Some of you may have heard me talk about Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., no relation to Eliot.  He’s a very smart guy, a great teacher; he has a website (www.spitzercenter.org) and has written some really good books.  In one of them, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, he recalls a childhood incident that shaped his entire future.  He was twelve years old at the time, and it was Christmas.  I’ll let Fr. Spitzer tell the story in his own words.

            “One particular Christmas, when we had completed opening our presents and my siblings and I were going to Mass with my mother, I felt an unusually acute happiness that I couldn’t ignore, and so I said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m feeling very happy, but I’m not sure why.’  She responded, ‘Well, it’s probably because you received all the presents you wanted.’  But I answered, ‘Mom, I did get all the presents I wanted, and I’m very grateful, but I don’t think that’s what’s making me happy.  This is different.’

            “She thought for a moment, then said, ‘Well, maybe you’re growing up and are thinking of things beyond presents.  Maybe you’re happy because you’ve grown to appreciate your family and you’ve had an extra intense experience of them this Christmas.’  Now I was lucky to have had a really great family, but I said to my mom, ‘Uhhh, I really don’t think that’s it.’

            “So my mother looked at me and thought about it some more and then, as if inspired, said, ‘Well, maybe it’s the joy of the whole communion of saints coursing through your veins, as they celebrate the birthday of Jesus.’  I have no idea why she said this, but somehow I knew she was right.  ‘Yep,’ I said, ‘I think that’s why I’m so happy’”

            Over the course of more than 38 years of priesthood, I’ve seen quite a few children who seemed especially touched by God and His grace, children like Fr. Spitzer when he was just twelve years old.  He realized something all the world seems intent on missing, something even many of us Catholics are in danger of losing at our own terrible peril.

            Yes, Christmas is about family and friends, presents and parties, music and merriment, but a lot of people don’t have any of these; and in heaven, the angels and saints are celebrating not these things, good as they are, but a birthday, the greatest, most important birthday in the history of the universe.  They’re celebrating Jesus.

            As a boy, Robert Spitzer was given the privilege of participating in some small earthly way in the joy of that celebration.  Some of that joy coursed through his veins, and he knew that there was something more than presents, or even family and friends.  There was Jesus and His saints and the joy they shared and were willing to share with us.  It’s a joy available to the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, the loneliest of the lonely.  It’s a hint of what’s in store for us for all eternity, unless we give our hearts over to lesser things.

            Go home tonight, my brothers and sisters; enjoy your presents if you have them; enjoy your family if you have any.  They’re gifts from God.  But don’t forget His greatest gift.  Don’t miss the chance to let the joy of the angels and saints in heaven course through your veins.  Remember what it is that they are celebrating this day.

            Happy Birthday Jesus!  May He bless and keep us all.

4th Sunday of Advent (B)

            Two great figures dominate the season of Advent:  John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  John, about whom Jesus said that no man greater had ever been born of woman was sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord.  Mary was chosen by God to give birth to and nurture the Savior of the world.  John, we might say, was the way-maker, Mary the God-bearer; and, in fact, so she’s known among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Their favorite name for Mary is Theotokos, Greek for God-bearer.

            Between them, John and Mary exemplify and model the essential qualities of a true follower of Christ.  Each of us is called to prepare the way of the Lord in ourselves, so that, as John said, he Christ, might increase and we decrease, in other words, so that he may continue to grow in us.  In the end we want to be able to say with St. Paul, “Not I, but Christ lives in me.”

            Beyond this, we’re not only called to prepare the way of the Lord in ourselves but in others too.  For our entering into the lives of others, in whatever way that may happen, intimately or casually, it should be easier for them to believe, to hope, and to love.  At the very least, it shouldn’t be harder for them to believe, hope and love because of our influence in their lives.  What John Paul II once wrote of priests is true of us all.  We’re to build bridge not walls.  We, like John the Baptist, are called to prepare the way of the Lord, to be way-makers.

            We’re also called, like Mary, to be God-bearers, not as she was, obviously, but truly nonetheless.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit.  God almighty dwells in us.  What an immense blessing!  What high dignity!  What awesome responsibility!  Nine-tenths of what the world is selling us nowadays would have us believe we’re nothing more than slightly smarter than average animals, whose chief goals should be pleasure, comfort, and consumption.  It’s a vision of life as a spa.

            The Bible says NO.  The Church says NO.  We’re children of God.  We’re God-bearers.  We have an exalted calling and a sublime destiny.  We’re made for greatness, not as the world defines it, as God defines it.  We’re God-bearers, called to deport ourselves as such, to bring God to others, to share his riches, to live as best we can a Godly life now so that we’ll live with God forever.  That’s what we’re made for.

            He’s gone home to God now, but I had a friend, a Hungarian Benedictine priest, who was a world-class genius.  Fr. Stanley Jaki had doctorates in theology and nuclear physics, spoke seven languages, and wrote about seventy books, many translated into other languages, including Chinese.  He used to say that the West worshiped five false gods, each beginning with the letter “s”:  sports, sex, smiles, stars (as in movie stars), and science.  Attach any one of these to just about anything, he’d say, and you can sell it to almost anyone.  Mind you, he was a scientist, but he knew science’s limits.  He knew neither it nor any of the other false gods had anything at all to say about the meaning and purpose of life.

            John the Baptist and Mary do:  We are here to prepare the way of the Lord.  We are here to be God-bearers.  Let’s not sell ourselves short.  We are called to great things.  We are called to be way-makers.  We are called to be God-bearers.

1st Sunday of Advent (B)

Could the message of today’s readings be any simpler or more direct?  Jesus sums it up with the very last word of our gospel:  “Watch!”  In other words, be alert, be ready, be on the lookout.  Watch!  But is watching really so simple or easy?

Have you ever had to sit through a class that bored you silly?  Under such circumstances, watchfulness can be a seemingly impossible challenge.  Or have you ever had to keep watch over a toddler who seems to be filled with boundless energy and curiosity?  Watchfulness in that case can be absolutely exhausting and nerve-wracking.   Even in professions where watchfulness is essential to survival, tedium, routine, exhaustion, distractions all come into play, so that it’s not unheard of for soldiers on guard duty in war zones to doze off or, at least, to have lapses of attention.

Have you ever missed your exit on the parkway or suddenly realized that you have no recollection of the last ten minutes of driving?  Maybe it dawns on you that you’re not sure what road you’re on or, worse, where you’re going.  When Jesus says, “Watch!” it’s not as trivial a command as it may seem.  He knows he’s asking something difficult.  How much of life passes us by because we’re not paying attention?  How many of God’s blessings do we miss because we’re distracted or preoccupied?   It’s no accident that spiritual guides in all the world’s great religions counsel what’s often called “mindfulness. 

If you’ve ever taken part in or witnessed a Japanese Tea Ceremony, you know that the whole point is to perform each element of the ritual with focus, attention, deliberation—we might almost say, with reverence—as opposed to hurriedly and distractedly.  At the end of the ceremony, all you’ve got is a cup of tea, but it means something different because of what’s gone into making it.  We all drink and eat, probably more than usual this past Thanksgiving, but how much do we really savor and appreciate what we eat and drink and all that went into its being available to us?  The habit of watchfulness can change the way we live and see the world.

But what is that Jesus wants us to be on the watch for?  Well, mostly himself so that we’re ready for him at his Second Coming, or when he calls us home to heaven, or when he whispers little inspirations to us in the circumstances of our daily lives or through the people we meet, including the ones we find most irritating.  He doesn’t want us to miss these encounters or be unprepared for them.

Isn’t it remarkable that we can go for hours, days, maybe more, with God out of sight out of mind?  Would that be the case if we heeded Jesus’ admonition to watch?  “What I say to you,” he says “I say to all:  Watch!”  It may be the hardest thing he ever asks of us.  We can often muster the courage and stamina to bear some heavy cross, but simply to watch, to be alert, to pay attention--how hard it is to maintain vigilance over the long haul.  But that’s what Jesus asks, and he knows what he’s asking and why.  “Watch,” he says.  “Watch.”