Advent Penance Service

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-26 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 3:1-12

How often do we all have sins that we would like to see go away and leave us alone already, but then go back and do the same things again?  We can’t just say, “oh, sorry” and then move on and never give our sins another thought.  But at the same time, we can’t dwell on them, either, or they’ll never leave us.  It’s a fine line we walk, for sure.  

Saint John the Baptist illustrates the issue.  At that time, it says that everyone was flocking to him: “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan.”  They heard his call to repent and embrace the kingdom of heaven.  But apparently, also tagging along were a large number of Pharisees and Sadducees, and John saw that their repentance was not genuine.  He demands that they all produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance.

And well does he demand this, because repentance has to look like something.  It has to be metanoia: a complete change of mind and heart, really a turning around to head in a new direction.  It can’t be doing the same thing time after time and expecting something new to happen – that’s not how it works.  It’s important to see that this metanoia does NOT imply hanging on to our sins and feeling terrible about ourselves because of them.  Indeed, to really turn around, you have to let go of what’s binding you: surrender and renounce the sin and accept the grace of forgiveness.

That’s a very Advent-y disposition, really.  Advent is a time of expectation of something new, something uniquely wonderful, something world-shattering and life-changing.  In order to really enter into Advent, we have to be willing to be changed ourselves, to have our world shattered, so that we can make a place for the wonderful gift of Jesus to be born in our hearts.

God’s presence doesn’t require much: a stable and an empty manger will do.  But if we’ve used the manger to store up our past sins and our impure desires and our fear of real change, then Christ can’t enter in and give us grace and mercy.  We have to, have to, have to turn around, head in a different direction, renounce our past brokenness, and clear out the way for Jesus to be born in us and change our everything.

Which is what brings us here tonight.  Please God don’t let us be that brood of vipers that wants to put on the act of repentance, but help us really repent.  Help us to turn around and head in the direction the star points out to us, which will lead us to your presence in our lives, every time.

Thanks be to God he never stops looking for that empty manger in our hearts.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Advent is a season of anticipation: God’s promises echo through the Old Testament, and in these Advent days, we see those promises coming to fruition in exciting and world-changing ways.  Today’s feast is a glorious glimpse of that reality.

We are honored today to celebrate the patronal feast day of our parish and of our nation, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This, of course, celebrates Mary’s conception, not that of Jesus, which we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation.  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 feast celebrates the belief that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight.  This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was coming to fruition.

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.  Of course, he already knew what was going on: they had discovered the forbidden tree and eaten its fruit.  They had given in to temptation and had grasped at something that was not God, in an effort to become their own god.

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 to be born into our midst and to take on our form.  With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us.  Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God. 

Our celebration today is a foreshadowing of God’s plan for us.  Because Mary was conceived without sin, we can see that sin was never intended to rule us.  Because God selected Mary from the beginning, we can see that we were chosen before we were ever in our mother’s womb.  Because Mary received salvific grace from the moment of her conception, we can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day.  Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too.

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

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Have you ever had the feeling that things were just not right? I don’t mean not right like you got the wrong order at Portillo’s, or your postal delivery person gave you the neighbor’s mail. I mean, really not right, in a fundamental sense, like the world was off its axis in some way. I think these days we’ve gotten a sense of that.  We have those who would govern us telling us how extremely they are in support of abortion, you know, the murder of innocent children, right up until the time of their birth.  And others who callously treat the poor with contempt, abandoning those in real need or fleeing for their safety.  We have politicians and others acting like children in public and expecting everyone to enjoy it.  Crimes of violence, in recent weeks, seem to be on the rise, again.  The bad news never seems to stop.

And perhaps even a bit closer to home, we could all probably think of times in our lives when things just haven’t been right: times of transition, times dealing with the illness of a loved one, or family difficulty, times when we have been looking for new work or trying to discern a path in life. These are unsettling times that we all have to experience every now and then.  And add to that our own sin, especially sin that bites at us time and time again, patterns of addiction, the sadness of past hurts, and so much more.

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

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

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

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

The bud that blossoms from God’s new creation is something completely different than what we would expect, something incredibly wonderful, something that would never be possible in the old order: “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” None of those species would ever get along in the old creation; none of them would ever have been safe. But in the new creation, all of them will know the Lord, and that knowledge will have them not only get along, but even to flourish.

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

All of these are nice words, and the idea of a new creation is one for which I think we all inwardly yearn. But what does it really mean? What does it look like? How will we know that we are moving toward new creation and new life?  Well, I think we’ll know because it will hurt a bit.  Change involves dying to something and rising to something else.  That’s why the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension – is so important to us.  

I remember going to the profession of final vows of one of my friends who became a Benedictine Monk.  During the ritual, he laid prostrate on the floor while we sang the Litany of the Saints.  I did that too, at my ordination.  But different from what I did: they covered him with a funeral pall.  It was a striking image: he was dying to his former life, the old world, the old order, and when it was over, he rose to new life: his life as a Benedictine, yes, but also his life of salvation and grace.

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

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

Saint Francis Xavier, Patron of the Diocese of Joliet

Today’s readings

We celebrate the memorial of Saint Francis Xavier as a feast today, because he is the patron saint of the Diocese of Joliet.  Francis Xavier was a sixteenth century man who had a promising career in academics.  He was encouraged in the faith by his good friend, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and went to join the new community founded by Ignatius, the Society of Jesus, better known today as the Jesuits.

Francis had a passion for preaching the Gospel and living a life of Gospel simplicity.  He would live with and among the poorest of the poor, sharing their living conditions, ministering to the sick, and preaching and teaching the faith.  In fact, we might say that he reminds us of a current Jesuit, Pope Francis!  Saint Francis Xavier lived in the East Indies for a time, before going on to minister to the Hindus, Malaysians, and Japanese.  He even learned a bit of Japanese in order to communicate well with his people and to preach to them.  He dreamed of going on to minister in China, but died before he could get there.

Francis Xavier truly took to heart the words of Saint Paul who said he made himself all things to all people in order to save at least some.  He made it his life’s work to live as his people lived, preaching to simple folk, and calling them to Jesus.  He was also able to live freely Jesus’ Gospel call today: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

That same Gospel call is the inspiration of our diocese’s current focus on missionary discipleship.  This year, Bishop Conlon wrote to us in his pastoral letter, “’Go,’ He Said” that missionary discipleship needs to be the priority for the Church and her members in order to bring the Gospel to “every creature.”

In that letter, Bishop tells us what this means for us: “Discipleship begins when you sense that Jesus Christ loves you and is calling you to follow Him. You are a disciple if you, in turn, acknowledge that He really is the Son of God and the true source of your life here and for eternity, that you love Him more than anyone else, that you want to form your daily life and its decisions around Him, and that you want to talk about Him with others.”

So we might not have the opportunity to live as Francis Xavier did and to actually go out to distant shores to preach the Gospel.  But we certainly are still called to preach it with our lives.  We are called to witness to Christ to everyone we meet: family, friends, coworkers, neighbors-anyone the Lord puts in our path.  Our diocese chose Francis Xavier for our patron because our founders took seriously the call to proclaim the Gospel to every person in this diocese.  We are called upon to do the same, according to our own life’s vocation and state of life.  May all who hear our words and see our actions come to believe and be saved.

The First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but I always find this weekend after Thanksgiving to be a little strange.  Here is a weekend when we can barely clear the plates at the Thanksgiving dinner table before we have to make room for Christmas.  And I’m not talking about the religious observance of the Incarnation of our Lord, but rather all the secular trappings of that holy day.  It begins about Halloween, or maybe a little earlier, when you start to see the stores slowly make room for the Christmas stuff.  They sneak in some “holiday” signs here and there, and start to weave the garland into the end of the aisles, just past the Halloween costumes.  On Thanksgiving day, you hear the great “thud” of the daily newspaper, heavier than it is on most Sundays because of all the “Black Friday” sales.

And then there’s Black Friday itself, which now starts bright and early on Thursday morning – Thursday, you know, Thanksgiving Day.  We then get to be treated to Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  What a commercial mess this has all become, what a sad commentary on what makes our society tick.  We barely have time to gather up the pumpkins and corn stalks and autumn leaves before we have to set out the Christmas stockings and brightly-lit trees and candy canes.  

I find that this rampant consumerism is really just part of the ambient noise of our society.  From television to social media to email spam to Christmas jingles on the store loud-speakers, the noise never seems to stop.  Whether it’s political bantering and bureaucratic infighting, or the latest pop culture scandal, it seems like there’s always a lot of noise going on.  And we could add to that our own noise: sin in our lives, unaddressed family strife, and so much more.  It’s no wonder we often have the television on as background noise, we seem to clamor for it.

But all that noise comes at the peril of our spiritual lives.  The noise fills up the space that God wants to use to speak words of encouragement, solace, or challenge.  When we are constantly listening to other things, we can’t hear the voice of God who wants to be part of our lives, who wants to give us himself.

The emotions we feel at this time of year are palpable and often conflicted.  The Church knows this, and in Her great wisdom, gives us the season of Advent every year.  It’s a season that recognizes that there is this hole in our hearts that needs to be filled up with something, and can be filled up if we will just be quiet and make space.  That something isn’t going to be an item you can pick up on Black Friday, or a trite holiday jingle, or even a gingerbread-flavored libation.  Those things can’t possibly fill up our personal sadness, or the lack of peace in the world, or the cynicism and apathy that plague our world and confront us day after day.

And so in our readings today, rather boldly, the Church is telling us to cut out all of this nonsense and get serious about our eternity.  Because if we’re only living from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, we are going to be left behind with our cheap electronics and gaudy trinkets, and have none of the real riches of the Kingdom of God.

And so our first reading, from the second chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, has us taking a step back to look at our lives:  “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”  We need to go a little higher and look down on what we’ve become in order to see how we fit into the bigger picture.  Do we see ourselves as concerned about peace and justice in the world, looking out for the needs of the needy and the marginalized, blanketing our world in holiness and calling it to become bright and beautiful as it walks in the light of the Lord?

Or do we take part in those deeds of darkness that Saint Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans today?  Do we participate in these dark deeds to the point of giving scandal to those who carefully watch the activities of people of faith?  If we do, then Saint Paul clearly commands us to get our act together: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves properly…”

So this Advent season is clearly about something more than hanging up pretty decorations for a birthday party.  It’s about something more than perpetuating rampant consumerism and secularism.  And it’s definitely about more than participating in the same old noise we encounter all the time.  The stakes are too high for that.  Because while we are distracted by all of that ambient noise, we are in danger of missing the joy for which we were created.  Just as in the days of Noah, as Jesus points out in our Gospel today, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, so it will be in the coming Day of the Lord.  Just as those oblivious ones were surprised by the flood, we too are in danger of being surprised by the second coming.  God forbid that two men are hanging lights on the house when one is taken and the other is left.  Or that two women are getting some crazy deals at Kohls and one is taken and the other is left.  Or that two people are having a Twitter feud and one is taken and another is left.  We have to be prepared, because at an hour we do not expect, our Lord will certainly return.

Don’t get me wrong: the return of our Lord is not something to be feared.  Indeed, we eagerly await that coming in these Advent days.  I’m just saying that if we aren’t attentive to our spiritual lives, if we don’t create a space for silence and reflection, if we aren’t zealous about living the Gospel, if we aren’t intentional about making time for worship and deepening our relationship with the Lord, then we are going to miss out on something pretty wonderful.  And that pretty wonderful thing isn’t in the far-off, distant future.  If we quiet ourselves and open our eyes, He’s right in front of us, walking with us, calling us to become more than we are, to become the glory for which we were created.  We have to stay awake, we have to turn off the noise, we have to live in the Lord’s daylight and not prefer the world’s darkness.  We have to eagerly expect our Lord’s birth into our hearts and souls, right here and now, and not in some distant day.

Or we’ll miss it.  God forbid, we’ll miss it.

So we are going to give you some quiet time right now, and also after Communion.  You can read more about that in my bulletin column today.  But now, I want to give you an opportunity to pray in that silence…

So take a moment now to call to mind something positive you’ve been meaning to do.  Maybe it’s a practice of prayer, or getting up on time, or exercising regularly, or reaching out to a friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while.  If you’re like me, you could come up with a whole list of those things, but I want you to call to mind the one that is most tugging on your heart right now.  In these moments of silence, I invite you to talk to Jesus about that thing.  Offer it to him, and ask him for the grace to accomplish it, or at least begin it, in these Advent days.  And then listen for his support of you in that endeavor.

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