The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

This feast is one of the reasons I love the Blessed Virgin. Having given her fiat – her “yes” – to God, she now shows concern for her elder relative who is also with child. She goes to visit her in a great act of hospitality, which is one of the virtues Paul admonished the Romans to follow in our first reading today. Perhaps because of her faith and her great concern for Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s own child begins to rejoice in the womb, recognizing his Lord and the great woman who would bring him to human life.

While we don’t have an exact account of what happened at that visit, we do have the Church’s recollection of its spirit, as told through Luke the Evangelist. The whole feeling of this Gospel story is one of great joy, which is perhaps why this is one of the joyful mysteries of the holy Rosary. Both Elizabeth and Mary represent the Church in the telling of the story. Because just as Elizabeth was moved by the faith and generosity of Mary, so the Church continues to be edified by her example of faith and charity. And just as Mary rejoiced in what God was doing in her life, so the Church continues to rejoice at the mighty acts of God in every person, time and place.

The Gospel reading ends with the great song called the Magnificat which is Mary’s song of praise to God for the wonders he has done throughout all time, but also in her own life. We too should make that our own song as we continue to be overjoyed by the great acts of God, shepherding us all through our own lives, and intervening in our world and society to bring grace to a world darkened by sin. We, too, can pray with Mary, “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Do you remember the best gift you ever got? What was it? Who gave it to you? How long did it last? Do you still have it? Every gift is a little different: some are big, some are small, some make a lasting impact, some are used up and soon forgotten. The best gifts are those that create a memory of good times; perhaps the best gifts are those that can be shared.

God gives us gifts too. And some are big, and some are small, but all of them are important to us and to others. In this season of giving, I’d like to take a moment to talk about God’s gifts, and how they are to be enjoyed, and there are four points I want to make.

First, God’s gifts are given to be used. They’re not supposed to be like an action figure that is to be kept in its package and preserved so it can be sold in ten years for a lot of money on eBay! It’s supposed to be used for our happiness and God’s glory. So if it’s a talent for sports, we ought to play. If it’s intelligence, we ought to study and research and invent. If it’s creativity, we ought to paint or act or sing. Keeping it in a box and denying it is an insult to the Giver.

Second, God’s gifts are never just for us. God gifts us in ways that we can build up our community and our world and help people to come to know God’s love for them. Always. Mary never could have kept Jesus to herself, and we’re not supposed to keep our gifts to ourselves either.

Third, we will never know how wonderful our gifts are until we share them with others. Our gifts are supposed to create memories and bring people together and help people to know God. When that happens, the full wonder of those gifts will be revealed to us, and we will enjoy them in ways we never could have before we shared them.

Finally, we don’t lose our gifts when we share them. They don’t get used up when we give them away. Just as Mary didn’t lose her Son when she gave him to the world, so we won’t lose what God has given us when we share it with others. That’s just how God’s gifts are.

In today’s Gospel, Mary received a gift. A little scary at first, yes, but a gift nonetheless. She received the gift of a Savior before anyone else did; her fiat meant that she received salvation before it was ever played out on earth. It was the best gift ever, and she got to watch it all unfold before her. Some of it was difficult and painful, but so much of it was amazing.

Because of Mary’s faith, God was able to send the best gift possible to be shared with all of us: the gift of his only-begotten Son. Jesus took on our flesh as a little baby, and grew to become a man like us in all things but sin. He walked among the people of his time and helped them to know of God’s kingdom. He eventually took on our sins and went to the cross for all of us, dying to pay the price for our sins, and canceling out the power that sin and death had to keep us from God. Because of Mary’s faith, we received the gift of salvation, if we would accept it.

And just like all our other gifts from God, those same four principles apply: we have to use, or live our salvation; we have to share the gift of salvation with others; salvation becomes more wonderful every time someone else is saved, and salvation is not something that ever gets used up – it’s meant for everyone.

So this is a bit of a “pep talk” for the coming feast of Christmas and how we are going to celebrate it as a parish family. We know the gift we’ve received. It’s wonderful and precious and amazing – the best gift we’ll ever get. But we can’t just put it on a shelf and look at it once in a while in wonder – we have to get it out there so everyone can come to salvation, everyone can get to heaven, everyone can know God’s love.

The most important thing that we can ever know about God is that he loves us. That’s why he created us, that’s why he came here to redeem us. So when a stranger comes here for Mass on Christmas and sits in your spot, maybe it’s someone who hasn’t heard that God loves them, at least not in any significant way. Maybe you moving over in the seat and welcoming them will help them to know that. Or in the parking lot, when someone is having difficulty or taking a little time, maybe your patience can help them to know that God is glad they are here. Perhaps rather than getting irritated about the vast crowds of people who never come here except for Christmas, you can say a prayer that the church would be full like this all the time. Every little thing you do can have a big impact on someone else, and if it brings them closer to our Savior, then you may have saved a soul.

And level two of this is offering the invitation. You know, like at the family party when someone is hurting and obviously needs to know the Lord. Or at the office party when someone wonders why you go to Church. We’re always supposed to be able to answer for our faith. So this year, we’ve given you two ways to do that. The first is the brochure What Does the Church Have to Offer ME? We mailed it out in the Advent/Christmas packets that went to your house, and we have some extras at the information desk. The intent is that you might save it and give it to someone who needs to know that the Church can be of help to them right now.

The second is the gift we’ll be giving at all the Christmas Masses. Last year we gave a book, this year, for the visual learners, we’re giving a DVD. It’s an episode of Father Bob Barron’s Catholicism series. What I want you to do is to watch it yourself, and then pass it on to someone. Either give it to someone who needs to know the Lord or has questions about the Church, or give it to a friend and ask them to do the same. What I don’t want you to do is to return it to the parish, like some of you did with the books last year. The intent is that they would be out there in the community, or even far from the community, so that the message would spread.

Our salvation, our relationship with God, is a gift, and it’s up to us to spread it around. It’s a shame if someone doesn’t know about God and his love for them. But if they don’t know because we didn’t use our gifts to tell them, then it’s a sin. This is the season for giving gifts. The very best gift you can give to anyone is a relationship with God. Whether it’s your children, or coworkers, or people in the neighborhood, your gift will do so much to make the world a better place. All we have to do is respond like Mary: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I have to confess that part of me dislikes the Gospel reading we have today.  Dislike is probably too strong a word: it just kind of makes me uneasy.  That’s because I don’t like the idea that there is some kind of competition between the duties of hospitality and the joy of contemplation in the Lord’s presence.  That’s how this reading often comes across, and I find that difficult to accept.  When I have guests over, I take it seriously.  According to my family custom, there is plenty – perhaps too much – food, and I try to make my guests comfortable.  That takes work – anyone who has ever had guests for dinner knows that, but I think it’s time well spent.

I’m also not wild about the idea that some often draw the conclusion that this reading places a higher priority on contemplation and prayer over the duties of ministry.  Stuff needs to get done; we don’t just show up and have beautiful Liturgy happen.  I think that if all we did was pray all day, we’d never get any of the Gospel done, and I don’t think that’s what our Lord intended.

Fortunately, I don’t think these are valid conclusions to be drawn from today’s Gospel – although I do think these conclusions are frequently drawn.  And that’s sad for any of us who want to be in relationship with our Lord and yet know that there are the duties of our vocation to which we must attend.  Nobody can spend all day in prayer, no matter what their vocation.  Priests have the needs of the parish to accomplish.  Parents have children to raise.  Everyone has the goals of their profession to meet.  And Jesus isn’t saying that any of this is wrong.

So let’s give Martha a bit of a break. Because there is a difference between the very legitimate and laudable act that Mary was doing – listening to the Word of Jesus – and just being plain old lazy. Many of us could be tempted down those roads too, and that’s not praiseworthy. And Martha’s tasks were important ones. The demands of hospitality in the ancient world were taken very seriously. And they were difficult duties, too.  Think about all that Abraham and Sarah had to do: knead dough and make rolls, slaughter a steer and prepare it, and put together some curds and milk.  A far cry from making a run to McChesney’s and popping some steaks on the grill!  Just as Abraham leapt to his feet in our first reading to welcome the three visitors and provide them with a beautiful meal, so Martha had things to do to care for her own guest.

But where Martha went down the wrong path was that she let the details of the tasks of hospitality overshadow the hospitality itself. In doing all the things she was doing, she had actually neglected her guest. Perhaps there was a way that she could have provided refreshment to Jesus in a way that didn’t take her outside his company for so long. Maybe a simpler meal would have sufficed. When the details of hospitality overshadow the guest, then it’s not really hospitality at all.

I think that what’s at stake here is balance in our spiritual life. We are not called upon to make a choice between being Martha or being Mary. We are called upon to be both Martha and Mary. These scripture readings speaks of the service of the disciple, in Greek the word is diakonia, from which we derive our word, deacon. This tells us that the life of the Christian disciple is about service. What we see in today’s Gospel is that there are two aspects of that service. The first is represented by Martha’s work, and is the kind of service that takes care of what is necessary in order that God’s will would be done: it is a service that reaches out to those in need. The second kind of service is represented by Mary’s work. Her work is one of contemplation: she sits at the feet of Jesus to absorb his words and his presence.

Both kinds of service are necessary in the life of the Christian disciple. Saint Benedict’s motto was ora et labora – work and prayer, and that’s the call we receive in today’s Liturgy.  The trick is keeping them in balance. Because it is Mary’s contemplation that gives us the spiritual refreshment necessary to reach out to those in need.  We have to be people of prayer. And it is Martha’s active service that gives meaning and context to our prayers and our preaching.  We have to be people who work. When we avoid either aspect of service, we are getting it wrong, and perhaps our Gospel today is a tug at our hearts to get it right.

So we need to make time for both our work and our prayer. We have to give priority to contemplation and Scripture reading and whatever kind of prayer speaks to us just as much as we give priority to the demands of our vocations, whatever those vocations may be. We have to let God speak to us in our quiet and in our activity, and to remember that doing God’s will sometimes means getting quiet and sitting still long enough for him to speak to our hearts. It may take a lifetime to get this right, but as we put effort into our service of God, we too will be choosing the better part, and it will not be taken from us.

Thursday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Simon the Pharisee had committed a grave error in hospitality, and a serious error in judgment.  In those days, when a guest came to your home, you made sure to provide water for him or her to wash their feet, because the journey on foot was often long and hot and dirty.  But Simon had done no such thing for Jesus, because his intentions were not hospitable, but rather he intended to confront Jesus on some point of the Law.  He judged the woman to be a sinner, and reckoned Jesus guilty of sin by association.  But Jesus is about forgiveness.  He didn’t care who the woman was, he just knew she had need of mercy.  Her act of love and hospitality, her posture of humility, her sorrow for her sin, all of these made it possible for Jesus to heal her.  But the one who doesn’t think he is in need of healing can never be healed.