Sunday, December 19, 2010

Joseph the Brave, Emmanuel the Christ

Faith is a dangerous thing, some might well contend.  Acting on conviction alone can get a person into trouble; when people do so they either prove themselves brave or foolish. 
So what if one acts on the conviction that the God of their salvation is present within he, or she?  On the conviction that with God’s help they themselves contribute to a plan of salvation that effects generations of people before and after them?  What if, one’s conviction about his or her vocation is based on a story that defies all logic, all scientific and philosophical reasoning?   
In the Nativity story, Joseph and Mary do brave and dangerous things -they act on faith.  Under no doubt stressful and frightening circumstances, and dealing with facts that are highly unlikely, the holy couple believe the unbelievable, and take up their vocation as mother and father of a new humanity.        
Upon learning that his fiancée is pregnant, Joseph responds as any noble man would– he plots to dismiss her.  Now that may sound funny to us, but in his day not so.  In ancient Judeo-Roman law, there were serious consequences on women (as well as men) who conceived children outside of wedlock.  If news got out that Mary was bearing the child of a local artisan or shopkeeper, for example, the penalty for her (and he) was no less than death. 
Now of course such was not the case, but it is hard to blame Joseph for presuming that it was.   It’s hard to blame Joseph for presuming that this was a normal situation, and that his pregnant Mary was no longer the Virgin Mary. 
Upon hearing that Mary was with child, Joseph was at first frightened, and naturally so.  But then, something happened.  A surge of courage came over the seasoned carpenter. 
Call it a second miracle, but Joseph came to believe that Mary had indeed been faithful, and that the child in her womb was in fact a child of God (It’s hard to say how much clarity Joseph had about the identity of Jesus; all we hear is that he did not abandon the child or his mother). 
The gospel reveals that an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, but that is not so remarkable.  God reaches out to all of us through various channels and in mysterious ways.  The miracle of the Nativity story is not that God communicated with people (that happens all the time), the miracle is that these two people listened.  On faith in an internally present Saviour God, Mary and Joseph responded with confidence to each other, and took up their call to bear and raise God’s Son.  
The term Emmanuel, as the gospel states, means “God is with us”; the name Jesus:  “God is our salvation”.  By listening to one another, and the deepest convictions of their hearts, Joseph and Mary learned these of two unequivocal facts.  Entering into unchartered territory, to bear and raise a child, Mary and Joseph grew to sense the profound presence of Christ within –in more ways than one.  And even though at first the child Jesus was undoubtedly an unwelcomed surprise, he became their sole joy and freedom, the pinnacle of Good News (In time he would himself prove to be the hope of salvation for all.) 
Might Joseph and Mary’s story resonate with us?   Not a one of us knows quite what this unmarried couple experienced.  Many (perhaps only few) of us have not even experienced the dilemmas of unplanned pregnancies (along with which comes financial, emotional, and physical stress).  Everyone one of us has, nevertheless, been graced with the occasional surprise.  And some surprises are more appreciated than others. 
What should not come as a surprise is that each and all believers are called, with Mary and Joseph, for God’s work here and now.  We are part a very large plan, and bringing God’s blueprint to life is our vocation. 
Each of us, in our own small way, do our part to announce, as Joseph and Mary do, that God is present yesterday, today, and forever.  As for our particular callings, we may be surprised by what God puts in front of us, but surely it will not be more than we can handle. 
For Mary and Joseph, the unexpected vocation, to bear and raise the Son of God, was most unique. None of us will ever re-enact (at least not literally) the Nativity story.   But to whatever surprises lie ahead, might we hope to receive them with courage and joy.  And even when overwhelmed, even if we cannot welcome everything that is thrust upon us, might we at least learn the one most important lesson that Joseph and Mary learned:  That no matter how dangerous our life of faith becomes, “God is with us” and “Christ is our salvation”.  Perhaps a little illogical, definitely unscientific, and somewhat ungrounded philosophically, these are unavoidable facts:
Jesus is Emmanuel and Saviour, yesterday, today, and forever! 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Second Coming? Second Sunday of Advent.

During Advent, there exists a hyper consciousness (and anxiousness) of upcoming events.  Christmas is coming, Santa is coming, relatives are coming, a Messiah and kingdom is coming.  For all of these reasons, Advent is, without question, a time of hope and anticipation. 
In today’s gospel, as in all advent readings, people of God anticipate both the feast of the Incarnation and the Second Coming of Christ.   Today, in particular, anticipation leads people of various cities and towns to seek a baptism of repentance and faith.   At what is practically the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist appears on the scene preaching a universal repentance.  He preaches that, in other words, it doesn’t matter how righteous one perceives oneself to be, or how disdainful others might actually be, each and every one of us (especially the baptised) is called to stop blaming, and to start begging forgiveness.   
Drawing us out of self-righteous cocoons, Advent is a time to reach out, to connect, and to reconcile.   This time of reconciliation, and an even more reconciliatory time ahead is foreseen by the prophet Isaiah.  Predicting the Second Coming, Isaiah speaks of enemies becoming friends, and rivals becoming companions.   Fearful only of God, competing creatures (who are now foes), says the prophet, shall live, lie, gaze and play together.  One glorious day in the future, according to Isaiah, God will dwell among us, and we will be transformed for righteousness and peace.     
So Christ will come again eventually, but a lesser day of peace and justice is sure to arrive much sooner –in just a couple weeks in fact.   In practical ways, most of us have already started preparing for that celebration.  Decorating trees, setting up wreathes, and buying gifts, we get ready to reconnect with family, friends, and perhaps even reach out to others whom we so often avoid. 
I don’t know too much about too many of you but…
Social studies indicate that Canadians, in general, tend to give exceptionally more than usual at Christmas time.  Whether money to the needy, food to the hungry, presents to friends or hospitality to family, Christians (and many non-believers alike) are on their best behaviour around this time of year.  Even though some of us may get accused of drinking too much on Christmas Eve, we can be exceptionally kind, generous, and welcoming when the day comes to celebrate the Christ’s birth and his return in glory. 
(…The cultural effect of Christmas alone, I would argue, is enough reason to uncork champagne.)       
This lead up to the feast of the Incarnation is a reminder of God’s generosity, but it is also a real testament to what can happen when a Messiah mixes with us.    When inflamed by our baptismal spirit, when activated by faith, we have the potential to transform the world into a new, kind, generous, and genuinely hospitable place. 
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul prays for the world’s and our, the Church’s, transformation by petitioning the One he calls “a steadfast and encouraging God”.  He writes, “Grant you (people of God) to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.   To a Divine Messiah, this is a pleasing request, but it can only be granted to willing disciples. 
Through the gifts of faith and baptism, God has but readied the world for action on conflict and division; it takes believers to implement the agenda. 
As baptised children of the same Lord, may we all repent and believe in what God has planned; May we reach out with joyful hope in anticipation of real reconciliation.   And may our Advent mission to reconcile fill us with an unquenchable fire for peace and harmony with all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Weighing in on Aids, Condoms, Church Teaching

Discussion around sex and sexuality always arouses, so to speak, attention.  The latest news out of the Vatican, of all places, has got everyone, especially young people, talking about the subject.  I for one, have no desire to debate the moral implications of particular sexual acts but will stand with the Church and say two things:
“Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person” (CCC #2332) and such is indeed “a source of joy and pleasure” (CCC #2362).  I hope I need not explain why sex and sexuality, inseparable from our human nature, is absolutely good.  

The news that has everyone excited (one way or another) is Pope Benedict XVI ‘s new book.  In it, he tackles the African Aids epidemic and condoms as a means to slow its increase.  In a poor English translation, the Pope writes:

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility”.   To use a condom is, in other words, somewhat responsible.   He goes on to suggest the obvious, that abstinence is by far the best means to prevent STD proliferation, but it is the suggestion that condoms can, in albeit specific cases, perform a positive (morally good) function that has rightly peeked our interest. 

In response to what has been released in Pope Benedict XVI’s new book, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. writes:

“the pope takes into consideration an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality may represent a real risk to the life of another person. In such a case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but maintains that the use of the condom to diminish the danger of infection may be ‘a first assumption of responsibility’, ‘a first step in a movement toward a … more human sexuality’, as opposed to not using the condom and exposing the other person to a fatal risk.”

As much as onlookers might view these as a reaffirmation of what has always been taught, these statements represent the greatest shift in moral theology since allowing Catholics to eat meat on Fridays.  Actually, that’s not true.  This is a much bigger deal. 

Throughout his reign on the papal throne, Pope John Paul II insisted that the use of condoms for any purpose was no less than evil.  Despite cries from ground level Church people who fight the thankless battle with Aids in Africa (Wikipedia states that 88% of Africans are affected with HIV) and beyond, JP II was unwavering.  His Aristotelian mind, using a logic that starts with ideas and only later moves to reality, could not rationalize the goodness of protected sex. 

More could be said on this subject, but the history books can now record that JP II did not, under any circumstances, condone condom use, and Benedict XVI did.

To these facts react as you wish, but realise this.  If there was any hope before of eradicating the evil disease called Aids, that hope has just multiplied.   Congratulations to the many Priests, Religious, and lay People who have for years handed out condoms to prostitutes and others at risk of HIV.  Thanks to a courageous pontiff, you have been vindicated.  And for those who have been victimized by the disease itself, prayers from around the world are with you now. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Happy Feast of Christ the King

Most, if not all, have some capacity to love and commit; but, as mere children of God our ability to do anything, including that, is limited.  Creative and uncontainable, only the Trinitarian love and commitment inflaming Christ our King has not limits. 
With that, of course, hopeless romantics may freely disagree. 
When asked about his capacity for commitment, Hollywood heartthrob Matthew McConaughey responded, “I have no problem with commitment. I love having somebody in my life.”  
At a very basic level, we all love to have love in our lives, but true commitment is less about the love we have and more about the love we share.    
Human beings depend on the love of others made real in support, affirmation, and affection.  Ideally, this on which we depend is true and beautiful;  but I dare suggest that as good as it can get, the love we give and receive from one another is, like anything else we do, but a shadow of divine perfection.      
In the gospel we witness God’s love and commitment to us and our salvation.  Surrendering himself in faith, Christ gives to the world, and takes from the Father, in ways he, and only he, can. 
Inspired by what he receives, Jesus’ love and commitment is acted out in explosive relations between he and the Father.  So great, in fact, is the affection between Christ and the Father that it cannot remain between them alone.  First giving birth to the spirit, Christ and the Father produce a love that perpetually longs to increase and include. 
Putting the 3 person God in perspective, C.S. Lewis wrote that “True Love is not two people standing face to face, true love is two people standing side by side and loving another.  True (and Trinitarian) love is, in other words, so uncontainable that it must create.  For God, true love (which is also nature) is a force determined to make Christ’s unrelenting gift of salvation known throughout the cosmos. 
But true love, of course, is far from easy.  As our Lord experiences, it takes a martyr to love wholly and entirely.  The mockery of Religious leaders, Roman Soldiers, his own people, and even criminals, Jesus, for loves sake, becomes the world’s sacrificial lamb.  By way of one irrational act, death and resurrection, Christ is crowned King of creation, the symbol of divine faithfulness.     
Today, as we celebrate the King’s feast, the gospel recalls our Lord’s crowning moments.  With Jesus perched between two convicts, we hear the extremes of attitudes that either bound us to this world, or release us into the freedom of God’s mercy.  
On one side we have pride- a criminal who simply cannot find faith enough within himself to repent, and receive the Good News of his own salvation.  The prisoner is captive to more than he realises.  Consumed by his own ego, criminal “A” is paralyzed by indictments of this world.  He is yet to embrace the unceasing pardon and freedom that belongs to God’s children.   
On the other side we have another, perhaps a more desperate offender.  Done with the chains of this world, and, more importantly, done with the pride that has thus far directed his life, our second convict is ready to move on.  Finally aware that God’s mercy is his best hope, the only hope he has left, the second, the repentant, criminal is ready to embrace life with God in eternity. 
These two stories speak to the various ways we respond to God’s mercy and love, but also just how generous God is.  Despite the unrepentant criminals attempt to deny our Lord’s salvific power, we should have little doubt that both of these men will be with Christ in paradise. 
To them and us a heavenly communion is promised and delivered by the crucified King.
Like Christ, we too have an abundant capacity to commune, to give of ourselves, and to receive from others.  But even though we love and commit, we have our thresholds.  I am reminded of the words of St. Thomas More in a man for all seasons.  Pointing to himself:  “this is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”  But that’s quite alright. 
Fortunately, this world needs but one martyr, one sacrificial lamb to account for all that we lack;  he is none other than Christ the King.   Only through Christ’s death and resurrection, the fruit of boundless love between Father and Son are we redeemed.   Because of what God has already accomplished, there is little for us to do except love, and allow ourselves to be loved, all the way to paradise.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bold Hope: A Reflection on Luke 20.27-38

It is bold to live by faith. As people of the resurrection, we leap toward unimaginable mysteries. But we are not fools for doing so. Faith a God who died and rose again empowers the living and is without doubt our hope for a better future.

For the early Church, hope in ones own bodily resurrection provided the strength needed to tolerate the oppression Christians experienced under Roman Imperial Rule.

Hope for bodily resurrection, of course, did not begin with these believers. From about 800 years before Christ, the Hebrew people suffered in exile; perpetually uprooted by war and persecution, they longed for a promised-land rich with their own institutions and culture. But to Jews of the ancient world, the land of milk and honey never arrived. For those who found faith in Jesus Christ, however, a new promise of resurrected life brought something better. The Good News of our Lord’s paschal mystery (Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection) was a much needed liberation from the chains of worldly flounder. Sensing their release from captivity, the first Christians understood Christ’s bodily resurrection as death to death itself and the birth of life eternal.

God’s definitive act of salvation for all, Jesus’ rising from the tomb is the complete revelation of God’s faithfulness and love. Because of what God has done, we have no need to fear; we have only to hope.

Revealed as Lord of heaven and earth, Christ is the sort of God whom only a God who dies and is raised can be. Obediently taking on the fullness of fleshly existence, with all its pain and sorrow, only to be raised by his faithful Father, Jesus demonstrates how God is with us through it all, from beginning to end, and still yearning to dine with us at a heavenly table.

In each and every Eucharist Christians remember God’s commitment. Coming together to share in his body and blood, we, as St. Paul says, die and rise with God’s own-self.

When gathered with such intent, we may moreover receive comfort.

In worlds riddled with struggle and confusion, the Eucharistic meal can provide some healthy reassurance. But we should never rest too long between Church walls. In dark corners known only to individuals, hearts long for hope and, fears are overcome through faith alone.

Confident that the God of the living is indeed our Lord and Saviour, may we boldly rise to embrace the unimaginable. May our Lord’s dying and rising bring us (and our world) alive to everlasting joy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A New P-Era (Phase of Life) Begins

And so it finally happened. After several years of suffering under my own impatience, the Franciscans of Western Canada and Canon Law let me Solemnly Profess. Before most of my immediate family, many extended family, friends, and my Franciscan brothers, myself and Billy Isenor, OFM pledged “perfect” gospel living. A ridiculously tall order…and now my dear sister Janine may legally point, glare, laugh, and exult: “You said you would!”

All joking aside, my profession liturgy (St. Mary’s Parish) and reception (on the lawn of Mount St. Francis) in Cochrane is the highlight of my life thus far. It feels good to be surrounded by love and support! Now I cherish the advice of my friend Father William Hahn: “remember those hills when you go into the valleys, brother”.

Life is like that –full of ups and downs. “One has to swim the moat before reaching the castle.” Heard enough clichés? Apologies, I’ve been watching movies again; good ones always get my fingers flexing.

I wrote the following (in ink) last night; my laptop has fallen terminally ill.

“Eat, Pray, Love”: I suffered through the book and much of the movie too. Maybe it was the random (whom am I to talk?) nature of Elizabeth Gilbert’s story, or the “unbuddhist” within me (I have nothing against Buddhism; the little I grasp does not appeal to me) yawning, but I was bored. And here I am writing about it.
Like many aimlessly romantic/spiritual tales, Eat, Pray, Love spoke to Friar Ducharme. Any sincere spiritual journey must and will lead to the truth of one’s heart. Liz Gilbert, like all of us, seeks love. Why? Because buried under superficial diversions is a person longing to be set free. I may be wrong, but I assert that each and every individual can be encompassed in this one word – “lover”. Like the Supreme Being we are all, at our roots, lovers. Church Father St. Ireneus proclaimed “God became human so that human beings become divine”. If we truly wish to be like God, That Whom we are not, we need be humble enough to love whom we are.

Before departing, I should fill you in on other random news. I was ordained a deacon on September 11th. The plan is to be ordained a presbyter sometime in the new year. In between celebrations, there is work. I have started a pastoral year at St. Mary’s Parish in Cochrane, Alberta.

“I’m not perfect, but I will keep trying because that’s what I said I would do” (Hedley).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Ordinary Day's Reflection

I had not written this for blogging purposes, but here goes.  The following is a reflection on today's readings.

“ ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Christian living is by its very nature paradoxical.  For disciples self-giving precipitates life in abundance.  Poverty of self and obedience fall on the road to freedom. 
Though he was not a disciple of Jesus Christ, the prophet Jeremiah experienced the complex nature of grace (poverty and obedience).   He laments the weighty expectations of the Lord for him.  While I can appreciate, and even identify, with the Hebrew prophet, he is what he is; Jeremiah is a man who wrestles with God, nature and grace.     
As today’s gospel demonstrates, God’s kingdom is a desirable treasure; It is true freedom and perfect joy.  Granted a little mysterious, perhaps even allusive, the kingdom of which Jesus speaks is more wonderful than precious pearls, great scotch, or fine wine. 
As father Francis taught us, to receive and follow Jesus Christ is a perfect joy.  Of course while Francis could preach such, he too with Jeremiah and many of us, suffered the temptation of alternative perfections.   Rather than seek after perfect joy, we Christians tend after vainer goals.  Such things as perfect conduct, perfect deeds, ..…performance, health, happiness and security are not, I am afraid, the stuff of freedom.      
When we can praise God with gratitude for all that we are, only then do we experience true freedom and perfect joy.  The kingdom of heaven may be mysterious and somewhat allusive, but as Jesus tells us today, it is worth digging up and buying into.  

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy Canada Day

In the shadows of red coloured Rockies, near Estes Park, Colorado (famous for Jack Nicholson’s The Shining), I miss the kickoff of Canadian Football Season.  Attending a 30 day “vows retreat”, it’s time to react to my surroundings.
Canada Day –what is that? Is that your “Independence Day”?  
Canada, or Confederation, Day is hardly a celebration of independence: liberty, equality, private property.  These values and my American confreres will have their turn on the 4th of July; not part of my history.   Interdependence, mutuality, cooperation and compassion are words that come to mind when I reflect on Canada.  The closest we came to a war of independence involved fending off American Imperialists in 1812. We won that battle, and have been afraid of our own shadow ever since.  
In these parts, Canadians are known for their humility and ability to compromise.   In a global context, there is little about which we can boast.  We are a threat to none and dependent on many.
Canada Day celebrates how people have come together.  The brainchild of two European nations, our country is diverse if not plural.  What we have is a flawed and far from homogenous communion, but it seems to work.  We stake no claim of superiority; with God’s help we witness to the gift of minority.
My prayer for Canada today is that we follow in the footprints of Jesus Christ, and persevere in the vision of our founders:  multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith, etc.  May we be always be hospitable, receptive and kind –a refuge for strangers on the road.  

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Automobile Diaries

God is Good
May 21/10

Highway 11 north to Saskatoon invites reflection . The prairie is flat and green; the Franciscan province of Christ the King, simple and zealous. I am on my way back to Edmonton from Lumsden and my first mid-term chapter experience.
5 days ago thirty something friars surrounded our most aged household in western Canada. I visited Lumsden once before, I had been to a Franciscan Chapter once before, neither experience offered me much hope for the future. This time, things were different.
I could list factors that led to this chapter experience as positive, but science is futile. More obvious in this moment is the incredibly abundant presence of God in my life and my Franciscan fraternity. Something happened this week; something beautifully beyond cause and effect. I need not explain it; I cannot explain it.
Memories of love, respect, sincerity, truth, and reconciliation giving way to hope, peace and stronger fraternity go home with us today. To my brothers young and old, thank you for your passion. May God never cease to inflame us.