FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH, December 27, 2020:
In my homily for Christmas, I mentioned that the birth of Jesus invites us to remember a simple, but essential, truth – that the God we worship is real. That He became one of us; and when He came, He didn’t just appear magically out of thin air. No, when God decided to come to earth as one of us, He appeared in the world the same way we do – as part of a family – a family that begins with Abraham and Sarah, a family that includes King David and King Solomon, one includes Joseph and Mary – and one that includes us. A real family with real people just like you and me.
Today’s feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – so close to the Feast of Christmas – asks us to take a moment to reflect a bit more deeply on that same reality. Christmas, as we know, is not done in a day. Maybe it is in our secular world, which is already turning its attention to New Year’s, and soon after Valentine’s Day and then whatever other opportunity to sell more things comes along. But, here in the Church, this reality of Christmas, the truth that the Word Became Flesh and dwelt among us; this reality takes time for us to properly pray with. In fact, we will continue to celebrate Christmas for a few more weeks as we consider the Holy Family, then the Epiphany, and finally the Baptism of Jesus.
All of our songs, our symbols and our prayers are inviting us to draw more deeply into the experience of the incarnation of the Lord. One of those profound ways we enter into this moment more deeply is through our beautiful Christmas mangers. They are so beautiful and probably the most treasured of decorations in most households. In fact, in many families, Christmas mangers are even handed down from generation to generation. We have large beautiful ones here in our church, and we have them in many forms large and small in our homes. One of my most treasured ones is in my room in the rectory. It is very simple. A few pieces of wood hammered together, a ziplock full of hay that has been with the manger at least as long as I’ve been alive, and some very inexpensive figurines. But, it is special because it has been in my family for a long time and is the manger that I remember most profoundly from my own youth. It reminds me not only of the scene it represents – the birth of Jesus, but it also call to mind countless meaningful Christmases as a child; and since my Mom’s passing a few years ago, it reminds me deeply of her.
If you know the history of the Christmas manger, you know that it was St. Francis of Assisi who originated this custom in 1223. St. Francis did this because he wanted to literally enter the scene of Jesus birth to understand the impact of that momnt. He wanted to imagine what it was like. This was obviously a popular gesture as we know it is now shared all over the world.
Today’s feast in particular invites us to reflect on the fact that when God chose to come to us; He chose to enter humanity not in a grandiose way, not with trumpet blast and glory, but very simply He entered the world within a family. And, reflecting on our Christmas Nativity, it also tells us that He chose to enter humanity in some unexpected ways – as someone who was homeless – they could not find a place to lay their head; as a migrant as they were on their way to another land for the census. He chose to enter our world as a refugee, as they had to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. And, He chose to enter our world completely and utterly defenseless - as a little baby, someone helpless and relying upon the assistance of others if He were to survive to an age where He could complete His mission of spreading the good news and bringing His promised salvation.
God chose to enter our world precisely in the places and in the people and in the ways that we, today, so often struggle to see God. When we look at the immigrant, the refugee, the homeless, the helpless, what do we see? Do we realize that they are icons of the very same image of God as He was on that first Christmas morning?
Our Christmas mangers are an image of a homeless, migrant family who had no place to lay their head. And every day there are thousands of people around us right here in our own community who are also homeless, or hungry, or unable to meet their most basic needs. As we encounter these people, do we see the similarity between their image and the image of the Holy Family? “When did we see you Lord? What you did for the least of these, you did for me.” God is as present in these people and these places today as He was in that manger 2,000 years ago.
In a few days or weeks, our Christmas mangers will be carefully packed and put away for another year, but these urban mangers that surround us on our streets remain in the men and women in need all around us. I think this is exactly why Jesus came to us, God Himself came to us, in a family, and one that was homeless and migrant and in need of the help of others. Because He wanted us then and now, to look at our own family, to look at the homeless and helpless around us, and to see that God is present there too; they are not the “other”; instead, they are our brother, our sister, our holy family – and He wants us to reach out to them in their need.
My friends, Jesus came among us to bring God’s presence into our midst, into our lives so that we might see that same presence in one another; that we might see God’s presence in the most unlikely of places. If we want to become a Holy Family, this is how we do it. We say yes to that Godly presence, yes to that invitation before our eyes, just as Joseph and Mary did so long ago. And it will make all the difference in our lives, in our world and in our families. May we become one, united and holy family under our loving and compassionate God this Christmas and always.
Merry Christmas and may the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 20, 2020:
Shakespeare famously wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Names are interesting things, and especially for traditional Biblical names, even just a name can tell a story.
In our weekly Bible Study on Tuesday, I was addressing just this point with the names that are presented to us in our Gospel passage today. We are given five names – Gabriel, Joseph, David, Mary, and Jesus. If we had only those names from this passage, it still tells a powerful story. Gabriel means, “God is my strength;” Joseph means, “God will increase;” both David and Mary mean “beloved;” and the name Jesus means, “God will save.” That alone is a powerful proclamation.
What’s in a name? Names usually have something to tell us about who we are. How often we are named after family members or close friends. Our names say something about our people, our family, who and where we come from. You probably have great stories about your own name or some of the names in your family. So much of our Advent reflection is also about two names in particular. All through Advent, we hear the name Emmanuel. We’ve sung, “O come, Emmanuel.” And, of course, the second name is Jesus, the child whose birth we eagerly await.
When we look a little deeper, we realize that these two names have great meaning for us. The name Emmanuel tells us something very important about the birth of this child. This is no ordinary child. When He is born, His birth will mean, as His name means, that “God is with us.” His birth signifies something different in the whole of human history. We do not have a God who loves us from afar; a God who communicates to us always through someone or something else. Our God comes to us directly – to be in our midst as one of us; to know our joys and hopes intimately – as we know them; to know our struggles and challenges. To proclaim His love to us directly. God is with us!
And then we have the name Jesus – the name that the angels tells Joseph that he is to give to this child. This name also tells us something more about what this presence of God among us means. The name Jesus means, “God is salvation.” The name tells us that Jesus is not here only to be among us, but that His presence in our midst will also do something so amazing – Jesus presence in our midst will open the gates of salvation for us. When we look at these names together we learn what we’re really meant to hear: that the birth of this child will mean that our God is with us and He is our salvation!
As we enter these final days of our Advent journey, let us be mindful of what we celebrate – the fact that our God loves us so much that He became one of us; that He enters our world, our lives, our struggles and our joys. That our God loves us so much that He opens the gates of salvation for us so that He can be with us and we can be with Him forever. That we are His beloved and through us, He wants to increase His presence in our lives and our world.
And let us also remember that through our baptism, we also received a name – the name Christian, a name that means literally “little Christ.” We remember that the effect of this visitation of our God is that He calls us to be like Him; that when people see us, they see Him; that we are a living reflection of the God who is with us and comes to save us.
God is not distant. He is right here, by our side, in our hearts, on our altar. He is sharing our struggles, walking with us in our suffering, laughing with us in our joys, sharing with us in our triumphs, always there when we need Him; and always calling us to reflect His image to the world. This is Emmanuel, this is Jesus. God is with us and will save us. So, what’s in a name? Nothing less than our salvation.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 3rd SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 13, 2020:
Years ago, there was a monastery that was going through a crisis. Some of the monks had left the monastery; no new candidates were joining them; and people were no longer coming for prayer and spiritual direction. The few monks that remained became old, depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. But, the abbot heard about a holy hermit living in the woods and decided to consult him. He told the hermit how bad things had become and that only seven old monks remained. Praying about this, the hermit told the abbot that he had a secret for him: one of the monks currently living in his monastery was actually the Messiah, but He was living in such a way that no one could recognize Him.
With this revelation the abbot returned to his monastery, and recounted what the hermit told him. The monks looked at each other in disbelief, trying to discern who, among them, could be the Christ. Could it be Brother Mark who prays all the time? But he has a holier-than-thou attitude toward others. Could it be Bother Joseph who is always ready to help? But he is always eating and could never fast. The abbot reminded them that the Messiah had adopted some bad habits to disguise His true identity. This only made them more confused and they could not figure out who was Christ among them. All they knew for sure was that any of them could be the Christ.
So, from that day on they began to treat one another with greater respect and humility, knowing that the person they were speaking to could, in fact, be Christ. They began to show more love, their common life became more brotherly and their common prayer more fervent. Slowly people began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and began coming back for retreats and worship. Word began to spread and, before you know it, candidates began to show up and the monastery began to grow again as the monks grew in holiness. All this because of their awareness of a simple truth: Christ was living in their midst.
My sisters and brothers, Advent is for us a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord: we recall His birth 2,000 years ago; we look forward to His return at the end of time. But, now, suppose that we were told, like the monks in our story, that the Christ for whom we are waiting is already here in our midst – what difference would that make? Would we treat each other with more reverence, with more kindness and compassion?
We live in a world that feels more devoid of kindness, compassion, love, concern, goodness and holiness than ever before. Bu, today, John the Baptist is our hermit, our holy man, with a life-changing message. John tells us, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me.”
Now, the reason the people of Jesus’ time could not recognize Him as the Messiah is that they had their own ideas about how the Messiah was going to come. He would suddenly descend from heaven in His divine power and majesty and establish His reign by destroying the enemies of Israel. No one would know where He came from because He came from God. So when Jesus finally arrived, born of a woman just like everyone else, they did not recognize Him. He was too ordinary, too much like them, and so, far too many people didn’t see the very presence of God in their midst.
We face the same challenge today. We too have our own expectations of what God in our midst should look like. We too have created expectations so amazing that they can keep us from seeing God among us, seeing God in one another. God is right in front of us in Word, in Sacrament, and perhaps where we miss Him most often – God is present within us, and in every single person we meet. God is present even in those we don’t like, or those with whom we disagree, or in those our world has deemed unworthy. After all, this is why when we hear, “The Lord be with you,” we respond, “And with your spirit.” These words recognize God’s presence in those around us. The Lord is in you and is in me. I recognize God’s spirit within you.
And so, my friends, listen carefully today because I have a secret for you. One of the members of our community is actually the Messiah, but living in such a way that they aren’t quickly recognized. “There is one among you whom you do not recognize.” So, how will we recognize this presence of God in our midst? Because God is right here before us, waiting for us to invite Him in.
Let us revere each other as the very presence of God in our midst, let us care for each other, as though caring for Christ Himself. Let us greet even our enemies with the dignity of those who bear the Spirit of the Lord. Because, my friends, it will make all the difference.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 6, 2020:
Back in my seminary days we did a production of the musical Godspell. I was recently listening to the wonderful music from the show, and thinking of it today because the musical begins with the same cry that we hear from both Isaiah and John the Baptist today, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Advent is our annual season of preparation; it is a a season of waiting, as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christmas, the great feast of God’s Incarnation as one of us; and we await His future return to us at the End of Time.
In life we are certainly used to waiting. Just think of the hours spent waiting in traffic. In a normal year, we would be thinking about the time spent waiting in line at stores doing our Christmas shopping. We’ve replaced that waiting with other kinds of waiting – waiting to take a COVID test, waiting for the results, waiting for the vaccine to become available – just waiting for all of this to be over. A lot of waiting – like in traffic or at a store - are not purposeful. They’re usually not worth the wait.
During Advent, we ask the same question – is it worth the wait – but with a very different answer. The prayerful waiting we engage during Advent is indeed worth the wait because instead of a frustrating wait with undefined benefit, our Scripture today call us to wait in a purposeful way. And Scripture gives us something to do in our waiting, we are to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The readings put before us some examples of waiting purposefully. We have of course, Isaiah and John the Baptist who both offer us a waiting that involves reform of life, they call us to prepare for the arrival of Jesus by living a life of repentance. They call us to reflect on our own lives and ask “are we ready for Jesus return?” But, there is another Advent example that I find even more helpful in understanding how we are to wait – the example of Mary.
If we look at our Scriptures as a story, at this point in the story, Mary is pregnant awaiting the birth of the baby Jesus. We can learn a lot about purposeful waiting from pregnancy. Pregnancy is all about waiting. I remember a few years ago, I was visiting with a friend and his wife who shared the news that they were expecting their third child. I responded excitedly, “Congratulations! That’s great! You must be so excited!” But to my enthusiasm, my friend’s wife looked at me, rolled her eyes a bit, sighed and said, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited about having another baby. I just wish I could do it without going through pregnancy.” We tend to romanticize pregnancy don’t we? Pregnancy is so beautiful. Women look so radiant. But, for my friend’s wife, and many women like her, pregnancies are difficult. With her two prior pregnancies, they were so difficult that she had to remain in bed during the final months. She experienced serious medical issues during her last pregnancy. For this third child, she was also very closely monitored.
The simple point is that being pregnant is not easy and can even be quite difficult, but it is worth the wait. And it is I think the most helpful image for our time of Advent waiting and preparing. We, too, all of us, are in a spiritual sense pregnant and waiting – waiting to give birth once again to Jesus in our lives. And so, God calls us all to make real change in our lives; to acknowledge His Son and “make straight our paths.”
As God calls each of us to reform our lives, depending on what we need to change, this might be for us a difficult time. But, if we can wait and prepare, it will bring forth new and wonderful life – but it takes time, it takes patience, it takes the will to be transformed into the image that God calls us to.
So we continue to wait in the midst of this Advent-tide. Is our waiting purposeful? With the days we have ahead of us, create space in your life every day to be present to God. Allow Him to prepare your soul. Pope Emeritus Benedict said a few years ago, “Do you leave space to hear God's whisper, calling you forth into goodness? Let His word shape your journey."
Prepare by embracing all that the Sacraments have to offer. Allow God to cleanse you in Reconciliation. Allow God to nourish you through the Eucharist and be transformed into the very Presence of Christ you receive.
And reach out to others. Reach out to those who don't know Christ. Reach out to those who are suffering. As we reach out to them, we too come closer to Christ.
Let us pray through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Church, for the patience and the courage to allow God to create new life in us – as individuals, as a parish community, as a Church. Let us use this time of Advent to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
May the Lord give you peace.
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