A humorous cartoon on Pinterest features two horned demons clad in red, chatting casually with each other. In the background is an enormously long line of frustrated-looking people. Guided by an endless queue of velvet ropes throughout the massive, featureless room, they make their way zombielike toward a row of counters, most of which are closed. The one open window is staffed by a woman talking on the telephone, stalling the line of people waiting. One of the demons says to the other, “Don’t get me wrong. Hell is awful. But it could be so much more hellish.” Pointing to the large “DMV” sign at the front of room, he adds, “We have much to learn from them.”
In the gospel reading today, Jesus visits the synagogue in the seaside village of Capernaum. As was the custom at that time for any man conversant with the Scriptures, Jesus takes the opportunity to comment on the readings. Preaching with uncommon authority, he is heckled by a man with “an unclean spirit.”
The man exhibits several signs of demonic possession. First, he has a clear aversion to the holy. In the presence of Jesus, the grip of evil on him becomes evident. Second, he indicates that he is afflicted by more than one demon. Like angels, demons are numerous and governed by a strict hierarchy. Finally, the stricken man addresses Jesus as the “Holy One,” which was a name normally reserved for God. Since Jesus had not yet revealed his divine identity, the man exhibits an uncanny knowledge of hidden things, another common indication of the demonic.
Many Catholics today deny the existence of evil spirits, dismissing biblical references to demons as a mythical way of symbolizing illness and other human misfortune. However, the Church has always taught that demons are real spiritual beings, fallen angels, who were created by God but became evil by their own free choice (Catechism nn. 391-95).
As late Father Gabriele Amorth, the official exorcist of Rome for 27 years, points out in his book, “Satan was formerly an angel, created good, who later rebelled against God; he alienated himself from God and he constructed for himself and his followers what is called Hell.” (Vade retro, Satana! (St. Pauls Philippines: 2014), 4-5). Indeed, the word “Devil” means “one who splits up or breaks or throws away” in Greek. “Being alienated from God, Satan . . . recruits other creatures to rebel against God . . . and he will continue his destructive work until the return of Christ at the end of time” (Id. at 7-8).
While it is common to joke about or dismiss such things, it cannot be denied that the Church was established by Christ to stand against evil in the world, however one may choose to define it. Although the followers of Christ and their leaders are imperfect and often sinful, life is better when we follow Christ. As we continue our five-week message series leading up to Lent that we are calling, It’s Better In Here, we should remember that life is better inside the doors of the church because, unlike the world out there (and the DMV), it’s less hellish in here.
Disastrous news rattled residents of Hawaii last Saturday. A little after eight in the morning, Hawaiians received an ominous text message with an emergency alert notification that read:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Thirty-eight minutes later, a second message came from the Emergency Management Agency, reassuring the public that the previous alert had been sent in error.
The Internet is buzzing about the story, including the reactions of those who received the alert. Emily Clagett, who was vacationing on Hawaii with her husband, was driving at the time. “We saw this Catholic church,” she said, “and we’re Catholic, so we went into the chapel to pray.” If the many articles on the web are any indication, however, prayer was the last thing on people’s minds. Most turned to their electronic devices for comfort.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do when something like this happens,” said Kris Fortner, a 45-year old husband and father of two young daughters, in an article on slate.com. So, naturally, he looked for answers on Twitter. Jefferson Bethke likewise “came to the conclusion there was nothing for him to do besides look to the Internet for answers.” After an initial moment of fear and panic, 43-year old Kristen Wilson, who had just moved to Hawaii a month before, said that her emotional reaction “was just to do research.”
Others had other decidedly non-religious reactions. One tourist staying at the Sheraton Maui was heard saying, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m going to do it on the beach and have a Mai Tai,” as he walked toward the seashore. One housewife’s first concern was her cats.
It is well established that church attendance usually swells substantially in the aftermath of natural disasters and other public tragedies. In this case, however, few people reported turning to God in their ostensible final hour of life, choosing instead to consult the “Great Google.” Of course, most people began texting and calling family members with what they thought would be their final declarations of love, a natural human reaction to be sure, but also seemingly devoid of the divine.
The people of ancient Nineveh, on the other hand, repented immediately when Jonah went through the massive city announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” According to the first reading, the people believed immediately; “they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth,” a gesture of repentance. In what they thought were their last moments, their first reaction was to connect with the Lord.
It seems that you and I have a lot of work to do. Saint Paul writes that “the world in its present form is passing away,” yet few people realize it. Peter and Andrew, James and John, all dropped their nets immediately to follow Jesus. They were living regular lives in no imminent danger. Yet, they choose to change course and become disciples. As believers, we have a duty to convince the world that It’s Better in Here, not just in a catastrophe—true or false—but even when everything’s okay.
I’ll bet you’re wondering what we will come up with next! Over the last six weeks, our parish has been considering how God comforts his people with the promise and birth of his only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Center stage has been the crazy popular Danish word, hygge, which means comfort, coziness, and a feeling of warm intimacy and connection. Just yesterday I opened a Christmas present from a parishioner that was a book entitled, I’m So Full of Happy Today: The Hygge Wisdom of Children.
It’s undeniable. Hygge (pronounced hue-gah) is a huge hit at Saint Brendan. I keep hearing echoes of how well-accepted it has become among us. People mention it on the way in or out of church, write about it in emails, and send pictures as examples. Even at Mass last week, when I asked people if they knew the highest point in my life (which was when I was awarded the lead role in my fourth grade play, Winnie the Pooh) someone actually shouted out “Hygge!”
In our new message series starting today and running through the last Sunday before Lent, we want to show you exactly why the Church and our cozy, little parish, in particular, is the best place to feel the spiritual hygge of God and to experience his comfort in your life. That’s why we’re calling this new series, It’s Better In Here.
Each week, the readings and homily will point out the ground for our hope in a better life through our common worship, connection with one another, growth in faith, service to others, and the spiritual wellness we experience in this place that we call home: Saint Brendan Church and School.
In this week’s gospel, Andrew found his brother, Simon Peter, and brought him to Jesus. Both men followed the one whom John the Baptist identified as the “Lamb of God.” They were seeking the Messiah. Jesus asked them, “what are you looking for?” to which they responded, “where are you staying?” and Jesus said, “come and you will see.” They addressed Jesus as “Rabbi,” or “Teacher,” which suggests that they were searching, at least in part, for wisdom and knowledge.
In a world filled with bad news, intentionally false reports and statistics, and misleading propaganda, the Church established by Jesus Christ is the place where you will find information that is timeless, accurate, and absolutely true, because it was revealed to the apostles by God himself. Although her leaders individually are imperfect, the teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals are infallible and can be trusted. Thousands of saints throughout the history of Christianity have believed in this reality and have staked their lives on its truth.
At the end of the gospel account this week, Jesus tells Simon Peter that his new name is Cephas, which means “rock” in Aramaic, because he was to be the rock of truth upon which the Christian Church was to be built. Most of us who attend Mass each week already realize this, but what about the others? Will we reach out to them and say, like Jesus, “Come and see.” It’s just better in here.
The Epiphany of the Lord this Sunday marks the last week of our current message series: God Comforts His People. Over the last six weeks, we have been using a popular symbol of comfort and coziness from Scandinavia called hygge (pronounced “hue-gah”) to understand the kind of spiritual comfort God offers to us.
During Advent and Christmas, we have explored how to bring spiritual comfort to ourselves and others (i) by slowing down and becoming consciously aware of God’s nearness to us, (ii) by preparing our homes and hearts for the Lord’s coming, (iii) by loosening control over our lives and allowing God to bring comfort to us, (iv) by offering spiritual comfort to others, and (v) by finding comfort in the gift of our own families.
This week, we take comfort in the revelation of God’s only Son, who was born to bring consolation and hope to a struggling world. An epiphany is the manifestation of the divine, and in this week’s gospel the newborn king of the Jews appears to the three magi as the savior of the world. They sought him out and traveled afar to pay him homage. Along with angels, shepherds, and animals, the wisemen accompanied the Lord in his first hours on earth. Their journey can teach us how to bring comfort to others by accompanying them in seeking out the Christ. Like the wisemen, we can make the spiritual life hyggelig for others in three simple steps.
Be Open. Most people will never proactively ask for spiritual guidance or accompaniment. Yet, there are many opportunities to walk with someone on the spiritual journey. The wisemen in today’s gospel followed a star to find the Christ. To the extent we are open and look for the signs, God will show us when and how to accompany another person. Often, it will be a small window of opportunity: an offhand comment at a party, a moment of grief, or a stranger who seems downcast.
Be Trustworthy. People frequently confess gossiping or betraying the trust of another. So few people actually are trustworthy that, when you develop a reputation for being a responsible confidant, your neighbors and friends naturally will gravitate to you and trust you with their deepest thoughts. King Herod tried to tempt the wisemen to reveal the location of the Infant Jesus, but they proved trustworthy. To accompany others on their spiritual journey requires a high degree of personal integrity.
Be Quiet. A spiritual guide listens more than he or she speaks. It may be tempting to offer easy advice or clichéd opinions, but you should refrain. The only true spiritual growth comes from discoveries made on one’s own. No amount of logic or persuasion will correct erroneous beliefs or move people to a deeper spiritual level. The magi “prostrated themselves and did [Jesus] homage.” When seeking to accompany others on matters of the divine, listening is far better than speaking.
Everyone needs someone to talk to about their spiritual life, and accompanying others on their journey to God is a form of spiritual hygge, comfort along the way. Be open to the opportunities; be trustworthy when they happen; and then be quiet.
Father Roger Gustafson