Christmas Review

One single post will cover the whole of Christmas. We have said before that Christmas is not a day, but a season. Each celebration during the season is a different take at the core idea of Christmas: the reality that God becomes human. The journey of Christmas includes important feasts that this year we have not celebrated on the weekend because Christmas fell on a Sunday—the feasts of the Holy Family and the Baptism of the Lord.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we preached a similar message, even if the set of readings was different. It was not out of convenience, but because either using the bucolic, tale-like story of the nativity scene in Luke, or the more theological beginning of John’s gospel used on Christmas Day, the point is the same: what is our reaction/answer to God becoming human?

The story in Luke is so popular that we may fail to capture its whole depth. I propose to you that we look at it in terms of reaction: the reaction of the Shepherds—first fearful, then joyful; the reaction of the angels; the reaction of the inn keeper saying that there is no room for God’s plan in the world. The theologically dense gospel reading for Christmas Day has Jesus being called “the Word,” the most basic unit of human communication. God communicates through Jesus and expects an answer from us.

Think about it: not only Christmas, but also the whole of the gospel is about people’s reaction to Jesus: indifference, fear, anger, violence that turns the wood of the manger into the wood of the Cross… but also great reactions—like the one of the shepherds who first are afraid but then become fully convinced messengers of the good news.

The second stop in the journey of Christmas was the celebration of Mary, Mother of God, with the obvious background of one year ending and a new one starting. The gospel of the feast has Mary “keeping all these things in her heart.” This beautiful idiom is used in other parts of Luke’s gospel about Mary, who the first thing we know she does at the Annunciation is to “ponder.” Mary kept the extraordinary events happening to her and around her and pondered, meditated, discerned, considered… It would be a great way to begin the New Year if we would make a commitment to think, discern, ponder, a bit more. Does it sound like a good New Year’s resolution?

As much as we know the limited power of New Year’s resolutions, and how short lived they normally are, it is also true that we keep trying. There is something about starting a new year that makes us believe change and improvement is possible. Despite everything that would seem to prove the contrary, humans are hopeful about the future. No one is really planning for 2017 to be worse than 2016.

Following Mary’s inspiration, we should ponder New Year’s resolutions. But I propose to you that instead of the typical resolutions that seem to be about improving the self (exercise more, lose weight, etc.) we could come up with resolutions that improve others. In the end, moving the focus from self to others will end up improving ourselves.

Finally, last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. We have preached before (you can check this past post) that the Magi bring to the Child three gifts that represent three main areas of human concern: gold—our concern for finances and material needs; frankincense—our spiritual dimension, prayer, spirituality; myrrh—an ointment used in antiquity to alleviate pain and to embalm the bodies of the dead, referring to our concern with the reality of suffering and eventual death.

As an adult, Jesus will give an answer to the three questions. About money, Jesus will preach about the foolishness to over-store and accumulate; he will tell us that there is more joy in giving than receiving. He will constantly remind us of the practice to consider the poor when we have been blessed with more than what we need. About prayer, in what was a revolution in his time, Jesus will preach about a God that is close to us, to the point that he will teach us to call him Father, and he will teach us to pray addressing Him just like that. About suffering and ultimate death, perhaps the most difficult of the three areas, what Jesus will do is go to the Cross, and thus preach to us not about a suffering for the sake of suffering, but suffering that saves others. He will invite us to be “moved with compassion” which means to feel the pain of others as if it were our own.

As we begin a New Year, we are invited to reflect whether my life is at least in the right direction, in the direction of the gospel, in these three areas. One last point: these concerns are called gifts and treasures. A provocative invitation to consider our areas of difficulty, our anxieties, as “target” points for growth.

This is the image we used for all of our Christmas materials this year at Sacred Heart.

Mary and Jesus 2016.jpg


From Good to Great (i.e., Holy)

The gospel in the third week of Advent finds John the Baptist in prison sending his disciples to check on Jesus. They question him: Are you the one? Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for? Jesus did not answer saying yes, rather he just showed them what he was doing: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Interesting way of responding to John, as he had preached—as we read last Sunday—that Jesus’ baptism was going to be one of mission. What we ‘do’ is who we ‘are.’ So, again, it is about mission, and individuals and communities will have to discern whether or not we are preaching good news to the poor and who are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead in their context.

The gospel in the fourth week of Advent takes us to Matthew’s take on what we call the “infancy narratives.” Only Matthew and Luke have anything on Jesus’ infancy. Luke’s stories and imagery have become the more popular ones—shepherds, stars, etc.—but I find Matthew’s take as compelling, and perhaps more theologically compelling. If Mary provides the “human facilitator” in Luke, Joseph plays that role in Matthew. This gospel shows the incredible transformation Joseph goes through.

When Mary is found with child, Joseph had three options—clearly delineated in the gospel. The first option was to do what was expected of him, and he would have been totally justified by the Law: repudiate Mary, divorce her publicly, with public shame (and worse) for this young woman. Joseph had a second option, which he intended to follow. Joseph was righteous, but a good person, so he had already decided to divorce Mary quietly. This second option is better than the first, but certainly not yet enough for God’s plan to take place. But it is because he was a good person that God can intervene to transform Joseph’s goodness into holiness. From righteous, to “good,” to holy—and to be holy, to take the holy choice is Joseph’s call and actually ours, too.

Let me tell you that while I was thinking about this in preparation for the weekend I received Archbishop Listecki’s Christmas gift—which is always a book. I am not special, he sends a book to all the priests of the Archdiocese. If a priest of the Archdiocese publishes a book during the year, that will be the book he will gift to us. He sent a great one this time around. The book is about preaching, written by my preacher teacher at the Seminary, Fr. Joseph Juknialis. In the book, he identifies nine ingredients that should be present in any homily, and each element becomes a chapter. Chapter nine connects with what we were discussing above: The preacher assumes the congregation is made up of good people. I agree, but as we see in this gospel, good does not cut it. As Fr. Juknialis also says, the preacher’s job is to help good people (including self) into becoming (or at least trying to become) holy.

We all can look at the decisions we are presented with in our lives and identify the three options. The one that counts on society’s blessings, the one that keep us afloat but sinks someone else, the “righteous” choice. Then we can identify the “good” option: it is not a bad one, it does some good, it does not hurt anybody, it actually helps someone, but it may not really solve a problem. With prayer, and allowing God’s intervention, we may also identify the “holy” option. For instance, our relationship with the poor. The first option, ignore them or even chastise them and shame them. The second option, some nice gesture, perhaps a donation—you see? Not bad, it is a nice gesture, many of us do that during the year, especially these days. But obviously, the holy option is also there—and it would take much more effort. The same pattern could be applied to choices on raising children, dealing with a spouse, stewardship, etc.

God short-circuited Joseph’s decision-making process through a dream. God wants to do that for us, too. He will help us—through a prayer that listens, through events, through people—to go from good to great, from good to holy. He will come to us, as He did on the first Christmas as a Child.



A Baptism of Holy Spirit and Fire

The gospel of the second Sunday in Advent takes us to the desert near the Jordan River, where John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing in preparation for the coming of the Christ. John preaches judgment, the need for repentance, but he also says—as recorded in all the synoptic gospels—“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

It seems to be that often we are disciples of John more than we are disciples of Jesus. We understand the part about repentance and cleansing. In the ritual of baptism, we have preserved both elements: there is the water of cleansing, but there is also the anointing with the Chrism, the oil of the Holy Spirit, that gives the individual a mission.

It is a temptation in any organized religion to focus on the cleansing part. Sinfulness is understood as a private issue, dealing with private concerns, only about moral behavior. It is a temptation to constantly discuss who belongs (who is clean) and who does not. Think about the discussions surrounding communion for the divorced and remarried, for example. We know that one of Jesus’ contentions against the religious system of his time was precisely the obsession with purity and impurity. Following this mentality, we then focus on ritual and rule, and we end up believing that our being in good standing with God is a matter of fulfilling a few measurable precepts. Many operate within this framework because it is black and white, binary, simple. Or because we have been raised this way. But ask any pastor how church attendance goes down when a feast happens not to fall on a holy day of obligation—just to give another example of a byproduct of this mentality.

Embracing mission is much more difficult, because it is not simple, not easy, not binary. Reality is not binary, it does not understand the language of purity and impurity.

As we were preaching this in church this past weekend, we were taking our faith community into a process to discuss mission that has begun with three gatherings we called “brainstorming-mission” sessions. Approximately 20% of the people who come to Mass attended either of the sessions. Many ideas surfaced, and the discussion was very good. At the same time, you could also easily see the difficulty of moving away from understanding church as a place where I am to be served—instead of becoming places of service to others. Again, a very positive first step in our process, but one that showed the difficulty of engaging Catholics in discussing mission.

After the homily, we say the Creed. I did not realize until the third Mass of the weekend that when we say the Creed, we profess that we “confess one Baptism, for the forgiveness of sins.” I smiled. And I wondered if we could also profess that we believe in the baptism of mission, of Holy Spirit and fire, that John told us this weekend that Jesus preached about.

Ending a year, Adventing a new one.

We are still playing catch-up with this blog. The following reflection covers the last three Sundays—two pertaining to the end of the past liturgical year and the last one marking the beginning of a new Advent.

Because it was the second to last Sunday of the year, the Lectionary offered a gospel about the end of times. Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple and announces future persecution against his disciples (a footnote: this text was written after the fall of the Temple and when the persecutions of Christians had already started, but I believe Jesus foresaw these two events to happen.) The Temple, with its grandiosity, was a symbol of stability for the Jewish world and its destruction is comparable to the 9/11 attack on all the symbols of the American way of life.

Jesus tells his disciples that times of struggle are opportunities to stick even firmer to his teachings, to the values he espoused and not the other way around. Times of struggle question our values, our faith, our generosity, our openness to the stranger, our trust in God and others. Jesus tells us that when we feel our world is coming to an end—we lose our job, or somebody quits on us, or we experience the death of a loved one, or we receive a serious medical diagnosis—is precisely when we have to stick harder to our values. Jesus calls them “opportunities to give testimony” to what we believe in “normal” circumstances.

On the last Sunday of the year we celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Calling Jesus “king” may sound strange to our modern, democratic, American ears—as well as being in contradiction with the teaching of the same Jesus on earthly power. While the establishment of the solemnity has a historical explanation—Pius XI established the solemnity in 1925, in response to growing secularity and social unrest in Europe—the gospel that we read this Sunday reminds us that Jesus is King, but his throne is the Cross. From the Cross, Jesus continues dispensing forgiveness and the promise of paradise.

Then we began a new Advent. I do not know about you, but I look at the month ahead with a lot of trepidation. I love Advent and I love the liturgical seasons. While we try to live our lives according to the rhythm of the seasons, Advent is the time of the year where the liturgical time is set in clear contrast with what ends up happening in our lives. While the Church tells us of a time of prayerful preparation, we find ourselves immersed in all kinds of—may we say—stressful situations: Christmas gatherings—with the temptation to over-eat and over-drink—gift shopping, decorations, Christmas concerts, writing Christmas cards, etc. As much as we may enjoy some or all of these activities, they are simply not very conducive for the kind of slowing down that Christmas preparation requires, and they can bring a lot of stress to our lives.

Maybe you are satisfied with your past Advents, but even if that is the case, I suppose we all can do better. If we just do what we have always done, our Christmas preparation will be the same. As we begin a new Advent, I propose to you that we are more intentional about “adventing.” Namely, that we spend some time during this first week of Advent to take a look at what we are going to do, or not do, instead of just letting ourselves “go-with-the-flow,” follow the drift of anticipated Christmas. As individuals or as families, we should pause and decide what our Advent strategy is going to be. Mine? I want to find a regular time for silent prayer every day, and I plan to cut down on the number of social activities in which I am going to engage—making sure I am totally present at those I decide to go.

What’s in a Question, You Ask?

This will be our final catch-up post. It is about last Sunday’s gospel, but Zacchaeus, the protagonist of the gospel two weeks ago, will show up at the end.

This may have been one of the most difficult gospels of the year to preach about. The Sadducees come to Jesus with a strange, legalistic question… and it is not easy to see how to exactly apply the lesson to our lives.

We can begin by knowing a bit more about these people. We have discussed the Pharisees at length, but who are the Sadducees? They were the higher class in Jewish society, in charge of government in both civil and religious affairs. Recent archaeological studies have shown that the Sadducees lived in extreme luxury, and they were keen to display their obscene wealth very publicly. Earthly life was going so well for them that it is no wonder why they did not believe in the resurrection, or in any kind of judgment at the time of death.

Despite not believing in the resurrection and the afterlife, they still come to Jesus with a question about the afterlife, using a senseless, improbable story—a woman who marries seven brothers. While the contention between the Pharisees and Jesus was one of principle, Jesus had nothing in common with the Sadducees’ worldview and behavior. They are not even testing Jesus, as we see the Pharisees doing quite often. They are simply mocking Jesus. They really could not care less, they are bored and Jesus is entertainment for them.

If you do not want a person and his message to transform your life, you just mock it. The Sadducees had a lot to change if they paid attention and heed Jesus’ message. A life that was about the accumulation of incredible wealth, and its obscene display in a society with lots of poor people could only result in people with empty souls. The only course of action for people like that was to mock this man who preached about the poor, about solidarity, about humility and the other issues they did not care about.

Knowing that the gospel would be challenging, at the beginning of the week I thought how sad it was that having the opportunity to ask something to Jesus, these people would come with such a ridiculous question. I started thinking, what would I ask Jesus? And what would my friends ask Jesus if they were given the chance? So I sent an email to a reduced number of friends. Unlike the Pharisees, all these people came up with amazing questions that show how much they care about the message of the gospel.

The answers (questions, actually!) I received can be divided into four groups. There were questions about the presence of suffering and evil in the world. There were questions about love, “How can I love like you do?” There were questions about salvation—and how many times individuals came up to Jesus with that one. Finally, there were questions about how to do what you tell us to do for others. Among this last group, a middle-aged priest you may have heard of. Unlike the Sadducees, all these people had this desire inside, this hunger for purpose and meaning in the way they live their life and faith. The gospel is meant for people like that.

This is how I understood the gospel of the encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus that we read last week (really catching up here.) I understood that Zacchaeus was someone who despite his wealth was still searching. In such a state of search, the opposite of complacency and comfort, he allowed Jesus to change his heart, and also his behavior in a dramatic, and sacrificial way. Jesus was planning to pass by but because of Zacchaeus, he stayed. My question is then, will he stay with us?





Praying On The Fringes

Catching-up post, part 2. Before we met Zacchaeus this past Sunday, we had two gospels connected with prayer: the parable of the widow and the judge, and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple.

If you remember the gospel we read on October 2nd (post here) the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus told them that it was not about increasing it, that the problem was that they had none. We reflected in the homily that Jesus was not talking about “doctrinal” faith, but faith in his actual teachings, specifically on (1) a life of absolute forgiveness, (2) a life of service, and (3) the ability to do great things. The story of the widow and the judge adds a fourth area: prayer.

Jesus is asking us, do you believe in prayer? Not the desperate prayer that we get into when a sudden need appears (for us or others,) but like with forgiveness, the constant prayer, prayer understood as a lifestyle. We do not pray, or we do not pray enough, or we pray for the wrong things (inspired by this story, when is the last time we prayed for justice?) or we pray muttering so many words and formulas that we do not allow God to talk to us. Prayer is a conversation, as we have preached before, and we need to allow God to respond to us.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the characters show extreme attitudes on prayer. Jesus offers the parable to teach us what happens when we are filled with ego. Think of prayer as a conversation, as we just said above. What answer can God give to either of the characters? There is no room for God to answer to the Pharisee, who is really talking to himself (“He spoke this prayer to himself.”) If we think we are perfect, as individuals or as a faith community (or as anything, for that matter,) then our prayer will be empty, and self-aggrandizing, and will fuel our judgmental attitudes. The ego-less prayer of the tax collector allows for God to answer to him.

One last thought. On our previous post we wondered what does it mean to be a person of the margins. Interestingly enough, Jesus teaches on prayer using the example of people in the margins, a widow pleading for justice before an insensitive Judge and a tax collector who can hear the offensive prayer of the self-righteous Pharisee. Perhaps just because in the margins there is less room for ego, for the consideration of superficial needs, and it becomes clearer to us what we and those around us actually need.




People of the Margins (28th Sunday in OT)

The blog is slightly behind, but we are going to catch up this week. Do you remember the gospel of three weeks ago? The Healing of the Ten Lepers. Here is our take…

Three Sundays ago (yes, we got behind) we proclaimed the gospel of the healing of the ten lepers, one of those stories we know well. Any interpretation of the gospel should not obviate that it is a story about thankfulness, as a Christian value that we have to embrace, not as a gesture but as a way of life. But there is much more in the story, more challenges that we need to uncover.

As we know well, lepers were considered impure by the Law. They lived outside of towns, outside of society, they were the truly marginalized in Jesus’ time. In the passage, they cry out for Jesus to heal them. Jesus asks them to present themselves to the priests—the individuals in charge of the Temple, following what the Law prescribed so a healing could be “certified” before the individual could re-enter society (Leviticus 13:16-17). Interestingly enough, apparently the lepers have no problem in going back to the institution that has marginalized them in the first place.

As we know well, only one goes back to Jesus—a Samaritan, and we know also about the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans, who were also considered impure. Some scholars interpret that the Samaritan does not go to the priest simply because he can’t. The Jewish laws of purification did not apply to them. He is a foreigner, the Temple does not mean anything to him. Only the person who has experienced double discrimination—as a Samaritan and as a leper—the person who is still an outsider after the healing, finds it in himself to go back to express his thankfulness to the one who has healed him.

Jesus not only calls us to care deeply for the marginalized, but also he calls us to be people of the margins. It is two different calls—and we may have trouble distinguishing between them. I believe the call in today’s gospel is the latter, to be people of the margins. Pope Francis famously called us to live and find our purpose on the peripheries of society—where the truly marginalized are.

The reflection becomes a question that we have to answer in levels: What does it mean for us individually to be a person of the margins? But also, what does it mean for our Faith Community to be a community of the margins? And what does it mean for us as Church to be a church of the margins?