The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night and Mass of Christmas Day

Readings: Mass During the Night | Mass of Christmas Day

A few years ago, I saw a musical called “Children of Eden.”  It was composed by Steven Schwartz, who is probably more famous for composing “Godspell” and “Wicked.”  The premise of the musical is interesting: it’s the story taken from the first nineteen chapters of the book of Genesis, which basically takes us from the creation of everything up to the story of Noah and the great flood.  From a musical standpoint, it was beautiful, but from a theological standpoint, it was fraught with problems.

The first problem, I think, is that the story only captures the first nineteen books of Genesis.  That brings me to page twenty in my Bible, and my Bible is fifteen hundred pages long!  As the saying goes, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet: God has not yet promised anything to Abraham, we don’t yet know about Moses and the Law, we’ve yet to hear from any of the prophets.  David has yet to sing the Psalms, and we certainly haven’t heard the miraculous story that brings us here tonight (today).

And with that very limited subset of the story of salvation, Steven Schwartz portrays an image of God that is, as anyone might expect, rather stunted.  The story ends with a frustrated God seeing that even the great flood can’t scare humanity back into obedience.  And in his frustration, Schwartz’s God throws up his hands and essentially says, “I’m done.”  God backs out of the picture, and the remnants of humanity realize that, alone now, if anything good is going to happen, it’s up to them.

And if Schwartz were right, we wouldn’t be here tonight (today).  Happily, we don’t believe in Schwartz’s God.  Because the God he casts in his musical is a God who is impotent and disinterested and completely uninvolved in his creation.  Kind of like a child who has made something out of Legos, and then become bored with them.  He has set the world in motion and then backed off, leaving his creatures to their own devices.  That’s not our God.

Our God can’t be wrapped up in nineteen chapters and just twenty pages.  Our God takes fifteen hundred more pages to describe and even that just scratches the surface.  Our God is committed and loving and completely good and holy and transcendent and immanent.  Our God is higher than the heavens, holier than the holiest we can imagine, goodness itself, love itself.  But our God is also here among us, Emmanuel, closer to us than we are to ourselves.  Far from backing off and leaving us to our own devices, our God walks with us and shares our joys and sorrows; he sees us through pain and celebrates our healing.  Our God is beyond everything we can imagine and more wonderful than anything we can hope for.

Our God is so invested in his creation that he made many interventions in human history to provide for our salvation.  Those interventions turned humanity’s hearts back to the Lord in moments of darkness.  Then, when the time was right, God brought salvation to the culmination of perfection.  One day in time, God sent his only Begotten Son to be our Savior.  He was born of the Virgin Mary, born a man like us in all things but sin.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Word, put on flesh and became one of us, perfectly human and perfectly divine.  That’s what we celebrate tonight (today).

As a man, he lived life as we do.  He grew and learned and made friends and became what he was meant to be.  He lived our life and died our death – literally dying the death we deserved for our many sins.  But his death was not the end; his death was shattered by his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.  Because of his saving sacrifice, because of his Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, the Holy One redeemed our brokenness and made eternal life possible for all those who believe in him and live the Gospel.  That’s our God.

All of this is made possible because of the gift we receive on this most holy night (day).  That gift we call the Incarnation of the Lord: the glorious mystery of God taking on human flesh to save his people.  This gift of the Incarnation is the best Christmas present we will receive – it is the best gift of any kind that we will ever receive, because in the Incarnation we have what’s necessary for us to be saved.   This is so important a mystery and so great a gift, that at the words of the Incarnation in the Creed today, we are instructed to kneel, not just bow, as we usually do.  So we will kneel when we say the words, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  And we kneel because we remember with great gratitude that if the Word didn’t become flesh, if he wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary, if he didn’t become one like us, if he didn’t pay the price for our sins, we would never have salvation, or hope of life with God.

God didn’t take on our form so that he could become less, he took on our form so that we could become more.  Tonight (Today), 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.

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.  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 our God, wholly worthy of adoration.

And so, as we gaze on the manger, we know that Steven Schwartz was wrong about our God, and not only that, he is wrong about us.  We are not, as one of his songs says “lost in the wilderness;” instead our lives are bound up in the very life of our God, and his in ours, and we are precious to him as he is everything to us.  The grace of our God made visible will glory with us in our joys and sustain us in our sorrows.  The Lord who is born among us today gives us peace in our most gut-wrenching moments.  May our hearts be open to accepting the grace of his Incarnation, the grace of his most wonderful presence among us.

The Nativity of the Lord: Vigil Mass (Joseph’s Story)

Today’s readings

Once, a very long time ago, there was a man named Joseph.  He was a well-respected and hard-working man, from the family of the great king David.  But since Israel hadn’t been a great nation in a long time, he wasn’t respected for being a great king himself.  Instead, people respected him for his carpentry work and for the fact that he was faithful and just.

He was to be married to a young woman named Mary – their marriage was probably arranged by their families.  They would come together to be man and wife when the time was right.  One day, she came to him with an unbelievable story about being pregnant, with a child given to her by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph didn’t know what to think.  He clearly knew he was not the father of the baby, and so he decided not to marry the young woman, but instead to let her go quietly, so she would not be embarrassed.

The night he decided to do this, Joseph had a dream.  In the dream, an angel appeared to him and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and that God wanted him to do just that.  The angel told him that the baby was very special, that he would come to save all God’s people from their sins and would be called Emmanuel – a name that means that God is here among us.

So Joseph did what the angel told him.  He took Mary as his wife.  And about that time, a proclamation came from the government that said that everyone had to go and be registered as a citizen.  They had to go to the city where they were from to do that.  So Joseph made plans to travel with Mary from Galilee where they were living, to Nazareth, which was where Joseph was from.  The way was long and dangerous and, along the way, the time came for Mary to have her baby.

They looked desperately for some inn or any house to take them in, but every place was full because so many people were traveling.  Eventually, they at least found a shelter: a rickety little shack for farm animals, and they went in there.  That’s when Mary had her baby.  She was scared, and Joseph had never delivered a baby before.  But the child was beautiful, and Joseph held him while Mary slept, exhausted from travelling and giving birth.  They placed the baby in the manger, a feed-trough for the animals, and they named him Jesus.

Later, they had visits from shepherds and from astrologers from the east, who came to worship the child, because they had seen visions too.  Mary and Joseph were amazed at all that was happening, and the wonderful visits they were receiving.

One night, Joseph had another visit from an angel in his dreams.  The angel told him that people were planning to harm the new baby.  So, at the angel’s instruction, Joseph got up from bed, took Mary and Jesus, and fled to the land of Egypt so that they would be out of harm’s way.  They stayed there until the angel told Joseph that those who wanted to harm Jesus were dead, and it was okay to go back to their own town now.

Joseph watched the child grow up, and was so proud to be his foster-father.  He taught Jesus how to live and how to respect others, and all about the religious law, just like any father would do for his children.  In his private moments, Joseph always wondered what would become of Jesus, wondered what God had in store for him.  All he knew was that something wonderful was happening, and as hard as it was sometimes, he had been called to help it happen.

And God wants to continue to do wonderful things for us.  Jesus didn’t just get born two thousand years ago; Jesus is born right here, right now for us, if we would just make a little space, a little shelter for him in our hearts.  Just as Joseph didn’t know exactly what God had in store for Jesus, we don’t know what God has in store for any of us in the year ahead.  But we do know this: God sent Jesus so that God could be here among us, and he is here among us now, leading us back to him, telling us that we are his special children, and loving us all with love beyond anything we can imagine.

Just like things were hard for Mary and Joseph as they travelled along, trying to find a place to stay, sometimes things for us will be hard too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, and helping us to find the Good News.  Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like those shepherds and astrologers, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.

Friday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O Emmanuel

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy has us on the edge of our seats: “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… at least it would be if we hadn’t already taken it down to get ready for tomorrow.  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, it would be well for us to 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, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O Root of Jesse

Today’s readings

In these late days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons.”  These antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as found in Scripture.  Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it is found as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary in Vespers: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you.  Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

Zechariah in today’s Gospel certainly knew what it was like to stand silent in the presence of the Root of Jesse.  Having been promised a son by an angel of the Lord – what one might consider a very trustworthy source – his disbelief moved him to silence in God’s presence.  Here is a man who, one would think, should know better.  But maybe his years of childlessness have led him to accept a life that was not God’s will.  Certainly we could not blame him if the angel’s message was a bit unbelievable; we who have the benefit of so much science would probably be a little harder on the angel than Zechariah was.

When you’re accustomed to living without hope, any sign of hope can be met with an awful lot of skepticism.  Would Elizabeth and Zechariah ever give birth to a child?  How would that even be possible?  Would God save the world from the darkness of sin and death?  Why would he even want to?  Can God be born here among us, giving us rootedness and a solid foundation for our lives?  Why would he even care?

Better to be silent than to voice our lack of faith and hope.  Then, in the stillness of our hearts and souls, maybe God can give rootedness to our scattered lives, bring hope to a world grown dark in sin and economic decline and war and too much death.  Today’s Gospel has God bringing hope to a elderly, childless couple.  God forbid that we would doubt that he could bring hope to us too.

We pray today: Come, Lord Jesus, come root of Jesse, give rootedness to our lives that are sometimes adrift in despair or apathy, give hope to a world grown cold in darkness and disappointment, give life to a people burdened by sin and death.  Come, let us stand silent as we await the dawning of your hope in our lives, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.  Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [B]: O Sacred Lord

Today’s readings

Hanging in the bedroom hallway of my Mom’s house is a framed graphic that says “With God, all things are possible.”  That reminder has helped me to get through a number of times of uncertainty in my life.  I thought about it as I was reading today’s Gospel, in which the angel, in response to Mary’s questions says, “For nothing will be impossible for God.”  Today’s Liturgy is all about the coming Christ, meek child as he appears to be, becoming the Lord of our lives.

In the first reading, David has what seems to be a laudable plan.  He has built a wonderful palace for himself, great king that he is, and he feels bad that the Ark of the Covenant still resides in the tent that it was in during the journey from Egypt.  That’s not right to him, so he tells the prophet Nathan of his plan to build a great temple.  Now, Nathan must have been having an off day, because although he initially tells David to go for it, he finds out in a dream that that is not God’s will at all.

Although David was a mighty king, and the one chosen by God at that, he has shed too much blood in the course of his work, and thus is unworthy to be the one to build the temple.  His son Solomon, whose name comes from the word “shalom” or “peace,” is the one to build a temple, and he will do so later on.  David himself hands this task on to Solomon later in the story.  Once again David has learned that God is Lord, and he is not.

Mary has an experience of that too.  She is visited by the angel Gabriel, and finds out that God has plans for her to be the mother of his only begotten Son.  I love the line that tells her reaction to the news: “But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”  That could well be the understatement of the eons!  Thankfully, her faith makes her ready to accept God’s will even though she certainly does not completely understand it.  The angel gives her news that even her aged relative Elizabeth is with child in her old age “for nothing will be impossible for God.”

I think we all have a temptation to forget this important lesson.  We are not God; God is, and when we accept that in faith, our lives can be more peaceful.  Instead though, and I’ll be honest and tell you I am certainly speaking for myself, instead we tend to want to direct all the action and call all the shots.  We want control over our lives, and we want to see the big picture unfold the way we want it to unfold.  Unfortunately, life isn’t like that.  Things often go awry, or at least they go differently than we would have them.  And that’s the time that we really need to give in and let God be in charge, since he is anyway.

During these late days of Advent, our Church recounts the “O Antiphons.”  There is an “O Antiphon” for each day from December 17th through the 24th.  These antiphons are titles of Jesus, and they are sung each evening during Vespers, as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary.  Today’s “O Antiphon” is “O Sacred Lord.”  In Vespers, the full antiphon goes like this:

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.

Each of these O Antiphons corresponds to a verse in the song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  So today’s verse is this one:

O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.

We wait for the coming of our Savior in these Advent days.  We know that his coming will eventually bring us salvation and peace, in God’s time.  We can have some of that peace, I think, when we let God be the Sacred Lord of our lives.  We can get a glimpse of the salvation that awaits us if we let God be God and remember that we are not God.

Today, our Sacred Lord can be the one who comes in power to give us salvation and peace.  Salvation and peace can be ours if we open our hearts to his presence among us.  Come, O Sacred Lord!  Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7 and Matthew 1:18-24

Isaiah’s lament in our first reading this evening sounds like a lament for every time and place, quite honestly.  Wouldn’t we all prefer to hope that God would come and meet us doing right, being mindful of him in all our ways, mindful of the mighty deeds God has done for us?  But unfortunately, we are sinful people; our neglect of God would justly make him angry, our sins enough to pollute even our good deeds.  It’s a sad state of affairs: it seems like no one calls upon God’s name, no one rouses him or herself out of the sad state of our world to even cling to God.  God forbid that Jesus return in glory only to see us so completely delivered up to our guilt.

And that’s where we find ourselves tonight, I think.  We see sinfulness in our world: wars being fought and terrorism keeping us bound up in fear; the poor neglected and poverty’s sad effect on society; crime is proliferating and apathy increasing.  Would that God would rend the heavens and come down, and put an end to all this sad nonsense!  Even more to the point this evening, though, is the sadness in our own lives: unconfessed sin, broken relationships, cyclic patterns of bad choices and bad actions.  Why have we wandered so far from God’s ways?  Why have our hearts been so hardened that we don’t even fear God anymore?

But in all of this, Isaiah recalls God’s promises:  “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.”  God’s mercy is beyond anything we can imagine.  In justice, he could leave us to experience the consequences of our sinfulness.  But in mercy, he sent his Son to pay the ultimate price.  There is nothing we can do to make up for our sins, but thanks be to God, he thinks enough of his creation to allow us to be redeemed by the coming of our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The coming of our Savior in the mystery of the Incarnation is the great hope of Advent.  We know that the sad state of our sinful lives and our sinful world is not the end of the story.  We know that God has sent his only begotten Son to be our Savior, to walk among us knowing our grief and pain, our joy and sorrow.  He died on the cross to pay the ultimate price for our sins, and rose from the dead, erasing death’s power to keep us from spending eternity with our God who made us for himself.

Advent, then, gives us the opportunity to prepare to experience the wonder of the Incarnation in our own lives.  We need a Savior to bring us from the grip of death and sin to the embrace of God’s mercy and love.  We need a Savior who will lead us to justice and peace. We need a Savior who will lead us to reach out to the poor and oppressed. We need a Savior who will bind up our wounded lives and world and present us pure and spotless before God on the Last Day. We need a Savior who can bring light to this darkened world and hope to our broken lives. We need a Savior who can bring us God’s promise of forgiveness.

There is an ancient prayer of the early Church that the first Christians would pray in the years just after Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven.  In their language, the simple work was, Maranatha which in English is “Come, Lord Jesus.” This is a great prayer for every day during Advent, perhaps for every day of our lives. When we get up in the morning, and just before bed at night, pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” When you need help during the day or just need to remind yourself of God’s promises, pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” The early Christians prayed this way because they expected Jesus to return soon. We do too. Even if he does not return in glory during our lifetimes, we still expect him to return soon and often in our lives and in our world to brighten this place of darkness and sin and to straighten out the rough ways in our lives. Let us keep the expectation of the Lord and the hope of his promise of forgiveness alive in our hearts:
Come, Lord Jesus and change our hearts to be more loving and open to others.
Come, Lord Jesus and teach us to pray; help us to grow in our spiritual lives.
Come, Lord Jesus and dispel our doubts; help us always to hope in your forgiveness and mercy.
Come, Lord Jesus and heal those who are sick and comfort all the dying.
Come, Lord Jesus and bring those who wander back to your Church.
Come, Lord Jesus and turn us away from our addictions.
Come, Lord Jesus and teach us to be patient with ourselves and others.
Come, Lord Jesus and help us to eliminate injustice and apathy.
Come, Lord Jesus and teach us to welcome the stranger.
Come, Lord Jesus and give us an unfailing and zealous respect for your gift of life.
Come, Lord Jesus and help us to be generous; teach us all to practice stewardship of all of our resources.
Come, Lord Jesus and help us to work at everything we do as though we were working for you alone.
Come, Lord Jesus and bind up our brokenness, heal our woundedness, comfort us in affliction, afflict us in our comfort, help us to repent and to follow you without distraction or hesitation, give us the grace to pick up our crosses and be your disciples.

Joseph had the assistance of an angel to help him to be open to Christ’s coming into his life.  Through his intercession, may we be open to all of the grace that the Incarnation of our Lord brings us.  May we be completely transformed by the birth of Christ into our world and into our lives.  May Christ come quickly to lead us to eternity and help us to navigate the world and all its dangerous obstacles.  Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus!

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today’s readings

Appropriately enough, I think, we celebrate a second of Mary’s feasts in the space of just four days.  During Advent, we naturally turn our hearts in gratitude to Mary for her fiat that made possible our world’s salvation.  Last week we celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary; today we celebrate a quite different feast, Our Lady of Guadalupe.  We celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe in part because she is the patroness of all the Americas, and so once again, a special patron for us.

A Native American author of the sixteenth century describes the story of our Lady of Guadalupe in today’s Office of Readings.  He tells us of another Native American named Juan Diego, who was on his way from his home to worship on the hill of Tepeyac.  There he heard someone calling to him from the top of the hill.  When he got to the top of the hill, he saw a woman whose clothing shone like the sun.  She told him that it was her desire that a church be erected on the hill so that all could worship her son Jesus.  She sent him to the local bishop to plead that cause.

The bishop didn’t believe Juan Diego’s story and sent him away.  He returned to the hilltop to find the radiant Lady once again, and she told him to tell the bishop that she, the ever virgin holy Mary, Mother of God, sent him.  Again the bishop did not believe, telling him that unless he had a miraculous sign, he would not believe the story.

At that point Juan Diego’s uncle became quite ill.  Juan then set out for the local church to have a priest come to anoint his uncle.  He purposely took a route around the hill at Tepeyac to avoid seeing the Lady and being detained, since the need for a priest was urgent.  But of course, she met him at the side of the hill and spoke to him again.  She assured him that his uncle had already been cured and sent him up the hilltop to find flowers of various kinds.  He got to the top of the hill to find many Castilian roses growing there, which was odd for that time of the winter.  He cut them and carried them down the hill in his tilma, a kind of mantle that he wore for warmth.  She sent him to the bishop bearing the miraculous flowers as proof.

He went confidently to the bishop and informed him that the Lady had fulfilled his request for a sign.  He opened up his tilma, the flowers fell to the ground, but the great miracle was that the inside of the tilma revealed the image of the ever virgin Mary, mother of God, in the same manner as Juan had seen her on the hill.   The bishop built the church, and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, as she had referred to herself, has grown ever since.  You can still see the tilma, still bearing the image of Mary, at the shrine in Guadalupe today.

During Advent we are blessed to have the saints point the way to Jesus.  None of them does this more faithfully than his very own mother, and so we are blessed to celebrate her feast today.  May Mary our mother and the mother of God, lead us one day to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.