Fr. O’Connor’s Homily: January 3, 2016

Feast of the Epiphany

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Isaiah 60: 1-6
Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2: 1-12

 

We call the visitors from the East who followed a star and came to Bethlehem by different names:  the Magi, the astrologers, the wise men and the three kings.  But in spite of their many titles, they came for a single purpose:  to worship the Christ Child, the newborn King.

Their reason for following that star is found in the name of today’s feast:  the Epiphany.  It means “a manifestation,” “a showing.”  Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, manifested Himself, showed Himself to the entire world through these non-Jewish visitors.

“The Gentiles are coheirs” with the Jews, “members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel,” Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians.

We see this Epiphany event here at the manger.  Three wise men are there, with a camel in tow.  And there are many legends about these men.

One says that after the star that was leading them came to rest over the stable in Bethlehem, it then dropped into a well.  And that if you have a pure heart, you can look into that well and see that star shining beneath its water.

Another legend claimed that there were twelve wise men.  But later on, it settled upon three, although the Scriptures do not tell us how many there were.  The number three is very logical since they brought three gifts:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Another says that they themselves were eastern kings who came to pay homage to the newborn King of the world.

Another gives them names:  Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

But the Scriptures do tell us that these visitors from the East were not Jewish but followed a star and found the Christ Child, offered their gifts and paid Him homage.  And in the three gifts that they brought we find a lot of symbolism.

Gold was a gift for a king.  We have a practice today that, when you visit someone’s home for dinner, you take a small gift with you to present to the host or hostess.  In the East, if you were fortunate enough to be invited to visit the king, you would take a substantial gift to present to him.  And gold was considered the most appropriate gift to give to a king.

The gift of gold was the Magi’s acknowledgement that Jesus truly was a king – but a different kind of king than the rulers of this world.  Jesus did not rule by fear but by love.  He did not reign from an earthly throne but from the throne of His cross.  And we need to submit to His kingship.

There is a story from years ago about Lord Nelson in the British Navy.  He was known to be kind and gracious when other military officers came to him to surrender.  One day an enemy admiral boarded Lord Nelson’s ship to surrender.  Knowing that he was a kind a gracious man, the admiral approached Lord Nelson with an outstretched hand.  And Lord Nelson, with his arms at his side, said to the surrendering admiral:  “First your sword and then your hand.”  He needed to submit.

And so do you and I before Christ our King.  He comes to us in friendship, making us a part of His family.  But first we must submit to his kingship.  And so gold was the first gift of the Magi to Christ the newborn King.

The gift of frankincense was for a priest.  In temple worship, incense was used as a sign of our prayers rising before God with a pleasing fragrance before Him.

The Latin word for high priest is “pontifex,” which means “a bridge builder.”  Jesus our Priest is the bridge between God and the human race.  Jesus makes God available to us and takes our prayers to God.  And so frankincense was the second gift of the Magi to Christ the Priest.

The gift of myrrh was for someone who was going to die.  In those days, a body was prepared for burial with a spice called myrrh.  It was an early form of embalming.  But this third gift of myrrh was a sign that Christ, the newborn King and Priest, would one day die on the cross so that we could live forever.

There is a painting by Holman Hunt that depicts Jesus in His teenage years.  He is working hard in the carpenter shop late one afternoon and is tired.  So He goes to the doorway and stretches out His arms against the door jamb.  And the sunlight comes through the door and casts a shadow on the back wall of the carpenter shop.

In the background is Mary who sees the shadow of the cross on that back wall and her face registers sorrow and fear because she catches a glimpse of what will happen to her Son one day.  He – our King and our Priest and our Saving Victim – will die on the cross so that we can live forever.

The gifts of the Magi are very heavy with meaning:  gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for someone who would die.  This feast of the Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the world:  to Jew and Gentile alike.  And so the response to Psalm 72 that we sang today after the first reading continues to ring true down to our own day:  “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”

 

Fr. O’Connor’s Homily: January 1, 2016

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

New Year’s Day

 

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Numbers 6: 22-27
Galatians 4: 4-7
Luke 2: 16-21

 

On this New Year’s Day, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

“Mary is our only savior from an abstract Christ,” says Coventry Patmore.  Mary teaches us, as no other person can, about the down-to-earthness of Jesus Christ and His Church.

The Son of God – who was conceived and carried in her womb, born in a stable, nursed at her breasts, cried on her shoulder, and grew under her care – can hardly be abstract and unreal.  Neither Jesus – nor His Mystical Body, the Church – are always neat, tidy and predictable.

Yet we expect that of the Church at times, don’t we?  Our pastor should be perfect, our parishioners always smiling, our bishop ever attentive, and the Church always pristine and pure.

Good grief!  Wake up!  Mary will set us straight.  We are working for a God who didn’t even get a proper room for the birth of His Son, and yet we want a Church where everything is absolutely ideal all the time!

Something tells me that at the time of the flight into Egypt – when King Herod was out to kill all the boys of Bethlehem under the age of two because he was threatened by the news of a Newborn King – that even Mary might have been tempted to re-connect with the Archangel Gabriel and call it all off.  There was nothing comfortable and cozy about any of that scene.

Mary teaches us that being a disciple of Jesus brings some uncertainty to us.  We can be very proud of our resumes and have a career path all charted out.  Mary smiles and says that when you say “yes” to the Lord you are surrendering your most prized commodity:  your desire to control every detail of your life.

“Get ready for surprises,” Mary says to us:  some plums and some prunes, some Bethlehems and some lost-in-the-temple episodes.  In other words, be prepared for some twists and turns as you put your life in the hands of God.  But trust in God.  He does have a plan for you and He promises that it will all turn out for the best in the end.

Mary shows us the necessity of being faithful to God in the joys and in the sorrows of being disciples of Jesus.  She was there at the happiest moment ever – the first Christmas morning.  And she was there at the saddest event ever – at the foot of the cross on Good Friday afternoon.

Our lives will have their Bethlehems and their Calvarys too.  Mary’s lesson is that what is happening to us is not as significant as with whom it is happening.  For at the crib and at the cross she is close to Jesus.  She is faithful to Him.

Mary’s impact on us would be so much less if we only had the account of her at Christmas and not at Calvary – if we only had the Madonna with Child and not the Pieta when He is taken down from the cross.

And so we are faithful to Christ when His Church is fresh and full of promise – as was the Infant of Bethlehem.  And we are faithful to Christ when His Church is lifeless and bleeding – as on Calvary.

As the old saying goes, “God may not have favorites, but His Mother sure does.”  Jesus gave Mary to us to be our Mother too.  She looks at each one of us with the same motherly love with which she looks at Jesus.  She helps us to persevere in our calling to serve her Son – and God’s Son – faithfully.

Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus and our Mother too, we place our lives in your loving care.

 

 

Fr. O’Connor’s Homily: December 27, 2015

Feast of the Holy Family-C

 

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1 Samuel 1: 20-22, 24-28
1 John 3: 1-2, 21-24
Luke 2: 41-52

 

There are certain things that have happened to all of us in the past that are stored in our memories.  Today’s Gospel passage finished with this line:  “Mary, His mother, kept all these things in her heart.”

If you had the chance to interview our Blessed Mother, what questions would you ask her?

She would probably want to talk about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  She might want to recall the wedding feast in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine.  She would certainly wish to reflect upon His crucifixion and His resurrection.  And, very likely, she would bring up today’s Gospel because it says that she “kept all these things in her heart.”

On this Holy Family Sunday, it is important that we realize that even in the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph there could be tensions and misunderstandings.

The Gospel begins by telling us that every year the Holy Family went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.  On this pilgrimage, Jesus was twelve years old.  When Mary and Joseph were heading back home to Nazareth, Jesus stayed behind – unbeknownst to them.  When they realized this, they left the caravan and spent three days looking for Him.

Now put yourself in their place.  How would you feel?  And then they found Jesus in the temple, “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard Him were astounded at His understanding and His answers,” the Gospel says.

And Mary, quite understandably, was upset:  “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

And Jesus says to them:  “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus did not answer in a smart-alecky way.  But it was a mysterious answer that Mary and Joseph did not fully understand at the moment.  And so Mary “kept all these things in her heart.”

The whole scene tells us that even in the Holy Family there were times of tension and misunderstanding.  And we see how they met those circumstances.

Mary did not get into a shouting match with Jesus.  But she did make it very clear that she did not appreciate His disappearing act – and that He had better not ever do that again.  Yet she treated Jesus, and Jesus treated her, with respect and with love.

In your own family life, how do you deal with tension and misunderstanding?  We look to the Holy Family for their prayers and example.

Listen again to today’s Opening Prayer:  “O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity.”

A medical researcher who had made several significant discoveries was asked how he got interested in this field.  He recounted something that had happened at home when he was a small child and that he kept in his heart all these years.  Here is what he said:

When I was a little boy, I went to the refrigerator one day for a glass of milk.  I took hold of that plastic gallon jug, took off its cap, lost my grip and it fell on the floor, splattering milk everywhere.

And then my mother walked in the kitchen.  [Put yourself there!]  And she said, “Robert, I don’t know that I have ever seen such a colossal mess with spilt milk before.  But since the damage is already done, would you like to play in it for a couple of minutes?”  [Now put yourself there!]

After he frolicked in the froth, she said, “Now it’s time to clean this up and I would like you to help me.  Would you like a mop or a towel or a sponge?”  He chose the sponge and together they cleaned up that mess.

Then his mother said to him, “Robert, this was kind of a failed experiment in getting that large bottle of milk out of the refrigerator.  Let’s take that empty container out in the back yard and fill it with water.  Then you can practice handling it full so that the next time you go to the refrigerator for a glass of milk, you will be able to do it without having an accident.”

That left a lasting impression on him.  It told him that he was going to make some mistakes in life, but he could turn those mistakes into power if he learned from them.  And it led him to become a research scientist.

“After all,” he remarked, “what is research anyway?  You try things and they don’t always turn out the way you think they are going to turn out.  Sometimes you clearly make mistakes.  But sometimes the unexpected happens that leads you to a real discovery!”

It was a lasting lesson for life that he learned from his mother – and kept in his heart – and all over the way she had handled some spilt milk.

How do you handle tensions and misunderstandings in your family life?  Like the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph?  Parents, you all know that you can talk about proper behavior until you are blue in the face, but your children are far more likely to imitate your example than follow your words.  And your kids can drive you crazy sometimes, can’t they?  [Of course they can.  They are kids after all!]

A kindergarten teacher noticed that one of her students was having trouble putting on his boots.  So she knelt down to help him and had a dickens of a time getting them on.  When she finished, he said:  “Teacher, you’ve got them on the wrong feet.”  And so she did.

So she took them off and put them back on again, and it was still a struggle.  And then he said:  “Teacher, these aren’t my boots.”  And she bit her tongue lest she say what she was thinking, and took the boots off again.

And then the little imp said:  “They’re my brother’s boots.  My mom couldn’t find mine this morning so she made me wear his because it was snowing outside.”  So she put the blasted boots on one more time.

Then she said:  “Now where are your mittens?”  And he said:  “I didn’t want to lose them so I stuffed them in the toes of my boots.”

Kids, you can drive your parents nuts.  And parents, you can drive your kids nuts – no matter what their age.  Why?  Because in family life there will always be tensions and misunderstandings.  Then how do we deal with these things?

We should imitate the Holy Family – with their respect and their love.

And how did today’s Gospel end up?  It says:  “Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them….  And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”

And so should we – as we imitate the Holy Family in our own family circles.

Let us listen once again to today’s Opening Prayer – and keep its meaning in our hearts:  “O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity, and so, in the joy of your house, delight one day in eternal rewards.  We ask this through Christ, Our Lord.  Amen.