The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice,” reflecting the first word of the entrance antiphon for today which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.”  On this Sunday, we take a break from the somber tones of purple and put on the more festive color rose to symbolize that in the bleak winter days of Advent, we have reason for joy, and that joy is the hope of our coming Savior.  The Lord is near!  Rejoice!

The prophet Isaiah gets in on the rejoicing in today’s first reading.  He rejoices that the Lord, having anointed him for service, is using him to work out salvation and justice.  Clothed in a robe of justice and wrapped in a mantle of salvation, God has sent him forth “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.”  To a people as long oppressed as Isaiah’s hearers were, this message would indeed be welcome and cause for great rejoicing.

In the second reading, Saint Paul gives the Thessalonians very specific instructions about how they are to conduct themselves.  And the first instruction is that they should rejoice.  Rejoicing is the natural way for Christians to behave because they have in their presence the cause of all joy, Jesus Christ our Lord.  The French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  So with God present among us, we should rejoice, and that joy ought to lead to gratitude, seeking what is good and turning away from all evil.

In our Gospel this morning, Saint John the Baptist clearly points out the source of his joy: “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”  John’s job, just like Isaiah’s and Saint Paul’s, was to point to Christ as the source of joy in the world.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is the mighty one who comes in power to take away our sins.  That’s the reality that we celebrate in these Advent days.  We might sing of a sweet little child sleeping in his mother’s arms, but we know he is the God of our life and the King of the universe and the bringer of salvation who will suffer and die for our sins, ultimately rising victorious on the Third Day.  We know that the Incarnation of Christ, which we are preparing to celebrate, changes everything, and we joyously await that game-changing moment!

But so what?  What difference does any of this make, really?  In the face of all that is happening in our world, these are significant questions.  How do we live as people filled with joy when the daily news gives us bickering in politics, sexual abuse scandals in the political and entertainment worlds, and raging wildfires and other natural disasters?  How do we seriously talk about peace on earth when there are wars raging in the middle east, Africa, and so many other places in the world?  Is there really liberty for captives when many are stuck in patterns of sin and addiction that hold them and their families hostage in so many disheartening ways?  We’re really supposed to be joyful in the face of all of that?

A cynical and watching world wants answers to these questions.  Quite frankly, most of them won’t be answered to any degree of satisfaction in this life.  Only faith can help us with them.  But for a world without faith, they need to understand the source of our joy.  And so when they point to all of these things, we need to point to people doing the right thing for people mired in the wake of all of this.  We need to show them we care by helping the food pantry, feeding others at a soup kitchen, and making every effort to welcome the stranger in our midst. And when they point to the unrest and war all around us, we need to point out Christ by putting an end to the conflicts in our own lives.  We have to be people who forgive and love first of all, even if the other doesn’t forgive and love us back.  And when they point out all the sin and addiction in our world, we need to point out that Christ is always there for us, ready to forgive us and give us grace in the Sacrament of Penance.

We have to be the joy that our world needs right now.  We have to be witnesses to his love and presence all around us.  We have to show that our God is great and mighty and faithful and loving and glorious and forgiving and healing and more awesome than anything we can possibly imagine – and we have to do that by the way that we live our lives, by the words we say, by the things we do.  If we want the world to find the joy that Christ is in our lives, then we have to live that joy – choose to live that joy – right here and right now.

Brothers and sisters, we are witnesses to joy.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.”

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

Mass for the school children.

Don’t you hate it when you’re having an argument with someone and they turn out to be right, and you turn out to be wrong?  I know I do.  But that kind of thinking doesn’t get us anywhere good.  That kind of thinking puts up an obstacle to learning what we need to learn because we put up a mental roadblock for the truth to get in.  That kind of thinking is also a roadblock in our life with Jesus because we put up a roadblock for him to teach us.

That’s kind of what was going on in today’s Gospel.  Jesus had had enough of that generation’s attitude and was complaining about them.  He said they complained about John the Baptist because he came across as too strict, but then they complained about Jesus because he looked like he partied with sinners.  So neither one of them could please that generation, but the fact was, they were both testifying to the truth, and that generation had put up a mental and spiritual roadblock to the truth.

The problem with the whole story is that when Jesus says “this generation,” it wasn’t just the generation that lived 2,000 years ago.  It is this generation: the generation that is hearing it.  And that includes us, brothers and sisters.  He is saying that we have to stop putting up mental roadblocks to the truth, because otherwise we are just putting up roadblocks to getting into heaven.  So we have to stop trying to always be right, and accept the truth of God’s presence in our world.

Here we are, getting close to the end of Advent for us.  And so we have to start thinking about how we are getting ready for Jesus.  Instead of putting up roadblocks, we have to prepare a space in our heart for him.  We have to let him speak to us, let him give us his light.

I read a really short, but good prayer last night that we should pray every day.  It goes like this: “Jesus, help me to prepare a space in my heart for you.”  It’s a great prayer, and it will help us to tear down those mental and spiritual roadblocks, to stop always trying to be right even when we’re not, and open our hearts and minds up to Jesus and his truth and love for us.

Jesus, help me to prepare a space in my heart for you.

Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

A long time ago now, someone once gave my family an ornament for our Christmas tree.  It was very curious: basically just a large nail hung from a green ribbon.  You probably already know the significance of the nail: when looking at the manger, we remember the cross.  When gazing on the Christmas tree, we remember the tree from which our Savior hung.  The nail was a reminder that Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are all part of the same mystery.

Saint John of the Cross is a good reminder of this truth.  Born in Spain, he eventually became a Carmelite.  He came to know a Carmelite nun by the name of Teresa of Avila, and through her urging, joined her in a reform of the Carmelite order.  His great writings helped to accomplish this and are noted as spiritual masterpieces, and helped him to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.  But not everyone, of course, agreed with the reform of the order, and he paid the price for it by being imprisoned.  In some ways, Saint John of the Cross reminds me more of Lent than Advent.  But then, so does that nail ornament.

Even as we wrap ourselves in the hope and promise of Advent, we have to pause and remind ourselves of what the promise is all about.  Jesus came to pay the very real price for our many sins.  And that, dear brothers and sisters, is a gift of incomprehensible worth!

Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

What the Pharisees were missing in this gospel story was that there is something that paralyzes a person much worse than any physical thing, and that something, of course, is sin.  And if you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a pattern of sin in your life, of if you’ve ever struggled with any kind of addiction, or if a sin you have committed has ever made you too ashamed to move forward in a relationship or ministry or responsibility, then you know the paralysis this poor man was suffering on that stretcher.  Sin is that insidious thing that ensnares us and renders us helpless, because we cannot defeat it no matter how hard we try.  That’s just the way sin works on us.

We cannot just raise our hands and say, hey, I’m only human, because nothing makes us less human than sin.  Jesus, in addition to being divine, of course, was the most perfectly human person that ever lived, and he never sinned.  So from this we should certainly take away that sin does not make us human, and that sin is not part of human nature.

And it doesn’t have to stay that way.  We’re not supposed to stay bound up on our stretchers forever.  We’re supposed to get ourselves to Jesus, or if need be, like the man in the gospel today, get taken to him by friends, because it is only Jesus that can free us.  That’s why the church prays, in the prayer of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, “May God give you pardon and peace.”

Freed from the bondage of our sins by Jesus who is our peace, we can stand up with the lame man from the gospel and go on our way, rejoicing in God.  We can rejoice in our deliverance with Isaiah who proclaimed, “Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know if it’s ever easy to listen to the news any more.  Unrest in the middle east, abuse scandals in the entertainment industry and political arena, crime in our cities, and so much more.  And all of those are the man-made problems: they are byproducts of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we Advent more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame.  I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way.  They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age, unfortunately – it never seems to go away.  And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good.  We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new.  And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those in which we participate as a society.  And then we have to accept the process of repentance.  We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God.  That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the bad stuff going on in our nation and our world, if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done.  That’s why reconciliation is so important.  What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us.  The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others.  But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ.  We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas.  I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that.  I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, and I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, nasty thorns in the flesh, day in and day out.  And God never meant it to be that way.  He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

So speaking of confession, here’s one of mine: There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time.  I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed.  It came about from what I came to realize was a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person.  But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way.  We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward.  That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament.  The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession.  It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace.  And you do too.  So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree.  Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be.  When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too.  That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  We have a Reconciliation Service scheduled for Thursday, December 21 at 7:00pm.  We are also hearing confessions twice a day every Saturday until Christmas: after the 7:30am Mass, and again at 3:00pm.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent.  Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession.  That’s our job.  All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you.  Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

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.  So let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25.  It’s easy to keep this straight if you remember the math: nine months after this date is September 8th, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Nine months after the Annunciation is December 25th, or Christmas, the feast of the birth of our Savior.

Today’s feast celebrates our faith that God loves 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 just before Christmas, when our salvation begins to unfold.

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; they had not been created for shame.  Sin had entered the world, and God asks the man to tell him who had given him the forbidden fruit.

This leads to a rather pathetic deterioration of morality, as the man blames not just the woman, but also God, for the situation: “The woman whom you put here with me: she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  In other words, if God hadn’t put the woman there with him in the first place, he never would have received the fruit to eat.  The woman, too, blames someone else: the serpent.  As if neither of them had been created with a brain to think for themselves, they begin that blame game in which we all participate from time to time.

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 them, 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, and as the least among us: a newborn infant born to a poor family.  Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.  There’s a wonderful Marian prayer called the Alma Redemptoris Mater that the Church prays at the conclusion of Night Prayer during the Advent and Christmas seasons that sums it all up so beautifully.  Pray it with me, if you know it:

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
Gate of heaven, star of the sea,

Assist your people
who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us, poor sinners.

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.

Grieving During the Holidays

Today, I was invited to give a talk at one of the local funeral homes for their clients who had lost loved ones during the last year.  I spoke about grieving during the holiday season.

A reading from the book of Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21).

“Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.

“I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.”  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let the hearer say, “Come.” Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.

The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.

Many years ago now, in the young adult period of my life, my grandmother on my father’s side passed away after a long and heartbreaking illness.  She was one of my best friends: we would sit and talk for hours about the “Old Country” and so many things.  After she died, I was in a local store around this time of year, and the store was all decked out in a homey, holiday theme.  I had gone in there just to see if I could find a gift for my mom, and I was in there maybe thirty second and found I couldn’t take it and rushed out and broke down and cried.  I was overcome by a sense of grief that came at me out of nowhere, and realized that I still had a long way to go in the grieving process.

I’m glad to be here with you tonight, and I look forward to sharing about my own experience of grieving and to share some thoughts about how grief works.  But I do want to start out by saying that I may or may not have any idea how you feel.  Grief is a rather personal thing, by which I mean that each person experiences grieving in their own way.  It has to do with who they are grieving, what their relationship with that person was like, and how long it’s been since the loss of that person took place.  But I do want to be clear about the fact that we all grieve our loved ones – whether our relationship with them was good or bad, no matter how strong or weak we are emotionally otherwise, and no matter how long it’s been since their passing.  Grief is a common human experience, which is part and parcel of the life of loving.

One of my deepest griefs came in the death of my father.  He has been gone ten years now, but it seems like I find a reason to miss him all the time.  Often on the anniversary of his death, I will gather with Mom, my sister Sharon, and my Aunt Eileen (dad’s sister), and sometimes my sister Peggy and the kids, to celebrate Mass and visit the cemetery to pray and lay some flowers, and then go out to eat.  That’s a pretty good picture of how grief works in our family, and always has.  We remember those we love, we pray, we visit the cemetery, and we celebrate them at some kind of meal, talking about them and remembering who they were for us.

Several years ago, not long after he died, I took a road trip.  I packed up early on Sunday and was out of the house by 6am, and took a 3 hour and 45 minute drive to see a friend, one of my classmates from seminary, who was a priest in the diocese of Springfield.  I visited with him all of Sunday and on Monday morning, then packed up just before noon and returned home.

I mention this because the trip itself was a bit unusual for me.  Usually, I’ll play the radio in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip that time, I traveled in silence.  I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a particular way.  I think I was missing him on this trip because Dad was great for road trips.  He’d get up before the crack of dawn, which is what I did, and he’d motor on toward whatever our destination was.  He loved to drive even long distances, and especially when I was a kid, the trip was kind of filled with expectation.  It wasn’t always fun getting up so early to leave, but it was kind of cool because it was a different experience, and as a kid, who could sleep the night before vacation anyway?

So many wonderful things continue to remind me of Dad.  I was sitting on the deck at Mom’s house a couple of weeks ago.  We had intended Dad to sit out and enjoy the deck that summer, but he died just a few days before it could be completed.  He would have loved it; he always liked sitting outside and enjoying the neighborhood and his house.  So as I sat there on that deck and prayed my breviary, I found myself especially close to Dad.

Whenever I was staying at Mom and Dad’s house overnight, and I’d get up in the morning to go shower, I would pass by his room and he would still be in bed. But he’d be awake, and would always say “good morning.” I miss those “good mornings” now.

A year or so after the deck got built, Mom and I were out staining it. When we were getting started, I was searching the garage for some painting supplies. When I got frustrated and couldn’t find what I was looking for, I said “okay Dad, where did you put it?” And the next drawer I opened had all the things I needed, right where he left them. I couldn’t help but smile and say “thanks” because Dad was the only one who knew where anything was in that garage. Not that it was messy; it was very organized, but he alone knew the scheme!

As I’ve experienced these things in the years since he died, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss that doesn’t ever seem to completely go away.  In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it reminds me how much I have loved and how much I was loved.  And through all of it, I have felt the abiding presence of God who is with us in all of our joys, and all of our sorrows.  I really feel like the danger of grieving is so miniscule compared with the danger of never having loved in our lives.

I come at grief from a couple of perspectives.  I’m Irish on dad’s side and Italian on mom’s side.  So the hands down winner for grieving is the Italian side of me.  I have relatives who have been known to throw themselves on the casket at a cemetery service, and there is generally a lot of outward grieving going on.  The Irish side of me makes all the arrangements, does what needs to be done, then never speaks of it again.  That’s a generalization, of course, but there’s some truth to all of it.

I had the opportunity to experience grieving at a fairly young age: I was just about nine years old.  Then my grandfather, Mom’s Dad, was close to death.  Mom and Dad talked with me about what was going to happen, and we all cried and hugged, and I began the strange feeling of grief when I was just nine years old.  When the time came, as is the custom on both sides of our family, all of us went to the wake and funeral, little as we were.

Some people try to shield their children from that experience.  Indeed, our overly medicated society tries to protect us all from that experience of grief, white-washing it and moving on just as soon as possible.  But how grateful I am that my parents didn’t do that to me, because grieving is a healthy experience in life.  Through that experience, I learned to love more deeply, not less.  I learned that the people in my life are signs to me of God’s love and presence in my life.  I learned that grieving is part of life, that it’s natural, that it’s something we all experience, that it’s a sign of God’s love.  We have to learn to grieve, as soon as we have the opportunity, and not to be afraid of it, because grieving is a way that we remember and love and heal and grow.

Sometimes for my yearly retreat, I will take it at Mundelein Seminary, where I went to school.  I will stay there, and spend some time reading and praying and recharging myself.  One of the things I always try to do every day when I am there is to take a walk around the grounds, which are really beautiful.  One day on my walk around the lake there, I came across an icon of Our Lady of Sorrows that had been recently erected.  It marked the spot where, in the fall of my last year in seminary, four of my brother seminarians were involved in a horrible, alcohol-related accident.  The two back-seat passengers were thrown from the car, and died.  The seminary isn’t like a big state university, it’s a small school of about 230 students, so you can imagine the impact on that small group of men.

The day it happened was, ironically, or perhaps by design, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  The priest who presided at Mass that day had written his homily the night before, and spoke of Our Lady’s experience of grieving the loss of her Son Jesus.  He never changed a word of it, and of course it resonated with all of us on that day in a way it couldn’t ever have resonated on any other day.  I’ve never seen a room full of hundreds of men in tears except on that day, and let me tell you, it was striking.

The reason I bring this story up is that it is a good example to me of Christian grieving.  The icon was erected a year or so after I left the seminary, and I think it was a good way to remember Matty and Jared.  The community marked the spot where the horrible thing had taken place, consecrated the memory of those good men who had done something stupid to God who makes beauty out of the worst things possible, and commended the whole of it to the saints – in this case in the person of Our Lady of Sorrows.

We believe in the Communion of Saints, which is that wonderful “cloud of witnesses” that we hear about in the Scriptures.  In the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1), we hear this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.”  This cloud of witnesses, this Communion of Saints consists of all the saints that we always know about: the men and women throughout history that have been formally and canonically recognized as saints.  We believe that these people are definitely in heaven, and have the power to intercede for us through their fervent prayers.

The Communion of Saints also includes, however, those men and women who have never been formally recognized as saints.  They are our loved ones, good and holy people for the most part, who have helped us to see God in this life.  They too can intercede for us to God.  They may or may not be in heaven at this time, but are most likely headed there in any event.  They may still need to undergo the merciful purification that we call Purgatory for a time, but nonetheless, they have been on the whole witnesses of faith for us.

So as I stood there looking at the image of Our Lady of Sorrows, I thought about the Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, and I thought about the saints, including Matty and Jared, and I prayed for those “small-s” saints with the Memorare, a prayer that I remembered was one of Matty’s favorites:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

 Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

 Amen.

The Church helps us through our grieving.  In the Liturgy, we pray what we believe.  And what we believe about grief is that it’s normal, that it’s part of life, that it’s a response to the gift of life that we have been given.  We are a people who believe that there is hope in the midst of sorrow, joy in the midst of pain, resurrection that follows death, and love that survives the grave and leads us to the one who made us for himself.

In the Liturgy, the words of hope that we find lead us back to the Cross and Resurrection. Death is not the end. Love does not come to an end at the grave.  Our loved ones who have been people of faith have been made new by passing through the gates of death. Their happiness is our hope; the grace and blessing that they now share will one day be ours.

But I will acknowledge that even that glimmer of hope doesn’t erase all the pain. We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, in the kingdom that knows no end.

Perhaps sometimes it feels like it would have been better not to have loved at all, because then maybe the pain wouldn’t be so great.  But deep down in our hearts, we have to know that’s not true.  Sadness and pain are temporary.  Love is eternal.  As the Church’s Vigil for the Deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is a hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Grief and loss can do a number of things to us, and that is what makes it so scary.  Some people can become fixated in their grief and can be taken by a kind of clinical depression.  For that, we must count on the expert assistance of counselors and therapists who can help us through the root causes of depression and help us to experience our grief in healthier ways.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences loss should be medicated or is even ill.  If you’re moving through grief and continue to be aware of the gifts of your relationship with those you have lost, and continue to know that God is present with you even in your pain, then you’re probably grieving in healthy ways.  But if you’re lost and have lost sight of God’s love, then you might need to speak with someone about your grief.

Jesus said in the Beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What makes this a particularly outrageous statement is that in biblical language, the word “blessed” here means “happy.”  So how is it that mourners are actually happy?  And the answer to that is that mourners have the wonderful experience of God’s presence in their grief.  When we grieve, we are especially close to God, close to our God who grieves when we are hurt, who may allow the bad things that happen in our lives, but never wills them, whose heart breaks whenever we sin and turn away from him.  We are made in the image and likeness of our God who is no stranger to grief, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, who grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, who grieved with those he ministered to, and whose heart was broken when he saw the sadness of his mother at the foot of the cross.  Our God accepts grief head-on, and so should we, aware that in our grieving we are closer to God than ever, and have the benefit of his abiding presence in our pain.

The pain doesn’t just go away. There is no time when grief is “over.” I miss Dad in many ways, all the time. I miss my grandparents, and an aunt and uncle who have gone to their rest.  You miss your loved ones in much the same way. There are times when our grief overwhelms us, comes at us out of nowhere. But many are the times when our memories provide us healing and joy.

Especially as we prepare for Christmas, we mourn perhaps more intensely.  It’s hard to be joyful, to see the joy of the world around us, when we are still grieving.  It’s hard to acknowledge that for others, life just goes on.  Although, I have to say that a lot of the so-called happy people out there might just have a happy face pasted on them, because grief is so universal, and almost universally done poorly!  But Advent reminds us that there is hope. This is a reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (25:6-9):

On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will provide for all peoples
A feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
The web that is woven over all nations.

He will destroy death forever.

The Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
On that day it will be said:
“Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us!
This is the LORD to whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”

Advent reminds us God didn’t give up on a world steeped in sin and ruled by death.  Instead, he burst into our time and place with life: taking our lowly and flawed human flesh, and redeeming it, making it holy, that we would be saved and God would be glorified.  For those of us who mourn during the holiday season, the promise of Advent tells us that sadness isn’t our enduring reality, that love conquers everything, and that God has life in mind for all of us, in that kingdom where we all hope to arrive at life eternal.  That’s a hope that is so much stronger than any sadness we may experience.

When he was little, my nephew had a very close relationship with Dad, who he called “Boppy.”  In the days after Dad’s death, Danny often dreamed of Dad and said to his mom, my sister, a year or so after Dad’s death, “I’m sad because I didn’t dream of Boppy last night. I like to dream about Boppy.” Our dreams, our memories are gifts from our God who insists that we always know that we are loved. Sometimes it hurts, but ultimately it heals. Sadness is temporary. Love is eternal.