Hunger, Our Best, Be Transformed!

One of the priests I’ll never forget in the seminary was Fr. Acrea.  This priest was a holy, holy, man.  He was in his late 70s, and many of us seminarians looked up to him.  In one homily, he reflected on his life as a priest.  He said to us, “I look back on my life as a priest, and I see who God intended me to serve.”  These people were like appointments that God had scheduled. Fr. Acrea saw in these encounters God’s providential grace, where in some mysterious way, God used him to be a messenger of hope, love, and grace for God’s people. Now that I’ve been a priest a few years, I have had a glimpse of what Fr. Acrea was talking about.  I want to share with you all, three of these appointments that I believe God scheduled, guided me to, so that God could reveal his love and grace through sacraments. These three appointments were all in the context of the Sacrament of Anointing.

Hunger

Earlier this week, in fact, was one such appointment.  I received a call to visit an elderly woman who is in hospice care.  I arrived at the house and greeted her daughter. When we began the Sacrament of Anointing, I noticed this woman was having a difficult time sitting upright. So I said to her, “okay, young lady, you can lay down.  God wants you to experience comfort and peace.  You lay down, and we will pray with you.” And so, the daughter and I helped her slowly lay back down.  Then we began to pray, I anointed her, and I held up the Eucharist saying, “Behold…” Immediately, as if all her strength had returned, this woman sat straight up, ready and excited to receive communion. 

Friends, this woman of faith was preaching to me and she shares that message with all of us.  This is her message: we all hunger for God.  This lent, we have been singing that powerful song, “Lord I need you.”  She knew this.  And that’s what we remember tonight, as Jesus institutes the Eucharist, he reminds us that we need him in our lives.  If we want to grow in love and friendship with God, we need the Eucharist.  If we want to love others like Jesus, we need the spiritual food of the Eucharist.  If we want to be healed from our anger, our sins, our burdens, we need the spiritual medicine of the Eucharist.  In this beautiful woman of faith we are encouraged to never stop hungering for Christ in the Eucharist.

Offering our Best

We hear in our Gospel that Jesus loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. Christ gave everything he had to those whom he loved. Christ’s love is free, total, faithful and fruitful.  Christ’s love is freely given.  Christ was not forced to offer his life for us, but he allowed it for our sake.  Christ’s love was total.  Christ offered his whole self for us in dying for us on the cross.  Christ’s love is always faithful.  There is nothing we can do that would make Christ abandon us.  Christ’s suffering and death proves to us, that no matter how far away we go from God, Jesus will be there. There is no experience we can have that Christ himself hasn’t experienced.  Christ’s love is fruitful.  Out of his self-sacrificing love the Church was born.  Christ indeed has loved us to the end. 

And its this kind of love that Christ has called His priests to love the Church.  In the letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul challenges married couples to love each other as Christ has loved the Church.  And so, Priests, are called to love the Church as Christ has loved the Church. And here is the underlying, the foundational reason for priestly celibacy.   Just as married couples are called to love each other with a love that is free, total, faithful and fruitful, so too are priests called to love the church freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully. The whole life of the priest is to be an offering of loving service for all of you – God’s holy people.  Saint John Paul II explains this very well, “The Good Shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep” and the this “refer[s]” specifically “to the Sacrifice of the Cross, to the definitive act of Christ’s Priesthood”. Then he asks, “Do these words not tell us that [the vocation of the priest] is a singular solicitude for the salvation of our neighbor?” The priest’s vocation is to imitate Christ’s loving service completely.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a text from our parish secretary, saying that there was a woman who needed to be anointed and that it was urgent; usually means a person is nearing the end of their life.  I wish I could tell you that when I received that text, I responded immediately and selflessly, Yes!  But it was my day off and I was just about to leave the rectory and to meet a family that I am close with for dinner.  But thankfully, with God’s grace, I responded, “I’ll go anoint this person, but I won’t look like a priest!” And so I went… and I received one of the greatest gifts of my priesthood that day.  I arrived and the husband of the lady who is nearing the end of her life welcomed me graciously, and said “Father, thank you so much for coming.”  Then I talked with him and his wife, discovered that they have been happily married for 63 years.  Then I prayed with them and and anointed her.  At this moment I was getting ready to leave and the lady grabbed my hand and said, “Father, you were a gift from God for me today.”  I think Jesus knew I needed a little reminder that day about who I am called to lay my life down for.  On this day, when I was tempted to live selfishly, this woman looked at me with the face of Christ and said, “you were a gift from God.” 

Transformation

A couple of weeks ago, I was called to anoint a person nearing the end of her life. This young lady was 99 years old.  I made arrangements with the family to anoint her.  When I arrived, I could tell things were a little tense.  The woman was disoriented, didn’t really know what was going on, and seemed obviously frustrated.  Her daughter, was as any daughter would be, saddened and worried.  I introduced myself, and said to the person, “Well, hello!  I’m Father Stephen.  I have come to pray with you today, is that okay?”  She looked at me and said, “Father, let me tell you.  I hate it when people tell me what we are going to do, I’d rather we just did it.” I kind of chuckled, and said, well ok then.  We’re going to pray right now.  We prayed, I anointed her, reminder her of God’s love, grace and friendship with her.  Then I gave her communion.  I gave her the Eucharist.  Not always possible for someone nearing the end of life. 

Brothers and Sisters, the moment I gave her communion. Everything changed. Her face went from a frown to a smile.  And she looked at me and she said, ‘Oh father.  Father, thank you so much for coming.  This was such a blessing.  Father how old are you?  You must be 70 years old!” Laughing, I said, “Nope, not seventy… actually I’m 31!” She responded, “oh you are a young priest” and her smile got bigger.  “Father, thank you so much.  This was such a blessing.” Transformation.  Change.  This

To The End – It matters!

Here’s the point: The Eucharist matters.  And if all of us here are going to believe that the Eucharist matters, we have to respond to Jesus’ call to love as he loves, in other words, to the demands of Christian charity.  If the world is going to believe that what we do at this table matters, then we have to hunger for Christ week after week.  If the world is going to believe, that God’s love is proven by the very fact they he gave his very best through his son Jesus, then we too must give our very best back to God.  If the world is going to believe that what happens at this altar matters, then we too must be transformed.  As members of the Church we are a real sacrament of the Gospel in the world.  The Eucharist truly does matter.  And as it matters more for us, it transforms in changes us so, that others too may believe that they matter to Christ. The Eucharist matters.  Christ particular love for you matters.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

How He Loves Us

Several years ago, I was sent as a seminarian intern at St. Patrick Parish, in Parnell.  Upon my arrival, the pastor said to me, what are you most nervous about as you begin your internship?  I answered, “Funerals.” “Why,” he asked.  “Because death is hard, I don’t know what to say.” 

Well, in my first two weeks, there were 8 funerals: three the first and five the second.  So, after that second week, we sit down for dinner and he just looked at me with this tired look and says, “hey man, you nervous about anything else? You’re the grim reaper man!”

But Death is difficult isn’t it?  I came across this quote from Andy Rooney.  Now full disclosure, I do not know Andy Rooney.  I only learned of him as I prepared for this homily.  So, for those like me, this is who he was: Andy Rooney was known for his role on 60 minutes where he would spend a few minutes sharing an essay about something that wasn’t right in the world, or just something that he had been thinking about a lot lately.  I think what people enjoyed in him was that he was both cranky and snarky.  Eventually, he finally retired.  And in one of his last essays, he said: “I have love my life.  I loved being a writer.  But now, every day I think about death ten or more times a day.  I do not look forward to death.  I had a good life.  We have got to figure out this death thing” (paraphrased – not verbatim quote). After some investigating, I discovered that Andy Rooney was also an atheist.  He did not believe in God, and he certainly didn’t believe in heaven.  Now it makes sense.  Death made him anxious.  Death was for him the end.  There was nothing more.  So it shouldn’t surprise us to hear him say, “We have got to figure out this death thing.”

All of us here have asked our own questions.  Some of us ask it when we lose a parent or grandparent, and we wonder why we had to lose someone we loved?  But the question about death becomes even more difficult when we consider young people who tragically die.  Or, when a young married couple loses a baby.  Death makes us all uncomfortable.  It makes us all sad.  It makes us all worried.

And here we are in our Gospel, a story about death.  Its strange what happens.  People come and tell Jesus that his friend Lazarus is sick.  And Jesus responds: Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Jesus just said, Lazarus is dead and he is glad that he wasn’t there.  Then later, upon his arrival, Jesus learns of the death, and he we learn that he wept. Not only that, his friends Mary and Martha, are not happy with him.  Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. We can hear in these statements the underlying questions:  why did Lazarus have to die?  Why lord didn’t you care enough to come here quickly so that we wouldn’t die, Lord don’t you care? Lord, this is your fault!

Jesus responds to Mary and Martha and says, your brother will rise, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. This is why Jesus delayed.  Jesus wanted to show his power over death.  So, to convince them that he had the power to defeat death, he says to Lazarus, rise and come out!

For the moment, it is clear that Jesus loved this man.  The scriptures even say it: see how he loved him.  But Jesus didn’t just raise Lazarus because Jesus loved him.  He raised him because of Friendship.  This, my friends, is the crucial point.  Jesus has a loving intimate friendship with Lazarus.  One where Christ knows and loves Lazarus, and Lazarus knows and loves Jesus.  It is not just Christ’s love for him, it’s the mutual love for each other. Jesus raised him because they were friends.

And this leads to the great question for us this weekend.  Soon we will, before Easter arrives, we will remember Jesus’ death.  And, I would bet, that just like Mary and Martha, just like Andy Rooney, just like any one of us asks when we lose a loved one, we will ask, but “why did they have to die?”  Why did Christ have to die?

Friends, Lazarus died so that Jesus could raise him from the dead.  Jesus died, so that he could rise from the dead.  Jesus was willing to die and rise because he loves us, so that we too can die with the hope that we will rise! Brothers and sisters, we are Jesus’ friends, and he offers us the answer to death, hope in the resurrection.  Why? – Because he loves us!

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Image Credit: https://www.testifygod.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Resurrection-of-Lazarus.jpg

Look up at the Cross and be Healed

He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” ~ John 3:2

If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” ~ John 9:33

Look at that cross… What do you see? Some of us look at Jesus on the cross and immediately feel a sense of unworthiness. “Lord I’ll never be worthy of such a sacrifice.” Some of us look at the cross and see the suffering and estrangement that exists among our families and friends. And some of us look up at the cross and see the pain and suffering in the world and wonder, “Lord, when will this suffering be overcome.” But Jesus says in our Gospel, Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. What does this mean?

To answer this question, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of an Old Testament experience of the Jews.  They were in the desert.  They began to whine, complain, and even curse God.  They even wished to go back into slavery rather than to be in the desert. Unfortunately, in their misery, poisonous snakes attacked their community.  Many were bitten and many died.  And yet, God heard their cries for help.  He instructed Moses to put a snake on a pole and lift it up. Anyone who would look at that snake on the pole would be healed.  And so it happened.  But it wasn’t just a miracle, God was teaching them a lesson.  That snake represented their sin.  It represented that they had turned away from God, and even cursed him.  In order for someone to look at that pole, they needed to acknowledge what had put them in this situation in the first place: their sin and infidelity to God.  We cannot stop there.  The pole also represented something else. It represented God’s unconditional love for them.  As if God was saying to them:  “though you departed from my ways, though you lost trust in me, though you even cursed me, I have not stopped loving you.  Look and be healed.”

Friends of Jesus, look at the cross again and now what do you see? This weekend we are meant to see both our sins and God’s unconditional love for us.  Our sins, our tendency to turn away from God, our lack of love for God, are all reasons why Jesus was crucified and raised on a pole, on a tree.  And yet, it is in this very image that we too are reminded that God loves us unconditionally.  But we are reminded of something more. Jesus, the one lifted up on the cross, is a sign of God’s love and desire to bring healing. Just as the seprent in the desert was a sign of God’s never failing love and healing for the Israelite people. This is not just a mere man that has died – This is Jesus, the son of God. Christ’s suffering is not meaningless – it proves God’s love for us. It proves God’s love for you and me.

When we look at the cross, it should have two effects.  1) we feel contrition for the role we played in Jesus’ death, and 2) we rejoice, because this is the sign of the Father’s love and the healing that Christ offers us. 

For those who believe that they will never be worth God’s love – the sacrifice of Christ offers you healing and says, “God loves you more.”

For those who believe that there will never be reconciliation in their family’s – the cross of Jesus says, look here at me on the cross, yes there can!

For those who believe that divisions in our country are too strong and we will never be united, Jesus says, I stretched out my arms on the cross to bring us together.

Already but not yet.  This weekend, we celebrate Laetare Sunday.  The Church asks us to rejoice because the cross of Jesus Christ is opening act of our salvation! Jesus points us to his cross, but we must never forget that cross is not the final act.  It leads and points to the resurrection.  For now, we celebrate and rejoice because Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the sign of God’s unconditional and healing love.  And we look forward with joyful anticipation, celebrating the final act of our salvation, the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.  Now friends, look and see the Christ, the sign that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that who ever believes in him will never die but have eternal life.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

A Purified Temple

The woman at the well – Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain;* but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

This is the weekend.  This was the sunday in Lent that everything changed.  I’ll never forget it. It was the third sunday of lent.  On Friday, we had learned that Masses would be canceled for two weeks.  Of course we know, that two weeks turned into two and half months.  And yet, here we are, a whole year later.  It’s the third sunday of lent, and we are still not open 100%.  I think all of us here, have come to learn how important Church is. 

That word Church is has several meaning doesn’t it?  When I say Church, I could be talking about a building.  This place.  When I say a church it could be a description of who we are; all of us gathered together are the Church – As Christ’s mystical body.  Or, when I say Church i could be talking about the place that God dwells.  The Church is the place where God is present, and where we encounter him. 

This third definition is important for us in our readings this weekend. For ancient Judaism, the temple was the place where heaven and earth met. It was the house of God.  The purpose of the temple was supposed to be the place where people came to pray and encounter God. And this is why Jesus is angry, because the temple had ceased being a place of encounter and instead a marketplace. 

The question to ask ourselves this weekend is this: where is the temple today? Where is the place where people come to pray and encounter God? There are three options to this, the place of the temple today could be our hearts, it could be the community, or it could be this building?  And certainly, we know after this last year, that the temple, the place of prayer and encounter with God, cannot be limited to just this building, since for a couple of months, we weren’t even allowed to gather here.  But at the same time, the place of the temple cannot exclude the Church since this is where we experience God’s love through the sacraments. Of course, our hearts are the place where we encounter God through prayer.  I hope in asking the question the place of the temple has become obvious.  The temple is located in our hearts, its located in our community as we gather together, and its the place of the Church building itself. The place of the temple is always all three.

And this is evident in scripture: What is the modern-day temple?  Saint Paul answer this question for us, I urge you, brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).  Or again, he asks, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit…? (1 Cor 6:19). We also know from Jesus that where two or three are gathered there he is in the midst of us.  Finally, we know from scripture that Church is place of the sacramental presence of Christ: take this all of you eat of it.

So the temple is our heart, our community and our church.  In our Gospel we have an angry Jesus.  He is upset that the temple is no longer a place of prayer and encountering God.  Here is a good question to ask ourselves this week…. “What would Jesus do, if he came into my temple of my heart right now?”  The challenge then is to allow our consciences to be stirred up.  The challenge is to let Jesus come into our hearts with a whip made of cords, to turn over the areas of our lives that need conversion. The challenge then is to allow ourselves to ask, is Christ present in my community.  Do my friends, family and I invite God into our gatherings.  Do we pray together to God and to we pray for one another? Finally, as a result of a Covid, maybe the purification of the temple is important for us to remember that when it is safe enough to be 100% capacity, that we remember collectively how important it is to come and gather together here in this place to worship and encounter God.  So each of us is a temple of God.  Here is the great wisdom of our church.  We are asked to meditate and pray on this Gospel during the season of Lent.  A season that we are intentionally trying to turn back to God, and purify our hearts – to purify our temples.  With a purified temple we are can more fully engage God and encounter him in this sacred space.   

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Image Credit: https://i.redd.it/t0b9hgoin9541.jpg “Find Shepherd”

God desires an Intimate Friendship

Last week we discussed how honesty was an important first step in our Lenten journey.  If we are going to turn our lives towards God, we needed to be aware of what we are turning away from.  This week, as turn our focus to God, it is important for us to allow ourselves to ask, what does God want with us?  The answer: God desires intimacy. 

Our Gospel is filled with moments of intimacy.  Jesus brings his closest friends up the mountain with him.  This time is meant to be a moment of prayer, friendship, capped off by a transcendent experience.  We are on a mountain, and in scripture, mountains are places of experiencing God.  Jesus desires intimacy with his friends. But Jesus also has a very intimate moment with God – the Father.  A cloud comes and we hear a great voice, This is my son!  Listen to him! Jesus once again is claimed by the Heavenly Father as His son, whom he loves, but this time God offers a command: “Hey you three, listen to him.” In other words, Jesus speaks with the Father’s authority.

Friends, the intimacy that Christ experienced is also meant for us. God wants intimacy with us.  Before moving on, I think now would be a good time to clarify what authentic intimacy looks like.  Authentic intimacy is where reciprocal love, mutual desire to know the other, and full acceptance of the other.  Jesus and the father have a profound reciprocal love for each other, they know each other particularly through Christ’s moments of prayer, and we see the Father’s full acceptance of his son.  In our world, the most obvious example of intimate relationships are between holy marriages.  In these types of marriage between a husband and a wife, they choose to love each other freely with coercion, they never stop discovering more from the other, and they accept each other – with all of their faults and gifts, they accept and belong to one another.  Not in a possessive way, but in a beautiful offering of self to the other.

A mistake we sometimes make is that intimacy belongs exclusively to marital relationships.  But, Jesus clearly had an intimate relationship with his father. He most certainly had it with his mother Mary.  And he clearly had intimate relationships with his disciples, I know longer call you slaves, but call you friends (John 15: 13).

The gift that God wants to give each of us is intimate friendship.  God desires that himself with us.  And God desires us to experience intimate Christian friendships with each other. How do we grow in intimate friendship with God?  Well, the answer is given by the Heavenly Father himself.  Listen to Him, God says.  Listen to Jesus Christ.  The place where this listening occurs is in our prayers life.

Prayer ACTS

Contrition – Sorry for our sins

Thanksgiving – Lord thank you for ….

Supplication – Lord please help ….

Adoration à ARRR; this is the heart to heart conversation that develops between God and us.

God desires intimacy with us, all we need to do is desire the same with him.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Image Credit: https://i2.wp.com/drivethruhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Transfiguration-of-Jesus-A11.jpg?fit=1500%2C844&ssl=1

Honestly

Last week, I told you how my brother Dave and I love to play one-on-one basketball. Well, we finally played this past Friday. And, honestly… I was good.

But, if I’m being honest, I was just hoping i wouldn’t pass out.

So, to be hones, I was exaggerating, when I say, “I was good.”

It’s interesting though, sometimes we say that word honestly, or that phrase, to be honest, and what follows is sometimes a lie, or at best an exaggeration.

Honestly… The show “This is Us” had an episode with this as the title. Honestly. In the show two of the main characters Kevin and Kate, who are siblings, are having a conversation about their family and the issues they are dealing with related to their mom and other brother. Kate says in a moment of vulnerability, “Kevin I think all of us are trying to deal with issues from our past today. We all have baggage you know.” Kevin feels slightly hurt because he thinks he knows everything about his sister. But in this moment, he has no idea what she is talking about. He doesn’t do a great job hiding this hurt and says in a defensive tone, “what do you mean you have stuff, what stuff?” Kate says, “Nothing… honestly Kevin I’m just tired its a been a really wrong day.” The scene ends with Kevin looking perplexed, concerned, and feeling lied to. He knows that he missed an opportunity to be their for his sister. And he knows that when she said “honestly its been a long day” what that really meant was, “honestly i don’t trust you to open up about this…”

On Thursday, there was a prayer service for priests. A group of people involved in Encounter Ministries, wanted to host an evening of adoration for priests and offer a chance for us priests to be prayed over. Fr. Colin and I decided to go, in fact, we both decided to keep one another accountable. By that I mean, we couldn’t decide we were “too tired” to go. It was a commitment, we were going.

We arrived at the church and the evening of prayer began. It was simple, there was appropriate prayer music in the background, we had adoration of the blessed sacrament, and there encounter prayer teams ready for priests if they wanted to receive prayers. I remember i looked at Jesus in the Sacrament and said, “Lord, I don’t know what to pray for right now.” then in an instant I felt like I had everything to pray for. Which left me paralyzed. What do I tell this group of people? Finally I settled on what I needed to bring to prayer. So I went back to the team and allowed them to pray over me. Immediately they asked how they could pray for me, and I said, “you, know I really struggled with that before I came back here. In what sense I could think of nothing to ask for and then I thought I could ask for everything.” But really what i was struggling with was how honest I wanted to be. How much was I willing to disclose to this group of people.

But here’s the point: Unless we live our lives with honesty. Nothing changes. The character Kate, will not receive healing until she opens up to somebody. Until she can be honest about the baggage she carries nothing will change. Unless we are willing to let others pray for us, for the things that we truly need without regard for how it makes us look, we will continue to feel alone in our struggles. Unless we are honest with God about where we are in our spiritual lives nothing will change.

Honestly, a couple of months ago, I gave that homily about our call to holiness and I used my struggle with weight as an example. I did not want to talk about my weight that weekend. But I did so because it was an important moment to acknowledge honestly for myself where I was at with my own health. Someone who struggles with alchohol will not be free from addiction until they are honest with themselves about the problem. Repent and believe in the Gospel, says Jesus, and the only way we can turn our lives to Lord is if we do so honestly. As we begin our Lenten journey, maybe the best thing we can do is go to the desert with Jesus and honestly tell him about our struggles, our sins, our doubts, and where we need him.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Merry Christmas – Divine Compassion

Why do we celebrate Christmas?  Of course today, there are many nostalgic reasons.  It’s a cute story.  This baby Jesus is born in a manger.  Shepherds celebrate with joy, kings come with gifts, and Angels sing Glory to God in the highest peace to people on earth.  But we don’t celebrate it just because Christmas is a cute story.  We celebrate it because God did something truly amazing and special.  Maybe the better question for us to ask, is why would God even become one of us in the first place? Why would be his motivation? Why does God’s incarnation matter? I think the answer is God’s compassion.

The Christmas celebration is all about God’s divine compassion because it is his why.  The Divine Compassion is what motivates God to send his son Jesus into our human world.   I learned recently the differene between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  Sympathy is when we express pity for someone in an unfortunate circumstance. Empathy is when we express concern for someone’s unfortunate circumstance, and we share the experience, but because we went through it too. Compassion can be sympathetic or empathetic, but compassion moves us to action. I see your unfortunate circumstance, and I want to do something about it.  God sees us and knows that we need to be convinced of God’s love and care, so he does something.  He is motivated to action.  He comes to live among us in our human life. 1) Jesus comes into our lives.  God seeks us. God does not want to be socially distant from us.  He wants to be with us. For ancient jews, the idea that God could enter into our humanity and become like us, would have been heresy.  God is totally other.  He is not the same.  There will always be a great distance between divine and the human. But God sees that humanity was starving for a closer relationship with him, is longing for a deeper connection with God.  So he is motivated by compassion, through Christ’s incarnation closes the distance between God and us.  Christ has closed the gap and we are no longer “socially distant” from our God, thus we can now experience intimate friendship with him. 

2) Jesus reaches out to us to live in our physical world – he desires to touch our lives! God wanted us to be able to experience him through our senses.  Now we can see him.  Now we can hear him.  Now we can feel his embrace through the love of Christ.  We can literally experience God through our senses.  

3) The Divine Compassion sent Jesus into our midst to heal us. Those of us who are burdened with anger, unforgiveness, and sin can be healed by Christ’s grace.

4) By Christ’s incarnation, He desires to convince of God’s love and intimate friendship with each of us.  He wants to give us a spiritual hug.

The challenge for all of us is to allow ourselves to be wowed and to be in awe that our God would dare to enter into our human life.  But the challenges also is for us to open our eyes and see that the incarnation is not merely a past event – It is an event in the present!  God is incarnate among us today. Isn’t this really the great question that we all? Sure, God came 2000 years ago to live among us, but does he really live among us today? Can I, can we, really experience him today in the flesh?

There is a beautiful When Jesus came down from the mountain … And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus went to him, stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. ~ Matthew 8: 1-3.  This scene may not seem like it, but it has Everything to do with Christmas, everything… It God’s divine compassion at work, and shows us why the incarnation matters; why God would become one of us.  

Leprosy was highly contagious and ostracized people from society.  It even caused death. People who contracted this disease in the biblical world were isolated from society.  Even people exposed to it are unclean. Those with leprosy experienced social distancing, they had to live separate from the world.  They lacked physical intimacy that expressed love and concern.  They were sick and in need of healing.  And because of fear, they were cast out of society.  They were unwanted and worse felt unloved. Sound familiar?  Just like the leper, our world is full of sick people.  And of course, it’s full of sick people because of COVID but its also full of sick people because we have all experienced in some way spiritual leprosy.  has caused not only those who are sick to be socially distant but all of us to practice social distancing.  And this social distancing, though necessary to keep us safe, has had some profound negative effects. The social distancing has caused many to wonder if God or even those close to them remember them. People have struggled with being alone and isolated because they cannot be in the same space. And finally, due to the distance between us during this pandemic many have felt unwanted, forgotten, and unloved. The biblical world’s experience of leprosy is familiar to our experience of the COVID 19 pandemic. This pandemic has showed us how important it really is for us to be in person with each other.

Our lives have been lived through a computer and the internet more in the past year than ever in human history bringing us out of the real world and into a virtual one. For example, our children have spent time in virtual classrooms, with mom and dad as the primary educators at home – all while trying to maintain their full-time jobs. In a humorous way, People have even maintained their gym memberships virtually, ‘zoom for Zumba.’ Birthday celebrations, thanksgiving, and for many, even this Christmas season people are only able to celebrate virtually hoping to remain safe and healthy. Truly, it is a miracle that we as Catholic Church in the diocese of Grand Rapids have found a way to connect virtually. What’s my point? 

Its that invisible sickness that makes us feel isolated, unseen, disconnected, unwanted and unloved. Covid has taken us out of our human world, and put us in the virtual, and the result is spiritual leprosy. Many of us are spiritually sick and need healing.  Many of us, struggle being alone and forgotten because of social distancing.  Many of us crave the chance to hug our loved ones again.  Many of us, want to know that we are loved.  Our virtual world has contributed to our spiritual leprosy.

This is the point.  To be together in person matters.  We need and crave physical proximity with each other. This is the gift of Christmas. This is why the incarnation matters.  Because our God wanted to be among us in person – and we crave and long to be close to our God!

And its this personal encounter between Jesus and the leper that shows us how much we needed Christ to become one of us.  This moment where Jesus heals the leper is no small act of kindness, No.  This moment gives a window into the soul of Christ – into what motivates our God. What motivated God to not only heal a leper but come into our world is God’s Divine Compassion. 

There are key moments in this exchange between Jesus, the son of God, and the leper that manifest God’s Divine Compassion.  1) Christ goes to him.  No one in their right mind would ever willing go close to someone sick with leprosy.  And yet – Jesus does! 2) Jesus reaches out and touches him.  Christ’s touch manifests God’s grace.  3) Our Lord heals him.  Finally, 4) the Lord embraces him and in that moment of embrace convinces the man, this former leper, that God loves him and has an intimate friendship with him.

Christmas is God coming into our world, he reaches out and touches our lives, heals us, and embraces confirming for us that we wanted, that we belong, and that we are loved more than we can ever imagine by our compassionate God.

Our responsibility then is to imitate God’s compassion for us to others. Jesus is the Sacrament of God the Father à Church is the Sacrament of Christ à Mystical Body (us) are sacrament of Christ for the world. We now are Christ incarnate in our world. We now are the means by which God continues to show his divine compassion to others; especially those who a longing to meet their savior and haven’t yet.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Spiritual Vigilance

Its hard to believe that it has already been a month since I was on quarantined.  But it was also eye opening.  I became much more vigilant and aware about COVID-19.  Here’s what I mean: For the first couple of days after my exposure to the virus every decision I made became more scrutinized.  For example, the day after Fr. Colin, the pastor of Holy Redeemer and my good friend, called to see if I wanted to watch Monday Night Football with him.  I said, we probably should not since I was in a soft quarantine.  Then the next day, I needed to go to Costco or Meijer to purchase some food.  Normally, that does not require much thought, but this time, I had to stop and ask myself, “is it appropriate for me to go shopping right now? Am I putting others at risk if I leave my house?”  Because I was exposed, I became hyper aware of COVID-19 and was even more vigilant with every decision I made.

The coronavirus has been a nightmare, and regardless where each of us stands personally with this health crisis, it does offer us an interesting insight into the first weekend of Advent.  Christ is asking us to watch closely for the second coming.  He wants us to be awake and alert for the coming of the Lord.  In other words, Jesus wants us to be hyper-focused on his second coming and to be vigilant – to be on the watch! 

And our protocols and procedures, our carefulness and vigilance with COVID-19 can show us how to be spiritually vigilant for Christ. 

During this pandemic we have become accustomed to many things, but these three things in particular: 1) Hand Sanitizer, 2) Masks, and 3) Social distancing.  We wash our hands and use sanitizer often, why?  So that we can protect ourselves from germs.  So that our hands to become an avenue for germs to make us sick.  We are more vigilant and cautious about going out into public without a mask, why? Not because we are afraid of others, because it’s a small thing that we can do to love the other person.  Just in case I have the virus and am unaware of it I will wear this mask, this uncomfortable thing, in order to love and protect others. And we are vigilant about keeping our distance from one another, why? So that we don’t spread the virus and so that one day soon we can be close with out families and friends again.  The vigilance we have right now towards COVID is about reaching the end of the pandemic, so that we can be reunited once again with our families and friends. The end goal is to get past this pandemic so we can live our lives together again.

And so now, here we are, and Christ is asking us to be vigilant, to have a careful watch for his second coming, why for the purpose of Social Communion. For us to have Social Communion, Christ too wants us to have spiritual vigilance.  He invites us to use spiritual hand sanitizer, to wear our spiritual masks, and to practice spiritual social distancing so that we can be a united family in heaven.  So, what is spiritual hand sanitizer? In our first reading we heard how our sin makes God angry and makes us unclean.  Christ is calling us to repent.  He wants us to take our spiritual hand sanitizer so that we our hearts can be made pure – that we love God above all things.  What does our spiritual mask look like? Our spiritual mask is our willingness to love others as God Loves them.  Our spiritual mask reminds us that our lives are not about us, but about God.  Our spiritual masks motivates us to make sacrifices to love the other person in front of us. And finally, what does Spiritual social distancing look like?  Spiritual social distancing is about separating ourselves from negative habits, vices, things, and at times people that keep us from God.  Jesus invites us to be vigilant about all three of things so that we can have Social Communion.  So that on the day of Christ’s coming, we may be aware and ready to see him, so that we can be with him and all the saints and angels in a beautiful social communion in heaven. 

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Jesus is our King

Who is our king?  Who are you willing to promise loyalty and fidelity to?  Better question maybe, who are you willing to imitate?  Whose mission do you believe in enough, that you would go into battle for it?

Preparing for this weekend I was reminded of that great scene in Braveheart.  William Wallace is giving his speech to the soldiers, but they are not convinced yet.  They are not totally willing to go into battle. Then William Wallace gives that great speech where he says freedom is worth fighting for.  William becomes a king-like figure.  His purpose is freedom.  He believes so much in it, that he is willing to die for it.  His belief is so inspiring, that others believe in it too, that that the also are willing to go into battle for the same mission.  They are willing to die for William Wallace’s mission, for freedom!

This weekend, we celebrate Christ the king.  We are just like the men who have shown up to see William Wallace, and we face the same crucial decision. Are we willing to follow Jesus as our commander? Is Christ the king worth fighting for?  If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to know what his mission is and be willing to go into battle for it.

Jesus’ mission is to proclaim God’s love and to set us free.  Free from what? From darkness, sin, and death.  Jesus has come to proclaim the Father’s love in the world, to free us, and to invite us to live in his kingdom forever.  How does Jesus accomplish this?  He loves the poorest of the poor, he forgives sinners and invites them into his kingdom.  This is what Christ the King is about.  The sacrificial love of Christ is more powerful and overcomes all sin and all evil.  Christ’s kingly power is not earthly power.  Earthly power is selfish, about domination, and controlling others. Christ’s kingly power is self-less, about serving others, and is motivated by love for the other.

Brothers and sisters, I think for us this weekend, we are called to be grateful for Christ’s kingly power and to live as citizens of his kingdom. As a Christian people, as a baptized people, we are baptized into the mystery of Christ’s life and mission.  That is, we are called to be priests, prophets, and kings. Priests – people who offer thanks and praise to God.  Prophets – people who speak about God to others. And kings – people who serve and love for the sake of others.

We participate in Christ’s kingly identity when:

We meet those who are hungry, and we give them food; not only for bread but for the understanding love of being loved, of being known, of being someone to someone.

We meet those who are naked, and we offer them clothing; and remember their human dignity where we acknowledge and help rather than simply ignore them because they are poor.

When we encounter those in prison or in the spiritual prison of addiction and remind them that they are wanted and loved. That those who have walked in this world with no one who cares for them, they are reminded my members of Christ’s kingdom, that Christ cares.

This day is the culmination of the whole year. We have heard the story.  We have heard that Jesus suffered and died for us.  We have heard the stories of how he healed people, forgiven great sins and offered his whole life in order to save us.

In Christ we have been set free. We have become members of his kingdom. Just as the soldiers took on William Wallace’s courage and qualities to go into battle, we take on our King’s qualities as we follow his mission of loving service. Are we going to enjoy our freedom and do what we please? Or, are we going to live now as members of Christ’s kingdom, and go into battle with him and for his kingdom so that others also be free?  

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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