The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Today’s readings

One of the great snapshots of Christmas for me has always been the manger scene. These beautiful figurines give us a glimpse as to what God is doing at the Incarnation of Christ – an amazing moment in time!  But I am aware that the idyllic holiness, peace and love the crèche depicts is often quite foreign to the experience of many families, including many families in this assembly. I know there are families where communication is anything but good. There are families who may never have known the kind of love that is shared between Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There are families who struggle with abuse: physical, sexual, or emotional.

Even in the “best” of families, there is often hardship. I know there are families who struggle to keep up with all the activities that are expected of them. There are families who can’t find time to have a meal together, let alone take a trip together. Families often struggle to make ends meet. There are families who struggle with the changing needs of children as they grow older. Families may be separated by great distance, or may have suffered the sickness or death of one of the members. Other families may find themselves changing roles as a parent, the one who provided for his or her children, grows old and becomes ill and then becomes the one in need of care.

Families can be and are the source of our greatest joys and our deepest anguish. Sometimes all in the same day. The truth is, and perhaps you find yourself thinking this as you sit there and listen to these readings today, none of our families is perfect. Few of us would rush to describe our families as well-functioning, let alone holy. And so we can sit there and look at the manger and find its serenity meaningless in the hectic anxiety of our day-to-day family lives.

But maybe we need to look a little deeper or listen a little harder today. “Holy” and “perfect” are not the same thing. We don’t need to be perfect to be a family. That was true of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as well. Would a perfect family have lost their child on the way home from a trip? I don’t think so, but that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it? Mary says to Jesus when they find him that she and Joseph had been looking for him with “great anxiety.” Those of you who are parents can well imagine the anxiety and can totally identify with what Mary and Joseph had to have been feeling.  

Nothing was perfect in that family, not even from the beginning. Right at the beginning, there was a hint of scandal about the pregnancy; they had to flee for their safety; they suffered from poverty and violent threats. Like many modern families in various places in the world, they suffered under political and military oppression, had to settle far from their original home and had to start a new life in a foreign place. Two thousand years may separate the modern family from the “Holy Family,” but there are so many similarities.

So, what we are supposed to see in the Holy Family is something perhaps different from perfection.  I think it is faithfulness.  Faithfulness to God and faithfulness to one another: indeed, it is this faithfulness that leads them to the holiness we celebrate today.  Look at the way the situation in the Gospel reading today was resolved among them.  Even though they were panicked and anxious about the disappearance of their son; even though they did not understand what was going on with him, yet they strove to understand him and loved him beyond measure, and Mary kept all of these memories in her heart, kept them to be sorted out and understood much later.  And even though Jesus was ready to grow into adulthood and ready to begin his mission, yet he understood the concerns of his parents and continued to be obedient to them as he continued to grow in wisdom and grace. They were faithful to one another.

I continue to be aware that even as I pull that theme of faithfulness out of today’s Scriptures, that can still seem insurmountable to many of you. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but the call to faithfulness is still there for all of us. And we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please know that this Church family supports you with prayer and love as you do that.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we’ll be pretty far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Holiness demands that we seek it; it doesn’t just descend from above. If we want holy families, and we certainly should, we will have to make decisions and even sacrifices to pursue it. We will have to make an honest priority of worship; attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation as a minimum without fail. We will have to surround our families in prayer, praying at meals, teaching and reviewing prayers, praying together at night, reciting the rosary together, reading the Scriptures together. Holy families are not going to be perfect in these things, but they will not fail to pursue that holiness every single day. It takes a daily decision to do that; but that is the vocation of the family in the world.

Jesus, emerging from childhood to adulthood, reminds us that in his name, we must be ready to live faithful and holy lives, regardless of whether others are doing the same, and no matter what the personal cost. Because the cost of rejecting holiness in our lives is just too great, and the loss of an earthly family is nothing compared to losing our place in the family of God.

Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

“He saw and believed.” The “other” disciple, often called the “beloved” disciple or the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” is Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, the one we celebrate today. Saint John had a very special relationship with Christ. He wasn’t as zealous and boisterous as Peter could be, but he had a faith as strong as Peter’s in his own way. His was a faith that observed and processed and believed. His was a faith that grew quietly, as he made connections between what Jesus prophesied and what came to pass. It’s no wonder that when he stood at the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

In Saint John’s writings, the theme of love is almost overwhelming. We hear that in today’s first reading, from his first letter. That love is bound up in the whole theme of fleshly existence. John proclaims that because God loved the world so much, he could not bear to be apart from us or aloof from our nature. Instead, he took on our fleshly existence, this body that can so often fail us, can so often turn to sin and degradation, can so often lead us in the wrong direction. Taking on that flawed human flesh, he redeemed it for glory. Through the Incarnation, God proclaims once and for all that we have been created good, that we have been created in love, and that nothing can ever stand in the way of the love God has for us.

Saint John’s preaching of love and the goodness of our created bodies is a preaching that has a very special place in the celebration of Christmas. It was because of that love that God had for us, a love that encompasses our bodies and our souls, that he came to live among us and take flesh in our world. His most merciful coming was completely part of his loving plan for our salvation. That’s the message Saint John brings us on his feast day today, and throughout this celebration of Christmas.

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

There was a great commercial a few years back that has three senior ladies talking.  One of them, the hostess, has taped all kinds of photographs to her living room wall and says that it’s a really quick way to share these memories with her friends.  Just like her car insurance: it only took 15 minutes to get a quote.  One of her friends said she was able to do that in half the time, so the hostess says, “I unfriend you.”  Her former friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works!”

I thought of that commercial because I think that, often, many people don’t get how God works. They either think that he’s a capricious policeman who’s always looking for some kind of way to catch them in a trivial sin so that he can send them to the place downstairs, or they think he’s a friend who overlooks all their faults and doesn’t mind if they never give him a second thought.  Both positions are not how God works!

And if you asked a lot of people why Christmas is so important, if they have any religious answer at all, they might tell you that probably God finally found the right answer after so many years of failure.  That all along, from the time of Adam and Eve, people had been doing whatever they wanted, and so God was at his wit’s end and finally just sent his only begotten Son down here to straighten things out.  But that’s not how God works!

The truth is, (as we see in today’s Gospel), that God had always intended to save the world by sending his own Son who was with him in the beginning.  The Word – God’s Son – was with him in the beginning and everything that has ever been made has been made through him.  Not only that, but in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.  The Greek here says literally that he “pitched his tent” among us.  That was the plan – from the beginning – for God’s own Son to become flesh so that we could become like God.  It’s a marvelous exchange!

And when he became flesh, he lived as one of the people in that time.  He walked among them and had all the same concerns they did. He was like us in all things but sin. When the appointed hour came, he took on our sins and was crucified for our salvation.  He died, as we all must do, but so that sin and death would no longer be able to hold us bound to the earth, he rose from the dead and attained eternal life.  Now we the opportunity to do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.  

And he didn’t do that because we are good enough or have earned his mercy and grace.  Because we could never do enough to earn something so amazingly precious.  He did that because he created us in love, and won’t stop loving us until we’re where we belong in that place he has prepared for us in heaven.  It’s all grace, it’s all mercy, we don’t deserve it, but God offers it to us anyway, if we will accept it.  Because that’s how God works.

It’s kind of like the kid in one of my favorite movies, A Christmas Story.  He wanted the Daisy Red Ryder Air Rifle more than anything.  He thought he could earn it by being good enough, but he just gets in a fight with a bully and calls him every name in the book.  He thought he could earn it by helping Dad change a tire, but he drops the lug nuts and says something that was certainly not “oh fudge!” He thought he could write an amazing essay to convince everyone he should have it, but the teacher just points out he’ll shoot his eye out.  But his father gets it for him anyway, because he wants him to be happy, and that’s what fathers do.

Our Father gives us heaven, not because we can earn it or convince him we should have it, but just because he loves us, and he wants us to be happy – happy forever.  And that’s what our Father does.

Jesus became one of us, pitching his tent among us, so that he could gather us all up and bring us back to heaven with him, to the kingdom of God for which we were created, in the beginning.  That was always the plan.  But sin and death keeping us from friendship with God is obliterated by the saving act of Jesus.  Sin and death no longer have the final word, because that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!

Thank God.

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

Often when we get to Christmas time, we think about our Christmases past: who we were with, where we were, how we celebrated.  Sometimes we might remember the gifts we receive, sometimes not.  For me, what I remember most is the joy of being with my family and the love that we shared certainly marked my memory of those Christmases.  Over time, some Christmases have been wonderful, and some marked by sadness, especially after Dad died.  That is how Christmas comes and goes throughout our lives, of course.  You could probably tell similar stories.

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

The totality of Christmas is, quite frankly, overwhelming.  Christmas is the beginning of the Incarnation, in which our God – God who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than anything we can think of – this God takes on our flesh, broken and flawed as it can sometimes be, and becomes one of us.  In fact, he so perfectly assumed our humanity that although he never sinned, he willingly laid down his life for us, paying the price for our sins, the price of a tortuous, ignominious death on a cross.  And far from letting death have the last word, God raised him up, gloriously throwing open the gates of the Kingdom for all to enter in.

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

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

And if you think about it, we need this kind of mercy right now, maybe more than ever.  We need it as a people, and we need it individually. The constant threat of terror overseas, and even here in our country.  The nightly shootings on the streets of Chicago and many other cities. The degradation of real authority sparked by misconduct of politicians, police officers, teachers, and even priests. Add to all that our own sinful tendencies, addictions, and personal failures.

Amid all of this mess, there is mercy: personal, intentional, glorious mercy.  What we have to see on this most holy night is that our God knew the flaws of human flesh, but he loved it so much that he came into it anyway so that it might be redeemed.  He was well aware of our brokenness, but he entered into it anyway that he might bind it up and make it whole.  Becoming one of us, he was in a powerful position to pour out his great mercy, taking his creation one step further by making it fit for heaven. And, as Saint Augustine points out, he did that for you.  Not just you as a group, but you, and you, and you, and you, and so on.  What you need to hear me saying is that if you were the only person in history who ever needed mercy, he would have done that for you.

That is Christmas.  It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th.  God’s mercy is what makes us who we are, what defines us as a Church and as a people.  The story of Christ’s Incarnation is what makes us a living sign of God’s mercy in the world.  That is who we really are, despite the world’s attempts to define us as something so very much less.  The great gift of God’s mercy shines glorious light into every dark corner of our world and of our lives and calls us broken ones to redemption and healing and joy.

It’s crucial for us to live that mercy and not accept what others want to make us.  If you’re joining us for the first time tonight, or if you’re visiting family, or if you came here looking for something more for Christmas, then we welcome you and we hope that you experience Christ’s presence among us.  We hope that you find in your time with us and with the Lord tonight a desire to go deeper in life and find the meaning of it all.  Please know that we would be glad to help you in that journey, and come to one of us on the parish staff, to point you in the right direction.  If you’re an active member of our parish family, then I hope the message that you receive tonight, and your encounter with Christ in this moment, leads you to a desire to share Christ’s presence with others.

The Incarnation – the birth and personhood of Jesus Christ – along with his Passion, death and Resurrection, changes everything.  When we all rediscover God’s mercy, the Incarnation can change us too, so that we may then go out and change the world around us.  When that happens in us, when Christ becomes incarnate in us, the angels will sing just as joyfully now as they did on that most holy night.  

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!

The Nativity of the Lord – Vigil Masses

Today’s readings

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

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

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

So Joseph did what the angel told him.  He took Mary as his wife.  And about that time, a proclamation came from the government that said that everyone had to go and be registered as a citizen.  They had to go to the city where they were from to do that.  So Joseph made plans to travel with Mary from Nazareth in Galilee where they were living, to Bethlehem, the city of David, which was where Joseph was from.  The way was long and dangerous, and they traveled by foot and on a beast of burden. They were hoping to get to Bethlehem before it was time for Mary to have the baby, but that didn’t work out. While they were travelling on the way, the time came for Mary to have her baby.

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

Later, they had visits from shepherds and from astrologers from the east, who came to worship the child, because they had seen visions too, and followed a star that foretold the baby’s birth.  Mary and Joseph were amazed at all that was happening, and the wonderful visits they were receiving, and they treasured all of this in their hearts.

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

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

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

If there is anything we can learn from this story, it should be this: God loves us with love beyond all telling.  Our sins can’t keep us from that if we look to God for mercy.  Just like the birth of Jesus couldn’t be stopped by a long journey, or the plotting of the government, so nothing can get in the way of God’s love for us.

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

For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.  That’s the best gift we will ever get.  God’s love for us, beyond all telling.

Friday of the Third Week of Advent: O Radiant Dawn

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Sacred Lord

Today’s readings

I love these late days of Advent. The expectation of the Savior is heightening, the time of deliverance is at hand, the Lord is near. During these days, we pray the “O Antiphons:” the call for Christ to come and visit us under his many titles. Yesterday was “O Sapientia” or “O Wisdom.” Today is “O Adonai” or “O Sacred Lord.” The antiphon for Vespers this evening prays: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” We pray for the Lord of our salvation to come quickly and not delay.

This was the message Joseph received in his dream. No, the child to be born was not a random child born out of wedlock. He was instead the hope of the nations, the Lord of Lords, the one who would save his people from their sins. Just as Isaiah foretold one who would be called “the LORD our justice,” so Joseph would name his child Jesus, a name which means “the LORD is salvation.” We await the coming of our Savior who is our salvation, our justice, our hope of eternal life. He was long desired of every nation, and he is needed in our hearts today.

It was necessary for Joseph to set aside his plans for his life so that salvation could come to all the world.  His decision to dismiss Mary quietly was a just one, considering he could have exposed her to shame.  But even that just decision was not God’s will.  Joseph went to God in the stillness of his heart, and was open to his angel’s message in a dream.  Openness to God’s plans is necessary for all of us if we would be one with the Lord.

And so we pray, come O Sacred Lord, do not delay. Fill our hearts with your presence and come to us with your great salvation. Free us from our slavery to sin, open our hearts to your will for us, and bring us into your presence. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

O Wisdom

Today’s readings

That was quite a list of names, wasn’t it? Forty-two generations of the pilgrim people Israel led by some real characters. Some of them were heroic like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah and to some extent David and Solomon. But some of them were pretty wicked, especially Manasseh, whose wickedness in shedding innocent blood incurred God’s wrath such that he allowed the Babylonian captivity that took place during Jeconiah’s reign. So we have forty-two generations of saints and sinners, great men and flawed men, all leading up to the Incarnation of Christ, who was the only remedy to the cycle of sin that spiraled all through the story.

Today we begin the more intense period of Advent that extends from December 17th through the morning of Christmas Eve. During this time, the Liturgy leads us to call all the more longingly for the presence of Christ. Just as forty-two generations of a mix of wisdom and foolishness could only be remedied by the presence of Christ, so the foolishness of our time calls for that same remedy.

During these last days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons,” from which we derive the verses in the Advent Hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The verses are also used during Evening Prayer. Today’s is “O Wisdom,” and the verse from Evening Prayer is “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care: Come and show your people the way to salvation.” We trust the governance of God, the Creator of creation, to satisfy our longing for wisdom with the presence of the Incarnate Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus and bring us peace. Come, Lord Jesus and put an end to the world’s foolishness. Come, Lord Jesus and bring us your Wisdom. Come quickly and do not delay.

The Third Sunday of Advent

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 GaudeteSunday: gaudetebeing 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. And even perhaps a bit closer to home, maybe we ourselves are experiencing the illness of a loved one, a broken relationship, job or financial insecurities, or any other kind of sadness.  The world can be a very bleak place, our lives can be in turmoil, 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,
and 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.  Sometimes it seems that the world may almost prefer to sit in this kind of darkness, even find some kind of weird comfort in it, but not people of faith.  People of faith instead light a candle of hope and rejoice 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 good times and in bad.

And so today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath.  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 of times – 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, honestly, we also could clean up our act a bit.  We too have need to repent – all of us, me too.  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.  None of us is Jesus or Mary, so we have sin in our lives and it is from that sin that 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 the sacrament of Penance.

In order to help you to prepare so that you can rejoice, all of us priests will be hearing confessions next Saturday afternoon at 3.  We will also have several priests available next Sunday after the 12:15 Mass until all are heard.  If those times do not work for your schedule, our bulletin has a list of confessions at parishes in our area. I am urging 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 go anyway and put an end to the awkwardness so you can rejoice.  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 really 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!

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