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.”

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary 

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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.

This feast 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. How appropriate it is, then, that we celebrate the Immaculate Conception during Advent, when we recount the unfolding of salvation through the Incarnation of Christ.

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. God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation. Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation, 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.

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

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary 

School Mass
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Today’s readings

I think we’re so blessed that we get to come to church and celebrate so many of Mary’s feasts. Today is a very special feast because Mary, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, is the patroness of the United States of America, and so she is very special to us.

I think today’s readings can be a little confusing. The Gospel makes it sound like this day is about the conception of Jesus, but it isn’t. We celebrate the conception of Jesus nine months before he was born, so that would be March 25th. We call that day the Annunciation, because that was the day the Angel Gabriel came to announce to Mary that she would have a baby, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute. Today we celebrate the conception of Mary, nine months before her birthday, so if you do the math on that one, her birthday is September 8th, just a few months ago. This day celebrates that Mary was free from sin from the very beginning, the only person other than Jesus to be born without sin.
The other confusing reading is the first one. Why do we go all the way to the beginning of creation when we’re talking about Mary today? Well, I think the reason is that Mary solved a problem that began all the way at the beginning. And that problem was sin. From the very beginning, we human beings have been tempted to sin. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, and people have been committing sin ever since. Again and again, God broke in to history, leading people back to him, giving them prophets to show them the way, and again and again, people turned away from God. And we continue that today. Again and again, we are tempted and we sin and we turn away from God. Eve represented our fall into sin.
But God didn’t want that to be the way things ended up for us. So he sent his Son to become one of us. God knew that in order for Jesus to be born among us, his mother was going to have to be pretty special. So before Mary was ever in her mother’s womb, God chose her to be his Son’s mother. He made her free from sin so that no stain of sin would ever touch his Son.
Because Mary was so special, she loved God very much. So when the angel came and told her she would have a baby by the power of the Holy Spirit, she said yes to God’s plan. I don’t know if she really understood what was going to happen, I don’t know if she really knew how this wonderful event would take place, and she probably didn’t fully understood what would happen to Jesus in his life, but she said yes anyway. We call that her fiat, her “yes” to God’s plan for her. She took a big leap of faith that day, and we have been blessed ever since.
This is all very good news. But there is even more good news: because Mary was so special to God, she shows us how special we are to God. As we celebrate God’s love for Mary today, we also celebrate his love for us. Mary got to hold her Savior – the One God promised us – in her own arms. When those of us who are old enough come to Communion today, we will be able to hold our Savior – the One God promised us – in the palm of our hand. Mary’s life was brightened when Jesus was born. Our lives will be brightened too, this coming Christmas, and every time we make room in our hearts for Jesus.
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
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Have you ever had the feeling hat things were just not right? I don’t mean not right like you got the wrong order at Portillo’s, or your postal delivery person gave you the neighbor’s mail. I mean, really not right, in a fundamental sense, like the world was off its axis in some way. I think these days we’ve gotten a sense of that after having been through a particularly contentious and almost ridiculous election campaign, and in view of the violence in our cities and all around the world. It seems in some way that we are more adrift than ever.

And perhaps even a bit closer to home, we could all probably think of times in our lives when things just haven’t been right: times of transition, times dealing with the illness of a loved one, or family difficulty, times when we have been looking for new work or trying to discern a path in life. These are unsettling times that we all have to experience every now and then.

So in view of the craziness in our world, and the sadness that sometimes happens in our own life, it’s easy to get to feeling like things are just not right.

And God knows it isn’t right. He’s known that for a long time. The whole Old Testament is filled with God’s lament of how things went wrong, and his attempts to bring it back. The fourth Eucharistic Prayer sums it up by saying to God, “Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and through the prophets taught him to hope for salvation.” But, as we well know from our studies of the Scriptures and its proclamation in the Liturgy, again and again humankind turned away from the covenant and away from the God of our salvation. Ever since the fall, things just haven’t been right.

So what is it going to take for all of this to turn around? What is going to get things whipped back into shape? Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Nothing ever changes if nothing ever changes. Things don’t suddenly become right by continuing to do the wrong thing. I really think the only way things will ever change is by starting over. And that’s what I believe God is doing, in our time, throughout all time, and particularly in this Advent time.

Today’s first reading speaks of this new creation: a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. It’s quite a visual, and when I think about it, I remember a young woman in a previous parish who once visited the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She saw the horrible death chambers and holding cells. But she also noticed, that growing up through the cracks in the asphalt, were some beautiful little wild flowers. Her tour guide commented that that was nature’s way of healing what had gone on there. It was a new creation, breaking up through the horrible devastation of the murder and destruction that had reigned in that place.

The bud that blossoms from God’s new creation is something completely different, something incredibly wonderful, something that would never be possible in the old order: “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” None of those species would ever get along in the old creation; none of them would ever have been safe. But in the new creation, all of them will know the Lord, and that knowledge will give them new life, a new direction, new hope and a new salvation.

In today’s gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist proclaims the coming of Christ who will do things in a new way, too: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The all-consuming fire of the Holy Spirit will burn away all that is not right and heat up all that has been frozen in listless despair for far too long. That fire will force a division between what is old and just not right, and what is of the new creation: “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

All of these are nice words, and the idea of a new creation is one for which I think we all inwardly yearn. But what does it really mean? What does it look like? How will we know that we are moving toward new creation and new life? I think Saint Paul gives us a hint in the second reading today: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are to be people who think and act in harmony with one another and with Christ. We have to be people of unity.

Which is, as most things are, so much easier to say than to actually do. For one thing, if we are really to be created anew, that means that some of the old stuff has to die: the death chambers have to be closed, the chaff has to be burnt up in the fire. Our old, stinkin’ attitudes have to be abandoned: resentments have to be put aside, rivalries have to be ended, forgiveness has to be offered and accepted, jealousies have to be thrown away. All of that festering, disease-ridden thinking has to be put to death if we are ever to experience new life.

The death of that old nonsense then has to give way to the new life that God intends for us. We have to be a people marked by new attitudes, new grace, new love. We have to strive for peace and justice – real peace and real justice available to everyone God has created. We have to be a community who worships God not just here in Church, but also out there in our daily lives: a community that insists on integrity, a community that genuinely cares for those who are sick, in need, or lost. We have to be a people who worship God first every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, who confess our sins with hope of God’s mercy, who give priority to prayer in the midst of our crazy lives.

Most of all, we have to be a people who are open to being re-created. If we are not willing to put to death our old stinkin’ selves and embrace new attitudes and ways of living, if we are not in fact willing to take up our crosses and follow Christ, then we are proving Einstein right: we are doing the same old thing and hoping for a different result. It doesn’t work that way. We have to cooperate with God’s new creation, we have to be eager to let God do something new. We have to be willing to live out of boxes for a while, so that the transition can take place. We have to have unwavering hope that giving ourselves to God’s re-creation will be worth it, if not immediately, then certainly in the long run. We have to truly believe our Psalmist’s song: “Justice will flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.”

Saint Francis Xavier, priest, patron of the Diocese of Joliet 

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.