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.”

Advent Penance Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Very often, when we hear this story about the widow’s mite, the story is equated with the call to stewardship. That’s a rather classic explanation of the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that explanation. But honestly, I don’t think the story about the widow’s mite is about stewardship at all. Yes, it’s about treasure and giving and all of that. But what kind of treasure? Giving what?

I think to get the accurate picture of what’s going on here, we have to ask why the Church would give us this little vignette at the end of the Church year, in the very last week of Ordinary Time. That’s the question I found myself asking when I looked at today’s readings. Well, first of all, it’s near the end of Luke’s Gospel so that may have something to do with it. But I think there’s a reason Luke put it at the end also. I mean, in the very next chapter we are going to be led into Christ’s passion and death, so why pause this late in the game to talk about charitable giving?

Obviously, the widow’s mite means something other than giving of one’s material wealth. Here at the end of the Church year, we are being invited to look back on our lives this past year and see what we have given. How much of ourselves have we poured out for the life of faith? What have we given of ourselves in service? What has our prayer life been like? Have we trusted Jesus to forgive our sins by approaching the Sacrament of Penance? Have we resolved to walk with Christ in good times and in bad? In short, have we poured out everything we have, every last cent, every widow’s mite, for our life with Christ? Or have we held something back, giving merely of our surplus wealth?

In this last week of the Church year, we have to hear the widow telling us that there is something worth giving everything for, and that something is our relationship with Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Today’s readings

I think this Gospel reading is wonderful because of the rather vivid picture that it paints.  When I hear it, I can’t help but picture the king separating the sheep from the goats, making known their good works, or lack thereof, and ushering them into their version of eternity.  It would seem that the moral of the story is very clear: we are all put here to do some very important things for the Kingdom of God; we are called to use our time, talent, and treasure to serve those in need.  These are the corporal works of mercy, and we should all certainly know them and do them.  They aren’t mere suggestions, they are, apparently, the way that we get into heaven.

And that would be a very good message, but I think Jesus is going for something else because that message would be a good one any time of the year.  So, the question we have to ask ourselves is why this message at this point of the Church year?  And perhaps just as poignantly, why this message so close to the end of Jesus’ life?  This reading comes from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which is just twenty-eight chapters long.  Indeed, in the very next chapter, Judas begins to conspire against Jesus.  So here at the end of Jesus’ life, and on the very last Sunday of the Church year, why this particular parable?

Well, we don’t have to look very far for the answer.  The very setting itself tells us what Jesus was getting at: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…”  So this is clearly a prediction of the end of time, particularly the day of judgment.  And I think this setting makes that vivid picture even more vivid.  Here our Lord has all the nations before him, and he begins to separate them out.  There are two places that they might go: the kingdom or eternal fire.

I think we all know what line we’re supposed to get into.  But just in case there was any doubt, the Gospel makes it very clear.  The kingdom, he says, was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  For you.  The eternal fire, on the other hand, was “prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So not for you.  And this echoes a truth that has been preached all along the way of this Church year.  We were made for heaven, heaven is our true home, and we are just passing through this place.

But just because the kingdom was prepared for us doesn’t mean we can’t make the wrong choice.  The devil and his angels have already made their choice, and they’re hoping to take as many of us with them as they can.  They do that by convincing us that we can live our lives any way we choose.  They try to convince us that morality isn’t really objective, that anything is okay as long as it works for me.  What they want us to say is that we are in charge, that there isn’t any God.  They want us to choose life outside the Kingdom of God – you know, that kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundation of the world.  And the really frightening part of that is that they are having quite a bit of success.  Just reflect on the news, and even your experience in the community.  Aren’t these attitudes prevailing ones?

And we ourselves can choose that if we want to, but it will be a lonely place, with more than our share of sadness.  To get to the real Kingdom, all we have to do is to accept the wonderful sheep and shepherd imagery that we have in today’s readings.  In our first reading, Ezekiel portrays our God as a shepherd who goes out of his way to seek out and save the ones who are lost.  This is a shepherd who wants to heal our brokenness and make us fit for the Kingdom of God.  In just the same way, the sheep who are destined for the Kingdom might recognize the Son of Man throughout the Church year and throughout the Gospel and respond to his call to live for the Kingdom and not just for today, to care about others and love as we have been loved, and let that Love take us to our rightful place.

Today, on the last Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe.  We proclaim boldly that our Jesus is King of kings and Lord of Lords and there is absolutely no other.  We profess that one way of life isn’t just as good as another, that there is only One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is King of the Universe and King of our hearts and our lives.  When we make the right choice to follow our King and do what he has commanded, we can follow him to that Kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

Thanksgiving Day: People of Eucharist

Today’s readings

Several years ago now, my sister emailed me pictures of a storybook that my niece, Molly, wrote for a second grade school project.  It was a story about an unnamed boy and girl – but we might as well name them, because it was clear to me that the girl was the author and the boy was her brother Danny!  The boy and the girl were having a discussion, and later an argument, about what they wanted to be when they grew up.  At some point, they were called to dinner, and the table was set with their favorite meal: pizza and fries.  They both enjoyed the meal and cleaned their plates and the boy said, “I want more.”  He didn’t get more, of course, because his demand was rude, but the girl did, because she asked nicely and thanked her mother.  Then she told her brother, “Use your manners.”  The really scandalous part of this exchange is that I’ve heard the real girl demand things without using her manners on more than one occasion!

That little story provides a rich framework for what I want to talk about today, and it’s an interesting illustration of today’s Gospel reading.  That reading is scandalous too, because it seems that nine believers – people who should know how to be grateful to God – failed to express their gratitude over a miracle that literally gave them back the life that leprosy took away from them.  It’s almost unthinkable.  Maybe we can cut them a little slack, because when you look closely at the story, Jesus really didn’t say or do anything indicative of healing – all he did was say “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  Now, it was the priests’ job to take care of ritual purity, but I’m guessing they had seen priests about their illness in the past and were probably ignored, or even shunned in the name of ritual purity.  So I can see how they would have been confused, frustrated, and maybe even a little angry at Jesus’ response.  But they absolutely could not have been confused about the fact that they had been healed.  And yet the only one who thought to give thanks and praise to God was this other guy, a Samaritan – a foreigner and a religious outcast who wasn’t expected to know the religious etiquette that one should follow.

Maybe the most deeply scandalous part of this whole reading is not just that nine lepers forgot to thank Jesus.  I think the most scandalous part of this Gospel is that it really can be a kind of mirror of our own society in this day, and, yes, I’ll say it: even our own lives.  Because these days gratitude is not a common occurrence; more often our society gets caught up in entitlement – we deserve blessings, we have a right to grace and mercy.  Just as we think we have a right to everything in the whole world, we lay claim to God’s grace in ways that are deeply scandalous and even more than a little heretical.

Just like those ten lepers had no right to lay claim to Jesus’ healing powers, so we too have no right to lay claim to his grace and mercy.  Those things do not belong to us, and even more than that we are quite unable to earn them, even if we had a desire to earn them in the first place.  But here’s the really great thing that shatters the scandal: even though those lepers had no right to be healed, Jesus healed them anyway.  Even though we have no right to God’s grace and forgiveness for our many sins, he gives those things to us anyway, without a thought of doing otherwise.  As the saying goes, God is good, all the time.

And so the message today is that we have to decidedly leave behind our sinful attitudes of entitlement and embrace an attitude of gratitude.  And honestly, I think that can make us happier people.  Grateful people live differently.  Grateful people look for the blessing in every moment, they hunt for the grace constantly at work in their lives.  They are like radios which are powered on so that they can receive the broadcast.  When you’re grateful, it’s amazing how much more you seem to be blessed.  Only it’s obviously not that you’re blessed more; instead it’s that you’re more aware of the blessing.  Thankful people are happier with their lives, because they’re simply more aware of what God is doing, how God is leading them, and they feel the touch of God’s hand leading them through life.  Being grateful is a choice, but it’s an important choice worth making, it’s a choice that makes our lives richer and more beautiful every day.

As Catholics, we are a people who, at least liturgically, constantly choose to be grateful.  Eucharist, as we have been taught, is the Greek word for thanksgiving.  And so the Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence.  Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior.  He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence.  He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin.  His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins.  And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life.  Because of this grace, we sinners have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery.  Not only that, our Eucharist actually brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing.  As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude.  That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day?  Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us.  Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond.  As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad.  And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least our corner of it!

So we’re not like those nine lepers that somehow missed the grace and blessing that was happening right before their eyes.  On this day, we gather because we choose to be grateful.  On this day, before all the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, we stand up and bear witness that our God is good all the time, that there is grace and blessing all around us, and we can see it if we choose to do so.  We grateful ones come into this holy place to show a watching world that we are who we say we are – a people of Eucharist – of thanksgiving not just on this day, but every day.  And we proclaim to the world that gratitude is the antidote for misery of entitlement, and it’s an attitude that can make the world a more blessed place.  Like the pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving, our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times.  May we never cease offer our gratitude to God, singing to him our songs of thanks and praise.