Blessed Virgin Mary Christmas Christology Homilies

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

One of the ways that I think we come to know about ourselves and our families, is the shared memories and stories that our parents and senior members of our families share with us over time.  I always enjoyed hearing stories from my grandparents about Mom and Dad, and my aunts and uncles, when they were growing up.  Now, we get to hear stories about me and my sisters.  Those are sometimes a little harder to enjoy!

I wonder if Jesus felt the same way about the stories about him that Mary must have told.  Luke tells us of all the amazing things that were observed and said about Jesus, even in his infancy, and all these things are what Mary kept and reflected on in her heart.  I think it’s fair to say that she may not have understood all of them at the time, or at least she didn’t know where they were leading, although she certainly knew that her son was someone very special, the Son of God.  And so she keeps all these things and reflects on them in her heart.  She is the first, really, to receive the Gospel – observing it, as it were, while it was happening and unfolding.  And so she is the model for all of us hearers of the Word; we too catch little phrases or episodes that we later reflect on in our hearts.  When we first hear them, it might well be that we don’t understand them.  But we know that we can later reflect on them in our hearts, and the Holy Spirit will reveal their meaning.

The Church gives us this wonderful feast of Mary on this, the octave day of Christmas.  In a very real way, the Church still celebrates this day as Christmas Day – that’s one of the wonderful things about being Catholic.  We get to celebrate this glorious event for many days.  But to celebrate the eighth day of Christmas as the feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God is a wonderful and appropriate thing to do.  We all know that we are indebted to Mary’s faith, a faith which made possible the salvation of the whole world and everyone ever to live in it.

More than that, Mary’s faith is a model for us.  Much like Mary, we often do not know where God is leading us, but in faith we are called to say “yes” anyway.  How willing are we to do that?  We are often called upon to take a leap of faith, make a fiat, and cooperate with God’s saving plan for us and for others.  Just like Mary, we have no way of knowing where that might lead us; just like Mary, that might lead to heartache and sorrow; but just like Mary, it will lead to redemption beyond belief, beyond anything we can imagine.

And so, yes, Mary is the Mother of God.  And let me tell you, this was a doctrine that came without its price.  People fought over whether a human woman could ever be the mother of God.  How would that be possible?  But the alternative, really, would be to say that Jesus was not God, because we clearly know that Mary was his mother.  So to say that Mary was not the Mother of God is to say in a very precarious way that Jesus was not God, and we know just as surely that that would be incorrect.  Jesus was fully human but also fully divine, his human and divine natures intertwined in his person without any separation or division or degradation of one nature at the expense of another.  And so, as theologians teach us, Mary is the Mother of God the Word according to his human nature.  Every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly theologically courageous, I reflect on that statement and marvel at its beauty.

So, Mary is the Mother of God, but Mary is also the Mother of the Church, leading its members to her Son Jesus and to faith in God.  She is mother of priests, caring for us in a special way and interceding for the faithful completion of our mission.  She is the mother of mothers, interceding for them and showing them how to nurture faith in their children.  She is the mother of the faithful, showing us how to cooperate fully with God’s plan.  She is mother of scripture scholars and those who just love the scriptures, having seen the Word unfold before her and treasuring it in her heart.  She is the mother of disciples, having been the first of the disciples and the most dedicated of them all.  She is the Mother of God, and our mother, and we cannot sing our Christmas carols without singing her praises too.  We honor her faith and example today, and we ask for her intercession for our lives, for our families, for our Church and our world.

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Christmas Homilies

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 of this year and the beginning of the year to come.

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, we are told, 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.

Christmas Homilies

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

One of the great snapshots of Christmas for me has always been the manger scene.  Ours is a bit banged up and the worse for wear, but it still gives us a glimpse as to what God is doing at the Incarnation of Christ – an amazing moment in time!  The centerpiece of the manger, of course, is the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  The birth of Jesus couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time or in more difficult circumstances.  But it was precisely this timing that changed everything: for the world, and for the Holy Family.

But I am aware that the idyllic holiness, peace and love the crèche depicts is often quite foreign to the experience of many families, including many families in this assembly.  I know there are families where communication is anything but good.  There are families who may never have known the kind of love that is shared between Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  There are families who struggle with abuse: physical, sexual, or emotional.

Even in the “best” of families, there is often hardship.  I know there are families who struggle to keep up with all the activities that are expected of them.  There are families who can’t find time to have a meal together, let alone take a trip together.  Families often struggle to make ends meet.  There are families who struggle with the changing needs of children as they grow older.  Families may be separated by great distance, or may have suffered the sickness or death of one of the members.  Other families may find themselves changing roles as a parent, the one who provided for his or her children, grows old and becomes ill and then becomes the one in need of care.

Families can be and are the source of our greatest joys and our deepest anguish.  Sometimes all in the same day.  The truth is, and perhaps you find yourself thinking this as you sit there and listen to these readings today, none of our families is perfect.  Few of us would rush to describe our families as well-functioning, let alone holy.  And so we can sit there and look at the manger and find its serenity meaningless in the hectic anxiety of our day-to-day family lives.

But maybe we need to look a little deeper or listen a little harder today.  “Holy” and “perfect” are not the same thing.  We don’t need to be perfect to be a family.  That was true of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as well.  Would a perfect family have lost their child on the way home from a trip?  I don’t think so, but that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it?  Mary says to Jesus when they find him that she and Joseph had been looking for him with “great anxiety.”  Those of you who are parents can well imagine the anxiety and can totally identify with what Mary and Joseph had to have been feeling.

Jesus’ response shows the struggle that so often happens in families when the children are trying to grow up faster than the parents would like to see.  He is becoming aware of his mission and feels ready to take it on.  They still see him as a child, a child for whom they feel great responsibility, not to mention great love and concern.  This story is the last time we see Jesus until he begins his ministry at the age of about thirty.  It has been theorized that the reason for this is that he was grounded until he was thirty.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the point is that even in the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there were struggles.  Nothing was perfect in that family, not even from the beginning.  Right at the beginning, there was a hint of scandal about the pregnancy; they had to flee for their safety; they suffered from poverty and violent threats.  Like many modern families they suffered under political and military oppression, had to settle far from their original home and had to start a new life in a foreign place.  Two thousand years may separate the modern family from the “Holy Family,” but there is much to link us, much that we share.

So supposed to see in the Holy Family is something perhaps different from perfection.  Perhaps it is faithfulness.  Faithfulness to God and faithfulness to one another: indeed, it is this faithfulness that leads them to the holiness we celebrate today.  Look at the way the situation in the Gospel reading today was resolved among them.  Even though they were panicked and anxious about the disappearance of their son; even though they did not understand what was going on with him, yet they appreciated his uniqueness, and Mary kept all of these memories in her heart, kept them to be sorted out and understood much later.  And even though Jesus was ready to grow into adulthood and ready to begin his mission, yet he understood the concerns of his parents and continued to be obedient to them as he continued to grow in wisdom and grace.  They were faithful to one another.

Our first reading today from Sirach addresses these same concerns.  The family members are instructed to care for one another, to honor one another, to love and respect one another all their days.  Even as parents age and the roles become reversed, still we are to respect them for all they have been for us.  We are called to be faithful to one another.

I continue to be aware that even as I pull that theme of faithfulness out of today’s Scriptures, that can still seem insurmountable to many of you.  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 the call to faithfulness is still there for all of us.  And 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 know that this Church family supports you with prayer and love as you do that.

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’ll be pretty 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.  Our church still has the Nativity scene on display; we are still celebrating Christmas Day.  But today’s story of Jesus in the temple reminds us that our faith in the Incarnation does not stop at the crib.  The Gospel already has hints that Jesus’ disciples will be asked to make a break with the past and accept a new life of sacrifice.  Just as Jesus is beginning to show signs of moving beyond the safety of a small family and entering a larger world and responding to its needs, so too must we move out of the confines of the safe and serene and enter and respond to the areas of need that the world presents to us.  It will take holiness for us to be able to do that.

Holiness demands that we seek it; it doesn’t just descend from above.  If we want holy families, and we certainly should, we will have to make decisions and even sacrifices to pursue it.  We will have to make an honest priority of worship; attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation as a minimum without fail.  We will have to surround our families in prayer, praying at meals, teaching and reviewing prayers, praying together at night, reciting the rosary together, reading the Scriptures together.  Holy families are not going to be perfect in these things, but they will not fail to pursue that holiness every single day.  It takes a daily decision to do that; but that is the vocation of the family in the world.

Jesus, emerging from childhood to adulthood, reminds us that in his name, we must be ready to live faithful and holy lives, regardless of whether others are doing the same, and no matter what the personal cost.  Because the cost of rejecting holiness in our lives is just too great, and the loss of an earthly family is nothing compared to losing our place in the family of God.

Christmas Homilies Saints

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Today’s readings

Right here in the middle of the joy of the Christmas Octave, we have the feast of what seems to be an incredibly horrible event.  All of the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem two years old and younger are murdered by the jealous and, quite frankly, rather pathetic Herod.  But not only are his plans to kill the Christ Child (and thus remove any threat to his reign) thwarted by the providence of God, but also the horror of this event is transfigured into something rather glorious in terms of the Kingdom of God.

As I said, in some ways, this is a horrible feast.  Sadly, this year, the events in Newtown, Connecticut make this feast all the more poignant and disturbing.  Add that to the millions who have been slaughtered by abortion, and the many children who die in inner-city violence every year, and we see just how precarious childhood can be in our time.  But the Church, in recognizing the contribution of the Holy Innocents to the kingdom, turns all of this sadness into hope and asserts that this is just the beginning of the world’s seeing the glory of Jesus Christ.  As disgusting and repugnant as Herod’s actions are to our sensibilities, yet these innocent children bear witness to the Child Jesus.  Saint Quodvoltdeus, an African bishop of the fifth century writes of them:

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it.  The parents mourn for the death of martyrs.  The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself.  But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious.  While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory?  They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ.  They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

I think the key to making sense of all this is in the first reading.  The line that really catches me, because it seems almost erroneous in light of the horrible event we remember today, is “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  We can see all kinds of darkness in an event like the murder of innocent children.  Yet only God could turn something that horrible around to his glory.  They may have lived extremely short lives on earth, yet their lives in eternity were secured forever.  They become some of the first to participate in the kingdom that Christ would bring about through his Paschal Mystery.

Christmas Homilies

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

This is an absolutely incredible time of year.  We come together tonight (today) in a beautifully decorated and lighted church.  We hear the most wonderful carols and hymns that our choir has worked on for the better part of the fall.  The homes around us are decked out in their Christmas finery, brightly illuminating the darkness of the nights that come so early this time of year.  In our homes, we’ve all baked up some treats that we only get to have this time of year.  We gather together as families and give gifts that are tokens of our love for one another.

This is clearly a special time of year for all of us.  During this time, it’s so important that we come together as a Church and take the time to reflect on the meaning behind all of this festivity.  It is not, as Seinfeld would have said, some kind of generic “Festivus.”  This is one of the holiest nights (days) of the year, and it is good for us to be reminded why we celebrate, or else the Christmas shopping becomes just shopping, and the cookies are just another thing we have to work off in the coming year, and the carols are nothing more than background noise for all the stress in our lives.

God didn’t want us to live that kind of bland existence.  He wants us to live abundantly and to that end he has sent us the greatest gift we’ll ever get: the gift of his love poured out from the core of who God is, embodied in our own kind of flesh – his only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who came that we might not be mired in sin and death and blandness, but instead live the kind of incredible life that the bright lights and merry songs of this season only begin to foreshadow.

Tonight, as we gaze on the gift of Christ in our Manger, we remember that God wants to save the world.  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 is God after all: all-powerful, all-knowing and present everywhere.  John’s Gospel, though, tells us 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.  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.

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.

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 (or rather, we will on Epiphany!), 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: “For in the mystery of the Word made flesh a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.”

The world’s eyes can look at that manger and see with cynicism that he’s just like us, nothing special.  But our 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.  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.

On behalf of Father Steve, Father Venard and Father Dan, Deacon Frank and Deacon Al, and all of our parish staff, I wish you a most blessed and holy Christmas, today and through the entire season of Christmas.  I 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.

Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord: Vigil Mass

Today’s readings
Mass for the children:

Once upon a time, there was an old shepherd named Elias.  He had been a shepherd for his whole life long, just like his father, and his father’s father.  Being a shepherd was hard and lonely work.  He took care of a large group of sheep and did his best to protect them from wolves and keep them together.  He would lead them by day from pasture to pasture, allowing them to graze, and bring them safely to market where they would give their wool for people to use.

Nights could be very lonely and sometimes scary.  There was no one else to talk to, and he did his best to keep the sheep safe.  Sometimes, if he listened hard enough, he could imagine the wind talking to him as it blew through the trees.  That made him feel like he wasn’t so alone.

One night, as he was nearing the place where he and the sheep would spend the night, he saw a bright light up in the distance.  He couldn’t help but wonder what was going on so he moved toward it. When he got close enough, he got the sheep settled down for the night and he went to check out the light and make sure there was nothing to worry about.

Other shepherds had done the same thing, and they all arrived to see the angel of the Lord, surrounded by the bright light of God’s glory.  It was frightening to see, and Elias and the others just stood there, awe-struck, not knowing what to think.

Then the angel spoke to them.  He said, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

Then the sky grew really bright as hundreds of angels joined in and began to sing: “Glory to God in the highest!  And on earth, peace to those on whom is favor rests!”

When the angels left, Elias and the other shepherds decided to travel the short distance to Bethlehem, the city of David, and to search out the Savior that the angel talked about.  Bethlehem was a pretty small village, and so it didn’t take much looking to find the baby.

He was in a manger – a feed-trough for animals.  His parents looked like ordinary people, but Elias knew that this baby was special, and that the family was holy.  The angel was right: there was joy and peace here, it was a special feeling that Elias knew could only come from God’s blessing.

Elias never forgot that night.  He went about taking care of his sheep, but whenever he was in town, he would try to find out about the baby he saw that night.  He found out the boy’s name was Jesus, and he would often hear of wonderful things that Jesus said and did.  When he was very old, Elias heard that people had turned against Jesus and they nailed him to a cross.  But he also heard that three days later, he rose from the dead, and all of his friends were now starting to go out and tell the Good News about him.

Elias knew that Jesus was special from that very first night he saw him.  He knew that Jesus had come to change everything.  And he was right.  Got changed everything then, and he continues to change everything now, if we let him.  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 manger for him in our hearts.  Just as Elias 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 He 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.

Things were hard for Elias and the other shepherds, and for Jesus and his family, and sometimes things will be hard for us too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, shining the light, and helping us to find the Good News.  Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like those shepherds, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.

Advent Homilies

Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Come, Divine Messiah

Today’s readings
O Come, Divine Messiah

One of the great parts of Advent for me is the sensory experience of it.  You could point to the smell of Christmas cookies baking in the oven, the sight of houses on the street at night glowing with their Christmas lights.  But another big one is sound, and more specifically, music.  The music of this season for me helps deliver us from what can be a depressing time of year with short days and no leaves on the tree or flowers in the garden.  I love all of the music of this time of year.  I have Christmas carols playing in my car when I’m driving and even on my iPod when I’m running.  But if I’m ever going to experience Advent, it has to be with the music of the season.  And I do have some Advent favorites.

One might immediately think of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and that would be a good one, particularly in these later days of Advent when we reflect on all those titles of Jesus: O Wisdom, O Dayspring, O Key of David, O Emmanuel.  But my absolute favorite Advent hymn is “O Come, Divine Messiah.”  This hymn is the English translation of “Venez, divin Messie,” a French Carol written in the sixteenth century.  It seems to have been translated by Sister Mary of Saint Philip, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who lived in the latter portion of the nineteenth century. She was one of the first English members of the her order when they established their training college at Mount Pleasant in Liverpool, England, in about 1850.  She and at least one other sister wrote both translations and original hymns and songs over the course of their long professional lives.  So when we’re singing this hymn, maybe we can offer a prayer of thanks for Sister Mary of Saint Philip!

The imagery in “O Come, Divine Messiah” is the stock stuff of Advent.  When we sing it, we call on our Savior to come in haste, dispelling the darkness of our world by showing his face, giving us a glimpse of his glory, and opening up a bright new dawn as he does something new in all of us.  I think that’s the experience that Advent calls on us to realize.  If we have no need of a Savior, there is no Advent, there is no Christmas, there is no Christ.  But our Savior did indeed come to a world deeply in need of a Savior, both then and now.

We know that our world and our lives can be dark places.  How dark has it become in these days with the tragedy in Connecticut, or discussions of the fiscal cliff?  Because of those, this has been a difficult, profoundly sad, even terrifying week for all of us.  Perhaps we might even say that it has broken the Christmas season for us.  We all want answers, some word that’s going to make it all better, and there just isn’t one, at least not in the sense that we think.  The only word that does make it better is the Word – with a capital “W” – the Son of God, Jesus Christ, come in the flesh, dwelling among us, speaking God’s message of hope and peace and challenge and grace in our world that needs all three of those!

The other sadness which needs the presence of Christ is our own lives.  What kind of stresses are we dealing with on a daily basis?  Our own fiscal cliffs?  Upheaval in relationships?  Unconfessed sin?  Dealing with catastrophic illness?  And these are some of so many things that can turn our world upside-down and plunge us into our own personal darkness, which often feels darker because others are not experiencing it.  What makes all that go away?  When does it stop?

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

Hope is the enduring attitude of Advent.  Just when everything seems lost and we are tempted to despair, Advent reaches out to us and pulls us back toward Christ, the light and salvation of our lives.  There is no darkness that Advent can’t brighten; there is no despair that isn’t obliterated by our Lord’s most merciful coming in the flesh.  There is no sin that leaves us beyond the grasp of God’s healing and mercy.  This is the long-foretold Christ whom nations sigh for, promised by priest and prophet alike, who will come to redeem all of us, long lost as we may have been.

To the world, Advent may seem too-little, too late.  What kind of God comes in peace and meekness, in a lowly cradle?  How can any God come so passively and meekly?  What good can that do in any possible way?  But we people of faith see differently.  Yes, he came clothed in human weakness, but we see his Godhead: we see that a word of peace can change everything, that an ignominious death on a cross can shake the earth and obliterate death’s enduring power over us, that a Gospel of repentance can forever smash the power of sin.

Our readings today back up our reason for hope.  The prophet Micah insists that the coming Savior will hail from none other than Bethlehem-Ephrathah, the humblest of the clans of Judah.  He will shepherd all his people (including us!) humbly, but with strength that comes from God, and he shall be the ultimate peace.  In our gospel reading, Mary has consented to God’s will for her life, and hurries off to her cousin Elizabeth.  They share each other’s joy, and the fetus of Saint John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb for joy at the coming of the Savior!  The long night of sin and death is coming to an end; the great dawn of Christ’s presence and grace rises on the eastern horizon.  We are on the precipice of salvation!

This is why I love “O Come, Divine Messiah;” this is why I so tenaciously cling to the message of hope that is Advent.  It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and energizes my life and ministry.  There is nothing that the world can throw at us that can overshadow the light of Christ.  Nothing.

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

Advent Homilies Sacrament of Penance

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26; Matthew 5:13-16

As joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for so many people.  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.  And all we have to do is turn on the news this year, and hear of tragedy in Connecticut or the fiscal cliff, and even the most joyful among us can be turned to sadness.  And to make matters worse, 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.

But the struggle between light and darkness is 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.

In Advent, 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 symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents 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.”

Advent Homilies

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.  Some are sad, like the old wall that used to separate East and West Germany.  Others are exasperating, like the wall along the frontier into Mexico.  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?  Are we like the Israelites who could not bear to even look at Moses lest they be enlightened by the radiance of God at work in him?  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 Homilies

Monday of the Third Week of Advent: O Wisdom

Today’s readings

That was quite a list of names, wasn’t it?  Forty-two generations of the pilgrim people Israel led by some real characters.  Some of them were heroic like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah and to some extent David and Solomon.  But some of them were pretty wicked, especially Manasseh, whose wickedness in shedding innocent blood incurred God’s wrath such that he allowed the Babylonian captivity that took place during Jeconiah’s reign.  So we have forty-two generations of saints and sinners, great men and flawed men, all leading up to the Incarnation of Christ, who was the only remedy to the cycle of sin that spiraled all through the story.

Today we begin the more intense period of Advent that extends from December 17th through the morning of Christmas Eve.  During this time, the Liturgy leads us to call all the more longingly for the presence of Christ.  Just as forty-two generations of a mix of wisdom and foolishness could only be remedied by the presence of Christ, so the foolishness of our time calls for that same remedy.  The tragic events of last Friday scream out for the presence of Christ.  No words can make the horror of that moment go away; only the enduring presence of Christ can lead us to peace.

During these last days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons,” from which we derive the verses in the Advent Hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  The verses are also used during Evening Prayer.  Today’s is “O Wisdom,” and the verse from Evening Prayer is “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care: Come and show your people the way to salvation.”  We trust the governance of God, the Creator of creation, to satisfy our longing for wisdom with the presence of the Incarnate Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus and bring us peace.  Come, Lord Jesus and put an end to the world’s foolishness.  Come, Lord Jesus and bring us your Wisdom.  Come quickly and do not delay.