Saturday, December 24, 2011

What shall I bring to the manger?

Christmas 2011 Midnight Mass
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

St. Therese of Lisieux writes of a powerful experience she had one Christmas. She was attending Midnight Mass when she was about 14 years old (pp. 98-100). Until that time, she had been a child, very touchy, always crying over the littlest things. Her sisters used to tell her, “You cry so much during your childhood, you will no longer have tears to shed later on!” But at Mass that night, something happened. She encountered the child Jesus. She writes, “On that luminous night… I received the strong and powerful God… On that night when Jesus, the gentle, little Child, made Himself subject to weakness and suffering for love of me, He made me strong and courageous.” And from then on, she gave up her childish sensitivities and tearfulness. But more importantly, she discovered something else. She writes, “I felt charity enter my soul, and the need to forget myself and please others; since then I’ve been happy.” After what she calls her “Christmas Conversion”, she entered the convent within a year and lived a beautiful life of self-giving prayer, now a Saint, a Doctor of the Church, and patroness of missionaries.

The Shepherds too encountered Christ on the original Christmas night. And it changed their lives as well. The angel appears to them in the fields and says, “behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” It was customary in Jewish times that on the birth of a child, the minstrels would gather to welcome the child into the world with music, which I imagine is one reason we still sing Christmas Carols to this day.. But this was an event of such joy that the angels themselves burst forth in song , “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

St. Therese and the shepherds knew one thing: that the child born in Bethlehem, lying in swaddling clothes in a manger, was the savior who had come to save them from their sins. As the Scripture says, “This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.” So, the greatest gift of Christmas is the gift we receive: the gift of Jesus, whose name means “Savior”, our Emmanuel, who is “God with us.” In that manger in Bethlehem, as St. Paul writes, “The grace of God appeared, offering salvation to all men… our Savior Christ Jesus. It was he who sacrificed himself for us to redeem us from all unrighteousness.”

And the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us.” The prophets transmitted the word of God, but Jesus is the Word itself, the Word of God: the incarnate Word who translates God into human language, by revealing his infinite love for man. The prophets had said wonderful things about God's love, but the Son of God incarnates this love and shows himself, living and able to be touched by human hands. (DI 29)

Of this great wonder Saint Augustine asks (Sermon LXIX.5), “Why was it done?” He reminds us of what Saint John said, “to those who believed in Him he has given the power to be the sons of God.” And then he says, “Do not imagine that it was too great a thing for you to become the sons of God; for your sakes He became the Son of Man, who was the Son of God... He descended to us, and shall we not ascend to Him? For us He accepted death, and shall not He give us His Life? For you He suffered evil things, and shall he not give you His good things?

St. Augustine would also say (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.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes that when the history of the world is written, the saddest line of all will be “There was no room for them at the inn. There was room in the inn for the soldiers of Rome who had brutally subjugated the Jewish people; there was room for the daughters of the rich merchants of the East; there was room for those clothed with soft garments who live in the houses of the king; in fact, there was room for anyone who had a coin to give the innkeeper; but there was no room for Him who came to be the Inn of every homeless heart in the world.” The only room for him in this world, it seemed, was on a Cross. But not yet, for today the manger suffices and the world rejoices.

There was no room for Jesus when he came among us as a child, but in a sense, the same is true today, for our hearts are too crowded with worldly things to receive him. If there is sin in our souls, especially, then we have made no room for him in the Inn of our hearts, where he wants to come and dwell. But there are two things we can do. First, make room for him through repentance, cleansing the house, as it were. And second, inviting him in through prayer. And if we do this, then we can experience the presence of Christ and serve him in so many ways: in the poor, lonely, sick and suffering, in those we encounter in our daily lives, and indeed, in our own hearts. And we encounter Jesus most especially now, in the Eucharist, where he gives us his body and blood, soul and divinity, as food for our earthly journey so that we might reach our heavenly destination.

And what a gift this is. As Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone… For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder, dominion rests. Then name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”

This great gift demands a gift in return: the gift of our very selves. There is a beautiful English carol called “Shepherd's Song At Christmas”, which you will sometimes hear played on the radio during this season. It tells of one of the shepherds, who sees the star and hears the angel, “I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.” But he is worried about what he, a poor shepherd can bring to Jesus. “But what shall I bring as a gift for the king? Shall I bring a song? A song for the king in the manger? What shall I bring as a gift for the child? What shall I bring to the manger? Shall I bring a lamb? Gentle, meek and mild. Very poor I am, but I know there’s a king in Bethlehem. But what, what shall I bring him? Shall I bring my heart, and give my heart to him? Yes, I will bring my heart to the manger. Yes, I will give my heart to him.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Rest of the Story

Homily, 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

Cathy (our DRE) sent me a YouTube video of her daughter Jenny conducting her High School ensemble playing and singing the great Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. I was delighted to see these young people, lead by Jenny, do such a fantastic job with one of the greatest pieces of music in history. The story goes that when Handel composed the great Hallelujah Chorus, his servant walked in on him and found him in tears and Handel exclaimed, “I did think I saw all heaven before me and the great God himself.” And certainly, if you listen to the Hallelujah Chorus in person, you would think you’re in heaven listening to the angels sing. Naturally, the High School students weren't able to play the entire oratorio, but perhaps this whetted their appetites and one day they will.

I once had the privilege of attending a performance of Handel's Messiah by the Atlanta Symphony orchestra and choir, conducted by the great Robert Shaw before he passed. But the funny thing about that particular performance, on Friday night during the Holiday season, was that after the Hallelujah Chorus, a lot of people got up and left – it’s a rather long performance, over two hours, and people thought that was the climax. But that’s not the end of Handel’s Messiah, it’s only the end of the Second Part, there’s still a whole Third part to go.

I think it’s sometimes that way with Christmas in America today: we sing about Christ a lot, but do we remember the rest of the story? We want all the Hallelujah’s, the joys and the fun of Christmas, but not the rest of the song of our salvation. It’s easy to spend a lot of time preparing our homes with lights and streamers and decorations, while forgetting to prepare our hearts to receive our Lord. It’s easy to invite guests into our homes, while forgetting to ask the Divine guest to be the center of our families. Americans have been so caught up in consumerism, materialism, and the pursuit, not of happiness, but of instant gratification, that we’ve forgotten the rest of the song, and wouldn’t know it if we heard it.

In today's Gospel, just a week before Christmas, we read again the story of the Annunciation, reminding us of that moment of great joy and wonder. The angel Gabriel gave Mary an invitation, the invitation to be the mother of the Son of God, her Son, to be named Jesus, who would rule over the house of Jacob, where he would reign without end. But do you think that Mary would have said “yes” if she knew what awaited her? If she knew the rest of the story?

Gabriel's explanation does not tell her all the events to come. She is faced with a great mystery, which she knows to be rich in suffering. She knew from Scripture that the Redeemer would be a man of sorrows, as it was prophesied that the Messiah would have to suffer, as St. Paul says “the gospel which reveals the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets.” To be the Mother of the Savior, the Son of God, meant to be the Mother of one condemned to death. And the road to that Saving Cross would begin shortly after she said “yes”.

Her child would be born in a stable, attended only by cattle and a few shepherds. King Herod would then seek to kill the child, massacring innocent children by the dozens to find him. And she and Joseph would have to flee their home to seek refuge in a foreign land till it was safe. And then when they returned, she would watch her Son begin his ministry, only to see it end on the Cross. And she would be there, watching all the jeers and insults and blasphemies hurled at her Son as he endured the Cross.

If you were a mother, and knew all that was going to happen to your child, how easy would it have been to say, as Mary did, “Let it be done to me as you say”? But Mary did say yes. She knew that she would share in her son's sorrows, but that these sorrows are redemptive for the whole human race. That is God's plan for her, and Mary accepts it without reserve because her will is perfectly united with the Salvific will of God.

If Handel’s Messiah were a play, and the events of Christ’s life were being played out before us as we listened to the music, you know where the Hallelujah Chorus would be sung? The Crucifixion. We sing Hallelujah because our Redemption has been accomplished on the Cross, by our Lord, who was once a child in Bethlehem. We do know the rest of the story, and our only response can be that of Mary, “let it be done to me according to your word.”

As Saint Therese of Lisieux says, “when perfection and holiness were set before me, I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, there were many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God, I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for You, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!’”

Every Christian receives a vocation from God, a purpose, a mission. By our vocations, like Mary, we participate in the redemptive mission of Christ. Each of us receives countless, daily invitations from the Lord to suffer, to sacrifice, to serve, to give of self, to love, and to rejoice. Each of us can be a Saint. And it is very simple: say “yes” to God's will.

The third part of Handel’s Messiah is about the Resurrection. And that’s the rest of the song: we await his return in glory, his Second Coming, where “we shall be changed… and the corruptible will put on incorruptibility and the mortal immortality.” And we will stand around the throne, giving as it is sung in the last song, “blessing and honor, glory and power, unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.” Because he took on our human nature, as a child in Mary’s womb, because he suffered and died for our sins, and because he was raised from the dead, we too can share in his divinity, if we would share in his sufferings, and we too will one day be raised from the dead. And then we shall truly sing Hallelujah, “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Oración del Papa Benedicto a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe - 2011

"Oración a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe"
Por El Papa Benedicto XVI, Diciembre 12, 2011 en San Pedro, Vaticano, Roma

Virgen María de Guadalupe,
Madre del verdadero Dios por quien se vive.

En San Juan Diego, el más pequeño de tus hijos,
Tú dices hoy a los pueblos de América Latina:
‘¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu Madre?
¿No estás bajo mi sombra?
¿No estás por ventura en mi regazo?’

Por eso nosotros con profundo agradecimiento
reconocemos a través de los siglos
todas las muestras de tu amor maternal,
tu constante auxilio, compasión y defensa
de los moradores de nuestras tierras,
de los pobres y sencillos de corazón.

Con esta certeza filial,
acudimos a ti, para pedirte,
que así como ayer vuelvas a darnos a tu Divino Hijo,
porque sólo en el encuentro con Él
se renueva la existencia personal
y se abre el camino para la edificación de una
sociedad justa y fraterna.

A ti, ‘Misionera Celeste del Nuevo Mundo’,
que eres el rostro mestizo de América
y luminosamente manifiestas su identidad, unidad y originalidad,
confiamos el destino de nuestros Pueblos.

A ti, Pedagoga del Evangelio de Cristo,
Estrella de la Nueva Evangelización,
consagramos la labor misionera
del Pueblo de Dios peregrino en América Latina.

¡Oh Dulce Señora!,
¡Oh Madre Nuestra!,
¡Oh siempre Virgen María!
¡Tu presencia nos hace hermanos!

Acoge con amor esta súplica de tus hijos
y bendice esta amada tierra tuya
con los dones de la reconciliación y la paz.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

We Are Only A House of Prayer

Homily, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

My favorite story from St. Therese of Lisieux, who was a Carmelite nun known as the "Little Flower", is of her first experience in the novitiate when she joined the Convent. When they arrived, all the young nuns would gather together, and the novice master would lead them in the divine office or the rosary. This was their first experience in prayer, public prayer and vocal prayer, and it was designed to train them for the more advanced stages of prayer, meditation and contemplation.

Well, one day the novice master interviewed each of the nuns about what they did during their free time, of which they were given a little each day. St. Therese said, "well, I find a spot between my bed and the window, and I just pull the curtains around me to be alone, and then I just think." The novice master asked, "what do you think about?" She replied, "Well, I think about God, the angels, the saints, heaven, stuff like that." And the novice master had to laugh, because here this young novice was already advancing into the deeper forms of prayer without knowing it. She was engaged in contemplation, which for her, it seemed, came almost naturally.

In today's Second Reading, Saint Paul tells us, “Rejoice Always. Pray without ceasing.” Is it possible to actually do this? To pray without ceasing, to always be filled with the joy of the Lord? As last week, in the Gospel today we see John the Baptist in the desert, preparing the way of the Lord, making “straight the way of the Lord.” What is the “way of the Lord”? Nothing less than prayer, a prayer of friendship and union with the Lord.

Jesus would also tell his apostles, "Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little." Just as St. Therese who sought a place to be alone. And in several other places throughout the Gospels (CCC 2602), we see Jesus seeking a deserted place like John the Baptist before him. Why? So that he might pray. Sometimes he would spend entire nights in prayer before his heavenly Father.

So, by this example, Jesus teaches us the importance of making time for prayer, of seeking a time and place to be alone with our Lord, to pray without ceasing. And all Christians are called to this way of prayer. In our own experience, however, we believe this to be difficult. We want to find a time and place to pray, but we find ourselves constantly interrupted by the demands of the world: our family duties, our work, the tasks of daily life.

This would happen to Jesus as well, for he was often interrupted. The people heard about where he was going and hastened to get there before he did, so that when Jesus arrived with his apostles, a vast crowd was waiting for him. Though he was weary, he pitied them and began to teach them. And I think this experience is common in our everyday life. Like Jesus who was looking for a place to rest and pray, we often find that the world interrupts us and keeps us from entering into that deeper communion with our Lord which we know we need.

So, I was thinking about St. Therese and what she would do, what advice would she give to those of us caught up in the midst of the world who find it hard to find a time and place to pray, and it occurred to me that perhaps we ought to try a different approach. Rather than let the world interrupt our time in prayer, how about interrupting the world with prayer? How about interrupting our daily duties and obligations with a brief and heartfelt prayer to our Lord?

The catechism defines prayer in this way (CCC 2559), "prayer is the raising of one's heart and mind to God." And there is no reason why we cannot do that in the midst of our everyday life: in the home, in the workplace, on the road, in the middle of our recreation and relaxation. In all these places it takes but a simple decision to raise our heart and mind to the Lord.

And there is a very simple way to do this, a way that has been with us from the very ancient traditions of the Church, (CCC 2667) it's called the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The monks in ancient times, especially those in the East, would repeat this prayer throughout the day ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") and they found it a perfect way to "raise their heart and mind to God" in the midst of their daily duties.

This prayer is particularly appropriate because of the many truths it contains. The catechism says, (CCC 2664), "There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ. Whether our prayer is communal or personal, vocal or interior, it has access to the Father only if we pray 'in the name' of Jesus." And it goes on, (CCC 2666), "The name 'Jesus' contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray 'Jesus' is to invoke him and call him within us." (CCC 2668), "The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always... This prayer is possible at all times because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus."

This simple prayer is beneficial because it leads to more advanced forms of prayer, especially that of contemplative prayer. (CCC 2709) St. Teresa of Avila, another great Carmelite, defines contemplative prayer in this way: "Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us."

If we pray without ceasing, we invite the Lord to be a part of our daily lives, so that he might share in our joys and sorrows, our work and hardships, everything. And when someone knows us that well, what do we call them? A friend. And that's what contemplative prayer is: it is not a form of prayer reserved only for the saints or those in convents, all of us are called to this deep friendship with our Lord.
And the catechism goes on about contemplative prayer: (CCC 2710), "One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has time: one makes time for the Lord, with firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith."

You see? It is possible to pray without ceasing, for the one thing the world cannot enter without permission is the heart. And if you reserve a place in your heart for the Lord, he will always be with you and you will always experience his presence. Saint Teresa of Avila said, “If you wish to speak with your Father and enjoy His company, you do not have to go to heaven... you need no wings to go in search of Him but only to find a place where you can be alone and look upon Him present within yourself.” (Way, p28)

There's a very beautiful opera called "Dialogues des Carmelites" (Poulenc), which is based on a novel, which is based on the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns who were martyred during the French Revolution. During the opera, the Prioress says to one of the novices, "We are only a house of prayer! Prayer provides the only reason for our existence. Whoever doubts the force of prayer must regard us all as impostors and parasites. If faith in God is universal, should the same not be true of faith in prayer? And so each and every prayer -- even the prayer of a little shepherd who tends his flock -- is really the prayer of all mankind. And what the little shepherd does from time to time, as his heart prompts him, all of us must do day and night."

And I think her words apply to all of us: day and night, our thoughts ought to turn to the Lord, so that, through contemplation, we might deepen our friendship with him. For one day, when all the trials of this life are over, we will meet him face to face, and only then will we find the place of eternal rest we seek, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Way of Perfection

Homily, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

Today we are presented with the image of John the Baptist, who “appeared in the desert... [fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy] Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

If we want to prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus, we can look to the example of Saint John the Baptist. He leaves everything and goes into the desert to lead of life of penance. He detaches himself from all the goods of the earth, symbolized in his manner of living “clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” For us, we are invited to retire into the interior desert of our heart, detaching ourselves from things of the world, preparing room to receive Jesus worthily.

Saint Peter encourages us, “Since everything is to [pass away], what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion...” We are to be holy, where God is first in our lives and all worldly goods are directed by him and towards him. We are to be filled with devotion, or tender love for God, seen in our prayer and work. I see devotion like the love of spouses, who often spontaneously offer small acts of love to their beloved throughout the day. In the same way, our love of God is shown in these tender acts of love for God, expressed in numerous ways each day.

But Jesus gives us a seemingly difficult command when he tells us what is expected of us, this preparation for union with God prefigured in Advent. He says, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Is this call only for a few? John the Baptist, the Twelve, the Saints throughout history? The Catechism says, (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.” As Pope Pius XI said, “There are some who say that sanctity is not everyone's vocation; on the contrary, it is everyone's vocation, and all are called to it... Jesus Christ has given himself as an example for all to imitate.” (Divine Intimacy, 2.2)

So this call is for everyone of us, without exception. The better question is: is it possible to be holy, to be perfect? If holiness is demanded of all, it must be possible for all. While there those “great saints” given a special mission accomplish, filled with extraordinary gifts, even the simplest and most humble among us can attain sanctity, sustained by Divine grace.

Remember my definition of sanctifying grace: friendship with God. Lost by sin in the Garden, where Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in friendship, our original friendship with God has been restored by God himself, Emmanuel, God is with us, Jesus Christ, who became man, walked amongst us, befriended us, taught us his way of love, and laid down his life for us in the Cross.

So sanctity is first and foremost a gift from God, a Divine initiative that begins in Baptism. John, as he says, baptized in water, but he who is to come would baptize in the Holy Spirit and power. Baptism has a symbolic meaning, yes, as many came to John acknowledging their sins, but Jesus would bring the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, which not only forgives sins, but also makes us anew.

This makes it possible for us to enter deeper into friendship with God. And here's the key: deeper friendship. Saint Therese of Lisieux says “The more joyfully souls do His will, the greater is their perfection.” In other words, there are degrees of perfection. She says, “each soul was free to respond to the advances of Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking.”

As I have said before, there are an infinity of goods out there from which we can choose, and authentic free will is choosing among those many goods. So it is possible to avoid evil, choose good – the basis for the moral life – and still be on the way of perfection. The way of perfection is not a constant struggle between good and evil. That is the beginning of the spiritual life. The road that follows consists in seeking, knowing, and following God's will more perfectly each day in our lives.

So, St. Teresa of Avila would say, “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.”

To grow more and more perfect means to unite ourselves more and more to the Will of God. Our perfection can be measured by the degree to which we do the will of God and find happiness in doing so. Sin is not the only thing opposed to God's will, as even attachment to other goods, our self or the world, may prevent us from acting in union with God's will. And this union of our will with God's is not mere obedience, but it is delighting in God's will as a true source of happiness.

So what is God's will for our lives? God's will, in general, is expressed in the commandments of God and the Precepts of the Church. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And in his life, he founded a Church to continue proclaiming the Kingdom to all times and peoples, and the teachings and precepts of the Church are the accumulated wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, which continues to deepen our understanding of Christ.

In a more concrete and particular way, God's will for our lives is expressed in the duties of our state in life and the various circumstances of life. The duties of our state in life determine how we are to act in our daily lives. For most of us, that is our responsibility towards family, work, community, and church.

We also discover God's will revealed to us in the circumstances of our lives, important events and even down to seemingly insignificant details. Whether it be health or sickness, poverty or wealth, dryness in our spiritual lives or rich consolation, success or failures, loss or struggle. He also gives us countless opportunities each day to exercise the virtues on a day to day basis, charity, patience, generosity, sacrifice, and courage.

It could be said that sanctity is essentially summed up in the fulfillment of duty. And since we all have our duties, and we all have grace through friendship with God, it is possible for each one of us. And Advent is a great time to make progress in perfection. As Saint Peter concludes, “Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”