Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Presenting Christ's Nativity

Presenting Christ's Nativity

For a good many years it's been the custom at the Church of the Holy Cross in Champaign to enact the story of Christ's birth at the 4:00 p.m. vigil Mass on Christmas Eve.  The youthful actors (elementary and high school students) act silently while the pastor reads the Gospel--in this year (and perhaps in other years), a text sewn together from the evangelists Luke and Matthew and from Fr. Dave Sajdak's imagination.

Here are some pix of the celebration:
Before Mass starts, Deacon Ed Mohrbacher does some prep work in the sanctuary.
The traditional crèche scene is covered over in the center of the sanctuary.

Also before Mass, Fr. Dave put down masking tape to demarcate where the tykes in attendance
would set themselves down for the homily, addressed to them.

Under the direction of our outstanding music director, Scott Montgomery,
the parish's children's choir provided music before and during Mass.

Our 3 shepherds passing time in the sacristy before Mass.
The 4 o'clock vigil Mass is always the most crowded of Holy Cross's 5 Christmas Masses.
It appeared to your humble blogger that about 100 people had to stand in the back and the side aisles. 
Not sure of the seating capacity--maybe 500?
Joseph begs the innkeeper (right) for a room while Mary stands off to the left.
Joseph, Mary, and a live baby Jesus (just delivered by his real mom, exiting behind the altar).
The angel appears to the shepherds.
The magi and the shepherds with the Holy Family.  One shepherd, lower right, didn't wake up when the angel came.
Fr. Dave preaching to the little ones and expanding the story with a tale of the little shepherd boy.
Joseph meets the late-arriving shepherd boy and welcomes him to the manger.
The complete Nativity ensemble, minus "live Jesus," who had to depart suddenly when he raised a squall and required Mom to come to his assistance.  (He was able to resume his place sometime later.)
Fr. Dave sent the tykes back to their parents with instructions to tell them that they love God and them--
which these 2 faithful little parishioners did.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Homily for the Vigil of Christmas

Homily for the Vigil of
Dec. 24, 2016
Is 62: 1-5
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you” (Is 62: 5).

Let’s talk about marriage!

That’s a strange topic for Christmas Eve.  But there it is in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, and in the reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel, where the angel instructs St. Joseph to take the Virgin Mary as his wife.

Christmas is very much about marriage, indeed!  Speaking thru Isaiah, God tells his people Israel, “Your Builder shall marry you,” and God shall rejoice over Israel like a groom rejoicing over his bride.  When the eternal Son of God became incarnate—took on our humanity—God our Maker wedded himself to us.  God became man.  The 2 became 1 flesh.  From that moment in history, God totally embraces the human race, and his intention is to bring us into his own home, as Joseph took Mary into his home (Matt 1:24).
Joseph's Dream, by Cerezo Barredo
This divine-human marriage is shown to us, as well, in the Virgin Mary.  “It is thru the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Matt 1:20).  God chose Mary to be his spouse.  God, so to speak, has married into our human family.  We could almost say that we all have God for a father-in-law!

So at Christmas we celebrate the great festival of God’s union with the human race, a union personalized in Jesus Christ our Savior.  The angel informs Joseph that this son of Mary “will save his people from their sins” (1:21).  His people!  We are his people, his kin, his brothers and sisters, because the eternal God has come down to us, has asked to join the family—he asked, I say, because, in Matthew’s account of the story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph had to agree to take in Mary so that the Old Testament prophecies could be fulfilled, that Jesus should belong to the house of David (1:20).  And in Luke’s account of the Annunciation, Mary had to consent to the heavenly Father’s request before the Son could take her flesh and bone, her genetic code, all the essence of humanness that she could offer him.  She had to welcome the Son of God into the home of her womb, allow him to become part of her family, and thru her of our family.

God loves irony.  The Scriptures are full of irony.  So we celebrate in Christ’s coming the marriage of divinity and humanity, and of human beings receiving God into their home, their family.  Why does God do all that?  Why does he plan events in this fashion?  In order to invite us into his home, as I said earlier, to take us into his household.  One of the great images of the Sacred Scriptures is that we, God’s people, are his spouse—“your Builder shall marry you,” Isaiah prophesied; St. Paul teaches us, likewise, that Christ loves the Church as a husband loves his wife, and vice versa (cf. Eph 5:21-33), and that we are members of God’s household (Eph 2:19).  God redeems us by flipping the situation, which is ironic.

So today, as we rejoice in the appearance of the Eternal God in the manger at Bethlehem, we meditate upon the significance of that appearance—an appearance that has forever transformed the relationship between our Creator and us, between God and sinners.  “Blessed the people who know the joyful shout,” the psalmist sings tonite (89:16).  More particularly, we the redeemed of Christ, sing, “Blessed are those called to the wedding of the Lamb,” as the Book of Revelation says; “Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to God the Almighty, for the wedding day of the Lamb has come” (cf. Rev 19:7-9).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Homily for 4th Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 21, 1986
Is 7: 10-14
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

At Holy Cross in Champaign, it was the deacons' turn to preach this weekend. Here's a homily from the other Holy Cross in my life.

“The young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14).

In the 1st reading this morning, we heard the 1st messianic prophecy of Isaiah.  Isaiah delivers a message from God to King Ahaz, a message reinforced by a sign.
From 500
King Ahaz sounds very devout; he says he doesn’t want to make God prove his power.  But Ahaz is really an irreligious man, and his piety is fake.  It’s 735 B.C., and the armies of Syria and of Israel – there’s an unlikely pair for you! – the armies of Syria and Israel are invading Judah and threatening to capture Jerusalem and overthrow the royal family of King David – David, from whom the messiah is supposed to come; David, whose house and kingdom shall endure forever before God, as God himself promised (2 Sam 7:16).

The 1st two verses of Is 7 tell us that when Ahaz heard of the invasion, his heart and the hearts of the people “trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.”  So Ahaz wants to ask for help from his friendly local superpower, pagan Assyria.  But Isaiah tells him not to, he should rely on God instead, because God will deliver Jerusalem and the house of David.

While Isaiah is telling the king all this, Ahaz is busy inspecting his forts, and he doesn’t want to listen.  So the Lord offers to give him a sign, a proof that he means what he says, that Isaiah is telling the truth: “Let it be as deep as the underworld, or as high as the sky!” (7:11); ask for anything you can imagine!

Ahaz refuses the sign, and he sounds very pious.  But he’s already decided what he’ll do: He will not listen to the word of the Lord.  He’ll do what he’d planned to do all along; he’ll rely on human salvation rather than divine.

Isaiah gives the king a sign anyway, just in case it might help change his mind:  “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14).  “Immanuel” means “God is with us”; it’s a pretty strong hint to Ahaz that he should be trusting in the Lord rather than in the Assyrians.

The Hebrew word almah, which is used here, means a young woman of marriageable age.  We presume that some young lady in the royal family fulfilled the sign of Isaiah.  Perhaps it was Ahaz’s wife; maybe the son was his eventual successor, Hezekiah, who continued the line of King David and was a good king, tangible proof that God was still with his chosen people and his holy city.  It was only 800 years later that St. Matthew connected the Emmanuel sign to the birth of Jesus, with the help of the Greek word for “young woman of marriageable age,” the word parthenos, which also means “virgin.”

In the meantime, King Ahaz didn’t change his mind.  He called up Assyria for help, and the Assyrians came gladly:  to crunch the Syrians and the Israelites, to demand a bundle in tribute from Ahaz, and to make Judah part of their empire.  Ahaz’ plan backfired on him and Judah.

God doesn’t usually send prophets into our lives to show us what he wants us to do.  But he does send us lots of messages:  we have his word in the Bible; he uses our bishop and Holy Father, sometimes our friends and neighbors, even things that happen around us.  Like Ahaz, we’re left free to decide for ourselves whether to listen to the Lord or not.  Like Ahaz, we may find some unpleasant consequences to choosing our own wisdom rather than the divine wisdom, the wisdom of Jesus Christ, the wisdom handed on to us by Christ’s Church.

We certainly don’t have to be like King Ahaz.  The gospel this morning shows us how one man did listen carefully to what the angel told him.  The message was even harder to believe than what Isaiah told the king.  But St. Joseph, the son of David, listened and believed and acted.  He accepted the divine word that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit, that God himself was wondrously intervening in our sinful human history; and he took her into his home as his wife (Matt 1:18-25).  Thus did Joseph become a member of God’s own family.  Thus was the ancient promise to King David fulfilled.  Thus did Isaiah’s ancient sign take on a wonderful new meaning.

As Christians we’re members of God’s family.  That’s what St. Paul means in the 2nd reading when he calls us “God’s beloved, called to holiness,” to be saints (Rom 1:7).  That means we have to imitate Joseph rather than Ahaz.  We have to listen attentively to the ways by which God speaks to us today, pray over what we hear, and consider how God wants us to act.

Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Rom 1:7).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Homily for 3d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 11, 2016
Matt 11: 1-11
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:  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’” (Matt 11: 4-5).

Thru the centuries, commentators have debated about John the Baptist’s motive in sending his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the one who was to come, the one whose coming John had preached, e.g., in what we heard in last Sunday’s gospel (Matt 3:1-12).  They’ve debated whether John sent them for his own sake—he himself was trying to answer that question about Jesus; or for the sake of his disciples—he knew the answer but they didn’t, so he wanted them to hear and see the answer first-hand.
John's disciples visit him in prison
(source unknown)
The historic person of Jesus is long-gone, obviously.  When people today wonder who Jesus was, or who Jesus is, they can’t be directed to Judea or Galilee to see for themselves what marvelous healings he’s working or hear for themselves the wisdom and truth of his teachings.  Yet, as you know, many people today do question whether Jesus is the one sent by God, ask why they should pay any more attention to him than they pay to the Buddha or Mohammed or Karl Marx or Steve Jobs, ask whether Jesus should make any difference in their lives.

It’s been reported that someone once asked Gandhi whether he’d ever considered becoming a Christian, and he answered that he loved Christ; it was his followers that he had a problem with —followers who were practicing apartheid in South Africa when Gandhi lived there and began practicing law, and who were the colonial masters of India and suppressors of Indian efforts to gain self-government when Gandhi and others began their peaceful resistance to British rule.

What is the evidence that Jesus Christ is the one sent by God to fulfill the promises, to redeem humanity, the evidence that people can see and hear today if Jesus himself is no longer visible and audible?

The evidence is his followers.  Assuredly people can see the followers of Jesus healing the sick in countless hospitals and health clinics all over the world, often at the risk of their own lives, e.g., during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a year or 2 back.

Assuredly people can see the followers of Jesus feeding the hungry and clothing the naked in refugee camps and migrant shelters in the Middle East and on our own southern border; resettling refugees fleeing from Cuba and Vietnam in the recent past or from Syria in the present; helping Haitians recover from earthquake and a hurricane.

Assuredly people can see Catholic schools and child-care centers in the poorest countries in the world like Haiti and Mongolia and the Central African Republic, in the most inaccessible parts of the world like the headwaters of the Amazon and the frozen hills of Tierra del Fuego, and in the inner cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

In all of those examples, by the way, the Church welcomes people of any creed.  As has been said often, we don’t serve the poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugee because they’re Catholic but because we’re Catholic.  We do what Christ did because that’s what he expects of us, commands us.  (And that’s why we can say that Catholic hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, etc., are Catholic ministries covered by our freedom of religion, our freedom from government mandates that would violate our consciences.)

Assuredly people can see that missionaries risk their lives to preach the Good News to the poor in the Third World where the few, landed rich want to keep the many poor dispossessed, dependent, and ignorant of their God-given dignity—like Fr. Stanley Rother from Oklahoma City, who went as a missionary to Guatemala and was killed there for defending the rights of the poor, and whom Pope Francis just officially recognized as a martyr.  Missionaries have risked and continue to risk their lives in places where war makes it dangerous to stay with the flock, e.g., during the recent civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the current ones in South Sudan and Syria.

But most people don’t pay a lot of attention to all those wonderful things that “the Church,” that big institution, does for the poor, the sick, the homeless, the refugee, the oppressed.  The followers of Jesus whom most people pay attention to are those why meet every day.  They pay attention to you and me.  What do people hear and see when they look at us, when they listen to us?

Last Tuesday the comic strip Pearls before Swine showed a couple of Mormon-looking door-to-door evangelists at Rat’s door.  They inquired, “Have you heard the Good News?”  He answered enthusiastically, “Yes!  The Steelers covered the spread!”

When we hear “Good News,” is football what comes to mind?  (Well, I guess not if you’re a Bears fan.)  Or a department store sale?  Or the start of hunting season?  Or a favorable weather forecast?  Or a college acceptance?  Or some political development?

How many of us associate “Good News” with Jesus Christ?  How many of us have so incorporated Jesus into our own lives that people see him reflected in our actions, hear him echoed in our words?  Or are we like those politicians who proclaim their Catholic devotion on Sunday and then speak and vote for pagan practices like abortion, euthanasia, and sexual deviancy the rest of the week?

(Of course we’re all sinners and our behavior is often inconsistent with our belief, and our hearts often struggle between what the baptismal rite calls the “lure of evil” and the “empty promises” of Satan and what Jesus calls the straight and narrow path of God’s kingdom.  What’s important is that we don’t start proclaiming that those empty promises fulfill us, that lies are truth, that evil is good; and that we admit our sins and turn to our Lord Jesus to be forgiven.  The forgiveness of Jesus:  another aspect of the poor—that would be us!—having the Good News proclaimed to them.  Jesus forgives us.  Jesus heals us.)

Brothers and sisters, most of us can’t restore the sight of the blind or make the lame walk, much less raise the dead.  (Praise be to doctors and nurses who serve in the ministries of healing!  But even they have limits.)  But we can be healers in many ways—thru kindness, words of comfort, offers of forgiveness.  We can welcome strangers, find ways to share our abundance with the needy, be honest and truthful.  We can announce the Good News that Jesus is our redeemer by teaching the faith to our children and perhaps to others and by being ready to answer the questions of inquirers.

Is Jesus the one whom God sent to save us?  When our neighbors see us and hear us, what do they see?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Homily for Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Homily for the Solemnity of the
Immaculate Conception
Dec. 9, 1996
Eph 1: 3-6, 11-12
Provincial House, New Rochelle

On Thursday, Dec. 8, this year I celebrated 2 well-attended parish Masses in Champaign and preached without a written text.  Here's a vintage text for you.

“God chose us in [Christ] before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1: 4).

The Immaculate Conception
St. Benedict's Church, the Bronx, N.Y.
The sacred Scriptures today offer us a mini-course in the history of salvation.  We recall the fall of mankind.  We praise God’s “vast eternal plan” (to use Tevye’s words).  We hear the beginnings of God’s restoration of his plan after the fall disrupted it.

“God chose us”—every man and woman—“before the world began, to be holy in his sight.”  Just how that election, that divine choice, was to be “in Christ” before the world began, before the world needed redemption, is less certain.  We may let the theologians dispute whether or not the 2d Person would have become man had man not sinned.

But we did sin.  So, passing from the hypothetical to the actual, we discern God’s plan as it has unfolded.  His election of us to be holy and blameless before him after the fall is effected by the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Savior, Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32), by our call through Christ Jesus to receive the divine favor and become God’s adopted children (Eph 1:5-6).

God has effected his plan with the necessary help of a specially chosen woman, the 2d Eve, the 2d “mother of all the living.”  The son of the Most High could become the Son of David only by becoming human, by inserting himself into Jewish history by birth into a Jewish family.  Therefore God specifically chose Mary of Nazareth, chose her to be his “highly favored daughter” (Luke 1:28), chose her “in Christ before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love”; to be not only a highly favored daughter but even the mother of his own Son.

God chose Mary to be the 1st to share in the mystery of Christ’s salvation.  He chose her not for herself but for his plan, “according to his will and counsel” (Eph 1:11), as he once chose Abraham, Moses, and David.  The plan does not exist for Mary, but Mary for the plan.  So she recognizes herself as “the handmaid of the Lord” and submits herself completely to “his will and counsel” (Luke 1:38).  It is this submission, this humble service, of course, that contrasts Mary of Nazareth with Eve of Eden and makes Mary the bearer of Life rather than of death.

God chose, God predestined, Mary “to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love.”  He bestowed such a fullness of blessing upon her in Christ—“such was his will and pleasure” (Eph 1:5)—from her beginning, as soon as she began to be in the world.  Unlike us and the rest of our fallen race, she entered the world “full of love,” full of grace, already enjoying the divine favor—in view of Christ, in view of what God meant to do in Christ—in Christ, but not without the handmaid of the Lord.

The 2d Eve gave birth to Jesus, and “in him we were chosen” too for the praise of God’s glory (Eph 1:12).  As God knew and chose Mary “before the world began,” so did he know and choose us:  not “to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love” from the 1st moment of our existence, like Mary, but to be so from the moment of our birth into Christ, and, like Mary, as long as we remain united with him.  “Likewise he predestined us through Christ Jesus to be his adopted sons—such was his will and pleasure” (Eph 1:6)—that we might join OLJC and Mary of Nazareth in praising the divine favor in the Church on earth and as part of the Church in heaven.

Mary was chosen and made holy in view of Christ her Son and of her part in the divine plan.  We are chosen and made holy in Christ for a part in the divine plan too.  Ultimately our part is to praise God’s glory.  But like Mary we have a part, some humble servant’s part, to play that will advance God’s plan on earth.  May it be done to us as he says.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Homily for 2d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 4, 2016
Matt 3: 1-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matt 3: 1-2).

John the Baptist preaching by Alessandro Allori
The earliest announcements of the Good News of Christ our Savior began by recalling to listeners the preaching of John the Baptist.  The preaching samples that we find in the Acts of the Apostles show this, and so do the beginnings of the written gospels of Mark and John.  Likewise, Matthew and Luke introduce the public ministry of Jesus with John’s preaching of repentance and readiness, after 1st preparing their readers for Jesus with the fascinating stories of his birth.

So John appears in the desert regions near the Jordan River—appears out of nowhere, as it were, altho St. John’s Gospel says explicitly that he was sent by God (1:6).

John the Baptist’s message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  When Jesus starts his preaching, he’ll deliver the same message.  When the apostles go forth with the Good News after Jesus’ resurrection, repentance will be their starting point too.  Evidently it’s something fundamental to the mission of Jesus, which is our redemption.

What does repentance mean?  The Greek word the gospels use means literally a “change of mind,” a change of outlook, a turning around of oneself, a conversion.  Beyond that interior change of our hearts, repentance or conversion demands exterior change.  John scolds the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him at the Jordan:  “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Matt 3:8).  As we say, you’ve got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Advent, this season of preparation for the coming of the Lord, is a challenge for us, too, to repent; to get ready for Christ’s coming by conversion, by changing our evil behaviors into “good fruit,” into virtue.  Advent reminds us not only that Christ has come in history thru his birth at Bethlehem but also that he will come again at the end of history as the universal judge—as the judge of my words, actions, thoughts, and omissions.  In his daily homily on 11/22, Pope Francis cautioned:  “If you do not take care of your heart so that the Lord is with you, and you always live far from the Lord, perhaps there is this danger, the danger of continuing to be distanced from the Lord for all of eternity.”[1]  If I have good fruit to present to him as evidence that he owns my heart, he’ll invite me into the kingdom of heaven that he has established; or, as John the Baptist says, I’ll be part of the wheat that Jesus will harvest into his barn (3:12).

What evil behaviors do we need to change?  What conversion in us would prepare a way for the Lord to come into our lives (cf. 3:3); or to be present in us in a more obvious way?

Isaiah and the responsorial psalm gives some suggestions of the good fruit we should be producing:  justice and care for the poor and afflicted.

Justice:  Do we treat people fairly?  Do we judge people fairly?  Without regard to race or ethnicity, gender or social standing, religion or political persuasion?  Do we forgive injuries rather than hold grudges or seek payback?

Care for the poor and afflicted:  What do we actually do for the poor, the unfortunate,  people driven from their homes by war or natural disasters, or for the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, the sick?

Maybe our repentance needs to address the ways in which we speak about others—gossiping fault-finding, bearing false witness.  Or perhaps the ways we use our time at work.  Or the attention we give to our spouse and children.  Or what we view on TV or the computer and what that does to our minds.

So there are external behaviors or visible fruits that we may need to be concerned about if we want Jesus to rule us.

But let me return to the root meaning of “repent” in John’s preaching.  The word, as I said, means “change of mind,” change of attitude, change of outlook.  An interior change of heart or a conversion is required if we’re going to change our outward words and actions.  To offer a personal example, if I wish my words to be kinder, gentler, less sarcastic, then I have to address the arrogant tendencies of my soul and be converted from them toward the spirit of Jesus.  I have “to put on the Lord Jesus,” as St. Paul says (Rom 13:14); have “the same attitude that Christ Jesus had,” as Paul also says, an attitude of humility (Phil 2:5,8).

To the extent that we personally repent and are converted to Christ-like words and actions flowing from a Christ-like heart, “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt 3:2).  To that extent Christ rules in our families, workplaces, city streets, and government buildings.  To that extent the vision of the prophet Isaiah of the Messiah’s reign will be closer to realization (cf. Is 11:10).  How many times a day do we pray, “Thy kingdom come”?  May it come to your heart and mine, brothers and sisters, and from there to the world around us!

     [1] Carol Glatz, CNS, 11/22/16.