Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Test of Faith? So close to Christmas?

On Friday, I was supposed to drive to Nevada around 8:30, load the St. Thomas Christmas tree in the back of my truck, take it back to St. Thomas by 9:00 in order to meet several members of the Knights of Columbus who were supposed to help set up the tree before the decorators arrived. That was what was supposed to happen. Instead, I got a call at 9:10 asking if I had already picked up the tree. I immediately did a quick inhale, spoke a few choice words, and walked down to church in order to explain that I had, in fact, not picked up the tree yet because I had forgotten. After my profoundest apologies, three of us jumped into my truck and headed to Nevada, hoping to be just a half hour or so later than expected. We found the right address and eventually found a way into the house from a neighbor and found ourselves staring at a 20 foot long Christmas tree. We looked at it and then looked at my 8 foot long truck bed and realized something simply wasn’t going to work. After several different possible scenarios, we decided to call around to borrow a trailer from a St. Thomas Parishioner. Finally, at 11:30, just two and a half hours later than expected, the 20 foot tall St. Thomas Tree arrived at the entrance. It took a half-hour to set up and has been termed the Santa Tree by some because the top leans toward the wall, making it appear like a jolly old fat man. In the intervening two and a half hours, I made phone calls trying to find the right house, trying to find someone to unlock the door, trying to find someone to move the tree for us, and trying to find extra people to help set up this mammoth tree; and I had to get a substitute for noon mass and reschedule an afternoon meeting in Cedar Rapids. And, as Friday was a very foggy, dark, and dreary day, I kept thinking that I wouldn’t nearly this miffed if we could just see the sun!

As I sat down to prepare this homily, I couldn’t help but think that this is a very appropriate experience to help us understand these readings, in particular the first and third. I mean, on the one hand there doesn’t appear to be a lot of connection between them. In the first reading, King Ahaz is ordered by God to ask God for something. His kingdom is about to be attacked by another kingdom, his people don’t trust him, and things are generally not going well for him. All he has to do is ask for one of these things to be alleviated. But pride gets in the way. He refuses to ask for any of it. Instead, he pretends to not want to tempt God by asking him for something. In truth, he simply lets his ego get in the way. Joseph, on the other hand, seems overly obedient. It doesn’t take an angelic or prophetic visit in order for Joseph to do what God wants. All it takes is for God to appear in a dream. Like the Joseph of old who interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh, this Joseph knows when God is talking to him and he responds by taking care of business. It is, therefore, clear that Ahaz and Joseph are two very different men with but one point of connection: They are two men who are, in some way, given a test of faith.

In just a day or two, we will, as a church, be singing those great Christmas songs that we have sung so many times. And, if you’re like me, you may have difficulty sympathizing with songs of “heavenly peace” and statements of “silent night.” We seem to hear messages that would indicate that life should be a lot simpler this time of year. How do we do all the work that goes into making Christmas special and still “let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven and nature sing?” Maybe we need to look to an even more profound type of peace than we are used to, a peace that demands a response on our part, a peace that fights against the lethargy and sloth usually associated with the term and demands that we open our hearts to be the vessels through which Christ is present. St. Teresa of Avila said it best, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

So, as we continue to prepare for the coming of Christ, our quest does not rest in the comfort of silent contemplation. We will find heavenly peace only when we are being God’s hands, feet, and heart for this world that longs to see the Son.

Explaining mystery with even more confusing mystery

I've been following some of the furor surrounding the movie The Golden Compass in order to understand it a little bit better. As usual, I refuse to give people that blatantly attack the Catholic Church and/or God money in order to see their movie or read their books. I know that means I have to rely on others to comment but, as a priest, I don't have enough time in a day to read what deserves to get read like encyclicals and good periodicals and such.

But, if what I'm reading is true, here's the premise of the Golden Compass. God is not the creator but was, instead, created from chaos. If my memory of ancient philosophy holds true, this is Heraclitus who believed all matter was fire and, thus, change. When other things were created, according to the Golden compass, God claimed to be their creator.

Now, this is interesting for two reasons: absence of proof and solving a problem by creating a larger problem. By absence of proof I mean that the person writing this isn't claiming to have a vision by a god/angel telling him or her what is happening. It's just a fairy tale to make children atheist, according to the author (or so I've heard). And, what about this makes any sense at all? So, the problem of a creator God is taken care of but the larger problem of human origins still need to be solved. It fails to answer the most basic question that haunts all atheists: why is there something rather than nothing. Why does the creating ooze exist? Accident? Coincidence? What role does God play if not creator? Bully? Management?

A good story leaves the listener/reader wanting further clarification. But it can't make a person just say, "Yeah, that could never happen." But it sounds to me like that's what I would do if I were to read these books. Thank goodness I still need to find time to read other books including this one before I even ponder reading the Golden Compass.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More communal penance...

I enjoy celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation with people. I really do. I admit that I get tired of these elaborate communal penance celebrations for just two or three people but I always walk away feeling like I have helped people be put right with God. It's always an amazing feeling to stand in the place of Christ, to be his voice, and tell people that their sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It's so tremendous! I often think of that simile that Jesus tells in which the man with a beam in his eye is exhorted to avoid judging the person with the splinter in his own. I sin. I have sinned. And I will sin (regretfully). I am not sitting in judgment. I am praising the God who forgives my sins just like they forgive the sins of the person coming to me seeking forgiveness and I praise the God who uses me to let these tax collectors and prostitutes know that they have been forgiven.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ukranian Rite and Maronite Rite Catholics

This past week, I had the joy of taking a group of students to Minneapolis to experience two eastern right Catholic liturgies. For more information on what that means, go here.

Both were incredibly beautiful. The first one was a Ukranian Catholic Church and the second a Maronite catholic church. The first was almost entirely in English with a few songs at the end in Ukranian. The second was in English, Arabic, and Aramaic. The chant at the second was just beautiful and reminded me of my time in Israel. The kids seemed very impressed and wanted to bring several things back.

"Wisdom! Let us be attentive"

censors with bells on them

"Depart catechumens! Catechumens depart! Depart catechumens...."