Saturday, January 05, 2008

The holiest year of your life?


Preached at St Alban's, Arlington TX on 30 December 2007

Picture the scene—a father and son are standing out in front of a college dorm. The father is choking back the terms. The son is ready to say good-bye. Dad stops at the car before he gets in. One last hug. Then it comes. “Son, these years are going to be some of the best of your life.”

Even if we might look back on our college days with great fondness, what you and I have come to learn since, however, is that years come and go—some are good and some not as good. The difference between the two has a lot to do with how we see the world. But there is another determining factor in having a good year—whether or not we are willing to make it happen.

And so, since it is time to say goodbye to the old year, and greet the baby 2008, we stand to say goodbye to the past together and hello to the future together. One last hug may be appropriate. A tear may come to the eye. But unlike the Dad in the story, this father makes no predictions. Instead, I ask you, “Are you going to make it a good year? Is 2008 going to be one of the best years of your life?”

Now, you can’t just say, “I’ll let you know 365 days from now.” If you wait a year to decide about this, it will be one year too late. Of course, you can’t help the unexpected. You may say, “This is the year I will take up jogging.” And then you break your leg next month. You can’t help the unexpected, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. We are talking about creating expectations, planning your future, making it happen. Today, I’d like us to think about that, especially in the spiritual life, for our spiritual well-being overflows into all other areas of life.

How would you have reacted if Dad gave you a hug, and with a tear in his eye, said, “Son, this year is going to be the holiest year of your life”? That’s what I’d like us to consider today. This father is asking, “Will 2008 be the holiest year of your life?”

Right away, you might be thinking, “Wait. That’s asking too much. I’m not a priest or a nun or a monk. I’m just an ordinary person. This holiness stuff is just way out of my league.” If that’s your impression of holiness, you’ve got the wrong idea. Holiness is for beginners, and since you’re a beginner, holiness is for you. Indeed, the purpose of the Church in regards to God is to worship and glorify him in heaven and on earth. The purpose of the Church in regards to human beings is to make bad people holy—set apart for God. All of us need to be holy, for God is holy.

Jesus makes it possible for us, in the midst of our frailties to experience holiness. In our Gospel today, we read that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Logos, or pre-existent Son of God, took human nature from the Virgin Mary his mother, lived a sinless human life, and died a human death. He shared our human nature. Then he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and pours out his holy Spirit on us at baptism. He makes us partakers of the divine nature.

You might think, “How can I be holy; I’m only human.” St John carefully points out that Jesus maintained his holiness as a human being in the midst of a fallen world. Later in the gospel, Jesus differentiates that he is in the world, but not of the world. The Word was made flesh, but he didn’t become fleshly.

How does holiness work for beginners? Very simply—the same way. As his disciples, we are likewise to be in the world, but not of the world. That is, we should eagerly and enthusiastically be a part of everything that draws us toward God and fills us with divine love—going to Mass at least every Sunday, going to confession, receiving Holy Communion, loving our neighbors, and working and giving to build up the kingdom of God.

On the others side, we should avoid everything that draws us away from God, which is easy to discern, because it has the side effects of diminishing love and taking away the joy from the life that God wants for us. The closer we are to God (i.e., the holier we are), the more likely we are to mourn our sins and recoil at temptation. Or to put it another way, the more we rely upon God, the easier our pursuit of holiness will be.

Here I want to draw special attention to the connection between holiness and happiness. The happiest people—those truly contented with life—are often the holiest, whereas those who lack a personal holiness, are in great need of happiness. Happiness is a part of the blessed life that God wants for us. “Happy” and “blessed” are two translations of the same word.

Consider Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man [or Happy is the man] who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful! His delight is in the law of the LORD, and he meditates on his law day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything he does prospers. It is not so with the wicked; they are like the chaff which the wind blows away.”

What stands in the way of happiness? It is the same thing that stands in the way of holiness—sin. It is usually not sadness that prevents our happiness. The sinful may be sad, but sadness is not sinful by nature. Jesus was sad at moments. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. At Gethsemane he said, “My soul is sorrowful even unto death.”

What stands in the way of happiness is usually anger. It is not the righteous indignation we see in Jesus cleansing the temple. It is bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy, etc. It is what made God ask the prophet Jonah in his bitterness, “Does it do you any good to be angry?”

Don’t let your past stand in the way of your future. What God wants for you is the blessed life, the happy life, the holy life. Will you let your past stand in the way of your future? I hope not.

That may sound very difficult, but don’t be intimidated. Jesus understood this. That’s why in the upper room, he explained to his chosen apostles, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

As St John tells us in today’s gospel, “In him [that is, in Jesus—the incarnate Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For those who are faithful to Christ as Savior and Lord, there is no barrier that his grace may not overcome. There is no limit to the holiness and happiness that await you in the coming year.

If 2008 is the holiest year of your life, it will also be the most grace-filled year of your life. St John tells us that “from his fullness . . . [Jesus’ fullness of divine glory that he shares with God the Father] . . . from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

Have you ever noticed that blessings build exponentially? But they come to a screeching halt when you choose sin over God. Remember: Don’t let your past stand in the way of your future. God wants us to keep his commandments, what we might otherwise call guidelines for the blessed life or the “happy and holy life.”

St John tells us, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” If you turn to him again today and begin anew, 2008 will be the holiest year of your life.

No comments: