FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE NATIVITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST (Christmas), December 25, 2019:
I came across an old Celtic poem recently that begins, “The magic of Christmas lingers, as childhood days have passed.” This sentence really struck a chord with me as the magic and the wonder of Christmas time is something that we usually associate with our childhood. We remember all of the things that we did as families, or that our parents did for us, that made Christmas a moment of true wonder and awe.
I particularly remember all of the Christmas TV specials. During that time from Thanksgiving to Christmas we were so excited when any of them would come on. After dinner, we would hurriedly take our bath, put on our PJs and sit in front of the TV to watch, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It wouldn’t be Christmastime without watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and my all-time favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I recently saw something online that made the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas even more profound. At the heart of A Charlie Brown Christmas is the scene were young Linus reminds every one of the true meaning of Christmas as he recites the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. It is the same passage we just heard proclaimed tonight. “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.’”
But, for as many times as I have seen that special, there was one small but important detail that I had never noticed before until now. Charlie Brown is best known for his striped shirt, and Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the story of Peanuts, Lucy, Snoopy, Sally and others all are always trying to separate Linus from his blanket. And they always fail. Even though his security blanket is a source of ridicule for the otherwise mature and thoughtful Linus, he refuses to give it up. It makes him feel safe and secure.
Until this moment. As Linus is sharing the story of Christ’s birth, he drops his blanket. In that climactic scene when Linus shares what Christmas is all about, he drops his security blanket, and most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, “Do not be afraid.”
This cannot be a coincidence or something unintentional. It seems instead that Peanuts creator Charles Schultz was telling us something so simple, so important, so brilliant. He was reminding us that the birth of Jesus separates us from our fears. The birth of Jesus frees us from the habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves. The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and instead to trust and cling to Jesus.
We all know that we live in times that are in so many ways defined by fear. Fear of the other, fear of the immigrant, fear of the refugee, fear of the poor and the homeless and the addict. Fear of war, fear of terror, fear of gun violence. Fear seemingly everywhere. We may be among those who find ourselves grasping at something – anything – that offers a sense of security, whatever that might mean.
But, in the midst of it all, Jesus comes once again to remind us of something profound and deeply meaningful – “Do not be afraid…For today a savior has been born for you.” My friends, we are reminded especially today of this eternal truth: We were not created for fear. Fear is not a place or a space that we were ever meant to occupy. Fear keeps us from being ourselves; from being who we were created to be. And we were created for hope. We were created for joy. We were created for holiness. We were created kindness and compassion. We are the “light of the world.” We are the “salt of the earth.” We are called to be the leaven in our society, lifting the world out of its fear and anger and negativity into the joy, love, compassion, forgiveness and healing of Jesus. We have been created for hope. Do not be afraid.
A local church was conducting a Christmas pageant one year. The grand finale came as a class of six-year-old’s rose to sing the song, "Christmas Love." As they sang, the children in the front row held up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. As each letter was presented, the children would sing "C is for Christmas," or "H is for Happy," and so on, until each child holding up their portion had presented the message "Christmas Love." Everything was going smoothly, until everyone noticed a small, quiet, girl in the front row holding her letter "M" upside down - totally unaware her letter appeared as a "W."
The audience chuckled at the little girl’s mistake. She had no idea they were laughing at her, so she stood tall, proudly holding her "W.” Although the teachers tried to quiet the children, the laughter continued until the last letter was raised. And when it was, a hush came over the audience and eyes began to widen. In that instant, they understood the true message of that day, and that perhaps God had a plan in the little girl’s “W.” For when the last letter was held high, the message read loud and clear: "CHRIST WAS LOVE.” And, my brothers and sister, I believe, He still is.
My friends, “Do not be afraid”. Instead let the wonder and awe of Christmas linger long beyond today. Be the light, be the salt, be the leaven, be the hope and joy and kindness and love that Christ created you to be. Let the wonder of Christmas linger in you.
Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 21, 2019:
A kindergarten teacher told her class the story of Christmas complete with the angels’ glorious announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and the Three Wise Men recognizing the star in the sky and travelling a tremendous distance to see this new born King. At the end of the story she asked, “Now tell me, of all these people, who was the first to know about the birth of Jesus?” A little girl raised her hand and answered simply, “Mary.” How many of us missed that? Sometimes we, as adults, miss the obvious because we’re expecting more complicated answers, all the while the real answer is simple and obvious, and right in front of our eyes.
We do this with God too. We have a tendency to associate God with the phenomenal and the spectacular, like the host of angels or the guiding star, so much so that we can fail to notice God’s presence and action in the ordinary and normal things of life, such as pregnancy and birth. The child’s simple answer reminds us to take a moment to look at the ordinary things that we take for granted every day and see God’s hand in them, and this is a good message for us as we are just days away from celebrating Christmas. Especially at this time of year, we can get so caught up in the busyness of gifts and travel and dinners, that we just might miss the simple and profound reality of the day – that God loves us and that God is with us.
Our gospel today begins with a seemingly casual statement: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…” But for the average person of Jesus’ time this statement would be a shock because popular belief in those days did not expect the Messiah to be born of a woman, born in a normal way, as an average baby, born the same way as you and I. Though the scribes and scholars were aware of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, the average person held to the popular belief that the Messiah would arrive unexpectedly and in an extraordinary way. The Messiah was expected to somehow drop suddenly from the skies, full-grown in all His divine power. He would arrive, of course, on the Temple mount – at the very heart of Jewish worship – in thunder, in glory, in majesty and in awe!
People found it hard to reconcile these expectations with the reality of Jesus who they knew was born normally and raised in their midst, like a regular kid. As we hear in Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel, “We know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” They found the ordinary way of God’s arrival, the ordinary experience of God’s presence and God’s every day action among His people to be too simple, too obvious, to underwhelming to possibly be true.
And much like the people of Jesus time, we are also waiting for the coming of God among us, for our Emmanuel. Maybe we should take a moment and ask ourselves, how do we expect God to come to us? How does God work among us? This is important because sometimes when we feel that God is not with us, the reality is that He is standing right by our side, but we don’t recognize His presence and action among us because we’re looking for something else. Can we accept God the way He is, the way He desires to be present among us, the way He hopes to speak His word; or do we wait insisting that He conform His presence to our desires?
Just think of how often we treat the Holy Mass as commonplace, as ordinary, as nothing special, even as something boring. And yet, God is with us – right here, right now. God is with us as we gather in His holy name today – “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” God is here as His word, not ours, is proclaimed in the readings from Sacred Scripture. And, so profoundly, God is here among us as simple bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus – not a symbol, not a reminder, but the Real Jesus, right here on our altar and right here in our hearts as we receive Him. St. Francis of Assisi said of the Eucharist, “O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under the simple form of bread! Look at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before him.”
The coming of the long awaited Messiah, the light of the world, the King of kings and the desire of nations, not through clouds and lightning but through the nine-month pregnancy of a simple young woman, through 30 years of the normal human process of infancy, adolescence and adulthood, reminds us that God comes to us in the ordinary, normal, daily circumstances of life. God comes to us in the regular people we see around us being born, growing up, growing old and even dying – and in His Real Presence in this bread and wine transformed into Body and Blood.
It is often hardest to see God in the people, places and situations that are most familiar to us, not to mention how hard it is sometimes to see God even in ourselves. But if we see the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, as a bridge between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the order of grace and the order of nature, between the sacred and the ordinary, maybe we will begin to see the presence and action of God more and more in our daily lives. Remember, when God did the most spectacular thing ever in the history of the world – becoming one of us – He did it in the most ordinary way. So, why should we expect Him to act any differently today; with us?
There is a proverb that says, “Listen closely, and you can hear even the footsteps of ants.” Today, in these final days of Advent, as we prepare for the great event of Emmanuel, God-is-with-us, we are challenged to listen closely and hear even the footsteps of God who comes into our lives in ordinary ways, through the person on our left and on our right and at the everyday, normal, ordinary moments of our lives.
My brothers and sisters, God is with us. Do you see what I see?
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT, GAUDETE SUNDAY, December 15, 2019:
The entrance antiphon for our Mass today is what gives today’s celebration its theme and direction. The antiphon, taken from Philippians, says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” We call this Third Sunday of Advent Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice and it takes its name from that first word of the antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
We can really minimize the power of this celebration if we only think about rejoicing in a superficial way. For example, this week I had the chance to go to the Holiday Pops concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. I really enjoyed that. I also really enjoyed the nice dinner we went out for after the concert. At this time of year, we rejoice in and enjoy Christmas parties, and holiday sweets, and Christmas music, and so many of the other traditions that are popular and typical at this time of year. We enjoy many things at this level – we enjoy music, art, entertainment, food, casual friends and acquaintances. This list could go on and on because the things that we enjoy and rejoice in on a more superficial level are many and great.
Somehow, I don’t think this is the point of our celebration today. Somehow, I think Jesus is calling forth something greater from us then these things which are, in the end, really trivial. “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
This actually came into crystal clarity for me just yesterday. I celebrated a funeral yesterday for a parishioner at St. Stan’s church. This parishioner was 92 years old and a woman of deep joy and deep faith. She had a hard life. Born during the Great Depression, she lived through the Second World War. She got married and started a family with five children, then 42 years ago, her husband died suddenly of a heart attack at just 50 years old.
But, in the sacristy, just before the funeral began, I learned an important detail about this woman and her family. When her husband died 42 years ago so suddenly, one of her sons attended the funeral dressed in a bright white suit. He dressed that way because he knew in his very bones that even though it was a tragic moment to lose your Dad so young, that the resurrection is real; Jesus is real; all that we are promised in and through our faith is real. It was a sadness of separation for him and his family – but it was a moment of profound rejoicing for his father, who now enjoyed the very presence of God. He was rejoicing in the Lord.
Jump ahead 42 years to yesterday’s funeral and I was moved again by the faith of this family. When I entered the church for the funeral Mass, the church was full of pink flowers and just about everyone on attendance was dressed with some pink – a pink scarf here, a pink flower on a lapel there. Shirts, jackets, and more. The church was filled with the color pink.
When I approached the ambo for the homily, I had a whole text that I had prepared to deliver at the funeral, but instead I felt like God was asking me to say something else. I said, “I don’t think I am going out on a limb today if I would suggest that pink was Emily’s favorite color?” I know the family did not intend all of that pink to be a reflection on Gaudete Sunday, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to make that connection for them. What I realized in that moment is that our celebration of Gaudete is not merely a reminder that Christmas is right around the corner.
Our pink flowers and pink vestments and the pink candle of our wreath are not meant to give us the message that there are only 10 shopping days left! No, these things are all meant to speak especially into those profound moments in our lives; the moments that define our lives, define who we are; the moments that form us and shape us – like the one that Emily’s family faced yesterday and surely today and for many days ahead, “Rejoice in the Lord always” because your salvation is at hand!
We all see the bumper stickers, posters, and memes on the internet that say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And a true sentiment that is. But, what is the reason for Jesus? The reason for Jesus is the forgiveness of our sins. The reason for Jesus is to open the gates of paradise. The reason for Jesus is to show us how to live in harmony with one another and with our God. The very reason for Jesus to let us know profoundly in our hearts that our God is with us – right near us, by our sides, in our hearts, making sense of our tragedies, multiplying and magnifying our joys.
We rejoice and are excited today because something is so very close to us – not presents and parties and the Christmas goose! What is close to us is the very salvation that the little Babe of Bethlehem came to inaugurate. This is Advent. This is Emmanuel – my friends, God IS with us! And He wants to speak to us not only in the joy and enthusiasm of the season – He also wants to speak to us in the sadness and loneliness and challenging moments of our lives. Especially when our hearts are heavy with grief or closed in anger or wounded by the words and actions of others – Jesus wants us to know how close He is to us in all of those moments. It is there and then that He wraps us lovingly in His strong and comforting arms.
So my friends, today above all days, we rejoice in the Lord because our salvation is at hand. We rejoice in the Lord because our God is ever near. We rejoice in the Lord because He is with us in our sadness and grief; He is with us in our sorrows and pains; He is with us in our joy and triumphs. He is always with us.
Jesus said to them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” All because our God is near.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 8, 2019:
A few years ago, I read a story about a very interesting program on the West Coast that offered to remove unwanted tattoos – especially gang-related tattoos – from the bodies of young people. A surprising thing happened after the story first appeared in the newspaper. Over a thousand letters flooded in from young people all over the country asking about the program. Because of the remarkable response, the Los Angeles School District and a local cable TV company produced a film called Untattoo You. It told about the dangers of tattooing and showed how difficult it was to remove even small tattoos from arms and faces and larger ones from chests and backs. The stars of the film were the young people themselves. They talked honestly about why they got them in the first place and why they wanted them removed.
The story behind this film gets at an important point in our lives – the simple reality that all of us have probably done something in our lives that we regret and would like to erase. These things aren’t always as visible as a tattoo, but we all make mistakes or make poor decisions, it is part of being human and sometimes we wish we could make these mistakes just disappear. The tragedy is that too often we don’t know what to do about it.
Now, if we take a moment to slow down this Advent, to listen to the words of Scripture and the songs being sung, to take a few moments out of the hustle and bustle of the season, we might discover that this is in fact the message of Advent. That it is the message of Jesus. It is what is offered to us every time we enter the Confessional; every time we gather around the altar for the Eucharist. Jesus is reminding us to welcome Him again. He is saying, “I am always right here to change your darkness into light; to change your sin into holiness; to change your sadness into joy. I’m here to make all things new for you.”
We hear the dramatic description of John the Baptist today: a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Those words are being spoken to us, telling us to prepare once again; to ready our hearts once again that Jesus might find a home there; to clear the pathways so that He can enter in.
Pope Francis has been a similar voice to the church and the world crying out inviting us to prepare. He has reminded us of powerful realities like the fact that “God never tires of forgiving us.” So, we should never tire of seeking out that forgiveness. And in The Joy of the Gospel he said, “Now is the time to say to Jesus: ‘Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace’.”
So, as we hear the words of Scripture today, “Prepare the way of the Lord”, “Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand”, “The one who will come after me is greater than I”, what are we to do? Well, these words are not merely historic, they are present and alive, meant for each one of us today just as much as they were meant for the men and women who first heard them more than 2,000 years ago. These words, here today, are an invitation to you and me to become new again in Jesus. To leave behind whatever marks, there are on our souls that we regret – let God have them, let God heal them, let God change and transform them. As St. Francis of Assisi said, you should “Hold back nothing of yourself for yourself, so that He who has given Himself completely to you, might receive you completely.” So, don’t let this Sunday at Mass be like every other, any other Sunday. Today, look into your heart and leave it all here. Today, let God have all those things you want to change. Let Him have the words you wish you never said, the things you wish you never did. Today, prepare the way, make some room, let Jesus in the Eucharist fill you completely.
Pope Francis said, “I have this certainty: God is in every person's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else - God is in this person's life. You can - you must - try to seek God in every human life.” My friends, God is in our lives and He wants to be in them more and more. That is the message of Advent. To prepare ourselves because God is coming. Prepare ourselves because God wants to make His home with us, in us.
So, as we enter into this Eucharist today, let us open ourselves completely to Him. Hold back nothing of yourselves. Put all that you are – even and especially the parts you want to change – spiritually on the altar along with the bread and wine and just as Jesus changes them into something miraculous, let Him change you too into something miraculous – let Him make you everything He knows you can be; the very person He created you to be. Prepare the way today, once more.
May the Lord give you peace.