This is one of those Sundays that I wish I could preach for a half hour or more. Yet as pastor, I realize that that would be a bit much. So, I want to divide this homily into three separate parts: the first a bit silly yet serious; the second theological and symbolic; and the third personal.
And then I realized early this morning as I was praying, that the homily is still too long. So I’m getting rid of the first page.
I have no idea if parents and school teachers use this anymore, but how many of you recognize this from growing up: “ABCDEFG, HIJK, LMNOP….”
Our gospel today begins with these words, “The people were filled with expectation.”
As you come to Mass this morning, with what is your heart, mind and soul filled?
A: anticipation or anxiety?
B: blessings or bitterness?
C: compassion or criticism?
D: delight or dejection, dread, disappointment, discouragement?
I hope you get the point. Are our hearts filled with expectation, the expectation of what God longs to reveal to us? What God longs for us to experience? What God longs for us to realize that the very depth of our being?
So let us begin with the theological truth of God’s longing for us as revealed in the symbols that surround us in our newly renovated church. Allow me to take you on a short tour. (Walks to the baptismal font.)
Have you noticed and experienced the openness and welcome of the stairs leading to the main entrance of the church?
Have you noticed that you pass under the cross before you enter the front doors?
Have you noticed that beginning at the front doors and passing to the narthex of the church, our Gathering Space, that the concrete is polished with darker stained borders leading from that welcoming entrance directly into and passing through the baptismal font?
Have you noticed that those stained borders, having passed through the baptismal font continue through the nave, or the main body of the church, and encircle the sanctuary platform?
Have you also noticed the border of the sanctuary itself is not the same as the marble?
Have you noticed that this stone (points to the bottom step) is the same unpolished stone of the baptismal font?
Enough questions. (Goes back to the Ambo)
Throughout the centuries, Catholic architecture has sought to reflect our deepest theological truths. This is been expressed in sheer simplicity as well as Baroque and Rococo extravagance.
Our renovation was meant to more fully express our theological understanding as being missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.
Last week on the feast of the Epiphany, we celebrated the manifestation of Jesus Christ as Messiah for all the nations; that Jesus came to save all people. Hence, from the parking lot to the pew we wanted to symbolize a welcoming, an openness and an invitation to salvation in and through the gift of the Church.
The stained cement border leading from the front doors into the baptismal font symbolizes our understanding that our journey of faith sacramentally begins at baptism and through baptism we have access to the gift of eternal life in Jesus.
Through baptism, we become a member of his mystical body. We are grafted onto Christ and drawn into the very dynamic of God’s inner life, the love relationship of the Father and of the Son, which is to say, the Holy Spirit.
Baptism, therefore, is all about grace– our incorporation through the power of God’s love into God’s own life.
This gift comes to fulfillment in our reception of that gift. One of our challenges as adults is to consciously accept, acknowledge, and live the grace of our baptism so that we can fully realize our identity in Christ, that we are God’s beloved children, God’s beloved daughters and sons.
Baptism is the sacrament that fundamentally changes our purpose, mission, identity and destiny.
Our baptism is the sacramental participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It begins a lifelong journey that is intended to bring us into the very presence of God for eternity and therefore fundamentally changes our identity.
It is one thing to celebrate that gift, but it’s another thing to live that gift.
The stained border then flows out of the baptismal font into the main body of the church, the nave, and then surrounds the sanctuary. This symbolizes our continued journey of faith week after week when we gather as the People of God, the Body of Christ, as the Second Vatican Council so clearly teaches.
The granite that encircles the foot, the foundation of the sanctuary, also marks in cruciform shape the floor on which the altar of sacrifice rests. If you have not seen this, I invite you to come up after Mass to take a closer look.
This flow, from entrance, into and through and around, is meant to architecturally focus us on the central mystery of our faith: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.
This flow is meant to focus us on the altar, to the crucifix and back to the altar. More on this in another homily.
Just as the border leads us into the church itself, it also funnels us back into the world to be missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, to bring what we have received here to share with others. It is this entrance into and this flowing out from that gives shape to our baptismal call.
Enough theology and symbol for today.
And now for something very personal that I want to share with you. If you were with me last week, you have already heard this part of the homily. I wanted to share personally with his many as I can.
It was a year ago that I told you about my diagnosis of ALS. That experience was very difficult and also very touching. What I remember most is the outpouring of love, caring, compassion and prayers from so many.
At that time, I expected the worse. I thought that by this time I would be using a walker and needing assistance to do some basic activities such as getting dressed or taking care of personal needs. I took the statistic that 50% of ALS patients die within the first three years.
That does not appear to be my journey.
I stand with you this morning to reiterate what I say so often, “I am blessed.” Though my ALS has progressed, it has done so much more slowly than I anticipated. I’ve called it “slo-mo ALS.” I mostly experience its effects manifested in weakness in my hands and my arms, and often severe leg cramps that make sleep difficult.
As you may have noticed, there are some actions I cannot perform any longer. I cannot lift the book of the Gospels. I cannot hold the paten and distribute Holy Communion at the same time. I have to be very careful and mindful when lifting up the host or the chalice. I use both of my hands when drinking from cups and glasses.
Just these past weeks, when greeting after Mass, I’ve noticed that my arms go limp and I cannot bring my arm up to offer a proper hug. So, if my arms and hands land in a part of your anatomy that they should not, please know that there is no ill intention!
For months I have been unable to button buttons or tie shoes. Drying off after showering and getting dressed in the morning are slowly becoming more and more difficult. I can no longer type as my thumbs and fingers no longer seem to land on the right keys.
With God’s grace and with the help of my ALS support team and so many of you, I have found “work-arounds,” alternate ways of doing when I need to do. Velcro, elastic shoe laces and low-cut socks are good friends of mine. Looser fitting clothes and slick material make it easier for me to dress and be presentable.
All of this though seems so minor, so insignificant in light of a fellow parishioner of ours, Tim Bittrich who was diagnosed with ALS a month after me. Tim’s ALS has progressed rapidly. I have watched him deteriorate from having some early difficulty in walking and using his hands to now being totally immobilized.
As a teacher, his speech once was strong. Now he can no longer speak. Loving food and a good beer, he can no longer swallow. He receives Holy Communion with two drops of the precious blood from an eyedropper.
He communicates with eye recognition software on an “iPad like device” or by blinking once for “yes” or closing his eyes for a “no.”
Tim is totally dependent on his caregivers — mainly his sister, children and fellow teachers, as well as home healthcare providers and hospice workers.
Yet with all this, his faith shines forth. His eyes sparkle like the star that led the Magi. Each time I visit him, I am humbled at how little faith I seem to have and am honored to be in the presence of one who carries the cross with Christ.
I’m so grateful for your prayers and support. I would guess that Blessed Pier Giorgio has way more followers than he had a year ago.
I have a simple request. Would you please prayer for Tim as well. He needs those prayers them far more than I do right now, to help him continue to live out his baptismal call and to enter into the Paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
If you would like to write him, send prayer or cards, you can do so by addressing them to Tim c/o the parish office and I will make sure that Tim gets them. Thank you.
In short, as for me, I’m doing quite well. I am blessed. My journey continues and I want to serve as best and for as long as I can. Your prayers, your kind words, your cards are such comfort and support. I am so very grateful.
This one card, among many, is one that I cherish. It reads: “Dear Fr. Jim, I hope Jesus heals you. But remember, he loves you no matter what. I love you, Jesse.”
Yes, I am blessed, very blessed indeed.