The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

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. She was frightened, 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 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.

Joseph, the man Mary was engaged to, heard from the angel too. He came to be with her and took her into the city of David for the census, so that they could be counted. 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, Jesus got lost. They were on the way home when they discovered Jesus wasn’t with them or any of their friends or family. 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 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 Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”

It is good for us to hear this story about Mary just as we are beginning our new school year. As we listen to this story, we can see that faith changes everything. When we have faith that God will save us, we can grow as disciples of Jesus.

We can grow as disciples by coming to Mass ready to hear the Word of the Lord and ready to pray and, for those of you who are old enough, ready to receive the body of Christ. We can grow by remembering that even though there may be some hard times ahead of us in the new school year, God will take care of them and make this year a time of wonder. We can grow by refusing to be caught up in the things that can drag us down and by helping others.

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 Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I have to say, when the Scriptures talk about prayer, I get a little uneasy. Not because I don’t like to pray, or think prayer is a bad thing. But more because I think mostly we misunderstand prayer, and usually a brief mention in the readings can do more harm than good. This week’s Gospel is a good example of that. The line almost at the end of the reading is the culprit: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.”

Really? Anything? I don’t know about you, but I personally have an example of something that my friends and I had been praying about, and just this week it was denied. You can probably think of examples too. So what are we to make of this? Well, I’d like to make three points.

First, in the line right after this, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Notice how he says, “in my name.” So it’s not like a couple of us can get together and pray for something crazy and hold God accountable for granting it. If we’re gathered in anything less than the name of Jesus, we’re in the wrong place, and you don’t get what you want, or even what you need, when you’re in a place other than where Jesus is.

Second, reflecting on that same line, I would point out the last phrase: “there am I in the midst of them.” Sometimes God doesn’t answer all our prayers in the way we think he should. But he definitely always answers them with his presence. Sometimes that leads to resolution of a problem that is greater than we could have imagined. Sometimes it makes us a stronger, more faith-filled person. And sometimes the answer to a prayer means that we have to change, not the situation. So the abiding presence of our God, most perfectly experienced in community, when two are three are gathered in his name, is the most important answer to every prayer.

Finally – and I can’t say this often enough, nor stress it strongly enough – prayer is not a magic wand. You might read in this brief little passage that all you have to do is pray and you get it. Prayer is always experienced in relationship: relationship with God and relationship with others. That’s why this brief little passage mentions praying together, and praying in Jesus’ name. Those are important points, and it’s best not to overlook them.

Prayer is a relationship, prayer is work – sometimes hard work, prayer is a way of life for the disciple of Jesus. We enter that relationship at our Baptism, and it’s our task as disciples to nurture that relationship our whole lives long.

The Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This month we’ve been seeing a lot of one of my favorite characters in the Gospel, and that is Saint Peter.  Just three weeks ago, the Apostles were out in a boat, and Jesus came to them on the water.  Saint Peter asked our Lord to command him to come to him on the water, and he did, and we all know how that went.  Then last week, Jesus was quizzing the Apostles about who people said that he was.  Peter was the one who spoke up and professed that Jesus was the Christ, the coming Anointed One, and Jesus proclaimed Peter the Rock on which he would build the Church.

And here we are today, just a couple of verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, and Peter steps in it yet again.  Because Peter was still clinging to the old notions of what the Messiah would be, he could not fathom that Jesus would have to suffer and die.  And so Jesus chastises him for thinking not as God does, but as people do.  It’s a mistake we all make time and again in our spiritual lives.

Peter’s faith journey was like that: up one minute, and down the next.  One minute he’s walking on water, the next he’s drowning; one minute he speaks eloquently of his Lord, and the next he’s the voice of temptation.  So maybe it seems like Saint Peter, flawed as he was, was an inappropriate choice to be the pillar of the Church, the first of the Popes.  But our Lord never makes any mistakes.  He chooses who he chooses for a reason, and I think that’s what we have to spend some time looking at today.

If Peter was unqualified for the position to which he was called – and he clearly was – then we have to expect to be unqualified for the roles to which we have been called.  Parents often feel that when they start to raise their first child.  Priests feel that every time they witness something incredible – which is almost all the time.  We are all unqualified, but God sees more in us, he sees our heart, he sees who he created us to be, and he won’t rest until we’ve fulfilled that potential.

If Peter made some mistakes along his journey of faith and discipleship – and he clearly did – then we have to expect to make mistakes in our own faith journey.  One minute we’ll have a glimpse of God and we’ll feel like we could never let him down, then the next minute we’ll fall into sin, maybe a sin we’ve been struggling with for so long, and we’ll feel like God couldn’t love us.  But he loved Peter, and he loves us.  He pulled Saint Peter out of the stormy waves, and he will reach out and pull us out of our own storms of failure, as often as we cry out.

The one thing you can’t fault Saint Peter for is his courage.  Eleven other guys stayed in the boat, but Peter wanted to be where our Lord was: out on the water.  Eleven other guys kept their mouth shut when Jesus asked who they said he was, but Peter did his best to make a profession of faith.  His life wasn’t perfect, his discipleship wasn’t perfect, his faith had a long way to go, but he knew that he couldn’t leave our Lord forever.  Even when he blows it in the hours before Jesus died and denies our Lord three times, he accepts our Lord’s forgiveness and fulfills the role Jesus gave him in last week’s Gospel.

Saint Peter’s story kept evolving, and ours isn’t done yet either.  Our Lord loved Saint Peter and he loves us too.  And that’s all it takes for great things to happen.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Today we gather to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven, to reign with her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  We believe that our Lord did not want any taint of death to corrupt his Blessed Mother, who was conceived without sin.  What is important for us to see in this feast is that it proclaims, with all joy and great solemnity, that what happened to Mary can absolutely happen for us who believe.  We too have the promise of eternal life in heaven, where death and sin and pain will no longer have power over us.  Because Christ caught his Blessed Mother back up into his life in heaven, we know that we too can be caught up with his life in heaven.  On that great day, death, the last enemy, will be completely destroyed, as St. Paul tells us today.

Mary’s life was a prophecy for us.  Like Mary, we are called to a specific vocation to do God’s work in the world.  We are called to make sacrifices so that God’s work can be accomplished in us and through us.  We can be joyful because God is at work in us.  We are called to humility that lets God’s love for others shine through our lives.  We are called to lives of faith that translate into action on behalf of others, a faith that leads God’s people to salvation.  And one day, we hope to share in the glory that Mary has already received in the kingdom of God.

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

Saints Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

We don’t know much, well anything really, about Saints Joachim and Anne.  Even in the Gospels where the ancestry of Jesus is traced, nothing is really said about Mary’s family, so we don’t have names that tell us anything about who Mary’s parents were.  Their names themselves are really sourced by legend written more than a century after Jesus died.

The Church has always inferred that Joachim and Anne were heroic people, having given birth to a woman of great faith.  Mary probably had learned her great reverence for God from them, perhaps had learned to trust in God’s plan from them.  She knew the law and was a woman of prayer, and we can only surmise that had to come from her parents who had brought her up to love God and his commandments.  The Psalmist today sings that our hearts and souls yearn for God and for his dwelling place.  The Blessed Virgin knew this great longing, and it was probably her parents who taught her to hope in that promise.

This feast helps me remember my own grandparents, whose faith and love are a part of me today.  Their humor, their reverence for God, their love for people, all of that has become a part of who I am today.  Maybe you too can remember some of the graces that have come from your own ancestors in faith.  And for all these great people, along with Saints Joachim and Anne, we give thanks today.