Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, I think Herod was asking the right question.  Sure, he was asking it for all the wrong reasons, but still, it is the right question.  And that question is, “Who is Jesus?”

What Herod was hearing about Jesus is pretty much what the disciples told Jesus when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  Elijah, or one of the prophets, or maybe even John the Baptist.  But Herod was the one who killed John so he knew that couldn’t be it, so who is he really?  Herod kept trying to see him, and of course, he’d have more than ample opportunity soon enough, after Jesus is arrested.

So we have the question too.  Oh, we know well enough – intellectually – who Jesus is, but we still have to answer that question in our hearts.  Who is Jesus for us?  We know he is not just some prophet; that he is not like anyone who lived before or after him.  But have we stopped being intrigued by the question, have we lost our fascination with Jesus?  Herod kept trying to see Jesus, and it’s the right instinct, or at least it is for us.  We have to keep trying to see him too, whether that takes us to a rereading of the Gospels or to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or to contemplative prayer or even to service to the poor.  Whatever the case, fascination with Jesus is the right way to go, and we have to let ourselves be intrigued by the question again.  Who is Jesus for us?

The Transfiguration of the Lord 

Sometimes I think that, because of the limitedness of our minds, we accept a rather small view of Jesus. We think of him as a friend and brother, which is okay, but he is also our Lord and God. The disciples had this problem too, although they had a good excuse: they didn’t have two thousand years of Church history to guide them! So they were definitely familiar with the human side of Jesus: Over the time they had spent with him thus far, they had become close to him and saw him as a friend, a companion on the journey, and a great teacher. But they were always having trouble with his divinity. 

Today’s feast changes all of that for them, and for us as well. If there was any doubt about who Jesus was, it’s gone now. That voice from the cloud is absolutely specific: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Jesus is the Son of God and his divinity must be embraced and proclaimed. While it can be comfortable for us to have a picture of Jesus that is absolutely human, we must always keep in mind the Transfigured Christ, dazzling white, radiating glory, the lamp shining in a dark place. He is the Son of Man of whom Daniel speaks, and to him belongs dominion, glory, and kingship. If Jesus were only human, we would have no Savior, we would have no chance of touching divinity ourselves, that divinity for which we were created. 

On the way to the mountain, the disciples came to know Jesus in his humanity, and on the way down, they came to know Jesus in his divinity. That trip down from the mountain took him to Calvary, and ultimately to the Resurrection, the glory of all glories. Christ is both human and divine, without any kind of division or separation. We must be ready to see both natures of our Jesus, so that we ourselves can transfigure our world with justice, compassion and mercy, in the divine image of our beautiful Savior. No matter what challenges may confront us or what obstacles may appear along the way, we must be encouraged to press on with the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.” 

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Christmas Vigil – Childrens Mass

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. As you can imagine, the appearing of an angel can be a little frightening, 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 very 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.

Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, and when he heard that Mary was pregnant, he was upset. He was going to break off the engagement, but he 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, Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus. 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 Sabbath day, 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 handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

It is good for us to hear Mary’s story, because she lived her life following Jesus. We’re supposed to do that too. Mary got to see Jesus face-to-face, even hold him in her arms. We might not be able to do that, but Jesus is close to all of us as long as we let him in. Just like they made a place for Jesus to be born in a manger, we need to make a manger for Jesus in our own hearts so that he can be born in us and always be with us.

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 handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, I think Herod was asking the right question.  Sure, he was asking it for all the wrong reasons, but still, it is the right question.  And that question is, “Who is Jesus?”

What Herod was hearing about Jesus is pretty much what the disciples told Jesus when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  Elijah, or one of the prophets, or maybe even John the Baptist.  But Herod was the one who killed John so he knew that couldn’t be it, so who is he really?  Herod kept trying to see him, and of course, he’d have more than ample opportunity soon enough, after Jesus is arrested.

So we have the question too.  Oh, we know well enough – intellectually – who Jesus is, but we still have to answer that question in our hearts.  Who is Jesus for us?  We know he is not just some prophet; that he is not like anyone who lived before or after him.  But have we stopped being intrigued by the question, have we lost our fascination with Jesus?  Herod kept trying to see Jesus, and it’s the right instinct, or at least it is for us.  We have to keep trying to see him too, whether that takes us to a rereading of the Gospels or to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or to contemplative prayer.  Whatever the case, fascination with Jesus is the right way to go, and we have to let ourselves be intrigued by the question again.  Who is Jesus for us?

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I want to begin my homily by reminding you of the words we heard in our first reading from Nehemiah:

He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

So if you think my homily is long, just think about that!  We could be going from daybreak to midday!

Today we’re talking about teaching and the Scriptures, which is very appropriate today as we begin Catholic Schools Week.  This week reminds us that we have the gift of a wonderful school that teaches not just the usual subjects you find in every school, but also helps to teach the faith and gives witness to the joy of the Scriptures being fulfilled.

But as far as that goes, we are all, always and forever, in the “school” of the faith.  We don’t ever graduate from that school, until, of course, that great day, when we stand before our Lord to be judged, relying on his mercy and on our relationship with him, which is always a gift.  Those who unite themselves to our Lord in faith throughout their lives, those who continue to study the Scriptures and see them fulfilled in our hearing, they have the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

Saint Jerome underlined this for us.  He said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, because for all of us who did not live in the same time as Jesus, we rely on the Scriptures not just to tell us who Christ was, but also to have a relationship with him, remembering that Jesus is always present in the proclamation of the Word of God.

There are three Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  First, the Word is proclaimed.  Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers.  Finally, the Word is fulfilled.  So first, the Word is proclaimed, and we see that twice.  First, in the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand.  It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation.  The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading.  Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it.  He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life.

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers.  For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response.  The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep.  The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments.  I think we might have that same reaction sometimes.  Nehemiah then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy.  We don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy.  Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.

Finally, the Word is fulfilled.  Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing.  We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist.  The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers.  Indeed, the Word is always proclaimed with the intent that it be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.

We continue to celebrate the Word in those three moments.  We come now come to this holy place to hear the Word proclaimed, and have it interpreted in the homily.  Our Liturgy of the Word, then, goes back to ancient times, and looks much the way Ezra proclaimed the Scriptures.  Except, of course, it’s a lot shorter now!  We continue to be affected by the Word’s proclamation.  Of the stories we hear, we have our favorites, and there are stories that move us within, emotionally and spiritually.  We too may be moved to tears as we hear of God’s goodness, and think of the way we have fallen short.  We too need to hear Nehemiah proclaim that the preaching of the Word is a time for great joy.  Finally, the Word continues to be fulfilled among us.  Having sent his Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the fulfillment of Scripture, every time someone hears the Word and acts on it.

I want to try a bit of an object lesson.  Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him.  That is true too for all of us who have been Baptized and Confirmed, because we receive the Holy Spirit in both Sacraments. So I would ask all of you to close your eyes for a minute and listen to these words from Isaiah spoken not just to Jesus, but also to all of us:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

You may find yourself ill-equipped to break people out of prison.  But I know that you know at least one person who is in some kind of prison.  Maybe they are imprisoned by illness or old age.  Maybe they are imprisoned by fear of acting to better their lives.  These people need you to journey with them and be present to them, thereby setting those captives free.  You may not be too sure about how you can proclaim recovery of sight to the blind.  Maybe you don’t even know anyone who is physically blind.  But you probably know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.  Or maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are suffering from an addiction of some sort.  Maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that someone they are close to needs them in a special way.  You can be present to these who are blind and to gently but firmly lead them to recovery of sight.  You probably have no idea how to let the oppressed go free.  But you may have an hour or two to serve a hot meal to those oppressed by homelessness at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.  You may be able to spend some time occasionally with those who are oppressed by not knowing how to read.  By giving of yourself, you can let these oppressed go free.

We have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in order to bring glad tidings to the poor.  By acting selflessly, we can turn things around in our own little corner of the world.  By hearing and acting on the Word, we can proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  May the Words of this Holy Book be fulfilled today – and every day – in your hearing.

The Nativity of the Lord: Vigil Mass

Today’s readings
Mass for the children:

Once upon a time, there was an old shepherd named Elias.  He had been a shepherd for his whole life long, just like his father, and his father’s father.  Being a shepherd was hard and lonely work.  He took care of a large group of sheep and did his best to protect them from wolves and keep them together.  He would lead them by day from pasture to pasture, allowing them to graze, and bring them safely to market where they would give their wool for people to use.

Nights could be very lonely and sometimes scary.  There was no one else to talk to, and he did his best to keep the sheep safe.  Sometimes, if he listened hard enough, he could imagine the wind talking to him as it blew through the trees.  That made him feel like he wasn’t so alone.

One night, as he was nearing the place where he and the sheep would spend the night, he saw a bright light up in the distance.  He couldn’t help but wonder what was going on so he moved toward it. When he got close enough, he got the sheep settled down for the night and he went to check out the light and make sure there was nothing to worry about.

Other shepherds had done the same thing, and they all arrived to see the angel of the Lord, surrounded by the bright light of God’s glory.  It was frightening to see, and Elias and the others just stood there, awe-struck, not knowing what to think.

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

Then the sky grew really bright as hundreds of angels joined in and began to sing: “Glory to God in the highest!  And on earth, peace to those on whom is favor rests!”

When the angels left, Elias and the other shepherds decided to travel the short distance to Bethlehem, the city of David, and to search out the Savior that the angel talked about.  Bethlehem was a pretty small village, and so it didn’t take much looking to find the baby.

He was in a manger – a feed-trough for animals.  His parents looked like ordinary people, but Elias knew that this baby was special, and that the family was holy.  The angel was right: there was joy and peace here, it was a special feeling that Elias knew could only come from God’s blessing.

Elias never forgot that night.  He went about taking care of his sheep, but whenever he was in town, he would try to find out about the baby he saw that night.  He found out the boy’s name was Jesus, and he would often hear of wonderful things that Jesus said and did.  When he was very old, Elias heard that people had turned against Jesus and they nailed him to a cross.  But he also heard that three days later, he rose from the dead, and all of his friends were now starting to go out and tell the Good News about him.

Elias knew that Jesus was special from that very first night he saw him.  He knew that Jesus had come to change everything.  And he was right.  Got changed everything then, and he continues to change everything now, if we let him.  Jesus didn’t just get born two thousand years ago; Jesus is born right here, right now for us, if we would just make a little space, a little manger for him in our hearts.  Just as Elias didn’t know exactly what God had in store for Jesus, we don’t know what God has in store for any of us in the year ahead.  But we do know this: God sent Jesus so that He could be here among us, and he is here among us now, leading us back to him, telling us that we are his special children, and loving us all with love beyond anything we can imagine.

Things were hard for Elias and the other shepherds, and for Jesus and his family, and sometimes things will be hard for us too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, shining the light, and helping us to find the Good News.  Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like those shepherds, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.

Friday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We sure have some scary readings today, don’t we?  They’re talking about floods, and fire and brimstone raining from the sky, and someone taken and another left behind.  That’s pretty scary stuff when you stop to think about it.  But I want you to remember this: we don’t ever have to be afraid, because we always have Jesus.  And that’s a huge point.  If you read readings like this and you don’t know the rest of the story of the Gospel, it would be scary.  But we know that Jesus loved us enough to come and save us from our sins, and so floods and fire and brimstone might be scary, but we know that we can be spared all things like that if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

The readings that we get toward the end of the year like this are wrapping up the story.  We are also wrapping up the Church’s liturgical year and in a couple of weeks we’ll start a new liturgical year, so the Church wants us to hear some of the readings that talk about the end of time.  Readings like this can be scary because they talk about how people were persecuted over time, or about how God wants sin to come to an end.  Or like in the Gospel today, it talks about how people might miss the second coming of Jesus because they’re so wrapped up in themselves.  But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we don’t have to worry about missing his second coming, because we’ll be right there to see it.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

You may also have heard some people talk about the ancient calendar developed by the Mayan people centuries ago.  If you have, then you know that calendar stops on December 23rd of this year, and so many people are thinking that means this is the end of time.  Is that true?  Probably not.  Jesus always told us that there’s no way we’d ever know the exact time that he would return; that the only one who knows is God the Father.  So the Mayans aren’t so special that they would know something only God the Father knows.  People are afraid of this, but we don’t have to be.  We’ll never miss the coming of the Lord if we’re always keeping our eyes fixed on him.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.

The point is that God is good.  He made us so that we could be with him forever.  He is not going to abandon us.  The only way we’ll get left out of a relationship with him is if we choose to walk away.  But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we’ll always be able to rely on God’s goodness.  Do we have to be afraid?  No.  Why?  Because we always have Jesus.