Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

What did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Or are you at that stage of life where gifts are nice, but you really don’t need anything special?  A lot of my family has come to that point, except, of course, for my nieces and nephew.  But it’s hard to find a special gift for the rest of us, because we’re at that point where the gifts aren’t so important as it is to be together at Christmas and enjoy one another.

Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get a Nintendo Wii game, or whatever the coveted gift of the year may be, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us ultimately happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

St. John tells us quite clearly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Because what we have is so much better than anything the world can give.  The real gift this Christmas, and really every day, is the gift of eternal life.  And we have that gift because Jesus came to earth and chose to be one with us in our human nature.  That’s why the angels sang that night, and why we sing his praise every day of our lives.

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

It’s certainly appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, just a few days after Christmas.  This feast helps to underscore that Jesus came to live among us in a very ordinary way: by taking flesh and becoming one of us, even to being part of a family.  So we look on the manger scenes that still are on display here in church and in our homes, and we see Jesus, Mary and Joseph beginning their lives together.  We  still sing Christmas carols that extol the peace of his coming, we can even come to this church to look at the beautiful statue of the Holy Family.

Our thoughts about that beautiful family might run along the lines of “how nice for them!”  I’m aware that some families who are here today may have just managed to get here on time, or a little after.  Maybe there was the constant argument with the kids about why they have to go to church.  Or maybe someone wasn’t quite ready on time.  It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the Wii they just got for Christmas.  And so, as they hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from their minds.

So it can be hard to relate, I think, to the Holy Family in some ways.  Maybe you’re thinking, “How do I get one of those?” There are all sorts of families out there: families broken by divorce or separation, families marked by emotional or physical abuse, families fractured by living a great distance apart, families grieving the loss of loved ones or agonizing over the illness of one of the members, families of great means and those touched by poverty, homelessness and hunger, families divided by immigration issues, families torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts. Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but are unable.  There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in their history.

Even the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate today, was marked with challenges. An unexpected – and almost inexplicable – pregnancy marked the days before the couple was officially wed; news of the child’s birth touched chords of jealousy and hatred in the hearts of the nation’s leaders and caused the young family to have to flee for their lives and safety. Even this Holy Family was saddened, in some ways, by an extremely rocky beginning.

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing. We know this. God knows this. Yet it was into this flawed structure that the God of all the earth chose to come into our world. Taking our flesh and joining a human family, Christ came to be Emmanuel, God with us, and sanctify the whole world by his most merciful coming.

St. Paul exhorts us all to be marked by holiness, part of the family of God. We do this, he tells us, by showing one another “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” Living in a family, living the Christian life, requires sacrifice. Some days we don’t feel very compassionate, but we are still called to be that way. We might not feel like showing someone kindness, or patience, or being humble. But that’s what disciples do. But the real sticking point is that whole forgiveness thing. Because all of us are going to fail in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience at one time or another. So just as the Lord has forgiven us, so many times and of so many things, so must we forgive one another. We live our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this.

Our Gospel reading gives us some direction and some hope today.  Jesus is brought to the temple as the Jewish tradition held.  An offering is made on his behalf by his parents and they have come to receive a blessing.  The blessing went deeper than they may have imagined, perhaps, but even this was probably not much of a surprise to them at this point.  Here both Simeon and Anna, who have been waiting for this very day all their lives, who have looked faithfully for God’s answer to the problem of sin, have their hopes and dreams fulfilled.  Simeon blesses the three of them and prophesies to Mary that all their days will not be without sadness.  And we all know how the story works out: Simeon was absolutely right about that.  But how disconcerting that must have been to Mary and Joseph who had come with joy to the Temple for this occasion.

Like I said, this Gospel gives us hope and direction.  Hope by knowing that even this Holy Family had times of sadness in store.  Direction in the faithfulness they have shown one another.  The Gospel ends by saying that they returned to their town and lived their lives, and “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.”

Because I think what we’re supposed to be seeing in the Holy Family today is not some kind of idyllic perfection.  Certainly they attained more perfection than any of us could ever possibly hope for in this life, but that’s not what we’re supposed to be focusing on.  What I think is worth focusing on is that, even though they knew there would be hard times ahead for them, they faithfully lived their lives through it all.  They continued to be a family, Jesus continued to grow and become strong in his human nature, and to be filled with wisdom and the favor of God.  And that, for us, is something worth striving for.  Being perfect might seem impossible, but being faithful is possible and it leads us to holiness.

For Jesus, Mary and Joseph, their faithfulness helped them to absorb the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy and the dangers of oppression from the government, and still shed light on the whole world.  For us, faithfulness can help us to get through whatever rough spots life may have in store for us and not break apart.

I am aware, however, that as I speak about faithfulness, that it all can still seem insurmountable. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please you have your Church family to support you with prayer and love as you do it.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we will be quite far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Simeon and Anna were quite clear that sorrow lay in store for them.  But they continued to live their lives, aided by the Spirit of God, and they all grew strong in wisdom and grace.  Those same blessings are intended for us to, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit in our own human families, no matter what those families may look like.

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

“He saw and believed.” The “other” disciple, often called the “beloved” disciple or the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” is St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, the one we celebrate today. St. John had a very special relationship with Christ. He wasn’t as zealous and boisterous as Peter could be, but he had a faith as strong as Peter’s in his own way. His was a faith that observed and processed and believed. His was a faith that grew quietly, as he made connections between what Jesus prophesied and what came to pass. It’s no wonder that when he stood at the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

In John’s writings, the theme of love is almost overwhelming. We hear that in today’s first reading, from John’s first letter. That love is bound up in the whole theme of fleshly existence. John proclaims that because God loved the world so much, he could not bear to be apart from us or aloof from our nature. Instead, he took on our fleshly existence, this body that can so often fail us, can so often turn to sin and degradation, can so often lead us in the wrong direction. Taking on that flawed human flesh, God proclaims once and for all that we have been created good, that we have been created in love, and that nothing can ever stand in the way of the love God has for us.

John’s preaching of love and the goodness of our created bodies is a preaching that has a very special place in the celebration of Christmas. It was because of that love that God had for us, a love that encompasses our bodies and our souls, that he came to live among us and take flesh in our world. His most merciful coming was completely part of his loving plan for our salvation. That’s the message St. John brings us on his feast day today, and throughout this celebration of Christmas.

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

madonna_and_child-400You know, on paper, what we celebrate today is all clean and neat, and as the centuries have washed the story, it’s easy for us to swallow.  I think about Linus famously proclaiming the Christmas story in the well-loved Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon, and it all seems so harmless.  But we must never forget that the real Gift, the ultimate Gift, came to us in a not-so-neat package, in a way that was anything but clean and neat and easy-to-swallow.  The gift of our salvation came to us at a great cost, from the beginning to the end, and the real source of our rejoicing ought to be that God was willing to pay so dearly for our souls.

Many years ago now, I remember two of my friends bringing their newest child to a choir rehearsal.  Of course, we all just adored the little one, as friends do when they welcome a new child into the world.  But I’ll never forget when they introduced him to the priest at our parish.  He remarked about how cute the child was but said something along the lines of how difficult would be the world in which that child grew up, and he shuddered to think about all the hardships that the child would see and experience.  I remember thinking that was a rather pessimistic thing to say on such a wonderful occasion, but it stuck with me ever since.

Because I find myself thinking the same thing when I gaze on our manger scenes.  What kind of world would baby Jesus come to know?  What kind of sadness and grief and pain would he have to put up with?

The beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”  God wanted to save the world.  Because he made the world, he was particularly attached to it and to those who dwelt in the great garden he had created.  He created us in love and for love, so he greatly desired in his grand plan that we would all come back to him one day and live forever with him in the kingdom.  But he knew that, steeped in sin as our world can be, fallen and flawed, as we individually can be, that we would never think to turn to him on our own.  We were – and are – too caught up in things that are not God and that are not ultimately going to bring us happiness.  So he knew that the only thing that he could do was to enter our history once again.

And he could have done that in any way that he pleased – he’s God after all: all-powerful, all-knowing and present everywhere.  John’s Gospel, though, tells us a few verses later just exactly how God chose to enter our history: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  He chose not just to visit us, but instead to become one of us, taking upon himself all of our weaknesses, our pain, and our sorrows.  He was born a baby: the all-powerful One taking on the least powerful stage of our existence.  He was born to a poor family and announced to an unwed mother.  The one who created the riches of the world and who himself was clothed in the splendor of the Almighty turned aside from all of it so that he could become one with his people.  Had he chosen to come in any other form, he may have appealed to only some of us perhaps, but because he chose to take upon himself all that we must go through and then some, he is the way to salvation for all of us.

All of us who have messy lives sometimes can relate to the way Jesus came into our world.  We all want our lives to be orderly and easy and sensible.  But mostly, that doesn’t happen.  Life gets in the way.  And so to see Jesus come at a less-than-opportune moment, before Mary and Joseph were even officially wed, in the midst of a government census, born while his parents were travelling and could not find a place to stay – well, it’s just messy, isn’t it?  And it’s just like us.

The only way that the full brokenness of our human form could be redeemed was for Jesus to take on all of it when he came to save us.  That’s why his birth was so messy, why he had to be born in a manger with all the farm animals, that’s why he never had a place to lay his head in all his life.  What is amazing is that, as wretched as our earthly lives can be sometimes, God never considered himself above it all, never hesitated for a moment to take it on and fill it with grace.

And that’s the flip side of this whole interaction, you know.  God didn’t take on our form so that he could become less, he took on our form so that we could become more.  So, yes, God becomes one of us and takes on all of our infirmities and weaknesses.  But in doing that, we ourselves become more than we could ever be on our own.  Our lowliness is filled with grace, our sadness is filled with rejoicing.  That was always the plan God had for us.

So as we gaze upon and adore our Lord in the manger, maybe we can take some of the items in that beautiful snapshot and see what will come for him as he grows older.  We see the shepherds, lowly men despised often by society, the marginalized ones who are the first to receive the message.  We see the wise men, those who in the wisdom they have received from God, are ready to give everything to follow Christ.  We see the angels, the messengers who urge us to take a second look at an innocent child who might not otherwise attract our attention.  We see his father Joseph, who will teach him the law, as a good father would, and help him to grow in the ways of humanity, which he so completely assumed.  We see his mother, who nurtured him in childhood and followed him in adulthood, becoming the first of his disciples.  We see the wood of the manger, a foreshadowing of the wood of the Cross, which will be the means of our salvation.  And we see and adore Christ himself, the Way, the wonder-counselor, our father forever, and prince of peace.

When we look at that manger scene with eyes of faith, we become different, knowing that Jesus paid an incredible price to bring us back to him, not just on the Cross, but even at his birth.  The preface of the Eucharistic prayer which we will pray in a few moments makes this so clear: “In the wonder of the incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory.  In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

Human eyes can look at that manger and see with cynicism that he’s just like us, nothing special.  But eyes of faith look at the same event and see that he’s just like us in every way but sin, and that makes him incredibly special, worthy of adoration. Thanks be to God that the birth of Jesus wasn’t as neat and tidy as it looks sometimes on paper.  If his first coming into the world weren’t so messy, we might never know the joy of redemption and the true worth of our humanity.

So if our eyes of faith have helped us to see beyond an ordinary child and to recognize our Saving God, then this Christmas has to find us sharing that vision with others.  May Christmas find us open to the needs of others, willing to reconcile differences, looking for opportunities to be of service to others, eager to change our own little corner of the world for the better.  Human eyes see opportunities like that as nuisances or things for other people to do.  Eyes of faith see them as occasions of grace and blessing to both the receiver and the giver.  May this Christmas find us seeing all of our world with eyes of faith.

Speaking for myself and on behalf of our pastor, Fr. Ted, our deacons and all of our pastoral staff here at St. Raphael, I wish you a very blessed Christmas season.  We pray that you encounter Christ in every moment of the coming year, and that you and your families are filled with every grace and blessing.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O Emmanuel

Today’s readings

“Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.”  So says the psalmist today and all indications are that that psalmist is absolutely right!  Even the last-minute shoppers are starting to panic, there’s only one door left on the Advent calendar, and our Advent wreath is fully ablaze with all four candles lit.  But more than that, the psalmist is right about our redemption.  God has chosen to be near us, he has chosen to become flesh and dwell among us, he is Emmanuel, God with us.

That’s our “O Antiphon” for today – “O Emmanuel” – and we sing it in the very first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Israel may mourn in lowly exile, indeed we might all be mourning the incompleteness of our lives, or the pain we experience, or the sadness that this world can bring us.  But none of that is able to overcome the joy of our God, our Emmanuel, being one with us and leading us through the Cross to the Resurrection and eternal life.  The Son of God has indeed appeared and will appear again.

And so we rejoice at the nearness of our God, we rejoice that grace and peace have come to us, we rejoice that we are not what are sins may appear to make us, we rejoice that there is eternal life, that there is grace, and peace for all men and women of the earth.

In these last hours before Christmas, we need to all take a few minutes to stop all the preparations, to put aside the cookie-making and gift wrapping and all of the other preparations just for a while.  We need to make that quiet space within us so that Christ can be born in us again, so that we can be filled up with the love he wants us to share, so that the peace on earth we desire can be born within our hearts.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

Today’s readings

[Today’s homily was for the school children on their last day of school before Christmas break.  UPDATE: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to celebrate Mass with them because they had a snow day.  Rats.]

I can’t believe it but Christmas is only just six days away now!  I know everyone is so busy writing letters to Santa, being good so they don’t get on the “naughty” list, wrapping Christmas presents for their parents, and baking cookies for Fr. Pat!  But before we do all that, our Church asks us to take a minute and remember what it is that we’re about to celebrate.

And what we’re about to celebrate is pretty special.  God loved the world so very much that he sent his own Son to live among us and bring us closer to him, and to take upon himself the punishment for all our many sins.  God would rather die than live without us, and so he did.  But death doesn’t have any power over us because Jesus rose from the dead.  And all of this wonderful mystery begins in just six days, or at least that day a couple of thousand years ago.

And we know the story: An angel came to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to a son by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Because she was faithful, she said “yes” to God’s plan for her, and because she said “yes,” our world and our lives have been different – better, more hopeful – ever since!  Jesus grew to be a man who was both mighty in his power to save us, and a wise prophet who helped us to learn about God and his kingdom.

And this reminds us of the two stories we heard in our readings today.  Samson was a man who was mighty in the way that he led the people Israel.  Just like Jesus, he was blessed by God and led by the Holy Spirit.  His mother was visited by an angel, just like Mary, and his parents named him according to the way the angel instructed them.

John was a man who became a wise prophet and led the people to repentance so that they could recognize God and be open to the gift God was giving them in Jesus.  Just like Jesus, he was blessed by God and led by the Holy Spirit.  His father was visited by an angel, and he named the child in the way the angel instructed him.

Samson was a man of the Old Testament, and John the Baptist of the New Testament.  The fact that their stories are so similar to the stories about how Jesus was born tells us that God has been preparing his people all along to be saved.  He was getting them ready to recognize the way that Jesus was born among us.

And so, when we look on our mangers and see Jesus laying in there, we know that he came for a very specific reason.  God sent him to be one of us, because it is only by being one of us that God could really save us.  Jesus took on a body, just like all of us, and he experienced the same kinds of pain and sadness that we all experience from time to time.  He even went so far as to die, just like we all do at some point in our lives, so that he could know what it was to be just like us.  When we look at the wood of the manger, we know that one day, Jesus will die on the wood of the Cross.  When we celebrate Jesus’ birthday, we know that we will eventually remember his death and celebrate his Resurrection.

So today, we take a minute in all our busy Christmas preparations and shopping and wrapping and cookie making (I like chocolate, by the way…) – we take a minute and pause, and look at the baby Jesus, and know that by becoming one of us, everything was changed, everything was better.  We thank God for loving us so much that he became one of us and gave us a gift better than anything we could ever ask for, better than any of the brightly-wrapped gifts we will receive in six days, the gift of eternal life with God forever one day.

A little later, we’re going to bring Jesus out to the manger and bless our manger outside.  We’re going to sing the song “What Child is This?” which I think tells us everything we need to know about this special day that we call Christmas:

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent: O Adonai

Today’s readings

“Come, let us worship the Lord, for he is already close at hand.”

Each day from the seventeenth through the twenty-third of December, a verse is assigned to each day that we call the “O Antiphons.”  We hear the “O Antiphons” is the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Today’s verse is “O Adonai” or “O Sacred Lord.”  The verse for Evening Prayer or Vespers is “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.”

The fulfillment of that prophetic verse is, of course, Jesus Christ.  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.

In these later days of Advent, we find ourselves in heightened anticipation for the coming of our Savior.  We remember his incarnation, his coming into the world so long ago.  It changed everything in the world, and made possible the salvation of every person.  We look forward to his coming in glory, when he will take all of us home to be with him, and everything will be made right.  Only the great Lord of Might, O Adonai, Jesus Christ, could do that.  And so we pray: Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly, and do not delay!