A few months after I entered recovery for addictions I was asked by my congregation to go to Southdown, near Toronto, for an assessment. They recommended residential treatment. I agreed, externally, but inside I was fighting it with every part of my being. I could not imagine being cut off from my normal life, much less of having the stigma of “needing help”. In retrospect, though, I realize that those months were among the best in my life. They were a time of growth and healing, on a level I would not have experienced without being removed from my day-to-day concerns. I can’t help but have that image in my mind when I read Mark’s description of Jesus’ being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke have a much gentler, “led by the Spirit,” but Mark is strong. There is a force behind that word. Jesus was impelled to go—and the Judean wilderness is not a very hospitable place. Yet I can’t help but think that it was an important, formative time for Jesus. In those days of deprivation between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry, he was able to focus on what kind of ministry he would have, and where the Father was leading him.

For me, that is what Lent is about, albeit on a much gentler scale. Each year the Church gifts us with this season of preparation, and invites us to do something “out of the ordinary”. The “what” is completely personal: It can be giving up something you like, or adding something (which is actually giving up of one’s free time). Many people choose to give up desserts, or eating between meals, or a favourite dish. Others choose to introduce (or increase) time for prayer and reflection. In today’s world where so many of us spend hours online or on our smartphones, perhaps time away from that is a beneficial activity. You may choose to be a part of the parish mission. The Little Black Books from Saginaw are a good way to take six minutes of your day to focus on spiritual things (and you can learn a lot, too! Just in the first week we learn about St. Leo the Great, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sr. Blandina [Rosa Maria Segale], and St. Andrew Kim Taegon.). It’s never too late to begin, nor to start over. So, if you haven’t yet chosen anything, or if you’ve already fallen away from what you chose, I encourage you to try. Together we journey towards Easter and the great feasts of our Church.

It’s hard for me to believe that Lent is already upon us. This Wednesday we begin our annual journey in preparation for the great feasts of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I think the gospel passage today might give us a hint as to how to take advantage of the special time the Church offers us. After Jesus heals the leper, Mark tells us that Jesus “…could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country….” For me, Lent offers me that time to step back, in one way or another, from my ordinary “town” routine and go into the “country” by adding a spiritual practice or making a sacrifice of one kind or another. If I take some extra time for prayer—perhaps using the “Little Black Books” of daily meditations—that can be my equivalent of going out in the country to encounter Jesus. Sacrifice can do the same thing, since it calls to mind the fact that I am exercising discipline, that I am behaving in a different way than in my ordinary, day-to-day life.

Perhaps it’s providential that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. On this day in which our society focuses on love, it’s a great day to reflect on how much God loves us, and perhaps what kind of sacrifice I can make to remind myself of how much I love God. In Canada, the Church asks all believers to fast and abstain on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, eating no meat, and smaller, simpler meals, with nothing in-between. Many people also maintain the tradition of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of Lent.

And this Lent I invite you to come to our parish mission. Many of you know that over the past two summers I participated in a course, sponsored by the diocese, called Good Leaders, Good Shepherds. I was so impressed with one of our presenters, Barb Eckert, that I invited her to conduct our parish Lenten mission for this year. She will be speaking after the homily at all the Masses this coming Sunday, and then conducting sessions Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the following week.

Please come, to meet Barb and learn to follow Jesus in a more intentional way. I think you will understand why I invited her to be our mission preacher. And don’t forget to sign up for the dinner on the Monday evening, Family night.

At different moments in my life I have suffered from depression. Those have been trying moments, with thoughts like, “Nothing seems to be right; it’s all hopeless,” and “Are things ever going to get better,” and “Why is God letting this happen to me?” Thankfully, those events have passed. Suffering, though, is real, whether it be at an emotional, spiritual, or
physical level. Sometimes, things just hurt. And when they do, pious platitudes don’t make things any better.

In this weekend’s first reading we hear about some of Job’s suffering. His friends and acquaintances—his “comforters”—tell him that it must be because of some sin that either he or his parents committed. And Job complains. What he really does, though, is offer a prayer of Lamentation to God. Job trusts God enough to complain to him. Dominican Fr. Jude Siciliano says that lamentation is “a complaint of a faithful person to God. It is a prayer of great faith for it expresses belief in the One who is listening. It says that we are not alone as we cry out of the abyss, that our words do not fall on deaf ears.”

And even though we don’t know why God allows suffering in this world, we do know that God is there to help us through it. Time and time again, the gospel shows Jesus alleviating suffering in one way or another. In this weekend’s gospel passage, Mark tells us about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. It was actually her suffering that led Jesus to her. And as a response to Jesus healing her, she got up and began to wait on them. Mark the evangelist is telling us that she became a disciple, a servant of Jesus. When I think of it, it’s really quite profound: it was her suffering that led Peter’s mother-in-law to an encounter with Jesus and to discipleship. Or, as Jesus states elsewhere in the gospel, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but rather the sick.

Today’s readings help me realize that it is in admitting my suffering, my weaknesses—rather than trying to pretend they aren’t there—that lead me to an encounter with Jesus as healer and giver of life. How about you? Are you ready to allow Jesus into your life to heal you and call you to follow him?

If I had to pick one thing that I’ve learned from all of my education that has most impacted me, it would be the focus on the humanity of Jesus. It’s easy to believe that Jesus is God; we have almost 2000 years of collective memory that tells us so. It’s much harder for me to grasp his humanity. To think that God would want to come and be part of this simultaneously complex, beautiful, messy, messed-up, and sinful world is hard to conceive. Yet, that is what our faith tells us. And even more incredible is that both Jesus and Paul tell us that we, too, are God’s children, and Jesus is our brother. It is so easy for me to say that I believe it, and much harder to live it.

In this weekend’s readings, Moses tells the people that God will raise up a prophet from among their own kin. And in the gospel passage, Mark lets us know that the unclean spirits are the ones who recognize Jesus’ uniqueness. The people just saw another person; it is hard, sometimes, to recognize specialness in your own kin, in another person like yourself. We want God to be different, but sometimes God is hidden right here among us, even among our own kin.

On a different note, I want to let you know that Citizenship and Immigration Canada has now granted me permanent residence! It’s nice to know that I’ll be able to stick around and be a part of this community without the worry of my visa running out. In another couple of years I will be eligible to apply for citizenship.

And, I am very pleased to announce that the Basilian Fathers have appointed Steven Huber, CSB, to Assumption parish for his diaconate year. Steven is currently a Basilian seminarian, and will be ordained deacon on May 12. He will be joining us this July for approximately one year, and will most likely be ordained to the priesthood in the spring of 2019. I think it will be a privilege for all of us to be a part of his formation. I hope he will come visit us sometime before the summer. In the meantime, I invite you to support him with your prayer.

Have you heard about Pope Francis’s suggestion to change the Our Father? He said that when we pray the Our Father we should not say ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ because it’s not God “who pushes me into temptation to see how I fall. No, a father does not do this. A father helps us up immediately.” Pope Francis suggested ‘Do not let us fall into temptation,’ instead. This is less theologically confusing, and is how the translation goes in Spanish speaking countries.

This change would suffer the same criticism as the original, since a father wouldn’t let us fall into temptation any more than he would lead us there himself.

The problem is with the word translated by ‘temptation.’ The Greek word peirasmos can mean either ‘testing’ (as in a test of character) or ‘temptation’ (as in an enticement to sin). Though God wouldn’t do the second, it seems that he did indeed lead Jesus into testing; in chapter four of the Gospel of Luke Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Later, in the parable of the sower and the seed Jesus explains (Luke 8:13) that the seed that fell into shallow ground symbolizes listeners who ‘have no root’ and who fall away in the time of temptation/testing. And in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus tells his disciples to pray that they not enter into temptation/testing.

So whatever temptation/testing is, it happened to Jesus, it happens to listeners of the word of God, and Jesus told the disciples to pray that they not enter into it. However we translate the Our Father, let us keep this in mind, and pray that our character is already sufficiently clear as not to need testing.

—Fr. Jim Stenberg CSB

 

We’re back in Ordinary Time (named after Ordinal numbers—first, second, etc.), a period of normalcy, when we focus on following Jesus in our everyday lives rather than at special events. Today we hear the call of Samuel, who does not at first realize that it’s God who is calling him. He thinks that it’s Eli, the priest in the temple. In the gospel passage, John the Baptist indeed recognizes Jesus, and points him out to two of his disciples. They are curious about Jesus, so they go stay with him for a while, and then Andrew goes to get his brother Simon Peter. I find it hard at times to sort out God’s call in my daily life. There are so many competing voices. I think that is one reason that the Church requires all priests to have an annual retreat, so as to help hear that call. I feel privileged to be a part of a group of priests who meet every year for retreat, a time of prayer, renewal, and fellowship. So, I will be away for this coming week, Monday through Friday; I promise you my prayer for you, and I ask that you remember me in your prayer. I will be back for Masses on the weekend. Fr. Jim will write the column for next week’s bulletin.

Part of following Jesus, as Pope Francis often mentions, is lending a helping hand to those in need. I felt privileged that we were able to welcome people from Brentwood Recovery Home after their place was flooded at the end of August. We received a letter of thanks from Dan Soulliere, the executive director; He wrote:

“… We will never be able to communicate the full extent of our gratitude for the use of your facilities which allowed us to continue to serve those who so desperately need our help. The Parish Hall was perfect for presenting our treatment program, Jr. Youth Group, and family support meetings. The continued use by our family support groups has been invaluable.

“It was the kindness of others that sustained us in our time of need. Your continued support to Brentwood is very much appreciated.

“We have been providing residential addiction treatment to those who suffer from substance abuse as well as providing supportive programs for their families in Windsor and Essex County for over 53 years. With the support of our community, we will continue far into the future.”

My parents wanted children for years, and were unable to have any. Finally, my mom had two miscarriages, followed by a boy who was full term, but died the day he was born. Then I came along (followed later by two sisters). As a child I knew I was loved and wanted. My parents had so desired a child, and I was the apple of their eye. Now, as an adult, I look back on my childhood and know how nice it was to be loved, and to be  considered so special. Yet there was a downside to that specialness as well. Somehow I got it into my little head that because they had waited so long for a child, and were so happy because of me, I was not allowed to disappoint them. Thus, during much of my adolescence I felt like I was living a double life. I couldn’t admit any of the normal “rebellions” that most teenagers experience. Anything I did that I thought might disappoint my parents (like smoking or drinking or…) I felt I had to keep secret from them. And, of course, I lived in great fear that I would be found out. I just knew that if they learned the truth they would know that I wasn’t special at all.

Of course, the reality is that even with my flaws and rebellions and sins, I am special in God’s eyes. God has chosen to dwell at the core of my being. Nothing I can do can erase that. And that specialness has nothing to do with the fact that my parents wanted a child so badly, or anything at all that I have done. I am special because God created me and God loves me. And the same goes for each of you reading this, and for all other people. Somewhere down deep in each one of us, God has chosen to dwell. Sometimes we do our best to camouflage that presence; sometimes it’s really hard to find it in some people. Yet, it’s there.

I think that Epiphany, which we celebrate this weekend, points to that. Of course, Jesus is unique. God has not only chosen to dwell in Jesus, but Jesus himself is God. Yet most people in Jesus’ day never recognized that. We celebrate the reality that the Magi recognized God where one would least expect to find God: in a poor little baby. I pray that each of us may, more and more, learn to recognize God in all those hidden places, especially in each and every human being. Wouldn’t this world be a much better place if we did?

 

It’s nice to be back home and writing these messages again. I took some vacation to visit my family in Texas. US Thanksgiving saw me at my sister Kathy’s, in San Antonio, and then a week later we had our annual family reunion. Both of those events had abundant food… we visited and ate and ate and visited. Coming together to eat is an event that is important not only to me but also to most of us human beings. We are social creatures, needing the physical nourishment of food and the emotional and spiritual nourishment of fellowship. Much of Advent involves food. There are Christmas parties, baked goods galore, and certain dishes that people only make at this time of year. Here at the parish we’ve had our share of parties and events, and most involved food in one way or another: the parish Christmas party, hospitality after each Sunday Eucharist as we began our parish mission, a veritable feast at the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and so many other moments.

God, too, wants to be part of all these goings-on. In the final gospel of Advent we hear the angel Gabriel tell Mary that she will bear the Son of God Most High. In other words, God, as Jesus, embraces every bit of our reality and chooses to be born into a specific moment in time in human history—and he likes to eat! This Jesus whose birth we are celebrating later says that some call him a glutton and a drunkard. So many stories in the gospel take place at a meal setting, and Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though; right now most of us are focusing on Jesus as the little baby born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger. Think about that for a moment. A manger is where the sheep and other animals come to eat. Their food is placed there. How many images are there in scripture where God is a shepherd and we are sheep, part of God’s flock? If that’s the case, look at what God is doing for us: we, the sheep, come to the manger to eat, and what do we find? God himself! God is there to nourish us, and to give us strength for whatever may come our way. And God is still inviting us to come eat, and to come to our weekly “family reunion”—the Eucharist. I pray that this time of grace may be one of nourishment and joy to one and all.

Merry Christmas!

Good people face different temptations than bad people. Instead of being tempted to obvious evil, it is more common that good people are tempted to think that their best efforts will not be good enough, and so they should not even try. The trap in this way of thinking is warned against in the folk saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and in Theodore Roosevelt’s aphorism “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

The Christmas season can be very hard for people who aspire to perfection. We want to find the perfect gift, we want to have a perfect Christmas dinner. We want to have a joyful and harmonious holiday season with our families and friends. And all too often the reality of our all too human lives falls short of what we have hoped for. And then, just a week after Christmas, comes the New Year, and its associated resolutions, and all the risk of failure that comes with resolving to do better in the upcoming year. What is a faithful Christian to do?

Today’s readings give us some tips. We can draw comfort from the humility of John the Baptist, who denied being anything other than a voice crying in the wilderness. Who said he was not worthy of untying the sandal of the messiah. Being humble means, among other things, being free of excessively high expectations. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians reminds us not to quench the spirit, but to hold fast to what is good, and to give thanks in all circumstances. A grateful, thankful heart is naturally resistant to despair.

Let us pray along with St. Paul that God may keep our spirit and soul and body safe and blameless as we look forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus. May we never hesitate to do good out of fear that it will not be good enough. And may we be resolute in our faith that the one who calls us is faithful, and that he will fulfill his promises to us.

—Fr. Jim Stenberg C.S.B

December is the month when most charitable giving takes place. It is the month when the impulse to give gifts to family members and loved ones is strongest, and the month when these generous impulses spill over to all kinds of worthy causes. But December is also the last month of the calendar year, and if you want to make a donation for tax purposes, this month is the latest you can donate and have it count against this year’s taxes.

December is also the month when most parish offices, ours included, are closed for the last week of the month. This can be very frustrating to anyone who wants to make a last minute donation and have it count for the current year. It happens that we have a parish website that allows donations to be made (with an immediate tax receipt) for the current year, even if you wait until December 31st.

Our website address is  assumption.dol.ca

There is a big “Donate Here” bookmark on the upper right of the screen for you to click on. You’ll need a credit card or paypal account to donate: we haven’t figured out yet how to have the website accept checks or cash. Don’t forget the dol.ca: it stands for “Diocese of London, Canada” and you won’t get to the website without it.

There are lots of other things on the website as well: mass schedules, parish bulletins, homilies, information on ministries, and a lot more. And if you have not already registered as a parishioner, you can do it through the website. It is easy to do and there is no downside to it: if this is your parish, you should register.

While you are considering your financial affairs and your relation to the parish, I would urge you to consider whether you have remembered the parish in your will. Your last will and testament should reflect your values, and for most people the top priority is (as it should be) bequests for your family and loved ones. But we hope that your parish’s importance to you in life will also be reflected there. It turns out that we are not allowed to give estate planning advice in a parish bulletin (who knew!), and so you will have to consult with your financial advisor as to the best way to do this.

—Fr. Jim Stenberg C.S.B.