First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

“To you, my God, I lift my soul,
I trust in you; let me never come to shame.
Do not let my enemies laugh at me.
No one who waits for you is ever put to shame.”

With these words of the proper entrance antiphon today, the Church begins the new Church year.  We stand here on the precipice of something new, a new creation, lifting up souls full of hope and expectation.  We come to this place and time of worship to take refuge from the laughing enemies that pursue us into our corner of the world.  And yet we wait for God on this first day of the year, keenly aware that our waiting will not be unrewarded.  This is Advent, the season whose name means “coming” and stands before us as a metaphor of hope for a darkened world, and a people darkened by sin.

I sure think Isaiah had it right in today’s first reading, didn’t he?  “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,” he cries, “and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”  What a wonderful question for all of us – it’s a question that anyone who has struggled with a pattern of sin has inevitably asked the Lord at one time or another.  He goes on to pray “Would that you might meet us doing right, and that we were mindful of you in our ways!”  Almost as if to say, “Yeah, that’ll happen!”

Whether it’s our own personal sin, which is certainly cause enough for sadness, or the sin in which we participate as a society, there’s a lot of darkness out there.  Wars raging all over the world, abortions happening every day of the year, the poor going unfed and dying of starvation here and abroad.  Why does God let all of this happen?

On Thanksgiving, one of the topics of conversation at the dinner table was who was going to get up at what unheard of hour to go shopping on Black Friday.  I had absolutely no desire to join thousands of my closest friends at the crack of dawn to participate in a frenzy of consumerism.  But many did (and don’t worry; I won’t take a show of hands!).  But it seems like this traditional shopping day gets worse all the time.  This year, the news spoke of a Wal-Mart employee in New York who was trampled to death by people trying to get into the store.  A gunfight broke out at a Toys R Us in southern California and two people were killed.  What kind of people have we become?  Is this the way we should be preparing for Christmas – the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord?  Why does God let us wander so far from his ways?  Why doesn’t he just rend the heavens and come down and put a stop to all this nonsense?  It’s no wonder the Psalmist sings today, “Lord, make us turn to you; show us your face and we shall be saved.”

There is only one answer to this quandary, and that’s what we celebrate in this season of anticipation.  There has only ever been one answer.  And that answer wasn’t just a band-aid God came up with on the fly because things had gone so far wrong.  Salvation never was an afterthought.  Jesus Christ’s coming into the world was always the plan.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite Advent hymns this week.  One of my favorites is “O Come, Divine Messiah,” a seventeenth-century French carol translated into English in the late nineteenth century.  It sings of a world in silent anticipation for the breaking of the bondage of sin that could only come in one possible way, and that is in the person of Jesus Christ:

O Christ, whom nations sigh for,
Whom priest and prophet long foretold,
Come break the captive fetters;
Redeem the long-lost fold.

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.

As we prepare to remember the first coming of our Savior into our world, we look forward with hope and eagerness for his second coming too.  You’ll be able to hear that expressed in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer today.  That second coming, for which we live in breathless anticipation, will finally break the captive fetters and put an end to sin and death forever.  That is our only hope, our only salvation, really the only hope and salvation that we could ever possibly need.

We want our God to meet us doing right.  And so our task now is to wait, and to watch.  Waiting requires patience: patience to enjoy the little God-moments that become incarnate to us in the everyday-ness of our lives.  Patience to accept this sinful world as it is and not as we would have it, patience to know that, as Isaiah says, we are clay and God is the potter, and he’s not done creating, or re-creating the world just yet.  And so we watch for signs of God’s goodness, for opportunities to grow in grace, for faith lived by people who are the work of God’s hands.

We wait and we watch knowing – convinced – that God will rend the heavens and come down to us again; that Christ will return in all his glory and gather us back to himself, perfecting us and allowing hope to sing its triumph at the top of our lungs, dispelling the night and putting sadness to flight once and for all.

“To you, my God, I lift my soul,
I trust in you; let me never come to shame.
Do not let my enemies laugh at me.
No one who waits for you is ever put to shame.”

Saturday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our readings have been reminding us that the night is far spent and the day is drawing near.  We are called upon today to remain vigilant so that we do not miss the second coming of the Lord.  And it is well that we receive that warning today, on the cusp as we are of the new Church year.  This is the last day of the Church year and tomorrow, well even tonight, we will begin the year of grace 2009 with the season of Advent.  The day draws ever nearer for us.

As the day draws nearer, we will need less and less of the light that has been given to us in this world.  The first reading says, “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever.”  St. Augustine says of that great day: “When, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ comes and, as the apostle Paul says, brings to light things hidden in darkness and makes plain the secrets of the heart, so that everyone may receive his commendation from God, then lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.
When all these things are removed as no longer necessary for our illumination, and when the men of God by whom they were ministered to us shall themselves together with us behold the true and dear light without such aids, what shall we see? With what shall our minds be nourished? What will give joy to our gaze? Where will that gladness come from, which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, which has not even been conceived by the heart of man?” (Tract. 35, 8-9)

And of course, the answer to that, is we shall get our light looking on the face of Christ himself.  As Advent approaches, we pray earnestly for that day: Come quickly Lord, and do not delay!

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You have to wonder what Jesus meant when he said, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  Certainly the then-current generation had come and gone, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve come to the end of the world.  But the Church would pose two very important questions about the coming and going of that generation.

First, what constitutes that generation?  Did Jesus mean just the people that were alive at that time?  We tend to think not.  All of us who believe in Jesus are the members of his generation.  Jesus came to create the world anew, and we are all creatures of that wonderful new creation.  We will all live, in some way, to see the end of days, either here on earth, or from the joy of heaven.

Secondly, what was it that generation was supposed to see?  They were to see the signs of a new creation.  Just like the first buds of the fig tree and other trees that Jesus spoke about, all of which signaled the beginning of summer, so the signs of the new creation are evident among us.  Sins are forgiven, people return to God, miracles happen.  Granted, all these are imperfect in some ways now, given that they happen to us fallen creatures, but one day they shall be brought to perfection in the kingdom of God.  Then, we will see “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

Tuesday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I really don’t like that over-used phrase “at the end of the day.”  You hear it all the time, and it’s one of my top-five least favorite corporate-speak phrases.  But I can’t help but think about this tired old phrase when I read the Scriptures for the Liturgy in these last days of the Church year.  Because the Liturgy is calling our attention to the fact that the end of the year is near, and asking us to reflect on our experience in the year gone by.  Have we been changed?  Are we responding to the Gospel?  Is our relationship with God any different?

God is always ready for the harvest, with the sickle at the ready.  But our Scriptures today take care to point out that we must not be overly-anxious to jump the gun.  We may hear of Nostradamus prophecies, or revelations from some very obscure mystic that lead us to fear the end is upon us.  Lots of people will read the newspaper with dark glasses to misinterpret all of the things that are happening in the world.  But God wants us to know that he is still at work, redeeming the lost, calling those who have strayed, binding up those who are broken.  So much has to happen before the end of days, so many still need to be redeemed.

But at the end of the day, are we any different?  Have we been changed?  Are we responding to the Gospel?  Is our relationship with God any different?  If not, we have a new opportunity next week as we being a new Church year.  We can allow Christ to be the ruler of our lives.  We can be intimately connected with God through prayer and acts of peace and justice.  Seeking the Lord, we need not fear the great winepress of God’s fury.  We can instead cling anew to our Lord who, as the Psalmist says, “shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Today’s readings

You know, it’s always hard to proclaim this Gospel because I have to try to avoid looking to my left and right in order not to give the impression that this is the last judgment! But seriously, although I’ve heard this Gospel so many times, one thing has kind of leapt out at me this week as I’ve been thinking and praying about it. One detail I always have missed was that this was a judgment of the nations – it says, “all the nations will be assembled before him.”

This idea that we’ll all be judged together is a pretty consistent one in Catholic theology. The Church always teaches that we come to salvation together, or not at all. That’s why it’s important that we spread the Gospel. That’s why it’s important that we live the teachings of Christ. That’s why it’s important that we drag our children in to Mass every week, or that we invite the neighbor or friend from work to join us at the Eucharist. Our Salvation depends rather heavily on the salvation of everyone else, and that’s not just the Church’s job, that’s everyone’s job. The world has to see why salvation is important, and if that’s going to happen it’s going to happen by all of us living lives of integrity and joy and faith not just here in Church, but also in our jobs, schools and communities. Everyone has to see the gift that salvation is.

So the real significance of giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, care to the stranger and all the rest is that their salvation, and ours too, depends on it. So on this last Sunday of the Church year, we have to look back and see how well we’ve done this. Have we been good witnesses of the Gospel? Have we lived it? We want to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, and we have to take as many people with us as we can.

The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings: Zechariah 2:14-17; Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 12:46-50

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I almost don’t like it when we read this particular Gospel reading, because I think it’s out of context enough that we could get the wrong idea about the relationship between Jesus and Mary.  It almost seems as if Jesus doesn’t care about his mother, and his brothers – whoever they were – that’s a can of worms I don’t care to open this morning!  I just know that if I treated my mother and my family like that, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be too good.

But our gut – or rather our faith – tells us that Jesus and Mary had a relationship that transcended that kind of thing.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about Mary, it’s just that he knew he really didn’t have to worry about her.  She could take care of things herself, and when she couldn’t, well he’d commission John to take care of her at the foot of the cross.

And that relationship in which Jesus instinctively knew that his mother was okay and he needed to attend more to the people he ministered to is the reason we celebrate Mary’s presentation today.   As with Mary’s birth, we don’t really know anything official about Mary’s presentation in the temple. An unhistorical account tells us that Anna and Joachim offered Mary to God in the Temple when she was three years old. This was to carry out a promise made to God when Anna was still childless.

Though it cannot be proven historically, Mary’s presentation has an important theological purpose. It continues the impact of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the birth of Mary. It emphasizes that the holiness conferred on Mary from the beginning of her life on earth continued through her early childhood and beyond.  We celebrate Mary, full of grace from the moment of her conception and all throughout her life.

We pray the words of Mary in the Responsorial Psalm today: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”  Mary was always aware of the amazing grace that sustained her throughout her own very difficult life-long mission.  We are graced like that too, and we celebrate that grace with Mary today.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

Thursday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our worshipping in these last days of the Church year is often difficult, I think.  And you know why, don’t you?  These readings are just hard to hear.  The readings from Revelation this week have been confusing, to say the least, and maybe even a little frightening.  And if we could ignore the fright of the Revelation, well the Gospel is a bit more violent this morning than we’d like to experience at 8:30 in the morning, I think.

But there is a spiritual principle at work here.  We are being called to mindfulness.  If during this liturgical year we’ve been a little lax, or even have become complacent, these readings are calling us to wake up lest we miss what God is doing.  God is bringing the whole world to its fulfillment, and we are called to be witnesses of it.  We cannot be like those who missed the time of their visitation.  We have been given the wonderful gift of Christ’s presence in our lives all year long, and we are asked to look back at where that wonderful gift has taken us.

And if we haven’t come as far as we should, then we are called to wake up and realize what’s slipping away from us.  We cannot be left out of the kingdom, all our hopes smashed to the ground, all because we didn’t recognize that our greatest hope was right in front of us all the time.  We know the time is running short.  The days are shorter, and night approaches more quickly than we’d like.  The leaves have gone from the trees.  The nip in the air has turned to cold and even frost; we’ve even had some snowflakes.  These are the physical manifestations of creation groaning to come to its fulfillment.

If the coming winter leaves us empty and aching for warmth, then these final days of the Church year might find us also aching for the warmth of the kingdom, that kingdom we were created to live in all our days.  Let us not be like Jerusalem; we cannot miss the time of our visitation!

Tuesday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You have to love this story of Zacchaeus, I think.  I think there are two main components of the story that really stand out for me as hallmarks of the spiritual life.

The first is Zacchaeus’s openness.  First, he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs up a tree to get a look at him.  We don’t have to go that far.  All we have to do is spend some time in the Eucharistic Chapel, or even just some quiet moments reflecting on Scripture.  All of those are ways to see Jesus, but like Zacchaeus, we have to overcome obstacles to get a look at him.  For Zacchaeus, that meant climbing up a tree to overcome the fact that he was apparently vertically challenged!  But for you and me, that might mean clearing our schedule, making our time with Jesus a priority.  Zacchaeus’s openness also included inviting Jesus in, despite his sinfulness.  He was willing to make up for his sin and change everything once he found the Lord.  We might ask ourselves today what we need to change, and how willing we are to invite Jesus into our lives, despite our brokenness.

The second thing that stands out for me is what Jesus says to those who chided him for going into a sinner’s house.  “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”  What wonderful words those are for us to hear.  Because we know how lost we have been at times, and how far we have wandered from our Lord.  But the Lord seeks us out anyway, because we are too valuable for him to lose.

And all we have to do is to be open to the Lord’s work in our lives, just like Zacchaeus was.  What a joy it will be then to hear those same words Jesus said to him:  “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The rather obvious and certainly oft-repeated application of today’s Gospel reading lies in the very literal interpretation of the word “talent.”  So we have been given many talents, and it’s up to us to use them wisely for the benefit of the kingdom of God.  Woe to the one who ignores his gifts and buries them out of fear.  And that’s a wonderful message.  I could go there.  But it’s wrong – that’s not what Jesus meant, and I think we have to dig just a little bit deeper.

The word we have translated “talent” here does not mean what we think it means.  When our English ears hear that word, we think gifts, we think of abilities, of things we can do.  But that’s not what it means in the original Greek.  “Talent” here does not mean gifts, a talent was a unit of money.  It was actually rather a large sum of money, equal to something like one thousand days’ wages.  So think about it, even the man who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

The next thing we have to look at is who it was that was receiving such a large sum of cash.  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

If we think of the master as God, and accept the talents simply as money, I think God comes off sounding rather harsh.  The poor servants differed in their ability; that’s pointed out in the story and certainly the master would have known that.  So why would God be so horribly harsh when a simple slave with limited giftedness does nothing with his gifts?  It makes us bristle, I think, to imagine God treating someone like that so poorly.  And maybe that’s as it should be.  Because I think our bristling tells us that we still have to dig deeper into this very interesting parable.

So I think this raises a few questions for us.  Who is the master?  What do the talents represent?  Why would the master entrust such a large sum of money to common slaves?  Who are the slaves?  And what on earth was that third slave thinking when he buried such a wonderful gift in the sand?

Well, first off, I do think the master is God here – God the Father.  Now the talents, they’re not abilities or gifts, and they aren’t simply money.  And I think it’s our first reading that gives us a clue as to what’s really at stake here.  That first reading speaks of the worthy wife whose value is far beyond that of fine pearls.  So this first reading is teaching us to value not someTHING, but someONE.  What, or rather who, could be that valuable?  And I think the answer here is that it’s Christ himself.  Those talents represent Christ, the Gospel he proclaimed, and the Kingdom he came to make manifest.  The Gospel says the Master called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  What we have translated “entrusted” here means, in the original Greek, something more like “handed over.”  In just the same way, God the Father “handed over” his only Son to us, for the salvation of the whole world.  What could possibly be worth more than that?

Now the slaves of course are the disciples, they’re you and me, people of every time and place who Christ has come to save.  We are slaves to sin, and we need a redeemer.  Some are more open to redemption and to the work of Christ and the call of the Gospel.  They might get five talents or ten, or maybe even a million – the riches of Christ can never be exhausted!  These go forth into the world, pouring out those riches of Christ into a world that desperately needs salvation, healing and hope.  As that message goes forth, proclaimed and lived by disciples ready to embrace it, they are able to earn five more, or ten more, or even a million for the kingdom.

But some are not as open to Christ’s life and work and Gospel.  There’s too much at stake.  They worry about what might happen if our world totally embraced Jesus’ teaching.  They can’t get past what discipleship might personally cost them.  They are represented, of course, by Judas, the apostle who was so overwhelmed by Jesus that he gave in to despair.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the cardinal sin, because in at least a dozen places, Jesus says “do not be afraid” in one form or another.  That was Jesus’ message in Matthew’s Gospel, and so this third servant, who was afraid of what the Master might be like, buried his treasure out of fear.  And the parable points out that that fear wasn’t even reasonable, since he dealt so wonderfully with the other two servants, rewarding their work by calling them to share in his joy.

So today’s Gospel is a summary of the whole Gospel of Matthew that we’ve been reading with the Church this year.  We are told that the greatest gift is Christ, that we are called to live the Gospel, that we must take up the task before us without being afraid, that we are called to go out and invest Christ’s presence into a world that always needs to be renewed.  As we come here on this second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, we are brought to a summary of all that in order that we might look back and see how we’ve done that this year.  Have we treasured Christ as the greatest of all that we have been given?  Have we taken on the mission without being afraid, knowing that the gift we have been given in Christ can make up for anything that we ourselves may lack?  Have we accepted that wonderful gift and invested it in the world, proclaiming the Gospel by the way that we live, challenging the corner of the world we live in to take it up also, so that we might bring back another five or ten or a million talents?

Or have we been afraid, thinking that the Master is demanding beyond reason, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of what living the Gospel would mean for us, afraid of what it might cost us?  Because if we have lived this way, we have failed the mission.  Everything we have will be taken from us.  There will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Here at the end of this Church year, we can renew our commitment, make a new year’s resolution, if you will, to live the Gospel and proclaim the kingdom in the year ahead.  It doesn’t have to be huge.  It doesn’t cost us anything, because everything that we need has been given to us.  Maybe proclaiming the Gospel means doing some kind of service for us.  Reaching out at a homeless shelter like Hesed House or at a soup kitchen or Loaves and Fishes.  Maybe it means leading a small Christian Community so others will hear the Gospel.  Maybe we’ll help teach a religious education class, or sing in the choir, or become a lector.  Maybe we’ll make an effort every day to put prayer in the course of our work day, and try to be people of integrity in our business lives.  On this Donor Sabbath Sunday, maybe we’ll register for organ donation so that lives will be saved even after we’ve gone home to our reward.  Maybe we’ll read the Scriptures each day before we go to bed, even just a few verses, so that the Lord can change our lives and hearts.  Throughout this Church year, we have received the greatest gift we’ll ever get – Jesus Christ the Lord himself.  Now it is up to us to bring back the gift with interest, taking a world of watching people with us. The Psalmist sings of our reward today: “For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.”  Come, share your Master’s joy!

Saturday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, this Gospel reading is filled with all sorts of off-putting comments, isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but I bristle at the thought of comparing God to a dishonest judge!  But that’s not the point here.  Of course, Jesus means that God is so much greater than the dishonest judge, that if the dishonest judge will finally relent to someone pestering him, how much more will God, who love us beyond anything we can imagine, how much more will he grant the needs of this children who come to him in faith?

But people have trouble with this very issue all the time.  Because I am sure that almost all of us have been in the situation where we have prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing seems to happen.  But we can never know the reason for God’s delay.  Maybe what we ask isn’t right for us right now.  Maybe something better is going to come our way at some time.  Maybe the right answer will position itself in time, through the grace of God at work in so many situations.  Maybe we just don’t have the big picture.

But whatever the reason, the last line of the Gospel today is our key: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Our faith is what leads us to continue the prayer until it is finally answered.  Maybe the situation will come to a peaceful resolution, or maybe it is we who will be changed.  But if we approach it all in faith, then we know we have to approach it all with the long haul in mind, because our faith tells us that God answers in God’s time and in God’s way.

A delay could either bring us closer to God as we continue to pray in faith, or it can fracture our relationship with God when we give in to despair.  But let that not be so for us.  When the Son of Man comes, may he find us faithful ones busy in prayer.