Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas (St. Thomas Becket)

Today’s readings | St. Thomas Becket

The birth of Christ in our world ought to mean something to us: the birth of Christ ought to mean a change in our attitudes and our behaviors and even in the course of our lives.

Today is a commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who ultimately lost his life to the man who gave him that prestigious post. When King Henry began to usurp Church rights, Thomas Becket found himself in a bind. Would he be beholden to the king, or would he protect the Church on behalf of the King of Kings? While it was a struggle for Thomas, he ultimately knew that the he must take a stand, no matter what the cost.

In today’s first reading, St. John makes the point very clear. We cannot say we love God and yet defy his commandments. And we certainly cannot love God who is love itself, while at the same time refusing to love our brothers and sisters. Being Christian looks like something, and the world looks at us to see what it is. If the birth of Christ means something to us, we have to share that meaning with the world by loving, no matter what the cost.

Perhaps the one who knew this best was Mary herself. Simeon the prophet knew that he had seen the promise when he looked at the child Jesus. Then he clearly told his mother that this Savior would cost her some happiness in life. Because Jesus would be a contradictory sign in the world, her heart would be pierced with sorrow. But all of this was to make manifest God’s glory.

The birth of Christ in our world and into our lives this Christmas ought to mean something to us. A watching world should be able to look at us and see Christ. May this Christmas find us changing our hearts and minds so that we can be that Christ for all the world to see, no matter what the cost.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

I always feel like it’s 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. 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 we 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 have been 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 I think we can rely on the intercession of the Holy Family when we attempt to do this.

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 also, all of us who do our best to live according to the Spirit in our own human families.

Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

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

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

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

The Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ: Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

There’s a great commercial out that has three senior ladies talking. One of them, the hostess, has taped all kinds of photographs to her living room wall and says that it’s a really quick way to share these memories with her friends. Just like her car insurance; it only took 15 minutes to get a quote. One of her friends said she was able to do that in half the time, so the hostess says, “I unfriend you.” Her former friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works!”

I thought of that commercial because I think that, often, many people don’t get how God works. They either think that he’s a capricious policeman who’s always looking for some kind of way to catch them in a trivial sin so that he can send them to the place downstairs, or they think he’s a friend who overlooks all their faults and doesn’t mind if they never give him a second thought. Both positions are not how God works!

And if you asked a lot of people why Christmas is so important, if they have any religious answer at all, they might tell you that probably God finally found the right answer after so many years of failure. That all along, from the time of Adam and Eve, people had been doing whatever they wanted, and so God was at his wit’s end and finally just sent his only begotten Son down here to straighten things out. But that’s not how God works!

The truth is, as we see in today’s Gospel, that God had always intended to save the world by sending his own Son who was with him in the beginning. The Word – God’s Son – was with him in the beginning and everything that has ever been made has been made through him. Not only that, but in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. The Greek here says literally that he “pitched his tent” among us. That was the plan – from the beginning – for God’s own Son to become flesh so that we could become like God. It’s a marvelous exchange!

And when he became flesh, he lived as one of the people in that time. He walked among them and had all the same concerns they did. He was like us in all things but sin. When the appointed hour came, he took on our sins and was crucified for our salvation. He died like we do, but so that sin and death would no longer be able to hold us bound to the earth, he rose from the dead and attained eternal life. Now we can do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.

Jesus became one of us, pitching his tent among us, so that he could gather us all up and bring us back to heaven with him, to the kingdom of God for which we were created, in the beginning. That was always the plan. But sin and death keeping us from friendship with God is obliterated by the saving act of Jesus. Sin and death no longer have the final word, because that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

It’s all about the zeal of the LORD of Hosts! 

Because when you think about it, God doesn’t have to care about our welfare or our salvation. He’s God, he’s not in need of anyone or anything, because he is all-sufficient. He doesn’t need our love, he doesn’t need our praise, he doesn’t need our contrition … honestly, he doesn’t need us period. 

But because God is who he is, because he is Goodness in all its perfection, because he is Love beyond all telling, because he is Truth in its purest form, because he is Beauty beyond anything we’ve ever seen, because he is our God, he cannot not care about us. He cannot not want us to come to salvation. And so he pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal. 

He created us in love, and even though he doesn’t need us, he still loves us, and can’t do anything but that. Throughout time, we’ve disappointed him, and when he forgave us – which he didn’t have to do – we disappointed him again. That’s been the story of us as a people, and also our own personal stories, if we’re honest. How many times have we all sinned, and after being forgiven, go back and sin again? Honestly, if we were God, we’d throw up our hands and walk away. But, thank God, we’re not God, and our God isn’t like that. As often as we turn away and come back, he reaches out to us with the love of the father for his prodigal son. Our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal. 

When our need for a Savior was great, when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, after Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel had made God’s desire for reconciliation known, our Lord Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desired to consecrate the world by his most loving presence. Being conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, he was born in Bethlehem of Judah and was made man. As a man, he walked among the people of his time and lived as one of us, in all things but sin. At the appointed hour, he took on our sins and was nailed to a cross. He died to pay the price for all of us, in order to redeem us and bring us back to friendship with the Father. Because of this, the power of death and sin to keep us from God has been canceled out, and we have the possibility of eternal life. Our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal. 

We gather this night not to wish each other happy holidays or season’s greetings, but instead to revel in the zeal that our God has for our souls. We who are so much less than him, and so unworthy of his love, nonetheless have his love and are intimately known to him, better than we even know ourselves. In God’s zeal for us, he reaches out to us when we fall, walks with us when we suffer, and brings us back to him when we wander away. There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run, no depth to which we can fall, that is beyond the reach of God’s zealous love for us. And that’s why this night, when we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, is such an amazing and holy night for us. If not for this night, the night of our salvation on Easter would never come to pass. This night we celebrate not just the birth of a baby, but the birth of God’s intimate presence in the world from the moment of his birth until time is no more. 

It’s no wonder the angels sang that night: they knew what the world had yet to behold. They knew that God’s zeal had obliterated the chasm between the world and its maker. They knew that the sadness of death was coming to an end. They knew that the power of sin had been smashed to bits. They new the light of God’s Radiant Dawn had burst forth upon the earth. They knew that in this moment, the sad melody of sin had given way to a chorus of God’s glory. They knew that the dirge of death had dwindled to the peace that God pours forth on those whom he favors. 

That moment, all those years ago, changed everything. Nothing would be the same. The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will do this!

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Christmas Vigil – Childrens Mass

In a town called Nazareth in Galilee, a long time ago, Mary lived with her parents, Joachim and Ann. Mary was only a young girl, maybe 14 years old. She came from a quiet little area of the world, and just looking at them, you’d have to say nothing about her family was very special. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, because that was when people got married in those days, but she wasn’t married yet.

She was busy doing her chores one day, when she was surprised by the appearance of an angel named Gabriel. As you can imagine, the appearing of an angel can be a little frightening, but Gabriel reassured her and told her that the Lord was with her. He told her not to be afraid, because God wanted her to be the mother of his Son Jesus. Jesus would become great and would rule over the kingdom of Israel forever. Mary was confused how she could have a baby, because she was not married, but the angel reassured her that all things are possible with God. She was amazed, but she had faith, and said to the angel, “Let it happen as you have said.”

Mary sang a hymn proclaiming how great God was, and went in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also going to have a baby, even though she was very old. When she got there, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Mary helped Elizabeth for three months and returned home.

Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, and when he heard that Mary was pregnant, he was upset. He was going to break off the engagement, but he heard from the angel too. He came to be with her and took her into the city of David for the census, so that they could be counted. On the way, Mary gave birth to her baby, and had Jesus in a manger where the animals stayed. Many people came to visit Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and gave the baby gifts and said wonderful things about him, things Mary would never forget. She kept all of this very close to her in her heart.

Mary and Joseph raised Jesus and watched him become a strong, healthy, and smart young man. One time, when the family went to Jerusalem for a visit to the holy temple, Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus. They were on the way home when they discovered Jesus wasn’t with them or any of their friends or family. Returning to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, talking about their faith, with all of the rabbis and teachers. He was only twelve years old!

Eventually Joseph died, and Mary stayed near Jesus. She watched him start his ministry, the whole reason God had sent him to earth in the first place. He called his disciples and taught all the people. He cured the sick and fed many hungry people. He worked many miracles and always talked about how good God was, and how much God loved people, and how they should all turn back to God and turn away from the bad things they had been doing. Mary watched as he did all these wonderful things, and she saw how faithful he was to God’s work.

But Mary also began to see that Jesus wasn’t making everybody happy. She saw that when he cured people on the Sabbath day, the day of rest, the leaders of the temple became angry. She saw that when Jesus told them to take care of the poor and the hungry and the homeless instead of worrying about what day it was, the religious leaders wanted to kill him. Mary watched as eventually they did take hold of Jesus, carried him off for a trial before Pilate the governor, and nailed him to the cross.

At the foot of the cross, Mary stood sorrowful, knowing what a wonderful gift she and the whole world had been given in Jesus. But Jesus took care of Mary even then, and entrusted her to the care of his friend John. After Jesus died on the cross, Mary along with some of the other women in the group were the first ones to see that Jesus rose from the dead! Mary stayed with the other disciples and prayed with them that the whole world would come to know the message of Jesus. Her sorrow turned to joy as she watched the community grow and live the things Jesus had taught them.

Those disciples were the ones who passed the faith on to us. Because of the courage of the disciples and especially of Mary, we today can believe in Jesus and receive the gift of everlasting life from him. Because of the faith of Mary, we can live forever with God and never have to be afraid of death or be mastered by sin. All of this happened because Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

It is good for us to hear Mary’s story, because she lived her life following Jesus. We’re supposed to do that too. Mary got to see Jesus face-to-face, even hold him in her arms. We might not be able to do that, but Jesus is close to all of us as long as we let him in. Just like they made a place for Jesus to be born in a manger, we need to make a manger for Jesus in our own hearts so that he can be born in us and always be with us.

It’s very important that we all hear that just as God sent an angel to Mary, he sends angels to us all the time. Those angels tell us, too, that we should not be afraid because God loves us and cares for us and wants to do great things with us, just like he did with Mary. All he needs for us to do is to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O King of All the Nations

Today’s readings

We hear a similar song from Hannah and Mary today. In fact, some Biblical scholars suggest that the song of Mary we heard in today’s Gospel is a restatement of the song of Hannah that we have in today’s psalm. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that both women give birth to a child by the grace of God, and both women’s sons are destined for greatness. Samuel’s strength is a foreshadowing of the strength of Jesus Christ who will overcome sin and death.

Samuel becomes a prophet and judge, and helps to restore law, order, and regular religious worship in the land, but it is Jesus who becomes King of all the Nations, which is the title of Jesus we celebrate in the “O Antiphons” today. The verse from vespers prays, “O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.”

Today we anxiously await the strength of Christ, King of all the Nations, the only joy of every human heart. He alone can save us from our sins. He alone can unify the hearts of all humankind, putting to an end, once and for all, the sad divisions that keep us from the communion we were always meant to have with one another.

And so we pray, Come, O King of all the nations. Come, be our strength, be the One who leads us in the ways of righteousness, be the joy of every heart that seeks you. Help us to find the peace that only you can bring. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Do you remember the best gift you ever got? What was it? Who gave it to you? How long did it last? Do you still have it? Every gift is a little different: some are big, some are small, some make a lasting impact, some are used up and soon forgotten. The best gifts are those that create a memory of good times; perhaps the best gifts are those that can be shared.

God gives us gifts too. And some are big, and some are small, but all of them are important to us and to others. In this season of giving, I’d like to take a moment to talk about God’s gifts, and how they are to be enjoyed, and there are four points I want to make.

First, God’s gifts are given to be used. They’re not supposed to be like an action figure that is to be kept in its package and preserved so it can be sold in ten years for a lot of money on eBay! It’s supposed to be used for our happiness and God’s glory. So if it’s a talent for sports, we ought to play. If it’s intelligence, we ought to study and research and invent. If it’s creativity, we ought to paint or act or sing. Keeping it in a box and denying it is an insult to the Giver.

Second, God’s gifts are never just for us. God gifts us in ways that we can build up our community and our world and help people to come to know God’s love for them. Always. Mary never could have kept Jesus to herself, and we’re not supposed to keep our gifts to ourselves either.

Third, we will never know how wonderful our gifts are until we share them with others. Our gifts are supposed to create memories and bring people together and help people to know God. When that happens, the full wonder of those gifts will be revealed to us, and we will enjoy them in ways we never could have before we shared them.

Finally, we don’t lose our gifts when we share them. They don’t get used up when we give them away. Just as Mary didn’t lose her Son when she gave him to the world, so we won’t lose what God has given us when we share it with others. That’s just how God’s gifts are.

In today’s Gospel, Mary received a gift. A little scary at first, yes, but a gift nonetheless. She received the gift of a Savior before anyone else did; her fiat meant that she received salvation before it was ever played out on earth. It was the best gift ever, and she got to watch it all unfold before her. Some of it was difficult and painful, but so much of it was amazing.

Because of Mary’s faith, God was able to send the best gift possible to be shared with all of us: the gift of his only-begotten Son. Jesus took on our flesh as a little baby, and grew to become a man like us in all things but sin. He walked among the people of his time and helped them to know of God’s kingdom. He eventually took on our sins and went to the cross for all of us, dying to pay the price for our sins, and canceling out the power that sin and death had to keep us from God. Because of Mary’s faith, we received the gift of salvation, if we would accept it.

And just like all our other gifts from God, those same four principles apply: we have to use, or live our salvation; we have to share the gift of salvation with others; salvation becomes more wonderful every time someone else is saved, and salvation is not something that ever gets used up – it’s meant for everyone.

So this is a bit of a “pep talk” for the coming feast of Christmas and how we are going to celebrate it as a parish family. We know the gift we’ve received. It’s wonderful and precious and amazing – the best gift we’ll ever get. But we can’t just put it on a shelf and look at it once in a while in wonder – we have to get it out there so everyone can come to salvation, everyone can get to heaven, everyone can know God’s love.

The most important thing that we can ever know about God is that he loves us. That’s why he created us, that’s why he came here to redeem us. So when a stranger comes here for Mass on Christmas and sits in your spot, maybe it’s someone who hasn’t heard that God loves them, at least not in any significant way. Maybe you moving over in the seat and welcoming them will help them to know that. Or in the parking lot, when someone is having difficulty or taking a little time, maybe your patience can help them to know that God is glad they are here. Perhaps rather than getting irritated about the vast crowds of people who never come here except for Christmas, you can say a prayer that the church would be full like this all the time. Every little thing you do can have a big impact on someone else, and if it brings them closer to our Savior, then you may have saved a soul.

And level two of this is offering the invitation. You know, like at the family party when someone is hurting and obviously needs to know the Lord. Or at the office party when someone wonders why you go to Church. We’re always supposed to be able to answer for our faith. So this year, we’ve given you two ways to do that. The first is the brochure What Does the Church Have to Offer ME? We mailed it out in the Advent/Christmas packets that went to your house, and we have some extras at the information desk. The intent is that you might save it and give it to someone who needs to know that the Church can be of help to them right now.

The second is the gift we’ll be giving at all the Christmas Masses. Last year we gave a book, this year, for the visual learners, we’re giving a DVD. It’s an episode of Father Bob Barron’s Catholicism series. What I want you to do is to watch it yourself, and then pass it on to someone. Either give it to someone who needs to know the Lord or has questions about the Church, or give it to a friend and ask them to do the same. What I don’t want you to do is to return it to the parish, like some of you did with the books last year. The intent is that they would be out there in the community, or even far from the community, so that the message would spread.

Our salvation, our relationship with God, is a gift, and it’s up to us to spread it around. It’s a shame if someone doesn’t know about God and his love for them. But if they don’t know because we didn’t use our gifts to tell them, then it’s a sin. This is the season for giving gifts. The very best gift you can give to anyone is a relationship with God. Whether it’s your children, or coworkers, or people in the neighborhood, your gift will do so much to make the world a better place. All we have to do is respond like Mary: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent: O Sacred Lord

Today’s readings

I love these late days of Advent. The expectation of the Savior is heightening, the time of deliverance is at hand, the Lord is near. During these days, we sing the “O Antiphons:” the call for Christ to come and visit us under his many titles. Yesterday was “O Sapientia” or “O Wisdom.” Today is “O Adonai” or “O Sacred Lord.” The antiphon for Vespers this evening prays: “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.” We pray for the Lord of our salvation to come quickly and not delay.

This was the message Joseph received in his dream. No, the child to be born was not a random child born out of wedlock. He was instead the hope of the nations, the Lord of Lords, the one who would save his people from their sins. Just as Isaiah foretold one who would be called “the LORD our justice,” so Joseph would name his child Jesus, a name which means “the LORD is salvation.” We await the coming of our Savior who is our salvation, our justice, our hope of eternal life. He was long desired of every nation, and he is needed in our hearts today.

It was necessary for Joseph to set aside his plans for his life so that salvation could come to all the world.  His decision to dismiss Mary quietly was a just one, considering he could have exposed her to shame.  But even that just decision was not God’s will.  Joseph went to God in the stillness of his heart, and was open to his angel’s message in a dream.  Openness to God’s plans is necessary for all of us if we would be one with the Lord.

And so we pray, come O Sacred Lord, do not delay. Fill our hearts with your presence and come to us with your great salvation. Free us from our slavery to sin, open our hearts to your will for us, and bring us into your presence. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: from the First Sunday of Advent

The prophet Isaiah has a way with words, to say the least. The way that he expresses God’s word is almost irresistible. The first reading today is one that has really taken hold of me over the years. Back when I was in my first year of seminary, I came home for Christmas break on the same day our parish was having its penance service, and I went. I was asked to read the first reading, and it was this same reading. It so completely expressed the way I felt about my own sins and my desire to have God meet me doing right, that I thought the prophet was speaking directly to me.

Of course, he is; he’s speaking directly to all of us, and I hope you too find inspiration in his message. I think he expresses the frustration of us when we try to take on our sinfulness and straighten up our act, all by ourselves. That’s an overwhelming proposition, and really we can’t do it. And so when we try and fail, and try again and fail again, and so on, maybe we might pray those same words of Isaiah: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Certainly something can be done, can’t it, so that we aren’t always wandering off the path to life?

Can’t God just “rend the heavens and come down” – kind of like a parent descending the steps to where the children are misbehaving in the basement? Wouldn’t it be nice if he would even take away our ability to sin, and empower us only to live for God? But that would make us less than what we were created to be, would make us less than human, less than children of God.

And so we have to continue to take on the struggle, and Isaiah’s reading shows us how to do that. The first thing we have to do is to acknowledge our sins. That’s the word that the priest uses in the Roman Missal at the beginning of Mass: “Brothers and Sisters, let us acknowledge our sins…” And I think that is a very good word to use, because it’s not like God hasn’t noticed our sins, and it’s not like we don’t know we’re sinning. Everyone knows what’s going on. But this can’t be like an Irish family squabble where everyone knows what’s going on but nobody says it out loud (I can say that because I’m Irish); we have to acknowledge our sinfulness so that our Lord may heal us.

The second thing Isaiah does is to acknowledge our complete inability to heal ourselves or doing something good while we are in sin. “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” It’s pretty harsh stuff there, but it’s also objectively true. Sin does that kind of thing to us, and guilt carries us away to further guilt like the wind scatters the leaves of the autumn. Isaiah’s prayer here is a very good act of contrition.

But the final and most important thing that Isaiah does for us in this reading is to acknowledge God’s mercy: “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” God is that merciful Father who created us out of nothing – we are the work of his hands, and in his hands, we are sustained in being. He didn’t create us for death and sin and destruction. He created us for life and eternity. And this is the point that we often forget when we are busy about the pain of our sins. We sometimes forget that there isn’t a place our sins can take us that is beyond the grasp of God’s love and mercy, unless we let it. So acknowledging God’s mercy is crucial in the process of reconciliation.

And so we all come here on this Advent night, aware of the fact that we need to be here. The cold weather and earlier darkness perhaps makes us feel the pain of our sins so much more. So we come here to acknowledge our sins, to acknowledge our own inability to heal ourselves, and to acknowledge God’s love and mercy that will do just that: grant us healing and grace and eternity and the light of endless day. On this Advent night, as we yearn for the nearness of our God, there is no better place to be than in the presence of his love and mercy.

That presence, of course, is why God gave us his only begotten Son in the first place.