Firefighter Mass December 1, 2013 (10:00 Mass)

A gracious welcome to all present and past members of the Worcester Fire Department and any other departments here with us today, along with the family members of firefighters who are deceased. We feel very blessed that you share your presence and time with us here in our holy space.

The readings we just heard proclaimed on the First Sunday of Advent as we prepare for the coming of the Lord are most appropriate and well-timed for a Mass with an emphasis on recognizing our local fire department members. The readings address the idea of preparation. From a spiritual perspective.

In our Lord’s message to his disciples, his concern is for them to be prepared for his return. As we do many things over the next few weeks to prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Savior, whether it’s shopping or sending Christmas Cards, or making sure we say “Merry Christmas” instead of the boring “Happy Holidays,”  the words of Jesus in the Gospel invite us, not into his stable in Bethlehem, but rather being prepared for his return at the end.

Firefighters are always to be prepared on the job. If one were to walk into a fire station in Worcester or any other city or town, and you took notice of the area where the fire trucks are parked inside the station, we would see, when looking on the ground on the side of the trucks, the doors already open, not closed; the boots of each respective firefighter on the ground outside the door that they will enter upon receiving a call; during the summer months and warmer weather, the door to the station wide open; along with a group of men and women who are ready at the sound of the bell to proceed in quick fashion to their vehicle.

Preparation. Why all this preparation beforehand? Because seconds matter. And when seconds matter, where the incoming call can be a matter of saving life or losing it, then the time is short. And this is precisely Jesus’ point. The time is short. Our time is short. (Sorry for the bad news).

This is where our Lord is landing us on the First Sunday of Advent. Time is short, and seconds and minutes matter in relation to our personal salvation.

But notice that Jesus calls our attention to his Second Coming before his first arrival in Bethlehem. He calls our attention to the end before we move on to celebrate the beginning of his human life in a modest stable. Our vision is to be “on the sky,” if you will, before the manger is filled with smelly animals and with holy people, one of them who happens to be divine.

As a firefighter is prepared both mentally and physically to respond to a call when the bell tolls, so is the Christian to be prepared – physically and spiritually, in body and in spirit – for when God rings our bell and says, “Hello there my friend, it’s time to come home.”

Jesus provides in the Gospel a stark image of one person being taken and another person being left behind. What our Lord is saying is that some people will be caught sleeping at the moment salvation’s door opens up. This may have happened somewhere in a fire station before, as well as in every other walk of life. Maybe where a firefighter was sleeping and didn’t get to the truck in time before it left the station for a call. Where slumbering kept him from being prepared and ready for action. This can happen. (Just don’t let the Chief know about it!)

As firefighters, you can and do have quiet days (except if you’re the Chief). You can have long days where it seems like the entire city of Worcester is quiet, sleeping, not lighting matches in the wrong places or leaving food on the stove; where every driver in the city drives safely, courteously, and avoids all accidents for a whole day; days where gas lines and live wires do what they are supposed to do; where all is quiet on the northern, southern, eastern, and western fronts. Where you’re almost begging for a call to come in to break up the monotony of a slow day. But you still have to be ready, even when sleeping.

Preparation is a state of mind. Preparation is perpetually being in a state of readiness. Ready for the unexpected.

What Jesus tells us to be prepared for is our own death. Our transformation into his presence. Such preparation consists of what St. Paul writes in today’s 2nd reading; “Throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Be rid of what causes us to slumber and slide away from our Lord. And put on the words and deeds that prepare us for the life to come.

Christian preparation is the action of loving neighbor. Because when we see Christ in the other, we will see Christ at his return. When we offer lives of service and evangelizing in the present we will be given a just reward at the end. Jesus offers us the perfect preparation for his coming to us in his command to love. The reason one in the field is taken and the other one is left behind, trying to figure out why they were passed over, is the one who was taken was a person of love. The one left behind, they were living for themselves and concerned about their lives only. Such an approach to living blinds us to God’s presence and return.

So, before we arrive at the celebration of an occupied stable, we first understand the spiritual importance of being persons of love. For when Love enters the world in the form of a Divine Person, in the form of a holy child, it is our own actions of love that assist his growth. Jesus grows taller in our lives of service.

As firefighters are prepared, ready to offer assistance at all times, we are to mimic their readiness, and be prepared for our appearance before the Almighty.

 

1st Sunday of Advent Cycle A December 1, 2013

I’m sure most, if not all of us, consider ourselves to be pretty normal persons. We probably eat, sleep, work, and spend time in leisure in ways that would be considered normal. We don’t eat 3 pounds of pasta at one sitting, along with 4 pounds of meatballs and sausage. We don’t sleep 20 hours a day, unless there is a medical condition that requires we do. We hopefully don’t work 20 hours a day either. Doing so would classify us as workaholics, which is not normal. Or balanced. And our leisure time is probably not spent in a hammock out in the backyard for hours on end, every day. Especially at this time of year.

One thing I would consider a “concerned practice” today, not abnormal – although some may use that word – is the amount of time children, youth, and even adults, will play video games, or some other form of entertainment on a piece of technology. For hours on end. I say that every hour on a device is time spent away from reading or writing, useful things that will expand the mind as opposed to simply entertaining the brain. Imagine if all the time spent using a piece of plastic technology was spent reading the Bible! Or even one-tenth of that time. We would produce saints who do God’s bidding.

I guess the term “normal” can be somewhat relative and subjective. In the Gospel on this First Sunday of Advent that begins the new liturgical year, we have what appears to be normal circumstances and perfectly normal behavior. People were eating and drinking, Jesus says, in the time of Noah. We do the same, if we wish to survive each day. Perfectly normal. They were marrying and given in marriage, Jesus says. A perfectly, solemn, normal act. And to go with marriage, “Be fruitful and multiply.” If God commanded such, it had to be perfectly normal. At this time in history, marriage is taking a scourging, which is quite abnormal. But at the time of Noah, marriage was normal. Who wants to travel back in time with me?

Also, Jesus says people were going out to work in the field, and grinding at the mill. Also, delivering their packages out of their UPS truck, going out to eat at a nice restaurant on a Friday or Saturday evening with their loved one. Normal was the way of life. Then BANG! One is taken and one is left! One is brought home to eternal life, and one is left to despair for…forever. One disappears into the fold, where the Lord is my Shepherd, and the other is thrust down into the miry pit. One is carried into the company of angels and saints, while the other goes off to join the demons in agony.

This is not our spiritual perception of normal today. I thought everyone was going to heaven? Isn’t that what many of us believe? That God will bring all souls to heaven, no matter how a person lives their life; no matter what decisions they made that affect others, especially in matters of life and death; no matter what an individual’s value system is; no matter what degree of anger and greed and lust a person displays. Everyone is just going to heaven when we die. That God is so merciful and forgiving, which is soooo true, that Peter is not going to ask any questions and just let everyone through the Pearly Gates whether they have a golden ticket to eternal life or not. Guess what?

We all should reread this Gospel. Because it says otherwise. Those who are left behind? This term “one will be left,” meaning left behind, means to miss the boat that hands out golden tickets that will get us through the Pearly Gates. That twofold golden ticket of faith and preparation. It is the most perfectly normal ticket for our souls.

Why are some left behind? Why are some people who appear to be perfectly normal left behind? We know for sure why some are taken to a better place. They have faith in God, and in His Son, which produces works of mercy in their lives. Although some good works can be classified as a little crazy, not being “normal choices.” I think of St. Damien of Molokai, whose “normal behavior” before God consisted of living on an island with a colony of lepers. And treating their disease through his compassion and sense of touch. Anyone here want to do that? That’s not normal…except in the eyes of God.

But working in the field, or grinding at the mill, or delivering a zillion boxes for UPS at Christmastime are not in and of themselves works of mercy. Some who appear to be perfectly  normal in their everyday lives are left behind because they were not ready for God’s appearance. They were not ready for when they appeared before God. Staying awake means we can sleep eight hours a day if we so wish to have a perfectly normal amount of shut-eye. Staying awake does not mean never sleeping. Staying awake for the Lord is to be ready to love. A journey we are all working on in the field and at the mill.

In their normal life, one worker in the field and one grinder at the mill was left behind because God doesn’t judge according to outward appearances. God is the just Judge because he judges what is in a person’s heart. The field worker and the mill grinder, and God knows all UPS drivers in their brown uniforms, look pretty much the same. One is left behind because they did not live up to their heart’s potential, which is to live on an island with lepers. Symbolically, of course.

To stay awake is to love. We all know how difficult at times it is to…stay awake. When we love, we are ready to be taken by God, wherever we are. Even if we’re sleeping. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the perfection of all that is normal, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

Feast of Jesus Christ the King Cycle C November 24, 2013

He was up there for all the world to see. He was up there in all his glory. In all his fame. In all his nakedness. In all his God-ness. There he was, up there on the Cross, for all the world to see.

Whoever wanted to stop by and jeer at him for a few hours as he hung there, or come by and feel bad for him while in such an awful situation, or come by just to witness the violent and graphic end result of Roman justice, they could see him up there, and experience their respective emotions.

It is interesting that some jeer, while others have their hearts torn out, like Blessed Mary, while looking at the same Cross. John’s Gospel places our Blessed Lady at the foot of the Cross, where her heart could be pierced, and within earshot of all that is said about her Son. Did she know this would be the ending after the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she would be overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that the Son she would conceive would be called Son of the Most High? Mary probably at the time of the angel’s visitation was so filled with joy that she couldn’t even begin to fathom the scene that will be played out on a hill outside the city gates of Jerusalem at the end of her child’s life. Like any mother who gives birth, joy is the prevailing emotion after the labor pains have ceased, whereas contemplating the end of the child’s life is the furthest thought from their minds.

But there he was, the King of the Universe, nailed to a Cross for our sins. Present is the incredible irony before him; those doubting his true nature – “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”- thus sinning before the One who takes away the sins of the world. The sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden, revealed here as the sin of disbelief.

On the Feast of Christ the King, we celebrate Jesus’ Kingship, royalty, and power. For all kings have power and authority. But how is the power of this King displayed for all the world to see? And who are his neighbors?

His power is displayed through a Cross. The stumbling block for those who embrace disbelief, yet the symbol of salvation for those who believe. For God, the Cross is the symbol and the reality of power. It defies human logic, which is minimal when compared to the logic of God. God has come into the world so that his death from the world will restore life to us and all creation. Jesus’ Kingship is treated with man’s ugliness and violence, yet God our Redeemer forgives us of our own wrath toward him. It is a type of power our world is not used to, doesn’t admire, and outright rejects.

Look no further than the halls of Washington, D.C., where there is much corruption and deceit. Without question, much good is accomplished, I would say in spite of ourselves, and at the cost of selling one’s soul at times to ways of politics. I have a hard time swallowing the pill that some folks offer when they talk about and treat politics as somehow being greater than the divine. Politics, as great as it can be, and as ugly as it can be, is a passing industry. A needed industry that affects all of our lives. But some folks are so wrapped up in politics that they treat the world of creating laws as something greater than the One hanging on the Cross. He’s rejected in all of his love, mercy, forgiveness, and resurrection, while a human invention is raised to glory.

On the other side, the side of heaven, the power of Christ is revealed in weakness, on a Cross. Jesus, the King of the Universe, reveals his power in humility. The greatest act of love offered on our behalf is a self-chosen death, accepted by our heavenly Father, to purify the waywardness and doubt that affects our lives. One needs to look no further than the town of Lunenburg to see waywardness in the form of racial bias and expression.

If we call ourselves his followers, then we follow him the whole route. We finish the job, like a UPS driver who gets all his packages delivered. We go the whole route with Jesus. We go to Golgotha, where our own crucifixion from this world will lead us to life with the saints.

And who are the neighbors of Jesus? A couple of criminals. The conversation taking place on either side of Jesus is one of the more enlightening and fascinating in all of Scripture. On one side is desperation. On the other side is truth and honesty. The desperate criminal challenges Jesus to save him, his criminal friend, and for the Lord to save himself. But the King must finish the job he started. Salvation will come, but it will look the way God wants it to look, and not how we imagine it. It will look like death on a Cross for a King, so that an empty tomb may be seen by those who love him.

The other neighbor of Jesus on the hill is the one who steals heaven, pulling off the ultimate caper. Hell had its clutches around his soul, but heaven pulled him up, where he became part of the kingdom at the last moment and forever. Trusting in Jesus was enough to secure Paradise. By trusting in the Lord in the most dire moment of life, as his life is leaving him on a Cross, he turned all things over to him who is King. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. And probably not on crosses either.

We carry in our lives the manner in which God has chosen to relate to us and save us. His Kingship is defined by a Cross. For us, that means we carry one also, in which we die to the world and live for Christ. By doing so, we become and remain subjects of his kingdom.

To the King of the Universe be all glory, honor, and power, now and forever. Amen.

33rd Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C November 17, 2013

“The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock” (Matthew 7:25).

You know, there’s always something, some-thing, in our world that is constantly trying to knock us over. And being knocked down has nothing to do with our balance or lack of weight. A person with good balance who weighs more than, say, 80 pounds, will be able to stand upright when the blizzards and tornadoes are upon us. Being knocked down, not collapsing, refers to a person with faith. The person with faith in Jesus that he will help us through the many “somethings” that do their best to knock us down.

And notice that most threats to persevering in our Christian faith do not necessarily come from other people. Or even institutions run by people. Sometimes they certainly do, like the religious liberty issue today. But threats to the practice of our faith are usually more associated with events and conditions that ultimately happen to us, like death. Death really knows how to bulldoze the faith of the living, if we’re not careful. Death happens within us, from the top of our skin, spreading all the way under to the core of our physical being. But death always happens outside of us in that we have no control over its eventual entrance into our lives.

Or, there’s senseless tragedy, accidents, and natural disasters, as we saw in the Philippines this past week; being in the wrong place at the wrong time. From auto accidents to an 18-year old going to a Halloween party on the West Side, coming out on a stretcher, into an ambulance, to the hospital, to the morgue, to the funeral home, to the ground. Such things can steamroll our faith in God if we’re not protective of that gift. The world and its ways will snatch the prize from our hearts and toss it into the nearest wastewater treatment plant, where no one wants to dive in and retrieve it. Not even in a protective suit.

So the first necessary understanding regarding our readings this Sunday is that our faith is vulnerable. It is open, and the testing of it can be beyond our control at times, with the rains, floods, wars, violence, insurrections, and so forth. We cannot hide our faith in Jesus from what surrounds us. Just like the Red Sox and their fans cannot hide the joy of being Champions. We where it on our sleeves.

From the understanding that our faith is constantly challenged by events, and at times directly from people, we arrive at the more relevant awareness that our faith in our Lord is to be preserved and protected at all costs. Thousands in the early Church understood this and died for their faith. It continues today.

So why does our faith need to be preserved from other forces trying to create holes in our armor? Because, our faith is from the Apostles. Our faith in Jesus does not find its source in some 19th or 20th century ideology or political party that fails to consider the ways of God. Or in some person who thinks they are God. God knows we’ve had enough dictators just in most of our lifetimes alone who thought – and think – they were/are divine. Most every one of them has met an end consistent with their beliefs; “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.”

Our faith in Jesus Christ finds its source in the Apostles. Those who walked and talked and listened and were witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So, as Church, we don’t change the teachings of our Lord because they don’t satisfy certain elements of our sinful culture. We preserve our Lord’s teachings on what we believe and how we relate to one another, so that we are offered the true path to heaven. And not some wayward road that leads to H-E- double hockey sticks.

To go with preserving our faith, which is the primary responsibility of Mother Church and her leaders, we also have the protection of our faith. Whereas preserving is more communal, protection is more individual. Very simply, the way to not lose an active and accurate faith, and not live some watered down version of Christianity, is to protect it. To be aware that our faith is in constant need of protection on our part.

In the 1st reading from the Old Testament prophet Malachi, the prophet writes that “the day is coming.” The day when evildoers will receive their recompense. And the day when, for those who fear the Lord, there will arise a Protector, called the sun of justice. Malachi points to Jesus, as all Old Testament prophets do. The day has come. He is our Protector. But our work isn’t finished. There are still the weeds living among the wheat.

And this is the language Jesus speaks in the Gospel. The language of wars and insurrections being the weeds. The language of their not being a stone left upon another stone. The language of deceivers; those who make themselves out to be a god. The language of earthquakes, famines, and plagues. These are the weeds among our most precious wheat; our faith in Jesus.

Why are these the weeds? Because the time we live in is no different from the time of Jesus in that there are elements and events, ideologies and individuals who will use their full force to destroy the gift of our faith, and throw it into the nearest wastewater treatment plant.

Perseverance is the message of the Lord. As we close in on the end of another Church year, the Year of Faith, and we begin another year, cherish your faith like you would a newborn baby. It is preserved by the leaders of our faith, and protected within the hearts of each one of us.

32nd Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C November 10, 2013

One of the more consistent, concerned thoughts of family members and friends at funerals is the thought that their loved one has gone to be with other family members who have died. That they are rejoicing together in heaven. That they are partying up there in heaven. That they are playing baseball up there in heaven. That they are playing cards or visiting Foxwoods up there in heaven. Whatever it is they happen to be doing, the common spiritual denominator is that they are together. In heaven.

I open up a can of theological worms when I say that there are no guarantees that our loved ones are in fact in heaven. We hope and pray they are at least in Purgatory, a relationship and process of cleansing all sin that eventually leads to the promise of heaven, for those who have lived and practiced their faith in Jesus Christ to the best of their ability. And those who seek God’s mercy when all is said and done. We all have different capacities in that regard, where God demands more from some than He does from others. But the words I like to hear from those with physical, psychological, and/or spiritual troubles, are the words, “I’m trying. Father, I’m trying.” God is close to those who legitimately try. God is close to the spiritually lazy also. But they, unfortunately, don’t usually accept the closeness of God, being wrapped up too tightly in their own little worlds.

So with funerals, my experience is that when a spouse dies, the other spouse, if still living, and family members live in the hope that they will be together as family once again in the afterlife. This is fair enough. Although this hopeful belief doesn’t tell the whole story of what the afterlife is like in relation to relationships.

With the question the Sadducees ask of Jesus in this Gospel, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”, the answer Jesus provides them begins to break open an understanding of the afterlife that looks very different from relationships in this life. In fact, Jesus says they are not the same. Granted, there are similarities. Like, a person does not lose their identity. Deacon Kevin Deignan in this life will still be Deacon Kevin Deignan in the afterlife. I’m not sure what Kevin is going to look like. But if he makes it to heaven, if he’s working out his salvation with fear and trembling as St. Paul writes in Philippians, then he will undoubtedly be granted by God a body of perfection which mirrors that of Christ in the Resurrection to go along with his soul. Whatever that looks like.

Another similarity would be us remaining children of God. This is what we are right now. This is what we will remain in a whole new light in heaven, if we are granted entrance through the Pearly Gates presently patrolled by the one and only St. Peter; the Rock of the Church; the first Pope; the chief Apostle; and the one who denied Jesus three times.

As the Sadducees do their best to set Jesus up, not realizing he has perfect understanding of the Scriptures, and not knowing where he came from and where he is going back to, this group of religious teachers, through their question, grant us a glimpse of heaven in Jesus’ answer on marriage and the afterlife. The question they ask our Lord pertains to marriage, but it can be asked about any set of relationships. “Lord, will Fr. Riley still have 5 sisters and 10 brothers in the afterlife? Will they still be his relatives? Will they still have the same genetic makeup? Will they still be flesh and blood in heaven?” All good questions. Jesus answers “No.”

Now before you get crazy on me, the “No” answer is not a negative “No,” but rather a positive “No.” Sometimes “No” is good. I’m sure we can all agree with that. Especially if you have children.

You see, God being God of the living, and not of the dead, tells us through Jesus that our existence in heaven is less about present types of human relationships and more about who we become before God. In this life, we are defined in many respects by our relationships. We are husband and wife, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. We are cousins, aunts, and uncles. We are sons and daughters. We are friends. And these are meant to be loving relationships that build up the other, revealing the presence of God in our lives. But the love that we give and share in relationships now, these are a warm-up for what is to come.

The positive “No” of Jesus to the Sadducees regarding marriage in heaven and whose wife will she be is the understanding that loving and praising our Creator in what our faith calls “The Beatific Vision”- beholding God forever – is the pinnacle of love, and the one relationship in heaven that brings to fulfillment every loving relationship on earth.

For those who say, “Well, I want Mary to be my wife in heaven,” and Mary says, “Well, I want Joseph to be my husband in heaven.” Such desires and wants are understood in ways of love. And to that I say, “Good for you.” But the greatest love, and the World Championship of all relationships, is to be in the presence of the living God. Where we are like angels in heaven, as Jesus says. Where you will shine like the morning star. Where you will fly on Eagles Wings. Where you will be more beautiful than Miss Universe on her best day. (Except for the guys, of course). Where we will behold the face of God.

This is why we live and practice our faith in Jesus right now, where too many folks are missing this boat. Such present devotion enhances our relationships in the present. It prepares us for the joys of heaven. And our present faith in our Lord brings us eventually to the One who died for us. The One who is the First, the Last, the Beginning and the End. The One who is the very center of our lives. Both here and in eternity.

Homily All Saints Day November 1, 2013

It’s good to have lots of friends. It’s good to have lots of friends in this life. But when all is said and done, how many people we know can we really call true friends in the end?

            In our Christian faith, we are commanded by Jesus to see all others as brothers and sisters. But how many of them do we share our personal story with? Our joys and our heartaches? Our personal likes and dislikes? Our laughter and our tears? Probably not many do we open up to and reveal the deepest yearnings in our hearts and souls.

            I say if you have one or two genuine, true friends throughout the course of a lifetime, then you’ve done well. If we pray for thousands of others over the course of a lifetime, then we’ve done even better.

            Despite the low number of friends we may cherish over one lifespan, All Saints Day reminds us that we have thousands of friends in eternity. Thousands called the Communion of Saints. And even within this wide array of heavenly friendships, many of us Catholics like to mirror what happens in this life; we may choose one, two, or three of our heavenly friends, and reveal to them the workings we hold within the deepest recesses of our hearts and souls.

            This is fundamentally Catholic. All Saints Day is one of our annual religious celebrations where we are reminded of how blessed we are to be Catholic. We believe that the door between heaven and earth is an open door with lots of space. And on both ends of this room we call the heavens, there are those who want our attention.

            All Saints Day is a day where we see both the security of Jesus along with a profound expression of God’s imagination. The security of Jesus is that our Lord being the one Mediator between us and our heavenly Father is not compromised by our praying to the saints. Rather, Jesus being our Intercessor is enhanced and shared with all the holy ones over the centuries. Jesus instructing a holy saint in heaven to not accept our prayers on his behalf goes against the nature of God, who is love. As we share our intimate longings with one, two, or three heavenly friends, we in fact share ourselves with the Lord himself.

            God is a jealous God, in that He wants our souls and bodies forever, and not be with the enemy forever. But God is not a jealous God in the sharing of our petitions and prayerful concerns.

            And the Saints, just like the beauty of the foliage and the expanse of the heavens, are an expression of God’s imagination. God shares them with us, and they reflect God’s glory. We have Popes, priests, religious men and women; we have children and elder saints; we have mothers and fathers; we have mystics and healers. In other words, in the Communion of Saints, we have it all. And we have room for countless more. There’s room for you and me.

            We know who our friends are in this life. There are thousands of other holy choices already in eternity. If you haven’t already, pick one or two, and share your concerns with them. It’s what God wills. And what we rejoice in today.