Our Mass schedule for Ash Wednesday, February 14, will be 7:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., and 5:30 p.m.
Whenever I hear proclaimed any of the Gospels where a leper – or 10 – are cured, there are two recent Saints in the Church who come to mind. Both Saints have been canonized in the past 10 years by Pope Benedict XVI.
The first one is St. Damien of Molokai, who was raised to Sainthood in 2009. Molokai is an island in Hawaii that was set aside for those with leprosy. St. Damien was not from Molokai, or any other Hawaiian Island. He was born in Belgium in 1840, and grew to become a priest in the missionary religious order of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. Eventually in his life, he realized that God was calling him to minister in person to the lepers on Molokai.
I remember reading a book a few years back on St. Damien’s life, and the part that stood out for me more than the rest was his determination to find the most difficult set of circumstances where he could go and do the work of Christ. When he found Molokai and the lepers, it was like he discovered a gold mine. His missionary spirit, coupled with his love for the sick, was second to none in the history of the Church. He eventually died from leprosy at the age of 49, after many years of serving the needs of the lepers.
(As a short aside to his life, Fr. Damien, in order to go to Confession himself, he would yell his sins from the shore of Molokai to a priest who was standing on a ship because there was no priest to be found willing to come ashore and hear Confessions face to face, because it being an island of lepers. So, Fr. Damien would yell his sins to the priest in the exact same way the lepers in today’s reading from Leviticus had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” How would you like to go to Confession in that way? Not very appealing, is it?)
And, the second Saint is St. Marianne Cope, who was canonized in 2012. She too served the lepers for 35 years on the same island of Molokai, dying in 1918. I have no doubt she and St. Damien worked in concert for some of those years. Unfortunately for Fr. Damien, she couldn’t hear Confessions. St. Marianne was a Religious Sister of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, N.Y., being an American connection to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai well before Hawaii became a state.
In reference to this Gospel and Jesus cleansing the leper, what these two Saints reveal to us, among other things, is that very few men and women felt the personal call of God to go and serve the needs of the lepers, or even the sickest of the sick. Leprosy was so demeaning and torturous that they gave them their own island and didn’t charge them any real estate taxes. Wouldn’t you love to have your own island in Hawaii and never have to pay taxes on it? But none of us would ever exchange that for having leprosy. If leprosy was the only means of securing our own beautiful, peaceful, scenic island with no taxes, we would say, “I’d rather have my tiny apartment with high rent in the middle of New York City.”
So few ordained, religious, or laypersons, have felt compelled to serve those who are separated with a gravely contagious disease. We tend to look more like the priest hearing Fr. Damien’s Confession from the ship; help out from a distance, but not get so close where we have to touch. To touch someone’s hand. To give them a hug. To offer comfort inside the same room. I can hear the priest from the ship yelling, “I couldn’t hear you, Fr. Damien. Did you say you love the lepers, or you made an illegal bet on the Patriots? The wind was blowing too hard to hear you!” See what we miss if not we’re up close and personal.
But Jesus got up close and personal. Our Lord never took a back alley to avoid encountering the physically and spiritually sickest men and women he would meet in his entire public ministry. His direction was straight ahead toward them, the same approach of Sts. Damien and Marianne.
Whereas the lepers may or may not be in a class of their own when it comes to diseases, having a separate island, the Christian message I offer all of us today is that we don’t take any back alleys or distant ships when addressing the ill we come in contact with. Be smart, yes. But not distant. There’s a world of difference between being wise and avoiding. Between having courage, and being fearful.
This is one of the holy life movements of St. Damien and St. Marianne. We may not get as close as they did for so many years of service. But there should never be any backing off or sidestepping the sick that God sends before us. And I must say that in my priesthood I’ve witnessed some of the greatest Christian love in families taking care of their ill loved ones, both in this Parish and my previous one. Which is very good, because the alternatives are the horrors of Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, which are no alternatives for a Christian, or for any human being with a good conscience.
Christ goes directly at them, or, he knows they are coming directly to his front door, healing the entire village without sneaking out the back door. No avoidance on his part. And if we ask it, he will provide the strength and grace to perform acts of love or presence in order to ease the burden of the sick.
In the Church, we are blessed with Saints for every good cause. From carrying Crosses to assisting the sick. Even the cause of serving the lepers, we have two great ones. We don’t have to do what they do, because most of us are not called by God to do what they’ve done. But we are called to take on a portion of their spirit, and their fortitude, to succeed on our own level when being a servant to the ill.
As they’re yelling “Unclean, unclean,” we can have the compassion to say, “Allow me to clean you up a little bit. I may not be able to heal you like Jesus did, but I can love you like he did.” And like St Damien and St. Marianne did also.
Throughout the Gospel stories of Jesus’s life, it’s a good thing if we can see within the stories a pattern that connects to our lives.
For example, in today’s Gospel, Jesus has attended Church and is leaving Church. He’s leaving the synagogue. And that’s what we’ll do today, unless I give a 3-hour homily.
Then, he ends up visiting on the Sabbath, in this case some friends who happen to be his Apostles. Sunday, more than any other day, is the most prominent day of visiting, or being visited. Once he arrives for his Sabbath visit, Simon’s mother-in-law is healed of her illness. Every healing we experience is the touch of God. If we don’t heal, for one day we won’t, we enter into the joy of eternal life. Either way, it’s covered.
After being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law serves her Lord. That’s one of the big patterns that speaks to our lives, I hope. That we proceed each day with the intention of serving the Lord by serving others in the different capacities that are most important to us.
Then, we see the entire town coming out to be healed by Jesus. It’s like the egg of heaven is cracked open. The only other person they flocked to like this was John the Baptist at the Jordan River. But Jesus gives them something even greater than John. In healing them, in anointing them, he makes them whole; spirit, soul, and body. His forgiveness far surpasses what John could offer them, which is why John said, “He must increase, I must decrease.” A beautiful Scriptural verse for our lives.
When Christ increases, entire towns, villages, and populations are healed. Turning to Christ brings healing, and there is no number too large for him. He will heal, if they wish, all the Eagles fans tonight after they lose to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. What’s at the heart of this movement for our lives in today’s world is that our Lord, when we trust in him and turn to him as a population, as a people, as a world, he will settle things down and bring peace out of chaos. And he can do it on a large scale.
Refusing to come to him as a nation, or a city, or a Church; by refusing to walk to his front door with the humble admission we need his guidance and assistance in great matters and small, then the violence of Original Sin will eat away at us.
After Jesus does his usual standup job and cures the entire town, putting all the local hospitals out of business for a while, his next movement is early the next morning before dawn sets in. The sun isn’t even up yet, and he’s heading out to pray. To be alone; to be in silence, which is the volume for best hearing God’s voice.
What’s missing from this story, I bet, is that Jesus did this very same thing the day before, and the day before that… He prayed early in the morning before entering the synagogue, healing a mother-in-law, then a village. I have no doubt that Jesus prayed early in the morning, every day. His first movement was not for a cup of Joe; it was for his prayer book. Everyday from the time he could speak as a child, to the day he stood before Pilate and was forced to carry a Cross, he prayed. I can’t prove to you Jesus prayed every morning. But you know how you just know something…?
Prayer is essential to our lives, every day. Not a day should go by for the rest of our lives that we don’t take the time to pray. If we’re too busy to do so, then we’re too attached to a passing world.
Then this incredibly beautiful movement takes place in the Gospel story with the words of Simon: “Everyone is looking for you.” This “coming to the Lord” differs from the earlier part of this Gospel story. Then, it was to be healed of infirmities. But this “coming to Jesus” isn’t concerned with physical healing, and being made whole, as nice as that is.
Simon’s “Everybody is looking for you” is a search for the full meaning and purpose of life itself. This goes way beyond what happened in the house of Peter’s mother-in-law. This searching, as he’s in prayer, is a search for our way to eternal life. They’re searching for mercy, and they find him. What a powerful pattern for our lives. It’s a search for mercy, which we will all need on the Day of Judgment. It’s a search for Divine love, and that God has defined what love means, and not us on our own.
This search of Simon, is a search for the resurrection. He will come to know that later, as will we. And take note of what happens in the story; they find him. Jesus could have hid from them like Adam hid in the Garden of Eden after his shameful choice. But Christ has nothing to be ashamed of. He’s always available, especially in the Eucharist.
This movement for us in this part of the Gospel translates into never giving up the search for God, and persevering until we know we have found him. We’ll know it when we do.
The final movement in the Gospel is moving on to nearby villages to preach there also. Jesus does not leave anyone out of his message of repentance and salvation. As the Son of God, his message encompasses the entire world. Every human person, ever. From those who die in the womb to those who die outside the womb.
We imitate this movement by being Christ to others. No need to complicate it. Be Christ to others. That fulfills the law of God and the last movement in this short Gospel story. There’s so much movement to pattern our lives after in this Gospel. The same way Tom Brady is going to move that offense tonight.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come here to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”
First, no, he hasn’t come here to destroy, but to save us. He’s come to destroy all evil, yes. But to save us. “Have you come here to destroy us?” is a question directed at Jesus by a raging, mad demon who knows his time is up. The demon is the one destroying the poor man he possesses by his ravaging nature. Yet, in the irony of ironies, he fears being destroyed by the Holy One of God. Jesus destroys demons, and saves us, the people he loves. He destroys the results of the sin of Adam, but saves those who turn away from the sin of Adam.
And second, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” At least the unclean spirit made an honest admission before being destroyed by Jesus, like the Patriots will do to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl next week. This honest and correct admission of the unclean spirit is spoken out of fear. The sort of fear that sees before it, its own destruction. It’s all negative with unclean spirits. Their nature is fully corrupt.
Our honest and correct admission of Jesus is spoken, I pray, from faith and love, and not from abnormal fear. We believe in him because he promises a gift that will bring eternal joy to our souls first, and our bodies in the resurrection. This is what our faith is built upon. And we love him not only because he died for us – we love those who make great sacrifices for us, like parents and grandparents – but we love him also because he stands by us through thick and thin right now.
As a preacher, I have a slight hesitancy to present Jesus to you as a friend. But his friendship is a notable part of our relationship with him. A faithful friend is someone who stays with you through the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health. Christ does this for us, and I pray that over the length of our years, we come to know this intimately.
My hesitancy is caused by our seeing Jesus only as a friend; a nice guy who cares about us; a man who spoke some friendly words of teaching; healed a few sick people; and was put to death by some pretty bad people. Jesus is a friend, as the possessed man in the Gospel comes to know. Jesus is there for him. But he’s more than a friend; he is God and Savior of the world.
As our Lord begins his ministry early in Mark’s Gospel, the first miracle that comes to us through this Gospel writer is one of destroying that which is unclean. This is how he baptizes our world. The man with the unclean spirit is the one who claims the center of our attention in this story, and much less so the demon. There’s a grave danger today that many souls are offering their attention to the ways of the demons, as they play with fire, and not to the cleansing. Our Christian focus is to be on the man who is healed by the power of God, and less on the power of a wayward spirit who loses the battle in the end.
The time that the unclean spirit spent in possession of the man who was bedeviled by it, was limited time. If our attention remains true to Christ, and not offer any degree of allegiance to their evil ways, any unclean spirits become temporary. Our attention is directed toward the saving power of God; towards the positive, the good; the loving; the forgiving. This first healing in Mark’s Gospel is like the first explicit experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in all the Gospels. The unclean man is made clean by the power of Christ. And here it is; the first spiritual and physical message of Jesus in his opening encounter with the crowds after beginning his public ministry. It’s not by chance or happenstance that our Lord’s forgiveness is first up. Forgiveness is the leadoff batter to many other virtues to follow in the lineup.
He came to fix a broken world. And the first fix that God had in mind was to fix the sin of Adam and Eve. The only way to fix that debacle in the Garden is to clean that which is unclean, and destroy the unclean. Jesus sees not only an unclean spirit controlling the life of a man that Jesus loves and created. He sees the effects of the Garden of Eden event in that mad spirit before him, and does what he does best; he runs it over with the Mack Truck he drove down from heaven. He flattens that spirit, like the Patriots are going to flatten the Eagles. I would have let Jesus borrow my UPS truck for such a noble purpose.
As I speak so much about he unclean spirit here, our attention is centered more on the man made clean by the touch of God. Aren’t we always happy to see someone recover from any dreadful condition? The loving touch in this story is the spoken word, “Quiet! Come out of him!” As long as our hearts are given to him, the Lord doesn’t rebuke us like that. He calls us to continual repentance for sure. But he doesn’t rebuke us in this way. His love is kind, gentle, and patient, as long as our hearts are given to him. We are not the unclean spirit; we are the man he healed and made whole. This incredible gift of being made whole is already partly realized in the present, if we so desire it. It will be fully known after we go through the Pearly Gates.
The first action of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is the action of cleaning the unclean in his path. The heavenly tornado. Just like the Patriots are going to clean up the Eagles. Get out of the way!
He offers to us the clean. The shiny soul. The bright heart. All that is good for us. The first action of Jesus is a profound act of love. And for this we give thanks to our Lord and Savior.
One good turning away from deserves another good turning away from.
When the Ninevites turned away from their evil ways after hearing the cry of Jonah that their city was going to be destroyed in 40 days, which God would have carried out, instead of a false missile landing in Hawaii in 40 minutes after hitting the wrong button, the Ninevites turned away from their evil ways, knowing it was not a false alarm from God. The voice of Jonah caught. It reached their ears and their hearts, unlike others today who are not heeding the warnings of evil practices and evil ways.
By turning away from their pagan practices, and turning toward the mercy of Jonah’s God, who is God, God copied the Ninevites’ good choice and repented of the evil he had threatened to perpetrate on them. Mercy won out over violence, as it always does with God, and as it always should in our personal relationships. The cry of forgiveness beat the ways of violence, in the same way the Patriots will beat Jacksonville today.
One good turning away from not only deserves another, but will cause, in many situations, another turning way from something that avoids destruction and heartache. The power behind the first reading from Jonah cannot be underestimated in its effect in our lives, and how it should unequivocally touch us very personally. This reading is a method for how to find peace.
We see the same religious thought in today’s 2nd reading; one good turning away from deserves another, but in a slightly different way from Jonah, the Ninevites, and God. In St. Paul’s Letter to the people of Corinth who are now Christians, Paul gives them a new way of seeing the world in which they live, and not return to their old sinful ways. It’s a way that continues to speak to our lives today, revealing the continued relevance of Scripture throughout history for all people.
Before being baptized into Christ and learning the beautiful teachings of Jesus, the Corinthians were pagan non-believers who knew nothing about the one, true God, living totally for the material world in which they resided. In like manner of the many lost souls who still do today. But in this short reading, Paul is instructing these newer converts to turn away from the world for the reason that the world is passing. Even though God created the world and saw that it was very good (Genesis), God knew he created a passing world.
Paul didn’t arrive at this truth in his science class at Damascus High School where he grew up. His “world is passing” comment derives from his Christian understanding that there is now something called eternal life; something that says human beings can live forever with rejoicing, with no more weeping, no buying goods to own, and where a man and his wife is now a relationship that goes so far beyond the joys of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Paul’s turning away is not too different from Jonah and the Ninevites, because to turn away from the world affected by the stain of Original Sin, and any of the enticements it holds for us – the greed, the power, the lust, the vengeance – to turn away from these present material realities, is to turn towards God. It’s a turning from the finite, the limited, to the infinite and the eternal. That is the penultimate Christian disposition in this life.
So, when Paul writes that the world in its present form is passing away, is that a religious statement of sadness, or a statement of hope? If we call ourselves Christian, then it is a scientific, religious statement of hope. Because the more the world as we know it passes away, the closer we draw toward the eternal perfection of heaven. May we make this beautiful truth central to our lives.
And in the Gospel today, it’s easy to see the turning away that occurs on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. One good turning away from here, deserves a turning toward. It is a daily challenge for us Christians. Peter, Andrew, James and John turn away from their boats, their livelihoods, their comfort zone, and to a large degree, from their families, and they turn towards working for Christ fulltime.
Not all of us are called to be Apostles, or missionaries, or priests or religious to work in a fulltime capacity for Christ. On my one day away each week – not my day off- if something comes my way, I put my superman suit back on, and head out to whatever’s going on. Whether it’s connected to the Parish, the Fire Department, or anything else.
But most of you do in fact do apostolic work in a different way. You turn away from the things you enjoy at times, you make sacrifices, you care for, support, and tend to your families. You minister to those who are emotionally hurting and physically ill in your families, neighbors, and friends. You show Christian concern for how someone may be doing, rather than being consumed by selfishness. These are just a few of the thousand ways in which you leave your boat, your comfort zone, and turn to do the Lord’s bidding.
This turning toward actions of sacrificial love on our part when and where they are needed, participates in the reason why the Apostles left their nets behind for Christ. Any action of Christian love on our part, even the smallest action, is a participation in the salvation of souls. Every action of love on our part turns away from a passing world, and makes the kingdom of God at hand right now. It leaves the boat of this world, and sees that Christ Jesus has called us to something greater than a passing world. He has called us to hope.
Peter, Andrew, James and John turn from their boats so quickly because they visualize a whole new world in Christ. They like what they see. In him alone is the fullness of our deepest joys.
One good turning away from deserves another. Turn from a passing world, and turn to him who is eternal.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know a few more details about the calling of the Apostles? Such as, when the 2 Disciples went to stay with Jesus for the day, what did they discuss? What were the topics of their conversation? Did they talk sports? Did they discuss matters of heaven and earth? Almost certainly they did. Did Jesus say anything to Simon before he changed his name to Cephas? It seems odd that the first words Jesus would speak in the presence of Simon are words that changed his name. There had to be some conversation between Jesus and Simon prior to the name-changing.
We find all these smaller details absent from this encounter between our Lord and two Disciples, and a third named Peter. Inquiring minds wish to know the minute details. But it’s the big details that the Gospel writer attends to while giving us room to interpret the rest of the story.
And the big detail in our readings on the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, is the big detail of Calling. Or, being called. Or, even more specific, being called by God, which all of us have been. It’s appropriate that the calling of the first Apostles is the Gospel reading for the beginning of Ordinary Time, shortly after the start of a New Year, because a calling is a new beginning. It’s the start of something new, in this case the start of faith in Christ, and that he is in fact what Andrew speaks about him in John’s Gospel; “We have found the Messiah.”
How could Andrew know so quickly the truest words he would ever speak? He hears John call Jesus the Lamb of God; causing Andrew to follow Jesus; then stays with him at his place for a day; and Bang! The words to Simon, ‘We found the Messiah!”
What are all the details in between? How did Andrew arrive at those words? We don’t just come to that conclusion by hearing something said about him, follow him for a short distance, stay with him for half a day, and then conclude he’s the Anointed One of God, which you say to your brother named Simon. I want to know all the details about how Andrew arrived at those words.
So, I guess we’ll have to wait until I drive my UPS truck through the Pearly Gates of heaven, with all of you as my packages. Hop on board! At one time I would have said we’ll have to wait until the Red Sox won the World Series, or the Patriots won the Super Bowl, but we don’t have to wait for that anymore. Some details we’ll just never know.
Truth be told, as much as any curious person wants to know all the smaller details regarding Andrew’s final assessment of Jesus, it’s the one big detail of the Calling that makes the front page of the Gospel. It’s on the front page of our Catholic newspaper because it’s the first thing we are to notice about ourselves in order to understand and live the rest of the story. All of us have been called to follow and work for Christ; to find the Messiah as Andrew did from that day forward.
This is an everyday assignment in ways where we are to share the front-page news of our personal newspaper with the world each day. The headline on Monday is the same headline on Tuesday, and likewise on Wednesday, and so forth; “Jesus Is Calling Me To Follow Him.” The small details that follow the one major headline produce a different story each day, depending on what God is sending into our lives that given day. No two days of the smaller details are the same, even though the major headline remains the same; “Jesus Is Calling Me To Follow Him.”
In the first reading today, where it looks like God is playing a game of hide-and-seek with Samuel, we gain some understanding of one aspect of the one big detail of Calling; that God is persistent, gentle, and patient. God calls Samuel three times in this reading. After the second calling when Samuel still didn’t put the puzzle together, God doesn’t say, “That’s it! I give up! He doesn’t get it! He’s not smart enough!”
No, God is persistent, while also being gentle; “Samuel, Samuel.” A tiny whispering sound of Samuel’s name. Almost spoken in holy silence, the same way God calls us; through gentleness. And God is patient, waiting for Samuel to figure out the truth of who is calling him. The Lord will wait years, if he has to, for us to listen to the Voice that speaks to our hearts.
This is a very moving scene where Samuel opens his life to the service of God’s will for him. There are many details of goodness that will follow in the life of Samuel, in the same way they have happened in our lives, much of which will be known to God alone. The big detail here is the Calling, that makes all the small details of God’s love possible.
So, as Andrew and the other Disciple sat with Jesus for a day and discussed things of heaven and earth, and how the Patriots are going to destroy the Tennessee Titans tonight, the smaller details of their time together are known in the mind of God alone, and not in ours. But the big headline, the Calling, we know about.
Jesus called them by name to continue his work after he ascended. We are called to the same as Andrew and Simon Peter, with no fear and the love of God in our hearts.
It’s natural to rest when we’re tired. It’s natural to eat when we’re hungry, or drink when we’re thirsty, and to dress up warm when it’s bitter cold outside. It’s natural to turn the heat on in our vehicles on mornings when the wind chill registers in the negative numbers, rather than driving on the highway with all the windows down so we can freeze ourselves. It’s natural for planes and blimps to fly, and for trains to ride the track. When it goes off the track, it’s not good news, because it loses its natural purpose for existence.
So much of what we do is second nature, or natural, that we don’t think about it when we’re doing it. We just do it in order to satisfy some aspect of our life, hoping to complete it safely and well. It doesn’t always work out that way, as we know. I had an on-call overnight stint at UMass and Memorial earlier this week, and one of the calls was to speak with a family of a woman patient who was eating a meal at a restaurant, began choking on her food, and now was to the point where the family made the tough decision of having to remove all the medical machinery. Just one example of the many each day throughout the world where occasions and simple events, like eating out as many people do, may not end as expected.
However, much of what we do is natural, second nature, no thought of ending in any way than what is expected. In our celebration of the Epiphany, the Church gives us these readings today to help us understand, among other reasons, how the most natural course of the human person is to journey toward the One who is our Creator. To travel another road in life other than the one that leads to the eternal and fulfilling presence of God is to travel an unnatural road. A road that will lead to frustration, to hopelessness, to misery, and ultimately to spiritual destruction.
If the Magi, the Three Wise Men, had stayed home and not followed the star, or traveled away from the star rather toward it, a star that was most natural to their livelihoods as astrologers, then it would have been time for them to hang up their telescopes. Or put them up for auction on eBay. It would have been the most unnatural choice they ever would have made in the history of their stargazing and looking into the heavens. Instead, they made the natural choice, and they followed the inviting star. They followed the star through storms, through calm, through the uncertainty of where the star was going to stop. Where is this star leading us? Where is Jesus leading us, as we follow his star?
Rather than stay home in the safety of their warm living rooms, with cable tv and delivery pizza, the Magi pack their bags after noticing this unusual star and traveled a journey that held many uncertainties, full speed ahead to Bethlehem, even though they lacked knowledge of where the star was leading them. They trusted the star to be legitimate.
The Three Wise Men offer us a couple of basic understandings of what each of us is in the midst of doing in our spiritual lives. First, that looking for Christ in our daily living; that following him when times are tough with sandstorms and lack of direction; that coming here every Sabbath Day and receiving him in his word and in his Eucharist, is natural for us. It’s natural for every person to draw ourselves back to our Creator. To search him out. To desire his love and purpose for being born into a body like ours. It’s as natural as most New Englanders cheering for the Patriots and Red Sox. Chasing after God, chasing after our Savior Jesus, is natural. There is nothing more natural in this entire worldly existence than chasing after God. There are many who do not, living the most unnatural lives. But for those who do, may we know that our most basic human instincts are being fulfilled.
Second, the Magi teach us how to handle and address all the Herod’s we’re forced to face on this journey. They are the weeds among the wheat, which Jesus says don’t tear out the Herod’s lest we destroy some of the good wheat too.
When they enter the presence of Herod, the impression the story gives is that the Magi enter before the king with innocence and a strong dose of being naïve. You don’t walk up to wretched, violent Herod and say, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” That’s a death wish. It’s nothing short of miraculous that they left Herod’s presence alive. How did that happen? They must have had the best Guardian Angels. It’s the only reason I can discern.
When the Herod’s arrive for us, and indeed they will, and for some they already have, we do what the Magi did. Continue to follow the star. Why? Because we haven’t reached the Kingdom of Heaven yet. If the Magi were not so innocent and naïve concerning Herod’s intentions of wanting to destroy the child, they would have lived in fear for the remainder of their journey to Bethlehem.
We never have to live in spiritual fear as Christians, getting knocked off the course of following the star of Christ. He will provide the grace and strength needed to finish the race, as St. Paul wrote about himself. Take on the same determination the Magi possessed to finish the race, all the way o Bethlehem, all the way into the eternal presence of our Creator. It’s the most natural course for our lives.
It’s not very difficult to picture Simeon sitting in the Temple for years and years, waiting for the Christ child to show up one day so that he himself may move on to eternal life in peace. As his eyes looked upon the salvation of the world after decades of waiting in the Temple for this one-time encounter, it’s not hard to imagine Simeon holding Jesus the same way a first-time grandparent would hold their grandchild. With a heart full of joy; emotions that only a little child can bring to an adult along in their years; a permanent smile for days on end; a sense of fulfillment that another generation is carrying on the family name. All of which is so good.
But Simeon and Anna the Prophetess in the Temple were more than spiritual grandparents to Jesus as he was carried into the holiest site in Israel by his parents, accompanied by a pair of pigeons, symbolizing their financial poverty as a family. Simeon and Anna were chosen to witness more than another boy being circumcised; more than the physical fulfilling of the Mosaic law.
“For my eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon speaks directly to God. Whereas grandparents proudly and rightly look on their newborn grandchild with all the love and joy they can muster, these two holy people in the Temple waited so long look on salvation itself.
In our celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family, it’s good that we see this holy event in a couple ways that touch the lives of all of us.
First – and this is no hidden knowledge – that family is a blessing, a gift that has been formed from the mind of God for our deepest joy and heartfelt satisfaction. Is there much in this short life that can offer a deeper sense of satisfaction than when family, especially children and grandchildren, do well? Than when they make all of us look good? Than when they address a challenging issue and, through the grace of God and fervent prayers on our part, they’re able to overcome some struggle and now able to enjoy the good part of life that God desires for us?
And, of course, as a priest, I have to see it in a different way, being without children or grandchildren. This is why my parents had 15 other children, so as a priest I could look to them as my children and grandchildren, which sometimes they don’t like very much. But I find a wonderful sense of joy in the lives they lead, and the good they do for others, as well as my nephews and nieces. Such as the good work of one of my brother’s accomplishes each day at the St. John’s Soup Kitchen. That to me is the same as a parent or grandparent watching their young family grow into respectful, intelligent, loving, caring, and giving young adults, who use their talents not for their own satisfaction only, but make a real difference in the lives of other people, especially those in greater need.
This is the blessedness of family we celebrate today in the Church, a blessedness I pray we may know and embrace. This is what God desires for us. It goes to the heart of the importance of the human life. And nothing speaks to such importance than the building up and closeness of family. That we rejoice in each other’s good, and share each other’s sorrow.
Mary and Joseph shared in the good of the birth of the newborn King whom angels worshipped and shepherds left their flocks to kneel and adore. Mary also shared in the sorrow – the intense sorrow – of witnessing her Son crucified. As difficult as that was, it was right that she was there.
Which leads to a second way of how we view and celebrate this Feast of the Holy Family. This family alone had a singular purpose that all families can now join; in the words of Simeon again, “For my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Simeon spoke those words directly to God. “My eyes have seen your salvation, Lord.” But he also spoke them to the parents who are hearing him speak. This child is their salvation too. “As you bring forth this child into the Temple, Mary and Joseph, my eyes feast upon your salvation, which God has given to the family of the world through you. Your family, Mary and Joseph, with the presence of this child, is now a family of salvation.” Do we not desire the same for our own families? Are we families of salvation?
It matters less as to whether Jesus plays soccer in Nazareth, or hockey, or baseball, or goes on The Voice to sing with his gifted Divine voice. We just know Jesus has a great voice. Regarding this aspect of family, the one “physical talent,” if you will, that far surpasses all the sports and many other blessings we possess, is the physical talent of his body being raised from the dead. In that one event that only he can and has accomplished, we all become family in the world of eternal life. But the truth of being one family in Christ begins here and now.
This is what Simeon and Anna waited decades for, and what they looked on the day that Jesus was carried into the Temple. Simeon didn’t see Tom Brady or Big Papi, or a potential big contract that will take care of all the financial needs a family could ever want. He saw salvation itself. He saw the real superstar, who makes the rest of us shine like stars in the sky when we follow him, and live as salvation families.
So, there’s the beautiful gift of family that I pray we never take advantage of, but enjoy to the fullest. And then there’s the Holy Family, whose Son offers us the surest and only way to family forever. And for this eternal truth, we give thanks to God our Father.
As I was reading this amazing Gospel story the first time this past week to prepare a little something for today together with the Holy Spirit, an emergency vehicle was going by on Grove Street, blaring its siren. It was about the 5th or 6th siren I heard that day by mid-afternoon, and those were the ones I heard when I was at home in the rectory. There were more sirens to come as the homily came together, the first one literally two minutes into homily preparation.
I thought, “Gee, I don’t have to think long and hard here this week for a useful image for the 4th Sunday of Advent. God provided it with the timely siren passing by outside,” as I prayed for all those involved with the reasons for each siren on that day.
So, the 4th Sunday of Advent is like Siren Sunday. It’s time to brush off any slumber, wake from any spiritual sleep, dust off any cobwebs, because at this point, especially this year, there’s a hurriedness and an excitement for what’s around the corner. The horns are blaring, speed is increased in our step, and someone seeks our attention. Very much.
A child is about to be born homeless. That’s one reason to call the siren people. He’s about to be born in the cold, on a raw December night in a land where cool nights in December are common. Our attention shifts very quickly this year, from a fourth Advent candle to a homeless child in a manger. (I don’t see him in there yet!). And, if we pay no attention to the spiritual siren that’s blaring today, then we can miss the message.
But we’re confident that our internal siren is roaring right now. We’re here today. We’re here celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on this Sunday, as we do every Sunday of the year, this day, December 24, that stands one person in line directly in front of the birth of a homeless child in Bethlehem. That’s how close we are. it’s directly behind us, coming up like a race car. The twinkling star is ready to reveal the place. The Magi are about to pack their bags for a journey across the desert. The shepherds in the field can tell by intuition that something big is in the works. The choirs of angels are warming up their voices, proclaiming the death of disobedience, and that the reign of Adam & Eve is kaput. Finished. We’re real close.
As close as Gabriel was to Mary in this Gospel. As close as King David came to building a house for the Lord that the Lord didn’t ask for, a mansion called a Temple, because David thought that God was dwelling in an unworthy tent. It’s a good thing King David wasn’t in Bethlehem 2017 years ago, where Mary and Joseph would have been overjoyed with a tent in the early morning hours of December 25. A tent would have felt like a Temple to the holy couple.
So, we allow St. Gabriel and Blessed Mary to be the ones we look to this day, inviting us in to the spiritual and physical closeness of the Word becoming flesh. This day isn’t about finishing our Christmas shopping; it isn’t about did we buy the right gift, will the gift fit, will it work, are the batteries new, will Joey hit his sister Suzie in the head with the baseball after he opens it. It’s the Word about to become flesh. But truth be told, he’s already flesh. His fleshness began at this Gospel, at the Annunciation on March 25, 9 months minus one (two) day(s) prior to this day. He’s already flesh by virtue of being a child in his Mother’s womb. He’s about to become visible.
At this encounter between Mary and Gabriel, all the sirens begin to blare, the bad and the good. The heavens begin to make noise. The bad sirens are blaring because the Devil and his angels sense that something here is going against their plan to destroy souls, and keep them away from God. Something monumental is happening in this quiet meeting between the angel who stands before God, and this young, most innocent Israelite woman. She’s about to crush the head of the serpent, and all the bad spirits are in a tizzy about it. The bad sirens are flipping out because the love of God caught them napping, and he planted a seed in the womb of the Serpent-Crusher.
But the good sirens are blaring too. They’re the choirs of angels dancing and singing over the gift of our salvation. Their trumpets are tuned up. For those who love God, it will be sweet-sounding music. For those who do not, we pray for them.
We’re really close. God is really, really close. So close that in the brief time it took the Spirit and yours truly to put together this homily in about 45 minutes, that 6 more sirens were heard down below. Not sure if they were good ones or bad ones. We pray they resulted in good. But we are sure that the one we anticipate is on the doorstep.
Our Mass schedule for Christmas is the following: Christmas Eve at 4:00 p.m. and Christmas Day at 9:00 a.m.