4th Sunday of the Year (C)

February 3, 2019

Here are just a few quick thoughts about this morning’s scripture readings, one thought prompted by each reading.  First, from the Prophet Jeremiah:  God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I dedicated you.”  Did you hear about or see the video of the seven pregnant women, including two former Planned Parenthood managers turned pro-life advocates, at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago?  They held microphones to their exposed bellies to broadcast the heartbeats of their babies to the crowd.  Babies are routinely saved nowadays, even when born two or three months prematurely; and science, not religion, science tells us that at conception a genetically unique individual is created with its own DNA, different from its mother’s, an individual that needs what you and I need to survive and grow:  oxygen, nutrition, shelter.  But in our great state of New York, Gov. Cuomo and the State legislature just passed a bill that legalizes abortion right up to birth, and even if a child is aborted live, sanctions the killing of the child.  It allows non-doctors to perform abortions, and if a pregnant woman is assaulted and loses her child because of it, it forbids the assailant’s being charged with the death of the child; only the assault on the mother is illegal.  Upon the bill’s passing, the legislators cheered as if their team had just won the Super Bowl.  Isn’t progress inspiring?

               Our second reading today was from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, his lyrical description of love as being patient and, kind, not jealous or rude, selfless, rejoicing with the truth, and never-failing.  It’s a beautiful passage, understandably chosen often as a reading at marriage ceremonies.  Those starry-eyed, in-love young people tend to think the kind of love Paul describes comes naturally.  It doesn’t.  It takes a life-long effort to get it right, and then only with God’s help.  Once, when I was on retreat, the retreat master proposed the following exercise.  He had us read Paul’s description of love three times:  once as is; once replacing the word love with the name of Jesus—Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not jealous or rude, and so on; and lastly, replacing the word love with the pronoun “I.”  Try it and see how it works for you.  It didn’t go well for me.

               And speaking of not going well, take a look at how Jesus is treated in his home town after preaching in the local synagogue.  Why did the town-folk turn on him so rapidly and ferociously?  Because, I think, they misconstrued their being chosen.  They looked upon God’s choosing them as a privilege and resented Jesus’ saying that God had passed them over in certain instances in favor of foreigners.  Had they understood that their chosenness was chiefly a matter of responsibility to be a light and blessing to others, they might have delighted in the good God had done to those outside their number, but they took that good done to others as a putdown of themselves.  They were proud, jealous, envious, and angry.

               Some things we call love may come to us naturally, but the selfless, sacrificial, giving, forgiving love of Christ does not, and it’s the love we are called to by God.  It’s the love that of which heaven is made.  It’s unfortunate, but understandable, that many young engaged couples don’t really get this; it’ll only dawn on them with time and experience, and then only maybe.  I’m not sure it’s so understandable that our legislators don’t get it, but it is sad, very sad, certainly nothing to cheer about.

1 st Sunday of Advent (C)

             Many years ago, while I was on a retreat, I heard a story that has haunted me ever since.  I no longer remember if it was presented as a true story or one made up to illustrate a point; that really doesn’t matter.  The story concerned a group of people partying on a houseboat floating on a river where it was tied up to a dock on the riverbank.  The party went on all day and into the night.  No one had to get home, so as the evening wore on and everyone grew tired, they were invited to find a place to sleep on board and stay over, which they all did.  During the night, unbeknown to anyone, the houseboat became un-tethered from the dock and began to drift gently, quietly down-river.  Sometime early in the morning, the sleepers were awakened by the sound of roaring water.  To their horror, they found that they were nearing a waterfall and that it was too late to do anything about it.  They had all drifted to their doom.

             It’s surprising how often Jesus uses apocalyptic language in the gospels.  It’s even more surprising to hear it at the beginning of Advent when we’re looking forward to perhaps the happiest of holidays and probably the most loved and beautiful of Christian feasts.  The explanation for His so often striking such a somber note, and at this time of year such a discordant note, is twofold:  One, Jesus knows how easily we slip into peacefully drifting, and two, He knows how precarious life is and consequently how dangerous drifting can be.

             It’s probably harder for us Americans to take the dangers of drifting through life as seriously as others do.  After all, we have it pretty good, comparatively speaking.  But that very attitude is indicative of a kind of drifting.  Are we immune from sickness and death, financial reversals, accidents, betrayal by friends, even family?  The precariousness of life is there for all to see and should make us all fervent and constant in prayer.  But does it?  Not generally.  We’re really good at drifting

             I’m old enough to remember a time when Sundays in this country were set aside for church-going and being together as a family.  There were no stores open, so you couldn’t go shopping.  It was unthinkable that you’d have Little League or soccer games on Sunday morning.  Those days are gone.  The change was deemed good for the economy.  Has it been good for the faith and family?  We just drifted from one position to another without a thought about the consequences.

            As a Catholic people we’ve drifted from baptizing our children as soon after birth as possible to waiting months, sometimes a year or more to do so.  We’ve gone from naming our kids after saints to naming them after celebrities, and from never missing Mass to missing Mass due to the slightest inconvenience.  I’m on vacation:  no time for Mass; no big deal.  When I was a kid, growing up Protestant, we marveled that Catholics didn’t take summers off from church-going.  Well, congratulations; we’ve caught up to the Protestants.

            None of these things seemed to be the end of the world.  None of them makes us terrible people.  But each of these steps bespeaks a change in us and fosters further change, and it’s not change in the direction of deeper faith, more fervent prayer, more faithful witness to Jesus Christ and His way, truth, and life.

            “Beware,” says Jesus, “that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life and that day catch you by surprise like a trap . . . Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent.”

            Life is good.  No one knows that better than Jesus, the Author of life, who said  He came that we might have life to the full and that our joy might be complete.  But life is also precarious, and Jesus knows that too.  It’s not to be taken lightly.  We can’t afford to drift, to just go with the flow; not in our relationships, not in our work, not in our recreation, not in our prayer and worship, not in our life; not unless we don’t mind going over the falls.

            Advent, it’s been said, is among other things a wake-up call.  Time to wake up!

Deacon Frank Hartmann (Died 11/27/2018)

            I can still remember the first time Frank preached one of my Masses here at Our Lady of the Snow.  I had just come from ten years of working in the seminary where every day a different faculty member said Mass and preached.  These were very smart men, and their homilies showed it.  One of my jobs while at the seminary was teaching a course on spirituality to deacon candidates.  I usually felt sorry for them.  They had been out of school for years; many of them blue collar workers who were good guys but not what you might call academically inclined.  So I tried to go easy on them.  I knew how much reading and writing they had to do for their other courses.

            I never had Frank in class—he was ordained before my time at the seminary—but when I heard him preach for the first time, I thought, “This guy could teach in the seminary.”  His homilies were always learned, well thought out, well organized, articulate and clear.  If you listened to Frank Hartmann, you learned something every time.

            In pretty short order, I discovered that it wasn’t just Frank’s homilies that could teach you something, and this was common knowledge.  People would come up to me and say, “You should ask Frank Hartmann about that.”  He knew a lot about a lot of things.

            Frank served on the finance committee when I came to Our Lady of the Snow, and I could always count on him for astute, wise counsel, not to mention penetrating questions I couldn’t always answer.  If there was some building issue I had to deal with, there was a pretty good chance that Frank knew the history of the issue and an even better chance that he could give some good direction on how to deal with it.   Frank was a very smart man.

            But you know, nobody ever got to heaven for being smart.  If they were smart and got to heaven it was because of how they used their intelligence and how much they gave of themselves.  Frank scored high on both counts.  He served in the Navy in Vietnam.  Years later that would come back to bite him when his health began to fail and it was determined by the Veterans Administration that Frank’s illnesses were the result of his contact with Agent Orange during the war.  He worked for years as an insurance adjuster, and days after 9/11 was at ground zero assessing the damage and settling claims.  He paid a price for that too.

            Frank was ordained a deacon in 1996 and served not only here at Our Lady of the Snow but also at St. Philip Neri Parish in Fort Mill, SC where he and Annabelle spent the winter months.  He was married to Annabelle for forty years.  I’m sure he’s smiling down on her now and so grateful for her loyalty and the loving care she gave him, especially in his last illness.

            He’ll be missed by her, his five children, seven grandchildren, five great grandchildren, his friends, colleagues, parishioners on Long Island and South Carolina, and so many others whose lives he touched.

            Frank was a big man.  He had a big life.  He had a big impact on many people in many places.  He’ll be fondly remembered here at Our Lady of the Snow, and I for one will be counting on his prayers.  God has given him rest from all his illness, all his pain, all his struggles.  May He give him the joy of seeing Jesus, whom Frank served long and well in so many ways.

--Homily given on Dec. 2, 2018, Mass of Transferral, by Fr. Charles Fink