Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading always leaves me with a chill running down my spine.  Those four words: “And it was night” grab me every time.  These are the words that come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But let’s be clear: the evangelist didn’t include those words to tell us what time it was.  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 when John 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.

Maybe we can relate to the darkness in a more tangible way these days.  With the specter of COVID-19 looming over everything, one wonders when we’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  These days, the darkness of illness and death make this a very dark night too.

But we know that none of this is how the story is going to end, don’t we?  COVID-19 will eventually pass.  Even our experience of death and sin isn’t a permanent thing.  Sure, the 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, and we can feel the ponderous darkness sending a shiver up our spines.

I keep trying to look forward to the end of this health crisis and to imagine the day when I’m talking to you and not a camera.  I can’t wait for that day.  This is a dark time in our world, but it doesn’t get to be our permanent reality.  Right now we have to stay home, for our loved ones, for the vulnerable ones, for the people who come after us.  But we’re safe, and we have the promise of the presence of the Lord in our lives.

In these Holy days, we see all kinds of darkness: the darkness of this illness, the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. But may we also find courage in his triumph over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of resurrection morning.

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Sunday of the Word of God

Today’s Readings
Pope Francis’s “motu proprio” APERUIT ILLIS, instituting the Sunday of the Word of God

About fifteen years ago now, my home parish put on a production of the musical Godspell, and somehow I found myself part of the cast.  If you’ve ever seen the musical, you know that it is based on the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel that we are reading during this current Church year.  I remember the first song of the musical was kind of strange to me at the time.  It’s called “Tower of Babel” and the lyrics are a hodge-podge of lots of philosophies and philosophers throughout time.  I didn’t get, at the time, the significance of the song, but I do now.  “Tower of Babel” represents the various schools of thought about God, over time.  It shows how philosophy at its worst has been an attempt to figure out God by going over God’s head, by leaving God out of the picture completely.

The song ends abruptly and goes right into the second song of the musical, “Prepare Ye,” of which the major lyric is “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  The message that we can take from that is that the useless, and in some ways sinful, babbling of the pagan philosophers was once and for all settled by Jesus Christ.  If we want to know the meaning of life, if we want to know who God is, we have only to look to Jesus.  That’s true of most things in life.

That’s what is happening in today’s Liturgy of the Word too.  The people in the first reading and in the Gospel have found themselves in darkness.  Zebulun and Naphtali have been degraded.  They have been punished for their sinfulness, the sin being that they thought they didn’t need God.  They thought they could get by on their own cleverness, making alliances with people who believed in strange gods and worshiped idols.  So now they find themselves in a tower of Babel, occupied by the people with whom they tried to ally themselves.  Today’s first reading tells them that this subjection – well deserved as it certainly was – is coming to an end.  The people who have dwelt in darkness are about to see a great light.

The same is true in another sense for Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee in today’s Gospel.  These men have been fishermen all their lives.  Reading the Gospels and seeing how infrequently they catch anything unless Jesus helps them, we might wonder how successful they were at their craft.  But the point is that fishing is all they’ve ever known.  These are not learned men, nor are they known for their charisma or ability to lead people.  But these are the men who Jesus calls as apostles.  One wonders if they had any previous about Jesus, because on seeing him and hearing him and recognizing the Light of the World, they drop everything, turn their backs on the people and work they have always known, and follow Jesus, whose future they absolutely could never have imagined.

All of this is good news for us. Because we too dwell in darkness at times, don’t we? We can turn on the news and see reports of men and women dying in war, crime and violence in our communities, corruption in government, and maybe worst of all right now, sniping between political candidates!  Then there is the rampant disrespect for life through the horrific sin of abortion, as well as euthanasia, hunger and homelessness, racism and hatred, and so much more.  Add to that the darkness in our own lives: illness of a family member or death of a loved one, difficulty in relating to family members, and even our own sinfulness.  Sometimes it doesn’t take much imagination to know that our world is a very dark place indeed.

But the Liturgy today speaks to us the truth that into all of this darkness, the Light of Christ has dawned and illumined that darkness in ways that forever change our world and forever change us.  One of the Communion antiphons for today’s Liturgy speaks of that change.  Quoting Jesus in the Gospel of John, it says this:

I am the light of the world, says the Lord;
whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.  

There is an antidote available for the darkness in our world and in our hearts, and that antidote is Jesus Christ.  The limits that are part and parcel of our human existence are no match for the light that is God’s glory manifested in Christ.  This is what we mean by the Epiphany, and we continue to live in the light of the Epiphany in these opening days of Ordinary Time.  Now that Jesus Christ has come into the world, nothing on earth can obscure the vision of God’s glory that we see in our Savior.

Pope Francis has made this particular Sunday each year a celebration of the Word of God.  He means for us to spend time opening the Scriptures and finding the manifold riches that are there.  That’s what our Mass is always about.  Read carefully through the order of Mass and you’ll find scripture in every part of it.  Not just in the Liturgy of the Word – that’s a given, but in each and every one of the prayers of Mass.  Catholic worship isn’t something someone made up, it is literally a celebration of the Word of God from beginning to end.  And that makes sense, when you think about it: if we are called to “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” as one of the dismissal formulas invites us, we can do that with confidence because we have just been fed on the Gospel in every part of our Mass.

The Mass, too, is an Epiphany celebration at every point of the liturgical year.  Because when we’re attentive to the Word of God and the prayer of the Mass, we can’t possibly miss Jesus present among us.  So Pope Francis on this Sunday of the Word of God encourages us to devote ourselves to God’s word: to join a Bible study – we have that here at Saint Mary’s, to help others break open the word by leading that part of the RCIA, to teaching the scriptures to children in our school and religious education programs, to proclaiming the Word at Mass.  Do any one of those things, sisters and brothers, and I guarantee you’ll grow in your knowledge of scripture.  And, turning a famous saying of Saint Jerome around to the positive, knowledge of scripture is knowledge of Christ.

Jesus came to be good news for us.  He is the Word of God incarnate among us, not just two thousand years ago, but even now if we would give ourselves over to loving the scriptures.  So for those of us who feel like every day is a struggle of some sort, and who wonder if this life really means anything, the Good news is that Jesus has come to give meaning to our struggles and to walk with us as we go through them. For those of us who are called to ministries for which we might feel unqualified – as catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, RCIA team members, small group leaders or retreat leaders – we can look to the Apostles and see that those fishermen were transformed from the darkness of their limited life to the light of what they were able to accomplish in Christ Jesus. Wherever we feel darkness in our lives, the Good News for us is that Christ’s Epiphany – his manifestation into our world and into our lives – has overcome all that.

As the Psalmist sings for us today, the Lord truly is our light and our salvation.

The Solemnity of the Epiphany

Today’s readings

I’m going to make things pretty simple today. If someone asks you what my homily was about, you’ll be able to sum it up in just four words: “Walk toward the light.”

And that’s good advice, I think, for us who walk around in what can be a very dark world. Today’s first reading speaks of that darkness: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples…” We’re not talking about some kind of simple darkness that is cured by simply turning on a lamp. This darkness is pervasive, not just physical darkness, but a darkness that has psychological effects, and even affects communities and nations. When Isaiah speaks of the thick clouds covering the peoples, that’s what he means: “peoples” means nations. 

And we don’t need to look too much farther than the newspaper or evening news to see that darkness. The year ahead of us might seem rather foreboding. The upcoming election promises to be as divisive as ever an election was in the history of our nation.  January 1st saw the dawning of new laws in our state that negatively affect the unborn and the poor.  We continue to see violence in our cities, and over the holidays, in places of worship. The wars raging in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa, all over the world really, those are dark places for combatants and non-combatants alike. Christians in other lands find their lives in danger every day. There’s plenty of darkness to go around, and it may not seem like there’s enough light in all the universe to make it better, to illuminate that darkness, to help us to break free of it all. 

There may be darkness in our own lives too. Maybe we have patterns of sin of which we cannot seem to break free, maybe there are family difficulties that cloud our day-to-day living, maybe there are old hurts among family or friends that prevent us from moving forward in grace. Even our own personal and spiritual lives can be such dark places at times. 

Today’s Liturgy acknowledges all the darkness and invites us: “Walk toward the light.” 

Because the light that we have to scatter all that darkness comes from God himself. Isaiah says again: “but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.” A darkness as pervasive as the one that covers all peoples takes a very bright light to scatter it. Does this mean that all that darkness will go away immediately? Of course not. But it does mean that God has provided a way, lit up a path, for people of faith to take steps – baby steps if necessary – to walk toward that light. We see that light in the Church, through the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our celebration of the Eucharist, when we reach out to others in service, in our interaction with each other as people of faith. Those thick clouds may make it pretty hard to see at times, but ultimately they are no match for the bright light of the glory of the Lord.

Isaiah goes on to point out that all that light isn’t intended just for us. When we have approached the light, we need to share that light with others. “Nations shall walk by your light,” Isaiah says, “and kings by your shining radiance.” Having received the light of the glory of the Lord, we are meant to spread it over our corner of the world. We are meant to radiate that light as a beacon in a dark place, so that all peoples – all those peoples that are covered by those thick clouds of darkness – can see their way to the Lord too. We spread that light by changing our lives. We spread it by being people of integrity. We spread it by doing everything we can to reinvigorate our spiritual and devotional lives. We spread the light by paying it forward, by giving of ourselves, by having concern for those in our lives and those the Lord puts in our lives. We spread the light by reaching out to those in need. 

And what is wonderful is that spreading the light never leaves us in the darkness. There is always more light to shine on us. Listen to Isaiah again:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see, 
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.

The glory of the Lord is never diminished by shining on others. In fact, when we share that light with others, we only receive more, so that our hearts are throbbing and overflowing, beholding all the riches that we could ever hope to find. We may find a talent we never knew we had, one that can reach others for Christ. We may find a new energy that comes to a spiritual life that was previously rather listless. We may find new challenges, new opportunities, and always new grace. The riches and wealth of our God are never exhausted. 

All we have to do is walk toward the light. 

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.” Today, and in the next couple of weeks, we will see Christ’s Lordship manifested in a few different ways. Each of these epiphanies will call us to a deeper appreciation of who Christ is in our lives and a deeper reflection on our own discipleship. 

The light that we walk toward today is very-likely life-changing. The Magi came to seek the light in today’s Gospel reading. All we get from Matthew is a description of the encounter. But we have no idea what the encounter did in the lives of those wise astrologers. We don’t know how it changed them, what it cost them, where it ultimately led them. We see that the light was not intended just for the Jews, but also for all of the nations, pagans and religious people alike. All could come to the light, all could be affected by the light, all could experience the true light of the world. 

And in just the same way, we have no idea how walking toward the light will affect us. We don’t know how it will change us, what it will cost us, where it ultimately will lead us. All we know is that, coming to the light, we will be changed, with the promise of grace upon grace. Just as the Magi were led to return by another way, we too might find ourselves taking another way in our lives. Epiphany is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives? Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected? Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection. We will be exposed to the light many times and in many wonderful ways. It will be a year of many epiphanies for us. 

May this coming year find us walking toward the light countless times and in countless ways, and open to the many riches of grace that the Lord has in store for us.  Walk toward the light!

The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny II (Cycle A Readings)

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness.  All of these, dear friends, are things that many of us 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 and how to function in a whole 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.  Here’s a question I always like to throw out there: 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, friends.  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 a pool: 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 an anchor 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 Holy Night 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 spiritually blind.  But you know what?  We’re not supposed to stay that way.

Friday of the Third Week of Advent: O Radiant Dawn

Today’s readings

There’s a little more light today.  As we get toward these last days of Advent, we find ourselves in a time when more light is beginning to shine.  More and more of the candles on our Advent wreath are lit, and the only thing that can make our world brighter is the coming of our God in all his glory, dawning brightly on the earth.

Today’s “O Antiphon” tells us as much.  Today we hear “O Radiant Dawn,” and the antiphon for Evening prayer is this: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

This light is the source of the joy of which Zephaniah the prophet speaks today.  He tells the broken people Israel that God has forgiven their sins, and that he continues to walk among them, which should be cause enough to remove their fear.  That enduring presence among the people Israel, of course, is a foretaste of the enduring presence that we experience in the Incarnation of Christ.

Mary and Elizabeth celebrate that light in today’s Gospel.  Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth is an act of hospitality, and Elizabeth’s welcome, along with the Baptist’s reaction in his mother’s womb, is an act of faith.  That faith incredibly affected the salvation of the whole world.

And all of this light continues to shine on our sometimes-dark world.  A world grown dark and cold in sin is visited by its creator, and that world is changed forever.  The darkness can never now be permanent.  Sin and death no longer have the last word for us, because that was never God’s will for us.  We have hope for eternal life because our God eagerly desires us to return to him and be one with him.

And so we pray, Come, O Radiant Dawn, shatter the darkness that sometimes reigns in our cynical world.  Give us the warmth of your light to warm our hearts grown cold with sin.  Shine on all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

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.

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, the Church 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 Advent calendars 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 illuminated 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 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 evangelist 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 that this isn’t how the story is going to end.  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, and we can almost feel the ponderous darkness sending a shiver up our spines.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. But may we also find courage in his triumph over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of resurrection morning.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet.  Laetare Sunday reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing.  And today’s readings do deal with some heavy topics, but clearly and always through the lens of rejoicing in God’s mercy.  So that’s how I would like to look at today’s Liturgy: what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice.  That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet, which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises.  It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world.  It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today.  All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives.  Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike.  Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society.  Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad.  The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life.  And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives.  Sin that has not been confessed.  Bad habits that have not been broken.  Love and mercy that have been withheld.  All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity.  Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days.  But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

You see, this darkness is exactly the darkness in which the people of Israel found themselves in today’s first reading.  Notice what that reading says about the people – it’s not flattering at all!  It says “in those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  Note particularly the use of the word “all” in that first sentence: had just some of the people been unfaithful?  No: all of them had.  Did they practice just some of the abominations of the other nations?  No: they practiced all of them.  But God in his mercy sent them messengers and prophets to warn them away from their sinfulness.  Did they listen to them? No – and not only did they just not listen to them, but they ridiculed and derided those messengers of God, “despised his warnings and scoffed at his prophets.”  Certainly God would have been justified in letting his chosen people go to hell in a hand basket.  But he didn’t.  Though he punished them with exile for a time, he brought them back to their own land to worship their God once again.  When darkness seems to affect even the Church, the Exsultet calls out: Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

Back at Christmas time, we heard the beginning of the Gospel of John giving us reason for our exultation: even in the darkness of our world, the Light shines through.  John proclaims: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Today’s Gospel reading is from John also, and shows us the source of that light: Jesus Christ who is lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.  This line refers to a passage from the book of Numbers [Num. 21:8-9] in which the people were complaining about the way God was feeding them in the desert.  So he sent seraph serpents among them, and people were being bitten and falling ill and dying from their venom.  As a remedy, God told Moses to mount one of the serpents on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten would get better if they looked at the serpent lifted up on the pole.  John compares this to the remedy that we receive for our many sins when we look upon our Savior, lifted up on the pole of the Cross.  But even better, the lifting up of the Son of Man is the Resurrection: God the Father raising Jesus up from the dead, to destroy the power of sin and death in our world.  Either way you look at it, the joy is irresistible: the darkness of our sin and the finality of our death are destroyed when we look upon Jesus our Savior lifted up for us.  Of this, the Exsultet sings: This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Which brings us to the heart of today’s Gospel reading, maybe even to the heart of the whole Gospel.  That would be the line: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  If you have seen any sporting event, in person or on television, you have seen the reference to that line: posters that read “John 3:16.”  And clearly, that is the heart of the Gospel for all of us: that God
so loved the world – not just the good part of the world, the pristine part, the beautiful part – but every part of the world.  He loves the parts of the world that are polluted, or embattled by crime, or rife with injustice and oppression, or debilitated by sickness and disease, or destroyed by war, or mourning death, or lamenting sin.  That is not to say that he loves the pollution, crime, injustice, or any of that.  But he loves the world – the whole world – despite all that darkness.  He loves the world for what he created it to be, he loves us as the people he made his own.  And to that world, that people he loves, he sends his only Son, his beloved, so that we might not perish in our darkness or disease or injustice or sin and death, but might have eternal life – the life he longs for each of us to share with him.  Any other message would be completely disappointing, and our God does not disappoint!  Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.  O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

Lent is certainly a time for us to be mindful of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s call.  Last week’s look at the ten commandments provided each of us, I think, with plenty of reflection on how we can better live God’s call.  But this week’s Gospel puts all of that in perspective for us: we don’t dwell on our sins and shortcomings just to remind ourselves how miserable we are; we reflect on our sins and shortcomings because we know that God can transform them.  We don’t strive to become better people in order to be worthy of God’s love for us; we strive to become better people because God loves us and that love calls us to a much better way of living.  Today’s Liturgy says to us that yes, we have sinned; yes, we have fallen short; yes, we have been hard-hearted; yes, we have failed to respond to God’s love; yes, in particular we have failed to show that love to others.  And yes, we are deserving of punishment for our sins.  But, our God, who is rich in mercy, forgets the punishment and remembers compassion for the people he created.  He sent his only Son to redeem us and bring us back from our darkness into everlasting light.  Our God even uses the darkness and transforms it to be a source of Resurrection for his people.  At that Easter Vigil a few short weeks from now, we will remember that The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.

On this Laetare Sunday, we remember that even in the darkness of our world as it is, we can remember the joy of the Light that is to come.  We reflect on God’s everlasting mercy, which is stronger than sin and death.  We respond to the compassion that God has shown for us, his chosen people.  We live that mercy and love in our own lives, sharing it with others.  Then as our own darkness is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk.  May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow.  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.  Amen.

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!

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