First Sunday of Advent

“Proclaim the Good News to all the World:

The Lord is coming to save us!”

Fr. Alex’s Corner, December 3, 2017

franciscannovitiate.org

     Those words introduced the four weeks of Advent at our liturgical prayers this weekend.

ISAIAH is the pre-eminent Advent prophet.  In the Sacred Scriptures a PROPHET does not foretell the future.  He or she has been inspired by God to speak to the people on behalf of God.  A prophet is God’s mouthpiece.  At the beginning of this prophecy Isaiah tells the people (on God’s behalf) that God is displeased with them.  God chose them, brought them to a Promised Land, protected and blessed them, and they have made a big mess out of everything.  Their misbehavior has brought big problems – family, social, and political - all of their own making.  In spite of this, however, God remains faithful to them.  God will send a savior to right the wrongs and to begin a new and stronger presence with His people.  That’s an abbreviated version of the revelation of the Hebrew [O.T.] Scriptures. I can’t fit it all in this blog.  But that’s the message.  It is written in poetry and proverbs, often as history, sometimes as threats, most often as a promise of better and brighter days to come.

    How would God do this?  By re-entering human history and into the lives of ordinary people?  (We don’t deem them “ordinary” today, but when all this began, who knew?)  The Gospels introduce us to Mary of Nazareth and Joseph, a carpenter.  Both hail from religious families, steeped in Jewish traditions, and confident that God will intervene to save His people from the godlessness and problems of their times.  Like any young couple, they were planning to marry and have a family.  And then, SURPRISE!!!!!

This is a story of people who realized how far their generation had strayed from God.  For a people and a land so generously blessed by God, things were going badly. Even the “religious” people could not get along. There was violence in their city streets, prejudice among the citizens, corruption in government and the Temple, too.  Even those who were not traditionally religious understood that they needed some kind of a savior.

Does this sound familiar?

    Now, you and I know the real story of Christmas and we are anxious to celebrate.  We have an intuition that only a Savior can save us from the serious problems we have today.  There is wisdom and God’s grace in all that.  Advent has been designed to give us new insights into our lives and situations, and how God can help us.  If we allow Him to re-enter our human history, it is a time for conversion.

And there’s the rub.  Okay, I’m a priest.  I’m about to say something many don’t want to hear.  Our culture has captured and squashed the sacred possibilities of Advent.  In these weeks we will be preoccupied with decorations (do they include the sacred figures?), Christmas cards (religious?), gifts, parties, get-togethers, and don’t forget the Christmas cookies.   And so by December 25th, most of us breathe a sigh of relief that IT’S ALL OVER.  All these things are nice, many of them grace-full.  But when, where, and how does God re-enter our very own personal human history?  That’s my point.  

I know I can’t stop that. Even as a pastor, I never could.  But I plead with you to give some time and attention to God trying to be part of your life.

Let’s watch how Mary and Joseph responded to this unplanned pregnancy.  How they accepted God’s surprise-entry into their very intimate family history?  From that moment their daily lives would be mystery, sometimes joyful, often sorrowful.   One surprise after another.

    Think about “the surprises” in your life.  The good ones and the not-so-good ones. How have they changed your life?  Your faith?

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.

And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace ….

Second Sunday of Advent

“Behold the Handmaid of the Lord.

Be it done to me according to your word.”

                    Fr. Alex’s Corner, December 10, 2017

                    franciscannovitiate.org

     As I see it, the Advent Scripture Readings serve two purposes.  One is to repeat the words of the Prophets who long for a Messiah to come and clean up the mess God’s people have made.  (See last week’s Blog).  The second is to introduce us to the people involved in the Messiah’s coming.   The way God designed it, some real people had to say, “Okay, I’m here to help.”

This Sunday’s Gospel introduces John the Baptist, a rather strange character, who would prepare the people and point Jesus out when at last He came.

     But there were others, not the least of which was Mary of Nazareth, a young woman, about 15, engaged to a young carpenter named Joseph.  I hope and pray that most of the Christmas cards you get will picture these two rather than reindeer, snowmen, and holly.  Reindeer, snowmen, and holly are nice, seasonal, too.  But they tell us nothing about Christmas. 

     The Angelus Prayer which many traditional Catholics say daily (we say it three times a day here at the Novitiate) begins with the Angel’s proclamation to Mary that she had a unique role to play in the Divine drama.  It called for a change in her (and Joseph’s) plans, and you can imagine what followed if you have ever faced an unplanned pregnancy.  The second statement (quoted at the top) is Mary’s response.  Oh, she had questions, and she was not afraid to ask them (see Luke Ch 1).  But once the Angel promised that “everything is possible with God,” she declared that she was God’s servant and WHATEVER God wanted, she did too.

We Franciscans love that prayer because it inspired St. Francis to pray, “Lord, what do YOU want me to do?”  In other words, it’s not what “me” wants, it’s what God wants!  Very different from what drives the world today.

     Church bells ring all over the world, sometimes three times a day, to announce the Angelus Prayer, to honor the moment when Mary said “yes” to God’s plan and to encourage us to do the same.   It’s always “yes” when God asks, when God calls.

So many problems in the world today develop because we refuse to do what God asks. Not all, but many.  Some problems come from human weakness, our illnesses and loss, and the terrible devastation that results from floods, winds and wildfires.  Many people today are carrying heavy crosses.  Pray for them. 

At this time of year, we are making our gift lists.  Do what you must there, but may I ask you this:  think of or find one person in your life-orbit who is hurting, who is carrying a cross.   Do something SPECIAL and BIG in the name of Jesus, Savior and Messiah, to lighten that person’s burden.   You might even write that on a piece of paper and slip it under the image of the Infant Jesus in the Crib.  It will comfort Him more than all that straw.

     It’s just one way of imitating Mary’s commitment to being a servant of the Lord.  It might help someone to know that “with God (and His servants/handmaids), all things are indeed possible!”  That will mean more than reindeer, snowmen, and holly.  Don’t you think?!?

HEY, CHICKEN-LITTLE, THE SKY IS NOT FALLING!

With all the world’s problems, the late news is that “Pope Francis wants to change The Lord’s Prayer.”  Not true!  What happened?  Pope Francis remarked on a new liturgical translation IN FRANCE which changes “Lead us not into temptation” to “Do not let us fall into temptation.”  He suggested the Italians might want to do likewise.   This is an old problem with translation rather than concept.  I have preached on it many times.  The idea is that GOD DOES NOT LEAD US INTO TEMPTATION any more than parents would lead a child into a burning building.  But we get tempted, and we ask God to help us fight it.   The Gospels give two versions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew Ch 6 and Luke Ch 11).  Which is more accurate?  Who knows?   Jesus did not speak English (or LATIN!).  He spoke Aramaic, a colloquial form of Hebrew.  The New Testament was written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.  In the 4th century St. Jerome translated all versions into Latin (the “Vulgate”) and we’ve been translating from that into all the modern languages.  If you are bilingual you know you can’t always translate exactly.   And words in modern languages may change meaning.  Scholarship helps clarify nuances in meaning and sometimes changes are made for clarification.  That’s what this is all about.  Will there be a change in English?  Personally, I doubt it. But it is good to THINK about the concepts.  Unless we are we afraid to THINK!

ADVENT PEACE

Third Sunday of Advent:   REJOICE!

“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,

make straight the way of the Lord.”

(John the Baptist in John 1:23)

           Fr. Alex’s Corner, December 17, 2017

           franciscannovitiate.org

     Pope Francis often says that when God proclaims forgiveness, He doesn’t issue a decree.  “He gives an embrace.” That embrace is His Son, Jesus Christ.

When I helped prepare our school children for First Penance, I taught that each of the Sacraments was God’s embrace, God’s hug.  They understood that.  

I asked the kids how they felt when they did something bad and Mommy was upset.  One said, “When my Mom is upset, she doesn’t smile.”  Another was afraid she might not cook dinner (he didn’t look undernourished).  Another said that “when Mom is angry ‘the air is stinky’”.   (Oh, how I miss those little theologians!)  We agreed that we had to say “I’m sorry,” and Mommy would forgive. What did they really want?   Mommy’s forgiveness HUG!   “It makes ‘the stinky’ fly away,” said the little guy, waving his arms.  The power of an embrace! 

Today’s Gospel introduces John the Baptist who “was sent from God to testify to the light….” He was Jesus’ cousin, and was himself purified from original sin while still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth.  When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, greeted her cousin, Elizabeth felt the infant (John) in her womb leap for joy (See Luke Ch. 1).  It made Mary say, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”   When he became of age John proclaimed that the Messiah was about to come and the people must “make straight his path.”  John wasn’t talking highway construction.  He said people must be cleansed and purified from the destructive forces of personal sin to be able to hear and listen, to see and believe, to open their minds and hearts to the Word of God, and to be embraced by the Son of God.  

      Jewish people practiced ritual cleansing. In a ritual called MIKVEH, a person was immersed into clean water in preparation for meeting God, a new way of life, and people, in a new and purified way.  That may have been why John was baptizing in the Jordan River.  When people brought gifts to be offered in the Temple, they were purified in mikveh ritual.  The priest washing his hands at Mass before the Eucharistic Prayer reflects this tradition.

      Cleansing and purification are important preludes to meeting Jesus. Many parishes schedule Penance Services and Confessions for these late Advent days.  One miracle of the (2016) Holy Year of Divine Mercy is the number of people who have returned to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).  The rite is one of prayers and reflection on forgiveness, with visiting priests available for individual confessions.  If we grown-ups would approach the Sacrament with the kind of hope that little kids have when they climb on Santa’s knee, it might be a good thing.  God has more to give than Santa.

Whether or not you attend penance services, you should at least take an hour to sit and chat with God the Father who sends His Son to forgive.  Look back on the past year to see when and how you have sinned against God, how you may have hurt others, AND how others may have hurt you.   Then, offer a prayer of contrition, and also important, a prayer offering forgiveness.  You know, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”   Forgiveness is central to Christianity because without it we are swimming in garbage. 

      History shows how people are avenging hurts from thousands of years ago.  Sometimes we carry old grudges, too.  That is swimming in stinky garbage. 

Jewish people knew how important it was to be purified.  Jesus said we need to forgive and to be forgiven.  Even the little theologian knows we have to “make ‘the stinky’ fly away.”  

John the Baptist says to us: “make straight the way of the Lord.”   Let’s do it.

ADVENT PEACE!

      Fourth Sunday of Advent & Christmas Eve

       “And the Word was made flesh

       and pitched his tent on our street.”

                          Fr. Alex’s Corner, December 24, 2017

                          franciscannovitiate.org

      One of the greatest blessings of my very blessed life was a retreat for priests in the Holy Land.  One day, on our way to Bethlehem, we visited a Palestinian nomad village.  This was not a tourist stop.  It was a real-life, bona-fide nomad village with families living in tents made of whatever tents can be made of.  It was a very poor place.        Some Palestinians were Christians, others were not. But they knew we were coming and welcomed us warmly.  One or two of us priests were invited into each tent where we sat on the floor (in those days I could still get up off the floor without calling 9-1-1) while they served us tea and pastries and talked about their lives and families.  The children were delightful and knew that ‘mericans always had ‘cho-ko-lat.’   We were forewarned and had pockets-full.  We felt guilty eating their meager food and, of course, they would accept no money.  It was quite an experience. 

When we boarded our bus to continue our trip it was noon, and our director led us in the Angelus prayer.  But in place of the traditional “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” he said: “And the Word was made flesh, AND PITCHED HIS TENT ON OUR STREET.”

We all looked back at that village, still in our view, and had a new appreciation for the poverty and reality which Jesus entered when “The Word became flesh.”

      We know Jesus was born in a stable, but we have decorated our little ‘stables’ into the cutest and most sparkling structures.  That’s ok, but we also need to remember that, as St. Paul tells us, “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself…, coming in human likeness, becoming like us in all things but sin.”

      St. Francis of Assisi loved that idea and wanted to dramatize the depth of God’s love for us.  So, in 1223, three years before his death, in the little Italian village of Greccio, he found a spot in the woods where he invited villagers and friars on a cold Christmas night.  There were live animals, a manger with hay, and some people dressed in biblical garb for Midnight Mass.  Since he was a deacon, he sang the Christmas gospel. Some people who were there claimed that a little baby came to life in his hands as he told how Jesus, the Son of God, was born into our cold and weary world.

      That’s right, my friends.  St. Francis of Assisi began the Christmas manger-scene tradition.  I remember how we staged our own Christmas “Greccio,” lights, candles, music, and Scripture readings at the former Mater Dolorosa Church in Holyoke.  (We’d like to do that here in California, but we can’t take chances with candles – danger of fires….)

But Christmas is a day for remembering.  We remember how God loved us by sending His Son who pitched His tent on our street. We remember the things He did for us. The warmth of Christmas evokes memories of our very own personal Christmases, times with our families and those we love.  Our hearts expand with love and good wishes.   It is a good day, all because Jesus embraced us on behalf of a Father-God who loves us more than we can ever imagine. It feels good to share that love. 

      Take advantage of the warmth and love of the season.  Be good to yourself and to others, too. There just might be a person in your orbit who is lonely, cold, or friendless this Christmas.  Do some little thing to give a Greccio-hug.   Ask St. Francis to give you some ideas.  Remember that wherever you put love you will find love.  Pray for those who have suffered from floods and fires this year, especially those who have lost their homes.

Finally, this old priest promises to squeeze between the ox and the ass in our own Christmas stable and tell Jesus, Mary, and Joseph all about YOU!   MERRY CHRISTMAS!   May the new-born Jesus pitch His tent on your street, and fill your heart - and your neighborhood - with His love and His PEACE.  

Feast of the Holy Family & New Year’s Eve

“JAK SZYBKO MIJAJA CHWILE”

Fr. Alex’s Corner, December 31, 2017

franciscannovitiate.org

      Ok, that’s not exactly from the Sacred Scriptures (the Holy Spirit couldn’t pronounce it), but it’s what our Mom always said on New Year’s Eve.  Loosely translated: “How quickly time passes,” it’s part of a song Polish folks may sing at family gatherings.

      And so, another year ends.   How quickly!   That’s one of my thoughts on this day.  The other…    

On the Sunday between Christmas and New Year, the Church honors the Holy Family.  The Gospel story tells how Mary and Joseph took the 40-day old Infant Jesus to the Temple for the ritual consecration of a first-born child to God.  There, they meet two Senior Citizens who spend their days in the Jerusalem Temple.  Simeon blesses the family and thanks God because he believes this is the Child the world has been waiting for and he himself has lived to see this day.  80-year-old Anna also “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke, Ch 2).  We remember this event as the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.”  Luke carefully tells this story because the Jews firmly believed that the Messiah would come “through the Temple.” 

The story says that the family returned to their home in Nazareth where the child learned to obey his parents and grew in wisdom and age.  Luke conveys several lessons in this narrative:  the obedience of the Holy Family to the details of the Mosaic Law and Temple traditions; and even Jesus learned obedience in the very best of obedience-schools: the Family.  The whole story of Mary’s “YES” to the message of the Archangel, Joseph’s “YES” to conforming his life to the message, and Jesus “YES” to His Heavenly Father is here for all to see – and to emulate - if we expect God’s plan to lead and bless our world.

Obedience is not a welcomed concept in today’s “me, myself, and I” world.  And then we wonder why we find so much turmoil.  Here, I would like to quote Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on the family:

       “The family is the privileged setting where every person learns to give and receive love…. The family is an intermediate institution between individuals and society, and nothing can completely take its place…. The family is a necessary good for peoples, an indispensable foundation for society, and a great and lifelong treasure for couples.  It is a unique good for children, who are meant to be the fruit of the love, and total and generous self-giving of their parents…. The family is also a school that enables men and women to grow to the full measure of their humanity…. O God, who in the Holy Family left us a perfect model of family life lived in faith and obedience to your will, help us to be examples of faith and love for your commandments.”     

       On this Feast of the Holy Family, I thank God for my family as I pray for its younger members who work so hard to provide that “privileged setting” for their children.  I thank God for my Franciscan family where we struggle to do the same thing.   I thank God for my extended family of parishioners and friends with whom I share life in God’s family. 

I hope and pray that we all learn the importance of obedience to God, our Father, who loves us with an indescribable love, and who has sent His Son, our Brother, to right our wrongs, to lead us in the ways of goodness, and truth, and how we must love each other as He has loved us.  There is no time to waste, because, truthfully, JAK SZYBKO MIJAJA CHWILE.

      Finally, my fondest New Year memories are our Parish Holy Hours on New Year’s Eve.  We gathered for the last hour of the old year to thank God for his goodness, and for the first minutes of the New Year to ask His blessings and for PEACE in our world.   I will do that this year, far from home and family, but in the sacred presence of the same God who has adopted YOU and ME into His Holy Family.   May God bless you with all good things and a New Year filled with His PEACE! 

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