Christmas is here! I think I can speak for all the members of the pastoral team and all the staff in wishing everyone a happy and holy celebration of Jesus’ birth.

I’ve told the story before, and probably will again: I still remember clearly a scene when I was in Grade 6. Sr. Philomena asked the class which was more important, Christmas or Easter. I said Christmas; most of the class said Easter. She said that Easter was the correct answer, because anybody can be born; only God can rise from the dead. She didn’t convince me then, and I still haven’t changed my mind. Of course, Easter is supremely important; the resurrection of Christ from the dead is the basis for our faith. Yet he could never have died had he not first been born. I still find it amazing that God decided to come and be part of the history of the human race, of our history—and not as an observer, but rather as one of us! That is an extraordinary claim, yet that is our faith. No other religion says that their God became fully human, yet remained fully God.  Not only did God become human, he came as a child born in difficult circumstances. St. Luke tells us that he was born in a makeshift place in Bethlehem, several days journey from his hometown of Nazareth. Then early in his life St. Matthew tells us he was forced to become a refugee, having to flee into Egypt. It’s not what we would expect to happen to our God.

Today Christmas tends to be a hectic time. By the time you’re reading this, though, so much will be in the past. We celebrate on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then it’s over. Time to clean up and get ready for the next holiday—which, in the stores, will be Valentine’s Day. For the Church, though, it’s different. These past four weeks we’ve been in Advent, and now the Christmas season begins. I invite you to at least leave up your nativity set until the feast of the Epiphany. Christmas officially ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year falls on Monday, January 9. During all this time be assured of my prayer that the Christ Child be born again into your hearts, and that he may fill you with the blessings of life and joy.

Well, even though the world outside doesn’t know it, we’re still in Advent! And in these final days of Advent, the Church focuses more on Jesus’ birth than on his second coming. For some of you, this is the best (and busiest!) time of the year. For you, in the midst of Christmas parties and the busyness of gift buying and giving, of baking and cooking and hosting visitors, I invite you to find time for some quietness and reflection as to what we really celebrate: Our very God loves us so much that he has chosen to become part of our history! That gives a special dignity to all of creation, and especially to us human beings, created in the image and likeness of God.

I know that some of you have difficulties at this time of year. Relationships with others may be strained or broken. Sad memories come to mind. While others are in incredibly good spirits, you find this a time of loneliness and nostalgia. For you, I invite you, too, to reflect on the same truth: Our very God loves us so much that he has chosen to become part of our history! God is part of my life, of your life. None of us can really be alone, even though it may feel like it at times.

I don’t think we can ever realize all that God does in our own lives and in the world without taking the time to sit and be quiet, to relax, and yes, to sleep. It is in the midst of his sleep that God comes to Joseph in this weekend’s gospel passage. Just like the Old Testament Joseph, who interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and saved God’s people Israel, the New Testament Joseph saves the situation of Jesus’ birth. Could you imagine if he had gone ahead with his plan to “dismiss her quietly”? In the culture of that day, both Mary and Jesus would have been marked forever, and most likely shunned. Instead, the message he received in a dream gave Joseph the confidence to “take Mary as his wife,” thus giving Jesus legitimacy in society, and the lineage of David.

So my invitation to each of us—myself included—is to take time, to actually make time to listen to God, however he may choose to communicate to us. Who knows? We may once again be able to experience God with us, Emmanuel, in whatever disguise he chooses to use today.

I don’t think I could ever count the times my mother said to me, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Sigh. I often have such grandiose intents, such great plans, such wonderful intentions. Unfortunately, they often remain just that, intentions, because I let myself get scattered, or I procrastinate, or…. I think Jesus and my mom would be on the same page in this aspect. I just love the way that Matthew relates the story to us. John wants to know if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” The answer has nothing to do with the beautiful words or teachings that Jesus often gives; instead, it is about what he does. Jesus is clear that the works he does testify to who he is: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

I may not be able to lay hands on a blind person and have them see, or cure leprosy; I certainly can’t go into Hotel Dieu and cure the people I go visit. There are ways, though, that I can mirror the Messiah in my actions: I can bring good news to
people, especially to the poor (or the periphery, as Pope Francis would say). By my actions I can help people to “see” and to “hear” God’s love in this world. In fact, in our first reading this weekend Isaiah says that by giving people hope, God will come and create that situation; God will come to give sight and hearing and healing.

Advent is a time to remember that I have the power to change the world, because I live in hope. I can recognize that God is with us and live in that hope. The world outside is already celebrating Christmas. Here, in the Church, we are living in hope and expectation. The world can be made new, if I just live the possibility. God will come. God is here. God asks each one of us to be Messiah to others. Can you imagine all that will happen if we accept God’s challenge?

When I was in Texas during my diaconal year, the confirmation class had a Mass sometime before they actually received the sacrament. They chose the readings; the gospel was the same one we have this weekend. Fr. Peter preached to the congregation, made up of the confirmation class, family members, and catechists. He singled out several people; one of the first was a catechist, a lovely lady, who used to make lots of cookies and bring them to the rectory. He said something like, “So, Joanne, there you are! You think you’re so special, just because you’re a catechist. You think you can be saved just because you fatten us up with your cookies. Forget it!” He went on a bit longer, singling out other fine, committed people in the parish. He told the students how their mind was probably always on sex anyway. You can imagine the reaction—there were plenty of gasps, and horrified looks. Others kind of squirmed in their seats, because they knew that, at least in part, Fr. Peter was right. There’s a part of me that would love to try something like that in our parish, but I can’t quite drum up the courage.

John the Baptist, however, had that courage. Can you imagine the reaction of those good religious people when John called out to them, saying: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It is a scary to imagine something like that happening to us, yet it seems to be necessary—although not necessarily in that manner. It is the same message we’ve been hearing for weeks, now: the need to die in order to truly experience life. In this case, I think the gospel is telling me that I need to strip away all of my pride, all of my security in order to recognize the one coming after John: Jesus the Christ.

For us with 2000 years of collective memory, it’s easy to recognize God in Jesus. But it wasn’t easy for his contemporaries, those who were alive when he was. And the good, “religious” people didn’t recognize him for who he truly was. It was the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized—or, as Pope Francis would say, those on the periphery—who were able to recognize the specialness of Jesus. My prayer for me and for each one of us this Advent season is that we allow God to strip away all our pretences, all our pride, and be able to stand before God as our flawed selves. Then we will be able to recognize him as he is, among us, even today.

Another year begins. I wish each and every one of you a year of encounter with our God, in the many unexpected places in which he is to be found. We begin a new Church year this weekend, as we start Advent, taken from the Latin, having to do with coming. We hear from the prophet Isaiah, “…in days to come.” Over and over again we look at what is to come—sometimes with joy, sometimes tinged with discomfort or fear. For the ancients, the end of the world was to be feared. The day of God’s judgment was to be feared. Great signs and portents would accompany these things, and yet the exact moment was—and still is—completely unknown. With the recent elections in the United States, the news is replete with speculation: It will be great! It will be horrible! It will be an incredible change from “business as usual.” It will end up being “business as usual.” And the reality is, we don’t know.

And at times God’s message doesn’t seem to be very accurate. Since the prophets, God has been painting us pictures of what it will be like “in days to come,” pictures of peace, of harmony, of deep joy: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Yet if we look around us, we see war, we see weapons, we see devastation in places. For me, the challenge is to see that God is asking me (and asking you) to help shape the “days to come.” I do that by living in the now, by doing the next right thing—or, as Paul writes to the Romans, by living “honourably as in the day.”

In Advent we first look forward, and then we look back. We look forward to the coming of Christ at the end of times, and then we look back to Jesus’ birth just over 2000 years ago. I think that is our task today: to look forward to the vision of peace that Isaiah gives us in the first reading, and to look back at the many blessings God has given me—so that I might indeed keep that vision before me and work towards it in everything I say and do. Saint Theresa of Kolkata once said that there was no final judgment; instead, it happens every night when God comes to us and asks, “What did you do today to build up my Kingdom?” I invite you to pray with me that we each may respond to God with good news of what we have done today—and then there will be no worries about what is to come.

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Several years ago, a friend of my aunt’s in Dallas was giving a special dinner. She lived in a rather exclusive neighbourhood, and Charlie Pride, then a big star in country music—and an African-American—had moved in next door. She decided to give a party to welcome the new resident. That morning her yardman called and said he couldn’t come. She looked out and saw a black man mowing the lawn next door; so she ran out and asked him to do hers as well. The man said he didn’t do lawns normally. The lady insisted, saying that she was having an important party for a very important person that night, so he finally agreed. You may have figured out the ending of the story: the man who was mowing the lawn next door was Charlie Pride himself, cutting his own lawn. When he showed up at the party as the honoured guest, his hostess realized that he was the man who had done her lawn and was horrified. He laughed about it, thankfully.

Sometimes people are not who we think them to be. Very important people can be disguised in all kinds of ways. St. Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) often wrote that the task of the Missionaries of Charity is to serve Christ “in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” Our feast this weekend celebrates Christ, our King, as a criminal and a subversive. The Romans reserved crucifixion, one of the cruellest forms of capital punishment ever devised, for those who were deemed subversives, threats to the Empire. And as Christians, we are asked to look upon Jesus hanging on that cross and see not only our King, but also our very God, the King of the Universe. It is so easy to think I have seen something or someone for who they are; but on a closer inspection, something far greater may be revealed. To see beyond appearances is my task; it is the task of the Christian.

You may have noticed that David, the beloved king of the Israelites and ancestor of Jesus—who was almost overlooked as a possibility for king by the prophet Samuel—began his reign in Hebron. It is there, in that city where Genesis tells us that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah are buried, and where David lived, that I served with Christian Peacemaker Teams last month. All are invited on Sunday, November 27, at 2:00 PM downstairs in Rooney lounge to see photos and hear stories about what I experienced. Come join me!

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” So wrote American author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner. I think his words are appropriate for us as the US election cycle finally ended. What happens in the US often affects us in Canada, of course. Whether with glee, with resignation, or with horror, the pundits had most of us thinking we would have to get used to “Madame President.” Instead, either with glee, with resignation, or with horror, we will continue to hear “Mister President,” addressed to Donald Trump. As I write this, early in the morning after the election, there are already articles that speak of the horrors of what is to come: white nationalists, walls, xenophobia, the “nuclear button,” a denial of climate change, and much more. Stock markets fell, and then rebounded after his conciliatory victory speech.

It is uncannily appropriate to hear the readings this weekend. The prophet Malachi and Jesus both speak of “end times.” Things will be in turmoil. Yet, our loving God tells us, through the prophet, “’But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” The past few weeks we have heard the theme of dying and rising; over and over again, in many different ways, we learn that one must die in order to rise to new life. The greatest example of this is Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection. The US elections are but one more example of dissatisfaction with the status quo, already experienced in the recent “Brexit” vote in the UK and the rise of extremist, nationalist parties around the globe. Perhaps the world and its economic structures, as we have known them, are no longer serving the majority of people, and a change is on the horizon. If that is indeed the case, it will be messy. Yet, so is an alcoholic “hitting bottom.” So was Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the end, Jesus offers us words of hope: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Or, as Frederick Buechner said, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

We remember our beloved deceased in a special way during this month of November. Thank you to all who participated in our annual Memorial Mass for those who have died over this past year. Fr. Jim, Deacon Paul, Kevin, and I hold them and all our beloved deceased in our prayer in a special way during this month. One of my Basilian confrères said once that he believed that since for God all time is now, that our prayers today are helping those who have gone before us during their lifetime, so that they may more easily attain eternal life.

A while back I learned that the Eastern Churches tend to have a different concept of heaven than we do. Instead of being “up there” with grandma and all my loved ones, Eastern Christianity tends to look at death and salvation as a process of divinization. Rather than continuing to be “me,” I become part of God, at one with the Creator of the universe, with the Source of all being. My first reaction was quite negative: “You mean I don’t get to keep being me?!” I thought how horrible it would be to no longer be myself. Then I started laughing when I realized that I was saying I would prefer being my flawed, sinful self than to be our very God. Talk about egotism run riot! The more I reflect on that thought, the more I like the idea. Salvation is becoming God! Salvation is the utter fullness of everything. And I think it fits well with what Jesus is talking about in this weekend’s gospel passage: “…in the resurrection of the dead [they] neither marry nor are given in marriage…. They are like angels and sons and daughters of God….”

But what does it take to become like an angel, to become a son and daughter of God? It means a death to my own ego, my own human self, in order to participate in something so much greater. It is the same story we’ve been hearing these past weeks: the tax collector in the temple admitting his weakness and being justified; Zacchaeus admitting his flaw by climbing a tree, and then coming down to meet Jesus; and today, the brothers in the Book of Maccabees dying in defense of their faith. Of course, the greatest example is Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection: he died to this life in order to rise to something far greater.

During my stay in the Holy Land I noticed time and time again that much of what we as Christian Peacemakers Teams do is work with a people that suffers because another people thinks of itself as special, as “chosen”—and therefore, better. If human suffering were not involved, I think it would be interesting strictly as a human observation. What does it mean when I think I’m more important than you? What does it mean to think that the rules apply to you, but not to me, because somehow I’m more important than you are? We’ve often heard “American exceptionalism” from our “neighbour to the North,” especially recently: “Make America great again.” “America never apologizes.”

So, where does God want us? I think there may be a clue in this weekend’s gospel passage: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Somehow, Jesus calls us to a downward path. Jesus tells his followers that the only sign to be given them is the sign of Jonah (who was swallowed by a large fish and spit up on a shore the third day). In Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Year of Mercy, we read: “Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus … from being enslaved by money.” Think about it: Jesus calling Zacchaeus down gave him freedom from enslavement. It goes against logic. So does the cross. So does the Incarnation. Yet Jesus, who is God humbling himself to become one of us, invites us to come down, in so many different ways. In his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis tells us, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”

So often, that step towards Jesus is a step down. It is the giving up of security, a stripping of ourselves of what we think we need, in order to fall into God’s embrace and realize that God can give us far more than we could ever seek or even imagine. Ask someone in 12-step recovery, in any of the “A”s, what it feels like to “hit bottom” and realize that you are powerless. Ask anyone in any of the “Anon” groups what it feels like to know that you cannot change your loved one who is hurting him- or her-self with drugs and alcohol. Going down is never pleasant. Jesus did not “enjoy” the cross—but look where it led!

When I was growing up in Texas, I learned that the United States was the best country in the world, and Texas was the best of the 50 states. Everybody wanted to be like us, and wished they could live there. Of course, as a child, I never doubted it. I knew that I was God’s special one, because I had received the great gift to be born where I was. Even though my mom was from Belgium, and spoke nostalgically of her time there, I always knew that we (the US and Texas) were the best. Then I began to travel, to other countries, and found out that people everywhere thought that they were the best. In the Bible, of course, we learn how Israel is God’s chosen people. Then Jesus talks about the children of Abraham being those who hear the word of God and keep it. Many modern day Israelis insist that they, of course, are in the land that God has promised to them—and not to the Palestinians, which is one of the reasons that I am here, writing you from Hebron.

So… which is it? Who is the most special? Who is God’s chosen? Who lives in the best place? I’m in the “Holy Land” as I write this; is this land holier than the land in Canada, or anywhere else in the world? I think the answer is both “yes” and “no.” Yes, this land is holy. So is Canada. Yes, the people here are God’s chosen. So are you. So am I. Richard Rohr speaks of the need for each person to know just how special they are, how they are chosen and blessed—and then, from that fullness, from that place of “specialness,” to help others to experience it as well. For me, it’s the only way that makes sense.

That is how Sirach can tell us this weekend that with the Lord there is no partiality. It is how Jesus can tell “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt” that the tax collector (the public sinner) went home justified and the Pharisee (the righteous one) not. When I don’t use my “specialness” to teach others how it feels to be special, I end up like the one to whom Jesus directed the parable. I end up like some of the people I see here, who make life untenable for others because “they” are the only special ones.