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!

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Liturgy in these past summer months has been teaching us how to be disciples of Jesus.  Today, the readings give us another tool for the disciple, and that tool is forgiveness.  These readings come on the heels of what we heard last week, which was about the way the Christian disciple resolves conflict.  Forgiveness is the natural conclusion to that discussion.

In the Gospel, Peter wants the Lord to spell out the rule of thumb: how often must we forgive another person who has wronged us?  Peter offers what he thinks is magnanimous: seven times.  Seven times is a lot of forgiveness.  Think about it, how exasperated do we get when someone wrongs us over and over?  Seven times was more than the law required, so Peter felt like he was catching on to what Jesus required in living the Gospel.  But that’s not what Jesus was going for: he wanted a much more forgiving heart from his disciples: not seven times, but seventy-seven times!  Even if we take that number literally, which we shouldn’t, that’s more forgiveness than we can begin to imagine.  But the number here is just to represent something bigger than ourselves: constant forgiveness.

The parable that Jesus tells to illustrate the story is filled with interesting little details.  The servant in the story owes the master a huge amount of money.  Think of the biggest sum you can imagine someone owing another person and add a couple of zeroes to the end of it.  It’s that big.  He will never repay the master, no matter what efforts he puts forth or how long he lives.  So the master would be just in having him and everything he owned and everyone he cared about sold.  It still wouldn’t repay the debt, but it would be more than he would otherwise get.  But the servant pleads for mercy, and the master gives it.  In fact, he does more than he’s asked to do: he doesn’t just give the servant more time to pay, he forgives the entire loan!  That’s incredible mercy!

On the way home, however, the servant forgets about who he is: a sinner who has just been forgiven a huge debt, and he encounters another servant who owes him a much smaller sum than he owed the master – for us it would be like ten or twenty bucks.  But the servant has not learned to forgive as he has been forgiven: he hands the fellow servant over to be put into debtor’s prison until he can repay the loan.  But that in itself is a humorous little detail.  In prison, how is he going to repay the loan?  He can’t work, right?  So basically the fellow servant is condemned for the rest of his life.

We don’t have to do a lot of math or theological thinking to see the injustice here.  The servant has been forgiven something he could never repay, no matter how much time he lived.  But he was unwilling to give that same forgiveness to his fellow servant; he was unwilling to give him even a little more time to repay the loan, which the other servant certainly could have done.  That kind of injustice is something that allows a person to condemn him or herself for the rest of eternity.  The disciple is expected to learn to forgive and is expected to forgive as he or she has been forgiven.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  We can’t just say those words when we pray; we actually have to do it.

This call to a kind of heroic forgiveness takes on a new meaning when we consider the state of our world today.  We still have conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, and in many other places.  In fact, I’ve read that as many as a third of the nations of the world are currently involved in some sort of conflict.  And we owe a great debt to those who are fighting to keep our nation safe.  But I don’t think we can stop with that.  We will never find the ultimate answer to terrorism and injustice in human endeavor.  We have to reach for something of more divine origin, and that something, I think, is the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel.

And it starts with us.  We have been forgiven so much by God.  So how willing have we then been to forgive others?  Our reflection today might take us to the people or institutions that have wronged us in some way.  Can we forgive them?  Can we at least ask God for the grace to be forgiving?  I always tell people that forgiveness is a journey.  We might not be ready to forgive right now, but we can ask for the grace to be ready.  Jesus didn’t say it would be easy, did he?  But we have to stop sending people to debtor’s prison for the rest of their lives if we are going to honor the enormous freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us.

Every time we forgive someone, every time we let go of an injustice that has been done to us, the world is that much more peaceful.  We may well always have war and the threat of terrorism with us.  But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.  That doesn’t mean we have to participate in it.  Real peace, real change, starts with us.  If we choose to forgive others, maybe our own corner of the world can be more just, more merciful.  And if we all did that, think of how our world could be significantly changed.

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This week in my bulletin column, I have a reflection on the introductory rites of Mass.  But maybe in the homily, we can take a step back from that and think about what we’re supposed to do before Mass.  And what we do before Mass, and I mean before we even come to church, is live our life.  Because, as challenging as it is to worship when we’re here in church, it’s still way easier than worshipping out there in the world, isn’t it?

We may intend to work hard, and pray reflectively, but life sometimes – well, more than sometimes: often – throws us a curve ball and all our pious plans go out the window.  You know what I mean, right?  People at work don’t do what they’re supposed to.  Others in our family get into rough situations and test our patience.  Our commute is exacerbated by the pouring rain.  And it can go even deeper: news about a loved one’s illness, news about our own illness, and on and on.  And then we can slip up and fall into sin, that sin we have been praying hard to overcome and doing everything we can to avoid.  Our pious plans can turn into a very rough week indeed.  In among the blessings – and we have to admit, there are blessings – life can derail us and bring us to a frustrating place.

The good news is that our Liturgy of the Word speaks to that today, I think.  The wisdom writer in the first reading praises God who has the care of all, and who permits repentance for sins.  The Psalmist extols God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and fidelity.  Saint Paul tells the Romans, and us, that the Holy Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness, helping us to pray the right way, even praying in our stead when we cannot.  We need all that consolation when our week doesn’t go the way we hoped.

And we have the Gospel, which continues the theme of planting seeds that we heard last week.  Here we hear of the wisdom of God who allows the weeds to grow among the wheat and is wise enough to sort it all out at the harvest time.  This Gospel talks all about the Kingdom of God and what it will be like.  It will be like a tiny mustard seed that grows up to become a huge shrub.  It will be like a measure of yeast mixed with flour to become a loaf of bread.

Here are a couple of things I want us to take from this Gospel.  First, the Kingdom of God is now.  Jesus made it real, showing us that the kingdom is present in ordinary ways: a mustard seed, a measure of yeast.  He wants us to see that we don’t have to wait for a far-off distant Kingdom, but instead to live in the Kingdom now, where he is our King.

Second, the mustard seed, the yeast – that’s us.  We are the ones to make the Kingdom happen.  Jesus needs us to go out and proclaim the message, to witness to the presence of the Kingdom, to make people want to be part of it.  Our prayer, our love, our joy, all of that make it possible for people to come to know Christ.  The Kingdom of God is our true home; the rest of the world is just a travelling place.  When we live in the Kingdom here and now, we will be ready for the great coming of the Kingdom in heaven, where all will be made right and we will live forever with our God.

If we’ve had a less than stellar week, we need that good news, we need that Kingdom.   We need to know that God is patient, and forgiving, and allows us to come to maturity before there’s judgment.  We need to know there is mercy and forgiveness, and a Spirit that prays with us and for us in our weakness.  And we need to hear Jesus call us to be leaven in the world, even though we’re not perfect.  He needs us to work on changing sadness to hope, directing all eyes to the One who is our true King.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

And so it begins.  We who have been keeping Lent these forty days are coming to Lent’s fulfillment.  Over the course of this week, we will gather several times to mark the events that have won our salvation.  On Thursday, we will gather at 7pm to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: that night when he gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood so that he would be among us until the end of time.  On Friday, we will gather at 3pm to revisit the Lord’s Passion, to venerate the Cross which was the altar on which he sacrificed his life for ours.  And on Saturday, we will gather on the piazza at 8pm to recount the stories of our salvation and welcome the Resurrection, baptizing new believers into the faith, and rejoicing with all of the Church on that most holy night.  No Catholic should ever miss these incredible liturgies: they are in fact the reason we are a Church and they highlight our mission in the world.  If you struggle to find the meaning in life, these celebrations will help you on the way.

And we begin that on a seemingly triumphant note.  Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of the center of the Jewish religion, the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he enters it to the adulation of throngs.  Cloaks are thrown down in the street, the people wave palms and chant “Hosanna.”  This is it, isn’t it?  It seems like Jesus’ message has finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who have long been yearning for a messiah to deliver them from foreign oppression.

Only that wasn’t the kind of salvation Jesus came to offer.  Instead, he preached forgiveness and mercy and real justice, and he healed people from the inside out.  He called people to repentance, to change their lives, to hear the gospel and to live it every day.  He denounced hypocrisy, and demanded that those who would call themselves religious reach out in love to the poor and those on the margins.  It wasn’t a message that was particularly welcome; it wasn’t the message they thought the messiah would bring.

And that’s what brings us to the one hundred and eighty degree turn we experience in today’s second gospel reading, the reading of our Lord’s Passion and death.  Enough of this, they say; the religious leaders must be right: he must be a demon, or at least a troublemaker.  Better that we put up with the likes of Barabbas.  As for this one, well, crucify him.

Who are we going to blame for this?  Whose fault is it that they crucified my Lord?  Is it the Jews, as many centuries of anti-Semitism would assert?  Was it the Romans, those foreign occupiers who sought only the advancement of their empire?  Was it the fickle crowds, content enough to marvel at Jesus when he fed the thousands, but abandoning him once his message was made clear?  Was it Peter, who couldn’t even keep his promise of standing by his friend for a few hours?  Was it the rest of the apostles, who scattered lest they be tacked up on a cross next to Jesus?  Was it Judas, who gave in to despair thinking he had it all wrong?  Was it the cowardly Herod and Pilate who were both manipulating the event in order to maintain their pathetic fiefdoms?  Who was it who put Jesus on that cross?

And the answer, as we well know, is that it’s none of those.  Because it’s my sins that led Jesus to the Way of the Cross.  It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God.  And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life.  And you.

He gave himself for us.

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

These readings for the weekdays of Lent are especially challenging, aren’t they?  They’re supposed to be.  They speak of what it means to be a disciple and take up the cross, and they speak of it with urgency.  We have to be willing to have our whole world turned upside-down; to do something completely against our nature; to let God take control of the life we want so much to control.

“For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty ominous to me.  Because there have been plenty of times when I’ve failed to give someone a break.  The measure I sometimes use ends up being a bar set pretty high, and I would sure hate to have to leap over that bar myself.  But that’s what Jesus is saying we will have to do.

The real measure of compassion is the compassion of God himself.  He is our model, He is the measure for which we are to strive, His example is how we are to treat each other.  But when we do that, it means we can’t judge others harshly.  It means that we have to see them as God does, which is to say that we have to see Jesus in them and to see the goodness in them.   And that’s hard to do when that person has just cut you off in traffic, or has gossiped about you, or has crossed you in some other way. But even then — maybe especially then — we are called to stop judging others and show them the compassion of God.

“Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.”  That is the prayer of the Psalmist today.  We are given the promise of forgiveness, but we are also warned that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven either.  The measure with which we measure will in turn be measured out to us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try real hard to give people a break today.

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-36 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 5:13-16

During this time of year, there’s a lot more darkness than I’m sure most of us would like to see. The daylight fades very fast, and there’s a lot of cold and cloudy days. And so, as joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for many people. And then there’s the thought of another year coming to an end: some people look back on the year, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been. And we could probably do without all the news of war, crime and terrorism here and abroad. So if we feel a little dark right now, we’re not alone.

But the struggle between light and darkness 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.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. 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].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

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 symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents 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 tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight. We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way. Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts. Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us. The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ. As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer. Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The book of Daniel the Prophet is one of my favorite books of Scripture. If you haven’t read that book, that would be a great one to take in during Lent. It won’t take terribly long, but be sure you read it from a Catholic edition of the Bible because other editions won’t contain the whole thing.

The story goes that Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were in the king’s court along with Daniel. They had been well-educated and cared for, and in turn advised the king on matters of wisdom and knowledge. They were better at doing this than anyone in the king’s court, except for one thing. The king, who worshiped idols, had crafted an idol that each person in the kingdom was to bow down and worship several times a day. But Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were good Jews and would only worship God alone. So they were bound up and cast into the fiery furnace, to their certain demise.

Now you may know this as the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which were the names the king gave them when they entered his service. If you know the story, then you know the flames did not harm them, and an angel appeared in the furnace to protect them. During that time, Azariah prayed the beautiful prayer we have in our first reading. He acknowledges that his people have been sinful, but prays that God would deliver them because the people currently have no prophet or anyone who could lead them. God’s deliverance of Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael from the fiery furnace is a symbol of God’s planned deliverance of the people from their captivity, which in turn is a symbol of God’s deliverance, through Jesus Christ, from our captivity to sin.

We forgiven and delivered people have to be people of forgiveness, though, as we hear in today’s Gospel. Our own redemption is never complete until we untie the others in our lives whose sins or offenses against us we have bound up. Until we forgive from our hearts, we will never really be free from the bondage of sin. That doesn’t mean we have to be doormats and take abuse from other people. It just means that we let go of the hurt and forgive as we have been forgiven. This is a great project for the Holy Year of Mercy.

Third Sunday of Advent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s Readings

Today’s readings and liturgy call us to rejoice.  That’s the reason for the rose-colored vestments and the more joyful tone of today’s readings.  This is called Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being Latin for “rejoice,” the first word of today’s introit or proper entrance antiphon which says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near.” The Church takes that antiphon from the words of the second reading today.

And there is reason to rejoice.  The prophet Zephaniah tells the people Israel that, even though their sins had displeased the LORD to the point that he gave them over to the hands of their enemies, he has relented in his judgment against them and will deliver them from their misfortune.  Their deliverance is so complete that the LORD will even rejoice over them with gladness!

In his letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul calls us to rejoice too.  The reason he calls for rejoicing is that “The Lord is near.”  He was referring to Jesus’ return in glory, of course, which they thought would be relatively soon in those days.  While he never saw that in his lifetime, we may.  Or perhaps our children will, or their children.  One thing we definitely know is that the Lord is near.  He does not abandon us in our anxieties, in our frailty or our illness, but instead listens as we pray to him and make our petitions with thanksgiving.  Our Lord is as near to us as our next quiet moment, our next embrace of someone we love, our next act of kindness.  Rejoice indeed!

I think, though, that it can be hard to rejoice when we are suffering from illness or injury. Sometimes when we’re sick, it can even be hard to pray or find God in anything. A wise person once told me that you have to make sure that you’re praying when you’re well, because when you’re sick, it can be hard to pray. But it those times of illness or injury, that’s when you need to rely on God the most. If you have been praying when you’re well, then that relationship is going to be something you can lean on when you need healing.

Saint John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading puts the precursor of the Church’s healing ministry into play. He traveled around proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Because sin is what truly makes us sick. If we have sin in our lives, then we have a broken relationship with God, and that doesn’t serve us well in our time of need. Jesus came to put a stop to that cycle of sin and death. When he healed the sick, he always said, “Your sins are forgiven.” It’s not that he missed the point or somehow didn’t get that the person was sick, not sinful, but more that he wants the healing to be a complete one: a healing from the inside out.

And that kind of healing is a good one for us to approach during this Holy Year of Mercy. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacraments of healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick, which is what brings us here today.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

And so in our faith, we gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, asking for God’s mercy, praying prayers, perhaps, that we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

And so today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We rejoice, too, that we can come to him for help and sustenance and companionship on the journey to healing. We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation, perhaps the greatest and best of the mysteries of faith.  That God himself, who is higher than the heavens and greater than all the stars of the universe, would humble himself to be born among us, robing himself with our frail flesh, in order to save us from our sins, heal our brokenness, and make his home among us for all eternity – that is a mystery so great it cannot fail to cause us to rejoice!  Indeed that very presence of God gives hope even in our most difficult moments – THE LORD IS NEAR!

These final days of Advent call us to prepare more intensely for the Lord’s birth.  They call us to clamor for his Incarnation, waiting with hope and expectation in a dark and scary world.  These days call us to be people of hope, courageously rejoicing that the Lord is near!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly and do not delay!

Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 | Luke 3:1-6

I’ve been speaking to the second grade children about reconciliation as they prepare for their first Confession this coming Saturday. One of the images I’ve given them to picture sin is to imagine it as a huge boulder, which stands between them and God. Because of that boulder, we can’t get to God, can’t talk to him or walk with him. When we try to move the boulder, well, we just can’t, because it’s way too big and heavy for us. So what is it then that will actually move the boulder? And the answer is God’s mercy.

On Tuesday, we began the Holy Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacrament of Penance, which is what brings us here tonight.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

So mercy is that reality that bridges the gap between God and humanity, smashing the boulder that I asked the second grade children to imagine. This evening’s readings speak of the ministry of mercy, perhaps taken up in a special way by Saint John the Baptist. In our Gospel, he traveled through the whole region to proclaim not just any baptism, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That proclamation speaks of what is necessary for mercy to be able to work, and that is repentance. God wants to show us mercy, but we have to seek mercy out, open our hearts to mercy. Because mercy changes us. It makes us a new creation, it gives us that salvific grace that restores our friendship with God.

It’s no secret that our world is a dark place, now as much as ever. Our God’s mercy lights the fire that obliterates the darkness. And thus Isaiah can proclaim that “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.” Because mercy also changes the world. When our sins are forgiven, the world – or at least our corner of it – is a harbor of mercy, and that light helps others to find the way too.

Indeed, the struggle between light and darkness 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.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. This light of mercy is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light of God’s mercy by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in all of our hearts.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us.  The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ.  As we approach Christmas, the light of God’s mercy is ever nearer.  Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

This fall, it was a real pain trying to get in and out of my driveway at the rectory, let alone into our parking lot here at church. The village had torn up the streets in order to rebuild them. It was a huge inconvenience then, but the streets are nice to travel on right now. My dad used to say that there are tearer-uppers and fixer-uppers when it comes to road construction, and apparently there are ten times as many tearer-uppers as there are fixer-uppers. Now, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it starts to make real sense!

We live in this area where there are just two seasons: winter and road construction, and so when we hear the prophet Baruch say “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God,” well, we may just cringe a little bit. But I think we can sure relate to the experience.

At the time of the Babylonian empire, whenever the monarch traveled workers would precede him leveling the ground and filling in ditches to make the way smooth for his chariots. So that explains Baruch’s prophecy, and also the prophecy of Isaiah that St. Luke quotes in today’s gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” And it’s easy for us to extrapolate that in order to prepare the way for our monarch, Jesus Christ our king, we would want the way to be smooth and pristine too.

But for us, the roadwork isn’t so much the topography of the countryside as it is the topography of our spiritual lives. We all have rough spots, crooked ways and assorted obstacles on our spiritual paths. Our intentions to be friends with God may be good, but often we have lost our way or been stuck in a kind of spiritual traffic-jam. Our goal is communion with our friend, Jesus Christ. Our best intentions are to get there. Our frustration is that often we are derailed and never seem to reach the goal. But the promise is that God will indeed bring that good work to fulfillment, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, and we will then rejoice in our salvation with all God’s holy ones.

But all of that presupposes that we are clear about the fact that we need a Savior. We need God’s mercy. Wherever we are on the journey to Christ, whatever the obstacles we face, God promises to make it right through Jesus Christ – if we will let him. We may be facing the valley of hurts or resentments. God will fill in that valley. Perhaps we are up against a mountain of sinful behavior or shame. God will level that mountain. We may be lost on the winding roads of procrastination or apathy. God will straighten out that way. We may be riding along on the rough and bumpy ways of poor choices, sinful relationships and patterns of sin. God will make all those ways smooth. And all flesh – every one of us, brothers and sisters – we will all see the salvation of God. That’s a promise. God will forgive us all of our sins. But we have to be open to the experience.

And so, in the spirit of encouraging that openness, I want to make a very personal invitation. If you find that you have quite a bit of unfinished road construction to do in your spiritual life, I invite you to take care of it this Advent. The Sacrament of Penance is where we Catholics level those mountains, straighten those winding roads, and fill in the potholes that have derailed us along the way. And we have plenty of opportunities to do that. This Thursday, we will have our Advent Reconciliation Service, with a number of priests available to hear your confession. We also have First Reconciliation on Saturday, and invite all the parents and families of our second graders to go to confession along with their children. And each Saturday we have confessions from 3:45 to 4:30. So you have many opportunities to be open to the “baptism of repentance” that John the Baptist was preaching, and to make the way straight once again for the coming of the Lord in your own life.

Now, having said that, I fully understand that there are many of you here who have not been to confession in many years. I get it. I myself was away from the sacrament for years before God worked on me and brought me back. So here is Father Pat’s “Consumer’s Guide to the Sacrament of Penance:” If you have been away a long time, it will be hard to go back, but take that leap of faith anyway. Be honest with the priest and tell him that it’s been years. Even tell him if you’re not sure how to make a confession. If he doesn’t welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and find a priest who will. Because it’s my job to help you make a good confession. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility that I take very seriously. Nothing must stand in the way of you receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, because it is a gift too precious to miss.

That’s what Advent is about. The coming of Christ in our world isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago. Advent means that Christ is coming into our world today, and every day, if we would just open our hearts and smooth out a place for him. God becomes incarnate in our world every time someone turns back to him and repents of his or her sin. God’s love comes to birth every time we accept the gift of forgiveness and the unfathomable grace of the Eucharist. Advent means that Christ is Emmanuel, God-with-us NOW. Advent means that the salvation and forgiveness that God promises us is available to us NOW.

The truth is, brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to this holy place to this sacred Liturgy, each of us at different places in the spiritual road. Our goal – all of us – is to advance on that road, tackling the obstacles that face us, and defeating our sin by the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There may only be one unforgivable sin: the sin of thinking that we don’t need a Savior. When we rationalize that we’re basically good people and we’re okay and that there is nothing wrong with our lives or our relationships, then we’re lost. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us this sin, it’s more that we refuse to have it forgiven. If Advent teaches us anything, it’s got to be that we all need that baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached, that we all need to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, making straight the paths for his return to us.

On Tuesday, we begin the Holy Year of Mercy. What better way to begin than by experiencing God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance? The Psalmist sings today that “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” I pray that you all find that out in the Sacrament of Penance this Advent season.