The Roman Missal: The Creed (Part IV)

What kind of things do you look forward to?  I think it’s pretty interesting the difference between what we look forward to as kids and what we look forward to as adults.  Kids look forward to their birthdays, but as we get older, we start to dread them.  Kids look forward to the last day of school and the excitement of their summer vacation.  Parents actually look forward to that first day of school, when they can finally enjoy that moment of quiet for once!

So what are we looking forward to in our faith?  Are we doing all this just to make ourselves feel good?  I hope not!  Ultimately, our purpose here on earth is (and say it with me, Baltimore Catechism enthusiasts…) to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be with him forever in the next.  Our new translation of the Creed tries to remind us of that when it says “I look for the resurrection from the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  The Resurrection and life everlasting: all that can sometimes seem a little distant, can’t it?

But each of us is called to constantly and joyfully look forward to that.  That’s what we do during Advent, right?  Think of your most joyful moment – the birth of your first child, your wedding day, your favorite Christmas when you got a Red Ryder BB gun.  Those are great moments of joy.  But those will be infinitely multiplied in the life to come because we will be sharing them with the one who gives them to us in the first place – God!  So we truly should look forward to that.  “Exspecto”, the Latin word that we translate to “look for” in the new translation implies a sort of anxious waiting and anticipation!

Believe it or not, we get a sense of that every time we go to Mass, whether on Sunday or during the week.  Every time we go to Mass, a miracle happens: the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ (vocab word: transubstantiation).  It may not seem like a miracle when there’s a screaming baby next to you, or when the priest can’t seem to find the end of the homily, but that is a moment when, for just a second, heaven touches earth.  It’s that time when we share just a glimpse of the most intimate moment of being one with God.

Now that’s something I can look forward to!  Can you?  God’s blessings on each of you and your families as you celebrate Christmas this year, but don’t get too comfortable, because we’ll be back next week and moving on with the rest of the Mass!

Homily From Christmas 2011

Sorry for the late post.  The post-solemnity sickness hit me immediately after Christmas, and I didn’t get a chance to post it until now.  Once again, a Merry Christmas to you and to your families!  Venite adoremus!

 

The Force be with you…  I’ve been wanting to say that for years, just to see what would happen, and who would respond with “and with your spirit…”, and I finally got to do it!  Please don’t tell the Archbishop that I’m preaching about the Force at Mass, but you know what I’m talking about, right?  That invisible cosmic force in Star Wars that binds everything, penetrates everything, and holds everyone together.  It’s kind of like the law of gravity.  You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but you can feel its effects and see what it does, and you know it’s there.  Sometimes, this is what we can think God is like – the Force.  We have trouble imagining God – what he is and what he looks like.  So it can feel kind of comforting for us to just think of God as something kind of like the Force.  Like a Jedi, we can tap into God, and then through our own self-control and self-mastery, we end up manipulating this world around us and achieve a sort of God-like status ourselves, like heaven.  Sounds good right?  You know, there are people in England who actually answered the census that they are of the Jedi religion?  See I don’t know how well that would work here, but it could be good for our collections – “You want to put 100 dollars in the collection…”

But really, the idea of God being a force-like thing sounds pretty good, right?  On the surface, yes.  But think about what else happens because of this view.  If God is a force, then he becomes ultimately impersonal.  That means that you and I are just…here.  We’re no different from your pet hamster or that dust bunny under the couch.  And because of that, you can say goodbye to human dignity, free will, loving others, the possibility of being loved.  When we lose who God is, it can take a lot with it.  But sometimes, it’s easier to see God as a force.  The Israelites felt the same challenge.  God was something strangely impersonal to them in some ways – a soft silence to Abraham, a pillar of fire in the desert, a disembodied voice.

But see, you and I are created to be in a relationship.  We want to love and be loved.  We want to be able to see, feel, and touch.  We want to be able to get to know somebody else.  In a sense, we wish we could be like Adam and Eve in the beginning, just walking through the Garden, chatting about the new Beltran signing with God.  We don’t want a force, we long for something that will touch our whole selves – body and soul.  And God realizes that!  And that’s the reason that we’ve come together today.  The God of the universe, who created everything and binds it together, who called Abraham, who led the Israelites through the desert, who toppled the walls of Jericho and helped Israel establish itself, and who is the star in all the other Bible stories we remember from kids – that Almighty God…became a tiny baby, born on a cold Bethlehem night, and squirming and screaming in his mother’s arms.  He came to save us from the lie that God is impersonal – to stir in our hearts that love, and to teach us to call God not the Force, but our Father.

One of the reasons I’m even here today is because of that.  I was going through some tough times in my formation after my fifth year in seminary – some trials of faith, you might say.  I knew a lot about God and the Church.  I could tell you a lot of theological concepts.  I had made an intellectual assent to God – but I didn’t believe.  There was stuff up here (in my head), but nothing here (in my heart).  And for some reason, while I was on a retreat, I came to praying about the mystery of Christmas.  It started up here (in my head).  I was praying about the facts – the mileage the magi had to cover, the fact that a camel goes an average speed of 2.2 miles per hour in a caravan, the fact that they were following a star to their destination, which I’m sure is a lot less accurate than Google Maps.  It was all surface level, but at some point, I felt the call to go a little deeper, and so I kind of placed myself along there with the wise men and the shepherds, and I would invite you to do the same.  Imagine being there with them.  And imagine yourself there as the Blessed Virgin Mary invited them to hold her son.  We all know the feeling of holding a new baby, and it’s like nothing else in the world.  And in praying about that, I felt a feeling of love for that child, for Christ, a feeling that any person has (at least until they spit up on you), but even more, I felt a feeling of being loved in return.  That for me was a defining moment, a moment of closeness with God.  God became for me more than an intellectual concept that some assent to, more than a force, more than even a protector.  God is a person in Jesus Christ, a person in whom transcendence and intimacy meets in a perfect way.

I’m sure there are a lot of you in the pews today who have felt this moment.  And there are probably a lot of you who are still waiting for that moment of closeness with God.  Maybe you’ve been waiting for that moment so long you’ve forgotten what to look for, or you’ve given up – on yourself, or on God.  Maybe you’re here because your parents go, or your wife goes, or your husband goes, or because it’s just a tradition of what you do on Christmas.  Maybe you’ve lost a loved one, and you can’t help but feel lonely without them this Christmas.  But if there is one thing that I hope everyone take away from this Christmas, whether from Mass, dinner with your families, your favorite songs, or that brand new Red Ryder BB gun you got, I hope that you recognize the fact that God truly does love you.  Not in a generic and clichéd way that you learned in grade school or PSR, but that he yearns for you, he gives you the gifts of family, friends, celebration, and joy.  He never wants you to feel alone.  And he loves us so much that, as we celebrate here together today, he became a man for you.

And what is our response?  What other response can we have than that of the shepherds out there on that cold night.  Let us come now and bow down before him at this holy altar.  Let us present the gifts of our hearts, and receive the Lord, just as perhaps those magi or shepherds did from our Blessed Mother.  And let us give thanks and praise to God just as they did, for that love which caused the king of the universe to come and dwell among us.

The Roman Missal: The Creed (Part III)

I think after a week or so, the dust has settled on “consubstantial”.  But our vocabulary lesson isn’t over, apparently, as just five lines later, we find ourselves stumbling over “incarnate”.  This is a term we’ve probably heard before (if from nothing else but Incarnate Word Academy), but once again, the translators of the Missal decided to take a little more direct approach, getting “incarnate” straight from “incarnatus”.

Most of us speak Latin anyway (right?) so we already know this, but the Latin word tells us sort of what the word “incarnate” means.  The Latin word “in” means “into” (there’s a shocker, right?), and the word “carnis”, means “flesh”.  Just think of a carnivore – a creature that eats meat or flesh – or even a carnation flower, with the pink color reminding us of the color of our skin (if you never go outside).  So if we put the two words together, we get “into flesh”.

But we have to be very careful in our understanding of what it means for Christ to be “in flesh”.  It isn’t like someone putting on a jacket, where they can just as easily take it off again whenever they want.  Nor is it like a normal baby who has been given some superhuman powers like out of a comic book.  Instead, when the Church says “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”, it means that the divine nature freely chose to take on human nature.  In other words, Jesus is 100% God and 100% human.

We might wonder what was wrong with the previous translation that it was replaced.  It wasn’t necessarily the wrong idea, but it could sometimes be misinterpreted that Mary just carried around a divine “thing” in her womb, a “thing” that only became a human being when it was born.  But “incarnate” gets straight to the point that the Son of God really took on human nature from the very first moment of conception in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Now that we’ve covered the tough vocabulary terms in the creed, I challenge everyone to use the words “consubstantial” and “incarnate” in a sentence at least five times each this week.  Ok…maybe not.  But tune in next week when we finish off the Creed!

Homily From the 4th Sunday in Advent, Year B

A few months ago, when the Cardinals won the World Series, I had the chance to go with my sister to the celebration parade.  And of course you had the superstar players like Yadier Molina, Lance Berkman, and “He-who-shall-not-be-named” (starts with an “A” and ends with an “lbert Pujols”), but then you’d also get cars filled with other players – the front office, the medical staff, the coaching staff.  And while at first I was thinking, “What are these guys doing here?”, I came to realize that they were all cooperating to accomplish one thing – to win the World Series.  And if one person didn’t do their job, we wouldn’t be here.

The same is true with us in God’s plan.  We’re reminded of two important things as we approach Christmas on this last Sunday in Advent: first, the God of the universe became a man, just like you and me; and second, that same all-powerful God, who could have accomplished his plan with a blink of an eye, doesn’t do it by himself, but calls each of us to participate and cooperate.  God of course, fulfills his end of the bargain, but do we?

Now before you get too excited, let me give you a word of caution: even as much as God loves us, and even as much as he wants us to participate in his plan, our partnership is secondary.  Think of David in the first reading.  He had been fighting for about 20 years, running like a renegade and fighting to stay alive, as well as fighting for the survival of Israel against her worst enemies, the Philistines.  He had spent so much energy on it all.  He had worked from being a simple shepherd to be a powerful leader among the Israelites, acquiring power, prestige, and tons of money.  But then all of a sudden, he remembers the Ark of the Covenant.  That chest that held the Commandments from Mt. Sinai, pieces from the manna in the desert, and the staff of Aaron, that chest which was the place where God’s presence and covenant were felt the most…was sitting in a tent.  And so David thinks, “Maybe I should go share some of what I’ve gotten to build the Lord something nice.”  That’s a nice idea, right?  But then the Lord says, “Well hold on a second.  You’re going to build a house for me?”  You see, he’s reminding David that the only reason he has the power and prestige and money is because of God.  David’s work is great, and his part in the plan of God is incredibly important, but it’s secondary next to God.  And when David realizes this, when he finally understands, he’s able to build that house he’s promised God, which was completed by his son, and was truly a wonder of the world.

Our place is secondary.  It can be easy to forget that.  It’s certainly an amazing thing that God calls us to participate in his plan of salvation!  But sometimes, we end up doing one of two things.  On the one hand, we try to do everything.  “We’ve got this under control, God.  Why don’t you just sit in the tabernacle and make us feel good about ourselves.”  We can focus so much on ourselves.  Mass becomes so much about the community and about our feelings and our emotions and about our music and our chalices and decorations and vestments, that we forget the purpose of being here – to participate in something greater than ourselves, a mystery that God reveals to us and then allows us to share in.

The other thing that can happen when we are called by God to participate in his plan is…nothing.  We don’t do anything.  We want to show up, punch our card, and get the heck out of here.  Each of us is called to participate in God’s plan, both in our lives and in the lives of others, but do we actually do it?  One great opportunity for us to work on this is this month and next during the Catholics Come Home initiative.  It’s starting to air right now, and we’ve paid for the commercials, organized the committees in the parish to help with it, done advertising, and all of the prep work.  Then God does the heavy lifting – calling deep within the hearts of those away from the Church, calling them to come home.  But then it’s up to you and me!  So you might consider how you participate in God’s plan during this initiative.  If you refuse to move further into the pew to allow someone to sit, is that helping or hurting God’s plan for that person returning home?  If you march back into the cold outside and put your head down ignoring anyone else, is that helping or hurting God’s plan for others?  If we cooperate, making this a welcoming place, then we can help those who are lost to build that temple for God in their hearts.

As I conclude, I want to share with you the words of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict: “Though it is God who takes the initiative of coming to dwell in the midst of men, and he is always the main architect of this plan, it is also true that he does not will to carry it out without our active cooperation. Therefore, to prepare for Christmas means to commit ourselves to build ‘God’s dwelling with men.’ No one is excluded; everyone can and must contribute so that this house of communion will be more spacious and beautiful.”  As we celebrate these sacred mysteries, and as we strive to prepare our hearts in this last week of Advent for the coming of Christ, let us ask the Lord to be able to see his plan of salvation, and to cooperate with it with our whole hearts.

The Roman Missal: The Creed (Part II)

Well, we’ve gone through about half the Mass now.  We’ve covered lots of changes, from “And with your spirit” to “Only Begotten Son”.  We’ve started the Creed, and we’re skipping over some really minor changes, but now comes the bombshell: “Consubstantial with the Father.”

________ (Insert witty introduction here for yourself, since I need all the space I can get to explain what “consubstantial” means.)

As you remember, we used to say “One in Being with the Father” here.  And that’s not necessarily a bad translation.  It tells us that the Father and the Son are of the same being.  But it’s kind of vague.  I mean, what do we mean by being?  By contrast, consubstantial is an English translation for a very ancient Latin word, “consubstantialis”, which is even itself a translation of a very ancient Greek word, “homoousios”.  But even all these words were sort of made up in the early Church in order to describe exactly what we mean when we’re talking about Jesus.

“Consubstantial” is a word that tries to talk about the divinity of Jesus, namely the fact that he’s just as much God as the Father or the Holy Spirit.  In a sense, it’s also reaching out to our friends in the ancient Greek churches, who struggled to maintain the proper understanding of Jesus amidst all sorts of heresies.  In fact, one of those heresies talked about “homoiousios” instead of “homoousios”.  Same word, right?  Well actually, it means “like the Father” or “pretty much the same as the Father” instead of “one in being” with the Father.  Who Christ is in some ways hinging on even a single letter!

Consubstantial, saying that Jesus is “one in substance” with the Father is talking about some technical terms.  A “substance” is what I am at my very basic level.  I am Fr. Grosch.  That’s who I am.  I can cut my hair, and I can even shave it (not happening, kids), but who I am remains Fr. Grosch.  That’s my substance, and it’s not changing.  So what we’re saying with “consubstantial” is that who the Son is (God) is the same as who the Father is, and who the Holy Spirit is.  They all three share the fullness of what it means to be God.  All three are God, but different persons.

Crazy, right?  And we might think, “Well we don’t need to know all that technical language!  We’re not all professional theologians!”  But the truth is that everyone has a right to know that.  And in many ways, technical language that the Church had struggled with for hundreds of years has been largely lost.  So in a sense, it is an attempt to reintroduce some of that language for people to be just as much part of their Church’s history and tradition as St. Athanasius or his buddies were.

Phew!  Now go relax your brain by watching something mindless on TV, like football (just kidding, folks!).  And tune in next week when we continue with the Creed!

Homily From the 3rd Week in Advent, Year B

I’m sure that everyone has their favorite Christmas songs: “Jingle Bells”, “Deck the Halls”, “Carol of the Bells”.  Whatever.  I personally enjoy “Lo How a Rose” or some of the other traditional churchy Christmas songs.  But what about your least favorite songs?  My personal most loathed song out there is Andy Williams’ “It’s the Holiday Season.”  I mean, what kind of good song gets away with lyrics like “doop-de-doop” or “dickery dock?”  It’s just so cheery that it’s annoying.  But really, for a lot of people, that’s what Christmas is about!  Cheer!  It’s festive, good-humored, and perky!  But sometimes, it becomes shallow, hollow even.  Because after those nice Christmas parties have gone, and after those nice gifts that we worked so hard to buy and wrap are opened, that cheer sometimes fades away.

So what are we looking for?  The answer comes to us in the theme for today’s liturgy – we’re looking for joy.  This Sunday is called “Gaudete” Sunday, a Latin word that means, “Rejoice!”  It’s a word that’s used at least 7 times in our readings, and probably more depending on our songs.  Joy is that complete satisfaction that comes when we possess something good.  This “something good” isn’t something that feels good, tastes good, or looks good.  Many of those sort of things in this world are temporary and fragile.  Christmas lights burn our or crack.  The Christmas tree eventually dies (if you have a real one) or takes up too much room (if you have an artificial one).  The presents lose their appeal or get old.  Even your grandmother’s favorite Christmas cookies with end up either in crumbs on the plate or hard as a hockey puck.  Even things like success, health, friendship, 250 million dollar contracts, or even that feeling of being in love can go away.  Circumstances change, times get tougher, the days pass by quickly, or we just get tired, and these things can slowly drift away.

But true Christian joy is something that never goes away, because it is that very thing for which we were created.  We were created for joy!  It’s in the very core of who we are – we long for something permanent.  We want to be known and loved completely, unconditionally, and everlastingly.  And even if we try to find that elsewhere (such as in Los Angeles), only God can fulfill that longing in our hearts.  So that’s why our scripture readings don’t just tell us to “rejoice”, but to “rejoice in the Lord”.

Sometimes joy is a difficult thing to find.  Times of pain, crisis and disaster can leave us without joy.  Most of the time, it’s not even the disasters, necessarily, but those little things that pile up over time.  If our lives are built on merriness and cheer alone, and simply on maintaining emotions and feelings, it becomes difficult for us to find our footing.  But if our lives are based on a deep satisfaction that we possess something good – that goodness and richness of our faith and the goodness of a Father who loves us unconditionally and everlastingly – we are able to keep that joy deep rooted and flowing throughout our lives, even in the tough times.

It’s important to remind ourselves of that fact – that the Lord cares for us and loves us.  And it can really be a challenge as well.  But the second reading gives us the answer.  It says, “Rejoice always.” (Ok, we got that part), and “Pray without ceasing.”  What St. Paul is trying to teach us here is that real joy, the kind of joy that helps us through difficult times, is ultimately tied to prayer.  This doesn’t mean that we spend the entire day on our knees, or that we are simply fulfilling what obligations we’re supposed to, but that we take at least a few moments out of our day to pray.  Sometimes, we can be impatient or lost in prayer.  We sometimes are seeking out cheer, emotions, or feelings in our prayer, and when those don’t come, we decide our prayer isn’t working and look somewhere else.  But truly, our prayer is about a relationship to God, one just as real as the person sitting next to you, and speaking heart to heart with the one who loves us more than anything or anyone.

Sometimes we need things to remind ourselves of the cause of our joy.  During Advent it can be easy because we’re surrounded by things like statues, lights, trees, and crib scenes.  But after those things go away, we have to find other ways to remind ourselves.  Maybe consider putting a religious image or article, like a rosary or a crucifix, somewhere where you’ll see it often – your morning mirror, your locker, work station or even as a background picture on your phone.

As we approach the Lord in the Eucharist today, as we rejoice in advance the coming of Christ at Christmas, let us examine our own lives to see whether we are people of cheer, or people of joy.  And let us strive to reach out to the Lord, whose love and care never pass away.

Homily From the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

A few weeks back, I was looking at some old pictures from when I was in the college seminary – young(er), full of innocent and naïve energy, able to beat out defending opponents as a forward in soccer, able to root on Albert Pujols as my favorite Cardinals player, and I got to thinking, “Wow!  Sometimes I wish things were like that still!”  That’s what happens when we look at old pictures sometimes.  We get a sense of nostalgia going back and looking at those times past when life was simpler, happier.  Sometimes, it can even be consoling to look back at these photos during our rough times.  They remind us of the way things were, the way that we might want them to be.  And we nostalgically think that if we just did things a little differently, a little more like the way things were in those photos, we could be happier.

Well, today we’re given the early Christmas gift of one of those snapshots.  On this solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we’re celebrating the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born without the stain of sin, just as our first parents, Adam and Eve were.  In a sense, she makes us look back at that snapshot and imagine the way that life was like before the Fall.  A life without sin.  A life without temptation.  A life without conflict.  A life with intimate relationships with each other, when even naked, Adam and Eve respected and loved each other in a total gift of themselves.  A life with an intimate relationship with God, when they would all walk together in the Garden in peace.

But then came the Fall.  Sin entered the world, along with blame, conflict, resentment, division.  The world first knew temptation, when people did what they knew they shouldn’t, what they knew they didn’t want to do.  When Adam and Eve looked at each other, where once there was love and innocence, now there was shame and embarrassment.  And so they hid from God, afraid, alone, and ashamed.

But then God gives us the gift of Mary, a look back to the way things used to be.  A new Eve, a new start, a new slate.  She lived the life that Eve never did.  Where Eve rejected God’s will, choosing selfishness over obedience, now Mary, despite her fear and confusion, opened herself freely to do God’s will.  So she is a look back at the way things used to be.

But she’s also a look forward, a promise.  That look back isn’t nostalgic, a vain attempt to relive the past.  But it’s a promise from God that he will restore us.  Through Mary’s Immaculate Conception, God says to us, “Hey, remember the way things were before any of this bad stuff happened?  I will return that to you!  I will raise you up to live it again!”

So how do we get there?  By following Mary’s example, being open to God’s will in our lives.  Imagine the fear, uncertainty, and maybe even disappointment of Mary at the Annunciation, as we hear in the Gospel.  She had no husband, she had no livelihood, and probably being so young, she might not have been able to support a child.  Imagine her disappointment perhaps, that her life wouldn’t be as simple as she had hoped.  In our lives, that fear will be there, that confusion and uncertainty will be there at times.  Maybe doing God’s will might make us uncomfortable.  Maybe following what the Lord has in mind means our lives won’t work out exactly as we had planned.  But that openness allows the Lord to bring forth fruit in our lives, just as we see in this simple woman becoming the Mother of the Redeemer, the fairest member of our race.

So as we celebrate this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, let us look at Mary as that snapshot.  A snapshot of the way that things used to be, but also the promise of what is to come.  As Blessed Pope Pius IX wrote as he declared this feast, “Let [us] continue to venerate, invoke and pray to the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, conceived without original sin. Let [us] fly with utter confidence to this most sweet Mother of mercy and grace in all dangers, difficulties, needs, doubts and fears. Under her guidance, under her patronage, under her kindness and protection, nothing is to be feared; nothing is hopeless.”

(Quote from Blessed Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, in which he declared the Immaculate Conception as a point of dogma.)

The Roman Missal: The Creed (Part I)

Imagine that you had to draw a map of St. Peters.  I know it’s not the most interesting thing, but think of how you would sum up St. Peters, Missouri in one small sheet of paper.  Sometimes maps are more or less detailed.  If you’re giving directions, you might just right the road names, or you could go further and mark where Mid Rivers Mall is, or you could even be super-detailed and mark even where key stores are in the mall itself.

Well, think of the Creed as a sort of map of our Catholic faith.  If someone asked you what Catholics believe, how would you sum it up?  Well, it’s hard to do a good and complete job in one minute or so, but we try to do as best we can, and the Creed presents our beliefs in a very concise manner.  We hit all our major beliefs in the Creed, not just that we believe in God: that the Father is creator of heaven and earth, that Jesus is both God and man and how he lived his life, that the Holy Spirit works throughout history, that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and that we believe in baptism and heaven.  That’s a lot to process for just one minute!

But that’s what we call the Creed – a definitive statement of what we believe as Catholics.  Actually, it’s technically called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed because it was developed at the Councils of Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (not Istanbul, 381 AD).  People had always made short creedal statements, as we might see in the writings of St. Paul, but these councils tried to establish a specific statement to be a definitive response to a variety of heresies that were confusing people and dividing the Church.  For Nicaea, it was the people who said that Jesus was a little less than God, and for Constantinople, it was people who said that Jesus wasn’t really a man.

But this is important!  People used to get in fights and riot in the streets arguing over the humanity and divinity of Jesus!  I’m not meaning to advocate violence, but if only we had people who were so enthusiastic about this!  The Creed we profess every Sunday took us hundreds of years of thinking and praying and working to define, and most of the time, we (myself included) rattle it off while thinking about what breakfast cereal we’re going to have.

Well, here’s your chance to say what you believe.  The first big change to the text is from “We believe” to “I believe”.  Not only is this the correct translation (Credo is a 1st person singular Latin word, not plural, for all you Latin and English scholars), but it offers us an opportunity to personally and individually lay claim to our beliefs.  These beliefs are not just the collective understanding of you, me, and the person falling asleep two pews up, but it’s a statement of what you believe as an individual disciple of Christ!

But it’s hard for us to profess what we don’t even understand, so stay tuned over the next few weeks as we talk about the other changes in the Creed.  It might take a while!

Homily From the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Year B

I grew up in Ballwin in St. Louis County, so for me, there was always this sort of cloud of awe around the city of St. Louis, especially downtown.  Actually, up until high school, I used to think that downtown actually began around Hampton Avenue!  But as I got older, and especially as I started going to school in Shrewsbury and down at SLU, I had a chance to see the city more, and found it to be kind of a dump.  You’ve got the area in North City around the Little Sisters of the Poor, which seemed to be destroying itself.  You have the Bevo Mill in South City, which can’t seem to stay open for more than a year.  Dilapidated buildings, violence, old facilities: these are the sort of things that we might associate with the city at times.  But then, we see things like the newly-renovated Peabody Opera House or the new condo complexes around the old St. Joseph Shrine, and it brings some sort of pride and hope.

So imagine the Ancient Israelites hearing the words of our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  The passage that we hear was written to the people in exile in Babylon.  They had seen their city destroyed before their eyes, and were led away in chains to a distant country.  Imagine the anguish of these people as they saw the Temple, the central building of their city and the focal point of their lives, torn down stone by stone.  But today, the message of God offers comfort to that people, assuring them that their city would be renovated, made new, and that they would return in joy.  That sense of pride that they had in their city is paired up with the love and mercy of God, who wants to bring them back.

But this message isn’t simply about the earthly city of Jerusalem – destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt over and over again.  The people of ancient Israel probably wouldn’t even recognize it today.  But the message of God, the message that John the Baptist proclaims in the Gospel is one directed to us today.  And the reason is because in God’s eyes, each one of our souls is a new and holy Jerusalem, a city where God chooses to dwell.  And he promises us that he has come to renovate that as well.

But as anyone in construction can tell you, renovation takes some time and preparation.  Just think of Highway 40 and you know what I mean.  In fact anything big takes preparation.  It may not seem like it, but I’m sure the Rams prepare for the game every Sunday, and the Cardinals have been taking this time after the World Series to prepare for a new season.  I’m not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but so much preparation even goes into making a canvas suitable for painting.  Sometimes we can walk by paintings and think nothing of it, but the reason that we even have them today is because of the amount of work that went into getting that canvas ready.  First you have to cut a wooden frame, cut the canvas and stretch it over that frame.  But then, the real work begins.  You’ve got to size the canvas, putting a protective coating over it so that the paint doesn’t bleed through.  Then there’s a thin layer of plaster to provide texture, color and absorbancy for the painting.  Then you have the use light sandpaper to sand off the canvas and then apply another layer of that plaster.  If even one step of this is skipped, then the paint will bleed through, deteriorate the canvas, and it will fall apart a few years down the line.  Christ himself wants to transform us by painting a new image of Jerusalem on our hearts, but we need to take the time necessary to prepare ourselves.

If there’s one thing that I think we can learn about the construction on Highway 94, it’s that things are much easier to renovate when their flat.  And in fact, the Lord tells us that this morning in the first reading.  He promises to fill in the valleys and lay low every mountain in order to build the new Jerusalem.  So where are those valleys and mountains in our lives?  Well, if you think about valleys, they’re not really actual objects, but just places where something else is missing, namely a hill or mountain.  So the valleys in our lives are those sins of omission, those things that we fail to do that becomes harmful for others.  Things such as failing to say something when our coworkers or friends are gossiping about someone.  Or hearing someone rail on the Church for everything under the sun, and not saying anything.  Sometimes it’s something to do with our relationships like not spending adequate time with family members, especially those in need, or not taking just a few moments out of the day to offer a prayer to God or that hour a week to worship Him.  These are the valleys in our lives.

So what about the mountains?  Those are much more obvious things in our lives – things that we ourselves have actively and knowingly do that place a gap between ourselves and God, that break up the new Jerusalem, and that make our hearts difficult to change.  With all the children’s confessions I’ve heard recently, I’m getting used to hearing about people hitting their sisters and kicking their dogs, and that sort of thing may be there in all of us.  But it also includes those sinful and selfish habits that we foster in darkness and that only a few people know about.

If there’s a feeling of shame or guilt that comes along with that, that might be helpful in getting someone moving, but know that all of us struggle with spiritual valleys and mountains, and that the call for us is to do something about it.  Now is the time during this season of Advent to prepare our hearts for the Lord’s renovation, most especially through the sacrament of reconciliation.  Usually the Church asks us each to go once a year, but it’s not just about the rules, but also about the condition of our own hearts.  And know that the priests and I will do everything we can to make that available to you as you prepare for Christmas.  All you have to do is mention it, shoot me an e-mail, send me a carrier pidgeon, whatever.  But as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas, as we prepare for that renovation of the Jerusalem of our hearts, let us sincerely and prayerfully hear him speaking tenderly to us, “Comfort, Comfort, O My People.”

 

Please note, although the homily is original and comes from my own reflections and prayer, I was significantly inspired, in some cases directly, from some of the homilies on ePriest.com.  Just so you know…

Advent Penance Service: The Prodigal Son

The Gospel for the Parish Penance service this evening was the parable of the Prodigal Son, which you can find here.

Does anyone here like surprises?  Usually, this year is primed for surprises, whether they be special Christmas gifts under the tree, a surprise visit from a family member coming into town this Christmas, the surprise of waking up and finding out that the Cardinals signed Albert Pujols overnight…  This season is filled with surprises!  It’s exciting especially to see the surprise on a child’s face when they are opening Christmas gifts, so confident that they’re getting one thing, and then finding something completely different and far better under all that wrapping.  It’s exciting to be surprised.

It might be difficult to imagine this, but think of the surprise that the Prodigal Son received as well.  Let’s walk through the story together.  We hear that he’s asking the Father for his share of the inheritance.  Now remember, his father hadn’t died yet!  Think of what he was saying: Dad, I know you’re not dead yet, but I want my share of that inheritance, and I’m leaving.  He was saying, “I don’t love you anymore, I don’t need you, I don’t care for you.  Just leave me to my own life.”  What a terrible thing to say, and what pain the father must have felt in his heart at this betrayal!  But his father sort of shrugs it off and allows his son to do as he wishes, even if it means going off and squandering the money.  So the son does just that.  But eventually, he realizes what he’s done, what he’s said.  And he decides to turn around and accept the responsibility.  He knows that he deserves nothing – except punishment.  He knows he’s a sinner.  And he expected his father to do what every other father would do here.  He expected to return home and live a life of miserable servitude for the rest of his life.  But at least he’d be alive, right?  He thought he knew what was coming.

But then what he received was completely different.  His father didn’t just sit back while the son crawled to him for forgiveness.  No, even while he was a long way off, he came out to meet him.  But think about that – that must have meant that he had been waiting, watching every day for his son to return, and then, even as old as he is, he comes running out to embrace the son!  He clothes him, exalts him, and then celebrates the rebirth of his son!

Wow!  What an incredible surprise!  I think sometimes we can act like this son – I hope we can act like this son.  We know that each one of us is weak, human, fragile; and we sin.  We demand things a certain way from God, and we say, “Just give me what’s mine, and get out of here.  I don’t need you, God.  I don’t want you.  I’m better off on my own.”  Sin is an ugly, nasty, terrible thing.  And God gives us the freedom to be able to do that.  But at some point, we find ourselves here, sitting in this church.  We begin to look around, and we realize our mistakes, our ingratitude.  We know that we deserve nothing at all except punishment, and so we start to expect that.  The slap on the wrist, the heavy hand, the priest saying to us, “You did what?  I’m so disappointed.”  The shame has taken us over, and so we come to expect these things.

But then the surprise comes.  God, through the grace of this beautiful sacrament of healing, comes racing down from heaven to meet us and lift us back on our feet.  Like that father in the parable, our heavenly Father is watching, anxious and yearning to reach down to us – not to strike us as we’d expect.  Not to condemn us.  But rather, to bring us back!  God wants to bring us back so much that he gives us the gift of this simple sacrament – a dialogue with his priest that results in our being set free.

A good image of this comes to mind for me in Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel.  You probably all know this one.  Adam, God’s creation, is barely lifting his hand, almost as if he’s sapped of life and energy.  But then you look at God the Father, who isn’t reclining back, waiting for Adam to crawl to his heavenly throne.  He’s making every effort, almost as if he’s straining to maintain his balance on that cloud, reaching to touch Adam’s hand and bring him to life.

Tonight, he does the same for us.  So if you have that fear, that nervousness about confession that I think a lot of people have, don’t be afraid.  Be surprised!  Be amazed and awestruck at the great gift of the Father rushing out to meet us, here to put the cloak of his grace around us, and to give us the ring of eternal life.  And then, being brought once more into the fullness of the family of the Church, let us strive to live as new sons and daughters of our one Father in Heaven.