The Nativity of the Lord: At the Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

It’s all about the zeal of the Lord of Hosts!

Because when you think about it, God doesn’t have to care about our welfare or our salvation.  He’s God, he’s not in need of anyone or anything, because he is all-sufficient.  He doesn’t need our love, he doesn’t need our praise, he doesn’t need our contrition … honestly, he doesn’t need us period.

But because God is who he is, because he is Goodness in all its perfection, because he is Love beyond all telling, because he is Truth in its purest form, because he is Beauty beyond anything we’ve ever seen, because he is our God, he cannot not care about us.  He cannot not want us to come to salvation.  And so he pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.

He created us in love, and even though he doesn’t need us, he still loves us, and can’t do anything but that.  Throughout time, we’ve disappointed him, and when he forgave us – which he didn’t have to do – we disappointed him again.  That’s been the story of us as a people, and also our own personal stories, if we’re honest.  How many times have we all sinned, and after being forgiven, go back and sin again?  Honestly, if we were God, we’d throw up our hands and walk away.  But, thank God, we’re not God, and our God isn’t like that.  As often as we turn away and come back, he reaches out to us with the love of the father for his prodigal son.  Our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.

When our need for a Savior was great, when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, after Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel had made God’s desire for reconciliation known, our Lord Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desired to consecrate the world by his most loving presence.  Being conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, he was born in Bethlehem of Judah and was made man.  As a man, he walked among the people of his time and lived as one of us, in all things but sin.  At the appointed hour, he took on our sins and was nailed to a cross.  He died to pay the price for all of us, in order to redeem us and bring us back to friendship with the Father.  Because of this, the power of death and sin to keep us from God has been canceled out, and we have the possibility of eternal life.  Our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.

We gather this night not to wish each other happy holidays or season’s greetings, but instead to revel in the zeal that our God has for our souls.  We who are so much less than him, and so unworthy of his love, nonetheless have his love and are intimately known to him, better than we even know ourselves.  In God’s zeal for us, he reaches out to us when we fall, walks with us when we suffer, and brings us back to him when we wander away.  There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run, no depth to which we can fall, that is beyond the reach of God’s zealous love for us.  And that’s why this night, when we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, is such an amazing and holy night for us.  If not for this night, the night of our salvation on Easter would never come to pass.  This night we celebrate not just the birth of a baby, but the birth of God’s intimate presence in the world from the moment of his birth until time is no more.

It’s no wonder the angels sang that night: they knew what the world had yet to behold.  They knew that God’s zeal had obliterated the chasm between the world and its maker.  They knew that the sadness of death was coming to an end.  They knew that the power of sin had been smashed to bits.  They new the light of God’s Radiant Dawn had burst forth upon the earth.  They knew that in this moment, the sad melody of sin had given way to a chorus of God’s glory.  They knew that the dirge of death had dwindled to the peace that God pours forth on those whom he favors.

That moment, all those years ago, changed everything.  Nothing would be the same.  The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this!

The Nativity of the Lord: At the Vigil Mass

Today’s readings
Children/Family Mass

In a town called Nazareth in Galilee, a long time ago, Mary lived with her parents, Joachim and Ann.  Mary was only a young girl, maybe 14 years old.  She came from a quiet little area of the world, and just looking at them, you’d have to say nothing about her family was very special.  She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, because that was when people got married in those days, but she wasn’t married yet.

She was busy doing her chores one day, when she was surprised by the appearance of an angel named Gabriel.  As you can imagine, the appearing of an angel can be a little frightening, but Gabriel reassured her and told her that the Lord was with her.  He told her not to be afraid, because God wanted her to be the mother of his Son Jesus.  Jesus would become great and would rule over the kingdom of Israel forever.  Mary was confused how she could have a baby, because she was not married, but the angel reassured her that all things are possible with God.  She was amazed, but she had faith, and said to the angel, “Let it happen as you have said.”

Mary sang a hymn proclaiming how great God was, and went in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also going to have a baby, even though she was very old.  When she got there, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Mary helped Elizabeth for three months and returned home.

Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, and when he heard that Mary was pregnant, he was upset.  He was going to break off the engagement, but he had a visit from the angel too.  He came to be with her and took her into the city of David for the census (a time that the king wanted to count everyone in his kingdom).

They had a terrible time finding a place to stay during the journey, since so many people were traveling to take part in the census.  Eventually, it became urgent: on the way, Mary gave birth to her baby, and had Jesus in a manger where the animals stayed.  Many people came to visit Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and gave the baby gifts and said wonderful things about him, things Mary would never forget.  She kept all of this very close to her in her heart.

Mary and Joseph raised Jesus and watched him become a strong, healthy, and smart young man.  One time, when the family went to Jerusalem for a visit to the holy temple, Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus.  They were on the way home when they discovered Jesus wasn’t with them or any of their friends or family.  They were so upset and frightened!  Returning to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, talking about their faith, with all of the rabbis and teachers.  He was only twelve years old!

Eventually Joseph died, and Mary stayed near Jesus.  She watched him start his ministry, the whole reason God had sent him to earth in the first place.  He called his disciples and taught all the people.  He cured the sick and fed many hungry people.  He worked many miracles and always talked about how good God was, and how much God loved people, and how they should all turn back to God and turn away from the bad things they had been doing.  Mary watched as he did all these wonderful things, and she saw how faithful he was to God’s work.

But Mary also began to see that Jesus wasn’t making everybody happy.  She saw that when he cured people on the Sabbath day, the day of rest, the leaders of the temple became angry.  She saw that when Jesus told them to take care of the poor and the hungry and the homeless instead of worrying about what day it was, the religious leaders wanted to kill him.  Mary watched as eventually they did take hold of Jesus, carried him off for a trial before Pilate the governor, and nailed him to the cross.

At the foot of the cross, Mary stood sorrowful, knowing what a wonderful gift she and the whole world had been given in Jesus.  But Jesus took care of Mary even then, and entrusted her to the care of his friend John.  After Jesus died on the cross, Mary along with some of the other women in the group were the first ones to see that Jesus rose from the dead!  Mary stayed with the other disciples and prayed with them that the whole world would come to know the message of Jesus.  Her sorrow turned to joy as she watched the community grow and live the things Jesus had taught them.

Those disciples were the ones who passed the faith on to us.  Because of the courage of the disciples and especially of Mary, we today can believe in Jesus and receive the gift of everlasting life from him.  Because of the faith of Mary, we can live forever with God and never have to be afraid of death or be mastered by sin.  All of this happened because Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

It is good for us to hear Mary’s story, because she lived her life following Jesus.  We’re supposed to do that too.  Mary got to see Jesus face-to-face, even hold him in her arms.  We might not be able to do that, but Jesus is close to all of us as long as we let him in.  Just like they made a place for Jesus to be born in a manger, we need to make a manger for Jesus in our own hearts so that he can be born in us and always be with us.

It’s very important that we all hear that just as God sent an angel to Mary, he sends angels to us all the time.  Those angels tell us, too, that we should not be afraid because God loves us and cares for us and wants to do great things with us, just like he did with Mary.  All he needs for us to do is to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

The Epiphany of the Lord 

Today’s readings

I’m going to make things pretty simple today. If someone asks you what my homily was about, you’ll be able to sum it up in just four words: “Walk toward the light.”

And that’s good advice, I think, for us who walk around in what can be a very dark world. Today’s first reading speaks of that darkness: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples…” We’re not talking about some kind of simple darkness that is cured by simply turning on a lamp. This darkness is pervasive, not just physical darkness, but a darkness that has psychological effects, and even affects communities and nations. When Isaiah speaks of the thick clouds covering the peoples, that’s what he means: “peoples” means nations. 

And we don’t need to look too much farther than the newspaper or evening news to see that darkness. The year ahead of us might seem rather foreboding. We don’t live far from the city of Chicago, which just experienced the most violent year in its history, which is really saying something. We also just finished a rather contentious and divisive election season. The wars raging in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa, all over the world really, those are dark places for combatants and non-combatants alike. Christians in other lands find their lives in danger every day. There’s plenty of darkness to go around, and it may not seem like there’s enough light in all the universe to make it better, to illuminate that darkness, to help us to break free of it all. 

There may be darkness in our own lives too. Maybe we have patterns of sin of which we cannot seem to break free, maybe there are family difficulties that cloud our day-to-day living, maybe there are old hurts among family or friends that prevent us from moving forward in grace. Even our own personal and spiritual lives can be such dark places at times. 

Today’s Liturgy acknowledges all the darkness and invites us: “Walk toward the light.” 

Because the light that we have to scatter all that darkness comes from God himself. Isaiah says again: “but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.” A darkness as pervasive as the one that covers all peoples takes a very bright light to scatter it. Does this mean that all that darkness will go away immediately? Of course not. But it does mean that God has provided a way, lit up a path, for people of faith to take baby steps if necessary to walk toward that light. We see that light in the Church, through the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our celebration of the Eucharist, when we reach out to others in service, in our interaction with each other as people of faith. Those thick clouds may make it pretty hard to see at times, but ultimately they are no match for the bright light of the glory of the Lord. 

Isaiah goes on to point out that all that light isn’t intended just for us. When we have approached the light, we need to share that light with others. “Nations shall walk by your light,” Isaiah says, “and kings by your shining radiance.” Having received the light of the glory of the Lord, we are meant to spread it over our corner of the world. We are meant to radiate that light as a beacon in a dark place, so that all peoples – all those peoples that were covered by those thick clouds of darkness – can see their way to the Lord too. We spread that light by changing our lives. We spread it by being people of integrity. We spread it by doing everything we can to reinvigorate our spiritual and devotional lives. We spread the light by paying it forward, by giving of ourselves, by having concern for those in our lives and those the Lord puts in our lives. We spread the light by reaching out to those in need. 

And what is wonderful is that spreading the light never leaves us in the darkness. There is always more light to shine on us. Listen to Isaiah again:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see, 

your heart shall throb and overflow,

for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,

the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.

The glory of the Lord is never diminished by shining on others. In fact, when we share that light with others, we only receive more, so that our hearts are throbbing and overflowing, beholding all the riches that we could ever hope to find. We may find a talent we never knew we had, one that can reach others for Christ. We may find a new energy that comes to a spiritual life that was previously rather listless. We may find new challenges, new opportunities, and always new grace. The riches and wealth of our God are never exhausted. 

All we have to do is walk toward the light. 

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.” Today, and in the next couple of weeks, we will see Christ’s Lordship manifested in a few different ways. Each of these epiphanies will call us to a deeper appreciation of who Christ is in our lives and a deeper reflection on our own discipleship. 

The light that we walk toward today is very-likely life-changing. The Magi came to seek the light in today’s Gospel reading. All we get from Matthew is a description of the encounter. But we have no idea what the encounter did in the lives of those wise astrologers. We don’t know how it changed them, what it cost them, where it ultimately led them. We see that the light was not intended just for the Jews, but also for all of the nations, pagans and religious people alike. All could come to the light, all could be affected by the light, all could experience the true light of the world. 

And in just the same way, we have no idea how walking toward the light will affect us. We don’t know how it will change us, what it will cost us, where it ultimately will lead us. All we know is that, coming to the light, we will be changed, with the promise of grace upon grace. Just as the Magi were led to return by another way, we too might find ourselves taking another way in our lives. Epiphany is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives? Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected? Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection. We will be exposed to the light many times and in many wonderful ways. It will be a year of many epiphanies for us. 

May this coming year find us walking toward the light countless times and in countless ways, and open to the many riches of grace that the Lord has in store for us. 

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!

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

Luke notes all throughout Jesus’ young life that Mary kept the events of Jesus’ life and reflected on them in her heart.  At the visit of the shepherds, and again after finding Jesus in the temple, Mary kept those memories for later reflection.  Maybe she understood them, or perhaps had to work them out later, but keeping them in her heart, she was able to ponder the Word.  It’s kind of like she was keeping a scrapbook of memories in her heart, and I found myself wishing during these Christmas days, that I could take a look at that scrapbook.  She had a first-hand view of how Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, and as Luke tells the story, her perspective of God’s work in the life of her family had to be incredible.

Mary’s reflection on the life of Jesus is really a model for us.  Keeping those events close to her and reflecting on them later is her way of reflecting on the Word of God.  Whether she understood them at the time or not,  she didn’t just live through the moment and move on.  She went back to those events later in her life – even after the death and resurrection of Jesus – and came to a new understanding guided by the Holy Spirit.  And thank God she did that.  It’s probably her later reflection on those events that made the early Church Evangelist able to record them and pass them on to us.

We too, must reflect on the Word of God.  We have to put ourselves in the presence of the Story, and ponder it in our hearts.  If we’re confused by Scripture, we have Mary as our patron to help us reflect on that Word and come to understand it, guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.  But we also have her encouragement to keep those Scriptures in the scrapbook of our hearts, to keep coming back to them.  That’s the only way the Spirit can work on us and help us to come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Word of God, and in doing that, to come to a renewed and vibrant relationship with our Lord.

If we would make a resolution for this new year, maybe it could be to follow Mary’s example.  Maybe we could set aside some time on a regular basis – even if just once a week – to put ourselves in the presence of the Word of God.  And not just here at Mass, although that’s a good start.  But maybe in private prayer or even in an organized Bible Study – we have a few of them going on in our parish on a regular basis.  If we regularly open ourselves up to the Word of God, maybe we too could come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Scriptures; and a closer and more beautiful relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

Mary, mother of God the Word, help us to understand the Word as you did.

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

Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

“He saw and believed.” The “other” disciple, often called the “beloved” disciple or the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” is Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, the one we celebrate today. Saint John had a very special relationship with Christ. He wasn’t as zealous and boisterous as Peter could be, but he had a faith as strong as Peter’s in his own way. His was a faith that observed and processed and believed. His was a faith that grew quietly, as he made connections between what Jesus prophesied and what came to pass. It’s no wonder that when he stood at the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

In Saint John’s writings, the theme of love is almost overwhelming. We hear that in today’s first reading, from his first letter. That love is bound up in the whole theme of fleshly existence. John proclaims that because God loved the world so much, he could not bear to be apart from us or aloof from our nature. Instead, he took on our fleshly existence, this body that can so often fail us, can so often turn to sin and degradation, can so often lead us in the wrong direction. Taking on that flawed human flesh, he redeemed it for glory. Through the Incarnation, God proclaims once and for all that we have been created good, that we have been created in love, and that nothing can ever stand in the way of the love God has for us.

Saint John’s preaching of love and the goodness of our created bodies is a preaching that has a very special place in the celebration of Christmas. It was because of that love that God had for us, a love that encompasses our bodies and our souls, that he came to live among us and take flesh in our world. His most merciful coming was completely part of his loving plan for our salvation. That’s the message Saint John brings us on his feast day today, and throughout this celebration of Christmas.

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

Today’s readings: Mass During the Night | Mass During the Day

We settle for mediocrity way too easily sometimes, I think. All of the “stuff” that we have to have or get to give at this time of year is an example of that. The latest gadgets will be out of date very soon, and the hard-to-get toys will all be forgotten or broken shortly after the new year. The things we think will make us happy are not happiness givers after all, and then we are left with a sense of want for something else, which also will leave us unfulfilled. But tonight/today we celebrate that that does not have to be our enduring reality. We are given, in this celebration, the gift that won’t ever go out of date, or be broken or useless. Today we are given the great gift of the Incarnation of our Lord.

The Incarnation is a great and holy mystery that tells us that God loved us so much, he couldn’t bear to live without us. When we had gone our own way and wandered far away from him, he pursued us to bring us back. He went so far as to become one of us: the Great and Almighty One, who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than all the heavenly hosts, this God of ours took on our frail human flesh to walk among us and touch us and bring us back to himself. 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.

This, brothers and sisters, is truly a great and wonderful feast! It’s no wonder the angels sang on that glorious night! If it weren’t for the Incarnation – Jesus’ taking on our mortal flesh – there could never be a Good Friday or an Easter, there could never be salvation, never be hope for us. But there is. That’s the good news that we celebrate tonight (today) and every day of our lives.

Knowing God’s love in this way is the whole reason the Church exists. That people would not know God’s love and not experience his friendship was so unthinkable to the early followers of Jesus that they went forth everywhere preaching the Good News of God’s love and grace.

So we come to this holy place tonight, gathered together to gaze on the gift of Christ in our Manger. The message of this peaceful scene is that God wants to save the world. He created us in love and for love, so he greatly desired in his grand plan that we would all come back to him one day, and live forever with him in the kingdom. But he knew that, steeped in sin as our world can be, fallen and flawed, as we individually can be, that we could never really return to him on our own. We were – and are – too bogged down in mediocrity, too caught up in things that are not God, and that are not ultimately going to bring us happiness. So he knew that the only thing that he could do was to enter our history in a decisive way.

And he could have done that in any way that he pleased – he is God after all: all-powerful, all-knowing and present everywhere. John’s Gospel, though, tells us just exactly how God chose to enter our history: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” He chose not just to visit us, but instead to become one of us, taking upon himself all of our weaknesses, our pain, and our sorrows – like us in all things but sin. He was born a baby: the all-powerful One taking on the least powerful stage of our existence. He was born to a poor family and announced to an unwed mother. The one who created the riches of the world and who himself was clothed in the splendor of the Almighty turned aside from all of it so that he could become one with his people. Because he chose to take upon himself all that we must go through and then some, he is the way to salvation for all of us.

The only way that the full brokenness of our human form could be redeemed was for Jesus to take on all of it when he came to save us. That’s why his birth was so messy, why he had to be born in a manger with all the farm animals, that’s why he never had a place to lay his head in all his life. What is amazing is that, as wretched as our earthly lives can be sometimes, God never considered himself above it all, never hesitated for a moment to take it on and fill it with grace.

God didn’t take on our form so that he could become less, he took on our form so that we could become more. So, yes, God becomes one of us and takes on all of our infirmities and weaknesses. But in doing that, we ourselves become more than we could ever be on our own. Our lowliness is filled with grace, our sadness is filled with rejoicing. That was always the plan God had for us.

That’s our story. It’s really important that we don’t forget it, and even more important that we tell it to everyone we can. It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th. Our story 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 love in the world. That is who we really are, despite the world’s attempts to define us as something far less. The great gift of God’s love 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 story 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 please see one of us, to point you in the right direction. Please don’t walk away from this glorious celebration without knowing that God did it for you – for all of us, sure – but specifically for you.

If you’re an active member of our parish family, then I hope the message that you receive tonight and your encounter with Christ tonight leads you to a desire to share Christ’s presence with others. That’s our job as Christians, every one of us pointing the way to Christ in our own way, in our own place, so that everyone we meet knows what wondrous joys await those who live in Christ. The gift we have been given absolutely must be shared, and it is part of our baptismal commitment to Christ to share it.

The Incarnation – the birth and personhood of Jesus Christ – along with his Passion, death and Resurrection, changes everything. When we all rediscover Christ, 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!