Open our hearts, O Lord, to listen to the words of your Son.
Jesus challenges us. We may easily think Jesus is out of his mind when he asks us to forgive our neighbor, to unite in racial justice, and to behold the beauty of every life. He overwhelms us when he reveals to us that life is not ours to control.
I have never held an infant, my own flesh and blood, on my chest, two hearts beating as one. I can only imagine such intimacy, such tenderness. However, I have held the stranger dying from wounds inflicted by an enemy. I have listened to a mother attempting to explain the pain of losing a child. I have helped a mentally ill, homeless man who would not stay clothed in winter months. I have listened to a father who lost his child in addiction. I have waited with parents who ached for a word about a son who was trafficked for sex.
As believers, we wait and work and pray for laws and opinions to change concerning abortion. People may think we are out of our minds. This imitation of Jesus must be our life. In the meantime, we show the world around us that we mean it, that we are converted by our understanding of what life is and what it can be.
The Incarnation is our hope. Living in the human body is redemptive because Jesus died and rose for us all. Every breath of every person is holy, and we cannot control outcomes or our future even though others may think otherwise.
Today we hear the beginning of the gospel Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21. We hear from eyewitnesses of the stories of Jesus, our ancestors in faith. In the beginning of Luke’s commentary, Jesus goes back to his homeland and back into the synagogue to pray and to read on the Sabbath.
The scroll from Isaiah from which Jesus reads is, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Imagine this scene for those who first saw Jesus and heard his voice in the synagogue. They had no idea what was to come, how he would embody those words, how he would become the message in his death and resurrection. Imagine how their hearts must have burned with hope and longing for the coming of the Messiah. In his eyes, they saw hope manifest.
Of course, the gospel is written many years after the events of Jesus’ ministry and life. So, the gospel sets up what is to come in the story. Jesus becomes this promise. He is the Anointed One. He is the freedom we have all longed for in our lives.
In the opening weeks of a new church year, perhaps we can learn to listen to the scriptures in a new way. In the Mass, when the gospel is proclaimed, it becomes the Real Presence of Jesus. This Real Presence forms us as individuals and as a church community. It is so important to our lives of faith that we listen to the Word. The Liturgical Year and the gospel proclamation at each Mass both teach us how to live in the world and how to become hungry for God, how to need God and how to serve our neighbor.
I ask you to consider reading the gospels and all the scriptures before Mass. We can’t understand the gospel from only hearing it at Mass. We must become familiar with the images, the stories, the characters, the overall arch of the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, to enter more fully into the Mass. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Mass is in the gospel proclamation, in the elements of bread and wine which becomes his Body and Blood, and in the lives of the baptized people in the pews. Read the stories, open the scriptures, and enter the scene of how the characters interact. After all, we become what we celebrate at Mass; we become the Body of Christ on earth.
The scriptures help us understand the person of Jesus Christ. I always use the example of the Good Shepherd. We can memorize Psalm 23. However, we need to have a relationship with the Shepherd. There is a difference in memorizing a story and fully knowing the Shepherd in our lives. We can hear the gospel, but it will make no difference until we know the person of Jesus Christ.
As we begin hearing the Gospel of Luke in the opening Sundays of Ordinary Time, we also know that Luke is writing for his community that is poor. He desires to lift them up in the story of Jesus. He desires healing for their lives. In this context, the opening scene of Luke’s Gospel is so important. We too, come to Mass not just for our own benefit, but to pray for the world, the poor, the prisoner, the hungry, those whose lives are the result of unjust systems.
We should all take to heart the closing line of today’s gospel, “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In John 2:1-11, we enter the wedding at Cana. We overhear the conversation about the amount of wine and its quality with Jesus and Mary. The wedding feast in this gospel is far greater than our earthly image of marriage. There is something deeper here.
Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection are called the Paschal Mystery. This is the center of our faith. This is what we celebrate at every Eucharist, every Sunday. An image of the Paschal Mystery is commonly referred to as the marriage of heaven and earth. Jesus’ resurrection is the new life and covenant of God and God’s people. This marriage of redemption, of forgiveness of sin, of life beyond the grave, is a marriage union with God and us on earth.
If we consider this gospel concerning the Paschal Mystery, then it opens our path to such a gift. Last week, Jesus was baptized, and that moment was the beginning of his earthly ministry. This is his first miracle, changing water into wine. If we see this water and wine in the perspective of the Paschal Mystery, then the wine becomes his real presence. He is the new covenant. He becomes the miracle. He becomes the love we desire, the bridegroom. The good wine that comes well into the celebration is Jesus himself. He is the love that enables us a new covenant with God and with God’s people in the Church.
The miracle of this good wine is Jesus himself, his suffering, and his new life. Before he died, he took the Cup, shared it with his disciples and invited them to do that action in memory of him, always until the end of the world. The Cup is also a metaphor of his shedding blood, the New Covenant. When we partake of his Precious Blood at Mass, we give over everything in our lives to serve him, to love him, to act in the world with dignity and hope. The Cup of Salvation is available to us in the Eucharist, the wedding of heaven and earth.
Mary is wringing her hands about the fact that the wine is running out at the wedding feast. Jesus says to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” This story in the second chapter of John already has deep theology about who Jesus is and what he can do for the world. Even his mother does not quite understand where he is going and what will happen to him.
The large amount of water that becomes wine is also an image of Jesus’ presence in our world. His grace is overflowing. His love is beyond imagining. His life outpoured for the sake of the world is what we should be paying attention to in the story of this gospel. In other words, there is enough of God’s mercy to go around. There is enough love, tenderness, and peace so that everyone will have their fill. The Holy Spirit will enable all people to sip from this Cup of Salvation. All will be well, not just in the story of the wedding feast, but for us all on earth and for all eternity.
After this miracle, the gospel says that Jesus’ glory is revealed. It also states that his disciples began to believe in him. Imagine that day, the hope for the disciples that they did not leave everything for nothing. There is much for them to learn and even more for us to consider in our lives of faith and service in Christ Jesus.
Pebble in My Shoe: When we get distracted from our real identity
Some months ago, I celebrated a funeral that I will not forget. Just before the Mass, I realized I had a pebble in my shoe. I did not take the time to sit down, take off my shoe, and allow the pebble to escape. I meant to, but I didn’t do it. So, the funeral started, I momentarily forgot about the annoyance in my right shoe. During the Liturgy of Word, it really started to get to me. The more I thought about it, the more the pebble situation was becoming my identity. Suddenly, I wasn’t a priest anymore, I was an annoyed man with a pebble in my shoe.
I couldn’t take my mind off the irritating stone lodged somewhere between my foot and the edge of my shoe. After the Mass, I raced to my car to begin the trek to the cemetery. I thought about the pebble and the pain but continued my way across town. When I arrived at the cemetery, family members were already gathering. I got out of the car and began walking in the think grass. Quickly, I realized my friend in my shoe was still there. I became obsessed with the stone, overlooking the hued mountains and various gravestones, the blue sky and warm sun. The pebble in my shoe became my identity and narrowed my focus on that bright morning.
This may be an overly simple story, but we can all relate. As priests, we are easily distracted from our real identity. We may accumulate paraphernalia to hide our loneliness or insecurities, all which becomes our false identity. We may use technology as our first way of communicating rather than from our relationship with God. We may discover food to satisfy more than survival. Food may make us numb from overwork and the intensity of what other people think of us. There can easily be many rocks in our shoes, external achievements and possessions that distract us from our genuine lives of love and service. We are always “on” in parish life. We are always working, always maneuvering through the daily crises of parish life. We all know these stones.
In January, the Scriptures invite us to reflect upon the authority of Jesus. The Word made flesh is baptized and begins his ministry in the gospel stories in the opening weeks of Ordinary Time. Jesus’s mission gives purpose and meaning to the Incarnation. He lives his authority of God-among-us, his service to people in need. He heals the sick, comforts the lost and engages the leper, all to reveal to us that his authority rests in his relationship with God the Father. He takes time in prayer to sift through the pebbles in his sandals, and the weariness within his heart, so to make sure he is free enough to serve with love, with purpose, and with integrity. His authority is lived upon the earth from his ongoing relationship with his Father in heaven.
As we reflect upon the authority of Christ Jesus, we may ask ourselves some important questions. How do we model the authority of Jesus in our actions and ministry? Are we more prone to support our own ego authority? Are we more interested in supporting the authority of the institution of the Church? Do we do so only to make us look good to others? Or are we willing to be immersed in the dying and rising of Christ’s authority so to become the men God desires us to be? These questions seem more important as we reflect upon the opening weeks of Ordinary Time when Jesus bent down to the earth to heal the sick, to reach out to people on the margins of society, so to remain faithful to his Father in heaven.
Remaining faithful to Christ Jesus is not easy as a priest. We discover the pebbles in our hearts that seem to grow more important as we age. We may think this is the only way to live. We grow used to the pain. We may not want to change our ways of prayer and service. We may have grown used to limping our way home.
I told the story of the pebble in a Sunday homily a few weeks after that funeral. Now, before a funeral, parishioners may ask me, “Fr. Ron, do you have a pebble in your shoe today? We want you to be really present to us and to the beauty of your relationship with Jesus.”
Every morning various groups of people anticipate the unlocking of the front doors to our parish building. People seeking a change of clothing or fresh hygiene products line up beginning at 6:00 a.m. Members of the staff arrive one by one beginning at 7:30, but struggle to approach the only door their key will open because a man is sleeping under a tarp in front of the door. Volunteers line up before 9:00 a.m. greeting one another and meeting the new group of nursing students who will volunteer in our morning hospitality center.
The unlocking of our red steel doors at our urban parish, the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon ritualizes the opening of our two-hour weekday hospitality center. After one of the large doors is propped open, over a hundred people stream single file to our front office. They inquire about emergency travel, money for prescription drugs, or wait to receive a pair of clean white socks. People living in the single-room occupancy hotels gather to socialize or to receive a weekly voucher to a local Laundromat. A staff member then opens the hospitality center leading everyone in prayer so people may voice their pain and needs.
On Friday evenings, our parish community hosts a soup line in our very small lobby. Strangers and friends gather to socialize and to feed on a banquet of homemade soup and peanut butter sandwiches. We serve the anticipated food at our front door because some people suffering mental illness may feel trapped by coming into a public building. At our red doors even runaway teens who fear the church trust the hands that offer them hearty soup and hot chocolate.
Opening our parish doors ritualizes our ministry among God’s people living in poverty because the Congregation of Holy Cross staffs our parish. On October 17, 2010, my religious community will celebrate a man of weakness becoming a saint for everyone in the Church.Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, C.S.C. from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada whose only formal ministry was being a porter, will be the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross.
Brother Andre officially welcomed all people at the door of Notre Dame College in Montreal beginning in 1872, the year of his profession of vows as a Holy Cross religious. Andre’s humble presence to strangers and firm devotion to Saint Joseph compelled him to believe in God’s healing power. Saint Joseph is the patron of Holy Cross Brothers as he humbly lived in the presence of Jesus. Brother Andre believed that our lives on earth should reflect this humble posture of living, working and serving always in the presence of Christ Jesus.
Brother Andre (Alfred) was born eighth of twelve children. His parents baptized him immediately after birth since he was so tiny and frail, and wasn’t certain to survive. He grew up with fragile health and became an orphan at twelve years old. The Congregation of Holy Cross even postponed his religious profession because of his ill health. He lived with the sensitivity of illness that turned him to greater reliance on God. He was singled hearted in his life of penance, simplicity and devotion believing that healing was possible for all kinds of pain and illness. By May 9, 1878, the first written testimony of five cures attributed to Brother Andre was published.
The ministry of our many volunteers, staff and parishioners teaches me that faith must be grounded in real suffering. Our work among people living in poverty and brokenness is not pious, fake or self-indulgent. The issues we face in our parish starkly remind us that we carry no real answers to people’s addiction to drugs. We do not have sure-thing answers to people living with severe mental illness as a result of being sexually abused as children. We cannot protect the short-skirted street princess, the stoned dealer roaming ruts in our front sidewalk or the strung-out Iraq veteran shouting obscenities on our corner. I cannot even protect myself from the loneliness I feel living in the midst of my homeless neighbors. However, people’s suffering must lead us all to greater faith and service no matter on which corner of the world we find ourselves.
I cling to the image of Andre welcoming strangers at the door. He stood for hours each day speaking with people for just a moment because he believed in God’s compassion to those who are suffering. This image forms our ministry here at the Downtown Chapel and should form the core of every parish no matter how much we want to hide our individual anguish from one another. The model of ministry of this humble man opens the doors to every worshiping community and crosses the boundaries of race, culture, education and national borders, and any other way we might seek to divide ourselves from one another.
Celebrating sainthood is never easy for the rest of us on earth. We tend to create new images of these people because we are afraid of how they challenge us today. I see this in how we reinterpret Brother Andre in art. He was a sickly, illiterate man, short in stature. In stained glass in our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Oregon, Andre sits among other North American saints looking healthy and robust. In the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angles, California, an image of Brother Andre processes in the communion of saints woven in tapestry. There the image of Andre is six feet tall, broad-shouldered and looking as if he worked out at Muscle Beach. The image of Brother Andre in our midst must be grounded in the humility and love he personified on earth.
Even in my own religious community in the United States, as members of our American culture, we struggle to be changed by Brother Andre’s work among the poor. We prefer most often the well-educated rather than the illiterate, the prosperous rather than people suffering poverty, and the wholesome student rather than the addict or person suffering mental illness. When we honestly celebrate the saint’s mission in the Church, then we have to change our lives of privilege into greater dependence on God. We have to translate our community’s politics into real mission among the poor. We have to cultivate our vocations of love over our desire for self-promotion.
Brother Andre worked tirelessly to build Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, Quebec. Yet, he really opened the door there for the sick, lonely and poor to find a home in the healing power of Christ Jesus. When he died in 1937 over a million people made a pilgrimage to Montreal for his funeral. Miracles of healing still occur today. I witness these miracles welcoming people suffering poverty, isolation and illness every day as we open once again our red, steel doors of our parish and rely on God alone. Our holy doorkeeper still lives among God’s poor. Saint Andre of Montreal, pray for us.
CLICK here to learn more about Saint Andre. Please pray for the Congregation of Holy Cross on this day of memorial of our first saint, Andre Bessette.
Today, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. In Luke 3:15-16, John the Baptist humbly baptizes his cousin, Jesus. John is aware that he is not worthy to loosen the thongs of Jesus’ sandals. John has been waiting for this moment. In fact, in the beginning of Advent, John the Baptist called us all to repentance. The Christmas season ends with John and this incredible encounter in the Jordan River.
The mystery that is revealed in today’s gospel is that John and Jesus are not alone in the Jordan. Jesus was praying and heaven opened. The Holy Spirit is revealed in the waters in the form of a dove. A voice echoes across the water from God the Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Trinity is revealed in Jesus’ baptism. We too, are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are born again in God’s name. The blessed water in which we were all baptized offers us union and communion with God. We too, belong to God. We are the beloved of God on earth today.
The Father’s affirmation of Jesus is both human and divine. We all ache to belong in the world. We all ache to hear from the Father that our lives have meaning. We need to know in the world that our actions make a difference. Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his public ministry. Our baptism is the beginning of our commitment within the Church. The Father is pleased with each of us; we belong to God. We are the beloved on earth today. Our lives are infused with the Trinity. Jesus’ baptism becomes a blueprint for our ministry, actions, and life in the world. We are not alone. We are all God’s children.
Today, I invite you to reflect upon your own baptism. How do you belong in the Trinity? How is God calling you into a life of faithfulness and right action?
Response: Jesus, help us rise from the waters
When we are deep in our darkness…
When we live with only regret…
When our lips are tight with anger…
When our fists are tense with revenge…
When our voices are horse from accusations…
When our hearts shrink with self-doubt…
When our lives are steeped in dread…
When we fear the future…
When we are bent down in self-doubt…
When we reek with cynicism…
When we feel alone and beg for mercy…
When we are on our knees in surrender…
When we finally stop living other people’s lives…
When we see our family in the light of love…
When we are comforted with the grins of our children…
When we enjoy the aging expressions of our grandparents…
When we see within our hearts the dignity of all people…
We celebrated five Masses on Christmas Eve in my first year at Sacred Heart Church (Tri-Community) in Colorado Springs. I remember well that my heart carried much grief that first Christmas after leaving downtown Portland where I was part of a community that cared for people living on the streets and who suffer from mental illness and long-term addictions. I left behind something very familiar where I witnessed every day the miracles of hope being born in such poverty.
I welcomed parishioners and visitors into the simple stucco church of Sacred Heart that night. I extended my hand in welcome and I am sure people felt in my handshake the shivering grief of loss that night. The crowds at each Mass seemed overwhelming to me because I was visualizing the contrast of a small group of folks gathering in the urban chapel in Portland. I was not sure why people came to our church on Christmas Eve, what they were expecting from God and me. I was not sure of how to speak about such a mystery to families. I was at a loss to make God real for people who gather one night a year with profound cultural expectations about Christmas.
Just before the third Mass of the evening at Sacred Heart, I took my post at the door. I noticed an older gentleman walk up the steps of the entrance. His wife wearing an oversized wool coat was slow to take the stairs and remained tightly next to her husband’s side. I extended my hand to him and he politely received my greeting. I welcomed his wife but she did not respond. The husband quickly took her hand and led her into the church.
I stared at the couple and I realized that the woman wrapped in wool was suffering from some form of dementia. The husband’s quick gesture to take her hand was his way of not only keeping her safe but also his way of keeping her illness a secret or at bay for at least one more Christmas Eve. I felt my heart open as I realized that these people coming to Eucharist on Christmas Eve are no different from any community. We are all suffering on such a silent night with deep expectations that life, family and even our bodies are to be perfect given society’s expectations about what Christmas means.
On that Christmas Eve in my new role as pastor, I realized that suffering on Christmas Eve is so often camouflaged. Family relationships are tender and hidden behind the exhausted faces of parents. The loss of family life for the elderly is so veiled behind the quiet presence of grandparents in the second pew. On Christmas Eve, young parents cover their anger about the fact that their marriage may not survive another year.
As I ponder the gospels of the Christmas season, I am aware again that Jesus is born in camouflage among people who did not have room for him. Among the animals during the nighttime, the Savior brought hope. Jesus still runs after the lost, the forsaken and hope abounds when we finally become aware that God is among us for real. Even when we try to hide our human needs, God breaks through our lonely hearts. Christmas is for those who believe that they cannot make it through one more night in pain.
The shepherds got word that God was born in the camouflage of straw and darkness. Even Kings followed a star to find their way through the darkness where another King was born among people in poverty. Our Savior still makes his home among those bundled in wool to protect themselves from the cold and the exposure of their disease. Jesus even strips us of our grief when we finally trust again that we cannot control the past or fix people in the present.
Mary the Mother of God models for us a life of fidelity and it is at Christmas that we all wish we could make our home in the mercy of her Son. Mary helps us all become aware that love abounds in the limitless mercy of God. I want Mary to hold the hands of those whose bodies are growing weaker and whose lives are shattered by disbelief that God could be born in their pain.
On Christmas Eve, my desire is for all ministers of the Eucharist to know that God’s mercy is revealed among the lost, the lonely and weak. There is no hiding from the God who desires to be among the fray. Our ministries must help people find their way up stairs of our churches and into the rituals that will expose love among them.
On Christmas Eve, the Mass is more that gold cups, elaborate decorations and perfect music. On this night we help unveil the mystery that is often camouflaged among the poinsettias and artificial trees. Our ministry especially on Christmas Eve is not a performance of perfection, but a rich and deep belief that God is being revealed among the quiet desperation of people who struggle to make it up the stairs of our churches.
Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of Epiphany. In Matthew 2:1-12, we overhear the magi asking the question, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” Their search for him is our search. Their quest to find the child is our journey in this Christmas season. They laid before the child their gifts. We lay before the Incarnate Word, the gifts already given us, of faith, love and hope within our Church and world. The quest to find the child is deep within our hearts, for we long for him. The search is never over on this side of grave. We constantly ache for God to heal us, to offer us hope, and to convert our hearts in his love.
This week we celebrate the memorial of St. André Bessette. Depending on which country you live, the memorial is celebrated either on January 6 or 7. Brother André is the first saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross. He ministered in Montreal, welcoming the ill and marginalized. Brother André was canonized on October 17, 2010 in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI.
I find Brother André incredibly fascinating. He was a sickly child who was not expected to live. Instead, he died at 91. He grew up illiterate. In the work of the Holy Spirit, he was accepted into the Congregation of Holy Cross that is best known for education. Our religious community really did not know where to assign him. They appointed him porter at their college in Montreal. He stayed in the doorway for over 40 years. He had a great devotion to St. Joseph, especially after his own father died when André was very young. God used that devotion to St. Joseph to heal people as they came to the door.
In the high point of St. André’s ministry, he encountered 600 people a day. He would invite them to go to confession or to Mass. He would suggest that people pray to St. Joseph or any form of prayer. He would use oil from a lamp in the chapel to anoint some people in their pain and frustration. He offered people hope when there was little medical care accessible to them. He even told a mother of a very ill child to wash the child in dishwater only to test her faith. That child was completely healed.
St. André slept only one or two hours a night. He spent the night praying for all the people who had come to him during the day. He was a simple man with an amazing life of prayer. He thought of himself as God’s little one, as God’s little puppy, not only because he was short in stature, but also because he was leading people to God through St. Joseph. St. André never considered himself a healer. When he died on January 6, 1937, over one million people came to his funeral in Montreal.
The Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal is the largest shrine in the world to honor the foster father of Jesus. The families that had a miraculous healing of a family member financially supported the shrine. Unfortunately, André did not live to see its completion. The shrine continues today, and millions of people still search for healing on that hill.
A first-class relic of St. André Bessette is housed in our altar at Sacred Heart Church. I am so grateful that St. André’s presence is in the center of our community in a real way. The relic is a gift from St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, Canada.
After the remodeling of the former rectory, we will name that building, “Saint André House.” I am delighted that St. André’s name will welcome us to socialize and to help our continuing education.
Please offer your life, your suffering, to St. André. He will help you pray. He will lead you to God, to the love and miraculous power of Christ Jesus. Pray for the completion of Saint André House. Pray for the weak and the weary, the lost and the desperate.