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Christmas 2016


Just a few nights ago, I was returning home from a visit with old friends in Nassau County, and to make the drive a little more pleasant, I was listening to a radio station originating from Sacred Heart University in CT. It was their annual Christmas program featuring the St. Olaf’s Choir singing songs of the season. All of a sudden they started singing a carol I had never heard before, a beautiful melody, simple lovely words, the brilliant choir backed up by a full orchestra. It was breathtaking, so much so that I was tempted to pull over to the side of the road to listen in peace, but given the traffic, I figured that might turn out to be the last decision I ever made on earth, so I drove on. As soon as I got back to the rectory, I went to my computer and searched “St. Olaf’s Choir singing This Christmastide.” I must have listened to it and several other renditions of the same carol a dozen times or more. It really made my Christmas this year. Here are a few of the verses.

Green and silver, red and gold, and a story born of old.

Truth and love and hope abide, this Christmastide, this Christmastide.

 

From a simple ox’s stall, came the greatest gift of all.

Truth and love and hope abide, this Christmastide, this Christmastide.

 

Children sing of peace and joy, at the birth of one small boy.

Truth and love and hope abide, this Christmastide, this Christmastide.

 

Green and silver, red and gold, and a story born of old.

Peace and love and hope abide, this Christmastide, this Christmastide.

 

Every year I find something new and refreshing and hopeful about Christmas, like this carol I heard for the first time on a drive home the other night. But on a deeper level, as I’ve grow older, my appreciation of Christmas, and Jesus whose birth we’re celebrating, has grown. In the great scheme of things, amidst all the craziness in the world, Jesus seems more and more central, more and more crucial and important to me and for the world. And it’s an odd thing: sometimes even non-Christians sense this. Early in November of this year, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away. His best known song, “Hallelujah,” has become something of an anthem, turning up on TV and in movies and commercials. It seems to be everywhere, and deservedly so; it’s a beautiful, haunting song. Cohen was Jewish, but here’s what he once said of Jesus.

 

“I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of the earth. Anyone who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight . . . It is an inhuman generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced, because nothing could weather that compassion.”

 

You know, I’ve been a priest forty years, and I think I’d be happy if most Catholics nowadays had as deep an appreciation of Jesus as Leonard Cohen did. As for me, Jesus is Truth and Love and Hope incarnate; Peace and Joy too. He tells me who God is, what God is like. He shows me what real love is, not the selfish counterfeit that so often passes for love in our society. He models what I should be, and because I’m not what I should be, He is infinite, unchanging, mercy and forgiveness.

 

To give my life to Him as a priest seems a small price to pay for all He’s given me; no price at all, really, rather a privilege, at which I’m continually amazed and for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

 

I pray that Jesus may grow to mean more to each of you this Christmas and for all of your Christmases to come. I pray His peace and truth, His love and hope in you abide, this Christmastide, this Christmastide.

 

God bless and keep you all. And a very Merry Christmas.

22nd Sunday of the Year (B)

If I had a dollar for every time over the years someone came up to me and said something like:  “Jesus, never said anyone ever goes to hell, did he?” or “Show me where Jesus said we have to go to Church every Sunday,” or “I don’t remember Jesus saying pre-marital sex is wrong,” I’d have a big problem, because Jesus does say that it’s harder for a rich man to enter into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  Questioners like the ones I’ve described must have a hot-line to heaven or get direct information I’m not privy to.  My information about what Jesus thinks comes from the Bible and the teaching of the Church He founded, and these are pretty clear about hell, Church-going, and sexual morality.

Take today’s gospel, e.g., but before we do that, let’s look up the word defile in the dictionary.  I’ve taken the trouble to do that for us.  “Defile:  to make dirty, to pollute, to render impure, to corrupt or profane or sully.  To make unclean or unfit for ceremonial use.  To desecrate.”  Pretty harsh word, isn’t it?  And we hear Jesus use it today.

He says:  “Hear me all of you . . . From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.  All these evils come from within and they defile.”  And remember what defile means:  to pollute, to corrupt, to profane or sully or desecrate.

How could a loving God not care if we did things that do that to us, that defile us?  What parent would be crazy enough to say, “O, sweety, just so long as you’re happy, do all the heroine you like; I’ll even buy you some”?  What sin does to the soul is a lot worse than what heroine does to the body, not to mention that sin crucified Jesus.  It’s not likely that He’d be sentimental about it or take a permissive attitude toward it.

We can organize the sins Jesus mentions today into four groups of three each.  There’s unchastity, adultery, and licentiousness—sins of lust that pervert our vision of others and render us incapable of seeing God.  “Blest are the pure in heart; they shall see God,” Jesus taught.  If you want to know why there’s so much unbelief in the modern world, one reason is the pervasiveness of lust promoted as harmless entertainment.  It’s not harmless.  It defiles and it blinds.

A second group of three is theft, greed, and envy.  These are sins of covetousness and acquisitiveness, all destructive of human relations with, again, a tendency to blind people to God and the spiritual by riveting their attention on the material.

Next come murder, deceit, and malice—sins of violence to persons and the truth.  Such sins do harm not just to others; they poison the heart and mind of the sinner.

And finally we have blasphemy, arrogance, and folly.  We might call these sins of irreverence, reverence being the appropriate attitude toward things holy and toward persons having the dignity of the children of God, irreverence being the inappropriate attitude and,  again, one that defiles us.

You see, sin has two terrible effects.  One is that it defiles, it damages us; the other that it incurs a debt we can never pay.  We need a Savior because we’re deeply in debt and because we’re damaged.  Jesus addresses both issues.  He pays the debt and He restores health to wounded souls, but in order to benefit from what He has to offer, we have to recognize that we’re defiled and in debt, and we have to want to rectify both situations.

It’s kind of like having cancer.  If we want a cure, we’d better admit we’re sick and be willing to take our medicine.  The bad news about cancer is that even if we take our medicine we may not be cured.  The good news about salvation is that if we accept what Jesus has to offer and cooperate with His grace, we’re guaranteed a cure and a ticket to heaven.

The goal of Christian living is greater and greater intimacy with Jesus:  Jesus in all whom we meet, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus in heaven.  Such intimacy renders us little by little pure in heart, full of love, debt free, at one with God.  And as St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrated August 28, once said:  “Our hearts are made for God, and they will not rest until they rest in Him.”  To be enduringly defiled is to be doomed to eternal unrest.