Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Feast of the Epiphany

“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

In addition to the Christmas albums of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and the Ray Conniff singers, I recall my Mom playing an album by Gregory Norbet and the Monks of the Western Priory. One of my favorite songs on that album was “Shepherds and Kings.” The refrain went as follows,

Shepherds and Kings,
following hopes and stars that take them
deep into the night.
How far have they come?
We should really know
for certainly everyone is a shepherd and king.

I thought of these lyrics as I read the opening paragraphs of Bishop William Murphy’s Pastoral letter, Belong More Deeply. Bishop Murphy uses the illustration of the Shepherd and the Magi as a way to describe those who come to the “the manger” of their parish church during the days of Christmas.

These two groups represent so many who are Catholics today. How blessed we are if we are among those who, like the shepherds, have come quickly to Jesus and regularly pay homage to Him by our active participation of mind and heart in the Sunday celebration of Mass. Yet we have also many of our brothers and sisters who are still searching for Him, may be longing to know Him better but, for one reason or other, they cannot find their way to the manger of Sunday Mass. Like the Magi they want to discover the newborn King in their lives and have already followed His star by baptism and some closeness to Jesus. But for many different reasons or circumstances, they are not with us at the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

Both the words of the refrain and Bishop Murphy’s reflection make us mindful that we are all seekers and searchers in the ways of our Catholic Faith. Whether we are actively engaged in the life of the church through faithful Sunday worship and participation in the church community or we seek to know, love and believe in Christ. Some of us are motivated by the blessings we have received and others are prompted by the tragedy or pain they endure. As we look around church on any given Sunday we have no idea how far each other have come and what obstacles still remain. What we do know is that we all seek Him who seeks us.

The secular celebration of Christmas ended a week ago and our marking of the New Year has passed as well. There is a great temptation to pack up and put away Christmas but that would be in great opposition to the journey we have been on. We have just arrived at the manger. With the Magi and the Shepherds we have found what we were looking for. We need to stay here in the moment with the Holy Family. If we run away now to go back to our ordinary and busy lives we will continue to wander and seek. The season of Christmas is given to us, so that we might understand that the one we seek is truly with us. Let us take the time to stop wandering and instead pray for the grace to rest in him.

There are times when we feel close to God and times we feel far off. We need look no further then the Eucharist that has brought us together abundantly at Christmas and unites us as one body each and every time we celebrate the holy sacrifice of the mass. We are shepherds and kings who have discovered our newborn King.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 2010

Do you believe it’s Christmas?  That is the question everyone seems to ask.  Can you believe that time has moved so quickly?  It seems as if summer was just yesterday.  We are a busy and thoroughly occupied people and so it makes sense, that events, such as Christmas, or birthdays, or deadlines or exams (for those of you home from college,) seem to catch us by surprise or at the very least, unprepared.  Despite us being caught off guard or running out of time, we are here, celebrating the birth of our Lord once again.  But I would like to stay with the question, “Do you believe it’s Christmas?” because by moving the words and punctuation marks around, we have another more important question that I hope can assist our prayer this Christmas.  Instead of asking ourselves, “Do you believe it’s Christmas?” I would like to ask you this, “It’s Christmas; do you believe?”  As we hear the words of sacred scripture recount the telling of the birth of the Messiah, we are asked the question, “Do you believe?”  As we look upon the scene in the manger, as did the shepherds, do you believe it?  As we approach the table of the Lord to receive Him in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, do you believe?”  As we sing and say the word, “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us,” do you believe it?”

Four weeks ago on the first weekend of Advent, a billboard was erected on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.  On the billboard was an illustration of the nativity scene and the words, "You Know It's a Myth: This Season Celebrate Reason." In response, another billboard was erected on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel.  It too had an illustration of the nativity scene but its wording said, “You Know It’s Real: This Season Celebrate Jesus."  While it should disturb us when our faith is attacked, like the first billboard does, the opposing messages also speak to a reality that we find ourselves caught up in.  What do we believe?  Why do we believe?  And even in our belief, can we believe more deeply?  Despite the doubts that we all struggle with, the sorrows we all face and the pain we endure, can you believe today, that the Messiah has been born to us?  Can you believe today, not because of your own reasoning and intellect but because of the faith that is within you?  Can you believe, because it is Christmas?  Because it is Christmas we see most clearly that God has entered the human experience and taken on flesh.  Can you believe because there is no more sacred a mystery than this very earthly and human mystery?  Can you believe because here before us today we celebrate that our God is not distant and above our struggle but here with us?  Can you, who have known your share of obstacles yesterday, believe today, because - today it is Christmas?

We are drawn to the manger, to the truth of the scriptures and to the sacrifice offered on the altar because we want to believe.  We want to believe that the promises of the scriptures were fulfilled.  And we want to believe that God is truly with us in our daily life, in our families and in the community of faith that comes together here.  No one of us would be here to worship and celebrate this Christmas, if we did not believe.  Among the many people that gather at our parish this Christmas, there are most assuredly different depths to belief.  Here today are people who attend mass every day as well as those whose participation in the Eucharist is infrequent.  No matter what our practice of faith is or how assured we find ourselves in that faith, we all long to believe more deeply in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born to Mary of Nazareth.  Because it is Christmas, our worship is enhanced with the beauty of environment and music.  Because it is Christmas, we gather in great numbers and see the Body of Christ alive and strong.  Because it is Christmas we are drawn into this particular and unique mystery that seems to go unnoticed on the ordinary day.  Can we believe, because it is Christmas today?  Yes we can.  We can because even though our hearts, minds and souls move us to be here, it is God who acts.  We can believe because it is Christmas, because Christmas is the celebration which acknowledges that God chooses us.  He breaks into our lives.  He comes to Mary and Joseph a deeply faithful couple, while at the same time revealing himself to the nomadic shepherds of no or little faith.

At Christmas we can believe because in taking on flesh, God teaches us what it means to be human.  Humans are weak, easily discouraged, lack the courage to face evil, and their survival is dependent on another – yet through humanity we are saved.  Its Christmas and we can believe not in spite of our humanity but because our humanity is where God chooses to dwell.  As we look on the manger and listed to sacred scripture we realize that there is nothing in authentic humanity that can keep us from believing.  Alienation, poverty, and ignorance are there before us and Christ dwells within it.  Never can we let our humanity be the reason we don’t believe, because it is in our humanity that we find Him.

Each of those who are assembled at the manger, had to answer the question, “Do you believe.”  Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds are advised to not be afraid and to believe that this could be. By the grace of God they came to believe and so too do we.  In his public ministry Jesus asked those who came before him to be healed, “Do you believe I can heal you.”  When they affirmed their belief, his response was, “your faith has saved you.”

Christmas is a time we cannot be afraid to examine what we believe.  Everything about this mystery seems impossible, yet we hear, that with God all things are possible.  Its Christmas, do you believe?  If we say yes, we seek to deepen that faith.  If we answer with uncertainly or doubt, we need to create a place for Him in the routine of our lives.  We need to clear away the temptations and the distractions.  We need to not let our humanity be reason for unbelief.  We must be willing to let go of fear.

Its Christmas and you and I are here because we do believe.  We believe because we have allowed at least of a part of our humanity to be open to Christ’s dwelling within us.  And we believe because he has chosen us to be his sacred dwelling place.

It’s Christmas and we believe it.  Merry Christmas.