Friday, December 24, 2010

Awake! For your sake God has become man!

Homily, Christmas Eve, 2010
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

A friend of mine (Jody Bottum, former editor of First Things) tells this Christmas story of his youth: Late Afternoon on Christmas Eve, the year I was eleven, my father took me with him across the river [to visit] Mr. Harmon, a rancher who lived over on the other side of the river... If you've never seen that South Dakota country in winter, you have no idea how desolate land can be... But you can't pay a visit in South Dakota, especially at Christmas, without facing food--endless besieging armies of it... From the moment she spotted us turning off the highway, Mrs. Harmon must have been piling the table... But then Mrs. Harmon began to yell, "Jim, Jim, the horses are out." And in a tangle of arms and jackets, we poured out to herd back the frightened animals... four expensive quarter-horses [got] loose on the prairie. Mr. Harmon climbed into his pickup and headed north along the highway, while my father drove off to the south. Mrs. Harmon took it more calmly. She went inside to telephone the neighbors, and the boys began to saddle three horses to ride out and look.

You have to understand the significance of that third horse, for it marks the difference between the town and the country--even a little town surrounded by country. The Harmons just assumed that an eleven-year-old boy is old enough to help, while my mother would have pitched a fit at my riding out on the prairie alone, a few hours from sundown, in the middle of winter.

[So he sets out to find the horse...] There was little chance of getting lost. I knew, more or less, how to ride, and the highway was in sight much of time. Still, as the land grew colder and darker, the excitement faded, leaving only brittle determination, a boy's will not to be the first to turn back.

I can't have ridden far through the Christmas hills--maybe three or four miles--when I came over a rise and spotted one of the horses skittering in front of a worn farmhouse. Standing in the yard was a woman, a rope in one hand and her other hand held up empty toward the horse. She was hatless and tiny, hardly bigger than I was, with a man's heavy riding coat hanging down below her knees, and she seemed very old to me. Yellow light streamed out on the cold ground from the one lit window of the house.

As I rode down, she waved me back, talking to the horse in the gentlest, lightest patter, as though nothing much had ever been wrong, really, and, anyway, everything was all right, now. He bobbed back and forth, nearer and nearer, until he touched her open hand with his steaming nose and she eased the loop over his neck.

"Bea Harmon called," she said, handing me the rope, "and told me you were all out looking for this boy. They often come to me, you know. He'll go along quietly now."

Her eyes were quick and black. "I don't see many people, here about," she chirruped, like a winter bird. "Come in and get warm. I'll make some coffee. No, you're a little young for coffee. I'll put some water on for tea, and there're the cookies I made in case someone came by." But I was proud of bringing back one of the strays and wouldn't wait. I shied away from her outstretched hand and galloped back.

Sometimes you catch sight of a turn leading off into the distance, a dirt track or a county road at right angles to the highway as you drive along in the straight, miles-long line you see only in the West. And you know you'll never go up it, never come back to find where it leads, and always there remains a sense, as you roll past, that maybe this time you should have turned and followed that track up into the distant hills.

Her hair was the same thin shade of gray as the weather-beaten pickets of the fence around her frozen garden. She had a way with horses, and she was alone on Christmas Eve. There is little in my life I regret as much as that I would not stay for just one cookie, just one cup of tea.

On this Christmas Eve, do not let the opportunity presented to you pass you by. Christ has come in Bethlehem. The Child is born. Emmanuel, God-is-with-us. Our Savior is at hand. Awake and greet him.

St. Augustine would tell us (OOR, Dec. 24), “Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man. You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would have never returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

If you recognize his first coming as a child in the simplicity of Bethlehem, if you listen to his teachings and act on them, then perhaps your heart will be open to see him in the many ways in which he continues to reveal himself to us today.

(HPR, Dec. ’98) I remember once reading a reminiscence written by a prominent theologian who taught at a major university. She was traveling across country to give a lecture, and it was an exhausting trip, as she had to change trains a couple times and found it difficult to eat while traveling. As she walked through one terminal, her fatigue and hunger overcame her, and she fainted at the foot of a staircase. Nearby, there was a small group of homeless men. One of them left the group and came over and helped her. He helped her up and gently sat her down on the stair. He then went off for a moment, returned with a cup of water, and stood their anxiously as she drank it up. Then he went off again, got a porter from the train she was headed to, and then helped pile her bags on the carrier. As she was leaving with the porter, she weakly tried to thank him, but he waved off her thanks with the simple words, “Oh, you’d have done the same for me!”

And she wept, for she knew it wasn’t true. Though she was a very learned theologian, she encountered Christ in a way she was not expecting in a person where she had not expected to find him.

If our hearts our open to the Child of Bethlehem, we will find Christ easily, when:
- we reconcile with with an estranged family member, even if just a card or note.
- we forgive someone who has harmed us.
- we take time to listen to the lonely or distressed.
- we comfort those who have lost a loved one.
- we help someone in need, especially during these difficult economic times.
- we gather our families together to pray, inviting him into our household.
- we make peace with our enemies.
- we bring a smile to someone's face.
- we share in the suffering of the ill, the elderly, the dying by visiting them, spending time with them.
- we encourage those whose faith is weak.

St. Teresa of Avila,would say:
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, but yours,
No feet, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.

Find Christ now. Greet him. Welcome him into your heart and your home. Hold him in your arms as did the Blessed Mother, kiss him with good deeds, embrace him with love, and tell him you love him continuously in prayer and in the people you meet.

The Christmas Proclamation

* The twenty-fifth day of December.
* In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world from the time when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth;
* the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood;
* the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham;
* the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt;

* the one thousand and thirty-second year from David's being anointed king;
* in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
* in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
* the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
* the forty second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
* the whole world being at peace,
* in the sixth age of the world,
* Jesus Christ the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception,
* was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary, being made flesh.
* The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saint Joseph and the Modern Man

Homily, 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

I have learned in my life, and perhaps you have as well, that God seldom does what we expect him to do or would like him to do.

And certainly that is the case with the Incarnation, which we will commemorate on Christmas day. Those who were waiting and praying for the Messiah certainly didn’t expect him to come as a child, born of a Virgin in a stable in Bethlehem. Perhaps they expected this descendent of Kings to be born of a King, into a royal and noble family, with all the power, wealth and honor that entailed.

But God didn’t do what everyone was expecting him to do. Instead, he chose an obscure descendent of King David, a humble carpenter from Nazareth, to be the head of the family from which his Son would come. So, as we bring the season of Advent, this season of preparation, to a close, let’s look at St. Joseph.

The first thing to note about St. Joseph is his dilemma. God not only does the unexpected, but he puts Joseph in a tough situation. His wife was pregnant, and he did not yet know that she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit after the annunciation by Gabriel. Yet certainly he could not believe that she could have done something wrong. So how does he handle his dilemma? Since he is an “upright man, unwilling to expose her to the law”, he chooses to divorce her quietly because that will cause her the least harm. He was not interested in what would benefit him the most, but instead, he thought only of what was best for her. In fact, the shame would have fallen on him, because he would have been seen as a deadbeat who abandoned his fiancé. He was not only a just man, but he was a charitable man, willing to make sacrifices for the sake of others, and to give of himself.

Perhaps God was testing him, to see if he was worthy to be the foster father of Jesus, to see if he would have the qualities necessary to be a father to the Savior. But finally, the Lord sends an angel to tell him the rest of the story, to tell him what he must do. And that is the next thing to note about St. Joseph: when he awoke, the scriptures say, “he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him.” He did not question the Lord’s will; he did not second-guess what he had been told; he simply submitted himself to God’s will and went about his duty as he was told.

Again, God had acted in an unexpected way, and for St. Joseph, that meant that his life from that moment onwards was radically changed. Through the tradition of the Church, in the writings of the saints, and in a lot of Christian art, St. Joseph is pictured as an old man. Since he was the guardian and protector of Mary’s virginity, many in the church, in their excess of piety, thought that he must certainly be an old man. But, this attitude, this image, as Fulton Sheen once said, “betrays a lack of confidence in the ability of young people to live chaste lives, as if the condition for living holy purity is that one be old.” So isn’t it much more beautiful to picture St. Joseph as a young man who immediately said “yes” to God when he called. St. Joseph was a chaste man. Not all husbands are called to live perfect continence within marriage as he did, but all husbands are called to live and act chastely, not treating their wives or other women as objects, but instead treating them with respect and dignity.

And I do not find it too hard to believe that he would so joyfully accept God’s will for his life for he was already a just man who knew the joys of keeping the commandments and loving God and our neighbor as himself. After all, he was being called to participate in the greatest wonder in human history - the birth of the God-man, Immanuel, God is with us; he was being called to be the guardian and protector of this divine child, and he had the privilege to be the husband of the most marvelous woman who has ever existed, Mary.

And to top it all off, St. Joseph, at the command of the angel, had the privilege of giving that child the name of Jesus, “he who saves his people from their sins”, the name above every other name, the name at which every knee should bend, in the heavens and on the earth, the name that every tongue must confess as Lord.
There is a beautiful prayer in the tradition of the Church, which is especially appropriate for Advent and Christmas, “O blessed Joseph, happy man who privilege it was, not only to see and hear that God whom many a king has longed to see, yet saw not, longed to hear, yet heard not; but also to carry him in your arms and kiss him, to clothe him and watch over him! Pray for us, Blessed Joseph.”

Because he has been so highly honored, and because he was a man of such virtue, it is no wonder that, next to the Blessed Mother, he is considered the greatest of the Saints. Pope Paul VI once said, “St. Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies; ... he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need of great things--it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues, but they need to be true and authentic.”

So, as this Advent draws to a close, let us look to St. Joseph as a model of, as a just, honest, humble, obedient, hard working, chaste and pure man, who was always ready to do the Lord’s will. Because if we can model ourselves on him, then perhaps we will be responsive when the Lord does the unexpected in our lives.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Holiness: Doing God's Will with a Smile

Homily, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

Years ago, I had a brush with greatness: my Christmas present to myself that year was a short trip to New York City with a couple close friends to see a new production of the great opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, at the Metropolitan Opera. Well, on my way to pick up my friends at their hotel, I literally almost bumped into Luciano Pavarotti as he was getting out of a limousine. I did the classic double-take, but since I’m not a groupie, I didn’t stop to get his autograph or anything.

Years earlier, I had an even better brush with greatness, this time with Mother Teresa. When I was still in the seminary, we used to make monthly visits to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. We would act as tour guides for visitors or act as altar servers during the many masses they had on Sundays. Well one year, Mother Teresa was there to see 26 of her sisters make their final vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service to the poorest of the poor. So I got to serve at that Mass. When it came time for the presentation of the gifts, I was to lead the procession of about a dozen sisters who would bring the gifts forward. Well, at the last minute, they decided that Mother Teresa was going to join the procession and bring up some gifts. So I had to wait a couple of minutes for her to get ready, and I kept looking back to see when to go, she was kind of slow and I was getting kind of anxious, and finally, Mother Teresa looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Go!” And I tell you, I was ready to go to Calcutta or wherever she sent me, so thrilled was I to be in her presence.

What I thought was interesting, however, was to see the crowds of people flock around her after the Mass. Apparently, some people had been following her all over town, and a fellow seminarian commented that they seemed like “Mother Teresa groupies.”

Well, why is it that a simple nun attracted such attention? Why did people want to be in her presence and get a blessing or a kind word? Why? For one simple reason: her holiness. Holiness is attractive, it makes a person beautiful, and it has an effect on anyone who comes in contact with it.

And the same was true of John the Baptist in the Gospel today. Jesus said, (Matthew 11:7-11), “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet… Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” People came to John the Baptist because of his holiness, and they wanted a share of his holiness.

What is holiness? Holiness means to be “set apart” – to be set apart from worldly things for spiritual things. In other words, to be set apart for God. Holiness should remind us that we are destined to eternal life, the kingdom of heaven, and should not set our hearts on the passing things of this world.

But is holiness reserved for only a few, like John the Baptist, Mother Teresa, or the Pope? One of the spiritual writers says, (Fr. Bruno James in SCC #458), “It is a mistake to believe that the spiritual life is only for a chosen few; that sanctity is in much the same category as genius and only within the scope of a tiny minority.” Pope Pius XI (SCC) put it this way, “Our Lord himself tells us: ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ Let no one think that this invitation is addressed to a small and exclusive number, and that it is permissible for the rest to remain in a lower degree of virtue. It is clear that this law obliges everybody and without exception.” And finally, the new catechism says this, CCC 2013: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

How then do we, in our daily lives, become holy? Well, if holiness means being set apart for God, then we do so by setting ourselves apart for God. And this is done in one primary way: conforming our wills to the will of God. In the Our Father, we say “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” By uniting our wills on earth with the will of God in heaven, we help to make his kingdom present in the world.

So, St. Teresa of Avila would say (SCC), “The highest perfection consists not in interior favors or in great raptures or in visions or in the spirit of prophecy, but in bringing our wills so closely into conformity with the will of God that, as soon as we realize he wills anything, we desire it ourselves with all our might… bitter with the sweet, knowing that to be his Majesty’s will.”

Some might think this a difficult task, and indeed, the modern world wants to make it a difficult task by saturating every form of media with temptations to worldly things and mocking those who would pursue a life of virtue. But, to be honest, nothing could be easier. I’ll quote at length one of my favorite spiritual writers, deCaussade (in SCC#465), “If the business of becoming holy seems to present insufferable difficulties, it is merely because we have a wrong idea about it. In reality, holiness consists of one thing only: complete loyalty to God’s will. Now everyone can practice this loyalty, whether actively or passively. To be actively loyal means obeying the laws of God and the Church and fulfilling all the duties imposed on us by our way of life. Passive loyalty means that we lovingly accept all that God sends us at each moment of the day. Now is there anything here too difficult for us? Certainly nothing in active loyalty, for if the duties are beyond our powers, we are not expected to attempt to fulfill them. If we are too ill to go to Mass, we need not. And it is the same for all other precepts which lay down duties. But, of course, there can be no exemption from precepts which forbid wrongdoing, for we are never allowed to sin. Can anything be more sensible, or easier? We are left with no excuse. Yet God asks nothing more than this. But he does require it from everyone without exception.”

So, it’s real simple: live out your vocation faithfully, and do not sin. And how do we get the strength to do those two things? By prayer. Through prayer we draw closer to the Lord as an intimate friend, and the closer we draw to him, the more we will know his will for our lives, and the more strength he will give us to grown in virtue and overcome sin.

But personal holiness is not only good for us, it is good for those around us. It is a powerful way of evangelizing. Holiness is like a sweet-smelling perfume that fills a room. Could you ever imagine anyone using foul language around Mother Teresa? Or telling an off-color joke? Or gossiping about someone who wasn’t present? In the same way, whether in the work place or in school, if you refuse to engage in gossip, use foul language, or participate in off color stories or jokes, then you will have a positive effect on those around you. Likewise, in your homes, your family can grow in virtue if you set your home apart for God, by not allowing any pornography or violence in the home through television, by not getting caught up in consumerism or materialism and the constant pursuit of new and better things and gadgets, by making you home a place for the family to grow in their vocation as Christians.

And during this Advent season, we ought to especially be preparing ourselves by lives of holiness so that we can commemorate the birth of our Savior and welcome the child Jesus into our hearts.

Mother Teresa had a simple definition: "True holiness consists in doing God's will with a smile."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Justification: Forgiveness and a New Heart

Homily, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA

One of the things I love most about the holiday season is the music. I like to listen to public radio, and around this time of year, they start playing all the classics. One of my favorites, which always receives its share of air time, is Handel’s “Messiah”, of which I’m sure you’re all familiar with the famous “Hallelujah” chorus. But I have two other favorites that come from Handel’s Messiah, one is near the beginning, “Comfort ye my people”, and the other is “And he shall purify the sons of Levi.” Those songs are very much about the priesthood, and when listening to them, I can make them a prayer.

In today's Gospel, Matthew tells us, "John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”" And he tells us that, people from "Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins."

Why did so many people flock to see John the Baptist? As Isaiah said, and as it is sung in Handel’s Messiah, “comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, cry out unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” John was so attractive because his words were words of mercy, words of comfort. If you repent and be baptized, your sins will be forgiven. For these people knew one simple fact: they were sinners in need of forgiveness. And the words of John the Baptist filled them will great joy and hope: the Lord was coming, the promised Messiah who would obtain forgiveness for their sins.

But, you know, it was more than that. It was more than just hearing the comforting words that their sins were going to be forgiven. There was something hidden in John’s words which also attracted them. He would say, “I have baptized you in water; He [who is to come] will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” Forgiveness was part of the promise, but that was not the whole promise, for the Scriptures are full of other promises through the prophets, Ezekiel said (11:19), “I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart…” and Malachi said (3:3), as it is sung in Handel’s Messiah, “And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto to the Lord an offering in righteousness.”

Now, to explain this, I’ll need to go into history a little bit. I’m sure you all know at least a little bit about the Protestant Reformation. Well, one of the key disputes between Catholics and Protestants at that time was this: what happens to a person when God forgives them, or what we call the question of justification. When Martin Luther was trying to explain this from the Protestant perspective, he taught that when the Lord justifies a sinner, the soul becomes like “dung covered with snow.” In other words, the person remains in their sin, still full of filth and corruption, like dung, but the Lord covers them with snow, so that when he looks down, all he sees is the white snow and not the dung, which is still there. You’re still a sinner, but the Lord overlooks that because Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. And certainly this flows from one of the promises of Isaiah (1:18), “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.” And the Psalm says (103:12), “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our sins.”

But it doesn’t end there, for the truth that the Catholic Church upheld against Martin Luther and his followers was that something else also happens when your sins are forgiven: you are purified, renewed, given a new heart. The dung, our filth and corruption, is not just covered up, but our souls are recreated, and a seed of glory is planted, a seed that if allowed to germinate will bear fruit for eternal life. In other words, when the Lord forgives your sins, he does so with "the Holy Spirit and fire." He not only forgets and overlooks your sins, he also creates in you a new heart, as St. Paul says, “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”

And this happens first in Baptism, for Jesus says that we must be born from above by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). So Baptism accomplishes in us this new birth, this justification, where our sins are forgiven and we are recreated. When I baptize a child, part of the ritual says, “You have become a new creation… You have put on Christ. In Him you have been baptized.” And this new life in Christ should always be increasing, as St. Paul says in today’s reading, “It is my wish that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you.”

But, as we are all too aware, after Baptism, we still have our free will, and the temptations to sin from the world, the flesh and the devil often seem too strong. In short, despite the great gift of rebirth we have been given, we often turn from it. But we should not lose hope, because our Lord has given us another great sacrament, Confession, which the Fathers of the Church have called the “Baptism of tears.” And in this Sacrament, the same thing happens: we are forgiven, and renewed.

So, in this season of Advent, we can be like the people who responded to John the Baptist’s preaching, confessing our sins and reforming our lives through penance, then we will be truly ready when He comes again – and by the witness of our lives, we can be voices crying out in the wilderness of this modern world, announcing that “the reign of God is at hand.”