Fr. Mike’s Blog:
A Brief History of the Passover:
I have people ask me about the Passover and how it developed. A full explanation would take too many pages but what people mostly want to know is how was it celebrated and how did it develop over time. People also want it brief and readable, so here it is:
You will see variations on the history of Passover because of the sketchy historical documentation. The accounts given in the Old Testament include many details but they can be idealized and reflect later practices. In this brief outline, I realize there is room for alternative dates, theories, and practices but this is a generally accepted outline by historians and Biblical scholars.
Pre Moses (2000 – 1200BC): For herders, lambs were born in the spring. For farmers, the first crops would have been the barley harvest. Feasts developed to celebrate the new food and life sources that the new lambs and barley brought. First born lambs were sacrificed and eaten. Barley was unleavened because old stored grains were often exhausted and old leavening practices (similar to present day rye and sourdough) depended on living leaven. Besides, it took longer to leaven grain and barley didn’t rise much anyway.
Moses (1250 – 1150BC): There are various theories about the date of the Exodus and how exactly it happened, but the first Exodus Passover took place while the Hebrews were leaving Egypt. It celebrates the “passing over” of the Angel of Death, from slavery to freedom, and from Egypt to the Promised Land. Former feasts of lambs and unleavened bread are now combined with the themes of divine intervention and liberation.
Post Moses (1100s – 1000BC): The combination of the lamb and barley feasts and sacrifices with the telling of the Exodus story by household or clan takes place but varies to some degree depending on region and clan.
Monarchy (1000 – 587BC): The practices and celebrations became more unified among families from David to Josiah (1,000 – 622BC) because of stability and communication during the Monarchic Period. With the reforms of Josiah (622 BC), the Passover was moved from family celebrations to exclusively being done in the Temple. Pilgrimages took place to Jerusalem and the families would bring their pascal lambs to be sacrificed and roasted at the Temple. Unleavened bread was eaten for seven days following.
Babylonian Exile (587BC): Some remembrance of the Exodus happened but probably not celebrated with lambs and unleavened bread because they are outside of Jerusalem.
After edict of Cyrus the Persian and Jewish return to Jerusalem (538BC): After the second Temple was rebuilt, Passover resumed. Priests sacrificed lambs and the people would eat at the Temple grounds after roasting. People would eat unleavened bread for 7 days afterwards. It was possible to have everyone eat at the Temple because of the small Jewish population at that time.
After Hasmonean Reform (165BC): Head of households sacrificed their lambs at the Temple. Drinking wine and singing the Hallel praise songs were introduced. Eating still took place at Temple grounds followed by 7 days of unleavened bread.
After Herod the Great (37BC): Because there were too many people to have everyone eat in the Temple area, the laws were relaxed so they could sacrifice at the Temple but eat the meal anywhere in Jerusalem. This would have been the era where Jesus celebrated his Passovers and also the Last Supper. Christian transformation of Passover comes with the Last Supper which celebrates the Eucharist as the New Passover commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection and beginning the New Creation. This is celebrated weekly on Sundays and commemorates freedom from sin and death while bringing his people to the Father and the Kingdom through him.
After destruction of Temple (70AD): When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Passover needed to be revised according to the post Temple reality and the newer rabbinical reformulation of the faith. The Passover Seder meal is reformulated under Rabbis Gameliel II and Johanan as it is mostly celebrated by Jews today.
The Dodge Commercial and Leviticus:
I actually watched the Super Bowl this year. It was a good game. Because of my former “marketing” studies, though, I couldn’t help but analyze the commercials. This also led me to think about some themes that have been surfacing while I’ve been doing my slow read through Leviticus. Well, here’s what I came up with:
During the Super Bowl there was a Dodge commercial that quoted Martin Luther King talking about servant leadership. MLK was simply repeating Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership (see Matthew 20:20 or Mark 10:35). I wonder why Dodge didn’t just go to the original source and quote Jesus??? Well, anyway, let’s see what Dodge said about what Martin Luther King said about what Jesus said: “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
If you want to know what Martin Luther King was getting at, he wasn’t saying “buy a truck so you can help people move!” He was quoting Jesus’ teaching. For that matter, Jesus probably wasn’t too worried about trying to bring trucks into the African American and lefter-leaning sales demographic either. It’s about Godly service. So, how are we to understand Godly service? I could just say look at the sacrificial nature of Jesus who gives of himself totally in self sacrificial love. But, I want to go back to earlier sacrifices that set the stage? I also want to reflect on the connection of these early sacrifices to priesthood and ordination and more specifically what we priests are called to (just a simple “how it relates to me” thing). Finally, I want to give a quick lived out example of a priest who simply follows this call with probably no recognition that he is even doing anything so noble as being a servant leader. So, let’s go to Leviticus…
Ordination in Leviticus literally means to “fill the hands”. That’s because “the hands” are used to receive the food for sacrifice, are what offer sacrifice, and are what God uses to give back the priest’s portion. When a priest “elevates” an offering, the gesture in that time expresses a total giving over of ownership. Sacrificial giving is letting go completely of what is given with no expectation, strings, or residual claims being made. It is a completely generous gesture and action. In Leviticus 10, two of Aaron’s sons (Nadab and Abihu) just finished the 7 days of ordination only to both be killed by God because they offered incense that wasn’t required. They wanted God to miraculously light their own personal incense pans. It might seem harsh, but the lesson is clear. It wasn’t just their super piety that God was angry at, but that they were being selfish while “offering” sacrifice. They were the newly ordained priests after all! Shouldn’t they have special treatment? God should light their incense special – just for them! It also shows that instead of worshipping, they were trying to harness and control God rather than serve and follow him.
I was applying this principle of the Levitical priesthood to the priesthood of Jesus. Priests are to give and receive in a like manner. Primarily, this is applied to the Word (that is received and given) and the Eucharist (which is received and given) at the sacrifice of the Mass. Giving and receiving is a repeated pattern in worship. For example, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist: God gives us wheat and grapes, we make bread and wine and offer it to God, God gives us Jesus in His body and blood, we “lift up” Jesus to the Father in the Spirit during the Eucharistic prayer, God gives us the risen Jesus in communion, we offer the risen Jesus to the world after the dismissal. In other words, giving and receiving are both required. It means that if priests don’t know how to give (“lift up”), they are only living out one half of the priesthood – the receiving half – and are acting like Aaron’s sons. By extension, if priests don’t know how to be generous with what God gives them (for example with their own stewardship and tithing), they aren’t living the reality of the sacrificial system. Worse yet, if priests act like princes on parade that deserve to be spoiled by the people because they offer the Mass, they are demonstrating a clericalism that is far removed from the intention of the sacrificial system, the example and teaching of Jesus, and what MLK echoes in his preaching.
I find it ironic that priests who can obsess about the intricate details of the Mass can be the same ones that are most likely to be parasites with their people and the least generous with what they have been given by God and their people. I also find it heartening that most priests naturally follow God’s sacrificial system almost subconsciously. They are like the righteous of Matthew 25 who didn’t even realize they were following the way of the master. It is simply second nature. Let me give you an example of this: This last weekend we had first reconciliation at St. James and more kids than our vicariate priests could reasonably cover. I asked Monsignor Moys, a retired priest who continues to work full time, if he could help us out and he graciously agreed to come. Monsignor Moys drove an hour, interrupted his already packed Saturday schedule, and cut into his own parish fundraiser in order to come. I planned to pay him for his mileage and give him a stipend for coming but, before I could offer, he specifically insisted that I not pay him anything for coming. The golden boys of priesthood would never preemptively refuse money and even lose money (mileage, time, parish fundraiser) to attend. Instead, they would think it was owed to them and wouldn’t be grateful in the least. Monsignor Moys is a witness of the best of God’s sacrificial system in action. This underlies not only priesthood but Christian service. This is what MLK, Jesus, and Dodge were talking about all along. Well, at least MLK and Jesus.
Migraines and Marriage:
This last weekend I was invited to witness the marriage of Matt and Sarah. I have known Sarah and her family for more than 15 years and I was honored to be able to celebrate this day. I prepared and went down to Coos Bay for the wedding. It was great seeing the family again and spending time with them before the wedding. Unfortunately, at the exact moment that the wedding was starting I got a migraine headache. What you might not know is that I can get bad migraines even though I very rarely get them. I have had two in the last year. When I do get them, they are entirely random, have no known triggers, and I become almost totally incapacitated. I can’t see without blind spots, I can’t think and articulate speech, and I can’t even do some of the most basic things I usually take for granted like reading, remembering names, and basic thought. This initial period of time is called an “aura” and usually lasts about a half hour. I have pills that help, but if I am getting the first part of a bad aura, the best I can hope for is that I will be slightly less dysfunctional.
The wedding started at 2:00 pm and the migraine began EXACTLY at 2:00 pm. It could not be worse timing. I was angry and frustrated and felt helpless to change the situation. Luckily Fr. Robert Wolf was also present although he had just had a bad fall. His foot was in a boot and his wrist was in a cast. I warned him about what was happening and told him I might need him to take over. I was stumbling through the introductions, readings, homily, and vows. Finally I asked Fr. Wolf to take over. We must have looked like a comedy routine. One priest who couldn’t think and another who looked like he got in a bar fight! I can’t tell you how frustrating this was. Many of these people I haven’t seen in years and I really wanted to connect with everyone and help Matt and Sarah to have a great experience. I also knew I wouldn’t be able to remember the names of people I knew nor talk to people after the wedding like I wanted to. One thing was completely apparent. None of this was in my hands. In fact, it was a reminder to me that as much as I would like to think that I am in control, ultimately I am always one small event away from helpless.
At the time I had no idea why God would have allowed such terrible timing. Why did I not get the migraine just two hours later? This one began at 2pm exactly! What was important that day was not me but Sarah and Matt. In the end they were married and I’m sure God will bless their marriage. Somehow they will be more blessed because of it and in the big scheme of things it isn’t really that big of a deal.
After the marriage ended I decided to write out my homily that I would have given. When I am extemporaneous I will add humorous inclusions and draw it out. This written homily will just be the core of what I wanted to say. I am mailing the letter below to Matt and Sarah for them to read and ponder. In the meantime I will pray for them and all married couples so that God will bless them as he wills. His blessings don’t always match up with the way we would want it or plan it, but it is in the unplanned that he often works best. So, here’s the homily:
Homily on the Occasion of Marriage
Matt and Sarah Cuneo
July 29, 2017
Matt and Sarah chose the first reading from the Song of Songs. This is an ancient Jewish love poem that predates Jesus by hundreds of years. This book is unique. It describes in poetic language the attraction, the searching for, the finding, and the fulfillment of having and holding their beloved. It is almost like a game of hide and seek but with eternal rewards when they win. The language doesn’t fit our modern love metaphors, but the story is beautiful as it describes how they find their home and fulfillment in one another as well as being caught up in intimate relationship with their God and within his creation. This is the story of Matt and Sarah.
This Sunday’s readings are similar. Jesus gives two parables. One is a treasure that, once found, a man sells all that he has so he can possess it. The next is a pearl that a man was searching for all his life. Once he finds it he sells all he has so he can possess it. The wonderful thing about these parables is that the goal is not to use the treasure or the pearl to possess other things or to live in a wealthy manner. The goal is to simply have and hold that which was always sought after and that which brings ultimate satisfaction and completion. They found what their hearts were always looking for.
Today Matt and Sarah are coming together in the sacrament of marriage. They are promising to themselves and to everyone that they have found that pearl and treasure (and stag and dove) in each other. Their search and their longing have been fulfilled. But let’s also learn the lesson from the poem and the parables. The goal is not to suck the life out of the other but to cherish the entirety of who the other is, encourage the other to become fully who they were created to be, and explore the richness of the gift of the other for the rest of their lives. The question is not, “How can Sarah make me happy?” Or “How can Matt make me happy?” The question will always be, “How do I appreciate, allow to come fully alive, explore the richness of, and preserve this great gift I have been given by God’s love and generosity. The good news is that you have the rest of your lives to do just that.
The second reading simply says that God “lives in us and his love is made complete in us”. This continues the theme of the first reading. Matt and Sarah, you are not alone in your love. God has planted it in your hearts and he is there with you. Depend on him and see him as the essential character of your poem, treasure, and pearl. Continue to explore how his infinite love can help your love to grow always infinitely deeper. Look to him and his Son as your example of love. Jesus didn’t just come down to preach and then disappear. His goal wasn’t to be served, but to serve and give his life for his beloved people. This is the model for you as well. Ask, “How can I live so that my love, marriage, and faith will be strengthened each day?” Make it a point to reject any barrier or distraction that takes you away from that goal and seek and foster the support you will need from each other, your God, your family and friends, and all those who will move you towards it. You both have wonderful families and friends. They are God’s gift to you as well.
There is one last area that I need to discuss. The Beatitudes in today’s Gospel simply describe the lived out expression and experience of a properly ordered love. Your marriage is not all about you both. It is intended to be a gift of service to God and others. Fortunately, you already are generous and kind people. Your work and vocations are signs of that. It also shows in how you treat your families and bring them together. The spirit of this group supporting you today is no accident. You have helped to bring them together and care for them. God will continue to put opportunities before you where your love can overflow to those in need around you including many you won’t even know you touched. This is the missionary aspect of marriage and you both are in a great position to respond to that calling in your married life.
Finally, I am so proud and happy for you both. I am honored to be here as is everyone here. I want nothing more than for you to have an incredible marriage with blessings beyond imagination. I am not so naïve to think that it will just happen by accident. It will take a lot of hard work and dedication. But I can also see that you both have the desire, tools, and us – your most wonderful friends – to be with you and support you in it all. May God bless you and lead you always as you enter more deeply into the poem that was started long ago. May God bring this hope to completion in you so that you may find that ultimate fulfillment together with your God, your family, and your friends. And now, if you both are ready to enter into this reality, I would like to invite you forward to profess your promises before God, his Church, and your friends and family together with you…
A Different Path for Immigration?
For years I have been saying something that hopefully my parishioners will find familiar. Our starting point for our morals and values – and therefore our actions – comes not from our political affiliation but from the Gospel message of Jesus. Our real affiliation is not found in a political party but in our identity as sons or daughters of God. When we ground ourselves in something greater than the prepackaged deals of the two dominant political parties we are able to see the truth and the deficiencies of both. When we are grounded in the unchanging truth of Jesus’ words and actions we will find a voice that will affirm what is true and beneficial and challenge what is inaccurate and destructive. More importantly, when we ground ourselves in Jesus’ words and actions we become more concerned with people than ideologies and we are less likely to let agendas, trends, and political movements guide us rather than faith and reason.
This week I have been reflecting on various scripture passages that speak about a human response that transcends our current political discourse. St. James says to “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you” and “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” and “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The point is simple. St. James is saying that our religious practice needs to be concerned with the poor, powerless, and vulnerable regardless of whatever the “world” might say. In other words, the human factor takes precedence over ideologies and politics.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about how easily we can disregard God’s ways while at the same time cling to merely human inventions and ideologies. He further says that ultimately our actions start from within our hearts rather than from what is imposed on us from the outside. Therefore, Jesus is saying that our hearts should be grounded in and formed by God’s ways and our actions should reflect that.
There are many ways to apply this and I encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to scroll down to the bottom of this blog and read “Knowing and Affirming Gospel Values”. For now, I will assume your familiarity with it because I need to get to the point: I have heard an increasingly aggressive rhetoric concerning immigration and an unwillingness to ask what our faith might have to say about it. Often times the aggression is directed against Hispanics in general and more often than not it is approached in political terms while ignoring the human component. Finally, there seems to be an underlying assumption that it is purely political and there are no Gospel values to apply to this issue. I think we can do better by working together to find a realistic solution that incorporates the wisdom of faith applied in a practical manner. I also think our faith has some important teachings that should not be ignored if we hope to move toward these goals.
What does our faith tell us about immigration?
The Bible is full of stories of migration and the ongoing challenge of countries who receive them to treat them justly and humanely. Abraham moved into Canaan (Israel) and his ancestors moved into Egypt where they later became enslaved. Then, with Moses, they moved back into Canaan. The Israelites were forcibly moved by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Finally, in the Persian Period, Israelites moved back home again. Even Joseph and Mary moved to Egypt for a while to escape the hardship and persecution of Herod.
Israel, remembering how they were treated in their history, was commanded by God to be especially concerned with being just and generous to the immigrant, the refugee, and the helpless. God and the prophets told Israel to “have the same love for the alien as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Jesus spoke of love and care for the stranger, the weak, and the vulnerable as an aspect of how we will be judged: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). St. Paul reminds us that as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, we are one in faith and equal before God. Again, our common humanity supersedes other lesser differences.
What we see above is a simple and consistent teaching. Any law, policy, or ideology that pertains to immigration should be rooted in love and compassion for the people who are migrating. This is simply because of the inherent dignity they hold as human persons and it is a straight forward and clear Gospel value. We can debate on how to carry that out in the best and most practical way, but our actions should clearly reflect compassion, care, and welcome. In addition, Catholic Social Teaching (that comes to us through Church documents as well as longstanding teaching) takes these general norms and makes them more specific. They can be summed up in three ways: 1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. 2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. 3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.
Looking at these three principles listed above, it might seem that they can conflict with each other, but the teaching is intended to be harmonious. It all goes back to the question of how we best manage the situation based on what is possible. The US cannot just open up its doors and permit the whole world to crash the border in a free for all. At the same time, we are called to do what is reasonable to receive those who can migrate to the best of our ability. Then, when they do come, we are challenged by our God to receive them with compassion as brothers and sisters.
Some practical concerns:
Immigration laws have changed over the centuries to accommodate the plight of the immigrant as well as the wellbeing of the country. Our current laws are based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. At the time it had support of both political parties but, as partisan politics became more divisive, adaptations of the law have not been made. There were moments such as the executive orders of Presidents Reagan and Obama, but in general no meaningful changes have occurred.
It is no secret that the US has a high number of emigrants that did not enter through legal channels. A Pew Research poll as well as most others estimates put the number at about 11 million. Of that number, about 80 percent of their children were born in the US and are (from the Constitution) considered US citizens. Many of the children don’t know the culture or the language of their parents and many of the parents have lived in the US for years or decades. Of the 11 million, 8 million are working and make up 5% of the US labor force.
My point in the brief description above is that there are serious sociological, economical, and demographical considerations. The overly simplistic, “If they are illegal send them home” is not practical, beneficial, or moral. The impact on millions of families not to mention the economic concerns tell us that there has to be a better solution. Our current political polarization isn’t serving the country or the immigrants well. I think we need to be realistic and look at problem solving rather than picking a party position to dig our heals into.
In my experience as a priest I am with immigrants in many ways. I have come to know them and love them over the years and have a father’s protective care for them. I have seen them shipped to Mexico while the rest of their family stays behind trying to survive. I have seen them fired without recourse because they needed to be replaced with a new batch of low wage workers. I have seen them discriminated against by renters and people with power over them. I have seen them abused and manipulated. I have also seen their faith, character, and strength. I have seen their love and their devotion and their desire to become good members of society. Finally, I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ and equal to me in dignity before God.
I realize this is a difficult task but we need a more positive approach. I go back to the three tenets that I listed before: 1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. 2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. 3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. Maybe this can be a starting point along with the Biblical call to welcome and care for the immigrant with justice and compassion. Perhaps we can find a better way to control the boarder, have a realistic path to citizenship for those who are here and those who wish to come, and a way to manage immigration in a just and humane way moving forward. It won’t be easy but I know that realistic solutions are possible. How can we find a reasonable solution while at the same time following the Gospel concerns for people and especially the stranger, the weak, and the most vulnerable as Jesus asks? That is the Christian answer. Perhaps we can do our part to persuade politicians that there is a third and better approach.
A Written Summary of the Christmas Homily:
Christmas 2016 – Come let us adore him: Christ the Baby!
Last week in McMinnville we had snow. I was in the church office when it started coming down pretty heavily. I went home and got settled in for the evening. I looked out the front window and admired the snow and the landscape. It was beautiful and peaceful. Everything was covered in white. I felt a bit of nostalgia and that sentimental feeling that can come from admiring the beauty of a first snow. Then the thought struck me that I had about an hour before the sun would set. I could go out in it and experience it on a fuller level. So I put on my jacket, gloves, boots, and hat and set out walking through the park. It was nice. I felt the snow creaking beneath my feet, the cold and wet wind on my face, the quietness of snow that absorbed sound, the creeks that were frozen in parts, and the stillness of the trees. I’m glad I left the house and set out to experience the snowy day on a deeper level. Later I thought about the difference between gazing at something through a window and experiencing the reality of something first hand.
During Christmas, there is a common feature called a manger scene. It is something we take for granted but I guess that the majority don’t know its history. St. Francis started manger scenes in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. He was concerned that people were becoming overly sentimentalized and materialistic around Christmas. He brought in animals, straw, and tangible representations of the birth of Jesus so people could more easily be drawn in to the reality of Christmas beyond the sentimentality of a cultural Christmas. It worked. From that point on manger scenes became a mainstay of Christmas celebrations. Unfortunately, the reason for St. Francis’ manger scene never went away.
In 2016 we have many traditions. Decorating the house, visiting family, exchanging gifts, taking time off, trying to be more generous, and listening to Christmas carols are some examples. The danger we have is that it is easy to overly romanticize, sentimentalize, and make it into something that is less than its reality. All of these traditions are good, but if we make this our full experience, we are settling for too little. We are standing behind the glass staring at the snow without experiencing the fullness of what Christmas has to offer.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have the nativity narratives. They describe the story in historical and theological detail. Often overlooked is John’s Gospel’s description of Christmas. It is very short: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” I love John’s description because it gets to the heart of what Christmas is. John helps us to enter into the reality rather than keep it at a safe and sanitized distance.
Why is Jesus called the “Word”? There are many reasons. The first chapter of the book of Hebrews sums it up well: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son.” Jesus is the “Word” because he speaks to us. Think about how we know people. Isn’t it because of words more than anything? Let me give you an example. When I was a young child I used to play a game where I would make up a story around someone. I imagined who they were and what they did. There was one young woman who I saw quite a bit but never spoke to. I called her, “Mrs. Gillenputty.” That wasn’t her name but that’s what I called her. I imagined she was married, was a teacher, had a couple kids, etc. All I really knew was that she was a slightly tall woman who had brown hair and wore glasses. Why didn’t I know more? Because we didn’t actually talk. She didn’t have the time to reveal who she was.
The Good News is that God chose to reveal himself using words. If he hadn’t, we could know some things about him. We would know he created us, that he existed, and that we depend on him. We would never know who he really is though. We would be constantly looking at him through a window trapped in our own experience and making up a reality in our head. Once God chose to speak to us, there can be a new reality. Through his Word he is inviting us to experience that reality. You see, it is not enough that we know about God. He wants us to know him. It is not enough that we have sentimental feelings and mystical moments and call that “spirituality”. He wants us to know and be connected to the real and true God. And we see this in the person of Jesus who reveals himself to us. Too many are trapped by seeking God through a window. They try to prove him rationally and keep him in the head or experience him without his revelation in some romantic or sentimentalized feeling. If we want to get outside and experience God first hand, we need to turn to the Word who is God revealed.
The great thing about Jesus is once we allow him to speak to us by saturating ourselves in his word (The Bible), ponder his teachings, actions, claims, and the testimony about him, we see a life that is like no other life in history. It is no accident that at Mass we are called to enter into this life by a combination of hearing the Scriptures and experiencing his real presence in the Eucharist. This is where we experience the fullness of the Word made flesh. So as we come and approach Christmas this is our point of reference.
Now, let’s look at that first Christmas again through fresh eyes. Why did Jesus come to us as a baby? Pope Francis was speaking to the curia this week. The curia are the cardinals and particular clergy that work for the Church in the Vatican. He called them to reform but he also called them to consider the words of Pope Paul VI. I’ll put their words below:
“God could have come wrapped in glory, splendor, light and power, to instill fear, to make us rub our eyes in amazement. But instead he came as the smallest, the frailest and weakest of beings. Why? So that no one would be ashamed to approach him, so that no one would be afraid, so that all would be close to him and draw near him, so that there would be no distance between us and him. God made the effort to plunge, to dive deep within us, so that each of us, each of you, could speak intimately with him, trust him, draw near him and realize that he thinks of you and loves you… He loves you! Think about what this means! If you understand this, if you remember what I am saying, you will have understood the whole of Christianity. God chose to be born a tiny child because he wanted to be loved.”
Again. Jesus doesn’t want us to know about him. He wants us to know him. To pick him up and hold him in our arms close to our heart.
The second part of John’s sentence is that the Word “dwelt among us.” The literal translation from the Greek says that God “pitched his tent among us.” Too many push God away and keep him at a distance. Too many, because they don’t know any better, assume that God is distant and detached from our experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has made himself close to us. He knows what it is to be human. He can relate to our poverty. He knows what it is to be born into a family. He knows what it is to be uprooted and move. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood, rejected, and betrayed. He knows work and he knows our human experience. He is a God who not only cares, but cares enough to humble himself in such a radical way.
There is one more detail about the Christmas story I would like to mention. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The name, Bethlehem, means “House of Bread”. That manger that Jesus was born in was not a baby crib. It was a hewed out rock that was used as a feeding trough for animals. This is deliberate as well. He shows that he was born and gives himself to us completely even to his very life. He is the Bread of Life and food for us all. If we feed on him we will have joy that the world cannot give. If we feed on him we will have what we truly crave and will be filled. It also is a sign to us of what we are called to do as a Church for others. As Jesus feeds us, we have a calling to offer his gifts freely to others. Our faith is not about what God gives us, it is about investing in him and his plan to bring all the world into one in him. He feeds us so we can feed the world and he can work through us as his Church. This is how the birth of Jesus dwells among us, becomes real, and is not just a sentimental thought that remains in the past and really doesn’t change us. It is a reality that changes everything. The first snow, St. Francis, and Pope Francis all remind us that we need to enter into Christmas and experience it for what it truly is. How? I have five simple suggestions but you can add to them as well:
1. Honor life – unborn, babies, elderly, even bad drivers – make it a habit to try to see everyone as God sees them.
2. Pray every day. Maybe just 5 minutes a day to start. Tell Jesus what’s going on in your life. Listen to him in your heart. Add more time as you grow more comfortable praying.
3. Participate in the Mass and in the sacraments – It was Jesus idea to have us connected and growing in faith together in the church. Come back weekly so we can grow together in knowing Jesus.
4. Read about Jesus in the Bible and in the Gospels. This year we will spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Matthew. For example, if you read just a chapter a day, it will only take a month. This is not hard and we can do better than a chapter a day. As you read ask, “Who are you really, Jesus? Speak to me!”
5. Finally, do one simple thing for Jesus each day. I noticed that in my confessions I have been giving a lot of the same penances: Pray for your family. Do something kind for a family member, but do it for Jesus and because of your love for him. Doing acts of love and service for Jesus can only help us to know why he did what he did for us and demonstrates our love for him.
Today we celebrate Christmas and it is a time to rejoice. The Lord of the universe was born for us as a baby. Do what you need to do to make it real. This is not just some sentimental and sappy story. It is a reality that is meant to change us forever.
Let’s hear again what was proclaimed in today’s Gospel and bring it home:
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy;
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David;
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes;
and lying in a manger.”
Does Prayer Work? How Does Prayer Change Things? What About Evil?
Prayer does a few things: It connects us with our God, it prompts God’s intercession to act in some way, and it helps us to know and accept God’s will in our own lives. Prayers are answered in a few different ways: 1. Yes. 2. Yes, but later. 3. I need to do something differently. Sometimes prayer is applied in ways we don’t see or even know about. For example, When the Holy Spirit prompts an assassin to not kill and he changes his mind, no one would know that prayer worked. When God softens the hearts of people and forgiveness is given and revenge isn’t sought, no one would know. When God works through the natural laws of nature, those acts can easily go unnoticed. When God works beyond the laws of nature (supernatural miracles for example) even those can be undetected or excused away. The point is that God does act and enters into the world but it can easily go undetected, especially to those blind to God’s action or those who are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge God’s presence. To those of us who have experienced God’s action and miracles because of prayer, however, its effects are obvious.
The biggest issue is free will. God acts in a way where free will is respected. No one is forced to choose good. For example, if I want to do some evil act, I can even if it is against God’s will. Our gift of free will is so valuable that the evil that may come from it is a necessary consequence. Why that is the case is another point, but it is the case. If God prevented all evil from happening there would be no choosing good or choosing God. God respects our free will to choose good and choose him, and as a consequence, bad things will happen by those who choose evil.
There is the additional question of natural disasters. Why didn’t God create the world in a way that bad things never happened? Well, it’s tied to what is necessary for life to exist in the way that human beings came to exist. For example, a molten earth’s core and tectonic plates are necessary to move continents and continents are necessary so that life would have developed where human beings can exist. Earthquakes happen due to the movement of continents. So in a way there are side effects to our life here on earth. The Bible and our faith address this by including the fact that the world is not quite what it should be. That’s an effect of sin (Adam and Eve’s sin) entering the world. So you have a combination of bad things being a consequence of 1. free will and sin and 2. what is necessary for our life to exist.
That being said, only God has a real answer for making things right. Jesus’ death and resurrection says that even a tragedy like death can be corrected. Also, in the end there will be a “New Heavens and New Earth” where all of creation will be perfected and there will no longer be sin or death (thus no bad things). In the meantime, we can enter into God’s positive answer now by praying and living according to his will. Prayer and Gospel action bring about his solution one way or another. If not in this life, then in the next. Prayer and Godly living move the world closer to the ultimate solution that God will bring about and helps us to enter into that reality even here on earth. Think about it. Without God, prayer, and action, there is no answer but only a world that has constant random evil. With prayer, action, and God there is a positive answer in this life and in the next – and ultimately at the end of time, when Jesus brings all things onto himself, there is a New Heavens and New Earth.
Prayer works because it plugs us into God’s Kingdom where he is and acts even if we don’t always see it. Prayer moves us to a perfection that only God can accomplish. Prayer also helps us to know how to act within the Gospel message of Jesus. The combination of prayer and action is our partnership with God’s plan to overcome what we naturally detest. Jesus’ death and resurrection show us the plan and bring us into that Kingdom. The caveat is that free will and the necessary consequences of our life on earth are preserved in the meantime. The real question is not “why” there is suffering and evil. The real question is whether we are willing to do something about it by prayer and living the Gospel message of Jesus so our God can do what he wants to do.
Fr. Kapaun’s Story for Veteran’s Day Weekend
In 2013 Fr. Emil Kapaun received the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice and service as a US Army Chaplin from 1944 to 1951 where he died as a Prisoner of War. His story is a great witness to his serving his God and Country. He is being considered for sainthood as well as his many awards including the Medal of Honor, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, and Combat Infantryman Badge. Here is the official citation as he received the Medal of Honor Citation:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, while assigned to Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism, patriotism, and selfless service between Nov. 1-2, 1950. During the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment. As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950. After he was captured, Kapaun and other prisoners were marched for several days northward toward prisoner-of-war camps. During the march Kapaun led by example in caring for injured Soldiers, refusing to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded while encouraging others to do their part. Once inside the dismal prison camps, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments. When the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the instructors. Later, Kapaun openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951. When Kapaun began to suffer from the physical toll of his captivity, the Chinese transferred him to a filthy, unheated hospital where he died alone. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith. Chaplain Kapaun died in captivity on May 23, 1951. Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and country. His actions reflect the utmost credit upon him, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.
Knowing and Affirming Gospel Values
I have been talking a lot about basing our decisions and grounding our lives in the Gospel. I began to think about how someone might understand that and realized that I needed to explain a little more about the process to help that to come about. It seems to me that more and more, Christians are being told to keep their faith to themselves and if something is of faith that it has no value to society as a whole. I strongly disagree with this assessment and strongly believe that the Gospel is something that adds life and joy not only to us but also to society as a whole. That being said, what is the Gospel and how can we know we have the true Gospel? What steps can we take so that we foster Gospel values in our own lives? How do we balance those elements of our faith so that we don’t force dogmatic beliefs on others yet we do unleash the Good News of the Gospel so that it can have a positive effect on our society? These are all good questions and they are worth exploring. It is my hope that this reflection (about six pages) will be a help to at least get you started so that you will find the positive and life giving aspects of the Gospel and the values and morals contained within as something that will give life to you and those around you.
Click Here to read “The Process of Affirming Gospel Values”