Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

So what did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Perhaps you, like me, feel that the gifts are nice, but being together with family and friends at Christmas is the real gift.  Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get the coveted gift of the year, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us truly happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

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

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

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

As we praise the Holy Family today – and we certainly should – 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.  It might have been hard to turn off the television or tear someone away from the latest toy they just got for Christmas.  And so, as they hustle in here to church and sit down, maybe the holiness of the family is the furthest thing from our minds.

So maybe it’s hard to relate to the Holy Family.  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 torn by family secrets, grudges and age-old hurts.  Some are trying to form a family: they want to have children, but are unable.  There are healthy families and hurting families, and every one of them is graced by good and touched by some kind of sadness at some point in their history.

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

The institution of the family is an extremely precarious thing.  We know this.  God knows this.  Yet it was into this flawed but holy 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 to 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.

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

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

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

Sometimes I wrestle with the question of what is the greatest feast of the Church year.  Easter comes to mind, and probably Good Friday, because it is through the events those feasts commemorate that we were saved from our sins and the possibility of eternal life in the Kingdom of God became real for us.  Lots of Church people would argue that Holy Week is the greatest time of the Church year for that very reason.  And I’m inclined to agree, except for one detail: and that detail is the feast that we celebrate tonight (today).

Today we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation.  It’s a great and holy mystery that tells us that God loved us so much, he couldn’t bear to live without us.  When we had gone our own way and wandered far away from him, he pursued us to bring us back.  He went so far as to become one of us: the Great and Almighty One, who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than all the heavenly hosts, this God of ours took on our frail human flesh to walk among us and touch us and bring us back to himself.  He so perfectly assumed our humanity that although he never sinned, he willingly laid down his life for us, paying the price for our sins, the price of a tortuous, ignominious death on a cross.  And far from letting death have the last word, God raised him up, gloriously throwing open the gates of the Kingdom for all to enter in.

This, brothers and sisters, is truly a great and wonderful feast!  It’s no wonder the angels sang on that glorious night!  If it weren’t for the incarnation – Jesus’ taking on our mortal flesh – there could never be a Good Friday or an Easter, there could never be salvation, never be hope for us.  But there is.  That’s the good news that we celebrate tonight (today) and every day of our lives.

Knowing God’s love in this way is the whole reason the Church exists.  That people would not know God’s love and not experience his friendship was so unthinkable to the early followers of Jesus that they went forth everywhere preaching the Good News of God’s love and grace.

So we come to this holy place tonight, gathered together to gaze on the gift of Christ in our Manger.  The message of this peaceful scene is 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 could never really return 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 in a decisive way.

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.

That’s our story.  It’s really important that we don’t forget it, even more important that we tell it to everyone we can.  It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th.  Our story is what makes us who we are, what defines us as a Church and as a people.  The story of Christ’s Incarnation is what makes us a living sign of God’s love in the world.  That is who we really are, despite the world’s attempts to define us as something less.  The great gift of God’s love shines glorious light into every dark corner of our world and of our lives and calls us broken ones to redemption and healing and joy.

It’s crucial for us to live that story and not accept what others want to make us.  If you’re joining us for the first time tonight, or if you’re visiting family, or if you came here looking for something more for Christmas, then we welcome you and we hope that you experience Christ’s presence among us.  We hope that you find in your time with us and with the Lord tonight (today) a desire to go deeper in life and find the meaning of it all.  Please know that we would be glad to help you in that journey, and see our bulletin, or one of us, to point you in the right direction.  If you’re an active member of our parish family, then I hope the message that you receive tonight and your encounter with Christ tonight leads you to a desire to share Christ’s presence with others.

The Incarnation – the birth and personhood of Jesus Christ – along with his Passion, death and Resurrection, changes everything.  When we all rediscover Christ, the Incarnation can change us too, so that we may then go out and change the world around us.  When that happens in us, the angels will sing just as joyfully now as they did on that most holy night.  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!

The Nativity of the Lord: Vigil Mass

Amias and Eliana were innkeepers.  The had a little place with a few rooms in the town of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem.  They weren’t really all that well-to-do, because not many people ever came to Bethlehem.  They would get some guests every now and then when people from Egypt were making their way up to Jerusalem, or if people were returning to Egypt from the great city.

They did their best to keep the little inn in good repair.  It helped that Amias had learned to be a good handyman from his father, who was a carpenter in Nazareth many years ago.  Eliana was a wonderful cook and housekeeper, so the place was always nice, even if it wasn’t anything fancy.  Still, because they weren’t in a major city, they didn’t ever have a lot of people at their little inn.

Then, one time, everything changed for a while.  Things were busier than ever before, or ever since.  The emporer, Caesar Augustus, sent out a decree that the whole world should be enrolled.  He wanted to take a census so that he would know the name of every person and where they were from.  Everyone had to go back to his or her native town to take part in the enrollment.

People came from all over to Bethlehem, if that was their hometown, and many who were on the way to Jerusalem or points north of there would stop along the journey, staying overnight to get a fresh start in the morning.  Just like every other inn in the country, Amias and Eliana’s little inn was completely filled.  There wasn’t an empty room to be found in any inn anywhere!

* * *

It wasn’t all that long ago that Mary had heard from the angel.  Everything had changed.  The angel told her that she would have a child who was God’s Son, and that he would bring the long-hoped-for salvation to God’s people.  That was exciting news, but now it seemed like everything was falling apart.  She had to travel with her husband Joseph to his home town, Bethlehem, to be enrolled in the census.  Why did this have to happen now, so close to the time she was to give birth?  It seemed like this couldn’t possibly have been the way God wanted to send his Son into the world.

But, sure enough, while they were travelling, the time came for her to have the child.  Thank goodness they were there in Bethlehem, and Joseph looked earnestly for some place for them to stay so that Mary could give birth.  But because of the census, every room in every inn was filled.  They were turned away everywhere they went.

Finally, Joseph and Mary came to Amias and Eliana’s inn.  He learned too that the inn was full, that there wasn’t even one small room for them to stay the night.  Joseph explained to Elias that his wife was with child, and that the child was coming, and how they desperately needed a place to stay.  Eliana looked at Mary and her heart was moved by Mary’s pain and fear.  Eliana remembered what it was like when she gave birth to their daughter Hannah.  She took Amias aside and said, “There must be something we can do.  Look at her: it won’t be long until the baby is born.  We can’t turn them away.”

Amias too was moved with pity, and said to Joseph, “It’s not much, but it’s all I have with this census going on.  There’s a stable out back.  I just cleaned it out today and it will at least give you some shelter.  We can find some linens for you too.”  Joseph and Mary took the offer, and settled into the stable out back.

Soon enough, it happened.  Mary gave birth to her firstborn son.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, which Eliana had been nice enough to give her.  Mary and Joseph were so grateful to Amias and Eliana for the kindness they showed them in such a difficult time.

But it was Amias and Eliana who got the real reward.  They were amazed to see all that happened.  There were reports of angels singing and shepherds came to adore the newborn child.  After a while there was even a visit from astrologers from the East, who had followed a bright new star to the place where the child was born.  They learned the child’s name was Jesus, and they knew this was no ordinary child.  The knew that something special would come of him.

Amias and Eliana couldn’t have been more right.  Jesus was, and is, the special gift of all our dreams.  He came to give us love and save us from our sins.  He made it possible for us humans to go to heaven one day, where God reigns and Jesus lives forever.  All we have to do is just what Amias and Eliana did: make some room for him – just a little space – in our hearts and our lives.  Then everyone will see and adore Christ born in us and they can come to know Jesus too.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O Emmanuel

Today’s Liturgy has us on the edge of our seats.  As tomorrow’s night turns to day, our salvation will be closer at hand than ever.  Our Savior Jesus Christ, the Promised One of all the ages, will be incarnate among us as one like ourselves.  “And suddenly there will come to the temple, the LORD whom you seek,” Malachi prophecies, and his words could not be more true.  The Gospel, too, has us yearning, as Saint John the Forerunner is born and all wonder at what will become of him.  Little do they know the significance of that event!  Today’s “O Antiphon” speaks of Emmanuel, God-with-us: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”  Come, Lord Jesus; be our Emmanuel – God with us –  come quickly and do not delay!

The Fourth Sunday of Advent – Make Some Room!

What has captured my imagination as I’ve prayed this Advent is how we have been given this wonderful gift.  This gift eclipses anything we’ll ever be given, anything we will ever earn, anything that will ever cross our meandering path in life.  Today, the readings call that gift Emmanuel – God with us.  I think sometimes we forget how wonderful this is.  That the infinite all-powerful awesome God, who is not in need of anything or anyone for His self-worth, that He would choose to come to earth and take the flesh of his creatures, this is a truth too wonderful to even imagine.  But not only that, this God took on our imperfections so completely that he paid the price for our many sins, both individually and as a society.  He died the death we deserve for our waywardness, and then he rose from the dead in the Resurrection that assures us access to eternal life, if we will but love and follow him.  No gift on earth is like this one!

The most important thing that we can know about this Gift is that it isn’t for us.  Well, that’s not true: it is for us, but never only for us.  We are meant to share it.  Because we have been loved by God who is Love itself, with a love so complete and sacrificial and permanent, then we have to be willing to love that way too.  The people God puts in our lives, our family, our friends, our coworkers, our neighbors – all of them deserve to be loved in this same way too, and it’s up to us to be conduits of that love to others.

So we have to be on the lookout for ways to do that.  Last week, Father Steve preached at all the Masses and gave some very practical ways for each of us to gently invite our loved ones and friends to a relationship with Christ at our family gatherings and other Christmas events.  Every encounter with others should be a time for us to be ready to share God’s love with the people in our lives.

Today, I am talking at all the Masses to speak on another opportunity I believe that we have.  That opportunity is the one that we’ll have when we walk through the doors of this holy place on Tuesday or Wednesday.  God willing, our Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be packed, as they usually are on those days.  These are days when we have more people come through our doors than any given Sunday.  We have lots of visitors, family members of our parishioners, people from the community who don’t regularly join us for worship, people who are seeking something in their lives, people who perhaps have a hard time believing in anything this time of year, maybe those who have been going through hard times or family strife, or any of a million different stressors.

Those of us who are here all the time could get our noses out of joint at this time of year.  We put in all the effort to get here every week, so maybe the lack of parking and the packed seats inconvenience us to the point of irritation.  But what if it didn’t?

What if, instead, we used this as an opportunity to put the discipleship we’ve been learning about all year long into practice?  What if we chose to see Jesus in all of them, to be aware of Emmanuel – God with us – in such a way that we did everything we could to make their first time with us, or their first time in a long time, a memorable one?  What if we as a parish decided that a loving relationship with our God was so glorious, so important, that we didn’t want anyone to go without one?  What if, as a community, we decided there is nothing we won’t do to make those who visit us on Christmas irresistibly attracted to our community, so that when they’re here they think, “Those people at Notre Dame know something I don’t, and I have to find out what it is”?  Well, that’s what I’d like us to try and do this Christmas.

I liken it to the whole way Jesus came into the world.  We all know the story, don’t we?  The whole world was on the move, headed to their native places to be counted for the census, and there wasn’t an inn anywhere that would take Mary and Joseph, and the coming Christ Child in.  But one innkeeper made some room out back and gave the newborn King the best he could offer.  We absolutely know that Christ is in our brothers and sisters, so how on earth can we turn them away?  As Saint Benedict teaches us, “Let all guests be received as Christ.”

And so I’m going to make some suggestions for things that we can all do to make people feel welcome, to help them to know that there is a joy here in our community that has to be shared.  First, make some room.  I know we all want to get here first for a good parking spot.  But if you can walk here, would you consider doing that, just to make a spot for a visitor?  I can remember when my family would try to get to Mass as soon as possible to stake out a good seat, and I’d see so many people with coats over whole sections of a pew like they were lawn chairs on parking spaces in the city!  We all want to have room, but if you can move in a little and let some other folks sit with you, would you consider being a bit uncomfortable so that someone can be welcome?

Lots of times people will come here and won’t know where they’re going.  We all want to get to Mass on time, but if you see someone looking puzzled, would you consider taking a moment to ask if you could help them?  If they’re looking for the bathroom, would you go out of your way just this once to walk them there so they don’t get lost in the crowds coming in on a busy day?  Again, as intent as we are to get to our seats, if you notice someone coming in who needs some help walking, could you offer them your arm, or hold the door open?

We all like to see our friends and the people we know at Mass.  It’s a comfort to us.  So it might take a little concerted effort, but would you consider smiling at someone you’ve never seen before, perhaps introducing yourself and telling them what you like about Notre Dame?  Because it just takes a tiny little gesture, or a little inconvenience for us, to make a huge difference.  What if every person who walked through the door on Christmas Eve or Christmas had a life-changing experience because of the way that we treated them?  We can do that, and I really think that we should.  Would you all be willing to do a little something extra to make someone know God’s love in an awesome way?  I’m counting on all of you to do that.  If every Guest is received as Christ, then as Saint Benedict also said, we will all go together one day to eternal life!

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

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 Evening Prayer: “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.”

And we gather here tonight because we do need our Lord to come to our aid.  We are a people who have turned away from our God, numerous times, both individually and also as a society.  We are a people who, try as we might, have a hard time getting a handle on our sinfulness, that cycle of foolish turning away from God that we know in our heads is the wrong way to go.  We find that we are in the same place, over and over, and it is hard to turn back and be on the right path once and for all.  We just can’t do it ourselves.

So it’s good that we don’t have to do it all ourselves, isn’t it?  No one can come to our aid in quite the same way as Jesus our Savior.  Born as a child in a poor family, the expectations of him seemed great: redeeming the nation Israel and restoring its political greatness.  But we know how limited even that lofty vision was: instead, he broke the bonds of sin and death, paying the price we owed for our sinfulness and obliterating the ancient curse that too long kept us from friendship with our God.  Coming to our aid is exactly what God had in mind for us all along.  No wonder that kings stand silent and nations bow down in worship!

The Gospel reading today is from the First Sunday of Advent, in which the Church called us to wake up and realize that the time is running short.  Maybe you’ve felt that way in your Christmas preparations.  Wasn’t it just Thanksgiving a few hours ago?  But as quickly as Christmas has come, so quickly do our lives go, so quickly pass the opportunities to open our hearts and spirits to God.

What if we have found Advent a less than prayerful time?  Have we missed the opportunity to clean up our act, to spend more time in prayer, and generally prepare a home for the Savior to be born in us in new ways?  Have we meant Advent to be a more reflective time, and instead given way to secular concerns and holiday parties and all the trappings of a busy season?  Well there’s two pieces of good news if that’s how you find yourself this evening.

First, God will enter into our lives anyway.  It might not be in the way we expect, and perhaps it won’t be as pleasant as we would like.  But God is not limited by our lack of time.  God does what he wills and never lets anything keep him from coming to our aid.

Second, we have tonight to turn things around.  This is the time to come before our God in the Sacrament of Penance and leave what we’ve come with behind.  This is the time when we can throw off all those dark deeds as Saint Paul urged the Romans, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the time that we can do our small part to beat our swords into plowshares and cure the societal evils that perpetuate war and terror and all sorts of worldwide death.  This is the time when we can step out of the darkness and shine the light of Christ on those parts of us that have been shrouded for too long.  This is the time for us to walk in the light of the Lord, as Isaiah commands.

And so we begin tonight by reflecting on our lives, and opening ourselves up to God’s mercy as we pray our examination of conscience.