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.

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