A worthy gift for our newborn King (homily – Dec. 25, 2016)

Merry Christmas! After passing through the four weeks of Advent, we’ve finally arrived. How good it is to finally celebrate Christ’s birthday.

As you can see, we’ve got all the trimmings of a grand celebration – Christmas music, poinsettias (80 of them!), a manger scene, Christmas trees, lights, and incense. But is that enough? One wonders.

A couple weeks ago I had an interesting conversation online about car repairs. Now I want you to appreciate just how unusual this is, and my history with cars starts with my first. It was a 1988 Chevy S-10 and I bought it from my grandfather shortly after my fifteenth birthday. It was a V6, 2.8 liter engine – which sounds impressive but truth to tell Bessie couldn’t move quickly, carry much, or tow. The hint is in the name ‘Bessie’ – like your prize cow, she was oversized, underpowered, and moody.

But she was mine, and I loved her!

My father is an engineer and my brother takes after him – both of them have an aptitude for fixing things, and they did their best to make sure I was comfortable in some basics. I learned enough to do simple maintenance – minor repairs and changing the oil. (And if you’re wincing at that second one, you should!)

Fortunately, your average car – even an older one – has sensors and warning lights when things start to go wrong. For example, say you change the oil in your beloved old truck and upon installing the new oil filter, you mis-thread it so that the seal isn’t quite right. You’ll start leaking oil slowly and eventually a little red light will light up on your dash to let you know. No problem, right?

In theory, this system will get your attention and you’ll consult someone to get things fixed. …or you can just keep driving. And you know what, it’ll drive pretty well. Ah, eventually you’ll lose enough oil that the engine will start ticking – that’s the sound of things grinding because there’s not enough lubricant. No problem! Just add more oil until the ticking stops. Hey – if you overfill, the excess will get pushed out of the engine and burn off from the heat!

I’d like to pause here to point out to anyone who is taking notes on car repair…well, don’t. This worked for all of 300 miles of driving – and then my truck wouldn’t start. Something in the engine cracked, the heads fused, and Bessie wouldn’t start. It cost me $2,000 to replace the engine – and no small amount of flack from those same family members who had done their best to warn me about the dangers of driving with this problem.

Nowadays, I have no problem taking my car into a shop and having a professional change my oil – or any other maintenance and repair work that needs to be done. I learned my lesson: if there’s a warning light, don’t be afraid to find someone who can help.

But we are afraid, aren’t we, and not just in matters related to vehicles. We’ve been given a vehicle of sorts – the very life we were born into, our body & soul, meant to take us from here to eternity. In the gift of the Scriptures and the Church, we’ve got an instruction manual of sorts – and plenty of people who are there to help guide us. Between the saints, our family & friends, our parish community, and God Himself, we’re all set!

No problem, right?

And then a warning light comes on. Something’s not quite right – we need to stop in for service. And maybe we even know it! ….but we’re afraid. We know that odds are good that even though it wasn’t entirely intentional, we’ve contributed to the problems in our lives. Something got mis-threaded and the consequences sort of spiraled beyond our control. What if we get blamed? How will other’s respond to my mistakes? Will God really help me, or will I be condemned for my part in the mess I find myself in?

So we push on. We substitute anything we can – that extra oil – to avoid putting ourselves in front of the Divine Mechanic.

I mentioned a couple of mechanics at the beginning – my dad and my brother. Especially when it comes to cars, my brother is a genius. Since he discovered tools and vehicles, he’s had a car that he’s working on. His favorite is a 1970-something VW Rabbit – he’s restored three of them and they’re each lovely stripped to the frame and then brought to a point where you’d think they had just rolled off of the lot. Admittedly, a VW Rabbit is not exactly a luxury ride – but to hear him talk about it, you’d never know the difference.

What if the Divine Mechanic looks at us similarly? We have this fear that if we go before Him, if we show him the mess we’ve made, if He sees the sins we’ve committed along the way, that’ll be it! He’ll chastise us, rebuke us, send us away for having destroyed this amazing life He’s given us.

But what if that’s exactly wrong? I submit that it is – I imagine it a little differently. Our heavenly Father – that Divine Fixer – delights in us. And when we roll into His garage, ticking, dripping oil, barely moving at all, that’s when He starts to get excited. I have this image of God popping the hood, rubbing His hands happily together saying “let’s get in here and fix this thing!”. And maybe He’ll have to strip things down to the frame – but He’ll lovely restore us as we were meant to be.

The sad thing is, most of us – myself included – we struggle to really trust the Lord. Could it be possible that He really wants to do this for me? And the Father saw that doubt, that fear – He looked down on us pouring the garbage of the world into our souls to try to make it another mile, and He decided that this was the time to put our hearts at ease. So He sent His Son – trained in the healing of souls, but in the most un-intimidating way possible: as a baby. The infant who would make us whole.

Maybe you come here every Sunday, maybe you’re here only because grandma asked you to be – but you’re here! And this baby, Jesus, He wants you to know that you are beloved, you are the Father’s delight. Nothing in your past, not one of your sins, none of your mistakes will ever undo that love.

All of this – all these trimmings & trappings, all the food & gifts, the music, even our Mass here today – it’s all geared towards one thing: giving the Divine Mechanic permission to heal our souls. How do we celebrate? How do we welcome him? This is the key: taking this opportunity, on the birthday of Jesus, to offer Him the one gift – the only gift – that He desires: ourselves. And with great joy, the One who loves us receives us, welcomes us as His brothers & sisters, and will make us whole.

Merry Christmas to us all.

 

Letting our desires be our prayers (homily – Dec. 18, 2016)

Happy Advent! Though it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well as other greetings, we are indeed joyful as we enter this final week of preparation for Christ’s Nativity. We’ve now entered into the octave before Christmas, with special prayers as well as antiphons (the “Oh antiphons” to Mary), as we get ready.

One of the joys of priestly and religious life is the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of daily prayers offered at different hours of the day (thus the name) every day. One of the hours, the Office of Readings, not only includes the psalms and other selections from Sacred Scripture but also selections from the Church fathers. Last Thursday’s text was from Saint Augustine and I’d like to share it in it’s entirety:

From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer

In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.

Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.

I don’t know how that strikes you, but I imagine I’m not alone in finding Advent to be a mixed blessing. Oh it’s wonderful, to be sure – I delight in the Christmas music (year-round, in fact!), the festive decorations, and the little traditions that our family has for the season.

But Advent is also a pressure cooker, pretty much starting from Thanksgiving and running through Christmas. We’re making preparations, setting up those festive decorations, hosting other people, cooking, preparing rooms, buying presents (and there’s always that one hard-to-please relative!), and…. the list goes.

Dear God, please let it be done!

Of course it’s all blessing, and we are joyful & grateful for both the Advent season and Christ’s Nativity. But I know that for myself, this extra tension allows to surface the problems that during the rest of the year, I can convince myself are under control. Worries, anxieties, frustrations, sins – they’re suddenly much harder to deal with.  “Pray always”? How am I supposed to do that in the middle of all of this?!?

And then along comes St. Augustine with this assertion – that our desires are prayers.

As if to confirm this, the reading given to us for today from Isaiah has this amazing conversation between Ahaz and God. The Lord says “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”. And Ahaz answers in a way that resonates deeply with me:

‘Yeah….I’m not gonna trust that. No way – not doing it.’

Even God’s response is relateable, as exasperated, He basically throws His grace and gift not only to Ahaz, but to all of mankind:

Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

How much the Lord wants to hear and answer the desires of our hearts, the longings that we hold within! And while we struggle to keep them hidden, to avoid putting them to words, we meanwhile wonder how to pray, what is the ‘right’ way to present ourselves to God, and question if we’re worthily presenting ourselves to Him.

And this is what the prophet Isaiah and Saint Augustine are addressing – and what the Nativity of the Lord is all about: that God wants to speak to the desires of our heart.

The word ‘desire’ has been twisted in modern times, given the a salacious tenor, and associated with sin – most often tied to sex and commercialism. But every desire, every longing, is rooted in God, starts with the knowledge that I am lacking something and need to be filled from the Source of goodness.

How has Advent been for you? Maybe it’s been good, maybe it’s been a struggle – perhaps you find yourself echoing the doubt of Ahaz amid the invitations of the season: ‘I’m not so sure….this feels selfish, unworthy, unacceptable to God.’

Again and again, the Lord gently offers the invitation to trust Him, to place ourselves unabashedly in His presence, to open our hearts to Him – and to receive the wonders He has prepared for us, wonders beyond our imagining.

This Sunday marks the second day of the octave before Christmas. What are your longings, your desires? How can the Lord answer your prayers? Maybe they’re specific, maybe inarticulate – but that unsettledness is the very prayer the Lord hopes to hear.

Come, let rest in God. Let us we ask Him to speak to our desires, to give us the confidence to present them without fear trusting that even if they are imperfect He will transform them and make them fruitful, and that we may receive Christ, Emmanuel, the answer to prayerful desires.

Holy Desire, holy prayer

This was something I needed to read recently. Perhaps it will be consoling to you as well. Blessings as we enter the octave before Christmas.


From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer

In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.

Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.