Our Heavenly Mother

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God (January 1, 2015)

Nm 6:22-27

Psalm 67

Gal 4:4-7

Luke 2:16-21

A number of years ago I was in my office talking to a patient. He knew I was Catholic and we’ve had an occasional chat about religion, but nothing very deep. For some reason, he turned to me and said, “You Catholics…you really like that whole ‘Mary thing’ don’t you?” My response was, “Yup. We think she’s pretty cool.” He then said, “Well as you know, I’m Baptist and the only time we ever talk about Mary is during Christmas.” Then the awkward pause started where I could feel him waiting for my next response. I briefly contemplated either changing the subject so I could get to my next patient or if I should go a little deeper about Catholic Marian theology without trying to get into a long, heated debate. My “chiropractor voice” was telling me to zip it and move on to the next patient but apparently my “Catholic deacon voice” was louder. So I went on to explain, “Unfortunately, there’s a TON of misconceptions about what Catholics believe when it comes to Mary. Please understand that we do NOT think she’s God, we do NOT think she’s above God and we do NOT worship her as God. We honor her because, if you think about it, Mary was the first one to say “yes” to Christ. God asked her to accept Christ, not only into her heart, but literally into her womb. Therefore, you could consider her to be the first Christian. And since God chose her to carry His only Son in her womb, I’d say that means we should give her our respect.” My friend’s reply was simply, “Wow. I never thought her in that way…but you’re right.”

So, in honor of today’s Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, I thought we could all use a little refresher as to why Mary’s “pretty cool”.

mary

First of all, Mary’s “yes” to God is something that we can all learn from. In the first chapter of Luke, an angel appeared to Mary and told her she was to conceive the Son of God in her womb. Mary didn’t understand how this could happen since she was a virgin…but she didn’t let that hold her back. Instead she had enough faith to say, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” It takes faith to be willing to take a leap like that.

Have you ever doubted God’s plan? Have you ever been afraid to say “yes” to God calling you down a path that seemed scary?

annunciation-mid

 

Second, Mary models to us how important prayer can be to a person. Today’s Gospel passage from Luke chapter 2 describes when the shepherds went to the stable to visit the Christ Child. They told Mary and Joseph the message they received from the angels about how their child was to be the long awaited Messiah. Mary didn’t blow them off or turn to Joseph and say, “I think they’ve been out in the field a little too long.” No, instead it is written that she, “Kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” She turned to prayer.

Have you even been quick to judge someone because they sounded a little crazy or perhaps overly passionate? Do you take time to stop and pray before deciding your next move in life?

honthorst_adoration_of_the_shepherds

Third, Mary knows what it means to suffer. When Mary and Joseph took their infant son to the Temple to present him to the Lord, Simeon told Mary that “a sword would pierce her.” This foretold the pain and agony she would go through when her newborn baby would one day grow into a man and be tortured and killed for our sake. She did not fight it, she did not run from it. Mary’s obedience shows us there is always a better way when it comes to following God’s path, even in the face of evil.

How many of us run when our faith is challenged? How many of us question God when we have to endure pain and suffering?

pieta

 

The last point I want to make regarding Mary’s “coolness” is simply this, she is not only the mother of Jesus, who is God but she is also your heavenly mother. Let that sink in…you and I share the same mother as God. You see God wanted to become flesh so that He could save us all. He also wanted to do it in the normal way, which meant he needed to be born of a woman. Of all the women in all of eternity, He chose Mary to be the vessel for the Word to become flesh. Since we believe that Jesus is both man and God, this would make Mary the mother of God. Some non-Catholics get hung up here and assume we mean that Mary existed before God if we call her the Mother of God. We are not implying this at all. We are merely reinforcing the belief that Jesus was both fully man and fully God. With that in mind, remember the Gospel of John chapter 19 where Jesus was hanging on the cross while Mary and John the Apostle were at His feet. Just before He died, Jesus said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he turned to John and said, “Behold your mother.” This command has always been understood by the Church as an act of entrusting the whole Church to Mary. Thus, since we are part of the Church, Mary is our mother also!

Weyden_Christ_on_the_Cross_with_Mary_and_St_John

Before I became Catholic in 1999, I really had no concept of who Mary really was. Like my Baptist friend I mentioned earlier, if I heard her name, I immediately pictured a nativity scene but that’s about it. After becoming Catholic, I’ve had the joy of deepening my relationship with my heavenly Mother by learning more about her. And this has lead me to the ultimate reason why Mary is so incredibly cool…every time I learn something about Mary, it has lead me closer to her Son. You see, Mary is NOT God. She is, however, the Mother of God. And like any good mother, she points us, not to herself, but to her Son. Recall the wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel. When the wedding party ran out of wine, Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” Meaning, “Listen to my Son and He will restore what is missing.”

wedding-cana

At some point in time, you have asked a friend or family member to pray for you. So the next time you have doubts or are afraid to say yes to God, the next time something or someone sounds crazy, the next time you are enduring pain or suffering or your faith is challenged…in addition to turning to God in prayer, don’t be afraid to ask His mother to pray for you as well.

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Family Life Struggles

Feast of the Holy Family (December 28, 2014)

Gn 15:1-6; 21:1-3

Psalm 105

Heb 11:8,11-12,17-19

Luke 2:22-40

Today I wanted to preach on family life since every single one of you are either a parent, a spouse, someone’s son or daughter plus you are part of a church family.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They are the model to which other families should strive to imitate. Whether we are referring to a biological family, extended family, adopted family or simply friends that you consider family. The Holy Family show us what it looks like to have faith, obedience, and love…both to each other, to those around us and to God.

holy-family

So my goal this weekend is to inspire everyone in the church to somehow be more like the Holy Family. But I didn’t want just to say, “Pray more” or “be nicer.” I wanted to give some concrete suggestions using the Scriptures we read today. So I did what any good, analytical thinker would do…I turned to Facebook! I updated my status to say, “Needing help! I’m working on my next homily and wanted to know what you think is the biggest challenge or threat to family life currently.” I figured I couldn’t inspire you if I didn’t know what was holding you back. The responses I got were eye-opening:

Being too busy with worldly commitments like work and sports. Putting things other than family before family. Not spending time together for meals. Not keeping everything balanced. Lack of time for one another. Busyness influenced by television, technology and electronics. Adults on their phones oblivious to their spouse or kids. Our failure to speak face to face. Facebook (ironic since that’s how I got this list!). Accessibility and use of pornography. The lack of understanding that love is a choice not an emotion. Not having God as our anchor. Individualism fed by the disconnect of the media. Other family members and their addictions. Relativism. Distractions. Lack of discipline. When your husband lives in another city most of the time (oh wait, that was my Wife’s response). Parents being friends with their kids rather than being a parent first. Having a lack of closeness when everyone is pulled away in so many different directions.

And one of my favorites, “Conversations turn to texting. Emotions turn into emoticons. Love turns to lust. The world is at a person’s fingertips and it draws us away from each other and from God.” That one was written by a teenager. Pretty insightful.

What do you think? Are our families struggling? It sure seems to me! Based on these responses, family life does not seem to be an easy path. And since every one of us belongs to a family of some sort, we are all on this path together. I sincerely believe that today’s Scripture readings give us some insight as to how we can make this path more bearable in spite of all the challenges we experience to family life in today’s modern age. It boils down to two words, ACTIVE FAITH. Anyone can have faith, but it takes deliberate intention to have active faith in God.

Let me explain. Today’s reading from Hebrews refers to Abraham offering his son as a sacrifice to God. We all know the story. Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, when they were advanced in age. A son they both desperately wanted but they pretty much gave up on the idea of having children due to their apparent infertility. Abraham didn’t understand, but his God asked something of him and he followed. Thankfully the story had a happy ending as God intervened at the last minute and Isaac was spared. God did this to test Abraham’s faith. His ACTIVE faith.

The Gospel passage tells us about Mary and Joseph taking their son, Jesus, to the temple to offer sacrifice according to the law of the Lord. We know that they were a poor family since they offered the sacrifice of birds instead of a larger animal like a lamb. So this poor family made the trip to the Temple in Jerusalem, by foot and with a newborn child, because their faith demanded it from them. They had an ACTIVE faith.

What is the difference then between these two families and many of our modern families? For this, I will return to my very scientific “Facebook research” one more time. A mom of three wrote, “I don’t think families pray together much anymore. Not just meal time prayers, but earnest, on your knees, seeking God together. Parents rely almost exclusively on the church to train their children instead of making time to model the study of His word. All the comments about technology (being a distraction) are true, but I think they reflect a deeper issue. We use technology as an escape. We escape instead of living intentionally, instead of being in the moment.” I believe what she is saying here is that many of us do not have a strong ACTIVE faith.

The best place to start living an active faith is within our own families. Could you imagine what the world would be like if all Christian families did this? It may seem impossible or overwhelming at first glance. But if we all did our part, family by family, we can slowly convert our towns, our states, our country and eventually our entire world. And yes, I am fully aware of how busy we are and how precious our time is…but isn’t that all the more reason why we need to use our time wisely? So my advice to you is from Nike shoes, “Just Do It!” Seriously. Pray together on your knees as a family. Study your faith together. Seek God together. Put down your phones. Put family first. Eat together as much as possible. Turn off the TV on occasion and instead, fill it with face to face conversation with the people you love.

Pope Francis recently said that, “The family is a community of love where each of us learns to relate to others and to the world around us.” Let us grow this love by getting rid of the unnecessary distractions the world has to offer and instead, ACTIVELY pursue an intimate relationship with the God who created you and your family.

The Ultramarathon of Life

Feast of the Holy Family (December 29, 2013)

Sir 3:2-6, 12-14

Psalm 128

Col 3:12-21

Mathew 2:13-15, 19-23

I recently read a book by Sherry Weddell titled, “Forming Intentional Disciples.” At the very end, she describes an ultramarathon called the Leadville Trail 100 held in Colorado every year. It is nicknamed, “The Race Across the Sky” because the runners have to compete in elevations ranging between 9,200 – 12,620 feet up in the mountains. Leadville-Trail-100-Trail-LogoIt’s a grueling 50-mile out and 50-mile back struggle that begins on a Saturday at 4am. In order to successfully complete the race, the runners need to cross the finish line before the gun goes off at 10am the next day. If you expect to beat the gun, you really don’t have much time for sleep or resting. You have to stay in constant motion all day and night going up and down icy trails.  Roughly 500 people sign up every year to temp their fate and push their bodies to the limit.

I read about this just shaking my head wondering what sane person would want to do this! I get winded after 5 minutes of playing soccer with my kids for crying out loud. I could never do this race. Then I read more about the race and found the secret to reaching the finish line. No one runs alone. pacerEvery runner has a minimum of two volunteers. There are checkpoints throughout the course where volunteers hand out water, hot soup and other snacks. Aid stations are also available for runners to warm up, get weighed, change clothes and get checked out to make sure it’s safe for them to continue. Many of the runners have friends, called pacers, who take turns running beside them for miles at a time to help them keep the pace. Throughout the night, these running companions encourage, challenge and make sure their friends competing are hydrated and don’t get lost.

Sherry Weddell got to experience the beauty of the finish line a few years ago and also described it in her book. She was standing at the finish line one hour before the final gun was scheduled to go off and noticed a large support team of people wearing matching scarlet T-shirts. The front of the shirts read, “In loving memory of Greg.” Twenty-five year old Greg had drowned in a river the year before and his wife Beth was running the Leadville 100 in his memory. The mass of scarlet T-shirts were buzzing with excitement as word spread that Beth was only two miles away from the finish line with one hour left in the race. Immediately her army of supporters ran off to meet her. Sherry remained at the finish line watching grown men break down in tears as they crossed the line while moms were being cheered on to victory by their husbands and children. Then she saw it, up on the horizon…a sea of scarlet T-shirts in the distance surrounding a young woman, cheering her on as she limped towards the finish line. Beth’s pacer was by her side encouraging her, as all her friends and family carried her gear and ran beside her that last never-ending mile. In Sherry’s own words, “Beth was limping, but her face was radiant as she crossed the (finish) line eighteen minutes before the final gun went off.”

finish line 2

What an incredible accomplishment…to finish a one hundred mile ultramarathon, surrounded by your family and friends. If you think that’s neat, I have another ultramarathon to tell you about. It involves an older man and his very young wife. They took a 300-mile cross-country trek in a hot desert climate with their newborn son. However, this ultramarathon didn’t have people at checkpoints handing out food and water or offering them a change of clothes along the way. Nobody was there to help keep them hydrated or make sure they didn’t get lost. Plus they weren’t doing it for fun; they were doing it to save their son’s life because someone wanted him dead. They completed the ultramarathon and two years later, this family of three decided to do it all over again. This time they did it so that their son could fulfill his destiny and save all of us.

We can learn a lot from both of these marathons about what it means to be family. The first one teaches us that we need to surround ourselves with encouraging people and help each other out, especially when we are going through the up and down struggles of life. If you see someone you care about struggling, don’t just stand there and clap from a distance, go out and run beside them and help them to the finish line. So many people in today’s world are struggling with addictions, money problems, unemployment, marriage trouble, have challenges with raising children, have unfulfilling jobs or struggle to grow spiritually. We all could use a little encouraging.

The second marathon shows us that it doesn’t matter how large or small your family is, what matters is following God’s plan for your life. If you were paying attention to today’s Gospel, you should have caught on that the family who did this second marathon was Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We refer to them as the Holy Family for obvious reasons. Mary and Joseph were obedient to God. God’s angel asked Mary to be the Mother of God…she said YES. God’s angel asked Joseph to protect Jesus with his life…he said YES. They were parents of action. God spoke, they acted. I’d say that makes this a family we should take note of and try to imitate in our own families.

holy_family

I know some out there are thinking that it’s impossible to live up to those standards. I think all too often we look at Mary and Joseph and immediately give up because we view their holiness as unattainable. We view them as perfect and perfection is too hard to achieve. But listen closely to what I’m about to say…God doesn’t call perfect people; rather he calls sinners to change their hearts. That’s good news for us because we aren’t perfect. We’re sinners. He’s calling us. He wants us to change our hearts. So rather than throwing in the towel, do me a favor…stop trying to be perfect and work instead on being holy. The best place to start is with your own family. Ask God to give you the grace every day to be a role model for them. Pray for and with them. Show them it’s OK to forgive those who have wronged you. Be an encourager as your family goes through the ups and downs in the marathon of life and strives to cross that finish line. Surround yourselves with people of integrity. Try to live each day a little better than yesterday. Do these little things each day to become more holy and you too can one day experience the beauty of the finish line in heaven.

10_finish-line-heaven