The Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete! Rejoice!

Today’s readings

Today’s readings and liturgy call us to rejoice.  That’s the reason for the rose-colored vestments and the more joyful tone of today’s readings.  This is called Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being Latin for “rejoice,” the first word of today’s introit or proper entrance antiphon which says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near.” The Church takes that antiphon from the words of the second reading today.

And there is reason to rejoice.  The prophet Zephaniah tells the people Israel that, even though their sins had displeased the LORD to the point that he gave them over to the hands of their enemies, he has relented in his judgment against them and will deliver them from their misfortune.  Their deliverance is so complete that the LORD will even rejoice over them with gladness!

In his letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul calls us to rejoice too.  The reason he calls for rejoicing is that “The Lord is near.”  He was referring to Jesus’ return in glory, of course, which they thought would be relatively soon in those days.  While he never saw that in his lifetime, we may.  Or perhaps our children will, or their children.  One thing we definitely know is that the Lord is near.  He does not abandon us in our anxieties but instead listens as we pray to him and make our petitions with thanksgiving.  Our Lord is as near to us as our next quiet moment, our next embrace of someone we love, our next act of kindness.  Rejoice indeed!

Maybe this call to rejoice rings a little hollow today, based on the continued presence of terror and mass-shootings and civil unrest in our society. The world can be a very bleak place, and rejoicing can be the furthest thing from our hearts and minds.  But our faith tells us we can rejoice anyway.  The Psalmist sings today about the kind of hope our world needs right now:

God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
a
nd he has been my savior.

And it is up to us to bring this kind of hope to a world that has almost become accustomed to horror and shock and terror and sadness.  The world may almost prefer to sit in this kind of darkness, but not people of faith.  People of faith instead light a candle of hope and dance in the light of Christ!  People of faith can rejoice because even in times of sadness and despair, the presence of our God is palpable, realized in stories of heroism and seen in acts of charity and grace in moments just like this.

And so today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation, perhaps the greatest and best of the mysteries of faith.  That God himself, who is higher than the heavens and greater than all the stars of the universe, would humble himself to be born among us, robing himself with our frail flesh, in order to save us from our sins and make his home among us for all eternity – that is a mystery so great it cannot fail to cause us to rejoice!  Indeed that very presence of God gives hope even in the worst tragedy – THE LORD IS NEAR!

The people who came to Saint John the Baptist in today’s Gospel knew of the nearness of their salvation, because John preached it with intensity.  So today they come to him and ask them what they should do – what’s the next step?  And he tells them.  They need to repent, to reform their lives, and keep watch for the One who is mightier still than he is.  The coming Savior will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and the only way to be prepared for that is to turn away from their practices of darkness and live with integrity.

It’s a message that is intended for us too.  Because we also could clean up our act a bit.  We too have need to repent.  Maybe we have big sins or maybe little ones; maybe we have patterns of addiction that we have been struggling with – we all fall short of the glory God intends for us. If you’re not Jesus or Mary, you have sin in your life and from that sin, Advent calls us to repent.

Because sin is what keeps us from rejoicing, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Sin keeps us mired in the darkness.  Sin breaks the relationship with God and others that keeps us from seeing that the Lord is near.  But we rejoice because our God came to us to give us the antidote to that.  He came to pour out on us his great mercy. That’s good news, and that’s why we celebrate – yes, celebrate! – the sacrament of Penance.

In order to help you to prepare so that you can rejoice, both Father Dan and I will be hearing confessions next Saturday at 3:45pm.  If that time does not work for your schedule, our bulletin has a list of confessions at parishes in our area. I want you to go to confession before Christmas because I want you to be able to rejoice.  If you have not been to Confession in years and maybe are a little ashamed or scared or don’t know how to do it, then rejoice and go anyway.  The priest will welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession.  That’s what we do; that’s why we are priests, and it’s our privilege to help you experience the Lord’s mercy and kindness so that you can once again rejoice.  So if you haven’t been to confession yet this Advent, I want you to go this week.  You’ll rejoice and be glad when you do.

These final days of Advent call us to prepare more intensely for the Lord’s birth.  They call us to clamor for his Incarnation, waiting with hope and expectation in a dark and scary world.  These days call us to be people of hope, courageously rejoicing that the Lord is near!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly and do not delay!

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the great obstacles to the spiritual life is when we come to believe that we ourselves have all the answers. When that happens, we may often hold to relative truth, even if we wouldn’t say that we do.   Or perhaps we insist on acting according to our opinions, instead of acting on consciences formed by Truth. You’ve heard it before, when having a conversation about a moral issue. People might say, “well I think…” whatever, as if that were the gold standard of morality and truth.

It’s cold comfort to see, in our gospel reading this morning, that we aren’t alone. Jesus’ generation was much the same. John the Baptist came across too strict, and Jesus came across like a drunkard and a partier. But the real problem was that they both proclaimed the truth; Jesus, obviously even stronger than John. But the crowds dismissed them both, because both required them to change their lives and their ways of thinking. If John and Jesus were right, then they weren’t, and that was unsettling.

It’s unsettling for us too, but we have the benefit of centuries of Church teaching to help us. And so we are called to leave behind our own opinions and think with the grace of Truth. It’s time that we considered that perhaps our own point of view isn’t the be-all and end-all of wisdom. Advent is about dispersing the darkness with the light of Christ, and the light of his Truth. The psalmist said it best: “Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life.”

Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 | Luke 3:1-6

I’ve been speaking to the second grade children about reconciliation as they prepare for their first Confession this coming Saturday. One of the images I’ve given them to picture sin is to imagine it as a huge boulder, which stands between them and God. Because of that boulder, we can’t get to God, can’t talk to him or walk with him. When we try to move the boulder, well, we just can’t, because it’s way too big and heavy for us. So what is it then that will actually move the boulder? And the answer is God’s mercy.

On Tuesday, we began the Holy Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacrament of Penance, which is what brings us here tonight.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

So mercy is that reality that bridges the gap between God and humanity, smashing the boulder that I asked the second grade children to imagine. This evening’s readings speak of the ministry of mercy, perhaps taken up in a special way by Saint John the Baptist. In our Gospel, he traveled through the whole region to proclaim not just any baptism, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That proclamation speaks of what is necessary for mercy to be able to work, and that is repentance. God wants to show us mercy, but we have to seek mercy out, open our hearts to mercy. Because mercy changes us. It makes us a new creation, it gives us that salvific grace that restores our friendship with God.

It’s no secret that our world is a dark place, now as much as ever. Our God’s mercy lights the fire that obliterates the darkness. And thus Isaiah can proclaim that “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.” Because mercy also changes the world. When our sins are forgiven, the world – or at least our corner of it – is a harbor of mercy, and that light helps others to find the way too.

Indeed, 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. This light of mercy 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.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light of God’s mercy 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 all of 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, the light of God’s mercy 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.”

Thursday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the amazing truths to ponder in this season of Advent is the nature of and reason for the Incarnation. Why did God choose to save the world by entering into it as a creature? Why did he assume our fickle, broken flesh in the lowliest form: an infant born to a poor family?

There is a theological principle that says something like “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” Christ had to assume, that is, take on all of our weaknesses, so that he would be able to redeem all of our brokenness. What great comfort it is that our Advent leads to the Birth of a Savior so wonderful in glory that the whole universe could not contain him, but also so intimately one of us that he bore all our sorrows and grief. It is amazing that God’s plan to save the world took shape by assuming our own form, even to the point of dying our death.

That’s what I thought about as I reflected on today’s first reading. Israel was pretty low and lacking in power, in the grand scheme of things. Almost every nation on earth was more powerful than them. Yet they were decidedly not unnoticed by God – indeed they were actually favored. God’s plan for salvation takes place among the weakness in all of us. God notices that weakness, takes it on and redeems it in glory.

That’s the good news today for all of us who suffer in whatever way. God notices our suffering, in the person of Jesus he bore that same suffering, and in the glory of the Paschal Mystery, he redeemed it. God may not wave a magic wand and make all of our problems go away, but he will never leave us alone in them.

And it all started with the Incarnation. The birth of one tiny child to a poor family, in the tiniest region of the lowliest nation on earth. God can do amazing things when we are incredibly weak.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Blessed Pope Pius IX instituted the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1854, when he proclaimed as truth the dogma that our Lady was conceived free from the stain of original sin. This had been a traditional belief since about the eighth century, and had been celebrated as a feast first in the East, and later in the West.

Today we also begin the Holy Year of Mercy, instituted by Pope Francis. During this year, the Pope has called us to pay particular attention to the mercy of God, and to be very certain that we as the Church extend that mercy to every person. It’s very appropriate to begin the Year of Mercy with today’s feast, because in this feast, we see the unfolding of God’s great mercy. This feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrates the belief that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight. This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was finally coming to fruition.

The readings chosen for this day paint the picture. In the reading from Genesis, we have the story of the fall. The man and the woman had eaten of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat. Because of this, they were ashamed and covered over their nakedness. God noticed that, and asked about it. He found they had discovered the forbidden tree because otherwise they would not have the idea that their natural state was shameful.

Thus begins the pattern of sin and deliverance that cycles all through the scriptures. God extends a way to salvation to his people, the people reject it and go their own way. In his great mercy, God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation. Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation and that his mercies are never spent, or we would be in dire straits. It all comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today. Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection. That is why St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, today: “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.   In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…”

And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder. God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to him, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man. He began this by preparing for his birth through the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin. He was then ready to be born into our midst and to take on our form. With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us. Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.

Our celebration today has special meaning for us. Because Mary was conceived without sin, we can see that sin was never intended to rule us. Because God selected Mary from the beginning, we can see that we were chosen before we were ever in our mother’s womb. Because Mary received salvific grace from the moment of her conception, we can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day. Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too. That is the fullness of God’s mercy!

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

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

This fall, it was a real pain trying to get in and out of my driveway at the rectory, let alone into our parking lot here at church. The village had torn up the streets in order to rebuild them. It was a huge inconvenience then, but the streets are nice to travel on right now. My dad used to say that there are tearer-uppers and fixer-uppers when it comes to road construction, and apparently there are ten times as many tearer-uppers as there are fixer-uppers. Now, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it starts to make real sense!

We live in this area where there are just two seasons: winter and road construction, and so when we hear the prophet Baruch say “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God,” well, we may just cringe a little bit. But I think we can sure relate to the experience.

At the time of the Babylonian empire, whenever the monarch traveled workers would precede him leveling the ground and filling in ditches to make the way smooth for his chariots. So that explains Baruch’s prophecy, and also the prophecy of Isaiah that St. Luke quotes in today’s gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” And it’s easy for us to extrapolate that in order to prepare the way for our monarch, Jesus Christ our king, we would want the way to be smooth and pristine too.

But for us, the roadwork isn’t so much the topography of the countryside as it is the topography of our spiritual lives. We all have rough spots, crooked ways and assorted obstacles on our spiritual paths. Our intentions to be friends with God may be good, but often we have lost our way or been stuck in a kind of spiritual traffic-jam. Our goal is communion with our friend, Jesus Christ. Our best intentions are to get there. Our frustration is that often we are derailed and never seem to reach the goal. But the promise is that God will indeed bring that good work to fulfillment, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, and we will then rejoice in our salvation with all God’s holy ones.

But all of that presupposes that we are clear about the fact that we need a Savior. We need God’s mercy. Wherever we are on the journey to Christ, whatever the obstacles we face, God promises to make it right through Jesus Christ – if we will let him. We may be facing the valley of hurts or resentments. God will fill in that valley. Perhaps we are up against a mountain of sinful behavior or shame. God will level that mountain. We may be lost on the winding roads of procrastination or apathy. God will straighten out that way. We may be riding along on the rough and bumpy ways of poor choices, sinful relationships and patterns of sin. God will make all those ways smooth. And all flesh – every one of us, brothers and sisters – we will all see the salvation of God. That’s a promise. God will forgive us all of our sins. But we have to be open to the experience.

And so, in the spirit of encouraging that openness, I want to make a very personal invitation. If you find that you have quite a bit of unfinished road construction to do in your spiritual life, I invite you to take care of it this Advent. The Sacrament of Penance is where we Catholics level those mountains, straighten those winding roads, and fill in the potholes that have derailed us along the way. And we have plenty of opportunities to do that. This Thursday, we will have our Advent Reconciliation Service, with a number of priests available to hear your confession. We also have First Reconciliation on Saturday, and invite all the parents and families of our second graders to go to confession along with their children. And each Saturday we have confessions from 3:45 to 4:30. So you have many opportunities to be open to the “baptism of repentance” that John the Baptist was preaching, and to make the way straight once again for the coming of the Lord in your own life.

Now, having said that, I fully understand that there are many of you here who have not been to confession in many years. I get it. I myself was away from the sacrament for years before God worked on me and brought me back. So here is Father Pat’s “Consumer’s Guide to the Sacrament of Penance:” If you have been away a long time, it will be hard to go back, but take that leap of faith anyway. Be honest with the priest and tell him that it’s been years. Even tell him if you’re not sure how to make a confession. If he doesn’t welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and find a priest who will. Because it’s my job to help you make a good confession. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility that I take very seriously. Nothing must stand in the way of you receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, because it is a gift too precious to miss.

That’s what Advent is about. The coming of Christ in our world isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago. Advent means that Christ is coming into our world today, and every day, if we would just open our hearts and smooth out a place for him. God becomes incarnate in our world every time someone turns back to him and repents of his or her sin. God’s love comes to birth every time we accept the gift of forgiveness and the unfathomable grace of the Eucharist. Advent means that Christ is Emmanuel, God-with-us NOW. Advent means that the salvation and forgiveness that God promises us is available to us NOW.

The truth is, brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to this holy place to this sacred Liturgy, each of us at different places in the spiritual road. Our goal – all of us – is to advance on that road, tackling the obstacles that face us, and defeating our sin by the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There may only be one unforgivable sin: the sin of thinking that we don’t need a Savior. When we rationalize that we’re basically good people and we’re okay and that there is nothing wrong with our lives or our relationships, then we’re lost. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us this sin, it’s more that we refuse to have it forgiven. If Advent teaches us anything, it’s got to be that we all need that baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached, that we all need to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, making straight the paths for his return to us.

On Tuesday, we begin the Holy Year of Mercy. What better way to begin than by experiencing God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance? The Psalmist sings today that “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” I pray that you all find that out in the Sacrament of Penance this Advent season.

Saint Francis Xavier, Priest, Diocesan Patron

Today’s readings: 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23;   Mark 16:15-20

We celebrate the memorial of St. Francis Xavier as a feast today, because he is the patron saint of the Diocese of Joliet.  Francis Xavier was a sixteenth century man who had a promising career in academics.  He was encouraged in the faith by his good friend, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and went to join the new community founded by Ignatius, the Society of Jesus, better known today as the Jesuits.

Francis had a passion for preaching the Gospel and living a life of Gospel simplicity.  He would live with and among the poorest of the poor, sharing their living conditions, ministering to the sick, and preaching and teaching the faith.  In fact, we might say that he reminds us of a current Jesuit, Pope Francis!  Saint Francis Xavier lived in the East Indies for a time, before going on to minister to the Hindus, Malaysians, and Japanese.  He even learned a bit of Japanese in order to communicate well with his people and to preach to them.  He dreamed of going on to minister in China, but died before he could get there.

Francis Xavier truly took to heart the words of St. Paul who said he made himself all things to all people in order to save at least some.  He made it his life’s work to live as his people lived, preaching to simple folk, and calling them to Jesus.  He was also able to live freely Jesus’ Gospel call today: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

Now we might not have the opportunity to live as Francis Xavier did and to actually go out to distant shores to preach the Gospel.  But we certainly are still called to preach it with our lives.  We are called to witness to Christ to everyone we meet: family, friends, coworkers, neighbors-anyone the Lord puts in our path.  Our diocese chose Francis Xavier for our patron because our founders took seriously the call to proclaim the Gospel to every person in this diocese.  We are called upon to do the same, according to our own life’s vocation and state of life.  May all who hear our words and see our actions come to believe and be saved.