Monday, December 28, 2009

You Can't Take it with You (2009-12-27, Holy Family)

This is my homily for 27 December 2009, Feast of the Holy Family. Feel free to respond with comments. To view the readings, go to and click “December 27” in the calendar.

[__01.] You can’t take it with you.

“You can’t take it with you” is the old saying that advises us to enjoy life as it is. Also –

** to give generously,
** to donate to a charitable cause or to someone in need.

This saying reminds us that we cannot bring our material goods with us when we die. Only our souls are immortal.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__02.] “You can’t take it with you” is also something we might tell ourselves before we travel. So, this journey is not the one-way trip to the cemetery or to eternal life. Rather, this is, simply, the round-trip, from, say:

** the U.S. to Europe
** West Orange to Long Beach Island
** Or – in today’s Gospel – Nazareth to Jerusalem and back again.

These travels require suitcases which need to be simplified and overnight bags to be organized because you cannot take it *all* with you.

So, we simplify and organize to carry what is most important. Also, we simplify and organize so that we don’t lose anything.

Where will I put my keys – passport – money - so that I can get there and back again safely?

I don’t want to lose anything, especially something that would prevent me from getting back home.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__03.] Well, in the Gospel today, Joseph and Mary are almost home. Apparently, everything is going smoothly. No speeding tickets, no lost luggage. But, then, each one turns to the other and says:

“I thought he was with you”

“I thought you had him!”

Their son Jesus cannot be found.

As many of you know, this would produce great anxiety. Losing track of a child is different than misplacing your car keys. You lose a part of yourself.

Why? How did this happen?

The episode could be a cautionary tale about priorities. No, you can’t take it all with you. And, you’d better keep an eye on your children. Even Joseph and Mary were distracted, after all.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__04.] This is certainly true. But, then again, maybe it was bound to happen, bound to happen sometime.

I’m suggesting that we *not* blame the parents.

Biblical scholars point out that, on such a ancient road trip, there would have been two caravans:

** (one), the caravan group of women and children;
** (two), the caravan group of men.

And, Jesus was 12 years old. He is becoming a young man, crossing over from childhood to adulthood.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__05.] On the road, the young boy Jesus is a little too old for the “women and children” section and a little to young for the “men” section. He is caught between.

Off the road where he has walked himself back to Jerusalem, he also exists in between.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__06.] So, Jesus at the Temple is a fulfillment of this prophecy and a further prophecy of what is to come.

Recall that later in the Gospel, the adult Jesus is not passively arrested and made to suffer. Rather, he lays down his life and takes it up again.

Today, the child Jesus did not become lost. He was not left behind, left “home alone.”

Rather, the young Jesus himself actively quits the caravan and loses himself in the Temple.

This will surprise his parents who have seen his true home in Nazareth.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__07.] Going away on vacation, we try to simplify, to organize and even miniaturize what we really need.

We say: “oh, maybe if I get a Blackberry then, I don’t have to take my laptop.”

This is what we do; we break things down into ever smaller pieces, fitting them into ever smaller spaces. Then, for example, on the airplane, maybe we can take everything as carry-on baggage and bypass the luggage carousel.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__08.] Yet, I think it’s also true that no matter how hard we work to simplify, organize, miniaturize, it all comes out in the end.

Mary and Joseph may lament – for a while – what (and who) they have not been able to keep under wraps.

The parents of the Holy Family may ask themselves, “should this 12-year-old boy Messiah be grounded?”

But there is no hiding or keeping this wrapped up.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__09.] Today, his future mission is revealed, that Jesus will quit the world of material things again and give himself up to the leaders of the Temple, give himself up for our sins.

Let us recall an earlier journey of the Holy Family to the Temple with Jesus.

When the baby Jesus is presented at the Temple, Joseph and Mary are met by the prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna.

Simeon says: “behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and [this child is destined] to be a sign that will be contradicted. ” (Luke 2:34)

Jesus will be “contradicted.” This does not mean public controversy or a press conference. Rather, it means his passion and

Simeon further predicts, saying to Mary that you too will suffer: “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” (Luke 2 : 34)

And, in this way, we also refer to Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows for her pain during Jesus’s crucifixion and death.

In this way, Jesus will save us – his people – from our sins.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__10.] Isn’t this what always happens on road trips and family vacations?

That is, we think we go on them to get away from it all. To relax. To perfect ourselves. To go the spa, maybe? To avoid the stress and anxiety that we have at home.

But, on this road trip, the real truth comes out.

On this road trip, we cannot pack everything away perfectly.

On this road trip, the Holy Family gives an example of surrender to God’s will and to the future he has in store for us.

On this feast of the Holy Family, let us pray not that our suitcases are simplified or our overnight bags organized. This would focus on material things.

Also, let us pray that we will not be paralyzed with fear about the ways in which we get lost. Indeed, we also called to lose ourselves to each other and for each other.

Indeed, “you can’t take it all with you.” However, we remember that even in Jesus’s departure and death, he lives for us through our prayer, worship and sacrifice for each other.

You can’t take it with you. But, you can take him with you. [__END__]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas: Bronx / Bethlehem (2009-12-25)

This is my homily for Christmas. Feel free to respond with comments. To view the readings, go to and click “December 25” in the calendar.

December 25, 2009 (Christmas)
Luke 2:1-14 / John 1:1-18

[___01.] In 1971, my mother and father moved out of the Bronx to Glen Rock, New Jersey. My brother and I were with them, living in the suburbs, away from the city. I was five years old at the time

Over those years, my father and mother were adjusting to a life with a suburban house and without so much concrete all around. At one point, I noticed my father was checking a lot of books out of the library on 2 subjects:

(1) soccer, the sport of soccer
(2) grass, lawn care.

Growing up in the Bronx, in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, these were subjects he knew little about.

At the time, my brothers and I played soccer in the local league. My father was also coaching. So he needed to study.

Soccer is played on the grass. But that was not the only reason he was also checking books out of the library on grass, seed, lawn care. My father wanted a lawn. The lawn was an important part of our home.

However, the longest stretch of grass he would have seen was either in a park or at Yankee Stadium.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___02.] I bring this up because of our Christmas Gospel about the shepherds who are out in the field, out on the grass.

The grass of the field is more than a playground; …. To my father and mother … to us here, as homeowners. The grass is more than a playground for the shepherds too.

The grass is part of their livelihood.

In the Gospel of Luke, we read that the “shepherds were living in the field and keeping night watch over their flock.” (Luke 2:8)

The shepherds were sleeping out on the grass with only the stars and moon as their light. The shepherds are close to nature, to God’s creation.

The shepherds have not been to agricultural school or to the library. Rather, by experience, they know the soil, earth, air and what their sheep like to eat: the grass.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___03.] They know the field because they live and sleep in it. They keep watch over their flocks, under heaven and on the earth.

The shepherds would notice subtle changes in the environment. They would see a tornado or storm coming from far off in the distance. Shepherds would *not be easily* frightened.

So, it must have been a very bright light with the glory of the Lord shining. This light pierces the darkness and wakes them up.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___04.] What I’m suggesting is that you and I are called to follow in the footsteps of the shepherds, their footsteps through the grass and beyond the grass.


* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___05.] First, receive Jesus the Messiah into our lives where we currently are. The shepherds are surprised by God’s grace appearing out in the wilderness.

And, indeed, the city-dwelling Scribes and Pharisees would also be taken aback at the venue of the Good News. The Scribes and Pharisees would expect to find the Messiah in a place with more electrification, at least some streetlights.

Or, at the very least, a street. This is all off the charted course.

And, better yet, shouldn’t the Messiah appear during a civilized daylight hour?

What the Scribes and Pharisees are often accused of is complexity and rigidity. The want, for example, the grown-up Jesus (as rabbi) to obey their laws of the Sabbath. Jesus tells them that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath and of time. He will show up where and when he wants.

It can be harder to find him this way. The Scribes and Pharisees would need GPS. The shepherds, meanwhile, being closer to both the natural and supernatural world are able to find Jesus by the star.

We too are called to be like the shepherds. We are called to recognize Christ not just at church or in the Temple. We are also called to find him out in the field, in the mud, the messiness of our lives.

Christ is not present only in inside of houses with manicured lawns. He is present there too. However, Christ is also present in our garages, our kitchens, and even in our landscaping efforts. Christ meets us on the journey, with or without GPS and streetlights.

We are called to receive Christ where we are.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___06.] Secondly, the shepherds are an example because they leave the field to see the infant Jesus. Yes, the shepherds are justifiably concerned about their land, their grass, their work, their sheep.

My dad was too. Who would not be so concerned about a home and garden? Now, we have a whole cable channel devoted to the subject. You don’t even have to go to the library!

But, the shepherds put all this aside. The angel of the Lord invites these workers in the field to put aside the Home and Garden Channle, their productivity, their profitability, and their work. The angel says, put these things down to adore the newborn king.

The grass will still be there when they return.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___07.] Also, by leaving behind their field, their work, they demonstrate their trust is really in God who gives the harvest, who makes the grass grow.

This surrender to God’s will was also expressed by Paul in his letter to the Corinth. Paul also uses the harvest and the worker in the field to express how God works through his Church and people.

Paul first names the disciples who are involved in the effort. But, Paul also credits the Lord as the real producer and creator.

Paul writes:

What is Apollos, after all, and what is Paul? Ministers through whom you became believers, just as the Lord assigned each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-8)

We are all called to believe that God will make things grow.

Coming to Mass on Christmas, we are leaving behind the field – and surrendering to God – in the midst of all we have to do. We acknowledge that God causes the growth.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___08.] From my own father, I learned more than how to plant seed or mow grass.
I also learned how important it is to care for the bit of creation we are given.

This might be our homes, our lawn, our children. It also the bit of creation we are given might be a loved one who is sick or aging.

This Christmas, we are called to give thanks for our mothers and fathers. And, to listen to our mothers and fathers.

Boys and girls – listen to your mom and dad.

Our mothers and fathers who labored in the field, on the road, the office, the factory, or the yard to give us our childhood, given to us by God and by our parents.

We also remember that the life of every child and person, living and deceased is precious in God’s eyes.

Christmas is about welcoming the Christ child and about becoming childlike. We may have to stoop down in humility to see him and serve him, to stoop down in the mud, dirt, grass.

Christmas is about the coming of God in humility to the earth. As John writes in the prologue of his Gospel, the word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

First, he makes his dwelling as a small child off the beaten track in Bethlehem. There are no streetlights, no lights, camera, or action.

He makes his dwelling first with the light which only the shepherds can see. We are called to follow them through the darkness to that light.

The light which the darkness has not overcome. (John 1:5)


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Interrupted (2009-12-20, Advent)

This is my homily for December 20, 2009, Fourth Sunday of Advent. Feel free to respond with comments. View the Mass readings at:

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___01.] I think this conversation took place in 1998. I recall where I was working at the time. And, I had a pager. Many of us had pagers. Remember, pagers?

You would call someone, enter your number. Then, the person would call you back. But, at that time, cell phones were starting to come out. And, in this 1998 conversation, some co-workers and I asked each other: could you do without a cell phone? People were starting to buy them. We asked each other: can you do without one?

Yes, I can do without one.

Yes, I can do without one.

We all said, yes, we could do without one. And, no, we would not buy one.

At the time, even the president of the United States did not have his own cell phone.

Consider what was on the news around the time of the election and inauguration of President Obama. It was the Presidential Blackberry.

The President wanted to keep his Blackberry so that he could text and call and e-mail friends and family as an ordinary American. He did not want to surrender this to the Secret Service.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with a calling plan. This the age we *now* live in.

But, back in 1998, you and the president and I were doing fine without cell phones. However, if were to call the president, you would have to go through the White House switchboard. How antiquated!

In this 1998 conversation, we all agreed we would not get cell phones because there were too many interruptions.

Now, we accept these interruptions as the normal course of events. Maybe I broke a campaign promise by getting a cell phone.

It’s hard to recall life without one.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___02.] I bring this up because our reading of Mary and Elizabeth in the Gospel this Sunday is also about -- interruptions.

Both of them have prior commitments.

Both are expecting children.

Elizabeth is expecting; she will give birth to John the Baptist: her prior commitment.

Mary is expecting; she will give birth to Jesus, our Savior: her prior commitment.

Yet, these two expectant mothers find time to support each other, to love each other. Their affection is on public display, revealed for all to see.

And, this is a message to us for Christmas and every day.

The birth of a child, the care of a child, the care of an unborn child will involve some unexpected calls and messages.

Mothers and fathers and teachers and those who care for young people know this quite well. We accept interruptions and we do things that do not always win us public recognition.

We used to think cell phones were for celebrities and cardiac surgeons. Now, people of every profession and background use cell phones. Everyone accepts interruptions.

And, we are called to accept these interruptions lovingly.

Accepting the interruption lovingly has something to do with our outlook. That is, do I regard each interruption as a heavy burden?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___03.] In the Gospel, Jesus says:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Do we profess faith in the words?

We often think of the “profession of faith” as something that happens at Mass after the sermon. But, it happens when you pick up the phone, answer the door, or respond in any way. We don’t simply make a profession of faith in a prayer at Mass but also in our actual behavior at home, school, work.

This profession happens each day that we try to see life’s interruptions as a light burden. This was what Mary and Elizabeth tried to do.

The Lord knows we have interruptions.

It takes prayer and meditation to believe that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Yet, we say yes. When a mother picks up a crying child, she is saying that both her baby is light and his burden is light as well.

Every time a mother goes to comfort a crying child, she stands and professes faith in these Gospel words.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___04.] This time of year we are also concerned about visible gifts, rewards, and academic grades too.

We wonder: what will be under the Christmas tree? Will I receive a good grade? Will I be recognized? Will I be recognized for all the interruptions which touch my life?

And, Jesus goes on to say in the Gospel:

"take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them ...

[In other words, to give is to receive…]

do not blow a trumpet before you ... But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matthew 6 : 1 - 4)

This time of year, we recall that when we give, we receive. And, not all of our gifts will be noticed by our friends or family or classmates. That does not mean they are not worth giving.

We will be repaid some other way.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__05.] Do we allow ourselves to be interrupted?

Mary and Elizabeth, in the Gospel, are discovering that their priority is the other person. Put the other person first.

John the Baptist whose mother is Elizabeth will also testify to this. And, he summarizes this testimony with the words:
“He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

John the Baptist will testify to Jesus’ primacy, saying of Jesus: "I am not worthy to untie his sandals" And, John says off Jesus, "He must increase and I must decrease."

John will accept – as Mary does – that Jesus comes first not as an interruption but as a fulfillment. “He must increase, I must decrease.”

It also what Mary and Elizabeth are doing for each other. Each has her own priorities. Yet, they say to the other, “she must increase; I must decrease.”

This is also what husbands do for their wives who are expecting children. It is what parents and teachers do for children. In many relationships, we are also called to consider, how can we put the other person first? How can I decrease so that you may increase?

How can I accept interruption lovingly?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[___06.] This is also the message of Christmas, of the Savior who is born and gradually over time, increasing physical and mental and spiritual ability.
He will increase.

Recalling his birth, we know that Jesus is the tiny infant, in a cave at Bethlehem. And, Ronald Knox a British spiritual writer notes that we must bow our heads to enter the cave at Bethlehem.

Knox writes: "There is headroom in the cave at Bethlehem for everyone who knows how to stoop."

We bow our heads in humility not only on December 25, but every day. When we bow down and bend down to see him, and when we bend down to serve him and each other, we decrease and he increases. This is our prior commitment. This is how we respond to God’s call, his interruption, his fulfillment.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ice and Fire (2009-12-13, Advent)

This is my homily for December 13, 2009, Third Sunday of Advent. Feel free to respond with comments. View the Mass readings at:

[__1.] The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is happening right now with diplomats and scientists from around the world.

Climate change is big news. And, with winter coming we might consider how we are going to keep warm.

What are our choices in controlling the climate?

The Gospel and Advent season say something about three of our everyday choices:

(one) heavy outer layers
(two) movement to stay warm
(three) heat: find, make, or be near something that will warm up the air around us.

The Gospel reading of today invites us to consider the effects of winter in both a physical and spiritual way.

First, should we choose heavy outer layers? While helping us to feel protected, we are also cautioned that this can cut us off from others.

We are called to give up our layers. This is charity and love. By charity and love, we give up what is valuable. As a result we ourselves become a gift to others. Therefore, John the Baptist says that one who has 2 cloaks should give to the person who has none. But, this may leave us fearing the winter cold, right?

Without the extra layer, let’s go to option number two. Should we keep moving, waving our arms, running, and thus raising our body temperature? This could work. However, during Advent we are also called to stillness, to sit still, to pray, to meditate. And, if I have to sit still, I’m going to feel cold, right?

Without the layers and without the movement, we have a final and third choice. What we could seek is -- a warmer environment. But, how we are going to do this? Will our pursuit of a warmer environment be something that has a long lasting good effects? Or, will it be something dangerous?

That’s the Copenhagen question.

This is what the U.N. is all about. And, I’d like to suggest we could also ask about how we are going to obtain the spiritual energy we need. Where is it going to come from?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__2.] John the Baptist is suggesting it will not come from simply wrapping ourselves up in material things or in running around.
I think we need a fire.

John the Baptist speaks in the Gospel about fire. Later in the New Testament, fire gives life to the new Church through tongues of fire on the apostles at Pentecost.

Fire transforms them just as fire can change and purify many things. It is also the fire of marriage and family which can purify many of us. Or, it is the fire of academic work which can make us more focused. Don’t let the fire go out, even during Christmas break.

We need fire to survive in the cold.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__3.] In 1908, Jack London, from northern California (Oakland / San Francisco), wrote a classic short story about survival in the wilderness.

In high school, I wandered in the wild myself trying to get through this very short story. It has no dialogue. The story is all narrative with no words spoken out loud. This made it tough for me. But someone suggested I read it again.

The story tells of a solitary man trekking through the Yukon Territory of northwestern Canada. Ultimately, he fails to save himself from the falling temperatures, well below zero. The day starts out at only 50 below, finishes at 75 below.

Ice and fire exist for him. He might have thought global warming was a good thing. He struggles

>> to insulate against the cold with layers
>> to keep moving the in the cold; and
>> to get heat, or as the title summarizes - To Build A Fire.
Out on the Yukon, the story “To Build a Fire” tells of one man’s game of CBS-Survivor. “To Build a Fire” is his goal.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
[__4.] One scholar summarized the story as follows:

“on a single day, an unnamed man walks [with a dog] in seventy-five below temperature [yes – 75 below]. He stops to build a fire and eat lunch [this provides some warmth and refreshment]. He resumes walking. He falls into an icy spring [he gets wet up to the knees which is extremely dangerous in such a frigid climate.] He builds another fire [so as to get warm. But, the second fire is set up beneath that a tree that is snow covered. When the branches are disturbed, the tree deposits its full weight of snow on the fire, obliterating it.] He tries to build a third fire. He fails. He freezes to death.” (Lee Clark Mitchell, Princeton University)

Jack London sketches his traveling-man character this way:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head. (“J. London, To Build A Fire”)

The significance of 50 below (or 75 below) did not keep him safe at home. He was only concerned about his object, his purpose; and, not about the method, possibilties, or consequences.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

[__5.] Trying to survive at 75 below without shelter, you really have only one choice. The title of the story is your task: to build a fire.

Early in the day, he builds one successfully before the cold really hits him, while his fingers have more dexterity and his mental state is relatively clear.

Five or seven hours later, dexterity and clarity are over. The weather is insurmountable challenge. He chooses the wrong place for his second fire which is extinguished by the snow falling from the tree. And, the third fire just takes way too long.

He is building a fire outside with branches, twigs, external things. And, by the end of the day, the thermometer-reading has dropped so far that nothing “external” can even save him. He cannot simply just move around to warm himself up. In fact, he is becoming paralyzed. He cannot put on more layers. He is already wet.

What he needs is for the heat to reach inside of him, literally and physically. He needs to change his environment. But the fire is so hard to ignite and to kindle.
What he needs is for that heat to reach through his layers, to get his blood flowing, to raise his body temperature. But, it’s too late. For him.

But it’s not too late for us.

The flame we need is not a fire with sulfur matches and wood. The fire we need comes, in fact, from water. It comes from the water of our baptism. This is our spiritual environment.

It is the fire which we breathe in when we pray and enables us to discern winter from spring, benefit from harm, material things from spiritual things, body from soul.

It enables us to discern the true object of our lives.

Sometimes, the object is not what we think it is. It may be to -- give up a layer or a thing which keeps us comfortable. Or – to sit still when we’d rather move.

We need fire to keep warm. This fire is God’s word and salvation. This fire enables us to get our good blood flowing and follow Christ, even under the harshest of conditions. [_END_]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Garden Fence (Immaculate Conception, December 8)

This is my homily for December 8, 2009, Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Feel free to respond with comments. View the Mass readings at:

Jumping over fences is part of the lives of many children. We, as children, jump over fences even if there is a gate nearby.

We also jump over fences late at night, say, to go swimming especially if we are pretty sure we will not get caught.

I introduce this, however, not to discuss trespassing that I may or may not have done in younger days; but, rather to suggest an approach to the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, the fall of Adam and Eve.

We can understand the Garden of Eden episode if we consider the image of a fence.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

This image was introduced in a sermon by John Henry Newman in the 19th century. I was not there to hear it. It is called “The State of Innocence.” (Volume 5, Sermon 8, Parochial and Plain Sermons)

You might say, the state of innocence is not only a mental or spiritual condition. But, the state of innocence is also a place and time with fences, with boundaries.
And, it may take some jumping, some reaching to see over the fence.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

First, Newman observes Adam and Eve are fenced into the Garden of Eden. And, they are fenced in there alone.

Newman further observes that Adam and Eve are fenced into the Garden of Eden in the way that a child is fenced into the existence of childhood. Children are kept behind gates, placed in car seats, high chairs.

Their world can be quite circumscribed. But, they don’t necessarily mind as long as they perceive freedom. Close the door, a child will want to open it. Keep it open; and he may or may not go through it.

A child is fenced in. And, a child is alone behind the fence.

Newman observes that the situation of Adam/Eve and the situation of a child are quite similar. Both are alone, in solitude. But, they are not necessarily scared of this solitude.

It simply is their existence.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that mom/dad leave their children alone. Rather, remember that a child of 5 years old or younger is really only starting to understand the larger world. And, a child of 6 months is in a paradise where he is the only person on the face of the earth.

A child at this age has no ability to restrain his desire for food or comfort. There is no other 911 than his own. So, the child is alone an quite happy about it. Solitude and satisfaction.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Children are fenced off from the world just as Adam and Eve are fenced off in the Garden of Eden.

As we grow up, one of the things we dream of is independence: getting our way; getting past the fences; removing the fences. Or, at least, putting the boundaries where I want them to be. I don’t want someone else telling me what to do.

And, this is where the serpent comes into the garden, suggesting that Adam and Eve are really quite restricted, really fenced in.
“Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in garden?”

There is deception in the opening question which contradicts God’s exact words: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:17-18).

* * * * * * * * * * * *

At the end of episode, Eve complains, “the serpent tricked me into it.” Adam, on the other hand, well, we know who he blames. And, the serpent is the only one who is reverently silent before God. The serpent is the only one who does not talk back.

In the New Testament letter of James, we read that we are called to both belief and action, to both faith and works. The letter of James is saying that even the evil spirits believe in God and says … “you believe that God is one – even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19)

So, we are called to belief and to action. And, to pray that God will help us in our choices and discernment of good and evil. We are also called to pray for each other. And, to love, support, and pray for young people who might be easily deceived.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Jesus says in the Gospel, “unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Is this easier said than done?

That is, as we grow, Newman writes, “we have passions, aims, principles, views, duties which children have not. Still however we must become as little children, in them we are bound to see Christian perfection and to labour for Christian perfection with them in our eye.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“To labour for Christian perfection with them in our eye.”

We are looking ahead to December 25th. And, we look ahead with a child in our eye. We look ahead to a child, the Christ child, keeping him in sight.

And, Christmas is all about childhood. Christmas is about welcoming the Christ child whom we are called to identify with. We are called to love him, embrace him. And, gradually as we learn about him, we present the Christ child to the world through our own lives.

Christmas is also about remembering and giving thanks for our own childhood.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

What are we moving toward in Christian life, as adults?

It is repentance, it is self-examination. This involves learning from our own experience. And, as adults, we have to learn from the negative experiences so as to stay on the right road. For example, we learn about generosity by overcoming our own selfishness.

I daresay that a very young child is blissfully unaware of selfishness or selflessness. Let’s say your daughter gives generously; she does so not out of practice or duty. She simply knows this is the right thing to do. And, she does it.

A child is blissfully unaware of being selfish. At least, I am sure I was until I either consciously and mentally compared myself to others or I was told, “you’re selfish.” So, what we are aiming at – in becoming childlike – in overcoming original sin – is not only a series of actions but rather a habit and power of the mind.

We have to learn from our experiences; or, perhaps to un-learn. Newman describes this as “walking to heaven backwards.”

Newman defines God’s grace as this habit or power of the mind which becomes our moral instinct. Yes, it takes practice. But, ultimately what we are aiming at is the purity of love of 2 people falling in love, or the purity of a mother’s love for her child.

“There is no calculation, no struggle, no self-regards, no investigation of motives. We simply act out of love”. (Newman)

And, this enables us to reach beyond the fence of this world to heaven. And, we pass through the fence of this world every day that we become as little children again.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prepare ye the way of the Lord (2009-12-06, Advent)

This is my homily for December 6, 2009, Second Sunday of Advent. Feel free to respond with comments. View the Mass readings at:

Prepare. Get ready.

This time of the semester, all we are doing is preparing, getting ready academically. Perhaps you did not expect a classroom message to be echoed in the chapel.

Getting ready, is it not relatively easy to focus on the externals, to focus on the preparations which we can see, the things around which we can put wrapping paper or lights?

And, we are very accustomed to the external things which we prepare:
• preparing a meal (Thanksgiving)
• preparing our cars, suitcases, etc. (to go on a trip)
• preparing to swing or throw or kick. Athletes spend a lot of time preparing. Championship winners play better because they prepare better.
• Musicians spend a lot of time preparing, practicing their swing, their touch, and their breath as well.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the Gospel today, we read in a relatively modern reflection of the ancient words:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

However, we also read in another reflection of these ancient words: “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord”;

As it was written in the book of the sayings of Isaias the prophet: A voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. (Luke 3:4, Douay-Rheims Bible)

This “Prepare ye” means you are called to prepare; I am called to prepare.

And, this is the preparation which is most challenging.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

What we prepare is not just “way”, a “road” outside of ourselves. Rather, we prepare ourselves.

I think the musician or athlete who is preparing to sing – or to swing - would also acknowledge that preparation involves something invisible.

The invisible things to prepare are my heart and my mind. This is difficult. Yet, this is Advent. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

For example: Is it not relatively easy to find a tree that will be high enough to place the star but not too high for the ceiling?

It is a more difficult endeavor to acknowledge the places in our lives where we could reach a little higher, while also ensuring our reach “for the star” or “for the stars” is not too full of arrogance or pride.

Aren’t we sometimes more comfortable preparing something else, preparing someone else, rather than preparing ourselves. Don’t we sometimes give advice to other people that we ourselves ignore?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

What does preparation involve?

John the Baptist has some specific instructions which would require significant private and/or government sector initiative.

Engineering on a grand scale is what John the Baptist speaks of. “Filling in the valleys”; “making low the mountains.”

Do we have enough money for this?

And, if we were to find the money to re-engineer the waterways and landscapes, would this be the right objective?

Are we focusing on something purely external?

We build six-lane highways with EZ Pass in this country. But, our spiritual path / spiritual highway, is not pointed NORTH-SOUTH-EAST-or-WEST, but rather the direction is to go from the outside to the inside with the help of God’s grace.

Unwrap the paper, the bubble wrap …the layers that surround you. I am called to do the same thing. We come to Mass so that we will prepare ourselves – to prepare ye the way of the Lord – to prepare our hearts and minds.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Inside of us there are mountains and valleys too.

And, these are what need to be leveled to prepare the way.

There are, at times valleys of regret, valleys of sadness. In Psalm 23, we read the “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want … and if I should walk in the valley of darkness – the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear.”
We also walk, at times, in the valley of darkness. We do this when we experience a significant loss in our lives, the death of a beloved person, illness, instability.

The promise of Psalm 23 is that the Lord meets us in the valley leading us to springs of water.

Recall that John the Baptist is in the desert where water is scarce and crucial. We need to imitate him, drinking in the water of God’s goodness to survive.

There are also valleys of selfishness that can tempt me to seek my own pleasure, my own gratification over and against the good of another.

Jesus comes with his example of self-sacrifice inviting us out of the valley. And, we pray for his help to leave the valley of darkness. We can walk on more level ground. We do this by seeking opportunities each day – maybe at the kitchen table, at our desk, in the way we answer the phone -- or even in our efforts to be kind during the chaos of Christmas. All of this invites us out of the valley of darkness.

It invites us to follow the Savior, to prepare the way

* * * * * * * * * * * *

John the Baptist also says the mountains will be laid low. Advent invites us to make the mountains low.

Inside of us, there are mountains of pride, mountains of jealousy.

Sometimes, these mountains can be so high, so towering, that we cannot see beyond them. We may, for example, be so jealous of someone else or so hurt by someone’s actions that we live in the shadow of a mountain.

We need God’s help to face that mountain.

Consider what happens early in Jesus’s ministry when he goes out into the desert. He goes out not to meet John the Baptist, but rather the devil.

First, Jesus is taken up to the parapet of the Temple. Then, Jesus is taken up to a very high mountain. The devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil asks Jesus only to bow down to him.

We know that Jesus turns down this enticing offer. You know, all the kingdoms of the world, no money down, zero percent financing. Just enter your PIN or sign on the touch screen.

In this encounter between Jesus, the holy one of God and the evil spirit, we see the choice to follow the good even when we up on the mountain, exalted, perhaps full of ourselves.

The mountain that needs to be made low is not in the Colorado Rockies or Chilean Andes. The valley that needs to be filled in is not the Grand Canyon.

We need God’s help rather to prepare … to prepare ye the way of the Lord as we beg his help with the valleys and mountains within ourselves.

Some of these valleys and mountains might not be as treacherous as we think . We need God’s help to navigate, to find our way, and to prepare ye the way, both you and me.


Abraham and Christian/Catholic Tradition (2009-12-01)

Abraham and Catholic/Christian Tradition
Reflection by Rev. James Ferry

1 December 2009 (FDU, Teaneck campus)

I am a Catholic priest, serving here at FDU as chaplain. These were my remarks at a panel discussion on the prophet / patriarch Abraham from the biblical book of Genesis. The other 2 speakers were an imam and rabbi. This discussion was sponsored by MECA, Muslim Educational and Cultural Association.

[01] Sin, Atonement, Sacrifice

Atonement means reparation of any wrong or injury.

For example, criminal behavior (e.g., theft) leads to arrest, indictment, a jury trial, and a sentence. Everything that happens to the perpetrator is atonement for the original wrongdoing.

The criminal – or in a religious sense, “sinner” – is called to make good for his bad: “Material harm requires restitution; moral injury calls for satisfaction, which is nothing else than compensation for some wrong done to another.” (John Hardon, S.J. The Catholic Catechism, page 168)

As Christians, everyone has sinned; therefore, everyone must make atonement.

The next question would be the nature of the atonement. What reparation is necessary?

[02] Christian Sacrifice

Christianity believes in atonement through sacrifice. However, Christianity also believes that no human being can really satisfy God.

This viewpoint leads the Christian to place all faith in the the sacrifice made by the life and death of Jesus. By laying down his life, Jesus makes atonement for all sinners.

All other sacrifices made in the Jewish and Christian Bible foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus. These other sacrifices prepare the way.

One of these sacrifices is in the life of Abraham who is called to sacrifice his son Isaac. I will discuss more about this in a few minutes.

[03] Christian Sacrifice and Substitution

We might say that atonement for sin is logical. In other words, the sinner must atone in order to take responsibility. And, no person can really atone for another.

This is what we believe in human and natural terms.

On a divine and supernatural level, however, the Christian believes that Jesus can atone for the sins of others.

In this way, Jesus is the “substitute” for our sins. Now, in an everday sense, “substitute” implies inferiority - e.g., the substitute teacher in a school classroom; the understudy on in a theater stage.

But, the substitution of Jesus is different in Christian faith. Believing Jesus is the Son of God, we believe he is the one who has no sin. As such, he can take on the burden of the sins of his disciples.

So, Jesus becomes a sacrificial substitute for the sins of others.

By the way, this doctrine of “substitution” is particularly emphasized by Protestant and Evangelical traditions. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the notion is accepted but also counterbalanced with the call to conversion by each person.

That is, the Catholic accepts that Christ died for him but also that he is called to lay down his life for the other as well.

This call to conversion means that every person participates in death of Christ by making a gift of oneself. This will mean – in the case of a complete loving relationship - that you and I give our lives for each other.

Such a gift of self calls to mind romantic notions of affection and personal fulfillment, doesn’t it? However, such a gift also means that we suffer for each other as we grow in holiness. Mature loving relationships are fulfilling not because they circumvent sacrifice but because they embrace it.

Pope John Paul II wrote about this when reflecting on the Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the Christian Gospel, the Good Samaritan does not stop out of curiosity but availability. We are called to do the same as Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

Sometimes, this will be inconvenient and uncomfortable. (cf. George Weigel, Witness to Hope: Biography of John Paul II, New York: Harper Collins, 199, page 475; John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris).

What I’d like to discuss in the next section is the way that the human person is called to participate in Christ’s suffering by sacrificing.

[04] How we are called to live

It is part of our Catholic tradition to make sacrifices.

Sacrifices demonstrate that we are faithful to God’s commandments.

What I’d also like to touch on here is the connection between sacrifice and love.

In one of the letters of St. Paul in the Bible, we exhorts married Christians to a strong mutual love, saying: “be subordinate to each other.” (Ephesians 5:21)

Is it a bad thing for a husband to make a decision that will benefit only himself, at the expense of his wife? (or the wife at the expense of her husband?).

What the Christian Bible is saying is that true sacrifice is unselfish.

The challenge in a marriage is for the two spouses to love each other so much so that neither one is ever thinking about individual personal gain. Rather, their higher calling is to love the other so much that they are always doing what is good for both, not just one.

This is the case whenever a person (husband, wife, father, mother) does something on behalf of another person. A truly unselfish act is one that enables me to substitute myself for the good of another.

In Christian tradition, we look to Jesus who gave up his life as the one who made a perfect sacrifice.

That is, Jesus gave up his life for his disciples – his sinful disciples, his ungrateful disciples, his disciples who betrayed him. And, in this way, Jesus also gives his disciples of 2009 the example of how to face those who might betray us.

He also gives us the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is Christianity.

[05] Sacrifice for the Unworthy

In the Catholic liturgy and Catholic Mass, we remember that Jesus gave his life for his disciples.

In the Christian Bible, Saint Paul asks if you – or I – would be willing to give our lives for someone else?

St. Paul points out that we would probably require a very good reason to give up our lives, wouldn’t we?

And, Paul makes the distinction between dying for a person who is “just” as opposed to dying for someone who is “unjust”.

Paul writes: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8)

And, this is what we would call a purely unselfish act. Jesus, whom we believe to be sinless and the Son of God, freely gave up his life for sinners. This is the Christian model of unselfish generosity.

[06] Catholic Worship and The Eucharistic Prayer

In the Catholic Christian liturgy, we remember that this sacrifice – continued by Jesus – also goes back to the Book of the Exodus and earlier.

For example, in one of the Catholic Eucharistic Prayers, the priest says these words which are addressed to God:

Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchisedech. (Eucharistic Prayer I, The Roman Canon)

The sacrifice of Abraham is remembered in every Catholic Mass / liturgy.

[07] Sacrifice and Abraham

Sacrifice is also part of the life of Abraham.
In the biblical book of Genesis, we learn that Abraham does not have any children. There is no one to carry on his line, no one to be his heir.

Abraham is faced with a crisis, feeling despair. He is getting very old. Will he ever have a child?

In the midst of this crisis, Abraham is asked to pick up his possessions, his wife, and move to the land of Canaan.

The Lord speaks to Abraham telling him he will be blessed. However, this blessing does not produce yet what Abraham is seeking. In the blessing, God says, “I will make of you a great nation.”

Taking God at his word, Abraham goes to Canaan.

In Canaan, the Lord tells Abraham more explicitly what he really wants to hear:

Then God shows him the sky telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham believes; and, Abraham is praised for his faith.

Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, the first by the handmaid Hagar, is the son to whom Muslims trace faith in Abraham. (Genesis 16:15) Isaac is the second son by Abraham’s wife Sara. Isaac is the father of Jacob whose twelve sons represent the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. (Genesis 21:1-8).

Abraham accepts God at his word. Abraham gains credit for his righteousness and he demonstrates faith.

(08) Abraham & Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18)

The faith of Abraham is put to the test when he is asked to sacrifice the life of his son Isaac. And, Abraham is really asked to make a sacrifice for which he can see no benefit.

That is, he really wanted a son. Now he finally has a son. God is asking him to sacrifice what he really wants. In this way, Abraham is a model of faith in God’s will over and against his own desires.

Abraham’s faith is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ fidelity to God. This episode from the Book of Genesis is also important to the total Christian history of salvation.

Here are some of the similarities between the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice and the later sacrifice of Jesus in the Christian Bible:

[three days] - It takes three days for Abraham / Isaac to reach the mountain. For these three days, Abraham knows he must put Isaac to death.

So, in a sense, Isaac has already died. At the end of the 3 days, God sends a messenger to Abraham saying, “Do not lay a hand on the boy… I know how devoted you are to me.”

Meanwhile, in the Christian Bible, Jesus dies on the cross and spends 3 days in the earth before his resurrection.

[wood of the sacrifice] - Isaac is asked to carry the wood for the fire which will burn. This fire would then consume Isaac’s body. Jesus carries the wood of the cross in the Christian Bible.

[lamb, the sheep] - on their way up the mountain, Isaac himself asks his father Abraham, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the holocaust.” Here, Abraham ironically says, “God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.” Abraham does not know that his words will turn out to be true.

His words turn out to be true because the lamb becomes the substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac. And, in latter-day Christianity, Jesus becomes the substitute for the sinner who would otherwise be punished.

Jesus is also known as the Lamb of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

I pray that our FDU community will grow in peace and understanding for people of all faiths.

I hope these remarks are helpful as on overview of the sacrifice of Abraham and the person of Abraham in the Christian tradition.

Father Jim Ferry
Catholic Priest chaplain at FDU
Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, NJ