Sunday, December 25, 2022

What is Christmas *really* about? (Christmas homily)

What is Christmas about, really?

It’s obviously more than celebrations and decorations – 

even if a lot of people don’t seem to know that, or remember.

Christmas is even about more than a child being born 

and shepherds adoring. 

The angels told the shepherds, that the child being born is a “sign”; 

a sign points to something still greater.

So what is that greater thing that Christmas is really about?

It can be summed up in the words of St. Athanasius, who said: 

“God became man so that man might become God.” 

Let me repeat that, so you really hear it: 

“God became man so that man might become God.”

Yes, he really said that. 

And so did a lot of saints and teachers of the Church. 

It’s in the Catechism, paragraph 460.

What does this mean?

It means that you and I are meant for more. 

More than 99% of what occupies our time, bad, good or indifferent. 

You and I are meant to be life-givers and world-changers. 

To be saints. 

Saints Louis & Zelie Martin – have you heard of them? 

They were an ordinary Catholic couple, 

striving to get each other and their children to heaven. 

You’ve heard of their daughter: St. Therese of Lisieux. 

Yet she, too, decided she would not do any great thing, 

but do lots of little things out of great love. 

Her little way captured hearts around the world.

Mother Theresa was called to care for the poorest of the poor. 

All she did was bathe and feed beggars, one at a time. 

She moved the world.

You and I are called to be saints. 

A saint is that person who accepts the Christmas Gift: 

that God became man so that men and women might become God.

What does this mean? It explains everything about the Gospel; 

it is what the whole Bible, 

and what all of God’s actions are leading toward. 

God wants us to be with him, united with him, 

changed by him, made new in a New Creation. 

“Through him, with him, and in him,” in a new heavens and a new earth.

Until our early 20s, we want to get older. We can’t wait! 

But then we want to hold in place, or get younger.

You and I naturally dread the inevitable loss of vigor.

And to a worldly mindset, nothing is worse than suffering.

But what if this trail of tears is a path of grace, 

leading to something new? 

Jesus goes ahead of us – from earth to heaven, old life to new.

This is what baptism begins and confirmation strengthens. 

This is what confession restores when we turn off the path of life.

The Holy Eucharist nourishes this rebirth. 

This is what our ordinary life of faithfulness leads to.

For this reason, the number one enemy of the human race 

is not hunger or war, unemployment or sickness or even death, 

as terrible as those things are. 

No, our greatest enemy is sin, because none of those other things 

can separate us from God and lead us to hell.

And one of the most dangerous sins – 

which we never talk about – is “sloth.” Laziness. 

Hitting the spiritual snooze button.

A lot of the time, we try to tame Christmas, and say, it’s about a baby, 

a family in trouble, such a nice story…aren’t the lights pretty? 

But only this makes Christmas awesome:

that God became man so that you and I might become God.

Only God is God. But he chooses to lift us up into his life; 

to be, as St. Peter says in one of his letters, 

“partakers of divine nature.” God created us in Paradise; but we left. 

He has wanted us back ever since. 

Still, we might wonder: why come as a child? 

Because then a child can come and say, I look like God. 

Because when God is born poor, and lives poor and hidden, 

then all those who are forgotten and neglected, 

can behold the Savior and say, I look like God. 

So that when the child grows up and is abused and wronged, 

all those who are oppressed in this world can say, I look like God. 

And when Jesus suffers and dies, 

all those facing pain and death know they are not alone, 

and that God has wounds, too. Wounds he is not ashamed of.

What is Christmas about? Christmas is an invitation.   

The God-man, the Christ Child, invites you. 

You’re here in his presence, right now. 

He offers himself and all his Gifts to you. 

To make us divine; to make an exchange: 

your life to him, and his to you. 

That’s the invitation. What will you do?



Post script: In case you’re wondering, who else said it?

Justin Martyr




Gregory of Nyssa

Cyril of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria

Theophilus of Antioch

Hippolytus of Rome

Maximus the Confessor

Basil of Caesarea

Thomas Aquinas

Friday, December 23, 2022

Unveiling the Secret of Christmas

Today was a calm and even boring day for the vicar and me, at our sojourn in the parochial hideaway;* the blizzard (so the Cincinnati Enquirer breathlessly proclaims last night's snow) didn't so much keep me from getting out, as it made me wonder if, upon driving over to the parish office, I might not be able to get back, i.e., out of that parking lot; and in any case, my car would then unnecessarily be in the way of the company who will be plowing the lots today or tomorrow. So, having a phone, a pen and a laptop -- with email access -- I stayed home. A shame, really, because going to the office when no one else is around can be nice. Oh well.

Since my Christmas homily is written and a copy of it is in my car, and a surprising amount of office work having been accomplished yesterday, I really had nothing much to do today. 

So aside from other mundane duties (such as the laundry I remembered just now), I have time to contemplate -- and listen to Christmas music. I know, I know, it's not Christmas yet; I'm getting soft in my old age. Across "Music Choice, Sounds of the Seasons" channel came "Believe" by Josh Groban, featured some years back in a popular Christmas film, "Polar Express." Here are the lyrics: 

Children sleeping 
Snow is softly falling
Dreams are calling 
Like bells in the distance

We were dreamers 
Not so long ago 
But one by one, 
All had to grow up 

When it seems the magic's slipped away
We find it all again on Christmas day 

Believe in what your heart is saying 
Hear the melody that's playing
There's no time to waste 
There's so much to celebrate 

Believe in what you feel inside 
And give your dreams the wings to fly 
You have everything you need 
If you just believe

Trains move quickly 
To their journey's end 
Are where we begin again 

Ships go sailing 
Far across the sea 
Trusting starlight 
To get where they need to be 

When it seems that we have lost our way 
We find ourselves again on Christmas day 

Believe in what your heart is saying 
Hear the melody that's playing 

There's no time to waste 
There's so much to celebrate 
Believe in what you feel inside 
And give your dreams the wings to fly 

You have everything you need 
If you just believe 
If you just believe 
If you just believe 
Just believe 
Just believe 

Now, this is a pleasant enough song, and like so many secular Christmas songs, rather vacuous. Does it deserve my zeroing on it? Maybe not; you be the judge. Yet something about this song -- while admitting there are things to praise it for -- stuck in my craw. "Just believe...just believe..." 


Now, full disclosure; I never saw the film. So: rebut away in the comments. That said, it occurred to me that while combatting excessive materialism and cynicism is a good thing, the mantra, "Just believe," is drastically flawed: Just believe in...WHAT?

In Santa Claus? In Coca-Cola? In Karl Marx?

I am a relic of a disappearing age, in which it was taken for granted that objective reality existed and was knowable; that we do not merely invent reality, but discover it and work out how to live at peace with it. So I am ill-equipt for the notion that people might seriously embrace "believing" without any consideration of a referent for that belief. Do people actually suppose belief, as such, is worthwhile? Whittaker Chambers, and many others, devoutly believed in the vision of Communism with the fervor of any religion. Only the act of believing matters, not the object focused on? Really?

I am not a pre-conversion Scrooge about all the accretions of Christmas. I do not scorn secular Christmas music; I do not object all that much to feasting, luxury, commercialism and "excess." But it occurs to me that some of us who know the Secret may not realize a growing number of people aren't in on it: the Secret of Christmas.

So I will now reveal it publicly. Please refer anyone here who may have been in the dark.

Christmas has more layers than a well executed Backlava. It's all fun and worthwhile, and more connected than many realize. But let's start pulling back the veils, one by one.

Christmas, at bottom, is not about:

- Presents and children being good and Saint Nicholas making a miraculous circuit of the earth;
- Romance and magic and kissing under the mistletoe and grooms popping the question;
- Bright, rich decorations with lots and lots and lots of lights;
- Family being family;
- Sending cards and calling and connecting;
- Peace and joy and love;
- All the various memorable films, poems and stories;
- (Fill in the blank....).

Or, to be more precise, Christmas is ONLY about these things because -- only because -- it is about this:

In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law...

-- as Saint Paul wrote to the Galatians (4:4). 

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth...

-- according to the Apostle John, who himself saw his glory (John 1:14).

I don't begrudge people enjoying Christmas, without explicit belief; good will and joy are God's gifts, and they can only draw someone closer to Jesus. But from time to time, let's remember the true founder of the feast.

And let me state as forcefully as I can. "Just-believe-ism" is foolish. But the Word-Made-Flesh? Believe in HIM. Don't "just" believe; live for him; die for him; let him live in you, and live forever.

Viva Christo Rey!

* Translation: in my new "family" of parishes, I have three vicars; one lives at Our Lady of Good Hope's rectory; one lives at his own home -- Saint Mary of the Assumption having no rectory of its own; and the third vicar and I live in a house owned by St. Henry, not on campus but nearby. None of these houses is suitable for more than two priests; at some point a new housing arrangement will be made.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

What do I think about the Frank Pavone situation?

People are asking my comment on the decision at the highest level of the Catholic Church to "laicize" Father Frank Pavone -- "laicization" being an unfortunate term that means he is forbidden from acting as a priest and removed from that state of life, i.e., returned to a "lay" state of life. This, by the way, doesn't mean he's no longer a priest; it means he's been found deserving of the very severe punishment of not being able to exercise his priesthood.

A lot of people find it terribly unfair. They think this is a blow struck against Pavone's prolife activism, and therefore, a repudiation of, or a show of weakness regarding, the prolife cause. Quite a lot of people notice other priests who behave badly, and not only aren't punished, but seem to be rewarded. So, yes, there does seem to be unfairness. We don't like to witness unfairness by the leaders of the Church. But never were we promised bishops, even the pope, would be preserved from unfair or even unjust judgments. That's not what "infallibility" means.

I really don't like commenting on this, because when people ask, "what did Pavone do to deserve this?" The most I can do is guess; and such guesses will tend to diminish his reputation, and I do not wish to do that. I wish, rather, that the letter from the Apostolic Nuncio (i.e., the pope's "ambassador" to the U.S.) had cited the specific, concrete acts that occasioned this response. Vagueness doesn't help, no, not even Frank Pavone.

The fact that other people are let off easy doesn't invalidate a punishment. When I was a kid, that was always the argument we made to mom and dad, and even if it was true, it was bogus. Mom and Dad couldn't administer perfect justice; in my own case, I nearly always deserved exactly what I got.

Does Father (he's not supposed to be called this any longer) Frank Pavone deserve this? The short and quite factual answer is...

I do not know. I don't know all the facts.

If you point to Pavone's responses, well, do you really expect him to offer the explanation that is least favorable to himself? Think of people you knew who got fired; how often do they tell you everything the employer told them, not only once, but over time, about their poor performance? Some truly candid people will own up to their failures, but usually, they blame the unfairness of the boss. Many bosses are unfair, but then again, we've all known people who really did deserve to be fired, but how many people admit it?

Again, I don't want to speculate or paint Pavone in a bad light. But let me answer the question this way: can I infer unrevealed details that might make this decision less unjust? Can I guess at actions by Pavone that made it hard to avoid? Why, yes I can. Do I know those inferences to be true? No, I do not. 

I hope people will not let this deter them from continuing to support prolife activism. Pray for all involved. 

UPDATE, 1:12 pm...

This article at the Pillar looks helpful...

UPDATE, 12/21/22...

This in Crisis Magazine is also good...

Sunday, December 18, 2022

'Don't be Ahaz; be Joseph' (Sunday homily)

 There are two very different men in the readings.

There’s a pretty clear contrast.

And if the men and boys listening want to hear this 

as a homily aimed in a particular way at them – that’d be on target.

Ahaz knows what he needs, what he wants, what he is going to do.

He is not going to ask for help.

No one can tell him anything. 

And then there’s Joseph. He feels all the same emotions, 

but there’s one, key difference: he prays. He listens.

He can admit he is wrong.

He is not too proud to ask for help.

Joseph can change direction, 

even if it is humiliating, which it probably was.

There’s a lot more Ahaz in me than I want to admit. A whole lot more.

Ahaz refused God’s help; but God had a “Plan B.”

The plan went forward, but:

Do you ever wonder what “Plan A” looked like?

What keeps you and I me from the Plan A?

Usually pride. Fear of looking ridiculous. 

Anger can come in, too. 

Sin, and being too stubborn to go to confession.

Making excuses for not praying, or rushing my prayers.

Here’s something I’ve noticed in recent years, now that I’m 60.

This older dog is less interested in new tricks all the time.

And I want to ask our senior parishioners, those further along:

Have you seen that in yourselves? Getting “set in your ways?”

I’m wondering if that is a spiritual peril for those who are older:

Getting stiff in the spiritual joints. What do you think?

We might think of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.

When God came to him, he said, “I’m too old.”

Thankfully, Zachariah got back on track.

So, this is really simple: who will you be? 

Ahaz, who refused to listen?

Zachariah, who needed a whack upside his head to wake him up?

Or Joseph, who God could talk to? 

Joseph, who wasn’t too proud to listen and change?

Of course, when I put it that way, 

who won’t say, “I want to be Joseph”?

OK, so how does that happen?

If you want to be Joseph. 

Imitate his chastity and self-control, 

because that teaches us to put others’ needs ahead of our wants.

Imitate his prayer – oh, and he was busy, too;

he didn’t live a life of leisure. 

Joseph wasn’t too proud to confess his sins.

Joseph asked for God’s help – and he got it.

The reason Joseph had courage to take that path

was not because that courage came out of nowhere,

but because he’d been faithful and practiced virtue all along;

That made him ready when his moment came.

Let me give a caution to our younger folks here:

If you don’t develop good habits early, 

it doesn’t get easier to form them later. 

That includes the habit of courage, versus the easy path;

truth, versus every way we shade and mislead;

self-control, versus self-indulgence;

and prudence versus shooting from the hip.

Don’t forget the habits of a healthy spiritual life:

Daily prayer, regular visits to confession, Sunday Mass, 

growing continually in your understanding of our Faith,

examining your conscience, and practicing good works.

FYI, there are many times for confession this week – 

but none on Christmas Eve. See the bulletin.

If God gives you an inspiration or a task, don’t turn away from it. 

Don’t say, “I’m too old,” “I’m too young,” or “Now’s not the time.” 

As generous as God is, there is no promise 

that a grace given today will be offered again tomorrow. 

Later doesn’t always come; it will at some point become “too late.”

Don’t be Ahaz. Be Joseph.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Four -- no, five -- easy steps to better food.

I haven't done a cooking post in a while; during a recent trip this idea came to mind, and I started drawing up an outline. 

My goal is to give some really basic tips, because (1) that's what I've found helpful, and (2) because it's not helpful for people to suppose that good cooking requires complexity or high-level knowledge. What follows are fairly easy things to master that will make a great difference.

1. Season properly. 

There are lots of interesting spices and flavors in this big world, but the most basic and universal seasoning tools are: salt and pepper. Of the two, salt is the more basic and necessary. 

I went looking just now for a picture online to show how I learned to season a steak -- and most pictures get it wrong, meaning, showing too little seasoning. That picture above is about right, except: use cracked pepper, because pre-ground pepper loses it's umph pretty quickly; and the salt and pepper should be spread fairly evenly (but you don't have to be anal about it). Also, use chunky salt -- such as flakes or Kosher salt. It's easier to see what you're doing. 

By the way -- all this advice presupposes you don't have allergies or dietary restrictions. I respect these realities, but my advice isn't meant for you who face these challenges.

Does that look like a lot of salt in that picture? It's actually not enough. There should be salt and pepper like that all around the meat, including on the edges. That's a thick steak -- which I recommend: I always get my steaks and chops cut 1-1/2 inches thick, because I find it easier to get both a good sear and also keep it from overcooking -- so it needs ample seasoning.

Don't be afraid of salt! Unless you have special issues, it won't harm you, in fact you can get sick from too little; we need salt. Food with too little salt tastes bland and "off." Salt, used right, doesn't make food salty, it makes it alive.

This could be it's own post, but: you may be surprised how many foods benefit from a little added salt, including many sweet items. 

Here's a useful video by a talented and entertaining YouTube chef:


Don't be afraid of pepper, either. Some people are terrified of anything "spicy." But if you are not too rigid, if you can be a little adventurous, don't be afraid to try a little black pepper at least. Unless you go wild, black pepper isn't going to make your food too "hot"; it simply adds some interest. Other peppers are actually different foods, and do begin to add real heat. 

As I said, there are lots of interesting spices, but if you want to get a good start, the foundation begins with salt and pepper. There's nothing wrong with those various steak rubs, I like them, but lately, I just use salt and pepper, and add some butter and thyme at the end while they are resting. 

2. Don't be afraid of fat.

One thing you'll hear from real chefs -- which I am not -- is "fat is flavor." There's a scientific explanation of this, and here's my simplified version of it: fat is more viscous than water or broth, which means that it remains on your tongue longer; therefore, it delivers flavor better. 

Fat is also nutritious and to some degree, a necessary part of the diet. Again, lots of people were taught to fear fat the way Dracula fears the Cross; in fact, most people don't need to worry about it. And besides, have you noticed what often takes fat's place in so-called "fat free" products? It's usually something carb- and even sugar-heavy. There's pretty good evidence that it's carbs, especially simple ones like sugar (which I love, I'm a hypocrite), that make us fat; not fat itself.

To oversimplify, all the options can be divided into three categories. Butter; oils, and animal fats. 

Butter is delicious and has many wonderful properties. Be aware that you can't heat it too hot, or else the milk solids in butter will burn. Sometimes that can be desireable, but otherwise, keep your temperature moderate, or else "clarify" your butter, that is, melt it and skim out the milk solids; the remaining fat can be raised to a very high heat without burning.

There are lots of oils, all having different "smoke points," meaning the tempurature at which it will start to smoke and degrade a little. Olive oil is a common variety but one with a comparatively lower smoke point. Most of the time this doesn't matter. Unless you are doing lots of cooking, you probably don't need lots of oils, and you may end up with it going rancid before you use it up. Olive oil in particular tends to get stale faster, but I think other oils are more stable. Here's a video by another interesting YouTube chef, explaining how the issue of olive oil's smoke-point may be overstated.

The third useful fat is actual fat -- i.e., animal fat, from whatever animal is in the picture. I can't say much about lamb, venison or fish fats; but beef, pork and chicken fats "come with" as the saying goes, and very useful. I remember a seminarian staying with me, who was cooking some chicken, and he was laboriously trimming every bit of fat from his chicken breasts. I told him -- leave the fat on; it'll mostly cook away (especially on boneless chicken breasts) and you need that fat to make it jucier and tastier. I will often cut off excess fat from a steak, then chop up that fat and distribute it over the meat as it cooks; it will melt down and help make the steak delicious. Bacon fat is easy to capture, great to keep in the fridge and can be handy in browning meat or frying any really lean meat; and who doesn't like the taste of bacon? 

3. Browning. 

Not all meat dishes need browning, but you usually can't go wrong by browning -- that is, searing -- your meat as part of your plan. I'm not a crock-pot user; I have no objection to it, I just have never bought one or needed it, as I can usually accomplish the same effect with a big pot with a lid, either on a low flame or in the oven. But from what I gather, a lot of people will make meat recipes, such as pot roast, by throwing in everything and just setting it on low. That'll probably be tasty, but if you want to amp up the flavor, first put some fat (see point two, above) in a pan (and plenty of it, don't be afraid!), and give that meat a good brown color all over. If it's pot roast, don't be shy about browning, since you're going to cook that critter for hours and hours, right?

Why does browning help? It's called the "maillard reaction," and you can look it up; but if you don't care to, the short explanation is that when you apply heat directly to food -- even toast -- it effects a chemical reaction, creating sugar; also known as "carmelization." And this is flavor. 

Now, if you are cooking a steak or chop or a chicken breast, you still want to sear your meat, but don't do it the way you would a pot roast; you have to use a higher heat and move quickly, or else you'll end up overcooking it. Which leads to point four...

4. Don't overcook. 

This one takes practice but also common sense. Only rarely is cooking a matter of safety; you can eat pretty much all fruits and vegetables raw, even fish and beef can safely be eaten raw. Although there are cautions about eating things like oysters and eggs raw, for most healthy people, the the risks are low. It's not like eating raw chicken, which is a really, really BAD IDEA.

There was a day when people were cautioned to cook pork till there was no pink, or you might get worms. From what I read, in the U.S., this is no longer a concern. You really can eat pork when it's pink -- and believe me, it's delicious!

I get that some people really believe well done beef tastes better, but unless you are dealing with a tough cut, I am sorry, you are wrong. Tender cuts like ribeye, strip or New York, or filet mignon, are best when rare to medium rare. With chopped or ground meat, there can be issues, precisely because the meat is handled more, and therefore, may have some bugs mixed in. But with a cut of meat (again, except for chicken), all the nasties, if there are any, are on the surface, and are quickly dispatched. Fear not!

And even ground meat, if it's handled carefully, and is fresh, probably won't cause any problems. Remember, even raw beef can be safely consumed. So I see no problem with burgers, made with fresh ground beef by people who care, being pink-to-red. Delicious!

Why is less well done meat better? Cooking breaks meat down; some "breaking down" makes it tasty; but at some point, it will tighten up the fibers and eventually, degrade them. That's why even the toughest meat can be delicious after many hours of cooking. But a lot of such meat also tends to be fatty -- think ribs -- so the fat keeps it from turning out dry, the way overcooked chicken or turkey can be.

With veggies, most of the time, the goal of cooking is to improve taste and texture. I like raw carrots fine, but I like them better when they are more tender and their sugars are brought out. I don't tend to like carrot-mush, but some people do. There are legitimate differences here: some people prefer the taste of vegetables that are softer, others firmer. 

Which leads to a sub-point here: not all foods are as resiliant when being cooked. Asparagus will turn to slime fairly quickly, while green beans will take a lot of heat, and can even be better when cooked awhile. (And, note, when they have added meat and fat!) You can't apply a one-size-fits-all approach here.

And that leads to a really obvious point: you can always put something back on to cook, but there is no known way of dialing a steak back from overdone to done properly. If in doubt, stop short.

This final point is really part of the last one, but it deserves being set off by itself:

5. Your food is still cooking!

This is a point I didn't understand right away. With pretty much everything you cook, after you remove it from the heat, even take it out of the pan, it is still cooking! 

That is, it has built-up heat, and that heat isn't going to dissipate instantly. Think of a pot of oil. Do you actually believe that oil will be room-temperature when you turn off the flame? Of course not. It holds that heat a long time.

So remember the principal of residual heat. It works with everything. You make pancakes or eggs for breakfast; they will keep cooking, just a bit, after you take them out of the pan. Haven't you ever noticed with scrambled eggs: you take them out of the skillet, they are just right; but a few minutes later, they are dry and rubbery; why? Because they kept cooking. Don't be afraid to take them out a little wet; they will be just fine when you get back to them.

Some recipes will actually tell you to plunge your vegetables or eggs or whatever into something cold, precisely to stop the cooking process.

Big cuts of meat will, naturally, hold more heat; so I try to pull my steaks off the heat when they are around 120 degrees or so; when they have rested awhile off the heat, they will rise to an internal temperature between 130-135, which is where I want them. Oh, and side point: resting is so important, because the meat juices redistribute in the meat once it's no longer subject to intense heat. Look it up.

And while on the subject, I'll add a bonus point:

6. Use temperature to maximum advantage.

I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out, but once I did, it would irk me to see so-called serious chefs not follow this.

If you have something you want to eat hot, why wouldn't you put it on a hot plate -- i.e., not a room-temperature plate? If you finish something a little early, why wouldn't you want to keep it hot?

It bugs me to see some serious cook demonstrate how to make, say, pancakes, only to plop them down on a cold plate, and apply cold butter, and pour cold syrup all over them. Who wants cold pancakes? You see these videos all the time, and you know the dead giveaway? That pat of butter on top... unmelted! What is the good of that?

So, for example, here's how I make pancakes -- not my recipe, but my method. The oven is medium hot ahead of time. In the oven is a plate, to which I will transfer the flapjacks as they come out of the skillet. If it's going to be a lot, I might even have a cover for that plate, such as a big bowl. And the plates themselves will be in the oven, so they are hot. (I do the same with plates for steak.)

I also prepare a complicated concoction: a big chunk of real butter in a bowl, into which is poured a large amount of 100% maple syrup -- why mess around with the other stuff? The fake stuff is generally just as fattening. Just before all this is to be dished out, I microwave the butter-syrup concoction, stir and serve.

How much of that? Always more than you think you will use. Good pancakes are amazing sponges, they soak up immense amounts of butter and syrup, and really, how ridiculous is it to serve up pancakes, only to get all delicate and say, "ohhh, I don't want to have too much fat, too much sugar!" Then have a bowl of yogurt; pancakes are simply an efficient delivery system for butter and sugar, so why mess around?

It works the other way just as well. Put salads and ice cream on cold plates. When I make martinis, I keep the glasses, even the liquor, in the freezer. Martinis are best when arctic cold. One of these days I'm going to experiment with dry ice to see just how cold I can make a martini.

Those are my four-er, five--most basic tips for better cooking. Would you add anything?

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

How do you buy a gift for a priest?

This article caught my eye, and I'll happily link it, as I offer my own take on this subject.

First and foremost, let me say that most priests are fine with not getting any gifts for Christmas; we don't expect anything and don't want you to go to any trouble.

And to cut to the chase: if you really want to make your priest happy, come to confession and Mass and grow in holiness. That's what we're doing this for. Not for the money or the perks, but because we want you to grow closer to Christ. Signs of that are tremendous encouragement for priests.

All that said, I'll give you candid advice on what (and what not) to get a priest as a gift.


- Gift cards. Maybe this is just me, but gift cards are hit-or-miss. 

I often lose track of them, and therefore, feel badly that someone spent money on a gift which never gets used. After all, who knows when I'll go to this or that store or restaurant? Also, sometimes people pick restaurants or stores I don't really go to, so that turns it into a project. And I wonder if it's a headache for the store workers or wait-staff to handle several gift cards plus a credit card to pay for things. Maybe not. Then there are the pre-paid Visa/Mastercard cards, which involve added fees; I feel badly for someone who wants to give me $25, but has to pay an extra $5 to do it. 

Let's tell some truth: gift cards are only for the advantage of the businesses whose names are on them. What advantage do they bring you when you buy them, or give them; or to whoever receives them? I am not aware of any business that says, oh, sorry, we don't take cash, credit or checks, only our own gift cards!

- Dinner when it's going to be an interrogation. 

Look, I get that people want to meet with their priest, and that's no problem at all. If you have questions or needs, and you want my perspective or guidance, of course I will provide that for you. 

But here's where it gets, well, manipulative. "Father, we want you to have a nice, relaxing evening, so why don't you come over for dinner?" Sounds great, right? But after years of experience, my spidey-sense goes off. Here's what happens most of the time. First, just meeting a house full of people isn't relaxing; I'm glad to meet people, but it's a challenge, and I tend to be more outgoing; for more introvertive people, it's a huge chore. On top of that, what usually happens is two or three hours of grilling about the catechism, the latest decision about the pope or the bishop, or about the story of my life. 

Again, I have no problem explaining the teaching of the Church, or justifying policy decisions by me or the higher-ups; but please don't think this is "relaxing." 


- Give him peace and quiet. 

If your priest is sitting quietly in church or outside his rectory, let him be if you don't need to take his time. If your priest is at home, either on his regular day of rest, or else it's evening, or it's the days after Christmas, don't just drop by his house. Let him be. 

- Give him something he, himself, said he'd like; don't guess. 

I've gotten all manner of things that I felt awkward about, because they weren't things I could really use, and yet I knew the gift was given out of kindness, and yet I felt badly about the expense. I have more than enough coffee mugs at this point in my life. I can usually find a use for a bottle of wine or liquor, but that often means giving them away, because they aren't things I care for myself. 

- Don't be afraid to give actual cash. 

I'm not sure why this bothers people; it sure doesn't bother me to receive it. I don't look askance at a $5 bill, or for that matter, a quarter; so don't worry about whether it seems not to be "enough." Cash is the universal gift card.

What do you think?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

John the Baptist's example (Sunday homily)

 In today’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus puts before us

the life and example of his friend and cousin, John the Baptist.

Now, first, isn’t that something to say: 

that the Lord our God has “friends” and even “cousins”?

But that is the reality of God becoming human. 

Let’s not overlook that wonder!

That said, this episode is striking in another way:

That the Lord Jesus – 

the Alpha and the Omega, the source and destiny of everything –

would step back and focus the spotlight on one of his creatures.

But then I realized: that’s what Jesus does all the time.

That’s what it means to be a saint: someone Jesus can point to and say:

Here is how it works. This is what holiness looks like.

And as I thought about John the Baptist, a book came to mind.

You’ve heard of it: The Lord of the Rings.

Maybe you’ve read it; but if you haven’t, 

it’s about a particular ring that is immensely powerful,

and therefore involves great temptation for all concerned.

And it’s about certain people who must undertake 

a journey and a task of the greatest peril. 

Everything depends on their courage and self-sacrifice 

and their perseverance.

Time after time, the right thing to do seems to be madness,

because it means refusing to take advantage of a powerful tool.

It seems to give the enemy all the advantages.

And a big part of it is accepting not being in control, 

but learning to trust.

And in case the point is not obvious:

This, too, it what it means to be a saint.

In God’s Providence, anything is possible; but generally speaking, 

the path of a saint is one of plodding along faithfully.

John the Baptist was the last in a long line of faithful witnesses.

From Noah and Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, 

Moses and Joshua, some – but not enough – of the kings;

Ezra and Nehemiah; Samuel and all the prophets and many more.

Each one was a link in a long chain, and the last witness was John,

who said not, the Messiah will come someday, but rather:

Here is right now: Behold the Lamb of God!

You know what made John the Baptist perfect for his job?

It wasn’t how smart he was, although he might have been really smart.

It wasn’t how well connected he was. 

In fact, he was part of a priestly family, so he was wired in. 

No, what made John perfect was that he was faithful.

And when the big moment arrived, he faced a tremendous temptation:

People came to him, they looked to him! What an ego trip.

And he had to say, not me, it’s not about me. It’s all about Jesus.

So often you and I feel that we don’t count very much.

And on a planet of seven billion souls, and in the long march of history,

you and I are just one brief blip.

Who will remember us?

Jesus! Jesus will remember you and me.

John the Baptist really only had one task: be faithful. That was it!

And of course, that’s my task and yours, too.

John’s question to Jesus is a little startling. Was he wavering?

He has been faithful, and now he is in prison, 

and maybe he wonders if it was all a colossal mistake?

And Jesus sends a message. In short: hang in there, John!

Don’t give up. You weren’t wrong. 

If you get discouraged, Jesus has the same word for you.

You aren’t wrong to be faithful.

And if you need some company, invite Jesus along.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Two simple steps to being a sign of contradiction -- and glory (Sunday homily)

 One time I was talking to some kids about John the Baptist, 

and I asked them what they remembered about him. 

They said, he’s that guy who wears funny clothes and eats bugs!

A biblical scholar can explain why John wore what he wore, 

and ate what he ate. 

What is obvious is that he stood out as a sign of contradiction, 

and that was certainly his goal.

There is a line from one of the Harry Potter novels: 

it takes especially great courage to stand up to your friends. 

Each of us remembers how hard it is to stand out in school, 

to be the only one who walks over and sits with someone 

who all the others are avoiding, or to offer an unpopular opinion.

It is very hard to be that person who stands out – 

who is called a weirdo or something worse. 

But let me tell you: remembering, years later, 

that someone called you a name, 

or mistreated you for taking a stand, is one thing. 

But remembering that you stood still and remained silent 

when someone was treated badly? That’s a far worse memory. 

Society always needs people who act on good impulse, 

who access the virtue of fortitude which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, 

and says some version of “on the other hand,” or simply, “no.”

Obviously, there are jerky ways to do that; 

insolent and rude ways to do that; and graceful ways to do it. 

Be humble. Be graceful. 

That doesn’t mean you won’t still face wrongs. 

But it means you will have given by word and example 

a peaceful message of peace; a just witness to justice. 

Now let me call to your attention 

one particular aspect of the first reading. 

It mentions “the Lord’s mountain,” 

and then it speaks of a signal to all nations to seek out God’s dwelling. 

More precisely, the “dwelling” of the “Root of Jesse” – 

and that is Jesus. Jesus’ dwelling, therefore, is us.

Why is that important? Lots of ways but let me focus in on two points.

First, God’s plan is not simply a generic peace, 

but a peace with Jesus Christ at the center. 

The United Nations was created in 1945 to foster world peace;

and like a stopped clock, the UN does get it right occasionally. 

But the Father’s plan for peace is his Son, who gives the Holy Spirit.

Second – and this is the really hard part, 

the part you and I would rather not hear: 

the plan relies on you and me being instruments of that peace plan. 

By being a “glorious” dwelling. 

That means the holiness and the splendor of our lives. 

This week is a Holy Day of Obligation, 

to recall how God prepared Mary to be the God-bearer, 

by preserving her immaculate from sin. 

Most Catholics will have other things to do than to attend Mass. 

It may not be easy to get away; many reasons are legitimate. 

Many others, not so much. 

When you and I – OK, not me so much, but *you* – 

step away or miss out on other activities, in mid-week, 

to attend Mass, that’s a sign of contradiction. 

People may ask, “why did you get up so early?” 

Or, “why’d you skip the Christmas party, or the basketball practice?”

A lot of folks imagine holiness is some mysterious thing. It’s not. 

It’s first a matter of conversion: 

inviting the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, 

to fill us with the “want-to.” 

But then it becomes the tedious task of sticking to a path of change, 

of building new habits and stripping away old ones. 

Do you want to grow in holiness? 

Start small: set aside 10 or even 5 minutes each day 

for true quiet, true reflection, true prayer. 

Go to confession and begin making a habit of it. 

Many times for confession are planned for Advent, see the bulletin. 

These two steps are simple but powerful. 

They will lead to other steps. 

This path is not mysterious, but it will lead you to peace, and to glory.