Today the Vietnamese parishioners from St. Patrick’s Parish in Casper celebrated their New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year. They served a wonderful meal in the parish hall for approximately 200 people. Fr. Hiep Nguyen was instrumental in organizing the event.
When I go to a parish for Confirmation, before the Mass I meet with the young people and let them ask me questions. Almost always they ask something like, “Why did you want to be a priest?” And I respond, “I did not want to be a priest, nor did I want to be a bishop. I didn’t go to the seminary until I was 27, because I wanted to be married. Yet, I had some experiences that helped me listen to God’s plans. Eventually, I discerned that God was calling me to be a priest.” I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would live this life. It has been far more challenging and more of a sacrifice, yet more enriching and satisfying than I could have imagined.
I served in rural parishes and on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where resources are scarce but the needs are enormous. I helped parish communities rebuild after their church was flooded or struck by lightning and burned to the ground. I was the chaplain for a Newman Center and a K-12 Catholic School system, where I taught senior religion.
Over the years, I accompanied people in the misery of cancer, car wrecks, suicides, murders or infant deaths, as victims of sexual abuse or veterans with PTSD, and countless other tragedies. The Lord has provided me with the grace to walk alongside them on a journey of healing and new life. I have been blessed by the poor and weak who have amazing faith and resilience. I have also experienced the joy of weddings, baptisms, graduations, family reunions and even miraculous healings. Finally, I participated in building a retreat center that is flourishing beyond what anyone dreamed.
As I look back on my journey of faith, one of the biggest lessons is this: God’s dream for me was much bigger than my puny dreams. The same is true for you. God’s dream for you is so much bigger than your puny dreams.
In comparison to our plans, the life that God has planned for us is so much more. It is more challenging, more difficult and more of a sacrifice. But the Lord provides all the grace needed and more. And when we follow God’s plan, then life is more enriching and satisfying.
If you want to get a sense of what God dreams for you, then look at Jesus. Our mission in life is closely connected to Jesus’ mission. The readings for the last two Sundays introduce us to his mission. But those readings also describe our mission because through baptism we share in Jesus’ mission.
John the Baptist described Jesus’ mission by declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn. 1:29) That was a bold statement. The Israelites might have imagined that the Messiah would take away the sin of their people. But John declared that he takes away the sin of the world. John could never have imagined something so wonderful. He even tells us that this is not his idea. He said, “I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” (Jn. 1:33)
John knew how to dream with God. He shared in Jesus’ mission by pointing to him as the Lamb of God. In paintings, John is always depicted as pointing toward Jesus. That was his mission, but our mission is much bigger. We share in his work because he baptized us with the Holy Spirit. He breathed his Spirit on the apostles and authorized them to forgive sins in his name. And he empowers every baptized person to continue his ministry of forgiveness and healing.
Today’s reading from Isaiah describes the Suffering Servant of the Lord. That servant is obviously Jesus, but it is also you and me. Listen to God’s dream for his servant. “It is too little, the Lord says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob . . . I will make you a light to the nations.” (Is. 49:6)
God is always dreaming Large. Our plan is to keep church buildings in good condition, to initiate Catholics in the faith or maybe even to invite inactive Catholics back to the Church. God’s plan is to make the Church a Light to the nations. He sends us on a mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
As a rancher in western South Dakota, I never dreamed of going to other nations. But as a seminarian, I studied in Rome with classmates from more than a 100 nations. Then as a priest, I spent another four years in Rome. In those years, I organized the pastoral formation of seminarians at the North American College in Rome and coordinated their involvement at 25-30 sites which included elementary schools and colleges, soup kitchens, hospitals, a house for AIDS patients, providing food to refugees living in the streets and much more. I participated in immersion trips to San Salvador, India, Panama and Mexico. My dreams were so puny compared to that.
A key moment for me was when I was a freshman in college at the School of Mines in Rapid City. Toward the end of the first year, I had planned out a double major in chemistry and chemical engineering. But as I sat in my room and dreamed about it, there was no desire to be an engineer. So I asked God, “What do you want me to do?” The idea of seminary came clearly to mind, but I could not imagine doing that. So it took me another eight years to say yes. Nevertheless, I was beginning to open myself to God’s dream.
That attitude is expressed in the Psalm refrain today. “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” (Psalm 40) Those are some of the most dangerous words a person can say. Those words will put you in over your head. “Lord, what do you want of me? I only want to do your will.” Eventually, I learned to say that. It is the most fundamental prayer, as Jesus taught us to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”
Parents, you could say it in this way. “Lord what is your will for our marriage? How many children do you dream for us?” While preparing engaged couples for marriage, I often asked them how many children they planned to have. No matter what number they were thinking about, I would ask them, “Have you asked God about it?” I cannot remember an engaged couple who said that their plan for children was what God dreamed for them. Don’t let your fear keep you from asking God, “Lord what is your will for our marriage regarding our children, our jobs and our participation in the Church to bring your Light to the nations?”
Or you could say, “Lord, what is your will for our children? What do you want them to do with their life? We only want them to do your will.” Often parents are not supportive of a call to the religious life because they think that they have a better idea. Beware of your puny plans for your children. Let God’s dream be theirs. Teach them to listen in prayer for God’s will.
First, practice this with yourself. Learn to ask for yourselves every day, “Lord, what do you want of me today?” “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”
Just before we receive the Eucharist, the priest says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, Behold him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” How blessed we are to be called to the supper of the Lamb, to receive the one who takes away the sin of the world. It is pure gift! Let it fill you more and more. As you drink in the gift today, realize that God’s dream for you is to be filled with the Life of the Risen Lord.
Yet, God’s dream also includes the call to be a Light to the nations. In your prayer, say, “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Help me to participate in your dream to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
Do you find Jesus’ baptism confusing or hard to understand? If so, that is not so unusual. Even John the Baptist was disturbed when Jesus came to be baptized. He told him, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Mt. 3:14) The people being baptized by John were called to repentance, but Jesus did not need to repent. So why was he baptized? What did baptism signify for him?
A helpful way to understand the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is to reflect on the prayers for this Mass. The prayers for feast days express the mystery being celebrated. Listen again to the Collect for this Mass. Almighty ever-living God, who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him your beloved Son, grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well pleasing to you.
That prayer has two focal points: Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son, and our identity as God’s children by adoption. His baptism wasn’t a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, like it was for everyone else whom John baptized. Rather, it was a revelation of Jesus as God’s beloved Son, and it reminds us that through baptism we are God’s children by adoption.
Jesus’ baptism sealed his identity. Once you know your identity, then your mission is clear. Jesus’ ministry flowed from his baptism, that is, from his identity as God’s beloved Son anointed with the Holy Spirit. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter connects Jesus’ baptism to his ministry of healing. He said, “You know the word that [God] sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ . . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” (Acts 10:36, 38)
Peter described Jesus’ ministry in practical terms. He said, “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” Often the Church focuses most of its energy on teaching the faith. We are concerned that young people learn the truths of the faith. That is important, but don’t forget that healing was central to his ministry. Peter summed up Jesus’ life, not by referring to his teaching, but to his healing. “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.”
It is so important for us to understand Jesus’ identity and mission correctly because we share the same identity and mission. If we only focus on teaching the truths of the faith, but fail to form disciples in his healing mercy, then we are not really being faithful to his identity or ours.
The first disciples experienced his healing together with his teaching. For example, Mary Magdalene was healed of the influence of seven demons (Lk. 8:2), and the disciples saw Jesus drive out evil spirits from many others. They saw lepers cleansed, the lame walk and the blind regain their sight. He washed their feet and graciously forgave them after the resurrection.
Have you experienced these aspects of Jesus’ ministry, or is your journey of faith mostly focused on learning what he taught? Do you think of a disciple as someone who knows the truths of the Catholic faith, or as someone who has experienced his power to heal, forgive, drive out evil and raise from the dead, and also who lives by the truth of his teaching?
It is important for us to understand Jesus’ identity and mission correctly because by our baptism we share the same identity and mission. If we only focus on teaching the truth of the faith, but fail to form disciples in his healing mercy, then we are not really being faithful to his identity or ours. Then as the Church, we are not being faithful to him.
As we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded of his identity and mission. And we are challenged to live with a similar baptismal identity. Jesus identity as God’s beloved Son was the source of his greatness? He felt total security as God’s beloved Son. That’s why he had the strength to stand alone as he faced death. It made him all-powerful – able to cure the sick and to cast out demons. “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)
Do you live with a constant sense that God is with you? Instead of living with a sense of “God with us,” we focus on our “distance from God.” So often we base our self-worth on our failures and sins, and we have a poor self-image because of those who criticize us. Or else, we depend too much on the esteem we receive from others.
It does not matter what I think of myself. That is not my true self. Nor does it matter what others think of me, whether they despise me or admire me. The truth of who I am is rooted in how God sees me. Our deepest identity is that we are children of God. At the World Youth Day in Toronto, Pope John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and of our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes Jesus’ identity and ours: “You are my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I have put my spirit in you. Thus says the Lord God, who created the heavens and spread them out, who hammered the earth into shape . . . . I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant to the people, a light for the nations.” (Is. 42)
Jesus lived with a keen sense that God was with him, chose him, delighted in him, upheld him and sent him to heal. He lived with a constant sense of the Father’s love. His mission was to bring that grace to others. He was anointed with the Spirit so that he might baptize us in the Fire of the Holy Spirit. Then we will be like him, living inside of God’s mighty presence, and continuing his mission to heal and forgive, suffer like him and walk in eternal life.
By the grace of Baptism, God says to us:
- “You are my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.
- I have put my spirit in you . . . . I have grasped you by the hand.
- I formed you . . . . and made you a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement.
Our baptism is renewed in every Eucharist. Ask for the grace to be set on fire with God’s love who has chosen you, delights in you and sends you as a light to the nations.
This week, the bishops from Region XIII will be on retreat. Our Region includes the dioceses within Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Please remember the bishops in your prayers in these days.
What has happened to your heart this Christmas? Did it grow three sizes like the Grinch’s heart? Or is your heart stagnant? The original movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Is that because people like his dog Max or cute Cindy-Lou Who? Or is it because when the Grinch gets what Christmas is about, then his puny bitter heart grew three sizes?
The Christmas mystery made St. Paul’s heart grow by leaps and bounds, and Christ sent him to share this grace with all nations. So he says in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit . . . [Now] the gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:2,6).
What did Paul mean by the ‘stewardship of God’s grace’? He said that it was something that had never happened before. “It was not made known to people in other generations as it has not been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:5). With the coming of Christ, God offered a grace like never before. Paul was called to be a steward of that grace. To understand his stewardship of grace, a story might help.
The Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once told a parable about a noble king whose heart was captured by a young woman. She was from the poorest village in his kingdom. He wanted to marry her but hesitated because his people would have seen it as totally inappropriate. Kings simply did not marry poor peasants. Yet, the king knew that he could do whatever he wanted. He could marry her and no one would dare oppose him. Still, he worried that if they were married, it just wouldn’t work. The gap in their status would get in the way. She would admire him in his grandeur as king, yet would not be able to love him as an equal. And he would love and admire her beauty, but never see her as his equal.
In the king’s mind, the solution was to renounce his wealth and position and become poor like her. One night, after all in the castle were asleep, he laid aside his golden crown and removed his royal rings. He took off his silk robes and dressed himself in the simple clothing of the poor. He left the castle and his kingdom behind. The next morning, the poor peasant maiden in the village met him face-to-face. He asked to speak with her and began to court her for marriage. (see pp. 101-102, Awakening Love by Gregory Cleveland, OMV)
What happened in their relationship? We don’t know. Kierkegaard never said whether they were married. He left the story open-ended. It is a parable of the newborn king, who came to be with us in our poverty. The child in the stable came to seek us out like a king for a poor maiden. In the Eastern Church, the Epiphany is also viewed as the wedding of Christ with his people.
He came not only for the Jewish people, but for all nations. In the Opening Prayer of this Mass we prayed, “O God, on this day you revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star.” The ‘nations’ are the non-Jews. Sometimes it is translated as ‘gentiles.’ So Paul says, “the gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).
Any person who does not have Jewish heritage is part of the gentiles or nations. The newborn king came to be with us in our lowly and broken world. He left his heavenly realm of glory, and let himself be laid in a feed trough. He came as an equal to us, to make us ‘co–heirs’ of God’s gifts.
Think for a moment of the infinite greatness of the Son of God. See how he emptied himself to become one of us. St. Paul described this so beautifully in the Letter to the Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. . . he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8)
Jesus left behind the treasures of his heavenly glory to be with us in our poverty, so that he could fill us with his life and his Holy Spirit and his glory. The Son of God lying in the manger points to the cross, where he pours out his Life for us. This is the heart of the Gospel. This was the message that the apostles first proclaimed. It is what Paul had in mind when he said, “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit.”
Pope Francis reminds us that we must keep this first announcement of the Gospel at the center of our hearts and at the center of all we do as a Church. In The Joy of the Gospel he wrote, “The first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation. (Evangelii Gaudium, 164)
In one sense, the gifts of the magi reveal the treasure of the Christ child. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are signs that he is a king, even more he is a king from heaven. Yet, their gifts are puny compared to the immense treasures we inherit from him. If nothing happened to your heart this Christmas, then you probably did not get in touch with the gift of the newborn king. You failed to realize that he emptied himself to come and fill you with his riches.
This outpouring of Christ is renewed in every Eucharist. He lowers himself in the form of simple bread and wine, which he transforms into his Body and Blood. Open yourself to that mystery today. Kneel in humble adoration like the magi. Let your heart grow in gratitude. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “You shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of the nations brought to you.” (Is. 60:5)
Marvel at the mystery. This stewardship of grace is entrusted to us. We are called to bring it to the nations. It is meant for every single person on earth. So we should think of the rest of the world with this “stewardship of grace.”
After Mass today, someone asked me if the king married the poor peasant girl. The answer is in our hands. The marriage which Christ offers to his people is often ignored or rejected. As the Gospel of John says, “[Jesus] came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace” (Jn. 1:11-12, 16).