How do you want this year to be better than last year? I’ll ask again: How do you want this year to be better than last year? From my experience, it’s unfortunate that most of us will make the same mistakes, because we can’t break out of the cycle of our daily lives. Most of our lives have a momentum that we can’t stop.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
So, I’d like to start with a bold proposal for this new year of 2020: As your spiritual father, I’d like to ask every one of you to get away one time this year for a spiritual retreat. It could focus on prayer, healing, renewal, or growth—it could be alone or with others—but the necessary element is that it’s rooted in God, and ideally, it should be overnight to give ourselves a chance to open our hearts to God.
This past Sabbath Summer proved to me how much we need a break and a spiritual recharge. Many of you told me that the spiritual rest and getting away from the busyness and distractions of life were perfect!
We’re taking our cue from the wise men in today’s Gospel, who travelled from the East presumably many days to find Jesus, and, at the end of the Gospel, it says, “They left for their own country by another road” (Mt 2:12). Of course, they’re doing so to avoid King Herod, who wants to know from them the location of the baby Jesus in order to kill Him, but Archbishop Sheen said about this scriptural phrase that “no one who ever meets Christ with a good will returns the same way as he came” (Life of Christ, 46)—that’s what God’s calling us to this year, a time to meet Christ away from daily life, so that we can return home more joyful. The best time to grow spiritually is when we’re away from our daily anxieties and activities!
There are four insights in the Gospel that will help us:
1) Scholars tell us that the wise men were probably Persian priests involved in astronomy, which is why they say, “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Mt 2:2). But simply because astronomers can detect a conjunction of planets doesn’t mean they’d actually leave their homes on a journey for a few weeks; many people, for instance, observe the wonder of creation but don’t arrive at the knowledge of a creator. However, the magi in the Gospel were ‘wise,’ says St. Matthew. “They were people of inner unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 3, 94-95).
This is important for us. Everyone needs rest, but only wise people take it, people who are hungry for what God’s put in their hearts. Everyone needs time to reflect and get away, but only wise people make it happen.
2) The star leads them to the region of Judea and they logically go to the royal city Jerusalem—that choice is based on human reason and is good. Nevertheless, to find the exact location of Jesus, they need to consult the Scriptures, which is where faith comes in, and the Scriptures reveal that “the Messiah was to be born… ‘in Bethlehem of Judea’” (Mt 2:4-5).
Human reason tells us it’s logical to take a vacation, to rest the body and mind. For example, Bill Gates takes one week a year to think and read (Greg McKeown, Essentialism, 70)—brilliant. But faith takes us further: It takes us to the source of all renewal, Christ Himself. He’s speaking to us today, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mk 6:31).
3) When the wise men ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” it says, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:2,3). Herod’s afraid of a future king who will usurp his power, and the city’s troubled because he’s going to wreak havoc; he had already killed two of his sons and was about to kill another (Adrian Leske, in The International Bible Commentary, 1262) (Herod was never voted ‘Dad of the Year’).
His fear is a symbol of our own unreasonable fears: When we think about going on retreat, there will be so many reasons not to go: too busy, it’s too expensive, who’s going to look after the kids, with whom am I going to go? Let me tell you: The devil will do everything he can to stop you. He’s going to give you so many reasons not to go that you’ll feel overwhelmed. The solution is to get help: Talk to Jesus about your desire, and talk to friends about going together. Realize that going on a retreat is one of the most loving things you can do for your family; it will be good for your whole family!
4) “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Mt 2:10). This points to an absolute rule in life: God always gives more than He takes. He asks us for one, two, or three days, which will be hard at first for us, but He’ll give us more in return.
You see me go away on retreat twice a year. It feels hard to set the time and prepare for it, but I’m always so happy I go, and I’ve told you about the graces for myself (the rest, the prayer, the peace, overcoming my busyness) and I’m always given great ideas and plans for the parish family.
This is our sixth homily in our Alpha as Culture season, and one of the key components of Alpha is the weekend away or day away. This is where relationships grow and we have leisure to hang out, talk, and listen. This is where we can meet the Holy Spirit in a tangible way: We always pray with each other one on one and for each other’s needs.
When I was at the Experience Alpha conference in 2018, on the second day we had a prayer service and were just singing songs, when one of the pastors, Stephen Mulder, came up to me and asked, “Fr. Justin, is there anything I can pray for, for you?” I was feeling so low at that moment that I think he could see it, and I really appreciated his praying with me, putting his arm on my shoulder, and asking God’s blessing. All of us could use this kind of prayer ministry.
This year’s Alpha day away is on Saturday, February 29, 2020, at UBC, and I’m announcing this for any of our Alpha graduates who haven’t been able to go on the day away in the past. Other great examples include Marriage Encounter, the Women’s retreat, the Men’s retreat, and Opus Dei retreats.
When I shared this with our Dinner & Dance Committee, they all came alive and said, “Let’s go as a group!” That’s the response of people who hear Jesus’ call. But it better not be a cruise—that’s not what we’re suggesting.
According to canon law, which is the law of the Church, priests are obliged to do an annual retreat for our good, so I’m going to do the same: I’m ordering you out of love to do this! Get out of the rat race and breathe. The best time to grow spiritually is when we’re away from our daily anxieties! This year will most likely be better only if we take time to get away to be with Jesus.
We end now with a five-minute video from St. Benedict’s in Halifax, the church that’s coaching us in the Divine Renovation Network. It’s a powerful testimony from a man named Walter, who encountered Christ on an Alpha weekend and returned home by another road.