Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It seems like just yesterday that John the Baptist was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.  Oh wait, it was just yesterday!  But today’s reading fast forwards a bit and takes us to a time after John has been arrested.  John isn’t dead yet, not yet out of the picture, but clearly he is decreasing, as he says in another place, so that Jesus can increase.

And Jesus is certainly increasing.  His ministry is kicking into full swing, and he begins by preaching that the kingdom is at hand – a theme that will continue his whole life long.  And he begins to call his followers.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, two groups of fishermen, give up their nets and their boats and their fathers and turn instead to casting nets to catch men and women for God’s kingdom.

As the author of our first reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us, in times past God spoke in partial and various ways and through prophets – including, actually, John the Baptist.  But now God doesn’t need the prophets anymore.  He is speaking – and acting – directly through his Son Jesus, the heir of all things, the one through whom God created the universe, the refulgence of God’s glory.

You know, even though today is the first day of Ordinary Time, we continue some aspects of Christmas and the Epiphany right up until February second, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  So today’s Gospel fits right in with that.  Today’s Gospel gives us a little more light to see what Jesus is up to.  He calls us all to repentance and to accept the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  He says to us just as he said to Simon, Andrew, James and John: “Come follow me.”  The year ahead can be an exciting spiritual journey for us.  Who knows what Jesus will do in us to further the kingdom of God?  We just have to answer that wonderful invitation – “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

What did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Or are you at that stage of life where gifts are nice, but you really don’t need anything special?  A lot of my family has come to that point, except, of course, for my nieces and nephew.  But it’s hard to find a special gift for the rest of us, because we’re at that point where the gifts aren’t so important as it is to be together at Christmas and enjoy one another.

Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get a Nintendo Wii game, or whatever the coveted gift of the year may be, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us ultimately happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

St. John tells us quite clearly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Because what we have is so much better than anything the world can give.  The real gift this Christmas, and really every day, is the gift of eternal life.  And we have that gift because Jesus came to earth and chose to be one with us in our human nature.  That’s why the angels sang that night, and why we sing his praise every day of our lives.

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The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

madonna_and_child-400You know, on paper, what we celebrate today is all clean and neat, and as the centuries have washed the story, it’s easy for us to swallow.  I think about Linus famously proclaiming the Christmas story in the well-loved Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon, and it all seems so harmless.  But we must never forget that the real Gift, the ultimate Gift, came to us in a not-so-neat package, in a way that was anything but clean and neat and easy-to-swallow.  The gift of our salvation came to us at a great cost, from the beginning to the end, and the real source of our rejoicing ought to be that God was willing to pay so dearly for our souls.

Many years ago now, I remember two of my friends bringing their newest child to a choir rehearsal.  Of course, we all just adored the little one, as friends do when they welcome a new child into the world.  But I’ll never forget when they introduced him to the priest at our parish.  He remarked about how cute the child was but said something along the lines of how difficult would be the world in which that child grew up, and he shuddered to think about all the hardships that the child would see and experience.  I remember thinking that was a rather pessimistic thing to say on such a wonderful occasion, but it stuck with me ever since.

Because I find myself thinking the same thing when I gaze on our manger scenes.  What kind of world would baby Jesus come to know?  What kind of sadness and grief and pain would he have to put up with?

The beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”  God wanted to save the world.  Because he made the world, he was particularly attached to it and to those who dwelt in the great garden he had created.  He created us in love and for love, so he greatly desired in his grand plan that we would all come back to him one day and live forever with him in the kingdom.  But he knew that, steeped in sin as our world can be, fallen and flawed, as we individually can be, that we would never think to turn to him on our own.  We were – and are – too caught up in things that are not God and that are not ultimately going to bring us happiness.  So he knew that the only thing that he could do was to enter our history once again.

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

All of us who have messy lives sometimes can relate to the way Jesus came into our world.  We all want our lives to be orderly and easy and sensible.  But mostly, that doesn’t happen.  Life gets in the way.  And so to see Jesus come at a less-than-opportune moment, before Mary and Joseph were even officially wed, in the midst of a government census, born while his parents were travelling and could not find a place to stay – well, it’s just messy, isn’t it?  And it’s just like us.

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

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

So as we gaze upon and adore our Lord in the manger, maybe we can take some of the items in that beautiful snapshot and see what will come for him as he grows older.  We see the shepherds, lowly men despised often by society, the marginalized ones who are the first to receive the message.  We see the wise men, those who in the wisdom they have received from God, are ready to give everything to follow Christ.  We see the angels, the messengers who urge us to take a second look at an innocent child who might not otherwise attract our attention.  We see his father Joseph, who will teach him the law, as a good father would, and help him to grow in the ways of humanity, which he so completely assumed.  We see his mother, who nurtured him in childhood and followed him in adulthood, becoming the first of his disciples.  We see the wood of the manger, a foreshadowing of the wood of the Cross, which will be the means of our salvation.  And we see and adore Christ himself, the Way, the wonder-counselor, our father forever, and prince of peace.

When we look at that manger scene with eyes of faith, we become different, knowing that Jesus paid an incredible price to bring us back to him, not just on the Cross, but even at his birth.  The preface of the Eucharistic prayer which we will pray in a few moments makes this so clear: “In the wonder of the incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory.  In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

Human eyes can look at that manger and see with cynicism that he’s just like us, nothing special.  But eyes of faith look at the same event and see that he’s just like us in every way but sin, and that makes him incredibly special, worthy of adoration. Thanks be to God that the birth of Jesus wasn’t as neat and tidy as it looks sometimes on paper.  If his first coming into the world weren’t so messy, we might never know the joy of redemption and the true worth of our humanity.

So if our eyes of faith have helped us to see beyond an ordinary child and to recognize our Saving God, then this Christmas has to find us sharing that vision with others.  May Christmas find us open to the needs of others, willing to reconcile differences, looking for opportunities to be of service to others, eager to change our own little corner of the world for the better.  Human eyes see opportunities like that as nuisances or things for other people to do.  Eyes of faith see them as occasions of grace and blessing to both the receiver and the giver.  May this Christmas find us seeing all of our world with eyes of faith.

Speaking for myself and on behalf of our pastor, Fr. Ted, our deacons and all of our pastoral staff here at St. Raphael, I wish you a very blessed Christmas season.  We pray that you encounter Christ in every moment of the coming year, and that you and your families are filled with every grace and blessing.

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

Today’s readings

[Today’s homily was for the school children on their last day of school before Christmas break.  UPDATE: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to celebrate Mass with them because they had a snow day.  Rats.]

I can’t believe it but Christmas is only just six days away now!  I know everyone is so busy writing letters to Santa, being good so they don’t get on the “naughty” list, wrapping Christmas presents for their parents, and baking cookies for Fr. Pat!  But before we do all that, our Church asks us to take a minute and remember what it is that we’re about to celebrate.

And what we’re about to celebrate is pretty special.  God loved the world so very much that he sent his own Son to live among us and bring us closer to him, and to take upon himself the punishment for all our many sins.  God would rather die than live without us, and so he did.  But death doesn’t have any power over us because Jesus rose from the dead.  And all of this wonderful mystery begins in just six days, or at least that day a couple of thousand years ago.

And we know the story: An angel came to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to a son by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Because she was faithful, she said “yes” to God’s plan for her, and because she said “yes,” our world and our lives have been different – better, more hopeful – ever since!  Jesus grew to be a man who was both mighty in his power to save us, and a wise prophet who helped us to learn about God and his kingdom.

And this reminds us of the two stories we heard in our readings today.  Samson was a man who was mighty in the way that he led the people Israel.  Just like Jesus, he was blessed by God and led by the Holy Spirit.  His mother was visited by an angel, just like Mary, and his parents named him according to the way the angel instructed them.

John was a man who became a wise prophet and led the people to repentance so that they could recognize God and be open to the gift God was giving them in Jesus.  Just like Jesus, he was blessed by God and led by the Holy Spirit.  His father was visited by an angel, and he named the child in the way the angel instructed him.

Samson was a man of the Old Testament, and John the Baptist of the New Testament.  The fact that their stories are so similar to the stories about how Jesus was born tells us that God has been preparing his people all along to be saved.  He was getting them ready to recognize the way that Jesus was born among us.

And so, when we look on our mangers and see Jesus laying in there, we know that he came for a very specific reason.  God sent him to be one of us, because it is only by being one of us that God could really save us.  Jesus took on a body, just like all of us, and he experienced the same kinds of pain and sadness that we all experience from time to time.  He even went so far as to die, just like we all do at some point in our lives, so that he could know what it was to be just like us.  When we look at the wood of the manger, we know that one day, Jesus will die on the wood of the Cross.  When we celebrate Jesus’ birthday, we know that we will eventually remember his death and celebrate his Resurrection.

So today, we take a minute in all our busy Christmas preparations and shopping and wrapping and cookie making (I like chocolate, by the way…) – we take a minute and pause, and look at the baby Jesus, and know that by becoming one of us, everything was changed, everything was better.  We thank God for loving us so much that he became one of us and gave us a gift better than anything we could ever ask for, better than any of the brightly-wrapped gifts we will receive in six days, the gift of eternal life with God forever one day.

A little later, we’re going to bring Jesus out to the manger and bless our manger outside.  We’re going to sing the song “What Child is This?” which I think tells us everything we need to know about this special day that we call Christmas:

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Oriens

Today’s readings

I was with some friends the other night and we watched the Patrick Stewart version of “A Christmas Carol.”  When I watched it this time, I was really struck by the themes of light and darkness that Charles Dickens wrote into the story.  At the beginning, the setting is a very dark London, which at that time was certainly polluted with a lot of coal smog.  The opening settings are at night, and so there is a whole lot of darkness as the story begins.  Then, as this particular movie portrayed it, the three haunting spirits showed progressively less light as the story goes along.  The first spirit is so bright that he practically blinds Mr. Scrooge, and at the end of their time together, Scrooge actually snuffs him out with a bucket.  The second spirit is not quite so bright, but does appear with a torch to light the way.  By the end of their time together, the second spirit has grown old and is dying out.  Finally, the third spirit appears and is darkness itself.  All you can even see of him are two haunting, glowing eyes.

The significance of that light and darkness really struck 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.

So for whatever reason, many of us experience darkness during this season, when so many seem to be rejoicing in light.  In essence, that’s what Advent is all about; that’s what we have been celebrating these past few weeks.  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.  The prophet Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].”  Our reading of the Annunciation in today’s Gospel is a celebration of that light breaking through our darkness:  “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”  “Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God!”  “May it be done to me according to your word!”

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world.  We do that in symbolic ways: the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath symbolizes the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior.  But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory.  We are here at Mass every week to celebrate that the darkness has not overcome the bright light of Christ in our world.  Our God has become one of us, taking our form, healing our brokenness, redeeming our sinfulness and leading us to eternal life in his kingdom of light.

The incarnation of Christ, which we’ll celebrate in just a few short days, is perhaps the central mystery of our faith.  If we don’t have the incarnation – God taking flesh and dwelling among us – then we never have the Cross, we never have the Resurrection, and we never have eternal life.  Indeed the incarnation is such a beacon of hope, such a beautiful, central mystery, that the mere mention of us calls us to bow in adoration and gratitude for the grace we have been given.

Whenever we do something in the Mass, there’s a reason for it, and it often tells us something about what we believe.  That is why we bow when, during the Creed, we pray: “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  In fact, on Christmas, we’re actually supposed to genuflect at those words.

And so, without denying that there is darkness, we boldly proclaim that there’s a little more light today.  The dark injustices of our world are evident; wars rage, terrorism breaks our peacefulness, greed brings recession, crime proliferates.  But it does not overcome: there’s a little more light today.  The darkness of our sin cannot be denied: lack of prayer leads us further away from God, self-interest clouds our relationships and weakens our discipleship.  But it does not overcome: there’s a little more light today.

The light comes from one and only one place: Jesus Christ.  He is the one who banishes our darkness and bathes the world in the glory of his wonderful light.  His coming two thousand years ago changed the course of our history.  His coming again will bring all of creation to completion in the light of God’s everlasting kingdom.

Each of the days from December 17th through the 23rd has a specific antiphon assigned to it; these are called the “O Antiphons” and they speak of a special title of Jesus.  Today’s “O Antiphon” is “O Oriens” which is translated “O Radiant Dawn” or “O Morning Star” or “O Dayspring.” Corresponding to the day’s “O Antiphon” is the antiphon for evening prayer, and that antiphon today is this: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

In addition, a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” corresponds to the daily “O Antiphon.” Today’s verse speaks of the light that is to come to us:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

And the Liturgy for Christmas states emphatically that there is more light because of the birth of Jesus.  The preface to the Eucharistic prayer says, “In the wonder of the incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory.  In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

In these final days of Advent, we need to be proclaiming that there is more light today.  We need to show all the world that new and radiant vision of God’s glory.  The Gospel of John wraps this up for us very nicely: “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

At the end of the story, Mr. Scrooge is a changed man.  And the setting has changed too: he realizes that all of the spirits visited him in that one very dark night, and as he throws open the shutters, he is awakened by the bright light of Christmas morning.  He then sets about making things right with Bob Cratchit, his nephew Fred, and anyone he can find.  There is a lot more light for Scrooge on that wonderful Christmas morning.  As his nephew says at the end of the story: “and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”