see those promises coming to fruition in exciting and world-changing ways.  Today’s feast is a glorious glimpse of that reality.

We are honored today to celebrate the patronal feast day of our parish and of our nation, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This, of course, celebrates Mary’s conception, not that of Jesus, which we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation.  Blessed Pope Pius IX instituted the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1854, when he proclaimed as truth the dogma that our Lady was conceived free from the stain of original sin.

This feast celebrates the belief that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight.  This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was coming to fruition.

The readings chosen for this day paint the picture.  In the reading from Genesis, we have the story of the fall.  The man and the woman had eaten of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat.  Because of this, they were ashamed and covered over their nakedness.  God noticed that, and asked about it.  Of course, he already knew what was going on: they had discovered the forbidden tree and eaten its fruit.  They had given in to temptation and had grasped at something that was not God, in an effort to become their own god.

Thus begins the pattern of sin and deliverance that cycles all through the scriptures.  God extends a way to salvation to his people, the people reject it and go their own way.  God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation.  Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation, or we would be in dire straits.  It all comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today.  Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection.  That is why St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, today: “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.   In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…”

And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder.  God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to them, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man.  He began this by preparing for his birth through the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin.  He was then to be born into our midst and to take on our form.  With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us.  Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God. 

Our celebration today is a foreshadowing of God’s plan for us.  Because Mary was conceived without sin, we can see that sin was never intended to rule us.  Because God selected Mary from the beginning, we can see that we were chosen before we were ever in our mother’s womb.  Because Mary received salvific grace from the moment of her conception, we can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day.  Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.  Amen.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Have you ever had the feeling that things were just not right? I don’t mean not right like you got the wrong order at Portillo’s, or your postal delivery person gave you the neighbor’s mail. I mean, really not right, in a fundamental sense, like the world was off its axis in some way. I think these days we’ve gotten a sense of that.  We have those who would govern us telling us how extremely they are in support of abortion, you know, the murder of innocent children, right up until the time of their birth.  And others who callously treat the poor with contempt, abandoning those in real need or fleeing for their safety.  We have politicians and others acting like children in public and expecting everyone to enjoy it.  Crimes of violence, in recent weeks, seem to be on the rise, again.  The bad news never seems to stop.

And perhaps even a bit closer to home, we could all probably think of times in our lives when things just haven’t been right: times of transition, times dealing with the illness of a loved one, or family difficulty, times when we have been looking for new work or trying to discern a path in life. These are unsettling times that we all have to experience every now and then.  And add to that our own sin, especially sin that bites at us time and time again, patterns of addiction, the sadness of past hurts, and so much more.

So in view of the craziness in our world, and the sadness that sometimes happens in our own life, it’s easy to get to feeling like things are just not right.

And God knows it isn’t right. He’s known that for a long time. The whole Old Testament is filled with God’s lament of how things went wrong, and his attempts to bring it back. The fourth Eucharistic Prayer sums it up by saying to God, “Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and through the prophets taught him to hope for salvation.” But, as we well know from our studies of the Scriptures and its proclamation in the Liturgy, again and again humankind turned away from the covenant and away from the God of our salvation. Ever since the fall, things just haven’t been right.

So what is it going to take for all of this to turn around? What is going to get things whipped back into shape? Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Nothing ever changes if nothing ever changes. Things don’t suddenly become right by continuing to do the wrong thing. I really think the only way things will ever change is by starting over. And that’s what I believe God is doing, in our time, throughout all time, and particularly in this Advent time.

Today’s first reading speaks of this new creation: a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. It’s quite a visual, and when I think about it, I remember one of our staff telling me about her visit to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She saw the horrible death chambers and holding cells. But she also noticed, that growing up through the cracks in the asphalt, were some beautiful little wild flowers. Her tour guide commented that that was nature’s way of healing what had gone on there. It was a new creation, breaking up through the horrible devastation of the murder and destruction that had reigned in that place.  It was a shoot that sprouted from a very unlikely stump.

The bud that blossoms from God’s new creation is something completely different than what we would expect, something incredibly wonderful, something that would never be possible in the old order: “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” None of those species would ever get along in the old creation; none of them would ever have been safe. But in the new creation, all of them will know the Lord, and that knowledge will have them not only get along, but even to flourish.

In today’s gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist proclaims the coming of Christ who will do things in a new way, too: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The all-consuming fire of the Holy Spirit will burn away all that is not right and heat up all that has been frozen in listless despair for far too long. That fire will force a division between what is old and just not right, and what is of the new creation: “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

All of these are nice words, and the idea of a new creation is one for which I think we all inwardly yearn. But what does it really mean? What does it look like? How will we know that we are moving toward new creation and new life?  Well, I think we’ll know because it will hurt a bit.  Change involves dying to something and rising to something else.  That’s why the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension – is so important to us.  

I remember going to the profession of final vows of one of my friends who became a Benedictine Monk.  During the ritual, he laid prostrate on the floor while we sang the Litany of the Saints.  I did that too, at my ordination.  But different from what I did: they covered him with a funeral pall.  It was a striking image: he was dying to his former life, the old world, the old order, and when it was over, he rose to new life: his life as a Benedictine, yes, but also his life of salvation and grace.

The death of that old nonsense always has to give way to the new life that God intends for us. We have to be a people marked by new attitudes, new grace, new love. We have to give up things that drag us down: unconfessed sin, habitual sin, impure relationships – all of it.  We have to surrender these to God so that we can become new people.  And then we have to strive for peace and justice – real peace and real justice available to everyone God has created. We have to be a community who worships God not just here in Church, but also out there in our daily lives: a community that insists on integrity, a community that genuinely cares for those who are sick, in need, or lost. We have to be a people who worship God first every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, who confess our sins with hope of God’s mercy, who give priority to prayer in the midst of our crazy lives.

Most of all, we have to be a people who are open to being re-created. If we are not willing to put to death our old stinkin’ selves and embrace new attitudes and ways of living, if we are not in fact willing to take up our crosses and follow Christ, then we are proving Einstein right: we are doing the same old thing and hoping for a different result. It doesn’t work that way. We have to cooperate with God’s new creation, we have to be eager to let God do something new. We have to be willing to live out of boxes for a while, so that the transition can take place. We have to have unwavering hope that giving ourselves to God’s re-creation will be worth it, if not immediately, then certainly in the long run. We have to truly believe our Psalmist’s song: “Justice will flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.”

Saint Francis Xavier, Patron of the Diocese of Joliet

Today’s readings

We celebrate the memorial of Saint Francis Xavier as a feast today, because he is the patron saint of the Diocese of Joliet.  Francis Xavier was a sixteenth century man who had a promising career in academics.  He was encouraged in the faith by his good friend, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and went to join the new community founded by Ignatius, the Society of Jesus, better known today as the Jesuits.

Francis had a passion for preaching the Gospel and living a life of Gospel simplicity.  He would live with and among the poorest of the poor, sharing their living conditions, ministering to the sick, and preaching and teaching the faith.  In fact, we might say that he reminds us of a current Jesuit, Pope Francis!  Saint Francis Xavier lived in the East Indies for a time, before going on to minister to the Hindus, Malaysians, and Japanese.  He even learned a bit of Japanese in order to communicate well with his people and to preach to them.  He dreamed of going on to minister in China, but died before he could get there.

Francis Xavier truly took to heart the words of Saint Paul who said he made himself all things to all people in order to save at least some.  He made it his life’s work to live as his people lived, preaching to simple folk, and calling them to Jesus.  He was also able to live freely Jesus’ Gospel call today: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

That same Gospel call is the inspiration of our diocese’s current focus on missionary discipleship.  This year, Bishop Conlon wrote to us in his pastoral letter, “’Go,’ He Said” that missionary discipleship needs to be the priority for the Church and her members in order to bring the Gospel to “every creature.”

In that letter, Bishop tells us what this means for us: “Discipleship begins when you sense that Jesus Christ loves you and is calling you to follow Him. You are a disciple if you, in turn, acknowledge that He really is the Son of God and the true source of your life here and for eternity, that you love Him more than anyone else, that you want to form your daily life and its decisions around Him, and that you want to talk about Him with others.”

So we might not have the opportunity to live as Francis Xavier did and to actually go out to distant shores to preach the Gospel.  But we certainly are still called to preach it with our lives.  We are called to witness to Christ to everyone we meet: family, friends, coworkers, neighbors-anyone the Lord puts in our path.  Our diocese chose Francis Xavier for our patron because our founders took seriously the call to proclaim the Gospel to every person in this diocese.  We are called upon to do the same, according to our own life’s vocation and state of life.  May all who hear our words and see our actions come to believe and be saved.

The First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but I always find this weekend after Thanksgiving to be a little strange.  Here is a weekend when we can barely clear the plates at the Thanksgiving dinner table before we have to make room for Christmas.  And I’m not talking about the religious observance of the Incarnation of our Lord, but rather all the secular trappings of that holy day.  It begins about Halloween, or maybe a little earlier, when you start to see the stores slowly make room for the Christmas stuff.  They sneak in some “holiday” signs here and there, and start to weave the garland into the end of the aisles, just past the Halloween costumes.  On Thanksgiving day, you hear the great “thud” of the daily newspaper, heavier than it is on most Sundays because of all the “Black Friday” sales.

And then there’s Black Friday itself, which now starts bright and early on Thursday morning – Thursday, you know, Thanksgiving Day.  We then get to be treated to Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  What a commercial mess this has all become, what a sad commentary on what makes our society tick.  We barely have time to gather up the pumpkins and corn stalks and autumn leaves before we have to set out the Christmas stockings and brightly-lit trees and candy canes.  

I find that this rampant consumerism is really just part of the ambient noise of our society.  From television to social media to email spam to Christmas jingles on the store loud-speakers, the noise never seems to stop.  Whether it’s political bantering and bureaucratic infighting, or the latest pop culture scandal, it seems like there’s always a lot of noise going on.  And we could add to that our own noise: sin in our lives, unaddressed family strife, and so much more.  It’s no wonder we often have the television on as background noise, we seem to clamor for it.

But all that noise comes at the peril of our spiritual lives.  The noise fills up the space that God wants to use to speak words of encouragement, solace, or challenge.  When we are constantly listening to other things, we can’t hear the voice of God who wants to be part of our lives, who wants to give us himself.

The emotions we feel at this time of year are palpable and often conflicted.  The Church knows this, and in Her great wisdom, gives us the season of Advent every year.  It’s a season that recognizes that there is this hole in our hearts that needs to be filled up with something, and can be filled up if we will just be quiet and make space.  That something isn’t going to be an item you can pick up on Black Friday, or a trite holiday jingle, or even a gingerbread-flavored libation.  Those things can’t possibly fill up our personal sadness, or the lack of peace in the world, or the cynicism and apathy that plague our world and confront us day after day.

And so in our readings today, rather boldly, the Church is telling us to cut out all of this nonsense and get serious about our eternity.  Because if we’re only living from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, we are going to be left behind with our cheap electronics and gaudy trinkets, and have none of the real riches of the Kingdom of God.

And so our first reading, from the second chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, has us taking a step back to look at our lives:  “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”  We need to go a little higher and look down on what we’ve become in order to see how we fit into the bigger picture.  Do we see ourselves as concerned about peace and justice in the world, looking out for the needs of the needy and the marginalized, blanketing our world in holiness and calling it to become bright and beautiful as it walks in the light of the Lord?

Or do we take part in those deeds of darkness that Saint Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans today?  Do we participate in these dark deeds to the point of giving scandal to those who carefully watch the activities of people of faith?  If we do, then Saint Paul clearly commands us to get our act together: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves properly…”

So this Advent season is clearly about something more than hanging up pretty decorations for a birthday party.  It’s about something more than perpetuating rampant consumerism and secularism.  And it’s definitely about more than participating in the same old noise we encounter all the time.  The stakes are too high for that.  Because while we are distracted by all of that ambient noise, we are in danger of missing the joy for which we were created.  Just as in the days of Noah, as Jesus points out in our Gospel today, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, so it will be in the coming Day of the Lord.  Just as those oblivious ones were surprised by the flood, we too are in danger of being surprised by the second coming.  God forbid that two men are hanging lights on the house when one is taken and the other is left.  Or that two women are getting some crazy deals at Kohls and one is taken and the other is left.  Or that two people are having a Twitter feud and one is taken and another is left.  We have to be prepared, because at an hour we do not expect, our Lord will certainly return.

Don’t get me wrong: the return of our Lord is not something to be feared.  Indeed, we eagerly await that coming in these Advent days.  I’m just saying that if we aren’t attentive to our spiritual lives, if we don’t create a space for silence and reflection, if we aren’t zealous about living the Gospel, if we aren’t intentional about making time for worship and deepening our relationship with the Lord, then we are going to miss out on something pretty wonderful.  And that pretty wonderful thing isn’t in the far-off, distant future.  If we quiet ourselves and open our eyes, He’s right in front of us, walking with us, calling us to become more than we are, to become the glory for which we were created.  We have to stay awake, we have to turn off the noise, we have to live in the Lord’s daylight and not prefer the world’s darkness.  We have to eagerly expect our Lord’s birth into our hearts and souls, right here and now, and not in some distant day.

Or we’ll miss it.  God forbid, we’ll miss it.

So we are going to give you some quiet time right now, and also after Communion.  You can read more about that in my bulletin column today.  But now, I want to give you an opportunity to pray in that silence…

So take a moment now to call to mind something positive you’ve been meaning to do.  Maybe it’s a practice of prayer, or getting up on time, or exercising regularly, or reaching out to a friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while.  If you’re like me, you could come up with a whole list of those things, but I want you to call to mind the one that is most tugging on your heart right now.  In these moments of silence, I invite you to talk to Jesus about that thing.  Offer it to him, and ask him for the grace to accomplish it, or at least begin it, in these Advent days.  And then listen for his support of you in that endeavor.

Thanksgiving Day

Today’s readings: Isaiah 63:7-9 | Psalm 113 | Colossians 3:12-17 | Luke 10:17-24

Back in seminary, during the last summer before I was ordained a priest, I did my Clinical Pastoral Education at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.  It’s a level one trauma center, so it’s a busy place with a lot of, well, trauma.  In C.P.E., we were placed in a group with other students, so we are all learning pastoral skills and processing pastoral experiences together.  I had a very good, but challenging time in that program.  I was assigned to the emergency room, along with a cardiac floor, so let’s just say it was never boring!  But it wasn’t boring for any of my peers either; that summer there were an unusually large number of traumatic deaths that we each had to deal with.

During one of our prayer and reflection times, we read the last two lines of the Gospel we just heard: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.  For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”  Our reflection was that, in the midst of all the chaos and trauma, we had indeed seen some incredible moments of grace: family reconciliations, selfless service to others in need, families coming together to support each other.  Those moments were really holy ones, and blessed were our eyes indeed for having the privilege to see them.

These days, as a pastor of this little country parish, as Bishop Conlon likes to joke with me about, there’s always something going on.  What’s broken today?  What’s going on in the school that needs love and attention?  Which staff member is going through difficult life stuff that needs me to support them?  What meeting do I have to go to or even run?  What conflict needs resolving?  I’m almost never bored, as I’m sure you can imagine!

One evening, after a long day of meetings that culminated with a wonderful Parish Pastoral Council meeting, I went back to the rectory and finished folding my laundry.  I picked up some bed clothes, looking forward to relaxing a few minutes, finishing my prayers for the day, and going to bed.  At that very moment, I got a call for an anointing.  So I got in the car, and headed out, and anointed the loved one of one of our parishioners.  As I was praying with them, I reflected how very grateful I was, even though exhausted, to be there.  That they trusted me enough to reach out in their need was a privilege, and the opportunity to support them one of the worst days of their lives was a great grace to me.  I could have been bitter that I didn’t get my moments of relaxation, but instead I was overwhelmed by the grace of the moment.  I was thankful, as I always am, for being a pastor of this little country parish!

Some of you know that in the past month or so, my mother had been very ill.  We eventually figured out what was going on and she’s very much on the mend.  But my sisters and I were spending a lot of time at the hospital, talking with doctors, and taking care of all the stuff that happens when a loved one is ill.  On the way home from the hospital one night, I said to my sister Sharon, “This has all been so exhausting.  But I’m so grateful we have our mother to take care of.”  She said she had been thinking the exact same thing.  Blessed were our eyes to be able to look on our mother and care for her, just as she had so often cared for us.

We could all tell similar stories.  The grace is there, sometimes hidden in the craziness of life, but for eyes blessed to see it, there are moments for which to be thankful.  Many of them.  Every day.  Because gratitude is a decision, not a feeling.  We can decide to be bitter and resentful for all that life throws at us.  Or we can be Eucharistic people – people of gratitude – grateful for the grace that sustains us when everything is falling apart.  Grateful for the moments of blessing that are happening even in the hardest situations.  Grateful for the people and the community that we get to walk with through this crazy life.  Grateful for the relationship with God who gives us, always, way more than we give him, freely, unconditionally, abundantly, undeservedly.

I think we all know a little about how Thanksgiving started.  We learned in school that the pilgrims gathered in the autumn of 1621 after a year in the New World.  It was a year of rich harvests, and their gathering was a feast of giving thanks to God for what he had done for them.  They were thankful because they had survived.

But Peter Fleck, a Unitarian minister, suggested some years ago that maybe that wasn’t it at all.  Maybe what was really true was that they survived because they were thankful.  Think about it, that year could not have been an easy one for them.  They were in a new land, vastly different from what they had been used to.  They had grown crops they weren’t used to and survived disease.  After all of that harrowing experience, they were still grateful.  Maybe that “attitude of gratitude” was why they survived.

Saint Paul had that notion, I think, in our second reading today.  Writing to the Colossians, he is telling them how to survive as people of faith.  He challenges them to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving.  He tells them to love one another and be peaceful people.  And then he shows them were it all begins: “And be thankful.”

Notice how he says it.  He wasn’t asking them to feel thankful.  He told them to be thankful.  As I have already mentioned, gratitude is a decision, not an emotion.  Grateful people choose to look for the blessing in everyday life, even in hard times, and they thank God for that.  Grateful people choose to look for God’s presence in the midst of darkness, and thank him for walking with them on the journey.  They don’t wait to be grateful for winning the lottery or landing the big account at work or getting that promotion they were hoping for.  Instead, they seize the opportunity to be thankful for being.  They are thankful for having the presence of God on the journey.

As Catholics, we are a people who constantly choose to be grateful.  Our Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence.  Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior.  He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence.  He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin.  His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins.  And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life.  Because of this grace, we have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery.  Not only that, our Eucharist brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing.  As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude.  That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day?  Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us.  Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond.  As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad.  And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least your corner of it!

Gratitude is contagious – in a good way!  When we make it a constant spiritual practice to reflect on how God has blessed us, when we take the time to thank someone for something little they did that made us smile, when we show our gratitude by reaching out in service to others, others can become grateful people too.  A watching world looks at us Catholics to see if we really are who we say we are.  When we live as grateful people, our Eucharist is authentic and our witness is exhilarating.

Like those pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, maybe our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times.  Maybe we can not just survive, but actually thrive, because we are grateful people.  May we never cease to sing the praise of God and to cry out in songs of thanks and praise!

Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Very often, when we hear this story about the widow’s mite, the story is equated with the call to stewardship. That’s a rather classic explanation of the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that explanation. But honestly, I don’t think the story about the widow’s mite is about stewardship at all. Yes, it’s about treasure and giving and all of that. But what kind of treasure? Giving what?

I think to get the accurate picture of what’s going on here, we have to ask why the Church would give us this little vignette at the end of the Church year, in the very last week of Ordinary Time. That’s the question I found myself asking when I looked at today’s readings. Well, first of all, it’s near the end of Luke’s Gospel so that may have something to do with it. But I think there’s a reason Luke put it at the end also. I mean, in the very next chapter we are going to be led into Christ’s passion and death, so why pause this late in the game to talk about charitable giving?

Obviously, the widow’s mite means something other than giving of one’s material wealth. Here at the end of the Church year, we are being invited to look back on our lives this past year and see what we have given. How much of ourselves have we poured out for the life of faith? What have we given of ourselves in service? What has our prayer life been like? Have we trusted Jesus to forgive our sins by approaching the Sacrament of Penance? Have we resolved to walk with Christ in good times and in bad? In short, have we poured out everything we have, every last cent, every widow’s mite, for our life with Christ? Or have we held something back, giving merely of our surplus wealth?

In this last week of the Church year, we have to hear the widow telling us that there is something worth giving everything for, and that something is our relationship with Christ.

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