A Fresh Incarnation

Merry Christmas!  Again, I would like to welcome our visitors this evening, all those who traveled from near and far to be with us, to celebrate Christmas, the coming of our Savior who took on flesh to be like us.  May this Christmas, be a season of great joy and God’s peace for all of you.

Emmanuel… God with us.  Jesus was incarnate by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is here.

Why is the incarnation of Christ so important?

Well, as I was looking for this answer I came across a particular passage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This passage literally asks the question:  Why did the Word become flesh? The answer was so beautiful that its what I want to share with you tonight. 

The first reason given is the most obvious.  The catechism says that Jesus was made flesh, 1) in order to save us by reconciling us with God. Christmas is directly connected to Easter.  In order for Jesus to save us, in order for him to die on the cross and rise again, he must first become one of us.  God, speaking through his prophet, says For Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet until her vindication shines forth like the dawn! 

2) The Word became flesh so that we might know God’s love.  The whole story of salvation begins with God searching for humanity to be in a relationship with us.  Christ’s incarnation shows us how far God will go to reveal his love to us. 

3) The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness.  Christ came to show us how to love God fully and how to love our neighbor.  He came to heal divisions, heal the brokenhearted, and to show us how to love as God loves.

Finally, 4) The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature. This is the point that I want to focus on this evening.  For Jewish culture, God has never wholly come down to earth, and humanity has never quite climbed up to him: the distance between God and man always remains. Humanity was starving for a closer relationship with God.  Christ’s incarnation closes the distance between God and us.  Through Jesus, the Divine and humanity meet.

One of my favorite prayers at Mass is probably one most of us never hear.  The reason is its one of those silent prayers that the priest or deacon prays at the offertory.  That prayer is: By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.  The gift of Jesus’ incarnation, is that it allows us to be closer to God than we can ever imagine.  And further, God has come close to us.  God has walked our walk, talked our talk, and experienced what we have experienced.  Christ’s life, everything about it, shows us that there is nothing we can experience where we cannot find him.  Christ is always with us.

Friends, when I was ordained a priest last June, Bishop Walkowiak in his homily encouraged my brothers and me to live our lives in such a way that it is “a fresh incarnation”.  He said, your hands, “the hands of the priest, become Christ’s hands in order to heal.”  Then he finished by saying, brothers, “lay down your lives for the Lord who loves you.”  I have never forgotten this.  I use it sort of as an examination of conscience, a gut check if you will, for how well I am responding to God’s call to bring Christ’s healing love into the world. 

But this is a beautiful message for each of us here.  We can each reflect on this question: “Is my life a fresh incarnation”?  Or, are our lives living examples of Jesus Christ in the world.  In other words, when people see us, do they see the Christ?

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the only reason that it is possible for us to be “a fresh incarnation” is because Christ became one of us.

Friends, this past year, I met Jesus in the Flesh. Jesus was this young man, who was suffering from cancer.  And he was about 30. This young man was experiencing intense suffering, but he had unwavering trust that Jesus was with him in his sufferings.  This young man knew and believed in the incarnation.  Because he knew that Christ was with him in his sufferings.  And yet, even though he was in great pain, the only concern in his life was the wellness of others.  He loved he wife and kids to the end. His faith was a powerful witness for me.  He not only changed my life, but he changed the lives of those closest to him: his family.  I believe this young man, brought his family closer to Jesus by the way he lived his life, trusting in God’s love until he passed. I do believe I saw Jesus in him.  This young man was indeed a fresh incarnation.

Brothers and sisters, who has been “a fresh incarnation” in our lives? Who has brought Christ into our lives this year?  Finally, how are each of us becoming “a fresh incarnation” for others?  This world desperately needs reminders of God’s love for all of humanity.  Here’s the thing, Christ expects us to be a sacramental sign of his presence in the world.  Christ expects us to make Him present by our very lives.  So, today, as we celebrate Christ’s incarnation, may we too become Christ incarnate in the world. May we remember that “In Christ Jesus God has visited his people”.

 

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Rejoice! You have been Freed!

O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!

I want to focus on that word ransom.  Many theologians have spent a lot of time studying the word, Ransom, and its implications in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The common meaning of this word for us today is a sum of money or some sort of payment, demanded for the release of a prisoner.  Is this what Jesus has done for us?  Yes, Jesus has indeed ransomed us! This means two things, Jesus has bought us back, by his very death on the cross and resurrection, Jesus has purchased for us our salvation.  But Jesus has also freed us; he has freed us from the powers of evil, from sin and death, and from any kind of brokenheartedness we might endure in this life.

Friends,  this is why we rejoice today.  Our first reading reminds us of this hope we have been given in Christ.  Jesus is indeed the one who has been sent to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.  This is something we all are invited to reflect on this week… In what way is Christ offering me new freedom in my life?  Maybe it is the experience of poverty, either materially or spiritually and Christ is offering you hope.  Maybe its the experience of a broken heart and Christ is offering to heal our heart.  Or maybe its an addiction or attachment to some sin and Christ is offering us a new sense of freedom.  This is the time for us to bring those areas of our life to Christ and to seek the Freedom he longs to give us.

But here’s the thing… The experience of being freed means that we desire to bring others into freedom.  A great and heroic example of this is one who has been freed from an addiction.  Think about a person who has struggled with alcoholism, they often will volunteer much of their time in helping others attain freedom.  Brothers and sisters, when we experience the freedom of Christ in our lives Jesus is there to ask us this question:  I have broken your chains, and I have given you freedom, will you now help me in breaking the chains in the lives of others?  Will you help me free my people? 

As Saint Paul encourages us in our second reading, our answer to this question should be a resounding Yes! A Yes that is grounded in both Joy and Gratitude.  I invite all of us for the remaining week of Advent to pray over the spiritual/corporeal works of mercy.  Is Christ calling me to participate in his mission by performing one of these acts of mercy. 

Friends, we rejoice this weekend because Christ has purchased us and Freed us!  May the freedom of Christ bring us great joy and move us to bring the freedom of Christ into the lives of those around us.

O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Are we ready?

The oil in the story represents the light of faith as it applies to good works and charity.  And while there are many things we can do in pursuit of our spiritual life that we can share with others, there are certain things that we can do only for ourselves: things that build up the oil in our own lives — like reading the Scripture, attending Mass, and offering up our daily sacrifices.  No one can do those things for us… and we can’t do them for anyone else.

Something that is becoming more and more evident over these past few weeks is that the parables of Jesus have a twist. And it’s the moment that the twist occurs that Jesus is inviting us to consider in our own lives.  Here’s the twist in our Gospel today: The five wise virgins did not share their oil with the foolish ones.  Why?  I think many of us are wondering why Jesus, the one who constantly calls us out of ourselves, and calls us to consider the needs of those around us, is defending the selfish response of the wise virgins?

As the tv commercials are reminding us, Advent and Christmas, are just around the corner. Advent is the beginning of our new liturgical year.  So during these last weeks of our current liturgical year, the focus of our Gospels is on the end times.  The end times are when Jesus will come again to bring those who have prepared into the Kingdom of heaven.  And that is what our Gospel is about this weekend.  The wise virgins are those who have prepared and are ready to go with Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are the ones who know Christ. They are the ones that Christ knows.

So why wouldn’t the wise virgins share their oil with the foolish virgins so that more people can go with Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven?

The answer is they cannot give what one needs to do for himself. The wise virgins who have the oil represent a person of faith.  It represents a person who has actively engaged the lord in their life.  Often today, we hear that this person is one who has a personal relationship with Jesus.  I’m sure many of us here know people who struggle with their faith and do not have that relationship with God.  This is something we cannot give totally. We can witness, sure, but at some point, one needs to open his heart and allow an encounter with God to happen through the gift of grace.

The church can offer programs, bible studies, theology on tap, scripture classes, and talks on the sacraments to help each of us learn about our faith.  The Church, also, ought to make the sacraments available; especially baptism, Eucharist, and confessions. But one thing is true about the overall effectiveness of all the programs being offered.  The only way that these things impact our lives, is if we make the decision to go and experience them.  We have to choose that we want to learn more, or that we want our children to be baptized, or that we want to receive Christ’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In other words, there is a response, there is an effort made on our parts, in cooperation with God’s grace, to grow in our Faith – to grow in our spiritual lives.

A question each of us can ask ourselves this weekend is, “How is our prayer life? Do we take the time to pray each day? The first reading helps us to answer why the virgins are wise: “The ‘wise’ virgin’s wisdom is not primarily a human wisdom but a wisdom born of meditation on the mysteries of God and, in this context, specifically on the mysteries of the kingdom.” So the virgins were wise, ready, and prepared because they lived a life meditation and reflection.  They had a personal relationship with Jesus.  Friends, have we done our work – have we developed a relationship with Jesus through an intimate prayer life?

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

The Triangulation of Love

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The Pharisee who asks the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” is asking for one answer.  He wants to know the one commandment that is the greatest.  Does anyone else find it odd, that Jesus gives the Pharisee two commandments!?

We are supposed to be surprised that Jesus has given two commandments… But I think Jesus wants us to see that he is really giving the Pharisee the answer that he is looking for.  In other words, to love God, necessarily means that one loves their neighbor as well. 

One scripture commentator calls this the Triangulation of Love.  Now, what does that mean?  In theology, in our study of God’s love for the world, there is the old adage that says: love is diffusive of itself.  Meaning, love is so powerful that it cannot be contained, it overflows.  So, this scripture scholar argues that this is seen in the Holy Trinity and in the Human family. The Father who loves the Son, and the Son who loves the Father and that loving exchange between the Father and the Son is so powerful that it overflows into another person, that is, the Holy Spirit. And, The love between Husband and Wife is so fruitful that it creates a third person. 

The question for us is: “who is that third person of love that overflows from the relationship between the believer and God?”  The answer is, I love God and God loves me, and that love experienced between God and me moves me to love my neighbor.  “The love of God, if it is active with me in both senses (that is, as. The love first flowing from God toward me and as eliciting a reciprocal love from me toward God), will necessarily bear fruit in my love for my neighbor as defined by Jesus.” 

“No one can love himself or [his neighbor] fruitfully unless he first loves God absolutely”.  Our lives have to be grounded in the love of God before we can love totally those around us.  For me, one of the best examples of this comes from the movie Les Miserables.  There is a man, Jean Valjean, that has become deeply angry towards the world and for his situation.  Out of his desperation, he steals precious silver from a Bishop.  And he gets caught.  When the guards bring Jean Valjean to the Bishop, they inform the Bishop that they have caught this man red-handed.  The Bishop looks at the guards and says:  “this man has spoken true, I gave him this precious silver”.  Then turning towards Jean Valjean he says: “Now remember this, my brother, see in this some higher plan, You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.  By the witness of the martyrs, by their passion and their blood, God has raised you out of darkness, I have saved your soul for God.”

It’s in this moment, that Jean Valjean’s life changes.  He has been loved so intimately by the Bishop that he truly encounters Christ through the Bishop’s loving witness.  The rest of the movie then, Jean Valjean devotes his life to God and to serving the poor.  Throughout the movie, there will be many scenes where Jean Valjean is seen praying.  Soon after his encounter with the bishop, he meets a young woman, Fantine, who is near death. Ironically, she is on the streets because she was wrongfully fired from Jean Valjean’s factory and found herself working the streets in order to make money for her daughter. Eventually. this woman passes away, but Jean Valjean devotes the rest of his life to raising her daughter.  It’s not until the end of the movie where we realize the depth of Jean Valjean’s conversion. 

He is now close to death, and Fantine, “returns” to Jean Valjean to bring him up to heaven.  It’s a beautiful scene because, in that moment, there is the Bishop and Fantine welcoming Jean Valjean into heaven.  And they all sing together, “and remember, the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God”.  The bishop is there because the Bishop loved God through Jean Valjean.  Fantine is there because Jean Valjean’s love for the Lord was expressed in his loving service to Fantine and her daughter.

My friends, we can only love as God loves if we let ourselves encounter God’s love in our lives and be willing to share that love with others.  May the Eucharist we receive today, strengthen us to love God through our love of neighbor.

God Relentlessly Invites us

Next weekend my older sister Erin is getting married.  It is an exciting time for my family. In light of this, I find our Gospel this weekend humorous.  Can you imagine if my parents acted the same way as the king?  What if my Dad were to say to my brother and me, “Ok, all of those people who RSVP’d no, go burn their houses down!” Holy cow!  That seems a little extreme… It seems strange that the King would burn the cities of those people who had rejected his invitation. 

But, I think if we focus too much on the strange actions of the king, then we run the risk of missing the point.  Instead, I think we are supposed to be more shocked by the strange reactions of the invited guests.  Let’s think about this for a moment.  The King has invited his people to join him for a wedding feast.  And it’s not just any wedding feast, its the wedding feast for his son.  And as our first reading illustrates, this feast will be a feast with great food and good wine! 

I think to really grasp how strange it would be to say no to such an invitation it is helpful to put it into our own context.  Imagine that we were all invited to a dinner reception with either the Pope or the President.  Who would say no to that?  And even if the company wasn’t that desirable, the promise of good food alone is enough to make one want to go.  I mean, how many of us here would go to a party just because we knew that there would be good food? I certainly would…

Jesus’ point in the parable is to shock us.  Flannery O’Connor once was asked why her short stories were shockingly violent. Her response: in a deaf society, one needs to shout!  This is why our parable today from Christ is so shocking.  It’s meant to move us.  It’s meant to shake us up and to cause a change within each one of us.

Who in their right mind would say no to such an invitation?  We are supposed to notice how ridiculous it would be to say no to the King’s invitation.  Well, the same is true for each one of us.  The Heavenly Father has invited us to the Wedding Feast.  A feast given to us through a New Covenant, where God gives us His son as bread and wine.   “We believe that our participation in the Holy Eucharist isn’t merely a foreshadowing but a real participation in that marriage banquet in which our God takes all nations to himself in the eternal covenant of love in Christ.”  This is emphasized by our first reading, where God will bring all peoples together, to enjoy rich food and choice wine!

I think in a beautiful way we are called to reflect on the gift that we have received.  The gift of being invited to the feast each and every Sunday. God desires so much to be in a relationship with us that he gave us His Son.  So much so, that we receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet each and every Sunday.  This is why Eucharistic liturgy, each week, is essential in the Christian life. 

But Christ warns us through the parable, that it is not enough just to accept the invitation in a willy-nilly way. We also need to prepare ourselves.  The King seems rather harsh to the man that shows up to the wedding feast without a garment.  But for us, in a Christian context, it means so much more.  When we are baptized, we literally put on Christ and we are clothed in a white garment.  In other words, when we come to the feast, we are called to both accept the invitation to the feast and to conform our lives to Christ.  At our baptism, the priest says that parents are called to help their children bring the white garment they have received, unstained into heaven.  In other words, we are called to grow in moral and spiritual excellence.  As we conform our lives to Christ, we grow in our capacity to love; to love God our Father, and to love our neighbor as well.

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

The Parable of the Two Sons

This weekend, we are being invited to meditate on which son we are most like in the parable.  Are we the son that says, No, I will not go… But then do in fact go? Or, are we the son that says, Yes Father, I will go. But then do not go?

Some of us might be thinking that we want to be a different son.  A son that is not even an option in this parable.  Intuitively, I think we all want to be that son that says, Yes Father, I will go!  But Jesus does not give us this option… But, I think we actually are both sons…

The first son, responds with a No,  but then does go into the vineyard.  I think many of us can relate to this son.  The initial “No” is that tendency in each of us to sin.  One of the most basic definitions of sin is when our will does not line up with God’s will.  So, if all of us are honest with ourselves, I think most of us would admit that sometimes we struggle with anger, jealousy, gossip, and unforgiveness.  Sometimes we struggle to live the life that God has called us to live. Any struggle with sin in our lives is a “No” to God. But, I am also confident that for most of us here, we are striving for conversion.  We are striving to live the way that God has called us to live.  And so, after our initial “No”, we have a change of heart.  And we go back to God in attempt to be more obedient to his plan for each of us.  This is why we go to confession because we recognize the No’s and desire to say Yes more often. This is how we are the first son.

But we could also be the second son.  The second son is the one that says yes but does not Go… Here is the point for Jesus in this parable.  He is speaking to the Pharisees.  And, Jesus is frustrated that the Pharisees have witnessed the conversion of sinners.  Instead of having hearts moved by the conversion of sinners, they scoff at them. How could God save those people?  The hearts of the Pharisees are hardened.  They are like the second son.  They have said “Yes” to God, but they have failed to seek a deeper conversion in their own lives.  They have failed to allow the conversion of others move them to conversion.

So why did Jesus not give us a third option? I think the answer is that Jesus wants us to be the first son. Jesus knows that conversion is a lifelong task.  It is not something accomplished right away. We are living in the moment of transformation.  That is, the struggle, or temptation, to say “no” will persist until the day God calls us home. 

Our first reading gives us greater insight into God’s patience with us. “God does not take pleasure in the death of a sinner; he desires rather that the sinner should live, but this means that the sinner must change his ways”. When we turn away from our sins, then [we] shall surely live, [we] shall not die. Here’s how the first reading is connected to the Gospel: the wicked one who turns from his ways is like the first son, the person who initially says no to the Lord, but then has a change of heart. 

So, Jesus is highlighting the quality in the first son that is of great value. This was willing to be converted, and to change his mind.  He recognized his need for God.  This is what Jesus is trying to convince the Pharisees.  He wants them to recognize that their hearts need to be converted, that they need God!

My friends, this week, may we take time to meditate on the ways that we have said “no” to God and to consider how God is challenging us to change our lives. God desires for us to live lives of integrity.  That does not mean we are perfect.  But rather, if we are Jesus’ disciples, the life of a Christian has integrity when it is open to conversion, open to allowing his heart to be expanded, and opened to turning away from sin.  May the Eucharist we receive today to strengthen our resolve to turn from sin and remind us of our great need for God.

 

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Like Fire Burning in our Hearts

Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:  You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.  All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Jeremiah has been obedient to his call.  He has prophesied, he has spoken on behalf of God to God’s people.  Why is he the object of laughter? 

The Israelite people have turned away from God and are now worshipping strange gods, the gods of Ba’al.  They have turned away from the God who has blessed them abundantly to worship false gods.  So, Jeremiah prophesies in their midst.  He is warning them, come back to the Lord.  If you do not he will not protect you from the enemies rising up in the north. 

The people’s response to him is mockery and laughter.  And so Jeremiah cries out,  I will not mention [God], I will speak in his name no more. Jeremiah is so sick of the abuse he has taken after giving his life to God that he doesn’t want to speak anymore. But listen to how this reading ends: But then [God’s Word] becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. I believe we are being challenged to consider when  are we called to speak up and witness for God.

Speaking up is not easy.  I think of a parent who is worried about the direction of their child’s life and eventually feels the burning fire to speak up and help their child. It’s not easy to correct your child because it will temporarily put strain on the relationship.  It would be easier to ignore the issue rather than speak up.  Or I think about those times when we are in conversation and it turns into Gossip.  And sometimes we begin to feel that burning fire within us to end the gossip, but its difficult and easier to say nothing…

And as a Christians our beliefs are not very popular today.  Consider our belief that life needs to be protected from conception to natural death.  Or our beliefs on marriage, sexuality, and immigration.  All of these are unpopular in our society.  All of these are scary topics to bring up in a world where so many strongly disagree.

And finally, its not easy just to speak about our faith but even at times to live it.  I think about Mass on Sundays and sports.  Now all of you know how much I love sports.  But it saddens me when families miss Mass because of these sporting events.  Why? Because often times these families wanted to go to Mass but it seemed that no other family on the team was going to Church that weekend, and so they chose not to go either. 

Friends, Jesus informs his disciples this weekend that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly … and be killed.  Not only that but he also tells his disciples that whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow [him].  In other words, we are called to speak up even if it is not easy.  All of us are called to be prophets today just like Jeremiah.  This is a call that we have all received from our Lord.  We have heard it in our Gospel, yes, but we have also been given this call at our baptism.  We are prophets in this world. 

We are called to give witness to God’s saving love.  That’s the point.  Think again of Jeremiah.  He has been the object of laughter and no longer wants to speak of God,  but then says, I cannot endure this fire burning within me so I must speak.  Friends, Jeremiah spoke because he believed God was trying to save the Israelite people through the words God had given him.  We speak today, because we desire to bring the Good News of salvation to our friends and families.  We speak, not because its easy, but because we love.  May the Eucharist we receive today give us the strength to be witnesses of God’s love in this world.  May we be willing to speak.

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen