Friday of the Third Week of Advent: O Radiant Dawn

Today’s readings

There’s a little more light today.  As we get toward these last days of Advent, we find ourselves in a time when more light is beginning to shine.  More and more of the candles on our Advent wreath are lit, and the only thing that can make our world brighter is the coming of our God in all his glory, dawning brightly on the earth.

Today’s “O Antiphon” tells us as much.  Today we hear “O Radiant Dawn,” and the antiphon for Evening prayer is this: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

This light is the source of the joy of which Zephaniah the prophet speaks today.  He tells the broken people Israel that God has forgiven their sins, and that he continues to walk among them, which should be cause enough to remove their fear.  That enduring presence among the people Israel, of course, is a foretaste of the enduring presence that we experience in the Incarnation of Christ.

Mary and Elizabeth celebrate that light in today’s Gospel.  Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth is an act of hospitality, and Elizabeth’s welcome, along with the Baptist’s reaction in his mother’s womb, is an act of faith.  That faith incredibly affected the salvation of the whole world.

And all of this light continues to shine on our sometimes-dark world.  A world grown dark and cold in sin is visited by its creator, and that world is changed forever.  The darkness can never now be permanent.  Sin and death no longer have the last word for us, because that was never God’s will for us.  We have hope for eternal life because our God eagerly desires us to return to him and be one with him.

And so we pray, Come, O Radiant Dawn, shatter the darkness that sometimes reigns in our cynical world.  Give us the warmth of your light to warm our hearts grown cold with sin.  Shine on all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

O Sacred Lord

Today’s readings

I love these late days of Advent. The expectation of the Savior is heightening, the time of deliverance is at hand, the Lord is near. During these days, we pray the “O Antiphons:” the call for Christ to come and visit us under his many titles. Yesterday was “O Sapientia” or “O Wisdom.” Today is “O Adonai” or “O Sacred Lord.” The antiphon for Vespers this evening prays: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” We pray for the Lord of our salvation to come quickly and not delay.

This was the message Joseph received in his dream. No, the child to be born was not a random child born out of wedlock. He was instead the hope of the nations, the Lord of Lords, the one who would save his people from their sins. Just as Isaiah foretold one who would be called “the LORD our justice,” so Joseph would name his child Jesus, a name which means “the LORD is salvation.” We await the coming of our Savior who is our salvation, our justice, our hope of eternal life. He was long desired of every nation, and he is needed in our hearts today.

It was necessary for Joseph to set aside his plans for his life so that salvation could come to all the world.  His decision to dismiss Mary quietly was a just one, considering he could have exposed her to shame.  But even that just decision was not God’s will.  Joseph went to God in the stillness of his heart, and was open to his angel’s message in a dream.  Openness to God’s plans is necessary for all of us if we would be one with the Lord.

And so we pray, come O Sacred Lord, do not delay. Fill our hearts with your presence and come to us with your great salvation. Free us from our slavery to sin, open our hearts to your will for us, and bring us into your presence. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

O Wisdom

Today’s readings

That was quite a list of names, wasn’t it? Forty-two generations of the pilgrim people Israel led by some real characters. Some of them were heroic like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah and to some extent David and Solomon. But some of them were pretty wicked, especially Manasseh, whose wickedness in shedding innocent blood incurred God’s wrath such that he allowed the Babylonian captivity that took place during Jeconiah’s reign. So we have forty-two generations of saints and sinners, great men and flawed men, all leading up to the Incarnation of Christ, who was the only remedy to the cycle of sin that spiraled all through the story.

Today we begin the more intense period of Advent that extends from December 17th through the morning of Christmas Eve. During this time, the Liturgy leads us to call all the more longingly for the presence of Christ. Just as forty-two generations of a mix of wisdom and foolishness could only be remedied by the presence of Christ, so the foolishness of our time calls for that same remedy.

During these last days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons,” from which we derive the verses in the Advent Hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The verses are also used during Evening Prayer. Today’s is “O Wisdom,” and the verse from Evening Prayer is “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care: Come and show your people the way to salvation.” We trust the governance of God, the Creator of creation, to satisfy our longing for wisdom with the presence of the Incarnate Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus and bring us peace. Come, Lord Jesus and put an end to the world’s foolishness. Come, Lord Jesus and bring us your Wisdom. Come quickly and do not delay.

The Third Sunday of Advent

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 GaudeteSunday: gaudetebeing 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 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!

Maybe this call to rejoice rings a little hollow today, based on the continued presence of terror and mass-shootings and civil unrest in our society. And even perhaps a bit closer to home, maybe we ourselves are experiencing the illness of a loved one, a broken relationship, job or financial insecurities, or any other kind of sadness.  The world can be a very bleak place, our lives can be in turmoil, and rejoicing can be the furthest thing from our hearts and minds.  But our faith tells us we can rejoice anyway.  The Psalmist sings today about the kind of hope our world needs right now:

God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.

And it is up to us to bring this kind of hope to a world that has almost become accustomed to horror and shock and terror and sadness.  Sometimes it seems that the world may almost prefer to sit in this kind of darkness, even find some kind of weird comfort in it, but not people of faith.  People of faith instead light a candle of hope and rejoice in the light of Christ!  People of faith can rejoice because even in times of sadness and despair, the presence of our God is palpable, realized in stories of heroism and seen in acts of charity and grace in good times and in bad.

And so today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath.  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 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 the worst of times – THE LORD IS NEAR!

The people who came to Saint John the Baptist in today’s Gospel knew of the nearness of their salvation, because John preached it with intensity.  So today they come to him and ask them what they should do – what’s the next step?  And he tells them.  They need to repent, to reform their lives, and keep watch for the One who is mightier still than he is.  The coming Savior will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and the only way to be prepared for that is to turn away from their practices of darkness and live with integrity.

It’s a message that is intended for us too.  Because, honestly, we also could clean up our act a bit.  We too have need to repent – all of us, me too.  Maybe we have big sins or maybe little ones; maybe we have patterns of addiction that we have been struggling with – we all fall short of the glory God intends for us.  None of us is Jesus or Mary, so we have sin in our lives and it is from that sin that Advent calls us to repent.

Because sin is what keeps us from rejoicing, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Sin keeps us mired in the darkness.  Sin breaks the relationship with God and others that keeps us from seeing that the Lord is near.  But we rejoice because our God came to us to give us the antidote to that.  He came to pour out on us his great mercy.  That’s good news, and that’s why we celebrate the sacrament of Penance.

In order to help you to prepare so that you can rejoice, all of us priests will be hearing confessions next Saturday afternoon at 3.  We will also have several priests available next Sunday after the 12:15 Mass until all are heard.  If those times do not work for your schedule, our bulletin has a list of confessions at parishes in our area. I am urging you to go to confession before Christmas because I want you to be able to rejoice.  If you have not been to Confession in years and maybe are a little ashamed or scared or don’t know how to do it, then go anyway and put an end to the awkwardness so you can rejoice.  The priest will welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession.  That’s what we do; that’s why we are priests, and it’s our privilege to help you experience the Lord’s mercy and kindness so that you can once again rejoice.  So if you haven’t been to confession yet this Advent, I really want you to go this week.  You’ll rejoice and be glad when you do.

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!

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of my favorite things about the season of Advent is the people we meet along the way.  In the early days of Advent we have celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe.  We also remembered St. Juan Diego, St. John of the Cross, St. Lucy and St. Nicholas. We’ve been hearing from Isaiah all along in our first readings, and he has more to say to us still before we hear of his words’ fulfillment on Christmas Day.

Then there’s the prophet Elijah, about whom we hear in today’s first reading.  Tradition and Scripture tell us that Elijah didn’t die; he was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot on a whirlwind as his successor, Elisha, looked on.  It was expected that one day he would return.  And so ever since, even to this day, the Jewish people have left an empty place at the table for Elijah at every major celebration.

Jesus makes it clear, however, that Elijah has already returned.  In today’s Gospel reading, we meet Jesus and the disciples coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration.  They have just seen Elijah on the mountaintop along with Jesus and Moses.  And so they ask Jesus, as they make their way down, about the return of Elijah.  When he tells them that Elijah has already returned, but nobody recognized him, they realize that he is speaking of Saint John the Baptist, that other Advent character that we have been privileged to meet.

And it’s a bit of a foreshadowing.  Just as the people missed Elijah’s return, so they will miss Jesus’ return too.  The Resurrection is a sure sign of God’s love and presence in the world, but how many didn’t believe then, and how many still don’t believe!  For people to come to know that Christ has come and lived and died and risen for us, Isaiah’s voice must still be heard.  John the Baptist did that by crying out in the desert.  Now it’s our turn.

Saint Lucy, Virgin Martyr

In every age, young people have the difficult task of remaining pure. Some ignore the task, but some take it up at great personal cost. This was true of Saint Lucy, who desired to remain pure because of her commitment to Christ. She was born of noble parents in Sicily around the year 283. Her father died early in her life, and so she was dependent on her mother. She consecrated her virginity to God and sought to renounce worldly possessions in favor of caring for the poor. Her mother, after suffering from a hemorrhage for several years, decided to make a pilgrimage to Catania, to see the relics of St. Agatha. She was indeed cured of her disease, and in her joy consented to Lucy’s desire to give greatly to the poor.

But that generosity, probably mixed with frustration over her commitment to virginity before marriage, was viewed with great skepticism by her unworthy suitor, who denounced her as a Christian to the Governor of Sicily. She was condemned to a life of prostitution, but prayer rendered her immovable and she could not be dragged off to the house of ill repute! At that point, logs were piled around her and a fire was set, which had no effect on her at all. She was finally put to death with a sword and suffered martyrdom for her dedication to Christ.

As one of the prominent figures of Advent, St. Lucy points the way to the coming Christ. The details of her story have been disputed, however the point of the story is not to provide a historical record, but rather a spiritual record. Her commitment to Christ provided a rich and unobstructed pathway for the entrance of her Lord into her heart.

We too have challenges along the way to Christ. We might not be called to give our lives rather than forsake our virginity or even our belief in Christ, but we are called to lay down our lives to cover the rough places in the road so that others can come to find Him. Along the way, we are encouraged by great saints like Agatha and Lucy. Every single one of them points us in the right direction: to Christ our God who comes to be incarnate among us in every age.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

In this morning’s readings, our God is doing everything possible to get our attention. Salvation is God’s number one priority and he won’t rest until all have come to it. And so he sends Isaiah to “cry out” so many truths that we need to absorb: flesh is fading, but the word of the Lord is forever; the glory of the Lord will be revealed; our guilt is expiated. And this is all good news if we would receive it, but humanity is prone to tuning God out, especially if times are good.

And so he literally jumps up and down to get our attention: Isaiah runs up to the top of a high mountain crying out, “Here is your God!” And failing all of that, God becomes the good shepherd, who notices us lost sheep and sets out to bring us back, even though it would seem – to us – to be wiser not to do so.

God wants us all to come to salvation. He wants us all to open our hearts and receive him. He comes among us, as the Psalmist says, “to rule the world with justice, and the peoples with his constancy.” God urgently seeks to bind up all the broken and lost ones and bring everyone to the kingdom. That’s Advent. Blessed are we when we hear God crying out to us and respond.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading is very interesting, I think. The beginning of the passage names important people at that particular time in Israel: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and also the high priests: Annas and Caiaphas. Finally it names John the Baptist, who was, at that particular time in history, heralding the unveiling of God’s plan for salvation.  Luke does all this to say that, while the Word of the Lord came to John, who was pretty obscure, and many thought was crazy, still that Word came at a particular point in history, a time they could remember and observe.  God was getting real in their midst, and John wasn’t so much crazy as he was on fire.

His message was a message of change, which no one likes.  So it’s no wonder they labeled him crazy and made him take his message to the desert instead of the city and the temple precincts.  Better that than actually changing their lives.  That would be unthinkable!  But John’s message is clear.  God wanted to burst into their midst, and they we didn’t make changes, they were going to miss it.  It’s a message as pertinent and poignant now as it was then.

Because we are a people who could use some time in the desert.  Now, I don’t mean we should go to an actual desert or even take a trip to Las Vegas! I mean, we need to calm down and find some peace in our lives, because with all the craziness and busy-ness of our lives, we stand a pretty good chance of missing the Advent of our Savior as all the people back then did.  We might be just as impatient with a John the Baptist as the people were then.  Who wants to hear the word “repent?”  That means a real change in our lives that we are often not willing to make.

I remember several years ago when we first had the new Roman Missal.  It was Ash Wednesday, and one of those prayers changed too.  Instead of saying “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” we now say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  I had not one but two people who were very angry with me when I said that to them.  That word “repent” hit a nerve and they were quick to protest that repenting was not something they needed to do.  But we all do, friends.  Me included. Repent means turning around and going in another direction.  Because we all get off track here and there in our lives.  Repent means turning back to God, our God who is waiting to break into our lives and be born among us this Advent.

John is really clear about what kind of repenting needs to be done.  If we are going to prepare a way for the Lord, we are going to have to make straight the winding roads: stop meandering all over the place, and walk with purpose to communion with the Lord.  We are going to have to fill in the valleys and level the mountains, because God doesn’t come in fits and spurts, showing up every now and then for a mountain top experience and then taking his leave when times bring you down.  He’s there always and forever.  We are going to have to make those rough ways smooth, because every time we’re jostled around on those rough roads, we stand the chance of getting thrown off the path.  We have to repent, to change, to become vessels in which our Lord can be born so that all flesh can see God’s salvation in us.

Wherever we are on the journey to Christ, whatever the obstacles we face, God promises to make it right through Jesus Christ – if we will let him. We may be facing the valley of hurts or resentments. God will fill in that valley. Perhaps we are up against a mountain of sinful behavior or shame. God will level that mountain. We may be lost on the winding roads of procrastination or apathy. God will straighten out that way. We may be riding along on the rough and bumpy ways of poor choices, sinful relationships and patterns of sin. God will make all those ways smooth. And all flesh – every one of us, brothers and sisters – we will all see the salvation of God. That’s a promise. God will forgive us all of our sins. But we have to be open to the experience.

And so, in the spirit of encouraging that openness, I want to make a very personal invitation. If you find that you have quite a bit of unfinished road construction to do in your spiritual life, I invite you to take care of it this Advent. The Sacrament of Penance is where we Catholics level those mountains, straighten those winding roads, and fill in the potholes that have derailed us along the way. And we have plenty of opportunities to do that. Every Saturday we have confessions at 3pm until all are heard. Next Saturday we also will be having them after the 7:30 morning Mass.  And finally, on Sunday the 23rd, we will have several priests to hear your confession after the 12:15 Mass until all are heard. So you have many opportunities to be open to the “baptism of repentance” that John the Baptist was preaching, and to make the way straight once again for the coming of the Lord in your own life.

The truth is, brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to this holy place to this sacred Liturgy, each of us at different places in the spiritual road. Our goal – all of us – is to advance on that road, tackling the obstacles that face us, and defeating our sin by the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There may only be one unforgivable sin: the sin of thinking that we don’t need a Savior. When we rationalize that we’re basically good people and we’re okay and that there is nothing wrong with our lives or our relationships, then we’re lost. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us this sin, it’s more that we refuse to have it forgiven. If Advent teaches us anything, it’s got to be that we all need that baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached, that we all need to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, making straight the paths for his coming in our lives.

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Blessed Pope Pius IX instituted the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1854, when he proclaimed as truth the dogma that our Lady was conceived free from the stain of original sin.  Now, let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary herself, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th.  It’s easy to keep this straight if you do the math: nine months after this date is September 8th, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Nine months after the Annunciation is December 25th, or Christmas, the feast of the birth of our Savior.

Today’s feast is an important one.  Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the Patroness of our parish, and, since 1856, also of the United States of America.  This feast celebrates our faith that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight.  This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was finally coming to fruition.  How appropriate it is, then, that we celebrate the Immaculate Conception in these Advent days when we prepare for Christmas, that glorious day when our salvation began to unfold.

The readings chosen for this day paint the picture.  In the reading from Genesis, we have the story of the fall.  The man and the woman had eaten of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat.  Because of this, they were ashamed and covered over their nakedness.  God found they had discovered the forbidden tree because otherwise they would not have the idea that their natural state was shameful; they had not been created for shame.  Sin had entered the world, and God asks the man to tell him who had given him the forbidden fruit.

This leads to a rather pathetic deterioration of morality, as the man blames not just the woman, but also God, for the situation: “The woman whom you put here with me: she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  In other words, if God hadn’t put the woman there with him in the first place, he never would have received the fruit to eat.  The woman, too, blames someone else: the serpent.  As if neither of them had been created with a brain to think for themselves, they begin that blame game in which we all participate from time to time.

Thus begins the pattern of sin and deliverance that cycles all through the scriptures.  God extends a way to salvation to his people, the people reject it and go their own way.  God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation.  Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation, or we would be in dire straits.  This cycle of salvation comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today.  Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection.  That is why Saint Paul writes, in his letter to the Ephesians: “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.  In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…”

And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder.  God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to them, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man.  He began this by preparing a fitting mother for his Son: the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin.  He was then ready to be born into our midst and to take on our form.  With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us, and as the least among us: a newborn infant born to a poor family.  Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.  There’s a wonderful Marian prayer called the Alma Redemptoris Mater that the Church prays at the conclusion of Night Prayer during the Advent and Christmas seasons that sums it all up so beautifully.  Pray it with me, if you know it:

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
Gate of heaven, star of the sea,

Assist your people
who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us, poor sinners.

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

[Now, many of you have been preparing for consecration to Jesus through Mary by participating in our 33 Days to Morning Gloryretreat, either individually or in a group.  In a moment, you will stand and we will pray that together. After that, I will then kneel before the statue of our Blessed Mother and pray a prayer consecrating our beloved parish and all its families to Jesus through Mary.  Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a longtime devotion of the Church in which we pray that our Blessed Mother would lead us to her Son. It recognizes that, because of her obvious closeness to Jesus, she is able to bring us to intimate relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and his Divine Mercy.  It is fitting to do this on our patronal feast day, because it is a way for us to recommit ourselves to her service and implore her intercession.]

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

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