Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Malachi 3:1-7a | Matthew 3:1-12

This evening, as we prepare for Christmas, we have some powerful images to guide us.  The first is the image of burning up what doesn’t belong here, as we have seen in our readings.  the prophet Malachi warns of the LORD who will come as a refining fire, purifying not just silver, but also the sons of Levi, those priests who were charged with true worship of God.  Refining is a process of melting down an impure metal so that that all that is left is the precious metal; in this case silver.  In the Gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist warns the people to repent, lest they be burnt up in the fire that was coming with Christ.  He is one who would purify the people by burning off those who are impure just like a farmer burns up the chaff that is separated from the actual grain.

The second image we have comes from the season of Advent itself, particularly today.  During the last week of Advent, so now, we have the “O Antiphons” as part of the liturgy, particularly Evening Prayer.  The “O Antiphons” are the various titles of Jesus as given to us in Sacred Scripture, and they manifest our longing for the appearance of Christ.  Today the O Antiphon is O Oriens, or O Dayspring.  It could also be translated O Morning Star or O Radiant Dawn.  Today we pray that Christ would come and enlighten our hearts and brighten a world dark in sin.

In essence, this is what Advent is all about: the season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness of a season with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.  Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  As we continue to light the candles on the Advent Wreath, we see more light all the time, up until the feast of that great light which we will celebrate in just four days.

And so tonight, we come together acknowledging that we have stuff in us that needs to be burned off so that we can be the bright lights the world needs to see right now.  Our prayer is that God would take away everything in us that is not him, so that we can be his presence, his light, in the world.  There was a Christian song several years back called “Empty Me” that expresses this well.  Here is the refrain from that song:

Empty me of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition and the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me so I can be filled with You.

Because the world needs us to be the bright light of Christ.  There’s always so much darkness: war, scandal, poverty, homelessness, greed, terror, crime, hatred, bigotry … the list goes on and on.  Every glimpse at the news reveals a world mired in everything evil.  The only thing that will change that ever, the only thing, is Christ.  The only thing that will dispel the darkness of this fallen world is the light of Christ.  And we who have chosen to be his disciples must always be the bearers of that light, nothing less.

So today, we pray that God would burn off all in us that is not him, so that we can burn brightly in a world dark in sin and death.  We pray:  Come to us, O Oriens, ORadiant Dawn, O Morning Star: scatter the darkness of our world and of our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Burn away every bit of foolishness in us, everything that is not you, so that we can be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know if it’s ever easy to listen to the news any more.  Unrest in the middle east, abuse scandals in the entertainment industry and political arena, crime in our cities, and so much more.  And all of those are the man-made problems: they are byproducts of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we Advent more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame.  I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way.  They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age, unfortunately – it never seems to go away.  And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good.  We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new.  And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those in which we participate as a society.  And then we have to accept the process of repentance.  We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God.  That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the bad stuff going on in our nation and our world, if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done.  That’s why reconciliation is so important.  What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us.  The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others.  But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ.  We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas.  I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that.  I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, and I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, nasty thorns in the flesh, day in and day out.  And God never meant it to be that way.  He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

So speaking of confession, here’s one of mine: There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time.  I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed.  It came about from what I came to realize was a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person.  But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way.  We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward.  That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament.  The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession.  It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace.  And you do too.  So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree.  Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be.  When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too.  That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  We have a Reconciliation Service scheduled for Thursday, December 21 at 7:00pm.  We are also hearing confessions twice a day every Saturday until Christmas: after the 7:30am Mass, and again at 3:00pm.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent.  Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession.  That’s our job.  All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you.  Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

Advent Penance Service

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

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

But the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world. We do that symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior. But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory. We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

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

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

Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

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

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

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

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: from the First Sunday of Advent

The prophet Isaiah has a way with words, to say the least. The way that he expresses God’s word is almost irresistible. The first reading today is one that has really taken hold of me over the years. Back when I was in my first year of seminary, I came home for Christmas break on the same day our parish was having its penance service, and I went. I was asked to read the first reading, and it was this same reading. It so completely expressed the way I felt about my own sins and my desire to have God meet me doing right, that I thought the prophet was speaking directly to me.

Of course, he is; he’s speaking directly to all of us, and I hope you too find inspiration in his message. I think he expresses the frustration of us when we try to take on our sinfulness and straighten up our act, all by ourselves. That’s an overwhelming proposition, and really we can’t do it. And so when we try and fail, and try again and fail again, and so on, maybe we might pray those same words of Isaiah: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Certainly something can be done, can’t it, so that we aren’t always wandering off the path to life?

Can’t God just “rend the heavens and come down” – kind of like a parent descending the steps to where the children are misbehaving in the basement? Wouldn’t it be nice if he would even take away our ability to sin, and empower us only to live for God? But that would make us less than what we were created to be, would make us less than human, less than children of God.

And so we have to continue to take on the struggle, and Isaiah’s reading shows us how to do that. The first thing we have to do is to acknowledge our sins. That’s the word that the priest uses in the Roman Missal at the beginning of Mass: “Brothers and Sisters, let us acknowledge our sins…” And I think that is a very good word to use, because it’s not like God hasn’t noticed our sins, and it’s not like we don’t know we’re sinning. Everyone knows what’s going on. But this can’t be like an Irish family squabble where everyone knows what’s going on but nobody says it out loud (I can say that because I’m Irish); we have to acknowledge our sinfulness so that our Lord may heal us.

The second thing Isaiah does is to acknowledge our complete inability to heal ourselves or doing something good while we are in sin. “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” It’s pretty harsh stuff there, but it’s also objectively true. Sin does that kind of thing to us, and guilt carries us away to further guilt like the wind scatters the leaves of the autumn. Isaiah’s prayer here is a very good act of contrition.

But the final and most important thing that Isaiah does for us in this reading is to acknowledge God’s mercy: “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” God is that merciful Father who created us out of nothing – we are the work of his hands, and in his hands, we are sustained in being. He didn’t create us for death and sin and destruction. He created us for life and eternity. And this is the point that we often forget when we are busy about the pain of our sins. We sometimes forget that there isn’t a place our sins can take us that is beyond the grasp of God’s love and mercy, unless we let it. So acknowledging God’s mercy is crucial in the process of reconciliation.

And so we all come here on this Advent night, aware of the fact that we need to be here. The cold weather and earlier darkness perhaps makes us feel the pain of our sins so much more. So we come here to acknowledge our sins, to acknowledge our own inability to heal ourselves, and to acknowledge God’s love and mercy that will do just that: grant us healing and grace and eternity and the light of endless day. On this Advent night, as we yearn for the nearness of our God, there is no better place to be than in the presence of his love and mercy.

That presence, of course, is why God gave us his only begotten Son in the first place.

The Second Sunday of Advent: Be Reconciled

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but this week, when I heard that New York was going to announce whether another police officer was indicted or not for the death of a suspect, I pretty much held my breath. After seeing all that has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri, I just feared the worst. And none of it is good. Crime is a problem, and so is racism; all of this comes about as a byproduct of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we need it more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame. I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way. They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age. And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good. We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new. And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those that we participate in as a society. And then we have to accept the process of repentance. We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God. That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the events at Ferguson or New York, or if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done. That’s why reconciliation is so important. What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us. The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others. But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ. We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas. I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that. I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, little thorns in the flesh, day in and day out. And God never meant it to be that way. He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time. I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed. It came about from a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person. But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way. We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward. That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament. The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession. It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace. And you do too. So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree. Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be. When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too. That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance. Those of you who have a second grader receiving the sacrament for the first time can also receive the sacrament when they do, next Saturday. Then our parish reconciliation service is Tuesday, December 16th at 7pm. Finally, on the weekend just before Christmas, on Saturday the 20th, we will have four priests here from 4:00 to 5:00 or until all are heard. We will also hear confessions after all of the Masses on Sunday the 21st. And if none of those fit in your schedule, or if you would prefer to go to another parish, we will be publishing the schedules for other parishes in the bulletin.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent. Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession. All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you. Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

The Third Sunday of Advent [C]

Today’s readings

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

And there is reason to rejoice.  The prophet Zephaniah tells the people Israel that, even though their sins had displeased the LORD to the point that he gave them over to the hands of their enemies, he has relented in his judgment against them and will deliver them from their misfortune.  Their deliverance is so complete that the LORD will even rejoice over them with gladness!  If that’s not a reason to sing joyfully and rejoice with all their hearts, there never will be one!

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

Maybe this call to rejoice rings a little hollow today, based on the events of Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut.  But our faith tells us that’s not true.  The Psalmist sings today about the kind of hope our world needs right now:

God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.

And it is up to us to bring this kind of hope to a world that has almost become accustomed to horror and shock and terror and sadness.  The world may almost prefer to sit in this kind of darkness, but not people of faith.  People of faith instead light a candle of hope and dance in the light of Christ!  People of faith can rejoice because even in times of sadness and despair, the presence of our God is palpable, realized in stories of heroism and seen in acts of charity and grace in moments just like this.

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

The people who came to Saint John the Baptist in today’s Gospel knew of the nearness of their salvation, because John preached it with intensity.  So today they come to him and ask them what they should do – what’s the next step?  And he tells them.  They need to repent, to reform their lives, and keep watch for the One who is mightier still than he is.  The coming Savior will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and the only way to be prepared for that is to turn away from their practices of darkness and live with integrity.

It’s a message that is intended for us too.  Because we also could clean up our act a bit.  We too have need to repent.  And I say that advisedly, because back on Ash Wednesday when I used one of the exhortations that we can use when distributing ashes: “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” a couple of people were very angry at me for telling them they had to repent.  So let’s be clear about this.  We know in our hearts that there are just two people in this room who don’t need to repent.  One would be the man nailed to the cross up there, and the other is the beautiful lady standing next to Saint Joseph over there by the candles.  If you’re not Jesus or Mary, you have sin in your life – maybe not serious sin, but maybe there is.  Whatever kind of sin is there, Advent calls us to repent.

Because sin is what keeps us from rejoicing, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Sin keeps us mired in the darkness.  Sin breaks the relationship with God and others that keeps us from seeing that the Lord is near.  But we rejoice because our God came to us to give us the antidote to that.  He refused to keep us mired in sin, but instead came to us and calls us to repent so that he can forgive and we can rejoice.  That’s good news, and that’s why we celebrate – yes, celebrate! – the sacrament of Penance.

In order to help you to prepare so that you can rejoice, we have a penance service scheduled for this Thursday at 7pm.  Several priests will be there to hear your confession.  I hope that you will be able to be there.  But if not, there are still two more opportunities for confession before Christmas.  Three of us will hear confessions on Saturday evening from 4:00 to 4:45, and then again on Christmas Eve right after morning prayer, from about 8:30 until 9:30.  If none of those work for your schedule, our bulletin has a list of confessions at parishes in our area.

I want you to go to confession before Christmas because I want you to be able to rejoice.  If you have not been to Confession in years and maybe are a little ashamed or scared or don’t know how to do it, then rejoice and go anyway.  The priest will welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession.  That’s what we do; that’s why we are priests, and it’s our privilege to help you experience the Lord’s mercy and kindness so that you can once again rejoice.  So if you haven’t been to confession yet this Advent, I want you to go this week.  You’ll rejoice and be glad when you do.

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

Pastoral Care of the Sick: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings: 1 Kings 19:1-8 | Psalm 34 | James 5:13-16 | Mark 2:1-12

I first met Tom probably a few weeks after I started my first assignment as a priest at St. Raphael’s back in the summer of 2006.  He was a young man, probably around my age, and was suffering the effects of cancer.  His family had called because he wanted to see a priest and I had gone to anoint him at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.  They didn’t think he was going to make it through the day, but just at the moment I got there, he had woken up and was talking to the family, the first time he had done that in a couple of days.  I waited a while, then went in to talk to him, and after a while I did what we’re going to do today: I anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord, praying over him, just as St. James tells us we should do in today’s second reading.

During the conversation with Tom and his family, I learned that one of Tom’s favorite verses of Scripture was Isaiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”  Throughout his illness, Tom, a man of great faith, had prayed the closing words of that verse – “By his stripes we were healed” – every day at 3:00, the Mercy Hour, the traditional time when we believe Jesus gave his life for us, enduring stripes and torture and the agony of the cross to heal our brokenness and give us access to the kingdom of God.  He asked everyone he knew to pray for him in that way, and I promised I would do so.

I visited with Tom a couple of other times during his illness.  About a month after I first met him, Tom passed from this life to the next, right around 3:00 in the afternoon, just after praying those words that had sustained him during his illness.  In the homily at his funeral, I noted that there are all kinds of healing, and that I truly believed Tom had been healed in the greatest way that God can offer us, by bringing us to the Kingdom.  By His stripes, Tom had indeed been healed.  Tom was the first person I ever anointed and his was the first funeral I ever celebrated.  I’ll never forget what a faithful man he was, even during his most difficult days.

We gather together today to celebrate the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Church has this sacrament because of those directions from St. James: the sick are to call on the priests of the Church, and they are to anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith, we are told, will heal the sick person, and the Lord will raise that one up.  And if the sick have committed any sins, they will be forgiven.

The Church has this sacrament also because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  And that was to heal people.  Deeply.  Because what we ask for, what we are looking for, is something that can be kind of superficial.  We look for mere physical healing.  But God, in his mercy, knows what we really need; he knows what we would ask for, if we really knew how to ask for what would help us.  What Jesus wants to do is to heal us from the inside out.

And so we see that in our Gospel reading this morning.  Everyone thought that they knew what the paralytic needed.  The crowd knew the man needed to be un-paralyzed.  They couldn’t have missed the tell-tale signs of the man, immobile on a stretcher, being lowered to down to Jesus from the roof.  The man’s friends probably thought they knew too: they had heard stories, most likely, about this miracle worker, and were anxious to bring their friend, long paralyzed, to the one person that could do something about it.  The scribes thought they knew:  they were watching very closely to see what Jesus would do in this pretty desperate situation: the man can’t even move, how could anyone save him, they thought.  And even the paralytic himself probably thought he knew what he needed: long-standing illness can bring about a kind of short-sightedness that blinds us to what is best for us.

But the only one who knew – really knew – what this man needed was Jesus.  “Child, your sins are forgiven.”  We can just imagine all those brows furrowing up, can’t we?  What did he say?  His sins are forgiven?  So what about his paralysis?

What they don’t know is that Jesus did address the man’s paralysis.  There are all sorts of things that paralyze us:  fear, certainly, but the most insidious cause of paralysis is sin.  Sin binds us in ways of which we are not usually fully aware:  sin cancels our freedom and makes us slaves to itself.  Sin is always a step in the wrong direction, but more than that, it often produces shame, which inhibits us from getting back on the right path.  Shame convinces us that we’re not worthy of grace or love so then we sin again, and the cycle continues.  Nothing keeps us from moving forward like sin does.  Nothing paralyzes us so insidiously as does sin.

Now, please carefully understand that I am not saying that illness is a punishment for sin.  Jesus didn’t say that either.  In fact, so as to dispel the then-common idea that illness was some kind of punishment for something someone did wrong, and to prove that he had power over every kind of healing, Jesus says to the man, “Rise, pick up your mat and go home.”  And he does.  The paralytic had been healed in just the way Jesus knew he needed to be healed – from the inside out.  Clearing away what was binding him by sin, the man was open to receiving the grace of bodily healing as well.

So today’s readings demonstrate all the tools for healing the Church offers us.  There is the forgiveness of sins, which we have celebrated earlier today in the Sacrament of Penance.  There is the Anointing of the Sick, according to the instructions of Saint James, which we will celebrate in a moment.  And the first reading points us to the most wonderful healing remedy there is: the Body and Blood of Christ.

Elijah, who has every right at this point in the story to lay down and summon death, hears from God that that is not God’s will.  “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you!”  Indeed, the path to healing and wholeness is very often a long and arduous journey.  We dare not make that journey without food to sustain us.  And nothing sustains us on that journey like the Body and Blood of Christ.  No matter where our journey takes us: be it to spiritual healing, physical healing, or even one day to eternal life, we need that food for the journey, which is the Eucharist, that splendid meal that reminds us that we are never alone no matter where life or its pains may take us.  Our ministers of care could certainly tell us many stories of just how important this food is to those who are sick.

And so today, we bring all these tools to bear in the work of healing.  Wherever you are right now, it is our prayer – the Church’s prayer – that God would grant you the healing that you truly need.  That healing may be spiritual: reuniting you with God and others at the Altar of praise.  That healing may be physical if that is what God knows is best for you.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases.  But we can promise that, if you are properly disposed to receive grace, you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you in your suffering.  Just like for Tom, the healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God.  That’s why we are here today.  That’s why we celebrate these beautiful sacraments with you today.  We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us.  And we know that Tom was absolutely right in his profession of faith in our Lord’s goodness: by his stripes we were healed.

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7 and Matthew 1:18-24

Isaiah’s lament in our first reading this evening sounds like a lament for every time and place, quite honestly.  Wouldn’t we all prefer to hope that God would come and meet us doing right, being mindful of him in all our ways, mindful of the mighty deeds God has done for us?  But unfortunately, we are sinful people; our neglect of God would justly make him angry, our sins enough to pollute even our good deeds.  It’s a sad state of affairs: it seems like no one calls upon God’s name, no one rouses him or herself out of the sad state of our world to even cling to God.  God forbid that Jesus return in glory only to see us so completely delivered up to our guilt.

And that’s where we find ourselves tonight, I think.  We see sinfulness in our world: wars being fought and terrorism keeping us bound up in fear; the poor neglected and poverty’s sad effect on society; crime is proliferating and apathy increasing.  Would that God would rend the heavens and come down, and put an end to all this sad nonsense!  Even more to the point this evening, though, is the sadness in our own lives: unconfessed sin, broken relationships, cyclic patterns of bad choices and bad actions.  Why have we wandered so far from God’s ways?  Why have our hearts been so hardened that we don’t even fear God anymore?

But in all of this, Isaiah recalls God’s promises:  “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.”  God’s mercy is beyond anything we can imagine.  In justice, he could leave us to experience the consequences of our sinfulness.  But in mercy, he sent his Son to pay the ultimate price.  There is nothing we can do to make up for our sins, but thanks be to God, he thinks enough of his creation to allow us to be redeemed by the coming of our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The coming of our Savior in the mystery of the Incarnation is the great hope of Advent.  We know that the sad state of our sinful lives and our sinful world is not the end of the story.  We know that God has sent his only begotten Son to be our Savior, to walk among us knowing our grief and pain, our joy and sorrow.  He died on the cross to pay the ultimate price for our sins, and rose from the dead, erasing death’s power to keep us from spending eternity with our God who made us for himself.

Advent, then, gives us the opportunity to prepare to experience the wonder of the Incarnation in our own lives.  We need a Savior to bring us from the grip of death and sin to the embrace of God’s mercy and love.  We need a Savior who will lead us to justice and peace. We need a Savior who will lead us to reach out to the poor and oppressed. We need a Savior who will bind up our wounded lives and world and present us pure and spotless before God on the Last Day. We need a Savior who can bring light to this darkened world and hope to our broken lives. We need a Savior who can bring us God’s promise of forgiveness.

There is an ancient prayer of the early Church that the first Christians would pray in the years just after Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven.  In their language, the simple work was, Maranatha which in English is “Come, Lord Jesus.” This is a great prayer for every day during Advent, perhaps for every day of our lives. When we get up in the morning, and just before bed at night, pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” When you need help during the day or just need to remind yourself of God’s promises, pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” The early Christians prayed this way because they expected Jesus to return soon. We do too. Even if he does not return in glory during our lifetimes, we still expect him to return soon and often in our lives and in our world to brighten this place of darkness and sin and to straighten out the rough ways in our lives. Let us keep the expectation of the Lord and the hope of his promise of forgiveness alive in our hearts:
Come, Lord Jesus and change our hearts to be more loving and open to others.
Come, Lord Jesus and teach us to pray; help us to grow in our spiritual lives.
Come, Lord Jesus and dispel our doubts; help us always to hope in your forgiveness and mercy.
Come, Lord Jesus and heal those who are sick and comfort all the dying.
Come, Lord Jesus and bring those who wander back to your Church.
Come, Lord Jesus and turn us away from our addictions.
Come, Lord Jesus and teach us to be patient with ourselves and others.
Come, Lord Jesus and help us to eliminate injustice and apathy.
Come, Lord Jesus and teach us to welcome the stranger.
Come, Lord Jesus and give us an unfailing and zealous respect for your gift of life.
Come, Lord Jesus and help us to be generous; teach us all to practice stewardship of all of our resources.
Come, Lord Jesus and help us to work at everything we do as though we were working for you alone.
Come, Lord Jesus and bind up our brokenness, heal our woundedness, comfort us in affliction, afflict us in our comfort, help us to repent and to follow you without distraction or hesitation, give us the grace to pick up our crosses and be your disciples.

Joseph had the assistance of an angel to help him to be open to Christ’s coming into his life.  Through his intercession, may we be open to all of the grace that the Incarnation of our Lord brings us.  May we be completely transformed by the birth of Christ into our world and into our lives.  May Christ come quickly to lead us to eternity and help us to navigate the world and all its dangerous obstacles.  Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus!