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.