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

Today’s readings

A few years back, there was a great commercial out that has three senior ladies talking.  One of them, the hostess, has taped all kinds of photographs to her living room wall and says that it’s a really quick way to share these memories with her friends.  Just like her car insurance: it only took 15 minutes to get a quote.  One of her friends said she was able to do that in half the time, so the hostess says, “I unfriend you.”  Her former friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works!”

I thought of that commercial because I think that, often, many people don’t get how God works.  They either think that he’s a capricious policeman who’s always looking for some kind of way to catch them in a trivial sin so that he can send them to the place downstairs, or they think he’s a friend who overlooks all their faults and doesn’t mind if they never give him a second thought.  Both positions are not how God works!

And if you asked a lot of people why Christmas is so important, if they have any religious answer at all, they might tell you that probably God finally found the right answer after so many years of failure.  That all along, from the time of Adam and Eve, people had been doing whatever they wanted, and so God was at his wit’s end and finally just sent his only begotten Son down here to straighten things out.  But that’s not how God works!

The truth is, as we see in today’s Gospel, that God had always intended to save the world by sending his own Son who was with him in the beginning.  The Word – God’s Son – was with him in the beginning and everything that has ever been made has been made through him.  Not only that, but in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.  The Greek here says literally that he “pitched his tent” among us.  That was the plan – from the beginning – for God’s own Son to become flesh so that we could become like God.  It’s a marvelous exchange!

And when he became flesh, he lived as one of the people in that time.  He walked among them and had all the same concerns they did.  He was like us in all things but sin.  When the appointed hour came, he took on our sins and was crucified for our salvation.  He died like we do, but so that sin and death would no longer be able to hold us bound to the earth, he rose from the dead and attained eternal life.  Now we can do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.

Jesus became one of us, pitching his tent among us, so that he could gather us all up and bring us back to heaven with him, to the kingdom of God for which we were created, in the beginning.  That was always the plan.  But sin and death keeping us from friendship with God is obliterated by the saving act of Jesus.  Sin and death no longer have the final word, because that’s not how this works.  That’s not how any of this works!

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.”

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!

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent: O Oriens

Today’s readings

As I’ve preached earlier this week, in these last days of Advent, we are praying the “O Antiphons” in the Liturgy, and especially in 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.

The significance of light and darkness really strikes me, because, who hasn’t noticed that there is a lot more darkness this time of year?  I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too – maybe you’re even one of them.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy day, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  And if there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

In essence, this is what Advent is all about: the season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, 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.  Today’s Gospel gives us a glimpse at that bright light: the infant John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb at the nearness of the Savior.  Saint Elizabeth gives words to such great joy: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Receiving the light, we are called to bear that light to the dark world around us through our prayers, our acts of charity, and our living with integrity and love.  And so we pray: Come to us, O Radiant Dawn: scatter the darkness of our world and our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Help us to be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent: O Root of Jesse

Today’s readings

In these late days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons.” These antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as found in Scripture. Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it is found as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary in Vespers: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

Zechariah in today’s Gospel certainly knew what it was like to stand silent in the presence of the Root of Jesse. Having been promised a son by an angel of the Lord – what one might consider a very trustworthy source – his disbelief moved him to silence in God’s presence. Here is a man who, one would think, should know better. But maybe his years of childlessness have led him to accept a life that was not God’s will. Certainly we could not blame him if the angel’s message was a bit unbelievable; we who have the benefit of so much science would probably be a little harder on the angel than Zechariah was.

When you’re accustomed to living without hope, any sign of hope can be met with an awful lot of skepticism. Would Elizabeth and Zechariah ever give birth to a child? How would that even be possible? Would God save the world from the darkness of sin and death? Why would he even want to? Can God be born here among us, giving us rootedness and a solid foundation for our lives? Why would he even care?

Better to be silent than to voice our lack of faith and hope. Then, in the stillness of our hearts and souls, maybe God can give rootedness to our scattered lives, bring hope to a world grown dark in sin and crime and war and too much death. Today’s Gospel has God bringing hope to a elderly, childless couple. God forbid that we would doubt that he could bring hope to us too.

We pray today: Come, Lord Jesus, come root of Jesse, give rootedness to our lives that are sometimes adrift in despair or apathy, give hope to a world grown cold in darkness and disappointment, give life to a people burdened by sin and death. Come, let us stand silent as we await the dawning of your hope in our lives, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice,” reflecting the first word of the entrance antiphon for today which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.”  On this Sunday, we take a break from the somber tones of purple and put on the more festive color rose to symbolize that in the bleak winter days of Advent, we have reason for joy, and that joy is the hope of our coming Savior.  The Lord is near!  Rejoice!

The prophet Isaiah gets in on the rejoicing in today’s first reading.  He rejoices that the Lord, having anointed him for service, is using him to work out salvation and justice.  Clothed in a robe of justice and wrapped in a mantle of salvation, God has sent him forth “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.”  To a people as long oppressed as Isaiah’s hearers were, this message would indeed be welcome and cause for great rejoicing.

In the second reading, Saint Paul gives the Thessalonians very specific instructions about how they are to conduct themselves.  And the first instruction is that they should rejoice.  Rejoicing is the natural way for Christians to behave because they have in their presence the cause of all joy, Jesus Christ our Lord.  The French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin once wrote that “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  So with God present among us, we should rejoice, and that joy ought to lead to gratitude, seeking what is good and turning away from all evil.

In our Gospel this morning, Saint John the Baptist clearly points out the source of his joy: “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”  John’s job, just like Isaiah’s and Saint Paul’s, was to point to Christ as the source of joy in the world.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is the mighty one who comes in power to take away our sins.  That’s the reality that we celebrate in these Advent days.  We might sing of a sweet little child sleeping in his mother’s arms, but we know he is the God of our life and the King of the universe and the bringer of salvation who will suffer and die for our sins, ultimately rising victorious on the Third Day.  We know that the Incarnation of Christ, which we are preparing to celebrate, changes everything, and we joyously await that game-changing moment!

But so what?  What difference does any of this make, really?  In the face of all that is happening in our world, these are significant questions.  How do we live as people filled with joy when the daily news gives us bickering in politics, sexual abuse scandals in the political and entertainment worlds, and raging wildfires and other natural disasters?  How do we seriously talk about peace on earth when there are wars raging in the middle east, Africa, and so many other places in the world?  Is there really liberty for captives when many are stuck in patterns of sin and addiction that hold them and their families hostage in so many disheartening ways?  We’re really supposed to be joyful in the face of all of that?

A cynical and watching world wants answers to these questions.  Quite frankly, most of them won’t be answered to any degree of satisfaction in this life.  Only faith can help us with them.  But for a world without faith, they need to understand the source of our joy.  And so when they point to all of these things, we need to point to people doing the right thing for people mired in the wake of all of this.  We need to show them we care by helping the food pantry, feeding others at a soup kitchen, and making every effort to welcome the stranger in our midst. And when they point to the unrest and war all around us, we need to point out Christ by putting an end to the conflicts in our own lives.  We have to be people who forgive and love first of all, even if the other doesn’t forgive and love us back.  And when they point out all the sin and addiction in our world, we need to point out that Christ is always there for us, ready to forgive us and give us grace in the Sacrament of Penance.

We have to be the joy that our world needs right now.  We have to be witnesses to his love and presence all around us.  We have to show that our God is great and mighty and faithful and loving and glorious and forgiving and healing and more awesome than anything we can possibly imagine – and we have to do that by the way that we live our lives, by the words we say, by the things we do.  If we want the world to find the joy that Christ is in our lives, then we have to live that joy – choose to live that joy – right here and right now.

Brothers and sisters, we are witnesses to joy.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near.”