Saint Andrew the Apostle

Today’s readings

There are two presentations of Andrew’s discipleship in Scripture.  In the Gospel story we have today, Andrew is called at the same time as his brother Peter.  They are both fishermen, and are casting their nets into the sea.  Jesus, of course, has plans for them to cast nets for bigger fish, for souls for the kingdom, and so he calls them.  They immediately drop their nets and leave their father and turn to follow them.

I always wonder what would make them do something like that.  After just one call, they drop everything they have ever known, turn away from their family, and go off to pursue the admittedly greater call to follow Christ.  But why?  Yes, we know who Jesus is, but did they?  Maybe they had heard him preach, or had heard about him in some way, but I often think of my own call, which took years, and am amazed by their seemingly instantaneous decision to drop everything and follow Jesus.

The second presentation of Andrew’s story comes in the Gospel of John.  In John’s Gospel, Andrew is a disciple of St. John the Baptist.  One day, Jesus is passing by and John says, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Andrew and another one of the disciples follow Jesus and he asks them what they want.  Andrew says, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  To which Jesus replies, “Come and see.”  So they do, and then it is Andrew who goes to get Peter and present him to Jesus.

Either way, the call is a great one, and the response of Andrew is one of wonder and openness.  We are called often in our lives to follow Jesus in some new way.  May Saint Andrew be our patron in those calls, and may his example lead us to drop what we are doing and follow our Lord.

Monday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

Could you do that?  You have someone close to you at home, and you know Jesus is near and one visit could heal her or him.  Yet, you realize the unworthiness that you have, that we all have, for him to come under your roof.  Would you have faith enough to tell him not to come, but just say the word.  Would you be confident enough that his word would heal your loved one?

That’s the faith we are called to have, and I wonder if we have that kind of faith when we pray.  Do we trust God enough to let him “say the word” and then know that we don’t have to set “Plan B” in motion?  Today’s Scriptures call us to greater trust as we begin this Advent journey to the house of the Lord.  In what way do we need to trust God more today?

The First Sunday of Advent [A]

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but I always find this weekend after Thanksgiving to be a little strange.  And I love Thanksgiving: what a great holiday when we don’t have to worry about shopping for gifts, but instead can concentrate on a nice meal with family or friends, or whatever our traditions may be.  But this weekend, as a whole, has become rather strange, and I think I’ve always struggled a bit with it.

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 implications of Christmas here, but you know I mean 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 in to 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 that horrible thing – Black Friday – what a nasty, evil name for a day that is, well, nasty and evil.  I loathe the idea of even getting in the car to drive to the drug store to pick up a prescription on that day.  And you can get an earlier and earlier start on the madness every year; this year the friendly folks at Kohl’s were waiting for you at 3am – at least that’s what I gathered from their advertisements for I have no personal experience to verify that fact!  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.

This is a weekend that has always brought a lot of conflicting emotions for me.  As a Liturgist, I want to celebrate Advent, but we don’t get to do that at least in the secular world.  And I’m not a Scrooge – I love Christmas, but I’d like to experience the eager expectation of it, and to be mindful of the real gift of Christmas, before we launch headlong into the real sappy Christmas songs that get played over and over and over in the stores and on the secular radio stations.  By the way, I do have a list of sappy songs that I could do without ever hearing again.  I’d tell you some of the titles, but I don’t want you to leave here with those tunes going through your head – God forbid!

And, for a lot of people, these upcoming Christmas holidays are hard.  Maybe they’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job or house, or who knows what calamity.  The synthetic joy of these holidays just heightens their grief, and that makes this season anything but joyful for them.  I remember the year my grandmother on dad’s side passed away.  I went into a store here in Glen Ellyn about this time of year, and it was decorated with all sorts of subdued lighting and homey Christmas motifs, and I had this feeling of grief that was just overwhelming – it came at me out of nowhere, and I had to leave the store in tears for no apparent reason.

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.  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.

What we’re really going to need is a full immersion of hope.  And we know what – or rather Who – is the source of that hope.  That’s what we really celebrate at Christmas, what causes us to bend the knee in genuflection, what brings us here week after week, or even day after day.  Our hope can only ever come from Christ our God, sent into a world just as listless and cold as the one we live in today.  He came to redeem that world and re-create it in love, painting it all along the way with the bright hues of a hope that can never fade.  We will not find that hope in our own personal resources; we won’t find it in science, in politics, in soccer, golf or work.  We won’t find hope in Oprah or Dr. Phil or anyone else.  The only real hope we have is Jesus Christ, and he is all the hope we will ever need.

Today’s first reading lights up the way to that hope: “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 have not been left to deal with the sadness of our world without an anchor of hope. That anchor is the Church, the Lord’s mountain, which provides instruction in the ways of God and a kind of roadmap to follow in God’s ways.  Because, let’s face it, our ultimate goal is to come through the Judgment Day and be in God’s presence for all eternity.  God has given us the Church to show us how to get there.

And that gift of the Church is wonderful, but we must humble ourselves and slow ourselves down to take advantage of it.  The problem is that most people don’t believe in the necessity of the Eucharist and the sacraments any more.  Far too many skip Mass on days when the kids have a sports event, or when they want to sleep in, or when they don’t feel like going through the trouble of getting the family to Church.  Entirely too many people don’t think the Sacrament of Penance is necessary; that they haven’t done anything that bad, or that the priest won’t understand the bad thing they did, or that they can just pray for forgiveness.  There is hope in the Church and her sacraments, and if we don’t take advantage of them, we have to stop wondering why our lives seem so devoid of hope sometimes.

We absolutely have to stop thinking we know what’s best for our lives-both our temporal as well as our spiritual lives.  Because the Church has two millennia worth of saints who have wrestled with the truth and been victorious over the world by joining themselves to Christ.  We need to open our minds and hearts to the wisdom of a Church that is governed by the Holy Spirit and possesses a Truth that is eternal, irrefutable and able to bring us to salvation.  Maybe this Advent that means that we will humble ourselves and come to the Sacrament of Penance for the first time in many years.  Or maybe in the coming year we won’t miss Sunday Mass in favor of a soccer game, an opportunity to golf, or a really important project at work.  Because as important and wonderful as these things may be, soccer, golf and work will not get you to heaven.  They just won’t.

Today’s prayer after Communion aptly pronounces what our readings call us to today.  I want you to pay special attention to that prayer when I pray it later on.  It speaks of the Eucharist teaching us to love heaven and says: “May its promise and hope guide our way on earth.”  If we’re ever going to get through the craziness of a secularized holiday and our own struggles and the world’s woes, we need to take a step back, quiet ourselves, and let the hope of Advent brighten our outlook and heighten our longing to be with our God.  May we all be transformed from the cynicism and apathy of our world into the joyful promise of the Kingdom of God.  As the Psalmist sings today, may we all go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus says to us today, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  This includes all of us, past, present and future.  We will all live, in some way, to see the end of days, either here on earth, or from the joy of heaven.

So what will we see; what things will take place?  We will see the signs of a new creation.  Just like the first buds of the fig tree and other trees that Jesus spoke about, all of which signaled the beginning of summer, so the signs of the new creation are evident among us.  Sins are forgiven, people return to God, miracles happen.  Granted, all these are imperfect in some ways now, given that they happen to us fallen creatures, but one day they shall be brought to perfection in the kingdom of God.  Then, we will see “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

Saint Andrew Dũng-Lac, priest and martyr, and his companions, martyrs

Today’s readings

St. Andrew Dung-Lac was a priest in Vietnam in the early nineteenth century. He and his 116 companions, including Spanish Dominicans, members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, and 96 Vietnamese, including 36 other priests, were all martyred around the year 1839. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were martyred in Vietnam during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

“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.”  That ominous news from today’s Gospel is news that Saint Andrew and his companions had to actually endure in their lives.  That can have us shaking with fear, but that fear must never distract us from our mission, or else the fear has won.  St. Andrew and his companions never gave in to the fear, and willingly gave their lives for the faith.

As our Church year ends, may we take courage from the example of the Vietnamese martyrs and courageously rededicate ourselves to witnessing to the faith, regardless of the cost.

Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr

Today’s readings

According to legend, Saint Cecilia was a young Christian of high rank betrothed to a Roman named Valerian. Through her influence Valerian was converted, and was martyred along with his brother.  A legend about Cecilia’s own death says that after being struck three times on the neck with a sword, she lived for three days, and asked the pope to convert her home into a church.  Another legend about her death says that she was boiled to death and that the pipes of the vessel whistled in a way similar to a musical organ.  Thus, she became the patron saint of Church musicians.  The point of her life and death is that, as all virgin martyrs, she zealously protected her virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God and that she would not give up her faith to save her life.  Her way of life and death shows us the way to live for the Gospel, preferring the faith to everything else.

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Today’s readings

I wonder if this solemnity of Christ the King is one to which many people can relate.  In our American society, so many people don’t recognize or accept any authority outside of their own personal opinion of what is okay, let alone grasp the concept of a monarchical, top-down method of government.

And even if we were looking for a king, what kind of king is this?  Our gospel reading today presents a picture of a king who, objectively speaking, seems to be rather a failure.  This is not a king who lived in a lavish palace and expected the blind obedience of all those around him.  This is not a king who held political office, or led a great army.  His message has always been quite different than that, and now today, look at him hanging on the cross between two hardened criminals.  That one of them thinks to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom is almost laughable, but, well, there it is.   There is our king.  This feast leaves us on the very last Sunday of the Church year with more questions than, it would seem, could ever possibly be answered.

This wasn’t the kind of thing the Jews were expecting, of course. They had long been expecting an Anointed One, but never one like this. Their whole picture of a Messiah had been one of political greatness and military strength, one who would restore the sovereignty of Israel and reestablish Jerusalem as the great political and religious city that it had once been. That was the Messiah they were looking for, but what they got was one who was so much of a suffering servant that he ended up on a cross. Pilate’s inscription, “This is the king of the Jews” was sarcastic and completely offensive to them, which of course is exactly what he intended.

So it’s easy to see why the Jews might not have noticed that this one was their king. It’s easy enough to even see why they would have chosen to ignore his kingship. But we can’t miss it: we have heard the Word proclaimed all year long and we know that this is the way that God chose to save the world. There are times, of course, when we could do with a bit more opulence and certainly a lot less suffering. But Jesus is the king of our reality, not of our fantasy, and so he is not ashamed to herald the cross as the gateway to the kingdom and the instrument of our salvation.

And we have to admit that we are a people who need a king like this. We might want a king to give us greatness and rest from our enemies, but that’s not real. What’s real is our suffering, whether it’s illness, or grief, or job dissatisfaction, or personal troubles, or family strife, or broken relationships, or any other calamity. Suffering happens, and that’s why Jesus chose the image of the Suffering Servant as the motif of his kingship. St. Paul says today in our second reading from his letter to the Colossians that “in him all things hold together.” Even when the world seems to be falling apart for us, we can trust in the Suffering Servant to walk with us and hold everything together.

And so, as preposterous as it may sound to others, we know that Christ is our King.  His Kingship, he says in another gospel, is not of this world.  No, he was not a king who came with great fanfare, oppressing peoples and putting down vast armies.  No, he was not the king who restored Israel to the Davidic monarchy that began in this morning’s first reading.  His power was not exercised over the political forces of this world, as much as it was exercised over the power of evil in the world.  He is the King who conquered, once and for all, the things that really plague us: evil, sin and death.  His Kingdom was not defined by his mortal life, but in fact begins just after he gives up that mortal life.  Unlike earthly kings, his power is everlasting.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI, in the face of rising nationalism and Fascism, instituted the Feast of Christ the King to reassert Christ’s sovereignty over all forms of political governance.  Jesus Christ is not just one king among others, but rather he is the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Perhaps, if this feast had been instituted today, our Church might be reasserting Christ’s sovereignty over all powers of cynicism, relativism, and apathy.  Jesus Christ our King is, as he says in another place, “the way, the truth, and the life” and there is no other way to the Father, no other way to the kingdom, no other way to life eternal than to take up our cross and follow our King through the sadness of sin and brokenness, through the pain of death, to the glory of his kingdom.  And so we have to say with boldness and conviction on this day that one religion isn’t as good as another; that it’s not okay to skip Mass to go to your child’s basketball game; that Sunday isn’t just a day to sleep in, or shop the malls, but rather a day to worship our King who is the only One who can give us what we really yearn for; what this life is all about.

And so this is how we wrap up our Church year.  Next week we begin anew, the first Sunday of Advent.  On this last Sunday of the year, it makes sense that we stop for a minute, and look back at the year gone by.  How has it been for us?  Have we grown in faith?  Have we been able to reach out to the poor and needy?  Has our faith really taken root in our lives, have we been people who witness to the truth with integrity and conviction and fearlessness?  Have we put our King first in our lives or have we been worshipping false gods, attaching our hopes to impotent kings, recognizing false powers, and wandering off the path to life?

If we have been lax about our faith this year, if we have given ourselves to relativism and apathy, then this is the time to get it right.  On this eve of the Church’s new year, perhaps we might make new year’s resolutions to worship our King in everything we say and everything we do.  Because nothing else is acceptable, and anything less is offensive to our King who gained his Kingship at the awesome price of his own precious life that we might be able to live with him in his kingdom.  Maybe we can resolve to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, not just when it works out in our schedule, and including those times when we travel (there are Catholic churches pretty much everywhere).  Or perhaps we can resolve to reinvigorate our prayer lives, making time every single day to connect with our Lord, to remember our Sunday worship, to seek his guidance in all our endeavors and plans, to strive to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in the quiet moments of our prayer.  And certainly we must resolve to live the Gospel in its fullness: to reach out to the poor and needy, to live lives of integrity as we participate in our work and in our communities, to love every person God puts in our path.  On this “new Church year’s eve” we must resolve to be followers of the King in ways that proclaim to a cynical and apathetic, yet watching world, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that there is absolutely no other.

Our prayer on this glorious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King must be the prayer of Saint Dismas, the “good thief” as he hung upon the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” Pray that with me in song…