In this morning’s readings, our God is doing everything possible to get our attention. Salvation is God’s number one priority and he won’t rest until all have come to it. And so he sends Isaiah to “cry out” so many truths that we need to absorb: flesh is fading, but the word of the Lord is forever; the glory of the Lord will be revealed; our guilt is expiated. And this is all good news if we would receive it, but humanity is prone to tuning God out, especially if times are good.
And so he literally jumps up and down to get our attention: Isaiah runs up to the top of a high mountain crying out, “Here is your God!” And failing all of that, God becomes the good shepherd, who notices us lost sheep and sets out to bring us back, even though it would seem – to us – to be wiser not to do so.
God wants us all to come to salvation. He wants us all to open our hearts and receive him. He comes among us, as the Psalmist says, “to rule the world with justice, and the peoples with his constancy.” God urgently seeks to bind up all the broken and lost ones and bring everyone to the kingdom. That’s Advent. Blessed are we when we hear God crying out to us and respond.
Today’s Gospel reading is very interesting, I think. The beginning of the passage names important people at that particular time in Israel: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and also the high priests: Annas and Caiaphas. Finally it names John the Baptist, who was, at that particular time in history, heralding the unveiling of God’s plan for salvation. Luke does all this to say that, while the Word of the Lord came to John, who was pretty obscure, and many thought was crazy, still that Word came at a particular point in history, a time they could remember and observe. God was getting real in their midst, and John wasn’t so much crazy as he was on fire.
His message was a message of change, which no one likes. So it’s no wonder they labeled him crazy and made him take his message to the desert instead of the city and the temple precincts. Better that than actually changing their lives. That would be unthinkable! But John’s message is clear. God wanted to burst into their midst, and they we didn’t make changes, they were going to miss it. It’s a message as pertinent and poignant now as it was then.
Because we are a people who could use some time in the desert. Now, I don’t mean we should go to an actual desert or even take a trip to Las Vegas! I mean, we need to calm down and find some peace in our lives, because with all the craziness and busy-ness of our lives, we stand a pretty good chance of missing the Advent of our Savior as all the people back then did. We might be just as impatient with a John the Baptist as the people were then. Who wants to hear the word “repent?” That means a real change in our lives that we are often not willing to make.
I remember several years ago when we first had the new Roman Missal. It was Ash Wednesday, and one of those prayers changed too. Instead of saying “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” we now say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” I had not one but two people who were very angry with me when I said that to them. That word “repent” hit a nerve and they were quick to protest that repenting was not something they needed to do. But we all do, friends. Me included. Repent means turning around and going in another direction. Because we all get off track here and there in our lives. Repent means turning back to God, our God who is waiting to break into our lives and be born among us this Advent.
John is really clear about what kind of repenting needs to be done. If we are going to prepare a way for the Lord, we are going to have to make straight the winding roads: stop meandering all over the place, and walk with purpose to communion with the Lord. We are going to have to fill in the valleys and level the mountains, because God doesn’t come in fits and spurts, showing up every now and then for a mountain top experience and then taking his leave when times bring you down. He’s there always and forever. We are going to have to make those rough ways smooth, because every time we’re jostled around on those rough roads, we stand the chance of getting thrown off the path. We have to repent, to change, to become vessels in which our Lord can be born so that all flesh can see God’s salvation in us.
Wherever we are on the journey to Christ, whatever the obstacles we face, God promises to make it right through Jesus Christ – if we will let him. We may be facing the valley of hurts or resentments. God will fill in that valley. Perhaps we are up against a mountain of sinful behavior or shame. God will level that mountain. We may be lost on the winding roads of procrastination or apathy. God will straighten out that way. We may be riding along on the rough and bumpy ways of poor choices, sinful relationships and patterns of sin. God will make all those ways smooth. And all flesh – every one of us, brothers and sisters – we will all see the salvation of God. That’s a promise. God will forgive us all of our sins. But we have to be open to the experience.
And so, in the spirit of encouraging that openness, I want to make a very personal invitation. If you find that you have quite a bit of unfinished road construction to do in your spiritual life, I invite you to take care of it this Advent. The Sacrament of Penance is where we Catholics level those mountains, straighten those winding roads, and fill in the potholes that have derailed us along the way. And we have plenty of opportunities to do that. Every Saturday we have confessions at 3pm until all are heard. Next Saturday we also will be having them after the 7:30 morning Mass. And finally, on Sunday the 23rd, we will have several priests to hear your confession after the 12:15 Mass until all are heard. So you have many opportunities to be open to the “baptism of repentance” that John the Baptist was preaching, and to make the way straight once again for the coming of the Lord in your own life.
The truth is, brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to this holy place to this sacred Liturgy, each of us at different places in the spiritual road. Our goal – all of us – is to advance on that road, tackling the obstacles that face us, and defeating our sin by the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There may only be one unforgivable sin: the sin of thinking that we don’t need a Savior. When we rationalize that we’re basically good people and we’re okay and that there is nothing wrong with our lives or our relationships, then we’re lost. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us this sin, it’s more that we refuse to have it forgiven. If Advent teaches us anything, it’s got to be that we all need that baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached, that we all need to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, making straight the paths for his coming in our lives.
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. Now, let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary herself, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th. It’s easy to keep this straight if you do 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 is an important one. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the Patroness of our parish, and, since 1856, also of the United States of America. This 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 in these Advent days when we prepare for Christmas, that glorious day when our salvation began 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 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. This cycle of salvation 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 Saint Paul writes, in his letter to the Ephesians: “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 a fitting mother for his Son: 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 know that we were made for heaven. 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.
[Now, many of you have been preparing for consecration to Jesus through Mary by participating in our 33 Days to Morning Gloryretreat, either individually or in a group. In a moment, you will stand and we will pray that together. After that, I will then kneel before the statue of our Blessed Mother and pray a prayer consecrating our beloved parish and all its families to Jesus through Mary. Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a longtime devotion of the Church in which we pray that our Blessed Mother would lead us to her Son. It recognizes that, because of her obvious closeness to Jesus, she is able to bring us to intimate relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and his Divine Mercy. It is fitting to do this on our patronal feast day, because it is a way for us to recommit ourselves to her service and implore her intercession.]
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.
While he was still a catechumen, St. Ambrose was chosen as bishop of Milan and was consecrated on December 7, 374. Ambrose was a classically educated man, a revered Scripture Scholar and a solid preacher. It is his preaching that in some ways influenced St. Augustine to convert to Catholicism, and it was Ambrose who baptized Augustine.
Ambrose was a man not just of great learning, but also great courage. He strongly defended the Church against attacks by the Arians, and also by the empire. Ambrose specifically admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime.
St. Ambrose’s sermons and his works tell us that he was a very educated man who was willing to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the issues of the day. He practiced what he preached and he was not shy about calling people to repentance. He was able to influence learned men such as Saint Augustine, and won many converts to the Church.
Isaiah says in our first reading this morning “Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, and those who find fault shall receive instruction.” Thanks be to God the Church has had men like Saint Ambrose to provide instruction and help people come to understanding in the ways of the Gospel.
Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-36| Psalm 27 | Matthew 5:13-16
During this time of year, there’s a lot more darkness than I’m sure most of us would like to see. The daylight fades very fast, and there’s a lot of cold and cloudy days. And so, as joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for many people. And then there’s the thought of another year coming to an end: some people look back on the year, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been. And we could probably do without all the news of war, crime and terrorism here and abroad. So if we feel a little dark right now, we’re not alone.
The struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.
In Advent, the Church meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.
Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world. We do that symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior. But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory. We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like Advent calendars reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.
And so that’s why we’re here tonight. We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way. Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts. Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illuminated by the light of God’s healing mercy.
Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us. The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ. As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer. Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
We’ve gathered here today on the precipice of something new. Do you feel it? Do you come here with a sense of hope and expectation? Are you on the edge of your seat? Well, if not, I certainly hope you will be by the end of Advent. That’s what it’s all about. The readings for these four weeks will focus on hope and expectation and will give us a view of the salvation God is unfolding for his own people. It’s a message that I think we need now, more than ever.
I think it’s pretty easy to see why this is so needed. I was just saying yesterday that I like to watch the news in the morning, but lately it doesn’t take too long before I have to turn it off. The bad news can be oppressive sometimes. And we could even look to our own lives. As we come to the end of the year, maybe this was a year filled with blessing or maybe it’s one we won’t miss. Most likely, it was a little bit of both. Perhaps this last year might have seen the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, or some other significant event. As we end another year, some of us might be doing that with some regret, looking back on patterns of sin or the plague of addiction. And so, for many of us, maybe even most of us, it doesn’t take too much imagination to know that there is a lot of room for renewed hope in our lives.
But it’s hard to wait for the fulfillment of that hope, isn’t it? If we can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be open before we go Christmas shopping, it’s hard to wait to see what God is doing in our lives. There’s a scene in the movie “Christmas Vacation” that I thought of when I was getting this homily ready. Clark Griswold is in his boss’s office, bringing him a Christmas gift. There’s an awkward silence and then the boss tells Clark that he’s very busy. He picks up the phone and says, presumably to his secretary, “Get me somebody. Anybody. And get me somebody while I’m waiting!” None of us likes to wait.
So we have to find the grace in the waiting. Maybe that’s why I love Advent so much. I’m so generally impatient, that Advent has me slow down and re-create that space so that it can be filled with our Lord’s most merciful presence. So what do we do while we are waiting? How do we live among the chaos? How do we keep on keepin’ on when every fiber of our being wants to pack it in and hope for it all to be over real soon? Today’s Gospel warns us that people will die in fright when they see what is going to happen, but it cannot be so for people of faith. Even in the midst of life’s darkest moments, even when it seems like we can’t withstand one more bout of hopeless worry, we are still called to be a hopeful people. “Stand erect,” Jesus tells us, “and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” God is unfolding his promise among us and even though we still must suffer the sadness that life can sometimes bring us, we have hope for something greater from the one whose promises never go unfulfilled.
Then what does a hopeful people do while we are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises? How is it that we anticipate and look for the coming of our Savior in glory? Our consumerist society would have us cast aside our Thanksgiving dinners to get an early jump on Black Friday, and battle it out with a few thousand of our closest friends for the latest gadget or bauble or toy. And to that kind of thinking, Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” Getting caught up in the things of this world does us no good. It does not bring us closer to salvation or to our God, and all it does is increase our anxiety. Who needs that?
Instead, we people of faith are called to wait by being “vigilant at all times.” We are called to forgive those who have wronged us, to reach out to the poor and the vulnerable, to advocate for just laws, laws that protect religious freedom and the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, to challenge world powers to pursue true justice and real peace, to give of ourselves so that those in need might have Christmas too, and even to love those who drive us nuts sometimes. When we do that, we might just be surprised how often we see Jesus among us in our lives, in our families and schools and workplaces and communities. It might just seem like Jesus isn’t that far from returning after all, that God’s promises are absolutely unfolding before our eyes.
While we are waiting, we also need to share that hopeful message with others. There’s too many empty seats in our pews on a regular basis: people have left the faith for all sorts of reasons, and we have become too used to that being the way it is. That needs to change. So if you know people who are not with us for any reason, I want you to invite them to come back this Advent. I know that’s a super-scary thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you hear a great story, or even a funny joke, you want to share it with people that matter to you, right? Well, here in Church we have the greatest story ever, the best news ever. And so maybe we can share just one little tidbit with someone. Something you heard in the readings or the homily that got you thinking, or maybe tell them about the way someone welcomed you when you got here. Because we don’t want to be the only ones excited about the birth of salvation in our world. We want everyone to be here with us.
To help you with that, we are giving you a little book on the way out today called “Why Stay Away?” The little book addresses all the common questions people have about the Mass, everything from why we do what we do to why can’t we just pray at home or in a forest or someplace. After you read it, I am encouraging you to give it to someone who needs to hear the message. Please don’t bring it back to the church or let it sit on a bookshelf: use it to invite someone to join us. What a wonderful Christmas gift you’ll be giving them!
We are a people who like instant gratification and hate to wait for something good to come along. Maybe that’s why the Christmas shopping season starts about two weeks before Halloween. But if we would wait with faith and vigilance, if we would truly pursue the reign of God instead of just assuming it will be served up to us on a silver platter, if we spend our time encouraging others with the hope we have in Jesus, we might not be so weary of waiting after all. That’s the call God gives us people of faith on this New Year’s day.
Our readings have been reminding us that the night is far spent and the day is drawing near. We are called upon today to remain vigilant so that we do not miss the second coming of the Lord. And it is well that we receive that warning today, on the cusp as we are of the new Church year. This is the last day of the Church year and tomorrow, well even tonight, we will begin the year of grace 2019 with the season of Advent. The day draws ever nearer for us.
As the day draws nearer, we will need less and less of the light that has been given to us in this world. The first reading says, “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever.” St. Augustine says of that great day: “When, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ comes and, as the apostle Paul says, brings to light things hidden in darkness and makes plain the secrets of the heart, so that everyone may receive his commendation from God, then lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.
When all these things are removed as no longer necessary for our illumination, and when the men of God by whom they were ministered to us shall themselves together with us behold the true and dear light without such aids, what shall we see? With what shall our minds be nourished? What will give joy to our gaze? Where will that gladness come from, which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, which has not even been conceived by the heart of man?” (Tract. 35, 8-9)
And of course, the answer to that, is we shall get our light looking on the face of Christ himself. As Advent approaches, we pray earnestly for that day: Come quickly Lord, and do not delay!