Is the Christmas Tree a Christian Symbol?

Fr. Joel Church meets World

You cut down a tree and then you dress its corpse with candles?” ~Olaf

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree. Why would you sing about a Christmas tree? And why do we even have Christmas trees? We chop down a perfectly healthy tree, drag it inside, dress it with lights and ornaments as it slowly dies. Looks like the work of a madman. People often explain the tree as, “an old pagan holiday that was Christianized.” But there has to be a reason why this madness spread. If you mediate on the Christmas tree, you will see that it holds many lessons about the Christ Child.

Evergreen: This tree doesn’t lose its leaves; in the dead of winter it stays fresh and green. The human race was dead in sin like a forest in winter. Jesus comes to give us true life, eternal life. He is evergreen, and he wants us to be evergreen.

Lights: Jesus is the Light of the World, the light that the darkness cannot overcome (see John 1). When we let Jesus into our hearts, he frees us from darkness and makes us shine with God’s light.

Ornaments: We hang beautiful, precious, and sentimental things on the tree; our favorites often remind us of childhood. Jesus holds all good things, our past and our future. He is always with us, and he cares about the things that are precious to us.

Candy Canes: Their shape reminds us of a shepherd’s crook. Shepherds greeted the baby in Bethlehem. He is a descendant of the shepherd-king David. Christ is the Good Shepherd sent to lead God’s flock. His sheep hear his voice and follow Him.

The Star or the Angel: We top the tree with a star or an angel, both images from His birth, and images of Heaven. They remind us that we are on a journey to heaven. We must keeps our lives pointed towards Eternity.

The Severed Tree: The tree is cut down in order to give us life and light. Jesus, too, was cut down on the cross for our sins. The tree makes a sacrifice for you; it gives its life to brighten your Christmas. Never forget the sacrifice that Jesus made for you.

We need to be reminded over and over of the true meaning of Christmas. We need time to let it sink into our hearts. Put your nativity scene in a place where you can sit and reflect on it by the glow of the Christmas tree. Keep your tree up through the 12 days of Christmas, until the Wise Men come on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. Then bring home blessed chalk from Church and bless your home. You might even sing a hymn: O Christmas Tree!

Christmas peace and joy,
~Fr. Joel Sember


The Long Walk To Christmas

Fr. Joel Church meets World

I recently attended a meeting at the Diocese with Bishop Ricken and 20 or so priests. We went around in a circle to introduce ourselves and, ‘name your favorite season.’ I think Fall was the front runner, followed by Summer, Spring, and a few Winters (which elicited groans from the other attendees). As it circled around, one of the last ones said, “I’m Father so-and-so and my favorite season is Advent.” In a group of priests, only one thought to name a Liturgical season. And liturgical seasons include Christmas and Easter, why Advent? As we reach the third week of Advent, I’m starting to agree with him. First off, I love the looks on peoples’ faces when I wear pink, er…, Rose, vestments. But second of all, I love the almost-but-not-yet that comes with this season. It is full of anticipation.

Our world hates anticipation. We are surprised when we buy a package on Amazon and it won’t arrive for 3 whole days. Sex before marriage is the norm. The few engaged couples who choose chastity often find their friends (and even their parents) pressuring them to move in together before they get married. But expectation deepens the joy. It’s worth waiting for a lifetime of married memories. Our church building project began to take shape in the spring of 2014, almost 5 years ago! The process seemed to be taking so long. All the meetings, the conversations, the fundraising… Would we ever get there?

I am reminded of a time Relevant Radio interviewed walking pilgrims. The interviewer assumed that the pay-off was arriving at the shrine. Sure, you could ride a bus and enjoy pulling up at the door, but walking five days made the moment that much sweeter. I had a hard time explaining to him that pilgrims enjoyed the journey. Not all of it, certainly: there are hard days and bugs and rain and blisters. But there are “pay-offs” all along the way: the outdoors, Christian camaraderie, surprise joys, great food. It’s not all about arriving; the journey is precious, too. Building the church has a great pay-off, but it’s been a great journey. Advent is the walking pilgrimage to Christmas. Enjoy the journey. ¡Buen Camino!


Forgiveness Is A Light In The Darkness | #904

Fr. Joel Free Range

Advent, 3rd Sunday (C) John the Baptist preaches repentance: Stop going along with society and start being the best version of yourself. Hearing Confessions makes me feel like John the Baptist. But I’ve also been going to Confession, and learning to forgive other people. Forgiveness invites God’s light and love into a dark place in your life.

In the name of Jesus, I forgive (Name) for _, and I ask God to bless (Name).

Advent is a time to prepare for Jesus. Most of us subconsciously expect Jesus to dramatically appear in our lives. But when we embrace the ordinary, live forgiveness and be quiet inside, we discover the Lord is in our midst. Jesus is quietly waiting in the dark of our hearts for us to find him there.

Accept your failures and they become stepping stones towards God’s beautiful plan for your life. Let Jesus be the King of your Heart. Let him be the Lord of your failures. (16 Dec 2018)

Going Deeper: “The struggles of life tend to get amplified during Advent. What is good in our life or marriage or family tends to feel even better. But what is messy in our life or marriage or family also tends to get amplified or magnified.” – Fr. Mark Toups (Rejoice! Advent Meditations with Mary)
What struggles has Advent revealed to you?
How are you responding to these dark places in your life?


Look What You Find Hidden In The Ordinary | #903

Fr. Joel Homilies

Advent, 2nd Sunday (C) • Yesterday was anything but an ordinary Saturday. After Holy Day Mass and First Reconciliation I was driving to Saturday night Mass, the only “ordinary” part of my day. The winter sun cast long shadows on the snow and suddenly felt like an extraordinary moment.

Today’s Gospel goes through a list of civil and religious leaders. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the moment or the time when John the Baptist heard God’s call. His father Zacheriah had an angel visit him at work. Mary received the Annunciation while at home. We often dismiss the ordinary. We want amazing lives; we want to be part of something wonderful. When we let go and embrace the ordinary, we discover something wonderful. It’s as though a mother hid candy under piles of laundry and unwashed dishes so when her kids did their chores, they would discover the gifts. God has hidden joy and peace and extraordinary things under the ordinary moments of every day life.

A couple weeks ago St. Anthony parish was given an extraordinary gift — a relic of St. Anthony himself! Relics remind us that the saints were ordinary people. They lived daily lives just like we do. What was extraordinary about them was that they accepted where they were and what God had given them. And in living it peacefully, generously, lovingly — embracing the ordinary — they became extraordinary.

St. Anthony was originally named Ferdinand. He was born in Lisbon, Portugal around 1195. He joined a monastery as a religious brother. For ten years or so he prayed and studied. It was relics of Francisan martyrs that changed his life. He was so filled with a desire to be a martyr that he joined the Franciscans and sailed for northern Africa. But an illness and a violent storm diverted him to Italy. He quietly joined a convent there and lived a hidden, ordinary life.

It happened that Anthony accompanied the Franciscan Provincial to an ordination, where both Dominicans and Franciscans were present. No one had been assigned to preach, and no one wanted to look silly by preaching unprepared. So finally the Provincial pushed Anthony forward and bid him say a few words. Anthony began to preach, and all were amazed. This launched a career in teaching and eventually being an itinerant preacher and wonderworker.

Oconto Falls, take off your robe of mourning: “I have so much to do. My life is so boring. Why can’t I have fun like everybody else?” Put on the mantle of my glory! In embracing the ordinary you discover peace, joy, and God himself. A woman was writing Christmas cards. As she did, she began to think about each person. Then she began to pray for each person. And just like that, an ordinary chore was transformed into a joy and a blessing.

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

Gandalf, The Hobbit

Embrace the ordinary, and fill it with small acts of kindness and love this week. Let Jesus be the King of your Heart, and the Lord of the Ordinary. (10 Dec 2018)

Going Deeper: Read more about the life of St. Anthony at NewAdvent.org
Do some small acts of kindness and love this week.

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A Speed Bump On Advent Road | #902

Fr. Joel Homilies

Immaculate Conception • Why do we pause, just as Advent gets started, to celebrate Mary’s conception? God had such a great gift to give us, that no one was ready to receive it. So He made Mary Immaculate so that she could receive His great gift. God has to get us ready for His Son. Advent is about God preparing our hearts for the gift of Jesus. He is the joy of Christmas, He is the source of peace, and He is the gift that no Grinch can steal. (8 Dec 2018)

Going Deeper: What kind of Christmas are you preparing for — the Christmas that the Grinch can steal, or the Christmas joy that no one can take from your heart?

Image Credit. Thank you to the Parish Council of Catholic Women for being our latest Patrons.

By Anonymous - Chatzidakis. Byzantine Art in Greece, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1853838

The Lord of All Time | #901

Fr. Joel Homilies

Advent, 1st Sunday (C)

There’s nothing more British than the long-running TV series, “Dr. Who.” The main character looks like a normal man but he’s actually a Time Lord. They are supposed to be an advanced race with advanced knowledge of space and time travel.

Today’s Gospel has similarly cosmic characteristics. “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.” To ancient people the sun, moon, and stars are the constants in the world. No matter what disasters were happening on earth, the stars stayed the same and the Sun came up on schedule. They were the clock, before there were clocks. They were the navigational aids before there was GPS. These were the constants in an unpredictable world.

Jesus is telling us that His word is more dependable than the cosmos. Jesus is the true sun, Mother Mary is the spiritual moon, the saints are the stars in the heavens. God’s love is more dependable than the rising of the Sun. When we bless the Paschal Candle at the Easter vigil, this is what we say:

Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power through every age and forever. Amen.

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the true clock and the true navigational aid. He is the Lord of All Time. He doesn’t just look like a human being; he is fully human. And he doesn’t need to regenerate because He lives forever and ever.

When we try to be the masters of our own time, we find ourselves surrounded by anxieties. My past and my future become a heavy burden. And I escape through carousing and drunkenness.

This is the season where the Grinch sneaks in and steals all your time. How can we use our holiday time well? Here are three thoughts:

  1. Time is a gift from God. What do we do with God’s gifts? We give them back to him! Sunday Mass. Daily Prayer. Give God priority in your schedule.
  2. Discern how to invest your time. Time is not an infinite resource. You have exactly 1440 minutes every day to spend any way you want. Spend wisely.
  3. Trust Him when things change. The Lord of All Time is managing your schedule. They’ll be time for the important things when you let Jesus manage your time.

Let Jesus be the King of your heart and the Lord of your time.

(2 Dec 2018)

Going Deeper: Prayerfully discern your use of time today. Are you trusting Jesus to be the Lord of your time?

*Brother Priest Preaching Podcast 2019*

This homily is episode 1 of season twelve of the preaching podcast. Last year was Building the Disciple Ship. Now it’s time to equip missionary disciples and launch them into the world. The term for those who are sent is Apostles. The album is called “Season XII”. It reminds us of the 12 Apostles and that this is the season for a new evangelization. This is the season when you are called and formed and sent on mission.

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I Am Not The King Of The Hill | #854

Fr. Joel Homilies

Christ the King (B) Jesus is the one person who didn’t try to be “King of the Hill.” The only hill Jesus climbed was the Hill of Calvary where He gave His life for you and me. Because Jesus was a loving servant, that’s why God made Him the King of the universe. Be a servant of the King in your workplace, job site, career, or school. When you let Jesus be the king of your heart and the Lord of your work, we can all stop playing “king of the hill. (25 Nov 2018)

Image Credit: Vectors by Vecteezy!

Going Deeper: This Monday, instead of “working for the Man”, work for Jesus Christ the King. How would you approach work differently if you let Jesus be the Lord of your work? Pray about it and then try it at your workplace or school tomorrow.

Read More


Unveiling the Apocalypse | #853

Fr. Joel Homilies

Ordinary Time, 33rd Sunday (B) “Apocalyptic” literature “unveils” the end of the story. In the Old Testament the Book of Daniel shows that God has a great plan. Those who are faithful become like the stars in the sky; the unfaithful are an everlasting horror and disgrace. When you are watching the news, or dealing with your own personal apocalypse, just remember that God Wins. Remain faithful and keep walking the path He has for you, and you will experience the victory. (18 Nov 2018)

Going Deeper: Read the Book of Daniel

Thanks to Bishop Barron, Fr. Zuleger, Dave Lindsten, and the Book of Daniel for material in today’s homily.


Filled With the Spirit, How Can We Fail? | #852

Fr. Joel Homilies

Ordinary Time, 31st Sunday (B) • TEC 40th Anniversary Mass • Good thing Jesus doesn’t want us to do hard stuff like keep the 10 Commandments and stuff. God commanded us to love Him so that we would be be what we were made to be. We are made in the image to God and God is love. All we have to do is love God and love our neighbor. Its that simple — its just humanly impossible. You are made in His image, but you can’t make yourself into His likeness.

So God sends us the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can make us like God. It is the very trying to be like God on your own, without God’s help, that is the root of all evil. So cut it out! The Spirit has already been placed in your heart, all ready to transform you. Listen to the Holy Spirit and let Him transform your life.

(4 Nov 2018)

Going Deeper: Practice listening:

For the first 60 seconds of your morning just be still… Breathe deeply, intentionally. Pay attention to what’s around you, consider the ordinary things in the space around you that are in fact extraordinary; sunlight, the smell of coffee, sounds of birds, morning traffic outside the window, the fabric of the armchair you’re sitting in. You get to experience it all. You exist because of the Father’s love. Rest in that free, unearned gift of being and being loved for just a minute.

Congratulations to Dale and Rose on 60 years of marriage and to Anchor of Hope TEC on 40 years of retreats. Learn more at AnchorofHopeTEC.org


Wipe Your Souls Before You Enter | #851

Fr. Joel Homilies

All Souls Day • It can be hard for Catholics living in America to understand prayers for the dead. Here are three reasons why we pray for the dead: 1) We can only enter Heaven if we are full of love and free of sin. Purgatory is Heaven’s Welcome Mat: Wipe your souls before you enter! 2) Prayers remind us that we are still in communion with the dead, especially as members of the Body of Christ. We pray for them and they pray for us. 3) The Resurrection of the Dead is coming. We pray that we will meet each other at the great “party in the sky”.

I talk about my grandmother’s death at age 79, Andy Barta’s death at age 35, and Job Thomas dying before he was born. All three of these deaths look different when we see them in terms of purification, communion, and the resurrection of the dead. Let’s keep walking towards eternity — and keep your souls clean! (2 Nov 2018)

Going Deeper: Visit a cemetery and offer prayers for the dead.

Photo Credit

Credit for the joke goes to parishioner Jim Shallow.