Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

A long time ago now, someone once gave my family an ornament for our Christmas tree.  It was very curious: basically just a large nail hung from a green ribbon.  You probably already know the significance of the nail: when looking at the manger, we remember the cross.  When gazing on the Christmas tree, we remember the tree from which our Savior hung.  The nail was a reminder that Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are all part of the same mystery.

Saint John of the Cross is a good reminder of this truth.  Born in Spain, he eventually became a Carmelite.  He came to know a Carmelite nun by the name of Teresa of Avila, and through her urging, joined her in a reform of the Carmelite order.  His great writings helped to accomplish this and are noted as spiritual masterpieces, and helped him to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.  But not everyone, of course, agreed with the reform of the order, and he paid the price for it by being imprisoned.  In some ways, Saint John of the Cross reminds me more of Lent than Advent.  But then, so does that nail ornament.

Even as we wrap ourselves in the hope and promise of Advent, we have to pause and remind ourselves of what the promise is all about.  Jesus came to pay the very real price for our many sins.  And that, dear brothers and sisters, is a gift of incomprehensible worth!

Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

What the Pharisees were missing in this gospel story was that there is something that paralyzes a person much worse than any physical thing, and that something, of course, is sin.  And if you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a pattern of sin in your life, of if you’ve ever struggled with any kind of addiction, or if a sin you have committed has ever made you too ashamed to move forward in a relationship or ministry or responsibility, then you know the paralysis this poor man was suffering on that stretcher.  Sin is that insidious thing that ensnares us and renders us helpless, because we cannot defeat it no matter how hard we try.  That’s just the way sin works on us.

We cannot just raise our hands and say, hey, I’m only human, because nothing makes us less human than sin.  Jesus, in addition to being divine, of course, was the most perfectly human person that ever lived, and he never sinned.  So from this we should certainly take away that sin does not make us human, and that sin is not part of human nature.

And it doesn’t have to stay that way.  We’re not supposed to stay bound up on our stretchers forever.  We’re supposed to get ourselves to Jesus, or if need be, like the man in the gospel today, get taken to him by friends, because it is only Jesus that can free us.  That’s why the church prays, in the prayer of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, “May God give you pardon and peace.”

Freed from the bondage of our sins by Jesus who is our peace, we can stand up with the lame man from the gospel and go on our way, rejoicing in God.  We can rejoice in our deliverance with Isaiah who proclaimed, “Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know if it’s ever easy to listen to the news any more.  Unrest in the middle east, abuse scandals in the entertainment industry and political arena, crime in our cities, and so much more.  And all of those are the man-made problems: they are byproducts of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we Advent more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame.  I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way.  They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age, unfortunately – it never seems to go away.  And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good.  We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new.  And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those in which we participate as a society.  And then we have to accept the process of repentance.  We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God.  That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the bad stuff going on in our nation and our world, if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done.  That’s why reconciliation is so important.  What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us.  The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others.  But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ.  We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas.  I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that.  I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, and I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, nasty thorns in the flesh, day in and day out.  And God never meant it to be that way.  He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

So speaking of confession, here’s one of mine: There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time.  I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed.  It came about from what I came to realize was a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person.  But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way.  We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward.  That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament.  The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession.  It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace.  And you do too.  So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree.  Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be.  When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too.  That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  We have a Reconciliation Service scheduled for Thursday, December 21 at 7:00pm.  We are also hearing confessions twice a day every Saturday until Christmas: after the 7:30am Mass, and again at 3:00pm.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent.  Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession.  That’s our job.  All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you.  Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

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.  This had been a traditional belief since about the eighth century, and had been celebrated as a feast first in the East, and later in the West.  So let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25.  It’s easy to keep this straight if you remember 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 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 just before Christmas, when our salvation begins 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 noticed that, and asked about it.  He 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.  It all comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today.  Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection.  That is why St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, today: “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.   In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…”

And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder.  God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to them, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man.  He began this by preparing for his birth through the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin.  He was then 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 can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day.  Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too.

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

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

How willing are we to see everything and every situation as a gift from God?  Granted, sometimes that kind of attitude can be quite a challenge.  When everything is hectic at work, or when your work goes unappreciated, it’s hard to see that work as a gift.  When your kids are making you nuts or your spouse seems distant, it can be hard to see your family as a gift.  When aging parents are suffering from illness or children suffer from disease, it can be hard to see life as a gift.  There are many obstacles to seeing the beauty of every person and situation.

Yet that’s just what Jesus tells us we should do.  We are blessed to see what we see.  When I was in seminary, working as a hospital chaplain, I saw what seemed to be more than my share of death and disease.  My fellow student-chaplains were going through the same thing.  Then, one day, one of them brought in this very Gospel reading for discussion in the morning.  When we reflected on the truth of the reading, we found that we were able to see grace in the middle of all the suffering, pain and sadness.

Sometimes even when things are hard, God can accomplish great things by helping us to carry those crosses.  Even more important, God can help us to see great grace happening that would not otherwise happen.  It’s difficult to get there, but today we can pray that we would consider ourselves blessed to see the things we see, and to hear the things we hear.  Let us pray that God can help us to see the grace in every person and situation.

The First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Those are the very first words in the Roman Missal’s Proper of Time.  This is today’s proper entrance antiphon, and with these words, the Church begins the new Church year.  We stand here on the precipice of something new: a new Church year, a new season of grace.  We eagerly await God’s new creation, lifting up souls full of hope and expectation.  We come to this place and time of worship to take refuge from the disparaging enemies that pursue us into our corner of the world.  And we wait for God on this first day of the year, keenly aware that our waiting will not be unrewarded.  This is Advent, the season whose very name means “coming” and stands before us as a metaphor of hope for a darkened world, and a people darkened by sin.

When we’re praying through Advent, perhaps we feel a sense of longing.  We do long for that newness.  This time of year, we long for warmer days.  In the news, we long for peace in the world and even in cities and communities.  Perhaps we long for peace in our families, and ourselves.  As a community of faith, we long for the One who alone can bring the real, lasting peace that makes a difference in our lives and in our world.  We long for the promised Savior who will bind up what is broken in us and lead us back to the God who made us for himself.

I sure think Isaiah had it right in today’s first reading, didn’t he?  “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,” he cries, “and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”  What a wonderful question for all of us – it’s a question that anyone who has struggled with a pattern of sin has inevitably asked the Lord at one time or another.  He goes on to pray “Would that you might meet us doing right, and that we were mindful of you in our ways!”  We so much want to break free of the chains of sin and sadness, and turn back to our God, but so often, we encounter so many obstacles along the way.

Whether it’s our own personal sin, which is certainly cause enough for sadness, or the sin in which we participate as a society, there’s a lot of darkness out there.  Wars raging all over the world, abortions happening every day of the year, the poor going unfed and dying of starvation here and abroad.  Why does God let all of this happen?  A quick look at the news leads us to ask ourselves, what kind of people have we become?  Why does God let us wander so far from his ways?  Why doesn’t he just rend the heavens and come down and put a stop to all this nonsense?

There is only one answer to this quandary, and that’s what we celebrate in this season of anticipation.  There has only ever been one answer.  And that answer wasn’t just a band-aid God came up with on the fly because things had gone so far wrong.  Salvation never was an afterthought.  Jesus Christ’s coming into the world was always the plan.

[And so I think it is very appropriate that we welcome catechumens here on this first Sunday of the year.  They too wait and have longing for a deep relationship with God.  They yearn from the day when they will be given the fullness of salvation in the church’s sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.  As we support them as a community through their time of formation, it is a sign of our hope for salvation, when God brings us all together to everlasting life.]

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite Advent hymns this week.  One of my favorites is “O Come, Divine Messiah,” a seventeenth-century French carol translated into English in the late nineteenth century.  It sings of a world in silent anticipation for the breaking of the bondage of sin that could only come in one possible way, and that is in the person of Jesus Christ:

O Christ, whom nations sigh for,
Whom priest and prophet long foretold,
Come break the captive fetters;
Redeem the long-lost fold.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

As we prepare to remember the first coming of our Savior into our world at Christmas, we now look forward with hope and eagerness for his second coming.  You’ll be able to hear that expressed in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer today.  That second coming, for which we live in breathless anticipation, will finally break the captive fetters and put an end to sin and death forever.  That is our only hope, our only salvation, really the only hope and salvation that we could ever possibly need.

All of this requires vigilance; we must be watchful, be alert, as Jesus instructs us in today’s Gospel.  We want our God to meet us doing right.  And so our task now is to wait, and to watch, and to yearn for his coming.  Waiting requires patience: patience to enjoy the little God-moments that become incarnate to us in our everyday lives.  Patience to accept this sinful world as it is and not as we would have it, patience to know that, as Isaiah says, we are clay and God is the potter, and he’s not done creating, or re-creating the world just yet.  And so we watch for signs of God’s goodness, alert to opportunities to grow in grace, with faith lived by people who are the work of God’s hands.

We wait and we watch knowing – convinced, really – absolutely positive – that God will rend the heavens and come down to us again one day; that Christ will return in all his glory and gather us back to himself, perfecting us and allowing hope to sing its triumph so loud that all the universe can hear it, dispelling the night and putting sadness to flight once and for all.  Brothers and sisters, be alert for that day.

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think we all wonder what Jesus meant when he said, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  Certainly the then-current generation has come and gone, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve come to the end of the world.  But the Church would pose two very important questions about the coming and going of that generation.

First, what constitutes that generation?  Did Jesus mean just the people that were alive at that time?  We tend to think not.  All of us who believe in Jesus and live the Gospel are the members of his generation.  Jesus came to create the world anew, and we are all creatures of that wonderful new creation.  We will all live, in some way, to see the end of days, either here on earth, or from the joy of heaven.

Secondly, what was it that generation was supposed to see?  They were to see the signs of a new creation.  Just like the first buds of the fig tree and other trees that Jesus spoke about, all of which signaled the beginning of summer, so the signs of the new creation are evident among us.  Sins are forgiven, people return to God, miracles happen.  Granted, all these are imperfect in some ways now, given that they happen to us fallen creatures, but one day they shall be brought to perfection in the kingdom of God.  Then, we will see “One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven,” whose “dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.”