The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading is very interesting, I think. The beginning of the passage names important people at that particular time in Israel: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and also the high priests: Annas and Caiaphas. Finally it names John the Baptist, who was, at that particular time in history, heralding the unveiling of God’s plan for salvation.  Luke does all this to say that, while the Word of the Lord came to John, who was pretty obscure, and many thought was crazy, still that Word came at a particular point in history, a time they could remember and observe.  God was getting real in their midst, and John wasn’t so much crazy as he was on fire.

His message was a message of change, which no one likes.  So it’s no wonder they labeled him crazy and made him take his message to the desert instead of the city and the temple precincts.  Better that than actually changing their lives.  That would be unthinkable!  But John’s message is clear.  God wanted to burst into their midst, and they we didn’t make changes, they were going to miss it.  It’s a message as pertinent and poignant now as it was then.

Because we are a people who could use some time in the desert.  Now, I don’t mean we should go to an actual desert or even take a trip to Las Vegas! I mean, we need to calm down and find some peace in our lives, because with all the craziness and busy-ness of our lives, we stand a pretty good chance of missing the Advent of our Savior as all the people back then did.  We might be just as impatient with a John the Baptist as the people were then.  Who wants to hear the word “repent?”  That means a real change in our lives that we are often not willing to make.

I remember several years ago when we first had the new Roman Missal.  It was Ash Wednesday, and one of those prayers changed too.  Instead of saying “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” we now say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  I had not one but two people who were very angry with me when I said that to them.  That word “repent” hit a nerve and they were quick to protest that repenting was not something they needed to do.  But we all do, friends.  Me included. Repent means turning around and going in another direction.  Because we all get off track here and there in our lives.  Repent means turning back to God, our God who is waiting to break into our lives and be born among us this Advent.

John is really clear about what kind of repenting needs to be done.  If we are going to prepare a way for the Lord, we are going to have to make straight the winding roads: stop meandering all over the place, and walk with purpose to communion with the Lord.  We are going to have to fill in the valleys and level the mountains, because God doesn’t come in fits and spurts, showing up every now and then for a mountain top experience and then taking his leave when times bring you down.  He’s there always and forever.  We are going to have to make those rough ways smooth, because every time we’re jostled around on those rough roads, we stand the chance of getting thrown off the path.  We have to repent, to change, to become vessels in which our Lord can be born so that all flesh can see God’s salvation in us.

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. Every Saturday we have confessions at 3pm until all are heard. Next Saturday we also will be having them after the 7:30 morning Mass.  And finally, on Sunday the 23rd, we will have several priests to hear your confession after the 12:15 Mass until all are heard. 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.

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 coming in our lives.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Quite honestly, this Gospel story is a little strange, maybe even surprising.  I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.”  As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy!  To his credit, the centurion must have heard of this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.  Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.”  And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself.  For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says.  And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once.  It’s an interesting exchange, to be sure.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith.  The prayer that we say, just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, says this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass.  Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us.  True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings us.

Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel parable is admittedly a bit of a head scratcher.  It almost seems to portray our God in a rather unfavorable light, comparing him to a capricious king who destroys whole cities after being snubbed by some invited guests, and then tosses out a visitor who seems to have come to the banquet poorly dressed.  But obviously, that surface-level reading of the parable is inadequate, and so we have an invitation to read perhaps a bit deeper.

Put very plainly, the banquet is the Eucharist, given for all.  The wedding is the marriage of God with his people, which makes us one with him and opens up the possibility of eternity for those who accept it.  Those guests who refused to come were the leaders of the Jewish people, who should have been looking for the feast and should have welcomed it with eager longing.  But instead they mistreated and murdered the servant-messengers, who were the prophets who announced God’s reign and helped forge the covenant.

Those then who were pulled in off the streets to share in the banquet are everyone else who hears the Word of God and responds to it.  The guest thrown out for improper attire are those who accept the invitation of Christ with their lips, but remain clothed in the filthy garments of worldly desire and ambition instead of giving themselves to the marriage completely.

So, if it’s not already obvious, we are among those pulled in off the streets.  We have heard the Word of God and know his desire to be one with us.  The question is, what kind of garments have we been wearing?  Are we clothed in that white garment of pure desire for God that is given us in Holy Baptism, or have we cast that beautiful vesture aside for the filth of the world? If it’s been the latter, filthy garment we have been wearing, today’s message is that it is time to wash them white in the Blood of the Lamb, the one who came to give his life that we might be wedded to him for all eternity.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Return and live!”

This is very good advice from the prophet Ezekiel.  He was preaching to a nation that was steeped in sin, and whose sinfulness was passed on from previous generations.  But unlike the punishments of old, where God punished those who sinned for many generations, Ezekiel proclaimed that God was going to do something new.  He was going to punish only those who did wrong, and bless those who did right.  If the son sinned, it was not the father’s fault, and if the mother sinned, it was not the daughter who would pay the price.

We might call that “personal responsibility,” a notion that doesn’t get as much adherence these days as it ought to.  Now if the son sins, the parents sue the person who punished the son for it.  Nothing is anyone’s fault; no one has to step up and take responsibility for what they’ve done.  Or at least it sure seems that way.

Ezekiel would take us all to task for that philosophy.  Our God is Truth, and we should live that truth every day of our lives.  So if we’ve wandered from that, Ezekiel has the remedy today: “Return and live!”

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is an impetus for the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary: the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with its call to repentance.  Jesus charges his Apostles to go out and proclaim that the Kingdom is at hand, with all its accompanying signs and wonders.  We have to understand that this is the Church’s main job in every time and place.  We are now the ones who have to proclaim the Kingdom of God and call people to repentance by the witness of our lives.

We are now the ones called to drive out demons, cure the sick, and all the rest.  We do this by being Christ’s presence in a world that is sorely in need of it.  We drive out demons by casting the glorious light of Christ into every dark corner.  We cure the sick by reaching out to those who are ill, looking in on them, caring for them, bringing the Eucharist to them.

We also have to understand, though, that sometimes our efforts won’t prove fruitful.  Sometimes our peace won’t be received because the other person is not peaceful.  All we can do is do our best, offer Christ, and move on if that’s not accepted.  And we have to trust that God will give us everything we need on our journey.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism. We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda. The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, is a symbol of the Church. We see the Church also in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside. These, of course, again are the waters of baptism. Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism. We are called to enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls. We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.

But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus. I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, I’m sure that would be a pretty bad thing. But I’m also pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing. There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thursday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures address another one of the ways that we fallen human beings tend to avoid the truth. Sometimes, when we are confronted with the truth, we attack its source. If we cast doubt on the one bringing us the truth, then we don’t have to follow his or her words, right?

The prophet Jeremiah takes the nation of Israel to task for this in today’s first reading. These are a people who have heard the truth over and over. God has not stopped sending prophets to preach the word. But the Israelites would not listen: in fact, most often, they murdered the prophets. They preferred to live in the world, and to attach themselves to the nations and their worship of idols and pagan gods. They had been warned constantly that this was going to be the source of their demise, but they tuned it out. They “stiffened their necks,” Jeremiah says, and now faithfulness has disappeared and there is no word of truth in anything they say.

Some of the Jews are giving Jesus the same treatment in today’s Gospel. Seeing him drive out a demon, they are filled with jealousy and an enormous sense of inadequacy. These are the men who were religious leaders and they had the special care of driving away demons from the people. But they chose not to do so, or maybe their lukewarm faith made them unable to do so. So on seeing Jesus competent at what was their duty, they cast a hand-grenade of rhetoric at him and reason that only a demon could cast out demons like he did.

We will likely hear the word of truth today. Maybe it will come in these Scriptures, or maybe later in our prayerful moments. Maybe it will be spoken by a child or a coworker or a relative or friend. However the truth is given to us, it is up to us to take it in and take it to heart. Or will we too be like the Jews and the Israelites and stiffen our necks? No, the Psalmist tells us, we can’t be that way. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

This past Sunday, I was coming down with the upper respiratory infection I now am getting over.  It really came on suddenly, with a vengeance, and I was thinking last weekend if I took care of myself it would all go away quietly.  On Sunday night, my mother told me, “you better go to the doctor.”  I thought, no, I’ll just wait a couple of days and it will go away.

Well, it didn’t.  Monday it was much worse, and I took Mom’s advice and went to see my doctor.  I’m glad I did because I’m actually making progress and feeling a little better each day.  But to get there, I had to admit that I was sick, that I needed a physician, which is exactly what our Gospel reading calls us to do this morning.

That one line is significant: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.”  Anyone who has battled an addiction will tell you how true it is.  You cannot make any progress is wellness in any aspect of life if you don’t admit you’re sick.  And we all have difficulty doing that sometimes, I think, and much to our demise.

It’s important that we learn to do that in the spiritual life.  If you don’t think you need a physician for your spiritual life, congratulations, you can skip Lent.  In fact you don’t even need a Savior!  I say that in jest, but really it’s true.  Jesus is very clear today: he came to call sinners to conversion, and that includes all of us.  All of us, myself included, maybe even foremost among all, need conversion in our spiritual lives.  And the good news is that Jesus gives us Lent to do just that.  Be converted, be healed, be made whole so that the glory of Easter can brighten our lives.

So our reflection this morning is two-fold.  First, where and how do I need the Divine Physician in my life right now?  And second, invite him in and let him heal us.

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.

Friday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Pride and presumption are insidious sins. They make any kind of grace impossible, for they even deny that grace is needed or wanted. If we have no need of a Savior, then no relationship with God is even possible. And not having a relationship with God is something we call “hell.” So the disciple doesn’t get to harbor pride and doesn’t get to presume that God will take care of her or him. Instead the disciple must be very mindful of God, and must constantly nurture the relationship in such a way that they are caught up in the very life of God.

The Hebrew exiles in Babylon realized how far they were from this relationship, and with the prophet Baruch, pray a prayer of repentance. And that was an experience the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida needed to have. They were totally unmindful of God, and they refused to repent. Which is inconceivable given the mighty deeds Jesus had been doing among them. Even a ton of bricks falling on them wouldn’t seem to get them to repent. Jesus calls them to task on it. Who knows if that had an effect on them. What’s important is that we too are called to repentance every time we are so presumptuous of God’s mercy and favor that we refuse to repent of the things that separate us from Him.

The disciple is called to humbly place himself or herself in God’s mercy, acknowledging dependence on a Savior who has loved us into existence and sustains those who follow him. The disciple shuns pride and presumption, and humbly prays with the Psalmist, “For the glory of your name, O Lord, deliver us.”