Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Christmas Homily: Because God had a plan

Salvation history.  That is   why we are here on this holy day/night.  From the nanosecond humanity turned away from God through sin, God had a plan.  He could not dismiss us as beyond hope nor could he ignore that we had turned on Him, preferring to be our own gods. However, he had a plan.

In the Gospel we here of that plan unfolding over millennia,  as we hear the genealogy of Jesus Christ.  I this list of names, in this list of fathers and sons, we see God's plan unfold.  From humanity He plucks a people to be his own, sprung from the most unlikely of sources: a couple unable to have children, Abraham and Sarah.  From the beginning of this genealogy we see this couple grow into a family, from the family comes a tribe, from the tribe comes a people, from the people a nation, and through Jesus, from a nation into the His Body, the Church.

The road from Abraham is bumpy though.  It is filled with men of great faith and men of great sin.  Even the men of great faith fall, as did the great king David, as the genealogy lets us know.  As the plan unfolds, God's plan is not deterred or thwarted by man.  It marches along.  God's plan marches from Ur of the Chaldeans to Bethlehem. It is that stable, born to a poor couple, in the most modest of circumstances that the plan of God reaches its zenith.  The Host of angles proclaims that a child is born who will restore what was lost through sin.  The Word has been made flesh and dwelt among us!  He comes not as our means of destruction, but as our means of eternal life.

We call this stunning part of God's plan the Incarnation.  The Incarnation is the great mystery that God should so love us that He send His only Son, who becomes one of us in all things but sin.  Today we celebrate that the Incarnate God is born into this world, a message of great joy and hope for a weary and darkened world. He burst into human time and space and shatters its darkness.  The second person of the Trinity is given this body born in Bethlehem because through the obedience of Jesus, that same body would be offered on a cross only miles away in Jerusalem. The Incarnation happens because the Crucifixion and Resurrection must.  It is through these mysteries that we are given the promise and chance of a new life, an eternal life.

As millennia have passed since that night in Bethlehem, we are given a continual feast from the Body of that Incarnate God through the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is that ongoing participation in the life of the Incarnate God.  IN our being here week in and week out, we are given a share in that great gift given by God, starting with the Incarnation itself and going through the Last Supper and beyond.  This is not to say we will not be continually tempted away from this gift.  I saw a post today about a young child was talking with a sibling; they were talking about Adam and Eve and the younger sibling says he wouldn't have taken the apple...a cinnamon roll yes...but not an apple.  Satan will tempt us away from life in Christ with whatever works.  Let us not surrender the heritage given to us through the Incarnation for the baubles and bells of this world.

This celebration calls us into a way of life.  It is a way of life marked by our love of God and love of neighbor.  The mystery of the Incarnation should stir within us a desire, a hunger, and longing for something more than what we see.  We are given the Eucharist every week so as to fuel this longing and help us by God's grace to take our part in God's ongoing plan.  You see, salvation history doesn't end with the birth at Bethlehem, or even the death and resurrection, it continues through the animation of the Holy Spirit through the Church until Christ comes again.  We each play a part in that role of salvation history in living in such a way as to live in the light of Christ and draw others into that same light.

For let us be honest, the world still is weary, weary from its own addiction to sin and vice.  The light of Christ is needed to shatter that darkness as did the Star of Bethlehem.  The chains still need to undone in many people's lives.  Brothers and sisters, let us properly celebrate this Christmas season, which begins today and revel in the relationship God offers us through Christ, commit ourselves to that life as Jesus has told us, and give the greatest gift we can: the gift of the Incarnate God whom we celebrate today.  God has a're part of it.  You were baptized into it. You are its ambassador. Be, by the grace of God, a worthy ambassador.  

May the Lord abundantly bless you in the Christmas Season!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas: Beginnings and Ends

Depending on how one celebrates Christmas, December 25th is a beginning or an end.  For the secular culture, the Christmas season ends this Sunday.  The stores will take down their decorations and set up for whatever they believe is the next reason for us to indulge in consumerism.  It's business, it's what they do.  For many of our non-Catholic brethren it also will be the end of the celebration of Christmas.  But for Catholics, Christmas Eve begins the Christmas season. 

The secular world and the Catholic world  prepare for Christmas in different ways which reveal what they believe about what is celebrated.  For the secular world the time before Christmas (which apparently is encroaching Memorial day more and more each year) is a time for setting up the decorations for one's home, buying and wrapping gifts for loved ones,  getting homes ready for guests, singing , going to parties, and watching TV shows.  There is an overly sentimental tone to it all; a warmth that makes the winter months in the northern hemisphere somewhat palatable.  There is much good in this celebration.  We can get carried away to be sure. But the celebration is all external;  something that can be packed and unpacked, bought and wrapped, cooked and cleaned.  It is wholly temporary.  I would imagine it is for these reasons that when the high point hits on Christmas, that it can be packed away for the next year.

For Catholicism, Christmas is prepared for internally and spiritually.  The liturgical season of Advent beckons us to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives.  We look to the twofold coming of Christ; once in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and to that day He will come again.  It is a period of preparation marked by a joyful longing.  It is a time where we Catholics are called to seek forgiveness for our sins, show greater charity and compassion, and to live so as to anticipate the return of Christ.  The Solemnity of Christmas begins a renewed process of celebrating the Incarnation (that the 2nd person of the Trinity became fully human as well as fully divine).  It is a season filled with celebrations, the three key of which are December 25th (Christmas), January 1st ( The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God),  and Epiphany, in which we celebrate the Incarnation being made known.

For humanity, that first Christmas day represented a beginning and an end.  The Incarnation of Christ begins a new era in humanity. The enslavement of humanity to sin could now end.  It is the zenith of a plan that God had formed from ancient times.  When humanity had turned its back on God through sin, God never could bring Himself to write us off.  He would prepare us through a series of covenants, through a law, through a relationship, through a concrete presence with us.  He would purge us of our polytheism and syncretism  so that we could receive the gift of redemption He wished to give us.  All in the Old Testament pointed to the stable in Bethlehem.  It eventually moves from there to Galilee and the Judean countryside, to a cross and resurrection. It continues on through the work of Church.  With the Incarnation, the old order passes and a new one takes its place.

What has this to do with how we celebrate this great mystery?  It is so much more than about when we put trees up and take them down.  Every Advent and Christmas Season is supposed to be an ongoing transformation to greater holiness; it is supposed to bring us into a closer relationship with God.   Without God's plan for our redemption, there is no Christmas.  With God's plan, though, everything changes and is transformed.  The joy of Christmas is not something that can be bought, wrapped in pretty paper, and set under a tree.   No, the gift of Christmas is an unmerited gift initially wrapped in swaddling clothing and later nailed to a tree.  It is this which transforms us in an eternal way. 

The celebration of Christmas isn't to be an isolated moment in time, but ongoing renewal of commitment to God and His will and providence for us.  It is part of a process, not the process itself.

What do I mean by that? If you ask most every pastor, we will grouch about Christmas in some ways.  We will talk about the C and E Catholics (Christmas and Easter) who come in twice a year and unless someone in their family marries or dies, we really don't see them much.  I will be honest, it doesn't irk so much as it saddens me.  I know some will say that 'at least they come then' but it points to a dysfunctional relationship which needs to be attended to and healed.  If we really understand what is in play with the Incarnation, the raw love of God would draw us to need the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Incarnate God.  Nowhere else is God's love so plainly and viscerally made present as in the Eucharist.  Understanding what we celebrate at Christmas...really understanding it, should light a fire in our hearts.

Most pastors know they get so few chances to speak to those whose relationship with God has been a relationship on one's own terms.   Some pastors will take time to chastise those who aren't there all the time.  That's not helpful.  Some pastors will be so timid as to say anything.  Again, not helpful.  It is a fine dance to be sure, but it is why it takes more than the pastor to make a proper celebration.  It takes everyone else as well.

Imagine, if you will, being the kid who rarely comes home.  It might be because of distance.  It might be because of hard feelings.  It might be because of a variety of things.  It is hard to come in if you are the person that is irregular.  The fear of being judged, of being dismissed, and other negative emotions can mistranslate  word and actions.  All of the justifications for not being regularly flood back.  The only remedy is the remedy that Christ Himself prescribes:  mercy.  Granted the person has to be open to it and want to dive in deeper to their faith.

This is what I preach about on a regular basis.  I want all my parishioners every weekend.  Why?  It is not because of money or a numbers game.  It is because their absence is noted like an empty chair at the family table.  It is not an empty chair just seen by us, but by God, who like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son waits for his son's return. The greatest gift we can give is truth, mercy, and an offer that if they are willing to commit to the relationship with God, it will be worth their while.  We might be able to stifle outward grumbles to those who take our normal pew twice a year, but that internal grumble must also go.  To call to conversion necessitates modeling conversion.

We don't celebrate Christmas as an isolated event.  Nor do we just celebrate it as something that ends Christmas day.  No, we carry that divine mystery through the practice of the faith and the embracing of the mission to which the Incarnate God gave us through His gospel mandate.  Let us properly celebrate with joyful hope, drawing others as well, and be a model to the world that Christmas isn't about Santa and gifts...but about the Son of God made flesh and what difference the Incarnation makes in our lives and in the life of this world.