How we can put first things first

Luke 2:16-21 (Mary Mother of God, year b)

I have a messy desk. Over time it gets filled with things I need to pay attention to such as bills, letters I should respond to, and books I want to read. Having a messy desk is distracting; it makes me lose focus of the more important things that I should be working on. Our lives can become a lot like my desk. Over time our days build up with a lot “stuff”, some more important than others, like work responsibilities, tasks around the house, time with friends, email, Facebook, and watching TV. When our lives become messy we easily lose sight of what is most important: our relationship with God. New Year’s Day is a great time to organize our desk, literally and figuratively. It’s a chance to recenter our life around God.

If we want to make our relationship with God a priority in our life, it means that we need to devote some of our valuable time each day to nurturing this relationship. Time is a precious gift. When Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, God gave fallen humanity a new start. Each New Year reminds us of this fresh beginning. We are once again given more time. Who or what we choose to spend our time on tells us what we see as most important. I find this quote from Rick Warren very helpful:
Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it. You can make more money, but you can't make more time. When you give someone your time, you are giving them a portion of your life that you'll never get back. Your time is your life. That is why the greatest gift you can give someone is your time. It is not enough to just say relationships are important; we must prove it by investing time in them. Words alone are worthless … Relationships take time and effort, and the best way to spell love is T-I-M-E.
Do we give God the gift of our time each day? When asked if they pray, many people respond, “yes, right before I go to sleep”. Unfortunately, this normally translates to, “I make the sign of the cross and then fall asleep”. Do we spend a chunk of time five minutes or longer alone, in silence with God?

“Easy for you to say, Father”, you may be thinking. True, as a priest my life is set up so it is easier for me to spend time alone with God. I realize I am a bit out of touch with your experience. Sometimes I feel like the priest in this story. Years ago, in a small village in Ireland, Ireland, a newly ordained priest decided that he would devote his first homily to the subject of Christian marriage, since the Gospel passage for that Sunday was the Marriage feast at Cana. After Mass, two elderly ladies were discussing his homily. Bridget said, “Ah, didn't that fine young priest give a grand sermon today?” Nora replied, “Indeed, he did. I wish I knew as little about marriage as he does.” However, I am a young and foolish priest, so I will continue. I do so because it is important.

We need silent time each day alone with God. Mary, whose special feast we celebrate today, teaches us that this is a daily necessity not a luxury. In the Gospel we heard she took time to ponder and reflect on all the things that were happening around her. Like Mary, we need time in silence to understand what God is doing in our life, how He is showing us His love, how He would like us to act. Mother Theresa said, “in the silence of the heart God speaks”. Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Danish Christians put it this way:
If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one here it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence.
How much noisier has the world become since Kierkegaard wrote this nearly 200 years ago? If we want to live well, it is all the more important for us today to carve out some space of silence in our day.

As busy as we are, we find that if we make it a priority to spend time with God at the start of the day we still have time for other important things. When we prioritize God in our lives there’s still room for all good things. Imagine that you have in front of you a big, empty glass jar. Now imagine that you place one large rock into the jar. The rock is so big that when it is placed in the jar the top of the rock is level with the top of the jar. At first glance you may think that the jar is full, but then you take a bag of pebbles and begin pouring them into the jar.  The pebbles fill in all the spaces that separate the large rock from the sides of the jar. Again the jar seems full.  But Wait! Again you take another bag, this one filled with sand, and begin pouring the contents into the jar.  The sand fills up all the spaces between the pebbles.  This time the jar looks really full! But next you take a pitcher of water and pour it into the jar.  The water then fills all the gaps between the grains of sand.

Our life is like this glass jar.  Each of us fills our day with things of different importance; this is represented by the rock, the pebbles, the sand and the water.  The large rock is our relationship with God. It is meant to fill our lives.  What this analogy teaches us is that even when God fills our life, when we make time for Him first, there is still room for everything else.  There is room for the very important things, represented by the pebbles: family, friendships, work, and school.  There is still room for the things of lesser importance, represented by the sand, such as hobbies and good recreation. There is also still room for things of the least importance, represented by the water, such as playing games on our smart phones and watching videos on Youtube about cats doing funny things.  In fact, all these other things that fit in our jar of life along with Jesus are transformed for the good, they become “touched” by God, just as the pebbles, sand and water touch the large rock.  As long as we put the big rock in the jar first by making time for Him first, there is room for everything else.  But, if we put in other things into the jar first, then there is no room for the rock.  For example, if we tell ourselves that we will pray after we have finished everything else we need to do, it never happens.

Today let us clean off our desks by reprioritizing our relationship with God. As we enter the New Year, let us resolve to spend at least five minutes in silent prayer right when we wake up.

Never give up on your family

Luke 2:22 - 40 (Holy Family, year B)

Stop reading this if you have a perfect family.  If your family life has no challenges, broken relationships or skeleton’s in the closet, then the following is not meant for you. If your family situation is as perfect as those flawless looking family pictures you increasingly receive in Christmas cards, then this will not speak to you. Still reading? Good, it means you are honest and in touch with reality. No family is perfect and free from challenges. Perhaps your immediate or extended family has been affected by divorce. Maybe there are people in your family who no longer speak to each other. It could be that you are disappointed with certain aspects of your children’s lives, their careers or the fact they no longer practice their faith. Or perhaps your family is strained because of financial tensions or a serious health problem. Maybe the members of your family are so busy that simply finding the time to be together is a struggle. No family is free from difficulty.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, experienced major struggles. Jesus, Mary and Joseph can relate and sympathize with the challenges your family has because they suffered as well. When you look at paintings of Jesus, Mary and Joseph it can be easy to forget this. Like those family pictures in Christmas cards in which everything looks perfect, the reality was a different story. Since Jesus is God, Mary is free from sin and Joseph is one of the greatest saints, these challenges were not caused by their sins. From the beginning, however, the Holy Family really suffered and experienced tensions and misunderstandings.  Mary conceived Jesus as a teenager. Recall the turmoil that Joseph experienced upon hearing the news that Mary was expecting. It nearly ripped apart their marriage as he contemplated divorce. The Holy Family struggled financially, otherwise Jesus certainly would not have been born in a stable with animals. As we heard in the Gospel, Mary was a mother whose heart grieved because of what happened to her child. After the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family had to flee and live the insecure and challenging life of refugees. Later, Mary and Joseph would often be confused and pained by the decisions of their Son. A clear example was when Jesus went missing in the Temple. Like us who are often embarrassed by members of our family, the Holy Family had relatives and ancestors that lived less than exemplary lives. In Jesus’ genealogy we find adulterers, murderers and prostitutes. The Holy Family knows from experience that family life is full of challenges and hardships.

In spite of these difficulties, the Holy Family reveals to us the incredible value and dignity of the family. Because they were a family completely engaged in God’s will, they show the ideal to which all families are called to aspire. Let’s look at three reasons why the family is something so precious in God’s plan for each of us. First, the family is the domestic church. This is because it is an image of God’s love in the world. In the family, the mission of Jesus is continued. Second, the family is the primary, vital cell - or building block - of society. Children are nurtured in a family. Society will be as strong or as weak as the families that make it up. A family which strives to root itself in Christ becomes an incredible leaven for the world around it. Third, a family is a school in which all people learn indispensable lessons. In the family we learn:
  • To have a relationship of love with God. Children learn from their parents who God is, how to pray and how to follow His will.
  • To have a relationship of love with other people. Family is where we receive unconditional love and acceptance. Family life is also full of opportunities to show love. Each day there are many chances to make sacrifices for others, to be patient, to forgive and show mercy.
  • To have an appreciation for the great value of work. That Jesus spent the majority of His life working as a tradesman teaches us that work - no matter how humble or simple we consider it - is something that brings importance and dignity to our lives.

Because of its incredible role in God’s plan for our life, and inspite of the challenges, we should never lose hope in or stop devoting ourselves to our family. A number of years ago I attended a friend’s wedding. At the reception, his father gave a short speech that I will never forget. “Congratulations to both of you”, he began. “I want to give you the same advice that my father gave to me and my wife on our wedding day: never, never, never, never, never give up on your marriage.” With that, he sat down. I think the same advice applies to the family. All families will have struggles. We should never let this overly disturb us or lead us to despair. We can take comfort and courage in the fact Jesus, Mary and Joseph also faced many great challenges in their family life. They will walk with us. In spite of the challenges our families face, we should never lose sight of the ideal that families are called to and the irreplaceable role family plays in forming us as individuals and as a society. We should never give up on our family and stop trying to love one another. Last year Pope Francis gave some very practical advice in this regard. He encouraged all families to build each other up in love through the practice of common courtesy. He said that there are three key phrases that need to be heard often in a family if it is to live in peace and joy: “may I?”, “thank you” and “sorry”.

On this feast of the Holy Family, let us give thanks for the gift of our family, regardless of how imperfect it is. Remembering the great value of family, let us recommit ourselves to investing time and effort in our family relationships. Let us say often “may I?”, “thank you” and “sorry”. Most of all, let us never, never, never never, never give up on our families.

How we become a part of - rather than just hear - the Christmas Story

Christmas! (year B)

A few months ago I agreed - against my better judgment - to participate in a musical. I just had a small singing part in the performance. The organizers originally wanted me dance as well but I drew the line and said no, which you’d have to agree, if you have seen my lack of coordination and natural rhythm, was a happy decision for everyone involved. Afterwards a friend of mine who had seen the performance sent me an email. She explained that it was good that I participated in the musical because it showed everyone that “you can still shine even if you are not perfect”. My first reaction was, “aww that’s nice”, but after a minute I thought “what do you mean I wasn't perfect!” Participating in the musical was a new experience for me. I was struck how different it was to be a part of the story of the musical rather than just watching the story from the audience. When I have watched a story in the past - whether it be in a movie or play - it had a certain effect on me. It made me think or feel differently. These effects, however, quickly passed. Actually being part of the story was a different experience altogether. It really changed me; I was challenged and had to learn and grow. In some way I became a better person because of entering into the story.

I was reminded of my experience in the musical by a conversation I recently had a with a friend. Though raised Catholic, he no longer attends Mass, even on Christmas. I asked why that was. He explained that he stopped coming to Christmas Mass because he “it’s always the same story that I have heard so many times”. I suggest that, just was the case for the musical, there is an incredible difference between hearing the Christmas story and becoming part of it. Unless we choose to become a part of Jesus’ story, it doesn't really change us.

When we look at a Nativity scene or listen to the Christmas gospel, we find that it is full of people who chose to become a part of the Christmas story and had their lives changed as a result. We see Mary who said yes to God’s plan and became the mother of Jesus. Beside her is Joseph, who courageously welcomed Mary and Jesus into his heart and home and cared for them in the face of great adversity. We see the shepherds who left their flocks to worship the newborn Child. In some days we will see the wise men coming from far away to worship the King and bring Him gifts. All these people chose to play a role in the greatest love story ever told. The story of how God saved us all by becoming a small, poor, vulnerable child because He loves us. Though they had to make sacrifices, we see in the Gospels their lives were filled with joy. Their lives became an adventure upon encountering Jesus.

Another important group of characters are important to mention: the angels. Each Nativity scene normally has an angel in it and we often place an angel on the top of our Christmas trees. This is to remind us of the important role that angels played at every stage in the birth of Jesus. It was an angel who appeared to Mary to announce that she was conceive a Son. The same angel, Gabriel, appeared to Zechariah telling him that his wife would conceive John the Baptist in her old age. Angels announced the birth of Jesus to the lowly shepherds. We continue to echo the song of praise they sang that night each time we sing the Gloria at Mass. Angels were involved in the naming of Jesus. They warned Joseph of Herod’s plot to kill Jesus and instructed the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Angels told them when they could safely return. The entire story of Jesus’ birth is an explosion of angelic activity.

Angels and all the other characters we find in the Nativity scene become part of the Christmas story when they decided to accept Jesus into their lives. Even when Jesus was a baby, he provoked people to make a choice. Is He God, King and Saviour? If so, will you choose to have a relationship with Him and follow Him? Many people answered and continue to answer “no”. Some, like the innkeepers, simply ignore Jesus. Others, like Herod, actively fight against Him. This drama of choosing for or against Jesus extended to the angels. Though there are no details given in scripture, there are some stories, both recent and old, describing how this came about. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lords of the Rings and the Hobbit, wrote a book called the Silmarillion in which he tells the drama of the angels’ choice with reference to song. Before the material world was created, God (called Eru) presented his song which told the entire story of creation to the newly created angelic beings (called Ainur). Though most of them gladly joined in the song, others broke away from the harmony of the music and created discord. There is an older tradition which gives more details. Before God created the world, He revealed to the angels His plan to create humanity. He explained that they would fall because of Sin. God also told His angels about His plan to send His Son to become a man and save humanity. Most of the angels said yes to God’s plan and a relationship with Jesus. These are the angels who played an active role in the Christmas story as God’s messengers. Some angels, however, could not say yes to God’s plan and to Jesus. They thought that it was below the dignity of God to take on human flesh. They certainly could never worship a man, which they saw as below themselves. These angels who said no to God include Satan and the fallen angels. They actively rebelled against Jesus from the moment of His birth and have tempted humanity to do the same ever since.  

Like the good angels, we need to choose to enter the Christmas story by saying “yes” to a relationship with Jesus. One Christmas I received a gift but instead of opening it, seeing what was inside and enjoying it, I put it on a shelf and forgot about it. Months later I opened the gift only to find that inside were homemade sweets that had gone bad. Pretty stupid of me, right! The greatest gift we receive at Christmas is the chance to have a relationship with Jesus. This is a gift that we have to accept and unwrap. Sometimes, unfortunately, we do with the gift of our faith what I did with the sweets. We look at it from time to time but never really open it and enjoy it. By the time we get around to it, it might be too late. In the end, we are the ones who suffer when we do this. As we saw in the Christmas story, those who say yes to a relationship with Jesus live lives filled with joy. I once read somewhere that “if you want to take your faith and put it on a shelf high out of reach of your daily life, the devil will gladly hold the ladder”.

Today we have once again heard the story of Christmas. Ultimately if we only listen to the story time and time again it becomes boring. Entering into the story makes all the difference. It changes our life and fills us with joy. Let us choose some new way to deepen our relationship with Jesus this Christmas. Perhaps we can choose to pray regularly each day. Maybe we can decide to read a part of the gospel each day. We could also choose to make attending Mass a central part of each Sunday. Finally, you might choose to take part in a new initiative we are starting in the parish. Beginning at the end of January you can choose to participate in a Discovery study. This is a six week faith study done in small groups. When I was a university student and struggling with my faith, I agreed - after much convincing - to participate in this very same study and it helped me greatly. In it, you will discover again the basic gospel message: God’s desire for a relationship with us, our need for a Saviour and the different Jesus make in our life. You will discover in a new way the great difference that having a personal relationship with Jesus makes and the joy that comes from sharing your faith in a small community. Choose some way to become a part of Jesus’ story this Christmas. Let it be the Christmas gift you give yourself.

The power of "yes"

Luke 1: 26 - 38 (4th Sunday of Advent, year b)

Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!

These words, spoken by William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, powerfully express the value we place on our freedom. Freedom, the ability to make our own choices and direct our own life, is something that we cherish, particularly today. We protest against any person or group that would curtail our freedom. We are willing to fight to protect it. Freedom is an incredible gift, given to us by God. Jesus came into the world for this purpose: to save us from sin and death. The story of the Annunciation, which we heard in today’s gospel, is an important lesson about the role that human freedom plays in God’s plan to save the world.

At times we can underestimate the part human liberty plays in God’s work of salvation. Are we passive in God’s work of salvation or are we active participants in it? I once watched news footage of a helicopter rescue mission during a flood. The water had risen so high that both people and animals had taken refuge on the tops of buildings. From the footage, you could tell that there was a large difference between the rescue of an animal and the rescue of a human being. In one scene, the helicopter saved a dog from the top of a building. The dog did not choose whether to be saved or not, the dog was simply rescued. This dog was a passive participant in the rescue. Things were quite different when a person was saved. I was surprised to see that though most people agreed to be airlifted by the helicopter, some people refused to be rescued. These people did not want to be taken away from their homes and possessions, choosing to take their chances with the rising waters. Unlike the dog, the people had to choose whether they were rescued or not. Though they would not have been saved without the helicopter, they played an active role in their salvation.

The story of the Annunciation teaches us that human beings play an active role in God’s work of saving the world. Jesus, like the helicopter in the flood, is necessary for our salvation. Yet, like those people on the roof, we need to participate in the rescue plan. St. Augustine tells us that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” Mary cooperated in this work in a unique way. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a famous homily on the story of the Annunciation, focusing on the moment after Mary heard the angel Gabriel’s message about God’s plan for her but before she has said “yes”. He portrays heaven and earth as it were holding its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes?

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life. Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.

The Annunciation teaches us about the power of our “yes” in God’s work of salvation. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, on reflecting on St. Bernard’s homily, drew out this point.
After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free “yes” to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable “yes” of a human being.
Like Mary, we are active participants in God’s work of salvation. Like Mary, our yes to God’s plan of salvation has two powerful results:
  1. Our “yes” let’s Jesus into our lives. Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. This is something He cannot force on us. We let Jesus into our own lives when we say yes to praying each day, reading the Bible and going to Mass faithfully.
  2. Our “yes” allows Jesus to enter the lives of others. If Mary had not said yes to the Angel Gabriel, then Jesus would not have entered the world. We allow Jesus to touch the lives of those near us when we say yes to witnessing to him by word and example.

God will never take our freedom from us. He invites us to use our freedom for the incredible purpose of participating in His work of salvation. Here’s a very simply suggestion for how we can exercise the power of our “yes” and help Jesus enter in the life of someone close to you: invite a friend or family member who does not attend Mass to come with you to Mass this Sunday. Don’t pressure or guilt them into it, just invite. Perhaps this invitation is just what they were waiting for.

Questions some Gr. 8's have me asking

Today I had the opportunity to visit with a group of Gr. 8 students from a public school in Vancouver. They came to visit our Church as part of a "Religion Tour". I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with the students and I was very happy that they came to visit. The experience was a new one for me and I learned a lot. The meeting left me mulling over several questions.

Why did no one laugh at my jokes?
I told some really good ones, I promise. 

Why do Gr. 8 students know so much about the Illuminati?
Really, why? Can anyone help me here?

When did learning about religion get reduced to learning about culture?
The organizer of the tour asked me to give a talk explaining the basics of Christianity so I did my best to talk about Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection and Redemption. Unfortunately for the students, I wasn't answering the questions they came to learn about. They all had sheets on which they had to answer three questions: 1) what are some symbols of the religion? 2) what is their building like? 3) what are their religious practices? Though important, these questions are secondary in my mind. They have to do more with culture than religion. The students were not asked to write down anything about what we as Christians actually believe. They were not expected to learn about how we view God or the world. All religions try to grapple with some pretty important questions. Why are we here? What does it mean to live a good life? These are questions which I think would be helpful to discuss on a Religion Tour. Ultimately, I felt like I was a guide at a museum. It seemed like I was expected to explain some artifact from the past that people feel is far removed from their daily lives and has little power to challenge the way they look at the world.

Is it a bad thing that most people know the word "Trinity" only in reference to a character in the movie the Matrix?
She has good ninja moves, but still, the real Trinity is better.

When did it become a given for people to assume that science and religion are in opposition?
At the end of the visit, I had a little time so I asked the students some questions. For me it was the best part of the day. I explained that many students in Catholic schools have questions about the relationship between science and religion. I asked them if they thought that science was opposed to religion. In unison, the majority of the students - who had been quiet up till this point - shouted "Yes!" I was not surprised with the answer, but with the enthusiasm of their response. After I asked why they thought science and religion were opposed, a couple brave students explained that the big bang theory proves that God doesn't exist. The students could not explain what the big bang theory actually was, but they were convinced that it proves God doesn't exist. Some also explained that "scientists don't believe in God". All of them, apparently. I didn't have too much time, so I explained a little bit about why Catholics don't see religion as opposed to science, particularly the big bang theory and evolution. I also told them about George Lemaitre, the Catholic priest who was the first person to propose the big bang theory.

George Lemaitre
How can we make sure that religion and society don't become irrelevant to one another?
After the students left, I couldn't help but think that I am out of touch with what the majority of people in Vancouver are thinking about religion and God. I live in a bit of a Catholic bubble. I spend most of my time talking to Catholics about Catholic things. This is something I enjoy doing, but if I want to reach out to those who don't come to Church, I need to get to know them better. Theoretically, priests are supposed to serve those within their parish boundaries, whether they are Catholic or not. On the other side, I couldn't help but think that for many of the students, religion is somewhat irrelevant. I don't think it's a deliberately formed opinion or that there is any animosity, I just think that religion doesn't really play a large role in the lives of many of those students I met today. The fact that society and religion seem to be growing apart is bad news for everyone. On a positive note, almost all the students heard of Pope Francis. By his words and actions people seem to be getting more interested in Christianity again. His approach is really working.


Are you a commercial for Christ?

John 1:6-8, 19-28 (3rd week of Advent, year b)

Advertizing is all around us, particularly as we prepare for Christmas. Television is full of commercials. Open a newspaper and there is advertizing everywhere. Whether it be on the side of the road, at bus stops or on the skytrain, billboards are all over the place. According to a conservative estimate, the average North American is exposed to 250 commercials - also called marketing messages - each and every day. Ads are so common that sometimes we can forget their power to influence us.

The purpose of commercials and advertising is to kindle a desire within our hearts for the promoted product. For this reason, advertisers try to put their products in the best possible light, showing their most appealing aspects. It goes without saying that advertising does not dwell on the negative aspects of what is being sold, this would not entice people to buy it! For example, a commercial for a hamburger will focus on how delicious it would be to eat, rather than the fact that it is bad for our health. A travel brochure for a vacation destination will show pictures of all the most beautiful beaches and locations rather than the dirty and rougher neighbourhoods. Advertizing for cars will focus on how fun it is to drive or try to convince you that if you buy it your life will suddenly be more successful and adventurous life. It won’t say much about the danger associated with driving or the negative effect it has on the environment. Good advertising is able to make us desire to have the product it promotes.

Our lives are meant to be commercials for Jesus. People should see the way that we act and speak and, knowing that we are Christians, should have a desire grow within them to become followers of Jesus as well. But, you object, it sounds a little crass when we speak about advertizing for Jesus. Perhaps you think it is impolite and unCanadian to push our beliefs or religion on others. To this, I say that we should not be shy to advertize for Jesus! We tolerate so much advertising in our lives for products that are ultimately disappointing. Things are never as good as they appear in a commercial. With Jesus, it’s just the opposite. He is always better than we can describe with our words. Further, Jesus is the only thing that can satisfy the human heart. He is the only “product” that will never disappoint. In the end, He is the one thing in the world worth advertizing!

In fact, we often talk about advertizing for Jesus, we just don’t use that world. The “churchier” words we use to describe the advertizing we do for Jesus are witness and testimony. In the gospel, we heard how John the Baptist came to be a witness and give testimony for Jesus. He did this by what he said and by how he lived. With his words he led people away from himself and towards Jesus. His words had weight because of the good, virtuous life that he lived. His life is an incredibly effective commercial for Jesus. Our way of living should do the same. Sometimes we are not good witnesses and our lives do not entice people to follow Jesus. For example, when we are bitter, unforgiving, selfish, cruel, dishonest and speak crudely, people will rightly think to themselves, “if this is what is means to be a follower of Jesus, then I want no part of it.” On the other hand, when we are joyful, honest, generous, peaceful and kind people will think to themselves “it seems that knowing Jesus really does make a difference, I want that in my life, so I need to come to know Jesus.” Our lives are supposed to be good commercials for Jesus.

One important way we give witness is by how we use our voices during Mass. What comes out of our mouths while in Church is a commercial for our faith - either good or bad. I always love celebrating Mass for the school children at the school. Above all, I am struck by one thing: their singing! By the way that they sing with enthusiasm, the students make an incredible witness. If newcomers were to walk into the Church and hear them for the first time, they would think that they really want to be at Mass, that Mass is something important and that they want to praise God with joy. Hearing them, makes you want to join in!  On the other hand, what type of message does it send when people do not participate in the singing at Mass? If people were to walk into a Church for the first time and hear half-hearted, joy-less singing, what would they think? Probably that what goes on inside the Church isn’t too important and that those present don’t really want to be there. Would a visitor want to be part of community that is lacking in joy? No way. Let’s consider what our participation in the singing at Mass, as individuals and as a community, says about us. This is a very timely as we approach Christmas. At the Christmas Masses many come who don’t regularly attend Mass. We have an incredible opportunity to witness simply by our singing. Hopefully those who attend the Christmas Masses will be encouraged to return more regularly! I realize that not everyone is talented when it comes to singing. On the one hand, some people sing loudly who should probably be singing more softly! On the other hand, most of us can sing with more enthusiasm. Pope Francis has recently encouraged us to overcome our embarrassment and hesitation and sing more during Mass. It does not matter, he said, if we are good singers. It is impossible to imagine that “you are able to shout when your team scores a goal and you cannot sing the Lord’s praises, and leave behind your composure a bit to sing.”

During Advent, we tend to focus on what we are doing to help prepare ourselves to welcome Jesus at Christmas. This Sunday, let us ask a different question: what are you doing to help others welcome Jesus into their heart at Christmas? Like John the Baptist, are you a good witness by what you say and act?  In particular, today we can consider how well we participate in the singing at the Mass. Is the way you use your voice at Mass an appealing commercial that leads people closer to Jesus?

Why waiting is good for us

We have all probably had the experience of waiting in an airport arrival room, patiently expecting the return of a loved one from a long trip. I have a clear memory from when I was a child waiting at the airport to pick up my mom who had been away for awhile. Though I did miss her while she was away, it was not until I was in the waiting room that I realized how much I missed her. I couldn't wait to see her. I realized then how important she was to me and that there was a bit of hole in my life when she was gone. Our experience of Advent should be like anticipating the return of loved one at the airport.

Waiting for Jesus to come at Christmas should make us realize that He is an utterly necessary part of our lives. Mark’s gospel begins this way: The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ the Son of God. For the initial audience of this document, 1st century Jews, the words “good news” were very loaded. The phrase would have reminded them of the Jewish captivity in Babylon (597 - 539 BC), in which their people were forcibly removed from their homeland and held in slavery in Babylon. The good news - or gospel - of this historic event was when they were freed by Cyrus the Great and permitted to return to Israel. Jews understood that through Cyrus, God freed them from slavery and returned them to their home. When Mark explains that his document is about the good news of Jesus Christ, Jews realized that it was the account of how God sent Jesus to free them from a different kind of slavery, namely sin and death, and lead them back to their true and eternal homeland with God the Father. They would have longed to encounter this salvation from Jesus. They would have realized their great need for liberation. Do we feel a similar need for Jesus in our life? Do we fully appreciate how greatly the world is in need of salvation? A quick look at all the violence, hate and greed that exists should convince us of this. Do we realize that we are all slaves to various things, namely our sinful habits? If we are honest, we all struggle with things that we cannot change. Are we fully convinced that we need Jesus to save us or do we think that we can fix ourselves and this world on our own? Would it make any difference for you if Jesus was never born some 2000 years ago? The time of waiting we experience during Advent should remind us of how important Jesus is to us personally.

We need to make space in our lives in order to properly welcome something or someone truly important into our lives. I tend to do a lot of work in the google “universe”: gmail, google docs, you name it. Recently, in the process of saving an important document, I discovered to my surprise that I had filled up my complimentary 15Gb drive in “the cloud” (whatever and wherever that is!). Since there was no way I was paying for more storage, I had to delete old files in order to make space for the new one. We all have experience of getting rid of some things to make room for something more important, whether it means erasing some shows on your PVR so that you can record a game or TV show you want to watch later or clearing out some clothes from your closet to make room for something new. In the gospel, we met the figure of John the Baptist. His role was to prepare others to receive Jesus in their lives. He did this by encouraging the people to repent from the sinful actions and wrong way of thinking about God and the world. Sin blocks Jesus’ entrance into our lives. If we are self-centered, arrogant or cruel to those around us, there is no room for Jesus in our hearts. If we truly think that we need Jesus to come as our Saviour - if we want to welcome Jesus into our lives at Christmas - we must make some attempt to prepare space for Him.

Confession is an excellent way to prepare our hearts for receiving Jesus at Christmas. Going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a very powerful means to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  Going to confession is not easy. It can be scary and embarrassing. I experience the same thing when I go to confession. A few years ago when I was living in Tijuana, Mexico, I wanted to go to confession at the Cathedral there. At the time I could understand Spanish ok, but my speaking skills were pretty basic. Therefore, I asked around if one of the priests hearing confessions spoke English. I was told one did, so I went to confession to him. After confessing my sins, the priest told me that his English wasn’t actually that good afterall. He then proceeded to repeat back to me in Spanish all that I had confessed just so I could verify he understood we correctly. Now, if you think it is embarrassing confessing your sins, I can tell you its much more awkward having your sins repeated back to you! Regardless of how uncomfortable this or any confession is, two wonderful things - which are particularly important during Advent - always happen:
  1. We convert and have our sins forgiven, thereby preparing space in our hearts for Jesus.
  2. It is a wonderful, practical way of acknowledging our need for Jesus to come into our lives as our Saviour.

Making a good confession is one of the best ways we can get ready to welcome Jesus at Christmas. Plan to go to confession sometime during the Advent season, particularly if it has been awhile. Check with your local parish as most have added opportunities to go during the next few weeks. More details can be found on the Archdiocesan website. Sometime before Christmas, let us all make a good confession so that we can truly experience the joy that comes with the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.


Mark 13:33-37 (1st Sunday of Advent, year B)

(Because of an extended announcement at the Masses this Sunday, I was told to “keep the homily under two minutes”. Not an easy task for me, but I gave it a shot!)

wikicommons, Liquid 2003 
How many of us here today are truly awake? Years ago, when I was an altar server, I used to doze off at Mass pretty regularly. Now this isn’t really an option for me - too many people would notice. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is simple: be awake!

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent - with literally mean “coming” - is the time in which we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ in the:
  1. Past. Jesus came into the world some 2000 years ago. During Advent we recall that Christmas celebrates the event in which God became man.
  2. Future. Jesus will come again at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. During Advent, remembering this reality should have an impact on the way we live our lives today. Am I ready to meet Jesus when He comes again? What changes would I like to make in my life?
  3. Present. This is the part we too easily forget. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the king who separates the sheep from the goats. This parable taught us that whatever we do to the needy, we do to Jesus. Whatever we fail to do for the poor and marginalized, we fail to do for Jesus. We meet needy people each and every day. Therefore, Jesus comes to us each and every day.

Distraction keeps us from recognizing the presence of Christ in the needy that we daily encounter. We are asleep and we miss the coming of Jesus. Usually this slumber of distraction is not consciously induced, it sort of just happens. We can get so preoccupied in our work or school that we are blinded to the presence of Jesus in those who surround us. It is easy to get so immersed in our phones and computers that we become oblivious to other flesh and blood human beings. People in the same home begin communicating via text messages. Next time you ride the bus or skytrain, see if you can find five people who are not on their phones and are having an actual conversation with their neighbour. Even while at Mass we get distracted. We can be thinking so much about what is for lunch that we ignore the presence of Christ in the Eucharist who gives Himself as the ultimate meal. We are asleep and missing the simple, daily ways in which Jesus comes into our lives through those we encounter.

What we need is some kind of spiritual coffee. I’m sure that most of of start our day with a cup of coffee. Personally, it is difficult to face the day without it! I have a very simple suggestion for how we can try to enact Jesus’ command to “stay awake”. Each morning when you take the first sip of your coffee (or tea, or chocolate milk, or whatever) make this simple prayer: “Lord, help me to be spiritually awake today so that I do not miss the ways you enter my life”. Advent is here; it’s time to wake up!

(Ok, so maybe that’s longer than two minutes. I tried!)

Show me the money!

Matthew 25: 31 - 46 (Christ the King, year a)

When I was a seminarian, a large and stressful part of my life was studying for exams. One evening after dinner I was having a conversation with another seminarian about all the tests we had coming up. We expressed how worried we were and how much we were studying. We both felt that unless we did well on our exams, we would not see our semester as a success. After speaking for a few minutes, we were surprised when an old priest joined our conversation. He had overheard all we had said. This priest explained that our exams are important and we should study and try our hardest. Before he left, he said one short line I will never forget: “Now remember, no matter how you do on these class exams, just make sure you pass your final exam!” By “final exam”, this elderly priest was referring to the scene that is described in the gospel of today in which the the sheep are separated from the goats by Christ the King.

We all have different ways of measuring whether our life is a success or not. We hold ourselves to certain standards. Sometimes people place these standards on others, particularly their children. If you meet these expectations you are good and your life is a success.  If not, it’s a failure. As I mentioned, for me such a standard was doing well academically. For others, the test of their life’s value may be whether they are popular and have many friends. Or maybe they give themselves a passing grade if they have a great job and are respected in their profession. Still others judge their value based on the amount of money they have. Do you have a nice house? A flashy car? The latest smartphone? We all create different tests to see whether or not we or those around us are “making the grade” in their life. Certainly, many of these goals are important and worth working towards. The problem is that none of these things matter in our final exam.

In the end, Jesus’ test is easy and it consists of just one question: did you show me love by concretely helping those who are in need? It is incredible when we consider the fact that so much of what we consider important, so much of what we spend our time working towards and worrying about, does not come up on Jesus’ final exam. What matters is simply whether we have helped those who are poor and needy or not. This is the way that we show love to Jesus. This is how we will be judged. Mother Teresa lived this reality in a profound way in her life. She was always careful to explain that the incredible work she did with the poor was not mere social work, but rather service done for Jesus, out of love for him. She explained that the Gospel, the entire message of Jesus, is so simple that it can be summarized in five words. She would repeat these words by counting them out on her fingers. Mother Teresa would teach others to do the same. This is what she called the five-fingered-Gospel: you did it to me. Whenever we do something to help someone in need, it is as though we did it to Jesus. Whenever we failed to do for someone in need, it is as though we fail to do it for Jesus. At the end of our life we will be judged on our response to this simple reality.

Jesus’ final exam is a practical test rather than one testing mere theory. Notice that Jesus does not tell us we will be judged based on whether we thought it was a good idea to help those in need or intended to do this. He judges us on whether or not we concretely helped the needy or not. There are many ways we can help those in need. For example, we can volunteer our time at a soup kitchen. I would like to look at a very simple way that all of us can help the poor. It is also a simple test to know whether we are doing so or not. If you have ever seen the movie Jerry Maguire, you will be familiar with the most catchy phrase from the film: show me the money! How generous we are in giving our money to those in need clearly reflects our commitment to the poor. Certainly not all can give as much to the poor as others, but the majority of us can and should be giving something. I am not speaking here about giving a toonie now and then to someone begging on the street. I would argue that this is not the most efficient and prudent use of our money. I am speaking here about giving consistently and regularly to some charity that helps the poor. There are many such groups run by the Archdiocese of Vancouver, for example, the Men’s Hostel or the Door is Open. Giving to Project Advance is also a way to help the poor and needy as this initiative funds many worthwhile Catholic Charities. When we look at our monthly budget we find a long list of expenses. Is one of the items on this list a regular financial contribution to the poor? If we do give regularly, do we give less to the poor than we spent on coffee or going to the movies? In a recent homily, Pope Francis said the following:
“this is a golden rule. When conversion reaches your pockets, it’s certain”. He explained: “Christians at heart? Everyone. Christians in mind? Everyone”. But, Pope Francis asked, how many are Christians when it comes to “our pockets? Few”.

When I was in school, teachers would sometimes give us the exam questions ahead of time. When this happened, I always spent a lot of time preparing these questions. I would be foolish not to. Jesus, our King and judge, has told us that at the end of our life we will be tested on only one question. He has told us well in advance what the question is so we all have plenty of time to prepare. You did it to me. Has our conversion reached our wallet? Does the way in which we spend out money show care for Jesus present in the poor and needy or not?