Thursday of the Third Week of Advent: O Oriens

Today’s readings

As I’ve preached earlier this week, in these last days of Advent, we are praying the “O Antiphons” in the Liturgy, and especially in Evening Prayer.  The O Antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as given to us in Sacred Scripture, and they manifest our longing for the appearance of Christ.  Today the O Antiphon is O Oriens, or O Dayspring.  It could also be translated O Morning Star or O Radiant Dawn.  Today we pray that Christ would come and enlighten our hearts and brighten a world dark in sin.

The significance of light and darkness really strikes me, because, who hasn’t noticed that there is a lot more darkness this time of year?  I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too – maybe you’re even one of them.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy day, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  And if there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

In essence, this 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.

Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  As we continue to light the candles on the Advent Wreath, we see more light all the time, up until the feast of that great light which we will celebrate in just four days.  Today’s Gospel gives us a glimpse at that bright light: the infant John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb at the nearness of the Savior.  Saint Elizabeth gives words to such great joy: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Receiving the light, we are called to bear that light to the dark world around us through our prayers, our acts of charity, and our living with integrity and love.  And so we pray: Come to us, O Radiant Dawn: scatter the darkness of our world and our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Help us to be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent: O Root of Jesse

Today’s readings

In these late days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons.” These antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as found in Scripture. Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it is found as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary in Vespers: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

Zechariah in today’s Gospel certainly knew what it was like to stand silent in the presence of the Root of Jesse. Having been promised a son by an angel of the Lord – what one might consider a very trustworthy source – his disbelief moved him to silence in God’s presence. Here is a man who, one would think, should know better. But maybe his years of childlessness have led him to accept a life that was not God’s will. Certainly we could not blame him if the angel’s message was a bit unbelievable; we who have the benefit of so much science would probably be a little harder on the angel than Zechariah was.

When you’re accustomed to living without hope, any sign of hope can be met with an awful lot of skepticism. Would Elizabeth and Zechariah ever give birth to a child? How would that even be possible? Would God save the world from the darkness of sin and death? Why would he even want to? Can God be born here among us, giving us rootedness and a solid foundation for our lives? Why would he even care?

Better to be silent than to voice our lack of faith and hope. Then, in the stillness of our hearts and souls, maybe God can give rootedness to our scattered lives, bring hope to a world grown dark in sin and crime and war and too much death. Today’s Gospel has God bringing hope to a elderly, childless couple. God forbid that we would doubt that he could bring hope to us too.

We pray today: Come, Lord Jesus, come root of Jesse, give rootedness to our lives that are sometimes adrift in despair or apathy, give hope to a world grown cold in darkness and disappointment, give life to a people burdened by sin and death. Come, let us stand silent as we await the dawning of your hope in our lives, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

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.