The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

Today’s readings

Fear keeps us from doing all sorts of things the Lord wants for us.  If we would truly let go of our fear and cling to our God, just imagine what he could do in us and through us.  Ahaz was King of Israel, a mighty commander, but yet was so afraid of God and what God might do that he refused to ask for a sign.  Perhaps he knew how far he had strayed from God’s commands, and he was afraid to engage God on any level.  He would prefer to cut himself off from God rather than give himself over to the amazing power of God’s presence in his life and his rule.  Because of that perhaps, he never lived to see the greatness of God’s glory.

But his weakness did not disrupt the promise.  In the fullness of time, God’s messenger came to a young woman named Mary and proposed to accomplish in her life the sign for which Ahaz was too afraid to ask.  She too was initially afraid, pondering what sort of greeting this was.  She was also confused, not knowing how what the angel proclaimed could possibly take place in her life.  Our reaction to God’s mysterious will for us is quite often the same, isn’t it?

The difference, though, was that Mary heeded the initial words of the angel that have resounded through Salvation history ever since: “Do not be afraid.”  And, thanks be to God, Mary abandoned her fear and instead sang her fiat, her great “yes” to God’s plan for her, and for all of us.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  These words are reminiscent of what the Psalmist sings today: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

And we know what happened from there.  Mary certainly knew that none of that could be accomplished through her own efforts, but she absolutely knew that God could do whatever he undertook.  Nothing would be impossible for God, and she trusted in that, and because of that, we have the great hope of our salvation.  We owe everything to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plan for our salvation.

And so the promise comes to us.  We have the great sign of which Ahaz was afraid, but in which Mary rejoiced.  We too are told that God can accomplish much in our own lives, if we would abandon our fears and cling to the hope of God’s presence and action in our lives.  Can we too be the handmaids of the Lord?  Are we bold enough to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will?”  All we have to do is to remember the first thing the angel said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.”

The Most Holy Name of Jesus 

Today’s readings 

Not everyone has St. John the Baptist around to point out the Messiah to them. Lots of us, I think, at one point or another, would have loved to have been in the sandals of those apostles when Jesus was passing by. As much as we believe that Christ is present in every person, place and time, I’m sure lots of us would love to have St. John the Baptist point out when we’re missing Christ’s presence in some person or situation. It’s harder when you don’t have the Forerunner showing you the way.

But not everyone even recognized Christ – or at least who he was – in that time and place either. St. John tells us in our first reading that people don’t recognize that we are children of God because they didn’t recognize God in Christ in the first place. So if we miss Jesus in some situation or person, well, our mistake is not unique to us.
During the Christmas season, we are celebrating the Incarnation: the presence of God among us. Of course, this isn’t just about the presence of God among us two thousand years ago, but his real presence among us in every person, in every place and blessing, and especially in the Eucharist. During this time, we might gaze on the manger and long to have been there gazing into the face of Christ. We can gaze into the face of Christ today by taking time for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or time to reach out to someone in need. During this time, we might imagine ourselves next to the Manger on that night long ago, and long to have been there, holding the Christ Child in our arms. In a few minutes, we can come to the Altar and receive our Jesus and hold him in our hands in the Eucharist, receiving him body and blood, soul and divinity. Jesus is just as incarnate, just as Emmanuel, God-with-us, now as he was back then.
We will be strengthened by the Word and the Eucharist today to go forward and see Christ all around us. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. I often wonder if this solemnity is one to which many people can relate. Our system of governance in America does not include the idea of a King, and even if it did, so many people don’t recognize or accept any authority outside of their own personal opinion of what is okay. So I wonder if the whole idea is completely foreign.

Now, if we were looking for a king, what kind of king is this? Our gospel reading today presents a picture of a king who, objectively speaking, seems to be a complete failure. This is not a king who lived in a lavish palace and expected the blind obedience of all those around him. This is not a king who held political office, or led a great army. His message was always quite different than that, and now today, just look at him hanging on the cross between two hardened criminals. That one of them thinks to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom is almost laughable, but, well, there it is.   There is our king. This feast leaves us on the very last Sunday of the Church year with more questions than, it would seem, could ever possibly be answered.

This wasn’t the kind of thing the Jews were expecting, of course. They had long been expecting an Anointed One, but never one like this. Their whole picture of a Messiah had been one of political greatness and military strength, one who would restore the sovereignty of Israel and reestablish Jerusalem as the great political and religious city that it had once been. That was the Messiah they were looking for, but what they got was one who was so much of a suffering servant that he ended up on a cross. Pilate’s inscription, “This is the king of the Jews” was sarcastic and completely offensive to them, which of course is exactly what he intended.

So it’s easy to see why the Jews might not have noticed that this one was their king. It’s easy enough to even see why they would have chosen to ignore his kingship. But we can’t miss it: we have heard the Word proclaimed all year long and we know that this is the way that God chose to save the world. There are times, of course, when we could do with a bit more opulence and certainly a lot less suffering. But Jesus is the king of our reality, not of our fantasy, and so he is not ashamed to herald the cross as the gateway to the kingdom and the instrument of our salvation.

And we have to admit that we are a people who need a king like this. We might want a king to give us greatness and rest from our enemies, but that’s not real. What’s real is our suffering, whether it’s illness, or grief, or job dissatisfaction, or personal troubles, or family strife, or broken relationships, or any other calamity. Suffering happens, and that’s why Jesus chose the image of the Suffering Servant as the motif of his kingship. St. Paul says today in our second reading from his letter to the Colossians that “in him all things hold together.” Even when the world seems to be falling apart for us, we can trust in the Suffering Servant to walk with us and hold everything together.

And so, as preposterous as it may sound to others, we know that Christ is our King. His Kingship, he says in another gospel, is not of this world. No, he was not a king who came with great fanfare, oppressing peoples and putting down vast armies. No, he was not the king who restored Israel to the Davidic monarchy that began in this morning’s first reading. His power was not exercised over the political forces of this world, as much as it was exercised over the power of evil in the world. He is the King who conquered, once and for all, the things that really plague us: evil, sin and death. His Kingdom was not defined by his mortal life, but in fact begins just after he gives up that mortal life. Unlike earthly kings, his power is everlasting.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI, in the face of rising nationalism and Fascism, instituted the Feast of Christ the King to reassert Christ’s sovereignty over all forms of political governance. Jesus Christ is not just one king among others, but rather he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Perhaps, if this feast had been instituted today, our Church might be reasserting Christ’s sovereignty over all powers of cynicism, relativism, and apathy. Jesus Christ our King is, as he says in another place, “the way, the truth, and the life” and there is no other way to the Father, no other way to the kingdom, no other way to life eternal than to take up our cross and follow our King through the sadness of sin and brokenness, through the pain of death, to the glory of his kingdom. And so we have to say with boldness and conviction on this day that one religion isn’t as good as another; that it’s not okay to skip Mass to go to so that your child can play basketball; that Sunday isn’t just a day to sleep in, or shop the malls, but rather a day to worship our King who is the only One who can give us what we really yearn for; what this life is all about.

And so this is how we wrap up our Church year. Next week we begin anew, the first Sunday of Advent. On this last Sunday of the year, it makes sense that we stop for a minute, and look back at the year gone by. How has it been for us? Have we grown in faith? Have we been able to reach out to the poor and needy? Has our faith really taken root in our lives, have we been people who witness to the truth with integrity and conviction and fearlessness? Have we put our King first in our lives or have we been worshipping false gods, attaching our hopes to impotent kings, recognizing false powers, and wandering off the path to life?

If we have been lax about our faith this year, if we have given ourselves to relativism and apathy, then this is the time to get it right. On this eve of the Church’s new year, perhaps we might make new year’s resolutions to worship our King in everything we say and everything we do. Because nothing else is acceptable, and anything less is offensive to our King who gained his Kingship at the unimaginable price of his own precious life that we might be able to live with him in his kingdom. Maybe we can resolve to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, not just when it works out in our schedule, and including those times when we travel (there are Catholic churches pretty much everywhere). Or perhaps we can resolve to reinvigorate our prayer lives, making time every single day to connect with our Lord, to remember our Sunday worship, to seek his guidance in all our endeavors and plans, to strive to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in the quiet moments of our prayer. And certainly we must resolve to live the Gospel in its fullness: to reach out to the poor and needy, to live lives of integrity as we participate in our work and in our communities, to love every person God puts in our path. On this “new Church year’s eve” we must resolve to be followers of the King in ways that proclaim to a cynical and apathetic, yet absolutely watching world, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that there is absolutely no other.

Our prayer on this glorious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King must be the prayer of Saint Dismas, the “good thief” as he hung upon the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

The Transfiguration of the Lord

Today’s readings

How do you picture Jesus? We’ve never seen him face to face, but we have definitely seen artwork depicting him. That artwork can be very inspiring. But that artwork can also give us a perhaps false, overly-familiar look at Jesus our God. I tend to think Peter, James and John also had a kind of familiar picture of their Jesus. Over the time they had spent with him thus far, they had become close to him and saw him as a friend, a companion on the journey, and a great teacher. But they were always having trouble with his divinity. We can be like that too. We’ve been taught to see Jesus as a friend, and so sometimes we forget that he is also our God. Or vice-versa. The truth is, of course, that he is both.

Today’s feast changes things for those disciples, and for us as well. If there was any doubt about who Jesus was, it’s gone now. That voice from the cloud is absolutely specific: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Jesus is the Son of God and his divinity must be embraced and proclaimed. While it can be comfortable for us to have a picture of Jesus that is absolutely human, we must always keep in mind the Transfigured Christ, dazzling white, radiating glory, the lamp shining in a dark place. He is the Son of Man of whom Daniel speaks, and to him belongs dominion, glory, and kingship. If Jesus were only human, we would have no Savior, we would have no chance of touching divinity ourselves, that divinity for which we were created.

On the way to the mountain, the disciples came to know Jesus in his humanity, and on the way down, they came to know Jesus in his divinity. That trip down from the mountain took him to Calvary, and ultimately to the Resurrection, the glory of all glories. Christ is both human and divine, without any kind of division or separation. We must be ready to see both natures of our Jesus, so that we ourselves can transfigure our world with justice, compassion and mercy, in the divine image of our beautiful Savior. No matter what challenges may confront us or what obstacles may appear along the way, we must be encouraged to press on with the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.”

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass during the Night and Mass During the Day

Readings of Christmas: Mass during the Night | Mass During the Day

I was thinking over the last few days about some of my Christmases past. I was trying to see if I could remember the gifts I had been given as a child. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember them specifically, but of course I did remember the happiness of the times. The joy of being with my family and the love that we shared certainly marked my memory of those Christmases. Over time, some Christmases have been wonderful, and some marked by sadness, especially after Dad died. That is how Christmas comes and goes throughout our lives, of course.

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

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

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

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

And if you think about it, we need this kind of mercy right now, maybe more than ever. The constant threat of terror overseas, and even here in our country. The nightly shootings on the streets of Chicago and many other cities. The degradation of real authority sparked by misconduct of politicians, police officers, teachers, and even priests.

Amid all of this mess, Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy. He, too, acknowledges the mess in the document that instituted this holy year. He writes: “How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!”

What we have to see on this most holy (night / day) is that our God knew the flaws of human flesh, but he loved it so much that he came into it anyway so that it might be redeemed. He was well aware of our brokenness, but he came into it anyway that he might bind it up and make it whole. Becoming one of us, he was in a powerful position to pour out his great mercy, taking his creation one step further by making it fit for heaven. And, as Saint Augustine points out, he did that for you.

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

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

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

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the great feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe. In the past, I have said on this feast that it’s a little odd for us, mostly because we don’t have a king in our system of government, so it’s hard for us to relate. But lately, I’ve been thinking it goes a little deeper than that, because we have been conditioned to think that authority figures are someone we can ignore. And let’s face it, many authorities deserve to be ignored. Nobody in their right mind runs for political office anymore, it seems. Just look at the characters running for president this time: wouldn’t it be nice if even one of them was just not crazy?

But it even goes deeper than that. Nobody respects the authority of the Church, it seems, and to some extent, we probably deserve that too. Many priests and bishops have abused their authority and have abused their parishioners, and that is shameful. But even deeper than that, people both young and old don’t respect their parents in the way they should be. And when you ask people why they do something that is objectively wrong, they’ll often tell you, “I think it’s okay,” as if their opinion were the be-all and end-all of morality.

Some of this, as I’ve mentioned, is deserved, but much of it is a violation of the Fourth Commandment. Because here’s why: When we get used to ignoring the legitimate authority in our lives, we get used to doing our own thing. Then not even Jesus can be the Lord of our lives. And when that happens, we’re on the path to destruction, because he is the only one that can justify us, the only one who can redeem us. He is, as he says in another place in the Gospels, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:16). Notice: not just a way, or one possible truth, or a good but not obligatory life, but The way, the Truth, and the Life. He goes on to say, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

So I think we definitely need this feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, to remind us that there is authority worth observing. And here, at the end of our liturgical year, we celebrate the one who is that authority. As we look back on the past year, there may have been times of great achievement, or times of failure. We may have celebrated life, or had to deal with sickness and death. We may have been blessed by wonderful, nurturing relationships or we may have had to deal with discord and strife. But if this year has meant anything, hopefully we can say that we have come through it with the help of Jesus our Savior, who is our Lord and King.

In today’s first reading, we have the promise of a king: one like a son of man with an everlasting dominion. This part of the book of Daniel comes from a series of visions. In these visions, particularly the one we have today, Daniel gives the Jews hope in persecution. This is a vision that is spoken to lift the people up and help them to know that their hope is in God.

The Jews of Daniel’s day have been being persecuted by the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes IV. He and his henchmen were persecuting the Jews who insisted on living the Jewish way of life. But what is even more evil and more disastrous to the community, is that some of the Jews were starting to think that giving up their way of life and instead worshiping the gods of the Greeks was a good idea. They saw how powerful the Greeks were and attributed that to the gods they were worshipping. So, why not give up their own faith to follow one that seems to be working better? The biggest danger they faced was losing their faith, and really their way of life, to the pagans by adopting pagan ways of life.

Well, we clearly are not under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, but we are definitely in danger of losing our faith to the pagan forces of this world. Just look at the terror and discord in the world today, especially the Christians being forced out of Syria – and many other places, I might add. Our faith and our way of life are in danger too. And that is to say nothing of the way that the secular culture around us threatens to devour us. We might find ourselves going along with that culture without really thinking about it. Everything that promises us power, success and wealth has the ability to take our hearts and souls with it. Why not just give in? Won’t paganism and evil win out in the end?

Well, Daniel sure didn’t think so. He prophesied that there would be one like a Son of Man who would triumph over Antiochus and others like him. This One would deliver them from the persecution they suffered and from the seduction that confronted them. This One would rule the world in justice and peace, and would lead the persecuted ones to a kingdom that would never pass away. The early Church identified this Son of Man with Jesus Christ. He is the One who has power to rule over all and he is the One whose kingdom is everlasting. He is the One who will overcome all of our enemies, even death itself.

Jesus told Pilate in today’s Gospel that his Kingdom was not of this world. That should be the red flag for us. When we begin to worship and follow the forces of this world, we know that we are in the wrong place, because as I’ve said many times, we are not at home in this world – we are mere travellers, on our way to our true home in heaven. Christ is the King, the Son of Man, who will lead us to a kingdom not made by human hands, a kingdom that will not pass away, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. The choice is ours, though. Will we follow the pagan forces of this world, or will we acknowledge the authority of our Risen Lord and proclaim him as King of our lives and of our Universe and follow him to that perfect and everlasting kingdom?

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, I think Herod was asking the right question.  Sure, he was asking it for all the wrong reasons, but still, it is the right question.  And that question is, “Who is Jesus?”

What Herod was hearing about Jesus is pretty much what the disciples told Jesus when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  Elijah, or one of the prophets, or maybe even John the Baptist.  But Herod was the one who killed John so he knew that couldn’t be it, so who is he really?  Herod kept trying to see him, and of course, he’d have more than ample opportunity soon enough, after Jesus is arrested.

So we have the question too.  Oh, we know well enough – intellectually – who Jesus is, but we still have to answer that question in our hearts.  Who is Jesus for us?  We know he is not just some prophet; that he is not like anyone who lived before or after him.  But have we stopped being intrigued by the question, have we lost our fascination with Jesus?  Herod kept trying to see Jesus, and it’s the right instinct, or at least it is for us.  We have to keep trying to see him too, whether that takes us to a rereading of the Gospels or to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or to contemplative prayer or even to service to the poor.  Whatever the case, fascination with Jesus is the right way to go, and we have to let ourselves be intrigued by the question again.  Who is Jesus for us?