Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gospel for Today: Holy Family


The Gospels tell us little of Jesus' youth.  Jesus is born, presented by His parents in the Temple, and some time later the magi come to adore Him.  Eventually the young Christ must flee with His family to Egypt to escape the persecution of King Herod.  In fact today, Dec. 28, if it were not a Sunday, would ordinarily be the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating all the innocent children who died when Herod ordered his slaughter for fear of the newborn King of the Jews.  

Other than these few snapshot moments captured by the gospel writers, most of Jesus' childhood is spent in silent anonymity.  I like to think that it was spent simply being a child, doing ordinary things that children do; playing, learning, exploring, loving and being loved by His parents.  The gospel today says that He "grew and became strong," (Lk 2:40) as all parents hope their child will.  Perhaps because the gospels are so silent on the early years of Christ, the Liturgical calendar tends to speed through them rather quickly.  Just a few days ago we celebrated Christ's birth at Christmas.  The Christmas season officially ends two weeks from now with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, an event that took place when Jesus was about 30 years old.  

It is important that the Church pauses today to give us this Feast of the Holy Family.  It is important for us to remember that our Lord was once a child, who honored and obeyed His parents, Mary and Joseph, who in turn loved and honored Him and one another.  This feast, commemorating such a seemingly normal aspect of our Lord's time on earth, is perhaps more significant in our time than in any before.  Love, honor, devotion and obedience within the family is sadly not the reality for many in our society.  Today, 41% of marriages in America end in divorce.  This year (as it has been for the past several years) over 40% of children born will be born to parents who are not married.  In fact, the New York Times calls out of wedlock birth "the new normal" for women under 30.  This is not because of an epidemic of teenage pregnancy, but because more and more couples are choosing either to delay marriage, or nor marry at all; yet this is not seen as an impediment to living together, or even having children.  Living together before marriage used to be considered scandalous.  Today, most couples wouldn't imagine getting married without first "trying it out" by living together.  We have redefined normal so that a child growing up in a home with a married mother and father is no longer the norm, but the exception.

We live in a society that has forgotten the importance of marriage to family life.  The same NY Times article linked to above quotes a university sociologist who calls marriage "a luxury good," something nice to have if you want it and can afford it, but certainly not for everyone.  Marriage is still seen as a good, as are children, as is sex.  But these are viewed today as three separate goods which can be pursued independently of one other.  Because of the widespread acceptance of contraception, abortion and divorce, one can have sex without children, sex without marriage, children without marriage, and marriage without children. We see the effects of this mindset in the debate over homosexual marriage.  Just a few short years ago even most liberal politicians (including our president) rejected the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage.  Today its acceptance is almost mainstream.  If marriage is simply a contract between two people who are in love, valid so long as both parties involved consent to it, with children just an optional add-on, then why not same-sex marriage?   

But a marriage does not make a couple.  A marriage makes a family.  We are reminded of this by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which defines a marriage as "a covenant or partnership of life between a man and a woman, which is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children."  Marriage is more than a celebration of love between two people.  Marriage involves a self-giving love oriented toward life and the generation of a new family; a selfless love that is willing to put others first - one's spouse and one's children.  It is a love that has a life beyond the fulfillment of selfish desires.  It is a sacrificial love that is ordered to the good of the family and to the world.

This true marital love is modeled by the Holy Family. Joseph and Mary were devoted not only to one another but to the child Jesus.  They protected Jesus.  They cared for Him.  And Christ in turn was devoted to them. Our Lord kept the fourth commandment perfectly.  This means that even God, in His Incarnation, was obedient to His human mother and father, out of reverence for the family.  Even though the gospels are largely silent on the first 30 years of Christ's life, today's feast reminds us that the majority of His time on earth was spent participating in family life.  As with all things He does, Jesus' participation in family life was perfect.  This means Christ perfectly lived out the instructions of today's readings.  He revered His mother, Mary, and honored and cared for his aging father, Joseph (Sir 3:2-6, 12-14).  He obeyed His parents, who in turn were subordinate to one another in humility, patience and love (Col 3:12-21).  

The good news of the gospel is good news for the family.  It is an oft-repeated lie that Catholic marriages fail at the same rate as the general population.  This is untrue.  Recent studies have found that while the general American divorce rate is 41%, for Catholics it is 28%.  For Catholic couples practicing Natural Family Planning and attending Mass together faithfully, the divorce rate is lower still.  One recent study has found it to be around 3%.  In other words, nourishing your relationship with God will help to nourish and strengthen your family relationships, as well.  The example of the Holy Family is an example of love. By imitating their love and devotion, your family can be a light of love to the world.

So let us today reverence the Holy Family, in whose bosom Christ was nourished.  Let us look to them as a model for our own lives.  Let us repent and seek forgiveness for those ways in which we have not fulfilled our role as son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father with love and devotion.  And let us imitate the love of the Holy Family in our own families, whatever our situation, so that we can bring our families into union with Christ, as part of His family forever in eternity.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Gospel For Today: 4th Sunday of Advent

click here for readings

"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word."  In this simple statement, Mary shows us in today's gospel reading the true essence of faith (Lk 1:26-38).  In the Latin Vulgate Bible, the word Mary uses to give her assent is fiat, which means "let it be done."  In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definitions of fiat all have to do with issuing a command or making an authoritative act of the will.  In this case, however, Mary's fiat is to conform her will to that of the Father's.  She could do this perfectly because Mary possessed two things in abundance; a great love of God, and a great trust in God.

Have you ever received really good news, even incredible news, from someone that you didn't really know and trust?  Did part of you doubt that it was true?  Mary received some rather incredible news from God's messenger, Gabriel, in today's reading.  But she wasn't the only one Gabriel brought astonishing news to.  Just a few verses before today's reading, the angel Gabriel also appeared to Zechariah, a priest who was known to be "righteous before God" (Lk 1:6).  This righteous priest, along with his wife Elizabeth, "walk[ed] in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly" (Lk 1:6).  In other words, Zechariah and Elizabeth were good, God-fearing, morally upright people.  They were people of faith, who lived lives of prayer.  One of the sorrows in their life, however, was that they had no children. Elizabeth was barren, and the gospel tells us both of them were getting advanced in age (Lk 1:7).  They must have resigned themselves to the fact that they would be childless forever.  But God had another plan.

While Zechariah was praying and offering incense in the Temple, Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth was going to bear him a son (John the Baptist).  Instead of rejoicing, Zechariah did what you or I probably would have done.  He doubted.  After all, it sounds too good to be true.  At their advanced age, they had given up hope.  In Zechariah's mind, a child would be impossible.  In fact, he tells Gabriel plainly (as if he did not already know), "I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (Lk 1:18).  In response to Zechariah's doubt, Gabriel strikes him mute until his son John is born.    

After this encounter is described, the very next thing Luke does is tell of Gabriel's visit to Mary, which would have happened about six month's later.  "In the sixth month [of Elizabeth's pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary."  Note that twice Luke refers to Mary as a "virgin." There is an ancient tradition that Mary was a consecrated virgin, a precursor to the nuns of today.  This tradition is supported by many Church Fathers, including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine.  If this is true, why would Mary take a husband?  According to the mid-second century text, The Protoevangelium of James, Joseph was an older widower who took Mary as his bride to provide her security and protection as she lived her life of consecrated virginity (a practice not unheard of at the time).

So for Mary, who had taken an oath before God to remain a virgin her whole life, the announcement from Gabriel that she would bear a son would have seemed just as impossible as the announcement to the elderly Zechariah.  Indeed, Mary asks the angel, "How will this be, since I do not know man?" (Lk 1:34).  But there is no doubt in her question.  She knows two things with certainty: 1) she will remain true to her vow before God, and 2) God will achieve His will.  She is simply asking Gabriel how it is that God will bring this seemingly impossible thing to pass.  When Gabriel explains that the conception of Jesus will be an act of the Holy Spirit, Mary gives her fiat.  "I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be done unto me according to your word."  She loves God, and trusts in His love for her.

Both Mary and Zechariah were people of faith.  Both strove to do God's will.  Both kept the commands and walked in His ways.  They were both blessed to be visited by an angel bringing very good (but seemingly impossible) news from God.  But when that news was received, Zechariah's response was doubt -- it is too good to be true.  Mary's response was faith -- let it be done.  You and I have received very good news which sounds even more impossible.  God so desires that we be reconciled to Him that He comes to dwell in this world with us and draw us to Himself.  He comes not with condemnation, but with mercy.  He comes not with contempt, but with love.  He comes with peace and joy.  And most incredulous of all, He comes as "a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12).  It sounds too good to be true.  Yet He comes to us all the same.

Are we hesitant to receive this good news, like Zechariah, because we cannot comprehend how it could be true?  Or do we trust God enough, like Mary, to accept this good news with simple faith?  Are we willing to ask forgiveness from a newborn baby?  Are we prepared to look on the face of a child and proclaim, "My Lord and my God?"  That babe is our King, and He offers His love and mercy.  You can doubt the offer and reject the gift.  Or you can say, like Mary, "Let it be done to me."

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gospel For Today: 3rd Sunday of Advent


Today is the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Guadete or "Rejoice" Sunday, from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon from today's Mass.  Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.  Dominus enim prope est.  "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near" (Phil 4:4-5).  Today, the penitential purple is lightened to rose in our liturgical vestments as we rejoice at the imminent coming of our Lord at Christmas.  Our first reading says, "I rejoice heartily in the Lord" (Is 61:10).  Our psalm response is, "My soul rejoices in my God" (Is 61:10b).  In our second reading, St. Paul tells us to "rejoice always" (1 Thes 5:16).  

In the midst of all this joy, it might seem a bit odd to us that our gospel reading focuses on John the Baptist, the desert hermit who ate insects and told people to repent. We don't typically think of him as a joyful fellow.  Yet John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy.  After all, when the pregnant Mary came before her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant at that time with John, he leaped for joy in his mother's womb (Lk 1:44).  The gospels tell us John rejoices at the bridegroom's voice (Jn 3:29-30).  John has a thing or two to teach us about joy, if we would listen.

John's joy is rooted in humility.  Let us not forget that John, by this time, had developed quite a following.  This is why in the gospel today, the priests and Levites are sent to ask John about his identity. They want to know just who this man is and what he is up to.  They are a little afraid of his influence. The gospels even tell us that there is none born of women who are greater than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11, Lk 7:28). Have no doubt about it, John is a great man.  But when the priests ask him who he is, John does not point to his greatness - or to anything else about him.  He tells them plainly, "I am not the Christ."  This seems like an obvious enough statement, but it is significant.  It is important to know who we are, and who we are not.

I suspect that there is no one reading this who would claim to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  But even though we don't claim it in words, we proclaim it in our actions whenever we fail to rely on God.  When we refuse to repent of our sins, when we deny the need for God's forgiveness, we say by our actions that we can save ourselves.  We are claiming to be our own Christ.  When we think we know better than God, or the Church He founded and continues to guide, we act as our own God.  When we put ourselves, not God, first in our lives, we act as if we were the highest good.  We act as if we are the Christ.

The truth is that we cannot save ourselves. If we try, we will fail.  We need God's love and mercy.  We are good, but we are not the greatest good.  To recognize reality and our place in it we need to be humble like John the Baptist and admit, "I am not the Christ."

John was humble.  That is why he was happy.  True humility does not involve berating yourself.  We tend to think of pride as saying, "Look how great I am," and humility, it's opposite, as saying, "Look how horrible I am."  But both are wrong.  Either way you are looking at yourself.  Looking always at yourself, even if it is to look down on yourself, is a form of pride.  True humility does not look inward, but outward.  John never said, "Look at me," either to say how great he was, or how poor he was.  Instead, he said, "Look at Him!"    John said, "I must decrease so that He might increase" (Jn 3:30).  In this way he is like the Virgin Mary, who never points to herself, but always to her Son.  

Recognizing that there is a God and we are not Him relieves us of a heavy burden.  We cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we might try.  When we finally admit that we are not our own personal Christ, we can start to look outside ourselves for the real Christ.  We start to look for something greater than ourselves.  John recognized Jesus as one infinitely greater than he.  He found the incarnate God, born among us to bring us light, love and salvation.  There is cause for rejoicing here, for those humble enough to receive Him.

Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I say, rejoice!  Indeed, the Lord is near!

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Gospel For Today: 2nd Sunday of Advent

Our prayers are with all WCU students during exam week.  Please join me in praying for the intercession of St. Nicholas, whose feast day was yesterday.  In addition to being the real-life inspiration for Santa Claus, he is also one of several patron saints of students.  (So if you are wondering what to ask Santa for this year, feel free to ask him for a little help on your exams).  A reminder that we are not having small groups, or our Wednesday dinner this week.  We will be doing Community Table service this Tuesday from 3:30-6:00 for those who can join us.  And the chapel at the Catholic Student Center will be open continuously during exam week for anyone who needs a quiet prayer space.  Please take advantage of it.  I hope to see you all at our final Mass of the semester this afternoon at 4:00pm.  


St. John the Baptist
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths."  We receive this imploring message twice in today's readings.  First we hear it from the prophet Isaiah and then again from the evangelist Mark at the very beginning of his gospel.  "Prepare the way of the Lord!"

Mark is quoting from Isaiah (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) as an introduction to John the Baptist.  John is the forerunner of the Christ and the last in the long line of prophets who were, each in their own way, preparing the world for His coming.  John is rather a rugged figure.  Isaiah had said, "In the desert prepare the way of the Lord," and that is just what John had done.  He lived in the desert (the gospel rather mysteriously says "he appeared in the desert"), wore camel's hair and ate locusts.  Yum.  Icons of John traditionally have him looking rather like a cave man.  He was a wild, untamed figure, devoted entirely to preparing the way for Christ.

When we hear someone telling us to "prepare the way of the Lord!  He is coming!", especially when that person looks admittedly a bit crazed to us, we think of the doom and gloom prophets, standing on the street corner holding signs that say, "The end is near!"  And maybe we don't pay much attention to those people. Or maybe they fill us with a sense of unease or even dread.  "You better repent of your sins and get right with God," they warn. "Do it now because He is coming!  Your time is drawing short!"

Last week I mentioned the bumper sticker that reads, "JESUS IS COMING (quick, everyone look busy)."  It is meant to be funny, but as I mentioned last week, there is truth to it.  But there is also a danger to the attitude it expresses.  Do we think of the coming of Christ as something like the boss coming down to the factory floor, ready to fire any employee not performing adequately?  Like a teacher entering the classroom just itching for a reason to send students to detention?  Or like a parent coming home ready to punish any child who has misbehaved during the day?  Many of us, no doubt, do think about the day of the Lord's coming with a bit of fear and trepidation.  We know we are sinners.  We know we have failed to love as we ought.  And we fear God's judgment at His coming.  

But if that is where we leave it, we are neglecting the most important part of the message.  John preached repentance, but he also preached forgiveness.  He was identifying the illness because he knew One was coming after him with the cure.  This is good news.  

When Isaiah was telling people to "prepare the way of the Lord," the context was not fear and trembling, but comfort and tenderness.  Today's reading begins "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem..." (Is 40:1).  The passage ends with a description of the Lord-to-come as a gentle shepherd feeding his flock, gathering his lambs, and "leading the ewes with care" (Is 40:11).  That's not a frightening image.  This is good news.

When Isaiah describes how we are to prepare the way for the Lord, he tells us to make a straight highway.  Fill in the valleys and make low the mountains.  We are to make a plain out of rugged land.  What Isaiah is telling us to do is to remove obstacles.  Valleys, mountains and rough terrain make travel difficult.  They present obstacles to reaching our destination.  If we are to make a path to the Lord we need to get rid of any obstacle between ourselves and Him.  

What are those obstacles that stand between you and the Lord?  Not literal mountains and valleys.  So what, then?  Sin?  Does sin present an obstacle between you and God?  No, not even sin!  Christ has conquered sin (1 Cor 15:57).  Christ offers forgiveness, the remedy to sin, which John reminds us of today.  So what, then?  What obstacle stands between us and Christ, if not sin?  The only obstacle between us and the Lord is our own unwillingness to repent from our sins.  That is the valley we must fill in.  That is the mountain we must lay flat.  God does not force forgiveness upon us.  We must ask for it and open our hearts to receive His love.  And God so desperately wants us to do that.

St. Peter gives us in today's second reading some of the most comforting words in all of scripture.  "The Lord... is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."  When you feel downtrodden, when you feel worthless, or when you fear God's judgment and doubt His forgiveness, remember this.  God wants you to get to heaven.  He wants you there with Him!  St. Peter tells us "Therefore beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before Him, at peace" (2 Pt 3:14).  

So prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight a path for Him in your heart. Search your soul, examine your conscience, repent of your sins and receive His forgiveness.  Make Confession part of your Advent this year, especially if you have not been in a while.  God wants you to get to heaven, and so does your priest.  Have no fear of the confessional, because God is waiting for you there, patiently, ready with His forgiveness.  This is good news.

Prepare.  Repent.  Be at peace.

To prepare for the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) it helps to first examine your conscience, identifying your sins, so that you may repent of those things and "make straight His paths."  An examination of conscience is an excellent tool to help you prepare for a good confession.  There are many available.  Click here for one that is recommended for college students by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).  Or, click here for a shorter one that would make a good daily exercise to help you live each day in the light of Christ's love.  (You can print it out and keep a copy in your Bible, or tape it up by your bedside).  There are many others available (just Google "examination of conscience"), but the point is to get in the habit of regularly examining your soul so that you can identify early on any obstacles you may be throwing up between you and God, so that you may always keep the path between you and Christ open and clear.  

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Weekly Update from CCM

Good morning, students!  Next week may be finals week, but this week is a week of finals in another sense.  We will have our final Wednesday dinner together and our final Mass on campus of the semester.  We hope you can come out to celebrate the end of the year with us!

Here is this week's schedule...

Adoration in the chapel from noon till 12:30.

Small Group scripture study in Balsam Lobby from 6:30-7:30.

Vespers in the chapel at 6:00pm.

Supper @ the Center at 6:30pm.  This week Pasquale & Trevor are our chefs, and they will be cooking up a feast of chicken parmesan (eggplant parmesan for the vegetarians), and Bekka is whipping up a special dessert.  After dinner we will celebrate our annual End of Semester/Advent/anticipatory Christmas party.  This will consist of:
1. Grinchy Gift Exchange!  To participate, please bring a wrapped gift of $5 or less value.  
2. Caroling across campus!  After our gift exchange we'll raise our voices in cheer as we process all around campus spreading holiday joy to unsuspecting bystanders.

Adroation in the chapel from noon til 12:30.

Small Group scripture study on UC Balcony from 5:30-6:30.

St. Nicholas Day party at Father's House!  St. Mary's at 5:30pm.  Meet at CCM by 5:00 for a ride over.
We will begin with Mass at St. Mary's at 5:30, and then walk over to the rectory where we will help Father Voitus decorate his many and varied Christmas trees.  Father's holiday decorations are the stuff of legend, so he needs our help getting everything set up.  He's providing dinner - we are to bring the cheer!  

Confession/Rosary at 3:30.
Mass at 4:00.  Last Mass on campus of the semester!
Credo from 5:15-6:30.  Last Credo discussion of the semester!  We'll continue our discussion on Catholic morality.  Please join us!

Advent Traditions.  If you are looking for ways you can keep the spirit of Advent this year, check out this article for some great ideas!

Our prayers are with all of you as you make your own preparations for the end of the semester.  Please try to take some time in all the business of this time of year to remember to prepare your souls to welcome Christ!

Pax Christi,

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723