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!

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent: O Oriens

Today’s readings

As I’ve preached earlier this week, in these last days of Advent, we are praying the “O Antiphons” in the Liturgy, and especially in 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.

The significance of light and darkness really strikes me, because, who hasn’t noticed that there is a lot more darkness this time of year?  I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too – maybe you’re even one of them.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy day, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  And if there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

In essence, this 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.

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.  Today’s Gospel gives us a glimpse at that bright light: the infant John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb at the nearness of the Savior.  Saint Elizabeth gives words to such great joy: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Receiving the light, we are called to bear that light to the dark world around us through our prayers, our acts of charity, and our living with integrity and love.  And so we pray: Come to us, O Radiant Dawn: scatter the darkness of our world and our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Help us to be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

There’s certainly a flurry of activity in today’s readings, isn’t there? Especially in the Gospel, we see Mary Magdalene run from the empty tomb to get the Apostles. And then Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” ran to the tomb. This flurry of activity centers around a crisis in their faith, a time of confusion that will ultimately lead to stronger faith.

So Mary comes to the tomb, early in the morning, while it is still dark. In St. John’s Gospel, the idea of light or dark always means something more than whether or not you can see outside without a flashlight. Often he is talking about light and darkness in terms of good and evil. That’s the way it was when we heard of Judas in Friday’s Passion reading: when he went out to do what he had to do, the Gospel says “and it was night.” That wasn’t just to record the time of day, it meant that we had come to the hour of darkness. But here when Mary comes to the tomb, I think the darkness refers to something else. Here, I think it means that the disciples were still in the dark about what was happening and what was going to happen.

Obviously, their confusion gives that away. Jesus had tried to tell them what was going to happen, but to be fair, what was going to happen was so far outside their realm of experience, that really, how could they have understood this before it ever happened? All they know is what Mary told them: the tomb is empty and she has no idea of where they have taken the Lord. And after all that had just happened with his arrest, farce of a trial, and execution, their heads had to be spinning. How could they ever know this was all part of God’s plan?

And even us – we who know that this was part of God’s plan – could we explain what was going on? Could we give a step-by-step picture of what happened when, and why? I know I couldn’t. But, like you, I take it on faith that, after Jesus died, the Father raised him up in glory. It’s a leap of faith that I delight in, because it is that leap of faith that gives me hope and promises me a future. How could we ever get through our lives without the grace of that hope? How could we ever endure the bad news that appears on our TV screens, in newspapers, and even closer to home, in our own lives – how could we endure that kind of news without the hope of the Resurrection?

And so, even though there is this flurry of kind of confused activity among the Apostles this Easter morning, at least this day finds them running toward something, rather than running away as they had the night of the Passover meal. They are running toward their Lord – or at least where they had seen him last, hoping for something better, and beginning with the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” coming to understand at last. It’s not night anymore for them. The day is dawning, the hope of the Resurrection is becoming apparent, the promise of new life is on the horizon.

And may this morning find us running too. Running toward our God in new and deeper ways. Running back to the Church if this has been the first visit you’ve made in a long while. Running back to families if you have been estranged. Running to others to witness to our faith both in word and in acts of service. We Christians have to be that flurry of activity in the world that helps the hope of the Resurrection to dawn on a world groaning in darkness. It’s not night anymore. The stone has been rolled away. This is the day the Lord has made!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.”  Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But the Beloved Disciple didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day.  In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness.  The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world that is opposed by the light of Christ.

So John isn’t just telling us what time it is.  When he says “and it was night,” he is telling us that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to its apparent climax.  This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon our Lord and he will take them to the Cross.  The darkness of our sinfulness has made it a very, very dark night indeed.

But we know the end of the story.  This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins.  But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace and Divine Mercy.  The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ.  Always.  But for now, it is night.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. May we find courage in the way he triumphed over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of morning.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny II

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness.  All of these, dear friends, are things that we certainly take for granted.  Think about it: we don’t appreciate the gift of light until that dark and stormy night when the electricity goes out and we’re fumbling around in the darkness trying to remember where it is we put that new package of batteries for the flashlight.  We likewise take for granted our own ability to see.  I think of my Aunt Mia, who several years before she passed away lost her sight and had to learn how to see things in a new way.

When I hear today’s first reading, it always makes me think of my dad.  He was the kind of Irishman who never knew a stranger.  We couldn’t go anywhere without running into at least one person he knew.  But he didn’t just know them, he knew their story.  And so if someone were to complain about someone he knew, he would always be able to tell them something good about that person, because Dad saw the best in them.  That’s the kind of vision we are all called to have for one another: we need to see the best in them, we need to see Jesus in them.

So what about this miracle story in the Gospel today.  I have to just say it, who cares?  I mean, it’s nice for that man born blind who can now see, but I mean, he lived two thousand years ago, so what business is it of ours if he can see or not?  Why take up so much time with this reading?  Well I’ll tell you why we should care: we should care because the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does.  So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Well, of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind.  We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives.  It takes holy baptism to cure that born blindness in us.  Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives.  We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life.  We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world.  That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision.  We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision.  Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see.  Our Elect, who are here with us today, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.

We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer.  At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him.  Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, after he has been unceremoniously thrown out of the synagogue, he meets Jesus again and testifies that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship.  As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.

We make this same journey ourselves.  From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Think about it: our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that we will hear proclaimed on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning 
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But you know what?  We’re not supposed to stay that way.

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of my professors in seminary used to tell us all the time, “Brothers, Christianity looks like something, the Christian looks like something.”  His point was that if we are Christians, we needed to conform ourselves to Christ, to be more like Christ, to do what Christ called us to do in this life, so that we could have the possibility of joining Christ forever in the next life.

When I was praying this morning, I was reading from a section of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constituition on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II.  The line that jumped out at me was this one: “Man’s worth is greater because of what he is than because of what he has.”  So the Christian doesn’t look like her or his possessions; doesn’t look like what he does, but rather what he is.  And what she or he is is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus gives us the images of salt and light, and I think those are very familiar images for us to grasp.  We all use salt and light every day, and it is interesting to hear Jesus say that that is what we are.  Anyone who cooks, or even anyone who eats, will tell you of the value of salt.  I like to watch the television show Chopped on the Food Network.  On that show, four chefs compete to make something edible of a basket of disparate and perhaps even bizarre ingredients.  Then three judges sample their dishes and decide who is not moving on to the next round; they are “chopped.”  At the end, one of them wins a bunch of money.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen on that show get “chopped” because they under-seasoned their food.  A teaspoon of salt might be what got between them and ten thousand dollars!

So the Christian is salt for the world; we are called to season the world with joy and goodness and concern for the poor and genuine love, based on the Gospel.  But Jesus wonders what would happen if that salt were to lose its flavor.  Now I can’t imagine salt losing its saltiness.  In fact, I googled this one time and found a chemist who took this question on.  He indicated that salt, in its crystalline form, is pretty stable; it doesn’t lose its flavor.  So Jesus was using, as he often does, hyperbole to get our attention.  Suppose for the moment that salt could lose its saltiness: what would it then be good for?  Nothing, of course.

Jesus seems to be saying that we, as the salt for the world, could lose our saltiness.  We could become under-seasoned by skipping Mass to attend a sports event or sleep in.  We could become under-seasoned by neglecting our prayer life.  We could become under-seasoned by watching the wrong things on TV or surfing the wrong sites on the internet.  We could become under-seasoned by holding on to relationships that are sinful.  And when that starts to happen, our ability to season our world with the presence of Christ is diminished, little by little.

And then we have the image of light.  On Thursday, I had the school Mass for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which celebrates Jesus as the Light of the World coming into the darkness that we often experience.  I asked them how many of them are or ever had been afraid of the dark.  Lots of hands went up.  I think that’s probably true of all of us on some level; the darkness is a scary place.  There are all sorts of obstacles in the dark that could cause us to trip and fall, and you never know what might befall you on a dark and scary road.  All of us have had those experiences when we are in the dark, and it’s not a fun place to be.

So what do you do when you find yourself in the dark?  Well, you turn on the light, of course. The light changes everything: you can see the obstacles over which you might have fallen.  Anything lurking in the dark will now be identified in the light.  Sometimes a quick look around with the lights on will assure you that that noise you heard was just the house settling, or the furnace firing up, or something similarly innocuous.  The light just makes you feel a little safer.

And so we are called to be light too.  We don’t need much time to think about how dark our world can be at times.  We see on television the news about war and crime and terrorism and new diseases and things we shouldn’t be eating.  We hear about children bullying one another and people stalking others on the internet.  A quick moment of reflection reminds us of our own sinfulness; the bad that we have done and the good we have failed to do.  Darkness in our world can be pretty pervasive at times, and it makes the world a rather frightening place.

But we have the light.  We’ve been exposed to the light.  We have come alive in Jesus, the Light of the world.  As those gifted with the Light of the world, we become people of light.  We become light for the world too.  Jesus insists that our light should shine so brightly that we affect the darkness of our world, completely overcoming that darkness with the Light of Christ.  He insists that we are now that city, set on a hill, that cannot be hidden.  And we know how true that is.

We may know the truth of that in rather negative ways in our Church’s recent past.  Our Church has been the city set on a hill affected by scandal, first in the United States, then into Europe and other places.  People saw what happened, it was set on a hill and could not be hidden.  We have been ashamed and grieving in the years since.

And that’s what Satan wants for our Church.  He wants to see us set on a hill and ashamed.  He wants us to be seen by the watching world doing nothing, because we have lost our way.  But that’s not what God wants.  He still calls us to be the light for the world.  People do see us, and have to see us doing good in big ways and small ways, so that other people will see the way to God and take delight in the ways we have seasoned the world.

St. Therese of Liseaux used to talk about doing little things with great love for the glory of God.  She found joy in her “Little Way” and it has inspired so many people ever since.  Our Liturgy today calls us to do little things and big things, all for God’s glory.  It calls us to be salt for a world grown bland with despair and light for a world dwelling in a very dark place.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us how to do it:

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…

If neglecting our prayer life and our integrity causes us to lose our saltiness, if giving in to shame and despair puts out our light, then we can never do what we were created for.  But we have been given salt and light to season and light our world.  We are the city set on the hill for all the watching world to see.  Would that they might see us doing little things and big things, all for the glory of God.

Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It is always interesting to me how clearly the unclean spirits know who Jesus is. For them, Christ our God inspires fear and rebellion. But even these unclean spirits, hearing his voice, begrudgingly obey. Jesus teaches with authority, as the people standing by admit of him. This is a teaching that cannot be ignored. Each person may hear it and respond differently, but they do respond. Many hear his voice and follow. Others turn away.

In these early days of Ordinary Time, we essentially have the continuation of the Epiphany event. We continue to see Christ manifest in our midst, and continue to decide what to make of him. Today we see him as one who teaches with authority and who has authority over even the unclean spirits within us. Today he speaks to our sinfulness, to our brokenness, to our addictions, to our fallenness, to our procrastinations, to whatever debilitates us and saddens us and says “Quiet! Come out!”

This Epiphany of Christ as dispossessor of demons is an epiphany that does more than just heal us. It is an epiphany that calls us out of darkness, one that insists we come out of our hiding and step into the light, so that the light of God’s love can shine in us and through us.