Seventh Sunday In Ordinary TimeBy Bishop John Mack
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen – Leviticus
I want to begin this morning with a phrase from the famous English writer G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was at the height of his literary career about ninety years ago. He took a serious look at his relationship with God and asked to be received into the Catholic Church. Perhaps you might remember from your school days that Chesterton loved to coin phrases that at first glance were humorous, but on further thought were really quite deep. One of my favorites is: The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting but that it has not been tried. Perhaps the most difficult of all of Christ's commands are those which are expounded in today's gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;" and "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you".
All of us, beginning with myself, are inclined to think that Jesus doesn't really mean us when we have been assaulted, or when someone humiliates us or mocks us, or when someone pushes our buttons in such a way that we are thrown into emotional turmoil. With the continual exploitation of our emotions by the media, the non stop presentation of the terrors of life in the news, we are tempted to think that certainly when the Lord says "Forgive them" or "Love them" he cannot be referring to the terrible people of the world who commit heinous crimes. Furthermore, with the amount of violence we are exposed to on TV and in the movies, we are inclined to feel a great gratification when the evil suffer injury. "What goes around comes around" we are very satisfied in saying. Of course, we are not so excited by the true meaning of this statement: Those who do evil should suffer evil. There is something within us that believes that real justice is in the law of talons: an eye for an eye. In reality, we would rather live in an Old Testament world, a world without Christ, than live in a world where we are expected to sacrifice our desire for vengeance to the Lord's command to love our enemies. Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been tried and found difficult. Perhaps it is for these reasons, perhaps it is for other reasons, that many Catholics have quite a bit of difficulty with the Catholic Church's position opposing capital punishment.
In contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment no longer justifies the imposition of the death penalty. The legitimate purposes of punishment are deterrence, reform and retribution. The death penalty was reinstated in 1967. The soaring number of murders in our country since then shows that the death penalty does not work as a deterrent. The criminal who is put to death, obviously, cannot reform. Retribution refers to the repayment of stolen property. No amount of retribution can replace the life of the victim.
It is right here that today's gospel hits home. People tend to confuse retribution with vengeance. Most people, Catholic and non Catholic, support the death penalty not to protect society, but to inflict vengeance upon the criminal. Time and again we hear the arguments that the perpetrator does not deserve to live – thus, we are “playing God.” Or we may hear: "I know my slain son or daughter will rest easier once the criminal is killed." Or people say this will bring closure – will it truly accomplish this?? In this highly charged emotional atmosphere, we have to stand strongly behind the principle that all life is sacred, even that of a terrible criminal. One of the great gifts of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the departed Archbishop of Chicago, is the doctrine of the seamless garment. Basically, this doctrine states that we have to be consistent and support all human life. There is no seam in the garment, no line where the justification for eliminating human life changes. I recently read an editorial in the Buffalo News from one of the columnists expressing his distaste in the policy of children being ripped from the mother’s arms – this was obviously in reference to policies on immigration in our country. Yet --- he was completely silent on the practice of unborn children legally being ripped from their mother’s wombs – as is allowed in the laws of our nation and particularly in the laws of this very liberal state in which we reside. I presume Roe vs. Wade has more authority than God Almighty and the Ten Commandments. I guess he never heard of the doctrine of the seamless garment – I’m sure he’s an atheist or at worst - a phony Christian. Essentially, the Church does not choose liberal or conservative positions. The Church proclaims the truth and liberals or conservatives decide if this fits into their own agendas.
Perhaps the most difficult words we pray today and every day are those words found in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." That archaic word, trespass, means to cross the line.
When we say the Our Father we are saying that we will forgive those who cross the line of common decency so that we also might be forgiven for any ways that we have crossed the line. If we refuse to forgive, if we demand the law of talons, an eye for an eye, if we desire vengeance more than Christ's presence, then we are refusing to accept Jesus Christ himself.
Christianity is continually reforming itself. Christian society must continually scrutinize its actions to see if it is living up to the standards set by the Lord. Consider slavery. It took almost nineteen hundred years for Christians to recognize that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. It will take many more years for Christians to eliminate the various ways the law of talons has been embedded into our culture. But the standard is there. The standard for what is Christian and what is not Christian is the Law of the New Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, the Word of God.
G. K. Chesterton certainly had it right: The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting but that it has not been tried. Christ never said that following Him would be easy. Nor did he say that His followers would ever enjoy the majority position. Jesus just said that He would be with us always.
That is worth every sacrifice, even the sacrifice of our deepest, darkest desires.
Presentation of our LordBy Bishop John Mack
Now, Master, You can dismiss Your servant in peace; You have fulfilled Your word – Luke
Today we celebrate a feast that used to signify the end of what we call Christmastide. The feast is the Presentation of the Lord. It is 40 days after Christmas. Our memories of last Christmas have probably all but faded – except perhaps for the credit card bills. This Feast used to be called the Purification of Mary but now we call it the Presentation of Lord. The purification signified an ancient rite when women went to the Temple to be prayed over after childbirth. Women were thought to be “unclean” for a period of time after childbirth and thus 40 days hence they came. A number of years ago the Church changed this feast from a Feast of Mary, the Purification, to a Feast of the Lord. We still, however, give honor and tribute to the Blessed Mother, the Mother of Jesus, in our hymns today. Because Simeon called Jesus the Light of the Nations, this feast is also the day that candles are blessed. It is sometimes called Candlemas. In the Eastern or Orthodox Church, this feast was called the Feast of the Encounter, the first encounter of the Old Testament, represented by Simeon and Anna in the Temple, with the New Testament, represented by the Lord. Jesus is presented in the Temple following the ancient Jewish laws. In the New Law of the Kingdom of God, Jesus' own body would become the New Temple. The image that keeps occurring at me in this feast is that of a young mother and father and their new baby. So many times I've enjoyed watching young couples bringing their new baby to Church. They are so excited about the birth of their treasure, so grateful to God for this child that they cannot wait to bring the child before the Lord to thank God properly. I really believe that is what Mary and Joseph were doing when they walked into the Temple with Jesus. Simeon, like all of us, wanted to hold the new baby. When he does, a spirit of prophecy comes upon him. He realizes that in this child he is in the presence of God's salvation, the Light of the Nations. Simeon also prophecies the pains that Mary would have as she witnessed God's plan being worked out in this child. The devotion to the seven sorrows of Mary grew from this: the Prophecy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt, the Three Days' Loss of the child Jesus in the Temple, Meeting Jesus with the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Taking Down from the Cross, the Burial. The encounter with the Lord would demand continual sacrifice from all especially Mary. The reward of this encounter is great, the presence of the Savior.
The Lord is presented as an infant to the Temple, now the Temple will never more be the same. The abiding presence of God, the Holy of Holies, is now transferred from the inner sanctuary to the child in Simeon's arms. Most of us were presented to the Church as infants at our baptism. The Church will never again be the same. Now a special presence of the Holy of Holies, the presence of God's intimate life, dwells within the newly baptized.
Every child born and baptized, every single one of us, presented to the Lord, carries within himself or herself a unique image of the Holy of Holies. Each one of us is called to seek that image within us, to develop it. We are called to allow God to take over our lives. This presentation with its resulting purification results in sorrow, for to follow the Lord means to sacrifice. And what are we asked to sacrifice? We are asked to sacrifice our own material inclinations and our physical desires for the sake of the cultivation of the spiritual within us. This presentation results in joy, for when we live with the Lord we have meaning in our lives.
Perhaps we – who in this country enjoy freedom of religion and religious expression – take too lightly -- the promises we made / or someone made on our behalf at baptism. Do we remember those promises?? Do we act on them – do we live by them – would we be willing to die for them – as we promised in Confirmation – you remember the words. You must be willing to suffer and die for the sake of Christ and His Church. Certainly – we know that no one goes looking for suffering / no one wishes to die unexpectedly. But – the world continuously chips away at our faith / our belief systems / our Christianity / it mocks us as Christians and promotes a life-style that is not Christ-centered. The question becomes: How do we respond??? Do we project the image of the “Holy of Holies?” Are we a living, breathing, walking Tabernacle – into which God has poured His life – His Holy Spirt – and OUR SOUL?
There is a psalm, that is sometimes sung at funerals. The words say: "Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life." And yet it is not “just a funeral song.” It is a psalm that speaks of the entire journey of our life with Jesus. The encounter with the Lord is a step into the spiritual. Baptism is only the first step.
All the steps that follow along the pathway of life define and determine whether or not we have been worthy. One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite hymns includes the words:
“Live a life that’s worthy of the calling you’ve received. Humbly walk in faith and charity. All that we have will be lost by the end of our lives, but Christ and his love and the way we love him in others, that is the life that is forever. On this Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we ask God to transform us from people tied to the material to those / whose encounter with Christ leads us to live for the spiritual. May we always “Live a life that’s worthy of the calling we’ve received.”
A Blessed Candlemass to all, Amen
THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIMEBy Bishop John Mack
A people living in darkness has seen a great light. - Matthew 4
Last Sunday I preached about Jesus – the lamb of God. How He took upon himself the sins of the world / died for our sins / and allowed us the possibility of eternal life with God His Father. Today I would like to speak about another lamb --- this one was a Saint – Saint Agnes. Her name literally means: Lamb. She was a “little lamb” At about age 12 or 13, she took on the might Roman Empire and although losing her life, she WON.
She was the daughter of a noble family and lived around 300 AD. It was during the last decades of the roman persecution of Christians. Now – many noble families were becoming Christians and even those of the royal household. The Roman Emperor Diocletian had enough of these Christians and stepped up their eradication. He issued an edict saying that anyone professing to be a Christian would lose all their possessions and be given the chance to renounce their faith. If they did not – they would be slaughtered. Agnes was beautiful and had caught the eye of the son of the Roman Prefect Sempronius. He wished for her to marry his son. He called her to his court and offered her gifts if she would give up Christ and marry his son. She said she would never marry a pagan and refused. For this she was condemned to death – but there was a catch – Roman law said that a virgin could not be killed. So instead – they sent her to work in a place of sin where there was an atmosphere of roman terror and pagan lust. She prayed that God would keep her from temptation and the advances of the men – and so she remained pure. Finally – the Romans went against their own law – and killed her.
Agnes is a witness and a martyr to Jesus Christ both by sacrificing her life for the Lord and by defending her own virginity. Her death sickened many throughout Rome and ended up being one of the final blows to the pagan empire. Others would die after her, but within 20 years of her death, Christianity would first be allowed in the empire, and then become the religion of the empire. Agnes won. Diocletian lost. The twelve year old won. The burly soldiers lost. Jesus won. The devil lost. The story of Agnes’ brief life on earth but continual life in heaven reminds us that God delivers us from the forces of sin. The forces of darkness tried to destroy Agnes. She must have been terrified at the ways that evil plotted to attack her
But she trusted in God and God sent her joy. He sent her His Son.
In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard that the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali had suffered the results of their sins. But God made it all right. He brought light to their darkness. He gave them joy and rejoicing. He sent them, He sent us, His Son. Our hope, our joy, and our peace are all in Jesus Christ. Our rest is in the Lord. Other people might attempt to attack our peace. We might be threatened with exclusion from the community if we don’t join its immorality, as every middle school, high school and college student, and every adult Christian is threatened. But our peace is grounded in the Lord, not in being part of the crowd. We ask ourselves, “Is it really important what they say about me, think about me? No, if I have to choose, I’d rather choose to live with the Lord than have the approval of those whose actions are in fact rejecting Him, even if they claim to be Christians themselves.” We might be challenged with difficult situations in our family as those we love reject us for taking our faith so seriously. Our homes should be places of peace, but sometimes others in our family are in turmoil and spread this turmoil throughout the house. We can calm the chaos by increasing our prayer life, by intensifying our adherence to the Lord and thus strengthening His Presence in our homes. We might suffer the challenges of bad health. We all know that every one of us will die, but in reality it boggles our minds when we realize that our loved ones or we ourselves will die. Yet, I have had the blessing of witnessing so many people die in peace, united to Christ, simply taking a step from this world to the next. There are many ways that our peace is threatened, but nothing can remove this peace from our lives No one can take Jesus from us. In fact for us determined, committed Christians, the more difficult the challenge in life, the stronger our faith can become. We trust in our Lord to be with us forever.
Anguish has taken flight. The darkness is dispelled. And the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And Jesus preaches to us, and teaches us and tells us the reason for our joy, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And Peter and Andrew and James and John are called to proclaim the Gospel to us, the Good News of Jesus Christ. And we are called to proclaim the Good News to those who are still in darkness. We tell them that no matter what the world throws at us, life is beautiful when it is Christ’s life.
Like little Agnes, we can conquer all that attacks us, we can remain in peace despite what is happening around us or within us. Like St. Agnes we can, we must give witness to Jesus Christ. And like little Agnes, we will live in His Peace.
SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIMEBy Bishop John Mack
Look there!! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John 1
You come to Church today and you notice right away that the Christmas decorations are gone. You know where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are, don’t you? No, they’re not in Egypt. They’re in boxes in storage. Some of our poinsettias remain. They, particularly the red flowers, are a good reminder that the One we celebrate on Christmas gave his blood for us. As the old priest would repeat in his one line Christmas homily: “The Wood of the Manger is the Wood of the Cross.” The secular Christmas season is over. Now we move on with the very beginning of Jesus’ public life, usually referred to as his ministry. We come upon John the Baptist seeing Jesus and pointing to him. “This is the Lamb of God,” he says. “Lamb of God.” We use that term so often, that it is easy for us to overlook the deep theology and the unfathomable love of our God contained in His sending His Son to be the Lamb.
The first place we come upon the concept of the Lamb of God is in the 53rd chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Although this was written six hundred years before Jesus, it describes the feelings of God’s people as they look at Jesus on the cross. It’s short, so let me quote it: It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth. He is wounded for our sins, bruised for our iniquities. He has taken upon himself the chastisement that makes us whole. That is what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.” The question comes: why? Why did the world need a Savior? Why did God’s son become a man to suffer and die for us? Did the Word have to become Flesh? Was Christmas necessary? Well, we can’t tell God what is necessary or not necessary. But we can try to come to an understanding of God’s plan. From the very beginning of the world, all creation was entrusted to human beings. Sadly, man, in his selfishness and self-centeredness, perverted the whole purpose for creation. Instead of glorifying God, creation was used to satisfy man’s selfish needs. But, God still did not take the gift of creation away from man. A man would once more restore creation to God’s original plan. Jesus Christ is this man.
Some people continue to pervert the purpose of creation. Sadly, sometimes, we join them. We become so wrapped up in ourselves that we push God aside. We turn the good things of the world into the purpose of creation, being more concerned with our selfishness than seeing God’s gifts as a means of glorifying Him. As long as we live like this true love cannot not exist in the world. We cannot give ourselves to others or to another if our main concept of how to live is to take, not to give. This is the reason why for some people life is meaningless and frustrating. Jesus came to live as the Father wants us all to live. He sacrificed himself completely for others so that we could experience sacrificial love. He called us to use creation as the Father meant creation to be used. God’s plan for mankind could once more be put into effect since the Son of God became a man. Entrusted with creation, a man restores the world.
In the visions of the fifth chapter of the Book of Revelation a book is brought out sealed with seven seals. The book is God’s plan for mankind. But the plan is sealed. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?", a voice cries out.” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to examine it. The visionary sheds many tears because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to examine it. But then one of the elders said, "Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals." Then the visionary saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been slain. Only the Lamb was worthy to once more restore God’s plan for mankind.
And John the Baptist saw Jesus and proclaimed, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.” The One who became a man was the Lamb slain for us. His death opened up the Book of God’s plan for mankind. He restored our life with God. He conquered sin. John the Baptist also said that Jesus is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Baptized with the Holy Spirit, we have been given the power of God to transform the world. We have been given the power to create a new world, a world with a new way of living, the way of sacrificial love. When we say or sing, “Lamb of God” we are remembering what Jesus did for us and what he has empowered us to do for others. We are remembering his sacrifice to make God’s love real on earth. We are reminding ourselves that joining Jesus in sacrificial love is the only way we can be his followers. John the Baptist found his reason for existence.
He was to point out the Lamb of God to the world. His mission is the mission of every Christian. We are to point out the Lamb of God to the world.
There is nothing greater that any of us can do in our lives than to reveal Christ to others, first to our children and then to all we encounter. John the Baptist was not a typical person of his time. He was extraordinary. It really was not John’s dress or diet or even his preaching that made him extraordinary, it was the fact that he found the purpose for his life. He looked to Jesus and said, “There is the Lamb of God.”
Our lives can also be extraordinary. Our lives must be extraordinary - especially in this time and place. May we have the courage, like John the Baptist, to reveal Christ to the world. May we join the Baptist in saying with our lives, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.”
Solemnity of the Holy FamilyBy Bishop John Mack
Joseph got up and took the child and his mother and left that night for Egypt. – Matthew 2
One proud grandma was showing off pictures of her grandchildren to a neighbor. "How old are they?" the neighbor asked. "The lawyer is two, and the doctor is four," the grandma replied. We all have great ideals for our children. It is not that they need to become a lawyer or doctor to make us happy, but we do want them to grow up into the finest people they can be, using their potential, being happy in their lives.
If this is what we really want for our children, then like Joseph and Mary in the Temple, we must dedicate our treasures to the Lord. For our children to fulfill their potential they must find the reflection of God they were created to bring into the world. Children must find the Lord not just in the Temple or the Church, they must find the Lord primarily in their families. This is the Solemnity of the Holy Family. It is a day when we consider the spiritual life of our families. We ask ourselves today, "Can all the members of our family find the Lord in our homes? Or are our homes merely houses?"
In the face of the allurements of our culture, we have to fight to have a home, and to have a family. So often homes are just filling stations and stopping off places. Many families count themselves blessed if they can have three meals together a week. This is not good. Children have to contribute to the family by being present just as parents have to contribute by supporting their children. It is important for children to develop their talents through sports, arts, etc; but it is more important for children to develop their love for God within their family. Parents also have to get out of the mindset of making the fulfillment of their wants their priority. It is one thing for a person to go bowling an evening a week or to have a night out with the boys or girls – everyone still need some independence. It is another thing for a person to be home only a coupla’ evenings a week. Many families have broken up due to this mindset. The mindset would go like this: my wife or husband or the children fulfill my need to have a family, but they are only a part of a whole variety of desires that I have. This is not acceptable for a Christian. It leads to the situation of the spouse that wants his or her family or wife or husband, but also wants a private life and perhaps even someone on the side. That's just plain selfishness. Perhaps, when this person is present all seems loving and beautiful, but that is not family love. That is using others merely to fulfill one's own needs. I am sorry to say that we have in our society today -- many absent parents living under the same roof as their families.
There are families in our society today that have suffered separation or divorce. I remember when I was growing up (eons ago) that there wasn’t 1 divorced family on my block – but today it is the norm. Yet -- these can still be valid, strong, and Christian families. Some of these are much stronger than the families where both parents are present but hostile towards each other. The family with the single parent may not be ideal, but no family can be perfect. Just as the Holy Family had to find its way to reflect God in a hypocritical religious society, every family has to find its way to God in the situations life has occasioned. The only thing that matters is that your house, your apartment, is a Christian home.
Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce Mary's heart. A situation beyond the control of the Holy Family would bring pain to the family. That situation was the evil in the world that Jesus had come to destroy. Every family in the world has pain that has come into it which resulted from the basic evil of society. A child dies, alcohol or other drugs devastate relationships, a spouse is unfaithful to their marriage vows --- all sorts of terrible things take place that pierce the heart of the family with a sword. The Holy Family survived because the God was present, not just God the Son who was the child, but God the Father around whom the life of the Holy Family revolved. All Christian families survive the same way. A family cannot be spiritual for only a couple of hours on Sunday. The family must revolve around God who formed it. I have copied and made available the year’s plan from our Future Directions Committee. We continue with the overall theme of Discipleship – but add new emphasis and meaning – month by month. Please take a copy and begin it in your home. The old phrase “charity begins at home” – is ever so true. Parents ARE the FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT teachers of the child.
During this year we will examine the lives of some of the early disciples and their virtue – learning from them and applying this to our daily living. We must ask ourselves – how can we improve upon our discipleship?? How can I walk more closely with Jesus – As we celebrate this solemnity of the Holy Family --- let us take the time and the effort to make our own family MORE HOLY!
It doesn’t happen “all at once” but in small baby steps – one after another. May this path lead us to greater discipleship in our own lives and in that of our families as well. Will your family be more like the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph this year? It’s all up to you to decide and to live out each and every day accordingly --- AMEN
The Humble ShepherdsBy Bishop John Mack
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen ----
Words taken from the Gospel of St. Luke --- My Dear Ones in Christ --- Today we celebrate the Feast of the Humble Shepherds --- It is a feast that is unique to the PNCC --- instituted by Bishop Hodur back in the early years of the church. Why a Feast to honor the Shepherds --- well we just heard in the Gospel we know that the shepherds were the first eye-witnesses to the birth of Jesus Christ.
Some might ask --- why the shepherds???? Couldn’t someone else or some other group of people more important than the shepherds be contacted? Of course – we know through the Advent readings about all the prophets and the foretelling of the birth of Christ --- how for hundreds of years, God had hinted about the eventual Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his son. SO – we can’t say that God didn’t really try to let other important people know --- it was just that they wouldn’t listen to the voice of the messenger, the angels, or the prophets themselves. We also know that this God of ours isn’t “too predictable” --- HE likes to work things HIS WAY – in HIS TIME and in HIS MANNER. Sometimes this leaves us feeling a bit left out or even somewhat mad about how we thought the ending of the story should have happened.
So --- the shepherds!! Just think about it --- here were the original homeless people of the world. They were the original HAVE NOTS!! They simply lived their lives out in a nomadic fashion – wandering with their flocks to where there was fresh pasture or a source of cool water. So they went from place to place ----wherever the needs of the flock would take them. In the eyes of the people of Jesus’ time – the shepherds were the lower class people. Even in one of the Christmas hymns we sing “unto lowly shepherds.” And yet – God had a special plan for them that holy night. What do we notice about the shepherds that made them a good choice?
First of all they were in the right place at the right time --- they were doing what they always did – they were watching over their flocks by night. They were being faithful to their chosen calling. No biggie!! You might say!!
And then the angels came with the message. Once received – what did the shepherds do – just roll over in their sleeping bags and say – It must have been a dream They did nothing of the sort – they said one to another – let’s go to Bethlehem and see this event that the Lord has made known to us. And they went in HASTE – not taking their good ol’ time --- they were on a mission – they had a purpose to fulfill ---
And they came and found Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger – and these lowly shepherds, as we call them --- they UNDERSTOOD what had been told them concerning the child --- Imagine that --- shepherds! With no education or training --- simple shepherds UNDERSTOOD the greatest miracle of all times. And then they returned – glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
How many times in our short or long lives have we been ecstatic about something that God has revealed to us?? How many times have we been thrilled just to come to church --- to hear God’s Word – to hear the homily of the pastor – and to have a new understanding of God’s will for our lives. For most of us it may happen a few times in our lifetime. For those truly blessed and in tune with God – it happens every Sunday they come to church --- it happens every time we turn to our blessed Savior in prayer. What the shepherds were really doing as they returned was giving witness to what they had seen with their own eyes. They were able to convey and transmit to others the new-found belief they had in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior!!! How often do we exhibit that same enthusiasm about our own faith, our parish, our pastor – who is our shepherd!! How often do we go out into the streets and share Jesus with a total stranger??? How often do we look for opportunities to share our faith with others who are SO DESPERATELY looking for answers to life’s problems and situations??? As we think about the lives of those first humble shepherds – we turn our attention to our modern-day shepherds, our priests and pastors.
On this Feast day of the Humble Shepherds – we bring to mind the needs of our church with regards to shepherds. We certainly are experiencing a severe shortage of vocations in our church. We are certainly not alone as a denomination with regards to this. Other denominations are having the same problems. Does knowing that make us feel better????
There may be a variety of factors that contribute to this problem The question remains – why do we have so few vocations from within our parishes??
Maybe we just don’t encourage vocations from within. Perhaps what we do and what we say in front of one another away from the church – or even in FRONT of our families – our children – our sons has a detrimental effect on them. We therefore have to make a commitment to stop that kind of talk and replace with an honor and respect for the priesthood that will provide an environment where God’s seed can be planted and where the call to vocation can flourish.
Therefore – on this Feast of the Humble Shepherds --- let us re-examine our commitment to Christ- -- to this newborn babe in the manger --- Let us pray for the same humbleness of spirit that the shepherds had. Let us look for the simplicity of life that they had – which will allow us to see beyond the things of the world; Let us not analyze or scrutinize the message of the angels – let us take it as it was and as it is today – the message of hope and redemption for all mankind. May we also make haste --- glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen of this Beloved Savior This Babe in the Manger --- It’s time that we stop giving Jesus mere “lip service” and truly begin to build His Kingdom on earth through our WITNESS to the WORLD. My friends – it is time that - WE BECOME GOD’S SHEPHERDS IN THE WORLD TODAY -- Amen
The Season of LoveBy Bishop John Mack
As we enter into this most festive season of the year the word “love” is used quite freely. We hear phrases such as: Love came down at Christmas, God so loved the world and others that fill the lyrics of both sacred and secular carols. I would present to you an analogy between the love that the Father had for mankind in sending the Savior of the world to earth and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Seem odd to you? Not really. I was recently reading a commentary on the parables of Jesus and some very distinct similarities seemed to jump off the page and strike me.
The portion before the story of the Samaritan is an exchange between Jesus and an “expert in the law.” He is an expert in Jewish religious law, not in Roman civil law. Simply put, he is a theologian. His ulterior motive is to test Jesus. He is an adversary, looking for that chink in the armor, that wrongly answered question. He represents the religious establishment, and more than anything else, he is seeking to justify himself and the religious practices of his life. Yet, he believes that eternal life is obtained by doing a set number of meritorious acts. Jesus turns the tables and asks him: What is written in the Law – how do you read it? He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. He then combines this with Leviticus 19:18 – Love your neighbor as yourself. Then he proceeds to ask: “And who is my neighbor.” This question is really an evasion and represents a serious moral problem. If there is a neighbor I must love, is there also a non-neighbor I do not need to love? Do I have to love everyone? Where do I draw the line? Leviticus 19 uses the term neighbor as a synonym for brother or people and so the rabbis taught that one’s neighbor was a fellow Israelite. Other interpretations set even further limits. It’s easy to be critical of this type of attitude, but it is far more common than we care to admit. Our newspapers are full of stories of people whose plight is ignored by passers-by. We live in a world drowning in human needs – the hurting, the homeless, the hungry. What are the limits to my love? How far does my responsibility go? Who isn’t my neighbor? Who don’t I have to love? Jesus therefore, shared the story of the Good Samaritan.
It is in this parable that the Lord shocks his audience with the emerging hero, the Samaritan. It is not so much his nationality that sets him apart, but his compassion. He didn’t see anything in the fallen victim that the priest and Levite didn’t see, but he feels something they didn’t feel. “He took pity on him.” Our Lord Jesus also had great compassion. He took pity on us, the fallen victims of sin and He came down to earth in human likeness to rescue us, broken and bleeding from our self-inflicted wounds. The next similarity is that the Samaritan showed care. He dealt with the victim’s immediate needs by bandaging up his wounds and pouring on oil and wine. The bandages were most likely provided by tearing up his own garments into strips. Then, he places this man on his own donkey and leads him down the hot, dusty road to the inn. Jesus showed that same care in dying on the cross for our salvation. He dealt with our needs by pouring out blood and water from his side as he hung on the cross at Calvary. His garments were torn to shreds and “by His stripes, we were healed.” He placed the weight of our sins upon His back in the form of a cross and carried this instrument of torture down the hot, dusty road to Calvary.
Lastly the Samaritan showed commitment as he promises the innkeeper, “when I return I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have,” Jesus likewise promises us that he will keep us in His care forever. “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you” and “Lo, am I with you always to the end of the age.” Jesus has also promised us that one day He will come again to claim His Kingdom in power and glory. Are we prepared for that day? Are we eagerly anticipating His coming by the manner in which we conduct our lives and affairs? Although we do not believe that we can attain the kingdom of heaven by simply “doing good works” we also cannot turn our back on humanity. “Faith without works is dead.” Playing on the word expense, I’m sure one of the questions on the eternity final exam will be, “how have you expended yourself in serving those around you?” What will you answer be? What will you have to show for the years that you spent here on earth?
My neighbor is not simply someone of my community, of my race or economic level. My neighbor is that person who is in need, whose need I can see, whose need I can meet. My neighbor may be, on natural terms my most bitter enemy. My neighbor may be my religious or political opponent. Ultimately, the question becomes this: Our need isn’t to define who our neighbor is, but to care for them, or not so much who is my neighbor, but what is my duty?” Lastly, in reading verse 36, Jesus is not so much concerned about “who is my neighbor, but rather, “which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robber.
Throughout this Season of Love, many opportunities will present themselves for us to act upon. There will be opportunities for caring, kindness, compassion, healing, grace, forgiveness and of course, love. They will arrive, right at our doorsteps on some occasions and we will see them if we begin to see with the eyes of faith. Divisions between nations, peoples, neighbors, friends and families are oftentimes healed, if only for a short while during this season of our Lord’s birth. Let us pledge not to take them up again once these holy days pass. The good Samaritan acted with love and compassion. Jesus chose the same course, living out the word love in all that He said and did. My prayer for you is that you may do likewise in this Christmas season as well as in all the days of the coming year. May these coming days truly be for you “The Season of Love.”
3rd Sunday in AdventBy Bishop John Mack
We are well into the third week of the Advent season. Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. But who is this Messiah? Do we have any preconceived idea how we would like this Messiah to be? John the Baptist seems to have certain ideas.
In today’s Gospel, after hearing what Jesus did, John sends his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? ”It seems John may have doubts about the identity of Jesus. But in the Gospel of Luke, we know that John the Baptist jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb before both he and Jesus were born when the two mothers met. (Luke 1:41)
In last week’s Gospel, John introduces Jesus as, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)John the Baptist knows perfectly well who Jesus is. So, why is he questioning? Well, remember, John is in prison! Has his imprisonment has caused him to doubt Jesus? The Messiah is not saving John from prison, and the one who is supposed to take away the sin from the world is not taking away the sin away from Herod. Would you blame John the Baptist or anybody to doubt in such situation? After hearing the question, as usual, Jesus does not answer directly but tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-6)We see that the doubt of John the Baptist gets his disciples to be mindful of what Jesus does. The doubt of John the Baptist is pointing people to pay attention to see and hear Jesus.
Uncertain, scary, and helpless times can shake one up and cause doubts in one’s faith. Today’s Gospel is a good reflection of our spiritual journey. We can be like John the Baptist. When we are moved by the Holy Spirit, we vow to follow God. It is very clear and true. Or when we receive blessings, we are sure Jesus is our Savior. When we face adversity and disasters, we question if Jesus really is the Savior. We question why bad things happen, why God is not there for us, and doubt even if God really exists. We tend to think God only exists when we are in good times. That is our preconceived idea of our Savior and why we are in doubt when things do not go our way. We are wrapped up in our own world and cannot hear or see God’s presence. Nevertheless, being in doubt may get us closer to God. John the Baptist may be in doubt but his questioning points people to question God also.
Then people pay attention to hear and see, find God’s grace and bring back the good news of Jesus to the doubter. Doubting is part of our spiritual journey. However, the process may seem unbearable. We need to point each other to hear and see God’s grace to keep our faith. Sometimes we do have to wait in uncertain, and anxious moments before the truth comes out. Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We are blessed that we know the certainty of the birth of Jesus. Yet, we are still waiting for the second coming of the Messiah. This time of waiting can be anxious and fearful time.
There is chaos in different parts of the world. We have our fair share of chaos causing disappointment, anxiety, fear, and anger in our own country right now. Enough people question the presence of God. Will we be able to not be distracted by our own self-centeredness, and anxiety or our own pre-conception about God but look for God, and go and tell people what we see and hear about the presence of God? As Christians, during Advent we are to slow down, reflect, and pray while waiting for the coming or our Lord. We need to reflect on what it means to be followers of Jesus our Lord, and our seeing and hearing of our Lord. In a sense, we all have experienced what Jesus said: The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor have good news brought to them. If we are baptized, haven’t we experienced these things? Through baptism, weren’t we once blind and deaf, but now can see and hear God’s good news? Weren’t we once crooked but now could stand straight? Weren’t we once uncleaned, but now cleansed by God’s Holy Spirit? Didn’t we die to our previous life and now live a new life? Didn’t we, the once poor in spirit, receive good news?
Truly, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will hear and see plenty of God’s mighty work literally and metaphorically even in bad times. We will be able to go and tell. It is time for us to share the good news and hope with others especially with those who are in doubt. Today Isaiah says: “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. ”Yes, the Lord shall return. Traditionally the third week of Advent is joy. When we can see and hear God’s presence – Emmanuel, in good times and bad times, and know God is coming again, isn’t that joyful? Amen.
Second Sunday in AdventBy Fr. Gary Spencer
John the Baptist was a unique person in the Gospels. Now, I’m not talking just about his appearance and eating habits. An obviously scruffy looking fellow wearing scratchy, camelhair clothing, and eating locusts, which, in case you don’t know, are very much like large grasshoppers. He preached in the desert, and addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees as a brood of vipers. This man, John, even acted uniquely while in his mother’s womb, for when Mary visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, while both women were pregnant, John leaped in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
So, here’s this special, holy man, shouting the message of repentance and the coming of God’s kingdom, preparing the way of the Lord, the sprout of the stump of Jesse, and making straight His paths, in the middle of nowhere, baptizing hordes of people from all over Judea, gaining followers, and making enemies as well. Making enemies not because of his appearance and his locust breath, but because he was telling it like it is, much the same as Jesus did. The difference was that Jesus went to the villages, towns, and cities instead of preaching in the wilderness, and Jesus, in addition to being fully man, was fully God.
Much of their message was the same as well. Both Jesus and John the Baptist preached the coming of God’s Kingdom, the conversion of heart, in Greek known as the metanoia, and the need to bear fruit through good works.
If you have ever wondered why John the Baptizer is highlighted during Advent it is because in addition to preaching the message as Jesus, John is charged with preparing the way of the Lord. John is a model for us to emulate during Advent. We, like John the Baptist, are to prepare the way of the Lord.
In addition to meaning the Season before Christmas, Advent also means the Coming, and also the Second Coming of Christ. While John could not have prepared the way for Christ’s birth, because he wasn’t born yet, he could prepare the way of the Lord’s ministry on earth. John warned people to repent, and to bear good fruit. This is especially evident in his encounter with the Sadducees and Pharisees.
The lesson for these Jewish religious sects, and for us through the Gospel, is: don’t think that just because you’re part of a certain religious denomination, you automatically get a free pass into heaven. John the Baptizer tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that the ax is laid at the root of the tree, and that every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Jesus teaches the same thing in the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel when He says, “I Am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered and thrown into the fire and burned.” Jesus is the vine, and the branches are people who believe in Him and follow Him. Yet, if followers (Christians) do not bear fruit, that is, do good works, we are cut off from Him and thrown into the fire. Jesus also tells us not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven. Also in the 16th chapter of St. Matthews Gospel it states, “For the Son of Man will come with His angels in His Father’s glory, and then He will repay everyone according to his conduct. So you see, Jesus tells us that not only do we have to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, but we have to do what He teaches as well. We must love God and our neighbors, repent of our sins, and we must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. These are goods works my friends, and they are a part of our salvation.
So as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we must also prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven. We are saved by the Grace of God, and by the grace of God alone, but we can give up our salvation by not doing God’s work. This Advent season we must do as much good work as we possibly can. We need to check our resources and figure out what we can do. Can we buy another gift or two for the giving tree, toys for tots, or some other charitable organization that gives gifts to poor children? Can we give some money to a shelter or charity? Can we give a little of our time to help out at a shelter or charity? Can we visit a shut-in, someone who is sick, or someone who is lonely?
Today, when Jesus abides in us, and we abide in Him through the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we must ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the way we can most efficiently and effectively do good works and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. In doing this not only will our paths will be made straight and the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven will be opened for us, but we can help make the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child a wondrous and joyful time for those who need help and love this Christmas as well.