Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Vigil (OF)

Stories have been a part of our human experience since we have existed.  Even before we could write out words, we traced images onto the walls of caves.  Soon we began to have those appointed to the task of telling stories, either through recitation or through writing.  With the advent of motion pictures, we now have even more ways to enjoy our favorite stories come to life before our eyes. How many different stories have been told throughout the centuries: Odysseus and Aeneas, Arthur and Camelot, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the modern sagas of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Each of us has that story that we know from beginning to end, that story which we treasure greatly, which we return to time and time again.
What is it about that one story that attracts us to return to it even when we know the plot and could probably recite the whole thing from memory? It is something which speaks to us deep down within our being, striking a chord within our heart.  It resonates with what we desire and what we wish could be.  It is the proper resolution of all things: the wicked are overthrown and punished, the good are rewarded, and all live happily ever after.
This resolution is what every decent human being desires in their own life, and so we seek to affirm this by clinging on to stories where this resolution occurs.  How else do you explain the movies which get the biggest box office profits?  We want to see the triumph of good over evil, the victory of the hero against the villain, not the opposite.  Only a deformed mind would desire that evil emerges triumphant and good be crushed.  We treasure these stories because we recognize the reality that there is evil in our world, and that perhaps it might win over us unless we act.
Yet how often does it seem that this view of good versus evil is called simplistic or misguided in our own day?  We are told that one man’s view of good and evil may be vastly different than another’s, and that we must not seek to impose or be intolerant of the other’s views. Some even question the labels “good” and “evil” as being out-of-touch with the modern understanding of morality.  They will tell us that each value has its own place and time and that we cannot judge or dismiss these ideas from our minds. How often do we hear the phrase, “Who am I to judge?”
If any of us really believed this view of the relative value of good and evil, then we would not be here tonight.  For tonight we re-hear the story that has been woven into the human experience from the very beginning.  We hear once more the story of the real battle of good and evil which has been waged from the creation of the world, and which continues now and unto the end of time.  It is the story we are all too familiar with, yet the story which we should delight in the most.
Saint Matthew hints at this story in the beginning of his Gospel, when, as we have just heard, he lists out the generations between Abraham, David, and the one whose birth we are beginning to celebrate.  For those who are in the know, this list of names is like the beginning of a TV episode saying ‘Previously on...”  That story which is found within those names begins in the Garden of Eden, when God creates man and woman, giving them life and calling them to union with Himself.  Of the fall of humanity we are all too familiar both in story form and in our own experiences.  We may try to deny it, but we know that there is a condition which leads each one of us to do that which we know is not right or to avoid doing that which is good.  So we see evil strike its first blow against God and against humanity, but it is not the last blow for either side.
Our story continues with Abraham: called in other places in the Scriptures the righteous or the faithful.  He obeys God completely in his life, from his call to leave his homeland and enter Canaan - the future home of his descendants - or even to the point of nearly offering his son as a sacrifice to God.  Abraham is one of the most holy people portrayed in the Old Testament, but he is not capable of finishing the story, and so it continues after him.
Next we see King David, the strong warrior who secures the nation of Israel against her enemies. David is highly praised in the Scriptures, especially in the Psalms as a righteous king and a holy warrior.  Yet David was not completely righteous or faithful; the most famous incident is when he lures Bathsheba away from her husband and commits adultery with her, even killing her husband so that she could be his wife.  David is thus seen as incapable of completing this story of humanity, and so it continues after him.
We then hear about those who are sent into exile after Israel is conquered many years after the death of David. This is one of the lowest points in the story up to tonight’s feast: the nation promised by God to exist forever had been conquered and banished from the Promised Land.  It seems at this point that God will not be victorious, that perhaps the devil will emerge victorious in this story.  But it is not the case: God eventually frees the people so that they may return to their heritage and live once more in the favor and grace of God.  Yet none of these men or women listed were able to conclude our story, and so it continues after them. It continues until tonight.
With the child whose birth we celebrate tonight, our story begins to turn towards its climax through the introduction of the most unexpected of persons: not another character but the very Author of the story itself.  For the child born to us this night is no mere child.  He is the Creator of the entire universe become a creature within that same universe; He is the Author of the great story who becomes one of the characters within that same story; He is the indivisible, infinite, immortal, eternal God become weak, fragile, mortal man so as to serve that same God.  It is this child who will turn the story towards its climax through His life and through His death.
Indeed, what we celebrate tonight is the fact that God becomes personally present to us through the same flesh which we all possess so as to bring about the conclusion desired by God.  Only the Author can end the story, and so too is it necessary for God to bring about this needed conclusion. Yet humanity must be intimately involved in that conclusion since it was man who started the mess in the first place.  So it is that God takes on our flesh and is given a part in the story which He has already written before the dawn of time.  So it is that this Jesus is born in Bethlehem so as to free us from our sins.
We know the conclusion of the story: we see it in the Cross displayed so prominently in our church.  We will celebrate it once more on Easter Sunday when we recall and rejoice in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  But can we really say that all of that is the true conclusion to this story we have reviewing?  How can we say that this story is done when it seems that so little has changed from before?
It is true that the story of humanity is finished in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus’ vindication shines forth like the dawn and His victory like a burning torch, as prophesied by Isaiah in our first reading.  Yet this story is not finished for each one of us.  It is unfinished in that we each are given the choice of either joining in with the victorious story of Christ or of writing our own story against God and against Christ.  It is unfinished in that it is still being written in our hearts and in our lives, the pen standing over the paper at each moment to write down and to trace out our path either towards union with God or abandonment of God.
We all know the classic ending of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: Ebenezer Scrooge, having been visited by three spirits showing him Christmases past, present, and future, changes his ways for the better, exclaiming at the end “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” For the Christian, this is meant to be not the end of our individual stories, but the beginning of our own adventures.  Each one of us is called to a part in the great story of humanity’s fall and rise. Each one is meant to make our own the story of Jesus Christ: born in a stable, hidden for 30 years, teaching and preaching and working miracles, praised by many, hated by some, cursed and derided, tortured, suffered, crucified, died, and resurrected, now reigning gloriously in Heaven after his ascension.  If we are to honor Christmas all year, we must make our broken or discordant stories one with the story of Christ, with the story of His Church, who cannot be separated from Christ.

Let us rejoice in this day, because God does not abandon us as failed stories, but instead willing enters the story so as to restore us.  Let us rejoice in that God stoops down to meet us in our flesh so that we might be able to be united to Him.  But let us not forget this story or merely write it off.  Let us honor the true message of Christmas through our living out the consequences of that story: conforming ourselves to Christ through His Church, the Church who is the greatest storyteller in the world, for her story is both fantastic and true.  Let us continue to hear that story each Sunday and indeed each day of our lives so that we may not be entertained but that we may be moved to transform ourselves to be more like Christ our hero, Christ our victor, Christ our king.  May we truly celebrate the Christmas story by reflecting it in our lives in each moment, so that we may rejoice at the conclusion of this story at the Last Day, when all the wicked shall be condemned, all the good shall be rewarded, and Christ will glorify His faithful with the gift of eternal life.  Let us live out our stories in union with the great story of Christ so that we may be a part of the new story which will be written in joy and in peace, where all shall live happily ever after.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Our Lady of Guadalupe

It is so wonderful to be here with all you tonight, to celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I am glad you allow a poor gringo priest to celebrate with you this wondrous feast of so beautiful and so important a lady. I must admit that I grow fonder of the Virgin each year, since I first learned of her in seminary almost ten years ago. The marvel of it all overwhelms me: how great her influence has been not only in Mexico but in all of the Americas. Truly she is the Empress of the Americas as Pope Saint John Paul II declared. Please permit me to review these marvels for our edification.
When the Spanish conquered Mexico in the 16th century, they brought with them missionaries to convert the native peoples to the Christian faith. However, these missionaries struggled greatly and received few converts in their first few years. But then Our Lady came to the hill of Tepeyac in 1531 and changed everything. This image, as you might well know, is not only responsible for the conversion of the native Mexicans, but it is the most visited image in the world. Millions received baptism and became Catholics all because of this image that has endured so much in its history, and yet it remains the same as when Saint Juan Diego received it from her.
But why is it that this image could have such an immense effect upon the peoples, even down to our day? How does La Virgen have such an impact upon so many? In truth, it is the a simple answer, though one that we may forget at times: it is the effect and the impact of a mother upon her children. Are we capable of hard-heartedness in the sight of so loving and caring of a mother? Can we fail to listen when she calls us just as she called Juan Diego by the name “Juanito”? When she shows us such a love, what else can we do but whatever she asks of us?
Yet perhaps we may have forgotten her requests or her words to Juan Diego to explain why she came. When La Virgen appeared the first time on December 9, she told him that she was the mother of the most true God, of he through whom everything lives, the Creator of persons, the master and lord of all the earth. She revealed herself completely to Juan Diego in his own language, not Spanish but the local Nahuatl language. La Virgen first seeks to reveal to this faithful man who she really is in a way that the natives would understand. She does this so that they may receive the Christian faith at their own level.
This shows the humility of Our Lady, for she never focuses on herself. She is the handmaid of the Lord, as she told the archangel in the Gospel. Everything that she does is not for her, but for her son. In fact, the image shows her as being pregnant, one of the few if not the only images to show this. Just as she carried Jesus in the womb to Bethlehem in the midst of her own people, she also carries Him to a new people who will be hers very soon. Truly she is a mother to us all.
Her very appearance is meant to reflect not only her humility, but to demonstrate to the people the truths of the faith using their own symbols along with the symbol we see in the first reading from the book of Revelation. Our parish patron Saint John called her the ark of the covenant, and paints a magnificent picture with his words: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. All of these signs are found in the image, but they also carry meaning within the pagan religion of the native people.
La Virgen stands before the sun and over the moon, showing her dominance over the main gods of the pagan religion. The flower over her womb was a symbol of the divine and the center of the universe. It rests over the womb which carries the child who is both divine and the center of the universe. Her pink robe is symbolic of an Aztec princess or queen, showing her royal state. The angel holding her up holds her robe and her mantle, pointing to the child in her womb who is both human and divine. The image itself is a Gospel in pictures.
Yet the wonders of La Virgen do not end there. Perhaps you remember the story of Juan Diego trying to avoid Tepeyac because he wanted to get help for his sick uncle. Not only that, but he was embarrassed by his failure to get the bishop to believe him. Yet she does not stay on the top of the hill; she comes down and greets him with those heartfelt words, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” What joy! What delight! Not only is she the mother of Jesus Christ the Savior, but she is our mother. A mother who does not remain above us, but humbles herself to come to us in our need.
It is this last apparition which results in that miracle of miracles which remains with us today: the image on the tilma. Just when Juan Diego hoped to avoid more failure, La Virgen proves herself through her roses and her image. Joy of joys! The victory of Our Lady comes to Mexico! We know the rest of the story, for we are living it here and now. You all would not be here if it were not for the loving kindness of La Virgen for your ancestors and your land.
But is this the end of the story? Or is it only the first chapter? Listen to those first words of Our Lady to Juan Diego: "I desire very much that they build my sacred little house here, for there I will show Him to you, I will magnify Him, I will turn you over to Him, to He who is all my love, to He who is compassionate gaze, to He who is my help, to He who is my salvation." Who is He whom she wants to offer to us? It is Jesus Christ, the King of Heaven and earth, the Savior of humanity, the Word made flesh, the God-man. All of this is meant to lead us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him through her. Her message for all peoples, not only Mexicans, is to know her Son, to love Him, and to join her in serving Him who is our help and our salvation. She is the best missionary for our Christian faith, because she is intimately united to He who is the center of our faith.
But how many of you truly hear her words? How many of you fulfill her request? I am happy to see so many of you with us on this beautiful night to celebrate her who is the honor of your people. Our church is bursting with love for La Virgen. But how complete is that love? Many of you are seeing me for the first time since I arrived in June. Many of you are in this church for the first time since Easter or Christmas or even the last celebration of Guadalupe. Many of you profess a love for La Virgen, but have nothing to show for it beyond your attendance here tonight.
Do you think this is what she wants for you? Do you think that she came to Juan Diego so that you might be half-Christians? Do you think she gave you this image so that you would receive baptism but never be converted to Jesus Christ? How terrible! It would have been better for your people to remain pagans rather than become a convenient Christian. It would have been better if La Guadalupana had not come if you won’t love her by listening and obeying her.
Brethren, if you love La Virgen, listen to her! If you love La Virgen, follow her! If you love La Virgen, love her Son as well! The true lover of La Guadalupana is the person who follows she who is victorious over the serpent. The true lover of La Guadalupana is the person who imitates her total obedience to God in the totality of their life. The true lover of La Guadalupana will not darken the door of the church only on her feast day, but will seek to be with her in the church as much as she demands. Love for her cannot be only an emotion; it requires actions and signs to demonstrate that love.
Let us indeed rejoice that we have such a loving mother in La Virgen; a mother who is near to us at every step. Let us rejoice that she loves us so much as to reveal herself in this unique way. But let us not waste this opportunity to be a true Guadalupano, which is very essential to our salvation, by following La Virgen who follows the most true God. Let us pray that she may continue to win us salvation and mercy from her son, so that we may not look to her in vain. May La Virgen of Guadalupe be the madrecita of the Mexicans and of all the Americas. May she be the compassionate mother of we her poor children. May she be for all of us the Queen who brings us to the glories of heaven.

Viva la Virgen!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Immaculate Conception

Saint Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes

In 1858, a young girl was walking with her sister and a friend near her village to collect firewood for her poor family. The other two crossed the creek near a grotto where pigs used to shelter after they were fed by the farmers, but the girl did not due to her poor health. As she waited near the grotto, she heard a noise like a wind blowing yet none of the trees stirred. She looked up at the top of the grotto and saw a most beautiful woman smile at her. Over the following weeks, this girl, Bernadette Soubirous, would pray with this lady and obey her requests. When she finally asked the lady who she was, the lady told her, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
This is the wonderful account of the apparitions of Our Lady at the small town of Lourdes in France. Today, Lourdes is one of the most visited religious sites in the world. We are blessed to have an image of both Our Lady of Lourdes and Saint Bernadette in our church. It is appropriate to remember this apparition today in light of this glorious feast day commemorating the first moments of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But we ought to ask ourselves two things. Why did this happen to Mary? And why would she identify herself by this rather formal, theological term?
What we celebrate today is the greatest grace a human being has ever received from God. Pope Pius IX definitively defined the Immaculate Conception in 1854, only a few years before the visions at Lourdes, as the dogma that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in virtue of the merits of Christ Jesus, the Savior of the human race, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin.” (Ineffabilis Deus) But what use is this singular grace and privilege? Why does God grant unto Mary this removal of any and all effects of sin on her person? The answer lies in the season during which we find ourselves: the season of Advent.
We are drawing closer and closer to the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior. This season of Advent is a time for remembering the preparation for this birth along with the reason for this birth. Our blessed Mother was not the first human without original sin: our first parents, Adam and Eve, were also created without sin or any stain of sin upon their souls. However, though they were free of sin, they chose to disobey God and thus fell from that state of original grace and union with God and hindered the rest of humanity, until the Savior would come and restore us to that union.
The Savior of humanity would have to undo the knot of disobedience wrought by our first parents through His own complete obedience to God. Only a completely opposite act could reverse that initial act in the garden. Saint Paul sees Jesus as the new Adam in his letter to the Romans, undoing the actions of the first Adam by obeying God rather than disobeying, by submission rather than betrayal (cf. Rom 5:12-18). But Adam did not fall alone; he fell along with Eve, who also willed to sin. But if Jesus is the new Adam undoing the old Adam’s work, who will be the new Eve to do the same thing?
Not only that, but the Savior needs a human body in order to remove sin from humanity. This Savior, while removing sin from the human condition, was free from sin Himself, being God in the flesh, for God contains no sin or evil in His divine substance and sin cannot remain in the divine presence. We might remember that God commanded Moses and the ancient Israelites to build the ark of the covenant which contained the divine presence in the ancient Temple. God commanded that this ark be made of the finest gold and best materials and that it could not be touched by anything lest it be made impure. If the Lord commands this for the symbol of His presence among Israel, how much shall He demand the greatest and the best of the womb in which He shall be conceived by the Holy Spirit and take on our flesh in such need of purification?
This solemnity, then, marks the immediate preparation for Christmas Day, for the birth of Christ our Savior. In order to take on our flesh, He needs the perfect woman. In order to undo the work of Adam, He needs an Eve to work with Him. In order to overturn our act of disobedience, He needs someone to make a great sign of obedience. This is why the Virgin is graced with the fruits of Christ’s salvation beforehand: that she might cooperate fully and completely when the angel tells her that she will be the mother of the Savior. That instead of Eve’s no, Mary will say “Let it be done to me.”
Through her immaculate conception, the Mother of God is able to aid all of humanity by cooperating in the divine work of salvation. But her cooperation did not end with her acceptance of this son; it continues even now with her reigning with her son over heaven and earth. Just as she came to that grotto of pigs in Lourdes, so too does our Lady come to aid us still tainted by the filth of sin. Just as she smiled at Saint Bernadette and called her to prayer and penance, so too does she smile down at we her children and call us, like a good mother, to be the best we can be, to be saints. Just as she revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception when asked who she was, she still reveals herself to be for us the singular vessel of grace and devotion, the lowly handmaid of the Lord elevated as the Queen of heaven and earth.
Let us rejoice in the Immaculate Conception this day, as we prepare for Christmas. Let us rejoice that the Virgin Mother of God did cooperate with God and help bring about our salvation. Let us praise God who humbles Himself to drop down like dew from Heaven and to become the child of so wonderful a mother. Let us also pray to her that we may be freed of our sinfulness and become more like her every day: obedient, loving, and faithful to God. Let us rejoice in Mary so that we may rejoice more greatly in Jesus her Son.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent: Alerts

We are oftentimes surrounded by alerts. In these days of smartphones and constant connection to the virtual world, we receive numerous alerts from our devices. The long rings for a phone call, the short beeps for texts and emails, and whatever sundry beeps, boops, and twirls we make these things do to make us aware of something whether it has any importance or not. We don’t want to be left in the dark about anything, hence the many alerts.
Perhaps we already filter these alerts between what is necessary versus the trivial. But what would happen if we ignored those alerts? If we didn’t respond to the rings and beeps and buzzes coming from all these devices? We would be ignorant of what was happening in the world, unaware of anything beyond what someone tells us in person. While this might be better for us overall, it would be very difficult to communicate important or tragic news if we ignored our alerts. While annoying, they do serve their role of notification.
John the Baptist stands out in our Gospel today as the ultimate alert, one that cannot be ignored without repercussion. As we move closer to Christmas, the Church presents us this striking figure of the preacher in the desert, a man foretold by Isaiah to be the one charged with preparing the way for the Lord. His message is summed up in the first words we hear from him today: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Yet how are we to respond to this alert?
The answer lies in that very first word, “Repent.” Saint Matthew and the other gospel writers us the word metanoia in Greek. We freely translate it as repent, but how well do we understand what either word means? The Greek word metanoia signifies a complete conversion, a total change of life from what was previously done. To undergo metanoia was to make a radical change in one’s life, even to the point of doing the opposite of what you had done before.
John the Baptist stands as the trumpeter or herald announcing the arrival of the king. He prepares the way for the Lord by giving us the first hints of what the newborn King will proclaim in His public ministry in a few years. The trumpet blast is meant to grab our attention, and John does this so as to call us to do the same thing Jesus will demand later on: for all of us to undergo conversion, metanoia, from our sins. Why is this so necessary that John makes this announcement ahead of Jesus?
This trumpet blast is necessary because sin is the reason why Jesus comes into the world. God had revealed numerous times before the birth of Christ what must be done to live rightly, to live in holiness: abandon sin, abandon the false gods, enter into the covenant with God and observe all that He asks of you. Yet so many times we failed to do that. This is because sin still remained upon us, saturating our souls such that it was impossible on our own to do all that God willed. Therefore, sin needed to be removed from humanity so that humanity could once more be able to enter into the holiness desired for all by God.
Many people are going around proclaiming that Jesus is the reason for the season, and they are not far off. Yet the deeper reason why Jesus comes in this season is the problem of sin. Sin separates us from God, deforms our natural and supernatural capacities for good, and inclines us away from God and closer to the devil. Ever since the garden, sin has sliced humanity off from total union with God, with no apparent end in sight, until a lowly virgin was told that she would be the mother of the Savior. It is because of sin that Jesus comes into this world, so that He could remove it from us and restore us to God.
Yet the story is not that short. Too often, we think of the great Christian story as this: God creates man, man sins, God sends Jesus, Jesus removes sin, the end. There is so much missing from this oversimplification. Jesus does come to free us from sin: the wood of the crib foretells the wood of the Cross. But the redeeming sacrifice of the Cross is powerless unless we accept it and we begin to sin no more. God does not grant us a free pass to sin by the death of His Son; God demonstrates to us in the Cross the depths of His love and His desire for us to love in return. And that is the whole reason behind John the Baptist’s trumpet call today.
Jesus Christ, speaking in Himself and through His forerunner John the Baptist, wants us not merely to avoid sin but to become holy, to be saints. He wants for us metanoia, a complete conversion away from sin, from death, and from the devil towards Himself, towards the good, towards eternal life. There is no middle path in the teaching of Jesus: either you are moving forward towards God or moving away from Him and towards the devil and damnation. There are no sidelines, no pits, no timeouts in the game of Christian life: we play to win or we play to lose.
Christianity is not meant to be comfortable: it is the truest challenge to the whole world. Our faith first dares to proclaim that there is such a thing as sin, that there are quite a few things that are not willed by God and are dangerous for us, even perhaps some things that are quite popular in the world today. But it doesn’t end there: our faith calls every human being to abandon those things, to abandon sin, and to receive the mercy and love of God won for us in Christ Jesus. Saint Paul in our second reading sees this as the means whereby the promise of the patriarchs is confirmed, the first inklings of what would happen first on Christmas Day and then on Good Friday.
We wear violet during Advent because it is a penitential season. We do not sing the Gloria because we are waiting for the glory of God to appear once more in the crib in Bethlehem. We mark this season with penitence because our sins are the reason for the season, the purpose for Christ to be born into the world. Only by facing the truth of our sinfulness, of our complete incapacity for winning our redemption by our own efforts can we then truly rejoice in a few weeks when we see that tiny child in the manger. Only when we admit our sinfulness can we then rejoice at the sight of our Savior who will help us to be converted and to live.
Let us then weep over our sins, which have lead not only to the birth of our Savior but will lead to His death as well. Let us repent of our sins, undergoing the conversion, the metanoia, that John the Baptist proclaimed as will the One who follows after him. Let us receive the mercy of God through the sacrament of confession so that we may indeed glorify God for His mercy to us and to all generations. Let us not despair that we are sinners, but let us hope once more in the saving action of Christ brought to us through the sacred liturgy, turning to the Cross as our only consolation and our only hope. Let us not ignore the alert of John the Baptist this day, but let us indeed repent of our sins and of our sinful way of life, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.