O Root of Jesse

O3rootFrom Vespers

O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silen in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

Hymnody

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

Sacred Scripture

On that day, The root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, The Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent: O Sacred Lord

Today’s readings | O Antiphons

O 2llordI love these late days of Advent. The expectation of the Savior is heightening, the time of deliverance is at hand, the Lord is near. During these days, we sing the “O Antiphons:” the call for Christ to come and visit us under his many titles. Yesterday was “O Sapientia” or “O Wisdom.” Today is “O Adonai” or “O Sacred Lord.” The antiphon for Vespers this evening prays: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” We pray for the Lord of our salvation to come quickly and not delay.

This was the message Joseph received in his dream. No, the child to be born was not a random child born out of wedlock. He was instead the hope of the nations, the Lord of Lords, the one who would save his people from their sins. Just as Isaiah foretold one who would be called “the LORD our justice,” so Joseph would name his child Jesus, a name which means “the LORD is salvation.” We await the coming of our Savior who is our salvation, our justice, our hope of eternal life. He was long desired of every nation, and he is needed in our hearts today.

The song we sing in these days is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” If you look at the verses, you will note that there is a verse for each of these “O Antiphons.” Today’s verse for O Sacred Lord is:

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

And so we pray, come O Sacred Lord, do not delay. Fill our hearts with your presence and come to us with your great salvation. Free us from our slavery to sin and bring us into your presence. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.

O Wisdom

O 1wisdomFrom Vespers

Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.

Hymnody

O Come, O Wisdom from on high
Who order all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Sacred Scripture

A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.

St. John of the Cross

Today’s readings | Today’s saint [ more ]
Mass for the school junior high students.

StJohnCrossDo you know what a prophet is? Not a p-r-o-f-i-t profit, but a prophet who is a person. In the broadest sense, a prophet is someone who foretells what is to come. But in terms of our faith, a prophet is even more than that. A prophet is a person who helps us to see God.

Because lots of times we don’t see God. We’re either too busy to notice God, or too wrapped up in ourselves to care about God, or just completely disinterested in the whole notion of God. Sometimes we just don’t want to see God because we would rather be doing what we want to do and not what’s best for ourselves and others. God can see through all of that, and prophets help us to see through it too.

We hear from three prophets today. The first is the prophet Isaiah, and we heard from him in today’s first reading. The people of Israel had turned away from God a whole lot.
God often made a new covenant with them, and then after a while, they would lose interest and get distracted and turn away from God all over again. And Isaiah is trying to wake them up once again. He tells them if they had stayed on the right path, the path God marked out for them when he made a covenant with them, if they had followed his commands, they would have been blessed by good fortune, many descendants, and a rich land and nation that would never have been destroyed. It’s too late for them to turn back now, but maybe by seeing what caused their misfortune, they can turn back to God and let him heal them. Which is something God is always longing to do.

The second prophet we hear from today is St. John the Baptist, and we hear about him in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is telling the people of Israel – again! – that just about nothing could get their attention. When John the Baptist went around fasting and staying away from strong drink, the people thought he was weird and couldn’t relate to the kind of life he was calling them to lead. But when Jesus came along asking them to live that same life, and eating and drinking just as they did, they judged him harshly and wouldn’t follow him either. So they always had an excuse, it was never their fault, they wouldn’t dance for joyful songs on the flute or mourn for funeral songs. Basically, no matter who was calling them to reform their lives and no matter how they proclaimed that message, the people wanted to do what they wanted to do, and nothing was going to persuade them to change.

The third prophet we hear from today is St. John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today. St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar, a kind of monk who was vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience. He was called by God and by his friend, St. Teresa of Avila, to reform the Carmelite Order. The Carmelites had relaxed some of their rules over time, and had basically turned away from the life that had been envisioned when the Order started. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila founded a reformed Carmelite Order, and St. John suffered for it terribly. In those days, religious affairs were all tied up in the government of the nation, and so there was a lot of politics. People didn’t agree with St. John, so he was taken prisoner for over nine months. Even when he was released, his fellow friars who didn’t agree with him went around to all the monasteries making trouble for him. He was oppressed for his preaching of reform almost until the day he died.

Each of these prophets had been given a message by God. Isaiah and St. John the Baptist called the people of Israel to turn back to God. St. John of the Cross called his fellow Carmelites to turn back to the ideals on which their Order was founded. All of them suffered for their witness to the truth. Prophets don’t usually have an easy life. But if we will get past the politics and get over ourselves, we might hear from them a call that leads us back to God who will make us happier than we’ve ever been.

During Advent, we remember that Christ is always near to us, and we remember that we must always turn back to him and let him be born in our hearts once again, stronger than ever. And so during Advent, we hear from the great prophets like Isaiah, John the Baptist, and John of the Cross who are calling us to turn back to God and to prepare a way for Christ in our lives, in our hearts, and in our world.

Today in our Psalm we hear what God is trying to tell us through all these prophets:

Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

And we will be happy too, if we hear God’s call through the prophets and follw in his ways.

St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

Today’s readings | Today’s saint [ more]

saintlucyMany of our young people can tell you of the difficulties they face in trying to remain pure, especially before marriage. But we cannot think of that as simply one more of our modern problems, because it has been a problem for a long time now. St. Lucy could tell you that. She was born of noble parents in Sicily around the year 283. Her father died early in her life, and so she was dependent on her mother. She consecrated her virginity to God and sought to renounce worldly possessions in favor of caring for the poor. Her mother, after suffering from a hemorrhage for several years, decided to make a pilgrimage to Catania, to see the relics of St. Agatha. She was indeed cured, and in her joy consented to Lucy’s desire to give greatly to the poor.

But that generosity, probably mixed with frustration over her commitment to virginity before marriage, was viewed with great skepticism by her unworthy suitor, who denounced her as a Christian to the Governor of Sicily. She was condemned to a life of prostitution, but prayer rendered her immovable and she could not be dragged off to the house of ill repute! At that point, logs were piled around her and a fire was set, which had no effect on her at all. She was finally dispatched with a sword and suffered martyrdom for her belief in Christ.

As one of the prominent figures of Advent, St. Lucy, along with John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading, points the way to the coming Christ. The details of her story have been disputed, but the point of the story is not to provide a historical record, but rather a spiritual record. Her commitment to Christ, and her desire to make the pathway straight, as did John the Baptist, provided a rich and unobstructed pathway for the entrance of Christ into her heart.

We too have challenges along the way to Christ. We might not be called to give our lives rather than forsake our virginity or even our belief in Christ, but we are called to lay down our lives to cover the rough places in the road so that others can come to find Him. Along the way, we are encouraged by great saints like Agatha, Lucy and John the Baptist. Every single one of them points us in the right direction: to Christ the One of whom Isaiah speaks: Christ who will be our redeemer. “But you shall rejoice in the LORD,” Isaiah tells us, “and glory in the Holy One of Israel.”

Advent Penance Service

Readings: Romans 7:14-25; John 1: 35-39

pic advent reflection

St. Paul's instruction from his letter to the Romans this evening can seem a little confusing, I think. But the point that he is making is one that I think every Christian disciple can resonate with, at least a little. He says that he intends to do what is good, that he really wants to do what is good, that he knows doing what is good will give him ultimate happiness. But unfortunately, through the weakness of his humanity, that's not what happens. He doesn't do what is good, instead, he does wrong, he does what he hates, and this makes him frustrated and ultimately unhappy. This happens to disciples. Just because you know what to do doesn't mean that's what you'll end up doing. We are weak, sometimes doing what is right is just too hard, too exhausting, too inaccessible. We find ourselves struggling with the same sins over and over again, and it seems that we are just hopeless. I hope that you find that's the case for you, because I sure know I've been there often enough!

The ultimate question is the question Jesus asks the two followers of John the Baptist in this evening's Gospel: "What are you looking for?" St. Paul would say he was looking for the good. Maybe we might say we are looking for a peaceful life, or success, or whatever we think is good. But often enough, we settle for far less than the incredible good that God intends for us. We settle for having this or that trinket, or a promotion that takes us away from our families a few more hours every week, or a relationship that is not supportive of our relationship with Christ. We intend the good, but we settle for what we hate. When we do that, we diminish our capacity to receive the wonderful gifts God wants to give us. St. Augustine says, "Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?"

Pope Benedict uses that quote in his latest encyclical, Spe Salvi. He explains what St. Augustine means: "The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined" (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 33). And what we are destined for is God himself, because God made us for himself. There is nothing in this world that will fill us up the way God will. And every time we settle for something that is less than God, we diminish our capacity for God that much more, and are that much more unhappy. We must, as His Holiness reminds us, purify our hearts of every evil, everything that takes us away from God. That's not an easy thing to do and it absolutely cannot be accomplished apart from a prayerful relationship with God himself.

And so we come before God tonight to ask for what is truly good. We ask for forgiveness and the grace to desire what is truly good. Pope Benedict says, "We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment-that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them (Spe Salvi, 33)."

And maybe that's the grace we'll receive tonight. Maybe we will stand before God and confess that there are times we've settled for a whole lot less than what he longs to give us. Maybe this Christmas we will have cleared away enough of the vinegar that Christ can be born in our hearts in a way that has not happened for a long time now. Maybe we will find that our desiring isn't a bad thing, and that we can fill up that desiring with the One who longs to satisfy our every longing.

We will still struggle with our desires, and the temptation to fill those desires poorly. It's the practice of prayer and the constant work of penance that can ultimately give us some victory over them. Because ultimately, the victory cannot be through anyone other than Christ. St. Paul recognizes that at the end of this evening's first reading. "Who will deliver me from this mortal body?" he asks. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Jesus is our hope, he is the hope of reconciliation with God, he is the One through whom we will be filled up with what is good and what will make us ultimately happy.

One of my favorite Advent carols is "O Come, Divine Messiah." It reminds us that there will come a day when Christ will bring hope to its completion:

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel we find out that Jesus is not above asking a trick question or two to get people’s attention. He asks today, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” And any shepherd worth his salt would say, “Of course not!” There is no way the shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep unprotected to look for one who was lost. It wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Jesus is saying that God would do what no one else would even think of in order to bring back one of his children gone astray. There is no limit to God’s extravagance in reaching out to get us back. God’s wisdom in calling his children back to him is far beyond what we would think of as common sense. God does what nobody would do because we are just that important to him.

I can think of a couple of times in my own life where God has reached out to me in extraordinary ways. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be standing here today, and honestly, who knows where I would be. God pursues us relentlessly because he cannot bear to live without us for all eternity.

All we have to do is respond. And we have those opportunities. One is our Advent Reconciliation service, tonight at 7:00pm. We all have need to come to the Sacrament of Penance so that our God can reach out to us in mercy. The Sacrament is not about what we’ve done wrong, but rather about the way that God wants to pour out his forgiveness and grace with extravagance. Maybe we haven’t been like the lost sheep and gone totally away from God, but we know on a daily basis, we often take a step or two off the path. I hope you’ll all let the shepherd who is our God bring you back tonight. This is a great way for us to create a highway for our God to enter our hearts this Christmas.

Isaiah proclaims today, “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” Praise God today for his extravagant grace.

Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

advent2Lately for me, things just haven’t been right. Maybe you know what that’s like. For me, it’s been several things. On Monday morning a couple of weeks ago, we came into church to find my office and Fr. Ted’s office flooded, along with the welcome center and other parts of the building nearby. Since then, I haven’t been able to work in my office because I’m allergic to mold. So I’ve been working in my room at the rectory, which is fine until I need something from my office that is currently in more disarray than it usually is. I’ve felt somewhat like an itinerant worker with no place to call his own. But I have hope that it will all fall into place later this week when new carpeting is installed and I can breathe in my office again.

And one day a little over a week ago, I was checking my bank account online, only to find that some fictitious person made a large ATM withdrawal at a branch in Arlington Heights that I had never been to, let alone on the day in question. I had to spend a couple of hours on hold to get that sorted out, and the offending transaction was only credited this past Friday, and only then after another hour on hold and many prayers for patience. We’ve all had times like that when things just aren’t right.

But at some point in our lives we find that even this kind of thing is merely a drop in the bucket. At what point did you figure out a lot of things in this world just weren’t right? We could cite many examples: rising violence in our communities, declining respect for authority, terrorism, fear and war, poverty, hunger and homelessness, corruption in politics on every conceivable level, the proliferation of consumerism, greed, and overconsumption, pollution of the environment, and more. All it takes is a few minutes’ worth of the evening news to let us know that somewhere at the core, fundamentally, our world just isn’t right.

God knows it isn’t right. And he’s known for a long time. The whole Old Testament is filled with God’s lament of how things went wrong, and his attempts to bring it back. The fourth Eucharistic Prayer sums it up by saying to God, “Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and through the prophets taught him to hope for salvation.” But, as we well know from our studies of the Scriptures and its proclamation in the Liturgy, again and again humankind turned away from the covenant and away from the God of our salvation. Ever since the fall, things just haven’t been right.

That could certainly get depressing, and maybe it is a little depressing as we come to the end of the calendar year, here at the beginning of our Church year. What enthusiasm could we possible have to begin a new year when things haven’t been right and somehow seem to be getting worse? Well, St. Paul gives us the answer in today’s second reading from his letter to the Romans. Listen to his words again: “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

What does he mean by endurance? Pope Benedict sheds some light on that in his current encyclical, Spe Salvi: “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action. This is so first of all in the sense that we thereby strive to realize our lesser and greater hopes, to complete this or that task which is important for our onward journey, or we work towards a brighter and more humane world so as to open doors into the future” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 35). The endurance of which St. Paul speaks today is the endurance that keeps us moving on the journey to find a better life for ourselves in the short term, and a better life for our world in the long term. Every effort of ours can sanctify our world by making the work of God real in our lives and in our world. In a word, we are a people of hope who bring the hope of God’s life to birth through our acts of peace and justice and striving for the greater good of all creation.

But I think we have to confess that it would be very easy to give up on that kind of thing. Certainly at times it seems like our paltry efforts are a mere drop in the great bucket that is the neediness of our world. Maybe it seems like we dig just a little of the debris away, only to have the cave collapse around us. What good is our striving for peace and justice an the greater good in the face of the corruption, evil and sinfulness of our society? What can just one person do anyway? This is a natural, understandable sentiment to which His Holiness responds: “Only the great certitude of hope that my own life, and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere” (Spe Salvi, 35).

Quite frankly, the hope that we Christians have has to be a defiant hope, a hope that is as in-your-face as the one voice of John the Baptist crying out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. I mean, how ludicrous was that? But John knew his call and clung to the hope of that call despite the fact that it was just him, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. The defiant hope to which we are called is a hope that is in action for justice no matter what, even if it’s just little old me against all that injustice, because ultimately it’s not just us who are at work anyway.

This active, defiant hope to which we are called is summed up by Pope Benedict. He ways: “We can open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good… We can free our life and the world from the poisons and contaminations that could destroy the present and the future. We can uncover the sources of creation and keep them unsullied, and in this way we can make a right use of creation, which comes to us as a gift, according to its intrinsic requirements and ultimate purpose. This makes sense even if outwardly we achieve nothing or seem powerless in the face of overwhelming hostile forces. So on the one hand, our actions engender hope for us and for others; but at the same time, it is the great hope based upon God’s promises that gives us courage and directs our action in good times and bad” (Spe Salvi, 35, emphasis mine).

I love the song, “On That Holy Mountain” that we sometimes sing here at St. Raphael’s. Today’s first reading reminded me of some of its lyrics:

The poor shall receive from the rich on that holy mountain.
The sick and the lame shall be healed on that holy mountain.
The wicked shall be slain by God’s breath on that holy mountain, on that holy mountain, on that holy mountain of the Lord.

No harm or ruin on that holy mountain.
That sacred day shall be filled with knowledge.
There shall be peace led by all the children on that holy mountain, on that holy mountain, on that holy mountain of the Lord.
(“On That Holy Mountain,” Joe Mattingly)

Sometimes the world and our lives can seem quite seriously wrong. But we Christians have the defiant hope that one day, all things will be made right – that peace and justice will be achieved once and for all – on that holy mountain of the Lord.

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