The Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

Our Liturgy today gives us some appropriate readings for the last day of our calendar year.  We have the end and the beginning in the Scriptures, just as our minds and hearts are reflecting on the end and the beginning of our year.

In the reading from the first letter of Saint John, we are told that we know it is the last hour because of the appearance of the antichrists.  We don’t have to worry about who the antichrist is, because there are so many of them, those who have rejected the faith and live according to their own whims.  If Saint John saw many of them in his own day and age, we certainly can see plenty of them now, can’t we?  We live in a society that is, as Saint John says, “alien to the truth.”  We have to battle the antichrist element around us all the time.

But if the end of all things is bad news, the beginning is Good News.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.  We don’t have to worry about battling the antichrist element on our own, because as our Gospel says, the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  That is what we continue to celebrate on this Christmas Day: God did not abandon us to the power of death and darkness, but instead came to dwell with us as a human being, taking on our fallenness, embracing our brokenness, and redeeming all that is anti-Christ in and around us.

Today we realize one of the essential truths of our Church’s theology: the already and the not-yet.  Because Christ has taken flesh and been born among us, we are already redeemed.  But it is not yet perfect, because we can see so much anti-Christ around us, and even, sometimes, deep inside us.  In the wonder of the Incarnation, Christ, God the Word, has revealed God’s glory to us.  We long for the day when we can behold that glory face to face.

Saint 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 Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

It’s certainly appropriate that we celebrate the Holy Family today, just one day 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 the point of being part of a human 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.

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 whatever it was they just got for Christmas.  And so, as they hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is, perhaps, 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 a very 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.

Even today’s Gospel portrays for us the challenges of the family.  This Gospel event reminds me of an action thriller movie: the family is trying to settle in after the birth of a child, but there is political unrest and jealousy surrounding the birth of the child.  Warned in a dream, Joseph, the child’s father, takes the family in the dead of the night and flees to a distant land, where they live until the death of the political puppet who was so pathetically insecure that he felt he needed to kill a child to retain his sovereignty, such as it was.

And so 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 faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us.  It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Yet 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 too, 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.

The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord

Mass at Midnight and During the Day
Midnight readings | During the Day readings

The older I get, the more I become convinced that every Christmas has its own flavor, and every Christmas comes with its own gifts. Not the kinds of gifts you wrap and put under the tree, but the kinds of gifts that fill your heart and give you the grace to move into the year ahead.

When I was little, my Christmas enthusiasm could hardly be contained. I kept Advent by opening a door each day on a little cardboard calendar, to see what was underneath. But the picture on the calendar probably wasn’t as important to me as the days passing by. The eagerness of my anticipation was for that moment on Christmas morning, when I’d wake up way earlier than I would on any other day, wake my sisters and parents and go down to open gifts. We would spend those opening moments of the day together, and there was a warmth that came from the love we had for each other. The gift of those Christmases was one of eagerness, they joyfulness of anticipation being fulfilled, and the sharing of love with those who loved me back.

As a teen, I knew a little more about what Christmas meant. Some of our family traditions came to mean more to me: the cookies we baked, visits to family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, going to Mass as a family. There was still a sense of anticipation but it was a little different now. I anticipated time off from school – whether I was in high school or college – and I looked forward to seeing loved ones I hadn’t seen in a while. The gift of those Christmases was singing one more Christmas Carol because Grandma’s new oven wasn’t cooking the turkey as fast as the old one, of enjoying old and new family traditions, and the joy of days spent without papers due or tests to study for.

As a young adult, my faith became more important to me. I was involved in my church and spent many hours practicing music and preparing to celebrate music with the choir I was in. For several of those years, I wrote the mini lessons and carols service that we did before Mass began. There was a busyness of that time and a growing anticipation of being able to celebrate my faith with a community that knew that same faith. It was a time to pull out all the stops and celebrate the Mass with a bit more solemnity and joy. Even at work, there was talk of our traditions both family and religious, and the sharing of belief that Christ was present even in the mundane day-to-dayness of our work. The gift of those Christmases was one of renewed faith, and the joy of celebrating the wonder of the Incarnation – the birth of our God into our world – with people who helped me to grow in that faith.

When I went to seminary, things changed a lot. The anticipation of Advent was held in an environment that was slowly teaching me how to preside in it. I learned more about the traditions of our faith, the vibrancy of Scripture, the poetry and hymnody that made me long to be filled with Christ in new ways. Going to Christmas Mass became a strange, but not unpleasant experience: wondering what it was going to be like to celebrate Christmas as a priest. The gift of those Christmases was a personal growth that helped me to see who I was as God’s son, and who he was calling me to be.

In the past four and a half years that I have been a priest, I got to experience the joy of being a priest at Christmas.  I have been in three different parishes in that time, including this one, but there is a common experience.  The days of Advent anticipation are filled with hearing confessions and school programs, and the many things that go on in a parish.  I get to go to not just one Christmas Mass, but sometimes three or four!  My role had changed not only at Church, but also in my family, and I attend my family Christmas gatherings with, well, exhaustion! The gift of these Christmases is being able to celebrate Christmas by celebrating the Eucharist as a priest.

During my first year as a priest, before my second Christmas as a priest, things changed a bit for me.  Dad died in May of 2007, and I remember the anticipation of Christmas for me that year was a little bit weird. I approached that holy day with a little heaviness of heart, with a sense of loss. I never put up the Manger Dad and Mom gave me that year. I didn’t because one of the pieces – the angel – was broken, and Dad was going to help me fix it. We never got around to it, and I didn’t want to open the box and see the missing piece, which for me represented the missing piece of my family that Christmas.  The following year, Mom bought me a new angel, and I remember Dad now every time I see it.  I didn’t know if I’d receive any gift other than sadness that Christmas, but Dad wasn’t like that and I’m not either, so I just didn’t know what the gift would be.  I think the gift was faith: faith that Christmas would bring grace no matter what was going on in me.

What kinds of Christmases have you celebrated?  You might find some of yours are like some of mine, or maybe that you have others.  The gifts, I am sure, differ from year to year.  Maybe your Christmases have been happy, and maybe you have had the occasional sad one.  But there’s always a gift.  More specifically, there’s always the gift: Jesus Christ, born into our world, God with us, God our salvation, come to give us everlasting life and love beyond all measure.

God’s love reaches us every time we come to this holy place and celebrate the Eucharist; which we should do every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.  This Christmas, whatever flavor of Christmas we’re having, the gift – the real gift – is as it has always been, the presence of Christ among us, the eternal life he brings us, and the love that he pours out on us.  Perhaps that gift will give us the ability to forge ahead in the year to come and bring the presence of Christ, the light of Christ, to a dark and lonely world.

Because we don’t just celebrate (tonight / today) something that happened two thousand years ago; we celebrate the fact that God is born into our lives and into our world every time we open ourselves up to his forgiveness and renewal, cling to the hope he brings us, and allow him to make us his holy people.  When we stand up for the rights of the unborn, the powerless, and the disenfranchised, Christ is born among us and warms up our cold and heartless world.  When we reach out to others who are needy or lonely or oppressed or marginalized because of who they are, Christ is born among us and gives light to our darkness.  When we introduce someone to the Church or witness to our faith by being people of integrity, Christ is born among us and revitalizes a world grown listless and cynical in despair.  When we receive our Lord in the Eucharist and go forth from this place to love and serve the Lord, Christ is born into a world that desperately, urgently needs his presence.  Christ is born in every moment when his people allow him to be present through their lives.

On this Christmas, a watching world looks to all of us who call ourselves Christian.  Can we make the hope of all the nations present by our living the Gospel?  When the world sees that happen, when enough people take notice, maybe all the earth can take part in our singing:

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!

On behalf of Father Raj, Father Venard and me, Our deacons Frank, Al, Alex and Dave, and all the parish staff, may God bless you and your families this Christmas. May you find Christ in every moment of the coming year.

The Nativity of the Lord (Vigil)

Today’s readings

I want you to think about the best gift you ever received – what was it?  How did you feel when you opened it?  Were you surprised?  Were you happy because the gift showed you how much the person giving it to you loved you?

Because that’s what Christmas is all about: it’s about the gifts.  Or, at least it’s about a gift, but we’ll get to that in a minute.  There are all kinds of gifts – big ones and small ones, and all sizes in between.  My mother used to say that really good things come in small packages, but I think that’s just because she was the shortest one in the family at that point.  Actually, she still says that now!

Some gifts, when we receive them, we want to return them to the store – because they don’t fit, or they’re not the right color, or we just don’t like them.  Sometimes gifts are like that – people give them to us because they feel like they have to, and they don’t give them a whole lot of thought.  Gifts like that can be disappointing, and who wants to have to go through all the trouble of returning gifts?  Sometimes people even re-gift gifts that they don’t like.

Some gifts are fun for a while, but then we lose interest in them.  When I was little, I know there were toys that I just had to have, and once I got them, I found out they weren’t as much fun as they looked like on TV, so I stopped playing with them pretty soon after I got them.  Maybe you can remember some gifts like that too.

But the very best gifts are the gifts that we got that were a total surprise, and when we got them we didn’t know what we ever did without them.  Maybe it’s a favorite pair of jeans, or really cool shirt, or a toy that didn’t seem like much when we first opened it, but turned out to be really fun to play with almost every day.  These are the gifts that “fit right” right out of the box and we use them until they wear out.

Like I said, Christmas is about the gift – one particular gift.  It’s not a gift that Santa will bring, or one that you’ll find wrapped up underneath your Christmas tree.  It won’t be the glitziest present you’ve ever seen; in fact it comes to you in a really simple way.  The good news is this gift is the best one you ever got, and the best one you’ll ever get.  It’s a gift that will fit you right away and you won’t know how you ever got along without it.

The gift I’m talking about, of course, is the gift of Jesus Christ.  That’s why we’re here today – it’s all about the gift.  We know that we have sinned, and humanity always has sinned.  Because of that, we forfeited the right to be in God’s presence and we could never get to heaven on our own.  But that was not okay with God, who made us out of love.  So he decided to save us by giving us a completely surprising gift – the gift of his Son Jesus.

It wasn’t like he had to give us a gift; he gives the gift completely out of love.  And this is a gift that won’t ever wear out: Jesus promises to walk with us all through our life and to be the friend and companion we’ve always wanted.  This gift shows us that God our Father loves us more than anything, because he never wants to live without you or me or anyone else he’s created.

Because of his great love for us, Jesus came into our world in a very humble package: as a baby, born to a poor human family.  He grew up and lived like we do: he made friends and he worked and he loved everyone he ever met.  He was so special that he even died for us – he paid the price so that we wouldn’t have to; he gave his mortal life so that we could have everlasting life.  It’s the most expensive gift we’ll ever get – it’s priceless really.

This one gift changes everything – if we let it.  We have to be happy to receive the gift of Jesus.  We have to treasure what he did for us so much that our relationship with him becomes the most important thing in our lives.   That means that we pray every day so that we can grow in our relationship with him.  That means we come to Church to worship him every Sunday and Holy Day because he’s dedicated his life to us.  And that means we go out and do what he did – love others and give of ourselves so that others can live.

I hope you won’t return this wonderful gift, or let it gather dust in the basement of your heart.  I hope you’ll take this gift out every morning and let him walk with you all through your days.  Jesus is the most incredible gift any of us will ever receive.  How blessed are we that our God loves us this much!

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O Key of David

Today’s readings

We humans put up all sorts of barriers. Some are necessary, like the walls of prisons, or the sound barriers along a highway. Others are sad, like the old wall that used to separate East and West Germany.   The physical barriers that we accept every day keep us safe and warm, define our space, and keep us in our place. Not sure if that’s always good or bad, but there it is.

Perhaps the saddest barriers that we put up, though, are the spiritual barriers that keep us from God, or the spiritual barriers that are intended to keep God from being God, or are intended to force God to do what we would want. How often do we want God to answer our prayers in our own way, or not at all? Are we sometimes afraid of what God would do if we really let him open the dark places of our lives?   The spiritual barriers that we put up as some kind of laughable defense against God are heartbreaking, because they succeed only in defeating the outpouring of God’s mercy on us in this time and place.

For all of us locked up inside those barriers, the antiphon from Vespers today prays:

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

In today’s Gospel Mary found out that nothing can stand in the way of God’s plans, that the Key of David can even unlock the barren womb of her cousin Elizabeth to provide a herald’s voice for the coming of our Savior.  Perhaps today we can allow the Key of David to unlock the dark places of our hearts so that we can see a miracle happening in our own lives too.

Advent Penance Service

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 and Matthew 5:13-16

I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy days like today, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  If there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

So for whatever reason, many of us experience darkness during this season, when so many seem to be rejoicing in light.  In essence, that’s what Advent is all about.  The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light.  Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world.  Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].”  This is a light that changes everything.  It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world.  We do that in symbolic ways: the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath symbolizes the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior.  But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory.  We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives.  The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God.  The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution.  Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us.  The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ.  As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer.  Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”