Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Malachi 3:1-7a | Matthew 3:1-12

This evening, as we prepare for Christmas, we have some powerful images to guide us.  The first is the image of burning up what doesn’t belong here, as we have seen in our readings.  the prophet Malachi warns of the LORD who will come as a refining fire, purifying not just silver, but also the sons of Levi, those priests who were charged with true worship of God.  Refining is a process of melting down an impure metal so that that all that is left is the precious metal; in this case silver.  In the Gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist warns the people to repent, lest they be burnt up in the fire that was coming with Christ.  He is one who would purify the people by burning off those who are impure just like a farmer burns up the chaff that is separated from the actual grain.

The second image we have comes from the season of Advent itself, particularly today.  During the last week of Advent, so now, we have the “O Antiphons” as part of the liturgy, particularly Evening Prayer.  The “O Antiphons” are the various titles of Jesus as given to us in Sacred Scripture, and they manifest our longing for the appearance of Christ.  Today the O Antiphon is O Oriens, or O Dayspring.  It could also be translated O Morning Star or O Radiant Dawn.  Today we pray that Christ would come and enlighten our hearts and brighten a world dark in sin.

In essence, this is what Advent is all about: the season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness of a season with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.  Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  As we continue to light the candles on the Advent Wreath, we see more light all the time, up until the feast of that great light which we will celebrate in just four days.

And so tonight, we come together acknowledging that we have stuff in us that needs to be burned off so that we can be the bright lights the world needs to see right now.  Our prayer is that God would take away everything in us that is not him, so that we can be his presence, his light, in the world.  There was a Christian song several years back called “Empty Me” that expresses this well.  Here is the refrain from that song:

Empty me of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition and the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me so I can be filled with You.

Because the world needs us to be the bright light of Christ.  There’s always so much darkness: war, scandal, poverty, homelessness, greed, terror, crime, hatred, bigotry … the list goes on and on.  Every glimpse at the news reveals a world mired in everything evil.  The only thing that will change that ever, the only thing, is Christ.  The only thing that will dispel the darkness of this fallen world is the light of Christ.  And we who have chosen to be his disciples must always be the bearers of that light, nothing less.

So today, we pray that God would burn off all in us that is not him, so that we can burn brightly in a world dark in sin and death.  We pray:  Come to us, O Oriens, ORadiant Dawn, O Morning Star: scatter the darkness of our world and of our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Burn away every bit of foolishness in us, everything that is not you, so that we can be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny II

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness.  All of these, dear friends, are things that we certainly take for granted.  Think about it: we don’t appreciate the gift of light until that dark and stormy night when the electricity goes out and we’re fumbling around in the darkness trying to remember where it is we put that new package of batteries for the flashlight.  We likewise take for granted our own ability to see.  I think of my Aunt Mia, who several years before she passed away lost her sight and had to learn how to see things in a new way.

When I hear today’s first reading, it always makes me think of my dad.  He was the kind of Irishman who never knew a stranger.  We couldn’t go anywhere without running into at least one person he knew.  But he didn’t just know them, he knew their story.  And so if someone were to complain about someone he knew, he would always be able to tell them something good about that person, because Dad saw the best in them.  That’s the kind of vision we are all called to have for one another: we need to see the best in them, we need to see Jesus in them.

So what about this miracle story in the Gospel today.  I have to just say it, who cares?  I mean, it’s nice for that man born blind who can now see, but I mean, he lived two thousand years ago, so what business is it of ours if he can see or not?  Why take up so much time with this reading?  Well I’ll tell you why we should care: we should care because the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does.  So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Well, of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind.  We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives.  It takes holy baptism to cure that born blindness in us.  Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives.  We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life.  We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world.  That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision.  We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision.  Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see.  Our Elect, who are here with us today, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.

We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer.  At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him.  Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, after he has been unceremoniously thrown out of the synagogue, he meets Jesus again and testifies that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship.  As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.

We make this same journey ourselves.  From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Think about it: our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that we will hear proclaimed on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning 
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But you know what?  We’re not supposed to stay that way.

Advent Penance Service

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.

But 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, God 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 the Advent calendars we’ve all had 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 illumined 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.”

The Third Sunday of Advent: The Anointing of the Sick at Mass

Today’s readings
#adventnd #anointingofthesick #healing #mercy

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 Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being 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.

We can especially rejoice in the healing presence of our God. Healing is, in fact, a sure way that we know that Christ is present. Jesus said as much in our Gospel today when he addressed the followers of Saint John the Baptist:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Those who lived in and around Jesus in those days had to be amazed at all they were seeing. Indeed, many of them were moved to conversion of heart and rejoiced in all they were seeing.

I think, though, that it can be hard to rejoice when we are suffering from illness or injury. Sometimes when we’re sick, it can even be hard to pray or find God in anything. A wise person once told me that you have to make sure that you’re praying when you’re well, because when you’re sick, it can be hard to pray. But it those times of illness or injury, that’s when you need to rely on God the most. If you have been praying when you’re well, then that relationship is going to be something you can lean on when you need healing.

Indeed sometimes, for us, healing is a little harder to see. We may have been dealing with a persistent, chronic, or even terminal health condition for years. Or maybe we have been at the side of a loved one who has been ill and for whom we have prayed long and hard, but have seen no healing. If that’s where we are right now, Jesus’ words are still our hope. Because healing comes in all sorts of ways, according to what Jesus sees that we need most. That might come in the form of something other than physical healing: perhaps the healing of relationships, or the conversion of our hearts. In every case, though, Christ promises to be with us through it all if we turn to him in our hearts. And he keeps his promises, giving us grace that sees us through whatever stormy waters we are wading.

And so we gather in faith today to express the prayers of our hearts, asking for God’s mercy, praying prayers, perhaps, that we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

So today if you are sick in any way – body, mind, or spirit, – if you suffer from addiction, chronic pain, or emotional anguish – I invite you to approach the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick after this homily. The Church teaches that this sacrament is not to be saved only for the moment of death. No, we are to approach it when we are seriously ill, or before surgery, and yes, in the hour of death. If we have been anointed before, we can be anointed again if necessary, even in the same illness, if it has been some time or especially if the illness has progressed. In this sacrament, we pray for healing in body, mind, or spirit, in whatever way God judges to be best for us, and we trust in his sacramental grace and presence with us in our suffering.

Just a procedural note: During the ritual of anointing we will ask those who are to be anointed to stand, and I will impose hands over all of you at one time for a few moments in silence. Then, when it comes time for the anointing, we will come to those who are not ambulatory and are seated in the front of church. Those of you not seated in front will come forward as for Holy Communion, and we will anoint you in the center aisle.

Today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We rejoice, too, that we can come to him for help and sustenance and companionship on the journey to healing. 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, heal our brokenness, 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 our most difficult moments – THE LORD IS NEAR!

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 world that can sometimes be dark and scary.  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!

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Baptism at Mass

Today’s readings

Today’s readings about the two widows highlight the plight of widows in the ancient world. Without a husband, they would necessarily depend on their sons to help provide for them and keep them safe, and so when these two sons died, the widow was vulnerable and very likely would become destitute. But Elijah and Jesus both recognize their plight and, without even being asked, move to right the wrongs of the situation. Restoring their sons to life, they have really restored the life also of those widows, for God is rich in mercy!

Today we celebrate the baptism of a child, and so maybe it’s hard to see how raising two people from the dead can relate to that, but I believe these readings are really all about baptism! Whenever we see death and life in the Scriptures, we really should think about holy baptism, in which our mortal bodies, dead in sin, are raised up to new life in Christ. I’ll be blessing the water of the font in a few minutes, and here are some of the words of that blessing:

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jesus said to the dead man in today’s Gospel, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” so he says to all who are baptized, “Be raised up, be washed clean, take possession of new life!” And so in the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and the son of the widow of Nain, we see the precursor of holy Baptism, in which God in his great mercy is re-creating the world anew and bringing new life to those whose bodies were dead in their mortality. Baptism is the great gift of new life that our Lord gives to his Church. It is a participation in his own death and Resurrection, in which death and sin are rendered impotent, and we are given new life.

And so, as we hear of life restored to those who were thought to be dead, it is so appropriate that you bring your child here for baptism. In this sacrament, he receives new life in Christ, who wills that all children should come to him and be made new. As you continue to bring your child here to Church for Mass and religious instruction, God will continue to pour out his mercy and grace and give him a life made new in the Holy Spirit.

Raising children these days can be difficult, as we all know. There are so many competing voices out there, so many opportunities for a young person to be tempted away from God, Church, and family. But the good news is that you aren’t expected to raise your child on your own. You are promised in this sacrament of Holy Baptism the grace that will help you in your task as parents, and as he is initiated into the Church today, you receive the promise of the Church’s help in teaching him and helping him to know God and his love.

The Psalmist today sings of this hope that we have in Christ and in this sacrament. He sings:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.

There is no death that can overcome our new life in Christ. Praise God for the gift of our baptism which raises us up and makes us new!

The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings

Yesterday I presided at the funeral of the mother of one of my friends. It was a beautiful gathering because she and her sister basically took the last few weeks off of their work commitments to be with her during her last days. Not everyone can do that, but it did give them a lot of peace. What also gave them peace was that their mother was anointed during her illness, which prepared her for her entry into eternal life.

Saint James tells us: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call on the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons and the Lord will raise them up. And if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.” And so this is the charge that the Church uses to direct the Anointing of the Sick. We do that as a Church because we are convinced that it is only our faith that can give us solid foundation when we are sick or dying.  It takes an act of faith in God’s care for us to really navigate illness and pain.

This Mass is that act of faith.  In the Anointing of the Sick, the Church proclaims courageously that there is no malady that cannot be addressed by our God; that he can take on whatever ails us, bind up whatever is broken in us, and bring forth something new, something beautiful, something perhaps unexpected.  Today we gather as the Church and place our faith in the healing of our God.  We acknowledge that the healing God brings us doesn’t always make all of our illness go away, but we also don’t rule that out.  We trust that God, who sees the big picture, knows what is best for us and desires that we come to the greatest good possible.  We also trust that God’s grace is enough to help us address illness, infirmity, pain, suffering, and the ardors of medical treatment.  We know that our God walks with us in good times and in bad. There is nothing that can take away God’s love for us.

I love the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.

Our lives can bring us all sorts of pain and illness; so much so that we can get mired in all of that and forget that the current page that we’re on is not the end of our story. God is always doing something new. It might take a leap of faith, which is perhaps uncomfortable, but God even brought forth water in the wasteland of the desert for his people to drink during the Exodus. He can certainly bring us to something new and better than what we’re currently enduring. That’s the theological virtue of hope.

In today’s familiar Gospel reading, Jesus heals the woman caught in the act of adultery. Sure he saved her from being stoned to death, but that’s not the healing I’m talking about. The healing came in his last words to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He has healed her from the woundedness of her sins. Jesus saw what was really broken in her, whatever it was that brought her to this sad day, and he set her free from it, and called her to repentance. Because it is repentance that opens us to God’s mercy and any real healing.

And so it’s our need for healing that brings us together in faith today. We gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, perhaps prayers we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another. We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us. The Church has this sacrament because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us. Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities. He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt. God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects. This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

Large portions of the Gospel see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out. The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big. He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus still does this today. He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone. He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness. If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.

Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day. Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying. But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick. Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus. Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly when they are men and women of faith. This ministry is also provided by our many Ministers of Care, people who visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes. The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world and his care for all those who are suffering.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases. But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you, even in your darkest hours. We have faith that healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God. That’s why we are here today. That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today. We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us. And we know that every healing moment is a miracle, made possible by God’s great love poured out on us when we make an act of faith.

Third Sunday of Advent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

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 Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being 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, in our frailty or our illness, 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!

I think, though, that it can be hard to rejoice when we are suffering from illness or injury. Sometimes when we’re sick, it can even be hard to pray or find God in anything. A wise person once told me that you have to make sure that you’re praying when you’re well, because when you’re sick, it can be hard to pray. But it those times of illness or injury, that’s when you need to rely on God the most. If you have been praying when you’re well, then that relationship is going to be something you can lean on when you need healing.

Saint John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading puts the precursor of the Church’s healing ministry into play. He traveled around proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Because sin is what truly makes us sick. If we have sin in our lives, then we have a broken relationship with God, and that doesn’t serve us well in our time of need. Jesus came to put a stop to that cycle of sin and death. When he healed the sick, he always said, “Your sins are forgiven.” It’s not that he missed the point or somehow didn’t get that the person was sick, not sinful, but more that he wants the healing to be a complete one: a healing from the inside out.

And that kind of healing is a good one for us to approach during this Holy Year of Mercy. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacraments of healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick, which is what brings us here today.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

And so in our faith, we gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, asking for God’s mercy, praying prayers, perhaps, that we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

And so today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We rejoice, too, that we can come to him for help and sustenance and companionship on the journey to healing. 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, heal our brokenness, 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 our most difficult moments – THE LORD IS NEAR!

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!

Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 | Luke 3:1-6

I’ve been speaking to the second grade children about reconciliation as they prepare for their first Confession this coming Saturday. One of the images I’ve given them to picture sin is to imagine it as a huge boulder, which stands between them and God. Because of that boulder, we can’t get to God, can’t talk to him or walk with him. When we try to move the boulder, well, we just can’t, because it’s way too big and heavy for us. So what is it then that will actually move the boulder? And the answer is God’s mercy.

On Tuesday, we began the Holy Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacrament of Penance, which is what brings us here tonight.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

So mercy is that reality that bridges the gap between God and humanity, smashing the boulder that I asked the second grade children to imagine. This evening’s readings speak of the ministry of mercy, perhaps taken up in a special way by Saint John the Baptist. In our Gospel, he traveled through the whole region to proclaim not just any baptism, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That proclamation speaks of what is necessary for mercy to be able to work, and that is repentance. God wants to show us mercy, but we have to seek mercy out, open our hearts to mercy. Because mercy changes us. It makes us a new creation, it gives us that salvific grace that restores our friendship with God.

It’s no secret that our world is a dark place, now as much as ever. Our God’s mercy lights the fire that obliterates the darkness. And thus Isaiah can proclaim that “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.” Because mercy also changes the world. When our sins are forgiven, the world – or at least our corner of it – is a harbor of mercy, and that light helps others to find the way too.

Indeed, 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, God 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. This light of mercy 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.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light of God’s mercy 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 all of our hearts.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined 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, the light of God’s mercy 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.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

This fall, it was a real pain trying to get in and out of my driveway at the rectory, let alone into our parking lot here at church. The village had torn up the streets in order to rebuild them. It was a huge inconvenience then, but the streets are nice to travel on right now. My dad used to say that there are tearer-uppers and fixer-uppers when it comes to road construction, and apparently there are ten times as many tearer-uppers as there are fixer-uppers. Now, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it starts to make real sense!

We live in this area where there are just two seasons: winter and road construction, and so when we hear the prophet Baruch say “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God,” well, we may just cringe a little bit. But I think we can sure relate to the experience.

At the time of the Babylonian empire, whenever the monarch traveled workers would precede him leveling the ground and filling in ditches to make the way smooth for his chariots. So that explains Baruch’s prophecy, and also the prophecy of Isaiah that St. Luke quotes in today’s gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” And it’s easy for us to extrapolate that in order to prepare the way for our monarch, Jesus Christ our king, we would want the way to be smooth and pristine too.

But for us, the roadwork isn’t so much the topography of the countryside as it is the topography of our spiritual lives. We all have rough spots, crooked ways and assorted obstacles on our spiritual paths. Our intentions to be friends with God may be good, but often we have lost our way or been stuck in a kind of spiritual traffic-jam. Our goal is communion with our friend, Jesus Christ. Our best intentions are to get there. Our frustration is that often we are derailed and never seem to reach the goal. But the promise is that God will indeed bring that good work to fulfillment, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, and we will then rejoice in our salvation with all God’s holy ones.

But all of that presupposes that we are clear about the fact that we need a Savior. We need God’s mercy. 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. This Thursday, we will have our Advent Reconciliation Service, with a number of priests available to hear your confession. We also have First Reconciliation on Saturday, and invite all the parents and families of our second graders to go to confession along with their children. And each Saturday we have confessions from 3:45 to 4:30. 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.

Now, having said that, I fully understand that there are many of you here who have not been to confession in many years. I get it. I myself was away from the sacrament for years before God worked on me and brought me back. So here is Father Pat’s “Consumer’s Guide to the Sacrament of Penance:” If you have been away a long time, it will be hard to go back, but take that leap of faith anyway. Be honest with the priest and tell him that it’s been years. Even tell him if you’re not sure how to make a confession. If he doesn’t welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and find a priest who will. Because it’s my job to help you make a good confession. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility that I take very seriously. Nothing must stand in the way of you receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, because it is a gift too precious to miss.

That’s what Advent is about. The coming of Christ in our world isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago. Advent means that Christ is coming into our world today, and every day, if we would just open our hearts and smooth out a place for him. God becomes incarnate in our world every time someone turns back to him and repents of his or her sin. God’s love comes to birth every time we accept the gift of forgiveness and the unfathomable grace of the Eucharist. Advent means that Christ is Emmanuel, God-with-us NOW. Advent means that the salvation and forgiveness that God promises us is available to us NOW.

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 return to us.

On Tuesday, we begin the Holy Year of Mercy. What better way to begin than by experiencing God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance? The Psalmist sings today that “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” I pray that you all find that out in the Sacrament of Penance this Advent season.

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed. Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings. The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other. The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging. We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life. We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding liturgy I do. In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests. We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment. The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments. But divorce is not a sin in and of itself. It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin. Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick. However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment. Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.” However, annulment is recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason, had never taken place. The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage. The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption. In every presumption, the opposite may be true. If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds. Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3) The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry. These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children. Pope Francis recently added some other reasons, including a fictitious marriage to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation. In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church. But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together. Today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God, and the strong preference of the Church. However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible. The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in an abusive. That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety. The Church will support you in that decision. If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up. First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate. The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God. Second, people think annulments are too expensive. They are not. The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past. But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses. But I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional. An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless. But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process. That person is called a field advocate, and here at Notre Dame, there are two of us: Dr. Muir and me. Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for. Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful. When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway. But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for reconciliation and mercy.