Saint John Neumann, Bishop

Today’s readings

Saint John Neumann is one of the first great American saints, the first American archbishop to be beatified.  He is not to be confused with John Henry Cardinal Newman, of state university “Newman Center” fame.

John Neumann was born in what is now the Czech Republic.  After studying in Prague, he came to New York at 25 and was ordained a priest.  He did missionary work in New York until he was 29, when he joined the Redemptorists and became its first member to profess vows in the United States.  He continued missionary work in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio.  Saint John was well-known for his holiness and learning, spiritual writing and preaching.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Philip to be his apostle, and promises that he will see great things.  Philip is amazed by Jesus’ ability to see the best in him.  Saint John Neumann had that kind of vision too, being able to see the kind of people who would contribute well to the cause of Catholic education in the United States.

As bishop of Philadelphia, he organized the parochial school system into a diocesan one, increasing the number of pupils almost twentyfold within a short time.  Gifted with outstanding organizing ability, he drew into the city many teaching communities of sisters and the Christian Brothers.  During his brief assignment as vice provincial for the Redemptorists, he placed them in the forefront of the parochial movement.

We owe much to Saint John Neumann for his ability to organize Catholic education in this country.  So today we are thankful for our teachers and educators and catechists who over the years have led us all to the faith, and given us a glimpse at the light of Christ.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

 

Luke notes all throughout Jesus’ young life that Mary kept the events of Jesus’ life and reflected on them in her heart.  At the visit of the shepherds, and again after finding Jesus in the temple, Mary kept those memories for later reflection.  It’s kind of like she was keeping a scrapbook of memories in her heart, and I found myself wishing during these Christmas days, that I could take a look at that scrapbook.  She had a first-hand view of how Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, and as Luke tells the story, her perspective of God’s work in the life of her family had to be incredible.

Mary’s reflection on the life of Jesus is really a model for us.  Keeping those events close to her and reflecting on them later is her way of reflecting on the Word of God.  Whether she understood them at the time or not, she didn’t just live through the moment and move on.  She went back to those events later in her life – even after the death and resurrection of Jesus – and came to a new understanding guided by the Holy Spirit.  And thank God she did that.  It’s probably her later reflection on those events that made the early Church Evangelist able to record them and pass them on to us.

We too, must reflect on the Word of God.  We have to put ourselves in the presence of the Story, and ponder it in our hearts.  If we’re confused by Scripture, we have Mary as our patron to help us reflect on that Word and come to understand it, guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.  But we also have her encouragement to keep those Scriptures in the scrapbook of our hearts, to keep coming back to them.  That’s the only way the Spirit can work on us and help us to come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Word of God, and in doing that, to come to a renewed and vibrant relationship with our Lord.

If we would make a resolution for this new year, maybe it could be to follow Mary’s example.  Maybe we could set aside some time on a regular basis – even if just once a week – to put ourselves in the presence of the Word of God.  And not just here at Mass, although that’s a good start.  But maybe in private prayer or even in an organized Bible Study – we have a few of them going on in our parish on a regular basis.  If we regularly open ourselves up to the Word of God, maybe we too could come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Scriptures; and a closer and more beautiful relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

Mary, mother of God the Word, help us to understand the Word as you did.

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

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

I always feel like it’s appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, shortly after Christmas.  This feast helps to underscore that Jesus came to live among us in a very familiar way: by taking flesh and becoming one of us, even being part of a family.  As we praise the Holy Family today – and we certainly should – I’m aware that some families who are here today may have just managed to get here on time, or a little after.  Maybe there was the constant argument with the kids about why they have to go to church.  It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the latest toy they just got for Christmas.  And so, as we hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from our minds.

So maybe it’s hard to relate to the Holy Family.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, how do I get one of those?”  Honestly, there are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts.  Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but have been unable.  There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in its history.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges.  An unexpected – and, without the eyes of faith,  inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety.  Even this Holy Family was saddened, in some ways, by an extremely rocky beginning.

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing.  We know this.  God knows this.  Yet it was into this flawed but holy structure that the God of the universe chose to come into our world.  Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and to sanctify the whole world by his most loving presence.

St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God.  We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”  Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice.  Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to treat others with compassion.  We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble. But that’s what disciples do.  But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing.  Because everyone is going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another.  In our families that kind of failure happens all the time.  So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another.  We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.

But it’s not insurmountable: the Holy Family is the model for us.  I say that because I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is not some kind of idyllic perfection.  Certainly they attained more perfection than any of us could ever possibly hope for in this life, but that’s really not the focus.  What I think is worth focusing on is that, even though they knew there would be hard times ahead for them, they faithfully lived their lives through it all.  They continued to be a family, Jesus continued to grow and become strong in his human nature, and to be filled with wisdom and the favor of God.  And that, for us, is something worth striving for.  Being perfect might seem unattainable, but being faithful is in our grasp and faithfulness leads us to holiness.

For Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their faithfulness helped them to absorb the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.  For us, faithfulness can help us to get through whatever rough spots life may have in store for us and not break apart.

I am aware, however, that as I speak about faithfulness, that it all can still seem far-fetched.  Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger?  That’s a hard one to address, but we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful.  Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all.  Sometimes we have to let go of the hurt we’ve been hanging on to so that we can be free to love.  I know that’s easier to say than to do, but we can rely on the intercession of the Holy Family when we attempt to do this.

Holiness will make demands of us.  It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Simeon and Anna were quite clear that sorrow lay in store for them.  But they continued to live their lives, aided by the Spirit of God, and they all grew strong in wisdom and grace.  Those same blessings are intended for us also, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit and to strive for holiness in our own human families.

Saint Thomas Becket: Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

The birth of Christ in our world ought to mean something to us: the birth of Christ ought to mean a change in our attitudes and our behaviors and even in the course of our lives.

Today is a commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who ultimately lost his life to the man who gave him that prestigious post. When King Henry began to usurp Church rights, Thomas Becket found himself in a bind. Would he be beholden to the king, or would he protect the Church on behalf of the King of Kings? While it was a struggle for Thomas, he ultimately knew that the he must take a stand, no matter what the cost.

In today’s first reading, St. John makes the point very clear. We cannot say we love God and yet defy his commandments. And we certainly cannot love God who is love itself, while at the same time refusing to love our brothers and sisters. Being Christian looks like something, and the world looks at us to see what it is. If the birth of Christ means something to us, we have to share that meaning with the world by loving, no matter what the cost.

Perhaps the one who knew this best was Mary herself. Simeon the prophet knew that he had seen the promise when he looked at the child Jesus. Then he clearly told his mother that this Savior would cost her some happiness in life. Because Jesus would be a contradictory sign in the world, her heart would be pierced with sorrow. But all of this was to make manifest God’s glory.

The birth of Christ in our world and into our lives this Christmas ought to mean something to us. A watching world should be able to look at us and see Christ. May this Christmas find us changing our hearts and minds so that we can be that Christ for all the world to see, no matter what the cost.

Saint Stephen, First Martyr

Today’s readings

Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, chosen to aid in the distribution of food to those in need, so that the Apostles could continue their work.  He was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was unafraid to speak the truth.  And that, of course, is what brings him to today’s celebration.  His unwillingness to cover over the truth and his powerful, indisputable words, did not make him friends with everyone, to say the least.  He was stoned to death, an event in which we see perhaps the beginning of the conversion of a man named Saul, who of course, we know, later becomes Saint Paul.

The truth may, as Jesus tells us, set us free, but not without cost.  Saint Stephen, and later Saint Paul of course, paid for it with their lives, as Jesus did.  But covering over the truth or refusing to speak the truth would have been death of a far worse kind: a death that had no hope of salvation.  Giving his life for the truth and for the faith united Saint Stephen forever with his God, who was his salvation and his joy.

And so on this Christmas day, we are reminded that Christ came to bring the truth, and that that truth would change everything, which, sadly, is not always a welcome thing.  The gift of this Christmas day is the truth, given to us to guard and proclaim and shout without fear.  It is the Spirit who gives us the words of truth to say in any situation, that same Spirit who gave Jesus to Mary in the first place.  We too rely on that same Spirit to help us fearlessly witness to the truth, fixing our eyes as Saint Stephen did on Christ, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.

The Nativity of the Lord: At the Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

A few years back, there was a great commercial out that has three senior ladies talking.  One of them, the hostess, has taped all kinds of photographs to her living room wall and says that it’s a really quick way to share these memories with her friends.  Just like her car insurance: it only took 15 minutes to get a quote.  One of her friends said she was able to do that in half the time, so the hostess says, “I unfriend you.”  Her former friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works!”

I thought of that commercial because I think that, often, many people don’t get how God works.  They either think that he’s a capricious policeman who’s always looking for some kind of way to catch them in a trivial sin so that he can send them to the place downstairs, or they think he’s a friend who overlooks all their faults and doesn’t mind if they never give him a second thought.  Both positions are not how God works!

And if you asked a lot of people why Christmas is so important, if they have any religious answer at all, they might tell you that probably God finally found the right answer after so many years of failure.  That all along, from the time of Adam and Eve, people had been doing whatever they wanted, and so God was at his wit’s end and finally just sent his only begotten Son down here to straighten things out.  But that’s not how God works!

The truth is, as we see in today’s Gospel, that God had always intended to save the world by sending his own Son who was with him in the beginning.  The Word – God’s Son – was with him in the beginning and everything that has ever been made has been made through him.  Not only that, but in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.  The Greek here says literally that he “pitched his tent” among us.  That was the plan – from the beginning – for God’s own Son to become flesh so that we could become like God.  It’s a marvelous exchange!

And when he became flesh, he lived as one of the people in that time.  He walked among them and had all the same concerns they did.  He was like us in all things but sin.  When the appointed hour came, he took on our sins and was crucified for our salvation.  He died like we do, but so that sin and death would no longer be able to hold us bound to the earth, he rose from the dead and attained eternal life.  Now we can do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.

Jesus became one of us, pitching his tent among us, so that he could gather us all up and bring us back to heaven with him, to the kingdom of God for which we were created, in the beginning.  That was always the plan.  But sin and death keeping us from friendship with God is obliterated by the saving act of Jesus.  Sin and death no longer have the final word, because that’s not how this works.  That’s not how any of this works!

The Nativity of the Lord: At the Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

It’s all about the zeal of the Lord of Hosts!

Because when you think about it, God doesn’t have to care about our welfare or our salvation.  He’s God, he’s not in need of anyone or anything, because he is all-sufficient.  He doesn’t need our love, he doesn’t need our praise, he doesn’t need our contrition … honestly, he doesn’t need us period.

But because God is who he is, because he is Goodness in all its perfection, because he is Love beyond all telling, because he is Truth in its purest form, because he is Beauty beyond anything we’ve ever seen, because he is our God, he cannot not care about us.  He cannot not want us to come to salvation.  And so he pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.

He created us in love, and even though he doesn’t need us, he still loves us, and can’t do anything but that.  Throughout time, we’ve disappointed him, and when he forgave us – which he didn’t have to do – we disappointed him again.  That’s been the story of us as a people, and also our own personal stories, if we’re honest.  How many times have we all sinned, and after being forgiven, go back and sin again?  Honestly, if we were God, we’d throw up our hands and walk away.  But, thank God, we’re not God, and our God isn’t like that.  As often as we turn away and come back, he reaches out to us with the love of the father for his prodigal son.  Our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.

When our need for a Savior was great, when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, after Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel had made God’s desire for reconciliation known, our Lord Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desired to consecrate the world by his most loving presence.  Being conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, he was born in Bethlehem of Judah and was made man.  As a man, he walked among the people of his time and lived as one of us, in all things but sin.  At the appointed hour, he took on our sins and was nailed to a cross.  He died to pay the price for all of us, in order to redeem us and bring us back to friendship with the Father.  Because of this, the power of death and sin to keep us from God has been canceled out, and we have the possibility of eternal life.  Our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.

We gather this night not to wish each other happy holidays or season’s greetings, but instead to revel in the zeal that our God has for our souls.  We who are so much less than him, and so unworthy of his love, nonetheless have his love and are intimately known to him, better than we even know ourselves.  In God’s zeal for us, he reaches out to us when we fall, walks with us when we suffer, and brings us back to him when we wander away.  There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run, no depth to which we can fall, that is beyond the reach of God’s zealous love for us.  And that’s why this night, when we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, is such an amazing and holy night for us.  If not for this night, the night of our salvation on Easter would never come to pass.  This night we celebrate not just the birth of a baby, but the birth of God’s intimate presence in the world from the moment of his birth until time is no more.

It’s no wonder the angels sang that night: they knew what the world had yet to behold.  They knew that God’s zeal had obliterated the chasm between the world and its maker.  They knew that the sadness of death was coming to an end.  They knew that the power of sin had been smashed to bits.  They new the light of God’s Radiant Dawn had burst forth upon the earth.  They knew that in this moment, the sad melody of sin had given way to a chorus of God’s glory.  They knew that the dirge of death had dwindled to the peace that God pours forth on those whom he favors.

That moment, all those years ago, changed everything.  Nothing would be the same.  The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this!