Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Brief Reflection On Four Very Important ‘Houses’

"The Annunciation" by Fra Angelico.


(Fourth Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 21, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Samuel 7:1-8:16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014]



I’m sure that many of you have seen the show “House Hunters” on the HGTV Network.  I sometimes watch it with my sister and brother-in-law when I’m in Barrington on my night off.  As homeowners, they really enjoy it.

The format of the program is pretty simple: A couple (hopefully heterosexual AND married!) is shown three houses by a realtor, each of which they have the opportunity to buy.  These previously-occupied homes are chosen for them because they have the features that the couple is looking for, and they’re priced within the price range that the couple can afford.

The drama of the program (if you can call it that) comes in trying to figure out which of the three homes the couple will finally decide to buy at the end of the show.  Now often the decision is very difficult for them, because none of the homes they get to see is perfect in every way.  Each falls short of the ideal; each, to some extent, is imperfect.  For example, in the first house the kitchen might be too small, in the second all the bathrooms might need remodeling, while in the third some walls might need to be torn down or repaired.

So part of the decision-making process involves figuring out how they’re going to deal with—and eventually fix—those imperfections.

I mention this today because our Scripture readings this morning present us with three different “houses”—not to buy, but to reflect on for our spiritual growth.  In the first reading King David expresses a desire to build a “house”—a temple—for God to dwell in and for the people of Israel to worship in.  God responds by saying to David, in effect, “Well, thank you very much, David, but building a temple for me will be your son’s job, not yours.”

Then God begins to talk to David about another house—another kind of house—namely, a dynasty: a dynasty that will last forever.  The Lord says, “And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, [David], I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm.  I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.  Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”

As Catholic Christians, we know that that promise was fulfilled with today’s gospel story—the Annunciation—and everything that followed afterward in the New Testament.  In other words, it was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ, and especially with his resurrection—because in and through his resurrection Jesus reigns as King forever: the King of all creation!  Notice how St. Luke mentions the fact that Joseph was “of the house of David”.  He was a descendant of David; and, according to some of the early Fathers of the Church, so was Mary.

Which brings us to the third “house” that we find in these readings.  The first “house” was the temple in Jerusalem; the second “house” was the Davidic dynasty that culminated with the coming of Jesus; and the third “house” is none other than Mary, our Blessed Mother.  At the moment she said those well-known words to Gabriel—those words we heard a few moments ago—“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Be it done unto me according to your word,” Mary became (physically speaking) the dwelling place—the “house,” if you will—that Jesus resided in for the first 9 months of his life on earth.

But, of course, our Lord always dwelt in Mary’s heart by faith and by love; and so, in that sense, she was always his “house.”

And she was a PERFECT house!  Unlike those homes you see on “House Hunters,” Mary’s house (that is to say, her life) was perfect.  It was without sin.

Which brings us, finally, to our “house.”  (And here I’m NOT talking about the building we happen to live in.)  This last one wasn’t mentioned specifically in our readings today, but it was alluded to in that second reading from Romans 16.  There St. Paul talks about the gospel being proclaimed so that people like you and me will come to “the obedience of faith.”

That’s a great expression!—“the obedience of faith.”  As most of us know, some Christians today (and even, sad to say, some Catholics), try to separate faith from obedience.  They’ll say things like, “I believe, so I don’t need to obey.”

That’s wrong.  According to St. Paul in this text, the attitude of every Christian should be, “Because I believe, I obey.  Because I have faith, I make the effort to live in obedience to Jesus and his gospel.”

But, of course, we don’t always obey, do we?

Which is why we, unlike Mary, need to get our imperfect “houses” cleaned every once in a while in the confessional!  Sometimes only a light cleaning might be needed; at other times a heavy, deep cleaning may be required.

Which leads to the obvious question: Did you get your “house” cleaned this Advent?  Hopefully you did.  If you didn’t, don’t worry—we’ll have confessions again next Saturday, 3:30 to 4:30pm.

Comparing our lives to houses (as I’ve done in this homily) can help us to understand many things.  It can help us to understand Mary’s holiness, and it can help us to understand our need for forgiveness.  It can also help us to understand something else which is very important.  It can help us to understand why God allows certain sufferings in our lives.  St. Thomas Aquinas would say that God allows evil (he doesn’t cause it, he allows it) for the sake of a greater good.

Ultimately that means he allows it so that we will grow in holiness and become more like Mary: a more fitting “house” for Jesus to dwell in here on this earth—and in eternity.

C.S. Lewis wrote something along these lines in his famous book, “Mere Christianity.”  I’ll leave you today with his words.  If you’re dealing with a difficult cross in your life right now, you will hopefully derive some encouragement from this. 

Lewis wrote, “Imagine yourself as a living house. [That should be pretty easy to do after hearing this homily!]  God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The One Reason to Rejoice Always




(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 14, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; Luke 1: 46-55.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2014]



Gaudete!

It’s a command that can be very hard to follow, even if we really want to.

Today is known as “Gaudete Sunday”.  It’s the Sunday when we light the third candle—the pink one—on our Advent wreath, signifying that the season is now more than half over and that Christmas is fast approaching.

And so the Church tells us to do what St. Paul tells us to do in that text we just heard from 1 Thessalonians 5.  The Church tells us to REJOICE!  In fact, she not only tells us to do that, she COMMANDS US to do it!  “Gaudere” in Latin is the verb that means “to rejoice,” but “gaudete” is the imperative plural form of the verb—which means it’s a command!  It’s a command that’s being given to you, to me—to all of us—and to every single human person on planet earth.

“REJOICE!”

Which is why I said what I said at the beginning of my homily: It’s a command that can be very hard to follow, even if we really want to.

Because we can always find a reason NOT to rejoice!  Even if we’re relatively happy and content with the way things are going in our life right now, there will always be some reason for us not to rejoice.  It might be something we’re personally experiencing which is pulling us down emotionally; it might be something negative that somebody else is experiencing.  Think of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that occurred two years ago this week.  Most of us didn’t know any of the victims or their relatives, and yet I dare say that all of us were deeply affected by the tragedy.

How could we not be?

As I see it, there are two major categories of reasons for us not to rejoice.  The first is the general state of the world; the second is the particular state of our world.

The general state of the world is determined by the kinds of things we read about in the newspaper every day: the murders of innocent people—like those that took place in Newtown; the rioting; the terrorism; the wars; the greed; the abuse of various kinds.

You get the picture.

The particular state of our world is determined by what we are experiencing in our life at the present time, or by events in our past that are still troubling us today.

For example, some of you have lost loved ones suddenly and tragically—for some of you that’s happened in the recent past.  Some of you have lost your jobs recently; some of you have been diagnosed with a serious illness recently; some of you have relatives or friends who are going through difficult times.

The possibilities, unfortunately, are almost endless.

And this why it can be hard to rejoice—especially around Christmas, when the general perception is that everyone around us IS filled with joy!

That, by the way, is a false perception—everyone out there is NOT filled with joy!  But, because of all the decorations and music and parties at this time of year, that’s the way it can appear to be.

So what’s the answer?  Is it possible to fulfill that command to rejoice even when bad things are happening in the world out there and in our own little world in here?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes!  Yes, it’s possible to “gaudete”—to rejoice—in times of suffering.  Yes, it’s possible to rejoice in times of trial.  Yes, it’s possible to rejoice even in the worst of circumstances!
 
It’s possible because, in the midst of all the reasons—all the many reasons—that each of us has NOT to rejoice, there is always one reason for us TO rejoice.

AND THAT REASON IS JESUS CHRIST AND WHAT HE HAS DONE FOR US!

First of all, let me make the necessary distinction between “feeling joy” and “rejoicing.”  Feeling joy is an emotional response to something that pleases us.  Children, for example, will see their presents under the tree on Christmas morning and they will feel joy.  That will happen quite naturally.  And if they’ve been particularly good during the previous 12 months, they will feel a lot of joy!

Rejoicing is different—very different.  Biblically speaking, rejoicing is not an emotion or an emotional response to something that we find attractive or pleasing.  Rejoicing in the Bible is an act of the will.  It’s a conscious and deliberate decision: a conscious and deliberate decision to praise and glorify God regardless of what we happen to be dealing with at the present time.

And it’s a decision which is made on the basis of things that we know to be true.

I don’t always “feel joy.”  Neither do you, and neither does anybody else.  But even when I’m not feeling joy I can still make the conscious and deliberate decision to rejoice, based on what I know, by faith, to be true.
And there we have the key to it all.  If I want to be able to rejoice on the third Sunday of Advent (and on every other day of the year), I have to make the effort—the conscious and deliberate effort—TO LOOK BEYOND all the reasons that I have not to rejoice, and then focus my attention on those things that my faith tells me are true.

For example …

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus loves me with an unconditional love even when I fail him.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus is with me always and that he will never allow me to be tested beyond my strength.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus will always forgive me if I repent—especially in the sacrament of Confession.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that everything—including my sufferings—will work for my ultimate good if I love the Lord and stay close to him.

If my mind and my heart are focused on truths like those (and not on all the reasons that I have to be sad and depressed), then I can rejoice, and I can rejoice ALWAYS (as St. Paul says I should).

Here Mary, our Blessed Mother, is a great example for us.  How providential it was that today’s responsorial psalm wasn’t a psalm at all!

Did you notice that?  In between the first and second readings at Sunday Mass we normally hear one of the 150 Old Testament psalms (or at least part of one of the psalms).  But today was different.  Today, in place of a psalm, we heard a brief excerpt from our Blessed Mother’s Magnificat.  (That was the beautiful prayer she said when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  The prayer is found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1).

Mary, like the rest of us, had many reasons not to rejoice: she was poor; she and her people were being oppressed by the pagan Romans; she lived in a violent and dangerous period of human history.  Death, literally, was all around her.

And yet, as this prayer indicates, SHE WAS ABLE TO LOOK BEYOND ALL THOSE NEGATIVE THINGS AND MAKE THE CONSCIOUS AND DELIBERATE DECISION TO REJOICE!

Listen again to her words:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …
[Notice she does not say, “I feel joy”; she says “my spirit REJOICES in God my Savior” …
She then lists some of the things that she knew, by faith, to be true.  She says …]
The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.

In the midst of all the reasons that she had not to rejoice, Mary found—and Mary consciously and deliberately focused on—the one reason she had to rejoice always: GOD, and all the great things he had done for her and for her people.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we will follow your example, not only during these days before Christmas, but throughout the entire year.  Amen.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Motherhood: A Vocation Which Has Been Forever Exalted And Sanctified By Mary’s Immaculate Conception

The Zunigas


(Immaculate Conception 2014: This homily was given on December 8, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2014]


When we were on vacation in Houston a few weeks ago, Fr. Brian Sistare and I did a number of enjoyable things.  We went to a Houston Rockets basketball game; we went to a Houston Texans football game; we spent an entire day at the Johnson Space Center; we went to the local zoo (we always go to zoos when we’re on vacation); we even went biking a couple of times.  The weather was cool during most of the week (at least it was cool by Houston standards!), but that didn’t stop us from experiencing a lot of the city.

But the most inspiring thing we did (at least from my perspective) occurred on Saturday, when we spent the better part of the afternoon and evening visiting with Heide Zuniga, her husband, Lou—and their 5 children.

Heide is originally from Westerly.  She’s the daughter of Sharon Feist (who’s the secretary at our school)—and she’s a former member of my youth group.  I consider Heide to be one of my many spiritual children, and I’m happy to say she turned out to be a really good one!  She and Lou are very serious and committed Catholics, who have been deeply involved in many aspects of parish life and ministry over the years (especially when they lived in Arizona).   They’ve participated in everything from marriage preparation programs to youth ministry.

And she’s a great mother!  In fact, that’s what impressed me most about Heide during our visit.  Because we were there for several hours, I was able to observe how her children interacted with her, and with Lou—and with one another.  Well after a few hours it became very clear to me that these 5 children (although they’re not perfect) are respectful, and courteous—and are being given a solid moral and spiritual foundation to build their lives on.

I was even impressed by how Heide exercised discipline.  At one point one of her sons misbehaved a bit, and Heide responded by very calmly and very quietly taking him by the hand and leading him off into the next room where the two of them had a little “discussion” (actually it was probably more of a monologue: SHE talked and he listened—whether he wanted to or not!).  Then, after a few minutes they came out, and life went on.

Problem addressed.

So what’s the point, Fr. Ray?  Why are you talking about this on the feast of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception?  Well, very simply, it’s because Heide’s motherhood is a vocation.  All motherhood is a vocation; that is to say, it’s a call from Almighty God himself.  It’s not a disease—which is what the pro-abortion and pro-contraception and pro-sterilization crowd would have us believe.  And I would say that it’s a vocation which has been forever exalted and sanctified by the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother!

First of all, we need to remember what the Immaculate Conception refers to and what it does not refer to.

The Immaculate Conception does NOT refer to the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary—which is what many people mistakenly believe.  The event that led to Jesus’ conception is called “the Annunciation.”

The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, St. Ann.  Here’s how Pope Pius IX defined the dogma: the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”

All of us are saved by being delivered from sin by Jesus; Mary was saved by being preserved from sin by Jesus.

She was saved as we are—but in a different way than we are.

And the reason she was preserved from all sin—original sin and actual sin—is because she was called to be the human mother of the divine Son of God.

That was her sacred vocation!
 
The reason that the story of the Annunciation is read at Mass today is because the Immaculate Conception prepared Mary for that event—and for everything that followed afterward.

Which is precisely my point here!  Think about it, my brothers and sisters: God, our heavenly Father, considered the vocation of motherhood to be so important—so influential—so essential—THAT HE ACTUALLY INTERVENED DIRECTLY IN HUMAN HISTORY TO MAKE SURE THAT THE MOTHER OF HIS SON WOULD BE THE PUREST AND HOLIEST PERSON SHE COULD POSSIBLY BE!

As Pius IX put it, Mary was given “a singular grace and privilege.”

That’s what Almighty God thinks of motherhood.  That’s how much Almighty God thinks of motherhood.  If you ask me, it’s about time that more people in our world started to think like God thinks.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Message of John the Baptist: “Everyone’s a Bit of a Fixer-Upper.”

"Everyone's a bit of a fixer-upper."


(Second Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 7, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2014]



John the Baptist never went to the movies.

I’m sure that’s not news to anyone.  As they say in the Geico commercials, “Everybody knows that.”

Everybody knows that John never went to the movies, because everybody knows that when John the Baptist walked the face of this earth there weren’t any movies to go to!

So, obviously, he never saw the very popular 2013 Walt Disney film, “Frozen.”

But if he had—if John the Baptist had lived in our time, and if he had gone to see the movie, “Frozen,” at a local theater with a group of his friends—there is absolutely no doubt in my mind as to what his favorite song from the film would have been.  His favorite song would have been the one that the Trolls sing—the one that has this line in the refrain: “Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper.”

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper.

John the Baptist would have loved that line, because it pretty much sums up the entire message of his preaching at the Jordan River 2,000 years ago.

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper.

In other words (as Deacon Fran reminded us last weekend in his homily), we’re all sinners!  We’re all sinners who are in need of the saving grace of forgiveness: the grace that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, won for us by his passion, death and resurrection.

But in order for us to get “fixed-up” by Jesus and his saving grace in the way that we need to be fixed-up by Jesus and his saving grace, we first need humility: we must have the humility to acknowledge those aspects of our lives that need fixing.

That’s because we can’t be forgiven for sins that we’re not willing to admit!

Now because we’re weak, fallible human beings, and because (as Deacon Fran reminded us last weekend) we all tend to see the sins of other people a lot more clearly than we see our own, we sometimes need help from outside sources in order to come to a clear recognition of exactly what it is that we need to have fixed-up in our lives.

To use an analogy from the material world: Whenever my car needs fixing-up—as it does from time to time—I take it to my trusty mechanic, Bob Wall, down at Kars Automotive (that’s Kars with a “K”) on Main Street and I have him take a look at it, because Bob knows cars (that’s cars with a “c”) a lot better than I do!

With his help, I come to see exactly what needs to be repaired, what needs to be “fixed-up” (so to speak).

And so it is with our souls.  This is why I’ve put an examination of conscience—a very thorough examination of conscience—in the bulletin this weekend.  It’s there to help each of us make a “diagnostic-check” of our soul, like Bob Wall makes a diagnostic-check of my car from time to time.

So I ask you to sit down sometime during this coming week and to reflect seriously and honestly on the questions that are written on that sheet of paper.  Don’t leave your bulletins in church!  Use that examination of conscience to help you to determine exactly what needs to be “fixed-up” in your soul and in your life.  And then resolve to bring those things—those sins—to the great “Fixer-upper”, Jesus Christ, in the great “fixing-up” sacrament known as Confession.  Resolve to do that before Christmas if possible, or at least shortly thereafter.  (In other words, in the relatively-near future.) 

Let me conclude my homily now by referring you to today’s second reading from chapter 3 of the Second Letter of St. Peter.  In that text our first pope says to us, “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” 

Translated into the language of the Trolls from the movie, “Frozen,” St. Peter is saying to us there, “The Lord will give you every possible chance to get yourself ‘fixed-up’ while you’re here on this earth—so there’s no excuse for not doing so.”

However St. Peter also adds this: [He says,] “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”  In troll lingo that means, “Take note: there will come a moment in the future, either at the end of your earthly life or at the end of time (whichever comes first), when it will no longer be possible for you to get ‘fixed-up’.”

So St. Peter says, “Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”  Or, as the trolls would put it, “Therefore, beloved, get fixed-up while you have the opportunity to get fixed-up, before the moment comes when it will no longer be possible to get fixed-up.”

Does that make sense?  If it does, then I, or Fr. Giudice, or some other validly ordained priest will see you in the confessional—soon.