Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Homily 3rd Sunday of Advent Year A: The Advent of Meaning and Purpose



Today, this Third Sunday of Advent, is a day that the Church calls Gaudete Sunday. This comes from the first word of today’s Entrance Antiphon, “Gaudete,” which means Rejoice! The Entrance Antiphon is a short verse found in the Missal which can be chanted as the Entrance hymn. The full verse says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.” Against the backdrop of short, cloudy days and long, cold, rainy nights… against the backdrop of Advent violet symbolizing penance, preparation and good works … against the backdrop of a renewed awareness of our need for the Lord and the longing we have for his return… against all of these we have today a beacon of hope, symbolized by the rose-colored vestments we wear today. We can begin to see the rays of light beaming from the Star of Bethlehem, from the manger of the Son of God; it is Jesus Christ, the Light of Lights! He is near at hand! He is not far off now! Only two more weeks and we will experience again his first coming! And what beautiful gifts he has in store!

The prophet Isaiah foretold that even “the desert and the parched land” will exult. Even the dry land eagerly awaits the coming of the Spring of Living Water which is Jesus Christ. And when he finally comes, the land will exult and bloom! “Let the earth bless the Lord. Praise and exult him above all forever. Mountains and hills, bless the Lord. Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord!” How eagerly do we await his coming? If the earth and all of the Lord’s creation can be filled, in a mystical way, with joy at our Lord’s coming, we certainly can as well.

But, I realize that precisely this time of year, when the Church gives us a glimpse of joy in our time of waiting, can be a time of sorrow, of loneliness, of disappointment. For some of you this may be a time in which you mostly deeply feel the separation from a loved one who has died. Perhaps you may be feeling the stress of wanting to buy that perfect gift that you couldn’t possibly afford. Or a relative could be right next door but still distant and estranged. I think these feelings happen in all of us in some way or another. But how is it that some blessed souls are able to maintain their joy leading to, during, and throughout the Advert and Christmas seasons while others experience such sadness?
I think the way the world approaches Christmas contributes much to the malaise and discontent we can feel this time of year. There is no space for the preparation that Advent asks of us. The world begins the Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, if not sooner, and ends it on Christmas day. We speak and celebrate Christmas as if it’s already here. We turn Christmas into a day when we can safely indulge all our materialistic passions – a day when we can morally accumulate more and more things that in a matter of weeks or months will fall apart or be forgotten. The coming of Santa Clause excites our children more than the coming of the baby Jesus. Is it Jesus that keeps them awake a night, excited and giddy with expectation? We cultivate materialism in our children and center their happiness on the toys they receive. There is outstanding pressure to keep up with the Jones’s, to spend money we wouldn’t dream of spending any other time of year. The drive, the competition, the pressure wears us out. I’ve done all of this myself! Heck, I have a LEGO Star Wars Advent Calendar! No matter so many feel depressed during Advent. There was no room for Jesus.

Instead, if we are giving Advent its due, if we are focusing on remembering his first coming at Christmas and preparing our souls for his Second Coming (at a time we know not) then we will be prepared to meet the malaise that knocks on our door. In preparing for Christ, we will be spending time praying for our deceased loved ones and calling to mind the blessed times we had together. This prayer and remembrance makes us close again, and drives away the loneliness. In preparing for Christ, we will already be properly lining up our priorities, practicing self-denial and works of charity that drive away the temptation to make Christmas a day of accumulation instead of adoration. In preparing for Christ, we will be following the call of John the Baptist, the great Saint of Advent, to repent of our sins and follow the Lord. We will be working to mend the broken relationships in our families and calling them together.

So we see that the preparation that Advent promotes makes this time before Christmas one of deep meaning and purpose, one of repentance and reconciliation that cuts through the superficiality of the world’s approach. Then, at Midnight Mass, after the Christmas Proclamation, are hearts will be open and clear, ready to receives gifts that dwarf any notion of the Xbox One or PS4; gifts that bring a deeper, more profound happiness than $5 DVD’s at Wal-Mart; gifts of grace, of hope for healing and salvation, of deep and abiding joy.

Only then, for faithful Christians does Christmas begin! The world shelves the holiday for another year, but we will have only just begun! Only then does our celebration of Christmas really ramp up, with the Octave of Christmas, The Feast of the Holy Family on December 29th, The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God on January 1st, the Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus on January 3rd, The Solemnity of the Epiphany on January 5th, and ending with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on January 12th. It’s really on Christmas Day that we should turn on our lights, turn on the tree, and begin cooking Christmas foods and telling Christmas stories. “Be patient, brother and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” St. James wrote in our second reading, “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

The miracle of Bethlehem, can be the miracle of our very own hearts. If at the coming of the Lord, “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them,” then our own lives too can be transformed to see more clearly, to walk more steadily, to be healed of the infirmities of sin, to hear more loudly God’s call, to have a heart raised up to him, and to know his peace and happiness. Today, let us put away all sadness, let us rejoice! For the Lord who has and will do these things and much more is near… is very near…

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Homily: 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A–Peace and Reunion among Families

The readings this weekend are so filled with both hopeful and challenging words that they definitely warrant a second look if you have some quiet time today or tomorrow. The prophecy from Isaiah speaks beautifully about the peace and unity that the messiah will bring when he comes – the wolf & the lamb, the calf & the lion, the cow & the bear, and even the baby & the cobra will live in harmony. These profound images capture the peace among all creation that existed before The Fall, before Adam & Eve’s Original Sin introduced disorder and chaos into the world. This is the peace that our Heavenly Father originally intended for us. This is the peace that the Messiah brings. But… he also brings judgment upon anyone who introduces further division and disunity.

Today, the Second Sunday of Advent, the Church puts before us the figure of St. John the Baptist, the Saint of Advent, to herald the Messiah. Sometimes I get fixated on his camel hair shirt and his eating of locusts and forget his deep significance. Thankfully, we have this season of Advent to take seriously again John’s message. What does it mean to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”? Why does John say that he is “not worthy to carry his sandals”? We can see much in John the Baptist’s mission and his words that can be helpful for us as we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

First, did you notice the lead up to John the Baptist in the readings beforehand? This buildup, from our first reading in Isaiah, to the Responsorial Psalm, to the Letter to the Romans, culminates in the Gospel as St. John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. We get the feeling that John’s meaning in life, his vocation, was prepared for him since the times of the great Old Testament Prophets. John’s life’s mission is to prepare the way of the Lord, Jesus Christ, to till the soil of men’s hearts to be able to receive the seeds of peace and unity that he brings.

The Prophet Isaiah described “a voice of one crying out in the dessert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John prepares for the Lord by fervently preaching to all of the people to acknowledge their sins before God and to symbolize their repentance by being washed in the Jordan River. By being repentant, we return to God what belongs to Him, our Love. Repentance also helps us to behave correctly, to usher in, ourselves, the Lord’s peace and unity. Our second reading encourages us to “think in harmony with one another,” and to “welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you.” We cannot experience the peace Isaiah prophesied, the peace of the Garden of Eden before the Fall, if there is division among us.

We can each look at our own families and friends and find examples of this division: One family member hates another one, or one won’t speak to the other, or one side of the family is estranged from the rest. In my own situation, I had an aunt and uncle, who with their two sons, I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Over Thanksgiving I was at a different aunt and uncle’s house with one whole side of my family and everyone was having a great time. They were all talking and playing so that no one noticed the doorbell ring. I decided to answer the door and… there they were! I’m sure they thought they rang the wrong house when they saw a priest answer the door. And I didn’t put two and two together myself! But when it finally clicked, I invited them in and everyone was so happy to see them. One of my uncles sat down with my aunt and explained to her who everyone in the room was, reminding her of their spouses and children. It was a beautiful moment. And all it took was for one of my aunts to invite them to come to the meal… from Kansas!. This type of invitation and reunion is what should characterize this season and our own efforts. This is no time for division among our families.

When we look at John the Baptist’s noble vocation, let’s not think that he is merely an isolated figure stuck in history two thousand years ago. We too are John the Baptist. It seems like John is too special for us to relate too. But, God has prepared from all eternity our own unique way of bringing about repentance and reunion with God and with each other as well.

Just stop and think about that for a second. From all eternity, before time began, God planned your personal, individual, vocation – “vocation” comes from the Latin, vocare, meaning “to call” – your calling; your reason for being. Do you know what yours is? What God has prepared for you before the world began? Our entire lives as Catholics are ones of waiting for the Lord, looking toward Him, and preparing for His coming by establishing peace and unity in the unique way God wills for us.

John said in the Gospel, “The one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals… I am baptizing you with water for repentance… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John knew that his ministry was never about him, never about how good of a preacher he was to have been able to draw people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region to him in the waters of the Jordan River. The point is, we cannot be heralds of peace and reunion ourselves if we are filled with pride and division. We must repent and grow in humility.

For John, it was only all about Jesus, who John describes as mighty, like a king. The lowest most insignificant servant of a king was the one who had the often dirty job of loosening and carrying the king’s sandals and caring for his feet. But John, in his great humility would not even dare to carry the Lord’s sandals. This is how John shows us how to live out our unique calling with profound humility. Even Christ’s mission is mightier than John’s, for John’s baptism “with water” merely symbolized repentance from sin, but Jesus’ Baptism “with the Holy Spirit” [and water] actually effects what it symbolizes.

Finally, despite these vivid examples, the most striking one of John’s humility is one that I know I’ve read over hundreds of times before without catching it. St. Matthew simply describes John as a “voice.” He is simply “A voice of one crying out in the desert”. John is just a voice. He was so humble before the message of God that he became the message, the voice, of God the Father.[1]

Today, as we remember St. John the Baptist, with the help of his prayers we too can go forth and speak this message of repentance to our coworkers, our friends, and our relatives to build unity where there is division. From the heart of our own God-given vocation, with great humility, we too can not only speak but become the message, the Eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. And we will always point to Him rather than ourselves. “May his name be blessed forever; as long as the sun his name shall remain.” As it is written: “Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name” O Lord.

[1] In Conversation with God, Volume One, p. 59, by Fr. Francis Fernandez