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. These beautiful figurines give 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, what we are 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.

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

Readings of Christmas: Mass during the Night | Mass During the Day

I was thinking over the last few days about some of my Christmases past. I was trying to see if I could remember the gifts I had been given as a child. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember them specifically, but of course I did remember the happiness of the times. The joy of being with my family and the love that we shared certainly marked my memory of those Christmases. Over time, some Christmases have been wonderful, and some marked by sadness, especially after Dad died. That is how Christmas comes and goes throughout our lives, of course.

But the real revelation that I had while reflecting on those past Christmases is that we definitely sell Christmas short. Sure, we settle sometimes for the commercial, retail version of Christmas. If you love the people in your life, then you’ll gift them lavishly. Then we’ll all sit around the Christmas lights, eat a big feast, and sing some Christmas carols. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but that’s not the totality of Christmas.

The totality of Christmas is, quite frankly, overwhelming. Christmas is the beginning of the Incarnation, in which our God – God who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than anything we can think of – this God takes on our flesh, broken and flawed as it can sometimes be, and becomes one of us. In fact, 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.

That’s pretty awesome, but even that is not the totality of what Christmas is. Because here’s the kicker: are you ready? He did all that for you. Saint Augustine points this out in one of his sermons. He writes: “I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

“You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.”

And if you think about it, we need this kind of mercy right now, maybe more than ever. The constant threat of terror overseas, and even here in our country. The nightly shootings on the streets of Chicago and many other cities. The degradation of real authority sparked by misconduct of politicians, police officers, teachers, and even priests.

Amid all of this mess, Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy. He, too, acknowledges the mess in the document that instituted this holy year. He writes: “How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!”

What we have to see on this most holy (night / day) is that our God knew the flaws of human flesh, but he loved it so much that he came into it anyway so that it might be redeemed. He was well aware of our brokenness, but he came into it anyway that he might bind it up and make it whole. Becoming one of us, he was in a powerful position to pour out his great mercy, taking his creation one step further by making it fit for heaven. And, as Saint Augustine points out, he did that for you.

That is Christmas.  It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th.  God’s mercy 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 mercy 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 mercy 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 mercy 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 come to one of us on the parish staff, 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 / today) and your encounter with Christ in this moment 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 God’s mercy, 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

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Emmanuel

Today’s Readings

Today’s Liturgy has us on the edge of our seats: “Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.” So says the psalmist today and all indications are that that psalmist is absolutely right! Even the last-minute shoppers are starting to panic, there’s only one door left on the Advent calendar, and our Advent wreath is fully ablaze with all four candles lit. But more than that, the psalmist is right about our redemption. God has chosen to be near us, he has chosen to become flesh and dwell among us, he is Emmanuel, God with us.

That’s our “O Antiphon” for today – “O Emmanuel” – and we sing it in the very first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Israel may mourn in lowly exile, indeed we might all be mourning the incompleteness of our lives, or the pain we experience, or the sadness that this world can bring us. But none of that is able to overcome the joy of our God, our Emmanuel, being one with us and leading us through the Cross to the Resurrection and eternal life. The Son of God has indeed appeared and will appear again.

And so we rejoice at the nearness of our God, we rejoice that grace and peace have come to us, we rejoice that we are not what are sins may appear to make us, we rejoice that there is eternal life, that there is grace, and peace for all men and women of the earth.

In these last hours before Christmas, it would be well for us to take a few minutes to stop all the preparations: to put aside the cookie-making and gift-wrapping and all of the other preparations just for a while. We need to make that quiet space within us so that Christ can be born in us again, so that we can be filled up with the love he wants us to share, so that the peace on earth we desire can be born within our hearts.

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,

desire of the nations, Savior of all people: 

Come and set us free, Lord our God.

O Radiant Dawn

Today’s readings

There’s a little more light today.  As we get toward these last days of Advent, we find ourselves in a time when more light is beginning to shine.  All of the candles on our Advent wreath are lit, and the only thing that can make it brighter is the coming of our God in all his glory, dawning brightly on the earth.

Today’s “O Antiphon” tells us as much.  Today we hear “O Radiant Dawn,” and the antiphon for Evening prayer is this: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

This light is the source of the joy of which Zephaniah the prophet speaks today.  He tells the broken people Israel that God has forgiven their sins, and that he continues to walk among them, which should be cause enough to remove their fear.  That enduring presence among the people Israel, of course, is a foretaste of the enduring presence that we experience in the Incarnation of Christ.

Mary and Elizabeth celebrate that light in today’s Gospel.  Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth is an act of hospitality, and Elizabeth’s welcome, along with the Baptist’s reaction in his mother’s womb, is an act of faith.  That faith incredibly affected the salvation of the whole world.

And all of this light continues to shine on our sometimes-dark world.  A world grown dark and cold in sin is visited by its creator, and that world is changed forever.  The darkness can never now be permanent.  Sin and death no longer have the last word for us, because that was never God’s will for us.  We have hope for eternal life because our God eagerly desires us to return to him and be one with him.

And so we pray, Come, O Radiant Dawn, shatter the darkness that sometimes reigns in our cynical world.  Give us the warmth of your light to warm our hearts grown cold with sin.  Shine on all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

Thursday 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.

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.

Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

While he was still a catechumen, St. Ambrose was chosen as bishop of Milan and was consecrated on December 7, 374. Ambrose was a classically educated man, a revered Scripture Scholar and a solid preacher. It is his preaching that in some ways influenced St. Augustine to convert to Catholicism, and it was Ambrose who baptized Augustine.

Ambrose was a man not just of great learning, but also great courage. He strongly defended the Church against attacks by the Arians, and also by the empire. Ambrose specifically admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime. 

St. Ambrose’s sermons and his works tell us that he was a very educated man who was willing to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the issues of the day. He practiced what he preached and he was not shy about calling people to repentance. He was able to influence learned men such as Saint Augustine, and won many converts to the Church. 

Isaiah says in our first reading this morning “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared…” Thanks be to God the Church has had men like Saint Ambrose to help people come to understanding and to provide instruction in the ways of the Gospel, that they may be blind and deaf no longer.