Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Meekness and Docility of Mary: A Homily for the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Solemnity of Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

January 1, 2015
The Meekness and Docility of Mary

The year of our Lord 2014 has passed away before our eyes, never to be seen again. All 12 months of it…all 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,765 hours, 525,949 minutes, and 31,556,926 seconds. A year of opportunities and a year of let downs…a year of immense joy, and a year of tragedy. How did you do this past year? Would you consider it a “success” or a “failure”? And what are the criteria you’ll use to make this judgment? The amount of money you made? The vacations you took and the memories you formed? The promotion you got or the retirement package you were offered? The grades on your report card or the driver’s license you got? The relationship you’ve been in? Your health? All of these things can certainly contribute to a better or a worse year…and we’ll all, no doubt, resolve to fix whatever we fouled up in 2014 so that 2015 can be the best yet. I would propose, however, that there is only a single criterion that unequivocally determines whether the year 2014 can go down in our history books as a success or a failure. Without it, every other good thing becomes meaningless, and with it, every bad thing becomes meaningful. Ask yourself this question and answer it with brutal honesty: have you grown closer to Christ?

The Mystery of Christmas reveals to us, by means of the face of a small child, that God is not an abstract idea or a distant divine mover…He is as personal as He is transcendent. The Mighty God, the Creator of the stars of night, the source and origin of all that has been, is, and will be, is the Babe of Bethlehem. Born into our midst, God took on flesh, making it abundantly clear to all of us that He wishes to be loved by us, that He wishes to be in relationship with us, that He wants us to draw closer to Him. This love, this relationship, this closeness with Him doesn’t simply give meaning to our mundane lives, not does it serve to fix what’s going wrong in our lives…it is our salvation, the means by which Christ raises us up from our earthly existence and makes us true sons and daughters of God. This gift of salvation is freely offered to all, but we must choose, every second of every day, to accept it, to cooperate with it, and to allow it transform us. How have you done with this during the past year? If you’re like me, there have been many ups and downs. Some days I want nothing more than to foster and build my relationship with Christ and to glory in His gift of salvation…other days, I want nothing more than to serve myself and my own wants, desires, and ambitions. There’s only room for one God in my life…and if I’m serving myself, or something or someone else, I cannot simultaneously grow closer to Christ. We all have the choice…who did I choose to love the most this past year? If the answer is not Christ, then we need to take a step back and make some changes. And even if the answer is Christ, we can and must learn to love Him more completely and fully.

As we barrel into the New Year, the Church provides us with today’s solemnity to help give us some perspective into this dynamic. On the first day of the year, we are given the opportunity to consider and reflect upon the example of the pure, whole, and complete love that the Blessed Virgin Mary has for Her Divine Son. No priest or pope, no disciple or apostle, no saint or angel loved Christ as perfectly as the maiden of Nazareth. Chosen by God the Father to be the vessel by which God the Son would take on Flesh, this beautiful, but lowly creature became the Mother of God…and in her motherly tenderness and care, she shows us what it means to forsake all else to grow closer to Christ. If we ourselves wish to endeavor to attain greater unity with Christ in the coming year, to give Him ourselves more completely and fully, it would be foolish, reckless, and useless to attempt to do so without turning to Mary.

As we know from the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Mary was indeed uniquely blessed and graced by God, Who preserved her from original sin in order that she might more beautifully and freely cooperate with His plan for salvation…but her ongoing example of holiness and virtue is certainly and necessarily something we can imitate. In our Gospel today, two particular virtues stand out…her meekness and her docility. We will get nowhere in our relationship with Christ in the coming year if we do not become as meek and docile as the Blessed Virgin…these virtues are the preliminary and prerequisite virtues for growing in holiness.

Meekness, as a matter of definition, is a virtue that moderates anger. Those who are meek do not become inordinately angry when harm is done to them or when situations become stressful or unbearable. Meekness, then, in a true sense, instills within the soul a deep tranquility. Mary’s entire life presented opportunities for her to become overwhelmed and angry…from the Angel’s message, to the stress of the Christmas crib, to the death of Christ on the cross. But Mary was meek and lowly…she approached each and every situation with a tranquility of spirit that allowed her to accept and to trust in the power of Divine providence. How often do we let inordinate anger, over big things or little things, actually prevent us from turning to God? A loved one with cancer, the loss of a job, or getting cut off in traffic...these, and so many other situations, can rouse up a mighty anger in us, all of which comes from our lack of control and a perceived injustice. Meekness is about giving up control and daring to trust that Christ alone, in ways we may not understand, can and will make all things right and new. A relationship with Christ that is capable of growing must begin with this kind of meekness. No one wanted Christ off of the Cross more than Mary, but in her meekness she trusted in His plan and gave in to His will. We must learn to the do the same if we are to grow closer to Him.

Docility, as a matter of definition, is a virtue that enables us to be taught. Docility is the great conqueror of the all-American vice of self-sufficiency. “It’s my way or the highway!” or “I don’t care what anyone else says” attitude presents us with the false belief that we, in ourselves, are capable of figuring it all out. Not only is thus blatantly untrue when it comes to the things of this earth, it is even more untrue when it comes to the things of heaven, to eternal truths. Christ comes to us as our teacher, He gives us His Bride the Church as our teacher, in order to show us the truth and to open our finite minds to things that are infinite. Mary herself knew that the mysteries taking place in her life were far beyond her own human understanding…but her docility of spirit enabled her to open herself up to God and to present herself as His pupil. Docility leads to deep meditation and prayer…as Mary herself did, pondering these mysteries in her heart. We cannot expect to grow closer to Christ if we are unwilling to actually learn from Him.

A true relationship with Christ requires us in give in…and the meekness and the docility of the Blessed Virgin shows us what this entails. Let’s resolve in this coming year, through her holy intercession, to advance in these virtues, so that we can grow closer to her Son.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rejoice...Always? A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Third Sunday of Advent – Year B

December 14, 2014

Joy…a simple three-letter word expressing a movement in the spirit that is so often hard to come by in these dark days. It’s a word that’s found no fewer than 66 times throughout the New Testament, but in our own vocabularies it’s used rather sparingly. So many of us are just trying to get by on a daily basis…we put smiles on our faces and make valiant attempts to be pleasant and even bubbly when the situation calls for it, but there’s a heaviness that weighs on us. Sickness and illness, financial difficulties, marital problems, rebellious or ungrateful children, failed relationships, betrayals, lingering guilt and shame, school or workplace difficulties, broken homes, substance abuse, even death…these and so many other realities and occurrences dampen our spirits and cast us into profound sorrow. About 10% of adults in America suffer from some form of depression…suicide is on the rise…and people are increasingly turning to alcohol and drugs to help dull the pain in their lives. So when St. Paul tells us in our second reading this morning to “Rejoice always,” how can we even begin to take him seriously? The joy that most of us experience is just too often short-lived.
St. Paul’s no fool though…and he wasn’t exactly exempt from sorrow and pain in his life. He no doubt had to live with the daily guilt and the shame for his role in persecuting Christians. He knew what it was like to be thrown in to the wrenches of poverty and to toil for his daily bread. He knew the bitter sting of betrayal. He underwent multiple beatings. He suffered from loneliness and, at times, some pretty severe anxiety. And he wasn’t afraid to share all of this in his many different letters now contained in the New Testament. St. Paul knew what it was to suffer, and to suffer intensely, and still he could bring himself to be joyful and to command us to do the same. Maybe there’s more to joy than meets the eye…and maybe the presence of sorrow in our lives, even intense sorrow, does not necessitate the absence of joy.
St. Thomas Aquinas speaks about joy at length. Joy, he says, is the primary fruit of love. It’s not giddiness and it’s not contentment…it’s not feeling wonderful and it’s not satisfaction. Joy is an elation of the soul that is caused by love. When we are in the presence of something we love, or when the proper good of something we love exists and endures in us, the result is joy. Conversely, sorrow is also caused by love…or rather, by its absence. When we are somehow denied the presence of something we love, or when the proper good of something we love no longer exists or endures in us, the result is sorrow. Test this theory on a small child. Give him a toy and watch him beam with joy. Then take it away and watch him cry in sorrow. The presence of the toy brought the child joy because, at that moment, the child loved the toy…but when you took it away from him, the absence of what he loved caused him sorrow.  

His suffering was great...but His joy was even greater.
It may seem too simplistic, but it’s often the case that so much of our sorrow, and the absence of joy in our lives, is a result of our misplaced love. Sometimes it’s really base…like children, we give too much of our love to “toys;” sometimes it’s not so base, and we give our love to other people and subsequently get hurt when it’s taken away. The reality is, whether they’re good things or whether or they’re bad things, if we put our love only in the things of this earth, it is only a matter time before we are cast into sorrow, because everything in this earth is passing. But if we love the things that are eternal, if we love the things of God, we need not fear ever losing them. For this reason, the Christian can always be joyful…even if he is sorrowful over the loss of the things of this earth, if he truly loves God, if he truly gives God his love and accepts God’s love in return, then true and lasting joy can be his.
St. Paul’s exhortation today, that we rejoice always, is not a pep talk nor is it friendly encouragement…it’s a call to love. He tells us to rejoice always, which is a round-about way of telling us to place our first and primary love in God. Everything else is guaranteed, sooner or later, to fail us. But if we love God above all things…above our checkbooks, our health, our relationships, our jobs, all things…then even in the midst of profound sorrow we will be joyful. This is why Lord tells us in the Matthew’s Gospel, “He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Today, on this Gaudete Sunday, this Sunday of rejoicing as we trudge nearer and nearer to the Christmas Crib, let us rededicate ourselves to the love of God. Whatever is preventing us from loving Him, let us pray for the strength to let go of it. Today let’s ask for the strength to let go of the things of this world and to hold fast to the things of God, indeed to God Himself. Because the more we cling to Him, the more perspective we’ll be given to the passing nature of our earthly loves and the suffering they cause, and then we can learn to be ever more joyful in the great and enduring gift of His eternal love.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you: A Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
December 8, 2014
"Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you"
I’ve always been perplexed by the last line of today’s gospel: “Then the angel departed from her.” We have just finished hearing an incredible story about how the angel of the Lord drops in on Mary, completely out of the blue and unannounced, and asks her to do the most unfathomable task: to be the Mother of God. Despite both her fear and her confusion, Mary offers herself completely to the will of God and says, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” She agrees, she offers a resounding YES! And what does the angel do immediately after? He leaves. There’s no, “Thanks for your cooperation, we’ll be in touch” or any kind of response. He just departs, leaving Mary to herself.
This is a startling image: a young girl, who no doubt had her own plans in life, now has her entire life turned upside down. The burden of God’s plan for salvation is placed upon her shoulders. And the angel just left her. How incredibly frightened she must have been…how completely alone she must have felt.
Sometimes we feel this way. I know I certainly do. I did when I lost my grandmother and it felt like the world was caving in around me. Maybe we feel this way because we lost our job, or are facing a divorce, maybe we’re suffering through a serious illness, or maybe we’re dealing with the betrayal of a friend. We know what it’s like to be frightened, to be left alone with our thoughts and fearful of what comes next.
With this image in our mind from today's gospel, of Mary left alone and probably pretty scared, it seems odd that we are celebrating the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception, the reality that from the moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb Mary was completely preserved from all sin. Sometimes it’s tempting to think of Mary’s sinlessness as something that separates her from us...we can exalt her to the point that she seems almost un-human. But despite her sinlessness, Mary shares in the full experience of being human. I think that’s why the Church gives us this Gospel reading for tonight’s feast – to remind us of Mary’s own humanity and her own fragility.
Though she was sinless from the moment of her conception, Mary is still the woman facing an unexpected pregnancy. Mary is still the young girl realizing that all of her plans and dreams have changed. Mary is still the teenager who fears isolation and unacceptance. Mary is still the anxious mother searching for her missing child. Mary is still the widow watching her son face a violent and unjust execution. Mary is the sinless Mother of God, but she still knows what it feels like to be confused, uncertain, scared, and alone.
As exalted and unique as Mary is, she is just as human as we are. But because of her unique status and role, she becomes a model for us and she teaches us how to handle the burden of our own humanity.
Despite everything she had to deal with, Mary continued to trust in God. At any moment she could have felt a sense of her own isolation, but she focused on the message of the angel: “The Lord is with you.” These words really meant something to her and they gave her the strength to bear all that was asked of her. For her these words meant that nothing would be impossible to bear, for God would always be with her no matter how tough things became and no matter how alone she felt.
In every Mass we hear over and over again the same greeting that Mary heard: the Lord be with you. We, like that young girl, are given the chance to allow these words to resound in our hearts. By these words we are given the reassurance that our lives are not lived in isolation – God promises us that no matter how lonely, or helpless, or worried, or frightened we feel, we mean everything to Him. And in our times of trial, Mary consoles us with the same words that once consoled her: “Don’t be afraid…you have found favor with God”?
Because we’re human, we suffer. Being a follower of Christ, finding favor with God, doesn’t mean we are promised a cushy life. Mary shows us this…as favored as she was, despite her own sinlessness, she still suffered as we do. We can’t escape our suffering, but Mary’s example shows us that we never truly suffer alone. After all, even though the angel departed from her, the unborn Christ Child lay hidden in her womb. In our moments of fear and suffering, will we, like Mary, dare to see that the Lord, hidden as He is, is still with us?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Virtues of St. John the Baptist: A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Second Sunday of Advent – Year B

December 7, 2014
The Virtues of St. John the Baptist

Every family has one of them: an unkempt, eccentric, basement-dwelling cousin who is freakishly intelligent but lacking in all, or most, social skills. He’ll awkwardly avoid conversation with anyone at the family reunion or around the Thanksgiving table, but if you only happen to mention one of his triggers, he’ll talk your ear off for hours. Make a passing comment about Star Wars and he’ll corner you to tell you all about the Storm Trooper helmet he made from cereal boxes or his plans for Comic Con 2015. Bring up how you took the kids to the see the Hobbit and you’re in for a 5-hour long discourse on the precise use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) in all of the Tolkien films. He’s not the first person you’d want to give the toast at your wedding, or that you’d ask to babysit the kids…but, in his own unique way, he brings something important and refreshing to your life.

Our Lord’s own family was not without its own such relative… St. John the Baptist, the cousin of the Lord, fit that bill pretty well. He was certainly unkempt, with his camel hair tunic and leather belt. He was definitely eccentric…not only in his appetite of locusts and wild honey, but in his overall personality. And maybe he didn’t live in a basement, but he did live in the wilderness, which is hardly a step up. John wasn’t interested in tedious table talk or playing a game of flag football with the other boys. He had one thing on his mind, and it truly and utterly consumed him. From the day that he met his divine cousin, leaping for joy in his mother’s womb, John would become single-minded in his devotion to Christ. Nothing else could distract him; nothing else could bring him a sense of satisfaction or worth. This was, of course, so that he could fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah and be that lone voice crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths. And people took notice of this…they saw past his eccentricity and were compelled by his passion.
As we trudge our way through these darkened days of Advent, John the Baptist certainly has much to offer us in his preaching. He exhorts us to repent, to turn away from our sin, and to look for the coming of the Lord. And these things we must do we great urgency, for the day of the Lord is surely at hand. But John also has much to offer us by means of his personal witness. I’d like to suggest that there are three particular virtues or attributes that the Baptist has that are worthy of our emulation and can help us wander to the Christmas Crib with greater ease.

The first is his humility. John the Baptist’s humility is not caught up in anything external. He is not humble because he wears camel skin or eats a poor man’s diet. He is humble because he knows who he is and who he is not. Imagine the temptation…great crowds were coming to him from all over and they began to think that maybe he was the one they had waited for, the long-promised Messiah…John could have very easily fed into the hype and made a name for himself, but he does not. He says instead, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” The word “humility” comes from the Latin “humilitas” which is derived from the word “humus” which means “earth” or “ground.” Humility is thus about groundenness…being grounded in the truth of who we are. Had John fallen into one of the opposing vices of humility, pride or false humility, he would have failed to do the Lord’s bidding. If he were proud, he would have made himself out to be the Messiah. If he were falsely humble, he would have shirked from his noble responsibility. But John was truly and really humble, indeed the magnanimous man, because he knew who he was and who he was not, and so with a roaring voice he paved the way of the Lord. Following in the footsteps of the Baptist, we should be on our guard against the vices of pride and false humility; either one of these will prevent us from recognizing the Lord when He comes.

The second is his steadfastness. Not to tip my hat in any way to modern pop culture, but John the Baptist came in like a wrecking ball. He had one direction and one purpose…and no one would be able to dissuade him or throw him off his course. This steadfastness, grounded of course in his humility, allowed him to forsake any and all temporal desires for the sake of announcing the nearness of the Lord’s coming. He was unconcerned with maintaining house and hearth…indeed he had neither…and he was unconcerned with placating the desires of the people or looking good in their eyes. Stripped of anything that would hinder him from his mission, the Baptist plowed into Judea and made his message known with clarity and vigor. What hinders us from announcing the Lord’s coming? Our preoccupation with our material goods or the fear of losing them? An inordinate love of ourselves or of another? The desire to be admired by others? Whatever it is, the Baptist shows us by his steadfastness that only the unencumbered have the freedom necessary to prepare the way for and point to the Lord.

The third is his Christ-centeredness. John the Baptist, as humbly magnanimous and steadfast as he was, drew all of his purpose and meaning not from a notion, or a proposition, or an idea…but rather from a Person. John encountered the Christ Child when each were in their mother’s wombs…he encountered Truth itself in the Person of Christ, and this alone would become his driving force. He was so utterly and completely convinced that the joy he first experienced upon meeting the Lord was a joy that could be experienced by all…a joy that could pierce through the bitter trials of life, that could bring everlasting light into the darkness caused by sin. Thus he did not affirm people where they were at…he called them out of sin and complacency so that their lives could be completely and utterly changed by Christ. Do we worship a proposition or do we worship a Person? Do we come here to make ourselves feel better or so that we can convince ourselves that we’re good people? Do we use Christ as a means to another end, or do we love Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Like John the Baptist, we too can and indeed must make the choice to have Christ as the center and whole of our lives…or we’re just playing church.

St. John the Baptist…the unkempt, eccentric, desert-dwelling, socially awkward cousin of the Lord has much to offer us this Advent. We might be tempted to avoid him, as we do our own relatives who don’t quite fit into our social arenas. But if we open ourselves up to him, if we emulate his virtues of humility, steadfastness, and Christ-centeredness, we are sure to see the Lord when He comes and to love Him with the same kind of eccentric passion.