Categories
Christmas Jesus Christ The Church Year

The Presentation of the Lord

Today’s readings

Who is this king of glory?
The 
Lord of hosts; he is the king of glory.

Today we celebrate the traditional end of the Christmas season with this feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  The current liturgical end of the Christmas season was back on January 12th, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  But the older tradition reflected what we have seen in the readings for the Sundays ever since, and that is remnants of the Epiphany, or manifestation of who Christ is in our world.  On Epiphany, Jesus was manifested to the Magi as priest, prophet and king.  On the Baptism of the Lord, Jesus was baptized as the eternal Son of the Father, with whom the Father was well-pleased.  Today, Jesus is manifested as a light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel, as the king of glory.

Like Epiphany, this feast of the Presentation of the Lord is a feast of light.  On Epiphany the world was illumined by a star that pointed to the true Light of the world.  Today, a world grown dark is illumined by that true Light and the glory of God sheds light on the whole world: Gentiles and Israelites alike.  So today, the Church has always blessed candles, which we did at the beginning of Mass today.  The reason the Church lights candles is always to draw our attention to Christ our Light, in the midst of whatever darkness the world throws at us.  This feast is a foreshadowing of the Easter Vigil, when the deacon proclaims in a darkened church, “Lumen Christi,” “The Light of Christ,” and the Church responds, “Deo Gratias,” “Thanks be to God.”  Today is a foretaste of Easter, when the true Light of the World, Christ our Light, will definitively conquer every darkness.

And so you will be invited today to purchase some of the candles we just blessed to take into your home.  Traditionally these blessed candles have been used in many ways: to be a sign of Christ’s presence when the priest is called to anoint a dying loved one; to be lit during a storm to remind us of Jesus who had power to conquer every storm; to be lit when the family gathers for prayer so that we remember that whenever we gather in Christ’s name, he is there in our midst.  Every family should have blessed candles in their home because every family has times when Christ’s light needs to be shown brightly.

Those blessed candles which remind us of the presence of our Savior in good times and in bad remind us that we, too are meant to be the light of Christ.  And we are called to be the light because the world has times of darkness too.  The world needs us to be the light that scatters the darkness of apathy by looking in on a sick neighbor or bringing a meal to a family that has suffered the death of a loved one.  We are called to be the light that scatters the darkness of ignorance by mentoring a young person, or opening our home to a foster child, or being a catechist.  We are called to be the light that scatters the darkness of racism by standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, no matter where they’ve come from.  We have to be the light that scatters the darkness of death by taking every opportunity to oppose abortion, euthanasia, and any endeavor that cheapens human life.  We have to be the light that scatters the sadness of a spiritually bereft world by joyfully living our faith and standing up for what we believe.  The world needs the light of Christ, and you might be the only candle someone sees on a given day.  Be the light, friends: be Christ’s presence.  People of faith don’t have any other option than that.

The Methodist minister William L. Watkinson once said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”  We can look at the darkness of our world – and there is plenty of it! – and shake our heads and walk away in sadness, but that doesn’t shed any light.  We have to acknowledge the darkness and remember, as the Gospel of John proclaims, “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  We are Catholics and we believe and proclaim that there is no darkness on earth that Christ our Light can’t overcome with the brightness of his glory.  It is up to us to light the candle that helps others to see that glory.

In today’s Gospel reading, Simeon and Anna experienced the power of the Light of the World.  They had been waiting and praying and fasting for the day of his appearance, and those prayers were answered.  The Lord came suddenly to the temple, as Malachi prophesied, and they could now be at peace.  But that appearance of the Lord requires a response: one doesn’t just experience the light and remain the same.  Christ our light is that refiner’s fire that purifies the lives of his chosen ones so that they might go out and shed light on our dark world.

And I don’t mean for this to just be an academic or poetic discussion.  The light of Christ is not a mere metaphor.  Being the light for the world isn’t just a “yeah, maybe I should do that some day” kind of thing.  Every baptized one, according to her or his station in life, is called to actively shed light on the world.  So let’s take a few moments to pray with this.

  • Call to mind a darkness that you have noticed, either in your life, in your community, or in the world: a darkness that affects you or those around you.
  • Take a moment to talk with Jesus about that darkness and let him know your concern.
  • Listen for Jesus as he acknowledges the darkness and accepts your concern.  
  • Ask him for the grace to shed some light, small or big, on that darkness.  Listen for him to tell you what he wants you to do.
  • If you don’t hear that call right away, bring it to your prayer this week.  Ask Jesus for grace to be the light.
Categories
Baptism Christmas Homilies

The Baptism of Our Lord

Today’s readings

I think we have to be a little bit careful about how we read and hear today’s readings.  We’re still in the Christmas season – at the end of it, actually – and, more precisely, we’re at the octave day of the Epiphany of the Lord, which we celebrated last week, in which we started to see Jesus revealing himself, manifesting himself, to the world.  Today’s readings for the Baptism of our Lord are Epiphany readings, too, because they show us even more about who Jesus is and why he came.  This feast is another Epiphany, another manifestation of Jesus in the flesh.

So I say that we have to be careful about how we hear these readings because I think they can lead us to define Jesus by what he does.  And that’s a start, but it’s just inadequate.  Let me explain what I mean.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us about the Suffering Servant, and he says that that suffering servant is one who would “open the eyes of the blind … bring out prisoners from confinement …. and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  So it’s easy to see Jesus as the suffering servant who would bring about justice.  This in itself is pretty huge, but again, if we define Jesus as a justice-bringer, then he’s just a glorified judge or legislator.  But Jesus is the true Suffering Servant: the one who would come and serve the people while himself suffering the effects of the peoples’ sins, dying the death of a criminal up there on that Cross.  Jesus did in fact came to suffer and die for us, to pay the price for our many sins.  So far from being a judge or legislator, he also stands in place of the condemned – that would be us – and pays the price we deserve for our own lack of justice.

In our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus “… went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  Going about doing good and healing those who are suffering is a great thing.  But if we see Jesus merely in this way, then he’s nothing more than a glorified social worker or physician – there’s nothing special about that.  But during this year of grace, we will see Jesus as the divine physician who heals us from the inside out and makes us fit for heaven.  That is the real healing he intends.  He won’t be just a food service worker, but instead the one who spreads the lavish feast that becomes food for the journey to heaven, where we are called to the heavenly banquet.

And we know this is hard because we get confused about our own identities all the time.  We can easily define ourselves or especially others by what we or they do.  “He’s a computer programmer … she’s an attorney … he’s a retail worker.”  Or we may even go so far as to define ourselves or others by superficial factors like nationality or sexual identity.  We may even select the pronouns we want people to use when they refer to us.  None of this is adequate; it all falls short of saying who we really are.  In fact, it clouds who we were created to be, and it flies in the face of the way our Creator God sees us.

So we’re in a quandary.  If we don’t know who we are, it will be pretty hard for us to see who Jesus is.  If we define ourselves by what we do, then we’re definitely going to look to Jesus to fill a role for us, perhaps a different role depending on where life has us at the moment.  But it’s all inadequate, and more than a little confusing.

That is, until we hear the words of God the Father in today’s Gospel.  With Jesus coming up out of the river Jordan, the Father boldly proclaims: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  So Jesus isn’t what he does: he is what he was begotten: the Son of God, who is in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit from before time began and until eternity.  Because of this, his interaction with us is life-changing.  Maybe he will heal us of this or that current ailment, but whether he does or whether he doesn’t, he will surely heal us from the inside out, and if we let him, he will lead us to heaven.  Maybe he will help us with a family issue that has us up half the night every day, but whether he does or whether he doesn’t, he will certainly give us a strength we never expected that will help us through it.  All we have to do is stop seeing Jesus for what he does, stop expecting him to fill a role, and instead enter into relationship with him as the Son of God who in his very person is everything that pleases his heavenly Father.

When we do that – when we enter into relationship with Christ – he will give us identity too.  And not just the paltry identity of what we do or our nationality or whatever, but the real identity that God created us with – our identity as sons and daughters of God.  No matter how we define ourselves, or worse, how others may seek to define us, no one can take away our identity as beloved children of God.  It is our task to live that identity with authenticity, which can be hard to do.  But thank God he gives us himself and gives us the Church to help us on the way to him.  

Central to our identity as children of God is our own baptism.  In baptism, we are united with Christ who was baptized too, who sanctified the waters that baptized us, who identified himself with us at his own baptism.  We ought to take baptism more seriously than many people do.  We ought to select godparents who live their identity as children of God so that our children might have role models.  We ought to seek to live our baptism by revering Christ before all else, by living the Gospel, by leading others to Christ in our words and example, by constantly seeking the Sacraments of the Church, and by looking forward every day to that great day when Christ will lead us to eternal life.  We sons and daughters of God live for that day when he tells us that with us, too, he is well-pleased.

Categories
Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

All during Advent, we have been yearning for the light.  Advent reminds us that the world can sometimes be a very dark place, that war and terrorism and crime and disease and sin and death can really give us a beating, that very often we experience life much differently than God intended us to, and that all of this darkness has kept us from union with our God.  But Advent also has reminded us that it’s not supposed to be that way, and that God has always intervened for love of the people he has created.  And so in Advent, we came to see that God promises salvation for the people that are his own, and that he would do everything to make that promised salvation unfold for us.

The Old Testament unfolds for us the many ways that God has intervened in history to save his people.  He placed man and woman in the Garden of Eden, safe from all harm, should they choose to accept it (which, of course, they did not!).  He brought eight people through the deluge of the great flood on Noah’s Ark.  He promised Abraham his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the sky.  He led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert and into the Promised Land, protecting them and guiding them through the hand of Moses all along the way.  His love for his people, his desire that they be one with him, and his efforts to save them from their own folly have been abundant all through human history.  But as numerous as his efforts have been, so have humankind’s failures to follow him been numerous as well.

Which brings us to the event we celebrate today.  Let’s be clear: this is not some last-ditch effort before he throws up his hands and leaves us to our own devices.  This is the saving event, par excellence.  This is the way to salvation that has always been intended and has been promised through the ages, from the very days of the creation of the world, when the Word, as Saint John tells us today, was with God, and with God, was the Word through which everything in heaven and on earth came to be.

This awesome event is the Incarnation: Jesus, the Word through which all were created, comes to be one of the created ones.  This is the primordial mystery of our faith: without the Incarnation, there could be no cross, no resurrection, no ascension, no salvation.  None of the savings events of the Old Testament could be as efficacious as the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery: in fact, those previous acts of salvation led up to the salvation we have in Christ Jesus, and paved the way for that saving act.  In today’s feast, the great light of Christ has taken hold of the darkness this world brings to us and shatters it forever, shining great light into every corner of our dark world, and our sometimes very dark lives as well.

This gift of the Incarnation is the best Christmas present we will receive – it is the best gift of any kind that we will ever receive, because in the Incarnation we have what’s necessary for us to be saved.  This is so important a mystery and so great a gift, that at the words of the Incarnation in the Creed today, we are instructed to genuflect, not just bow.  So we will genuflect when we say the words, “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  And we genuflect because we remember with great gratitude that if the Word didn’t become flesh, if he wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary, if he didn’t become one like us, if he didn’t pay the price for our sins, we would never have salvation, or hope of life with God.  Praise God for this great gift today!

And so as we continue our prayer today, we offer God the darkness in our lives: our sins, our frustrations, our disappointments, our pain, our grief – and we hold up all of this to the great Light that is God’s Word, the one who became one like us, who pitched his tent among us, and who dwells with us now.  We pray that the Light of the world would banish our darkness, and help us to see the way to God from wherever it is that we find ourselves on the spiritual path today.  We celebrate that today and every day, Jesus Christ is the Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Categories
Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

We’ve all had the experience of being in a dark room, probably at night, and turning on a light.  It’s blinding until we get used to it.  There’s even a scene in the movie, Christmas Vacation, when Clark finally gets the Christmas lights to work and it’s so blinding that his neighbors, who have been sitting peacefully in the dark sipping wine get up and stumble around and even fall down the stairs.  That’s our natural, biological, response to bright light in the midst of darkness.

I get that same idea from the second part of tonight’s Gospel reading.  I can just imagine the shepherds, who have become very used to seeing their flocks and keeping watch over them by the dim but present light of the stars and the moon.  Suddenly, they have the blinding light of the angel and the glory of the Lord.  It’s no wonder they were afraid: they could hardly see, and what they could see was the surprising appearance of an angel into their mundane nightly watch.

But that’s what this night is all about.  We live very mundane day-to-day, night-to-night, existences.  We become used to what we see: the shadows, the darkness, even the sadness around us.  Bad news doesn’t surprise us anymore.  The real surprise on the evening news is the occasional human-interest story about something positive happening somewhere in our world.  We get very used to our day-to-day lives, filled as they are with long to-do lists, running from one errand or event to the next, managing the stress, frustration, and anxiety that come from falling behind in one area or the other.  This is the dim light we become used to.

And this night aims to change all that.  Into our dimly lit lives, our God wants to shine the splendor of his glory.  The birth of his only begotten Son into our world isn’t just a nice event depicted on Christmas cards or Nativity scenes.  The birth of his only begotten Son is meant to change the world, including the dimly-lit recesses of our daily existence.

This is amazing grace.  This is an indwelling of God that changes the world and changes our lives.

It’s incredible, 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 he wants us.  Love needs the beloved.  Grace needs the penitent.  Goodness and truth and beauty need the worn and weary.  And so our God pursues us, and pursues us with great zeal.  Isaiah tells us that the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.  Indeed that zeal won’t rest until it reaches its perfection in the lives of all of us.

He created us in love, and even though he doesn’t need us, he loves us beyond all imagining, and can’t do anything but that.  Throughout time, yes, 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 knew the light of God’s Radiant Dawn had burst forth upon the earth and Emmanuel, God-with-us, became incarnate in our midst.  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.  Light shone in the darkness.  The glory of the Lord enveloped the earth.  Nothing would be the same.  The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this!

Categories
Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord: Vigil Mass

Today’s readings

Nazareth was a sleepy little town in the region of Galilee, a vast region with lots of wilderness and, like Nazareth, a few sleepy little towns.  Galilee was in the nation of Israel, one of the small nations in the Roman Empire.  Israel had its own king, but he was really just someone who kept the peace and did whatever Rome told him to do.

So it’s really impossible that anything great or surprising would happen in this little town.  The people were faithful, mostly, to God, and did what they could to keep the covenant and follow the Law in Scripture.  Their leaders not so much, but they sure tried.  Still, because they were still under the Roman occupation, and because their leaders weren’t great, it almost seemed like God had forgotten them.

But then some surprising things started happening.  Angels started visiting people and, unbeknownst to most of the people, everything was changing.  First one day, an angel visited a young woman named Mary.  “Hail, full of grace!  The Lord is with you!” he said.  Mary, surprised at the visit from the angel, didn’t know what to make of the greeting.

But the angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

This, too, surprised Mary, because she wasn’t even married yet.  But the angel told her:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, “Let it be done to me as you have said,” and when the angel vanished, she went off to the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth.

But that wasn’t the last time anyone saw an angel.  Joseph was Mary’s husband-to-be, and when he heard she was with child, he was hurt and surprised.  He knew the child wasn’t from him.  So he decided to quietly break his relationship with Mary.  But that night, he had a visit from an angel in a dream.  The angel said to him:

“Joseph, son of David, 
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit 
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, 
because he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph, too, did what the angel told him.  He took Mary into his home, and eventually became the baby’s father.

That baby, of course, was Jesus, the Son of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.  God had indeed decided to change everything.  He wanted people to be saved from their sins, and so did the only thing that could be done: he came in the flesh, through the Virgin Mary, to become one of us, to show us how to get to heaven, and to pay the price for our sins.  Everything changed because Mary and Joseph believed what the angel told them, and followed the angel’s instructions.

Because of that, an angel appeared to some shepherds to tell them of this great change.  The angel appeared to the shepherds in the fields, and said to them:

“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy 
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David 
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: 
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and lying in a manger.”

Then more angels joined them, and they began to sing:

“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

On that night, everything changed.  God came to earth to bring light to our darkness and to give joy to a people who were saddened by sin and death. The words of the angels were proved true.

Angels are messengers.  They bring God’s word to people and show them the way to God.  So if you should see an angel in a dream or on the face of another person, don’t be surprised.  Angels want nothing but the best for us, because that’s what God wants for us.  So be not afraid!  A Savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!  Everything has changed!  God’s love will not fail to give us peace, and grace, and mercy.

Categories
Christmas Homilies Jesus Christ

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate a feast that is commemorated in the first Luminous Mystery of the Rosary.  The Luminous Mysteries were popularized by Saint John Paul II, and illustrate the various ways that Christ’s nature and the purpose of his coming were revealed to us.  That is, they are luminous mysteries because they shed light on who Christ was and is.  I like to think of the Luminous Mysteries as particularly appropriate during the Epiphany part of the year, because as we discovered last week, Epiphany means manifestation; it refers to light being shed on the person of Jesus Christ.

I call this the Epiphany Season.  Epiphany was last Sunday, and today, the Baptism of the Lord is the end of the Christmas Season.  But the Epiphany goes on in some ways for a while: traditionally until February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord.  So we will see in the readings in this first part of the year, more and more about who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Today we have some wonderful words of Epiphany in today’s Gospel reading.  Here, it is God the Father who speaks of his Son:“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”  Talk about a message of Epiphany.  Anyone who heard it cannot possibly be in doubt about who Jesus was. It was certainly enough to convince Saint John the Baptist, who later testifies to the “Lamb of God” and proclaims that “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

So, if you stop to think about it, we have come a long way since December 25th.  Jesus, the Son of God, has become the son of Mary, and has consecrated the world by his most loving presence.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity has taken on flesh and become one like us in all things but sin.  He took that flesh as the lowliest of all: as a baby born to a poor young family in the tiniest, poorest region of a small nation. He has grown up now, and stands ready to take on his ministry – we will hear more about that next week.  He begins all this by doing what is a very odd gesture: he receives John’s baptism, which is for the forgiveness of sins.

I say it’s an odd gesture because obviously, Jesus didn’t have sins to be forgiven.  So what is this all about?  Why would he set foot into waters that could not wash him from anything?  Well, traditionally, scholars find two reasons for that.  First, by accepting John’s baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinners, that is, with all of us – the people he came to save.  Nowhere in the Gospels did he ever distance himself from sinners, because of his great love for us.  This then signifies the beginning of his ministry to sinners: the people he would famously dine with and spend time with, and heal and call to conversion. Secondly, his baptism does something to the water.  If the water could not wash him, he could certainly consecrate the water.  By our God setting foot in the waters of baptism, he forever sanctifies the water with which all of us sinners are baptized.  So his being baptized is an act of mercy for all of us, those he came to save.

The secret to our celebration of the Epiphany is that we must be ready to accept the manifestation of Jesus in our own lives.  We have to let him be our king and priest, accepting his death for our salvation.  We have to celebrate our own baptism, which has become significant because Christ has gone through it first, long before us, sanctifying the waters.  We have to accept and treasure the mercy of sharing in his baptism.

This is Jesus: this is the One with whom the Father was well-pleased; he is the One with whom we are in awe.  We are moved to silence before our Christ who came most lovingly to sanctify our way to heaven.  That silence can only be appropriately broken by the exclamation of the Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased!”

Categories
Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Day

Today’s readings

There was a great commercial a few years back 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, as we all must 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 the opportunity to do that, too, one day, if we believe in God’s Word and live the way he taught us.  

And he didn’t do that because we are good enough or have earned his mercy and grace.  Because we could never do enough to earn something so amazingly precious.  He did that because he created us in love, and won’t stop loving us until we’re where we belong in that place he has prepared for us in heaven.  It’s all grace, it’s all mercy, we don’t deserve it, but God offers it to us anyway, if we will accept it.  Because that’s how God works.

It’s kind of like the kid in one of my favorite movies, A Christmas Story.  He wanted the Daisy Red Ryder Air Rifle more than anything.  He thought he could earn it by being good enough, but he just gets in a fight with a bully and calls him every name in the book.  He thought he could earn it by helping Dad change a tire, but he drops the lug nuts and says something that was certainly not “oh fudge!” He thought he could write an amazing essay to convince everyone he should have it, but the teacher just points out he’ll shoot his eye out.  But his father gets it for him anyway, because he wants him to be happy, and that’s what fathers do.

Our Father gives us heaven, not because we can earn it or convince him we should have it, but just because he loves us, and he wants us to be happy – happy forever.  And that’s what our Father does.

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!

Thank God.

Categories
Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night

Today’s readings

Often when we get to Christmas time, we think about our Christmases past: who we were with, where we were, how we celebrated.  Sometimes we might remember the gifts we receive, sometimes not.  For me, what I remember most is the joy of being with my family and the love that we shared certainly marked my memory of those Christmases.  Over time, some Christmases have been wonderful, and some marked by sadness, especially after Dad died.  That is how Christmas comes and goes throughout our lives, of course.  You could probably tell similar stories.

But the real revelation that I had while reflecting on those past Christmases is that we definitely sell Christmas short.  Sure, we settle sometimes for the commercial, retail version of Christmas.  If you love the people in your life, then you’ll gift them lavishly.  Then we’ll all sit around the Christmas lights, eat a big feast, and sing some Christmas carols.  And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, of course, but that’s not the totality of Christmas, not even close.  

The totality of Christmas is, quite frankly, overwhelming.  Christmas is the beginning of the Incarnation, in which our God – God who is higher than the heavens and more glorious than anything we can think of – this God takes on our flesh, broken and flawed as it can sometimes be, and becomes one of us.  In fact, 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.

That’s pretty awesome, but even that is not the totality of what Christmas is.  Because here’s the kicker: are you ready?  He did all that for you.  Saint Augustine points this out in one of his sermons. He writes: “I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

“You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.”

And if you think about it, we need this kind of mercy right now, maybe more than ever.  We need it as a people, and we need it individually. The constant threat of terror overseas, and even here in our country.  The nightly shootings on the streets of Chicago and many other cities. The degradation of real authority sparked by misconduct of politicians, police officers, teachers, and even priests. Add to all that our own sinful tendencies, addictions, and personal failures.

Amid all of this mess, there is mercy: personal, intentional, glorious mercy.  What we have to see on this most holy night is that our God knew the flaws of human flesh, but he loved it so much that he came into it anyway so that it might be redeemed.  He was well aware of our brokenness, but he entered into it anyway that he might bind it up and make it whole.  Becoming one of us, he was in a powerful position to pour out his great mercy, taking his creation one step further by making it fit for heaven. And, as Saint Augustine points out, he did that for you.  Not just you as a group, but you, and you, and you, and you, and so on.  What you need to hear me saying is that if you were the only person in history who ever needed mercy, he would have done that for you.

That is Christmas.  It’s the best and really only reason for us to celebrate so joyfully every December the 25th.  God’s mercy 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 mercy in the world.  That is who we really are, despite the world’s attempts to define us as something so very much less.  The great gift of God’s mercy 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 mercy 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 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 come to one of us on the parish staff, to point you in the right direction.  If you’re an active member of our parish family, then I hope the message that you receive tonight, and your encounter with Christ in this moment, leads you to a desire to share Christ’s presence with others.

The Incarnation – the birth and personhood of Jesus Christ – along with his Passion, death and Resurrection, changes everything.  When we all rediscover God’s mercy, the Incarnation can change us too, so that we may then go out and change the world around us.  When that happens in us, when Christ becomes incarnate 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!

Categories
Christmas Homilies

The Nativity of the Lord – Vigil Masses

Today’s readings

Once, a very long time ago, there was a man named Joseph. He was a well-respected and hard-working man, from the family of the great king David.  But since Israel hadn’t been a great nation in a long time, he wasn’t respected for being a great king himself.  Instead, people respected him for his carpentry work and for the fact that he was faithful and just.

He was to be married to a young woman named Mary – their marriage was probably arranged by their families.  They would come together to be man and wife when the time was right.  One day, she came to him with an unbelievable story about being pregnant, with a child given to her by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph didn’t know what to think.  He clearly knew he was not the father of the baby, and so he decided not to marry the young woman, but instead to let her go quietly, so she would not be embarrassed.

The night he decided to do this, Joseph had a dream.  In the dream, an angel appeared to him and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and that God wanted him to do just that. The angel told him that the baby was very special, that he would come to save all God’s people from their sins and would be called Emmanuel– a name that means that God is here among us.

So Joseph did what the angel told him.  He took Mary as his wife.  And about that time, a proclamation came from the government that said that everyone had to go and be registered as a citizen.  They had to go to the city where they were from to do that.  So Joseph made plans to travel with Mary from Nazareth in Galilee where they were living, to Bethlehem, the city of David, which was where Joseph was from.  The way was long and dangerous, and they traveled by foot and on a beast of burden. They were hoping to get to Bethlehem before it was time for Mary to have the baby, but that didn’t work out. While they were travelling on the way, the time came for Mary to have her baby.

They looked desperately for some inn or any house to take them in, but every place was full because so many people were traveling for the census. Eventually, they at least found a shelter: a rickety little shack for farm animals, and they went in there. That’s when Mary had her baby. She was scared, and Joseph had never delivered a baby before.  But the child was beautiful, and Joseph held him while Mary slept, exhausted from travelling and giving birth.  They placed the baby in the manger, a feed-trough for the animals, and they named him Jesus.

Later, they had visits from shepherds and from astrologers from the east, who came to worship the child, because they had seen visions too, and followed a star that foretold the baby’s birth.  Mary and Joseph were amazed at all that was happening, and the wonderful visits they were receiving, and they treasured all of this in their hearts.

One night, Joseph had another visit from an angel in his dreams.  The angel told him that people were planning to harm the new baby.  So, at the angel’s instruction, Joseph got up from bed, took Mary and Jesus, and fled to the land of Egypt so that they would be out of harm’s way.  They stayed there until the angel told Joseph that those who wanted to harm Jesus were dead, and it was okay to go back to their own town now.

Joseph watched the child grow up, and was so proud to be his foster-father.  He taught Jesus how to live and how to respect others, and all about the religious law, just like any father would do for his children.  In his private moments, Joseph always wondered what would become of Jesus, wondered what God had in store for him.  All he knew was that something wonderful was happening, and as hard as it was sometimes, he had been called to help it happen.

And God wants to continue to do wonderful things for us.  Jesus wasn’t just born two thousand years ago; Jesus is born right here, right now for us, if we would just make a little space, a little manger for him in our hearts.  Just as Joseph didn’t know exactly what God had in store for Jesus, we don’t know what God has in store for any of us in the year ahead.  But we do know this: God sent Jesus so that God could be here among us, and he is here among us now, leading us back to him, telling us that we are his special children, and loving us all with love beyond anything we can imagine.

If there is anything we can learn from this story, it should be this: God loves us with love beyond all telling.  Our sins can’t keep us from that if we look to God for mercy.  Just like the birth of Jesus couldn’t be stopped by a long journey, or the plotting of the government, so nothing can get in the way of God’s love for us.

Just like things were hard for Mary and Joseph as they travelled along, trying to find a place to stay, sometimes things for us will be hard too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, and helping us to find the Good News. All along the way, Jesus walks with us and comes to us, as often as we prepare that manger in our hearts for him. Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like those shepherds and astrologers, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.

For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.  That’s the best gift we will ever get.  God’s love for us, beyond all telling.

Categories
Christmas Homilies Uncategorized

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!