Sunday, December 25, 2016

CHRISTMAS - We Are Made For the Child

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

What is it about babies?  Why are we saw drawn to them?  I suppose not everyone is, but it seems that most people are instinctively moved by babies.  In saying this to you, perhaps you might verify these thoughts from your own experience – you have seen how people react to a baby.  This response is not only an adult response; children respond to babies as well.  I recently observed my 2 young nephews interact with another friend’s baby.  All other play came to a halt as they were transfixed by an infant.  Even babies respond to other babies, they are drawn to the face, the smile and the eyes of one who is so similar to them. 

Not too long ago I read an article that researched this question from a scientific perspective.  The article acknowledged that it was Charles Darwin who originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them which allows our species to survive. A zoologist further proposed that it is the specific structure of the infant face, large head, big eyes and cheeks that elicit a parental response. But a study from 8 years ago took this hypothesis a step further, finding a key difference in the brain activity of normal adults when they viewed infant faces compared to adult faces.  Their study showed that a region of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex (I guarantee you – no other Christmas homily is using the phrase "medial orbitofrontal cortex") becomes highly active within a seventh of a second in response to infant faces but not to adult faces.  The study determined that these responses are too fast to be consciously controlled and are therefore perhaps instinctive.  This study gives us the ability to acknowledge that we are biologically made to respond uniquely and positively to a baby.  -- I guess God knew what he was doing.

Is not our celebration of Christmas a faith expression of what may also be a biological reality?  We are made to respond to the child.

In a few moments we will profess our faith.  Together we will say…
He came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day.



As we gather to celebrate the birth of the Lord, we are professing that what we ultimately see on the cross, we see first in the manger. In the cross, the mystery of God’s plan for salvation is fully revealed; by his act of sacrificial love, granting us hope through the power of the resurrection.  In the manger we see a child who engages the instincts of our biology and our faith and from this very moment the world is transformed

The child is mystery.  No matter how much knowledge we have about biology, genetics and reproduction, a newborn child is a profound mystery.  We stare in amazement, because we can’t quite wrap our minds around the full mystery of the birth of a new life.  We need mystery in our lives, making us aware that there is something beyond what we see through eye and mind.  Mystery impels us to continue to seek, to wonder and to be filled with awe in the presence of God.  The child born in mystery sets us on the path of the mystery of our salvation.

The child is Love.  We love babies. We caress them and hold them, expressing the depth of our affections.  But children evoke in us a deeper love, a sacrificial love.  The baby needs the sacrifice of the sleepless nights of parents, who work two jobs to support him.  The sacrifices of time, energy and finances are just some of the ways in which the parent offers loving sacrifice.  The child in the manger needs the sacrificial love of parents and in so doing prepares the way for the sacrificial love that he offers of himself on the cross.

The child is hope.  We have big dreams for our children.  In them we the solution of world problems, joyfulness in the simplest of things, and a passion for knowledge.  A child gives hope to the generations that precede her, trusting that she will provide the care for them as they provided for her.  The child in the manger is the hope that God has not forgotten his people, that all is not lost and that sin and death ultimately have no power over us.


What begins in the manger, is fulfilled in the cross and his lived here on this altar whenever we celebrate the Holy Eucharist.  Through mystery, love and hope, the one born in a manger, the one who is raised from the dead, is the one whom we encounter today and every day in the Holy Eucharist.  We are made to respond to the child, who comes to us.  Let our innate desire for him, awake in us an awareness of his desire for us.  For he longs for us to embrace the mystery, love and hope of his presence, and so share in the building of His Kingdom.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 09, 2016

HOLINESS AND MISSION


Twenty years ago, on December 9, 1996, I received the Sacrament of Holy Orders for the first time when I was ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop John R. McGann, the second Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.  On the day of my ordination I wrote the following, in a journal I was keeping:
Everything is new.  All of life is different now.  God let me enter into this awe and wonder more and more.  Let me let go and experience the mystery of your presence.Thank you. I love you and love what you have done for me.  Thank you for this sacrament, this grace, this love.  Keep me from being jaded, arrogant.  Let me always be the servant that I am called to today.
It was good to read these words again today as I reflected on these twenty years.  They renew me in the fervor that I had and remind me of the mission I understood myself being called to by God. The sixth months between that day and my ordination to priesthood were an opportunity for me to "fall in love," with my identity as clergy - one who is ordained to serve.

It was with particular joy that on this the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Diaconate, Pope Francis announced his appointment of our new diocesan bishop, Bishop Joseph O. Barres. Bishop Barres episcopal motto is "Holiness and Mission," derived from a phrase from the final section of the encyclical Redemptoris Missio written by Pope Saint John Paul II.  In the document, His Holiness identified the Church’s missionary spirituality as "a journey towards holiness.”  In Bishop Barres appointment today I am reminded that my mission of service to the church is intimately tided to my own journey toward holiness.  

May I ask all who read this blog to pray that I may be faithful to his mission and that our new bishop will lead the church on Long Island to holiness through his own personal journey to holiness.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving LAFTR

Thanksgiving Homily 2016

“Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”

The Gospel passage just proclaimed tells us that, having been set free from the demons that has possessed him, the man implores he may be allowed to get into the boat and depart with Jesus.  But the Lord tells him to “go home to his family.”  In my mind I imagine him pleading with Jesus again – “Go home to my family?  Where do you think my demons came from?”  I imagine that some gathered here this morning, at Thanksgiving mass may be thinking the same thing as you anticipate the day ahead.

In seriousness though, there are legitimate questions here.  Why was the man’s initial instinct to get in the boat and follow the Lord; rather then return to family and friends?  Earlier in this chapter, St. Mark describes the gravity of this man’s possession:

The man had been dwelling among the tombs, and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain. In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains, but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the hillsides he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.

Because of his possession, this man’s humanity was no longer recognizable. His shame at what he had become may very well have removed any desire he had to face the family he once knew. In addition, wouldn’t it be hard for his family and friends to accept such a change?  Would he still be seen as the possessed one?  Such is the case in our own family dynamics.  Over the course of our lives, we change, for better and for worse.  We might have shame for past indiscretions and old wounds.  Further, while we may recognize growth and conversion in our lives, others may refuse to do so or be unable to see those changes.  Like the formally possessed man, our anxiety over others disbelief or lack of mercy is real and can keep us from sharing who we have become.

So why then does the Lord not let the man remain with him?  Most assuredly Jesus would have been aware of such fears, but this moment of healing happens for this man “and for many.” Who better to be a witness to the good God has done then one with whom we are familiar?  This man’s family and friends knew the depth of his possession, only they could appreciate the magnitude of the healing.  Jesus heals and sends them man back to his family so that he may be an evangelist; a bearer of good news and a cultivator of faith.  The man does as Jesus tells him and – all were amazed.  Or more literally from the Greek translation - they all marveled and wondered.  In simply telling the story of what happened to him, the man provoked within others a desire to know the work of God.

We give thanks today because as St. Paul says, Jesus Christ strengthens and considers us worthy to be his ministers. [1Timothy 1:12] The word that we give to the blessed sacrament we receive today is “Eucharist;” a Greek word meaning, thanksgiving.  By this Holy Eucharist we are strengthened so we can be bearers of the good the Lord has done for us.  Regrettably our instinct is to keep this thanksgiving private.  We recoil from the notion of evangelization and are particularly averse to considering ourselves one to our friends and family.  But Jesus kicks us out of the comfort of this boat and commands us, if we are truly thankful for what we receive in this Eucharist, to go back to our families and tell them all that the Lord has done for us.

So what am I asking us to consider today?  Am I asking you to approach the Thanksgiving table with a bible in one hand and the catechism in the other?  Probably not a good idea.  Your family might think you are as possessed as the man in the Gospel.  Let me show you a subtler way.  The first pastor I served with as a priest, liked to offer acronyms as a way of remembering his homily.  So let me offer you one to guide you today.  Using the first letter of words taken from this morning’s scriptures I offer you the acronym LAFTR, L-A-F-T-R, LAFTR

Love – In first reading the prophet Isaiah tells us, because of love, the Lord redeems.  We are called to tell love stories.  Not just tales of romance, but the ways in which love, or our passion for someone, or something, brought about change in our life.

Amazed – The people were amazed at the man’s story in the Gospel and therefore pondered this divine intervention.  What ability, talent, skill or act of kindness have you observed in someone or even yourself?  Find an opportunity to share your wonder and awe, allowing another to be aware of mystery that comes from the divine presence.

Faithful – In the second reading St. Paul tells us that God is faithful to us.  So often we tell the tales of infidelity.  We repeat gossip or relate how we’ve been wronged. A story of another’s faithfulness can counter that negative inclination and restore hope in the fidelity of God and those he sends into our lives.

Thanks While this one might seem obvious, remember how St. Paul begins that second reading, “I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.”  We can so quickly point out flaws in the other.  St. Paul give thanks for the gifts of God that he observes in the people.  In so doing he shows us how necessary it is to acknowledge the good we see in the other.  This is particularly important to offer to those who lack esteem and self-worth.

Recall – The passage from Isaiah begins with his commitment to recall the loving deeds and acts of God.  How many of our gatherings of family and friends devolve into the rehashing of old arguments or past mistakes?  Instead recall a shared memory of the good of your lives, the blessings you have encountered and the joy you have shared. Positive recollection transforms that inclination to dwell on the negatives of the past and instead establishes hope in remembering the good the Lord has done for us.

As you go back to your families today, in a moment when the attention turns to you or better yet, if you have the courage to initiate a conversation, interject some LAFTR - love, amazement, faith, thanks, recall - and be the thankful evangelist the Lord has called you to be.

In his proclamation that created the national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, amidst the Civil War, President Lincoln, asked the Almighty to heal the wounds of the nation & restore peace, harmony, tranquility & union.  It is with the very same desire that we go forth from the Lord’s Table today.  We need to be bearers of Good News at our Thanksgiving tables today.

A CNN poll has found that 53% of Americans dread the idea of talking about the Presidential election over dinner today.  There are also found numerous articles online suggesting topics other than the election to be discussed at family gatherings, so as to avoid strife.  There is a need for healing and not more animosity in our world.  So I pray that as a result of the strength we receive in this Holy Eucharist, this sacred thanksgiving; we may be grateful for the opportunity to go home to our families, enjoy the blessing of a meal shared and through LAFTR announce to all, the good the Lord has done in us.

Happy Thanksgiving.



Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 9 & 10


Our final day of touring on our Holy Land pilgrimage began at the Cenacle, also known as the Upper Room.  It honors the place of the Last Supper.  The building itself was also the location of a mosque and is all the place reverenced as the Tomb of David.  Today the place is a symbol of religious tolerencance and mutual respect.  How appropriate the at the place honoring the location of the institution of the Eucharist, there is a desire for oneness among the peoples who revere the place as holy.  I was honored to receive a beautiful chalice and patten from two of our pilgrims.  They presented it to me here at the first Eucharist.  Before departing we visited the place honored as the Tomb of the great king David.

From the Cenacle we took a few steps before entering the Monestary of the Dormition of Mary.  The upper church was cast with beautiful streaks of sunlight coming through the window.  It was in the lower church, however, that we felt closest to Our Blessed Mother.  The church represents the site of the home where Mary lived after the Resurrection of the Lord.  The depiction of her falling asleep at the time of her Assumption is quite peaceful.  There was also a beautiful mosaic depicting the Blessed Mother with the disciples at the Pentecost.  Before departing the chapel we honored our lady by singing the Hail Mary together.

We then walked a little further to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.  The church takes its name from the Latin word "Gallicantu", meaning cock's-crow. This is in commemoration of Peter's triple rejection of Jesus "... before the cock crows twice."  Located on the spot believed to have been the home of Caiphas the High priest, we were able to go down into the cistern where Jesus was likely held prisoner on the night before his trial before Pilate.

Our next stop of the day was the Jewish museum, where we not only were able to see portions of the dead sea scrolls, we had the opportunity to spend time at the massive outdoor model of Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of Herod the Great and Jesus.  The model really helped us to comprehend all that we had seen and all the places we had walked over the last few days.  It also gave us a deep appreciation for the remarkable abilty of the people of 2,000 years who built this marvelous city.

We then headed to the location of our final mass of the pilgrimage, the Church of the Visitation.  The climb up the hill was quite arduous, but well worth it.  It was truly a beautiful church and a fitting location for us to celebrate our final mass, marking this special week of "Visitation," which we shared together.  


Before boarding the bus for our final pilgrimage destination we visited the church marking the place of the birth of John the Baptist
Despite some heavy traffic we were able to visit our final pilgrimage destination.  Located on the ruins of a Byzintine era church, we concluded our pilgrimage at the spot venerated as place where the two disciples encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.  I felt this to be a fitting location for us to conclude the pilgrimage as it is my favorite resurrection appearence.  The structure of our celebration of mass is easily recognizable in the story as it is told.  And lastly I think it is an beautiful example of companionship on the journey. This companionship is what we experienced on our road of pilgrimage.

Our severly delayed flight home gave us a chance to visit the old city once more.  And so we said good night and farewell to Jerusalem, the Galilee region, the nation of Israel and the Holy Land.  We are so grateful for this grace filled journey and long for its seeds to bare fruit in our lives.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 8

We did not have any itinerary scheduled today and were free to make our own plans. Although we all made our way back to the Old City for a portion of the day, a few when off in different directions to explore other parts of Jerusalem.


The group I was with elected to walk the rampart of the North Wall of the Old City, with the Western Wall as our destination.  I imagined there would be a reasonable staircase for us to negotiate, followed by a nice easy stroll on the wall overlooking the city.  I was wrong, a winding circular stair case followed by a walk along the wall the mostly involved climbing and descending steep stairs.  Setting those challenges aside, it was quite amazing to walk upon the 1500 year old wall which did offer brilliant views and a different perspective on the Old City. 



Our rampart walk brought us to the Jewish Quarter near the entrance to the Western Wall, the last remnant of the 2nd century temple.  It was a perfect day to visit, as many young men were celebrating their Bar Mitzvah.  They were accompanied by family and friends, who sang, danced and played music along the way.  At the wall the young men carried the Torah Scroll for the first time. We met up with some of our other pilgrim friends who came as we did to witness the joyful celebrations and to offer our own prayers at the Western Wall







After some lunch, a little shopping and some strolling through the Old City at our own pace.  A few of us decided to return to the Church of Holy Sepulchre with the hope of getting closer to the chapels of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus.  No such luck the crowds were still quite large.  


Unfortunately we also experienced some of the scandal of a Holy Land pilgrimage.  While waiting on the line to the Tomb of the Lord, our group of 5 attempted to pass what we thought was simply a large group stopped to listen to their guide. No sooner did we get past the group, did their guide make his way over to us and began to yell at us, despite our efforts to explain our mistake, he continued to yell at us - in the holiest of Christian places.  One of our group attempted to speak to the man in Arabic, hoping to calm the situation with some familiarity. Unfortunately it did not calm him but only caused him to insult the man's Arabic heritage.  






This is an unfortunate part of pilgrimage.  Some are simply tourists with no appreciation for the sacred. I also want to share what followed.  As we made our way away from the guide and his group, I took our small cohort into an empty chapel, to pray and diffuse our emotions.  It was only after visiting the chapel that I researched where we were.  The chapel was called the Chapel of the Apparition of the Risen Jesus to his Mother. The chapel honors a well-established tradition that does not appear anywhere in the New Testament descriptions of the appearances of the risen Jesus but is an encounter that has been imagined and meditated upon for centuries.  I first experienced the notion of this apparition when I participated in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  I always found it to be a beautiful and intimate reflection, that the Lord and his mother would have this private encounter, following the resurrection.  Amidst the hurtful moment we experienced just feet from the Lord's tomb, I was so grateful that our Lady called us into this chapel to have this private encounter with her son.

Our final day of touring is tomorrow.  It is a full day that will conclude with us boarding our overnight flight for home.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Holy Land Blog Day 7

Today was an adventurous day, taking us across many millennium.  Our first stop of the day was Masada an ancient fortification in the situated on top of an isolated rock plateau, 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea, requiring cable cars for us to get to the site.


Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE. We were amazed to see what remains of the 2,000 year old compound, consisting of palaces, foot storage rooms, cisterns and Roman baths.  
We also learned about some other history, that for some Israeli's remains as a symbol of resistance to siege. In 66 CE, the Sicarii an extremist Jewish splinter group, took up residence on Masada.  In 73 CE, the Romans completed a ramp and tower, allowing them to breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram.  When the Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that community had set all the buildings ablaze and committed mass suicide or killed each other to avoid being taken as slaves themselves.

Our next stop of the day was the villages and caves of Qumran. The Essenes, a strict aesthetically Jewish community lived here some two thousand years ago as well. One of their major works was the writing of the Torah as well as other scriptural and historical texts.  Their texts were hidden away in the caves and only discovered in the last century.  The excavation site and the information we learned about this community and these historic scrolls was extremely fascinating.

We then enjoyed the once in a life time opportunity to "swim" or float in the Dead Sea itself.  The experience of floating gently atop the water and the invigorating sensations of the waters and mud on our skin was most certainly a highlight of the day.



Our last stop of the day was the biblical city of Bethany, in the present day, 
West Bank city of al-Eizariya.  Bethany was the home town of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead and his sisters Martha and Mary.  We had the opportunity to celebrate mass in one of the chapels of Lazarus Catholic church which marks the site of their home. 






Following the mass we visited the main church adorned with beautiful mosaics of scenes from Bethany and the sibling saints.






At the end of the day it was sadly time to say goodbye to some new friends who have been with our group since our arrival in Israel.  It was a great joy to welcome Carlos, Floriza and their friend Hazel to our pilgrimage family.  We wish them well and hope they will come see us back home.

Tomorrow is a free day for us to set off on our own before returning to one final day of itinerary.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Holy Land Day 6 - Jerusalem and Bethlehem


Our pilgrimage group.  In addition to the Holy Family travelers we have been joined by 3 new friends from Texas and NJ
Today we reached what I would consider the summit experience of our pilgrimage.  While we still have 3 days to go, our visit to the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today is without a doubt, the heart of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It was an emotional, spiritually moving and physically taxing day.  Everything a pilgrimage promises to be.
Olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane

Our day began atop the Mount of Olives, with its outstanding view of the entire Old City.  We recounted that it was from here that Jesus lamented over Jerusalem and prophesied its fall. We then made the steep walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane the sight of Jesus arrest.

Along the Via Dolorosa

We then made our way to the Old City entering through the Lion's Gate. We visited the site of the pools of Bethesda where Jesus healed the crippled man, and the Church of St. Anne, the traditional site of the Blessed Mother's place of birth.


We then made our way to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross.  We stopped at each station, shared a meditation and sang, "Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Walking the Way of the Cross was tougher then we expected, the crowds were thick and the streets narrow.  The way was also quite steep, it was not hard to imagine our Lord's struggle.

The interior of the Holy Sepulcher Dome

The way of the cross ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site in Christendom, because within it is the hill of crucifixion and the tomb of the Lord. Again the crowds were quite thick and the renovation projects quite extensive.  We took consolation in the truth that, "He has been raised; he is not here."



The Church of the Milk Grotto
After a stop for lunch and some shopping in Bethlehem, we had the opportunity to celebrate mass at the Church of Mary the Mother of God at the Milk Grotto.  The Milk Grotto is a traditional spot that marks the place the Holy Family departed from before their flight into Egypt.

The Grotto and birth site of Jesus
We then walked a very short distance to the very chaotic Basilica of the Nativity and adjoining Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine.  The crowds were even larger and there were weddings going on in both churches.  But through the assistance of a local guide we were able to visit the traditional sites of the stable and birth place of Jesus Christ.

It was an extraordinary day in which we were privileged to share.  We pray that the blessings of this day bear fruit in our lives.

Manger Square, Bethlehem





P.S. - Yesterday's day ended with a camel ride.  Today I got to climb aboard the vehicle Pope Francis used during his trip here in May of 2014.  

Keep praying for us - we are praying for you.