Homily for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve

December 24, 2017
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 9:1-6
Psalm 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

“There was no room for them in the inn.” So Mary and Joseph and the unborn Christ child go to the stable where Christ is born. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. All of us recognize this verse and these images, even if we are only vaguely familiar with the story of Christmas.

Yet, this expression that there is “no room in the inn,” the image of swaddling clothes, and the symbol of the manger are so much more than a commentary on the human condition’s insensitivity to the plight of those in need. These images also reveal to us that in coming to us through the Incarnation, God will no longer tolerate man only making room for God as a small compartment within man’s life. Humanity has no other option in moving forward than to decide whether or not to belong to God.

For now at Christ’s birth, when man has no room for God, God makes room for man in the fullness of divine life. God meets us where we are in our humanity — in the stable, in the darkness, in the margins of society and family life, in the dank smell of sin and corruption — but God does not leave us there. The Son of God, the Prince of Peace, does not first reveal Himself to the exalted and the powerful because they are not like the shepherds who are keeping watch; the exalted and the powerful think that they already have made a small place for God in each of their lives that He might fit into their own plans. The exalted and those esteemed greatly by the world are not keeping watch tonight, because they are preoccupied with their own purposes.

This idea of “keeping watch” is a central theme of Jesus’ message as presented throughout Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel begins with shepherds keeping watch and staying awake in the dark of night. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks His Apostles present to keep watch with Him and to stay awake in the dark of night. The shepherds are watchful people because in their poverty they cannot offer God a small part of their lives. They depend totally on His Providence; it’s all or nothing and so they are watchful for Him. As Pope Benedict XVI once observed, “Only a watchful heart can instill the courage to set out to find God in the form of a baby in a stable.”

The shepherds arrive at the stable and they find the Infant Jesus swaddled in rags. They encounter God who has swaddled Himself in the human condition so that humanity can be swaddled in Jesus’ divinity through the grace of Baptism. This swaddling of the Infant Jesus highlights that God has made Himself to be vulnerable through the full humanity of Jesus — but even more so, God has made Himself to be the most vulnerable among all vulnerable human beings: He has become a swaddled infant. In the vulnerable Infant Jesus we see God’s refusal to tolerate any longer His being offered only a spare room in man’s life. God demands not capitulation to His power on our part, He only asks for our love.

The celebration of Christmas Mass at Midnight has always most vividly called to mind the mystery of God made Man, Emmanuel, God-with-us. The celebration of warm joy in the midst of cold and darkness reminds us most beautifully that Christ is the light of the world shining brightly in the darkness — the darkness of our lives and of the world. In a special way, the placing and blessing of the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger scene places all of us gathered here tonight in that original manger scene. It helps us to belong in the manger spiritually and to remember who belonged there on that great night so many years ago.

Who belonged there in the stable? The angels proclaim the birth of the Christ child and the shepherds hear them. The shepherds were in the outskirts and fields, caves and valleys seldom venturing into the town. The shepherds are watchful because they have no place of their own so they have no spare room for God in their lives. In their watchfulness God reveals fully in the Infant Jesus their place in God’s life and not God’s part in their lives. The shepherds who are unrecognized by so many are the first to recognize the Infant in the manger as the Christ. In so doing, the shepherds belong to Him in the stable.

Mary and Joseph, having heard their respective calls through the Archangel Gabriel and through another angel are blessed by their respective and extraordinary graces; they recognize the true identity of the Infant Jesus who is born tonight because they have been watchful and attentive to God in faith and in reverential love. In so doing, Mary and Joseph belong to Jesus in the stable.

As we look at the stable, we see the ox and the donkey on either side of the Infant Jesus with Mary and Joseph. Even the ox and the donkey belong to the Christ child as the Anointed One — Emmanuel — God-with-us. Why aren’t the donkey and ox mentioned in the Gospel story? The ox and donkey are not mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, many literalists object. Yet we read in the very first chapter of Isaiah in its third verse: “An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people have not understood.” The presence of these animals fulfills the prophesy of Isaiah and the ox and donkey belong there.

Who isn’t watchful and who chooses not to belong in the stable? Herod, the Roman Empire’s bureaucrats, the inn keepers, and others who are too busy and too preoccupied to belong.

The philosophers, the experts, and those who already have a spare room for God in their lives miss the song of the angels and the birth of the Christ Child. In keeping a spare room for God, they choose not to belong to Him but to treat Him as an occasional guest whom they invite when they are bored. They are either asleep or about other evil business transacted in the dark of night; the very darkness in which the light of the Christ Child now shines so brightly.

Reason itself, unaided by faith, does not permit us to watch for the mystery of God’s victory in the defenseless Infant Jesus who conquers humanity by vulnerable love. Reason, unaided by faith, fosters isolation and selfishness in each of these groups who choose not to belong in the stable. This is the selfishness which darkens the intelligence of human beings so that they miss their true identity of belonging to God and to each other as His children; they sadly prefer the tinseled allure of individualism. This darkness still pervades in much of our world today. Yet, the light of the Christ Child shines ever brighter in its midst on this Christmas morning.

As Pope Francis remarked about this Gospel, “The newborn Child challenges us. He calls us to leave behind fleeting illusions and to turn to what is essential, to renounce our insatiable cravings, to abandon our endless yearning for things we will never have. We do well to leave such things behind, in order to discover, in the simplicity of the Divine Child, peace, joy and the luminous meaning of life.”

So fallen humanity receives its Savior in a manger, a place where animals go by instinct to feed. Yet, the same Christ child will grow and as a man nourish our fallen humanity with the redemptive banquet of His Body and Blood, the Eucharist — the Sacrament whereby we can truly belong.

Yet, do we belong here tonight? Or, are do we prefer the company of the cunning Herod who sees the Christ Child as a threat to his power and caprice? Are we with the indifferent Roman bureaucrats who ignore the Christ child until the status quo is threatened? Are we in commerce with the inn keepers who have not even a spare room for the Christ child or His parents except insofar as they could add to the profit margin?

Are we willing to accept the gift of belonging in the stable with Mary and Joseph? Mary, weary from travel and child birth, exhausted in the stench of a stable, the only place of refuge; Joseph, saddened and shamed for not being able to provide more in the keeping of his promise to the angel in serving as the guardian of Mary and Jesus.

Our gift of belonging to God in Christ requires our not having a spare room for Him but embracing in our weakness His room for us; it requires our swaddling in His divinity through the gift of Baptismal Grace; and it requires our being nourished and transformed at the banquet of His sacrificial love, the Eucharist.

Christ is born again in our lives. His light shines in the darkness of our selfish human condition. He welcomes us back to belong again to our redeemed human nature that was wounded by sin but now in the manger surpasses even the original state of our humanity in the Garden of Eden. Today is born our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. May His light and His love bless us with watchful hearts.


Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 24, 2017
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8B-12, 14a-16
Psalm 89: 2-3 4-5, 27, 29
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

The background to the first reading today is that King David has subdued his enemies, and earned a reputation as a clever and courageous warrior. He was enjoying a rest in his comfortable palace when he realized that the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent. He intended to correct that situation and announced his plan to the prophet Nathan. The prophet approved his intentions, but after discerning a revelation from God, he withdrew his approval.

God’s message to David from Nathan was very direct and probably caught David by surprise. Kings of other nations surrounding Israel had built extravagant temples for their gods. Why shouldn’t David show his gratitude to God by building one for Him? Shouldn’t God have a place of pride in David’s kingdom?

God responds to David. Who are you to build a house for me? Perhaps your wartime successes have gone to your head. It is not you who take care of me but I who care for you. I have built you a dwelling and now I will build you a dynasty, a kingdom to last forever. Your descendent will be a King forever. If David in his pride had forgotten where his strength came from, this was certainly a wake-up call that these victories were not all about David; Israel is God’s chosen people, not the other way around. David is God’s anointed, not the other way around. David’s victories are for God’s plan of salvation for the world; God does not fit into David’s plans even if David presumes to give God first place in those plans.

In contrast to this message, God’s message to the Blessed Virgin Mary delivered by the Archangel Gabriel was gentle and encouraging. Why would she, so young and insignificant, be so highly favored and loved? How could this prediction of a great and holy son be true if she was not yet married? And how could the power of the Most High and the presence of the Holy Spirit change this situation? Mary found herself to be confused and puzzled and in awe of God, but her trust in the Lord prevails. Behold the Lord’s servant … let it happen to me as you say.

With Mary’s willing consent, God finally completes His promise to David and God’s own plan of salvation for the world. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s humility is stronger than David’s pride. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s confidence in God’s Grace surpasses David’s arrogance in his own abilities. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s willingness places her at the heart of God’s Kingdom because immediately after her acceptance of God’s will, she leaves to assist Elizabeth in her own challenging pregnancy. Service to those in need follows acceptance of God’s will and of our place in God’s plans. The Blessed Virgin Mary is an example for all of us in discipleship because she sees and lives by the right order of God’s design — God first, others second, and myself third. The kingdom that God would build is not the kingdom of a warrior-king, but one of the poor, the outcast, the weak, and those who are forgotten. His Kingdom includes each of us if we follow the example of Mary and trust God, say “yes” to Him, and then serve others. It is in our poverty and weakness that God invites us to meet Him.

When we recognize and accept our own poverty and weakness, then we can seek God’s forgiveness and strength. When we recognize and accept our own poverty and weakness, then we are able to surrender control of our lives to the Holy Spirit and hear our own vocation. When we recognize and accept our own poverty and weakness, then we are able to be part of God’s universal plan and not try to put Him into service of our own plans. When we recognize and accept our own poverty and weakness, then we are prepared for Christmas — the birth of Emmanuel — God is with us.


Vespers for Monday of the Third Week of Advent

Seminarians Linh H. Nguyen (center) and Eric H. Flores (right), along with their fellow seminarians participate in evening prayer, i.e., Vespers. Photo by Juan Guajardo

Seminarians of the Diocese of Fort Worth
December 18, 2017
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Philippians 4:4-5

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: Rejoice! Everyone should see how unselfish you are. The Lord is near.”

Generosity is another word for unselfishness. One of the characteristics required for priesthood and one of the qualities that you are called to develop in your formation is generosity and selflessness. A generous disposition begins with responding with a “yes” to what is asked of us by Christ. All of the Christian life is based upon saying “yes” to Christ. The Christian life is not based upon saying “no” to other “no’s” spoken to Christ. In the algebra of discipleship a double negative is not a positive; a clear affirmative spoken with a grateful heart is required.

The Advent of Jesus Christ begins with the perfectly pure “yes” of the Blessed Virgin Mary; it follows with the “yes” of her spouse Saint Joseph, a just man who silently speaks his “yes” with trust in God despite hearing His call in the cloudiness of a dream. God’s justice requires a clearly affirmative response that overcomes the twilight of a dream.

The pure “yes” of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the just “yes” of Saint Joseph come from the redeeming love of Christ, who speaks His “yes” to the will of the Father throughout His earthly ministry with obedience unto His death on the Cross. What Christ redeems is the long line of outright negative responses to God’s commands descending all the way from the first corporate “no” of Adam and Eve, the bitter fruit of the Tempter who first shouted his irrevocable, arrogant, and dishonest non serviam—“I will not serve.” Whom Christ redeems are each and all of those human beings who speak their “no” to God throughout history—including us.

Christ is born in a manger because people willingly said “no” to the Holy Family’s request for shelter. Some might say that, “if only we recognized the Holy Family’s true identity we would have given them shelter and hospitality.” Yet, this is only an excuse and not a reason. They would have simply been more polite about the refusal. Christ is born in a manger because that is where animals feed and not where human beings were intended by God at creation to eat. The manger is beneath the dignity of human beings as being created freely in the image and likeness of God. The manger is a place where animals go by instinct and self-preservation but not by reason and not by faith. Instinct and self-preservation: the manger is the best that the human condition can do without God’s grace—the grace that is freely given in Jesus Christ’s birth.

At His birth the Son of God meets the human condition in a manger; yet, before His agony and death, He offers the banquet of His own eternal Eucharistic “yes” to the Father’s Will. This sacrificial “yes” transforms humanity through selfless love and the fullness of the truth.

St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice! Everyone should see how unselfish you are.” That Eucharistic “yes” is shared very intimately within and through the witness of a priest’s life. Each priest enters into that mystery every day in the celebration of Mass. The Eucharistic “yes” permeates each priest’s day throughout countless interruptions to a priest’s prepared schedule; it precedes his other expectations and best judgments; at times it interrupts much needed sleep; at other times it frustrates our recreation. Yet, this Eucharistic “yes” of a priest is what identifies him most clearly as a priest. It is especially spoken in his vocation through his promise of obedience.

The promise of obedience always inconveniences each one of us—even to me as a bishop whose office requires it from my priests. The promise of obedience is the gift that Christ invites us to make so that we can formally grow in the grace of unselfishness and generosity. The promise of obedience is the formal way by which we respond to St. Paul’s command to manifest our unselfishness to everyone and in so doing manifest the unselfishness of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church. Whenever we priests hedge on our promise of obedience we allow the “no” of fear and selfishness to creep into our fundamental “yes” to Christ’s call to us. It is obedience that structures a priest’s compassionate visit to anoint the sick; it strengthens the priest’s attentiveness to absolve sinners in hours of confessions that can become tedious because of the boredom that is sin. The promise of obedience facilitates the priest’s decision to get up early to pray, to keep up with one’s spiritual reading, and to celebrate Mass every day. The hedging on the promise of obedience can begin in the seminary with gifts that we take for granted as entitlements.

So, when the just expectations of seminary life—like the seminary schedule, like required presence and attendance at community events, like classwork, and most especially holy hours and liturgical prayer—inconvenience you and tempt you to seek arbitrary exceptions for distractions in order to do what you’d prefer to do, think of the manger and then think of the Eucharist. Reflect on the Baby Jesus, on the pure selflessness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on the decisive justice of Saint Joseph. Ask for their help that you might share in their unselfishness and generosity by saying “yes” especially at inconvenient times. A priest is called to make known this selflessness by every aspect of his life at all times to the people whom Jesus came to save. Begin this now as seminarians.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: Rejoice! Everyone should see how unselfish you are. The Lord is near.”


Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and Mass of Receiving the Carmelite Habit

Photo by Juan Guajardo

Mass of Receiving the Carmelite Habit
Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face

December 8, 2017
Most Holy Trinity Carmel
Arlington, Texas

Genesis 3:9-15, 29
Psalm 98
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Luke 1:26-38

During the last several years I have had the opportunity for vocational reasons to become more acquainted with the Sacrament of Confirmation, both its rite and its catechesis. I celebrate this sacrament up to between 55 and 65 times each year, confirming up to 2,000 young adults every year, so you can imagine the familiarity I have developed with this sacrament; and the importance for me to enter into prayer that I not take the sacrament for granted.

One of the practices that I have noticed with more attention is that of choosing a confirmation name by each of the candidates. The sponsor presents the candidate by his or her confirmation name. I call them each by the confirmation name and seal their brow with the sacred Chrism. What I have noticed is that in this custom I can learn a lot about the person simply by the name of the saint that they have chosen. “Sebastian, be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” (Saint Sebastian, Patron Saint of Athletes.) “Cecilia, be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” (Saint Cecilia, Patroness Saint of Music.) “Hubert, be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” (Saint Hubert, Patron Saint of Hunters.)

As I call them each by their confirmation name I can almost guess what their interests are. Inevitably, in conversation with them after Mass, many will tell me that they chose their saint’s name because they saw a lot of themselves in the saint whose name they have respectively selected. That is my moment to teach as a bishop, I remind each of them that the selection of a saint’s name is that they should seek to become like the saint in devotion to Christ and not that they should select the saint who is just like themselves because of their comparable hobbies or interests. The grace of the Sacrament of Confirmation enables them to become like the saint, and not that the saint is to be considered comparable to them. The grace offered to us in the sacraments always prompts us to turn outward in love and not inward in preoccupation with ourselves. This is a subtle difference in understanding this custom of choosing a saint’s name but it makes all of the difference because it precisely involves conversion and the grace of the Holy Spirit that brings about that conversion.

The first reading from Genesis articulates that cunning difference brought about by the original sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Man and woman become preoccupied with themselves. Each of them values the other only for uses like pleasure and security. This reading concerns the aftermath of the man and the woman eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is the first case of arrogance, obfuscation, and “passing the buck.” Instead of the transparency of the intimacy of peace with which the creation story of the second chapter of Genesis emphasizes, the disobedience of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil brings with it duplicity, a defiant refusal to be honest and transparent, a fear of relationship and intimacy with God, and, in a word, a disobedient refusal to love.

This is underscored in Adam’s response to the Lord God’s question: “Where are you?” “I heard your sound in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked, and I hid.” Instead of seeing God as the One from whom Adam’s life came, God is now seen by Adam as an adversary to him, the One who is to be feared and not trusted because He places an imposition upon Adam’s selfish freedom. Human nature might outwardly appear to be the same as before the sin of Adam, but the human condition is in fact very different than before Adam’s sin. The human condition has become cowardly, selfish, and marked by shame and death.

In addition, the second time that Adam speaks in reference to Eve involves blame and a refusal to accept his own responsibility in the colluded act of disobedience: “The woman whom You gave by me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” Adam had previously spoken of Eve prior to his sin (after she is created from his side), “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh — this one shall be called woman.” Adam’s second instance of speech in reference to Eve is now one of accusation directed at God for effectively having made her: “…whom You gave by me….,” instead of a response of reverence and intimate trust. Thus, rupture, enmity, division and separation ensue: between the man and God, between the man and the woman, between the woman and God, between humanity and the rest of creation.

Then, there is the Good News of the Gospel. The Gospel reading for today is Luke’s account of the Annunciation of Mary. She stands completely vulnerable and trusting, unafraid, in loving relationship with God as she receives the awe-filled invitation to accept God’s will to be the Mother of His Son — the Mother of our salvation. Unlike Adam and Eve who hide and separate themselves from the Lord God, the Blessed Virgin Mary gives herself in trust and faith to complete love and full abandonment to God’s will — including an intimate share in her Son’s suffering — when she utters her fiat: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” She is the instrument that is connected to the restoration of all creation in her Son, Jesus. She is not preoccupied with herself but she is completely aware and at peace with God and with humanity — redeemed eternally by Her Son. This is why she is at times described as the “human race’s solitary boast.”

She is not to be wounded by sin but is instead to be wounded by love. Through her “yes” to God, God becomes clothed in humanity — the full humanity of her Son, Jesus. She is not just like us, but through her “yes” intimately tied with her Son’s victory we can by grace be redeemed and be saved and say “yes” as she says “yes.” We can say “yes” because of her “yes.” We become able not to hide in shame because of Mary’s purity of heart in not being afraid and in “saying yes.” Selflessness can increase in us as our sinful condition decreases and we become less fearful and preoccupied with self, the preoccupation that is the bitter essence of sin. In a word, we become able to love even more perfectly than in the original state of Adam and Eve experienced before their sin.

Today’s particular celebration is about clothing. Today’s celebration is also about naming. Today’s celebration is most especially about saying “yes” to God’s will in obedient love. Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face is to be clothed in the habit of Carmel. Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face is to be named. Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face is to say “yes” in obedient love to God’s will that will come to her ordinarily through the Holy Rule and through the direction of her superior.

Today Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face is clothed in the habit of Carmel. The habit of Carmel does not fit Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face. Yet, through God’s loving care and attention, Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face will fit the habit of Carmel. In poverty, the habit always belongs to Carmel and not to Sister as her own possession.

The name that Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face receives today and by which she will be known in the hiddenness of Carmel includes the “Holy Face of Jesus”. This name is of great personal significance to her vocational journey because it was included in the name of St. Therese the Little Flower — St. Therese, the Greatest Saint in Modern Times — St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. So many in the world omit this second aspect of the name of St. Therese — simply ending her name with “the Child Jesus.” Yet, in many ways, this second part of her name is even more revelatory about St. Therese and the mission of the Little Way than is the first part of her name “of the Child Jesus.” St. Therese in obedience to her superior writes in The Story of a Soul and teaches us today the significance of this part of her name:

The little flower transplanted to Mount Carmel was to expand under the shadow of the cross. The tears and blood of Jesus were to be her dew, and her Sun was His adorable Face veiled with tears. Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face. It was through you, dear Mother, that I learned the mysteries of love hidden in the Face of our Spouse. I understood what real glory was. He whose Kingdom is not of this world showed me that true wisdom consists in ‘desiring to be unknown and counted as nothing in placing one’s joy in the contempt of self.’

The Holy Face of Jesus looks directly in loving obedience to the Father with love and suffers sin for the sake of love. The Holy Face of Jesus does not hide from God in shame and cowardice as did Adam’s face. Your life, Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face, in this world has been wounded by sin — not only your own (as is the case of each of us) but wounded also by the sins of others — those who have waged war in your native land of Vietnam and the communists who have harmed your family and have hated Christ and His Church. They will either be converted like St. Paul was converted or they will go the way of Herod and Nero and all who have persecuted Him throughout history. Your new life in Carmel is to be wounded by love.

The Blessed Virgin Mary shared through her Immaculate Heart the sorrows of her Son’s cross and suffering. The Cross is the only way to be wounded by love. The Cross of Jesus is a sign of contradiction; it is a paradox. Thus, your life of transparency and selflessness is to take place as a paradox in the shadow of the Cross — hidden from the world in the life of community enclosed within Carmel. Your life in community is the school of the Cross — to be wounded by love as your Crucified Spouse was wounded by love; as the Blessed Virgin Mary, in purity of heart achieved through her Son’s merits, was wounded by love.

We pray for Sister Marie Therese of the Holy Face today at this Mass as she is clothed, and named, and as she says “yes” to God. She will soon be forgotten by the world as Christ is too often forgotten. We ask God to bless her perseverance for what she has accepted as a grace from Him out of love for Him and for our salvation. In particular, as your bishop, I humbly ask you to follow the example of our patroness, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face and pray for our salvation but especially to pray for priests.